Jack Arthurs – a songwriter you should listen to.

Jack Arthurs in Darlington, displaying an elephant bag he hopes will mollify our evil record label boss

On Friday 7th July I played a great gig in Darlington, in the North of the UK.

The opening act was Jack Arthurs, a singer-songwriter who I’d not really listened to properly,  despite being on the same label as me.

I was very happy that I caught his set, because he really is a great songwriter. His set-up was dead simple, just himself and an acoustic guitar in an open tuning. The songs themselves were evocative of the Northeast, inspired by trips to the coast and full of hooks and proper choruses, as well as great guitar playing.

Jack is really good. You should listen to him!

 

Indie reviews – Tom Stedman Little Blue Dot

Over the last 12 months or so I’ve acquired a little stack of CDs by independent musicians. Most of these I acquired from acts I shared a bill withhh at last summer’s gigs.

Being a rubbish music fan (I make music far more often that I listen to other people’s), I have not listened to all of them. To make amends I thought I’d do some proper listening and write some little mini reviews.

First up is Tom Stedman’s Little Blue Dot.

Tom is a solo guitar player and Little Blue Dot showcases his guitar playing across 4 tracks. The recording is very simple – a solo steel string guitar, a good mic, a bit of reverb, no metronome or click track to be found. Lovely.

Tom is a virtuoso so the guitar playing here is full of fingerstyle twiddles, lightening arpeggios, harmonics and all sorts of cleverness. For all the technical skill that’s not the point of the music however. The technique is there to serve the music which sketches and meanders its way through modal chord progressions in an almost improvisatory way.

Little Blue Dot, the title track, is 7 minutes of bliss. B the second track has a great melody. Pootle, the third track has some lovely little excursions. The closing track, Eye of the Observer features percussive guitar paying to accompany its minor key motifs in way that really works well.

If you like soundtracky instrumental guitar stuff, Tom Stedman is for you. For reasons I don’t understand, Tom is literally the only indie musician I know who doesn’t use bandcamp, so you’ll have to head over to cdbaby to grab a copy. Alternatively, get yourself over to Tom’s website where he has a new album available too.

Men of the World

This song was originally supposed to be a collaboration with Paul ‘Hoopshank’ Turrell, a wonderful songwriter who I knew from FAWM. We never got round to finishing it together, and he died relatively recently so now we don’t get to work together at all.

I said, Hoops, wanna collaborate?

He said, yeah, shall we do something a bit Genesis? Maybe a bit like Can-UtilityAnd the Coastliners?

I hadn’t heard that, so I listened once then over the next few weeks this song turned up. I lost lyrics wrote it in my head whilst commuting, which is a bit unusual.

Hoops heard it and liked it, but never found time to do the keys and drums that he was going to add.

I finished it for the album.

It’s about sailing ships!

Rehearsals tomorrow!

Tomorrow is the first rehearsal for what the thing I am not going to be calling, but actually is the Tom Slatter duo.

Does that sentence make sense?

Gareth Cole is going to come play guitar and do some backing vocals I haven’t finished doing tabs for him (Sorry, ran out of time). The studio is a new one to me and I have no idea of it has air conditioning. I haven’t had time to practice my parts much and we don’t actually know if the songs we’re planning to do will work in a duo format.

Nonetheless, I reckon it’s gonna be great. What could go wrong?

Summer Acoustic Gigs

So I’ll be playing a few gigs over the summer. These will be as an acoustic ish duo with the assistance of the lovely Gareth Cole on guitar and backing vocals.

I last worked with Gareth on this song from the last Mike Kershaw album.

Here be the gigs:

July 7th – Acoustic Delight Ish

Andy Tilison, Tom Slatter and Jack Arthurs at the Voodoo Cafe Darlington, UK

I’ll be the middle act from a bill that looks to be proggy, singer-songwritery and really rather fab. Here’s all the info.

July 8th – Airship Northstar 2 – Berwick-Upon-Tweed

I’m the opening act on the Saturday of this weekend festival. It promises to be all sorts of steampunky fun. Details can be found here.

August 1 – The Far Meadow and Tom Slatter in Watford

I’ll be supporting the progtastic Far Meadow at The Horns in Watford. Here’s a facebook event. 

August 4 – The Surrey Steampunk Convivial – New Malden

Once again I shall be playing at the Surrey Steampunk convivial at the Royal Oak New Malden. This is a steampunk event, and to my mind one of the best. Here’s a facebook event thingie.

Please do come along!

 

Happy People song by song 9: All of the Dark

All of the Dark is the conclusion of our story. At the beginning of the album our protagonist was escaping the clutches of the evil, totalitarian government and going in search of his lover. But after her death in Fire Flower Heart and his last, explosive act in Set Light to the Sky, he has nothing left. He therefore chooses the only option. He goes back to where he started.

Make me less than nothing,
Make me smoke, mist, gone,
Can you take all of the dark,
All of the things that I’ve seen?

This song is about the negation of the self, about giving up yourself, your personality, your individuality, the pain and dark and hurt. It’s about making yourself empy, numb, nothing.

And in a cathartic kind of way, it’s the most uplifting song on the album.

Composition and recording

All of the Dark is the longest track on the album. Nevertheless it pretty much follows standard pop song structure. There’s an intro, a verse, chorus,second verse, chorus, middle section, third verse and final chorus. But as I wanted a long song that really had room to breath, every section is stretched out. The intro, first verse and first chorus have a lovely lo-fi feel to them, before the last two thirds of the song kick in to something a bit more rocky.

It’s mostly in 6/8, apart from the rocky bit where we have some metric modulation into 4/4. It’s mostly in Bminor, except for the first ‘oh-oh-oh-oh’ section where we briefly modulate into F# Minor.

Here’s the demo (note that my default on a one take this-will-do-for-the-demo lead guitar thing is to widdle like a bad 80s metal player):

As you can hear, the most notable change is the extension of the middle section. This was following one of Jordan’s suggestions:

  • This one can go in many directions – of all the tunes in the album it’s the one I’d dissociate from the sound of the electric guitar, wherever it’s not riffy. Wurlitzer, Mellotron, String Quartet. All nice and lo fi / down sampled / messed up. That way the quasi thrash middle bit will be extra brutal!

  • I would actually accentuate the Slayer feel there – a bit like what happens in Arriving Somewhere But Not Here by Porcupine tree.

  • Bonus points if you quote the Happy People chorus melody in the last solo. I know it’s in 6 / 8 🙂 ACTUALLY – and please feel free to say no because it’s a crazy idea. How about doing a Happy People chorus, lyrics and all, right between the thrash bit and the 6 / 8 at the end? I don’t even know if it works but it would give a nice circularity to the album.

To an extent we followed all of these, though i don’t think the middle section quite got anywhere near Slayer territory.

Things I love about this song? The lo-fi feel in the opening, the nod to the facebook group’s bullying of me in the middle section (the voice spells out the word ‘album’ backwards in the NATO phonetic alphabet because… well, this explains it), and most of all the epic feel to it. This feels like a proper album closer to me.

Worth noting are Michael’s great drumming, he really gets the feel right, and Jordan’s great bass work. But most of all, all the little extras that Dan threw in there. His ideas include – the harmony vocals (a bugger to sing for some reason, but he was dead right), the messy guitar in the middle section (deliberately messy), the synth sound just before the recapitulation of the verse material near the end. Loads of little touches that really made this song for me.

And we’ve got to the end of our story here. Not a happy ending. Having escaped and sought freedom, our guy has now returned to the machine. His rebellion is dead. He’s smoke, mist, gone. Just another Happy Person.

 

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals
Part 8: Set Light To The Sky

Happy People song by song 8: Set Light to the Sky

This was never going to be one of the main songs on the album. It was only ever filler, a random demo that sort of fit in thematically that I decided to throw in to fill space. Not a big a deal, not a great song, and okay one that I wrote in five minutes. I’d probably find something to replace it with later.

And yet, as it turned out, Set Light to the Sky is one of the best songs on the album, in my not entirely humble opinion.

Thematically this song continues the story straight after Fire Flower Heart. Our protagonist’s lover is dead and the gloves are off. How does he react to that?

I could push the button
Watch the sky fall in
I could wash my hands mercy clean
sink my teeth into this
If I could I’d light the match
If I’d the choice then I’d set light to the sky

Yes, that’s right, it’s a singalong anthem about mass-murder. Our protagonist has decided that with his lover dead there’s littl point to holding back or being cautious. He finds as many explosives as he can, places them where they will do the most damage to the oppressive regime and  sets them alight.

Composition and recording

Here’s the demo.

Can you can hear, the main difference apart from the much better playing on the final version, is the coda. The end of the studio version is much more developed than the demo version.

This is a change that Jordan suggested, and to be honest it transformed the song. I had thought of this as a throwaway song. It had been written very quickly indeed for February album writing month a few years previously in an attempt to get my song total up. So it had very little thought it into it at all. It’s based on a chord progression based on a standard, but with a tiny little twist. G D/F# Em C would be the standard. I changed that to G D/F# Em Ebmaj7. The Eb chord is out of key, but it shares a G and D note with the main key, giving it just enough of a relationship to G to be interesting but not quite what you’d expect.

The rest of the song is based on this progression, with the verses arpeggiated versions of the chords with a C# thrown in for another bit of contrast and the pre-choruses doing something similar but starting on C. The bridge makes use of the Ebmaj7 as a cue to changekey properly, so the bridge and solo section are in Cm.

And what does all this theory stuff mean? it means I thought my way to this song – it was an exerise in craft that I thought was fine but not inspiring. I threw the demo into the mix because I felt I needed another song and this one would do until I thought of something better.

But then Jordan said:

I definitely feel like it’s too short. i wouldn’t repeat the chorus again, though. Maybe have another section as a coda? If you want it to be short and sweet then I’d suggest working on the order of the parts and giving it a more traditional structure. My feeling, so far is that there’s more weight to the first two minutes than the rest of the song.

And I did what he said by extending the solo and coda with a load of extra guitar layers and suddenly we had a proper album. Just sorting out the balance and pacing of the thing transformed Set Light to the Sky into the album’s big singalong anthem. Add in Jordan’s bass playing and great string arragenments and Dan’s inspired production – I particularly like what he’s done with production on my voice in this – and you have one of the central songs on the album.

And a song that leads us to the big epic and final song on the album, All of the Dark…

Part 1: Happy People
Part 2: Name in a File
Part 3: Satellites
Part 4: Flow my tears, the policeman said
Part 5: Even then we’re Scared
Part 6: Fire Flower Heart
Part 7: Tracking Signals

My first proper photoshoot

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On Thursday last week I did my first photo shoot with an actual photographer – a chap named Ash who works as ‘The Chaos Engineers’.I’ve done lots of video stuff with my brother Joe of course so I this isn’t he first time I’ve pranced about like a tit in front of a camera. We’ve done some still photos as well, for example for the cover of my ep Through These Veins – which is currently not available as the recording wasn’t good enough and I want to redo it – but even those still photos were very effects heavy, as were most of the videos we’ve done. This was the first time I’ve just been me in front of a still camera, trying to look like me.

It was a pretty hot day, exactly the wrong sort of weather to be donning the full steampunk in front of hot lights, but that’s exactly what I did, tie, waistcoat, massive coat and goggles in front of Ash’s massive collection of lights. It was a bit hot.

It was also surprisingly tiring. Ash is a great photographer, especially at giving direction. I’ve been putting myself  into situations where I need to take direction a bit more than I normally would of late. This was the case with recording Happy People, especially with the songwriting and singing, and as with that I found the photoshoot lots of fun. It’s funny, I find myself thinking beforehand that I won’t enjoy that collaborative aspect, that my ego won’t allow it, but in practice it always seems to turn out well.

So when told to ‘give it more eyebrow.’ or appear more like a ‘baffled man’ I was more than happy to oblige and I think once they’re done the pictures are going to come out really well.

Why do I want new pictures? Because I intend to use them for getting more gigs and coverage. My plans for th next 12 months include getting my music in front of lots of new people.

Ash suggested there as something akin to a scam in this. It”s not quite the skills of the photographer at work, there’s also a high level of chance involved. I don’t see anything scammy in that though. Whether it’s visual or auditory, recording art means you will capture happy accidents that might become the main thing rather than whatever it was you intended.

In fact if I think of my own songwriting, that tends to be the case more often then not. I rarely set out with a clear vision of what the song is going to be. Instead I”ll just start improvising and make use of what turns up. You discard the dull and uninspiring stuff and keep the good material.

I think maybe being a good artist is mostly about developing the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff at a quicker rate.

The photos should be ready soon, and I shall begin the task of reaching out for gigs and then, gradually, conquering the world.

Waha! Wahaha! Wahahahahahaaaa!

Ahem. I mean, playing those gigs. I would like to make it clear that the pictures will definitely not be used as part of an evil plot.

‘Run’ – rough version of a new song

Every year for about the last 9 I have written songs for February Album Writing Month (FAWM). February is when I do most of my songwriting and the majority of the songs I have released as a solo artist first came to life in one of the last 9 Februaries. FAWM is also a fantastic online community where I have met some wonderful people who have helped me find my voice as a songwriter.

Every year there is a FAWM over party, or FOP. I love this because it is an excuse to meet up with some lovely people and share some of that year’s songs. More importantly for an introvert, socially …. I was going to say awkward but that’s not quite true as I’ve learned how to interact with people quite well. I just don’t really like it much – let’s say socially-uninterested person – it’s a social situation that is mediated by the whole playing songs thing. I am not fond of meeting up with people just to spend time with them and have only ever enjoyed social things that have a purpose, usually an artistic one.

Anyway, that’s by the by and a bit too sharey. I am typing this late at night about two hours after I should have gone to bed and am aware it has turned into a ramble.

What matters is, here’s a song from this year’s FOP. It is a rough unrehearsed version of a song about love at the end of the world called ‘Run’. I may record a ‘proper’ version at some point.