As a solo artist you don’t often get to collaborate. So I am very happy to have had about seven different collaborators over the last six months or so.
Except none of them made a sound or wrote a word. Instead, they helped out by providing inspiration in the form of some pictures. You see I asked lovely internet people, some of whom I might even call ‘fans’ to provide some pictures that might serve as inspiration for songs.
I specified that they should be weird or unusual in some way, because, well that’s the sort of thing I write, isn’t it?
So I thought I’d tell you about them, in no particular order.
Faceless Men – It was all Barry’s Fault.
In January I wrote Faceless Men, inspired by this picture.
Looking at that picture, I got it into my head that the men in the picture were hiding their faces, because they were scared. Unable to put on a brave face, they covered them up instead. The picture to me looks like bravado. Hubris.
I mentioned to Ex-Brit singer-songwriter Simon Godfrey the other day that I usually feel I have a song when I work out what the character is saying, what the thoughts running through their heads are. And with this picture I could see what they were thinking was “We are the Faceless Men and we’re not scared”. But in fact they are very, very scared indeed. They’re a cult and they hate the outside world because it terrifies them.
Once I’d found that, the song kind of wrote itself. It’s all bravado, so it need to be fast and energetic. So that’s what I wrote.
The music nerd bit
I have a lot of shortcut rules of thumb – I’m sure every songwriter does. For this one I thought we’re going for fast, energetic, sort-of punky, so let’s break out the electric guitar and turn up the distortion. And it’s going to be a bit dark, so let’s use a dark scale – I picked the phrygian mode.
Shortcut: a common chord progression in that key is bvii II i. So that’s what I played in A – Gminor Bb Am (You can hear the same thing in the chorus of Metallica’s Creeping Death for example)
Another shortcut: If you’ve got a fast song that keeps the pace up, one of the things you can do to keep it interesting is change key a lot. So that’s where the chorus came from (other examples, Aces High by Iron Maiden or House of Fun by Madness).
It’s a chorus, so you want it to sound a bit more settled and primary colour, so I moved to D minor, which is the ‘proper’ minor key related to A phrygian. And after singing a little phrase in that key, I moved down a third and did the same in B minor. Then the same again in D minor. And then I threw in a C#minor chord, before ending on a Gminor – the first chord in the verse riff so we could start again for verse 2.
Writing that makes it sounds like I thought it all out, doesn’t it? That’s not what happened. For a start it took me about an hour to get there. And more importantly, it was the vocal melody that led. These scared men in their gas masks had taken up residence in my head at this point, and they were singing about being safe from the rain coming down (rain being a metaphor, I assume, for whatever terrible things they thought were going outside their bunker. I’m not sure exactly what, but it’s their metaphor not mine). The important notes in the opening lines of the chorus move down in step F E D C#. And the final line We are the faceless men, we are the faceless men and we’re not scared centres around an E. Another shortcut – to make chords interesting you can pick a chord that contains the important notes but that isn’t in the key. So that’s what I did, using trial and error to come to the conclusion that a Bm suited that D note. Hence my changing to B minor briefly.
Is this enough music nerd stuff?
No, let’s have a bit more. The notes I sing at the end of the chorus on the words ‘we are the faceless men, we are the faceless men’ are fun. The two lines start on the same note, but other than that they disagree: E D# C# the first time, E D Bb in the second. I use the same group of notes in the quiet bit after the second chorus, and again at the end of the twisty metal riff.
Finding little interesting groups of notes like that can be great as it’s often how I grow later ideas. By messing around with ideas, trying them in a different order and in different places on the guitar neck you find out what other parts of the song could be.
And then I did a guitar solo where I just copied the chorus in a few different keys, and a simplified version of the chorus to sing us out.
What did I do with the song?
I recorded it! I recorded it and put it on my subscribers EP as the opening track. I also hastily recorded a little homemade video for it with my webcam and a gasmask.
I think it’s a fun song, and it is all Barry’s fault. Thanks Barry!