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:
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 . . .
Bold Little Weasel is the second song finished from my 1 month, 4 songs project started at the end of last year. As is evident, although the bulk of the writing took place during that month, it has taken a long time to polish the songs sufficiently to reach a point when they could be properly presented. In the case of Bold Little Weasel, the main challenge was mastering the ambitious fingerpicking parts I’d written for myself. It took a lot of practice to reach a point where I could play the introductory passage and the mid-song ‘solo’ at the speed the song required.
A song from the streets
This recording was made in the streets of Fatimid Cairo, the medieval quarter of the city. As will be revealed, it’s very much an urban song, and I wanted the setting of the session to reflect this. Almost all the time, this part of Cairo is seething with people, which would have made making a recording quite a challenge. On an early Friday morning during Ramadan we succeeded in finding a peaceful corner, though during filming we had to negotiate round plenty of passers-by (it’s incredible how much noise a sandal slapping on stone can make), loud street-cleaners, spluttering Vespas and even a hip-hop crew doing a little filming for their own tune.
There are some truly impressive examples of medieval architecture in this area, but we were looking for a back-alley to film in, the kind of place a weasel might scurry down (and in fact, one did scurry down this very street, though sadly too fast to get on film). We also needed a place where would be left in peace to work – it wasn’t too surprising when as we finishing a policeman appeared to make sure we weren’t up to anything fishy and inform us that filming with a tripod required a special permit. Luckily by then we had what we needed in the can.
The Egyptian weasel
The hero of our song is the Egyptian weasel. Like the fox in the UK, the Egyptian weasel is one of those rare wild mammals that has successfully adapted to thrive in an urban environment. Growing up in rural England, my experience of seeing weasels was limited. Though not uncommon, they are shy, small and sneaky. Even if you were lucky, you might only get a few fleeting views every year. So imagine my surprise to discover that in Cairo weasels are confident and (as the song says) bold members of the city ecosystem; an animal easily found and often sighted in broad daylight. Indeed, many locals mistake them for rats*.
But to me, they remain wild creatures, and exotic reminders that I live in a strange land. One morning on my walk to work an Egyptian weasel dashed out of the shadows, froze on noticing my presence, eyeballed me, then obviously deciding I was no threat to him, bounded on to snatch a piece of dropped chicken from outside the shawerma shop, then leapt into the wheel arch of a parked car to devour his prize. I shook my head at these antics, smiled, and thought ‘bold little weasel’ . . . then realised instantly there was a song title there.
Doing it ever more DIY . . .
There are a few changes to the way I’ve produced this video. The first is to sound. This was the first video recording in which I used my Zoom H5 Recorder, which has been waiting for a proper outing for several months. I’m quite ignorant in the science of making audio come across well, so results were mixed. The Zoom picked up more sound than the in-built mics on our cameras, but a lot of this was incidental stuff – footsteps, wind, sparrows twittering. I wasn’t sure if the guitalele and voice sounded significantly better on the Zoom than they did on camera. There is clearly more I need to learn about setting up the Zoom to capture a performance effectively.
Most of my videos have been made by my long-suffering wife, but in this case I recruited two friends, Neda and William, to do the filming for me, using three different cameras. In the past, I’ve just done a few takes and made a video around the single best one, but in the case of Bold Little Weasel the finished article is a mix of two main audio takes and multiple video takes. I stitched the audio together crudely on Audacity (some of the joins are audible). The corresponding video takes were then also joined up on Imovie, and I browsed through all the other footage Neda and William had taken, feeding in clips from other takes which appeared to fit more or less with the underlying recording. The finished article has its clumsy moments, but it’s the first time I’ve done this all on my own, without relying on my wife’s more accomplished editing hand to put things together.
One of the most pleasing things was realising how in time all the different takes were with each other. I’ve learnt from studio time the imperative of following the metronome, and I was happy to discover that even when chopping up my various attempts, the variation in tempo was only very slight.
Blog posts related to the writing of Bold Little Weasel during the 1 month, 4 songs project can be found here:
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. In 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:
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
Yes I came out of the desert
With nothing much to trade
Just flint knives and angels’ coins
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
Yes I came out of the desert
With nothing much to trade
Just flint knives and angels’ coins
Pottery sherds and angels’ coins
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
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
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’
*Well, not a hit, but by any stretch our most popular song.
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.
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:
A few weeks without gainful employment have seen us drifting happily around Cambodia and Vietnam. It’s fun to be away from normal routines – be those of everyday life or those I follow in pursuit of making music.
These last few days have led me back to Kampot, on the coast of southern Cambodia. Five years ago it was a forgotten haven for hippies and drop-outs, and although it’s now beginning to wake up to its potential for tourism, the overall vibe remains decidedly sleepy.
It’s even more soporific upriver. We’ve been staying in a perfect guesthouse called GreenHouse – a fantastic spot with fantastic food. Though a great amount of dedication has been thrown into doing nothing, I’ve also been trying to put the finishing touches to a new tune that’s been taking shape on the road. I thought I nearly had it, but whilst fiddling away I came up with a refrain where the guitar line follows the melody of the vocal. Kampot’s aura being quite at odds with any dedicated endeavour, I still haven’t been able to convincingly master that part. I’ll get to it eventually.
Still, it’s such a lovely place – with the wide lazy river threading its way out of the hills. I didn’t want to leave without having tried to record a song here. With my own composition found wanting, I thought I’d take a stab at a cover.
With two days of our stay left and nothing to play I turned to the Bob Dylan songbook. Messiah of modern music, poet of our times stuff aside, one of Dylan’s chief attractions for a man with a guitar in his hands is that most of his songs are easy to play. Plus, more often than not, there’s enough depth in the lyrics and melody that simply strumming along is sufficient to make the song work. You don’t even have to work out the chords, thanks to the phenonemal work done by Eyolf Østrem in painstakingly transcribing Dylan’s complete oeuvre on his site Dylanchords.
However, to change things up a bit, I decided to plump for one of the several brilliant tunes Dylan wrote using Open E tuning on the seminal Blood on the Tracks. I’ve always loved the sound of that tuning. In the past, retuning my guitar always felt like a BIG thing, and I’d never really ventured into Open E territory. But as I’ve become more confident as a player and gotten more into fingerstyle guitar, altered tunings and I have become friends.
In fact, the biggest challenge within the 48 hours between deciding to cover some Dylan and a rough and ready performance on the river was memorising the words. Thus A Simple Twist of Fate and Shelter from the Stormwere put aside as being too much to remember, whilst I wasn’t sure I could get my fingers around the picking of Buckets of Rain in time. That left me with You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go – so I certainly can’t complain.
It was still a challenge to get my head around all the lyrics. There’s so many beautiful lines and imagery in You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome . . ; the rhyming crickets, the dragon clouds, the conceit of love as a physical presence, close enough to catch, but there’s also complexity in the meter and the rhyme scheme. This made mastering the song a lot trickier than first anticipated. Take
“You’re gonna have to leave me now I know”
Miss out ‘gonna’ and the meter falls short, and the crucial line ends up sitting awkwardly within its verse, something I kept stumbling over. On other songs you might get away with it, but not on You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome . . .
I still get parts wrong here and there during the video, but ultimately I’ve never felt that a song should be considered a sacred text when covered. Considering Dylan’s long history of repurposing folk songs to suit his own purposes, I feel especially irreverent when playing his tunes. Most of the moments I went off script were simply a case of not being able to remember the details of one of the lesser lines – those lacking in stand out imagery or narrative import (such as “I can’t remember what I was thinking of”, a line I kept forgetting!). I just bluffed through, blurted out something similar. In the old days, this was considered evolving the folk tradition.
I made one purposefully cheeky change. In Dylan’s original, he sings
“I’ll look for you in old Honolulu
San Francisco, Ashtabula”
I didn’t even know where Ashtabula was until Google told me (Ohio, folks). But singing those lines, I realised I had used a similar structure in a song of my own called Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats*
You know I wanna go there
Seeing as Cambodia was once part of Indochina, I snuck in my own two place names in place of the American ones. The full lyrics to the original song (as well as the lyrics to all his others) can be found at bobdylan.com.
I made a point of not checking out Dylan’s take before performing my cover. When I first discovered Blood on the Tracks some fifteen years ago I listened to it plenty, but I couldn’t remember much about the nuts and bolts of the original. Listening now I don’t think there’s much that would have caused me to change my own approach, especially as you couldn’t really play it any simpler than I am doing. I am struck by how lovely the bass playing is, a common but often overlooked element of Dylan’s music after the ‘wild mercury sound’ had settled into something more full and acoustic. It’s something particularly evident on Blood on the Tracks, as well as John Wesley Harding.
Whilst checking out the original, I also discovered a version by Miley Cyrus.
I don’t like it.
Finally, this song is the debut of my new Yamaha Guitalele. A cute little thing, and a very good travel companion. I’ll tell you more about it some other time.
*Set Sail Whilst The Ship Still Floats is the opening track of my EP A Crown on a Chain. It can be listened to and downloaded for free here.. Shameless plug over.