Year of The Bird

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
Obliterate, Annihilate
Sensible List
Minnesota Sunrise
The mountains look like Scotland
Theme Song
Directive Four [Classifies]
I only see the moon
Dental health
Harp Lie
Little Thing
A bad crossword
Remarks Upon Seeing the Milky Way With the Naked Eye
The day after yesterday
Hey friends, I’m Blowing Into Town