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!

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

Sofar, So Hamingbirm

I have to say that one of my happiest discoveries of recent years has been the Sofar collective, whose YouTube channel is filled with diverting performances from pretty much everywhere in the world, each one recorded in pleasant surroundings. You can easily spend an evening on their website, but it’s much better to spend one at one of their shows – I’ve now played three, and last night was my first experience of the Birmingham part of the franchise.

It was a gig I approached with some trepidation, for two reasons: the first was that I hadn’t played a full-length set for over six months, a half-deliberate album-recording decision combined with what are sometimes called “real life factors”. I felt rusty, I hadn’t played much outside a studio for ages, and I wasn’t sure I was going to perform well. The second reason was that I hadn’t gigged in Birmingham properly for years and years. I grew up in this fine city, but since relocating here I’ve struggled to reacquaint myself with the music scene, and this show was part of a renewed attempt to get out there and find the heart of the vibe.

It was a success! Sofar Birmingham is operated by the Cannon Street sisters, whose music I commend to you, and the venue they’d managed to get their hands on for this performance was a repurposed nineteenth-century Unitarian chapel in the middle of Digbeth. There were fairy lights everywhere – independent musicians love fairy lights, we’re like dragons with tacos in that respect – and an attentive and forgiving crowd of complete strangers, surely my favourite thing to work with. Alex Ohm opened the proceedings with a voice worthy of the space, and the headline act were a new group called Aztecs; the interval included an ad hoc sea shanty performance and the green room could have hangared a light aircraft. A capable and pleasant chap called Joe made recordings of the evening which I imagine will be available at some point. A well-drilled team of camera-operators with alarmingly sophisticated camera-holding apparatus took co-ordinated photos and videos of the whole thing, and I imagine some of that might also find its way to interested parties at some point.

I’ve always had a bit of trouble playing my kind of music in Birmingham, so it was fantastic to find a crowd receptive to my stuff, and really wonderful to be playing a show again. I don’t want to get schmaltzy (I do) but when i sat down on the floor next to my guitar case to get the thing out and tune up before the show, some weird muscle memory kicked in and I realised how much I’d missed doing this stuff. It was an important reminder – and I need reminding often – that it’s this stuff, rather than everything else, which is the “real life factor”. Back in studio for the new album next weekend.

Back to the Cat

I got to play ‘To Coincidence’ on the Catweazle stage last Thursday, in addition to reading ‘Hippo Calypso’ again. This tune is impossible to play solo, but I’ve discovered that the lyrics make a decent spoken piece! I wanted to read it because I’d just learned, several months after writing it, that it’s based on fact: when I came up with the piece, I was just having some fun with all the double letters in ‘Hippo of the Mississippi’, but it turns out that there was a genuine plan to make it happen in the 1900s. As you might expect, the fantastic people at This American Life have a short documentary on the subject for those in doubt.

After the break, I did a surprise collaboration with Sam Taplin. Normally, that phrase means that it was the audience which was surprised, but Sam politely gave me absolutely zero warning before inviting me on stage to play a song I hadn’t rehearsed for at least six months. We staggered our way through it. Unmissable moments!

Image stolen gratuitously from Hannah Bond

Image stolen gratuitously from Hannah Bond

What a pleasure to be back at Catweazle again. I hosted a couple of times last month, but this time I was just there to soak up the ambiance and get myself a copy of the new issue of their handsome periodical, an altogether more relaxing prospect. Playing in front of them reminded me how much I’ve missed doing full-length shows, and one of the things I’m doing this weekend is bothering a few Birmingham/Oxford promoters about setting up some new gigs in the runup to my album launch (if you’re a venue, there’s my new bookings page to think of). I’ll be back in the studio soon, too!

Finally, some good news from two FaceOmeter allies: Matt Winkworth has won the Perfect Pitch prize, and will be developing a brand new musical – he’s a consummate musician and deserves it utterly. I also couldn’t be happier for MC Lars, who crowdfunded his fourth album in under a day. Still time to get involved with that!

Getting Back Into It

There’s been a lot on lately. I won’t go into details on this blog, but let’s just say that moving house the day after a jetlagged return from a rushed visit to foreign lands was only the tip of the iceberg. And in all the chaos and confusion, it’s been pretty much three weeks since I touched my guitar, which has sat obediently in its case this whole time. Waiting.

One goes through these phases, and I always knew that not much would get done in February, music-wise. But tonight I finally got half an hour to sit down with the twang, and I’m actually almost glad I took the pause. It was cool to sit down and play some old songs of mine with a genuine feeling of rediscovery (“I wrote this! This is mine!”) and to play a few covers that I’d forgotten I knew the words to (“time, time, time”). It was doubly cool to do so in the still half-finished atrium of a new house, which I hope will be the heart of some really awesome new projects.

In short, it’s pleasuarable to be reminded that I’m still a musician, that I still know how my fingers work, and that my guitar is still the best guitar there is (fret buzz and all). The next few weeks are pretty jammed too, but I’m slowly warming up to start playing live again. Playing tonight, I realised that I was heading that way more out of habit than out of a genuine desire to do shows. But now my heart’s back in it. Though time is still scanty, there are shows to plan and an album to finish. The going will be slow over the next few weeks, but I feel like I have something to aim at again.

So, as my gig hiatus comes to an end – would you like me to play in your area? I’ve got a new bookings page especially for your needs! Check it out.