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

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Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Two

1m4s Day 4: Deejay Falcon

screenshot-3

It feels a little like I’m postponing the proper songwriting, but today I wanted to experiment with a different way of music making. I usually find rhythms more exciting (and easier to create) than melodies, so I decided to make this my starting point. However, rather than using an instrument, I instead used LMMS – a piece of free beat-making software. It’s more commonly used to create dance music (hence the title of today’s blog), but I wanted to use it to create some simple rhythm tracks which could serve as the foundations of the songs I’m writing. It’s very easy to use; with a few hours tinkering I was able to create five tracks which I’ve strung together into one in the link below.

My points of reference were the Central African and Sufi music which I was reading about yesterday. I’m a novice user of LMMS, so there were limitations with what I could do. For example, it doesn’t seem possible to ‘swing’ tracks, and the drum kit samples on offer don’t match the traditional instrumentation of the styles I was trying to copy. In fact, most of them don’t sound remotely similar, especially the latter examples. However, I think they sound fun, and it’ll be interesting to see how the influence proceedings when I start trying to compose music to them. I can already imagine how the interplay between the bass drum and the other beats might dictate the pattern of the thumb and fingers when it comes to picking patterns on the guitar.

Trying to work out the rhythm behind Sheikh ‘El Tony’ from yesterday’s blog also led me to the website Khafif; a very illuminating and in-depth discussion of all kinds of different Arabic rhythms – which perhaps could be adopted for future songs.

I’ve a very busy weekend of work ahead, so in all likelihood they’ll be no more work on these songs until Monday. Until then!

1m4s Day 4: Deejay Falcon

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

Day is Done by Nick Drake

My relationship with Nick Drake has always been somewhat conflicted. I came across his music at uni, not long after I’d learnt my first few chords on the guitar. The deep, intricate fingerpicking on his three records for Island felt like an entirely different dimension back then, quite beyond the comprehension of my fingers, even if they pleased the ear. So it’s with a certain satisfaction a decade and a half later I can play one of his songs, though it’s a far sloppier version than what you’ll hear on Fives Leaves Left.

Back at university, all my contemporaries were busy raving about Radiohead and Coldplay. Nick belonged to a small cadre of 60s folk musicians whose songs were just mine. No-one else was interested, or so it felt.

The truth of course was that Nick Drake had always enjoyed a cult following, but somewhere in the 00s his star in popular culture suddenly seemed to be shining brighter, some thirty years after his death. His music could be found soundtracking Volkswagen adverts, and Brad Pitt was narrating a documentary about his life on the BBC. I was annoyed; not only because ‘my’ artist was now everyone’s, but also because I felt aggrieved to see Nick elevated above other songwriters of equal value, such as John Martyn or Richard Thompson. To put it darkly, their careers hadn’t had the benefit of mystery and a romantic early death.

Eventually I got over such silly concerns, a large part due to stumbling across some Youtube performances of Nick’s songs by a young artist called Tobias Wilden. Without the added instruments gracing Five Leaves Left and Bryter Later (though not Pink Moon), Wilden’s reverential takes heightened the focus upon Nick’s guitar arrangements. And having travelled a lot further along my own road as a musician, those arrangements (so accurately recreated by Wilden) no longer appeared so mystifying and impenetrable.

In fact, playing Day is Done is really quite simple. It’s a series of cyclical arpeggios and a descending bassline repeated throughout, for the most part nicely broken down in this video. I found the challenge was more about maintaining the accuracy of what I was playing rather than playing the notes themselves. The popular belief is that Nick Drake’s songs are all written in obscure, illogical altered tunings that no-one else could come up with, but Day is Done is in fact written in standard tuning, albeit capoed up at the fifth fret. As such, it was a perfect choice for my guitalele, which plays a 4th above a standard guitar.

What really interested me about Day is Done is the overall structure of the song. It’s really succinct, at just two and a half minutes, and never breaks out from that same repeating motif. There’s no chorus, although some repetition with the opening line of each stanza being repeated at the end. What really interests me though is the irregular length of the verses; two out of the seven verses each have an extra line. Being a little obsessed with symmetry in my own writing, this irregularity feels compellingly organic. It leaves me feeling there was less conscious composition behind writing the song, that the lyrics were written with guitar in hand rather than pen. It leaves me aware that songs should be fluid, and I do myself no favours applying needlessly rigid structures to my own compositions.

day-done-drake

Day is Done by Nick Drake

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