I told you how important you would be

I Told You How Important You Would Be is a mini album I wrote and recorded remotely with San Francisco songwriter Lily Sloane using prompts from the Song Fight songwriting community – it came out on Tuesday.

I write quite a lot of music nowadays. Some of it is music that people hear, because it’s on a podcast or something, some if it is music people tend to not hear, because it’s on one of my albums. Whether it gets heard or not, it tends to be a somewhat solo adventure – if it’s for a commission, people will using tell me if they want something different/better, but the Getting of Notes is the extent of the collaborative process.

When Lily and I started to work on this, we had no idea how important it would be, if you excuse the pun. It was October 2019, I was about to go on tour with The Allusionist live show, and Lily told me about Song Fight – a regular songwriting club/challenge run by people she knows where she lives in San Francisco. And I asked if she wanted to work on some songs for it together. I was, annoyingly, embarking on a tour that didn’t visit San Francisco, so the writing process was remote, via Facebook messenger and google drive. Luckily we both use the same software, so that at least made it easy trading sessions and building up our performances on the others’ layers, like some kind of geological process of sedimentation, albeit at a moderately accelerated pace. Honestly – this is how most people record music nowadays anyway – throwing some gravel on a layer of mud and seeing how it looks before proceeding to some sand or leafy material. It’s hard to make that part sound cool because, even though this sort of remote work is something that would have been a novelty ten years ago, it was really pretty easy, and not more exciting than google docs. Which, if you’re ever used a spreadsheet to plan a road trip, you know to be very exciting – but the part you’d think to be interesting really wasn’t.

But having a remote connection even before COVID made it that much more robust and connected when lockdown hit and I had to go back to the UK and I couldn’t go to San Francisco to mix the album or even go out of my house, apart from once a day. A thin digital lifeline that remained connected and reminded me that even in The Before Times, digital connection is real connection, and wonderful things can happen without sitting in a room together with a couple of guitars. I’m not sure that in-person pressure would even have helped very much in this case, although it would have been nice to hang out and play Lily’s guitars.

This is the first time I’ve collaborated with a full-spectrum songwriter like Lily; a lyricist, composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and singer. A really good singer, tbh, but also very on top of all the other stuff too. In collaborations where you provide skills the other lack, and vice versa, there are obvious ways to work, but in this case, that was’t so obvious. I think the bright red line was lyrics – I don’t remember explicitly saying so, but I think we both find it weird singing lyrics someone else has written. Our lyrics overlap, reflect, and intersect, one picks up the theme the other has started – I think it’s when we worked best together, that call and response led to something richer.

In terms of musical approaches, I think Lily’s more experimental – she takes more risks – and I tend to be more minimal, focused on reducing that block of stone to something that looks like a face. I don’t want anything in my songs I don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful; she’s got some ornaments I would not have chosen for myself. Come to think of it, I don’t think I own any ornaments, unless you count that tin of “unicorn meat” that sat on my office desk for seven years. People rarely commented on it.

I felt like Lily had a strong vision for what she wanted this collection of songs to be about. Occasionally I would try to derail it by talking about spaceships or time travel, but the emotional themes were still there. And the synthesis of these emotions and my oblique practice of talking about feelings through the medium of absurd or weird fictional people melded together somewhere in the middle, creating these witchy dialogues between the characters we’d created; an ex-couple that won’t let go; a stowaway ruining a gazillionaire’s solipsistic journey to the stars; the symbiosis of a narcissist and the thralls he needs energy from (maybe just an extrovert?); two work colleagues whose work is bringing about the end of the world; or a missed connection across space and time, two people knowing something is missing but finding meaning in their new, askew, lives. I more often than not had to take the role a terrible arsehole, which is ok because I play one in real life.

Letting go of a piece of work and waiting for people’s reactions – or lack of reaction – is hard. My only reconciliation with this is to keep on moving, keep writing, and bring my focus onto why my next project isn’t working rather than expectations of what my last project should be doing in the world. But I like collaborating. At least you can be sure one other person is listening.

I Told You How Important You Would Be is available on bandcamp or wherever you find music.

Apple Tree

I’ve talked about the genesis of this song on the podcast it was written for, The Family Tree – if you’re more inclined to hear an audio recap of how this was written, have a listen to the episode where I talk about it.

The Family Tree is a story I don’t want to spoiler – there are three seasons, and some major reveals happen towards the end of the first season – so better to start from the start. I’m going to have to skirt around the main plot points, and instead vaguely allude to the themes of the show that I picked up on here, and why. The first important thing to know is that a huge theme of the podcast is intergenerational continuity of memory and culture. Another is, well, trees – at least oak trees.

When Dave and Jen approached me to write a song that would round off the series, I started to wonder about a piece of music that could have been passed down generations. We have nursery rhymes and songs that go back hundreds of years, but it turns out there is a definite answer to the question of “what is the oldest piece of music?”. It’s called the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal, and it was written (down) in Northern Syria in about 3,400 years ago. Nikkal, the goddess of orchards and fertility, was the great-grandmother of the perhaps better known god, Gilgamesh. The oldest piece of written music in the world being about fertility and procreation and trees – apple trees – was too compelling not to include in a song for a show called The Family Tree.

Unfortunately, the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal doesn’t have a 3,400 year oral tradition to go along with the sheet music – and music notation was standardised relative recently – and only for certain kinds of European music, really. This means that there isn’t it a definitive version of the melody – or even agreement as to whether the notation represents a single melody, or multiple lines of melody.

This page has a very detailed discussion of both the lyrics and music, and not being a scholar of ancient manuscripts or a musicologist, I decided on aesthetics alone – and plumped for Dumbrill’s 1998 interpretation. This version also had the advantage of aligning with a modern mode, the Dorian (I went for D Dorian) – which, if you’re not a music nerd, is like the notes in C major, but you start and end on D instead (D-E-F-G-A-B-C, a minor mode). More importantly, Dumbrill’s reading is kind of hooky – you can hear it at the beginning of my song, and at the end, or in a slightly different version on a more traditional instrument here:

I was recording this in a weird Melbourne loft in the middle of Australian winter. Most of Australia doesn’t ever really get properly freezing, but places like Melbourne do get reasonably cold and rainy, and aren’t great at insulation, so I was tired from travelling and cold and gloomy and slightly soggy. And I made the decision to use the sound of the loft instead of adding artificial reverb – all the echo on the voices are the sound of the space itself, and most of the instruments use an artificial impulse-response reverb based on the same room. The fact that I was recording in a room I was only going to be in for a week really sharpened my mind, and I think led to some good performances. Yeah, I know, that’s how most musicians record when they go to a studio….

In keeping with the theme of a melody that had existed for thousands of years but maybe had slightly changed shape in the intervening time, I searched for other songs that were in D Dorian, and thankfully many of them were out of copyright. Most notably, “Scarborough Fair”, which I know from Simon And Garfunkel, but apparently is closely entwined with a piece from 1670 (some 300ish years before The Graduate) and “What do we do with the drunken sailor”, which shares a tune with a song about Bonnie Prince Charlie from 1745 – and which apparently became a sea shanty some time around the 1820s – a mere 200 years ago. Most recently it morphed in Drunken Whaler in the surprisingly whale-centric Dishonored games.

Obviously they’re a big part of the oral folk tradition in the British Isles – and the idea that the song is preserved, but evolved, between generations. But never, perhaps, perfected. I’d been hearing variants of a phrase on social media a lot – particularly in the context of civil rights and social justice:

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”.

I find that sentiment very moving in the context of the work of improvement not being ego-driven, not being glorious, and not being the work of a generation. And so I wanted to set that to music. On the way, I found that the quote comes from the Pirkei Avot – a book of ethical and moral principles. The above quote is attributed to Rabbi Tarfon, who died about 1900 years ago. In as much as it reflects intergenerational desire for change – and that’s why I find it compelling – I feel like it also reflects continuation of culture, and the way that culture is alive, and preservation has to be active and performative and continuous – and probably changes the culture in the process. It’s not a printout in a filing cabinet, it’s someone copying poetry from a chapbook into a notebook as the ink fades on the printed page.

And so I recast that line to be explicitly about the oral tradition of song and music – a tradition which has failed to keep the Hurrian Hymn alive (3400 years is a tall order): – it’s not your burden alone to finish the tune, but that doesn’t mean you stop singing the song. And that’s where I landed with this song – an active reinterpretation of the Hurrian Hymn and its tribute to Nikkal; an interweaving the Hymn with the music that shares its lineage; and a reminder of that active process. That all said, I think it’s a cracking tune; and I hope you like it too.

Apple Tree is released on Feb 12th 2020 – you can get it at PaleBird.bandcamp.com or wherever you get music.

100 Promises of Fire

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.

One Hundred Promises of Fire is available at bandcamp, or wherever you get music.

Jeremy And Samantha

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 Year was 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.

*musically, rather than physically

**(Whating Rooms?)

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

40. Goodbye, 2018!

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!

39. Semi-Prepared Remarks For A Surprise Awards Ceremony

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.

Next week, we finally say goodbye to the Year of The Bird. If you preorder Year of The Bird Volume 4 , you’ll get it in a week!

38. Maslow

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:

Run!

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?

Probably not

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!

37. Fire At Sea

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.

36. A Sad Bat

A Univocal Lipogram is a piece of writing – usually a poem – which uses only one vowel. You can use all the consonants you want or need, and you can use that vowel as many times as you like. I’ll reproduce the full lyrics for a A Sad Bat so you can see what I mean:

Black spartan lands
Salt flats and pans
Vast, Atacaman, all asphalt and glass
What a man saw was that sand as a maw
Past as a path, as a trap, as a flaw

A scarab ball, an alarm, a star fall
Mark that dark patch that casts a ghast pall
Craft a small map – salad days call!
Grasp at that canvas, claw as an awl

Dark falls past bad days
Man sat at a camp
Palm wraps an arm and a scarf wraps a hand
Was that a jackdaw, a hawk, a sad bat?
Warmth crawls as dawn draws an arc, a sharp band

I realised early on in this process that “Atacaman” was univocal (uni-vowel-ular) and decided to write a song about someone travelling through the Atacama Desert, a high desert in northern Chile that I visited in late 2017 to do a bit of stargazing. It’s stark and beautiful and thanks to all the salt and altitude, very dry – so good for looking at the sky. I saw the Magellanic Clouds for the first time.

There’s some debate over the letter “y”, which I forgot about when I wrote this. I heard about univocal lipograms from – as I do many ideas – poet Ross Sutherland, who appeared on my wife’s podcast The Allusionist to explain this form, and other forms used by the Oulipo*, a group of poets and mathematicians and writers who specialise in constrained writing. Ross crafted a univocal lipogram and performed for them, only to find out that they were disappointed by his inclusion of the letter y.

I don’t know where I land on this – presumably the “y” in “Egypt”, “Lady”, or “Ypres” does function like a vowel – in that it adds a syllable. The y I’ve used in “days” modifies the sound of the vowel – but so does the “r” in dark and the “l” in “palm” – so I think my “y” is legit. Idk whether the Oulipo sees it that way.

There’s a very good Univocal Lipogram in “o” that Ross put out on his show. His thesis is that this kind of constraint forces you to use more basic language, swear more, and – in this case – I think he created something very focussed, rich with detail. My Univocal Lipogram is sort of vague and allusive and slightly mystical, so I’m not sure it had the desired effect on me.

Oh – the music does something quite weird too, but maybe I’ll save that for the podcast. Next week, we’ll be experiencing a fire at sea, so why not prepare for that by preordering Year of The Bird Volume 4 ?

*you might remember that I name checked them in “Hawaiian Oulipo Hell” on Year of The Bird Volume 1?