10, 000 Years

In the previous post I talked about Monsoon, a song I wrote some four or five years ago. 10, 000 Years is a much more recent composition, written about three or four months ago. It’s one of a set of five songs I’m currently recording for a new EP of songs here in Borneo.

The tuning used for this song is DGDGBE (taking both of the lowest strings down a step). Whilst composing the song, I was also attempting to transpose some of the music of the master balafon player Aly Keita onto guitar. The balafon is a type of wooden xylophone played in West Africa. I’m utterly obsessed with all kinds of music from across Africa, and I’m always trying to infuse some of the magic that music has into my own songs. I hope some of the gentling swinging rhythm I found in Aly’s balafon playing has made it into the arrangement for 10,000 Years.

The song itself is a reaction in part to the horrific rise of the Islamic State (or Isil, Isis, Daesh, ignorant bunch of barbarians or whatever you want to call them). It’s something that touches me personally because many years ago (before 9/11 and the world deciding Islam and the West had to be mortal enemies) I travelled through Syria.

I’ve been to many countries renowned for being ‘friendly’, but have never experienced hospitality like I did in Syria*. It’s hard to think about what must have become of all the strangers who showed kindness to a young, clueless archaeology student as he blundered across the country.

Some dicks blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra
Some dicks blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra

Alongside all the atrocities committed against humanity, Islamic State has also declared war on history in a land where the earliest roots of modern civilization can be found. The Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, where the states of Syria and Iraq now hurtle towards collapse, claims some of the first settlements known to man. Jericho in the West Bank has been inhabited for 10, 000 years.

Long ago we stepped off the road and laid our burdens low

Found this perfect peaceful valley and the fertile soil to sow

It struck me as a powerful observation on the state of our humanity that such barbarity is taking place over the same stones that marked the beginning of our supposed journey towards ‘civilization’. It doesn’t look like we’ve made much progress. Therein lay the central conceit of the song – we’re still living the same way we always have, just on an ever-increasing scale. Considering technology, culture, population, mankind’s come a mighty long way. But in the simple terms of how we treat one another, we’ve gone nowhere at all.

I'm fourth from the right, fifth row down
I’m fourth from the right, fifth row down

With reference to the situation in Syria, it’s my personal opinion that the West paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State with our reckless and acquisitive invasion of Iraq. I was one of the millions to join the futile march against the war over a decade ago. There’s no pleasure in saying “We told you so” now, but that’s why the imagery of the song’s second verse looks more to our own high-tech war machines over the medieval techniques of the terrorists.

Death still makes his bed

In the cradle of life

Listening to the kill lists bouncing down from a satellite

Drones in the sky, never ask why

Make murder of video games

Cast the world into ruin with not a soul to bear the blame

A previous incarnation of the song went into more detail about our complicity in the misery overtaking the Middle East:

This morning I woke up to the radio

And the ravenous reporter

Reading from the book of death

A feast for the beleaguered vultures

Enough bloodshed to leave the commentators short of breath

Well she can’t be blamed for her excitement

Who hasn’t admired a building burning down?

So long as you stand well back

So the silent explosion precedes the sound

Eventually I excised this part as the song developed. Our shared history is not solely death and destruction. Take a look at the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects. Alongside the artefacts of war and violence, there’re plenty of objects that exemplify our capacity to love one another. As I talked about when discussing the composition of Monsoon, I wanted to offer something to balance the darker reflections that had inspired 10,000 Years.

Some communication can still be found

These songs leave our tongues unbound

Our love keeps finding new ways to proclaim

10,000 Years

Cast your raiment to the ground

Dance together to the sound

Let the world cast off its chains

10,000 Years

I don’t think this part of the song is as strong; but then it’s always easier writing about doom and gloom than flowers and puppies!

As perhaps can be told from the earlier part of the song I chose to leave out, 10, 000 Years wasn’t written to any clear structure. I don’t think many songs are – invariably an idea generates a flood of imagery and fractured stanzas, which are then shaped into some semblance of order. With this song I wanted to ensure I broke out of following any subconscious habits when it came to the song’s structure and rhyming pattern, so I grabbed a random song on a completely different topic and began to ‘overwrite’ the lyrics with those of 10,000 Years.

Using other songs as foils for your own songwriting is a common device – a technique you’ll often see suggested if you investigate songwriting approaches online. You can approach them in different ways – as well as doing what I did with 10,000 Years you might also write an extra verse for an existing song, then use your verse as the basis of a new, original work. I’d argue it’s a perfectly legitimate approach – it’s something that’s happened again and again within the folk song tradition. For example, Bob Dylan’s earliest (and most recent) songs are often reworkings of existing folk songs**.

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”

Igor Stravinsky (and some other people)

Of course, a bit of caution is needed when using this approach – finding inspiration without baldly ripping someone off. In the case of 10,000 Years, the mistake I made was using the other song to arrange my words before I had a clear idea of the guitar accompaniment and melody. When I started honing these, I found my song kept drifting back towards the other song in sound, even though I was using completely different chords. Normally when I’m composing a melody I just follow my instinct. Frustratingly in this case I had to forcibly guide my instinct around the trap I’d set myself of mimicking the other song.

I believe that in the end I succeeded, but you’ll note I haven’t mentioned what that other song was. If you think you have an idea, feel free to leave a suggestion in the comment box, but I’m hoping you’ll be wrong and that I can say 10,000 Years is mine alone.

The full lyrics are presented below. I got the last chorus wrong in the live session posted above!

VERSE 1

Long ago we stepped off the road and laid our burdens low

Found this perfect peaceful valley, and the fertile soil to sow

Beneath the loam, the sheltering stone, let the sweet-water rise

Through our toes, up our bones, then to trickle back out of our eyes

It’s been 10,000 years but the well has not run dry

In ways to say ‘I love you’, the ways in which to describe

The mysteries … that hold us tight

CHORUS

Civilization takes its time

Still far short of the finishing line

But for all the ills, one thing remains

10, 000

In a cave painting make your sign

A celebration that my heart is thine

And thus the barbarian is tamed

10, 000, 10, 000, 10, 000 years

VERSE 2

Now Death still makes his bed, in the cradle of life

Listening to kill lists bouncing down from a satellite

Drones in the sky, never ask why, make murder of video games

Cast the world into ruin with not a soul to bear the blame

It’s been 10,000 years but the well has not run dry

In ways to kill your neighbour, the ways in which to describe

The mysteries … that hold us apart

CHORUS

Civilization takes its time

Still far short of the finishing line

Centuries ‘til the armistice is claimed

10,000 years

Gild your words, make ‘em shine

Decide yourself what they define

When tomorrow comes we won’t speak the same

10,000 years

The message, it can still be found

These songs leave our tongues unbound

Our love keeps finding new ways to proclaim

10, 000 years

Cast your raiment to the ground

Dance together to the sound

Let the world cast off its chains

10,000 years

*One caveat that should be mentioned – I was accompanied by some young blonde ladies, who may have had some influence to the eager hospitality displayed by many a Syrian gentleman.

** Did I say Dylan again?

10, 000 Years

Recording Monsoon

In the previous post, I talked about the inception and creation of my song Monsoon. Here I want to talk about how the recorded version came into being. The track can be heard and downloaded for free at https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/releases

Monsoon clouds head towards our house in Sabah
Monsoon clouds head towards our house in Sabah

There are some songwriters who deplore being in the studio. They get in, get out as fast as they can, and get back to the purer arts of performing and composing.

I’m not one of them. For me, being in the studio* is one of the most exciting parts of being a songwriter. If you’ll forgive the rather grandiose turn of phrase, it’s your chance to finally capture a song, to immortalize it. Apocalypses notwithstanding, if you’ve got it down on tape, then your song will outlive you. And if no-one wants to listen to it today, maybe someone will come across it, and like it, some day in the future.

It can be difficult. Against the unmerciful beat of the click track your musical shortcomings are laid bare.

<CLICK> You <CLICK>  didn’t <CLICK>  practice <CLICK>  this <CLICK>  part <CLICK>  enough!

But with the indulgence and skill of a producer, or the luxury of hundred takes if you’ve got the right gear at home, you get your part done and the real fun begins. Here’s where you get your talented friends in to add the colours and the flavours that bring your song to life. Freed from the constraints of what you can play and sing, the talents of others give your song new life – or at least they do if you know the right people!

I took my first stab at recording Monsoon in Vietnam. A friend of a friend kindly gave me some free session time in his studio. We cut Monsoon, a song called Ghosts (which drifted away from me and was eventually forgotten) and perhaps a couple of others. The results were underwhelming; the engineer wasn’t really sure how to record a real instrument, and I didn’t have enough skill with the gear (or fluency in Vietnamese) to get what I wanted.

I persevered with Monsoon – first trying and failing to find a player of one of Vietnam’s fascinating traditional instruments such as the đàn bầu or đàn tam thập lục, then enlisting the help of a talented local violinist. That didn’t work out either. The violinist – whose musicianship was miles ahead of my own fumblings – simply had no idea what to play without direction. It’s a challenge I’ve often encountered whilst living in Asia – many extremely skilled players, but little tradition of ‘jamming’ or confidence in just playing until something fits. We gave up, and plans to record Monsoon were temporarily shelved.

Two years ago I was back in the UK for a wedding (well, my wedding to be truthful) and a few weeks holiday. I took the opportunity to spend a weekend in the company of my good friends Amjid (who had been the drummer in my old band) and Phill (a fantastic producer who also plays just about anything that can be plucked or struck). One of the two songs recorded was Monsoon.

I want to talk about some of the interesting sounds and instruments we used in the recording.

The toy guitar in question
The toy guitar in question

Some lucky alignment of the fates came along during the recording process. Having got the basic guitar and vocal down in Phill’s spare room, we decamped to Amjid’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Birmingham – principally to record some drums on another track. As we were setting up, Am’s young son Moosa requested our help replacing the rusting strings of his toy guitar. Although the guitar was made out of plastic, everything was more or less in the right place, and it could be played. However, it was designed for steel strings, and we only had nylons to hand. As we restrung and tuned up the guitar we found (in the words of the great poet Meatloaf) we could play notes we hadn’t even heard before. Okay, that’s perhaps something of an exaggeration, but we discovered we could bend notes far further than you’d normally be able to on a normal guitar.

Late into the night, Phill played a solo on that toy guitar that just floored Am and I. A spirit was moving through him. And those acutely bent notes immediately brought to my mind some of Vietnam’s ethnic instruments – after my unsuccessful efforts in Vietnam, I would finally find the echo of South-East Asia in a farmhouse in Balsall Common. It is due east of Birmingham if nothing else!

A European nightjar.
A European nightjar.

Whilst listening to that solo, you will hear a whirring noise drifting into the arrangement. A more accurate description would be churring. That’s how you refer to the call of the European nightjar. When I was a young lad growing up in the Quantock Hills, I have very happy memories of my dad taking me up to Aisholt Common in the hopes of seeing this elusive nocturnal bird. We rarely had any luck, but sometimes we would hear its mechanical song.

Modern technology allows us to manipulate sounds with such ease. With a little pitch correction, we were able fit a churring nightjar into the song, and even convince it to change notes to follow the chord progression. I love using unusual sounds like this in songs, especially noises from nature. More recently, the folk band Stornoway incorporated bird calls into their album, but we got there first. Though of course, we weren’t the first. Musicians have always drawn inspiration from birdsong.

You’ll hear another odd sound listening to Monsoon – a deep woody ‘plop’. This is the sound of an udu, a pot drum from Nigeria. This lovely piece of ceramic percussion has a hole in it. By slapping your palm over the hole you sound the ‘plopping’ noise, whilst you can play rhythms by tapping your fingers against the surface of the udu. It’s one of my favourites of Amjid’s many curious percussive instruments. When we played together as the Lazy Lizards we’d occasionally make use of it, but it was rather tricky to MIC up in a live band situation. I’d always fretted that we’d never had the chance to use the udu in a recording, but eventually I got my wish.

Recording the udu drum in Amjid's kitchen
Recording the udu drum in Amjid’s kitchen

*When I say studio, more often than not I actually it’s a bedroom (or, as above, kitchen!) with some MICs set up and hanging duvets creating a makeshift vocal booth. It’s a state of mind more than anything!

Sabah, Borneo

September 2015

Recording Monsoon

Monsoon

I want to begin the aforementioned song stories with one of the songs I am most happy with. I wouldn’t consider it necessarily my best song, but I’ve always felt it to be a piece that holds together well. I think songwriters are always striving for an elusive elegance of form – and perhaps Monsoon is the closest I’ve come to this so far.

It’s also my wife’s favourite, which is an endorsement if ever one was needed.

Monsoon is a song reincarnated. In my early 20s I wrote a song called Monsoon on the Irish bouzouki. I remember being reasonably happy with it at the time, but after a little while I discarded the bouzouki (it’s got a lovely sound, but my bouzouki was so badly made it was close to unplayable) and I lost the notebook in which I’d written down the lyrics. Most of the song was forgotten.

Fast forward a decade. I’d said goodbye to my friends, my band and my life in England and moved to Vietnam. It was Tet holiday – Vietnamese New Year – and I was visiting some friends in the coastal city of Nha Trang. The night bus made good time, and I rolled into town at about 4am; a little too early to go knocking on my host’s door to say I’d arrived. Instead I found a comfortable patch of sand, sat on the beach and played guitar. As the sun rose behind the islands on the horizon and the ever health conscious Vietnamese began to appear in droves for a brisk pre-dawn ambulation along the seafront, Monsoon’s riff tumbled out of the guitar and I instantly knew I had something interesting.

Sometimes your fingers find something on the guitar which immediately resonates – unfortunately it doesn’t happen often!

As I recall, the song still took a long time to come together. It was the first song I wrote living in Vietnam, and many of the lyrics reflect my first impressions of a country that can capture the senses with a ferocious passion. It was a place full of promise, mystery and seduction.

Tropic heat, tiger cage,

And your shirt, your shirt stuck to your back

Almond eyes, toffee skin, loneliness

Leave you rolling in the honey trap

Of course, I wasn’t the first to be so ensnared by Vietnam.

‘I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam – that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colours, the taste, even the rain. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here.’ – Graham Greene

There were plenty of people seeking a new start, a reinvention, an escape in Saigon. And the transformation could be intoxicating – an old life’s meagre pocket change suddenly a fortune, an average face suddenly handsome simply because your eyes are blue. But this privilege was not without its pitfalls.

You’ve a crown on a chain

With a regalia, regalia of rust

You’re King Midas of verdigris

And your touch

Is turning gold to dust

As Greene points out in the very first line of his book, for many this exoticism was objectified in a woman. Observing these complicated, perhaps compromised, relationships between the Vietnamese and the foreigner, each half bringing their own loaded expectations – of sex, wealth, a taste of the exotic – the inspiration of the song was found.

Sitting on a plastic stool on Pham Ngu Lao, ice coffee in hand, I would watch these unlikely couples and sneer. The old white male, average face and below average style, bulging belly and balding head; his Vietnamese lover, half his age, the clashing colours and frilly borders of her clothes bought secondhand at the chợ, clinging tenaciously to her man’s hand like it was a winning lottery ticket. But who was I to judge? Who was I to divine what was really in their hearts? I didn’t want to write a cynical song. And after all, I was just as entranced, just as seduced by Vietnam.

Somehow by dint of being Michael Caine, he rises above 'dirty old man' status.
Somehow by dint of being Michael Caine, he rises above ‘dirty old man’ status.

My song needed some balance – a reflection to carry the song to its close. It was all too easy to dismiss what I was seeing as a collision of sex tourism and gold digging. These strange, awkward couples negotiating their way past the low coffee tables cluttering the sidewalk, who knew where they were headed? Perhaps it was towards a little happiness, a new start.

The monsoon’s here to wash us clean

And take away all left in between

At this point the song had neither a title nor a chorus. But somewhere along the road of its convoluted composition, the refrain of that old Monsoon (and the only part I could remember) came back to me.

And the monsoon is coming on the western wind

It’s rattling amongst the coconut trees.

Here were two lines that didn’t say much in themselves; but immediately provided a central metaphor around which the rest of the song could take form. The concept of the monsoon became crucial in guiding the structure and theme of the song – the gathering storms in the first verse, the promise of incoming change in the chorus, and the release and redemption of the outro.

Reading back over the lyrics, I realise the theme I’ve discussed above is buried quite deeply – it’s not a song that boldly states to be about sex tourism – nor is it really (although it makes a good headline!). It’s got enough ambiguity to be interpreted in many ways, and I’d argue that’s something to be pleased with. Arguably, one of the measures of a song’s success is the listener’s capacity to imbue it with new meaning. If you listen to it I hope you find something that speaks to you.

In my next post I’ll talk about the process of recording Monsoon – which can be heard and downloaded for free here: https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/releases

Below is the full lyric.

Monsoon

VERSE 1

Whatever mumbo, whatever jumbo

Whatever you, whatever you can conjure up

Half a light, half a star, a cruel sky

Soon Heaven will spill its cup

It’s twilight, come midday

And the clouds, the clouds hang like a fist

Susurrations, invocations, a thunderclap

Grants the thirsty child her wish

CHORUS

And the monsoon is coming on the western wind

It’s rattling amongst the coconut trees

The monsoon is coming on the western wind

It’s rattling amongst the coconut trees

VERSE 2

Tropic heat, tiger cage, and your shirt

Your shirt stuck to your back

Almond eyes, toffee skin, loneliness

Leaves you rolling in the honeytrap

You’ve a crown on a chain

And a regalia, regalia of rust

You’re King Midas of verdigris

And your touch is turning gold to dust

CHORUS

And the monsoon is coming on the western wind

It’s rattling amongst the coconut trees

The monsoon is coming on the western wind

It’s rattling amongst the coconut trees

OUTRO

The monsoon’s here to wash us clean

Take away all left in between

So beat a rain dance on your tambourine

And let the rivers run down the ravine

The monsoon’s here to wash us clean

Take away all left in between

So beat a rain dance on your tambourine

And let the rivers run down the ravine

Monsoon

Song Stories

Song Stories

I’ve always been fascinated by how songs are created – their inception, gestation and birth, not to mention those subsequent revisions and rewrites. However, when I read interviews with my favourite songwriters in the music press, I’m often struck by how little the songs themselves get talked about. There’s plenty of rock star adventures, and usually interesting discussion about the overarching themes and ideas that motivate a musician or a wider body of work. But often there’s a dearth of details on the songs themselves – the interview usually stops just when it’s getting interesting.

Of course, a song should speak for itself. If a songwriter has to explain what it’s about, then surely it’s a failure? That’s certainly a valid point. Look at the big daddy of all songwriters – Bob Dylan who . . .

Never explains anything.

We only got to the second post before Dylan got a mention. Rather inevitable. We'll try and keep him in the shadows from here on in.
We only got to the second post before Dylan got a mention. Rather inevitable. We’ll try and keep him in the shadows from here on in.

Arguably the incredible mythology that’s developed around Dylan stems from his refusal to give us any clues to what he’s talking about. We’ve only got the songs themselves to explore and interpret in whatever ways we can.

Well, I’m not shy to admit I’m no Dylan. So what about us lesser mortals?

I’m fascinated by the process of songwriting – the long train of decisions, mutations, accidents and mistakes that bring a song to life. Thus it’s through the frame of these song stories that I want to present my own work on this blog – talking about the inspirations, describing how the songs came together, what I was aiming for, where I fell short. With luck, some other songwriters will join me in telling their own song stories. Ultimately, I hope that building a dialogue around the craft of songwriting will provide guidance for all and help goad our muses to life.

Sabah, Borneo

September 2015

Song Stories