Happy People song by song 8: Set Light to the Sky

This was never going to be one of the main songs on the album. It was only ever filler, a random demo that sort of fit in thematically that I decided to throw in to fill space. Not a big a deal, not a great song, and okay one that I wrote in five minutes. I’d probably find something to replace it with later.

And yet, as it turned out, Set Light to the Sky is one of the best songs on the album, in my not entirely humble opinion.

Thematically this song continues the story straight after Fire Flower Heart. Our protagonist’s lover is dead and the gloves are off. How does he react to that?

I could push the button
Watch the sky fall in
I could wash my hands mercy clean
sink my teeth into this
If I could I’d light the match
If I’d the choice then I’d set light to the sky

Yes, that’s right, it’s a singalong anthem about mass-murder. Our protagonist has decided that with his lover dead there’s littl point to holding back or being cautious. He finds as many explosives as he can, places them where they will do the most damage to the oppressive regime and  sets them alight.

Composition and recording

Here’s the demo.

Can you can hear, the main difference apart from the much better playing on the final version, is the coda. The end of the studio version is much more developed than the demo version.

This is a change that Jordan suggested, and to be honest it transformed the song. I had thought of this as a throwaway song. It had been written very quickly indeed for February album writing month a few years previously in an attempt to get my song total up. So it had very little thought it into it at all. It’s based on a chord progression based on a standard, but with a tiny little twist. G D/F# Em C would be the standard. I changed that to G D/F# Em Ebmaj7. The Eb chord is out of key, but it shares a G and D note with the main key, giving it just enough of a relationship to G to be interesting but not quite what you’d expect.

The rest of the song is based on this progression, with the verses arpeggiated versions of the chords with a C# thrown in for another bit of contrast and the pre-choruses doing something similar but starting on C. The bridge makes use of the Ebmaj7 as a cue to changekey properly, so the bridge and solo section are in Cm.

And what does all this theory stuff mean? it means I thought my way to this song – it was an exerise in craft that I thought was fine but not inspiring. I threw the demo into the mix because I felt I needed another song and this one would do until I thought of something better.

But then Jordan said:

I definitely feel like it’s too short. i wouldn’t repeat the chorus again, though. Maybe have another section as a coda? If you want it to be short and sweet then I’d suggest working on the order of the parts and giving it a more traditional structure. My feeling, so far is that there’s more weight to the first two minutes than the rest of the song.

And I did what he said by extending the solo and coda with a load of extra guitar layers and suddenly we had a proper album. Just sorting out the balance and pacing of the thing transformed Set Light to the Sky into the album’s big singalong anthem. Add in Jordan’s bass playing and great string arragenments and Dan’s inspired production – I particularly like what he’s done with production on my voice in this – and you have one of the central songs on the album.

And a song that leads us to the big epic and final song on the album, All of the Dark…

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals

My first proper photoshoot

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On Thursday last week I did my first photo shoot with an actual photographer – a chap named Ash who works as ‘The Chaos Engineers’.I’ve done lots of video stuff with my brother Joe of course so I this isn’t he first time I’ve pranced about like a tit in front of a camera. We’ve done some still photos as well, for example for the cover of my ep Through These Veins – which is currently not available as the recording wasn’t good enough and I want to redo it – but even those still photos were very effects heavy, as were most of the videos we’ve done. This was the first time I’ve just been me in front of a still camera, trying to look like me.

It was a pretty hot day, exactly the wrong sort of weather to be donning the full steampunk in front of hot lights, but that’s exactly what I did, tie, waistcoat, massive coat and goggles in front of Ash’s massive collection of lights. It was a bit hot.

It was also surprisingly tiring. Ash is a great photographer, especially at giving direction. I’ve been putting myself  into situations where I need to take direction a bit more than I normally would of late. This was the case with recording Happy People, especially with the songwriting and singing, and as with that I found the photoshoot lots of fun. It’s funny, I find myself thinking beforehand that I won’t enjoy that collaborative aspect, that my ego won’t allow it, but in practice it always seems to turn out well.

So when told to ‘give it more eyebrow.’ or appear more like a ‘baffled man’ I was more than happy to oblige and I think once they’re done the pictures are going to come out really well.

Why do I want new pictures? Because I intend to use them for getting more gigs and coverage. My plans for th next 12 months include getting my music in front of lots of new people.

Ash suggested there as something akin to a scam in this. It”s not quite the skills of the photographer at work, there’s also a high level of chance involved. I don’t see anything scammy in that though. Whether it’s visual or auditory, recording art means you will capture happy accidents that might become the main thing rather than whatever it was you intended.

In fact if I think of my own songwriting, that tends to be the case more often then not. I rarely set out with a clear vision of what the song is going to be. Instead I”ll just start improvising and make use of what turns up. You discard the dull and uninspiring stuff and keep the good material.

I think maybe being a good artist is mostly about developing the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff at a quicker rate.

The photos should be ready soon, and I shall begin the task of reaching out for gigs and then, gradually, conquering the world.

Waha! Wahaha! Wahahahahahaaaa!

Ahem. I mean, playing those gigs. I would like to make it clear that the pictures will definitely not be used as part of an evil plot.

‘Run’ – rough version of a new song

Every year for about the last 9 I have written songs for February Album Writing Month (FAWM). February is when I do most of my songwriting and the majority of the songs I have released as a solo artist first came to life in one of the last 9 Februaries. FAWM is also a fantastic online community where I have met some wonderful people who have helped me find my voice as a songwriter.

Every year there is a FAWM over party, or FOP. I love this because it is an excuse to meet up with some lovely people and share some of that year’s songs. More importantly for an introvert, socially …. I was going to say awkward but that’s not quite true as I’ve learned how to interact with people quite well. I just don’t really like it much – let’s say socially-uninterested person – it’s a social situation that is mediated by the whole playing songs thing. I am not fond of meeting up with people just to spend time with them and have only ever enjoyed social things that have a purpose, usually an artistic one.

Anyway, that’s by the by and a bit too sharey. I am typing this late at night about two hours after I should have gone to bed and am aware it has turned into a ramble.

What matters is, here’s a song from this year’s FOP. It is a rough unrehearsed version of a song about love at the end of the world called ‘Run’. I may record a ‘proper’ version at some point.

Gig announcement! 7th July in Darlington

I am well chuffed to be able to announce this gig:

7th July at the Voodoo Cafe in Darlington!

Tickets are here.

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“Three acts and three very different styles of music to suit all tastes in the great line up.

Jack Arthurs returns to Darlington with his brand of singer song writing. His last album Treasure House was well received across the media. His music reflects his experiences of the north east and it’s amazing countryside. He follows in the fine tradition of folk rock and has been compared with Alan Hull of Lindisfarne ‘s solo material.
Tom Slatter Steampunk Troubadour on has just released his fifth album “Happy People” to great acclaim like Jack he is on Bad Elephant Music . He is a regular on the Steampunk scene and has to be seen to be believed.
‘Tom Slatter is a quintessentially British eccentric with a quirky imagination who has produced some of the most innovative progressive music in recent years.’ – Prog Magazine’
Andy Tillison the keyboard player and main man with The Tangent as well as projects like Po90 and Diskdrive have placed him as a stalwart of the centre modern progressive rock music. Never one to be pigeonholed his projects contain Jazz, Classical, Electronica and funk to name a few.
This is a rare opportunity to see him perform a solo set in as acoustic a way as any keyboard player can be said to be acoustic. He is about to embark on a European tour with The Tangent and Karmakanic in August to promote “The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery” which is released in July 2017.
This evening is a going to be entertaining and interesting to say the least.”

Tickets!

Happy People song by song 7: Tracking Signals

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals

Tracking Signals is the only instrumental track on the album. The concept behind the piece, such as it is, is that our protagonist is dialling between different radio stations, trying to isolate the government signals hidden in the static between the real stations. Hence the moving between muical ideas via beeps, whirrs and fizz.

Composition and recording

I think I originally started off trying to compose the sort of riff that Matt Stevens might write. I didn’t quite achieve that. I then threw a drum loop underneath and repeated it until it sounded boring. Adding some silly effects made it sound less boring again so I could repeat it more, but eventually I had to do something else so I threw down some different chords and did a quieter bit. And then I wasn’t sure what to do next so I left the piece alone for a year or two.

By that point I’d written All of the Dark, so it seemed sensible to foreshadow that with a keyboard version of the chorus melody.

And that was the demo completed:

Notes from pre-production:

Jordan: Great great stuff. The structure and main sounds are all there and need nothing. I can see this is a case of getting creative during production and add some textural augmentation. Distorted spoken word, stuff from the Conet Project, etc. Maybe an interpolation with a melody from another tune on the album? Seriously it’s good stuff I’ve listened to it twice just because.

I don’t think we actually did that, but what I love about this track is how much of it isn’t me. In Michael’s studio we recorded a load of different drum loops, and then Dan and Jordan just piled a lot of different ideas together. Where do composition and production begin and end? I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of overlap and it would be perfectly accurate to say Dan and Jordan had a hand in composing this piece, rather than just recording my creation.

Happy People song by song 6: Fire Flower Heart

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals

Fire Flower Heart takes us back to the main story of Happy People. The protagonist has fled the clutches of the oppressive government, found the woman he loves and escaped. But now she is dead, killed by government and the frightened public we heard from in Even then we’re scared.

What do you do if your one true love, the centre of your universe, your compass and guide is killed? Well our protagonist is of the opinion that with her gone, there’s nothing to lose and the gloves are off.

But now I’m here with this button beneath my hands
And none of you seem red
None of you seem real

My Fire Flower Heart
Would still my hand
If only she was here

Composition and recording

This was another FAWM song, written as a solo acoustic ballad. I was trying, as I have with several other songs, to get a balance between sweet, ballady chords and melody and dark subject matter. It even has a key change at the end, cos what says ‘pop’ more than a key change? I love the idea of a listener thinking ‘oh that’s a nice song,’ and then listening closer and thinking ‘hang on, what is he singing about?’.

Here’s the original demo, which has quite a different arrangement:

The email conversation about this track went something like this:

Jordan: Love each and every second of this track! Just needs more mellotron 🙂

Tom: Mellotron is banned from this album. Sorry, did I not say? Other pad sounds are allowed, mellotron is not.

Dan: I can understand the mellotron – it can be polarising – but flutey mellotron would actually sound nice on this. Pull back the guitar and some sort of organic, paddy, keyboardy sound. Maybe vox organ. Not sure about the bells. Might be a bit festive? Glock may work better. Not convinced about the choir falsettos during the latter stages either. Unless we can get an actual gothic-sounding choir to do it!

There are three things I’d like to point out about the final track that came about in the recording stage:

  • The slidey gutiar parts, particularly at the end. Dan’s contribution, and one of my favourite bits of the track
  • The piano. That’s all Jordan. Good innit?
  • My voice hitting the high notes. Never would have happened without Dan’s coaching and encouragement in the studio.

This is the ballad, the quiet moment before the storm of the final three tracks.
The title, which I thought I’d come up with is actually the name of a thing in some novels by Tad Williams which I had read years before and forgotten about until I reread them more recently. There’s not much connection between the two except the name is similar. Weird how the subconscious works, eh?

Happy People song by song 5: Even then we’re scared

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals

After writing the behemoth Seven Bells Redeemed I joked that I needed to write a riff 25 for every album.

Turns out that wasn’t a joke after all.

Even Then We’re Scared is the voice of the people who wanted the safety an security of the authoritarian government that our protagonist is trying to escape. In the verses they are explaining why they needed big brother to look after them:

The barcodes and scans
The database is safety
And it watches over us
If you’ve nothing to hide
Then why should you be worried?
There’s a price to be free

But in the choruses their true, frightened little selves can’t help but tell the truth:

Even when we go to bed
And hide under our blankets
Safe and warm in arms of sleep
Even then we’re scared

Composition and recording

Here’s the demo:

All right, it has some twisty rhythms in it, but this song was one of the most organically composed on the album. The music was pretty much one sitting – somewhere I have an acoustic sketch of it with me humming the melody but getting the music pretty much spot on.

Recording it was interesting. I think of these kind of rhythms as additive – I count the smallest sensible unit, in this case the semi-quavers (sixteenth to any weirdos/Americans listening). it therefore seemed sensible to record to a click track of these, and not bother working out all the time signatures. What became apparent when we were recording the vocals however was that Dan and Jordan were counting the riff completely differently, to the point where we didn’t agree where the downbeats were. Which was weird. Jordan had suggested changing one of the verse vocal lines slightly and we spent what seemed like hours trying to get an alternative right, which was totally scuppered by the fact that we were hearing the rhythm wrong.

In the end I took an executive decision and we stuck with the verse as originally written, but the rhythms did throw us for a time.

We got there in the end, thanks in large part to Michael’s one take drum part. yes that’s right, Michael played the most difficult piece on the album in one take. I still can’t get over that.

Here are Jordan’s notes:

  • Love the riff! Almost Tool – esque.
  • Somehow the flow of the second verse (vocals) is ever so slightly more fluid than the first one (It’s probably a question of number of syllables, haven’t investigated closely yet). Lovely interlude after the second chorus with a nice modulation.
  • It seems to me that the transition between the verse and the chorus is a bit abrupt. Is there a way to make it more flowing? maybe a short transitional part?

As you can hear, for this song I pretty much ignored all his advice.

Serendipity and other people

There is whistling in the song. It was not planned.

I was just whistling along in the studio, as I tend to do, and Dan decided we should record it. I thought this was a barmy idea, but in creative things you don’t say no (at least not until you’ve heard the idea). He was right. I really like the middle section to this song, with the backing vocals courtesy of Dan and Suzette and the guitar counter melody.

Another thing I said yes to was trying a load of vocal ad libs. They did not make it through to the album. I’m not much of a vocal improviser anyway, I much prefer having a written part and really dislike gospel-style adlibs, but the verses of this song are a bit choral in nature. After several attempts though, that was an idea we sensibly ditched.

What is left is one of the rockier tracks on the album. The lyrics were written back in 2014/15 well before the current political climate had developed and I had no intention of writing something allegorical. Any similarity between the people in this song and the sort of scared people currently voting for authoritarian politicians in various places around the world is entirely coincidental.