The only problem with recording a successful duet with a guest partner is that when you go out on the road, the chances are one half will not be there to perform it live and then it loses its impact. In 1982 I saw Neil Diamond for the first time and in my mind I really thought Barbra Streisand would come out and sing you Don’t Bring Me Flowers with him. When she didn’t I was quite disappointed even though the female he did invite onto the stage was good, but, it wasn’t Barbra. I imagine that must be the same for anyone going to see Snow Patrol and hearing Set the Fire to the Third Bar without Martha Wainwight.
Snow patrol first hit the UK chart in the autumn of 2003 with Spitting Games which only reached number 54. They followed it in February 2004 with Run which shot into the top ten and peaked at number five. Their most successful single is Chasing Cars which has spent a whopping 113 weeks on the UK chart and is only 11 weeks away from matching the record set by Frank Sinatra with My Way.
Their albums have done well too – their debut, Final Straw spent 107 weeks on the chart and 2011’s Eyes Open has done 111 weeks. The last track written for the latter was Set the Fire To the Third Bar. Gary Lightbody, the band’s lead singer and primary songwriter said he wrote the song in just 20 minutes and described it as the quickest he had ever written a song.
“It took me three months to write lyrics for the album and it was pretty dark at times”, remembered Gary, “I had a lot to get off my chest and almost felt I had forgotten the English language. So it was a great relief to write about somebody else.” He was a fan of Martha Wainwright and pictured her singing the song. “I was so familiar with her music that I wrote to the dark angel that I thought Martha was. But she turned out to be one of the sweetest people in the universe, which is always the way.” Martha said, “I have had songs written about me before, but it’s the first time anyone has ever asked me to sing on one. I’m just a music whore, and When Gary got in touch to ask if I’d sing with them, I said, ‘Send me the song.'” “whereupon,” says Lightbody, “We thought we’d better actually write it. Garrett (Lee) the producer and I were listening to that album for the hundred millionth time and he said ‘I think your voices would work very well together.'”
“My Aunt Jean had this electric heater, and if we were very good and it was very cold, she’d let us put all three bars on. It was winter when we recorded this record and I was writing in my fingerless gloves in my room, freezing, so I guess that image sprang to mind. It represents a beacon of warmth within a song about distance and trying to get to someone.”
Martha Wainwright is the daughter of folk legends Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, and the sister of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Martha had a childhood that was documented in song, particularly by her largely absent father, whose I’d Rather Be Lonely is a merciless account of a year they lived together in New York, when Martha was 14. “I always felt terribly sorry for the poor woman I thought it was about,” says Martha. “Then one time my father said to the crowd: ‘I wrote this song about my daughter.’ I had no idea. He really crossed the line there.” Martha returned the favour by celebrating his parenting skills on the subtly titled Bloody Motherf***ing Asshole she revealed in an interview with the Telegraph.
Wainwright and Lightbody’s voices work strikingly well together. “It’s not really like a duet because we’re singing in unison,” admitted Wainwright. “It’s sort of two sides of an issue, almost the female and male sides of a person.” Basically they are lovers in two different places, so many miles apart. They cherish the memories they made while they were together. The melancholy and longing in the melody also makes you believe that these two people who will never quite be together but their affair will live on in memory.
The song was recorded at Grouse Lodge Studios, Westmeath and Apollo Studios in Dublin and tacked on to the album which has since become a two million-seller. The song has also been remixed by Anu Pillai who is a member of the band Freeform Five and a friend of Gary’s and keyboard player Tom Simpson. The video was filmed in the UK and directed by Paul McGuigan who later directed the video for 2007 hit Signal Fire. It uses a split screen technique showing the couple very close together but at the same time far away from each other. Gary is shown in a white interrogation room whilst Martha is an observation room painted dark blue. He sings into the two way mirror, she looks back at him, close but still separated from him.
When her schedules allow, Wainwright performs live with Snow Patrol, seizing the opportunity to play an arena. “I figure I should probably try and take advantage of their very youthful audience,” she says. But when she can’t make it, they use other singers like Lisa Hannigan, Miriam Kaufmann and the actress Maria Doyle.
The song reached number 18 in the UK chart in 2006 and then re-entered for a couple of week exactly three years later. In April 2010 it re-entered again and breached the top 40, this time following its use in the trailer for the 2010 film Dear John.