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.

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