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.

crocodiles-lake-nasser

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

Chorus

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

Chorus

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

Chorus

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

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Video

1m4s Day 25: Reggae on the River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1m4s Day 25: Reggae on the River

Points of Light

Points of Light

Most of my songs take time to write. They come together phrase by phrase, line by line. They get edited, broken down, reassembled and sometimes abandoned. Space is given to reflect on each part of the process. I can write a simple couplet, or let my fingers find one little riff, consider it a good day’s work, and not do anything more on a song for several days. Sometimes songs need time to grow on their own. Or perhaps I’m just lazy. Regardless, it’s usually a span of months before a new song is considered ‘finished’, or at least grown up enough to step out in public.

Not so with Points of Light.

Reading the canon of modern popular music, there are many stories of great songs that arrive fully formed. Usually they’re written on the back of a napkin, or sung into a dictaphone after a momentary awakening from a lucid dream. Invariably such songs go on to be classics. Keith Richards woke from a drunken stupor, wrote the riff and lyric to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, then fell back to sleep.

I haven’t had many such bursts of instant creativity in my songwriting career. However, I have noticed that those few times I’ve succeeded in a creating a song within a short timeframe the results have been pleasing. Perhaps the jury’s still out on Points of Light – Mrs. Far Flown Falcon (the main arbiter of approval) was initially rather dismissive of the tune, but further exposure won her round. You can be your own judge:

If anything, writing quickly prevents overcomplicating a composition. Points of Light is certainly simple – three major chords on the verse, two of the same chords for the chorus, an easy reggae strum throughout. Easy reggae strums lend themselves very readily to the ukulele. I faked my way through a little percussion on the uke body on the repeat of the final chorus, picked at the verse chords for the outro and done! I’ve been listening a lot to Hawaiian reggae artist Mike Love* of late, and his approach to melody was no doubt an influence to Points of Light. Also:

Hold on to this little piece of cosmic positivity

Listen to too much reggae, and such phrases find their way into your vocabulary. Don’t be alarmed, it’s all for the good.

Preah Khan James

What’s perhaps unusual with Points of Light is that it grew from an emotional rather than creative seed. There was no melodic fragment or pleasing couplet that launched the song, or even an appealing title. Rather it was a need to express a feeling. That was a common enough motivation when I was younger, and my heart was getting broken on a regular basis. But these days, in my thirties, happily married, comfortable in my skin, I tend to write songs because they explore something interesting or tell a curious tale.

Not so with Points of Light.

And even though they are far, far away

They stray into my heart on every, every single day

As an incredibly sturdy and tireless crow might fly, my best friends live approximately 7,000 miles away. Luckily, thanks to the 21st century, we don’t have to rely on a mail boat to keep in touch. Skype let’s us talk to one another whenever we want and to see each others’ (rather pixellated) faces. It’s not the same as being in the same room, but it’s enough to touch upon the depth and invincibility of our friendship. It was after one such Skype conversation I was inspired to create Points of Light.

As I’ve continued to travel I’ve been lucky enough to make friends who are now scattered across every continent**. It may be years before I see many of them again, and there’s always the possibility I may never see some of them again. But the distance doesn’t diminish the importance of those relationships when the friendship is true.

Last year I had the chance to return to Peru. It was closing on a decade since the last time I had seen my friends there, but the time apart meant nothing once we’d finally reunited.

And when I piece together

All these points of light

We’ll come together into a

Soaring, soaring flight

Listen to the distance

Dwindling to a single beat

Let’s find a cloud together and rest our weary feet

80% of the song was written in a single evening, with the rest finished the following day. I didn’t think too deeply about the writing, I didn’t try to push myself with a complex arrangement. I just tried to express my feelings in as simple way as possible.

So I guess Points of Light came from wanting to tell how lucky I feel at having such wonderful friends all around the globe. And, not always being the best at keeping in touch, Points of Light is a message for all of you – the Carrs, the Lazy Lizards, the Somerset crowd, the Vallejos family, Lichi, Nayda and Mildred, Su and Si, Anh Dung, Tuyen, Thanh and Nam, Lance, Kari, Charlie and Rose, Mohammad and Habiba, all the others I’ve forgotten and the others still to meet. All these points of light.

Points of Light

This world is spinning in the darkness

Whirling around and around in the void

But if you look down from orbit

You can see a dozen points of light

Now these are not burning fires

These are not cities at night

These are the souls of my dear friends

Shining and blazing bright

Bright

 

And even though they are

Far, far away

They stray into my heart

On every, every single day

So if you’re out there listening

Wherever you may be

Just hold onto this little piece of cosmic positivity

 

A long time living the life of a nomad

But it’s only the places that I leave behind

And as my feet keep on with the motion

The rest of me resides with your voice

Your counsel, jokes, your consolations

Those times when we all rejoiced

And when came the time for departing

You only blessed my bittersweet choice

 

And when I piece together

All these points of light

We’ll come together into a

Soaring, soaring flight

Listen to the distance

Dwindling to a single beat

Let’s find a cloud together and rest our weary feet

And even though they are

Far, far away

They stray into my heart

On every, every single day

So if you’re out there listening

Wherever you may be

Just hold onto this little piece of cosmic positivity

Finally, a word on the video itself. We are travelling at the momentand found ourselves in Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the famous Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is just one of an enormous temple complex dating back centuries. The whole area is a World Heritage site, and of course tremendously popular tourist destination. However, such is the vastness of the temple complex that it’s relatively easy to escape the crowds and explore on your own.

We discovered Preah Khan, one of the smaller, outlying temples, on what was supposed to be the last day of our stay in Siem Reap. Still half covered in forest, the 800 year old ruins really captured our imagination, so much so that we vowed to stay another day, and returned the following morning at 5.15am to shoot the video for Points of Light.

It was a glorious morning – we had the whole temple to ourselves for more than two hours, except for the company of a myriad of birds – hornbills, parakeets, myna birds, orioles and more. Their incredible dawn chorus makes some pretty fine accompaniment for the song.

*On Mike Love. An incredible talent – follow the link and prepared to be blown away by the imagination on display. Then go and watch his other songs, they’re just as good.

**Well not Antarctica, but if there are any penguins who want to be friends then please write to me.


IN OTHER NEWS

  • Deep in the Music reviewed the A Crown on a Chain EP. It’s a great music blog reviewing all kinds of music.
  • I’ve been exploring WordPress myself, and been enjoying the Secrets in the Wall blog by Rosanna of New York duo Scott and Rosanna. It’s an interesting read for anyone interested in songwriting, and their music is super to boot – original songs, and some nice weaving together of ukulele and acoustic guitar on the demos shared on the blog.
  • Oh, and on a whim I shaved my head the day before making the video. Don’t worry Mum, it’s growing back fast.
Points of Light