1m4s Day 27: Onto Wider Waters

Of the songs I’ve been working on, the one that has proved most challenging so far has been When The City Is Home. I believe there are two reasons for this. First of all, it’s the only song which carries a weight of expectation: my wife wants it as piece of music to support a piece of video art she’s making under the same name. This project though is still in its earliest stages, so I’m writing to her idea rather than anything concrete. What exactly the song is supposed to be is largely unknown to both of us. Although I’ve tried to listen to her nebulous suggestions, what she wants and the song that’s emerging are already beginning to diverge, and as the song takes shape in front of me I’m less willing to compromise my own emerging direction for it.

Secondly, the song has proved to be one of the more complicated compositions. Working in DADGAD, although not altogether new territory, makes it far easier to come across new sounds. The downside of this is the need to be more judicious. When The City Is Home has swiftly passed through several iterations – I had lots of different ideas but finding exactly which chords and melody worked best took some experimentation. I’m left with lots of discarded bits and bobs that didn’t really fit with the vocal but still sound nice; I may yet include these in some kind of instrumental coda.

Underneath the whole song is a bass line rhythm based upon baladi Egyptian drums. On Guitar Pro I’ve expanded this with some arpeggios on the treble strings, hopefully without drowning the Eastern sound of the rhythm by filling in too much space. I’m not yet able to play these patterns while singing simultaneously, so in the demo below I just play the bass line with block chords. Here I’ve recorded the second verse and chorus, and couldn’t quite get it together enough to include the bridge, which I see as following on from the second chorus, moving up another third and continuing to raise the intensity level  of the song.

I’m still on the Nile, but now on the huge artificial Lake Nasser created by the High Dam, in the southernmost region of Egypt.

lake-nasser-songwriting

1m4s Day 27: Onto Wider Waters

1m4s Day 25: Reggae on the River

Nine thousand years of history. These are the terms we speak of when we consider the span of humanity’s habitation of the Nile Valley here in Nuba – the lands of Ancient Kush and Meroe. Here we’ve gone back in time – though only a little ways I grant you – and spent five days sailing the Nile aboard a felucca under the care of Captain Sero.

Our felucca – the Nile Queen – is more or less full with a crew of two plus my wife and I. She’s handcrafted, older than I am, and based upon a design that is centuries old*. Of course, that means that wind and water are our only means of propulsion. No engine, so no electricity.

This also means that I’ve had no choice but to divest myself of my technological aids and do things the simple way, as I promised myself.

Unfortunately, of my four nascent songs, only Bold Little Weasel is sufficiently far along for me to feel confident continuing to write it without resorting to my computerised notes. This song has travelled far enough that I was quickly able to complete it as we drifted amongst the islands of the First Cataract of the Nile. Though by complete, I mean only felucca-songwriting-nilethat I have a complete set of lyrics – some good, some okay and all open to further revision – and the basic arrangement of chords and picking. Still to do is to add the ‘twiddly bits’; stitching in some riffs, runs and motifs to the overall song.

Besides working on Bold Little Weasel, I had plenty of time on my hands. Trepidatious of returning to the other songs, I decided to start from scratch. Now, Nuba is one of those many cultures to have embraced the mighty Bob Marley as their own, so reggae seemed the natural choice of music to play. Pretty soon I had a simple two chord skank ripe for embellishment and a slightly more complex progression which could work as a chorus.

Having taken with me the sheaf of papers I’d written at the start of 1m4s, I looked back over the song titles I’d spurned, and rescued Pass Without Trace from obscurity. Its lyrical themes – of disappearing from the capitalist strictures of modern living – seemed to fitfelucca-songwriting-aswan the reggae vibe nicely. Rearranging the free writing I’d set down almost a month ago, I was able to quite easily extrapolate a narrative complete with verses and a chorus. With only minimal rewriting I had a complete song.

Here’s rough demo of a verse and a chorus of Pass Without Trace from early on in its composition. It got a bit stronger later on, but by then the camera battery was exhausted and we weren’t able to record any more.

I am wearing a tea towel on my head. I have neither excuse nor explanation.

*I am referring here to the boat, not my wife.

1m4s Day 25: Reggae on the River

1m4s Day 23: Nile Projects

philae-temple-morning

With just over a week left of 1 month, 4 songs, the likelihood of success is beginning to dwindle. At my half-way point, I noted my holidays were coming, and that I’d have more time to put into my songs. It’s a myth I’ve fallen for before, because of course time on holiday is spent being on holiday. Though I’ve had some productive songwriting sessions since I left Cairo, more time’s been spent travelling, exploring and enjoying what Upper Egypt has to offer.

Today did see a good songwriting session though, as we spent the day chilling at Fekra, a (rather dilapidated) cultural centre celebrating Nubian heritage. While the rooms don’t offer much to celebrate, the view is a cause for celebration; a stretch of the Nile dotted by rocky islands, framing Philae Temple, one of the wonders of Ancient Egypt rescued and rebuilt after dams harnessed the might of the river. Fekra was the site of one the Nile Project’s residencies – a musical project/evolving band that brings together the different musical traditions of the people who live along the longest river in the world. It’s a band I’ve followed since before I came to Egypt, and with their music in mind and the fantastic vista it was easy to feel inspired.

I turned my attention to two songs. When The City Is Home now has verses, choruses and a bridge, although only the latter has music I’m set on. I experimented with some different ideas with the verse and the chorus, nothing quite fit. I gave up before I started feeling too frustrated, though in retrospect wonder whether this was premature. With songwriting you’re always on the verge of a major breakthrough or a minor breakdown, and it’s never clear how close you are to which.

The other song I worked on was Bold Little Weasel, which has pulled ahead of the other songs in terms of progress. At this stage I more or less know how the song goes and what the various parts consist of, though there are some holes in the lyrics here and there. With my friend Watter Al Bahry playing the duff, I made the short demo above of the bridge and a section of the verse. The living room at Fekra has a hexagonal design, which creates a really warm acoustic sound.

The Nile’s influence will continue to be felt over the next few days, as I will spend them on rather than next to the water. We’ll be sailing aboard a felucca – a traditional Egyptian boat for the next five days, and the pace of life will really, really slow down, though I hope I’ll still be able to fit in a little songwriting alongside doing nothing. Am I, after all, on holiday.

philae-temple-evening

 

1m4s Day 23: Nile Projects

1m4s Day 21: Getting Out Of Bed

luxor-morning-workspace

A week and a half without reliable Internet access means these these blog entries are being published retroactively.

Today I turned my attention to Let’s Make Our Bed Together, which has been lagging behind the progress made on the other songs. In my mind, it this is going to be quite a simple song, but that doesn’t necessarily make the task of composing it easy. You have to a lot of faith in the strength of your song to keep it simple. I’d cite Bill Withers as the master of this art – songs such as Use Me and Ain’t No Sunshine are mainly just two chord affairs with a lot of confidence.

From brainstorming melodies last week I had a piece which seemed like a verse and refrain. This I’d done acapella: apart from the chord progressions I’d been writing out.  It’s often a slight disappointment to discover when I look for a melody in this way the result is something rather crude harmonically. Though I was happy with what I’d sung, when I worked out the chords beneath it I realised it was just a simple I-II progression. In this instance, I embraced the lack of dynamic, and in fact, simplified things even more so that the verse was entirely on one chord, with the change to the minor coming only when the refrain kicks in.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of making those two chords the be-all and end-all of Let’s Make Our Bed Together. But ultimately (and this happens a lot), I denied my inner Bill Withers and inserted two mini-choruses and something chordally a bit more complex to provide the song a little relief from the dominating groove. I then spent the rest of the day working on the lyrics until I felt it had more matured out of an idea and into a prototype.

Finally, I got out of bed early to record a quick demo on the rooftop of the Nour El Balad hotel: most of my songwriting over the Christmas period has taken place here.

1m4s Day 21: Getting Out Of Bed

1m4s Day 19: Technology Weasel!

The song I’ve made the most progress on so far has been Bold Little Weasel. At the Bare Bones stage, I came up with a section which feels like it’s the bridge. Then a couple of days ago, in the time it took my creaky old lift to transport me up to the sixth floor, a new blast of melody struck and I realised I also had a verse. Happily, it seems that both fit together.

I’ve spent the morning developing these ideas. Lyrics-wise, I don’t have as much as I posted for Confide in Me, but a clear picture of the structure of the song is emerging. I’ve started to tab out an emerging guitar arrangement on Guitar Pro. So far, this is sticking firmly to the basic chords and bass line, but the gaps are there to be filled in, hopefully building a more complex and interesting fingerstyle arrangement, no doubt until it’s overtaken my abilities to play.

little-weasel-score

I’ve found Guitar Pro to be a very helpful songwriting tool. I can transcribe a new piece of music, and wander around the room singing to myself, putting my attention on the vocals without having to think about what your hands are doing. Equally, I can work up a solo, focusing on its melodic qualities, and then align the lead with the bass line until both are combined as a fingerstyle arrangement. For good or ill, it allows me to separate myself from my natural instinct as a guitarist. Muscle memory leads the fingers to fall into familiar patterns, but composing through Guitar Pro can to an extent become an entirely mental exercise. This makes it easier to reach new places in your composition. As I mentioned before, sometimes this leaves you with a piece that is very tricky to play – but as it’s your own song, who’s gonna play it but you? Thus, there’s a good incentive to practice and push yourself.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to replicate the attack, swing, and idiosyncrasies of an individual player on a piece of software, and it’s important to remember that this is the end goal over the automated Midi of Guitar Pro. As the composition process usually goes guitar-computer-guitar, it’s important to ensure that the living element of the first stage survives until the end. Finally, there’s just something a bit inauthentic about it – I don’t imagine my musical icons composing their masterpieces by tapping numbers into a keyboard.

As a 21st century musician I take advantage of the technology available to me. However, it would be an interesting experiment, which I’ll reserve for some point in the future, to return to writing wholly in the organic form – notebook, guitar and mind.

1m4s Day 19: Technology Weasel!

1m4s Day 18: The Night Train

A choir of snorers, impressing with the variety and verve of their chorus. A broken chair, with broken armrest and broken reclining mechanism. A horrid pong from the toilet (though thank God we were at least at the far end of the carriage). The disconcerting observation that one of my fellow travellers had a pistol jammed down the back of his trousers. Not a great amount of sleep was to be had on the night train to Luxor.

Still, it did provide an opportunity for a bit more songwriting, especially as dawn over the Egyptian countryside was glimpsed through the grimy windows and I gave up entirely on sleep. In kindness to the slumbering of the other passengers, I worked solely on lyrics rather than breaking out into song. Now that I’d narrowed down my well of possible songs to four titles, I started work trying to organise them into some degree of structure. As no firm melodies yet exist for the songs, this remains very much a preliminary exercise, but a useful one nonetheless. It was a chance to review the pages of free writing I’d already produced for each title and consider which lines really stood out with potential and what story there were seeking to tell. For three of the songs, I sketched out a rough pattern of verses, choruses and bridges, working out the overarching theme of each part and slotting in the strong lyrics here and there.

I got furthest with Confide in Me, coming up with a full first draft. I feel there’s still an awful lot of refinement to be done. In the case of this song, the strongest lyrics don’t completely support the song I want to sing, and at some stage I must decide whether to persevere with the original idea or let the lyrics I like dictate a new direction. A few months ago, I was writing about Glen Hansard’s thoughts on songwriting, where he counselled against keeping a line just because it was ‘pretty’. I think Confide in Me might be in danger of losing something in service of the pretty lyrics. Still, I believe the song will see a lot of changes yet.

The lyrics I like the best are bolded. A lot of the others are there simply to provide to fill out the whole song – for a sense of completion, but these are the ones I’ll be working to improve primarily. As I settle on a melody and chords for all the parts, this version of the lyrics may bend and break. We’ll revisit these lyrics later in the project to see how they develop.

VERSE 1

The vows that you’ve spoken out, grown as old as a ruin

Just echoes of those empty rituals that you’ve been doing

When you’ve been wasting your time on the wilfully deaf

Unplug your ears and tie this tongue that is cleft

Hear the song that is left

CHORUS 1

Now you’ve seen their fallibility

Confide in me

Might as well talk to a chimpanzee

Confide in me,

Confide in me, confide in me

VERSE 2

You look under the rocks, and open each tome

Fall down on your knees, ‘neath a dome of white stone

You’ve gone and cluttered your mind with convenient truths

But in the face of disaster they are of no use

The book has broken its truce

CHORUS 2

When the whole world’s deceived thee

Confide in me

Stop this kitchen-sink philosophy

Confide in me

Confide in me, confide in me

BRIDGE

It’s the inscrutable, the mysterious, the impenetrable veil . . .

So what exactly are these battlements that you swear you will scale?

Rather hold your hand to an open flame, and press embers to your feet

Rather cherish the bitter gall than the things that are sweet

I am open like water, like a beach of white sand

And I will not compel you to hold out your hand

 

VERSE 3

Let’s hold this coffee pot, over the trembling flame

Let’s ­boil ideas and fears, let it simmer and spit out blame

Until the feelings spill out, these reflexes of doubt

Let’s chase those genies out

CHORUS 3

Late to speak beneath the hanging tree

Confide in me

Now there’s no use telling the turnkey

Confide in me

Confide in me, confide in me

 

1m4s Day 18: The Night Train

1m4s Day 17: Heading Up Country

After the manic last days at work before the Christmas break, holidays are finally here! My wife and I will be catching the train up to Luxor tonight, and for the rest of 1 month 4 songs I’ll be in the quieter parts of Upper Egypt. As a result, it’s rather difficult to predict how often I’ll be able to get online and post updates of my progress – most hotels in Egypt claim to have wifi, but in most cases it doesn’t prove to be true (especially on the kind of budget we operate at!). I’m going to continue working on my songs and documenting my progress, but the updates may not continue at a regular pace. Merry Christmas everyone!

luxor-guitalele-backpacking

1m4s Day 17: Heading Up Country