Top of this City

One sunny day in May, this sweet singalong song seemed to arrive from nowhere. My co-writer Kevin started playing a picked guitar phrase, I started singing, and out popped a song as fresh as a summer mushroom, a cheerful song of survival born from pain, a song of finding peace in hardship.

Top of this City is as good a song as I have ever written. It was the middle of the deep recession of the 1990s, record bankruptcies, unemployment, and a discredited government, and the words flowed from the situation I was in personally, and from observations of the suffering all around me. Not at all sophisticated and cool, it is naive, warm and approachable. I’m usually critical of my own work, but I love this song just as passionately as all the music that does it for me.

Based around a lilting country guitar riff with a classic pop structure, it is deceptively simple and short, coming in at around 3 minutes 30 seconds. The beat isn’t really that funky but it bounces, the bassline is folky, almost jug band. The melody follows the chords, descending in the verse, and ascending in the chorus. The middle eight is short and mournfully sweet, injecting the blues which are always there, hiding behind the brightness.

I also love this song for autobiographical reasons.

Kevin GoldsboroughFor the best part of a decade, my favourite co-writer and best friend in the world was Kevin Goldsborough, a tall, kind, fragile man, 6′ 4″ craggy blond from Yorkshire viking stock. Kevin’s unique musical ability was natural and largely untutored, and born from daily hours of playing any instrument he could get his hands on, his huge fingers flying intuitively around the fretboard, the keyboard and drum kit. He was cripplingly shy, and yet had a leonine extravagance to match Mick Jagger. He sang in a Bowie-like baritone which accent was his by dint of having grown up in the same area of suburban south London. His sense of rhythm was funky, he could rock, he had the blues, he was a soul man, he had a sense of poetry and of humour, and his taste was broad and various.

My musical marriage with Kevin was a wonderful affair which produced song after song. As well as completing many of his own compositions, he was capable of providing riffs, basslines and chord progressions for which I had no problem writing melodies and lyrics. He also gave me license to arrange and produce to my art-heart’s content. Kevin was prepared to go the extra mile, and he would also somehow combine patience for all my ideas with straight honesty. If he ever said, “that’s not as good as before” he was pretty much always right.

In our heyday, we would come together and effortlessly write and record beautiful songs between noon and teatime with no fear of blank canvas. Seeking to please only ourselves and one another, we pleased thousands. It helped that musical ideas were pouring out of both of us, so that if one was not particularly inspired, the other would pick up the baton. When we were both on fire, we were unbeatable.

Writing Top of this City, pictured a young child in the middle of chaos, watching her family chase dreams, lose jobs, and fall apart, and recalled my own feelings as a child growing up in the recessions of the 1970s on Crystal Palace hill. I would climb up the fire escape to the top of a building, and gaze down from the flat roof upon the ant-people and toy cars. Rising above my problems, in my secret place, I found a peace there which I later understood to be a basic form of enlightenment.

The trick was to draw this experience in simple lines and primary colours, in keeping with the childlike simplicity of the song:

My mama’s sick, my dad’s been fired
By the boss he once admired
And my big sister looks so tired
As she waves goodbye to all her desires

There’s a place I know
I go sometimes
‘Cause it looks so pretty
Looking down on this city…

Kevin GoldsboroughAs well as being about family breakup and childhood depression, the song also provided me with a way of “getting above” the problems in my own life. Writing and performing with Kevin and the band was to last only 18 months more, as his health deteriorated, and I was becoming truly messed up by a “difficult relationship” with a woman. I don’t have a big sister – that’s a reference to the great well of sadness and grief I was discovering in my damaged lover.

Sometimes, when you write a song, it’s a sublime collision of thought, feeling and real life. There’s no predicting the discovery of these precious gems – they just arrive when they do, formed by circumstances, and as a writer all you can is keep your writing pen sharp, and your ink ready for the moment.

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The Road Home

As a songwriter I’m prone to journeys of investigation to the Galapagos Islands of my evolving mind, and the songs I find there sometimes determine a future path which has unexpected returns.

I met Mark Crook when I was 11 years old, and I met Andy Carroll when I was 21, and I have written with both of these talented musicians many times, but this song was the first time I managed to combine both forces. It was very simple. I visited Andy in his studio, he gave me three loops and phrases. I brought them back to the writing studio I shared with Mark and he played some country-tinged acoustic guitar over the groove we constructed. I had free rein to improvise the melody and lyrics.

The music seemed relaxed and open, warm and welcoming, so I provided an appropriate scenario. I pictured a traveling salesman who misses his wife and yearns to return to the comfort of her arms, making a relationship work in the day to day struggle of life. A song of love and marital fidelity could be a bit of a clich√© if approached in the wrong manner, and since crass sentiment is something I tend to avoid like the plague (a serious challenge when you’re writing pop songs) I needed to be sincere and write from my own experience of playing gigs, living on the road and missing my partner.

I tried not to make it too gender-specific, and I included some thoughts I was having from reading Eckhart Tolle.

My lover caught the oblique references to our relationship and this became a favourite. She loves the line “As the evening sunlight softens…” and repeats it with a soft look in her eyes. The power of songwriting to seduce will be another post… Another friend of mine who fell in love with this song is Kate, and I was very touched when she asked to use the song in a photo DVD she made for her son’s wedding. That’s when music is at its best, embedded in real, life-defining moments.

But you have to be careful. When the people around you are aware that at any time they might become the subject of your work, it can make things uncomfortable for them, so I try not to analyse or discuss lyrics with friends – I don’t want my normal human relationships to become stilted. You can usually find a way to say things indirectly most of the time, in any case, which is usually better for poetry.

This song is deliberately long, like the landscape through which our protagonist is traveling to return to his love. I do have a shorter edit, but it doesn’t work. I like the big space in the verses, the pauses which allow the words to sink in, which are great to sing, and between you and me, I think the chorus is one of my finest, because everyone can sing along.

And even though this road goes on and on
Cold mornings, nights are weary, days are long
And though I travel far, we stay so strong
This road leads back to you, where I belong

If you want to use this song or any you find here in your music podcast, blog or broadcast, you probably can, but please ask me first.

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The Subliminal Ballad

The Ballad is a kind of song essential to almost every artist’s repertoire. Most often it is a slow love song of joy or heartbreak. It is the song never heard in death metal or nosebleed techno. It is the song which cuts across generations and cultural divides. It is the song most easy to massacre, and also the song which lingers longest in the affections. It is the song you sing at 3am, drunk, when all other songs have left you.

Many years ago I wrote some great ballads with Guy Sigsworth, a now well-known writer and producer. Guy’s background was Cambridge classical, and the first music I heard of his was a rather bizarre marriage of dance music and harpsichord. Quite obsessive, Guy was capable of producing really tight arrangements imbued with his very English suppressed emotion. He could produce reams of backing tracks full of musical ideas, but what he couldn’t do easily on his own was cross the divide into lyrical, expressive territory and finished pop songs. Guy had some success with Seal, and later with Bjork.

One of my favourite songs is called Cut Me and I Bleed, and I lived with this track, which was at that stage a sketch without melody or middle eight, as I spent time in the town of Glastonbury, Somerset. The music has a hymnal quality, and Guy’s swooping bass and melancholy-sweet organ arrangement seemed to fit the frustrating romance I was experiencing, in this place centred around the majestic ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Returning to London, the song formed in my head, I added guitar and strings, completed the middle eight, and wrote the melody and lyrics in a day.

A couple of months later I returned to the town, cassette in hand, in order to make a gift of the song to the object of my affections. Walking up the high street, depressed and rather lonely, I heard the bells of St John’s in Glastonbury High Street toll. Their distinctive rising and falling melody has exactly the same form in the song I had written, every other line in each verse. I knew at once that the ever-present chimes had infiltrated my consciousness and emerged subliminally in the ballad.

Aside from having a direct connection with my history, I still feel a lot of affection for Cut Me and I Bleed, as it manages in my view to begin with a personal experience and transcend into something universal. It expresses the urge for healing via love better than anything else I have yet written. As for what happened to that particular affair, well, as the lyrics imply, it didn’t work out; but, some months later, I did meet a woman who was to become central to my life for many years, thanks to music and the Glastonbury chimes.

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Welcome to my music…

I’ve been making music since I can remember, but this is the first time I have attempted to provide a complete overview of my musical activity. This is a start… there’s a lot here and this site is as much an attempt to assemble my musical output in its entirety, as it is to present my career in some kind of logical order.

What might you find here?

As well as pop songs which have enjoyed the benefit of commercial release, I have a largely unpublished back catalogue of songs which is currently known to a small group of friends. Since 1994 I have been observing the ongoing paroxysms of the music industry as it collides with internet technology. Now that broadband is widespread, podcasting a norm, DRM is pretty much dead in the water, there are half-a-dozen ways to self-promote, self-publish and reach a sizeable audience, and having been heavily involved in many of these developments on behalf of media corporations, organisations and a small selection of famous people, it seems churlish not to do the same for myself.

I truly love funk music, have written numerous bass-driven groovy tunes. I even produce a funk music podcast, but I when I write it is regardless of style, and in most instances style is determined by the song as it arrives from the musical universe. Though I’m very happy to accept commissions, or as with the Daily Song project, write around subject matter provided by current events, songs tend to arrive by and of themselves, and it’s always been that way.

At the end of 2008 I decided to move my old blog to a new home on the WordPress platform, and to utilse, my most famous domain, for a music website – not before time. Welcome to my music.

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