A bitter song of regret, the awful consequences of falling in and out of love with a married woman. (Butterflies this ain't)
A wry wander through the usual Nobodaddy themes, family, organized religion, the passing of time, alcoholism, sex and death. Despite all this it is a deceptively positive song I would say,
This month's song is a bit of a departure for us, in that it's not particularly personal or at least is ostensibly about someone else, namely British cycling legend, Tommy Simpson. I first came across the story that inspired this song when I read Will Fotheringham's biography of Tommy, also called 'Put me back on my bike', which are allegedly some of the final words of this '60s cycling legend, shortly before he died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. It's a story of endeavour, of someone with extraordinary grit, ambition and talent, such that he became a huge success, but that same ambition arguably led to his tragic demise... a classic tragedy. Definitely worth a read, or a watch of this documentary about him. Anyway, we're both keen cycling fans and cyclists and the idea of someone literally riding themselves to death seemed to have a natural sense of drama in it, and with this final words, something about it made the songwriter in me perk up.
It so happened that I injured myself playing football a couple of years ago, and was in plaster for a few weeks, and so obviously couldn't cycle, and one of the things I missed most was cycling. Those words 'put me back on my bike' kept going round my head, and of course being temporarily incapacitated I had time on my hands, and so was able to work up this song. I can't think of another song that I've crafted and honed as much, to get it just so. It started out as a simple narrative told as if it were a letter home to his mother, but somewhere along the line I found the equivalence of a miner and cyclist, both professions in which working men use their bodies and risk their lives to make a living. It may be sport to us, but it's life and death to some poor soul....
Although there is definitely a personal resonance, it is clearly someone else's story, which makes me think it's somehow proper songwriting, as in it's the sort of thing that first made people write songs, to spread stories and songs, not unburden themselves of their own troubles...so goes the self-doubt of the confessional songwriter.
Anyhoo, I'm well-pleased to get it down and share it with you, especially given the synchronicity with the Tour de France. I'm sure had Tommy lived, he'd have been pleased to see a British(ish) rider leading a British team taking lumps out of the continental riders, wearing yellow up the slopes of the great French slopes where he gave his life in pursuit of le maillot jaune.
The latest in our 2015 song-of-the-month sequence is 'Time Out', a song that has grown and morphed with us throughout the last 20 years of our musical lives. Jeez, I remember trying to get an early version of it down in my Gran's flat (she was away - not sure the neighbours cared for it much) one hot summer at the end of the millennium, using an Akai S2000 sampler and our erstwhile Bonham-obsessed drummer.
It started out as a dark bluesy/Stonesy jam, partly inspired by the emotional space on the Dylan album of the same name, before it tightened up into a sleeker Stone Roses-inspired guitar and drum loop swagger. When we started to explore our love of folk and country it seemed to naturally fit into a 2 acoustic guitar arrangement, and has stuck around ever since.
I bet every songwriter and artist has songs like this, ones that aren't necessarily anyone else's favourites but just linger around, as a litmus test of where they're at musically, always hovering around the edge of sets, ready to be rolled out when the feeling's right. I think this one has a particular longevity as it's great fun to play and has a very different emotional edge than a lot of our songs, being essentially angry and vituperative. It's always had a two-part vocal which has survived into this latest version with its banjo and Americana shuffle, though the lead has swapped through the years. So here it is again, on another sultry summer evening:
If songs are children, this is a particularly surly and truculent teenager, but, hey, it's still our kid and we love it...
On writing it, we were worried it might be just too damn simple. We often write lyrically dense songs, so to have a song that doesn't do anything clever seems a bit of a con, but maybe it's the simplicity that lies beyond complexity?! Certainly it's musically pretty simple, partly due to being written on the banjo, which tends to lend itself to harmonically quite centred songs. But saying it simple might be a good thing - we think so, and we hope you do.
Now to work out a way of playing it live...
Erm, what to say? It's probably not quite a typical Nobodaddy song, hence it's one that we've tried recording a number of times and never quite cracked. This is a pretty bare arrangement but hopefully that reveals the heart of the song. It's probably pretty clear what it's about...if you were there, you get it, and if you weren't, well you were probably somewhere else fun. Anyone got any vicks?
Like 'Fairytale' in February, this has also been kicking around for a number of years (I think it goes back to the last millennium...) We did record this when we first started Nobodaddy, and that recording had a certain charm, but we didn't quite do it justice. I've always been hugely fond of it, as it is a hugely personal song, so I'm glad we've managed to revive it.
For me it is full of allusions to and resonances of people, places, poetry and songs that I love, but I hope it also has resonance for others who can bring their own take to it. I think of it as a bit of a secular hymn (like 'Fountain', the last song on our first album), exploring a more 'spiritual' (for want of a better word) theme than our recurring love tropes. So take a walk along the strand, see what the tide brings in...
This is unequivocally a love song, and a bit of a change from our normal folk style, but hopefully still recognisably Nobodaddy. It's actually been kicking around for a number of years, but never quite found an outlet so it's nice to breathe some new life into it.
We start the year with 'Little Robin':
This was written for a songwriters night at one of our local venues, and owes a huge debt to one of our favourite Beatles songs, 'Blackbird'. Hope you enjoy it...look out for more songs each month.
I wish I could say I was immediately struck by his genius, but I don't think that's true - I just thought he was very, very funny. The stuff about trying to blow yourself, about hating George Michael and loving Jimi, the smoking and swearing, that was all pretty much perfect for a 16 year old boy, just finding out how much fun the world could be. But I think I was aware that there was something a bit more going on than you average comedian even then - I guess his political stuff about Bush and the Kuwait invasion and then the last bit about 'exploring space, both inner and outer, together forever, and peace' resonated with an idealistic teenager who could grasp simple political and philosophical slogans.
Mike and I must have watched the same show because I think we talked about it on the phone the next day - did you see that? Wasn't he great?
And from then on, we were an item, us and Bill. We learnt his stuff verbatim. We were maybe the last generation that properly had to mine music, comedy and films for everything they were worth because they were hard to come by. You couldn't just go on the internet and take your pick of the entire output of humanity at a moment's notice. You had to save up to buy an album, to scour the TV guides to see when there may be a late night concert film shown. A few minutes of Bill live from Montreal would be taped and watched again and again, until we'd caught the cadences, the rhythms, the little details that made it Bill, just like we obsessed over Jimmy Page solos to pinpoint 'that moment - there it is, listen to that. Aw man...'.
His world-view seeped into ours - detached, cynical observers of the absurdity, the hypocrisy of people, the way we are all manipulated by big business, politicians, the media, religions and everyone else with a vested interest. Foul-mouthed and interested in the seamy side of life, knowing, KNOWING, that rock music was real music, that reading was the key to evolution, that facts and truth win out over cant and received wisdom. But alongside that snuck in the other stuff as well, the love, the knowing that it could all be better if we could just all let go of some of the distractions, the selfishness, the pointless humdrum of life, and seek enlightenment.
And then he died. No-one seemed to know he was ill, so when I heard his death from cancer announced one Sunday morning on the radio, I was shocked. I was at university by that point, and I went next door to speak to a friend who was also into him and we just sat there listening to a tape of Bill that we probably knew by heart, but now with the knowledge that we'd never see him live. I probably called Mike and asked, have you heard man? I can't believe it...
Of course we grew out of him in due course, slowly stopping listening to his stuff, and maybe even thinking he was a bit juvenile for us, as we became more philosophically, culturally and politically sophisticated, and realised that there was more to music than Zep, The Lizard King and other dead rock stars (even if you could prove on an etch-a-sketch that there wasn't).
As I write this, 20 years to the day since he died, life seems to be going out of it's way to ram home the lesson to me - get on with it, focus on the good stuff, create something, anything, love, keep on with the true friends, create again, shout into the void 'I am alive', evolve, think, be. So that's what I'm gonna do, as best I can.
For some reason until today, I never came across his 'Last Words' but they seem to stack up still:
"I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”
The last album we recorded was 'My Confession' with Niamh Cavlan which came out in 2010. After working with her to promote that we then took stock of what we wanted to do next and the long gestation of this album started. By mid 2011 the spirits started to move and the thoughts began to take shape of another album, finally brought together to a clear vision inspired by our trek down to worship at the feet of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings at the Brighton Dome. As The Independent said of them at the time, "No Fuss, No Frills". We knew then that we we wanted to strip our songs back to the bone, let them breathe through the strains of guitar and voice, just the two of us being present with the songs.
So then we needed the right space to let that happen, and it came to us through happenstance; calling in for tea at The Ravenous Cafe near our home in South Norfolk I found a card mentioning the nearby The Old Granary Studio with a contact for Ben Giller. I love the area with its wide field margins, hares and hedgerows so thought we could pay a visit. A few days later we headed to the studio, and found ourselves in rural heaven, in the titular Old Granary, surrounded by several pianos in various states of undress. We had our guitars with us, and on sitting on the stage and playing one of our songs, the space leant its voice to ours, blending a sound of its own. But mostly it just felt right. As it is a concert venue for chamber music it has a fabulous acoustic, and is well-equipped with classic microphones to capture the live sound. Ben and the rest of the Giller family could not have been nicer and, despite our limited budget, we agreed a few days of recording time.
After an abortive start that winter (it was very cold and we just couldn't quite warm up in all senses enough), we rescheduled for early summer 2012. We had originally aimed for completely live takes, with no overdubs, which we did achieve on 'Brief Encounter', but with most tracks it was guitars first, maybe with one vocal and then more vocals over the top. This way we were able to strike a balance between capturing the truth and essence of a performance with the awareness of the modern ear attuned to clinical, digital perfection. We had no desire to make something without blemish (in fact I remember discussing the beauty that encompasses imperfections, as in the Japanese sense of Wabi-sabi) but the odd edit does help smooth out the rougher edges! Some of the takes came almost immediately, and others took a while to brew, but Ben gave us the peace, time and tea to allow this to happen.
So we continued to record a couple of days at a time over the summer of 2012, surrounded by a bucolic beauty which seeped into both our selves and our music - sometimes seeping in to the extent that birdsong can periodically be heard on the album. We did not know quite which songs would make the final album, but we knew we wanted 10 that hung together, and finding ourselves by autumn with what felt like a good selection we took them away to see if we had we wanted. Although we had set out with a clear vision of simple arrangements, we decided that at the end of the album we would like to let out the dam with a more expansive sound. Bass and drums? Electric guitar? We weren't sure, but walking through Norwich one day, I came across a trio of young folk musicians busking. After listening for a while to their skilful interpretation of trad tunes I approached them and discovered that they were called Triette, and were from Norwich and Sweden. The way they were weaving lines in and out of each other just seemed to me to be the prefect approach to what we needed for Heel and Toe, so I asked them if they would be prepared to join us in the studio to add their magic - with Ida returning to Sweden almost immediately, Nic Zuppardi (mandolin) and Nick Wiseman-Ellis (accordion and fiddle) agreed to come out to the studio with us. Being such fine musicians, they picked up on what we wanted straight away and came up with just the perfect lines to sprinkle over the song. One final session then to add the small 'choir' at the end of Heel & Toe recruited from family and friends, and we were done...
With the album recorded and mixed by spring 2013, we were moving towards release when I managed to rip my achilles tendon whilst playing football, and suddenly we had an enforced break whilst I healed, hence here we are almost a year later, allowing it to take flight.
We shall blog again soon about the artwork, the title and our take on the themes, but for now, let us thank again Nick, Nic, Bec, Hannah, Emily, Mary, Niamh, Su, Andy, Jill, Steve, Sarah-Jayne, Dani, Row and above all, Ben.
We hope you all like the album as much as we adored creating it.
PS You can get a sense of the studio and our time there from this film
It's maybe not the greatest song I've ever written, but I think that weakness is inherent in songs with a somewhat laboured metaphor. Even great songwriters like Nick Cave can get themselves tied up in metaphors that don't quite work, which for my money is the case on 'Rock of Gibraltar' from 'Nocturama' (an anomalously weak album in my opinion). Obviously in this case the metaphor is that the balance of risk and reward in a game is the same in love. This chimes nicely with some of the game theory that has been used in evolutionary psychology to explain how mating strategies develop (or so I've read), but it's not the most romantic sentiment ever (then again, hey, the subject matter hardly lends itself to grand romance!)
I'm reasonably happy with it structurally. It deploys a classic form which I haven't used that often - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle 8, instrumental verse, chorus. I say classic, but I can't actually think of any that do - anyone else? The verses include a bridge, which is always pleasing to give a lift into the chorus. The melody in the middle 8 is somewhat similar to the second half of the choruses but over a different chord sequence (again, not one I've used before with both the minor and major 2nd chords used) which mitigates that a bit. I like the fact that it's in a 6/8 time signature as I rarely write in that but it can be very effective (Mike used it perfectly on 'My Confession').
But overall it doesn't quite fly for my money, probably because it started life with an idea (using the metaphor of the game) rather than a mood, a story or a character to build around. Not that songs can't be successful when starting with an idea, but I think it's then harder to craft something really good out of it. But anyway, there it is, I offer it and these thoughts as a little reflection on how songs can come to be.
Things come and things go, and the next generation of venues are hopefully making their own history now, but it's still worth noting its demise. I remember the palimpsest of band stickers in the gents, the old Irish fellers in the front bar, and the sticky floor and rank smell of the venue out the back, a different sound engineer each time we played, all called Dave. We made a racket there, and so did thousands of others, and for that, we are grateful!
"I dunno. I could do some backing vocals for the album. And I might dig out that song I wrote a couple of years ago during a cold snap."
"The one with the tortuous metaphor about snow melting and love fading which doesn't quite work, and sounds suspiciously like 'Hickory Wind'?"
"Yeah, that's the one"
"It's a bit of a croon, isn't it?"
"Nothing wrong with crooning. Works for Cave."
"You're no Cave."
"I get the feeling you're not the most supportive bit of my psyche."
"Oh, sorry, the supportive bits are out playing in the snow."
"Fair enough, Got to be better than recording a song that is derivative, got some dodgy syntax and no-one's going to listen to anyway."
"Yeah, well lob it up on the blog and let's go out and build a snowman..."
One song that we dug out was 'Wrecked and Reeling', a song that Mike had brought into the world around the turn of the millenium. It had started out life as a full-on driving, guitar rocker but seemed to find its way now as a slower, more twisted creature. Mike was suffering a with a cold and this leant his vocals a fractured, wasted air, perfectly complementing the lyrical darkness. Listening back to this now, I can hear that in this moment we had started to lock in to our new sound:
In those few days, in the little bubble of music and friendship we made, lies the genesis of the album we are getting close to completing.
Love it as we do, our hometown of Norwich can sometimes feel like a bit of a backwater, so it was gratifying to feel that something dynamic, inspiring and genuinely worthwhile was going on here. A mixture of daytime seminars and panels on different elements of the music industry and evenings full of all manner of gigs attracted a diversity of local and national musicians, industry people and fans.
We met some lovely people, heard some insightful (and occasionally slightly depressing) speakers - ex-Cocteau Twin and Bella Union head honcho Simon Raymonde stood out - and heard some great music. Mary Epworth was my stand out act, despite her having a cold, but there were loads of other fantastic bands and singer-songwriters around in a range of venues.
I guess the main things I took away from it as a musician are:
- It's tough times for the industry at the moment (that's news?)
- Free booze really helps networking
- Sometimes it's a victory just to keep creating
- Label people claiming that they are 'just really passionate about music' can sound like so much BS. But not always...there may be a correlation with the proximity of the words 'analytics' and 'synch'
- The tools are out there to make, distribute and promote music for next to nothing but it requires diligence, passion, good relationships and a level of fortitude that doesn't always sit well with a creative zeal
- The same old streets can feel really different sometimes so renew the world with each breath...
Well done to the organisers. I'll definitely be there next year.