Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats

If a stranger asks me to play them a song, Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats is more often than not the one I turn to. I think it’s one of the best marriages of an African musical sensibility and an English lyrical density that I’ve thus far been able to come up with. It also means a lot to me.

In 2009, my old band the Lazy Lizards had reached the top of their brief trajectory. We’d made some music we were very proud of, enjoyed some modest local success, and had an awful lot of fun. Yet it was clear to me that to continue climbing in creative and commercial ways would require a lot more time and commitment from everyone involved – time I knew that people would struggle to find. If we continued as we were, I feared we would stagnate. As none of us were getting any younger, I decided we should go out whilst we were still on a high.

I made plans to begin a new life which involved not only saying goodbye to the Lazy Lizards, but also my home, family, friends and job. I was desperate to see more of the world, but it was still a poignant departure. Set Sail . . . was written as a fond farewell. I remember it came quickly and almost effortlessly; written in a couple of weeks, recorded in a day and first performed in public solo as the final encore of the Lazy Lizards’ farewell show.

So the song serves as an important bridge from my days as a member of a band – the context of my first successful attempt to find a musical voice – and my subsequent journey as a solo musician. It’s the opening track of my first EP A Crown on a Chain under the Far Flown Falcon name.

There is also a rather poignant link here to the last song I shared – The Naked Hills. I made the video below last year whilst living in Borneo. Not far from my house there was this beautiful jungle clearing which served as a regular destination for evening and morning strolls. My wife and I kept on meaning to spend a few nights camping there, but before we could make our plans happen our little haven was destroyed – cleared to make room for a rubber plantation. None of the forest around where we lived had any protection, and most of it was privately owned by local smallholders. In the two years we spent living in Sabah, a tremendous amount of the woodlands around our home were gobbled up by the palm and rubber estates. Now this spot survives only in the video below.

Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats

Verse 1

Well I hear there’s no further need

For cartography

They’ve mapped the whole world

And it’s geography

Pictures have been taken from way up on high

Uploaded to the internet for the whole world to pry

There’s really no need

To leave your armchair

Verse 2

Now it’s a muddling

Calamity

To witness a once proud ship

Of Her Majesty

Stuck in the mud, in a fit and a fug

Overtaken by everything but the snails and the slugs

And it’s a feeling I’ve come

Come to share

CHORUS

Too much landlubbing, gotta get my sealegs running

Scrape the barnacles from the hull

Too much peglegging, these stitches unthreading

Sort the rigging whilst the storm lulls

And set sail whilst the ship still floats

Verse 3

Now I have a casket of curiosities

Of gewgaws and gimcracks and doodads and knickknacks

And other

Eccentricities

Malagasy, Honalulu, Indochina, Ougadoudou

How I wanna go there

CHORUS

Too much landlubbing, gotta get my sealegs running

Scrape the barnacles from the hull

Too much peglegging, these stitches unthreading

Sort the rigging whilst the storm lulls

And set sail whilst the ship still floats

BRIDGE

Now I need to know just where the birds go

Come September, September

And I’ll splash my feet where the dancing dolphins leap

Across the skyline, the skyline

Verse 4

And I know I’ve a treasure chest buried beneath the sand

Of cherished friends and lovers and the sounds

Of a magic band

Magellan he says that the world is a sphere

And if that’s the truth I’ll find my way back to here

To all of the ones

That I hold dear

CHORUS

Too much landlubbing, gotta get my sealegs running

Scrape the barnacles from the hull

Too much peglegging, these stitches unthreading

Sort the rigging whilst the storm lulls

And set sail whilst the ship still floats

Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats

The Naked Hills (for Chut Wutty)

The Naked Hills was written in what I tend to call ‘kora’ tuning. High to low, the strings are DADF#BE. This is the tuning that my friend and teacher Derek Gripper settled on when he started arranging the repertoire of the kora (a West African harp, usually with 21 strings) for guitar. I spent some time learning from Derek over Skype, and whilst I’ve yet to properly master any of his kora arrangements, I have started using the tuning for my own compositions.

The basic chords and picking pattern of The Naked Hills was something I stumbled across just doodling away late one evening on my porch in Borneo. I remember I wasn’t trying to do anything much; the guitar was just in my hands, and suddenly there was a song. Within about an hour, two sketches of verses were written. Using Audacity, I recorded a crude demo including a solo with some delayed guitar. For some reason I can’t fully remember, I toyed around with the key, artificially changing it through Audacity. The alteration gave the guitar a brittle sound which to my mind made it sound more like a Malian stringed instrument, a development I was well pleased with. Although it couldn’t get more lo-fi, the final recording captured the excitement of discovering the song. My wife also liked what I had done and ended using the song over the closing credits of her short film When Our Gardens Grow Silent.

I soon expanded The Naked Hills, adding a chorus and developing the lyrics. The title was one I’d carried around for a long time, but remained particularly resonant in Borneo. Living in South-East Asia, rampant deforestation is something you are constantly confronted with. The rapid pace of development in these nations mean that all too often you can watch forests disappear in front of your eyes. The title of the song came to me after a trip to Laos. On returning to Vietnam (where we lived at the time) we passed through the astounding rain forests of Dong Amphan. They remain some of the most beautiful and dramatic forests I’ve ever seen. Yet once we arrived at the Vietnam border we were presented with a cruel sight. On the Laos side the verdant jungle. On the Vietnam side, nothing but bare hills. For miles and miles and miles.

The final section added was the swifter, happier outro. This piece of music came on the same night as the rest of the song, but it took me a while to work out they belonged together. I wanted to add a more hopeful denouement to a rather heavy song, with a plea to “Let Eden grow again”. The outro also mentions the following;

I’ve watched ships as large as islands

Bearing forests across the sea

This is a quite literal reference to enormous logging barges I’d sometimes see from my home in Borneo. They’d be piled high with so much timber that visiting friends would often ask what the little islands on the horizon were. I’d point out that ever so slowly, they were moving.

Deforestation-Borneo-2

The lyrics, and musically the nuts and bolts, were finished months ago. However I spent ages trying to come up with a convincing solo, once again trying to push my fingerstyle skills. The challenge is that the most of the chords lie on fretted bass strings rather open ones. The received wisdom is that you maintain the basic integrity of the song through the bass whilst playing some lead along the treble strings. If those bass strings are fretted this job is a lot more challenging – one finger is always committed to that root note.

I struggled and struggled, but when I began playing the song with Reem her lovely cello lines quickly made my efforts to inject my own solos rather redundant. I contented myself with playing my simpler parts, and fairly rapidly realised that cello or no cello, The Naked Hills didn’t need to be more complicated guitar-wise.

Not long after I started writing the song, I came across the story of Chut Wutty, the Khmer activist who was eventually murdered in his defence of Indochina’s forest realms. The story resonated deeply, so I decided to dedicate the song to him. I rewrote the second verse from his imagined point of view.

I’ll conclude here with Chut Wutty’s words:

The forest is like the skin protecting our bodies

Without it we couldn’t survive

 ⊗

The Naked Hills

verse 1

Well I walked amongst these ancient hills

The sadness clinging to my heart

As I watched those oily juggernauts

As they tore the land apart

chorus

On the naked hills

There’s the naked fear

Of the naked greed that money rears

Shorn of life

Short of time

The bare earth drinks our naked tears

verse 2

Well he walked amongst his native hills

The red mud clinging to his boots

Then he toppled down like the trees about

Cut down to the root

chorus

On the naked hills

There’s the naked fear

Of the naked greed that money rears

Shorn of life

Short of time

The bare earth drinks our naked tears

outro

Well they’ve torn down nature’s architecture

Those mighty living trees

I’ve watched ships as large as islands

Bearing forests across the sea

Oh when will greed be exorcised?

From within the hearts of men

When will we clothe this land in greenery?

And let Eden grow again?

 

The Naked Hills (for Chut Wutty)