Released this Year

I’m listening to two records over and over again at the moment: Two White Cranes’s twowhitecranes and The Magic Lantern’s Love of Too Much Living. They’re both beautiful and gripping and mature works, they’re both notable for how well-crafted they are, and they’re both written by two people I know pretty well. I don’t say that last part in order to drop names (I HAVE SLEPT ON MC LARS‘S COUCH, AFTER ALL), so much as to point out that one of the principle pleasures of making music is the amazing people it puts you into contact with, and the perspectives you gain on art by watching your peers develop and grow.

I’m not aware that Roxanne (Two White Cranes) and Jamie (The Magic Lantern) compared any notes before or during the album-making process, but it seems to me that there’s another similarity between the two pieces of work: they’re both written over and about a period of considerable personal change which seems to have deeply inflected their underlying tone. “We are each of us in a process of becoming”, Jamie writes in his liner notes, “with all that that entails however painful or uncertain”. “Lots of things happened and these songs came out and I don’t feel like the same person any more”, writes Roxanne in one of a series of moving and provocative blog posts on the subject of her new record. There’s something so scary about those last few words of hers. Both of these songwriters seem to have hit a moment – we are all three of us approximately the same age – at which they are confronting reformulations and divergences within both themselves and their social and artistic communities. Jamie talks a little bit about this in a charming film about his record which came out yesterday; Roxanne writes about the distance she feels from her own happiness at the fact she has an audience.

three albumsReading these documents – Roxanne’s in particular – and listening to these two records has been causing me some gentle anxiety over the past few weeks. Much of it is to do with the fact that my own album, which is finally coming out in just over a week, does not seem, to me at least, to have partaken of this mood. It would not be unreasonable if it had: my life has changed enormously in the ten months since I started making it, and now includes a house, a steady job, a family, a bunny, and a car where previously it was largely about my Dad’s spare bedroom, some friends’ sofas, and part-time temporary work with no echo of long-term security. These changes have brought with them an alteration in the time I can reasonably spend doing ‘music stuff’, which feels more like a dreaded ‘hobby’ than it ever has done before. Although I hope I’m in a temporary blip, exacerbated by the newness of the job and some family illness I’ve been dealing with, the fact remains that I’ve scarely touched my guitar in months. I haven’t the energy to organise gigs or send out publicity material – at the very moment where for the first time in years I have a new record (one I’m genuinely proud of) to promote. Even writing blog posts represents an investment away from my other commitments that I may come to regret. It is very, very hard to deal with this when one’s identity as a person is constructed around an assumed inherence – around the belief, which I cling to with all the rigidity of the truly uncertain, that I will always make music whatever else, always play it with my friends and try to get it to people who want to listen. That it is part of who I am that I do this thing.

It is very important to me that it does not become part of ‘growing up’ that I put down my guitar, that songwriting stops being useful to me as a conduit for thoughts and experiences. At the same time, I have to admit that it is by no means a given that I will always write; indeed, if it were, some of the meaning of what I do would be subtracted from it. There is no incentive to go through the heartache, the administrative nightmare, the insecurities, and the frustrations of being a songwriter unless you have a genuine love for it – or rather, there is one incentive: obligation. Is it right to force myself to keep writing if everything else in my life seems to be pushing the other way? Would such a struggle be an appropriate cerebral response to the perils of normalcy eating away at me as I enter my thirties? Or would it be a time- (and money-) consuming struggle against the inevitable, a ill-judged attempt to become what would amount from the outside, if not from within, to being the Dad with a t-shirt on desperately playing his half-baked song ideas to an open mic full of twenty year-olds?

These anxieties are particular to me, and have little to do, I suspect, with those of Jamie or Roxanne. But each of those two has confronted the recent (and different) changes in their own life by stepping up and incorporating it into their musical project. I can’t help but notice that I haven’t.

I’m conscious that in writing this, I’m taking a very different tack to Roxanne, who is almost (from my point of view) distressingly cavalier about her work both in her writing about her music and in the decisions she makes about what to do with it. twowhitecranes was released internet-only with no warning on a pay-what-you-like basis, a gesture that could easily be read as indifference to the work, or to the audience, or to money, or to recognition, or to all of the above. Her shows are advertised on facebook in a register which almost dares you not to come. It’s an attitude which contrasts starkly and, I think, pointedly, with my ten-month blog-o-journey to make a new album, a journey in which I forcibly involved nearly all of my friends. My feeling is that Roxanne has always been nervous of such affairs, but it’s interesting to see her positioning herself this way relative to twowhitecranes in particular, since – for me, at least – it offers the most authentic reflection yet of how she really is as a person. Despite a declared lack of confidence in herself and in the material, this is an album that sees her voice, her musicianship, and her lyrics working (and working together) with an assurance I haven’t seen from her before. It’s an assurance that pushes strongly against the self-effacement with which she distributes and promotes her material. In one of her posts, she calls the whole act of songwriting “both an incredibly meaningful experience and just complete and utter nonsense”, a phrase which in my view explicates both the attention she’s paid to making the album and the guilt that she seems to feel should accompany making that attention public.

Jamie doesn’t have this problem. He’s on a very different path – an exhausting and, I suspect, occasionally upsetting one which has nevertheless seen him garner considerable national attention including plays on Lauren Laverne and a recent review in the Guardian. Those who know Jamie know that he has worked hard for this recognition; those who listen to the album will realise how deserved it is. Pared down significantly from the previous live-jazz-band setup, this is (for the most part) just Jamie and an acoustic guitar, and the immediacy of his performances are the source of its rich emotional potential (and testimony to the skill of Dean McCarthy, our mutual sound engineer). Playing a song well by yourself, on an acoustic guitar, to one other person – a sincere song, one you Mean – requires extraordinary reserves of both courage and self-doubt, and these two aspects of Jamie are in productive conversation throughout the album. The whole thing turns around the fifth track, which Jamie wrote when he was twenty-four, and which changes every year to reflect his current age (on the album, therefore, the song is called ’28 Years Old’). This is an a cappella tune – even more confident; even more fragile – but Jamie’s great risk is that he changes no other lyrics year on year. The updated number in the title is the only difference. It strikes me that this was a shrewd scheme from 24-year-old Jamie, because it presses us up against the fact that songs change year-on-year even if the words don’t, precisely because we move around them, because they settle on us in different ways. ’28 Years Old’ is a kind of homage to Borges’s Pierre Menard in that sense: the lyric “I’ve grown since I’ve left home / In some ways worse, some better” means something really different at 24 and 28, and will be different again at 33. But I wonder what Jamie will do if he finds that he no longer means the words in this song. Will he change them, or stop singing?

Somewhere between Jamie’s measured, cerebral, realistic and yet imaginative apprehension of his situation and Roxanne’s febrile, delicate, loudly unobtrusive painting of hers, there’s my uncertainty about FaceOmeter. It’s not that I don’t think Why Wait for Failure? represents me well, or even that I think it should have to – the songs on this album mean a lot to me, and I’m proud of them. I still feel like the person who wrote them. But I worry about how hard it will be to keep writing stuff like this after this album comes out. I can imagine not minding stopping one day, and the thought terrifies me.

Pressing upon all of this is a question of audience – another question which both Roxanne and Jamie have framed in their different ways. Who should listen to my stuff? Why should anyone care? The difficulties I’ve encountered selling tickets to my launch shows and my own allergy to sending out publicity material, combined with a spreading and thinning of the artistic communities I’ve depended on for the last decade, might by themselves be enough to stop me from writing – it’s not enough to write only for my own amusement, but it is a lot to ask of anyone else to sit and listen to my nonsense. It’s been at least a year since I actually spoke to Roxanne, and that’s a thought that makes me all kinds of sad. But whatever happens next, I’m taking a stand on this one thing: that right now, the three of us have released these different, similar records. They’re evidence of work and thought and love and pain. They weren’t written to be listened to together, but you can listen to them together, and the conversation isn’t without uniqueness. Right now, this second, I am a part of something, though I feel it slipping through my fingers as I say it.

Buy Two White Cranes’s album here. It is brilliant.
Buy The Magic Lantern’s album here. It is brilliant.
Pre-order my album here. It is brilliant.

 

Let the Hype Commence

Last weekend I went to see the Magic Lantern launch his new album. It was a solemn and moving occasion, full of good vibes and lovely people. The experience made me wish that I could be like Jamie, and have a big release party for an album that I just recorded with Dean McCarthy.

HOW CONVENIENT. I do in fact have such an album primed for release, and it’s time to celebrate!

BzWTGd_CYAEm7XyArt by the delicious Freya Hartas of course

The two big shows will be in Oxford (Sunday, Nov 2nd) and London (Thursday, Nov 6th). Here’s the wrinkle: we’re setting these shows up through Tigmus, a cool artist-run music promoter that does everything through pre-sales. This means that we need to sell a certain (low) number of (cheap) tickets ahead of the shows, or they won’t happen.

Details of each show are below, but I just wanted to urge you to do everything you can to make these shows as awesome as possible: come if you can, share if you can’t, and let’s have a couple of really, really special nights.

Making this record has been an intense privilege, and I really want to celebrate with as many of you as possible. Please get tickets now and come along!

OXFORD – SUNDAY, NOV 2nd
Our venue for this is the Jam Factory, which some of you will remember as the atmospheric space where we recorded the choir tracks for the album! This time, though, we’ll be upstairs. There will be a piano with Mr. Sam Taplin playing upon it, Ditte Elly will be there with some of her tunes, and The Magic Lantern will be dropping in to pay his respects. Tickets are a measly £4. To buy them, go to http://tigmus.com/, click on the tile which says ‘FaceOmeter – Oxford Nov 2nd’, type in the number of tickets you want, and hit the giant T to check out with paypal. Simple! Please do it in the next 48 hours or the show won’t happen!

LONDON – THURSDAY, NOV 6th
In London, I’m hoping to stop by the Stour Space in order to have good times with a posse of the usual suspects. It’s a miraculous venue in Hackney Wick, which you can see more about here. Guest acts are not all confirmed yet, but I can tell you that the Magic Lantern (whose own album launched last week) is never far away where I am concerned! Tickets are a measly £4. To buy them, go to http://tigmus.com/, click on the tile which says ‘FaceOmeter – TBC, London’, type in the number of tickets you want, and hit the giant T to check out with paypal. Simple!

 

London and Beyond

At somewhat late notice, I’m delighted to announce a short season of shows taking place in London this weekend – and beyond.

Saturday, Oct 4th

My longstanding friend and ally Jamie, who makes music as the Magic Lantern, has a new album out. I’ve had a sneaky preview copy in my car for a few weeks, and it’s a real stunner. Jamie’s politely asked me to play a few songs to open the proceedings at St. Mark’s Church, Culverston Crescent, Dalston at 8pm this Saturday. This will be a cracker, and if you’re in the capital you don’t want to miss it.

Sunday, Oct 5th

I’m making a swift one-off return to the Railroad in order to settle unfinished business with Yo Zushi. It’s their last barbeque of the summer, and it’ll be my last show before the release of my own album! Speaking of which -

Album Release Shows: Nov 2nd+

You can buy tickets RIGHT NOW for my album release shows in London and Oxford, which are to be found through This Is Good Music. In fact, you have to buy them now: these gigs work only on advance sales and won’t take place if there isn’t sufficient interest. So do book now! More shows for that week will be announced soon!

Original Art

Today was another small but important milestone in delivering the album into your loving hands – the arrival of a sofafull of Freya Hartas artwork!

2014-07-16 21.37.34

Brilliant as it looks on screen, this stuff is even more awesome in real life. It was great to see it in the flesh for the first time! Freya’s worked super hard and some of this original artwork will be going out to people who backed the project as part of the rewards. They’ll look great on your wall! Freya’s also made some beautiful A5 and A4 prints of the art which a lot more of you will be enjoying very soon…

Getting Freya on board for this project was the first time I was certain it was definitely going to happen, and she’s been incredible to work with the whole way through. Hopefully, the box full of the actual records is not too far behind this one, so stay tuned!

Festival Announcements

I’m playing two festivals this summer: the Green Man festival near Abergavenny in August, and the Tandem festival near Oxford the weekend after next.  I’m looking forward to both! I’ve wanted to play Green Man for ages, and I went as a punter last year and had a fantastic time – the prospect of playing the 2014 show has been made even more juicy by the presence of the bill of Jeffrey Lewis and Neutral Milk Hotel, two of my biggest influences. I’m on a much smaller stage than them, but it’s great to feel part of the same thing!

The Tandem lineup is great as well, and includes personal friends(/enemies) like James Bell, Matt Chanarin, and Sam Taplin as well as some other wicked people I’ve worked with before – Sam Lee, Count Drachma, and Firefly Burning. Check out their full programme, which includes a page on me. This promotional image is also redolent with promise:

unnamedEspecially if the weather holds up, these are going to be really special events – and I know there are still tickets left for both. I really hope to see some of you there!

Mastering Albums

“Can I just say something else?”, asked Sam. A pall of indissoluble murkiness settled over me; through the train window I could discern the shapes of several hundred ravens flying in an uncanny human skull formation. “Sure”, I said, without really meaning it.

“I think you should re-record the entire vocal”, said Sam. A terrifying wind whipped through the trees, probably because the train I was on had just sped past them at about 100kph. “Hmm”, I said brightly.

As Sam continued to talk, the grim realisation that he was right settled over the carriage. I’d sent him a rush of the last track from Why Wait for Failure? to get some feedback on a very specific artistic issue (the presence or absence of an extra harmony part) and he’d come back with a wider criticism which could not be ignored. The take lacked soul. It lacked vibe. It was a good technical performance, but there was no heart in it. The song itself was highly emotive, but I didn’t sound like a tortured artist clawing at my last vase of prosecco. I sounded, in short, like a guy singing a song.

Had I taken the time to think about it, it’s the criticism I’d have expected from Sam. He does his vocals in one or two takes – I’ve seen it happen – and he always absolutely nails it; his vocals invariably attest to an enormous level of artistic perfectionism without ever quite allowing you to shake the feeling that he’s improvising every word straight from the heart. And heart is the easiest thing to lose in the studio – days are long and tiring, the focus is always on technique, on sound, on individual errors.

But heart was also the most important part of this track, which is the album’s closing thought as well as one of the oldest and most well-liked tunes I’m putting on there. It’s also, unlike the rest of the record, very pared-down: it’s the only track which consists solely of my voice and a single guitar. And it’s the most emotionally raw tune I’ve got. Getting those vocals right was absolutely essential.

But there was a problem with the timing. The recording was meant to be finished. The train I was on (8am on a bank holiday Monday, picture the scene) was supposed to be taking me to a mastering session – all the finished material stacked together, checked for compatibility with your home CD player. The prelude to release. A technical day, not an emotional one. “Dean will kill me”, I whispered, a single tear slipping over my soft cheek. “I can’t help that”, said Sam, sensitively. “It’s him or me, basically”. It’s conceivable that I’m embroidering this conversation slightly.

Recording vocals parts isn’t something you can just do. The AKN 505/7-GCA, which is probably the name of the microphone we use, has to warm up – you have to switch it on, painstakingly arrange all the accessories, and then give it a good forty-five minutes to really come to terms with itself. All this requires moving around, a prospect which Dean doesn’t take kindly to at 8am on a bank holiday Monday. Picture the scene.

“Hello, Dean”, I said, dropping myself into his svelte Mazda. “You’re looking great! Fantastic beard”. “Hmm”, said Dean. We drove out of the station car park, listening to the radio talking about the European elections. “Bloody UKIP”, said Dean. “Yes..!”, I replied.

“Ahahaha”, I said. “Shall we go to Sainsbury’s?”, asked Dean.

At the Sainsbury’s, I was theatrically chased across the parking lot by Matt Sage, who was there by coincidence. “The whole car park was looking at us”, said Dean. “Can we re-record an entire vocal part?”, I asked. Dean did that thing you do when you’re driving a car where your eyes don’t leave the road. “He took that well”, I said to Sam, when we reached the studio.

Sam had very generously agreed to give over his own bank holiday morning to coming into the studio and making sure I bloody did it properly this time. “Is that a bag of snacks?”, he asked, embracing me warmly. “I thought you might have one of those”. In the live room, I recorded an electric guitar part I’d forgotten to add to one of the other songs while the microphone warmed up. “Isn’t this fun, Dean?”, I asked. Dean aggressively checked the rugby on his iPhone.

It’s hard to bring out searing, technically-adept emotional honesty in environments like this. “How was that last take?”, I asked, peering through the murky glass into the control room. “I think there could be more searing, technically-adept emotional honesty”, said Sam. Dean just started the recording again.

Eventually, we did it. The thing about these kinds of situations when you’re recording is that it’s always worth it – the new track sounds many times better than its predecessor, and properly conveys (I hope) the feeling behind what I was trying to write. I suspect that Sam wanted even more, but it was a really significant improvement. “Good work”, he said, exiting the studio. He left behind him a suspiciously empty carton of green olives and a challenging situation: we now had six hours to master a fourteen-track album. Remarkably, we did that too.

Duck II: The Return of the Duck

I don’t actually know if it’s the same duck. Presumably, there are more than one.

In 2007 I had a restless night in Oxford which ended up becoming ‘A Strange Visitor‘, the song which audiences ever since have been calling ‘The Duck Song’. It’s been my most popular song consistently ever since, and it’s the only tune from the 2009 album To Infinitives Split which is still a regular part of my live sets.

duck

In the song, a guy struggles to get to sleep whilst a duck the size of his house walks down the street outside. It’s deliberately quite scant on detail – the basis, I hope, of some of its appeal – and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing a huge number of interpretations of it, many of which had never occurred to me!

I never thought that I would write a sequel to this song, but I saw a duck on a university campus a few weeks ago and a few things clicked into place. The intention is certainly not to shed any light on the first song – or to make any kind of comment on it at all, really – but to check in on some of those thoughts and feelings after a few extra years of adventure. The new tune is called ‘Big Duck on Campus’ – I’ve been writing it for what seems like ages, but today I finally finished the lyrics. I like them.

Despite the Monkey Horse sequence and, now, the Duck songs, I’m not very keen on sequels, and I write them only when I feel a really organic need to. There’s nothing about ‘A Strange Visitor’ that calls for a second part, and I’ve taken care to ensure that both songs still function independently of each other. At the same time, it’s nice to think that I’ve been writing for long enough that one of the artists I can now have a creative conversation with is myself. I hope you guys don’t think I’ve sold out…

Picking the Packaging

Making an album isn’t just about fancy studios, awesome tunes, and line after line of premium-blend cocaine! The sophisticated modern musician must negotiate complex decisions from the amp modelling on the electric guitar on track 5 to the appropriate number insightful blogposts to release before everyone gets dizzy and goes home. But of all the nasty choices an aspiring albúmier (I just made that word up) is faced with, none is more involved and disgusting than the packaging.

In this digital world, the first question is whether even to have packaging at all. But I learned my lesson from Last Days in the Capital, which like three people bought – overwhelmingly, FaceOmeter fans prefer physical media. Plus, I’ve discovered that it’s better have to have tangible things (rather than download codes) to sell at shows. Speculative gig-goers want to see that they’re buying the manifestation of a huge creative process, and that means that we need what four years’ work in any case demands – a record that looks at least as good as it sounds.

Followers of this project will know that I’m ahead here, thanks to my collaboration with Freya Hartas, the best artist in town. But even with great art in the bag, there are decisions to make. Jewel case or digipak? Matte or gloss finish? And what about the inlay – a booklet or a poster? To staple or not? All of these choices have financial as well as aesthetic consequences, so I’ve been racking my brains.

2014-04-20 12.05.46ART IS DIFFICULT

I promised myself on the release of the last album in 2009 that the next one would be a digipak. Digipaks look cool and don’t break, and the particular design we have for the inside of this one will work a treat! On the inlay, though, I’ve been forced to compromise: a booklet proved excessively costly from the printer I’m using, so I’m down to a six-panel foldout, although I’m hoping that the format will allow some cooler tricks with the art. I’m also heading down Matte Alley after a lifetime of gloss-scepticism.

Though it seems a bit premature before the record is even engineered, it’s important to make these sorts of decisions early. I’m using an American printer who specialize in independent bands because the company for the last project I did massively screwed us over and left us without discs to sell on the launch day. This means allowing plenty of delivery and production time this time around.

But it’s also good that the disc’s appearance and sound are evolving alongside each other, because it means that it really won’t be a question of decorating a pre-existing audio project, but of allowing sound and appearance to really talk to each other and create (hopefully) a more coherent end product. There are two vocal takes, some drum sessions, and a few other tiny frills to finish in the studio, and then we can get to the engineering. Progress!

Sessions Resumed

Last weekend, I attempted to prove I could look cool with an electric guitar:

BkexPfqIIAA6a6h

I don’t play the electric enough, which is a shame! I have a lovely thinline telecaster from the days of my teenage whimsy, and it’s a shame I don’t have more opportunities to get it out. It’s not a heavy presence on the album, but I think you will like the moments where it turns up! Sound engineer Dean “Are You Still Here?” McCarthy provides a video preview of the “coolness”.

Anyway, we tracked those guitar parts and then did a lot of basslines – every bassline on the album, in fact – before some slightly less successful attempts at polishing off the vocals. There are only a couple of vocals takes left, but my voice just wasn’t there on Sunday, so they’ve had to be deferred until the next session.

Not to worry! The next session also includes James Bell, who will be coming in to help with a track called ‘The Singular Adventures of Sally the Tumbleweed’. It’s now the only unrecorded song of the 14 on the record, and once some drums, a few vocal parts, and some miscellaneous other ornamentation have been added to the rest, this album will be recorded! Stay tuned.