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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