100 Promises of Fire started life in 2013, as a collection of songs for a charity album. The charity album didn’t do particularly well, but still – I liked these songs, which had a socialist magic realist DNA, written for a friend who has I think probably has both.
The then-education secretary had launched a broadside against academia, specifically those education researchers who had questioned the wisdom of the secretary’s latest ill-informed reforms; in what is, by now, a familiar right-wing trope, he accused his opponents of being Marxists, and branded them “Enemies of Promise” – something I thought was pretty fucking rich for a conservative MP. The real Enemy of Promise is the one who frames the photograph of you on your knees – not just savouring your degradation, but casting in amber that image of you forever. 100 Years of Solitude has its antecedents in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book, and deals with the rootlessness that I think everyone feels when they live in London for the first time, and the feeling of not knowing where home is – the home you chose to leave behind, or the place where you are that never quite feels like yours. I can’t be bothered to explain (why I wish you were all robots, and I was a robot too) is an amalgam of every disappointing date my friends went on in 2013; I’ve been in a long term relationship for 18 years, so the very concept of dating is exotic and terrifying and I’d be really bad at it. Books Before Bros starts on the same tack, and the middle 8 incorporates a note a friend found on the street in Catford, written seemingly by a child:
“Dear next door neighbour, I am sorry that I crashed your car with rocks I’ll never ever do anything so horrible That will get me arrested You’ll know that I’ll give you one thousand pound to repair it”
I can’t remember the child’s name – let’s call her Katie. On the other side of the note a teacher or parent has remarked “This is a mess, isn’t it, Katie?”. I’ve no idea of the story here – is this real? Did Katie crash someone’s car with rocks? Is it some sort of creative writing exercise, or generalised anger management? Or did Katie just need a hypothetical scenario to practice her handwriting? It wasn’t great. In her defence, she was clearly a child. She’s probably old enough to drive now, or at least enjoy the unsupervised use of a shotgun, which is worrying.
I’ll never know, but I do find it deeply compelling.
Fire in My Eyes is the most straightforward love song – albeit set in a London that’s been completely covered in lava, except for a few expensive buildings. I probably wouldn’t have written some of these lyrics after Grenfell, to be honest, or the Australian wildfires, or the Californian wildfires, but back in 2013, London being paved over with volcanic basalt seemed more metaphorical than likely. In 2020, I’d be less surprised to discover a supervolcano under London – it would make a thematically appropriate base of operations for the current government.
Jeremy and Samantha have new albums out. Jeremy Warmsley released A Year, his first solo album in ten years, at the end of 2019; Samantha Whates’ Waiting Rooms, released back in November, is the first solo album she’s done since 2011.
I’ve been following Jeremy and Samantha for nearly 15 years* – Jeremy, since he put a demo of his song “Five Verses” up on MySpace in about 2005 – Samantha, since we played together at the Slaughtered Lamb in the same year – both around the time I started writing and performing music on my own. Since then, Jeremy has had a career as a singer-songwriter, as a film/game composer, and as one half of the band Summer Camp. Samantha has been creating beautiful sounds with her voice, both as a bandleader/soloist, and with her collaborators in Pica Pica and elsewhere. Last year, we all released albums about time, place and space, and so I wanted to use this occasion to bathe in a light broth of musical kinship with a couple of musicians I think are intensely talented, and probably a little bit underrated. (In case you hadn’t heard me mention it, in 2018 I recorded 40 songs – and one instrumental – from locations on the road in North America, South East Asia, Australia and Europe, and released them as a collection in 2019 – it’s called Year of The Bird. You can get it wherever you get music, and some places you don’t).
Jeremy Warmsley’s A Yearwas written and recorded through 2019, one song a month, and gathered together as a collection, with each song named after a month (beginning in January), telling the story (spoilers) of the passage from loneliness to elation to fucking up and back to loneliness – the arc of the spark and dissolution of a relationship. The music is designed to join seamlessly from December back to January, suggesting the protagonist being stuck in a loop, predetermined to live the same Groundhog Year again and again, or at least until his twenties are over, maybe? Or maybe his thirties or forties, or maybe never. This contrasts with other “story of a relationship” records – Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour of Bewilderbeast, 20 years old this year, springs to mind – where the relationship seems to be central and significant – the course of true love gone awry. That A Year’s narrator is may have experienced – or will experience – multiple repeats of this year doesn’t make his emotional highs less high or his lows less low.
Samantha Whates recorded her album Waiting Rooms** in spaces across the UK – train stations, ferry terminals, Scotland, Essex, Peckham. It’s a guerrilla operation that you might expect to sound like a folk version of garage punk; in reality, it’s so rich with a rotating line up of musicians bringing the spaces to life, it feels smooth and polished and full of shape and depth, even when there’s electrical buzz or the sound of a train passing – those are visitors hoping to join in with the performance. They’re largely welcomed into the ensemble. It’s a surprisingly varied record for one that had to set up, travelling player style, in a new “studio” each time – at various points, clarinets, violas, lutes and recorders joining the core of bass, voice, and acoustic guitar. Samantha herself is a wonderful technical singer – emphatic and soaring, emotional and grounded. She’s the sort of singer I’d like to be.
Which is not to overlook what a great singer Jeremy is – breathy intimacy in bleak January giving way to poppy exuberance as A Year progresses. Samantha and Jeremy have a technical precision in common, both in their singing and in the way they compose and arrange their music. In each case, this proficiency is tempered with their own idiosyncracies – Jeremy’s wonderful gift with a vocal hook, his appetite for a banging beat, his lyrical drumming and Orca-like slide guitar; Samantha’s personal lyrics that jump from poetic and abstract to direct and arresting, her gift for a chord change that can take the wind out of your sails and cloud up the sky of a bright and breezy day.
Year of the Bird contains more than sketches, but they have the deliberate feel of something that it was vital I get out the way as quickly as possible – sometimes that works in song’s favour, sometimes not – but either way they were detailed pencil drawings, even if I fancy myself a decent draftsperson. Escher worked a lot in pencil, so I’m not beating myself up, and after all, there’s not really a way to make 40 sculptures in marble in less than twelve months. And I’m not sure I have the patience to be a decent sculptor. Conversely, A Year and Waiting Rooms feel like they’ve had the chance to erode and be chiselled, telling different and deeper stories about particular times and particular places.
So there we have it! 40 original pieces of music, each with written words, plus one instrumental intermission. 2018 was a year of travel, so I could have just enjoyed seeing a bunch of places* I’d never seen before and many of which I will probably never see again. But I wanted to do some creative work – something that had slowly been crushed under the wheels of a busy career and which I claimed I wanted to do. So here was the proof.
I’ve never been particularly impressed with the outcome of enforced writing projects. “Song a Day” tends to create some very throwaway stuff, with perhaps the exception of Japanese Breakfast’s project June – which yielded 30 unpolished but surprisingly well-formed pieces. The 21st Century Ur-album of Big Records, The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, is far from flawless. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of really good songs on it, and some perfect songs on it – which is what it should be judged on, I guess. There are also a lot of Not Good songs on it. Not entirely dissimilarly, Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness is a genuinely terrific 10-song album with a lot of self-indulgent filler.
But… I’m pretty pleased with this collection. I love the ebb and flow of the seasons – the tentative Pacific explorations of Volume 1, the Japanese setting (leading to Australian medical meltdown) of Volume 2, the relaxed betweenness and experimentation of Volume Three, and the four-to-the-floor bangers and ballads of Volume 4. There are a few tracks I really don’t rate, but a lot I love, and I don’t really think would have been better with a home studio and three months.
There’s a story – which sounds completely made up, by the way – of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan bumping into each other in a Greenwich Village Cafe, and sharing pleasantries.
“I love your new song,” Dylan says, according to this story, “how long did it take to write?”
“Ah about three years”, Leonard Cohen replied. “I love yours, how long did it take you?”
“About five minutes.”
I have done a song a week project once before – although I didn’t really call it that – when I use to perform regularly at Robin Ince’s School for Gifted Children, a science-y, enlightenment-y night that was the sequel to The Book Club night that incubated the careers of some wonderful comedians, and the prequel to the 9 Lessons and Carols/Infinite Monkey Cage stuff that’s he’s now very well known for. I wrote a new song for every show – themed around science – inspired by songwriting powerhouse Gavin Osborn, taking a week or less to write each. I released the songs in 2011 as Songs from The Scientific Cabaret, and at the time I felt like they represented a mix of transcendental bangers and rushed hackwork. That I needed time to marinate my song ideas a little more, maybe?
Seven years on things have changed. I’ve written enough songs and music now (over a hundred songs, probably not as many instrumentals, but a lot) that I have a toolkit for approaching songwriting. But that toolkit becomes something I fall back on – especially if I’m under time pressure – which was part of the reason I gave myself so many constraints – using IXI to make a song out of the digits of PI, harmonising to a frog’s croak, using acrostics and univocal lipograms and constrained alphabets and spoken word pieces to knock myself off balance and stop me doing the same old shit.
Because the truth is – and this will come as no surprise – I’m neither Bob Dylan nor Leonard Cohen. I need the immediacy of being excited about a concept, a sound, a lyric, a vocal; but if I have to write too fast, I get hacky and lazy. I need some time to mull over whether something sounds good or not – but if I have too long, I sit with bad songs for a long time and it prevents me from moving on to the next, better, one; and given a distant deadline, I just avoid writing. I’m not sure I’m even a good Oulipean – some of the most constrained songs on the collection are not the most creative or original or interesting, in my opinion. My favourites are where I’ve found a story or a line or a metaphor or a musical device to get something across, one that excites me, and just run with it. Which is pretty much how I’ve always written. I just haven’t written this much, in one go, before.
So here we are. The next collection will be another constrained, time-limited bunch, created as part as Song Fight – a website where the creators post a song title and an (optional) constraint. To add further complexity, these songs were co-written and co-recorded remotely with Lily Sloane, a San Francisco singer-songwriter and podcaster who I haven’t seen in person since we started the project. This will be a more manageable project though: an EP, rather than a quadruple album.
So look out for that in the new year. And in the meantime, please do give Year of the Bird a listen in its entirety. Not necessarily in one sitting, it’s almost three hours of music. But give it a series of spins, download it, buy it if you feel so inclined, and let me know what you think at the usual places.
(If you do want to listen to the whole thing, in chronological order… I’ve set up this Spotify playlist for that purpose.)
See you in 2020!
*at time of writing, I’ve been travelling for over two years, with some short breaks in London, and I visited a load of places for the first time: in the Netherlands (Amsterdam), Northern Iceland, Lima (for one day), Chile (Atacama, Santiago, Valparaiso and Puerto Natales), Argentina (Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn, Gaiman, El Chalten, El Calafate and Punta Arenas), Hawaii (Hilo, Kona, Kawaii, Maui and Oahu), Hong Kong, Vietnam (Hanoi, Hue and Hoi An), Siem Reap, Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur and Penang), Singapore, Taiwan (Taipei and Hualien), Japan (Fukuoka, Hiroshoma, Naoshima, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Tokyo and Osaka), Costa Rica, Stockholm, New Zealand (pretty much all of it), Australia (Brisbane, Port Macquarie, Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin and Cairns), the US (Portland Maine, Philly, DC, Durham, Richmond, Dallas, Austin, Minneapolis, St Louis, Pando) and Canada (Toronto, Whistler, Jasper, Tofino) and a bunch of places (mainly North American cities) I had been to before but were wonderful to revisit.
P.s. if you’re interested, these are my top 20 favourite songs on the collection, in order of decreasing popularity (with me):
Semi-prepared remarks for a surprise awards ceremony
At least we got some decent punk
The mountains look like Scotland
Directive Four [Classifies]
I only see the moon
A bad crossword
Remarks Upon Seeing the Milky Way With the Naked Eye
The day after yesterday
Hey friends, I’m Blowing Into Town
I wanted to do a couple of things with this song; the first of which was inspired by Strange Weather, a song Tom Waits wrote for Marianne Faithfull in 1987, and we’d just talked about on our Tom Waits podcast Song by Song. I’d been playing it backstage on Peter Buckley-Hill’s acoustic guitar at the 9 Lessons And Carols For Curious People gig over Christmas, and realised how much I loved the song. So I took two ideas – the key (A minor) and some of the chord changes; and the way that the verse and chorus are in different time signatures. Strange Weather’s verses are in 2/4, its choruses in 3/4; Goodbye, 2018! has 3/4 verses and 4/4 choruses (with a bit of a 2/4 feel).
The other thing I wanted to do was use instruments of my parents, it felt like something would ground this physically rambling 40-song collection and tie it up. The guitar part is recorded on a scrappy parlour guitar I bought in a Crystal Palace junkshop and which lives in my parents-in-law’s house in Sussex. The chords and song structure were written on the guitar. The accordion-sounding part is actually a Frontalini Chord Organ – a wonderful little keyboard instrument which is essentially an electric fan-powered accordion laid out flat with a keyboard and chord buttons like a spatchcocked squeezebox. This particular chord organ was purchased by my maternal grandfather in the 1960s when he moved house and chopped up his piano for firewood. It’s a real beauty. But it’s powerful loud. So I recorded every note on it and programmed it into a sampler for the purposes of not annoying the shit out of my parents by recording the whole song live in their Wolverhampton home.
There’s another instrument on this song – the one that produces that wonderful glissando at the beginning and features the sound of running water. It’s the tap in the house we were staying in in rural Sussex, where the final parts of this song were recorded. It’s the real star of the show.
I finished recording this song with about ninety minutes to go before the end of 2018 – I felt like Phileas Fogg getting around the world with minutes to spare. What a trip.
You can buy Year of The Bird Volume 4 RIGHT NOW – from band camp, Apple Music, etc etc – anywhere you get music. And Volumes 1-3, and listen to the whole gd thing, packed, as it is, with bangers. Happy Christmas everyone!
This is probably my favourite song on the whole collection. Once the drums come in, I happy cry all the way through to the end. Lyrically, I like this form of extreme self-aggrandisation as a way to things which feel emotionally real. It’s an odd route in, granted.
This song has SO MUCH DRUMS. Four drum parts. It feels like the right amount of drums. There’s also a gong sounding thing, which I actually recorded in a fancy kitchenware shop in Royal Tunbridge Wells where my wife had taken my father in law to buy a Christmas present for my mother in law. I got a bit bored and started recording a hanging display of heavy-bottomed copper pans – that’s why you can hear people talking in the background, and right at the end of the song, my wife’s slowed-down laughter. It seems really appropriate that it’s the last thing you hear on the track.
I don’t really run. I hate the idea of it. The few times I’ve done it (at school, on a “”””fun run”””” fifteen years ago), I have been existentially miserable. I acknowledge that, at some point, I may have to take it up to prevent my body falling into decrepitude. But I can already anticipate fairly accurately the hierarchy of increasingly abstract internal voices that will accompany it, and this is what it will sound like:
The baseline motivation
Put one foot in front of the other, keep pushing forward towards..? It doesn’t matter, this is all you have to remember
It really doesn’t matter why you’re doing this awful thing, just keep doing it, one step at a time
Cold and wet, it’s dark and I’m hungry I feel so weary, why the hell do I have to be cold and wet? It’s dark and I’m hungry…
BUT THIS THING IS AWFUL
You don’t have to keep on going, you don’t have to keep on running
I really don’t
Do you think anyone will notice?
I don’t think anyone will notice
No one cares
And I don’t know if some higher power Animates my steps But if it’s going to show it’s hand It’s still got half the story left
This is where the song itself shows its hand a bit, as not just being about running, but about any kind of endeavour – clearly how I was feeling about writing, music, living life and so on. A slog that only demonstrates any kind of improvement with repeated and frequent effort, and may not have any appreciable outcome on any but the longest time scales.
The title and construction of the song references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – at the bottom is stuff like food and water, higher up warmth, shelter, security and so on until social acceptance and self-realisation sits near the top. The song is more like a traversal of base drives up to intellectuallisations and reflections right at the top. As a groovy implementation of a pretty clean idea, I really like it, and I hope you do too.
Next week, I’m surprised by an awards ceremony in my honour. Why not celebrate with me, and preorder Year of The Bird Volume 4 – it’s out in just a couple of weeks!
At time of writing, I’ve spent over two years without a home – apart from a storage unit in south London. My dad did it on and off for ten years. He left school at 16 to join the Merchant Navy, and worked as a cook aboard oil tankers, travelling as far as San Francisco, Singapore, Guam and Venezuela. I can’t help thinking about travel through the lens of his life before I was born – he left the oil tankers so he could be present for me, and later my younger sister.
My dad’s greatest fear in that time – and even after he left – was a fire at sea. A fire on an oil tanker sounds like the most terrifying thing imaginable. I don’t really want to write about it, and I had to be very careful about the way I wrote a song about it, because it’s something genuinely horrible, something he had nightmares about. He never saw one, I don’t think, but he did see his fair share of horrible accidents and aftermaths of horrible accidents. So I didn’t want to romanticise or trivialise it, but it did loom large in my consciousness, especially thinking about travel – about being far from home and how much could go wrong without those networks of love and support around. And how exciting it is to be out there – on the open ocean, the open road, seeing a big beautiful world.
I guess something pretty terrible had happened six months before in Tasmania, but I didn’t feel isolated or adrift at the time, so much as scared. The networks in that place kicked in – hospitals and hospitality, mainly. I read something a long time ago about how travel, if you’re at all a decent person, should give you sympathy for people in a country where they don’t know how stuff works, and maybe they don’t speak the language; and hopefully then you’ll treat visitors to the country you live in with the kindness and consideration that you frequently experience when you’re not in the country you live in. So, as frightened and adrift you can feel when you don’t have a home – even if you’re secure and comfortable in all sorts of other ways – there are decent people out there. You’re not literally on fire out at sea.
Musically, this is hugely influenced by seeing a David McAlmont gig in Streatham, South London, shortly before deadline. I had to go back and re-record what was a very vibrato-laden vocal, and really reign it in. I am not David McAlmont (yet).
Next week, we go for a run. Why not preorder Year of The Bird Volume 4 – it’ll be out in December and we can jog off that turkey together.