Living In A World That Is A Shadow Of Itself

“Living In A World That Is A Shadow Of Itself” is from my EP The Apocalypse Lullaby, which was recorded in January 2018 and released a few months later. The song itself was the last one written for the album. It was composed very quickly; as the recording session loomed I felt I needed another song to expand on the central theme of impending social and ecological disaster that ran through the EP. A cheery sounding project indeed!

With time short I fell back into my cod reggae default setting (see also Points of Light), jazzed up a touch by the inclusion of a major 7th chord. Still, I think this simplicity made the song more accessible; it has proved to be one of the most popular songs on the album.

This acoustic take was inspired by the skyline that lies behind it – the cluttered horizon of Cairo as seen from my balcony. An acquaintance used to refer to the satellite dishes that crowd the rooftops as ‘concrete circle flowers’, an idea I snatched for the first verse. Each verse was themed along a different sense, or at least the two most immediate senses for the topic at hand – sight and sound. Going through the other three (or four?) might have been an interesting songwriting exercise, but no doubt a long and laborious song.

I took a certain relish in giving it an overlong title. I was reminded of Fairport Convention’s “Sir B. McKenzie’s Daughter’s Lament For The 77th Mounted Lancers Retreat From The Straits Of Loch Knombe, In The Year Of Our Lord 1727, On The Occasion Of The Announcement Of Her Marriage To The Laird Of Kinleakie”, at the time listed in the Guiness Book of Records as the longest ever song title. By that margin, my song titles brim with restraint . . .

The yearning for a wilder world as expressed in the song was a strong theme of 2018, and has some ramifications for this year and where I’ll hope to find myself. Watch this wider space!

To hear the album version of this song, head here: https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/living-in-a-world-that-is-a-shadow-of-itself

And the full lyrics are below:

How I wish that horizon was not such a clutter 
Full of hoardings of height, extravagant strobe lights 
Swinging construction cranes, smoke, banking aeroplanes 
Satellite flowers, cables, radio towers . . . 
And more and more … 
Oh I wish the stars would again wheel over my head 
Across the great wild skies on which the cosmos is spread 
But we’re living in a world that is a shadow of itself 
We’re living in a world that is a shadow of itself 
We’re living in a world that is a shadow of itself 
It’s a shadow that we’re living in 

Even the silence just bickers and mutters 
Some chugging machine, coughing, convulsing between 
Distant thumps of the bass, lewd screams interlaced 
Midnight motorbikes, those howling street fights 
And more and more … 
Oh if only the silence was touched with just the slightest of sounds 
The tiniest beasts, the rain on moist ground 
But we’re living in a world that is a shadow of itself 
We’re living in a world that is a shadow of itself 
We’re living in a world that is a shadow of itself 
It’s a shadow that we’re living in 

Once in our history the world was not seven billion strong 
And the roads between settlements ran emptier and long 
Once mighty animals roamed thick on the plains 
And the trees grew to heights no man could attain 
Once we were humble, wolves haunted our nights 
Summer fruit and sweetwater served sufficient delight 
Once maps were sketched on hearsay and hope 
It took less than a day to reach rovings remote 
Once the birds wheeled close in the skies 
From each conceivable corner, the flowers would arise 
But we’re living in a world that’s a shadow of itself 
Living in a world that’s a shadow of itself 
But we’re living in a world that is a shadow of itself 
It’s a shadow that we’re living in 

Now I spend my days indolent, comfortable, snug 
Well sated, placated, on streams of digital drugs 
No view to speak of, no discomfort to bear 
But for all these indulgences I remain well aware 
I’m living in a world that is a shadow of itself. 
I’m living in a world that is a shadow of itself 
We’re living in a world that is a shadow of itself 
It’s a shadow that we’re living in

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Video

Anthill

This is a full performance of “Anthill”, the song I wrote as part of the ‘Writing A Song From Scratch’ blog series. As that ran to six chapters, there’s not much more to say about the song, its development can be charted in the links below:

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part One

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Two

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Three

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Four

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Five

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Six

I’m very happy with the final song, and I’m developing an arrangement of it for my upcoming studio EP. As such, I’ve already recorded parts for oud, ney, tabla and extra guitar with some Egyptian musicians, and will be working on it further in December in London.

The lyrics are reproduced below – they’ve remained largely unchanged except that the bridge has been slightly expanded.

The anthill keeps growing, more teetering, hopeless homes

While teeming in their multitudes, twelve million worker drones

All of these paralysed souls, indistinguishable, all smeared in soot

The mark of the muted, well it paints us the same, from our head to our foot

 

So extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not painted in dust

Reaching out for an empty space, or the contours of a friendly face

In the chaos

 

The anthill collapses, yet constructed again

Building on the bones, of its fallible men

Construction it never does stop, and if a body drops, we’ll brick it back in

Exoskeletons formed this city’s skin

While we, while we, while we

 

Extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not painted in dust

Reaching out for an empty space, or the contours of a friendly face

In the chaos

 

Now I’m carried on the back of billions

Though I do not know their names

Something fossilised within us

That could still be reclaimed

They thought us worker drones did not have much to say

But they kept us busy anyway

Now the water cannons will not hold us back

They will simply wash the filth away

And if everyone of us

Could carry six times our own weight

There’s really no limit

To the utopia we might make

Oh, we’ve got to wake up

Howl some questions to the hive

If could all move in one direction

We would do more than just survive

 

So extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not painted in dust

Open our minds, spit the silt from our voice

Claim everything, a separate and collective choice

Reaching out for an empty space, or the contours of a friendly face

In this anthill

Video

Making the Apocalypse Lullaby EP: Part Two

This is the second of two blog posts talking about the creation of my latest EP release The Apocalypse Lullaby. In the previous post, I wrote in general about the recording process. Here I’ll talk about how we approached the individual songs in the order they were recorded (rather than the order they appear on the EP).

This Country’s In Its Death Throes

Relatively straightforward, this felt like an easy song to tackle first. First we created a loop from congas and me thumping the body of the guitar – this can be heard in the drop-out section. We then played to this loop, and worked up an arrangement fairly swiftly. I wanted an earthy sound so encouraged Am to work mainly on the toms (although I love the timely cymbal chime on the lyric “kings”), while the song also left plenty of space for knotty fretless bass runs from Phill. The song had a lot of low-end energy, so in Manchester we were able to offset this with the ringing strings of an old bowl-backed mandolin.

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/this-countrys-in-its-death-throes

The Apocalypse Lullaby

Having nailed This Country’s In Its Death Throes in fairly short order, we turned our attentions The Apocalypse Lullaby, which with its varying sections we’d quickly identified as one of the most challenging songs. We effectively split the song in two, dealing with the quieter, more contemplative part first; once again creating loops to play against using congas and some computerised beats (although this time we had to account for some shifting time signatures). The wide open spaces between the fingerstyle parts at the beginning of the song also raised an interesting issue when I rerecorded them – some rather heavy respiration was getting picked up on the mics as I ‘felt’ the music – eventually leading to me wrap a scarf around my face to muffle the breathing.

breathing_recording_scarf

The second ‘apocalyptic’ section was played live, and presented two different challenges. The first was aesthetic – how exactly to arrange the change up from one part to the next. I’m often hesitant to give too much direction to musical collaborators, as I’m eager to hear their own take on the source material, but this doesn’t always work. In this instance I was throwing out flowery, unhelpful suggestions like “make it cataclysmic”, while Am and Phill looked at me blankly, while asking me pertinent suggestions like “how many bars do we play?”, “when do the drums come back in?” and “how are we going to get up to tempo after the break?” Eventually we managed to get onto the same page, but it took a little while.

The other challenge was more technical – following the “all Hell breaks loose” bridge, we had to get back to a slower, softer tempo for the final verse. Getting that change right as a unit took several takes, but was incredibly satisfying when it came, and for me was one of the highlights of the recording session. Furthermore, as the author of songs which are often soft and acoustic, it was fun to make it loud and heavy, especially for Am’s sake – he’s a bit of a metal nut. In Manchester we were able to accentuate that squall of noise by Phill adding some distorted electric guitar.

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/the-apocalypse-lullaby

I must admit at this point I get a little hazy about the order of recording, but I think it went like this:

Wisdom of Monkeys

While I had some firm ideas of what the other songs would sound like going into the recording, Wisdom of Monkeys was a bit of an undiscovered country. It’s fair to say that on its own, played solo on the guitar, it didn’t amount to much – a simple chord progression with the faintest whiff of a Latin swing. Again, I was hoping this less developed idea might blossom with the input of my friends. Initially, Phill was having none of it – he wasn’t too convinced by the quality of the song and wasn’t feeling inspired concerning what to contribute on the bass. I wasn’t too sure of the direction myself, but I was sure I wanted to fill the blank slate with percussion. It might not have been the most efficient, or sensible approach, but it was fun just directing Am to play different percussion instruments and parts of the kit, and build up some grooves. We even had Am’s eleven-year old son Moosa contribute a shaker part; a loop of which is the first thing you hear when you hit play.

The percussion was promising, but it still wasn’t flowing as a cohesive piece. The rather long, complex choruses didn’t really distinguish themselves, which we solved by finding the right jumble of cowbells for Am to hit, some warm backing vocals from Phill, and by eventually deploying the pedal steel weeps of our secret weapon, Eric. A spiky electric guitar solo from Eric rounded off the song proper, but we weren’t finished there.

For the extended outro, we were on far happier territory. It was based around a field recording I’d carried about for years – the sound of a poorly old tractor labouring through a field in Vietnam. Its struggling two-stroke engine made me think of a novice drummer trying to play afrobeat. I taped it with my phone, and this became the basis of a two chord groove that we all fell happily into, and then let Eric blast all over with electric guitar and pedal steel.

Despite the initial struggles, I’m really glad we persevered on Wisdom of Monkeys. While it might not be the strongest song on the EP melodically, the final track has a lot of musical ideas I really like. I also feel it sits slightly outside my typical ‘sound’, if such a thing exists.

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/wisdom-of-monkeys

Don’t Believe A Word Of This

Having mastered the changes of The Apocalypse Lullaby and solved the conundrum presented by Wisdom of Monkeys, we moved relatively swiftly through the final two songs. Don’t Believe A Word Of This was done without a click track, and with fairly simple and minimal accompaniment from Phill and Am. The troublesome bit was the not so simple bit of accompaniment I’d put together for myself on guitar; a number of tricky little runs and lines played concurrently with the alternating bass drone (the song is in dropped D tuning). I failed at articulating these well and keeping tight with the others, eventually settling on simplified interpretations of the fiddly bits to ensure the others could respond to the right dynamics. That evening I overdubbed the guitar parts as they should have been, with Phill doing many an edit to make sure they locked together exactly how I imagined them (if not how I played them).

Eric also brought his talents to this song – in fact a little more than expected. A miscommunication meant that Eric initially played pedal steel over the choruses of this song rather Wisdom of Monkeys – a happy accident that sounded lovely. But for me the real cherry was the solo played before the outro – Eric’s only direction was ‘joyous’, and he nailed it.

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/dont-believe-a-word-of-this

Living In A World That Is A Shadow Of Itself

Another tune that was done without a click, this was probably the easiest of the lot, and heaps of fun to play. The only addition was the electric guitar played by Phill, including a lead part of his own which we recorded in Manchester the weekend after the main sessions. Over a decade recording with Phill – it’s one of my favourite things to sit in his tiny spare-room studio and listen to him tear through solo after glorious solo on one of my songs until we finally hit on something that sounds just right.

Or in this case, the first half of one take sounded just right when paired with the back half of another.

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/track/living-in-a-world-that-is-a-shadow-of-itself

 


That perhaps sums it up. I’m very pleased with how the EP turned out, but I can’t really take credit for that. The quality of the music is proof of Phill’s production nous, and the strengths of Am, Eric and Phill’s skills as players.

 

Making the Apocalypse Lullaby EP: Part Two

If Hearts Will Break . . .

Ethiopia and I have flirted over the years. My first encounter was a joyous concert by Mahmoud Ahmed on a Womad evening a decade or so ago. At various points I’ve delved into seemingly endless depths of the Ethiopiques collection from Buda Musique. I’ve sagely pointed out the Ethio-Jazz leanings of certain contemporary bands, such as Dengue Fever. But I’ve never really become an expert, or taken a deep dive into the country’s musical traditions in the way I have with other sub-Saharan countries.

I’m still no expert, but a chance to spend three weeks travelling in Ethiopia last March did give me a chance to hear even more music. I particularly remember a fourteen-hour bus journey from Addis Ababa to Gondar, with the on-board entertainment being an unending stream of domestic hits. I was impressed at how distinctly Ethiopian even the pop music sounded. The central seam was the rhythm; a solid pulse that steams ahead, leaning into the front end of the beat with a tantalising lurch. Ethiopia’s iconic traditional instruments were also front and centre; the krar and masenko.

So while travelling in Ethiopia I began seeing if I could funnel those elements into a song. It must be said that digesting full band recordings onto a single instrument and retaining those identifying qualities is no easy task. To me, I can hear Ethiopia in If Hearts Will Break . . , but I’m not sure if that influence will stand out to the average listener, even one well-versed in the genre. And perhaps my associations stem more from my memories of composing the song there than true technical understanding. Still, if it is enjoyed then it doesn’t really matter.

One key trick behind the sound of If Hearts Will Break . . .  was threading a strip of paper through the strings of the guitar. The light contact of the paper on the strings mutes the sound, and causes them to buzz and rattle in a manner reminiscent of some of the traditional stringed instruments mentioned above. Furthermore, as the guitar loses all sustain, it further the rhythm more deeply. Now I’m certainly not the first person to do this, and while others have tried this trick in order to emulate African instruments, the technique has also been used in other styles (Johnny Cash is one example). 

Lyrically the song is a bit of an indulgence in fantasy – the advice offered quite at odds with what the real me would propose in a similar situation. Depending on your point of view, it’s an excursion into tender folly or selfish recklessness; an incitement to forge on ahead with a doomed romantic escapade even though it will clearly end in tears. As ever with such songs, any resemblance to real persons living or dead should be taken with a pinch of salt – one plucked with goliath fingers!

Lyrics

If hearts will break, let them be broken
If our only fate, is to rue this simple mistake
Let this fool’s foray be but a token
When loneliness dictates that we boldly swallow down the bait
Forgive us of our reckless ways
For just a catch of blessed days
The bounty that the river pays
Does it reach the ocean, who can say?

As clear and bright as a new day dawning
The first page still lies unread and not a single tear’s been shed
The tall tale tellers talked in the morning
Oh to follow Ariadne’s thread, would it lead us to a lover’s bed?
Forgive us of our reckless ways
We’ve no care for what the wise man says
We step out of house’s set ablaze
To the common paths of this age-old maze

So take your hand from off the tiller, let the wheel go spinning free
Let fortunes of the tide and wind carry us to a place we’re supposed to be
On handmade wings of wax and twine we’ll soar above the sea
And if we fall into a tailspin, we’ll land in cotton clouds, you and me

All the doors before you stand wide open
And I beg you to come inside, discover if our love resides
There’s no promises that need be spoken
For who knows where the future lies, who knows what this song betides?
The fates will share their weight in sorrow
If we can’t bargain for our happiness, we’ll simply have to borrow.
Forgive us of our reckless ways
Forgive us of our reckless ways . . .

Video

Making the Apocalypse Lullaby EP: Part One

Beginnings

My latest EP was released in June. It’s my third release as Far Flown Falcon, and a few months on from finishing is enough time, enough distance, to reflect upon it. At this point I feel pretty happy about it – I think it hangs together best as a complete work compared to the other two. A Crown on a Chain, the first EP, was a collection of songs recorded over several years, without any prior intention to gather them together as an album. The second, Backyard Animals, was created with more intent behind it, but was a bit of jigsaw of ideas recorded on two continents, and my first stab at creating a coherent work.

The Apocalypse Lullaby is a different story for two main reasons. Firstly, it was conceived and written as a concept album (the theme’s in the title). Secondly, the bulk of the recording was done in one go, with a trio of musicians helping bring it to life from the foundations, in the same space and at the same time.

This is the story:

The EP was actually conceived of quite some time ago. The oldest song is the title track, which I started composing towards the tail end of 2013, while living in Vietnam. The second track of the album, This Country’s In Its Death Throes, also started getting written about this time, both songs borne of a growing existential dread about global warming and ecological destruction, a feeling intensified as a result of living in Vietnam, which was (and still is) going through a period of explosive development. This somewhat unseemly scramble to throw on the trappings of a developed country brought the global cost of a world in flux into sharp focus, and it left me troubled. It also sowed the seeds of a concept album.

Musically I’d been inspired by recording a couple of songs with my old friends Phill and Am in the UK, musical collaborators who I’ve now been playing with for well over a decade. I started to write a batch of songs we could all record together next time I went home.  However, during this time I moved to Borneo, which had a huge impact on me artistically. Although I finished several of the songs I’d been writing, the island life was pushing me to represent something else, eventually leading me to put the project on the backburner and instead begin work on the Backyard Animals EP.

Fast forward to 2017. I realised I’d be spending a good amount of time in the UK, and I remembered The Apocalypse Lullaby. Shooting an email to Phill and Am, we worked out we’d all be free during the second week of January, and there was space on Am’s farm for us to make a lot of noise. I began some musical archaeology, digging out the three songs I’d originally written for the project (the title track, plus This Country’s In Its Death Throes and Don’t Believe A Word Of This), finishing off the one half written piece (Wisdom of Monkeys) and writing a fifth song (Living In A World That Is A Shadow Of Itself) to round off the album – with some perspective from Cairo, the place I now found myself in.

The Cold Cowshed Sessions

Both Phill and Am had had a hand in the Backyard Animals EP, with Phill overdubbing guitars and other stuff to the recordings I’d made in Borneo, and then further overdubbing Am on drum kit to the title track and the song 10, 000 Years. However, this Cold_Cowshed_Sessionsjigsaw methodology had been the source of some frustration, so we were all quite excited at the prospect of arranging and recording together. Gate Farm (Am’s home) has a converted cowshed, which was made available for us to turn into a temporary studio.

We had five days together for recording, and the first was dedicated to setting up the space. It was here that discovered our most immediate challenge. It was COLD!!! Although the converted cowshed was used for parties, rehearsals and a model train track, it was still – in essence – a cowshed, and not insulated in the slightest. Luckily we had some industrial heaters to prevent us succumbing to frostbite; the best of these roared like a jet turbine (as well as spitting fire when turned on and off). These were enough to get us warm while working on the songs, but had to be turned off while we recorded, adding to the pressure of getting a good take. You had to get it right before you froze . . .

We set up in a triangle – myself in the simplest position with just a vocal mic and a nylon string guitar DI-ed. Directly to my left, Am’s three congas found a place, while facing me on my left Am was at his drum kit. Facing me to my right was Phill, with his fretless bass DI-ed, as well the speakers, laptop and all the recording paraphernalia, as Phill would be producing as well as playing. A simple, secondary studio also took shape in the much warmer kitchen of Granny’s house, where we were staying. Our daily schedule for the week consisted of rising late, drinking freshly made Nubian coffee and hoping rather vainly the cowshed was warming up. Then the day would be spent arranging, then recording a song roughly by the early evening and our curfew. After dinner I would rerecord my guitar parts acoustically in Granny’s kitchen; a better environment for both sound and temperature. At the end of the week I redid all the lead vocals, taking advantage of the natural acoustics of the barn (while racing against our hard curfew of 7pm, which we might have broken a tiny bit).

Cowshed_Setup_Recording

Finishing Touches

The bulk of our work was done across those five days in January, but there were still some finishing touches to apply. On the weekend immediately after, I drove Phill and the recording gear back to Manchester. There Phill added some bits and pieces to the songs, principally lead guitar parts and mandolin to three of the songs.

I’d also decided I wanted a different brush colouring some of the songs. I’d come across American guitarist Eric Haugen’s tutorials on Youtube, and it was refreshing to find a player who tastes followed my own, rather than the usual diet of Steve Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix (and that’s not saying I’m not a fan of both). I reached out to Eric and he was happy to contribute to a couple of songs. Eric also mentioned he played pedal steel, and while I initially felt this would sound too ‘country’ for my music, the more I thought about it the more I warmed to the idea. The parts he eventually added for us exceeded expectations.

After bouncing a few different mixes of the tracks back and forth by email, we all settled on final versions of the songs we were happy with. I also randomly happened across a painting a friend at work had made, an impressionist take on Cairo’s smog-choked sunset, which represented the ethos of the album nicely, and which whose artist was happy with me purloining for my own purposes.

In the second part of this post I’ll talk a bit more about the individual songs and how they came together. To be continued . . .

Making the Apocalypse Lullaby EP: Part One

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Six

So to the final chapter of this series – a song has now been written from scratch! I feel a little embarrassed by how long this has taken – originally I’d imagined each chapter separated by something like a week. To a certain degree a song can’t be rushed, but to be more honest there’s just been other stuff going on. My work ethic could always be better, though I think finding a rhythm in songwriting is much more challenging as a hobby as a full time occupation. It’s easy to look at how many incredible songs your heroes might throw out in just a short space of time, but then you have to remember they’re probably doing very little else. There’s a lot to be said for how being able to get into the zone can improve your productivity, and it can be hard to find that space when facing all of life’s usual slings and arrows (such as a proper job!).

Some speculations raised in the last blog entry have been settled. For example, I committed to the idea of remaining in 4/4 for the final chorus, though you’ll hear I added a slight bass movement on the I chord to keep things interesting. I didn’t cut out any lines in the end, though I have made a few fairly cosmetic changes to help things flow better. I find this happens organically: more or less learn the words, then sing it over and over away from the lyric sheet – clumsy, cluttered lines tend to get trimmed down subconsciously.

I’ve also been adding the fiddly bits, which I’ve kept as unfiddly as possible, with just an introductory lick and a short instrumental break between the 3/4 and 4/4 sections. You can hear both of these on the video above. I always find it a bit of a trick – striking the balance between pushing my playing further and capitalising on what one can do well. My inclination is to always do the former, but the result is invariably ending up with music I can’t quite play convincingly. There are a lot of merits to a simpler song – you can really lean in to the nuances of performing it – work the groove, give more conviction to the vocal, not have to worry about the strings slithering out from beneath your fingers.

Another important change I have made, one not evident in the video, has been changing the key. I moved the song off the guitalele and onto guitar, with the capo on the 3rd fret, shifting from D# to C, which makes it marginally easier to sing.

And so I can wind up this long-winded series. I’ll hope to soon publish a full performance of Anthill on Youtube, and as mentioned before, I’m also hoping to record it for the new EP project.

Video

EP Launch: ‘The Apocalypse Lullaby’ by Far Flown Falcon

Apocalypse Lullaby for Blog

My new EP The Apocalypse Lullaby has hit the worldwide web as of last week. It’s available to stream and download using the ‘pay what you like’ model (including downloading for free!) from Bandcamp if you follow this link:

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/album/the-apocalypse-lullaby-ep

The EP has five songs all loosely themed around the wreck we are making of the world we call our home. Despite that rather grim concept, I hope the quality of the songs, arrangements and recordings still make it an enjoyable listen. I’m accompanied on all the tracks by my longstanding musicians-in-arms; Amjid Hasan of my old band The Lazy Lizards on drums, congas and percussion, and Phill Ward on fretless bass, electric guitar, mandolin, backing vocals, programming and keyboards, as well as recording, mixing and producing the whole affair. We also have a special guest star in the form of American guitarist Eric Haugen playing electric and pedal steel, as well as Amjid’s son Moosa making his recording debut on shaker.

I’m very grateful for all the friends and family who made this EP possible, both in the UK where the recording took place and in Egypt where I currently live.

Hopefully there’ll be yet more new music coming soon. Keep an eye peeled on this blog, as I’ll be giving a more in-depth report as to the recording process of the album in a future post. And in the meantime, please listen, and if you like share the songs as widely as possible.

Best wishes,

James – Far Flown Falcon

Cairo, Egypt – June 2018

EP Launch: ‘The Apocalypse Lullaby’ by Far Flown Falcon