Friday, 12 December 2014

'Help me Retrace my Name'

How to write a song with 8 music pupils, 2 songwriters and approximately 4 hours.
Ingredients:
Box of stimuli
Instruments
Large sheets of paper
Marker pens
Some get up and Go!

I know you think I'm joking but I'm actually not.  The session was planned with timings and the stimuli were designed to get people thinking, but the session also had to be organic. It followed the interests of the pupils and how they related to their own family background and history.  We made the mind map below of what themes inspired and how they linked together.  From there we did 'box' diagrams of how we wanted the song to progress - a bit like a storyboard.  It's not a method I've used, but Davey has used it with groups in the past and it helped us to track our direction and where we were up to in the song.

One of the pupils was a regular songwriter and had a chord structure waiting to be used that the group all liked - this was the verse chord structure and went well with the mood that we wanted.  There was somewhat of a pause from the group when it came to beginning the lyrics.  Nobody quite wanted to, or knew how to start us off.  So I proffered the following line - 'high up in the eaves of the house...'  This tied in with our beginning point of a person going through their grandparents loft and finding possessions that gave some insight into their life. 

From here the lyrics began to flow - I guess its similar to authors being given an opening line and then taking the story in any chosen direction.  We only needed to occasionally interject a line or a rhyming word and the song would continue to flow.  Lyrics are what I love - Davey was the music maestro and offered the chords to the chorus and was brilliant at arranging the song ready for performance.  Whilst you would never really break a song up into 'who did what' (that can break a good band!) I've done so below just to show how much of the song did indeed come from the pupils themselves.  The turquoise is theirs and the yellow and pink show where me and David stuck our noses in to keep things flowing. 

I think you'll agree that this was pretty amazing for 10 people working together on a project, most of whom had never written a song before.  I thoroughly enjoyed the day and have started to think about music workshops and community music as a possible way forward for me.  I hope you enjoy the song and a bit of the insight and well done to those amazing pupils!

Retrace my Name
Holly prompts:
David prompts:
Pupils

Verse 1
Bm A G G4
High up in the eaves of the House,
Are the shadows that once were yours,
Memories aching, breaking out,
Resonating through the doors,
An old familiar face, an old familiar place,
Time ticks by you stay the same,

Chorus
Em A Bm G A Bm
Help me retrace my name,
Time ticks by you stay the same,
Help me retrace my name,
Don’t you feel the, don’t you feel the change.

Verse 2
Eyes that are blind, but I’ve seen,
A million faces, a million streets,
Looking through the pane of glass,
Present now becomes the past,
Sympathetic hands, of an old decrepit man,
Time ticks by stuck in the past.

Chorus
Musical Break

Verse 3
Blowing off the dust of the past,
See the face behind the mask,
Start my pulse once more,
I have a purpose like before,
Sparkling silver chain, Ticking tocking frame,
Time ticks by and I remain.

Chorus x2 to fade.

Musical Arrangement


Monday, 8 December 2014

Singing up a Storm! - Pits, Ponies, People and Stories.

The Pits, Ponies, People and Stories project came about after pupils from previously coal mining communities were found not to know firstly, what coal is and secondly, that their town had a deep history in the industry.  The project aims to reawaken our awareness of local history and how our own lives link to the past.
My task this week was to run a songwriting workshop (with the brilliant David Roddie of UWS), in collaboration with Pits, Ponies, People and Stories, that encouraged young people to relate to their history in a meaningful way.  So with 8 pupils who have chosen to study music, David and I asked the question: 'How do our lives link to the past?' with the added requirement, lets write a song about it!
I wanted to call this post 'so anyone an write a song', but that would belie how amazing the students at Stonelaw High School were and how fully they engaged with the task.


We used various stimuli to spark ideas within the workshop: old money, toy ponies & trains, a hurricane lamp, a compass.  We contrasted these with some modern day items to find out: What does the past mean to you?  They had lots to say in response.

And in just 3 and a half hours a song had been written and this performance took place...


The pupils involved in this songwriting project are (alphabetically): Sean Dempster (drums); Hazel Douglas (voice); Andrew Friel (electric guitar); Alistair Grant (sax); Heather McMillan (clarinet); Daisy Miles (acoustic guitar); Sophie O'Mailley (sax) and Eilidh Smith (voice).  And we were hosted by J.Swan their talented music teacher (thank you).

The lyrics to 'Retrace my Name' are below:

Retrace my Name
Verse 1
Bm A G G4
High up in the eaves of the House,
Are the shadows that once were yours,
Memories aching, breaking out,
Resonating through the doors,
An old familiar face, an old familiar place,
Time ticks by you stay the same,

Chorus
Em A Bm G A Bm
Help me retrace my name,
Time ticks by you stay the same,
Help me retrace my name,
Don’t you feel the, don’t you feel the change.

Verse 2
Eyes that are blind, but I’ve seen,
A million faces, a million streets,
Looking through the pane of glass,
Present now becomes the past,
Sympathetic hands, of an old decrepit man,
Time ticks by stuck in the past.

Chorus
Musical Break

Verse 3
Blowing off the dust of the past,
See the face behind the mask,
Start my pulse once more,
I have a purpose like before,
Sparkling silver chain, Ticking tocking frame,
Time ticks by and I remain.

Chorus x2 to fade.

From what the students said, two of them had written songs in the past and a number of them were in self formed bands.  With the amount of motivation and effort they put into this workshop, I hope that they go on to write further songs.  I thoroughly enjoyed the day (and working with Davey - thank you).
It is quite possible that there are 8 more songwriters in the world, so watch this space!

(Please see my next blog for an in-depth look at how this song came about.)

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lavender's Blue....or is it?

I've always been fascinated by nursery rhymes and the half truths we tell to children.  I was brought up on Tim Hart's nursery rhyme renditions.  These were two children's records made by top notch folkies of the time to save their own ears from the dire children's recordings that they were expected to inflict on their offspring.  

I loved these records.  We had my dad's old record player in the play room and these were the only two records we ever played.  I still have a vivid image of the front sleeve of 'What shall we do with the drunken sailor' - a girl in a bright yellow sequinned dress supporting a drunk sailor in a stripey top.  There were also years of my dad complaining that we had either lost or scratched this record until both were thankfully released on CD recently.

In contrast to these were the children's records of Roy Bailey.  Songs such as 'you need skin' sat happily alongside 'swallow swallow' which explained beautifully the migration of birds to warmer climates in the winter.  I watched Roy Bailey at the Skegness folk festival when I was 6.  I asked him if he'd play 'swallow swallow', but he smiled kindly and said that he couldn't remember the words. Then a few years back I went to see Roy Bailey with Tony Benn and heard for the first time his political songs.  But Roy Bailey in my view didn't ever glamourise in his children's songs to the point of telling untruths.  His lines included 'some women love women, some men love men', 'the vitamin dance' and a fab poem about how frustrating it is to be small.  I always felt that Roy Bailey's songs gave children a truth that they deserved.

I have worked with children of varying ages for the past 11 years and have sung nursery rhymes on a daily basis for many of these jobs.  I've been struck by how many nursery rhymes have lost meanings or are simply very difficult to understand.  There are plenty of books on the subject, but during our collaborative songwriting week, I used the idea of untruths in nursery rhymes to write 'Lavender's Hue'.  This is a song about disillusionment and the impact of half truths on adults - although the theme we were given was 'the night' and to write within AABA/ 32 bar form.  I was pounced upon by a film crew whilst writing this song and below is their very well crafted documentary which they have titled 'Queen of Truth'.  I hope that you enjoy both the film and the song, and thanks for all their hard work.





Tuesday, 4 November 2014

I'm reading a lot about authenticity.  What makes a singer songwriter authentic and what  makes us just not believe what they're saying?  According to some of the things I'm reading it's about where the persona and the performer collide and whether the listener can get on board with this merging.

Put me in a room with some like minded people and a guitar and i'll sing my heart out.  Add a glass of rose- even better.  Add a PA and you're likely to see me blip.  I've often wondered about stage personas.  When is it turned on or off?  How do you go about creating one; or do you simply press the amplify button on your personality?

It's clear that a stage persona doesn't stop a performer being authentic if you believe that it is part of getting their music across and that it somehow adds to the meaning of the music.  Indeed, we like to be entertained, even better if there's something behind that entertainment.
Those times when I switch off from a performer it's usually when I think they're trying to disguise something with their persona rather than reveal it.

I'm going to a lot of gigs and seeing lots of people perform live at the moment.  It sometimes looks like the performers are more comfortable on stage than in 'real life'.  I'm in awe of this and slightly confused by it.  I don't have any answers, I'm just musing and exploring really.  Maybe I aspire to that ease on stage.  Maybe I fear that all the world is in fact a stage and the question of authenticity seeps much further than I ever imagined.  And if we all play our parts can we choose which ones they are? And there's my exit.  Muse away.




Monday, 27 October 2014

Poets and Songwriters - two sides of a coin

I read a lot of poetry.  I've studied it a bit, but mainly I just read it and occasionally write some.  I am inspired by poetry and tend to feel like my brain has opened into its own space after I have read even a small amount.  My favourite book is an ex-library copy of 'The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry'.  I borrowed it so many times that they put the copy for sale for 30p with my thumb marks all over it.  I like to randomly open a page and see what I find.
My James Watt song was the first I have written with some kind of poetry response (to William Wordsworth's London .  I am usually of the opinion that poetry and songwriting are two very different things, although I have recently been studying the overlap in the form of Natalie Merchant's 'Leave your sleep' which sets poetry to music.  In fact it was when watching '10,000 Maniacs unplugged' that I became aware that you could use literature as inspiration for songs.  Merchants song 'Hey Jack Kerouac' inspired me to read 'On the Road', and her reading of a historical clipping in her precursor to 'Goldrush Brides' led me to broaden my songwriting beyond just what I have experienced firsthand.
I recently wrote a song with Arran Kerr using three stimuli: A Kerouac quote, a picture of an old rusty truck and a stuffed black crow.  Arran plays amazing bluesy guitar and I was let loose on moody lyrics that I love.  It was thoroughly enjoyable trying out Karouac's 'stream of consciousness' style of writing and working with a musician so versatile that he can change he playing and the colour of the chords to work with the lyric so perfectly.  When we have recorded it properly I shall add it below!

Watch this space!

I think I probably read more than I listen to music - at least recorded music.  I am out so much that a lot of what I listen to is live, but often original music too.  I'm also a bit obsessed with tracking backwards.  I played a gig recently and a gentleman handed me a receipt afterwards with lots of names that I hadn't heard of written on the back.  He said that some of them reminded him of me and others I would simply do beautifully.  Those are my favourite kinds of post-gig interactions.  I'm learning that many of the people at live music, not only love music, but also play music and that their knowledge and experience is invaluable.

I also have a friend that sends me lists of bands and which albums he finds inspiring and why.  If I post a new song on youtube he posts a link to something different.  Often this will be with a comment like 'this had the feel of...' as a compliment and signpost.  Another form of interaction that I love.  I guess it goes back to the point of this blog - that I want to write music (and poetry) as a way of interacting with people.  As a live communication.  I think that's why any of us send writings out into the world, whether bound in book or CD, or on a transient blog like this one.

Here's the Wordsworth poem that I respond to in my song... and the well thumbed poetry book.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

'James Watt 1812' - Finished!

The mix is in! Here's James Watt 1812 for you to listen to.


Lyrics, Politics and Time

'James Watt 1812'
Check out the live version on my youtube channel.
Feedback so far for the song varies a bit.  There is a query as to whether the song is too political for Glasgow 'Steam to Green'.  The song looks at scientific or industrial progress and asks whether we should be considering potential unintended consequences before implementing said progress.  To be fair the song also argues that there are good and moral people watching out for this and looking into it.

Views are currently divided as to the above.  Another issue is that the song is meant to be no more than 4 minutes long.  My song is 4 minutes 30 give or take.  I can't cut it down! Each verse adds to the meaning of the song and is part of the narrative.  I have included the lyrics below and will upload to soundcloud shortly.  I guess you can see what you think.

‘James Watt 1812’

I’ve walked the banks of this river every day for 40 years,
It flows through my veins,
Father built his ships at the mouth of your waters,
Each measured to precision, carved with a stroke of the hand.

I saw the logic in your stream, the rhythm held within,
I saw the pattern in your flow, It fed my quest for knowledge.

A letter came today and in it a clipping,
They’ve hung seven men to date, On the Frame Breakers Act.
I never dreamed that my search for answers,
Could cause such destruction, lead families to starve.

Now they write it in their prose, they question all I know,
They call the dead to rise, “Return to us again”

You should be living in this hour,
Man holds the heavens in his hands,
Who knows the limit to this power?
Man’s part in nature’s plans.

He looks on with eyes that question everything,
Walks the water’s flow so close to the edge.
An industry of steam, that’s what I built him.
Father to son, earth to the man, he forges ahead.

And now the future lies with him, to walk the narrow path,
To question all he sees and search for answers.

You should be living in this hour,
Man holds the heavens in his hands,
Who knows the limit to this power?
Man’s part in nature’s plans.

Now the future lies with you, to walk the narrow path,
To question all you see and search for answers.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

In the Studio

Yesterday evening was spent in the studio at UWS recording 'James Watt 1812'.  Thanks to Ludovic Barrier pictured below.  I have also recorded a live version for youtube if you take a look at my channel.


Saturday, 11 October 2014

James Watt Background

James Watt was born in 1736 in Greenock near Glasgow.  His father was a ship builder and this led to Watt's interest in navigation instruments.  When Watt grew up he told his father he didn't want to follow him into the ship building Industry, but wanted to become an instrument maker.  His father supported him in this decision after losing lots of money in the ship building industry.
Watt, being unable to secure am apprenticeship in Glasgow moved to London where he completed a 7 year apprenticeship in 1 year.  During this year he worked 10 hour days and continued to work in the evenings.  He spent most of his time away from the streets as young, able bodied men were being forcibly enrolled to fight in the war with France at that time.
When Watt returned to Scotland the following year he was shunned by other instrument makers due to his short apprenticeship and the fact that he had undertaken this in London.  Connections that he had from Grammar school recognised his skill and created the position of 'Mathematical Instrument Maker to the University' in Glasgow and Watt set up his workshop there.
It was at the University that Watt was presented with the Newcomen Engine and began to work through some of the issues it had.  He mused over the engine for two years, until walking on the Green one day, thinking upon the engine he returned home with 'the whole thing arranged in my mind'.
From the reading I have done about Watt, it seems that he had the great fortune to be paired with the right people at the right times.  Investors, business men, entrepreneurs.  Watt was a thinker and an engineer, and by all accounts was relatively quiet, shy and good hearted.  Bolder men helped him to get patents, financial backing, pitched sales and in 1769 Watt's improved engine was patented.  In 1774 the patent was bought by Boulton who provided the work space and craftsmen Watt needed to get his engine working efficiently until it was applied to mining, mills and the textile industry.
Watt retired in 1800 at the age of 64, comfortably well off and with a satisfying list of achievements.

For me, as much as Watt's story is interesting, the material above didn't really inspire a song for me.  Maybe its my folk tradition background, but success stories don't generally get me writing.  It was what happened after Watt retired and before he died in 1819 that inspired a folk song in me.

When Watt's engine was applied to the mining industry it replaced ponies.  When it was applied to textiles, men began to lose their jobs.  The many people who had flocked to the cities to find work, found that their work was dwindling and that their families were starving.  They began to rise up.  Most famously the 'luddites' began to destroy the factory machinery in protest to these hard times.  And to demonstrate that industry turns the wheel of parliament, the House of Lords passed the Frame breaking Act in 1812.  This Act imposed the death penalty for those who damaged textile machinery.  And shortly after the passing of the Act, 7 men were hung for damaging said machinery.

And here we have the subject matter for a folk song.  The passing of the Frame Breaking Act was spoken out strongly against by Lord Byron.  Indeed the Romantic poets were highly vocal in their opposition to 'man's scientific control over the earth' arguing that 'man was a part of nature and needed to respect and care for the earth'.  My experience is that artists respond to social change before anybody else does, and I draw on Wordsworth poem 'London 1802', in which he calls on Milton to return as man appeared to be going down a dangerous path.  Thus, my song (in it's draft form so far) finds Watt after he has read about the luddites' executions, having read the romantic poets' prose and looking back on his own life and forward to the world that his children and grandchildren will occupy.  My song is Watt's response to the events of 1812 and the questions he asks himself.  I have called the song '1812' as a response to Wordsworth's poem and in reference to the frame breaking Act passed that year.

My Reading was taken mainly from the following sites:
http://www.egr.msu.edu/~lira/supp/steam/wattbio.html
www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/watt_james.shtml
http://history.knoji.com/poets-versus-the-industrial-revolution/
William Wordsworth poem: London 1802

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Getting Started

The first songwriting brief I have been given is to look at the life and inventions of James Watt and 'steam to green'.  I started by writing a chord sequence on synth/strings and imagining loads of industrial sounds to show the industrial revolution.  I discovered very quickly that this is not how I write! I am interested in the story, and for me, the song grows from wanting to say something in particular.  I therefore began to read up on James Watt and to get to know the man behind the engine...