Recording, Writing and Inspiration

Performance – Part Two.

You might want to read part one first

I distinctly remember the moment I realised I was singing a song which I had not written down or learned or planned, and which until that time had not existed, at the height of a live performance, during an encore in a small club in south London.

It had been one of those gigs which everything had conspired to wreck, but which despite or possibly because of frayed nerves, fallings out, fears about money, band members not showing up, broken instruments, strings missing and illness, we had collectively pulled off with a triumphant flourish. The audience were ours, dancing and cheering, the bar staff were grinning, the place was packed and people were still trying to come in from the cold outside. We were for that moment the focus of all the happiness in the world.

Being open to the moment, and caught by the spell, the words and the melody arrived without hindrance, and I was the conduit for the music, the singer and the song. It was freedom, and it was wonderful.

I am a writer, a crafter. In my previous collaborations with other musicians I was frequently the one with the techniques born of intense study and the benefits of education, bringing shape and harmonious order to the chaos of creative soup. I had often admired those gifted, confident souls who could just rock up, grab a guitar, and improvise a song on the spur of the moment. My own songs were born more privately and slowly, with much scribbling of pen on paper and the starting and stopping of audio recorder.

I knew that this wasn’t about quality – my crafted works were every bit as good – but I also knew that until then, somehow, I lacked the confidence just to let it out, uncensored and unchecked. It was the difference between swimming and sinking, between diving and a belly-flop. Once I had done it, I knew that I had just opened a door into the past and the future, and that it was not religion, or drugs, or academic study, that was the key, but music itself.

In the many years since finding that true freedom, I have found various ways to get into the zone. Stillness. Listening. Waiting. Trance. Dance. Movement. Playing music, listening to music, depriving myself of music. I still write like I always did, piece by piece, but, many times, I just open the door and let out whatever is in there, no matter what it is. It’s a great way of finding out who you really are.

Art Blakey the renowned jazz drummer said:

Music is a river, it must keep changing and flowing, or it will stagnate

Along with Art’s wisdom goes the oft-repeated theory that the mixed, mastered and released recording never sounds as good as the demo, the popular justification for which goes something like this: working to a script (including the structured, orderly recording process) kills spontaneity. This is not true, of course, per se, and I have heard many demos which, thrillingly inspired and raw though they may be, are far inferior to the polished recording. But likewise, the old adage about not being able to make silk purses from pig’s ears also holds true.

There is also an older concept, which echoes throughout Zen Buddhism, that the writing down of things in order to describe and define them fixes them in one place and thus limits them, robbing them of some essential essence. But even this kind of spontaneity that Zen aspires to requires the rigorous discipline of meditation and mental training to achieve.

So, written or improvised? We have the best of both worlds. Many classical baroque pieces from hundreds of years ago, give directions for soloists to improvise entire passages of play. In all live music at the highest level, variation in interpretation is expected and celebrated, and some for some genres, jazz and rock in particular, improvisation is the mainstay. Musicians treat recordings (either audio or dots on paper) as a point of departure, as a reference, not as the best or most ultimate definition of a piece of music.

To arrive at the best, most of the time, we need to find a balance between the planned and the improvised.

The map is not the territory. No matter how “perfect” a recording may be, every time the music is played, or played back, it is different, for reasons of the human environment, cultural context, acoustics, air temperature, and most importantly of all, because musicians are different.

Children, total beginners, people who don’t consider themselves musically adept can all equally well come up with staggeringly beautiful melodies, and poignant lyrics which express truths at the heart of the human condition, but they will be enjoyed, then forgotten. What differentiates a writer from everyone else is the compulsion to record, to distil and set down the concepts from which the music flows so that it can be repeated. And yet, without performance, there is nothing.

As a writer, I am most interested in what happens when you don’t try to dam the river, but rather, let music be your raft, the vessel to take you and those with you into places which are inaccessible by other means. For me this works well as a balance to the techniques I have learned and invented. The best improvisors have spent all their lives mastering their craft, but in the moment, none of that knowledge is conscious, and it is not actually even necessary.

Performance is creation, and creation is learning, finding out where the music wants to go and going with it, from the beginning of time, to the end of time.

What great fortune musicians have.

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Am I A Voyeur?

Some collaborations are as unlikely as apple pie served with anchovies, and yet, if there is enough shared intent to bring the enterprise to fruition, the songs produced can be unexpected miracles.

In 1998 I was recovering from exhaustion, clinical depression and a long-term relationship breakup, feeling bleak, despondent and wasted. I hadn’t much to give. Enter Mick Martin, one of the most creative people I have ever met. Possessed of a profound and subtle musical sensibility, Mick had been part of the trio of Habit, the first band I wrote with that achieved commercial success, and appearing out of the blue, he somehow twisted my unwilling arm and got me involved in his music project.

Mick is a fan of pure pop, as well as artistic luminaries such as David Bowie, Tom Waits, Kraftwerk. When I first met him he was technician and a one-finger keyboard player, but that didn’t prevent him from having good musical ideas, many of which came from the time-honoured route of audio collage and sampling. Mick is also good collaboratively; with a strong sense of when a song is truly finished, he works hard to achieve his visions, but is prepared to share and include ideas, which is important. Mick was working with singer Emma Whittle, a backing vocalist in his brother Vince Clarke’s band Erasure. Our writing sessions benefited from Mick’s work ethic and the down-to-earth use of his own remarkable talent, which is conceptual and original but which doesn’t rely on being an instrumentalist, as much as his determination to write material for Emma, who he sincerely believed had what it takes.

Mick would never use his relationship to his famous brother for self-aggrandisement, or even (it sometimes seemed to me) perfectly logical advancement. If anything, having a famous brother made Mick wiser to the downside of the music business and conscious that he must tread his own path to succeed. Having brothers myself, I could understand that. But despite this caution, we did get to trade favours with Vince, and together we worked on material for Vince’s side project Family Fantastic and thus we earned studio time in Vince’s wonderful, sunken circular studio.

Emma hadn’t done a lot of writing, so the project was as much about writing songs which connected with her complex internal world as it was defining an artistic statement which we all felt could work in the hard, outer world of music business. In 18 months, we progressed from bouncy synth pop – the kind of material that Habit had been good at – to a more sophisticated, darker trip-hop tinged style which suited Emma’s voice and moods.

For me the pearl in the set has to be “Am I A Voyeur?” which is based on an infectious lounge groove in 3/4 which Mick had constructed. I was having a strong lyrics day, and working through aforesaid depression, wrote a fluent, punning lyric about the crime of looking but not having – an accurate description of my own situation – around a lazy jazz verse melody, which rose and soared plaintively in the chorus:

“Am I a voyeur on the outside looking in?
Find me a lawyer and book me for my sins
My case is hopeless, I have the wrong attitude
Guilty or blameless, the prosecution has to prove…
No judge or jury will hear my confession
Even if it’s over just won’t learn the lesson
God is my witness, and I have had enough
Release me I’m a prisoner of untouchable love…

Around you my whole world keeps turning
Inside out, so close we’re moving..”

Happily, Mick and Emma liked this idea, and the production went well. The icing on the cake was musician Sovra Wilson-Dickson who played delightful Stéphane Grappelli-esque violin for us in the middle eight.

I always thought we should translate this song into French.

This period was possibly the most important in my songwriting career. It arrived when I was spent, and showed me that I could still produce good songs, no matter the state of my emotional life. It’s not essential to be completely screwed up to write meaningful romantic songs, but it does give you a lot of material which is much better out than in, and I did need to let it out.

It also did me a lot of good to express myself through music without the strain of having to be the leader – Mick was leading the project, and Emma was the singer, which gave me a lot of freedom. The discipline of writing and producing, and the fellowship with Mick and Emma restored a level of confidence to me quite rapidly, which might otherwise have take years longer to resurface.

Some musical projects are healing to the people involved in them – for me, this was such a one.

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Where do songs come from? There are as many answers as there are songwriters. Sometimes the music arrives first, and its emotional feeling, expressed by melody, harmony, rhythm leads to the lyrics and thus the meaning and expression of the song. Other times, words arrive first, either as a result of the preoccupations which I carry around, or sometimes less internally, as a result of real world events, or in collaborative situations, from other people’s worlds.

But sometimes, the song arrives joyously complete, words with their tune, perfectly popping into existence like a mushroom out of the grass. Actually finding mushrooms is something I’m quite good at, despite growing up in Croydon. I used to walk a mile or more to school after a long bus ride, and during those walks, whether rain or shine, my mind would be filled with inner symphonies. I’m sure that’s where my arrangement skills were born. I’ve often wondered whether personal music players are robbing a generation of their inner music, with a consequential loss of ideas, as the brain is given over to receiving music rather than creating it.

In the same vein, nobody walks any more. I spent 6 hours today just walking around London, some of it on Hampstead Heath in glorious late winter mud.

Art, literature, music, are all, like philosophy, intimately connected to our physical self-direction – walking. Walking seems of itself to provide a natural foundation for music, and I would list it as important an inspiration to music as the great emotional experiences of humanity, love, loss, lust, and the delight of the senses in all other aspects. I have known this from as far back as I can remember, and I recall my delight at finding it so beautifully expressed by Bruce Chatwin in his marvellous book, The Songlines.

Songwriting is a muscle which requires exercise. The more songs you write, the better at writing you become. Keeping a notebook is essential. Don’t let the blank page stare at you, get something written down, every day if possible, as long as you are not stale. My advice if you feel stale – go for a walk!

Finally, I try to live an ecologically-aware life, and within my livelihood, I frequently rescue good but unused ideas from past efforts and work them into fully-fledged songs. I also like taking discarded but viable music from elsewhere and growing it into something fresh and wonderful. In a writing context, this can mean a verbal phrase, a musical riff, a vocal line, a sampled recording, and this kind of collage is not only natural for me, but also a great way to root a song.

I’m not a huge fan of taking an old song wholesale and just constructing a new song over the loop as backing, karaoke-style, unchanged production except to add beats and beef up the bass; but I have been known to de-construct TV themes, nursery rhymes, obscure soul classics… It’s not, as they say, where you’re from, it’s where you’re at, or rather, where you end up at the end of your journey, that really matters, and it is perfectly possible to arrive somewhere original having begun with a blatant lift.

As T. S. Eliot said,

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.

Hampstead 2009

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