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.


Pass Without Trace

A few months have passed since I resolved to write four songs in one month, but finally I have a full recording to present of one of the tunes written during that project. This is Pass Without Trace, recorded in Abu Simbel, the most southerly town in Egypt, site of Ramses the Great’s famous temple, and a mere twenty minute drive from the Sudanese border.

An anti-protest song

Writing from the folk music tradition as I do, the concept of the protest song stands tall. Pass Without Trace though, might be considered an anti-protest song. Six years ago I wrote Nyabinghi 11-01-11, a song celebrating the Arab Spring, and the overthrow of the ‘tyrant upon the throne’ in Egypt. However, the promise of those days has long dissipated, and now most of the Egyptians I meet turn their energies mainly towards escape, be it an actual escape or just a creative one. So Pass Without Trace works as something of a sister song, reflecting that desire. It’s a thesis that spreads itself more widely – as the world strides towards its own destruction, it becomes harder and harder to muster the energy to battle the forces of darkness (and I mean you, Mr. Trump!).

Magical Realism in songwriting

Since I left the UK, one of the most interesting considerations I face when lyrics writing is finding the right world for my songs to inhabit. My day to day experience is no longer the familiar culture of pastoral England, but it’s not a world I can pretend to fully understand – be it Egypt (where I live now), or the other countries I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in. Mixed up in this, my musical influences veer further away from the traditional canon of Western music, and as a result, I find my lyrics begging a different setting.

In magical realism, I think I’ve found an answer that suits my natural proclivities. Magical realism is a genre perhaps most famously illustrated by South American novelists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Novels such as 100 Years of Solitude, present a version of Colombia which is recognisable as our own world, yet where fantastical places, characters and events exist naturally alongside the familiar.

I find using such an approach helpful, as it allows me to excuse my own ignorance while stealing all the best imagery Egypt has to offer. In Pass Without Trace, this is best demonstrated by a reference to the High Dam, the great civil engineering work of President Nasser, which blocked the Nile, controlling the inundation and allowing Egypt to exploit its limited water resources like never before. Beyond the High Dam, Egypt does indeed get wilder and emptier, and like in the song, there are crocodiles to be found. Yet unlike our protagonist’s journey, there is no swamp to negotiate, just the largest man-made lake in the world, and the desert on all sides. Thus the real world provides the starting point, but in service of the song, fictional and fabulous details emerge.


Some well-placed foul language

Front and centre of the chorus of Pass Without Trace is some rather Anglo-Saxon language in its most expressive form. Sheepishly, I must admit being an enthusiastic fan of bad language in song. ‘Fuck’ has such an aural aesthetic – it might batter the ears but it’s a delight to say. And there are many songs which benefit from its deployment, such as the gleeful contempt in Cee-Lo Green’s Fuck You, or the quiet exasperation and befuddlement expressed in the chorus of Thom Yorke’s Black Swan. I must admit to being a bit of a serial offender in this department, another song in my repertoire is called Your Shit Still Stinks The Same.

1 month 4 songs progress report

So whatever happened to those four songs that were supposed to be finished in a month? Well, the initial burst of creativity bubbling away during the project got 80% of the songs written, but in perfecting them and mastering the singing and playing of them progress has slowed. It’s not surprising that Pass Without Trace was the first to surface, as guitar-wise it’s the simplest to perform. Of the others, Bold Little Weasel is complete, but still a challenge to pull of successfully to the tempo as written. But for a few fiddly bits, When The City Is Home is also more or less together. Let’s Make Our Bed Together lies a little in limbo, as I’m not sure whether it completely works as a song, and I’m undecided as to whether to kindly euthanize it or throw it out in public and see if it can survive.

Blog posts relating to the writing of Pass Without Trace during the project can be found here:

Day 2: Stones in the Stream

Day 7: Zoom Zoom

Day 25: Reggae on the River

And these are the complete lyrics:



Pass Without Trace

Verse 1

These shackles hamper our every move and rattle with each twitch

No doubt that the turnkey would start awake should you even scratch an itch

So crash the system, dupe the world, and set the currency aflame

Usurp the tyrant on his throne, though you’d end up just the same


Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Verse 2

There’s no move that could salvage the game, you’ve not even a pawn to play

The only move that you have left is to simply turn away

To the swamps above the High Dam, where the vapours take the scent

The primeval ooze it fills back in and your footprints leave no dent


Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Verse 3

The crocodiles still linger here to devour the tracking dogs

The spy drones can’t probe the undergrowth, the murk through which you slog

Sleep in all your clothes tonight, they’ll slowly tear away

And there’ll be no trace left of the modern world whose presence would betray


Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Pass without trace

Pass without trace


Foolin’ with an Oud

When I first arrived in Egypt I resolved to learn to play the oud. Like many a resolution of mine, it was probably the greater part wishful thinking, especially as I hadn’t really appreciated how busy work would prove to be in Cairo. A year has come and gone, but finally I have something to say on the subject of the oud and I.


For those not in the know, the oud is a stringed lute played throughout the Middle East, even travelling as far as Borneo where it evolved into the gambus. It is regarded as the ancestor of the European lute, and thus also might be considered the grandfather of the guitar*. Modern ouds usually have about eleven or twelve strings, which are mostly strung paired. It plays with a natural, woody tone, and lacking frets beguiling slurs and slides give it a distinctly oriental sound.

My first exposure to the instrument and its music was via BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, which finished one of their witching hour shows with a piece from Anouar Brahem’s album Barzakh. Even as those tumbling notes lulled me to sleep I knew I was hooked. My interest was recently revived when watching a performance by Driss El Maloumi at the Rainforest World Music in Sarawak a couple of years ago, and I’d now cite Driss as my favourite oud player. Since moving to Egypt, I’ve seen the oud used in all different kinds of situations – sometimes in a classical music context, more often with folk ensembles playing Nubian, Bedouin or Sufi music, sometimes providing simple accompaniment to a singer, and sometimes as an exhilarating lead instrument playing solos to make a guitarist weep.

One Egypt’s most prominent players (although actually Iranian) is Naseer Shamma. I went to enquire about lessons at his famous Beit el Oud school, where I was ushered up to see the man himself, largely I believe because he was only person to hand who could speak English. He was in the midst of demonstrating a lengthy piece to a colleague, so I was left to sit quietly in his office and observe him playing at close range for some ten minutes, after which he eloquently apologised for keeping me waiting! If only I could get such an experience every time I’m on hold . . .

I was able to prevail on my friend Ahmed Saleh to lend me one of his ouds a couple of weeks ago. This oud was the one he had first started learning on, and it certainly looks like it’s seen some years. The ornamented rosettes of the lesser sound-holes have some damage, it’s missing its highest strings, and its lowest string (the only one which isn’t paired) kept slackening to the point of utter flaccidity, so I ended up taking it off.

As a result, I was only playing the thing over four paired strings (rather than six), but this hasn’t really mattered, because when it comes to the oud I have very little idea what I’m doing. Though there’s plenty of learning resources out there on the Internet, I chose to embrace my ignorance and see what I could come up with just through experimentation. Over the last fortnight I’ve made a point of picking up the oud daily and trying to coax some music out of it. Here’s what I’ve learnt:

One of the immediate challenges I faced was simply the oud’s dimensions. A guitar nestles nicely in your body, its curves are welcome and inviting. The oud meanwhile is quite awkward. Like me, it has a significant protruding belly, and those two convex shapes are in direct opposition to one another. As a result, finding a comfortable position is difficult, and the instrument often slides away as I play it. Another difference is the pick. Rather than being held perpendicular to the thumb, as you would with the guitar, the long oud pick is cradled in the whole hand, emerging parallel to the thumb as if you were holding a dagger. Thus the angle of attack on the strings is quite different, although I found this change easy to adjust to.

Frets have been sketched across the neck of Ahmed’s oud. However, unlike the guitar, it’s not very easy to see what your fingers are up to when playing the oud, so these biro-marked frets weren’t really much help anyway. Surprisingly though, the oud’s lack of frets didn’t prove much of a problem. Guitar playing has given my fingers and my ears a sense of where the right sounds should be, and in truth the oud’s fretless neck is actually helpful in this regard, for if you miss the note it’s easy to slide to where you want to be and make out like that’s what you meant to do all along. However, I did find that when playing a cyclical riff it was easy for my fingers to drift away from where they’d begun, gradually sharpening or flattening the notes.

Overall, the biggest bugbear is tuning. Ahmed tuned it when he first lent it to me, although his talk of ‘la, mi, sol etc.’ and my vocabulary of ‘A, E, G etc.’ did lead to some confusion. Based on what I understood to be Ahmed’s advice, I tuned the oud quite high, the four functioning strings being A, D, G, C. After a bit of research, I concluded I should in fact be at F, A, D, G. Although this initially felt too low, with the bass strings lacking much tension, the more I played the more right this felt. Even so, I spent a lot of time tuning. The wooden pegs on the oud creak and slip, and it often feels like by the time I’ve finished tuning the last string the first has already shifted out of tune. I don’t think Ahmed’s oud has been played for a while, which doesn’t help it stay in pitch.

Another thing I haven’t got to grips with is what approach to apply to playing the oud. Obviously, the classical Arabic music tradition is a vast and currently rather abstruse (at least to me!), and on top of this there must be scores of different traditional styles. One thing I’ve noted is Egyptians play the oud in a very melodic, meandering manner. I’m used to the carefully ordered patterns of Western music, where themes repeat and beats usually fall in the same place. Listening to local oud accompanists, I’m struck at how hard it is to predict where they’re going to go – they rarely seem to play the same thing twice, yet don’t deviate far from the central melody, and the low thwack of the bass string comes and goes at random, rather than anchoring a piece as it would on a guitar. As a friend pointed out, my recent attempts to play the oud often leave it sounding closer to the guitar, though that doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

So, what next? I can generate the occasional pleasing sound. But my experimentations suggest to me that unlike other stringed instruments, the oud doesn’t really feel like something you can just dabble in. It feels like it deserves time and commitment.

source: cairo.gov.eg

If one wanted to learn oud, you couldn’t really wish for a better place than Cairo. There are lots of opportunities for tuition, foremost among the Beit el Oud in the Old Quarter of the city. How evocative it would be to study the instrument in the 300 year old courtyard. No doubt it would also be an avenue towards discovering more of the culture of Egypt. Still, the stark reality is that my current work schedule means I can’t commit to their schedule of three evenings of lessons a week, and if I can’t muster up such complete immersion I’m not sure if I see the point.

It’s the same conundrum that’s often arisen. I’ve been interested in learning electric lead, or slide guitar, or even some percussion, but there always seems so little time in the day, and so much more to discover and improve upon with my fingerstyle guitar playing. I have several songs on the guitar to finish. So my feeling is that for now the oud will have to wait in the wings.

*Though it would be foolish to imagine that the lineages of musical instruments run in such straight lines.

Foolin’ with an Oud

1m4s Day 29: Filling in the Gaps

lemmings-boxscanIt’s taken longer than it should have, but I now have four songs which are complete in the most basic sense of the word. They have chords, words, melodies and vague sense of feel. But they are far from finished. If I was writing for a band, now would be a time to introduce them and start shaping up an arrangement. This still needs to happen, but for the time being I’m doing so on my own, so it involves thinking about the fingerstyle arrangement and throwing in those ‘fiddly bits’ between the basic patterns. If this was cake baking, now would be time for the icing.

Bold Little Weasel already feels like the most complete of the new tunes, so was a natural choice to begin this process with. I decided I wanted a main ‘theme’ to represent the weasel, a solo part in the middle of the song, and a fill to link the bridge back to the final verse. Using Guitar Pro, I looped the basic fingerstyle arrangements over which these parts will be played and jammed over them to develop some ideas. The guitar parts to Bold Little Weasel have drifted away from their original inspirations; it now sounds quite ‘folky’, and I want to rectify this by alluding to Egyptian music in parts.

I began jamming on a stereotype: the famous(ly silly) Egyptian riff from the song Streets of Cairo, as quoted by the Beatles in the clip above. Transposing this to fit the key of Bold Little Weasel, I jammed over the verse chords, extending and altering the notes until I hit upon something which sounds different enough and interesting. These Eastern notes were a little unsettling, so I concluded they wouldn’t work as part of the main theme, but would suit the opening stages of the solo, which then blossom into a wider palette of notes. I also explored the ‘Egyptian’ scale to bring the bridge back to the verse chords, on the appropriate line “Egyptian dervish spins.”

The opening theme of the song (which I dubbed ‘the weasel’s theme’) needed something a bit brighter, cheerful, and reflecting the energy of the song’s subject. So here I left the Eastern scales behind and instead experimented with major hammer-ons and pull-offs on the major scale – more familiar territory for my fingertips.

Having come up with these lines, I worked them into my transcription directly. What emerges is rather busy, and realistically, a considerable challenge to play. And so the next step of filling in the gaps is to then shovel off the earth that doesn’t need to be there. A lot of the incidental notes of the basic arrangement become redundant when matched with the themes and solo. Some thought also needs to given to how the arrangement can be simplified. For example, the A section of the verse works with a G shape on the bass strings being slide up to 5th fret, with the relative root being A. When playing the leads, this is much more easily played as the open fifth string, leaving fingers free to tackle other notes – as seen in the transcription below.


Needless to say, I’m still a long way short of physically being able to play these leads. A lot of work needs to go into that step. In the meantime, you can listen to the Midi performance of the theme and solo as they currently stand. Hopefully, when this music is performed on a real instrument it won’t sound so much like the tune to a level of Lemmings!

1m4s Day 29: Filling in the Gaps

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.


1m4s Day 27: Onto Wider Waters

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.


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


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


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


When the whole world’s deceived thee

Confide in me

Stop this kitchen-sink philosophy

Confide in me

Confide in me, confide in me


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



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


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!


1m4s Day 17: Heading Up Country