Back To Reality

Well, the BASCA Monnow Valley songwriting camp is over for another year and I’m now back in Wiltshire at home mulling over what to do and where to go next and also ruminating on what I’ve learned.

As I may have mentioned in a previous post, I spent more time producing this time than writing, but I’m happy about the lyrical contribution that I made to two particular tracks. Especially the “protest song”, This Time which was something I had never done before. This leads me to think about learning experiences, breaking new personal ground and venturing outside of your comfort zone.

Well, with one exception, most of the four day spell was spent camping outside my comfort zone. Maybe glamping, to be more specific. The facilities were very good, as you would expect at a commercial residential facility and the food was terrific – I dont know many places out there with not only their own outdoor pizza oven but also a great engineer who makes a mean pizza as well.

On arrival, we were put into groups of two or three and given tip sheets – the key is to get you writing not only to order (effectively), but also outside of the genres that you would ordinarily consider. However, there was in this tipsheet, a plethora of both modern and traditional country, EDM, the occasional power ballad, Ed Sheerin type track and other things that labels, managers and publishers are looking for to furnish their young charges with new material. A couple of which are pre-pubescent. Try as I might, I cant see me being able to write material that may be suitable for a 12/13 year old girl on a development deal, or Korean pop which I know next to nothing about. This was quite similar to last year though, where there was a propensity of country and Korean pop which was being sought, which leads one to wonder something – that there arent enough writers of these genres to satisfy demand… and also that the kind of thing I prefer writing is done mainly by bands who write their own material anyway. Which makes my more natural material that more tricky to licence.

The first day saw me working with Mike and Gill and we ended up going for a traditional country thing called Uncomplicated Man; Now, I’m one of those who writes about what he knows about and from the research we did on the artist concerned, I quickly found that I didnt know an awful lot about writing about trucks and beer and moonshine. We made a reasonable fist of it, but there was a significant way to go where vocal tuning and timing may have been concerned. I think that one will get put to bed and left for a while and it may be some time before I come back to it. The chorus melody was quite catchy in an almost nursery rhyme kind of fashion, but I dont think in all honesty it has a commercial future. To break the three of us into working together in a collaborative environment, two of whom were doing it for the first time though, made it worthwhile.

Day two was slightly different in that the teams changed again and I was working with someone who had not collaboratively written before and was quite inventive and also with a known good vocalist who has a very soulful tone and a very charismatic performer. This track flowed a lot better but while the topliner was a good composer, he had some guitar playing deficiencies, as do I. Consequently, putting together the demo ended up being a bit rushed and the listen back in the control room later that evening (which I referred to in a previous post) was going quite well until I first realised that the mix was too bass heavy (had been done on headphones) and also that I hadnt turned the click track off when I mixed the track down.. which was mortifying. Real schoolboy error. But, I’m happy with the track. Wont take much more polishing and I think I’d be quite happy for that one, Come Home With Me, to see the light of day.

Day three saw me working with Nikki and Alan, two very accomplished musicians, Nikki a multi-instrumentalist and Alan an extremely competent acoustic guitar player with more than a hint of Lindsey Buckingham about his playing. Very very good Travis picker. And, their theory knowledge outstripped mine by some serious distance! What ended up coming out of it was a protest song in all but name, seen from the perspective of an angry young guy or girl. The concept, as we had a bit of a quandry as to what we were going to write – none of us were particularly enamoured with the choices the tip sheet gave us, which we’d already had at least two cracks at – and we decided to go off-menu and I threw in something that I had discussed with another one of my best friends; an idea of what kind of world we’re leaving for our kids and being somewhat guilty about not doing anything about it. So, the song called This Time ended up being built around that concept and it went from being seen from the older generation’s perspective to that of the younger one and contained a lot of wordplay based sometimes on cliches or buzzwords, but not too heavily so. It is kind of angry young man… ish. As I’ve mentioned before, if you can imagine Big Yellow Taxi being re-written by an angry young Weller and being quite spiky, that would be in the right kind of ballpark. As we were warned though, it is possible to overthink these things and an awful lot of time –  arguably too much – was spent not just making sure that the story flowed and that we gave off the appropriate images and painted the right pictures with words, not to mention other musical structures that we effectively ran out of time to record anything but a very very very (did I say very?) basic guide track. My vision of it, is a lot more energetic than that and I think it may well take a lot more time to put together something close to that vision. Especially as I have nothing even remotely like Alan’s guitar ability, or Nikki’s piano playing chops. So, I think I may well be working on that track this weekend to see if I can bring that track to life as its too good to just end up parking on a hard drive somewhere. Whether anyone will pick up on it or not, is another matter altogether, but its contemporary, its also universal in many ways as well – as the old line goes “every generation blames the one before” so I think we can be quite confident that this track could have some legs.

Day four was something entirely different. Back with Mike again from day 1, but this time with Ashleigh, a prolific, very inventive young singer and piano player with a lovely vocal tone and an infectious enthusiasm, but also a spirituality that I would not expect to see from someone in their twenties – more like in their forties. We did contemplate going down a Neil Finn kind of route, but that wasnt something she was happy with. So, Mike and I decided to follow her out of our natural comfort zone and we ended up going into the realms of trip-hop with a track called Fade To Nothing. Which, I ended up calling EDM (which I took some stick for as apparently EDM is 130BPM plus, not 90BPM like our track. Think I might have a hard job living that down). This one ended up with lyrics all by Ashleigh and my role was that of producer. I’m half tempted to import the track into the full version of Cubase that I have in my home studio and start throwing all the tricks at it that I couldnt in the time that we had and also that I didn’t have access to a lot of the sample libraries and wav loops that I do on the home studio either. That can be both a curse and a blessing – it forces you to be more inventive but also means that you dont waste time trawling through folder after folder of wav files. Ashleigh so far has to continue on the remaining lyrics and I will probably look to add some more fairy dust onto the track and see what she makes of it.

So, nearly twelve hours after leaving Monnow Valley Studios and making my way home, its a time for reflection. All in all, I’m glad I did it and like last year, I was impressed with the overall standard. Some beautiful melodies came out of this weekend. There is some serious talent out there undiscovered, as has always been the case.  Our mentor was as entertaining and informative as ever. I’ve made some new good friends who there is potential to work with in the future as a co-writer and producer. And, being beyond reach of mobile phone signals for four days was also a blessing.

On the downside though, the tipsheets remain quite fixed on the type of contributions that they are looking for. I have learned about how to conceive and build a track from nothing either to a brief or not, in a free-form environment. I know as well that without the benefit of technology or the blinding flash of musical inspiration that the toplining/musical composition side is not my strength and my lack of theory knowledge is my achillies heel. I’m not totally surprised that none of my lyrics that I have written could be used this year, unlike last year where No Getting Over You ended up spawning South To The Sun – no such thing happened this year, although the concept for This Time was mine, which Nikki and Alan ran with.

Will I do next year’s one? I dont know. Once I’ve done something twice I tend to take time out from it and not do it again for another couple of years. That’s applied to exploring the world as much as it does experiences like this. So, I may well miss next years one.

But for anyone who hasnt done anything like this before, I heartily recommend it as a good learning curve where collaborative writing is concerned. I dont regret doing it at all and wouldnt have swapped these four days for anything. But next year might be a case of diminishing returns.

I guess time will tell. There’s an awful long time between now and next year and anything could happen in that time frame.

Songwriter Retreat 2015

Well, my intention was to blog at the end of each day, but it didnt quite work out like that. Its now nearly 11pm on Day 3 and all of the participants of the retreat are sitting in the Monnow Valley control room, listening back to our efforts over the last three days.

The location is wonderful, the hospitality of the engineers and studio owners is legendary and its a wonderful creative place to be. Only residential studio that I know that has its own outdoor pizza oven, the results of which were the perfect end to a pretty good day. Thanks Felix. You’re definitely missing a vocation.

The evolution over the last three days as people – who never knew each other before – come together and generate something out of nothing can be clearly seen. I’ve certainly learned that I cant write traditional country music, which was one of the potential targets on the first day’s tipsheet.

Today’s composition (Ed Sheerin meets Ray Davies) worked quite a bit better… until I realised that I’d left the damn click track on the mixed version of the track which was hideously embarrassing. There were a few technical issues as well (Kontakt not letting me use certain libraries that I’d spent hours copying and the Roland USB keyboard not talking to the Macbook and some of the acoustic work on the first day clipping quite badly), but otherwise, its been fairly snag free. Those are more production gremlins though, as opposed to writing ones.

Quite excited about a track that I’m working on today with two fine guitar players, one of which is heavily influenced by Lindsey Buckingham, which makes a refreshing change. First time I’ve ever had a part in writing a protest song, which is something I’ve never done before. This one is almost a sort of REM (End Of The World As We Know It/Green Day meets Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, which is half written at the moment and is showing great promise.

The underlying concept of the weekend is that writers are paired up in an afternoon and work together for 24 hours, sometime to a tip-sheet, but sometimes off-menu, with the goal being a finished product (well, a demo anyway!), then all change after lunch and then it starts all over again. So, there’s another changeover tomorrow afternoon so everyone should have worked with everyone else by the time it comes to go home at Monday lunchtime. The standard at the moment is very high and there are some superb melodies and some really beautiful arrangements. With my producer’s hat on I can hear so much in some of these embryonic tracks where I can think “I can do so much with that….

Its now coming up for 11pm in Monmouth and the gathered masses are being regaled by our mentor’s anecdotes, of which there are many (she’s been in the business a long time) and the vast majority of them are unprintable, to protect the guilty. Of which there are many. Lots of laughter in the room as a result. Until we’re asked for our own tour stories, when everyone goes quiet. Sometimes, a story of falling off a stage or dropping an amp or whatever which to most of us is an experience we’ll remember with cringes, but compared to arse-prints on suede sofa’s when a member of a well known named act is in flagrante next door, along with falling off speedboats and  having bits of gaffa tape hanging from embarrassing places… none of us can hold a candle to her. She really should write her memoirs. I’d definitely buy a copy.

Its the first time I’ve heard a well-known female singer/writer as being described as sounding like a mouse being stabbed with a toothpick. I’ll remember that one for a long time, thats for certain.

But I digress.

Some of the lyrics from the weekend that I’ve had a part in will probably be added to the blog. I know one definitely wont, but the other two probably will and I may well post MP3 links to them as well next week when I return to Wiltshire. If anything, its been as much a production retreat as a writing one this time.

But its all good. I wouldnt have swapped these four days for anything.

September…

Just a brief update while watching the Brothers Gibb on Sky Arts. Must be quite old footage as all three of them are on stage. I remember being dragged along kicking and screaming (metaphorically) to the old Wembley Stadium many years back by my first wife to a One Night Only gig of theirs, being surrounded by 70’s throwback porn-tached types wishing the seating would swallow me alive and praying that I didnt see anyone I recognised. But I digress. I cant take anything away from these guys as writers, they wrote some amazing tracks and richly deserved their success. Maybe it was just the fan base, especially those of a particular age that I couldnt warm to.

Anyway…

Its been a busy week, writing and producing with my dear friend and collaborator Robert Pearce (check him out on Soundcloud and ReverbNation. Had it not been for him, I wouldnt be doing this stuff now. I owe him a lot). I’m quite pleased with a track I’ve produced for him, called Brand New Wave. I’ve watched this track evolve and grow and from one of its earliest iterations, I figured that it would be well suited to an Elbow kind of feel, which I think, barring managing to kidnap Guy Garvey’s orchestra and choir, that I’ve managed to achieve, given my limited toolset and experience.

Have a listen to it, if you will… the link is here >>> https://soundcloud.com/steven-mccarthy-hunt/brand-new-wave-2nd-roughmix-12th-sept-2015

Its still a roughmix but I’m quite pleased with how it has turned out.

Thursday sees the start of the short, intense and challenging BASCA Songwriting Camp at Monnow Valley Studios in Wales. This was a formative event last year which cemented my desire to do something positive with my writing and try harder to be as much of a writer as much as I’ve been a producer. The next few days are going to be taken up by ensuring that the Cubase rig that I’m taking with me is going to be ready (Im in the middle of transferring about 30+GB of samples from my main studio iMac to the Macbook Pro Cubase Elements rig. I’ve also got to hook the system up and test it end to end to make sure it all works as expected. Using at least one external firewire disk, plus a Focusrite Saffire interface, a USB Keyboard plus a TC Helicon Voicelive. Going to be running out of USB sockets very fast!

Plus deciding what instrumentation to take with me as well… (Blade, Gretsch or Duesenberg electric guitars, Martin or Taylor acoustics, 88 note vs 49 note USB board, fretted or fretless basses… I’m useless when it comes to having too much choice!)… I’m guessing if anything that the logistics of the trip are probably going to be an awful lot more challenging than the actual long weekend itself. Pretty much all the lyrics that are on this blogsite will be taken with me in their folder and hopefully once I meet the rest of the guys and girls, if they serve to fire our imaginations and take us off in new directions, they’ll have served us well. There have been brief introductions by email so far and this year’s crowd does seem to be quite diverse and eclectic which is exciting.

As I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’ll be blogging from Monnow Valley when I’m there. Its an environment where its possible for sparks of ideas to catch fire and grow very quickly into something that everyone leaps into passionately and its wonderful to watch it happen and very gratifying and fulfilling to be part of it. I’m anticipating blogging probably at the end of each day, going over the day’s activities. Thats the plan, but whether it survives that way, I guess time will tell.

Until then… I’ll update you all on Thursday.

Another Day

“Guilt in the frame of the looking-glass
Puts a shine on the mind where reflections pass
Where the jigsaw pieces of a broken man
Try and fit themselves together again”

©Roland Orzabal/Nicky Holland, “Badman’s Song“,  from the album “The Seeds Of Love“, 1989

This one appeared out of nowhere during a writing weekend between myself and an inspirational collaborator who I’ve known for half my life. Its in the middle of being recorded right now and is evolving quite nicely. It has some elements of Steve Hogarth’s H Natural to it at the moment, very sparse, lots of room for the words to breathe – and also of Neil Finn – I can really sense almost a Weather With You feel to it, which is encouraging and a direction I’m very keen to explore.

From a production perspective, I think I may cut two versions, just to cover both bases.

From a lyrical perspective; It didnt have any particular theme and I wasnt in any particular mood when the lyrics came out. They are perhaps, tangentially related to Deep Deep Blue (in the sense that there is a theme of someone leaving and the situation being outside of the writer’s control), but that is evolving at its own pace and will be a completely different song.

Another Day                                                                              

Verse1/
Don’t come here, just to kiss me goodnight
I can tell whats on your mind
By that look that you cant hide
In your eyes…

Verse2/
Draw the blinds and pour the wine
Am I just another day you left behind
Without telling me why?

Chorus/
There will be a time to smile,
A time to cry
A time to intervene and to walk right on by
A time to see
A time to hear
You could always calm me, just by being near

Verse3/
Always somewhere else you need to be
Another one horse town
Between you and I
Another all night drive

Verse4/
The road less travelled and a windowless view
The very thing I need
Is the one I cant talk to
Is it ok to feel afraid,
Ok to feel this way?

Bridge/Coda

This is the point where I watch you walk away
No matter how much I begged you to stay
Our final song has no more bars left to play
And the sun goes down on another lonely day.

©Lyrics Steve McCarthy-Hunt, Sept 2015. Music & Arrangement Robert Pearce Sept 2015.

Deep Deep Blue

“Years have flown by since you’ve been gone
This broken heart of mine’s been waiting too long
All alone without you I can’t carry on

There’s no sense in asking why
Until I’m there by your side

There’s no one but you on my mind
Searching for a perfect ending that we’ll never find
If we could make it work this time…”

© Andy Connell/Corinne Drewery/Paul Staveley O’Duffy “You On My Mind” from the album Kaleidoscope World, 1989

I have to admit quite freely, that I dont really know where this one emerged from. Some of the lines, particularly the concept of emotions being made human and wearing clothes, you may recall I had thought about in a recent blogpost, but thats all it was, a concept. Now its part of a completed song. I cant even say with honesty that it came from watching anything on TV or that I had read anywhere. All I knew is that once I had the chords, which I was originally going to use for Doesnt Matter Now, the whole thing poured out inside of 30 minutes, from beginning to end. And, as its a first draft I obviously reserve the right to change it and for it to evolve until it becomes a finished product.

As such, can I therefore claim “well, its about…..” with any honesty? In truth, I cant really say that I can.

But, the words paint their own pictures and they tell their own story. About someone who can see that a relationship is only going one way, in the direction where it becomes predictable, that they dont communicate and that he drinks to forget and to escape what he figures is going to happen. And has no idea what to do, to hang on tighter or to try and let go. Or bury his head in the sand and hope it’ll go away. But deep down he knows it wont.

Not in any way autobiographical (he grinned…)

Deep Deep Blue

Verse1/
I’ve had enough of dragging my heart up a hill
For just one more drink tonight, one less ten dollar bill
Treating me mean sure didn’t end up keeping me keen
No matter what, when the cards are down, face up, looking at me still,
When I said I loved you I know that I always will…

Verse2/
Sitting in a bar in old Soho, ten years from now
Thinking that once was a mistake and twice was a choice
So now I’m free and alone to see the whole of the truth
No matter what, even when you said what you meant,
I still cant even begin to understand the whole of you…

Chorus
Now I can drink here alone, until I don’t recall your name
But when I wake up you’re lying next to me still
Getting up every morning and getting dressed without a single word
Not a backward glance or even a look that could kill….

Verse 3/
Now I can see your emotions in this bar all in their summer clothes
Anger in red, glaring at sympathy all dressed in black
Sorrow and sadness over there drinking whisky all in deep, deep blue
Melancholy fumbling around, sometimes catching my eye
Like me, she just doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do…

Middle 8/
Now your passion has packed its case, called a cab and left a hole in your heart
But I know that it left a key there, deep down in your bones
The tighter I held on, the faster your sand ran clean through my hand
Had I not tried at all, could I have expected you to understand…?

© Words & Music, Steve McCarthy-Hunt Sept 2015