There are countless video blogs on Youtube discussing guitar playing and songwriting. I’m no authority on who leads the pack, but Sean Daniel’s blog is pretty sweet – informative, fun and with plenty of great music to enjoy. Five months ago, Sean embarked on a project to write a song from scratch, using as its starting point randomly selected chords and a randomly selected time signature. A little bit of chance adds some spice to songwriting – the old case that limiting one’s options stimulates rather than oppresses the creative process, so consequently I decided to rip off Sean’s idea.
I sat down with Chris, my (musically ignorant) partner-in-crime, who had the crucial role of drawing chord numbers from the bag. The chords were replaced each time, so it was theoretically possible to draw the same chord four times. What we actually got was the following chord progression:
Which in the key of C is: Em-Em-Dm-Am
As we can see, that’s wall to wall minor, the ‘sad-sounding’ chords. Although in the video I suggested this might make for a miserable song, I note that when minor chords are hanging out together, they don’t actually sound so melancholy. The sadness seems more evident when they are paired with a major chord.
I subsequently developed the basic chord progression in a couple of different directions – transposing the key to F and the time signature to 6/8 (whose relationship to 3/4 is not as strong as the two times table might imply, but for a bit of variation what the heck), and also transposing the key to Bb but also changing the tuning to DADGAD, resulting in chords which are less firmly affiliated to major or minor. These key changes no doubt have other implications (for example, perhaps the chord progressions should be considered in the minor key, rather than the major . . .), but I’m ashamed to say my music theory knowledge is quite ragged around the edges, and also fairly tattered in the centre. If you wish to educate me, please take the floor . . .
The next step is to expand on this chord progression, adding some more building blocks until we have the foundation of a song. While Sean Daniel’s project followed the process from inception right up until a fully produced song, with drums, guitar solos, backing vocals, all the bells and whistles, I don’t have the wherewithal in terms of resources or finances to pull something like that off. So this journey will be more humble – three or four parts developing this starting point into a proper song, with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a few bits in between.
Watch this space over the next couple of weeks and witness the plan come together . . .
Bold Little Weasel is the second song finished from my 1 month, 4 songs project started at the end of last year. As is evident, although the bulk of the writing took place during that month, it has taken a long time to polish the songs sufficiently to reach a point when they could be properly presented. In the case of Bold Little Weasel, the main challenge was mastering the ambitious fingerpicking parts I’d written for myself. It took a lot of practice to reach a point where I could play the introductory passage and the mid-song ‘solo’ at the speed the song required.
A song from the streets
This recording was made in the streets of Fatimid Cairo, the medieval quarter of the city. As will be revealed, it’s very much an urban song, and I wanted the setting of the session to reflect this. Almost all the time, this part of Cairo is seething with people, which would have made making a recording quite a challenge. On an early Friday morning during Ramadan we succeeded in finding a peaceful corner, though during filming we had to negotiate round plenty of passers-by (it’s incredible how much noise a sandal slapping on stone can make), loud street-cleaners, spluttering Vespas and even a hip-hop crew doing a little filming for their own tune.
There are some truly impressive examples of medieval architecture in this area, but we were looking for a back-alley to film in, the kind of place a weasel might scurry down (and in fact, one did scurry down this very street, though sadly too fast to get on film). We also needed a place where would be left in peace to work – it wasn’t too surprising when as we finishing a policeman appeared to make sure we weren’t up to anything fishy and inform us that filming with a tripod required a special permit. Luckily by then we had what we needed in the can.
The Egyptian weasel
The hero of our song is the Egyptian weasel. Like the fox in the UK, the Egyptian weasel is one of those rare wild mammals that has successfully adapted to thrive in an urban environment. Growing up in rural England, my experience of seeing weasels was limited. Though not uncommon, they are shy, small and sneaky. Even if you were lucky, you might only get a few fleeting views every year. So imagine my surprise to discover that in Cairo weasels are confident and (as the song says) bold members of the city ecosystem; an animal easily found and often sighted in broad daylight. Indeed, many locals mistake them for rats*.
But to me, they remain wild creatures, and exotic reminders that I live in a strange land. One morning on my walk to work an Egyptian weasel dashed out of the shadows, froze on noticing my presence, eyeballed me, then obviously deciding I was no threat to him, bounded on to snatch a piece of dropped chicken from outside the shawerma shop, then leapt into the wheel arch of a parked car to devour his prize. I shook my head at these antics, smiled, and thought ‘bold little weasel’ . . . then realised instantly there was a song title there.
Doing it ever more DIY . . .
There are a few changes to the way I’ve produced this video. The first is to sound. This was the first video recording in which I used my Zoom H5 Recorder, which has been waiting for a proper outing for several months. I’m quite ignorant in the science of making audio come across well, so results were mixed. The Zoom picked up more sound than the in-built mics on our cameras, but a lot of this was incidental stuff – footsteps, wind, sparrows twittering. I wasn’t sure if the guitalele and voice sounded significantly better on the Zoom than they did on camera. There is clearly more I need to learn about setting up the Zoom to capture a performance effectively.
Most of my videos have been made by my long-suffering wife, but in this case I recruited two friends, Neda and William, to do the filming for me, using three different cameras. In the past, I’ve just done a few takes and made a video around the single best one, but in the case of Bold Little Weasel the finished article is a mix of two main audio takes and multiple video takes. I stitched the audio together crudely on Audacity (some of the joins are audible). The corresponding video takes were then also joined up on Imovie, and I browsed through all the other footage Neda and William had taken, feeding in clips from other takes which appeared to fit more or less with the underlying recording. The finished article has its clumsy moments, but it’s the first time I’ve done this all on my own, without relying on my wife’s more accomplished editing hand to put things together.
One of the most pleasing things was realising how in time all the different takes were with each other. I’ve learnt from studio time the imperative of following the metronome, and I was happy to discover that even when chopping up my various attempts, the variation in tempo was only very slight.
Blog posts related to the writing of Bold Little Weasel during the 1 month, 4 songs project can be found here:
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.
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:
Over the last couple of days I’ve been throwing together different chords and searching for the bones of my songs. My music theory knowledge being almost zilch, this is very much a trial and error approach – simply jumping around the fretboard and seeing what sticks. At this stage, I haven’t been giving any thought to any vocal melody, I’m simply stringing together chords which sound interesting. But they’re really just shots in the dark. It’s only when I start trying to sing over the top of them that I’ll know whether any of these bones will prove capable of supporting a song.
With this in mind, I’ve tried to resist the urge to get too caught up in what the guitar’s doing. My aim has been to just use chords, ignoring picking patterns, riffs and runs, until later in the process of composition. It’s actually proven quite hard to stick to this plan. Finding a set of chords which worked naturally triggers more ideas. In the crude examples below, you’ll hear some flourishes have crept in. And I’ve fallen into the trap of wasting time on these details. I’m in danger of running this metaphor into the ground, but I’ve ended up spending a lot of time putting flesh on the bone, and then stripping it off in frustration.
Another quandary is that the musical styles I’m trying to replicate don’t have a lot of chords in them. The focus is instead on the rhythm. So the question I keep asking myself is whether to be true to the style and keep it simple, or try and find some more dynamic progressions, at the risk of musically ending someplace else? So far, I’ve pitched somewhere in between.
I used two tunings on the guitalele to come up with these ideas. Standard tuning suits the bright feel of the African-flavoured music, while for the Arabic ideas I’ve gone with DADGAD tuning, which has a long history of entertaining ‘Eastern’ music on the guitar. Check out Davey Graham’s DADGAD ragas from the sixties should you have a chance.
I’ve transposed what I’ve written onto the software Guitar Pro, so what you’re hearing in the examples are Midi representations of the guitar parts, rather than my actual playing. Since I got hold of it a year ago, I’ve found Guitar Pro a powerful tool for my songwriting. How I use it is worth getting in to, but we’ll save that for another post. For fun, I synced up the Midi guitar with the LMMS drum loops to see how they’d all sound together.
You can hear the demos beneath. Tomorrow I’ll start trying to sing to them, and see if anything works. It might not, so it could be back to the drawing board!
This is the fun part. I’m spending today considering the musical accompaniment of the songs I’m writing, but at this stage I won’t be touching an instrument. Freed from the constraints of my abilities, today I’m better than Jimi Hendrix, Ali Farka Toure, Richard Thompson, Derek Gripper, John Williams and Martin Simpson all rolled into one, if only in my head.
My decision to write these songs purely on the guitalele will be a major influence on how these songs turn out. Its higher, happier sound lends itself from certain sounds over others. For instance, I’ve been yearning to write some reggae tunes but feel these would benefit from more bottom end that a proper guitar lends. The same goes for those Mali desert blues. For now, I’ll leave those on the shelf.
One the main areas I want to explore is the kind of African fingerstyle playing I’ve started to explore already, on songs such as Love’s A Big Word. The video below is another good example of the form want to further emulate – in fact, accidentally finding this video on Youtube was what led me to get a guitalele in the first place:
Of course, African fingerstyle is a preposterously broad definition, so more specifically it’s the playing of old musicians such as Bosco (from Congo) and Daniel Kachamba (from Malawi) that I want to emulate. A useful resource in this regard is the DVD African Fingerstyle Guitar by John Low, in which he breaks several examples of this playing, all the while looking deeply uncomfortable about the whole experience. Some of these he even plays capo-ed on the fifth fret, so the key is the same as the guitalele’s. Back in September I began work on a couple of tunes in this style. I didn’t get very far but those fragments might serve as starting points for this project.
Looking over the work from the last couple of days, certain songs appear like they might suit such an approach: Bold Little Weasel, Let’s Make Our Bed Together, Confide in Me. Of course, at this stage I’m speaking in the vaguest of vaguest terms as the songs are still in the primordial sludge phase of their evolution.
When The City Is Home is being written to possibly soundtrack one of my wife’s documentaries, so with this in mind it can’t grow as freely as the others. My wife’s suggested the music reflect Cairo, and she’s particularly interested in Sufi music. It’s an attraction I share, but I’m not sure how the arabesques will translate onto the guitalele – the fixed frets mean it can’t express the microtones which are such a feature of Eastern music. Still, I’ll give it a go – as usual, even if I fall short of my goal I might well end up somewhere different but worthwhile. A Different Kind of Light and Dusty, Dirty & Polluted are also about Cairo, so if I make any kind of progress with this music I might find accompaniments for those too.
Here’s some Sufi music, apparently performed by “El Tony”.
The final idea I’m toying with is trying to master some complicated charango rhythms and applying them to the guitalele. I used to play charango a little when I lived in Peru, but never got very far mastering the wonderfully complex, bouncing strumming, as demonstrated by this Boliviano from La Paz. It would be quite fun, but looking back to the lyrics I’ve been writing, I’m not sure if any of the titles really fit this kind of sound. Perhaps Pass Without Trace?
And if you need a bit more charango, and don’t mind quite a lot of viento, look no further!
So basically I’ve just spent the day dwelling on musical fantasies, and avoiding the real challenge of actually trying to play some of them! Perhaps that starts tomorrow?
N.B. For the time being, I’ve turned off the automatic email alerts whenever I publish a blog. As this is going to be happening several times a week, I don’t want to clog up people’s inboxes with endless updates. If you’re worried about missing a post, the best approach is to follow my Facebook page.
The rain of late has been in the shape of one heavy, heavy and sadly unhelpful piece of professional development for the intrusive ‘real world’, which is now safely dispatched to history (so long as I get a pass).
This means I can finally return to the business of living, which to me means making music. This year hasn’t been so productive on that front, and in the last days of the last month I want to make reparations and write some songs.
So here’s the plan – over the next 31 days, from the 6th December to the 6th January, I’m going to try and write four new songs, and to chart my progress with periodic posts here on WordPress.
I’m stealing the idea wholeheartedly from one Steve Knightley. Steve’s a West Country songwriter (like me, except he’s famous) and part of the folk band Show of Hands. He’s an important figure in my musical history because Show of Hands were the first band I ever saw live (I was probably ten years old, or thereabouts), and their songs have been a part of my life ever since. Recently, Steve resolved to do the same thing I propose, and charted his progress on Youtube:
I watched every installment, and now I’m going to try and do the same.
I won’t be trying things in quite the same way. Steve rather valiantly approached his project a song at a time, writing one song per week. That’s quite committed, and I know I’m not capable of focusing all my energies on a single composition for such a short period. Nor, to be honest, do I feel that’s the best approach, at least for me.
Instead I will try and write the songs concurrently, allowing the freedom for my attention from flow from one to the other as inspiration comes and goes. That way, the songs should have the space to breathe and grow.
One rather pleasant consideration is that it’s nearly Christmas, which means a long (and long overdue) holiday. I’ll be travelling around Egypt for this time, which means I’ll leave the guitar at home in favour of the more portable guitalele. With this in mind, the guitalele is what I’ll be using to write these songs.
As an aside, Steve Knightley also used his song a week for a month as an opportunity to improve his health, forgoing sugar and alcohol during the week and upping his exercise regime. Although I’m not a drinker I certainly have a sweet tooth, so this is something I would also benefit from emulating. Let’s see how that goes.
So, this all starts properly tomorrow. I’m going to get up early, grab a guitar or a notebook, and get cracking.