Tag Archives: DIY

Songs from the back of the cupboard

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.

Away from the City – new EP released today!

Hi everyone. Sorry for the lack of a post this week. I’m actually about halfway through a big one, but I’ve got quite a lot of material to pull together and structure properly and all that jazz. It’s another live album one, but it’ll be a little different to the others I’ve done. Hopefully it’ll be ready by the back end of next week.

The other thing that’s been occupying me this week is the reason I’m posting today. My partner Melanie Crew and I have just released our first joint EP, and I’ve been quite busy this week putting the finishing touches to it, doing final mixes, writing emails and blurbs, sorting out the artwork for Bandcamp and Tunecore – all that sort of stuff.

It’s available right now to stream and download from Bandcamp, and will be up on other streaming platforms in the next week or so (it’ll vary by platform – they all have different turnaround times).

It features six songs, three by Melanie and three by me, and we’re really proud of it. Two of the songs – Mel’s A Different Place and my Nobody’s Watching – were written and recorded during lockdown, so they’re really fresh. The others are songs we’ve played at our shows together over the last 18 months or so.

On Mel’s Seven Mountains and my song Restless Heart we are joined by Jon Clayton on cello. Jon runs One Cat studio in south London (which is where the upcoming James McKean and the Blueberry Moon record was tracked) and plays drums in a brilliant band called Hurtling, who I wrote about here. He’s an absurdly talented dude. Equally brilliant is singer-songwriter Adam Beattie, who plays double bass on Restless Heart. Adam is a veteran of the old Gladstone Arms in Borough, and is one of the finest songwriters around. Adam’s a part of the Band of Burns collective, who tour the UK every year, playing a mix of their original songs and Robert Burns poems that they’ve adapted and set to their own music. Finally, James McKean joins Mel on backing vocals on my song Nobody’s Watching. Nobody sings oohs and aahs quite like James.

If you’re in the UK, stay safe if you’re going to head out tomorrow. This ain’t over yet, not by a long chalk.

Take care now. I’ll be back next week.

Tenderness – Jay Som

Of course lo-fi yacht rock is a thing.

It’s not the only style that Melina Duterte essays on Anak Ko, her most recent album as Jay Som, but in the shape of the second single Tenderness, it is perhaps the most striking.

Duterte started uploading home-recorded bedroom indie rock to Myspace in 2006 at the age of 12, progressing to uploading bedroom shoegaze to Bandcamp in 2012. Her previous albums – 2016 debut Turn Into and Everybody Works from 2017, both entirely self-played and self-recorded – are charming enough, and promising from a young artist. Duterte is a fine multi-instrumentalist and a creative producer, and writes appealing, slightly Juliana Hatfield-ish melodies. And if her drum tracks are sometimes a little wonky compared to her assured guitar playing, that’s all part of the records’ DIY vibe and feel.

On Anak Ko, though, Duterte’s gets her self-recording methods down to a fine art, and widens her songwriting palette so that, while everything still sounds a little bit like the Sundays or the Cocteau Twins, a wider array of influences creep in from outside the dream pop universe: the huge, J Mascis-like solo at the end of Superbike, for example, or the Steely Dan chords of the aforementioned yacht rock jam Tenderness.

Anak Ko features a wide cast of musicians on a Jay Som record for the first time, including members of her live band. On Tenderness, the contributions of drummer Zachary Elsasser are key. As I said, Duterte’s own rhythm tracks on her first two albums are integral to the vibe, but even lo-fi yacht rock has to be impeccably smooth or it’s not yacht rock but something else entirely; Elsasser’s hi-hat patterns, triplet figures gesturing towards a shuffle without quite coming out and playing one, is straight out of the Jeff Porcaro playbook. Duterte’s own bass and guitars are similarly smooth.

Tenderness isn’t the only impressive track on Anak Ko. I’m hugely fond of Superbike, (which I heard for the first time while Mel and I were having coffee in KEXP’s gathering space during a trip to Seattle last September) and Devotion’s intricate tapestry of chorused guitars and almost gamelan-like keyboards; the latter is also an example of how to successfully use heavily reverberant vocal tracks in the context of a generally drier overall mix.

Duterte’s work is still perhaps stronger on texture and atmosphere than it is on melodies that stick (the best part of the title track is the 90-second instrumental section in the middle; the vocal sections either side are slight in comparison), but each Jay Som record  seems to me to be getting stronger and more focused. Duterte is an artist to keep an eye on.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

You Won’t Need to Cry – new single out today

Well, I have to apologise for having made no progress on the last More Live Gonzos piece I was planning. Coronavirus has made this a very strange, quite stressful couple of weeks (at work, not for health reasons), and I’ve had no spare mental energy at all. I do plan to get back to it, but it may be a couple more weeks.

A few months ago, before any of us had heard of Covid-19, I recorded a couple of songs I’d written that leaned more towards indie/power pop than the kind of thing I normally do. I liked both songs and, more importantly, liked the recordings I’d made of them. They didn’t seem to fit on the EP I’m making with Mel or the album I’ve been working on forever, so I thought I’d release them as the A and B sides of a single.

The A side is called You Won’t Need to Cry. I wrote it very quickly just before new year. Mel gave me a new effects pedal for Christmas (a Leslie speaker-style modulation pedal by TC Electronic) and the song’s main riff/chord progression was pretty much the first thing I played when I sat down with it for first time. As sometimes happens when you’re playing around with ideas, it didn’t sound like a few strung-together chords – it sounded like an actual song’s intro, so I got to work.

The washy modulation effect on the guitar sounded a bit early 1980s to me, so I was thinking in those terms aesthetically, and went for a different kind of treatment than usual: a drum loop (taken from my actual live playing on Make it Last and slowed down a little), palm-muted bass and guitars, and double tracked vocals and harmonies. Mel added some extra oohs with me in the middle eight, and supplied the cover image (taken from the top of St Paul’s one night last summer).

The other song, Hard to Begin, is slightly older, written in late August last year and recorded in, I think, October or November. This one has a live drum track, quite loose and Ringo-y. I like the extended chord sequence in the verses and the general McCartney-ness of some of the changes. I guess if it sounds like anything, it’s a bit Figure 8-era Elliott Smith.

The songs are available on my Bandcamp for streaming and download (player embedded below), and you can also find them on Spotify, Google Play, Apple Music and so on.

I hope you have a chance to listen, and if you like them, please do share them.

Stay safe, everyone.

 

 

 

 

I’ll Miss You till I Meet You – Dar Williams

Dar Williams came out of the intersection of several particular geographical (New England coffeehouse), political (feminist, LGBT-friendly) and academic (liberal arts – her website includes a page on “Lectures & Workshops”) spaces in the early-mid-1990s, a time that happened to be  receptive to musicians who played acoustic guitar, made low-budget albums and wrote songs that explored gender and relationship politics.

This Northeast folksinger/coffeehouse circuit existed – thrived, even – as a separate ecosystem to the wider music industry. Occasionally artists crossed over from this folk circuit to the mainstream (Lisa Loeb, for example. But then, she had the good fortune to live in the apartment opposite Ethan Hawke’s), but someone like John Gorka, meanwhile, has spent 25 years as one of the biggest stars within his scene, but remain virtually unknown to a rock and pop audience.

I’d heard Dar Williams’s name long before I heard any of her music, not because I’d made a conscious effort to avoid it, but more because no radio station I ever heard played her stuff, and I wasn’t in a financial position then to lay down money for a record unless I was damn sure I was going to like it. (Now I think of it, that’s a key reason why for several years I went deep into the catalogues of artists I knew I liked rather than letting those be and checking out something else instead.) The song that did get me interested was atypical of her work, and from a recent album. I’ll Miss You till I Meet You, a yearning love song to the idea of someone rather than a specific parter, musically owed more to Aimee Mann than Joan Baez, or even Suzanne Vega (who often seems like New England coffeehouse singer who by some lucky fluke got famous). I think, actually, it was a specific comparison of this song to Mann’s work in a review I read that prompted me to check it out.

I’ll Miss You till I Meet You is built on similar changes and an identical drum pattern to Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love, which is probably a better song, and certainly has a more memorable chorus, but is a regrettable record – the humanity of Marie Fredrikson’s vocal trampled to death under a herd of stampeding elephants banging snare drums. Such was the fate of many a good ballad from about 1984 to 1994. Williams, though, wisely kept her recording intimate, with the sleeve art even suggesting the album was recorded in a cosy living room. In fact, this is a smart piece of misdirection; the record was actually made in Allaire Studios in the Catskills, which is an upscale facility with a client list to match. Nevertheless, Williams still sings like she’s in a small coffeehouse, playing unamplified to 15 people, and she avoids self-consciously stadium-sized moves. Guitars chime and sigh, but they don’t thunder. If you’re going to do a song that has a more than touch of the power ballad about it, it’s a wise idea to underplay it.

Like anyone who manages to make a middle-class career out of music for 20 years while never becoming close to a mainstream figure, Williams is a canny operator, and she surrounded herself with good people on this record: Eric Bazillian and Rob Hyman from the Hooters (the kind of constantly employed industry vets that I have a lot of time for), Steuart Smith who is a member of the Eagles’ touring band and even Marshall Crenshaw, once and future power-pop boy wonder.

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