Me playing a slightly ancient grand piano. It's great if you don't play the middle E!

Build the World You See in Your Head

Song Stories: The New Direction

It starts in Lucerne, Switzerland, where I’m interrailing with a couple of school buddies. In the middle of an unscheduled, ramshackle journey we find a very chilled point by the Lake. There’s a music fest happening nearby, and the only act I remember now are AK4711, an all-female German band (good pop-rock with occasional lieder-ish theatricality). Junk food, bliss and pink sunset on the Vierwaldstättersee – my memory of a free festival. Now, it’s really hard to find any of that band’s work online, but I’ve managed to remember one bassline intact. It’s stretchy like bubblegum, and weirdly reminiscent of ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ and ‘Stir it Up’ by the Wailers…

Warwick Street, Oxford, a decade later. My friends Stephen and Lara had just moved to London, and until they found a bigger place, were letting me look after their Yamaha U3 upright. They are an absolute treat to know, and their instrument, a treat to play.

Busking around the indelible AK4711 bassline, I come up with a melody that skips along the top, singing something like “Everybody wants to know…”, which I think is nice. Then I replace the chords underlying it. (I’d love to link you to the AK4711 song, but their stuff’s hard to track down.)
The bit I’m pleased with is the bridge, all soulful sevenths. Cm7 – Dbmaj7 – Bbm7 – Abmaj7,
Fm7 – Dbmaj7 – Cm7 – Abmaj7. Happy with that, and distinct from the original.

Then a floating thought, drifting along beside me with the no. 3 buses, as I’m walking up Iffley Road. I cycle through the “Everybody wants to know” section, and start to sing “quiet down, quiet down, quiet down please”. Am basically a man shouting at traffic, if quietly. And the vague residue of ska, still there from AK4711’s bassline, is shaping the melody. Have to grab the floating thought in a voice memo.

Next, having gone from Warwick Street down Iffley Road to the middle of Oxford, I’m downstairs in Society Café, with a big ol’ beverage and my sketchbook. Here’s where the illusion shatters and I can’t believe all this happened in one day, ’cause looking at the surviving page now it’s surprisingly together, and the lyric surprisingly complete. My initial idea of a successful artist who’s become something of a recluse has been developed, so he/she can sound both like a deluded old Luddite (“look away from your screens”, “let me listen to the choirs of angels”) and sensitive enough to advise cultivating an imaginative inner environment (“build the world you see in your head”).

Once I’d moved to Bristol, I bought a kinda ProTools equivalent called Studio One, a software environment in which to record and produce music. The first song I attacked in it was the newly christened “New Direction”. After all this time, the Studio One file still bears marks of having been a guinea pig – I did not know what I was doing when I started. There were synths and beats that now lie discarded (it sounded David Kitt-esque), and loads of acoustic guitar takes piled up, some twanging out of tune. But the chorus guitars sounded good, coppery and sparking. So it became a gradual process of identifying what worked, and reshaping and replacing the rest – like earlier, when I removed the stabilisers of AK4711’s bassline. Those guitars stuck around, and appear in the finished version, adding some metallic texture to the chorus.

Here’s that early version. Shonkfest. But sketches are allowed to be so.

Zoom into the bridges for a minute: I like how these are the sections of focused interiority. Where someone who knows you so well taps you on the chest, and says “show everyone what’s going on in here”. Where we have reason to hope for new things to come from inside ourselves, if we let light in:

You’re displaying new layers while you’re staying
so beautifully the same.
Emerald, show what you’re worth –
Turn around and let the light disperse.
It’s all you’ve got to do, in fact, for the inspiration to flood right back

Representing this interiority in music was a challenge – the clicks of this particular percussion loop, though, sound like they’re happening inside my cranium, and the Labs Soft Piano (a sample instrument made with a sheet of felt under the hammers) has just about enough intimacy and blurriness to work.

Zoom into the middle eight: I was co-leading a gospel choir when I wrote the song, and my original idea was to compose a gospel chorus and scatter parts of it throughout the song. In the end, all it needed was the line “there’s a new day coming on”, which sounded dusty and good when I sonically distressed my own three-part harmonies. Last-minute decision from 2021, though – I hoped it’d sound better if my wife Emma was part of the choir too. So it is – and the prophetic import of this section comes through with a toothy electric guitar and some trumpets. The trumpets were recorded for my gospel album For the Joy, and re-sampled here sounded a bit like the sun coming up.

A stripped-back version of the hopeful middle 8. Here comes the sun

And the groove itself? It needed to be breezy, and that took a lot of tinkering with guitar effects (I was aiming for a Nabihah Iqbal or Cocteau Twins quality, a bit wobbly and like a boiled sweet) and crisp, West-Coast drum sounds (these come courtesy of Circles Drums). As ever, the aesthetic reference points I aim for aren’t there to be reached – I just get to my endpoint on the way.

You can see that the lyric written in Society isn’t complete – it’s missing the last choruses. Here’s where Stephen returns for the second of his absentee cameos. He’d told me about a song that meant a lot to him, ‘Someday We’ll All be Free’ by Donny Hathaway – which was written by Edward Howard, to encourage its troubled singer. Can you hear him preach to himself? I thought that in ‘New Direction’ I should namecheck this and ‘Visions’ by Stevie Wonder, two songs that have an awkward relationship with hope. Scratch that – a realistic relationship with hope. Stevie delivers one of the vocals of his career, suggesting (“have I lived to see the milk-and-honey land?”) that reports of the death of hate are greatly exaggerated. How timely in a week where the government has decided that institutional racism doesn’t exist in the UK. On the other confidently-titled track, Mr Hathaway is effectively encouraging himself to be confident, because in order to be around to witness the coming freedom, we have to just keep going.

The Return of… Bandcamp Friday

Hooray, it’s Bandcamp Friday once again 😊 I’d direct you to bandcamp if you want to hear my new songs. As they’re made to be listened to over & over, you can download them there too in whatever format you like. If you buy the mini-album on April 2nd then I’ll get whatever you give! Honestly, just to know you’ve had a listen would be great. Here are a few more suggestions of musicians to support on Bandcamp Friday:

Flock of Dimes’ album Head of Roses. Mine will be transparent purple vinyl, of course

-Birmingham neo-soul duo Strange Ghost, who are releasing a single exclusively on the service
-Flock of Dimes, aka Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak, also has a new record out on the 2nd. I’ve pre-ordered, it’s going to be great
-Something a bit more fairytale-ish and whimsical: Argentine cellist and singer Dom La Nena
-And finally, this is the loveliest thing I have heard all day

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