I just wrote a song called ‘Buttercup’ where I drop the f-bomb four times. I’ve only ever dropped the f-bomb into a song once before and I took it out when I came to recording it. The reason I took it out was because the song was, essentially, a children’s song about a hare – so I used the word ‘furry’ instead. This new song though, is a grown up song so the f***s are staying.
As a songwriter who’s quite particular about the words I use, I don’t just throw them into songs willy-nilly or use them gratuitously. They have to contribute. Words can do that in a number of ways and I’m comfortable keeping these expletives in the song for a few reasons.
Buttercup is quite a rhythmic song that benefits from a punchy, beat driven delivery and the f-bomb is a plosive knuckle duster – powerful punctuation.
Buttercup has four verses and the f-bomb drops in at the exact same place in each verse, three syllables before the end of the second line. This isn’t necessarily something that most people would pick up on but, as a bit of a songwriting nerd, this is the kind of thing that makes me happy.
Buttercup is a grown up, messed up love song. Slang and colloquialism seem perfectly appropriate here.
I reckon the word in question is now in such common usage that it is unlikely to offend. I hear the word being used in presentations and much more frequently on TV etc. I’m not completely happy about this because I think it’s good for language to have edgy bits but this does now feel slightly de-fanged and it’s not such a big deal now to use it.
You’ll no doubt have noticed that I’ve shied away from using the actual word here in this very defence of using it.
So, in this year where video has usurped the live performance*, how do we all feel about video? I was recently invited to submit a video for inclusion in an online festival and it has reignited my interest in the medium. It’s one of these things that I know just enough about to torment myself with. Sitting in front of a phone and hitting record is an option. I’ve seen some videos that are just that and are great but I’ve always got to go a step further. Same with recording audio. I could just record a vocal and guitar but I’ve always got to go a step further. I know just enough to take that additional step but never the skill or the patience to land it satisfactorily.
To record my video I set up my phone camera to capture a fairly wide shot that included me and my guitar. I then set up a dslr camera to capture a tighter frame of my head. I set up a microphone for the vocal into channel one of my audio interface and plugged my guitar into channel two. My interface was plugged in to Adobe Audition. I always shy away from asking for any help with these ventures so I had to set everything off myself. Once I had the audio track and two video shots I edited them together using Adobe Premiere and created an end title screen in Photoshop.
I do enjoy this process but, as I said earlier, I know enough about it to know one camera is slightly out of focus, the lighting wobbles due to shifting light from outside, there’s something distracting in the lower corner and that the framing, generally, is a bit annoying. I would have liked to experiment with zooming, panning and filters. I would have liked to have a third camera and I would have liked to have an assistant. But, having said all that, I’m pretty satisfied with it in the end. I do these things to learn, to gain experience and to hopefully make a better job of it next time – story of my life really.
* I know a lot of my fellow musicians do live performances over various streaming platforms (and a lot of people watch them) but, it’s still a video yeah? The artiste is performing to a camera and the audience is watching a screen. Maybe we need a new descriptor for this type of performance.
I expect all songwriters have different processes, routines and techniques of putting songs together. I even have different processes, routines and techniques to myself. I don’t write songs the same way I did two years ago. I don’t even feel that I write songs the same way that I wrote my last one. I’m now contemplating getting started on a bunch of songs for release this year and I’m finding that I don’t know quite how to approach them. I’ve a few things that I’ve started writing recently that I’ve stopped because I felt myself falling into forms and themes that felt too familiar. The more I write, the more I become aware of patterns emerging in what I do – and the more I try to step away from them into new territory.
I’m aware there’s a growing risk of me falling into a verse, verse, chorus, verse, instrumental, chorus, verse, playout format. It’s okay to have the odd one among several songs having that structure but I want more. I also want to explore different themes in my songs and not just write maudlin reflections on our place in the universe. I want to break out of the strict metre cage I’ve built around my lyrics and use blank verse instead. I’ve followed a very narrative form in my lyrics. I now want them to be more of a snapshot – less concerned with the beginning, middle and end. Also, I want to have a few upbeat tunes rather than my usual aching, post-folk meanderings.
I’ve always written songs that are quite personal but I might try writing songs about other people. I like songs that are provocative. I might try to be a bit more gobby. Might stop trying to be deep and clever and try to be cool. I might stop writing when I’ve got a handful of good words and just work with them, rather than forcing myself to write more and end up with a whole that’s just alright.
But before I try any of that, I really need to get myself and my guitar to sit down with that pen and that notebook. I need to focus and I need to concentrate. As we embark on year 2 of lockdown my friends, that is my biggest obstacle.
I started as a 4-stringer, playing bass guitar in The Lost Soul Band. About 10 years ago I became a 6-stringer when I picked up my child’s acoustic guitar to put it in tune. But I’ve always wanted to be a 12-stringer. Among the albums I obsessed over in my late teens was Turn, Turn, Turn by The Byrds. The sound of that electric 12-string Ricky is seared into my brain. I saw a documentary about XTC from round about their Mummer and Dukes of Stratosphere era where Dave Gregory was enthusing about his Ricky 12 string and The Byrds. Of course The Beatles were soon going to incorporate that sound into their armoury too. I thrilled to see Edwyn Collins wielding all manner of weird electric 12-strings throughout his career and again when Nels Cline produced one when I saw Wilco in Glasgow. I went through a phase of obsessing over 70s cheesecloth singer songwriters for a while – Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, Gerry Rafferty and (ahem) John Denver. They were all using 12 string acoustic guitars to give a real wide open and bright sound to their recordings. I’ve always loved Bowie – kept him stowed away in my mind since… childhood really. Since his death I’ve seen loads of documentaries and footage of him performing and, of course, his signature 12-string that provided the sonic backdrop for the likes of Quicksand and Starman among many others. I’d started to feel like I could no longer function without a 12-string guitar. Not in a petulant, spoiled child way, more of an intense, primal longing (maybe it’s the same thing?).
So, I got a 12-string guitar for Christmas. An Eko Ranger 5. It is a thing of great beauty. A joy to behold.
I don’t use a plectrum to play guitar – never have done. I use a sloppy combination of finger picking and strumming with my fingernail. I knew this wouldn’t work on a 12 string and that I’d need to get used to using a plectrum. I knew that. What I wasn’t prepared for was the strain on the left hand – from stretching a bit further and from holding down twice as many strings. I soon found out that you can’t/shouldn’t bend the strings on a 12 string. It wasn’t good for a lot of the things you do on a 6 string and that, to get the best out of a 12 stringer, you had to adopt a slightly different approach. It quickly became clear to me that I had work to do and a whole new technique to learn before I could properly wear my fringe like Roger Mcguinn*.
But does it sound any good? Oh yeah. That chiming clarity that rings out when you get it right… It’s the greatest thing. There’s no immediate danger of it usurping my beloved Epiphone archtop for live performances (when we can once again do these things) but listen out for it on future recordings. I can guarantee it will be making itself known.
*obscure Orange Juice reference – see Consolation Prize. Also, my days of having a viable fringe are behind me.
In 2018 I dropped an application form to play the Danny Kyle Open Stage (DKOS). This takes place as part of Celtic Connections international music festival held at the start of the year in Glasgow. DKOS is a platform where upcoming musicians can play to the Celtic Connections audience. There’s a panel of judges and the winner is given the opportunity to play a support slot with one of the headline acts the following year. You can imagine there are lots of bands and artists applying for a coveted slot at DKOS and my application made not even an echo as it journeyed into the void…
… until Thursday last week when I got an email from the lovely and kind Liz Clark offering me a slot at this year’s event! As the event was now online they saved on the downtime switching between acts and had more slots available. I wasn’t sure how this was going to work but replied with an enthusiastic “Yes please”. It all went pretty quick and slick from then. I emailed three songs and a photo over and on the morning of Monday 25 I had a call with Liz over zoom. She recorded our chat about the songs and the whole lot was played on Celtic Music Radio that evening.
I sat with the family and listened to the radio broadcast and it felt like an event – anticipation of when I’d be on, followed by heightened listening, exchanges of looks and congratulations afterwards. Although there were only four others in the room and they were my family, I did run that vaguely familiar gamut of feelings from self-consciousness and vulnerability to thrill, pride and satisfaction.
I haven’t played live since lockdown began in March 2020. I miss it like crazy and wonder what it’ll be like when we can do it again. Will I still want to? Playing live requires a certain mindset. How will this past year of isolation have affected that mindset? It could easily be another six months or more before we can play live music again. What then? It would be easy for me to drift along in cycles of write, record, release, repeat but what DKOS gave me was that all-important ‘something back’. Hearing your songs on the radio, talking to people and seeing folk respond to your music… they are among the greatest things. I loved doing DKOS and was so grateful for the opportunity to take part. It was also a bittersweet reminder of the world still there and how wonderful it will be to perform these songs live when we can again.
The last thing I released was my 7 track mini album, A minor arc in November 2020. I’d become attracted to the idea of writing a collection of linked songs. Something reflective that took stock of where I’m at just now, how I got here, where I’m going and how it all fits together. It’s hardly a new idea. Arguably it’s what I’ve been doing all along.
I’d already written Seacliff Beach and knew that this provided a kind of conclusion, or answer, or arrival for any number of musings that other songs might contain. I wrote a song that gave me the zoomed-out perspective for this collection of songs and the title for the album: The Surge and the Fall. But I eventually ditched that song. I worked with some ideas that were half-formed and raised others from scratch. Caroline didn’t appear until I was well into the recording process. I’d written an opener that functioned as a prelude to all the other songs to come but ditched that after coming to the painful conclusion that my voice was not actually capable of singing it. The Trees of London stepped up to become the opener, representing the linearity that transforms during the course of the album into circularity.
If life is indeed a circular construct rather than a linear one then this collection represents a small section of that circle – a minor arc. Each song is a lesser section still and life itself is a minor arc of the great wheeling gyrations of the universe.
What I ended up with looked different from what I’d originally imagined but isn’t this always the way? The journey determines the destination. Not the other way about.
You can find A minor arc on all the usual streaming services or get it from my Bandcamp site.