1m4s Day 21: Getting Out Of Bed

luxor-morning-workspace

A week and a half without reliable Internet access means these these blog entries are being published retroactively.

Today I turned my attention to Let’s Make Our Bed Together, which has been lagging behind the progress made on the other songs. In my mind, it this is going to be quite a simple song, but that doesn’t necessarily make the task of composing it easy. You have to a lot of faith in the strength of your song to keep it simple. I’d cite Bill Withers as the master of this art – songs such as Use Me and Ain’t No Sunshine are mainly just two chord affairs with a lot of confidence.

From brainstorming melodies last week I had a piece which seemed like a verse and refrain. This I’d done acapella: apart from the chord progressions I’d been writing out.  It’s often a slight disappointment to discover when I look for a melody in this way the result is something rather crude harmonically. Though I was happy with what I’d sung, when I worked out the chords beneath it I realised it was just a simple I-II progression. In this instance, I embraced the lack of dynamic, and in fact, simplified things even more so that the verse was entirely on one chord, with the change to the minor coming only when the refrain kicks in.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of making those two chords the be-all and end-all of Let’s Make Our Bed Together. But ultimately (and this happens a lot), I denied my inner Bill Withers and inserted two mini-choruses and something chordally a bit more complex to provide the song a little relief from the dominating groove. I then spent the rest of the day working on the lyrics until I felt it had more matured out of an idea and into a prototype.

Finally, I got out of bed early to record a quick demo on the rooftop of the Nour El Balad hotel: most of my songwriting over the Christmas period has taken place here.

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1m4s Day 21: Getting Out Of Bed

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.

VERSE 1

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

CHORUS 1

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

VERSE 2

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

CHORUS 2

When the whole world’s deceived thee

Confide in me

Stop this kitchen-sink philosophy

Confide in me

Confide in me, confide in me

BRIDGE

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

 

VERSE 3

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

CHORUS 3

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 14: Half Way Reflections

At this stage I’m roughly half way through my project to write four songs in a month. What’s struck me so far is how difficult it is to ascribe a ‘method’ to a process that resists such strictures.

Although I’d like to believe in the strength of my own creativity, I’m also well aware that I’m quite ‘left-brain’ dominant. In most things I quite like order, or at least the outward impression of such. This thinking has been leading my approach to this project, where I’ve stepped through several stages in a song-writing process that are largely self-imposed. The intention to start big, with lots of ideas for lyrics and music, and then narrow down the focus has been of variable value. Lyrically, those sheets of lyrics I turned out in the first couple of days have been some of the most rewarding steps, and I feel I have lots of content to fall back on as I begin to shape those words into songs. But the macro-approach to the music – my insistence on writing different chord progressions but resisting getting too into the details felt a little self-defeating, and I think the musical arrangements should have progressed well beyond these nascent stages after two weeks work.

Having listened over the different ideas I’ve come up with so far, four songs emerge as the most promising. Still, understanding what a messy affair songwriting tends to be, I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the month, one, two or all of them have fallen out of favour.

This is the shortlist:

When The City Is Home: This is the title of a short film my wife is putting together, and she’s asked me to write a ‘theme song’ for it. The concept was born from our experience moving from rural Borneo to the heart of urban Cairo. We’re both people of the country at heart, and value our relationship with nature, so naturally we’ve taken great interest in the wild creatures that make their home in the city. This will be the subject of the film, and indirectly the song.  I want the song also to reflect its environment, so this is the song where I’ll try and evoke some of the Sufi music I’ve been discussing.

Let’s Make Our Bed Together: A love song to my wife, each verse a window of different stages of our relationship – the central metaphor being the act of ‘making the bed’ being the reset that overcomes each challenge we face together. My wife may scoff at the thought of making the bed being a mutual act, for I am a lazy git, but for the purposes of a song it works. Musically, it would go in the African rhumba direction, though the lyrical content might suggest something of a neo white boy soul kind of sound – and by that I mean akin to Radiohead’s House of Cards.

Bold Little Weasel: Strangely, Cairo is full of weasels, who like Britain’s urban fox have adapted to the challenge of living in the city. It always gives me a lift to see them darting across the street, so much so I thought they deserved their own little ode. So lyrically, this looks like a companion piece to Where The City Is Home. I’d like to try and turn this into a jolly number – I’m imagining something that evokes the British Sixties fingerpickers – a la Angie or Al Stewart’s Small Fruit Song but with a few Egyptian flourishes.

Confide in Me: A love song to a lost soul, who turns to all the wrong places for redemption. It’s one of those ideas that seems to lend itself very naturally to a song form – each verse decrying a different ill-advised spiritual saviour, with chorus imploring the song’s title. One of the most fully developed musical ideas I have so far is another bouncing bit of African flavoured fingerpicking which I think will serve as the foundation of this song.

It’s the last throes of the day job before the holidays come at present. Soon there should be a bit more free time on the cards, and hopefully the chance to really start moving these songs forward.

1m4s Day 14: Half Way Reflections

1m4s Day 11: Have I Got Anything?

cairo-sunset-egypt

Over the last couple of posts I’ve shared a few very early demos of ideas. All in all, I have about twelve different ‘mini-ideas’. What I’ve been doing today is singing along to these different passages of music.

First of all, I shuffled up the song lyrics I concocted last week. Then I simply turned on one of the demos, grabbed a page and started singing the words. Whenever I came across a melody which seemed to work I recorded it. For each musical ideas I’d experiment like this with different groups of lyrics, forming a ‘bank’ of different melodies. Afterwards, I will sit down and sort them out, homing in on the most promising for further development.

This has been by turns sometimes rewarding and sometimes frustrating. Certain things come with complete ease, and on others I’ve sat warbling ad infinitum, until I started to feel a little out of my mind. By the end of today I had 25 different vocal ‘memos’, recorded simply onto the sound recorder of my tablet. Below is an example, not much to speak of at the moment, but I think there’s potential there.

Have I got anything? Certainly, I think most of what I’ve come up will be discarded, but with so many ideas on tape I don’t need so much. I’d say there were at least three ideas I got really excited about (and notably, most of these were to the musical themes which were least interesting). By songwriting standards, three out of 25 isn’t bad going. I’ll listen again with fresh ears tomorrow or the day after, and see if there’s anything worth salvaging, and where to take what I’ve got next.

1m4s Day 11: Have I Got Anything?

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

Glen Hansard’s Thoughts on Songwriting

I’ve been aware of songwriter Glen Hansard since his role in the film Once, but it’s only been with his most recent solo material that I’ve really taken a serious interest in his music. I recently stumbled across a KCRW performance on Youtube where he also talked at some length about his philosophy when it comes to songwriting. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Glen was incredibly articulate in talking about his craft, and I was fascinated. Glen’s been doing loads of press for his most recent album Didn’t He Ramble, so there’s lots of interviews out there online to pick over if (like me) you get a little obsessive over these things. Overall though, he keeps returning to the same key points. I’ll be scattering the clips from which I sourced his quotes on songwriting throughout this article.

Glen-Hansard1-large

I’m always surprised at how little songwriting is talked about considering that the music industry as a whole receives such a massive amount of media attention. I guess inevitably consumers are more interested in making mythologies of their musical heroes rather than exploring the nuts and bolts of what they do. Since Prince’s sad passing, there’s been so many articles lauding his ‘Craziest Stunts’ and ‘Weirdest Moments’. How I’d love to read a really in-depth interview (not that he really gave interviews) on how he wrote a song, from conception to birth. That’s why finding all these Glen Hansard conversations has been so refreshing – here’s a man talking plainly about how he writes songs, and talking about it as a craft. No myth-making, no avoiding the honest truth that we fail as much as we succeed. Good, honest hard-work.

Glen’s observations cut straight to the core of what songwriting is all about. In all honesty any one of these thoughts could have generated a whole essay; at one stage I considered turning this blog into a three part series. After a lot of pondering and rewriting, I decided to hone in on the points that I resonated most strongly with me. I tried to avoid following my musings down too many rabbit holes: this is just a small warren.

“Singing it, singing it, singing it, until it starts ringing true”

The notion of hard work is a central theme behind what Glen says. It’s a rather intimidating concept. Dragging a song into enough daylight that you can look at it and call it finished is often a long and difficult journey. When you cross the finishing line, you’re often so happy that you got there you’re very happy to say a song is finished and leave it at that. That’s where the ringing true part comes in. There’s a great many songs that I’ve written and completely forgotten about. I finished them, gave myself a breather, but when I came back to singing them again I couldn’t find any truth in them. Would those songs have had a longer shelf life if I’d only worked on them a bit harder, kept singing those lyrics, changing those lyrics, singing those lyrics again until I was finally happy with them?

The trouble is working too long at a song is equally liable to destroy it. Perspective becomes impossible caught up in the convoluted roots of the song, trying to untangle words and match up rhymes. For me, I think the greatest problem is that I often begin a song with too fixed an idea of what it’s supposed to be; I don’t allow it to grow in the direction it wants to, which can be fatal. One solution I’ve been trying out recently has been taking the songs away from all the tools that shape their growth; away from the page, away from the guitar. I’ve been listening to simple demos on early morning walks and just trying to sing along to them as naturally as possible and seeing what ideas are still flourishing by the time I get home.

 “When you’re trying to get a lyric across the music takes a backseat.”

What comes first, the words or the music? A common question thrown at songwriters, and of course the answer is usually ‘it depends’. However, one of the challenges I’ve found myself coming up against recently is the disconnect with the music I’m making and the words I’m writing. My interest in African guitar music means that a lot of the guitar stuff I’m coming up with is rhythmically up-tempo and equally rather cheerful sounding. On the other hand, most of the lyrics in my notebook have a much more English identity, including a lot of baggage from the folk tradition and lyrical themes that don’t naturally lend themselves to music that makes you want to dance. My hope is that in demanding these two opposing forces work together I can come up with something innovative and different.

That being said, I question the wisdom in bending songs into shapes they don’t want to go into. It’s something of a conundrum. Would I be writing a better song if I wasn’t also trying to get it to sound like Tinariwen?

“Whenever I pick up a pen I wanna be smart . . . and you’ve immediately lost then”

I do worry about the amount of artifice in my writing. The first songs come easy, but when you’ve written twenty, or written fifty, there become less and less natural angles to lead you to something new. In seeking a different approach, the songs become intellectual exercises rather than something directly from the heart. By the time you’re properly into the deeper waters of songwriting, the process becomes a constant ebb and flow between applying the head and applying the heart to what you’re doing.

Overthinking has scuppered me a few times. For example, I raise my hand and admit I make an awful lot of use of imagery inspired by the sea. And a friend also pointed out to me that almost every song I write has a bird in it somewhere. For a little while I found myself discounting great lines that found metaphors in those places before I came to my senses and realised that I had to treat each song as its own entity. If someone notices a few themes crossing over then fair enough, I should just be glad they’ve listened to more than one song!

“I hear a lot of whining (in music). It’s an easy perspective to take. (But) there’s no vulnerability in moaning”

When I first started creative writing as a teenager, I wrote a lot of long, miserable poems (sorry to all my friends who had to read them). Glen’s right, it is an easy perspective, both from an emotional and a technical viewpoint. Writing provides a catharsis to what brings us down; burdens are lessened if we articulate the shadows in our lives. It also feels like there’re a lot more interesting words out there to play with when you’re hunting for metaphors and similes to describe the darkness.

Have I been whining? Scrolling back over the recent songs on this blog, I’d have to admit yes a little bit. I do notice a shift in outlook – I’ve moved from moaning about my own problems to complaining about the world’s problems. Despite, or perhaps because of, my years as a teenage miserabilist, I do try to provide light and shade. But is there more to offer? Glen talks about vulnerability, by which I think he means setting out what means the most to him and inviting the world to ridicule. His songs are very straight-talking. He talks about excising the lines which are merely there because they’re pretty, paring it down to the core of what he’s trying to say. He leaves himself no room to sidestep, whereas I’ve been guilty of surrounding my songs in too many shades of grey – perhaps it’s about this, maybe it’s about that, it can be about whatever as long as you like it. Perhaps that’s somewhat lazy, or even worse, cowardly.

“I didn’t want things to sound postured”

Most of the observations I’ve picked out from these interviews stand out as little nuggets of songwriting wisdom. However, this point I struggle with a little more. That old adage ‘write what you know’ comes from a similar place, urging against postures. Should every song be a straight line – beamed from the soul to the ears of the audience? A lot of Glen Hansard tunes are like that, and bloody good they are too, but even so, I quite like the kinks I put into that straight line. Are these postures? Perhaps, but I think they have some value. Again, after having written so many songs, coming straight from the heart, however pure, might also start to sound monotonous.

I think here that my environment is a factor. I’m a child of the English countryside, but I’m also a traveller, currently living in hot and dusty Cairo. The former is written in my DNA, but I don’t always want to be writing from the perspective of a pastoral folk picker. There’s another kind of song which is just as valid, where the songwriter’s role is closer to that of a storyteller. Consider a songwriter such as Nick Cave and his song The Mercy Seat, in which the protagonist is a convicted man sat upon the electric chair. Now as far as I’m aware, Cave has never returned from the dead (despite what his complexion might suggest), so The Mercy Seat has to be a posture, but it remains an elemental composition that connects in a visceral way. Likewise, I hope to be able to address Egypt in song from different angles, not solely from the perspective of a confused and slightly overheated foreigner.

“I would like to write a song that someone can use . . . a song is a good, functional piece of furniture, like a chair”

I invite you to sit on my song. Is it comfortable? Look, it even reclines if you push this button! Seriously though, I like this consideration of the utility of a piece of music. Perhaps every song could be categorised as such, the holy trinity of getting married, getting buried or getting laid. A nice concept to put behind an EP of three songs – one of each!

Of course people are so peculiar almost any song will find someone who can make use of it in some way. I don’t think it’s really possible to imagine how someone might use any particular song you put out there, just ponder all the people who choose something wildly inappropriate like Every Breath You Take or In the Air Tonight as the first dance of their wedding!

“If you’re given this sacred gift of being able to make music (to any level), then you should really be using it to inspire”

It’s difficult to direct this statement towards myself. Do I possess a sacred gift? It would sound rather bigheaded to say so. Yet I do believe that music is sacred, and if I’m going to ascribe that gift to a busker I saw in the street last week then it would be foolish not to let it encompass myself. There’s been a handful of occasions that I know of when my music has given inspiration to others, but in a rather English way I’ve never been able to say with confidence ‘here’s a song that will inspire you’. When I write it’s in an effort to absorb and repurpose what inspires me. I guess there’s a natural chain of inspiration at work; whoever I’m listening to was probably trying to do much the same thing, but equally I’ve rarely let the question ‘will this inspire others’ enter my own creative process. It will be interesting to see what happens to my songwriting if I start asking that question.

“Perfect songs are prayers . . . they don’t exclude anyone”

Despite the misgivings touched on above, this I certainly can agree with. Whatever angle you approach a song; it’s the universal elements that will generate the most resonance with the listener. I’d certainly conclude that my most successful songs have been my most inclusive. Whatever way I find a song, whether the story it tells is mine or not, remember that at its core, it has to tap into that artisanal wellspring of truth, of emotion, that pools in everyone.

“How do you coax a wren into your living room, document it, and put it out in the world undamaged”

Unashamedly ornithologically minded as I am, I want to close with this lovely metaphor from Glen on the work of a songwriter. What do I finally take away from these reflections? I think I need to work a bit harder on how I craft my lyrics. I need to think a little deeper about what my songs are saying in the earliest stages of the writing process, and try not to be seduced by pretty lines or imagery that distract from the core of what’s being said. I suspect a useful approach is to write a lot more material; write a song twice as long as it needs to be and pare it back down to the bone, selecting only the best cuts.

Reading back over Glen’s musings, and my own responses, I’m left a little confused but ultimately inspired. The central thesis is clear – work at it, and love the process. Apply high standards, but don’t lose contact with your instincts. And in the final act, remember and accept that sometimes the wren will sometimes fly away despite every effort on your side, and occasionally it lands in your cupped hands without even being invited.


You can buy Glen Hansard’s album Didn’t He Ramble here. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Glen Hansard’s Thoughts on Songwriting

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