If Hearts Will Break . . .

Ethiopia and I have flirted over the years. My first encounter was a joyous concert by Mahmoud Ahmed on a Womad evening a decade or so ago. At various points I’ve delved into seemingly endless depths of the Ethiopiques collection from Buda Musique. I’ve sagely pointed out the Ethio-Jazz leanings of certain contemporary bands, such as Dengue Fever. But I’ve never really become an expert, or taken a deep dive into the country’s musical traditions in the way I have with other sub-Saharan countries.

I’m still no expert, but a chance to spend three weeks travelling in Ethiopia last March did give me a chance to hear even more music. I particularly remember a fourteen-hour bus journey from Addis Ababa to Gondar, with the on-board entertainment being an unending stream of domestic hits. I was impressed at how distinctly Ethiopian even the pop music sounded. The central seam was the rhythm; a solid pulse that steams ahead, leaning into the front end of the beat with a tantalising lurch. Ethiopia’s iconic traditional instruments were also front and centre; the krar and masenko.

So while travelling in Ethiopia I began seeing if I could funnel those elements into a song. It must be said that digesting full band recordings onto a single instrument and retaining those identifying qualities is no easy task. To me, I can hear Ethiopia in If Hearts Will Break . . , but I’m not sure if that influence will stand out to the average listener, even one well-versed in the genre. And perhaps my associations stem more from my memories of composing the song there than true technical understanding. Still, if it is enjoyed then it doesn’t really matter.

One key trick behind the sound of If Hearts Will Break . . .  was threading a strip of paper through the strings of the guitar. The light contact of the paper on the strings mutes the sound, and causes them to buzz and rattle in a manner reminiscent of some of the traditional stringed instruments mentioned above. Furthermore, as the guitar loses all sustain, it further the rhythm more deeply. Now I’m certainly not the first person to do this, and while others have tried this trick in order to emulate African instruments, the technique has also been used in other styles (Johnny Cash is one example). 

Lyrically the song is a bit of an indulgence in fantasy – the advice offered quite at odds with what the real me would propose in a similar situation. Depending on your point of view, it’s an excursion into tender folly or selfish recklessness; an incitement to forge on ahead with a doomed romantic escapade even though it will clearly end in tears. As ever with such songs, any resemblance to real persons living or dead should be taken with a pinch of salt – one plucked with goliath fingers!

Lyrics

If hearts will break, let them be broken
If our only fate, is to rue this simple mistake
Let this fool’s foray be but a token
When loneliness dictates that we boldly swallow down the bait
Forgive us of our reckless ways
For just a catch of blessed days
The bounty that the river pays
Does it reach the ocean, who can say?

As clear and bright as a new day dawning
The first page still lies unread and not a single tear’s been shed
The tall tale tellers talked in the morning
Oh to follow Ariadne’s thread, would it lead us to a lover’s bed?
Forgive us of our reckless ways
We’ve no care for what the wise man says
We step out of house’s set ablaze
To the common paths of this age-old maze

So take your hand from off the tiller, let the wheel go spinning free
Let fortunes of the tide and wind carry us to a place we’re supposed to be
On handmade wings of wax and twine we’ll soar above the sea
And if we fall into a tailspin, we’ll land in cotton clouds, you and me

All the doors before you stand wide open
And I beg you to come inside, discover if our love resides
There’s no promises that need be spoken
For who knows where the future lies, who knows what this song betides?
The fates will share their weight in sorrow
If we can’t bargain for our happiness, we’ll simply have to borrow.
Forgive us of our reckless ways
Forgive us of our reckless ways . . .

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Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Six

So to the final chapter of this series – a song has now been written from scratch! I feel a little embarrassed by how long this has taken – originally I’d imagined each chapter separated by something like a week. To a certain degree a song can’t be rushed, but to be more honest there’s just been other stuff going on. My work ethic could always be better, though I think finding a rhythm in songwriting is much more challenging as a hobby as a full time occupation. It’s easy to look at how many incredible songs your heroes might throw out in just a short space of time, but then you have to remember they’re probably doing very little else. There’s a lot to be said for how being able to get into the zone can improve your productivity, and it can be hard to find that space when facing all of life’s usual slings and arrows (such as a proper job!).

Some speculations raised in the last blog entry have been settled. For example, I committed to the idea of remaining in 4/4 for the final chorus, though you’ll hear I added a slight bass movement on the I chord to keep things interesting. I didn’t cut out any lines in the end, though I have made a few fairly cosmetic changes to help things flow better. I find this happens organically: more or less learn the words, then sing it over and over away from the lyric sheet – clumsy, cluttered lines tend to get trimmed down subconsciously.

I’ve also been adding the fiddly bits, which I’ve kept as unfiddly as possible, with just an introductory lick and a short instrumental break between the 3/4 and 4/4 sections. You can hear both of these on the video above. I always find it a bit of a trick – striking the balance between pushing my playing further and capitalising on what one can do well. My inclination is to always do the former, but the result is invariably ending up with music I can’t quite play convincingly. There are a lot of merits to a simpler song – you can really lean in to the nuances of performing it – work the groove, give more conviction to the vocal, not have to worry about the strings slithering out from beneath your fingers.

Another important change I have made, one not evident in the video, has been changing the key. I moved the song off the guitalele and onto guitar, with the capo on the 3rd fret, shifting from D# to C, which makes it marginally easier to sing.

And so I can wind up this long-winded series. I’ll hope to soon publish a full performance of Anthill on Youtube, and as mentioned before, I’m also hoping to record it for the new EP project.

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Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Five

Suddenly we have a song on our hands. I find that’s often what happens when I write songs – the thing grows in fits and starts. There’s that initial burst of inspiration, then a lot of groundwork where not much progress is being made. Then the song taps you on the shoulder, you look at it, and realise it’s almost finished. Certainly, this feels like the way it’s gone with Anthill.

It’s a lovely feeling when a song is nearly complete; the knowledge that it didn’t escape you. Personally, I find this sense of achievement is often undercut by a blast of postnatal depression, when the final note is ultimately fixed in place there’s often a sense of rejection. You spend too long with something and you want some space from it. Some songs never survive this, are orphaned and abandoned almost immediately, but most shuffle back into your repertoire after a few weeks or months hiding in a dark corner. At the moment I’m feeling quite positive about Anthill and I hope it will find a place on the EP of songs I’m working on.

Few structural questions remain. Perhaps it’s too long (my favourite mistake), and in particular I’m going to consider cutting a couple of lines from the bridge section. As you can hear in the video, I’ve hit upon this idea of staying in 4/4 for the final chorus to give it a different feel. I can’t quite make up my find as to whether this innovation is clever, or if the song would work better if it returned to the familiar turf of the 3/4 time at the end.

I might also make a few snips and edits of certain words here and there, but overall I’m quite happy with the lyrics. The free writing exercise worked a treat here I think – most of the words come from the three pages of prose I churned out, and I think I’ve succeeded in shuffling them around into an order which makes sense.

These are our lyrics at present:

VERSE 1

The anthill keeps growing, more teetering, hopeless homes

While teeming in their multitudes, twelve million worker drones

All of these paralysed souls, indistinguishable, all smeared in soot

The murk of the muted, it paints us the same, from our head to our foot

CHORUS

So extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not weighted in dust

Seeking out an empty space or the contours of a friendly face

In the chaos

 VERSE 2

The anthill collapses, yet constructed again

Building on the bones of all its fallible men

Construction it never does stop, and when a body drops, we’ll brick it back in

Exoskeletons formed this city’s skin, while we, while we, while we . . .

CHORUS

Extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not weighted down in dust

Seeking out an empty space or the contours of a friendly face

In the chaos

BRIDGE

And now I’m carried on the back of billions, though I do not know their names

There is a fossilised remembrance, that could still be reclaimed

They thought us worker drones did not have much to say, kept us busy anyway

Now the water cannons won’t hold us back, they will simply wash the filth away

And if every one of us could carry six times our own weight

Then there are really no limits to the utopia we might make

We’ve got to wake up, howl some questions to the hive

If we were conscious of our direction, we would to do more than just survive

CHORUS (4/4)

So extend our limbs, stretch out our hands to touch

Just anything, that is not weighted down in dust

Open our minds, spit the silt from our voice

Claim everything, a collective and separate choice

Seeking out an empty space or the shape of a friendly face

In this anthill

So, what’s next? Well, beyond just learning how to play the thing, there’s still a little bit of work to be done on the arrangement of the song. Happily I think the waltz rhythm, chord progression, tonalities of the DADGAD tuning and the shift in time signatures towards the end of the song already go a long way to engage the listener, but even if the cake is iced, you can still put a cherry on top. As it stands, some obvious cherries would be an introductory lick, and to stretch the metaphor, perhaps a little jam and butter to help the different sections adhere more closely to one another. If I wanted to really push the arrangement, maybe even a lead part, though making that work within the constraints of a single guitar and a simple guitar player would be tough. Plus, the song is probably long enough as it is.

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Writing A Song From Scratch: Part Four

This project has been drifting a bit in 2018, but I’ve finally managed to kick myself into shape and get back to it. The nice thing about taking a break from some music is the opportunity to refresh the ears and listen from a new perspective. I’m pleased to report that this nascent song still feels like it has potential despite its time in the wilderness.

I’ve decided the song is called Anthill. I’ve been writing a lot in the last few years about the experience of living in a big city, and how it always strikes me as the most unnatural of existences, and what coping mechanisms we must cultivate in order to survive. Anthill feels like it will explore similar territory, but the exactly how remains to be revealed.

In previous posts I’ve touched upon the technique of free writing that I often use to generate lyrical ideas from which to piece together a song. I did the same here. Below is transcribed everything I wrote. There’s some repetition, and a lot of it is trash, but that’s kind of the idea. This splurge is just aimed at getting the ball rolling. I’ve purposefully written it up in a single monumental paragraph. Not easy to read in detail, but perhaps building such an intimidating wall of text will encourage the valuable lines to wiggle free of the brickwork when I skim read across its surface.

Teeming in our multitudes, crammed into narrow alleys and congested streets. An invisible force is prodding us, and our human forms swarm in a swell of impotent anger. The anthill keeps on growing, teetering, hopeless homes, squashed in between the factories in endless uniform rows. I’m round about the twelve millionth worker drone, indistinguishable from my colleagues, as my Queen ejects more clones. And I’m waving my hands constantly, blindly feeling for a touch. Or stretching out and reaching, can I extend my limbs? Can I find an empty space, a vacuum in which to spin? The anthill howls around me, every voice made unintelligible. If the decibels scrape the red, it all comes tumbling down upon our heads. The anthill collapses, constructed again. The bones and exoskeletons tell our foundations are resting on fallible men. Somewhere within the fury, the soldiers appear in line. Custodians of the cityscape, they loom above us, jaws agape, water cannons ready to reshape the crowds. The noise just keeps on getting loud. Ants hatch without tear ducts and march fearlessly into the gas. In this city, the capacity to cry evolves spontaneously. Then just as unexpectedly the tears run dry. Anything precious is borne down into the anthill to be consumed. You can taste what you have lost hanging somewhere on these stagnant fumes. Can an anthill overthrow its Queen? Could this filthy city one day shine and gleam? Some long-fossilised resemblance, a remembrance urges me to stand absolutely still. The anthill frantic about me, souls threshing within the spinning mill. You’ve been prodding at the anthill, laughing at these tiny forms. How can they harm you? These incorrigible people. The muted, fuzzy, ochre air. Every soul smeared in soot, indistinguishable. I’m being carried into the anthill on the backs of billions. Paralysed, deified. It seems these worker drones don’t have much to say, too busy anyway, being squeezed into the anthill. But after a while you can see the message written in the ways they walk, hefting loads six times their weight without complaint. Without a fuss, as needs must, you must just hope they always march to your tune. I feel I know each one of them, though indistinguishable to a man. Today the anthill turns, workers squashed in serried rows. Tomorrow the world might burn, ignited from above. Should you kick this nest? Do you dare? God does trudging past, stick in hand, heavy tread shaking the land. The construction never stops, when a body drops, just brick the body in, exoskeletons made this city’s skin – from the pyramids to the new desert towns. Despite the tired legs, the massive burdens balanced high upon our heads. The sun upon our brow as we hustle through the anthill.

Three possible themes appear to be emerging. The simplest would simply be an experiential song – how does it feel to be just another one of the worker drones in the uncaring city? Certainly not an original premise, but it’s something that so many of us wrestle with, so there’s potential to write something that speaks to people. Perhaps a more interesting angle might be  to write from the point of view of one of the few people who actually have control over the colony; the one who could kick the nest, a monarch, a higher power, a president perhaps. Which leads me to wonder whether the song could be something more firmly connected to its Cairene inspiration, an allegory for the revolution and the current political malaise. But that might get me arrested …

The next step is probably the most important. Starting with this pile of lyrics I’ve got to both organise them into something which speaks coherently, and also fit them to the music. If things go well, the song jumps from about 30% written to about 80% written in one bold stride.

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WRITING A SONG FROM SCRATCH: PART THREE

 

Last month’s instalment of ‘Writing A Song From Scratch’ expanded our initial set of chords until we had parts for a verse, chorus and bridge. Unfortunately, the song still lacks two crucial elements. It doesn’t have a melody, and it doesn’t have any lyrics. Either of these could be the next step in the songwriting process.

I tend to work from lyrics in most cases. There’s often that first flash of wordplay, a rhyming couplet, a little alliteration, or even just a standalone image which seems to work over the music, and around which the rest of the song takes form. However, this approach has its disadvantages. Words have their own inherent melodies imprinted in their phonemes, and these melodies often begin dragging your song in a certain direction before you’ve even had a chance to explore what would happen if you had gone left or right.

So a different tactic is reverting to babytalk, and making melody the only thing that matters. With some ‘la, la, las’ or ‘dum, dum, dums’ you sketch out the notes the song will follow, and after the fact try and transform your parade of noises into a coherent text. This can be challenging, not least because you can feel like an utter wally while doing so, and furthermore, without any lyrics the melodies slip away easily as you have no investment in them. Still, those tunes that do linger in this form only do so if they are earworms, so the struggle is often worth it.

I’m pretty happy with my babytalk on this song. And having put off some proper lyrics for three episodes, that seems like the only logical next step in this process.  I want to try my level best to prevent those lyrics from displacing the work I’m presenting here, and that’s a challenge I will get to explore in the next part.

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Five Legged Holy Cow

I haven’t quite held true to my September promise of a blog post a week, but I’m happy enough with the renewed vigour I’ve been throwing towards my music. Five Legged Holy Cow is a new composition I’ve been tinkering with since June, since (as the lyrics suggest) I spent a month travelling in India. It was supposed to be a quickly written song, with a video I was hoping to make in India itself, but songs don’t obey your wishes, and while the bulk of the song came together on the subcontinent, a little more time was needed for it to find its final shape.

This is an odd song, and you’d be forgiven if it was a little lost on you. Permit me to explain. The song’s inspiration comes from a strange sight I saw in India. A gaily coloured, gaudily-decorated, auto-rickshaw (or tuk-tuk, as they’re called in many places around the world), crammed full with a family, and squeezed between, a calf. I asked my driver what the story was, and he explained: the calf had six legs, and was considered especially blessed with powers of healing to anyone who lays their hands upon this literal ‘holy cow’. The lucky family to whom this aberration had been delivered would have given up their farm and embraced a nomadic existence, knowing they could make better money touring their lucky calf around the local communities and charging people a small fee to touch their magic beast.

As we overtook the rickshaw, I could see no evidence of the calf’s extra limbs, but the story was too good to shed doubt upon it. Before the tuk-tuk had even disappeared in the rear-view mirror, I was writing the song.

Now a six-legged holy cow just seems plain impossible, so the first liberty taken by my song was to reduce the appendages to five. Five just sings better than six, and odd numbers hold more magic than even ones. My song also needed a protagonist, and considering the animal’s curative properties, this character would clearly be someone seeking out some healing. Another easy choice was to explore England’s dark history with India. So soon I had the idea of a deserter of Her Majesty’s Service, disabled in the course of keeping the Crown’s iron grip on its colonies, now disillusioned and willing to embrace any cure for his injuries, however outlandish.

This story was heavily influenced by the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Crooked Man”, in which Holmes is pitted against one Henry Wood, also a soldier, and one whose experience in the Indian Mutiny left him much the worse for wear. I always love to pepper my lyrics with some unlikely words and phrases, and in the case of Five-Legged Holy Cow I was seeking vocabulary that evoked the era in which the song was set, so I snatched several choice turns of phrase from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and dropped them into my song. These included “claiming the King’s shilling”, “a roaring lad” as well as a “bag of tigers”. Another lyrical influence was from George Harrison, whose music I always associate with India and whose album All Things Must Pass is a particular favourite. If you know that album, see if you can catch another stolen line.

Five-Legged Holy Cow is one of several songs composed recently in DADGAD tuning, which is often associated with ‘Eastern-sounding’ music. Think Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, or Davey Graham’s magnificent Blue Raga. I kept my guitalele in DADGAD throughout my Indian sojourn, and there were plenty of long train journeys during which to noodle around and find fresh sounds. A Bill Withers acoustic funk groove turned out to be a surprisingly successful match for the open tuning. I spent a long-time sitting with that groove, knowing I liked it but feeling the song could be expanded somehow. I hit upon the idea of adding a bridge in 5/4 time; a musical challenge for me as I rarely compose outside of 4/4 and a chance to change up the vibe midway through the tune. Somehow though, this section morphed into 6/8 without me really noticing, and so it remained.

By the time I finally got the song together fully, India was far behind and I found myself back inapis-bull-saqqara Egypt. I couldn’t find a holy cow to record with, but I did get to co-star with two delightfully calm and affectionate water buffaloes in Al Sorat farm in Saqqara. This, incidentally, is not far from the Serapeum of Saqqara, where the Pharaohs mummified and entombed their own holy cows; the Apis Bulls, which were conceived by the touch of rays beaming down directly from Heaven, and marked with ankh upon the forehead, the shape of a vulture’s wing upon the back, a crescent moon on the flank, a scarab mark upon the tongue, and bearing the sun between the horns. A tale probably worth writing an entirely new song for . . .

But in the meantime, here are the lyrics for this one:

Five Legged Holy Cow

Verse 1

From Africa to India, the Queen’s shilling I did claim

‘Til the misfiring of a musket, left me broke and maimed

Isn’t it a pity, ain’t it a Goddamned crying shame

That roaring lad

What hopes he had

Now like a bag of tigers tamed

Chorus

I’m open, my shield cast down

Luminous, what can you reveal

Liberate this soul from the spinning wheel

The heart within this hollow could be healed

Refrain

So hold your horses, Holy smoke

I bow my head to this cosmic joke

And if a Five-Legged Holy Cow

Could make me whole again somehow

Verse 2

Let the scholars talk of quackery and dismiss these conjuring tricks

For I live in the land of miracles, where the cripples heal the sick

Every point of the compass, every unlikely, outside chance

Drag broken feet

Through sand and sleet

To where the dead get up to dance

Bridge

So raise up your lantern and limp through the dark

To where a many-faced goddess has laid down her mark

Some say it’s a blessing, some say it’s a curse

The man in ascendance, while the beast just gets worse

The man in ascendance, while the beast just gets worse

Refrain

So hold your horses, Holy smoke

I bow my head to this cosmic joke

And if a Five-Legged Holy Cow

Could make me whole again somehow

Chorus

I’m open, my shield cast down

Luminous, what can you reveal

Liberate this soul from the spinning wheel

The heart within this hollow could be healed

Refrain

So hold your horses, Holy smoke

I bow my head to this cosmic joke

And if a Five-Legged Holy Cow

Could make me whole again somehow

 

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Writing A Song From Scratch: Part One

 

There are countless video blogs on Youtube discussing guitar playing and songwriting. I’m no authority on who leads the pack, but Sean Daniel’s blog is pretty sweet – informative, fun and with plenty of great music to enjoy. Five months ago, Sean embarked on a project to write a song from scratch, using as its starting point randomly selected chords and a randomly selected time signature. A little bit of chance adds some spice to songwriting – the old case that limiting one’s options stimulates rather than oppresses the creative process, so consequently I decided to rip off Sean’s idea.

I sat down with Chris, my (musically ignorant) partner-in-crime, who had the crucial role of drawing chord numbers from the bag. The chords were replaced each time, so it was theoretically possible to draw the same chord four times. What we actually got was the following chord progression:

III-III-II-VI

Which in the key of C is: Em-Em-Dm-Am

As we can see, that’s wall to wall minor, the ‘sad-sounding’ chords. Although in the video I suggested this might make for a miserable song, I note that when minor chords are hanging out together, they don’t actually sound so melancholy. The sadness seems more evident when they are paired with a major chord.

I subsequently developed the basic chord progression in a couple of different directions – transposing the key to F and the time signature to 6/8 (whose relationship to 3/4 is not as strong as the two times table might imply, but for a bit of variation what the heck), and also transposing the key to Bb but also changing the tuning to DADGAD, resulting in chords which are less firmly affiliated to major or minor. These key changes no doubt have other implications (for example, perhaps the chord progressions should be considered in the minor key, rather than the major . . .), but I’m ashamed to say my music theory knowledge is quite ragged around the edges, and also fairly tattered in the centre. If you wish to educate me, please take the floor . . .

The next step is to expand on this chord progression, adding some more building blocks until we have the foundation of a song. While Sean Daniel’s project followed the process from inception right up until a fully produced song, with drums, guitar solos, backing vocals, all the bells and whistles, I don’t have the wherewithal in terms of resources or finances to pull something like that off. So this journey will be more humble – three or four parts developing this starting point into a proper song, with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a few bits in between.

Watch this space over the next couple of weeks and witness the plan come together . . .

 

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