Pass Without Trace

A few months have passed since I resolved to write four songs in one month, but finally I have a full recording to present of one of the tunes written during that project. This is Pass Without Trace, recorded in Abu Simbel, the most southerly town in Egypt, site of Ramses the Great’s famous temple, and a mere twenty minute drive from the Sudanese border.

An anti-protest song

Writing from the folk music tradition as I do, the concept of the protest song stands tall. Pass Without Trace though, might be considered an anti-protest song. Six years ago I wrote Nyabinghi 11-01-11, a song celebrating the Arab Spring, and the overthrow of the ‘tyrant upon the throne’ in Egypt. However, the promise of those days has long dissipated, and now most of the Egyptians I meet turn their energies mainly towards escape, be it an actual escape or just a creative one. So Pass Without Trace works as something of a sister song, reflecting that desire. It’s a thesis that spreads itself more widely – as the world strides towards its own destruction, it becomes harder and harder to muster the energy to battle the forces of darkness (and I mean you, Mr. Trump!).

Magical Realism in songwriting

Since I left the UK, one of the most interesting considerations I face when lyrics writing is finding the right world for my songs to inhabit. My day to day experience is no longer the familiar culture of pastoral England, but it’s not a world I can pretend to fully understand – be it Egypt (where I live now), or the other countries I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in. Mixed up in this, my musical influences veer further away from the traditional canon of Western music, and as a result, I find my lyrics begging a different setting.

In magical realism, I think I’ve found an answer that suits my natural proclivities. Magical realism is a genre perhaps most famously illustrated by South American novelists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Novels such as 100 Years of Solitude, present a version of Colombia which is recognisable as our own world, yet where fantastical places, characters and events exist naturally alongside the familiar.

I find using such an approach helpful, as it allows me to excuse my own ignorance while stealing all the best imagery Egypt has to offer. In Pass Without Trace, this is best demonstrated by a reference to the High Dam, the great civil engineering work of President Nasser, which blocked the Nile, controlling the inundation and allowing Egypt to exploit its limited water resources like never before. Beyond the High Dam, Egypt does indeed get wilder and emptier, and like in the song, there are crocodiles to be found. Yet unlike our protagonist’s journey, there is no swamp to negotiate, just the largest man-made lake in the world, and the desert on all sides. Thus the real world provides the starting point, but in service of the song, fictional and fabulous details emerge.

crocodiles-lake-nasser

Some well-placed foul language

Front and centre of the chorus of Pass Without Trace is some rather Anglo-Saxon language in its most expressive form. Sheepishly, I must admit being an enthusiastic fan of bad language in song. ‘Fuck’ has such an aural aesthetic – it might batter the ears but it’s a delight to say. And there are many songs which benefit from its deployment, such as the gleeful contempt in Cee-Lo Green’s Fuck You, or the quiet exasperation and befuddlement expressed in the chorus of Thom Yorke’s Black Swan. I must admit to being a bit of a serial offender in this department, another song in my repertoire is called Your Shit Still Stinks The Same.

1 month 4 songs progress report

So whatever happened to those four songs that were supposed to be finished in a month? Well, the initial burst of creativity bubbling away during the project got 80% of the songs written, but in perfecting them and mastering the singing and playing of them progress has slowed. It’s not surprising that Pass Without Trace was the first to surface, as guitar-wise it’s the simplest to perform. Of the others, Bold Little Weasel is complete, but still a challenge to pull of successfully to the tempo as written. But for a few fiddly bits, When The City Is Home is also more or less together. Let’s Make Our Bed Together lies a little in limbo, as I’m not sure whether it completely works as a song, and I’m undecided as to whether to kindly euthanize it or throw it out in public and see if it can survive.

Blog posts relating to the writing of Pass Without Trace during the project can be found here:

Day 2: Stones in the Stream

Day 7: Zoom Zoom

Day 25: Reggae on the River

And these are the complete lyrics:

 

 

Pass Without Trace

Verse 1

These shackles hamper our every move and rattle with each twitch

No doubt that the turnkey would start awake should you even scratch an itch

So crash the system, dupe the world, and set the currency aflame

Usurp the tyrant on his throne, though you’d end up just the same

Chorus

Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Verse 2

There’s no move that could salvage the game, you’ve not even a pawn to play

The only move that you have left is to simply turn away

To the swamps above the High Dam, where the vapours take the scent

The primeval ooze it fills back in and your footprints leave no dent

Chorus

Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Verse 3

The crocodiles still linger here to devour the tracking dogs

The spy drones can’t probe the undergrowth, the murk through which you slog

Sleep in all your clothes tonight, they’ll slowly tear away

And there’ll be no trace left of the modern world whose presence would betray

Chorus

Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Pass without trace

Pass without trace

Video

Reflecting On 1 Month, 4 Songs

Over a week ago, I called time on my 1 month, 4 songs project. My month was up, but the business of writing the four songs was not. Although I hadn’t quite met the challenge I set myself, it had nonetheless been fruitful – I have a quartet of two-thirds finished songs.

I wonder if anyone in the business of writing songs has ever settled upon a strict methodology and found it to work consistently. If this project has taught me anything, it’s only to reinforce for the umpteenth time that songwriting utterly resists one’s efforts to shoulder it with a formula. Over the month I experimented with a number of different approaches, and in this post I want to reflect of their relative values and lessons learnt from the project as a whole.

dscf2318

I began 1m4s by filling my notebook with pages of unfettered imagery, words and phrases all based around a different song title. Despite my intention to write with utter freedom and try and disconnect my brain from the eventual end goal of turning these scribbles into songs, some premeditation and rhyme-chasing did creep in. But the real benefit of this starting point was beginning with this massive bank of material to draw from and guide the lyrical direction of the songs. Filling those pages felt like hard graft, but rewarding work, and so provided a really positive launch point. And later on, when tunes started forming, I had a wealth of lyrical matter to dress the melodies in.

There was also neat cross-fertilization happening from song to song; I found choice phrases from songs I didn’t use finding a home in others. Even so, there’s quite a lot of stuff left over which I really like that might its way into future songs. It’s definitely an approach I will use again when I want to compose a bunch of songs.

My early ventures into the musical side of things were not as productive. I came at things with an inflexible, structural approach: rhythm > chords > vocal melody > fingerstyle arrangement > embellishments and ‘solos’ (although this last part isn’t done yet). Such a progression is quite logical, and it’s not to say it didn’t work, but there were times when I found I was forcing myself to shuffle along when I should have been running on ahead. My commitment to my method saw me shying away from potential fruitful explorations of the musically ‘frilly’ bits at the end of sequence because ‘it wasn’t time to do those parts yet’.

Is there a better way? As I guy without any real grasp of theory, the musical composition aspect boils down to flailing around in hope of coming across something productive. The occasional stroke of luck aside, that’s inevitably going to take time. But I think I’d benefit from abandoning any preconceptions of how that should happen. I feel that simply doing a lot more guitar playing, without rhyme, reason or application of brain might reap some rewards.

I’d also be interested in experimenting with reversing the process. From an early stage, I tend to come at the song from a macro level. In my mind’s eye, I’ve already plotted the whole course from intro to outro, and I construct each segment little by little before slotting them all together. I wonder what might come if instead I focused on getting one tiny part perfect before moving onto the next, and built from bar to bar. This could lead to something more exciting, and also steer a song away from feeling too formulaic. Introducing the chord change, or the chorus, or whatever it needs, only when it feels necessary, not just because that’s where a change would be expected.

A third way I want to explore is writing melodies completely free of the guitar. I’d tried on 1m4s with Let’s Make Our Bed Together, but wasn’t tremendously satisfied with the results, but I think it’s a methodology which might be worth pursuing further.

Ultimately though, I must accept the musical road will always be messy, and recognise that large degrees of blundering and stumbling are natural parts of the process. Songs will take their own sweet time, some fast, most slow, and all you can do is keep working at them.

Overall, I think the greatest benefit of publically setting myself this challenge has simply been the motivation. Although I don’t kid myself that many people are paying attention, having announced to the world I would try and write these songs, I wasn’t able to slack off. I became accountable, and that helped me force myself to push on when my enthusiasm and energy were flagging, and also to recognise and document the progress I was making towards my goal. In the past, I’ve tended to use this blog to present mainly finished pieces of work, but I can see the benefit of replicating the approach of 1m4s for future projects, be they recording projects, live performances or even 2 months, 8 songs!

Reflecting On 1 Month, 4 Songs

1m4s Day 31: And it took Leonard Cohen two years to write ‘Hallelujah’

As can be told by the title, my project to write four songs in one month has not been an unqualified success. A month ago, I hoped that come this day I’d be able to perform demos of four new songs to the camera and declare my task complete. The truth is that simply isn’t possible, but conversely I have written four new songs. However, at this point I haven’t inhabited any of them sufficiently to be able to perform them even as rough demos. They are still too fresh, and admittedly I may have relied too heavily on the computer rather than the actual guitar in the composition process.

But nonetheless, the four songs are there. I can hear them in my head, and they will not need to travel too far to enter the real world. Here’s there current state of play.

Bold Little Weasel: the most complete song of the four. Some slight refinement required, ‘uncovering the earth’ as mentioned in the previous post to simplify the complex parts without losing their core. There is also the odd clunky lyric which might be improved upon.

Let’s Make Our Bed Together: it’s been my intention for this song to be quite a simple one, but at the moment it feels substantially less developed than the other four. A lot of holes remain in the lyrics, and even those that have been written haven’t been thoroughly road-tested. I know what the chords are, and there is that rhumba bass line, but those silvery guitar lines which make me love that old Congolese sound are still lacking.

Pass Without Trace: its quick inception led to a very straightforward arrangement, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Does it need more? Maybe not, but I think I need to keep playing through it for a little while before I’m sure.

When The City Is Home: all the parts have arrived, but they’re freshly delivered and I’m not quite sure how they all fit together. I still feel this song could head in different directions, but the correct one isn’t clear. Some songs reach a dangerous moment where you teeter between realising your vision and cocking the whole thing up – and this is the place I fear I’ve got to. Best to give it a firm shove and see which way it tumbles.

So what’s next? My aim now is to continue to spend an hour a day working on these songs until they’re complete. Then some time to master performing them. When I get to the juncture when I can perform one of these songs through in its entirety without making a mistake, I will exercise a little wisdom and not immediately rush to record it. Instead I’ll diligently endeavour to play it through every day for another month until it’s really had a chance to settle in to my muscle memory and vocal chords. Only then will I permit myself to make a video performance to share on this blog, so that finally the fruit of 1m4s can be tasted and judged.

I also want to reflect on the process the songwriting has taken over this last month. I’ll let my thoughts on what has worked and what hasn’t solidify over the next few days and write-up my conclusions. In the meantime, thanks for following the project to this point.

nasser-moonset-1m4s

1m4s Day 31: And it took Leonard Cohen two years to write ‘Hallelujah’

1m4s Day 29: Filling in the Gaps

lemmings-boxscanIt’s taken longer than it should have, but I now have four songs which are complete in the most basic sense of the word. They have chords, words, melodies and vague sense of feel. But they are far from finished. If I was writing for a band, now would be a time to introduce them and start shaping up an arrangement. This still needs to happen, but for the time being I’m doing so on my own, so it involves thinking about the fingerstyle arrangement and throwing in those ‘fiddly bits’ between the basic patterns. If this was cake baking, now would be time for the icing.

Bold Little Weasel already feels like the most complete of the new tunes, so was a natural choice to begin this process with. I decided I wanted a main ‘theme’ to represent the weasel, a solo part in the middle of the song, and a fill to link the bridge back to the final verse. Using Guitar Pro, I looped the basic fingerstyle arrangements over which these parts will be played and jammed over them to develop some ideas. The guitar parts to Bold Little Weasel have drifted away from their original inspirations; it now sounds quite ‘folky’, and I want to rectify this by alluding to Egyptian music in parts.

I began jamming on a stereotype: the famous(ly silly) Egyptian riff from the song Streets of Cairo, as quoted by the Beatles in the clip above. Transposing this to fit the key of Bold Little Weasel, I jammed over the verse chords, extending and altering the notes until I hit upon something which sounds different enough and interesting. These Eastern notes were a little unsettling, so I concluded they wouldn’t work as part of the main theme, but would suit the opening stages of the solo, which then blossom into a wider palette of notes. I also explored the ‘Egyptian’ scale to bring the bridge back to the verse chords, on the appropriate line “Egyptian dervish spins.”

The opening theme of the song (which I dubbed ‘the weasel’s theme’) needed something a bit brighter, cheerful, and reflecting the energy of the song’s subject. So here I left the Eastern scales behind and instead experimented with major hammer-ons and pull-offs on the major scale – more familiar territory for my fingertips.

Having come up with these lines, I worked them into my transcription directly. What emerges is rather busy, and realistically, a considerable challenge to play. And so the next step of filling in the gaps is to then shovel off the earth that doesn’t need to be there. A lot of the incidental notes of the basic arrangement become redundant when matched with the themes and solo. Some thought also needs to given to how the arrangement can be simplified. For example, the A section of the verse works with a G shape on the bass strings being slide up to 5th fret, with the relative root being A. When playing the leads, this is much more easily played as the open fifth string, leaving fingers free to tackle other notes – as seen in the transcription below.

bold-little-weasel-riff

Needless to say, I’m still a long way short of physically being able to play these leads. A lot of work needs to go into that step. In the meantime, you can listen to the Midi performance of the theme and solo as they currently stand. Hopefully, when this music is performed on a real instrument it won’t sound so much like the tune to a level of Lemmings!

1m4s Day 29: Filling in the Gaps

1m4s Day 27: Onto Wider Waters

Of the songs I’ve been working on, the one that has proved most challenging so far has been When The City Is Home. I believe there are two reasons for this. First of all, it’s the only song which carries a weight of expectation: my wife wants it as piece of music to support a piece of video art she’s making under the same name. This project though is still in its earliest stages, so I’m writing to her idea rather than anything concrete. What exactly the song is supposed to be is largely unknown to both of us. Although I’ve tried to listen to her nebulous suggestions, what she wants and the song that’s emerging are already beginning to diverge, and as the song takes shape in front of me I’m less willing to compromise my own emerging direction for it.

Secondly, the song has proved to be one of the more complicated compositions. Working in DADGAD, although not altogether new territory, makes it far easier to come across new sounds. The downside of this is the need to be more judicious. When The City Is Home has swiftly passed through several iterations – I had lots of different ideas but finding exactly which chords and melody worked best took some experimentation. I’m left with lots of discarded bits and bobs that didn’t really fit with the vocal but still sound nice; I may yet include these in some kind of instrumental coda.

Underneath the whole song is a bass line rhythm based upon baladi Egyptian drums. On Guitar Pro I’ve expanded this with some arpeggios on the treble strings, hopefully without drowning the Eastern sound of the rhythm by filling in too much space. I’m not yet able to play these patterns while singing simultaneously, so in the demo below I just play the bass line with block chords. Here I’ve recorded the second verse and chorus, and couldn’t quite get it together enough to include the bridge, which I see as following on from the second chorus, moving up another third and continuing to raise the intensity level  of the song.

I’m still on the Nile, but now on the huge artificial Lake Nasser created by the High Dam, in the southernmost region of Egypt.

lake-nasser-songwriting

1m4s Day 27: Onto Wider Waters

1m4s Day 25: Reggae on the River

Nine thousand years of history. These are the terms we speak of when we consider the span of humanity’s habitation of the Nile Valley here in Nuba – the lands of Ancient Kush and Meroe. Here we’ve gone back in time – though only a little ways I grant you – and spent five days sailing the Nile aboard a felucca under the care of Captain Sero.

Our felucca – the Nile Queen – is more or less full with a crew of two plus my wife and I. She’s handcrafted, older than I am, and based upon a design that is centuries old*. Of course, that means that wind and water are our only means of propulsion. No engine, so no electricity.

This also means that I’ve had no choice but to divest myself of my technological aids and do things the simple way, as I promised myself.

Unfortunately, of my four nascent songs, only Bold Little Weasel is sufficiently far along for me to feel confident continuing to write it without resorting to my computerised notes. This song has travelled far enough that I was quickly able to complete it as we drifted amongst the islands of the First Cataract of the Nile. Though by complete, I mean only felucca-songwriting-nilethat I have a complete set of lyrics – some good, some okay and all open to further revision – and the basic arrangement of chords and picking. Still to do is to add the ‘twiddly bits’; stitching in some riffs, runs and motifs to the overall song.

Besides working on Bold Little Weasel, I had plenty of time on my hands. Trepidatious of returning to the other songs, I decided to start from scratch. Now, Nuba is one of those many cultures to have embraced the mighty Bob Marley as their own, so reggae seemed the natural choice of music to play. Pretty soon I had a simple two chord skank ripe for embellishment and a slightly more complex progression which could work as a chorus.

Having taken with me the sheaf of papers I’d written at the start of 1m4s, I looked back over the song titles I’d spurned, and rescued Pass Without Trace from obscurity. Its lyrical themes – of disappearing from the capitalist strictures of modern living – seemed to fitfelucca-songwriting-aswan the reggae vibe nicely. Rearranging the free writing I’d set down almost a month ago, I was able to quite easily extrapolate a narrative complete with verses and a chorus. With only minimal rewriting I had a complete song.

Here’s rough demo of a verse and a chorus of Pass Without Trace from early on in its composition. It got a bit stronger later on, but by then the camera battery was exhausted and we weren’t able to record any more.

I am wearing a tea towel on my head. I have neither excuse nor explanation.

*I am referring here to the boat, not my wife.

1m4s Day 25: Reggae on the River

1m4s Day 23: Nile Projects

philae-temple-morning

With just over a week left of 1 month, 4 songs, the likelihood of success is beginning to dwindle. At my half-way point, I noted my holidays were coming, and that I’d have more time to put into my songs. It’s a myth I’ve fallen for before, because of course time on holiday is spent being on holiday. Though I’ve had some productive songwriting sessions since I left Cairo, more time’s been spent travelling, exploring and enjoying what Upper Egypt has to offer.

Today did see a good songwriting session though, as we spent the day chilling at Fekra, a (rather dilapidated) cultural centre celebrating Nubian heritage. While the rooms don’t offer much to celebrate, the view is a cause for celebration; a stretch of the Nile dotted by rocky islands, framing Philae Temple, one of the wonders of Ancient Egypt rescued and rebuilt after dams harnessed the might of the river. Fekra was the site of one the Nile Project’s residencies – a musical project/evolving band that brings together the different musical traditions of the people who live along the longest river in the world. It’s a band I’ve followed since before I came to Egypt, and with their music in mind and the fantastic vista it was easy to feel inspired.

I turned my attention to two songs. When The City Is Home now has verses, choruses and a bridge, although only the latter has music I’m set on. I experimented with some different ideas with the verse and the chorus, nothing quite fit. I gave up before I started feeling too frustrated, though in retrospect wonder whether this was premature. With songwriting you’re always on the verge of a major breakthrough or a minor breakdown, and it’s never clear how close you are to which.

The other song I worked on was Bold Little Weasel, which has pulled ahead of the other songs in terms of progress. At this stage I more or less know how the song goes and what the various parts consist of, though there are some holes in the lyrics here and there. With my friend Watter Al Bahry playing the duff, I made the short demo above of the bridge and a section of the verse. The living room at Fekra has a hexagonal design, which creates a really warm acoustic sound.

The Nile’s influence will continue to be felt over the next few days, as I will spend them on rather than next to the water. We’ll be sailing aboard a felucca – a traditional Egyptian boat for the next five days, and the pace of life will really, really slow down, though I hope I’ll still be able to fit in a little songwriting alongside doing nothing. Am I, after all, on holiday.

philae-temple-evening

 

1m4s Day 23: Nile Projects