Recording the Backyard Animals EP

I’ve been recording songs for close to a decade, and almost all of them have been with my friend Phill Ward. I was lucky enough to meet Phill when he was fresh out of uni, armed with mics, a laptop, some good ears, a quick brain (after enough tea at least) and a desire to make music. He helped my old band The Lazy Lizards make their first EP Kingdom, plus all our subsequent EPs and many of my ‘solo’ songs. Initial attempts sounded good, and only got better as Phill’s skills grew with experience.

This has proved something of a double edged sword. Lucky enough to have high-quality recordings of my songs from early in my musical journey, I’ve haven’t been able to accept less. Brief experiments in other studios saw me paying more for poorer results. Yet since I’ve abandoned UK shores, calling on Phill’s abilities is not so easy. Last year I was writing songs with the view to recording them on my next visit home when I read an interview with Teddy Thompson. The son of Richard and Linda Thompson, he’d gathered together his musical clan to create the Thompson Family Band. Except there’d been no physical gathering – the songs on the album had been put together bit by bit, emailed back and forth between family members living in different countries and different continents. Of course, this is fairly standard practice in 21st century music making. I realised I could do the same; record some songs at home in Borneo and then send them to Phill to be spruced up and embellished upon. How hard could it be?

ram-studio-kk

Rather than launch straight into a full-on project I decided to test my plan with a single song called The Beat of a Babbling Heart. Leaving my little seaside village, I headed to Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah, to look for a recording studio. There I had a stroke of luck; I found RAM studios run by Roger Wang, one of Malaysia’s leading fingerstyle guitarists. At the very least, I had someone who knew how to get a good sound out of my six string, and as it happened, the rates and the chocolate chip cookies were also good. I cut my song, sent it to Phill, who a couple of weeks later sent me an initial version with added bass and percussion. This is gonna work, I thought to myself.

I pressed on with the plan to create a whole EP of new materials; taking fresh compositions to RAM studios as I completed them and then sending them on to Phill. Most of these songs became videos and entries in the blog as well. The initial success of The Beat of a Babbling Heart engendered a questionable surfeit of ambition, so I also started thinking about incorporating other musicians on the project. Ultimately, this proved easier to dream of than to actually make a reality. In the end, I only succeeded in capturing my friend Alex on the Borneo side. Alex is a folk musician in the truest sense, in a way being steadily lost, particularly in the West. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, a raconteur, a library of different tunes and stories, a mainstay of different band and groups in church, at school and at village events. He contributed to the song 10, 000 Years, playing an ancient borrowed accordion and layering melodic lines on a violin hand carved in Kuala Penyu – a weighty thing heavy enough to feel like it could drop a man if you clubbed them over the head with it.

alex-in-borneo
Jamming on our porch in Borneo, with Alex playing violin, and Yusepe Sukmana and Mzung on ukuleles.

Sadly my efforts to get a sape player onto the record didn’t pan out, but I was pleased to have Alex’s contributions linking the music umbilically to rustic Borneo were the songs had been born. Meanwhile Phill had put the finishing touches to The Beat of a Babbling Heart – recutting his fretless bass part, adding a grooving bit of kit drum to the outro, and even adding some deft playing of his radiator to the percussion mix.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sape

I wrapped up recording at RAM, and not long after wrapped up life in Borneo, moving on to Egypt. For several months work on the EP stalled. I’d more or less finished my side of things, but Phill was busy touring. By the time he was back in the UK, summer was fast approaching, and as I planned to spend most of June in England our modern musical postcards no longer made sense. We could finish the record face to face.

So this summer, between crisscrossing the country seeing friends and family, I put a few days aside to stay with Phill at his flat in Moseley, Birmingham. Together we picked through the recordings I’d made almost a year before in Borneo, first tweaking and editing, then with Phill adding some extra instruments to flesh out the songs. We made quick progress with Backyard Animals and Where the Loot is Buried. To the former we added two restless electric guitar lines to propel forward the original loping rhythm and link in with the other guitar parts I’d already added. I’d left spaces in the original track for some soloing, too which Phill obliged with his laud, a medieval ancestor of the guitar. In Borneo I’d hoped to fill those holes with some sape or gambus (Malaysia’s version of the oud), so the laud satisfied my urge to decorate the song with a stringed instrument which wasn’t another guitar. To the latter Phill added some typically tasteful bass playing and a manic percussion part on a tatty mini drum kit which had been sitting in his studio, waiting for its moment of glory.

phill-studio-laud
Phill adding a laud part to Backyard Animals in his studio (mini drum kit hiding behind)

I’d always planned to leave A Dance for Sharks as a solely guitar/voice piece, so a quick dab of some nice reverb was all that was needed.

am-drums-farmOne of the other benefits of finishing the Backyard Animals EP on home turf was the chance to call on the abilities of another old friend – Amjid, the drummer of The Lazy Lizards. As we’ve done on several occasions in the last decade, Phill and I headed over to Am’s farm with some recording gear and set up the cow shed for an afternoon of bashing things. We swiftly added some tom heavy rhythms to Backyard Animals, before moving on to 10, 000 Years. There we ran into difficulties, typically of my own creation. Although I’d recorded the original tracks to a metronome in the studio, my timing was as usual lax. On a spare song like 10, 000 Years and with a narrow window of recording time, this caused Am no end of grief as he tried to play in time to my drifting performance. Disappointed in myself and feeling the song slipping away, it cast a bit of a cloud over the end of the recording session.

 

phill-bowed-cymbalHowever, there were plenty of rays of sunlight cutting through the grey. We had fun getting eerie sounds out of Am’s beloved cymbal collection by playing their edges with a violin bow, sounds we used to bolster Alex’s accordion drone across the opening bars of the album. And it was great being together again – Am’s recent musical endeavours have been in a rockier direction and I kept asking for certain sounds from his box of tricks. Odds and ends of percussion gear he hadn’t touched since the last time we’d played together were being dug out of his drum shed.

I went home to Somerset, leaving Phill to sort out the mess we’d left of 10, 000 Years. A week later I was back in his studio, listening to his heroic salvaging of the song. Digital nudging of the different elements had helped guitar and drums lie together more happily. We added some acoustic bass and barely there slide, took a turn around the park to be chased by the black swans and rest our ears, then returned to the studio for a final listen. At long last, the Backyard Animals EP was complete.

The whole business of making this modest collection of songs has been an enlightening one. The production by email proved less convenient than I imagined, and the process underlined how you can’t beat sitting in the same room together for getting the kind of results you want from a track. I don’t think it will be an approach I’ll be in a hurry to embrace again. I think Phill may thank me for that.

I came back to Cairo with a Zoom H5, a sophisticated portable recorder. This bit of kit at the very least should make future video performances sound a little crisper, but it will also give me the opportunity to be more autonomous in producing my own recordings. Of course, there’s a massive learning gap still to bridge, and any results will no doubt come out a lot more low-fi than my previous releases, but I’m hoping with a lot of hard work I might be able to come up with something fit for the world at large. It’s been sitting in a drawer since I returning to Egypt, I guess now’s a good time to go and unbox it . . .


Listen and download Backyard Animals for any price you like (including nothing at all!) here: https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/album/backyard-animals-ep

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Recording the Backyard Animals EP

EP Launch: Backyard Animals by Far Flown Falcon

Backyard Animals Small
cover painting by Mzung

Ten months ago I released my EP A Crown on a Chain. In my post launching that record, I mentioned a new collection of songs coming out by the end of 2015. I should have known better! While I fell far short of that prediction, the delay was worth the wait and I’m very happy to share Backyard Animals. To listen and download the EP, follow this link:

 https://farflownfalcon.bandcamp.com/album/backyard-animals-ep

As before, I’m subscribing to the pay what you like model, which includes getting it for free. I’d like my music to be heard as widely as possible, so don’t be afraid to download for nothing so long as you share, share, share!

Unlike the previous release, this is the first time I’ve sat down and written an entirely new collection of songs with the intention of recording them together. I feel like it’s been an important step in my journey as a songwriter. I think I’ll need a little perspective so assess how successful it’s been, but I’m hoping that it’s opened the door for further songs, recordings and releases.

I started the EP last year in Borneo, recording my parts at RAM studios in Kota Kinabalu with Malaysian fingerstyle guitarist Roger Wang. The record was then completed with Phill Ward producing in Moseley, Birmingham last month. Phill also played lots of different instruments, and in addition I was lucky to have the musical contributions of Alex da Silva and Amjid Hasan. My wife Mzung painted the lovely cover and was as ever a constant source of support and inspiration.

For those interested; keep an eye on this blog for an upcoming post which will go into more detail about the process of recording of the songs on this album.

Cairo, Egypt,

August 2016

EP Launch: Backyard Animals by Far Flown Falcon

Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats

If a stranger asks me to play them a song, Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats is more often than not the one I turn to. I think it’s one of the best marriages of an African musical sensibility and an English lyrical density that I’ve thus far been able to come up with. It also means a lot to me.

In 2009, my old band the Lazy Lizards had reached the top of their brief trajectory. We’d made some music we were very proud of, enjoyed some modest local success, and had an awful lot of fun. Yet it was clear to me that to continue climbing in creative and commercial ways would require a lot more time and commitment from everyone involved – time I knew that people would struggle to find. If we continued as we were, I feared we would stagnate. As none of us were getting any younger, I decided we should go out whilst we were still on a high.

I made plans to begin a new life which involved not only saying goodbye to the Lazy Lizards, but also my home, family, friends and job. I was desperate to see more of the world, but it was still a poignant departure. Set Sail . . . was written as a fond farewell. I remember it came quickly and almost effortlessly; written in a couple of weeks, recorded in a day and first performed in public solo as the final encore of the Lazy Lizards’ farewell show.

So the song serves as an important bridge from my days as a member of a band – the context of my first successful attempt to find a musical voice – and my subsequent journey as a solo musician. It’s the opening track of my first EP A Crown on a Chain under the Far Flown Falcon name.

There is also a rather poignant link here to the last song I shared – The Naked Hills. I made the video below last year whilst living in Borneo. Not far from my house there was this beautiful jungle clearing which served as a regular destination for evening and morning strolls. My wife and I kept on meaning to spend a few nights camping there, but before we could make our plans happen our little haven was destroyed – cleared to make room for a rubber plantation. None of the forest around where we lived had any protection, and most of it was privately owned by local smallholders. In the two years we spent living in Sabah, a tremendous amount of the woodlands around our home were gobbled up by the palm and rubber estates. Now this spot survives only in the video below.

Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats

Verse 1

Well I hear there’s no further need

For cartography

They’ve mapped the whole world

And it’s geography

Pictures have been taken from way up on high

Uploaded to the internet for the whole world to pry

There’s really no need

To leave your armchair

Verse 2

Now it’s a muddling

Calamity

To witness a once proud ship

Of Her Majesty

Stuck in the mud, in a fit and a fug

Overtaken by everything but the snails and the slugs

And it’s a feeling I’ve come

Come to share

CHORUS

Too much landlubbing, gotta get my sealegs running

Scrape the barnacles from the hull

Too much peglegging, these stitches unthreading

Sort the rigging whilst the storm lulls

And set sail whilst the ship still floats

Verse 3

Now I have a casket of curiosities

Of gewgaws and gimcracks and doodads and knickknacks

And other

Eccentricities

Malagasy, Honalulu, Indochina, Ougadoudou

How I wanna go there

CHORUS

Too much landlubbing, gotta get my sealegs running

Scrape the barnacles from the hull

Too much peglegging, these stitches unthreading

Sort the rigging whilst the storm lulls

And set sail whilst the ship still floats

BRIDGE

Now I need to know just where the birds go

Come September, September

And I’ll splash my feet where the dancing dolphins leap

Across the skyline, the skyline

Verse 4

And I know I’ve a treasure chest buried beneath the sand

Of cherished friends and lovers and the sounds

Of a magic band

Magellan he says that the world is a sphere

And if that’s the truth I’ll find my way back to here

To all of the ones

That I hold dear

CHORUS

Too much landlubbing, gotta get my sealegs running

Scrape the barnacles from the hull

Too much peglegging, these stitches unthreading

Sort the rigging whilst the storm lulls

And set sail whilst the ship still floats

Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats

The Naked Hills (for Chut Wutty)

The Naked Hills was written in what I tend to call ‘kora’ tuning. High to low, the strings are DADF#BE. This is the tuning that my friend and teacher Derek Gripper settled on when he started arranging the repertoire of the kora (a West African harp, usually with 21 strings) for guitar. I spent some time learning from Derek over Skype, and whilst I’ve yet to properly master any of his kora arrangements, I have started using the tuning for my own compositions.

The basic chords and picking pattern of The Naked Hills was something I stumbled across just doodling away late one evening on my porch in Borneo. I remember I wasn’t trying to do anything much; the guitar was just in my hands, and suddenly there was a song. Within about an hour, two sketches of verses were written. Using Audacity, I recorded a crude demo including a solo with some delayed guitar. For some reason I can’t fully remember, I toyed around with the key, artificially changing it through Audacity. The alteration gave the guitar a brittle sound which to my mind made it sound more like a Malian stringed instrument, a development I was well pleased with. Although it couldn’t get more lo-fi, the final recording captured the excitement of discovering the song. My wife also liked what I had done and ended using the song over the closing credits of her short film When Our Gardens Grow Silent.

I soon expanded The Naked Hills, adding a chorus and developing the lyrics. The title was one I’d carried around for a long time, but remained particularly resonant in Borneo. Living in South-East Asia, rampant deforestation is something you are constantly confronted with. The rapid pace of development in these nations mean that all too often you can watch forests disappear in front of your eyes. The title of the song came to me after a trip to Laos. On returning to Vietnam (where we lived at the time) we passed through the astounding rain forests of Dong Amphan. They remain some of the most beautiful and dramatic forests I’ve ever seen. Yet once we arrived at the Vietnam border we were presented with a cruel sight. On the Laos side the verdant jungle. On the Vietnam side, nothing but bare hills. For miles and miles and miles.

The final section added was the swifter, happier outro. This piece of music came on the same night as the rest of the song, but it took me a while to work out they belonged together. I wanted to add a more hopeful denouement to a rather heavy song, with a plea to “Let Eden grow again”. The outro also mentions the following;

I’ve watched ships as large as islands

Bearing forests across the sea

This is a quite literal reference to enormous logging barges I’d sometimes see from my home in Borneo. They’d be piled high with so much timber that visiting friends would often ask what the little islands on the horizon were. I’d point out that ever so slowly, they were moving.

Deforestation-Borneo-2

The lyrics, and musically the nuts and bolts, were finished months ago. However I spent ages trying to come up with a convincing solo, once again trying to push my fingerstyle skills. The challenge is that the most of the chords lie on fretted bass strings rather open ones. The received wisdom is that you maintain the basic integrity of the song through the bass whilst playing some lead along the treble strings. If those bass strings are fretted this job is a lot more challenging – one finger is always committed to that root note.

I struggled and struggled, but when I began playing the song with Reem her lovely cello lines quickly made my efforts to inject my own solos rather redundant. I contented myself with playing my simpler parts, and fairly rapidly realised that cello or no cello, The Naked Hills didn’t need to be more complicated guitar-wise.

Not long after I started writing the song, I came across the story of Chut Wutty, the Khmer activist who was eventually murdered in his defence of Indochina’s forest realms. The story resonated deeply, so I decided to dedicate the song to him. I rewrote the second verse from his imagined point of view.

I’ll conclude here with Chut Wutty’s words:

The forest is like the skin protecting our bodies

Without it we couldn’t survive

 ⊗

The Naked Hills

verse 1

Well I walked amongst these ancient hills

The sadness clinging to my heart

As I watched those oily juggernauts

As they tore the land apart

chorus

On the naked hills

There’s the naked fear

Of the naked greed that money rears

Shorn of life

Short of time

The bare earth drinks our naked tears

verse 2

Well he walked amongst his native hills

The red mud clinging to his boots

Then he toppled down like the trees about

Cut down to the root

chorus

On the naked hills

There’s the naked fear

Of the naked greed that money rears

Shorn of life

Short of time

The bare earth drinks our naked tears

outro

Well they’ve torn down nature’s architecture

Those mighty living trees

I’ve watched ships as large as islands

Bearing forests across the sea

Oh when will greed be exorcised?

From within the hearts of men

When will we clothe this land in greenery?

And let Eden grow again?

 

The Naked Hills (for Chut Wutty)

The Sun Slumps Down

 

I’ve written three new songs here in Egypt – this is the latest I’ve finished but the first I want to share. The Sun Slumps Down was filmed in my flat in Zamalek, Cairo, and includes the sounds of the parakeets that live about, the honks of horns and the ever-present low-level hum of the traffic.

Zamalek

It might be rather hard to believe, but the song originated from my attempts to play a song by Tabu Ley Rochereau*. The finished article sits quite a long way from Congolese Rumba – further than I’d like it, but at least my shortcoming resulted in something I could confidently call my own. It’s interesting that regardless of how hard I try, the centre of gravity remains the sound of the English folk tradition. Despite my efforts to emulate the music of Central Africa, I suspect The Sun Slumps Down sounds more like something that might have been played at Les Cousins in Soho during the Sixties folk revival. It’s a perennial conundrum; in my blog about composing A Dance for Sharks I noted a similar and unlikely trajectory from an Afrobeat inspiration to something more familiar.

 

Here I took a different approach than normal to the vocal melody, rather than writing a set of lyrics and fitting them to the chords I was playing (which is the usual method). I didn’t want the words to dictate the melody too far, so I recorded several demos just singing gibberish or la-la-la-ing over the guitar track. Thus the vocal was about 70% mapped out when I started writing proper lyrics, and I tried my best to write to the existing melody. It meant I had to drop a few choice lines, but I think it helped me craft a better song overall. It’s a technique that has worked for me before – I did a similar thing for an old Lazy Lizards song called You Are The Sky and the results sounded good to my ears.

One of the holy grails of fingerstyle playing is being able to keep the basic propulsion of a song (usually through its bass line) going whilst simultaneously playing a solo. I give myself a little instrumental break in the middle of The Sun Slumps Down. It’s well short of the ‘one guitar sounding like two’ wizardry of the best fingerpickers, but I am trying to push my further with what I can do. Originally I composed a longer sequence, carefully tabbed out using Guitar Pro, and resolved to learn it note for note. Inevitably though, when practising I couldn’t always be bothered to fire up the computer and go back to look in detail at what I’d figured out. As a result, the ‘solo’ part shrunk to four bars of the licks I could remember. This natural paring down was probably for the best, I imagine I remembered those licks because they were superior. Or maybe they were just the easiest.

Originally called The Well, I decided The Sun Slumps Down was a more evocative title. As the song developed, more and more of the imagery reflected the sunset – the time of day became more significant than the place. One technique I used in composing the lyrics was harvesting words that struck me as being interesting, or perhaps just sounding pleasing. In this case I used as my source articles and reviews from online music journal the Quietus. The writing in the Quietus, as the best music writing should be, is usually a little over the top and at times verging on the ridiculous. As a result, they tend to spew out some curious vocabulary. As I browsed through pages that took my fancy, I jotted down words I liked in my notebook. Then I tried to build sentences around the words and shoehorn them into the narrative of the song. At times it worked – often it didn’t. ‘Slump’ was one word I took that stuck. The sun slumping down felt to me a neat way of emphasizing the languid scene being captured in the lyrics.

I approached this song as vignette, a description of a scene inspired by two moments living in South East Asia. In Borneo there was a water pump I often used to pass on the way to school that was used by the villagers in the kampong to bathe and wash clothes. In the countryside in Laos, rivers are often used for the same purpose, and I recall disturbing (completely innocently) some young women at their ablutions on an evening’s walk. Early drafts of the song also included young men hiding in the bushes, spying on the women as they bathed. I was trying to draw allusions towards awakening sexuality, but ultimately it just sounded too pervy. Instead I looked at the angle of the cultural divide, with the foreign narrator the only one bearing witness to the scene. Without a shared language it can seem so difficult to make a meaningful connection beyond the look described in the song. At times people in other cultures can see impossibly far away. It surprises me that I still have moments of feeling like this, even though my own experience has shown given time you can forge a connection with just about anyone on our little planet.

Here are the full lyrics

The Sun Slumps Down

Verse 1

There’s a well beyond the village

And at a certain sunset hour of the day the maidens come to bathe

Where the old wives shuffle

Away they go with their buckets and pails, bowing heads to gossip

The hypnosis in how the water behaves in its leaping splashes and cascades

I swear it sings a serenade

As the sun slumps down

As the sun slumps down

But a single girl holds my gaze

 And she does not look away

But there are no words that we can speak

At least none that we can say

Verse 2

When the butterflies flutter

And make their certain zigzag way to take sleep beneath a leaf

When the fireflies stutter

Starting up their lamps just for the night ahead

There’s a dozen steps between me and her

But no matter what the fantasies stir, this moment won’t go any further

So the sun slumps down

So the sun slumps down

Yet the barbed branches hold me tight

At the dying of the day

And there are no words that we can speak

At least none that we can say

 

*Somewhat improbably, Wikipedia tells me that Tabu Ley Rochereau wrote somewhere in the region of 3,000 songs. I need to write something like 2,950 more songs to catch up. No problem, surely . . .

The Sun Slumps Down

Strings for the Road: guitars and similar things go backpacking

Despite my best efforts, life is settling back to normal, with such undesirable elements such as a steady job and a place to call home creeping inevitably into view. Still, the few scant months of no fixed abode were fun. Travel is as much a passion as music, and in some ways, the two go hand in hand. But a guitar’s not always an easy travelling companion.

Of course, the guitar’s great success as a music-making machine stems not only from its versatility but its portability. That being said, when you’re planning on doing a bit of backpacking on a budget, lugging your favoured instrument around the back of beyond isn’t always an appealing option. It’s unwieldy, and it’s likely to get into all kinds of knocks and scrapes. My main guitar isn’t particularly expensive, but even so, I baulk at the thought of it lurching about atop a fifty-year old mini bus, rattling down a dirt road, with only a fabric carry case to protect it from the elements. Yet the thought of going travelling for a goodly stretch without something to play is equally unappealing.

Here are some solutions I’ve tried out over the years.

An old beat-up guitar

Being so ubiquitous as they are, if you play for long enough, a second, third or fourth hand guitar is likely to fall into your lap at some point. For all of us who play, there must be an equal number of friends and family who picked up a cheap guitar, gave it a go, gave it up, and let it languish in the dusty corner of a spare bedroom for years. It’s often easy to liberate such forgotten relics for your own purposes. In my case I found a forgotten guitar mouldering atop a cupboard at work, stringless and caked in so much grime it looked like it had been abandoned to the ash cloud of some volcanic eruption. In this case I didn’t even ask, instead concluding anyone mistreating their instrument so didn’t deserve to keep possession of it. I swiped it.

hitching_guitar_laos
The beat-up guitar providing some tunes during some fruitless attempts at hitchhiking on Laotian back roads.

Even so, I didn’t particularly hold the thing in high esteem. It sounded better with strings, but only a little. Even after a liberal oiling, tuning the guitar produced creaks and groans reminiscent of an old galleon at full sail.

But my disregard was liberating. We went on several trips to Laos together, and the whole time I was happily unburdened by any concern for its welfare. I cast it casually into the back of pick-ups and tuk-tuks, squeezed it into too-tightly packed luggage compartments of buses, showed nary a wince at each woody clonk of rough-handling. I left it out overnight with the elements. I played it in the rain. Having come to me without the parting of hard cash, I was content knowing that should it be crushed, warped, set alight or stolen I wouldn’t shed a tear.

Of course, the guitar responded to this abuse by sounding better and better. In fact it proved quite invincible and eventually I gave it to a friend who had a greater need than me.

A ukulele

Of course, the cheapest guitar in the world is still of a size to make it inconvenient when backpacking; limited means usually mean one isn’t graced with a lot of luggage room, especially amongst the four to a seat, lemon crates in the aisle and goats on the roof conditions which mark the very best bus journeys the world has to offer. Although there are especially designed travel guitars available, they always seemed like a bit of a waste to me – effectively paying for something which might be convenient for the road but is ultimately inferior in all other spheres.

So instead of finding another guitar to go travelling, I instead decided to get a ukulele*.

uke small
Playing ukulele on the Padas Damit river in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Sorry about the knees.

Now the ukulele’s incredible resurgence of late is at risk of making it a bit passé, but I’ve never been cool. Despite the damage done by all the teenagers playing Taylor Swift covers in their bedrooms the world over, the ukulele’s got a wonderful sound I always get a kick out of. They’re tremendously popular in Malaysia (check out Borneo’s own Zee Avi for instance), and of course living a stone’s throw from the beach inspired that certain island sound.

Obviously, one of the great benefits of a ukulele is it’s tiny. You can take it just about anywhere – it’s not going to raise any objections if you carry it onto a plane, for instance. Mine flew to South America under my seat. It’s also very easy to play – which of course is a blessing for people just starting out.

Yet for someone who’s already been bashing away on guitars for over a decade, I quickly found my uke’s simplicity somewhat limiting. A ukulele only has four strings, which in standard tuning follow those of a guitars highest four strings, but with an important exception – what would be the lowest string on the guitar is an octave higher on a ukulele. When you strum all the strings, the first thing your fingers hit is this higher string, giving the ukulele its distinctive happy sound.

At the end of the day this means you don’t play the ukulele the same way as a guitar. As fingerpicker, the absence of bass strings to explore and add some counterpoint to the trebles was something I really felt. Whilst the ukulele is definitely fun to play, I am always aware I’ve got a broader palette of possibilities on the guitar.

A guitalele

Luckily enough, it seems there is a best of both worlds. At the end of last year I got hold of a Yamaha guitalele. A guitalele is basically a ukulele-sized guitar, but retains some of the ukelele’s lilting sound. I’d fiddled around with a guitalele a few times in Hollywood Music in Kota Kinabalu, and been  little worried about its relative lack of volume and getting my fat fingers around its cramped fretboard. However, it wasn’t too expensive, so eventually I threw caution to the wind and bought one.

guitalele_borneo_camping
Playing guitalele around the campfire in Egypt.

Crucially, because the guitalele has exactly the same configuration as a guitar capoed at the 5th fret, you can compose guitar pieces on it whilst enjoying the portability of a ukulele. That being said, it has a sound all of its own. If you’ve been following some of the songs I’ve posted on the blog of late you’ll notice I’ve been giving the guitalele a lot of love. In many cases, I’ve set out to write guitar songs on the guitalele whilst travelling but concluded I like playing them on the guitalele better. A little bit of practice was all I needed to adapt to the smaller fretboard – in fact it’s trickier re-adapting to space of a proper guitar’s neck!

So my conclusion – the guitalele is a great companion for a musician travelling light; not only as a stand-in for a guitar, but also as a bona-fide second instrument.


 

* Well, to be absolutely truthful, I bought it for my wife, then nabbed it. But that’s another story.

Strings for the Road: guitars and similar things go backpacking

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