Anthill

This is a full performance of “Anthill”, the song I wrote as part of the ‘Writing A Song From Scratch’ blog series. As that ran to six chapters, there’s not much more to say about the song, its development can be charted in the links below:

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part One

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Two

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Three

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Four

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Five

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Six

I’m very happy with the final song, and I’m developing an arrangement of it for my upcoming studio EP. As such, I’ve already recorded parts for oud, ney, tabla and extra guitar with some Egyptian musicians, and will be working on it further in December in London.

The lyrics are reproduced below – they’ve remained largely unchanged except that the bridge has been slightly expanded.

The anthill keeps growing, more teetering, hopeless homes

While teeming in their multitudes, twelve million worker drones

All of these paralysed souls, indistinguishable, all smeared in soot

The mark of the muted, well it paints us the same, from our head to our foot

 

So extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not painted in dust

Reaching out for an empty space, or the contours of a friendly face

In the chaos

 

The anthill collapses, yet constructed again

Building on the bones, of its fallible men

Construction it never does stop, and if a body drops, we’ll brick it back in

Exoskeletons formed this city’s skin

While we, while we, while we

 

Extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not painted in dust

Reaching out for an empty space, or the contours of a friendly face

In the chaos

 

Now I’m carried on the back of billions

Though I do not know their names

Something fossilised within us

That could still be reclaimed

They thought us worker drones did not have much to say

But they kept us busy anyway

Now the water cannons will not hold us back

They will simply wash the filth away

And if everyone of us

Could carry six times our own weight

There’s really no limit

To the utopia we might make

Oh, we’ve got to wake up

Howl some questions to the hive

If could all move in one direction

We would do more than just survive

 

So extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not painted in dust

Open our minds, spit the silt from our voice

Claim everything, a separate and collective choice

Reaching out for an empty space, or the contours of a friendly face

In this anthill

Advertisements
Video

If Hearts Will Break . . .

Ethiopia and I have flirted over the years. My first encounter was a joyous concert by Mahmoud Ahmed on a Womad evening a decade or so ago. At various points I’ve delved into seemingly endless depths of the Ethiopiques collection from Buda Musique. I’ve sagely pointed out the Ethio-Jazz leanings of certain contemporary bands, such as Dengue Fever. But I’ve never really become an expert, or taken a deep dive into the country’s musical traditions in the way I have with other sub-Saharan countries.

I’m still no expert, but a chance to spend three weeks travelling in Ethiopia last March did give me a chance to hear even more music. I particularly remember a fourteen-hour bus journey from Addis Ababa to Gondar, with the on-board entertainment being an unending stream of domestic hits. I was impressed at how distinctly Ethiopian even the pop music sounded. The central seam was the rhythm; a solid pulse that steams ahead, leaning into the front end of the beat with a tantalising lurch. Ethiopia’s iconic traditional instruments were also front and centre; the krar and masenko.

So while travelling in Ethiopia I began seeing if I could funnel those elements into a song. It must be said that digesting full band recordings onto a single instrument and retaining those identifying qualities is no easy task. To me, I can hear Ethiopia in If Hearts Will Break . . , but I’m not sure if that influence will stand out to the average listener, even one well-versed in the genre. And perhaps my associations stem more from my memories of composing the song there than true technical understanding. Still, if it is enjoyed then it doesn’t really matter.

One key trick behind the sound of If Hearts Will Break . . .  was threading a strip of paper through the strings of the guitar. The light contact of the paper on the strings mutes the sound, and causes them to buzz and rattle in a manner reminiscent of some of the traditional stringed instruments mentioned above. Furthermore, as the guitar loses all sustain, it further the rhythm more deeply. Now I’m certainly not the first person to do this, and while others have tried this trick in order to emulate African instruments, the technique has also been used in other styles (Johnny Cash is one example). 

Lyrically the song is a bit of an indulgence in fantasy – the advice offered quite at odds with what the real me would propose in a similar situation. Depending on your point of view, it’s an excursion into tender folly or selfish recklessness; an incitement to forge on ahead with a doomed romantic escapade even though it will clearly end in tears. As ever with such songs, any resemblance to real persons living or dead should be taken with a pinch of salt – one plucked with goliath fingers!

Lyrics

If hearts will break, let them be broken
If our only fate, is to rue this simple mistake
Let this fool’s foray be but a token
When loneliness dictates that we boldly swallow down the bait
Forgive us of our reckless ways
For just a catch of blessed days
The bounty that the river pays
Does it reach the ocean, who can say?

As clear and bright as a new day dawning
The first page still lies unread and not a single tear’s been shed
The tall tale tellers talked in the morning
Oh to follow Ariadne’s thread, would it lead us to a lover’s bed?
Forgive us of our reckless ways
We’ve no care for what the wise man says
We step out of house’s set ablaze
To the common paths of this age-old maze

So take your hand from off the tiller, let the wheel go spinning free
Let fortunes of the tide and wind carry us to a place we’re supposed to be
On handmade wings of wax and twine we’ll soar above the sea
And if we fall into a tailspin, we’ll land in cotton clouds, you and me

All the doors before you stand wide open
And I beg you to come inside, discover if our love resides
There’s no promises that need be spoken
For who knows where the future lies, who knows what this song betides?
The fates will share their weight in sorrow
If we can’t bargain for our happiness, we’ll simply have to borrow.
Forgive us of our reckless ways
Forgive us of our reckless ways . . .

Video

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Six

So to the final chapter of this series – a song has now been written from scratch! I feel a little embarrassed by how long this has taken – originally I’d imagined each chapter separated by something like a week. To a certain degree a song can’t be rushed, but to be more honest there’s just been other stuff going on. My work ethic could always be better, though I think finding a rhythm in songwriting is much more challenging as a hobby as a full time occupation. It’s easy to look at how many incredible songs your heroes might throw out in just a short space of time, but then you have to remember they’re probably doing very little else. There’s a lot to be said for how being able to get into the zone can improve your productivity, and it can be hard to find that space when facing all of life’s usual slings and arrows (such as a proper job!).

Some speculations raised in the last blog entry have been settled. For example, I committed to the idea of remaining in 4/4 for the final chorus, though you’ll hear I added a slight bass movement on the I chord to keep things interesting. I didn’t cut out any lines in the end, though I have made a few fairly cosmetic changes to help things flow better. I find this happens organically: more or less learn the words, then sing it over and over away from the lyric sheet – clumsy, cluttered lines tend to get trimmed down subconsciously.

I’ve also been adding the fiddly bits, which I’ve kept as unfiddly as possible, with just an introductory lick and a short instrumental break between the 3/4 and 4/4 sections. You can hear both of these on the video above. I always find it a bit of a trick – striking the balance between pushing my playing further and capitalising on what one can do well. My inclination is to always do the former, but the result is invariably ending up with music I can’t quite play convincingly. There are a lot of merits to a simpler song – you can really lean in to the nuances of performing it – work the groove, give more conviction to the vocal, not have to worry about the strings slithering out from beneath your fingers.

Another important change I have made, one not evident in the video, has been changing the key. I moved the song off the guitalele and onto guitar, with the capo on the 3rd fret, shifting from D# to C, which makes it marginally easier to sing.

And so I can wind up this long-winded series. I’ll hope to soon publish a full performance of Anthill on Youtube, and as mentioned before, I’m also hoping to record it for the new EP project.

Video

EP Launch: ‘The Apocalypse Lullaby’ by Far Flown Falcon

Apocalypse Lullaby for Blog

My new EP The Apocalypse Lullaby has hit the worldwide web as of last week. It’s available to stream and download using the ‘pay what you like’ model (including downloading for free!) from Bandcamp if you follow this link:

https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/album/the-apocalypse-lullaby-ep

The EP has five songs all loosely themed around the wreck we are making of the world we call our home. Despite that rather grim concept, I hope the quality of the songs, arrangements and recordings still make it an enjoyable listen. I’m accompanied on all the tracks by my longstanding musicians-in-arms; Amjid Hasan of my old band The Lazy Lizards on drums, congas and percussion, and Phill Ward on fretless bass, electric guitar, mandolin, backing vocals, programming and keyboards, as well as recording, mixing and producing the whole affair. We also have a special guest star in the form of American guitarist Eric Haugen playing electric and pedal steel, as well as Amjid’s son Moosa making his recording debut on shaker.

I’m very grateful for all the friends and family who made this EP possible, both in the UK where the recording took place and in Egypt where I currently live.

Hopefully there’ll be yet more new music coming soon. Keep an eye peeled on this blog, as I’ll be giving a more in-depth report as to the recording process of the album in a future post. And in the meantime, please listen, and if you like share the songs as widely as possible.

Best wishes,

James – Far Flown Falcon

Cairo, Egypt – June 2018

EP Launch: ‘The Apocalypse Lullaby’ by Far Flown Falcon

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Four

This project has been drifting a bit in 2018, but I’ve finally managed to kick myself into shape and get back to it. The nice thing about taking a break from some music is the opportunity to refresh the ears and listen from a new perspective. I’m pleased to report that this nascent song still feels like it has potential despite its time in the wilderness.

I’ve decided the song is called Anthill. I’ve been writing a lot in the last few years about the experience of living in a big city, and how it always strikes me as the most unnatural of existences, and what coping mechanisms we must cultivate in order to survive. Anthill feels like it will explore similar territory, but the exactly how remains to be revealed.

In previous posts I’ve touched upon the technique of free writing that I often use to generate lyrical ideas from which to piece together a song. I did the same here. Below is transcribed everything I wrote. There’s some repetition, and a lot of it is trash, but that’s kind of the idea. This splurge is just aimed at getting the ball rolling. I’ve purposefully written it up in a single monumental paragraph. Not easy to read in detail, but perhaps building such an intimidating wall of text will encourage the valuable lines to wiggle free of the brickwork when I skim read across its surface.

Teeming in our multitudes, crammed into narrow alleys and congested streets. An invisible force is prodding us, and our human forms swarm in a swell of impotent anger. The anthill keeps on growing, teetering, hopeless homes, squashed in between the factories in endless uniform rows. I’m round about the twelve millionth worker drone, indistinguishable from my colleagues, as my Queen ejects more clones. And I’m waving my hands constantly, blindly feeling for a touch. Or stretching out and reaching, can I extend my limbs? Can I find an empty space, a vacuum in which to spin? The anthill howls around me, every voice made unintelligible. If the decibels scrape the red, it all comes tumbling down upon our heads. The anthill collapses, constructed again. The bones and exoskeletons tell our foundations are resting on fallible men. Somewhere within the fury, the soldiers appear in line. Custodians of the cityscape, they loom above us, jaws agape, water cannons ready to reshape the crowds. The noise just keeps on getting loud. Ants hatch without tear ducts and march fearlessly into the gas. In this city, the capacity to cry evolves spontaneously. Then just as unexpectedly the tears run dry. Anything precious is borne down into the anthill to be consumed. You can taste what you have lost hanging somewhere on these stagnant fumes. Can an anthill overthrow its Queen? Could this filthy city one day shine and gleam? Some long-fossilised resemblance, a remembrance urges me to stand absolutely still. The anthill frantic about me, souls threshing within the spinning mill. You’ve been prodding at the anthill, laughing at these tiny forms. How can they harm you? These incorrigible people. The muted, fuzzy, ochre air. Every soul smeared in soot, indistinguishable. I’m being carried into the anthill on the backs of billions. Paralysed, deified. It seems these worker drones don’t have much to say, too busy anyway, being squeezed into the anthill. But after a while you can see the message written in the ways they walk, hefting loads six times their weight without complaint. Without a fuss, as needs must, you must just hope they always march to your tune. I feel I know each one of them, though indistinguishable to a man. Today the anthill turns, workers squashed in serried rows. Tomorrow the world might burn, ignited from above. Should you kick this nest? Do you dare? God does trudging past, stick in hand, heavy tread shaking the land. The construction never stops, when a body drops, just brick the body in, exoskeletons made this city’s skin – from the pyramids to the new desert towns. Despite the tired legs, the massive burdens balanced high upon our heads. The sun upon our brow as we hustle through the anthill.

Three possible themes appear to be emerging. The simplest would simply be an experiential song – how does it feel to be just another one of the worker drones in the uncaring city? Certainly not an original premise, but it’s something that so many of us wrestle with, so there’s potential to write something that speaks to people. Perhaps a more interesting angle might be  to write from the point of view of one of the few people who actually have control over the colony; the one who could kick the nest, a monarch, a higher power, a president perhaps. Which leads me to wonder whether the song could be something more firmly connected to its Cairene inspiration, an allegory for the revolution and the current political malaise. But that might get me arrested …

The next step is probably the most important. Starting with this pile of lyrics I’ve got to both organise them into something which speaks coherently, and also fit them to the music. If things go well, the song jumps from about 30% written to about 80% written in one bold stride.

Video

WRITING A SONG FROM SCRATCH: PART THREE

 

Last month’s instalment of ‘Writing A Song From Scratch’ expanded our initial set of chords until we had parts for a verse, chorus and bridge. Unfortunately, the song still lacks two crucial elements. It doesn’t have a melody, and it doesn’t have any lyrics. Either of these could be the next step in the songwriting process.

I tend to work from lyrics in most cases. There’s often that first flash of wordplay, a rhyming couplet, a little alliteration, or even just a standalone image which seems to work over the music, and around which the rest of the song takes form. However, this approach has its disadvantages. Words have their own inherent melodies imprinted in their phonemes, and these melodies often begin dragging your song in a certain direction before you’ve even had a chance to explore what would happen if you had gone left or right.

So a different tactic is reverting to babytalk, and making melody the only thing that matters. With some ‘la, la, las’ or ‘dum, dum, dums’ you sketch out the notes the song will follow, and after the fact try and transform your parade of noises into a coherent text. This can be challenging, not least because you can feel like an utter wally while doing so, and furthermore, without any lyrics the melodies slip away easily as you have no investment in them. Still, those tunes that do linger in this form only do so if they are earworms, so the struggle is often worth it.

I’m pretty happy with my babytalk on this song. And having put off some proper lyrics for three episodes, that seems like the only logical next step in this process.  I want to try my level best to prevent those lyrics from displacing the work I’m presenting here, and that’s a challenge I will get to explore in the next part.

Video

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Two

So we return to writing a song from scratch!

And before we get any further, apologies for the terrible wind noise on the video. I was seduced by the architecture and the grandeur of the opening to the Suez Canal, and forgot to take into consideration the influence that a fresh sea breeze would have on our plucky little mobile phone mic. 

In the first installment we began writing a song based on a randomly selected chord progression: III > III > II > VI in 3/4 time. In the last video, I experimented with a variety of approaches to this, trying out some different tempos and keys. The last of these was in DADGAD tuning, and as I’ve been writing in the this tuning a lot recently, I opted to continue the experiment. Or perhaps it would be more truthful to say I couldn’t be bothered to retune my guitar . . .

The songwriting process for the next stage could take a number of different routes;

  1. Using the chord progression we have, we could begin exploring some melody ideas for the vocal part. The obvious way to do that would be to write some lyrics to fit the chords. An alternative would be singing a melody using nonsense sounds, allowing the writer to find a strong melody before forcing it to conform to a set of lyrics.
  2. As a fingerstyle guitarist, a different track could be to start developing the arrangement, moving it beyond a bland chug through the chord changes to something for intricate and interesting.
  3. While there are many songs which bravely stay on a single chord progression, my own predilection (especially with a song which is mainly going to be played solo) is to expand the palette, and write some different progressions for other parts of the song; verse, chorus, bridge etc.

In my opinion, there’s no right or wrong direction here – though the route you choose at the beginning influences the finished product. However, I would encourage caution regarding option 2. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that songs which have no part to be sung often die premature deaths. On many occasions I’ve put a lot of time into developing complex fingerstyle arrangements only to grow bored and forget about them. When there’s something to sing, even if it’s only to the simplest chord progression, the song feels much more like it’s coming to life, motivating you to keep working on it.

For this post I choose the third option, to go ‘widescreen’ and expand the chord sequence to what might be the progression for the entire song. The initial randomly selected chord sequence is composed entirely of minor chords. This causes it to feel claustrophobic, suggesting it would make a good sequence for the verse of the song, simply because in the chorus we can offer something which opens the shutters and shines light into the stuffy place we’ve made. The easiest way to do this is to return to the I chord (in this key Bb).

When creating new sections to songs, the obvious change is to the notes played. However, I heard some interesting advice recently, related from Brian Eno to Nick Mulvey. Eno suggested playing the expected chords, but at unexpected lengths. We can apply this idea to the chorus – begin the chorus on I, stay there long enough to invoke a change in the listeners mood, then continue the progression by running through the same chord sequence as verse but for different measures. We dash through the III and II chords with half a bar each, then linger longer on the VI.

For the sake of further variety, let us throw in a bridge as well. The chorus has expanded upon the world painted by the verse, so a countermove in the bridge could be to do the opposite – an extremely simple two chord sequence; two bars each. A movement like this constrains less when it comes to composing melodies above the chords – here I can take my vocal in many different directions, whereas during the chorus the more complex progression leads me down a much more defined path.

Throughout most of the song, I’ve been taking advantage of the ambiguity of the DADGAD tuning to refuse to commit to major or minor, especially on the VI chord, which should be a G minor. In the bridge I emphasized the flat third of the chord, bringing the VI back in to the minor fold with more conviction.

I should also point out that my references to particular chords here is misleading. I’m thinking in guitar terms in relation to the shapes I’m making, but of course the guitalele is five steps higher in pitch. So in reality, we’re in the key of D#, playing a Cminor chord, in the tuning of GDGFDG, which doesn’t quite trip off the tongue in the same way as DADGAD. 

Of course, it remains to be seen whether these chord progressions will support melodies worth getting excited about. This will be the next step, and might force us to backtrack, and make further alterations to the underlying music. Writing a song is rarely a linear exercise. However, in the next part of the series, we’ll hope to make a forward step and begin adding some lyrics – or at the very least some melody – to the song.

Port-Said-Guitalele

Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Two