1m4s Day 3: Musical Fantasies.

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.

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1m4s Day 3: Musical Fantasies.

Field Sounds

I began writing this blog entry in Borneo, but I find myself finishing it somewhere else entirely . . .  

Field Sounds 2

 

After two years living in Sabah in the north of Malaysian Borneo, a new job means it’s time to move on.  We’ve been lucky enough to have spent our time here in a magical place; the quiet little kampong of Menumpang. This tiny village by the sea has been our home, and living in our wood-walled house by the beach I’ve rediscovered my muse, mojo, or whatever you want to call it, and thrown myself back into writing songs and playing guitar.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time sitting on my porch of an afternoon or evening here. As I compose, I’m continually recording snippets of music on my laptop or phone, and over my time here I’ve amassed a library of hundreds of different ideas; riffs, chord progressions, melodies, song demos. Listening back to this work there’s one constant.

Nature.

Anything I recorded at night is accompanied by the chopping buzz of cicadas, the repeated tok of the nightjar, and sometimes the laughing of a gecko. During the daytime, the birds are most prominent; the constant bickering of the sparrows, the added music of ioras that nest in the tree above, and the cooing of the doves. When the tide’s up, the waves on the sand underpin it all.

Occasionally domestic flavours enter the mix; my wife’s singing Vietnamese folk songs as she does something industrious or conversations in broken English when our neighbours come visiting. Once in a while, a motorbike trundles by at no great pace to be barked at by the dogs. Bur the human touches fail to break the tranquillity.

If you’ve watched and listened to any the videos I’ve shared on this blog you’ll have a sense of the inspiration that the natural world has provided whilst making music in Borneo.

Well, that’s all over now!

I finish this blog from Cairo, Egypt, which looks as though it will be home for a while. The new soundtrack is the unceasing hubbub of one of the world’s great cities, the hawkers, the competing muezzins, and dizzying cacophony of car horns. Energetic and intoxicating, exploring the musical treats Cairo might have to offer is high on my list of things to do. And a completely different tapestry of field sounds will be accenting the recordings.

But when I trawl through the old sound library to see if there’s some song idea that could be expanded upon, I’ll hear those natural field sounds, and realise wild Borneo will forever be in my music.

Sabah, Borneo & Cairo, Egypt

December 2015

Field Sounds

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