Scratch out our Songs on Little Stages

At the moment all days are kind of a wash, and like a wash placed on canvas all the contents of life are placed there and bleed across the wetted areas. Chez Dornan, to keep ourselves conscious amid such indistinct days, we’ve instituted new traditions: in lockdown 1, we had Monday Escapades where we’d go for a walk somewhere we’d never been before; in the greyer lockdown 3, the Sunday Film has given our week its stillest point, at one week’s end and another’s beginning. (Most successful Sunday Films: Saint Frances, and none-more Sunday-ish The Dig. The Fantastic Beasts sequel was a sabbath flop, but at least we know better what we’re looking for.)

Saint Frances, by Oscilloscope Laboratories. Not cosy but excellent.

Fridays are still important to me, as days when I make contact with the outside world (hello) and share some things. Bandcamp is my favourite selling platform for my music, and on their next Bandcamp Friday, the 5th of March, I’ll have something you can buy! Download side A of my album then if you so desire. Ahead of that, this Friday and next, I’ll be telling the story of a track per week. Because you’re kind enough to visit this blog you can hear each song in full. Here goes:

Bestow

My history with this one goes back over a decade (no, really?) to my uni days, hidden behind the glory of Queen’s University Belfast’s red-bricked frontage somewhere in the music building. One lecture took us back to 17th-century England and the short life of Henry Purcell – as a composer and organist he had success in his time, and was in favour with the royal fam. But what I loved was his pre-classical harmony. Indeed the theme music of The Crown is a bit in his debt – a debt acknowledged in the episode where Churchill’s having his portrait painted in later life and following discussion about how art outlasts us all, a Purcell aria creeps in. So that’s where Hans Zimmer got his inspo from…

Back in the lecture hall, scholar and dyed-in-the-wool Purcell nut Sarah McCleave played us ‘Here the Deities Approve’, a song from the first composition he wrote in honour of the patron saint of music, St. Cecilia. I loved its subtly shifting harmony, but star of the show was the banging bassline. A repeating six-bar figure that circled around for the whole song, while everything else changed around it. It stayed in my head, and I thought it was really ripe for a reinterpretation. Maybe a synth-bass song intro, a walk-on theme for my then-current band? We tried it in rehearsal, but it didn’t make the stage.

You can hear the influence in minor-key, descending bassline songs I wrote such as the theme song of my later band, Oxford’s Praxis Bold. But not till my Bristol days was I ready to reinterpret the Purcell piece explicitly. Here are the original words, written by Christopher Fishburn:

Here the deities approve,
The god of musick and of love:
All the talents they have lent you
All the blessings they have sent you.
Pleas’d to see,
To see what they bestow
Live and thrive,
Live and thrive so well below.

-Christopher Fishburn

My idea was to use this, intact, as the first verse and expound on it in the second. The first has a gilded ease about it – why not, for the organist of Westminster Abbey and of the Chapel Royal, commissioned to compose for royal occasions? I was keen to introduce different realities of the creative life. Such as one’s successful ideas being equalled or outnumbered by failure ones (“Here we let them wither in the gloom / Or watch them bloom…”), the happy unglamour of open mics and such (“Here we scratch out our songs on little stages…”), that even if you presuppose a beneficent deity or several, out of all the pages scattered around you, only “the odd word” seems inspired.

Purcell. But what’s going on with his hair?

Tapping away on my laptop in The Crafty Egg on a Stokes Croft Friday night, it felt appropriate to mention some enduring creative voices by name: Mahalia Jackson, Vincent van Gogh, Joni Mitchell, John Coltrane, Ursula K le Guin and Michelangelo Antonioni all got in. While I think it’s because they all left room for the numinous in their work, another listener heard them being characterised as the modern deities, those who give me inspiration. What do you think? Anyhow, after I got the lyric down there was still a way to go.

For this album Flora & Fauna, I’ve been recording demo’s at home, to flesh out or re-draft later. Often it’s like a body having all its cells regenerated – every original recorded element, or cell, gets replaced by a better take or better idea, but overall it’s still the same beast. This one went through sooo much re-drafting. I concocted a nice little drum loop, and did a string arrangement… but in its original meter (straight 4-4), whatever I added only seemed to make it sullen or melodramatic, like Muse. Come on, it’s a bit pretentious to not only cover but add to a baroque masterwork, isn’t it? And the minor key… all my treatments were lacking life. One evening I tried something new, a cover of my own cover version. Who was fond of a descending bassline, partial to a baroque influence and English as a chip buttie but Nick Drake? So I held a vague image of Five Leaves Left in mind, and boiled everything down to one instrument (acoustic guitar), breaking down the boxy 4-4 with some all-important swing. The song started to bounce. I played scruffily, with more attack than a virtuoso such as Drake, as if I was a chilly busker compensating for their tiny amp. We have lift-off.

Here’s an album that doesn’t really age. Not such a big fan of the kerning between the A and V, though… am I right, font fans?

At last I felt I’d found the song. Everything before was scrapped, and anything I added to the voice-and-guitar core had to spring from that animating rhythm. So I arranged some backing vocal harmonies, the better to carry those repetitions in verse 1. As the original doesn’t stick to one scale, these were the most complex BVs I’ve ever put down! And autotuning didn’t fit with the ‘live’-sounding approach, so you’re hearing me having a go. Completing the Drakean arrangement, I needed upright bass. Searching for a session player online, I found Cologne-based Madalena Graça and thought she’d be able to straddle the genres. And then some – she kept it steady, found spaces to improvise with a fitting playfulness and kept a straight quote of the original Purcell bassline.

Finally, trying not to overload the song, it still wanted some melodic instruments to ‘sing’ the theme (3:08) and to represent the blooming vines (2:22), so on Soundbetter sought out Donata Greco, flautist and sax player from Naples. Again she added elements beyond what I asked, enjoying the musical quotations I wanted to hide in the score, even throwing in a Sarah Vaughan one herself. Finally, for percussion I used mostly self-recorded samples, of applause, an upright bass ‘snap’ that sounded like a typewriter, sounds from a blacksmith’s forge, a djembe, which all fitted due to their sonic character or connotation of creative labour.

So, how do you think the song’s turned out? I could’ve shared some of my in-progress snapshots of the developing song, but as I’ve intimated, many of them were crap. What are some of your experiences of creative labour? It’d be cool to find out if what I’ve written rings true…

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