Category Archives: Discursive Nonsense

Radio Garden

I challenged my friends recently to provide new sources of internet radio (suggestions still gratefully accepted). My thought was to make more use of the radio feature of the Sonos speaker which diligently loops the only record I ever listen to as I chop garlic. Matt Sage, he of the Catweazle Club and Art Theefe and all that, hit me back with this incredible website. It doesn’t work on the Sonos, but man it’s good.

radio-gardenRadio Garden essentially lets you scroll around the globe listening, live, to whatever is streaming from a given geographical location. In the picture above, I’m spending my morning with Big B Radio out of South Korea, but before I’ve finished typing this post I will have moved on – perhaps across the Pacific, perhaps down to Indonesia, to find a new station. It’s a really amped up version of scanning between stations in the car – but the variance in place puts an extra layer on the act of retuning. I love the sense of scale you get from this: it feels like an oddly comforting way of finding out what the human race is up to in real time (oddly, because, of course, 95% of what you hear is pre-recorded). I guess it falls into the same category, for me, as the recent-ish internet project which rebroadcast the telemetary from Apollo 11 in real time. Test matches fall into this category, too – it’s that sense of a developing event that’s happening right now, somewhere else, that you can tune in and out of. Perhaps what’s ultimately appealing is the sense of alterity: the the world is bigger than your journey through it.

I’ve always thought that radio is an underexploited medium. Radio Garden exploits it in an exciting and, I think, a moving way! So I put it on last night, listened to some devastating rap from the south of France, and built this Charizard. Life.

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Hallowe’en Again

What’s scary about the fact that it’s been five years since The Spooky EP? That we are brief flickers of cognisance shortly to be blown out in the gusts of deep time, and that each of our meaningless lives is over in the flicker of a cosmic eyelid. Well – it is meant to be a scary record.

I like The Spooky EP. It was my first collaboration with Dean McCarthy, and remains my only one with Sam Taplin – for that alone, it’ll always be special to me. But it’s also a record with a theme which makes me revisit it every year, and I really appreciate that. A lot of my other recordings I tend to forget or simply not listen to; this one sort of requires that I regularly come back to it. This year, I find it pleasingly unchanged: the solo in track 2 is still my favourite thing in the world; The Dapper Swindler’s vocals on track 5 continue to destroy me; and track 3 still has, despite its pared-down arrangements (two guitars and three vocals) the energy and power of a stadium rock band detonating a series of atom bombs in a massive can of Dr Pepper. I don’t know whether it’s because of anything innate in the record or simply because this is the only time of year when I listen to it, but it seems to suit the season. Falling leaves and crispiness outside, the turning back of the clocks, the distant smell of misty roasting vegetables or whatever – this record really does all that for me.

I think this is the lasting achievement – and the most surprising achievement – about this record: it actually does what we wanted it to do. We wanted a record that evoked Hallowe’en in a certain way (that found the fun, tossed the consumerism; kept the heart but lost the schmaltz) and so we went and wrote one and then recorded it. It almost never happens like that. I’m proud of my other records, but none of them so closely resemble the starting intention as this one does. The most vivid example of this is the last track, ‘Sentiments Expressed…’. I wrote that track because I thought that the record needed a pithy afterward, that the show couldn’t close at the Skeleton Express. And so I sat down and channelled some vibes, and the song just – happened. I talk to other songwriters who have this experience all the time, but it’s very rare for me. My songs turn up sideways, by accident. There’s one idea, and then there’s something in the composition process that changes it. Often, this change is for the better, but I’m glad that I’ve also written a song that does exactly what I first wanted it to. It makes me feel more of a craftsman and less of a conduit.

One of the reasons I was able to do that is because of the strength of the collaboration. TT&J was a curious and wonderful partnership: we did very little writing together (although I will always remember those frenetically exciting sessions very vividly), but there was something about knowing we were collaborating which made each of us, separately, write in a different way. When we put that separate stuff in a room together, it really caught fire. It’s still burning, for me at least, five years later. I hope you think so too.

Covers

So I was on a covers album.

a0967852264_16I just had a nice postcard from Jamie “Currently in Australia” Doe, also known as The Magic Lantern, and it made me want to write a word or two about the distant experience of being involved with the Too Much Love of Living – Remixes album. It’s Jamie’s superb 2014 album remade by loads of his friends and collaborators. It’s based on a similar project conducted by This Is The Kit, who is also on the record – which means I’m on a record with This Is The Kit. And Rozi Plain! And Sam Brookes! And Hot Feet! And a buttload of awesome other people. (This Is The Kit were on Loose Ends with Jon Ronson this morning, which also means that by the transit of properties I am Jon Ronson).

The song I got to cover was ’28 years old’, which I wrote about in a stupidly discursive blog post a little while ago, long before I knew about this project. It’s the raw heart of the original album in my view, and I wanted my version of it to be raw to match. The challenge of a cover, of course, lies in doing something worthy of the original but technically distinct – so I messed around with some lyrics, popped into the studio with a rather bad cold, and sang the song at about half my usual ability level (and therefore at about 20% of Jamie’s). And then I forgot about it for ages, because the post-production took a really long time.

When I got the package containing a CD from Jamie – beautifully produced, of course, and a snip at £10 – I was more surprised than I should have been to discover that everyone else had put much more effort in than I did. The opening track in particular, Emilia Mårtensson’s version of ‘Harvest Moon’, is a beautiful and complex masterpiece which both showcases her own considerable skills and makes your realise the depth of Jamie’s original piece. The quality throughout is like this – it’s an eclectic listen, as you’d expect from a compilation album, but the overall bar is pretty high. There’s only one disjointed seam, really, which is when I gargle loudly and then start shouting. I don’t think anyone else did their version with a cold.

The gargle is real. The theory was that it masked the ill effects of the virus a little and allowed me to hit the notes I couldn’t hit any more. Dean wanted to edit it out, which shows that although he is a recording genius he still occasionally needs gentle and nurturing guidance. I spent the first few listens to this album with a severe impostor syndrome accentuated by not having heard my own lousy contribution since the day I recorded it, but I’ve come around to it now. I don’t think it hurts to have a little rough edge in there to remind Jamie where he’s from, and I think the song is not quite like his others – it asks for an honesty that only a really well-meant but quite substandard performance can truly do justice to.

In an abstract, ideal world, it’s not how I’d have chosen to appear right before Rozi, and I doubt it’s a track that will win me any ears among Jamie’s discerning audience. But it feels to me Right that it’s there in all its silliness, and Dean and I had a great time laying it out.

Music.

Of Hatstands

The project I’ve been working on for a few weeks is slowly coming to fruition, and I’d like to introduce the world to Hatstand.

hatstand color try2There have been two great influences in my life: the Catweazle Club and the city of Birmingham. I bore the socks off everyone I meet singing the praises of these things, but there’s a problem: Catweazle isn’t in Birmingham. Sick of racking up miles on the M40, I’ve decided to start a performance arts night with similar values three minutes’ walk from my front door, blending my two core interests.

Catweazle has taught me so much, and regulars will anticipate the main features: unamplified, no advance booking, performers enter for free. But Hatstand is not simply a duplication of the Catweazle formula, for this city is unique and requires individual treatment. We’re going to have a pop-up art gallery for visual artists with prints to sell. We’re going to have two intervals instead of one (edgy). We’re going to be based in a garden centre intead of a community centre (super edgy). We are going, I very much hope, to have an actual hatstand (I just lost consciousness).

This is the second night I’ve set up, and I know what the big challenges are. We need a good mix of music and spoken word; a strong communuity of regulars as well as high visibility for passing traffic; and we need an amazing audience who delight in and respect a huge range of talent. Most troublesomely of all, we need all that quickly – nights like this thrive or fail in the first year, and a monthly show only has twelve chances to get it right.

I hope you can be part of those attempts! Whether you’re a Brummie or at a distance, if you find yourself free on the first Monday of the month, starting this December, we need you. We had a trial run this Sunday at the Moseley Folk Festival, which went down a treat – we got Bohdan Piasecki down, Katherine Priddy was there, James Bell came all the way from Oxford to inaugurate, and there were loads besides! We camped out in the old tennis hut while the bassbins of the big stage outside boomed away and we performed songs and poetry for each other – it felt like the start of something new, but also timeless and comfortable, like coming home at the end of a long night.

Perhaps I’m overdoing this. My point is, we’re ten minutes old and we’ve already done a stage at Moseley Folk. We mean business! You’ll hear me yammering away about this loads over the next few months, but don’t wait for that – get your diary out now. Nights like this are the audience, nothing else. We need you. 7th December 2015. 8pm.

Check out the website! It has parallax scrolling so I look modern and cool and I used the guys who are always advertising on This American Life which by the transit of properties means that Ira Glass will personally attend every single Hatstand evening

The Newcastle Statement

Those who think that writing music is pretentious are right, of course: at least at the level of the indie singer-songwriter, we show off in front of crowds because it suits us. The crowds are often small, and the applause is sometimes unwarranted. We play because we believe that someone else will like it, and there’s an arrogance in there that simply can’t be avoided. There’s something else too, though: that music is the crowd as well as the artist, is the Ritz-trained baker who gave me free dessert, is the stranger who dropped a decent sum of money on a t-shirt of mine for reasons which remain obscure, is the young couple on the sofa who laughed right through my set and meant it, is the older couple at the back who’d never been to a show like this before but said they’d come again.

This is the usual line with which we justify ourselves, but the truth is that we can go so much further – what ever it is, it’s also the tiny café where we did the show, and the two guys whose homemade pizzas made the venue smell amazing and whose hand-decorating made it look warm and welcoming. It’s the taxi to the venue, as well – the driver trying to enter the postcode of the place into his satnav whilst negotiating vomiting Geordies, the slight sense of panic, of being late, of not having a clue where you are, and then of seeing a waving stranger step out of a building you’ve never seen before and knowing, just like that, this is me, I’m here, I’m home, it’s fine now. It’s the train to that taxi, the hour’s delay in the overcast midlands, the overpriced cup of tea which breaks things up at York, the Northern scenery through new headphones. It’s the party after the show, too: always an unpredictable affair but in this case a gentle exchange of vice versas and most-hated tracks taking place in wood-floored flat in Jesmond where people you’ve only met fleetingly before hand you lemon curd cocktails and complement you on your socks. It’s the cocktails themselves. And it’s midnight Müller corners in a window burnt by reflected sunlight, it’s homemade hash browns the next morning, and it’s a sewing room and notes on Pokémon and the theme tune from Wolf Hall and a discussion about the function of craft in the age of mass reproduction. And it’s that walk – one a.m. in a strange city, biting wind, a dangerous bridge, clear skies, bright stars, scary parks, winding roads, the feeling of being shown a place by someone who cares about it. Perhaps more than any of this, it’s the moment when the train home pulls away and you put on some music that’s totally appropriate for the occasion and think the person I just left made this – it didn’t exist before, and then they came along and now I’m here.

I’m not there without them. Without music, not a word of the above – not for me, at least. Every thought of it impossible. Now multiply this list of my own particular experiences, some of which probably don’t say that much to you, by the number of people who were in the crowd last night. What an unthinkable spread of thoughts and actions to have kaleidoscoped together in one room! What an incredible privilege to be the focal point of that vitality for a few minutes, to get some sense of its size and complexity before the kaleidoscope turns and we all roll away again. It’s not that I think my own music – the stuff I write, the stuff I’m playing – directly causes more than a superficial fraction of the adventures which have briefly huddled together in that place. But if I pick up the guitar in tribute to that, if I can reflect some of that energy back to the people who have brought it along, who have made stuff and done stuff and ended up here too, then surely it isn’t just my own conceitedness that makes me do it?

Of course it’s self-indulgent, but it indulges in everyone else as well. It’s brought me friends, and food, and memories, and adventures, and I believe that I am not the only one. It is not the best way to live, or the only way to live, but until further notice, and speaking, now, with some experience, it continues to work for me.

I wrote this on the train on the way there:

It’s just running up to Leeds that the excitement finally kicks in. Three hours on a train, one stationary in a grey field south of Burton-upon-Trent, the other two spent dozing between the pages of a textbook on metaphor, failed to set a mood. The expensive rail fare, the hours travelling – why do I do this? Ever harder to set up shows, to make time to play them. But I’ve always needed reminders (perhaps the reminders themselves are the reason?) and outside Leeds the latest one arrives: twilight replacing the grey, the train’s atmosphere moving from stifled to cosy, my faithful guitar in its battered case perched indecorously in the overhead. The reminder is a physical reaction to some combination of these, or none of them, a tightness of breath behind the sternum, anticipation mixed with uncertainty. Once again, and for the first time in a while, I do not know where I’ll be in two hours, physically or spiritually. But this isn’t a quest for the arbitrary, a wanton desire to full up on new experiences of any kind, whatever the cost: I don’t know where I’ll be, but I know what I’ll be doing. And to remember the what, in this moment, is also to know the why.

At Leeds itself I stand in the doorway and take a breath of fresh Northern air mixed with lashings of Yorkshire rain. The lights of the town burn brighter as the train begins to accelerate away from them – the woman in the seat in front of me plays solitaire on her phone, the large train manager pushes a trolley service of drinks and light refreshments up and down the aisle. Life is a fabulous adventure.

In Which I Suggest Going Easy On Fox News?

Here’s something you don’t see from me much any more – a blog post about a current event, unfolding as I type. This is the story: an ‘expert’ on Fox News has described Birmingham as a place “where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in”. He revealed a general ignorance about Islam in the UK and is now the subject of a worldwide joke. Twitter’s ridicule arrived swiftly and is ongoing; the #FoxNewsFacts hashtag is delighting people on both sides of the Atlantic.

images.duckduckgo.comIt’s unusual to see Birmingham’s name on any news sites, let alone in the trending topics. I grew up here, and I live and work here, and if you’ve met me for even five seconds you probably know that my love for this stupid city is deep and abiding and perhaps jarringly sincere. It does not need me to say that Steven Emerson’s comments were preposterously ill-informed. I also think we should stop laughing at him straight away.

There are two reasons. The first is non-Birmingham-specific: the guy apologised. Moreover, he did so immediately, at length, without reservation, avoiding blaming others, and with a humility that I gauge to be sincere. I imagine opinion varies as to the degree of cynicism underlying this apology, but I suggest that on our side the moral high ground is cheaply won here. We all fare better in a world where people acknowledge honestly and are forgiven generously for their errors.

Such benevolence on our part might even, more than any degree of mockery, encourage Emerson to think twice about some of the other assumptions which his ‘expertise’ has led him into – but staying fixed on the Birmingham issue, I have to say I’m not optimistic. That’s because I’ve had some pretty remarkable conversations about this city with people who’ve never done more than pass through on the train, and I can tell you that in misrepresenting this city based on extremely scant evidence, Emerson is not alone.

This is my second point. Emerson is just an extreme, publicly visible, and current-event-inflected example of something which happens on a day-to-day basis in this country: the maligning of Birmingham. Those enjoying his shame owe it to us to ask themselves if they’ve ever had a laugh at this city’s expense – a laugh based, perhaps, on word of mouth rather than actually, say, visiting. It’s something I’ve become so used to that my main reaction to it these days is not derision or anger but boredom. In a way, Emerson is tonight what Birmingham has been my entire life: an open goal, the butt of an easy joke. There is no honour, no wit, no dignity in a cheap shot at either of them.

Album and Aftermath

CoverI put this record out at the start of November – most of you know that. It took four years to write and another ten months to crowdfund, record, produce, and release. There are fourteen tracks, some highly orchestrated, some extremely collaborative, others quite pared down, acoustic, singer-songwritery. The thing is for sale on bandcamp both as a physical CD (with beautiful Freya Hartas artwork) and as a digital download. It has been selling okay, and my bandcamp plays are the highest they’ve ever been. I’ve also got t-shirts, badges, and limited edition art prints peopling my merch desk these days.

I just conducted a brief and unnerving science experiment and listened to a song from it, the title track ‘Why Wait?’. It’s my first listen in a while – one of the weird things about making a record is that you listen to it thousands of times before it comes out and barely at all after – and I remain pretty darn happy with it. I like that you can draw a straight line from my earliest work on The Garrag Sessions (2005) to this song: it has so many of the same features, like the mood and the tonality and the slightly farbled bassline, but is also tighter, classier, more polished. It’s got a lot cleverer and it’s stayed exactly as stupid. I’m happy.

10801590_10100362479664774_3106207605931998275_nThe launch shows went well in very different ways. The Oxford one was a really cosy atmosphere, interrupted by a loud coffee machine occasionally but special because it was the place where we’d recorded the choir parts of the album. I was hugely, hugely ill and didn’t enjoy it at all, but surviving the night felt like a modest achievement. The London one was a very different kind of caper – installed in someone’s house in Bethnal Green (a very strange and wonderful space with lots of nice books on the walls) it was both more intimate and more carefree. I had a superb time.

There’s a temptation to overanalyse this stuff. See my previous post if you don’t believe me. It’s understandable: you spend so long thinking about this, so long steeping in your own reactions to things, and it would be silly to regret being thoughtful about my stuff. My music is powered by that. But periodically, it also makes sense to sit back and say once again: I wrote some songs, I met wicked people, we played together, we had fun, we went home. And we’ll do it again.

The record is here, if you want to listen to it.

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.

 

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…