Looking for the beginning?

Looking for somewhere to start? Check out Song 1 here!

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Guess where I am...



May not look much to you guys, but I've been waiting about sixteen years to see this. So exciting!





- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone in the USA. Please don't burgle my house.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Stranded!

Hello all!

I'm blogging from a motel in Racine, Wisconsin but despite how that sounds I'm having a fantastic time!



But Song A Week doesn't go on holiday, even if I do. Last night, in a spare 20 mins while we were waiting to go out in Chicago, I wrote the words for song 29; and at half eight this morning, in our hotel bathroom, I recorded it. However, though the song's finished, I can't seem to figure out how to get it online just yet.

In the meantime, here's a statue of a man embracing a massive fish.







- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone in the USA. Please don't burgle my house.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Jagger Jagger Jagger: free download!

Free download from Soundcloud at Soundcloud.com

Please consider a donation to Parkinson's UK while you're enjoying this free track!





- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone in the USA. Please don't burgle my house.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Song Number 28: Jagger Jagger Jagger

Leave it out!


JAGGER SOME OF YOUR SWAGGER OVER TO PARKINSON'S UK by clicking on the widget above or visiting http://www.justgiving.com/songaweek

Now available for free download at Soundcloud.com!


Right, what's this all about then?  Well, I was listening to the radio and realised that there are two songs doing the rounds at the moment referencing Mick Jagger (I assume it's Mick, anyway) - viz. Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5 & Christina Aguilera, and Swagger Jagger by X-Factor singer number 415b, Cher Lloyd.  Both are top 40 hits.  The first is so mind-numbingly mediocre you wonder how M5 ever produced the brilliant This Love, while the second is just fucking terrible

So I thought, "I can do that".

People of Britain: you did this to yourselves


Featuring the vocal talents of Jazzy Jess, Ice P, and The Notorious A.L.E.X., and the liberal use of Melodyne, as well as Logic's own brand of pitch correction, it's a hook-laden monstrosity that will disgust and delight in equal measures.  Not to be fed after midnight.

And now, folks, I'm off to the States for a month on honeymoon, but I'll be doing my best to get some recording done while I'm out there.  I'm not sure how able I'll be to actually put the videos together though, but we'll see what happens.

Mind the roads!

Friday, 22 July 2011

Secrets Of The Pop Song: more thoughts

The second and third programmes in this very interesting series are now online here, and you can read my musings on the first show here.

  • What makes a song a hit? Boy George says "Airplay."  There's a lot to this.  One thing the programme didn't mention is the amout of money paid by record companies to plug their artists' records (or, indeed, get them onto BBC documentaries writing songs with Guy Chambers).  Lamont Dozier of Motown writing legends Holland Dozier Holland, on the other hand, says "I don't know - and I've had, like, 78 top ten hits."
  • Another guilty pleasure (if harsh) from Boy George, who's actually coming across very well in this series (normally gets right on my wires): "People say 'Oh you've got to admire them because they've been so successful and sold so many records.'  I don't.  Arms dealers do well."
  • Guy Chambers "has written over a thousand songs, and had 21 hit singles."  That's a 2% success rate, which puts things in perspective for whining songwriters like me who complain they're not getting their piece of the pie!  Indeed, while the radio pluggers were going wild about the Ballad from the first show, they were unconvinced about the Breakthrough Single from the second show, and weren't even shown commenting on the third programme's Anthem.  Both of those songs were good... but not great.  And this is from one of the UK's most renowned writers - but where he scores over others is that he'll keep on writing those fifty songs until he gets the one that works.  (Interesting moment in the third programme where after a day of pounding out three ideas with The Noisettes, he wasn't afraid to ditch all three and pound out another three ideas.  Excellent).
Deals with a 98% failure rate very well
  • Is there anybody in the top 40 at the moment who isn't from a stage school, a reality show, or the loins of a record executive?  Nepotism's always been around, and of course A&R people are going to make stage schools their first stop, but the industry does seem to be more than usually saturated... or is that just me being jaded?  It'll be interesting to see what happens when the BRIT school's bubble finally bursts.
  • Writing songs - jamming, making random sounds/words to find a melody
  • Brian Higgins, ringleader of Xenomania, one of the best songwriting/production houses since Stock Aitken & Waterman (just Google them - fantastic track record, no pun intended) - group of half a dozen or so writers, with one decision maker.  Reminds me of Motown's quality control meetings...
  • Round Round by Sugababes: piece of new music formed basis of the track; chorus was taken from a 2-year-old track written by Xenomania co-writer Miranda Cooper.  It's easy to get precious about songs, and see them as whole pieces; but if you have one song with a great chorus and nothing much else, and another song with a great verse and nothing much else, why not try and clag them together?
Tried to find a pic of the Sugababes' current line-up
but nobody knows who's in the group this month

  • Rich Harrison, producer of (amongst other things) Beyonce's Crazy In Love and Amerie's One Thing, talks about starting with an instrumental, then "grunting" a melody over the top of it until it forms itself into something workable.  Seeing a pattern here?
  • Group writing - Tawiah singing her melody/lyric; Chambers suggesting she changes the odd word, then adding his own counter melody.
Another argument breaks out over who wrote the mid 8

  • Jessie J: "80% of my time is taken up with talking about making music, not actually making music."  Seems like a smart girl - reckon she'll be around for a while.  Incidentally, BBC, her career did not "start with writing songs for Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift."  Nobody's career starts there!
  • Quote of the series from Sting: "My critical factors are highly attuned." It's nice to know that as empires rise and fall, Sting will always be a complete knob. :o)
Sumner's Constant
Also on this week were a couple of shows about Ray Davies and The Kinks and a superb documentary on Harry Nilsson - watch it now if you haven't already!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Hang on again...

I'm off on (belated) honeymoon to the States on Monday - four weeks around the North, South and West - but this means I've been cramming a hell of a lot in at the moment to pay for it!  But Song A Week will still be continuing.  Here's what's coming up in the next few weeks:

  • Song 28 - the most ridiculous track I've done since Marty & Me back at track 4
  • Thoughts on the second and third Secrets of the Pop Song BBC programme - read my thoughts on part one here
  • Various wibblings about musical things I come across in the US of A
  • And of course, Songs 29 onwards.  Yes, courtesy of VocaLive I'll be able to record while we're out there.  (I have a very understanding wife - it was actually Jess's suggestion!)
Ta-ra! Mind the roads!
 But in the meantime, as we'll be going to Graceland at some point, here's a track I recorded a few years ago of which I'm very fond - it's an odd little thing, but I'd love to know what you think.  I think it's kind of a prelude to Song 26: Escape on Amenartas.



  
More tracks at my Soundcloud Site 

And finally, do try and come along to the gig tomorrow night (Friday 22nd July) at The Star Inn, Guildford. We'll be playing a few new tracks from the Song A Week project, and will be supported by Steve The Drummer's band Earthtide - 70s inspired metal with stoner grooves.  They are not to be missed - a truly excellent band, with excellent musicianship and superb heavy-as-Rick-Waller guitar riffs that lift them above most other metal bands on the circuit.  £2 in; doors about 8.30. 

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Song titles

A lot of writers start with a song title, and that gives them an idea of what the song might be about, and therefore what sort of music would go with it.  Plus, it's an advertising line for the song.  If you're flicking through an album and you're faced with the following track list:
  1. Breakup song
  2. Love song
  3. I love you
  4. Captain Corelli's Buggered Off
  5. Sad song
  6. Song for my father
... which track are you going to skip to first?  Exactly

So where's a good place to find a song title?  Well, my current favourite source is newspaper columnists.   Newspaper headlines aren't always poetic enough (from various newspapers today: "Murdochs to Testify"; "Betty Ford's Son Eulogizes Former First Lady"; "Indonesian Volcano Erupts"; "Met Chief Under Pressure"; and, of course, "Brooking Good" - another story about Kelly Brooks in her pants). 

Columnists, on the other hand, and especially editorials, don't need to sum up the news story (the readers will already have read about it earlier in the paper), so they just have to sound enticing.  For example: "Fixing The Holes"; "The Sky Falls In"; "Fade To Grey"; "Absolved Of Blame"; "Wrong Target"...

But pick up any book and you'll find something.  Here are a few from a random page in Speak, Memory, the autobiography of Vladimir Nabokov: "Linden Avenue"; "Conventional Ghost"; "Persons Unknown"; "Some Mysterious Stranger"... or 1791 - Mozart's Last Year by H.C. Robbins Landon: "Rewrite The Second"; "Outside The Line"; "Language Misleading"; "New Intrigue"; "Dresden 13"... or even the classic Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich by James A Yannes: "Diamond Colours"; "Sleeping Carriage"; "For All Intents And Purposes"...

However, I have to say the award for greatest song title of all time has to go Joe Tex for the absolutely superb (and totally genuine) You Might Be Digging The Garden (But Somebody's Picking Your Plums).

I Gotcha!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Song Number 27: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

I'm off to the States this summer (belated honeymoon - so excited!), and part of the trip will take in Memphis, and Stax Studios.  With that in mind, I thought I'd try and write a Stax-type number:



Stax for a long time was seen as the slightly bruised sister of Motown, and you either liked one or the other.  However, both studios had quite similar ways of working - staff writers; house band; featured artists.  The most famous arrangement of the house musicians, of course, was Booker T and the MGs: Booker T Jones on Organ; Steve Cropper on Guitar; Donald "Duck" Dunn on Bass; and Al Jackson Jr on Drums.  Like the Funk Brothers at Motown, they were a crack team of session musicians who were expected to walk into the studio, lay down a track in a couple of takes, and then move on to the next one.

Still a really cool logo.


Unfortunately, keys aside, I'm not a crack session musician, but I did my best!  If I'd had more time, I'd have done a more authentic-sounding sax arrangement - the Stax horns were always so much cooler than this one here.  Plus only having an alto sax makes things sound rather thinner than I'd like.

However!  I did play around with the panning on this track, to make it sound like a 3-track recording: Bass, Guitar, Drums and Organ recorded on track one (centre); Horns and tambourine recorded on track 2 (left); vocals and hand claps on track 3 (right).

But enough of that - it's time to donate! http://www.justgiving.com/songaweek.

Anyway, I've got to rush - off to see my teenage heroes Primus tonight.  My God have mercy on my eardrums.

Monday, 11 July 2011

BBC: Secrets of the Pop Song, part 1 (Ballad)


The BBC is currently running a three-part series called Secrets of the Pop Song, in which top UK songwriter Guy Chambers (more hits than you can shake a stick at, most famously providing the best songs of Robbie Williams' career) pairs up with a different artist each week to write a different type of song.


Spectacular doyle, Robbie Williams, who made the mistake
of thinking he was bigger than his songwriters

If you haven't seen it yet, check out part 1 here, in which Chambers writes a ballad with Canadian balladeer Rufus Wainwright.

As I was watching it, I jotted down a few thoughts:
  • Starting with a title can give you the concept of the song, and the atmosphere of the music straight away, meaning you can streamline the playing around on instruments you do to find a suitable riff or musical style. 

  • When I write a riff or a chord sequence, I follow my ear initially; but then I need to check whether the result is “comfortable” to the audience, or just predictable. Audiences sometimes like to be pleasantly surprised with where a song goes, but they don't like to be jerked around all over the place.

  • Lyricist Don Black: “If you can recognise yourself in a song” then you're onto a winner. Very true. If a song's too specific in its lyrics, only people who've experienced that specific situation will be able to relate to it. If you make the words a little more general, boiling the song down to the basic emotion rather than the specifics of the situation that moved you to write those words, then more people will feel like the song “speaks” to them.

  • Sting, along the same lines, talking about Every Breath You Take, which he intended as quite a bitter song about a troubled break-up, being played at people's weddings because other people hear a different meaning altogether. “It means whatever you want it to mean”.


    Ok, he's a bit of a knob,
    but he's sold more records than all of us.

  • Boy George, saying it's easier and better to write from personal experience. I'm not sure that's always true, and I certainly don't think that it's best to write lyrics in the heat of the moment when an emotion's at its most powerful. Most of my songs are about my personal experiences, but they're almost always imagined or remembered a while afterwards, when I'm in a different mood; otherwise I end up being too specific (see Don Black section), or just too much like an angry teenager's diary. Also, look at Randy Newman, who writes superb songs often from a different character's point of view, not his own.

  • Don Black again: artist-specific songs and in-jokes often make songs unsellable from a publishing point of view. A song that's too much like a Rufus Wainwright song (with RW being a pretty idiosyncratic artist) would be a turn-off for a publishing company, since they wouldn't be able to place it with anybody else on their roster (unless they happened to have a roster of Rufus Wainwright soundalikes, which isn't likely!)

  • Radio scouts going mental over the final track. Of course they are – the show would have been a damp squib if the end product had been a flop, and also it's a well put together track. The quality of the recording, too, is excellent. I do wonder, though, if they would have been quite as excited if they hadn't known who'd written it...
This last point also raises a problem a lot of songwriters have, namely the quality of their demos. Nowadays, scouts aren't remotely interested in anything that's done on a dictaphone with just you and your guitar – the demo has to sound slick and well-produced; pretty much ready to broadcast as it is. It's a shame, really; a great song is a great song, regardless of the production quality. But with technology getting better and cheaper as time goes on, every songwriter potentially has professional studio-quality sounds within their budget, so of course the standard of demo production is going to rise; and it's only natural that a scout's ears are drawn more to a shiny radio-ready demo than a poorly-recorded sketch. 

 
Wonderbollocks Records do not accept unsolicited wax cylinders*

In the past I've had A&R people turn down my demos because my vocals weren't up to scratch – I was livid at the time, because I wouldn't have been singing the song on the final record, so what the hell does it matter what my voice sounds like? But that's the way the industry's working at the moment, so there's no point griping. If your vocals aren't up to the job, hire a singer. If your demos are getting returned because the production's not good enough, throwing a tantrum (as I've done many a time) isn't going to get you anywhere. It might not be fair; it might not be right; but it's how it's done.

*photo courtesy of Ohio State University

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Song Number 26: Escape on Amenartas

HALF WAY THERE!



Come on, now - it's time to put your money where my mouth is.  I've been going at this for half a year now - not many people who start a song a week project get this far - surely that's worth a bob or two for Parkinson's UK? Please donate generously by visiting www.justgiving.com/songaweek or clicking on the widget on the top right there!


When you do something for a job that for most people would be a hobby - whether that's music, art or stripping - there are times when it feels too much like work.  So this song was made for me to enjoy my music again after a pretty gruelling couple of weeks!  And now, a long and tedious account of how it was made:

I wrote it yesterday at one of my student's houses, at her piano (thanks, Gill & Brian!).  Writing somewhere neutral without any distractions (Internet be damned!) really helped a great deal.  It was a beautiful, sunny day, which definitely influenced things.  As ever, the main piano riff came first - a bubbling 5/8 thing, which I like to think avoids the stodginess of 6/8 without being too jerky (see Seven Days by Sting or Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet).

I wasn't sure what to write the song about, so I turned to my hosts' bookshelves for inspiration.  With them being keen on sailing, there were plenty of nautical books, one of which was Gypsy Afloat by Ella K Maillart, an account of one of the 20th Century's most celebrated traveller's years as a sea-bound hitchhiker.  One of the chapters was entitled "Escape on Amenartas", which grabbed me straight away.  Using that as a starting point, it was a pretty straightforward job articulating the fantasy that just about all of us have had at some point, namely sticking two fingers up at the rat race and buggering off to sail around the world.

I'm going to be a
MIGHTY PIRATE!
This morning was spent recording the track.  Basic piano track to map out the tempo changes in Logic; Drums; Bass... then before adding the main vocal line I started layering up the instruments in the mid sections such as the harp, guitar, sax and strings, as well as percussion (bongos; cabasa; maracas; clicks and other oral noises; and the back of an acoustic guitar in lieu of a cajon).  Lead vocal came next, which I double tracked in places, followed by oohs and ahhs for backing vocals. 

There's a line in there which initially I heard as a harmonic caused by something else (very quiet tremolo guitar part, I think), that sounded like a trombone... so I doubled it with a trombone sound.  I always think if you hear a note or a rhythm or a harmony that you've not actually recorded, but that's implied by other sounds meshing together, it's nice to add another instrument to pick it out - I figure it's the song telling you what it wants to say.  Ooh, that was a bit hippy of me.  Anyway...

The swelling cymbal sound (right at the beginning) was created by recording a cymbal crash, reversing a copy of it, and sticking them both together.  It takes a bit of tinkering to iron out the attacks and get a nice smooth sound, but it's worth it - half way between a mallet roll and a bowed cymbal effect.  Totally studio-created, but it's very pretty and I use it quite a lot in ballads like this.

Anyways, that's about that.  I like this one, and I hope you do too - please leave your comments here, on the Facebook page or even drop me a line through Twitter.  It really means a lot when I hear from people about the project.  I just can't believe it's been six months already!  Here's to the next 26 songs!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Soundcloud Demo

As I'm starting another assault on publishing companies, I've had to arrange the songs on my new SoundCloud site:

Click here to hear the tracks

There are a few from SAW2011, and a couple of earlier songs too.  Leave your comments and let me know what you think!  Bad or good, knowing that there are people out there listening is very important to a blogger!

Hello?


Also the next gig is on 22nd July at The Star Inn, Guildford.  Come along for about 9, and we'll be playing until the police come to kick us out.  Only £2 entry!

Song Number 25: Doctor Doctor

Latest effort:


This is a chorus with a couple of verses hanging on its ragged coattails.  Nice chorus, though.  I'm trying to be positive here, after getting this ugly little track out of my system.  Song 26 will be along soon, and then we're laughing. 

In the meantime, it's your donations to Parkinson's UK that are keeping me going here - http://www.justgiving.com/songaweek or click the widget on the top right!
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