Points of Light

Points of Light

Most of my songs take time to write. They come together phrase by phrase, line by line. They get edited, broken down, reassembled and sometimes abandoned. Space is given to reflect on each part of the process. I can write a simple couplet, or let my fingers find one little riff, consider it a good day’s work, and not do anything more on a song for several days. Sometimes songs need time to grow on their own. Or perhaps I’m just lazy. Regardless, it’s usually a span of months before a new song is considered ‘finished’, or at least grown up enough to step out in public.

Not so with Points of Light.

Reading the canon of modern popular music, there are many stories of great songs that arrive fully formed. Usually they’re written on the back of a napkin, or sung into a dictaphone after a momentary awakening from a lucid dream. Invariably such songs go on to be classics. Keith Richards woke from a drunken stupor, wrote the riff and lyric to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, then fell back to sleep.

I haven’t had many such bursts of instant creativity in my songwriting career. However, I have noticed that those few times I’ve succeeded in a creating a song within a short timeframe the results have been pleasing. Perhaps the jury’s still out on Points of Light – Mrs. Far Flown Falcon (the main arbiter of approval) was initially rather dismissive of the tune, but further exposure won her round. You can be your own judge:

If anything, writing quickly prevents overcomplicating a composition. Points of Light is certainly simple – three major chords on the verse, two of the same chords for the chorus, an easy reggae strum throughout. Easy reggae strums lend themselves very readily to the ukulele. I faked my way through a little percussion on the uke body on the repeat of the final chorus, picked at the verse chords for the outro and done! I’ve been listening a lot to Hawaiian reggae artist Mike Love* of late, and his approach to melody was no doubt an influence to Points of Light. Also:

Hold on to this little piece of cosmic positivity

Listen to too much reggae, and such phrases find their way into your vocabulary. Don’t be alarmed, it’s all for the good.

Preah Khan James

What’s perhaps unusual with Points of Light is that it grew from an emotional rather than creative seed. There was no melodic fragment or pleasing couplet that launched the song, or even an appealing title. Rather it was a need to express a feeling. That was a common enough motivation when I was younger, and my heart was getting broken on a regular basis. But these days, in my thirties, happily married, comfortable in my skin, I tend to write songs because they explore something interesting or tell a curious tale.

Not so with Points of Light.

And even though they are far, far away

They stray into my heart on every, every single day

As an incredibly sturdy and tireless crow might fly, my best friends live approximately 7,000 miles away. Luckily, thanks to the 21st century, we don’t have to rely on a mail boat to keep in touch. Skype let’s us talk to one another whenever we want and to see each others’ (rather pixellated) faces. It’s not the same as being in the same room, but it’s enough to touch upon the depth and invincibility of our friendship. It was after one such Skype conversation I was inspired to create Points of Light.

As I’ve continued to travel I’ve been lucky enough to make friends who are now scattered across every continent**. It may be years before I see many of them again, and there’s always the possibility I may never see some of them again. But the distance doesn’t diminish the importance of those relationships when the friendship is true.

Last year I had the chance to return to Peru. It was closing on a decade since the last time I had seen my friends there, but the time apart meant nothing once we’d finally reunited.

And when I piece together

All these points of light

We’ll come together into a

Soaring, soaring flight

Listen to the distance

Dwindling to a single beat

Let’s find a cloud together and rest our weary feet

80% of the song was written in a single evening, with the rest finished the following day. I didn’t think too deeply about the writing, I didn’t try to push myself with a complex arrangement. I just tried to express my feelings in as simple way as possible.

So I guess Points of Light came from wanting to tell how lucky I feel at having such wonderful friends all around the globe. And, not always being the best at keeping in touch, Points of Light is a message for all of you – the Carrs, the Lazy Lizards, the Somerset crowd, the Vallejos family, Lichi, Nayda and Mildred, Su and Si, Anh Dung, Tuyen, Thanh and Nam, Lance, Kari, Charlie and Rose, Mohammad and Habiba, all the others I’ve forgotten and the others still to meet. All these points of light.

Points of Light

This world is spinning in the darkness

Whirling around and around in the void

But if you look down from orbit

You can see a dozen points of light

Now these are not burning fires

These are not cities at night

These are the souls of my dear friends

Shining and blazing bright

Bright

 

And even though they are

Far, far away

They stray into my heart

On every, every single day

So if you’re out there listening

Wherever you may be

Just hold onto this little piece of cosmic positivity

 

A long time living the life of a nomad

But it’s only the places that I leave behind

And as my feet keep on with the motion

The rest of me resides with your voice

Your counsel, jokes, your consolations

Those times when we all rejoiced

And when came the time for departing

You only blessed my bittersweet choice

 

And when I piece together

All these points of light

We’ll come together into a

Soaring, soaring flight

Listen to the distance

Dwindling to a single beat

Let’s find a cloud together and rest our weary feet

And even though they are

Far, far away

They stray into my heart

On every, every single day

So if you’re out there listening

Wherever you may be

Just hold onto this little piece of cosmic positivity

Finally, a word on the video itself. We are travelling at the momentand found ourselves in Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the famous Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is just one of an enormous temple complex dating back centuries. The whole area is a World Heritage site, and of course tremendously popular tourist destination. However, such is the vastness of the temple complex that it’s relatively easy to escape the crowds and explore on your own.

We discovered Preah Khan, one of the smaller, outlying temples, on what was supposed to be the last day of our stay in Siem Reap. Still half covered in forest, the 800 year old ruins really captured our imagination, so much so that we vowed to stay another day, and returned the following morning at 5.15am to shoot the video for Points of Light.

It was a glorious morning – we had the whole temple to ourselves for more than two hours, except for the company of a myriad of birds – hornbills, parakeets, myna birds, orioles and more. Their incredible dawn chorus makes some pretty fine accompaniment for the song.

*On Mike Love. An incredible talent – follow the link and prepared to be blown away by the imagination on display. Then go and watch his other songs, they’re just as good.

**Well not Antarctica, but if there are any penguins who want to be friends then please write to me.


IN OTHER NEWS

  • Deep in the Music reviewed the A Crown on a Chain EP. It’s a great music blog reviewing all kinds of music.
  • I’ve been exploring WordPress myself, and been enjoying the Secrets in the Wall blog by Rosanna of New York duo Scott and Rosanna. It’s an interesting read for anyone interested in songwriting, and their music is super to boot – original songs, and some nice weaving together of ukulele and acoustic guitar on the demos shared on the blog.
  • Oh, and on a whim I shaved my head the day before making the video. Don’t worry Mum, it’s growing back fast.
Points of Light

EP launch: A Crown on a Chain by Far Flown Falcon

Cover design by Van Quynh
Cover design by Van Quynh

My first EP under the name Far Flown Falcon is now available on Bandcamp. It follows the ‘pay what you like’ model, which means you can download the six songs for $1,000 or for nothing at all. It’s up to you! And please, don’t be shy about downloading the album for free. I want to share my music as widely as possible, and whilst a little pocket change is welcome, I’m more interested in it reaching as many ears as possible.

Follow this link to listen and download: A Crown on a Chain EP on Bandcamp


The songs on this EP stem from recording sessions, many one day or one weekend affairs, stretching back over several years. Two of the tracks were made whilst I was still part of my old band, The Lazy Lizards, whilst the others were made in fevered rushes during visits back to the UK from foreign shores.

I have to offer particular thanks to my friend Phill Ward, who produced all these songs, played guitar, bass, drums and percussion, and invariably pulled out all the stops to make them sound brilliant within a tiny timeframe. Another shout-out should go to Amjid Hasan and Emma Beecham, my bandmates from the Lazy Lizards, who were also involved in the creation of many of these cuts.

Whilst many friends reading this blog will have heard these old tracks already, I’ve haven’t before collected them together as a single work. Despite having being made in isolation from each other, I feel they stand together quite well – probably thanks to Phill’s firm hand behind the production desk.

The last couple of years have found my muse revived when it comes to making music and songwriting. I have another EP of new material written and recorded in the last six months which will hopefully see a release by the end of 2015.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

October 2015

EP launch: A Crown on a Chain by Far Flown Falcon

A Dance for Sharks

Bajau Laut (Sea Bajou) fishing from a jetty on Pulau Mabul.

For me, a new song often starts with a title. In fact, I keep a list of song titles – titles that sound good, but for now have no music and no lyrics per se. There might be a solitary couplet, or a vague sense this song might be fast whilst another slow, but no more than that. Some of these titles have been waiting on me for years; I have a couple which I like so much I’ve never been able to find any music worthy of them.

A Dance for Sharks was on my list of cool song titles. My guitar teacher Derek Gripper turned me on to the Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, whose compositions often use a ‘dance’ as a naming convention (for example Dança das Cabeças, Dança Solitária and Dança Dos Escravos). I liked this approach. Being obsessed with animals I began casting around to find some poor creature which could be part of my dance. Thus the title A Dance of Sharks. After a little thought, I concluded that sharks probably aren’t very good dancers. So the title changed to A Dance for Sharks. Sharks evoke fear, and people do some fairly strange things to appease their fears. Perhaps even a little hip-shaking. I had read about how sharks were worshipped in places such as the Solomon Islands; the idea didn’t seem so far-fetched.

Shortly afterwards, I stumbled across James Morgan’s startling series of photographs of a young Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark. This struck an immediate chord (pardon the pun). Whilst living in Borneo I have worked with the Bajau Laut (Sea Bajau), an ocean-faring people whose traditional way of life does not really interface with how the modern world works.

James Morgan's striking picture of a Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark.
James Morgan’s striking picture of a Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark.

Born upon the water

Like each and every one

Of the dozen laughing children

My father called his sons

Into the turquoise ocean

My mother’s blood ran dark

Awakening a dance for sharks

The Bajau Laut are a nomadic people; their home is the sea, the Coral Triange framed by the Phillipines, Indonesia and Malaysian Borneo. But the sea has no flag, and can’t offer any legal protection from the likes of nations seeking to exploit it. As such, the stateless Bajau have been increasingly marginalised by countries seeking to take advantage of the sea’s bountiful resources.

When the ships coming flying flags

And claiming the very shifting waves

Making maps of a wide blank ocean

That almighty God he gave

To my people of the sea

I know the sharks have come for me

I know the sharks will come for we

Sharks get a bad press. I’m pretty fond of them, although Jaws frightened the bejezus out of me as a kid (I have a distinct memory of insisting my Dad swim on the seaward side whilst going for a dip off a beach in Cornwall one summer holiday. My reasoning was that any passing shark would chomp him first, allowing me time to escape). As the song took shape around the situation faced by the Bajau, the identity of the sharks took a more metaphorical turn – more closely representing the greed of outside forces taking crippling bites out of a traditional livelihood. For a while I even toyed with the following closing lyric.

I left this world with but one remark

That nothing stills the dance of sharks

The pitiful, bleeding, finless sharks

The final line being a reference to the Chinese demand for shark fin soup which is pushing many shark populations to the brink. Ultimately that line was to much of an about face against the overall direction of the song, and I cut it.

Musically the song is a composite of several different ideas – and I’m still surprised at how well it turned out when all the parts were bolted together. I wrote the lyrics to a straightforward, all minor chord progression (using Am, Dm and Em). However, I struggled to find a way to make these chords interesting when I started trying out different fingerstyle arrangements. Eventually I lit upon the ascending/descending bass runs from Am to C – a pretty common trick, but when I also started echoing the vocal line on the treble strings I found I had something I was happy with. I retained the original chord progression for the third verse.

The opening riff, perhaps rather improbably, stems from an attempt to transcribe some horn parts from a tune by Seun Kuti. It’s a persistent musical ambition to try and discover a way to convincingly reproduce the awesome polyrhythmic pleasures of afrobeat on fingerstyle guitar. It’s also a challenge that’s probably far beyond my current skills as a guitarist. However, as is often the case, I lit upon something of my own in my failed effort to impersonate another. Slowing down the afrobeat horn line, letting the guitar play it the way it wanted and giving it a folky roll led me to my intro.

Bajau-Mabul-Sotong
Bajau Laut children catching squid on Pulau Mabul, Borneo.

I also added a ‘lead’ instrumental part – something I’m trying to do more and more in order to extend my own abilities as a fingerstyle guitarist.

The final part of the puzzle is in fact the oldest part of the song. The bridge was something my fingers came across last year. Alone it didn’t seem substantial enough to build a song around, I kept trying it out in different contexts, until it finally found a fit with A Dance for Sharks.

Oh, and it also gave me an opportunity to do a bit of bellowing! My singing voice has its limits, but it doesn’t lack for oomph. I decided to give myself a lyric I could throw all of my strength behind on the bridge. My inspiration here was again from African music, particularly the extraordinary vocal power of praise singers such as Salif Keita and Kassy Mady Diabate.

What they can do is spine-tingling. My attempt was more like a foghorn.

The video clip was created by my wife, filmmaker Nguyen Mzung. It was made on the beach outside our home in Sabah, Borneo. Our dog Bolontos also gets a walk-on part. He normally sings along, but politely kept quiet this time around.

It was a pretty busy week, but we snatched an opportunity one afternoon. Apparently there wasn’t time for me to shave or put on a presentable shirt. I apologise to my mother. We only had one working camera, so the finished video is actually an edit of several different takes. I was surprised at how consistent my playing was – so much so that we could fit bits of video from a different performance to the master version without things appearing too out of sync. Unfortunately, because of the noise of the waves and our reliance on the camera’s in-built microphone, we had no choice but to use the ‘close-up’ cut as the master. As a result, interested fingerstyle guitarists will struggle to see what my hands are doing.

I’ve also recorded A Dance for Sharks in the studio for a forthcoming EP which will hopefully be released before the year is out.

The full lyrics are presented below.

A Dance for Sharks

 

Born upon the water, like each and everyone

Of the dozen laughing children

My father called his sons

Into the turquoise ocean

My mother’s blood ran dark

Awakening a dance for sharks

 

Born above the sunken stones of places that came and went

Outlasted outcast fisherfolk

Who lives without lament

Old blood it does still linger

Where the water’s running dark

Remembering a dance for sharks

 

Born beyond the sight of land, a paddle in my brother’s hand

Beyond the claims of nations, armadas, kings or clans

When the storms they rise up

And the watching skies turn dark

Heralding a dance for sharks

 

When the ships come flying flags

And claiming the very shifting waves

Making maps of a wide blank ocean

That almighty God he gave

To my people of the sea

I know the sharks have come for me

I know the sharks will come for we

 

Born upon the water, this child I call my own

And the ocean that has birthed her

One day may claim her bones

I left this world with one remark

That nothing stills the dance of sharks

Nothing stills the dance of sharks

Nothing stills the dance of sharks

 

A Dance for Sharks

Head and Heart: the music of Richard Thompson and John Martyn

As well as talking about my own songs, I want to use this blog to explore the artists that have inspired me to express myself through song. But these two gentlemen, Richard Thompson and John Martyn, go back even further; they’re the musicians who delivered those very first ‘eureka’ moments when I was discovering how transformative, how inspiring, how vital to life good music truly is.

john-martyn

I feel close enough to the music of Richard and John that I can’t bring myself to address them formally as Thompson and Martyn. We’re on first name terms, even if they don’t get a say in it.

richardthompson

Head and Heart is one of John’s, from seminal album Bless the Weather. I love the simplicity of the conga accompaniment, but that’s by the by – it makes a great blog title too. Both these artists are equally important to me, but in the most reductive sense, Richard appeals to the head, and John to the heart.

I say reductive because the claim falsely suggests that Richard’s music somehow doesn’t connect emotionally, or that John’s doesn’t have depth and intelligence. Which is, of course, nonsense.

But I think it’s fair to say they have tremendously different (yet equally valid) approaches to songwriting, and here’s where the analogy holds more water. Richard’s songs have a sense of craftsmanship to them, a sense of being worked at and worked out. Like Nick Cave, Richard is a songwriter with an office, who puts the hours in. He has a vast catalogue of songs – I’d wager at probably triple that of John’s – and when you’ve written that many it inevitably becomes a more considered, methodical process. I can imagine Richard’s approach to a song is a bit like putting together a beautiful piece of furniture (although it’s not a very rock and roll comparison) – every part inspected, mulled over, even discarded and replaced if it doesn’t fit the whole.

John’s songs, on the other hand, are pure emotion. Richard might write a song because a certain situation or piece of imagery offers an interesting hook to hang a song from. But almost every one of John’s songs feel like visceral reactions to something that has happened to him, something he was feeling. Where Richard might square away such feelings (stiff upper lip and all), unpick them, find a way to frame them, remove them a little from himself, you get the impression John created an immediate torrent of song the moment his heart broke, or soared. Both men went through difficult divorces. Whilst in interviews Richard has insisted the songs on his ‘break-up’ album Shoot Out The Lights were not written in reference to his disintegrating marriage (I listen to Walking on a Wire and struggle to believe it), there’s no equivocation at all in John’s Baby Please Come Home or Hurt in your Heart from the album Grace and Danger. So raw is the emotion on display that label boss Chris Blackwell was famously reluctant to release the album, claiming it was ‘too depressing’.

I have the feeling that if Richard never discovered the guitar he could have made an engaging Dickensian author (with a hearty side helping of sexual misanthropy). The same can’t really be said of John, whose vocal delivery often disfigures and obscures the lyrics he’s singing. At times it verges on one of Vic Reeves’ jazz singer parodies in Shooting Stars, but as ever, there’s no laughing at the uncloaked honesty that John expresses with his voice. If I remember correctly, he himself claimed the words held little importance, that the delivery communicated all that was needed.

The ambiguity that comes from his singing often serves the song better. Is he singing “make no mistake it’s love” or “make no mistakes in love”? A compelling message, either way.

One of my earliest musical memories is my Dad teaching me to sing Richard’s Gypsy Love Songs* with him whilst probably still in primary school. My appreciation of John took a little longer – there was an age when electric guitar pyrotechnics was integral to me liking a song. John’s guitar skills are just as fiery when you think about it, but burn more like a lovely campfire compared to Richard’s screaming skyrockets and crackling explosions. Eventually though, the warmth seeped in. One particularly potent memory is from my student days, sitting on a rickety mini-bus as it rattled through the Syrian countryside, listening to a cassette tape of the Island anthology Sweet Little Mysteries and realising how in love I was with John’s songs.

My singing voice gets compared to Richard’s an awful lot. And despite being a big fan, it’s not something I’m very happy about. It’s certainly not a conscious impersonation, but perhaps not so surprising, especially considering the Gypsy Love Songs anecdote above. I’ve been singing Richard’s songs ever since I’ve been singing songs. I’d much prefer it if I played guitar more like Richard, and maybe sang a bit more like Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye, but that’s the hand I was dealt. At the end of the day, you have to sing with your own voice. Mine naturally wants to resemble one of my idols. There’s not much I can do but accept it.

But such minor cross-bearing aside, I can only be thankful that my musically inclined parents had a record collection worthy of exploration. When I was young my contemporaries were listening to Take That and the Spice Girls. I got to listen to stuff like this:

Further reading:

http://louderthanwar.com/the-island-records-3-nick-drake-john-martyn-richard-thompson-celebrated/

https://songsfromsodeep.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/inside-out-john-martyn/

*Amnesia, one of my favourite RT albums contains Gypsy Love Songs and a host of other brilliant cuts. It was released in 1988, so I must have been at least seven.

Quang Tri, Vietnam

October 2015

Head and Heart: the music of Richard Thompson and John Martyn