I Have A Mask – There are no metaphors

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I had lots of fun early this year writing songs inspired by ‘fan’ pictures. 

(‘Fan’ – is that the right word? Seems a bit pretentious to declare people my fans. Listeners anyway. People I know online.)

Lots were shared, and quite a few ended up as finished songs with at least a demo recorded, if not a final version. 

I Have A Mask is one of the songs that has so far got to the demo stage. But I like it, so it will likely turn up as a finished song at some point. Here’s the demo:

Look at it. Don’t tell me that’s not creepy.

The song was inspired by this picture of a menu, shared by a guy named Randy. I don’t know what the artist who originally created it intended, but to me that is downright creepy. It isn’t a mask, but it made me think of masks, and that’s how I got to the idea of the song.

I have a mask,

And on that mask I placed a smile,

And with that smile I stole some friends.

To begin with, you might be forgiven for thinking the mask is metaphorical. The narrator is singing about faking his way through friends, family, the whole of his life. But as things progress his starts talking about removing the mask and looking to the sky, about finding some other poor bastard to put under the mask and force to live his life. It could be read differently, but to me there is no metaphor here. Whoever this creature is, he has literally lived a life under a mask, disguised as human when he is anything but. 

In scifi there are rarely metaphors. If something weird is described, the author probably means it literally. 

Music nerd stuff

I mentioned songwriting shortcuts in the last post. Well this one uses a shortcut in the lyrics that I’ve used variations of several times – I’m building up a list. In the example above I’ve got a mask, and on the mask a smile, and with the smile I stole some friends. On an early album I did something similar with a song called What the Orderly Saw.

I pushed the trolley that shot me dead,

I pushed the trolley that carried the corpse that shot me dead,

I pushed the trolley that carried the corpse the doctor cut that brain out of, that shot me dead.

Why would I do this? Cos it both sounds cool and makes the next line easier to write, cos you know how it starts already!

Harmonically the first half of the song is pretty simple. It’s based around Am and F, with a Dm and E turning up in the chorus too. It’s in 7/8 and started life as that ostinato riff you can hear in the guitar. The bassline is simply descending the A harmonic minor scale.

The second half of the song takes us on a little journey, changing key a couple of times as our narrator gets a bit more introspective. But it’s the same sort of chords each time, descending in thirds. And at the end we return to the same opening Am and F chords. 

Why change key? It can be a bit cheesy, changing key in a vocal piece, but this one’s telling a story and has a little hint of musical theatre, so it seemed a reasonable thing to do. Maybe a bit of cheese is what it needed. So we go from Am to Dm, and then Cm before returning to the Am figure from the opening. That also leads to a high note in the vocal that I do not get right in the demo. But it’s a demo, so who cares. I’ll get it right in the final version. That, or re-write it so I don’t have to sing so high. One of the two. 

Changing key was also another little shortcut. The story was giving us new information, taking us on a bit of a journey, so they key changes reflect that. 

 The other thing I like about this song is the ‘oh-ho-oh’ vocal hook, which really works imho. 

How quick?

This song was the first I wrote for February album writing month 2021, so it had to get written and recorded pretty quickly. I think I had it done in a day. Getting the final version recorded will happen later this year. Maybe. 

A song I’m proud of, and it wouldn’t exist without Randy sharing that picture. Thanks, Randy!

It’s out! It’s released!! It’s escaped!!!

I just clicked publish on the digital version of this year’s subscribers only EP and over the next few days the physical version will be winging its way to my small but mighty band of subscribers.

Subscribers?

Yeah, subscribers.

It’s a funny old game, being a musician these days. Or any days. Things change, but musicians are always struggling to find ways to make the music sustainable. Not to make money (I decidedly do not make money from my music), just to cover costs and make sure the next project happens, the next songs can get written or recorded.

And there’s a lovely small band of nutters who help me do that but paying a very small annual fee and becoming an Immoral Supporter. One of the things they get is access to these annual EPs. We’ve 4 of those now, just for subscribers, plus all sorts of other extras.

It is not too late to join in if that’s your sort of thing. You can find out more about it here.

It was all Barry’s fault

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!

Why do so few singers sing in their own accent?

Picture by R J Forster

The other day I posted a ‘bootleg’ recording from about 2015. Hearing that reminded me that I made a big decision as a singer round about then. I started singing in my own accent.

For years I had done what lots of British rock singers do and sung in an American accent. Partly this was habit, partly this was to make things easy as there really are some vowel sounds that sing better with that accent.

Singing with my own accent is one of several things I try to consciously do with my singing voice these days. I also try to avoid techniques that sound overly forced and unnatural like too much vibrato. I try to maintain a speechlike quality, while not getting away from the fact that it is singing not spoken word.

It feels more honest. I think it also helps my voice sound like me, rather than trying to sound like someone else. Rock music is full of ‘good’ singers who all sound the same.

These decisions aren’t without their drawbacks. My first print review referred to my ‘mockney’ accent. It isn’t ‘mockney’ it is my actual accent. I can only assume that the reviewer was so used to hearing American sounding voices they were confused.

A review of my album Demon expressed surprise that my slightly speechlike approach fit the music. Apparently not considering that this might be deliberate choice (A mistake 95% of reviewers seem to make is to assume that the musicians were trying to accomplish something that they weren’t).

However, when I listen to my music now I can confidently say that it sounds like me. I found my songwriting voice on my second album, Ironbark. I found my singing voice three years later on Fit the Fourth.

(While we’re at it, I found my attitude to recording only on Demon, after years of trying to sound like someone else, it is that album that sounds closest to what was in my head).

Do I have a point? I guess that singers should sound like themselves. The most successful signers are not best by any technical measure. Many of them are technically bad. But they all sound unique. And almost all of them are divisive with as many detractors as fans. So I shall continue to attempt to entertain and alienate in equal measure.

Anyway, here’s the song that got me thinking this:

When Will I Get My Jetpack?

Back in 2015, round about Christmas time, I played a private gig at the birthday bash of one of the many people I know named Andy.

I just rediscovered the ‘bootleg’ style recording of that gig that I thought I lost years ago.

It was a fun night. As well as my little acoustic set, Matt Stevens played a set full of guitar loops and beer quaffing and a gentleman named Robert Ramsay cast a spell.

Yes, an actual spell was cast.

The gig was notable because my set included the first ever public rendition of my song Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

It also included a performance of my song When Will I Get My Jetpack? This is a fun song that has been lurking about for ages. Because it has never fit into a wider project I’ve never got round to recording it.

Maybe one day.

In the meantime, here is the dodgy acoustic version of that song to put in your ears!

I’ve put the whole set up on bandcamp for my subscribers to enjoy. Or at least to listen to.

Thanks for listening!

Studio update

Studio selfie!

Bit tired – hence my slightly knackered looking face.

I have spent a big chunk of Saturday working songs for three – yes, three – different projects.

I’ve got a song from my next full length album to a good enough state that I shared it with the Evil Record Label Boss. He said nice things (though mostly about the bass and drums, which were played by other people).

The new album is taking shape nicely. It’s the most rocky album I’ve done so far, with more distorted guitar than any others I’ve released. Not full on metal or anything, but a bit louder fuzzier than the others.

That said, there’s also plenty of acoustic guitar on it as well.

Depending on the final track listing I decide, it might end up being another long album with only 5 actual songs, like Fit the Fourth from a few years ago. Two of the songs combined come to about 32 minutes, which I almost enough for an album all by themselves. Then I’ve got three or four shorter form songs to choose between to complete the thing. Including a finished version of this song from last year’s FAWM:

I’ve also been working on my next subscribers only ep – more info on this over the next few weeks. Basically bandcamp subscribers get loads of extra stuff, including a whole actual EP of songs that aren’t available elsewhere.

Well, I say EP. This year I have a lot of songs. We might be in album territory. Which means this year might technically be a two album year…

Aaaaaaaaand for the third project, I’m doing a bit of production on a friend’s album so have put a bit of time into that as well. Busy busy. New music soon!

It’s finished! Well, sort of…

Songwriting selfie! Here’s my stupid face – and also a deliberately blurred picture of some lyrics. Cos guess what? I’ve finished the lyrics for my next album.


The last song that needed words was the big long twenty minute proggish number that will finish the album. Turns out it’s a sort of hymn to being an indoors kid and getting lost in scifi and fantasy novels, computer games and stuff like that.

The theme of the album is probably escapism and how important it is. But as I haven’t finished recording the vocal parts yet I guess that could change. We’ll see.


More importantly, I have lyrics! The album is completely written, most of the recording is done except for vocals and a some guitar parts. There will be a new album. (There’s even an outside chance it will be finished by the deadline. but don’t tell the Evil Record Label Boss that).

FAWM – A Big Riff

I’m writing this early on a Saturday morning. By the end of the weekend it will be half way through FAWM and if I’m to stay on track I need to finish three song demos in two days.

I’m tempted to create some false jeopardy by not doing this and ending up behind. Cos that will create drama. But there’s a very real chance I won’t need to artificially engineer that situation. Last weekend all I needed to do was record songs I’d half worked out over the previous week. Now? I’ve got little snippets of ideas and that’s it.

Here’s a video diary vlog thing from the last week. As you can see, not the most productive of weeks. Though I do have a ‘big riff’. So that’s promising. There will be at least one song this weekend.

The first four songs are pretty strong though, in my opinion. Here they are:

I Have A Mask – this one is about wearing a mask and faking your entire life. Being a science fiction fan, I never think in metaphors and was literally thinking of some weird non-human creature pretending to be a normal person.

Bilge Rats – This is a big loud song in 4/4 about rats leaving a sinking ship. Sort of a ripp off of Therapy?. Remember Therapy?? Great band.

Dance on the Tree – sort of a rip off of latter day Opeth. One of the pictures was of a scary looking tree. I assumed it was a tree used for human sacrifice and wrote accordingly.

High wire act – If I had to call FAWM quits for whatever reason, I’d still call it a success cos of this song. I’m really happy with it. This is a good song! Twisty riff, silly solo, singalong chorus. It is well good (I am biased. But it is good).

Faceless Men – my new song

It’s February! And that means I’ll be writing 14 brand new songs, as I’ve tried to do every year for the last 12.

As a warm-up I wrote a new song, Faceless Men.

You can hear it over on bandcamp (it’s up as a pay-what-you-want download):

Faceless men was inspired by a picture one of my ‘fans’, Barry shared. Last November I put out a call for weird pictures that might inspire a song. Lots of people shared them, and this was Barry’s contribution:

I assumed that these faceless men were a weird cult who decided to hide away in a bunker until the inevitable apocalypse had passed. They’re down there now, eating tinned food and refusing to admit how scared they are.

There will be more FAWM songs! Here’s a the latest studio diary which will tell you more:

2020 Round-up Part 2

In my last post I shared the highlights from the first 6 months of 2020. Let’s take a look at the rest of the year.

July

This month saw the release of three – yes, you heard me right, three! – bootleg releases for my lovely subscribers. This included two acoustic songs that were previously unreleased, a draft mix of a new version of my song ‘Through These Veins’ and a bootleg recording of an entire acoustic duo set Gareth and I played in 2017.

August

In August I had a go at creating a lyric video for my song Satellites. I’m quite happy with how it turned out.

September

My mate Graham shared a photo and said ‘write a song about that’. So I did. Here it is:

October

The main problem during this month was the Union of Bloody Andys.

But also in this month I released my new version of my song IronBark. Which is well good and you should listen to it.

November

Inspired by Graham’s picture challenge, I asked for more pictorial inspiration. Here’s another song inspired by a picture shared by a lovely online person.

December

The Union of Andys were vanquished (and a couple of hundred quid was raised for charity) when I released my first, last and only Christmas single ‘Our Very Final Christmas’.

So there we are. 2020 is done. Was it a good year? No, no I don’t think I’d say that. Was it a productive year? Yes, I think it was. I wrote and released some music I’m really proud of and I think that’s helped me figure out what 2021’s music will sound like.

2020 also saw all sorts of silliness committed by my ‘fans’, not least the nonsense with The Union of Andys. That was a lot of escapist fun that helped make an unpleasant year more bearable.

Huzzah for music and silliness. Hopefully there’ll be lots more of both in 2021.