Backyard Animals

Den
A comment from my wife inspired this song, and the dog Bolontos is the star of the first verse (as well as ruining one video take!)

Last year I began taking Skype guitar lessons with South Africa maestro Derek Gripper. I stumbled across Derek whilst exploring African fingerstyle guitar on Youtube and was immediately entranced. Derek’s musicianship is plain to see, but furthermore listening to him tackling the music of the kora* on guitar provided me with an immediate answer to a question I’d been asking myself for years.

African guitar music has fascinated for years and years – ever since I heard Ali Farka Toure’s Talking Timbuktu at Jibbering Records in Moseley. But one of the challenges I’ve always faced is how to express those insistent African polyrhythms upon one guitar. Listen to a soukous tune for example, usually it’s just two or three simple chords, but being played by layers of guitars, not to mention the role of the drums, bass and percussion. Take one of those guitar riffs out of the whole, and same excitement isn’t there.

This was the challenge I faced when trying to write songs with that African feel. I could get a little groove going, but I couldn’t really take it anywhere without losing that groove. I began to wonder whether it was even possible without have some other instruments to provide those polyrhythms. Then I heard Derek.

What I wanted was perfectly possible. You just had to be a very accomplished guitarist to pull it off.

 

Luckily Derek teaches, and thanks to the Internet, we can even make it happen when one of us is in Borneo and the other in South Africa. My lessons were a great inspiration. I’m still very short of having the guitar skills to capture the kind of music he can, but thanks to his tuition, I’ve got some kind of idea of how the building blocks fit together.

Derek plays many of the kora pieces using the tuning DADF#BE. Trying to get my fingers and brain around his transcriptions meant my guitar spent a lot of time in ‘kora’ tuning. And so inevitably I began mucking around with the tuning when cycles of Jarabi weren’t quite working, finding my own ideas and letting new songs form.

Backyard Animals is one such song. It’s got none of the fretboard fireworks that Derek displays – I’m still working on that, but it is the result of me actively attempting to compose something capturing the African vibe. In this case the inspiration was more Ethiopian than West African (where the kora hails from), beginning with a loping bass line. For a while I tried to marry the bass line with a simultaneous lead line, but these amalgamations just sounded stiff and leaden. As I was also recording the song for the current EP project, I eventually resolved not to worry about stretching my fingerstyle skills, and opted to overdub lead parts in the studio (that verson’s now finished, and can be heard here). The prolonged instrumental outro evolved naturally as I kept playing the song, and couldn’t work out how I wanted to end it. There’s a bit of inspiration here from Richard Thompson, thinking particularly of songs such as The Great Valerio and Dimming of the Day/Dargai which conclude with a folk dance coda. My coda draws more from the traditional sape** music of Borneo,

The song itself is an odd beast. One day my wife was telling me about some bad advice a friend had given her, whilst fussing over our dog Bolontos (who appears in the howling hounds remix at the end of the song). She jokingly told Bolontos she’d only listen to him from now on, providing me with a spark of inspiration, We also have chickens in the yard (well actually, we just ate the last one) and pigs down the road. They were being noisy, as if they also wanted to be characters in the song – thus, a neat three verse structure.

I’m not sure I really agree with all their advice, nor would discount the ideas of my human acquaintances so readily, but it was fun writing it all down!

 

Backyard Animals

You know people never tell it straight

They speak in languages that don’t translate

And people never tell you how

So heed the counsel of the animals

The counsel of the animals

All the backyard animals

All the backyard animals

 

So I slunk out my backdoor and sat down with my hound

And we both howled together until the moon came around

He looked up at me with those chocolate saucer eyes

We’d both loved awry with all the woe that that implies

And together we howled into the night

 

He said perfect shapes are not nature’s way

And tomorrow never goes like yesterday

You know the people never tell you how

So seek the counsel of the animals

The counsel of the animals

All the backyard animals

All the backyard animals

 

Then out across the courtyard sounded a cockle-doodle-do

The mocking of a cockerel to a fool through and through

He said love is not a story that starts amongst the stars

Tussles, fights and tantrums are the common repertoire

And together we crowed until the light

 

He said the truth is nature is not on your side

And it’s not supposed to be an easy ride

So the people never tell you how

Heed the counsel of the animals

The counsel of the animals

All the backyard animals

All the backyard animals

 

Well so much for Mother Nature, this is what she did

 

She hurled me out the backdoor and I landed with the hogs

Facedown in the pigshit, the standard epilogue

But all the swine were merry and free of regret

They said the faster that you love then the swifter you forget

And together, we squealed with all our might


kora
*Don’t know the kora? Here’s a picture!
Sape
**Don’t know the sape? Here’s a picture!
Backyard Animals

Love’s A Big Word

I began writing Love’s A Big Word just last month. For most of that time, we’ve been backpacking around Vietnam, Cambodia, and then back to Malaysian Borneo. As a result, my approach towards composing the tune has been quite different from normal.

Under normal circumstances, I’m probably too methodical when it comes to songwriting. I make a lot of use of my laptop – trying out crude arrangements on Audacity, transcribing tricky bits using Tab Editor, listening to lots of other music to find things to steal, reworking things heavily to make sure the theft is not so obvious, trawling through dozens of little audio and video ideas to see if I’ve already got anything that might gel with the latest song.

On the road I didn’t have my laptop, nor was I following my normal routine. I embraced the change, and tried a more naturalistic approach to songwriting.

 

There are pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, I didn’t spend nearly so much time wrestling with the music, although the riff that ends each verse was a bugger to get right, especially when singing over the top of it. The chords are straightforward, using just C, G, F and Am, although I’m pleased with the different progressions I’ve used – my usual tendency being to just find one cycle and keep it loping along ad infinitum.

Just letting the music flow without analysing it too deeply left me with a guitar arrangement which is a distillation of lots of stuff I’ve been listening to lately. First of all, I’m ripping myself off – when it comes to fingerstyle I can’t stay away from C chords – it’s just so  easy to marry bass lines with some easy lead along the treble strings. Cases in point: Monsoon and A Dance for Sharks. The melody owes a small debt to the Tallest Man on Earth. I’ve also been trying to learn some Africa rumba pieces as arranged by French/American guitarist Cory Seznec – Love’s A Big Word takes the feel of those pieces without bothering to provide a proper rumba bass line.

The title of the song has been with me for some years. An old girlfriend said those magic three words quite early in a rather brief relationship. I was surprised, touched and a little alarmed – we barely knew each other well enough to profess love. It led me to thinking about how we all interpret language in different ways. Important words like love have a different definition for everyone. I notice how my American friends say “I love you” all the time, with such ease, and to such a wide gamut of friends, that the words start to ring hollow to my cynical English ears.

Have you ever really thought about just how much your words might weigh?

Expanding on this idea inevitably leads one to think about politics. As Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War and the Paris attacks subsume compassion with fear, our political leaders try to square their conviction of us being the good guys with their commitment to ensuring our own comfort and wellbeing at the expense of the rest of the world. With the more overtly religious leaders (a few Republican presidential hopefuls come to mind), these contradictions appear more and more ungainly.

Love’s a big word baby,

It’s the heaviest in the book

People like to throw it around

The same people don’t dare to look

Have they ever really thought about all the oaths that they forsook?

I’m a big fan of my rhyming dictionary, and I’ve been known to dip into a thesaurus from time to time. Again, I didn’t have such resources around the last few months, so the vocabulary of Love’s A Big Word is not as complicated as other compositions. Despite the title, there aren’t too many big words in the song!

Overall I’d say a simpler approach produced a simpler song, but that’s probably not a bad thing.

As I reflect upon the songs I’ve shared on this blog it strikes me that I’m recording my compositions too quickly. The excitement that comes with completing a new song drives one to share it with the world as quickly as possible. As soon as I’d finally cracked Love’s A Big Word, I wanted to get it out there. Not that I’m kidding myself that you, the adoring masses, are impatiently hankering for new work, but the process of filming a finished song, uploading it, writing a little about it and sharing online is a satisfying full stop to the creative process.

But here’s the rub. Last night, a few days after having made the video here, I grabbed my guitalele and ran through Love’s A Big Word, and performed it a hell of a lot better than the video shared here. Of course, without a camera on me (and the camera’s operator hissing with frustration as jungle mosquitoes nibbled her ankles) there was no pressure and no hurry, but it wasn’t only that. My filmed performance of Love’s A Big Word was just a little too fresh. In particular, I’d spent so much time trying to get the trickier parts of the fingerstyle arrangement right I just hadn’t given enough time to consider where my vocals were going. In the filmed performance I rush the chorus, and sometimes I’m not even sure which register I’m supposed to be in.

The conclusion? I probably need to give new songs a little more time to settle before they head out into the big wide world. Wait until playing them through from start to finish without error is a matter of course rather than a lucky strike. Once a song is properly completed, perhaps I should aim to play it every day for at least a month before trying to record it.

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A moth we met in the Crocker Hills National Park.

Another motivation behind the hurried filming of Love’s A Big Word was my eagerness to capture the sound of my backing musicians – in this case the peeping tree frogs and chirping insect life of the Borneo rainforest. We made this little video whilst camping in Crocker Hills National Park in Sabah.

 

Love’s A Big Word

Love’s a big word baby

Be careful what you say

Don’t you know that this kind of talk

Could leave us both astray?

And have you ever really thought about just how much your words might weigh?

Love’s a big word baby

People might overhear

It’s more potent than a magic spell

Deeper than your darkest fears

Have you ever really considered what it takes to be sincere?

There’s a stumble as you mumble

I still hear the stutter when you utter

And if you just can’t spit it out then remember all the facts

Love’s too big a word for you to say

Too dangerous a game for you to play

Love’s a big word baby

It’s the heaviest in the book

People like to throw it around

Same people who don’t dare to look

Have they ever really thought about all the oaths that they forsook?

So don’t stand upon a mountaintop

Lest the lightning strike you down

Don’t misspeak the sounds

Don’t twist your tongue around

And don’t promise with a single word

When a life belies a lie

If you didn’t understand the meaning

Then you shouldn’t even try

Don’t speak falsely now, don’t speak falsely now

Don’t speak falsely now

Love’s a big word baby

Both the beginning and the end

Set the ships of Greece to sail

Or a broken world to mend

So please consider carefully all the hopes that you might send

There’s a stumble as you mumble

I still hear the stutter when you utter

And if you just can’t spit it out then remember all the facts

Love’s too big a word for you to say

Too dangerous a game for you to play

Love’s too big a word for you to say

Too big a word for you to say

Love’s A Big Word

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go by Bob Dylan

A few weeks without gainful employment have seen us drifting happily around Cambodia and Vietnam. It’s fun to be away from normal routines – be those of everyday life or those I follow in pursuit of making music.

These last few days have led me back to Kampot, on the coast of southern Cambodia. Five years ago it was a forgotten haven for hippies and drop-outs, and although it’s now beginning to wake up to its potential for tourism, the overall vibe remains decidedly sleepy.

Kampot-River-Greenhouse

It’s even more soporific upriver. We’ve been staying in a perfect guesthouse called GreenHouse – a fantastic spot with fantastic food. Though a great amount of dedication has been thrown into doing nothing, I’ve also been trying to put the finishing touches to a new tune that’s been taking shape on the road. I thought I nearly had it, but whilst fiddling away I came up with a refrain where the guitar line follows the melody of the vocal. Kampot’s aura being quite at odds with any dedicated endeavour, I still haven’t been able to convincingly master that part. I’ll get to it eventually.

Still, it’s such a lovely place – with the wide lazy river threading its way out of the hills. I didn’t want to leave without having tried to record a song here. With my own composition found wanting, I thought I’d take a stab at a cover.

With two days of our stay left and nothing to play I turned to the Bob Dylan songbook. Messiah of modern music, poet of our times stuff aside, one of Dylan’s chief attractions for a man with a guitar in his hands is that most of his songs are easy to play. Plus, more often than not, there’s enough depth in the lyrics and melody that simply strumming along is sufficient to make the song work. You don’t even have to work out the chords, thanks to the phenonemal work done by Eyolf Østrem in painstakingly transcribing Dylan’s complete oeuvre on his site Dylanchords.

However, to change things up a bit, I decided to plump for one of the several brilliant tunes Dylan wrote using Open E tuning on the seminal Blood on the Tracks. I’ve always loved the sound of that tuning. In the past, retuning my guitar always felt like a BIG thing, and I’d never really ventured into Open E territory. But as I’ve become more confident as a player and gotten more into fingerstyle guitar, altered tunings and I have become friends.

In fact, the biggest challenge within the 48 hours between deciding to cover some Dylan and a rough and ready performance on the river was memorising the words. Thus A Simple Twist of Fate and Shelter from the Storm were put aside as being too much to remember, whilst I wasn’t sure I could get my fingers around the picking of Buckets of Rain in time. That left me with You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go – so I certainly can’t complain.

It was still a challenge to get my head around all the lyrics. There’s so many beautiful lines and imagery in You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome . . ; the rhyming crickets, the dragon clouds, the conceit of love as a physical presence, close enough to catch, but there’s also complexity in the meter and the rhyme scheme. This made mastering the song a lot trickier than first anticipated. Take

“You’re gonna have to leave me now I know”

Miss out ‘gonna’ and the meter falls short, and the crucial line ends up sitting awkwardly within its verse, something I kept stumbling over. On other songs you might get away with it, but not on You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome . . . 

I still get parts wrong here and there during the video, but ultimately I’ve never felt that a song should be considered a sacred text when covered. Considering Dylan’s long history of repurposing folk songs to suit his own purposes, I feel especially irreverent when playing his  tunes. Most of the moments I went off script were simply a case of not being able to remember the details of one of the lesser lines – those lacking in stand out imagery or narrative import (such as “I can’t remember what I was thinking of”, a line I kept forgetting!). I just bluffed through, blurted out something similar. In the old days, this was considered evolving the folk tradition.

I made one purposefully cheeky change. In Dylan’s original, he sings

“I’ll look for you in old Honolulu

San Francisco, Ashtabula”

I didn’t even know where Ashtabula was until Google told me (Ohio, folks). But singing those lines, I realised I had used a similar structure in a song of my own called Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats*

Malagasy, Honolulu

Indochina, Ouagadougou

You know I wanna go there

Seeing as Cambodia was once part of Indochina, I snuck in my own two place names in place of the American ones. The full lyrics to the original song (as well as the lyrics to all his others) can be found at bobdylan.com.

I made a point of not checking out Dylan’s take before performing my cover. When I first discovered Blood on the Tracks some fifteen years ago I listened to it plenty, but I couldn’t remember much about the nuts and bolts of the original. Listening now I don’t think there’s much that would have caused me to change my own approach, especially as you couldn’t really play it any simpler than I am doing. I am struck by how lovely the bass playing is, a common but often overlooked element of Dylan’s music after the ‘wild mercury sound’ had settled into something more full and acoustic. It’s something particularly evident on Blood on the Tracks, as well as John Wesley Harding. 

Whilst checking out the original, I also discovered a version by Miley Cyrus.

I don’t like it.

Finally, this song is the debut of my new Yamaha Guitalele. A cute little thing, and a very good travel companion. I’ll tell you more about it some other time.

Kampot, Cambodia,

November 2015

*Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats is the opening track of my EP A Crown on a Chain. It can be listened to and downloaded for free here.. Shameless plug over.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go by Bob Dylan