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.
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.
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 severalother 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?
I have just released a 10 track live ‘bootleg’ made over the last 12 months at various gigs. As well as the music it has a pdf tour diary attached with some absolutely true stories in it.
It contains an acoustic version of a song that will be on the new album. Can you guess which one?
They’re not perfect pro recordings, they’re rough and ready and a good document of what these acoustic gigs were like.
They also show what my singing voice is like live. Like every singer under the sun, I am self-conscious about my voice and I never feel I get the real thing over in studio recordings. This is me, and I think I give a fair showing. In fact some of it I think I’m actually very proud of.
It’s up for any price you want – 0 is definitely fine. If you do want to pay that would be appreciated. If it helps motivate you, I can let you know that any funds will go towards the £200 we need to hire a film studio for the music vid that will accompany the title track of the new album early next year.
We want it to look good. It would be great if we can do that.
The fact that the film studio we’re going to use is genuinely also a leading London fetish dungeon is coincidence. We need the money for art, honest.
“Ironbark was the first album that I planned as a whole. Not that it’s a concept album as such, but it was written to be a single work of art with all the songs fitting together in terms of tone, subject matter, harmonic approach and so on. My first solo album, Spinning the Compass sort of happened by accident when I realised some of the songs might work together. Ironbark was intentional.
The title comes from an Australian poem about a gullible yokel from the town Ironbark who is fooled into believing his throat was cut by a mischievous barber:
‘He raised his hand, his brow grew black, he paused awhile to gloat,
Then slashed the red-hot razor-back across his victim’s throat:
Upon the newly-shaven skin it made a livid mark –
No doubt it fairly took him in – the man from Ironbark.’ – Ironbark Banjo Paterson 1892
I stumbled across it while reading up on the Sweeney Todd story, and thought it sounded like a splendid place. Except rather than being inhabited by yokels who are afraid to visit barbers, my Ironbark is inhabited by murderous scientists, evil townsfolk and at least two people who think it a good idea to live beyond death in steam-powered machines.
The bonus tracks here include ‘They Tried To Turn The Lights On’ which i wrote at the time but recorded more recently and ‘Three’ the sequel to ‘Two’ from Spinning the Compass. At some point I will record ‘One’ as well, which does exist.
The live tracks are the whole of the Miser’s Will, recorded at a lovely house concert in North London. This gig ties as one of my three favourite ever gigs. The audience were really into it, but behaved like a classical audience rather than a rock audience. They were entirely silent, listening to every single note. For a performer this is slightly terrifying but all the more exhilarating for it.
Having recently listened back to Ironbark after a few years not having heard it, I am genuinely proud of it. It pushes what I could do with the level of expertise and equipment I had at the time. While I think it is still clearly a home studio recording, it sounds good. It is also where I think I really found my voice as a songwriter after several years of floundering about trying out different styles.
So there goes 2015. It was a good year. Musically the last twelve months have contained some real triumphs for me.
Signing with Bad Elephant Music (BEM)
Yes, this year I became a signed artist. That doesn’t mean what it did a few decades ago. There’s no big recording advance to spend on cocaine (I have to buy my own), no massive media machine or marketing juggernaut to get my music in front of the masses. Just as importantly, there’s no chance of ending up hideously in debt or being told to compromise on my creative decisions. BEM is the very epitome of cottage industry, run by a wonderful team of dedicated nutters who do it for love not profit. Because there aren’t any profits.
Also, they all live in a cottage.
What difference does this really make for me as an artist? It means certain things aren’t my job any more. I don’t need to book the CD manufacturer, or sort out mastering, or taken on quite as much of the PR and telling people about my music as I did when I was on my own. Just as importantly, it gives me a bit of moral support and validation for what I’m doing. It lends a legitimacy to my work that I didn’t quite feel as a one-man-band.
My fourth album is my best yet. All right, I might be biased, but it really is. Fit the Fourth rounds off a musical journey begun five years ago when Seven Bells John first started haunting my songs. Of the 55 minutes of music on the album, 30 of them are about Seven Bells and his final comeuppance, culminated with Seven Bells Redeemed, a song I’m incredibly proud of. Add to that three other nonsense tracks with some of my most difficult, silliest music to date and you have what I will regard as my masterpiece until I get the next album finished. At which point I’ll think that is best and forget everything I’ve done before.
It’s 6 years that I’ve spent working on these silly steampunk songs. Over the next 6 months of so I’ll finally round off that chapter of my work, but for now this is my latest and my best album. Thanks to all those who’ve listened to it and enjoyed it.
I played some really fun gigs this year. I don’t often get the time to organise live work, so most gigs I play are ones that are offered to me. Nevertheless, I booked one gig myself and was asked to play a further 6 in 2015. I got to more areas of the country and played to some of the largest (and smallest!), most engaged, and most indifferent audiences of my career to date.
I had a blast.
In 2016 I’m playing The Yellow Rooms Brighton on Jan 23rd (EDIT now postponed!) a BEM showcase on Feb 13th in London (tickets here), and Eppyfest (tickets not on sale yet). There should be more gigs in the works too, I’ll let you know when they’re booked.
As I’ve said before, the best way to get me gigging in your part of the world is to ask. We need a room and some people to listen, and means to make sure I don’t lose any money. It’s dead simple!
All in all…
…It’s been a good year. What’s next? This year there will be some tidied up re-releases with extra tracks this side of summer and a brand new album the other side of summer. I’ll have a few more other projects on the go as well, many of which should come to fruition in 2016.
As I’m often at pains to point out, I don’t make this music for a living, I make it because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t get to listen to the music I want to hear. The fact that a few people besides me like it is amazing. Thanks for listening. More music soon.
The latest episode of my Sunday Bootleg podcast ‘Lee Valley Temporal Anomaly’ is available here.