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Posts from the ‘songwriting’ Category

Giving Birth to Album No. 2

What the hell do I know about giving birth eh? I don’t even have any babies to show for it. Well if you do not like metaphors, stop reading now because the entire premise of this blog post is based on one.

And at the same time it’s not a metaphor at all. Giving birth in an actual sense is the ultimate creative act. There’s you, and then there’s all this other stuff that’s involved – genetics, DNA, environment, karma, and all of that belonging to the other person too.

Similarly when I make a song it’s coming through me but it’s not completely made of me. I’m a conduit (I like this word.) And when I make a whole album of songs, that’s a bit like conceiving and giving birth to duedecuplets. (I had to look this up, and there is not an official word because 10 is the greatest number of babies on record.)

Imagine then, if the passage from conception to birth were impeded by financial constraints, band breakups, vocal complaints, general confusion, tangential creations of other albums, tours, and the like. Imagine if your twelve babies got stuck in your womb while you waddled around pregnantly creating a whole bunch of other stuff. Would that be comfortable? I don’t think so.

What if, waiting in line behind these overdue babies was a whole other set of twelve in various stages of development. What if they started to overtake the older ones. Would there be a struggle? Who would win?

Apparently some of the pain of childbirth derives from the difficulty of the mother’s body in letting go. It’s hard to let go of your creation because how do you know when it’s ready? In the case of childbirth, nature wades in and makes that choice on the whole. In the case of an album you’re on your own. You could keep on tweaking ad infinitum. Is it ever going to be the shining masterpiece you hoped it would be?

I’m going to let go of album number 2 now. It has been an epic journey and I am grateful to those faithful people who have helped by contributing their time, energy and creativity. I can wholeheartedly say that I’m proud of it and I did my best at every step of the way.

There are even some bits that I like.

Open Heart Circus will be on sale Thursday 27th November. Come to the FREE launch gig at The Bedford Pub in Balham the same day at 8pm. Limited Edition CDs will be available.

https://www.facebook.com/events/878538085492152/

Istanbul to Kiev and beyond

Every time I go on retreat things fall apart a bit more. This is said to be a good thing, although at the time it feels excruciating. The layers continue to peel off and the same questions percolate: what am I doing? where am I heading? what’s behind everything I do? My latest realisation is that what is behind everything I do is love. And what confuses this is fear. When I am connected to myself, my work and my life and the way I manifest in the world become an expression of love.

That’s a good start but it’s hard to pin down what it means exactly. It’s even harder to marry it up with the often painful, frustrating and lonely path of an artist. I have been thinking more and more about the value of what I create and where it fits into this impossibly diverse and hectic kaleidoscope of a planet we share. One piece of work I am really proud of is a song that I wrote last year for the Wilding Festival, called ‘We Will Be Heard.’ I really struggled with this song. I wrote at least seven versions before I came up with this one.

The inspiration that was guiding me at the time was the protests that were going on in Turkey surrounding the prospective demolition of Gezi Park. I was moved and impressed by the way people came together to stand up for themselves and their community. I felt that there was clear evidence of a common human spirit that when ignited will stand against corruptive forces.

There are many other examples of this, before and since. The crisis in Ukraine is now in its third month, and since November has involved many instances of violence by police against peaceful protesters. It’s a complex situation and not one that I intend to attempt to elucidate here, although I have found this article particularly helpful in understanding its genesis. Most recently people kicked back against an anti-protest law which was set to restrict freedom of speech and action against the government.

I am certainly no expert on politics and do not consider myself a political songwriter. If I could offer anything at all to people in times of struggle I would want it to be hope, strength and inspiration to continue manifesting with dignity the basic goodness of humanity. If Nelson Mandela taught us anything then surely it is that.

The song I wrote inspired a close friend of mine to create a video out of a wide range of footage documenting similar protests in Brazil, Turkey, USA and beyond. I was touched to receive messages of thanks and solidarity from people all over the world who had been inspired by this. At the time of producing the song I was entering a period of extreme chaos in my own personal life, which made it difficult for me to do much more than upload it to youtube and watch the view count. My intention for this year however is to give the song a further life and I am now looking for a charity with whom to collaborate on its release.

Snow

I am up to something in Poland, it’s true. Things are going on there. I can’t say what yet exactly, but I can share this – a new song and a video, called ‘Snow.’ The song was recorded partly in London and partly in Psychosound Studios, Krakow. It’s not for release, it’s still an early version of the song, and I love it for its energy and freshness. The best time to record a song is always now, and both the piano and vocals and the drums in this version were recorded at the moment of their conception.

The video was made later, on a trip to Jaworze, a village in the Beskida mountains of Southern Poland. We were somewhat exhausted after a week in the studio and had no intention of shooting a music video – but then we were not expecting the impressive snowfall that Jaworze had in store for us. It was too good to resist! So here it is – written in London in snowy January – filmed in Poland in snowy April – enjoy!

Snow

Little signs of life come from the ground
It’s so peaceful and calm
Weatherman says it’s gonna be a cold front
We should stay home till it’s done

But it only snows in January now
Long time ago it used to snow
All year round

Little birds shiver on bare trees
They don’t sing they just hold their sad hearts
Another year begins and we are in the dark
What do we bring, where do we start?

And it only snows in January now
Long time ago it used to snow
All year round

In a little time it’s all going
With a little faith it’s all growing
In a little time it’s all growing

Little rays of light come from the clouds
We just stand outside and open our mouths
You and I are all it takes
It’s the best time to make new mistakes

Cause it only snows in January now
And snow will come and white the darkness out
White the darkness out
WHite the darkness out
White the darkness out
White the darkness out
White the darkness out

Perfect Love

 

Last night, as I prepared to launch my new music video for ‘Perfect Love,’ I discovered something rather curious, and wonderful. Chögyam Trungpa, Buddhist meditation master, teacher, poet, artist – the list continues – and perhaps the most important person in my life that I never met, also wrote a poem entitled ‘Perfect Love.’ It’s published by Shambhala Publications, in a volume called ‘Mudra,’ including poems that he wrote between 1959 and 1971, described as ‘spontaneous and celebratory.’

Whilst I am in no way comparing myself to this great teacher, I can’t help but be excited by the coincidence, especially since the manner in which I came up with my song could also be described as spontaneous and celebratory. I was actually rehearsing another song at the time, and as I struck the last chord, I made a mistake. However in stead of stopping to correct myself, I simply kept playing, and the new song just kind of rolled on out.

A frequently quoted phrase of Chögyam Trungpa’s is ‘first thought, best thought.’ As I understand it, this doesn’t exactly mean that the first thought you have is necessarily the best, but rather the unedited version, the spontaneous one, the one that just comes out when you are totally on the spot – the one it can be hard to trust because you didn’t exactly ‘do’ it.

When I was writing the song I didn’t fully know what it was about, it was more like uncovering a code than constructing something new. Then when I realised what it meant, I decided to dedicate it to a couple of friends that were getting married and had asked me to sing at their wedding. A nice kind of synchronicity.

In Trungpa’s poem, which you can read in full on the Chronicles website, he says:

‘What is going to be is what is,

That is love”

Some kind of acceptance of things as they are? When I played my song to my best friend she asked me if my boyfriend was upset, because the song suggested things weren’t perfect. Firstly I said, ‘well you know, it’s not exactly just about me…’ and then I explained that I don’t see it as a negative thing to accept what is – rather it’s an aspiration for me.

That’s not to say that you should just make do and never try to improve a situation that’s not working. But that you can’t even begin to improve things if you don’t accept how they are now… And in any case, striving for absolute perfection – does that ever bring about happiness?

There is much more to his poem, and I hope that I will continue to understand it more and more. But for the moment, until the next craving seizes me, I am content in the knowledge that our creative paths crossed for a moment, his and mine.

And to complete the circle, another song on the Water Snakes EP, ‘Save Me,’ is dedicated to him.

You can stream and/or purchase the full EP on Bandcamp, Soundcloud and Gogoyoko; it’s also available on iTunes.

Snakes and spiders

A spider crawled out of my bag this morning. I let out the kind of involuntary girlish yelp that I reserve for spiders and mice. It was the same spider that I had seen on the ceiling two days prior while vacuuming.

I remember observing at the time, that whilst it might have been highly convenient to hoover the spider up, thus removing any real or imagined threat, I wasn’t able to do it. This evoked a feeling of curiosity with a tinge of self-satisfaction. Had the Buddhist teachings started to penetrate at last? Had I finally begun to feel compassion for all living things?

Another thought accompanied these musings: hoovering it up wouldn’t actually get rid of it. It would still be there, inside the hoover bag. Dead or alive, it would sit there, in the bottom of that bag, as a consequence of my action.

Perhaps this was about responsibility. When I throw something away, I want to imagine that the responsibility for that rubbish leaves me the moment the rubbish leaves my hand. But somehow these days that story doesn’t sit quite so comfortably with me.

Every thing we throw away goes somewhere. Nothing is completely eradicated out of existence – it just changes into something else. This is the case with things, but also thoughts, emotions, they’re all energies – they have to go somewhere. I wonder if in some way this is what karma is all about.

The next day I saw the spider again in a different corner. A shorthand version of the previous days musings played over in my mind, along with the thought: ‘ah, there’s that spider again. still there. hmmm.’

This spider gave me two warnings that an intimate invasion might be forthcoming, and yet I did nothing.

I wonder how this translates to my behaviour in other areas of my life. Do I push away unwanted thoughts like unwanted rubbish, only to find them manifesting later more vividly in physical or emotional ways that I can’t control?

Quite possibly.

I think about Robert the Bruce, who also famously learnt something from a spider. The moral of that story was, we were taught, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ You can’t really argue with that. How many people succeed by giving up first time?

It inspired me to construct my own proverb:

‘Ignore a spider on your ceiling and the next day you’ll find it climbing behind your eyeball.’

OK I dressed it up a bit for the sake of the drama, but you get the idea. I wonder if it’ll catch on.

On a related topic, I released an EP this week. Not about spiders, but snakes. Water Snakes, to be precise. It’s about not ignoring what’s there – rather embracing it. It’s about a journey – the kind of journey that starts by letting go of your baggage. If you’ve ever travelled with Ryanair you’ll probably have experienced this kind of thing already.

Looking at what’s actually there is really, really uncomfortable a lot of the time. But in my humble experience, ignoring what’s there and trying to work with something that’s not there, only to find the taut facade of your own fantasy come crashing down at the most inopportune moment, usually in public, is marginally worse.

If that doesn’t tempt you to have a listen to the EP, I don’t know what will.

I could also add that it’s got some nice songs on it, possibly some of my best work so far. And there’s more to come.

Incidentally there are a few particular doses of inspiration to which I am indebted, and which I shall note here, for those who may be interested: The teachings of Chögyam Trungpa, Coleridge’s The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, and TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, in particular, Little Gidding. I’ll end with a quote from that as it says it all as eloquently and succinctly as I could ever wish to do.

‘We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’

And now the music.

Be Part of a Community Music Video!

Snow has been the major topic of conversation this week as it’s quite rare in these parts. Consequently it tends to bring with it various degrees of excitement, panic and chaos.

Snow muffles everything. The silence affords a sense of seclusion. At the weekend much snow fell, and from that stillness arose in me an inspiration. On Sunday I sat down at the piano and found a new song.

Now I need your help for a creative experiment – I’m going to make a community music video for my new song and I need footage! Please send any videos you made in the snow that you would like to share and don’t mind being online to: ninevah.city@gmail.com

And invite your friends to do the same!

Thank you:)

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Salvage

Somebody once asked me how you write songs. Where do they come from. I just figured it out. A song is a salve that you rub into the wound in your heart. It can be a wound to yourself or a wound to humanity. It can be a joyful wound or a devastating wound or a hilarious wound or a tedious wound or any kind of wound. But sometimes you can’t find exactly the right salve in your cabinet for this particular wound so you have to make up a new song. That’s where songs come from. They are meant to heal the wounds in the heart. And if you sing them, they do.

How important is the silence?

It’s an interesting question. I recently decided to put my first album ‘The Anomaly Project’ back on sale on all the digital platforms via a new distributor. (The reasons I took it away are also interesting, but not completely relevant here.) Having uploaded all the tracks I finally got my new artwork sorted which I’m very pleased with, and sent it off.

The album was rejected because the final track on the album, “Silence,” has too much silence in it. The message I received was:

“Track 16 has an unacceptable length of silence at the end. Please remove this and resubmit the product. We can process tracks with as much as 4 seconds silence. ”

I was surprised because it had been on itunes for three years without any complaints. So I wrote back to the man at My new distribution agency, who was very kind and understanding of my bewilderment. He wasn’t able to upload it because it didn’t fit the spec. The reason he said was that online music store managers didn’t think patches of silence worked in a digital sense because they are committed to a format where buying individual tracks and playing them in order works.

Now I get this, and I’m not attacking the music retailers for their decision. But it raises a few questions in my mind. First of all… I am pretty sure I’ve bought albums in the past that had long passages of silence at the end. But perhaps this was in the pre-download age. You might listen to an album all the way through and be surprised to find it was still playing long after the sound had stopped. Sometimes there would be a hidden track 20 minutes later.

I wanted my album to descend into silence. I remember we debated for some time about the length of this silence. It’s only about 20 seconds in the end. But is it completely silent? Or is there something in it? I feel like the silence contains an energy of something I wanted to communicate.

As Daniel Barenboim says in his 2006 Reith Lectures for BBC Radio 4, “sound does not exist by itself, but has a permanent constant and unavoidable relation with silence.”

He talks about how sound arises out of silence and goes back into silence. There is a certain, finite amount of energy that we put into creating sound, but eventually, according to the laws of nature, that energy will run out, and the note will die.

“This relation between sound and silence is imperative to understand, because it does produce the first tragic element of expression in music.”

So there is some question about whether sound and silence can be separated so clearly.

The other thing that concerns me is the idea that patches of silence might not work in a digital format, because people need to buy individual tracks and play them in order.

Would it be so very alarming for an unscheduled gap to appear in somebody’s playlist? Do we, as listeners, really require every moment of our experience to be filled with noise? Is the silence before and after one form of expression different to the silence before and after another? I think it is. I’m pretty sure Harold Pinter thought it was too.

What would happen if they didn’t like the silence? Probably the same thing as would happen if they didn’t like the sound. They would press a button and eradicate it from their ears at once. So what makes my silence more unpalatable than the sound of, say, Bruno Mars singing?

“The rest is silence” says Hamlet at the end of the play. What does he mean? While I don’t have time to go into an in-depth analysis of that here, I’m fairly sure death played a part. So can we conclude that an abhorrence of gaps on itunes playlists equates to a fear of death?

On that cheery note, here is the song in question, set to a video I made in the London Aquarium. Incidentally this version does not feature the full silence at the end, simply because I ran out of jellyfish footage. It happens.

And here’s a link to the brilliant, profound and thought-provoking Reith Lectures by Daniel Barenboim – I heartily recommend them – you can read/listen to them here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2006/lecture1.shtml

The mysterious world of songwriting

Sometimes songs just come out, fully formed, as if they were coming from somewhere else, there’s really no effort at all. Other times you sweat for months and months over troubling chord sequences and niggling lyrics – it’s not always a happy ending. Some of them never get finished, they simply lie there on the factory floor, waiting for their carcasses to be stripped of good ideas that are plundered for newer songs with more chance of completion.

I know of few things more satisfying than that moment when a real tricksy bastard of a song finally gets finished. So I was thinking to myself while cycling home this evening, having just experienced this very moment of the final pieces of a puzzle slotting into place – the idea I’d been forming over the last few weeks or so had come together at last in the middle of Waterloo Bridge.

Waterloo Bridge - the site of many moments of creativityI’d been struggling over this song since last Summer and had performed it several times but something wasn’t quite right. If I was honest, I wasn’t really happy with the lyrics for the whole of the first verse. But I just wanted to get it out there so hoped I’d sort of get away with it.

‘Getting away with it’ lyrics are not really the kind I want to be writing. The kind of lyrics I aspire to are those where the juice could be sucked from each well-chosen word by every new listener and never run dry. I kept thinking of “One” by U2.

“One love, but we’re not the same
Well we hurt each other
Then we do it again”

Lyrics that are at once simple and profound, they make my heart turn over. So I was rejoicing on my bicycle that I had at least found a way to shift the block obstructing this song from being truly born. The new words seemed to fit better with the whole thing, as if they would help the song to know itself better.

I arrived home and picked up my guitar to seal the deal. The relief I felt was more like the feeling you have after painting a room that took a lot longer than you expected – there is a sense of weariness and resignation rather than outright celebration.

As I struck the final chord I made a mistake, but I liked it. So I kept playing, and another song began. And as I played, this new song just arose, fully formed, simple and profound, from the other, like an appendix to a long and gruelling novel. That’s what it feels like, an afterthought, or a second orgasm. Weirdly enough, the song appears to be about contentment.

Clapham Common - almost there