Angel Coins

Also recorded during my recent few days in Abu Simbel was Angel Coins, a song I’ve been carrying around with me for about a year. Unfortunately, there are a few sound problems with the recording below. Hopefully the singing of the birds, golden desert and azure sky make up somewhat for the failings of audio.

When you’re writing your own songs, it can be very hard to be objective and recognise the quality of what you’re producing. Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas, which often barely register with the person playing them, that prove the most successful songs. I remember this point being made by Let’s Wait Until The Sun Comes Out, one of the most popular songs I wrote with my old band the Lazy Lizards. I remember it suddenly becoming a thing at a jamming session between our drummer and I one evening. We’d spent a couple of hours working on a song which we never finished, the details of which I don’t remember beyond it being heavy in subject and sound. Having made not a lot of progress, I started playing a bit of simple three chord township jive, Amjid joined in on cajon, and suddenly we had a hit on our hands.*

A similar story can be found behind the creation of Angel Coins. I spent Christmas 2015 at the house of a friend in the beautiful village of Tunis, near the Fayoum. This is the Egyptian countryside, another world entire from the hustle and bustle of Cairo. The weather was good, and most of the stay was spent doing little more than absorbing the mild winter sun in the orchard garden of our host’s home.

I had my guitalele to hand. I wasn’t trying to write something, but letting my fingers travel where they would while enjoying the tranquility. At some point during the morning my fingers found the two chord pattern that forms the main body of Angel Coins’ verses. I hadn’t recognised I had anything of import until my friend Reem mentioned that it sounded nice. This prompted me to play more attention. Mucking around a little longer brought me the descending bass line, and coming around to the realisation that I had something worth keeping I made a quick recording.

I kept fiddling around with the song whilst I stayed in Tunis, and began to conclude that whatever song it was going to be it should reflect its place of birth. In my previous post, I touched upon the challenges of finding a comfortable setting for songs that fall between the cracks of different cultures, and in Angel Coins I attempted another strategy. I tried to transpose some of the themes of romantic English folk songs to a desert landscape. Traditional song from my own culture is full star-crossed lovers finding their desires blocked by the constraints of social, familial and financial convention, and it’s very easy to find parallels in contemporary Egyptian culture. Conservative attitudes towards boy-girl relationships prevail here, and falling in love is a complex business. Once I recognised these mutual echoes, the narrative of the song unspooled naturally.

There is one element I still find a little inelegant. The object of the song’s affection lives with her uncle for unexplained reasons. Is she an orphan? Perhaps, but it’s got more to do with being forced in that direction because ‘niece’ rhymes with ‘caprice’. Sometimes being pushed into a rhyme like this suggests a new and pleasing direction for a song, but I have to admit in this case my solution was clumsy.

Probably the last thing to mention is the angel coin itself. What exactly are angel coins? According to a scholarly friend, an angel coin is actually the fossilised body of a tiny protozoa – a nummulite. This makes a sense; the Sahara was once a shallow sea, and in fact in Wadi el Hitan, the bones of prehistoric whales can be found amongst the dunes. Iangel-coins-rayann the deep desert there are arid fields of these angel coins. I’m no paleontologist, and some cursory investigation online finds no mention of angel coins, leading me to suspect that this name is actually a colloquial Arabic one. Whatever, the truth, it made a good song title!

The song mentions several other treasures of the desert; flint knives and pottery sherds. Egypt’s rightly famous for its early Pharaonic civilization, but the Nile Valley has played host to mankind for far longer than this, and on the shores of Lake Qairun the evidence of Stone Age settlements is liberally scattered across the ground. Are these ancient curios sufficient to win over a heart? The song leaves this for the listener to decide.

Ultimately, I’m really happy with the finished article. Thanks Reem for pointing out what I had; otherwise Angel Coins would have remained a brief little musical doodle played in an Egyptian garden – played and then forgotten.

These are the lyrics:

ANGEL COINS

Verse 1

Well, I came out of the desert

With my heart as barren as the moon

From a horizon indistinct

And with my faltering faith extinct

Marching to misfortune

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Verse 2

With my pockets rattling heavy

With the pearlescent coins of djinns

Out beyond the barren hills

The bones of ancient beings spill

Parched seas and bare ruins

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Pottery sherds and angels’ coins

Bridge

Well I’m not a man of means

Yet I’m still hunting my very own dreams

And the wind still works the dunes

To form your face

I’m waiting for your alms

With these desert-creased, broken palms

And once in a thousand years the rains will come

So I’m standing at your gate

Left here by the laughing fates

With jackals wondering when I will succumb

Verse 3

Your uncle’s a man of circumspect

With no mood for caprice

And with no pennies to my name

I know he will not entertain

My petition for his niece

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Pottery sherds and angels’ coins

Just a sky full of stars and angel’s coins

Just a heart full of love and angels’

Angels’

Angels’ coins


*Well, not a hit, but by any stretch our most popular song.

Video

1m4s Day 17: Heading Up Country

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

luxor-guitalele-backpacking

1m4s Day 17: Heading Up Country

1m4s Day 10: The Bare Bones

mexican-skeleton-with-guitar-tattoo-design-2

Over the last couple of days I’ve been throwing together different chords and searching for the bones of my songs. My music theory knowledge being almost zilch, this is very much a trial and error approach – simply jumping around the fretboard and seeing what sticks. At this stage, I haven’t been giving any thought to any vocal melody, I’m simply stringing together chords which sound interesting. But they’re really just shots in the dark. It’s only when I start trying to sing over the top of them that I’ll know whether any of these bones will prove capable of supporting a song.

With this in mind, I’ve tried to resist the urge to get too caught up in what the guitar’s doing. My aim has been to just use chords, ignoring picking patterns, riffs and runs, until later in the process of composition. It’s actually proven quite hard to stick to this plan. Finding a set of chords which worked naturally triggers more ideas. In the crude examples below, you’ll hear some flourishes have crept in. And I’ve fallen into the trap of wasting time on these details. I’m in danger of running this metaphor into the ground, but I’ve ended up spending a lot of time putting flesh on the bone, and then stripping it off in frustration.

Another quandary is that the musical styles I’m trying to replicate don’t have a lot of chords in them. The focus is instead on the rhythm. So the question I keep asking myself is whether to be true to the style and keep it simple, or try and find some more dynamic progressions, at the risk of musically ending someplace else? So far, I’ve pitched somewhere in between.

I used two tunings on the guitalele to come up with these ideas. Standard tuning suits the bright feel of the African-flavoured music, while for the Arabic ideas I’ve gone with DADGAD tuning, which has a long history of entertaining ‘Eastern’ music on the guitar. Check out Davey Graham’s DADGAD ragas from the sixties should you have a chance.

I’ve transposed what I’ve written onto the software Guitar Pro, so what you’re hearing in the examples are Midi representations of the guitar parts, rather than my actual playing. Since I got hold of it a year ago, I’ve found Guitar Pro a powerful tool for my songwriting. How I use it is worth getting in to, but we’ll save that for another post. For fun, I synced up the Midi guitar with the LMMS drum loops to see how they’d all sound together.

You can hear the demos beneath. Tomorrow I’ll start trying to sing to them, and see if anything works. It might not, so it could be back to the drawing board!

1m4s Day 10: The Bare Bones

1m4s Day 3: Musical Fantasies.

This is the fun part. I’m spending today considering the musical accompaniment of the songs I’m writing, but at this stage I won’t be touching an instrument. Freed from the constraints of my abilities, today I’m better than Jimi Hendrix, Ali Farka Toure, Richard Thompson, Derek Gripper, John Williams and Martin Simpson all rolled into one, if only in my head.

My decision to write these songs purely on the guitalele will be a major influence on how these songs turn out. Its higher, happier sound lends itself from certain sounds over others. For instance, I’ve been yearning to write some reggae tunes but feel these would benefit from more bottom end that a proper guitar lends. The same goes for those Mali desert blues. For now, I’ll leave those on the shelf.

One the main areas I want to explore is the kind of African fingerstyle playing I’ve started to explore already, on songs such as Love’s A Big Word. The video below is another good example of the form want to further emulate – in fact, accidentally finding this video on Youtube was what led me to get a guitalele in the first place:

Of course, African fingerstyle is a preposterously broad definition, so more specifically it’s the playing of old musicians such as Bosco (from Congo) and Daniel Kachamba (from Malawi) that I want to emulate. A useful resource in this regard is the DVD African Fingerstyle Guitar by John Low, in which he breaks several examples of this playing, all the while looking deeply uncomfortable about the whole experience. Some of these he even plays capo-ed on the fifth fret, so the key is the same as the guitalele’s. Back in September I began work on a couple of tunes in this style. I didn’t get very far but those fragments might serve as starting points for this project.

Looking over the work from the last couple of days, certain songs appear like they might suit such an approach: Bold Little Weasel, Let’s Make Our Bed Together, Confide in Me. Of course, at this stage I’m speaking in the vaguest of vaguest terms as the songs are still in the primordial sludge phase of their evolution.

When The City Is Home is being written to possibly soundtrack one of my wife’s documentaries, so with this in mind it can’t grow as freely as the others. My wife’s suggested the music reflect Cairo, and she’s particularly interested in Sufi music. It’s an attraction I share, but I’m not sure how the arabesques will translate onto the guitalele – the fixed frets mean it can’t express the microtones which are such a feature of Eastern music. Still, I’ll give it a go – as usual, even if I fall short of my goal I might well end up somewhere different but worthwhile. A Different Kind of Light and Dusty, Dirty & Polluted are also about Cairo, so if I make any kind of progress with this music I might find accompaniments for those too.

Here’s some Sufi music, apparently performed by “El Tony”.

The final idea I’m toying with is trying to master some complicated charango rhythms and applying them to the guitalele. I used to play charango a little when I lived in Peru, but never got very far mastering the wonderfully complex, bouncing strumming, as demonstrated by this Boliviano from La Paz. It would be quite fun, but looking back to the lyrics I’ve been writing, I’m not sure if any of the titles really fit this kind of sound. Perhaps Pass Without Trace?

And if you need a bit more charango, and don’t mind quite a lot of viento, look no further!

So basically I’ve just spent the day dwelling on musical fantasies, and avoiding the real challenge of actually trying to play some of them! Perhaps that starts tomorrow?

N.B. For the time being, I’ve turned off the automatic email alerts whenever I publish a blog. As this is going to be happening several times a week, I don’t want to clog up people’s inboxes with endless updates. If you’re worried about missing a post, the best approach is to follow my Facebook page.

1m4s Day 3: Musical Fantasies.

1 month 4 songs

preface

I can see clearly now the rain has gone.

The rain of late has been in the shape of one heavy, heavy and sadly unhelpful piece of professional development for the intrusive ‘real world’, which is now safely dispatched to history (so long as I get a pass).

This means I can finally return to the business of living, which to me means making music. This year hasn’t been so productive on that front, and in the last days of the last month I want to make reparations and write some songs.

So here’s the plan – over the next 31 days, from the 6th December to the 6th January, I’m going to try and write four new songs, and to chart my progress with periodic posts here on WordPress.

I’m stealing the idea wholeheartedly from one Steve Knightley. Steve’s a West Country songwriter (like me, except he’s famous) and part of the folk band Show of Hands. He’s an important figure in my musical history because Show of Hands were the first band I ever saw live (I was probably ten years old, or thereabouts), and their songs have been a part of my life ever since. Recently, Steve resolved to do the same thing I propose, and charted his progress on Youtube:

I watched every installment, and now I’m going to try and do the same.

I won’t be trying things in quite the same way. Steve rather valiantly approached his project a song at a time, writing one song per week. That’s quite committed, and I know I’m not capable of focusing all my energies on a single composition for such a short period. Nor, to be honest, do I feel that’s the best approach, at least for me.

Instead I will try and write the songs concurrently, allowing the freedom for my attention from flow from one to the other as inspiration comes and goes. That way, the songs should have the space to breathe and grow.

One rather pleasant consideration is that it’s nearly Christmas, which means a long (and long overdue) holiday. I’ll be travelling around Egypt for this time, which means I’ll leave the guitar at home in favour of the more portable guitalele. With this in mind, the guitalele is what I’ll be using to write these songs.

As an aside, Steve Knightley also used his song a week for a month as an opportunity to improve his health, forgoing sugar and alcohol during the week and upping his exercise regime. Although I’m not a drinker I certainly have a sweet tooth, so this is something I would also benefit from emulating. Let’s see how that goes.

So, this all starts properly tomorrow. I’m going to get up early, grab a guitar or a notebook, and get cracking.

1 month 4 songs

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

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