Musical Reset

It’s been twenty months in the gargantuan* bosom of the Mother of the World. I’m far better at dreaming of making music than actually creating it; when I first arrived here I made a naïve post about all I’d achieve in Cairo. Few of those musical ambitions have been realised, but buried beneath the frenetic pace of the city, or work, or simply the insistent dust that weighs down anything or anyone who holds still for a moment. It hasn’t been time wasted, but as the wheel turns towards professional and academic achievements, other matters of import, be they music or love, find themselves on the wrong side of those revolutions.

Luckily, the wheel keeps turning and renewing, and I find myself now at a point of new beginnings; new job, new flat, new routine, a chance to find a better sense of balance. It probably won’t be easy, but I’m hoping to give some things neglected a chance to sing.

Dawn in Zamalek

One of those important things is a renewed sense of purpose in music-making. I want to try and find two hours a day to play, compose and practise. I’ve been thinking a lot about routines lately, and trying to get a better rein of an often treacherous mind. I couldn’t quite say I’m a morning person, but if I can force my eyes awake I love the promise and peace of the dawn, and do good work at this time. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up early, and get two hours of playing music under one’s belt before all the other noise of day has started?

So, turning over a new leaf – but to what end? It’s likely I’ll be in Cairo for at least another year, and I’d like to direct my free time during this period towards writing and recording two new EPs. One of these I hope to make a semi-professional effort (as far as my budget will extend); using a recording studio and with luck a couple of local musicians to provide a taste of Egypt. The other will be a low-fi experiment; to see what I can come up with recording at home with simple equipment.

But first, allow me to subvert and undermine these plans! Before I throw myself into this new project, I want to do a bit of songwriting just for fun. I’ve got a few seeds and semi-complete ideas I’d like to play around with, one or two of which I hope to transform into songs fairly quickly. Let’s see what transpires . . .

 

*Hey, Cairo’s a big city!

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Musical Reset

Recording the Backyard Animals EP

I’ve been recording songs for close to a decade, and almost all of them have been with my friend Phill Ward. I was lucky enough to meet Phill when he was fresh out of uni, armed with mics, a laptop, some good ears, a quick brain (after enough tea at least) and a desire to make music. He helped my old band The Lazy Lizards make their first EP Kingdom, plus all our subsequent EPs and many of my ‘solo’ songs. Initial attempts sounded good, and only got better as Phill’s skills grew with experience.

This has proved something of a double edged sword. Lucky enough to have high-quality recordings of my songs from early in my musical journey, I’ve haven’t been able to accept less. Brief experiments in other studios saw me paying more for poorer results. Yet since I’ve abandoned UK shores, calling on Phill’s abilities is not so easy. Last year I was writing songs with the view to recording them on my next visit home when I read an interview with Teddy Thompson. The son of Richard and Linda Thompson, he’d gathered together his musical clan to create the Thompson Family Band. Except there’d been no physical gathering – the songs on the album had been put together bit by bit, emailed back and forth between family members living in different countries and different continents. Of course, this is fairly standard practice in 21st century music making. I realised I could do the same; record some songs at home in Borneo and then send them to Phill to be spruced up and embellished upon. How hard could it be?

ram-studio-kk

Rather than launch straight into a full-on project I decided to test my plan with a single song called The Beat of a Babbling Heart. Leaving my little seaside village, I headed to Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah, to look for a recording studio. There I had a stroke of luck; I found RAM studios run by Roger Wang, one of Malaysia’s leading fingerstyle guitarists. At the very least, I had someone who knew how to get a good sound out of my six string, and as it happened, the rates and the chocolate chip cookies were also good. I cut my song, sent it to Phill, who a couple of weeks later sent me an initial version with added bass and percussion. This is gonna work, I thought to myself.

I pressed on with the plan to create a whole EP of new materials; taking fresh compositions to RAM studios as I completed them and then sending them on to Phill. Most of these songs became videos and entries in the blog as well. The initial success of The Beat of a Babbling Heart engendered a questionable surfeit of ambition, so I also started thinking about incorporating other musicians on the project. Ultimately, this proved easier to dream of than to actually make a reality. In the end, I only succeeded in capturing my friend Alex on the Borneo side. Alex is a folk musician in the truest sense, in a way being steadily lost, particularly in the West. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, a raconteur, a library of different tunes and stories, a mainstay of different band and groups in church, at school and at village events. He contributed to the song 10, 000 Years, playing an ancient borrowed accordion and layering melodic lines on a violin hand carved in Kuala Penyu – a weighty thing heavy enough to feel like it could drop a man if you clubbed them over the head with it.

alex-in-borneo
Jamming on our porch in Borneo, with Alex playing violin, and Yusepe Sukmana and Mzung on ukuleles.

Sadly my efforts to get a sape player onto the record didn’t pan out, but I was pleased to have Alex’s contributions linking the music umbilically to rustic Borneo were the songs had been born. Meanwhile Phill had put the finishing touches to The Beat of a Babbling Heart – recutting his fretless bass part, adding a grooving bit of kit drum to the outro, and even adding some deft playing of his radiator to the percussion mix.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sape

I wrapped up recording at RAM, and not long after wrapped up life in Borneo, moving on to Egypt. For several months work on the EP stalled. I’d more or less finished my side of things, but Phill was busy touring. By the time he was back in the UK, summer was fast approaching, and as I planned to spend most of June in England our modern musical postcards no longer made sense. We could finish the record face to face.

So this summer, between crisscrossing the country seeing friends and family, I put a few days aside to stay with Phill at his flat in Moseley, Birmingham. Together we picked through the recordings I’d made almost a year before in Borneo, first tweaking and editing, then with Phill adding some extra instruments to flesh out the songs. We made quick progress with Backyard Animals and Where the Loot is Buried. To the former we added two restless electric guitar lines to propel forward the original loping rhythm and link in with the other guitar parts I’d already added. I’d left spaces in the original track for some soloing, too which Phill obliged with his laud, a medieval ancestor of the guitar. In Borneo I’d hoped to fill those holes with some sape or gambus (Malaysia’s version of the oud), so the laud satisfied my urge to decorate the song with a stringed instrument which wasn’t another guitar. To the latter Phill added some typically tasteful bass playing and a manic percussion part on a tatty mini drum kit which had been sitting in his studio, waiting for its moment of glory.

phill-studio-laud
Phill adding a laud part to Backyard Animals in his studio (mini drum kit hiding behind)

I’d always planned to leave A Dance for Sharks as a solely guitar/voice piece, so a quick dab of some nice reverb was all that was needed.

am-drums-farmOne of the other benefits of finishing the Backyard Animals EP on home turf was the chance to call on the abilities of another old friend – Amjid, the drummer of The Lazy Lizards. As we’ve done on several occasions in the last decade, Phill and I headed over to Am’s farm with some recording gear and set up the cow shed for an afternoon of bashing things. We swiftly added some tom heavy rhythms to Backyard Animals, before moving on to 10, 000 Years. There we ran into difficulties, typically of my own creation. Although I’d recorded the original tracks to a metronome in the studio, my timing was as usual lax. On a spare song like 10, 000 Years and with a narrow window of recording time, this caused Am no end of grief as he tried to play in time to my drifting performance. Disappointed in myself and feeling the song slipping away, it cast a bit of a cloud over the end of the recording session.

 

phill-bowed-cymbalHowever, there were plenty of rays of sunlight cutting through the grey. We had fun getting eerie sounds out of Am’s beloved cymbal collection by playing their edges with a violin bow, sounds we used to bolster Alex’s accordion drone across the opening bars of the album. And it was great being together again – Am’s recent musical endeavours have been in a rockier direction and I kept asking for certain sounds from his box of tricks. Odds and ends of percussion gear he hadn’t touched since the last time we’d played together were being dug out of his drum shed.

I went home to Somerset, leaving Phill to sort out the mess we’d left of 10, 000 Years. A week later I was back in his studio, listening to his heroic salvaging of the song. Digital nudging of the different elements had helped guitar and drums lie together more happily. We added some acoustic bass and barely there slide, took a turn around the park to be chased by the black swans and rest our ears, then returned to the studio for a final listen. At long last, the Backyard Animals EP was complete.

The whole business of making this modest collection of songs has been an enlightening one. The production by email proved less convenient than I imagined, and the process underlined how you can’t beat sitting in the same room together for getting the kind of results you want from a track. I don’t think it will be an approach I’ll be in a hurry to embrace again. I think Phill may thank me for that.

I came back to Cairo with a Zoom H5, a sophisticated portable recorder. This bit of kit at the very least should make future video performances sound a little crisper, but it will also give me the opportunity to be more autonomous in producing my own recordings. Of course, there’s a massive learning gap still to bridge, and any results will no doubt come out a lot more low-fi than my previous releases, but I’m hoping with a lot of hard work I might be able to come up with something fit for the world at large. It’s been sitting in a drawer since I returning to Egypt, I guess now’s a good time to go and unbox it . . .


Listen and download Backyard Animals for any price you like (including nothing at all!) here: https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/album/backyard-animals-ep

Recording the Backyard Animals EP

EP Launch: Backyard Animals by Far Flown Falcon

Backyard Animals Small
cover painting by Mzung

Ten months ago I released my EP A Crown on a Chain. In my post launching that record, I mentioned a new collection of songs coming out by the end of 2015. I should have known better! While I fell far short of that prediction, the delay was worth the wait and I’m very happy to share Backyard Animals. To listen and download the EP, follow this link:

 https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/album/backyard-animals-ep

As before, I’m subscribing to the pay what you like model, which includes getting it for free. I’d like my music to be heard as widely as possible, so don’t be afraid to download for nothing so long as you share, share, share!

Unlike the previous release, this is the first time I’ve sat down and written an entirely new collection of songs with the intention of recording them together. I feel like it’s been an important step in my journey as a songwriter. I think I’ll need a little perspective so assess how successful it’s been, but I’m hoping that it’s opened the door for further songs, recordings and releases.

I started the EP last year in Borneo, recording my parts at RAM studios in Kota Kinabalu with Malaysian fingerstyle guitarist Roger Wang. The record was then completed with Phill Ward producing in Moseley, Birmingham last month. Phill also played lots of different instruments, and in addition I was lucky to have the musical contributions of Alex da Silva and Amjid Hasan. My wife Mzung painted the lovely cover and was as ever a constant source of support and inspiration.

For those interested; keep an eye on this blog for an upcoming post which will go into more detail about the process of recording of the songs on this album.

Cairo, Egypt,

August 2016

EP Launch: Backyard Animals by Far Flown Falcon

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

A Dance for Sharks

Bajau Laut (Sea Bajou) fishing from a jetty on Pulau Mabul.

For me, a new song often starts with a title. In fact, I keep a list of song titles – titles that sound good, but for now have no music and no lyrics per se. There might be a solitary couplet, or a vague sense this song might be fast whilst another slow, but no more than that. Some of these titles have been waiting on me for years; I have a couple which I like so much I’ve never been able to find any music worthy of them.

A Dance for Sharks was on my list of cool song titles. My guitar teacher Derek Gripper turned me on to the Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, whose compositions often use a ‘dance’ as a naming convention (for example Dança das Cabeças, Dança Solitária and Dança Dos Escravos). I liked this approach. Being obsessed with animals I began casting around to find some poor creature which could be part of my dance. Thus the title A Dance of Sharks. After a little thought, I concluded that sharks probably aren’t very good dancers. So the title changed to A Dance for Sharks. Sharks evoke fear, and people do some fairly strange things to appease their fears. Perhaps even a little hip-shaking. I had read about how sharks were worshipped in places such as the Solomon Islands; the idea didn’t seem so far-fetched.

Shortly afterwards, I stumbled across James Morgan’s startling series of photographs of a young Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark. This struck an immediate chord (pardon the pun). Whilst living in Borneo I have worked with the Bajau Laut (Sea Bajau), an ocean-faring people whose traditional way of life does not really interface with how the modern world works.

James Morgan's striking picture of a Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark.
James Morgan’s striking picture of a Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark.

Born upon the water

Like each and every one

Of the dozen laughing children

My father called his sons

Into the turquoise ocean

My mother’s blood ran dark

Awakening a dance for sharks

The Bajau Laut are a nomadic people; their home is the sea, the Coral Triange framed by the Phillipines, Indonesia and Malaysian Borneo. But the sea has no flag, and can’t offer any legal protection from the likes of nations seeking to exploit it. As such, the stateless Bajau have been increasingly marginalised by countries seeking to take advantage of the sea’s bountiful resources.

When the ships coming flying flags

And claiming the very shifting waves

Making maps of a wide blank ocean

That almighty God he gave

To my people of the sea

I know the sharks have come for me

I know the sharks will come for we

Sharks get a bad press. I’m pretty fond of them, although Jaws frightened the bejezus out of me as a kid (I have a distinct memory of insisting my Dad swim on the seaward side whilst going for a dip off a beach in Cornwall one summer holiday. My reasoning was that any passing shark would chomp him first, allowing me time to escape). As the song took shape around the situation faced by the Bajau, the identity of the sharks took a more metaphorical turn – more closely representing the greed of outside forces taking crippling bites out of a traditional livelihood. For a while I even toyed with the following closing lyric.

I left this world with but one remark

That nothing stills the dance of sharks

The pitiful, bleeding, finless sharks

The final line being a reference to the Chinese demand for shark fin soup which is pushing many shark populations to the brink. Ultimately that line was to much of an about face against the overall direction of the song, and I cut it.

Musically the song is a composite of several different ideas – and I’m still surprised at how well it turned out when all the parts were bolted together. I wrote the lyrics to a straightforward, all minor chord progression (using Am, Dm and Em). However, I struggled to find a way to make these chords interesting when I started trying out different fingerstyle arrangements. Eventually I lit upon the ascending/descending bass runs from Am to C – a pretty common trick, but when I also started echoing the vocal line on the treble strings I found I had something I was happy with. I retained the original chord progression for the third verse.

The opening riff, perhaps rather improbably, stems from an attempt to transcribe some horn parts from a tune by Seun Kuti. It’s a persistent musical ambition to try and discover a way to convincingly reproduce the awesome polyrhythmic pleasures of afrobeat on fingerstyle guitar. It’s also a challenge that’s probably far beyond my current skills as a guitarist. However, as is often the case, I lit upon something of my own in my failed effort to impersonate another. Slowing down the afrobeat horn line, letting the guitar play it the way it wanted and giving it a folky roll led me to my intro.

Bajau-Mabul-Sotong
Bajau Laut children catching squid on Pulau Mabul, Borneo.

I also added a ‘lead’ instrumental part – something I’m trying to do more and more in order to extend my own abilities as a fingerstyle guitarist.

The final part of the puzzle is in fact the oldest part of the song. The bridge was something my fingers came across last year. Alone it didn’t seem substantial enough to build a song around, I kept trying it out in different contexts, until it finally found a fit with A Dance for Sharks.

Oh, and it also gave me an opportunity to do a bit of bellowing! My singing voice has its limits, but it doesn’t lack for oomph. I decided to give myself a lyric I could throw all of my strength behind on the bridge. My inspiration here was again from African music, particularly the extraordinary vocal power of praise singers such as Salif Keita and Kassy Mady Diabate.

What they can do is spine-tingling. My attempt was more like a foghorn.

The video clip was created by my wife, filmmaker Nguyen Mzung. It was made on the beach outside our home in Sabah, Borneo. Our dog Bolontos also gets a walk-on part. He normally sings along, but politely kept quiet this time around.

It was a pretty busy week, but we snatched an opportunity one afternoon. Apparently there wasn’t time for me to shave or put on a presentable shirt. I apologise to my mother. We only had one working camera, so the finished video is actually an edit of several different takes. I was surprised at how consistent my playing was – so much so that we could fit bits of video from a different performance to the master version without things appearing too out of sync. Unfortunately, because of the noise of the waves and our reliance on the camera’s in-built microphone, we had no choice but to use the ‘close-up’ cut as the master. As a result, interested fingerstyle guitarists will struggle to see what my hands are doing.

I’ve also recorded A Dance for Sharks in the studio for a forthcoming EP which will hopefully be released before the year is out.

The full lyrics are presented below.

A Dance for Sharks

 

Born upon the water, like each and everyone

Of the dozen laughing children

My father called his sons

Into the turquoise ocean

My mother’s blood ran dark

Awakening a dance for sharks

 

Born above the sunken stones of places that came and went

Outlasted outcast fisherfolk

Who lives without lament

Old blood it does still linger

Where the water’s running dark

Remembering a dance for sharks

 

Born beyond the sight of land, a paddle in my brother’s hand

Beyond the claims of nations, armadas, kings or clans

When the storms they rise up

And the watching skies turn dark

Heralding a dance for sharks

 

When the ships come flying flags

And claiming the very shifting waves

Making maps of a wide blank ocean

That almighty God he gave

To my people of the sea

I know the sharks have come for me

I know the sharks will come for we

 

Born upon the water, this child I call my own

And the ocean that has birthed her

One day may claim her bones

I left this world with one remark

That nothing stills the dance of sharks

Nothing stills the dance of sharks

Nothing stills the dance of sharks

 

A Dance for Sharks

Head and Heart: the music of Richard Thompson and John Martyn

As well as talking about my own songs, I want to use this blog to explore the artists that have inspired me to express myself through song. But these two gentlemen, Richard Thompson and John Martyn, go back even further; they’re the musicians who delivered those very first ‘eureka’ moments when I was discovering how transformative, how inspiring, how vital to life good music truly is.

john-martyn

I feel close enough to the music of Richard and John that I can’t bring myself to address them formally as Thompson and Martyn. We’re on first name terms, even if they don’t get a say in it.

richardthompson

Head and Heart is one of John’s, from seminal album Bless the Weather. I love the simplicity of the conga accompaniment, but that’s by the by – it makes a great blog title too. Both these artists are equally important to me, but in the most reductive sense, Richard appeals to the head, and John to the heart.

I say reductive because the claim falsely suggests that Richard’s music somehow doesn’t connect emotionally, or that John’s doesn’t have depth and intelligence. Which is, of course, nonsense.

But I think it’s fair to say they have tremendously different (yet equally valid) approaches to songwriting, and here’s where the analogy holds more water. Richard’s songs have a sense of craftsmanship to them, a sense of being worked at and worked out. Like Nick Cave, Richard is a songwriter with an office, who puts the hours in. He has a vast catalogue of songs – I’d wager at probably triple that of John’s – and when you’ve written that many it inevitably becomes a more considered, methodical process. I can imagine Richard’s approach to a song is a bit like putting together a beautiful piece of furniture (although it’s not a very rock and roll comparison) – every part inspected, mulled over, even discarded and replaced if it doesn’t fit the whole.

John’s songs, on the other hand, are pure emotion. Richard might write a song because a certain situation or piece of imagery offers an interesting hook to hang a song from. But almost every one of John’s songs feel like visceral reactions to something that has happened to him, something he was feeling. Where Richard might square away such feelings (stiff upper lip and all), unpick them, find a way to frame them, remove them a little from himself, you get the impression John created an immediate torrent of song the moment his heart broke, or soared. Both men went through difficult divorces. Whilst in interviews Richard has insisted the songs on his ‘break-up’ album Shoot Out The Lights were not written in reference to his disintegrating marriage (I listen to Walking on a Wire and struggle to believe it), there’s no equivocation at all in John’s Baby Please Come Home or Hurt in your Heart from the album Grace and Danger. So raw is the emotion on display that label boss Chris Blackwell was famously reluctant to release the album, claiming it was ‘too depressing’.

I have the feeling that if Richard never discovered the guitar he could have made an engaging Dickensian author (with a hearty side helping of sexual misanthropy). The same can’t really be said of John, whose vocal delivery often disfigures and obscures the lyrics he’s singing. At times it verges on one of Vic Reeves’ jazz singer parodies in Shooting Stars, but as ever, there’s no laughing at the uncloaked honesty that John expresses with his voice. If I remember correctly, he himself claimed the words held little importance, that the delivery communicated all that was needed.

The ambiguity that comes from his singing often serves the song better. Is he singing “make no mistake it’s love” or “make no mistakes in love”? A compelling message, either way.

One of my earliest musical memories is my Dad teaching me to sing Richard’s Gypsy Love Songs* with him whilst probably still in primary school. My appreciation of John took a little longer – there was an age when electric guitar pyrotechnics was integral to me liking a song. John’s guitar skills are just as fiery when you think about it, but burn more like a lovely campfire compared to Richard’s screaming skyrockets and crackling explosions. Eventually though, the warmth seeped in. One particularly potent memory is from my student days, sitting on a rickety mini-bus as it rattled through the Syrian countryside, listening to a cassette tape of the Island anthology Sweet Little Mysteries and realising how in love I was with John’s songs.

My singing voice gets compared to Richard’s an awful lot. And despite being a big fan, it’s not something I’m very happy about. It’s certainly not a conscious impersonation, but perhaps not so surprising, especially considering the Gypsy Love Songs anecdote above. I’ve been singing Richard’s songs ever since I’ve been singing songs. I’d much prefer it if I played guitar more like Richard, and maybe sang a bit more like Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye, but that’s the hand I was dealt. At the end of the day, you have to sing with your own voice. Mine naturally wants to resemble one of my idols. There’s not much I can do but accept it.

But such minor cross-bearing aside, I can only be thankful that my musically inclined parents had a record collection worthy of exploration. When I was young my contemporaries were listening to Take That and the Spice Girls. I got to listen to stuff like this:

Further reading:

http://louderthanwar.com/the-island-records-3-nick-drake-john-martyn-richard-thompson-celebrated/

https://songsfromsodeep.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/inside-out-john-martyn/

*Amnesia, one of my favourite RT albums contains Gypsy Love Songs and a host of other brilliant cuts. It was released in 1988, so I must have been at least seven.

Quang Tri, Vietnam

October 2015

Head and Heart: the music of Richard Thompson and John Martyn

10, 000 Years

In the previous post I talked about Monsoon, a song I wrote some four or five years ago. 10, 000 Years is a much more recent composition, written about three or four months ago. It’s one of a set of five songs I’m currently recording for a new EP of songs here in Borneo.

The tuning used for this song is DGDGBE (taking both of the lowest strings down a step). Whilst composing the song, I was also attempting to transpose some of the music of the master balafon player Aly Keita onto guitar. The balafon is a type of wooden xylophone played in West Africa. I’m utterly obsessed with all kinds of music from across Africa, and I’m always trying to infuse some of the magic that music has into my own songs. I hope some of the gentling swinging rhythm I found in Aly’s balafon playing has made it into the arrangement for 10,000 Years.

The song itself is a reaction in part to the horrific rise of the Islamic State (or Isil, Isis, Daesh, ignorant bunch of barbarians or whatever you want to call them). It’s something that touches me personally because many years ago (before 9/11 and the world deciding Islam and the West had to be mortal enemies) I travelled through Syria.

I’ve been to many countries renowned for being ‘friendly’, but have never experienced hospitality like I did in Syria*. It’s hard to think about what must have become of all the strangers who showed kindness to a young, clueless archaeology student as he blundered across the country.

Some dicks blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra
Some dicks blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra

Alongside all the atrocities committed against humanity, Islamic State has also declared war on history in a land where the earliest roots of modern civilization can be found. The Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, where the states of Syria and Iraq now hurtle towards collapse, claims some of the first settlements known to man. Jericho in the West Bank has been inhabited for 10, 000 years.

Long ago we stepped off the road and laid our burdens low

Found this perfect peaceful valley and the fertile soil to sow

It struck me as a powerful observation on the state of our humanity that such barbarity is taking place over the same stones that marked the beginning of our supposed journey towards ‘civilization’. It doesn’t look like we’ve made much progress. Therein lay the central conceit of the song – we’re still living the same way we always have, just on an ever-increasing scale. Considering technology, culture, population, mankind’s come a mighty long way. But in the simple terms of how we treat one another, we’ve gone nowhere at all.

I'm fourth from the right, fifth row down
I’m fourth from the right, fifth row down

With reference to the situation in Syria, it’s my personal opinion that the West paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State with our reckless and acquisitive invasion of Iraq. I was one of the millions to join the futile march against the war over a decade ago. There’s no pleasure in saying “We told you so” now, but that’s why the imagery of the song’s second verse looks more to our own high-tech war machines over the medieval techniques of the terrorists.

Death still makes his bed

In the cradle of life

Listening to the kill lists bouncing down from a satellite

Drones in the sky, never ask why

Make murder of video games

Cast the world into ruin with not a soul to bear the blame

A previous incarnation of the song went into more detail about our complicity in the misery overtaking the Middle East:

This morning I woke up to the radio

And the ravenous reporter

Reading from the book of death

A feast for the beleaguered vultures

Enough bloodshed to leave the commentators short of breath

Well she can’t be blamed for her excitement

Who hasn’t admired a building burning down?

So long as you stand well back

So the silent explosion precedes the sound

Eventually I excised this part as the song developed. Our shared history is not solely death and destruction. Take a look at the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects. Alongside the artefacts of war and violence, there’re plenty of objects that exemplify our capacity to love one another. As I talked about when discussing the composition of Monsoon, I wanted to offer something to balance the darker reflections that had inspired 10,000 Years.

Some communication can still be found

These songs leave our tongues unbound

Our love keeps finding new ways to proclaim

10,000 Years

Cast your raiment to the ground

Dance together to the sound

Let the world cast off its chains

10,000 Years

I don’t think this part of the song is as strong; but then it’s always easier writing about doom and gloom than flowers and puppies!

As perhaps can be told from the earlier part of the song I chose to leave out, 10, 000 Years wasn’t written to any clear structure. I don’t think many songs are – invariably an idea generates a flood of imagery and fractured stanzas, which are then shaped into some semblance of order. With this song I wanted to ensure I broke out of following any subconscious habits when it came to the song’s structure and rhyming pattern, so I grabbed a random song on a completely different topic and began to ‘overwrite’ the lyrics with those of 10,000 Years.

Using other songs as foils for your own songwriting is a common device – a technique you’ll often see suggested if you investigate songwriting approaches online. You can approach them in different ways – as well as doing what I did with 10,000 Years you might also write an extra verse for an existing song, then use your verse as the basis of a new, original work. I’d argue it’s a perfectly legitimate approach – it’s something that’s happened again and again within the folk song tradition. For example, Bob Dylan’s earliest (and most recent) songs are often reworkings of existing folk songs**.

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”

Igor Stravinsky (and some other people)

Of course, a bit of caution is needed when using this approach – finding inspiration without baldly ripping someone off. In the case of 10,000 Years, the mistake I made was using the other song to arrange my words before I had a clear idea of the guitar accompaniment and melody. When I started honing these, I found my song kept drifting back towards the other song in sound, even though I was using completely different chords. Normally when I’m composing a melody I just follow my instinct. Frustratingly in this case I had to forcibly guide my instinct around the trap I’d set myself of mimicking the other song.

I believe that in the end I succeeded, but you’ll note I haven’t mentioned what that other song was. If you think you have an idea, feel free to leave a suggestion in the comment box, but I’m hoping you’ll be wrong and that I can say 10,000 Years is mine alone.

The full lyrics are presented below. I got the last chorus wrong in the live session posted above!

VERSE 1

Long ago we stepped off the road and laid our burdens low

Found this perfect peaceful valley, and the fertile soil to sow

Beneath the loam, the sheltering stone, let the sweet-water rise

Through our toes, up our bones, then to trickle back out of our eyes

It’s been 10,000 years but the well has not run dry

In ways to say ‘I love you’, the ways in which to describe

The mysteries … that hold us tight

CHORUS

Civilization takes its time

Still far short of the finishing line

But for all the ills, one thing remains

10, 000

In a cave painting make your sign

A celebration that my heart is thine

And thus the barbarian is tamed

10, 000, 10, 000, 10, 000 years

VERSE 2

Now Death still makes his bed, in the cradle of life

Listening to kill lists bouncing down from a satellite

Drones in the sky, never ask why, make murder of video games

Cast the world into ruin with not a soul to bear the blame

It’s been 10,000 years but the well has not run dry

In ways to kill your neighbour, the ways in which to describe

The mysteries … that hold us apart

CHORUS

Civilization takes its time

Still far short of the finishing line

Centuries ‘til the armistice is claimed

10,000 years

Gild your words, make ‘em shine

Decide yourself what they define

When tomorrow comes we won’t speak the same

10,000 years

The message, it can still be found

These songs leave our tongues unbound

Our love keeps finding new ways to proclaim

10, 000 years

Cast your raiment to the ground

Dance together to the sound

Let the world cast off its chains

10,000 years

*One caveat that should be mentioned – I was accompanied by some young blonde ladies, who may have had some influence to the eager hospitality displayed by many a Syrian gentleman.

** Did I say Dylan again?

10, 000 Years