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
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.
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!
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.
*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!