This was kind of fun, if a little self-indulgent. Maybe I’ll do it again.
The other night I was playing around with a slow minor-key chord sequence, and it reminded me of a song I wrote and recorded around eight years ago. It came out as the B-side of a single I did for a short-lived project called Board of Fun, run by my friend and Watertown Carps bandmate Yo Zushi.
Board of Fun was an old-school pen-and-ink zine, with specially commissioned articles and artwork, and it in turn spawned a website and the Board of Fun Singles Club. Every month, Yo released download-only single under the BoF banner. I was one of the people who put out a Board of Fun single before the project ran out of steam. It was a two-song release: a Fleetwood Mac-via-Jonathan Wilson kind of thing called Little Differences, and a slower, piano-led B-side called Can You Explain. The new piece I was working on the other night reminded me of the latter, so I dug the Cubase project out and had a listen.
It’s a weird thing to listen to your own work after enough time has passed that you can hear it more or less objectively, as if it were someone else’s doing. OK, while it was evidently a sincere piece of work, it wasn’t my finest melody in the verses; it starts high-ish but quickly drops down low in a way that’s tough to sing, and it has a few of my usual odd note choices. It was pretty clear, too, that I’d botched the tuning of the snare drum (all pingy and boxy – like a military snare. Not right for the song at all). But other than that, I was surprised by the production, in a good way.
The best decision I made in relation to the song was not to sing it. Instead, I asked my old schoolfriend Chris Martin to sing it. (This Chris Martin is not that Chris Martin; he can sing, for one thing.) Chris has a wider range than me, with more depth in the low end and more lung power; the slow tempo made hanging on to the end of some of the lines tricky for me, but it was no problem for Chris. I had enough sense to know when I was beaten and get a ringer in, and Chris sang it a hell of a lot better than I could have done, and he also added some lovely harmonies on the spot. Chris has lived in Qatar and now Texas for most of the years since; I really miss recording with him!
But there’s some other nice touches in there. Back in that period, I was recovering from a serious cardiac illness, living with my dad and working only part time. So I had a lot of time to write and record, and the space to leave gear set up in a spare bedroom that I didn’t have when I moved into a one-bed flat in London a few months later. Since I had two amps then, and the space to put them in, I developed a taste for stereo set-ups to record heavily tremolo rhythm parts: pan them hard left and right, and the effect is a little like a having a Leslie speaker that you’re in the middle of.
A stereo-tremolo guitar can fill out a recording on its own, but I used it more for density and texture. The song was mainly piano-led – unusual for me since my abilities are so limited, but it needed a piano as it was based on a chord that’s tough to capture on guitar. I think it’s kind of a G major (right hand) superimposed on D minor (left hand), but I don’t exactly recall at this point. I added guitar arpeggios in the choruses, harmonised left and right, using open strings to expand the chords a little: a trick I still love now, and thought I’d started doing later. The drums are quite interesting in their way, too – very slow half-time feel, but with an 8th/16th note hi-hat part that I played with two hands (snare was right hand).
All of which is to say, it’s far from a great song, but it’s got more going for it than I would have remembered at this remove. It’s easy to forget about a lot of what you do if you’ve been writing a while, as I have; you’re more excited by your recent material and while you hang on to your favourite older songs – the ones that you still play live – you forget about the rest, or assume they’re no good. And while I definitely don’t rate this among the best 20 or even 30 songs I’ve written, it’s not actually a bad one.
I polished up the mix slightly, using close-miked snare samples to improve the drum sound (it’s a recording of the same snare drum, but tuned better, and velocity matched as close as I could manage), and updated the file that’s on my Soundcloud. All being well, it’s embedded below for the curious.