If Hearts Will Break . . .

Ethiopia and I have flirted over the years. My first encounter was a joyous concert by Mahmoud Ahmed on a Womad evening a decade or so ago. At various points I’ve delved into seemingly endless depths of the Ethiopiques collection from Buda Musique. I’ve sagely pointed out the Ethio-Jazz leanings of certain contemporary bands, such as Dengue Fever. But I’ve never really become an expert, or taken a deep dive into the country’s musical traditions in the way I have with other sub-Saharan countries.

I’m still no expert, but a chance to spend three weeks travelling in Ethiopia last March did give me a chance to hear even more music. I particularly remember a fourteen-hour bus journey from Addis Ababa to Gondar, with the on-board entertainment being an unending stream of domestic hits. I was impressed at how distinctly Ethiopian even the pop music sounded. The central seam was the rhythm; a solid pulse that steams ahead, leaning into the front end of the beat with a tantalising lurch. Ethiopia’s iconic traditional instruments were also front and centre; the krar and masenko.

So while travelling in Ethiopia I began seeing if I could funnel those elements into a song. It must be said that digesting full band recordings onto a single instrument and retaining those identifying qualities is no easy task. To me, I can hear Ethiopia in If Hearts Will Break . . , but I’m not sure if that influence will stand out to the average listener, even one well-versed in the genre. And perhaps my associations stem more from my memories of composing the song there than true technical understanding. Still, if it is enjoyed then it doesn’t really matter.

One key trick behind the sound of If Hearts Will Break . . .  was threading a strip of paper through the strings of the guitar. The light contact of the paper on the strings mutes the sound, and causes them to buzz and rattle in a manner reminiscent of some of the traditional stringed instruments mentioned above. Furthermore, as the guitar loses all sustain, it further the rhythm more deeply. Now I’m certainly not the first person to do this, and while others have tried this trick in order to emulate African instruments, the technique has also been used in other styles (Johnny Cash is one example). 

Lyrically the song is a bit of an indulgence in fantasy – the advice offered quite at odds with what the real me would propose in a similar situation. Depending on your point of view, it’s an excursion into tender folly or selfish recklessness; an incitement to forge on ahead with a doomed romantic escapade even though it will clearly end in tears. As ever with such songs, any resemblance to real persons living or dead should be taken with a pinch of salt – one plucked with goliath fingers!

Lyrics

If hearts will break, let them be broken
If our only fate, is to rue this simple mistake
Let this fool’s foray be but a token
When loneliness dictates that we boldly swallow down the bait
Forgive us of our reckless ways
For just a catch of blessed days
The bounty that the river pays
Does it reach the ocean, who can say?

As clear and bright as a new day dawning
The first page still lies unread and not a single tear’s been shed
The tall tale tellers talked in the morning
Oh to follow Ariadne’s thread, would it lead us to a lover’s bed?
Forgive us of our reckless ways
We’ve no care for what the wise man says
We step out of house’s set ablaze
To the common paths of this age-old maze

So take your hand from off the tiller, let the wheel go spinning free
Let fortunes of the tide and wind carry us to a place we’re supposed to be
On handmade wings of wax and twine we’ll soar above the sea
And if we fall into a tailspin, we’ll land in cotton clouds, you and me

All the doors before you stand wide open
And I beg you to come inside, discover if our love resides
There’s no promises that need be spoken
For who knows where the future lies, who knows what this song betides?
The fates will share their weight in sorrow
If we can’t bargain for our happiness, we’ll simply have to borrow.
Forgive us of our reckless ways
Forgive us of our reckless ways . . .

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Making the Apocalypse Lullaby EP: Part One

Beginnings

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 and as 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 Cold_Cowshed_Sessionsjigsaw 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 we 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).

Cowshed_Setup_Recording

Finishing Touches

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 . . .

Making the Apocalypse Lullaby EP: Part One

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Six

So to the final chapter of this series – a song has now been written from scratch! I feel a little embarrassed by how long this has taken – originally I’d imagined each chapter separated by something like a week. To a certain degree a song can’t be rushed, but to be more honest there’s just been other stuff going on. My work ethic could always be better, though I think finding a rhythm in songwriting is much more challenging as a hobby as a full time occupation. It’s easy to look at how many incredible songs your heroes might throw out in just a short space of time, but then you have to remember they’re probably doing very little else. There’s a lot to be said for how being able to get into the zone can improve your productivity, and it can be hard to find that space when facing all of life’s usual slings and arrows (such as a proper job!).

Some speculations raised in the last blog entry have been settled. For example, I committed to the idea of remaining in 4/4 for the final chorus, though you’ll hear I added a slight bass movement on the I chord to keep things interesting. I didn’t cut out any lines in the end, though I have made a few fairly cosmetic changes to help things flow better. I find this happens organically: more or less learn the words, then sing it over and over away from the lyric sheet – clumsy, cluttered lines tend to get trimmed down subconsciously.

I’ve also been adding the fiddly bits, which I’ve kept as unfiddly as possible, with just an introductory lick and a short instrumental break between the 3/4 and 4/4 sections. You can hear both of these on the video above. I always find it a bit of a trick – striking the balance between pushing my playing further and capitalising on what one can do well. My inclination is to always do the former, but the result is invariably ending up with music I can’t quite play convincingly. There are a lot of merits to a simpler song – you can really lean in to the nuances of performing it – work the groove, give more conviction to the vocal, not have to worry about the strings slithering out from beneath your fingers.

Another important change I have made, one not evident in the video, has been changing the key. I moved the song off the guitalele and onto guitar, with the capo on the 3rd fret, shifting from D# to C, which makes it marginally easier to sing.

And so I can wind up this long-winded series. I’ll hope to soon publish a full performance of Anthill on Youtube, and as mentioned before, I’m also hoping to record it for the new EP project.

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EP Launch: ‘The Apocalypse Lullaby’ by Far Flown Falcon

Apocalypse Lullaby for Blog

My new EP The Apocalypse Lullaby has hit the worldwide web as of last week. It’s available to stream and download using the ‘pay what you like’ model (including downloading for free!) from Bandcamp if you follow this link:

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/album/the-apocalypse-lullaby-ep

The EP has five songs all loosely themed around the wreck we are making of the world we call our home. Despite that rather grim concept, I hope the quality of the songs, arrangements and recordings still make it an enjoyable listen. I’m accompanied on all the tracks by my longstanding musicians-in-arms; Amjid Hasan of my old band The Lazy Lizards on drums, congas and percussion, and Phill Ward on fretless bass, electric guitar, mandolin, backing vocals, programming and keyboards, as well as recording, mixing and producing the whole affair. We also have a special guest star in the form of American guitarist Eric Haugen playing electric and pedal steel, as well as Amjid’s son Moosa making his recording debut on shaker.

I’m very grateful for all the friends and family who made this EP possible, both in the UK where the recording took place and in Egypt where I currently live.

Hopefully there’ll be yet more new music coming soon. Keep an eye peeled on this blog, as I’ll be giving a more in-depth report as to the recording process of the album in a future post. And in the meantime, please listen, and if you like share the songs as widely as possible.

Best wishes,

James – Far Flown Falcon

Cairo, Egypt – June 2018

EP Launch: ‘The Apocalypse Lullaby’ by Far Flown Falcon

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Five

Suddenly we have a song on our hands. I find that’s often what happens when I write songs – the thing grows in fits and starts. There’s that initial burst of inspiration, then a lot of groundwork where not much progress is being made. Then the song taps you on the shoulder, you look at it, and realise it’s almost finished. Certainly, this feels like the way it’s gone with Anthill.

It’s a lovely feeling when a song is nearly complete; the knowledge that it didn’t escape you. Personally, I find this sense of achievement is often undercut by a blast of postnatal depression, when the final note is ultimately fixed in place there’s often a sense of rejection. You spend too long with something and you want some space from it. Some songs never survive this, are orphaned and abandoned almost immediately, but most shuffle back into your repertoire after a few weeks or months hiding in a dark corner. At the moment I’m feeling quite positive about Anthill and I hope it will find a place on the EP of songs I’m working on.

Few structural questions remain. Perhaps it’s too long (my favourite mistake), and in particular I’m going to consider cutting a couple of lines from the bridge section. As you can hear in the video, I’ve hit upon this idea of staying in 4/4 for the final chorus to give it a different feel. I can’t quite make up my find as to whether this innovation is clever, or if the song would work better if it returned to the familiar turf of the 3/4 time at the end.

I might also make a few snips and edits of certain words here and there, but overall I’m quite happy with the lyrics. The free writing exercise worked a treat here I think – most of the words come from the three pages of prose I churned out, and I think I’ve succeeded in shuffling them around into an order which makes sense.

These are our lyrics at present:

VERSE 1

The anthill keeps growing, more teetering, hopeless homes

While teeming in their multitudes, twelve million worker drones

All of these paralysed souls, indistinguishable, all smeared in soot

The murk of the muted, it paints us the same, from our head to our foot

CHORUS

So extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not weighted in dust

Seeking out an empty space or the contours of a friendly face

In the chaos

 VERSE 2

The anthill collapses, yet constructed again

Building on the bones of all its fallible men

Construction it never does stop, and when a body drops, we’ll brick it back in

Exoskeletons formed this city’s skin, while we, while we, while we . . .

CHORUS

Extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not weighted down in dust

Seeking out an empty space or the contours of a friendly face

In the chaos

BRIDGE

And now I’m carried on the back of billions, though I do not know their names

There is a fossilised remembrance, that could still be reclaimed

They thought us worker drones did not have much to say, kept us busy anyway

Now the water cannons won’t hold us back, they will simply wash the filth away

And if every one of us could carry six times our own weight

Then there are really no limits to the utopia we might make

We’ve got to wake up, howl some questions to the hive

If we were conscious of our direction, we would to do more than just survive

CHORUS (4/4)

So extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not weighted down in dust

Open our minds, spit the silt from our voice

Claim everything, a collective and separate choice

Seeking out an empty space or the shape of a friendly face

In this anthill

So, what’s next? Well, beyond just learning how to play the thing, there’s still a little bit of work to be done on the arrangement of the song. Happily I think the waltz rhythm, chord progression, tonalities of the DADGAD tuning and the shift in time signatures towards the end of the song already go a long way to engage the listener, but even if the cake is iced, you can still put a cherry on top. As it stands, some obvious cherries would be an introductory lick, and to stretch the metaphor, perhaps a little jam and butter to help the different sections adhere more closely to one another. If I wanted to really push the arrangement, maybe even a lead part, though making that work within the constraints of a single guitar and a simple guitar player would be tough. Plus, the song is probably long enough as it is.

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Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Four

This project has been drifting a bit in 2018, but I’ve finally managed to kick myself into shape and get back to it. The nice thing about taking a break from some music is the opportunity to refresh the ears and listen from a new perspective. I’m pleased to report that this nascent song still feels like it has potential despite its time in the wilderness.

I’ve decided the song is called Anthill. I’ve been writing a lot in the last few years about the experience of living in a big city, and how it always strikes me as the most unnatural of existences, and what coping mechanisms we must cultivate in order to survive. Anthill feels like it will explore similar territory, but the exactly how remains to be revealed.

In previous posts I’ve touched upon the technique of free writing that I often use to generate lyrical ideas from which to piece together a song. I did the same here. Below is transcribed everything I wrote. There’s some repetition, and a lot of it is trash, but that’s kind of the idea. This splurge is just aimed at getting the ball rolling. I’ve purposefully written it up in a single monumental paragraph. Not easy to read in detail, but perhaps building such an intimidating wall of text will encourage the valuable lines to wiggle free of the brickwork when I skim read across its surface.

Teeming in our multitudes, crammed into narrow alleys and congested streets. An invisible force is prodding us, and our human forms swarm in a swell of impotent anger. The anthill keeps on growing, teetering, hopeless homes, squashed in between the factories in endless uniform rows. I’m round about the twelve millionth worker drone, indistinguishable from my colleagues, as my Queen ejects more clones. And I’m waving my hands constantly, blindly feeling for a touch. Or stretching out and reaching, can I extend my limbs? Can I find an empty space, a vacuum in which to spin? The anthill howls around me, every voice made unintelligible. If the decibels scrape the red, it all comes tumbling down upon our heads. The anthill collapses, constructed again. The bones and exoskeletons tell our foundations are resting on fallible men. Somewhere within the fury, the soldiers appear in line. Custodians of the cityscape, they loom above us, jaws agape, water cannons ready to reshape the crowds. The noise just keeps on getting loud. Ants hatch without tear ducts and march fearlessly into the gas. In this city, the capacity to cry evolves spontaneously. Then just as unexpectedly the tears run dry. Anything precious is borne down into the anthill to be consumed. You can taste what you have lost hanging somewhere on these stagnant fumes. Can an anthill overthrow its Queen? Could this filthy city one day shine and gleam? Some long-fossilised resemblance, a remembrance urges me to stand absolutely still. The anthill frantic about me, souls threshing within the spinning mill. You’ve been prodding at the anthill, laughing at these tiny forms. How can they harm you? These incorrigible people. The muted, fuzzy, ochre air. Every soul smeared in soot, indistinguishable. I’m being carried into the anthill on the backs of billions. Paralysed, deified. It seems these worker drones don’t have much to say, too busy anyway, being squeezed into the anthill. But after a while you can see the message written in the ways they walk, hefting loads six times their weight without complaint. Without a fuss, as needs must, you must just hope they always march to your tune. I feel I know each one of them, though indistinguishable to a man. Today the anthill turns, workers squashed in serried rows. Tomorrow the world might burn, ignited from above. Should you kick this nest? Do you dare? God does trudging past, stick in hand, heavy tread shaking the land. The construction never stops, when a body drops, just brick the body in, exoskeletons made this city’s skin – from the pyramids to the new desert towns. Despite the tired legs, the massive burdens balanced high upon our heads. The sun upon our brow as we hustle through the anthill.

Three possible themes appear to be emerging. The simplest would simply be an experiential song – how does it feel to be just another one of the worker drones in the uncaring city? Certainly not an original premise, but it’s something that so many of us wrestle with, so there’s potential to write something that speaks to people. Perhaps a more interesting angle might be  to write from the point of view of one of the few people who actually have control over the colony; the one who could kick the nest, a monarch, a higher power, a president perhaps. Which leads me to wonder whether the song could be something more firmly connected to its Cairene inspiration, an allegory for the revolution and the current political malaise. But that might get me arrested …

The next step is probably the most important. Starting with this pile of lyrics I’ve got to both organise them into something which speaks coherently, and also fit them to the music. If things go well, the song jumps from about 30% written to about 80% written in one bold stride.

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WRITING A SONG FROM SCRATCH: PART THREE

 

Last month’s instalment of ‘Writing A Song From Scratch’ expanded our initial set of chords until we had parts for a verse, chorus and bridge. Unfortunately, the song still lacks two crucial elements. It doesn’t have a melody, and it doesn’t have any lyrics. Either of these could be the next step in the songwriting process.

I tend to work from lyrics in most cases. There’s often that first flash of wordplay, a rhyming couplet, a little alliteration, or even just a standalone image which seems to work over the music, and around which the rest of the song takes form. However, this approach has its disadvantages. Words have their own inherent melodies imprinted in their phonemes, and these melodies often begin dragging your song in a certain direction before you’ve even had a chance to explore what would happen if you had gone left or right.

So a different tactic is reverting to babytalk, and making melody the only thing that matters. With some ‘la, la, las’ or ‘dum, dum, dums’ you sketch out the notes the song will follow, and after the fact try and transform your parade of noises into a coherent text. This can be challenging, not least because you can feel like an utter wally while doing so, and furthermore, without any lyrics the melodies slip away easily as you have no investment in them. Still, those tunes that do linger in this form only do so if they are earworms, so the struggle is often worth it.

I’m pretty happy with my babytalk on this song. And having put off some proper lyrics for three episodes, that seems like the only logical next step in this process.  I want to try my level best to prevent those lyrics from displacing the work I’m presenting here, and that’s a challenge I will get to explore in the next part.

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