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 jigsaw 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).
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 . . .