A Tale of Two EPs

Cairo_Kinshasa_Music
Cairo and Kinshasa – their skylines overlain, two great cities with mighty rivers surging through, and surging with the music which will inspire my work. 

A month ago I mentioned a musical reset, and the importance of goal setting. My big musical goal for the next year is to try and write, record and produce two new EPs of original songs. This is the start of the journey, and here I want to set out my vision of the form these two works will take. At this point, they are quite unsullied by the inevitable compromises, upsets and detours that lie ahead. By blogging their development from an intangible dream to a finished piece of art I hope to motivate myself to push on with their creation, shed some light on the creative process, and record their evolution.

What follows is a brief outline of my vision for each EP. They share some qualities:

  • Both already have working titles. Giving a title to something that doesn’t yet exist is a powerful act. It tries to will it into being.
  • Both will have overarching themes, in one case lyrical, the other musical.
  • I envisage both EPs as being about six tracks in length. Today’s mode of music delivery makes the labels of EP/LP irrelevant in technical terms, but I find them useful in packaging a musical idea. Six songs to me feels like a good goal – enough content to properly explore a theme, while not being as intimidating as saying to oneself “I’m going to record an album”.

Manmade Canyons EP

This recording will be, for want of a better term, the more professional sounding of the pair. I intend to record it in a studio, with a small cadre of professional musicians, and basically try and create the best work possible on a limited budget. The central theme of the album will be exploring how beings of wild places, be they human or animal, survive in the unnatural confines of the city … and particularly a city as overwhelming as Cairo. Musically I hope to touch upon some features of Egyptian music. Some characteristics might be:

  • I already have a lot of songs written or half-written for this, such as;
    • When The City Is Home
    • Bold Little Weasel
    • A Tree of Heathens
    • Pass Without Trace
    • Possibly Five Legged Holy Cow
  • Make a trio of my guitar/guitalele, plus bass and Arabic percussion the core of the album. If things are going well, perhaps add some other Egyptian instruments, such as oud.
  • Try and find some good gear, or a good studio, to record in, without breaking the bank.

Confide in Me EP

This is the lo-fi record. For far too long I’ve been resolving I would start learning the craft of getting my songs down on tape. With this project I want to finally start taking steps in that direction. With that in mind it will necessarily be a simpler, shoddier affair, as I learn on the job. What I’m hoping though is for a finished product good enough to have some wonky charm. Its characteristics might be;

  • Recorded at home using simple equipment – free recording software (probably either Audacity or Garageband), a Zoom H5, though I might get one higher end mic for recording vocals later in the process. I’ll probably still seek a wiser hand for tweak and mix what I’ve got after the fact.
  • Writing the songs as part of the recording process (on the whole). By doing this simultaneously, I hope something different will emerge than would if I followed my usual method of completing a song before committing it to tape. For example, I intend to create some rhythm tracks first, and see how these influence the lyrics and guitar parts layered on top of them.
  • Kitchen-sink percussion – I abhor the drum machine, but I’m no drummer myself. I’m going to try and create my own densely-woven rhythm parts by crudely playing all kind of mundane objects and layering the results.
  • One of the questions I haven’t answered yet concerns the arrangement of the songs. Do I want to the write fingerstyle compositions, which would also exist happily as stand alone pieces? This is more challenging, and will probably take more time to compose and master. Or do I instead consider this a two-guitar record? The benefit of this is a lot more freedom regarding what’s happening on the strings, and a chance to dive into lead playing, which hasn’t really been part of my guitar journey in the past.
  • The musical inspiration will be the early guitar music of the Congo, the acoustic precursors of modern soukous, the music played by artists such as Bosco Mwenda and Losta Abelo.

On this blog I’ll be jumping between the two projects, aiming for at least a post on each every month, documenting each important chapter in this tale of two EPs.

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A Tale of Two EPs

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!

Musical Reset

Recording Monsoon

In the previous post, I talked about the inception and creation of my song Monsoon. Here I want to talk about how the recorded version came into being. The track can be heard and downloaded for free at https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/releases

Monsoon clouds head towards our house in Sabah
Monsoon clouds head towards our house in Sabah

There are some songwriters who deplore being in the studio. They get in, get out as fast as they can, and get back to the purer arts of performing and composing.

I’m not one of them. For me, being in the studio* is one of the most exciting parts of being a songwriter. If you’ll forgive the rather grandiose turn of phrase, it’s your chance to finally capture a song, to immortalize it. Apocalypses notwithstanding, if you’ve got it down on tape, then your song will outlive you. And if no-one wants to listen to it today, maybe someone will come across it, and like it, some day in the future.

It can be difficult. Against the unmerciful beat of the click track your musical shortcomings are laid bare.

<CLICK> You <CLICK>  didn’t <CLICK>  practice <CLICK>  this <CLICK>  part <CLICK>  enough!

But with the indulgence and skill of a producer, or the luxury of hundred takes if you’ve got the right gear at home, you get your part done and the real fun begins. Here’s where you get your talented friends in to add the colours and the flavours that bring your song to life. Freed from the constraints of what you can play and sing, the talents of others give your song new life – or at least they do if you know the right people!

I took my first stab at recording Monsoon in Vietnam. A friend of a friend kindly gave me some free session time in his studio. We cut Monsoon, a song called Ghosts (which drifted away from me and was eventually forgotten) and perhaps a couple of others. The results were underwhelming; the engineer wasn’t really sure how to record a real instrument, and I didn’t have enough skill with the gear (or fluency in Vietnamese) to get what I wanted.

I persevered with Monsoon – first trying and failing to find a player of one of Vietnam’s fascinating traditional instruments such as the đàn bầu or đàn tam thập lục, then enlisting the help of a talented local violinist. That didn’t work out either. The violinist – whose musicianship was miles ahead of my own fumblings – simply had no idea what to play without direction. It’s a challenge I’ve often encountered whilst living in Asia – many extremely skilled players, but little tradition of ‘jamming’ or confidence in just playing until something fits. We gave up, and plans to record Monsoon were temporarily shelved.

Two years ago I was back in the UK for a wedding (well, my wedding to be truthful) and a few weeks holiday. I took the opportunity to spend a weekend in the company of my good friends Amjid (who had been the drummer in my old band) and Phill (a fantastic producer who also plays just about anything that can be plucked or struck). One of the two songs recorded was Monsoon.

I want to talk about some of the interesting sounds and instruments we used in the recording.

The toy guitar in question
The toy guitar in question

Some lucky alignment of the fates came along during the recording process. Having got the basic guitar and vocal down in Phill’s spare room, we decamped to Amjid’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Birmingham – principally to record some drums on another track. As we were setting up, Am’s young son Moosa requested our help replacing the rusting strings of his toy guitar. Although the guitar was made out of plastic, everything was more or less in the right place, and it could be played. However, it was designed for steel strings, and we only had nylons to hand. As we restrung and tuned up the guitar we found (in the words of the great poet Meatloaf) we could play notes we hadn’t even heard before. Okay, that’s perhaps something of an exaggeration, but we discovered we could bend notes far further than you’d normally be able to on a normal guitar.

Late into the night, Phill played a solo on that toy guitar that just floored Am and I. A spirit was moving through him. And those acutely bent notes immediately brought to my mind some of Vietnam’s ethnic instruments – after my unsuccessful efforts in Vietnam, I would finally find the echo of South-East Asia in a farmhouse in Balsall Common. It is due east of Birmingham if nothing else!

A European nightjar.
A European nightjar.

Whilst listening to that solo, you will hear a whirring noise drifting into the arrangement. A more accurate description would be churring. That’s how you refer to the call of the European nightjar. When I was a young lad growing up in the Quantock Hills, I have very happy memories of my dad taking me up to Aisholt Common in the hopes of seeing this elusive nocturnal bird. We rarely had any luck, but sometimes we would hear its mechanical song.

Modern technology allows us to manipulate sounds with such ease. With a little pitch correction, we were able fit a churring nightjar into the song, and even convince it to change notes to follow the chord progression. I love using unusual sounds like this in songs, especially noises from nature. More recently, the folk band Stornoway incorporated bird calls into their album, but we got there first. Though of course, we weren’t the first. Musicians have always drawn inspiration from birdsong.

You’ll hear another odd sound listening to Monsoon – a deep woody ‘plop’. This is the sound of an udu, a pot drum from Nigeria. This lovely piece of ceramic percussion has a hole in it. By slapping your palm over the hole you sound the ‘plopping’ noise, whilst you can play rhythms by tapping your fingers against the surface of the udu. It’s one of my favourites of Amjid’s many curious percussive instruments. When we played together as the Lazy Lizards we’d occasionally make use of it, but it was rather tricky to MIC up in a live band situation. I’d always fretted that we’d never had the chance to use the udu in a recording, but eventually I got my wish.

Recording the udu drum in Amjid's kitchen
Recording the udu drum in Amjid’s kitchen

*When I say studio, more often than not I actually it’s a bedroom (or, as above, kitchen!) with some MICs set up and hanging duvets creating a makeshift vocal booth. It’s a state of mind more than anything!

Sabah, Borneo

September 2015

Recording Monsoon