Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Play one more for My Radio Sweeetheart

We at Songs from The Blue House have been being played on the radio this week, which is terribly exciting, since it's a one-a-day procession of things that we recorded last week and as such is simultaneously terribly fresh in the memory an something that we have no idea how it sounds. We were lucky enoughto enjoy the largesse of BBC Radio Suffolk, and more importantly their sound engineer Dave, who is blissfully undiscomfited by the idea of recording a banjo, fiddle and piano as well as two guitars and a bass, and attentive enough to comment that since TT's Korg piano has a stereo output he should take the time to record it in stereo. As TT points out, however, no matter how professional the set up, the engineer always ends up on his knees under a desk trying to patch the right DI through a sub-buss into the appropriate channel (that may not have been his exact phrasing, but you get the idea) and indeed there Dave is, clutching a lead and a pop-shield for the microphone. Since there's a lot of setting up to do, and we're all together, there are diversions into alien territory to be had, including a scrabrous version of Norwegian Wood that singer and guitarist James soundchecks with, and an endless cornucopia of fun to be had with TT's encyclopaedic knowledge of music of the twentieth century - he's as likely to break into Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue as he is the theme from Roobarb and Custard. We try a few new things that we've been working on and Fiddly interjects solemnly. "What is that key?" he asks. "Whatever it was, it's the worst key you've ever come up with - there's nothing for me to work with here!". Tony Winn is settled over his banjo, and finding it underemployed on a new song we're doing, nonchalantly whips out his harmonica (insert your own 'tiny organ joke here) to play along with "Rolling and Tumbling", a song which we are still arranging during the actual recording. Someone finds the light switch, and so the anodyne surroundings of the studio are transformed into a mood-lit approximation of Sun Studios - half a dozen people arranged in a semi-circle, singing and playing live, one take, no mistakes. Whistling in the dark. Dave is a corridor away in the car park, ensconced in the Radio Suffolk live van, taking to us through the foldback but unable to leap in and adjust mics at a moments notice. This is old-school recording, whatever we do now will be what is what will be sent out across the ether. I count in..."One, two, a one two three...uh? Oh, sorry , I'm going to do two of those...". Grins, smiles, a band at peace with itself, happy in each other's company and just wanting to play these songs. Just wanting to be on the BBC with something of our own.

Friday, February 08, 2008

No, I meant the other SSW...

It is ten years since we started Suffolk Songwriter’s Night in blustery downtown Ippo, Tony James Shevlin and me. Well, strictly speaking, it was him who had the idea to showcase some of the songs that he’d written and that weren’t getting played anywhere due to both of our preoccupations with the Beatles specialist band we were in at the time, and I went along with half a dozen tunes of my own to play in case nobody else showed up, which of course they didn’t. 

Happy days they were – most music pubs are usually inclined to give away their midweek-dip Thursdays for original nights, jam sessions, acoustic clubs and the like, and so the idea of having an evening where you could play pretty much whatever you wanted as long as you’d written it yourself was no great stretch of the imagination for Landlord Ady at a little pub called The Olive Leaf (don’t look for it, it’s not there any more), however he did also come up with the genius idea of rewarding whoever got up and played with free beer, and so the monthly sessions became not only a proving ground for whatever new material Shev and I were generating between us, but also a pretty cheap night out, especially when you threw in the lock-in afterwards. 

In my experience, if there’s one thing musicians like more than the freedom and opportunity to express themselves through the medium of song, it’s the chance to get wankered for nothing. I generally enjoyed Songwriter’s Nights – it was a good chance to try out new stuff, and if I didn’t have any new stuff it was a good prompt to write something in order to have something to play – the regular audience were generally pretty au fait with the default numbers we were doing by about week three, so it was good having a constant challenge to do something fresh. 

When the night became established enough to start attracting other players, Shev became very adept at putting together an entertaining running order for the evening along the lines of a batting order, and would often ask if I could slip in behind someone that he knew was going to be mournful and serious with the edict that I was to play “some of the funny stuff” or “keep it upbeat”, and it was always instructive to sit back and watch other singers and writers, whether they be folk who’d never played outside their bedrooms before, or more experienced local figures who occasionally gave the distinct impression that this was somehow beneath them and that they were doing us a favour by deigning to turn up in the first place.

I frequently felt more empathy with the former, but probably learned more from the latter, even if it were sometimes principally what not to do, for with an audience of musicians, at least one of whom I know for a fact owned a rhyming dictionary, there was always someone willing to pull someone up on their lazy key change, or the coupling of ‘remember’ with ‘November’, or one of any number of the arcane unwritten rules of songwriting, passed down sagely from generation to generation over a pint of mild and a bag of salt and vinegar crisps with a pickled egg in it. 

Going back was fun. It was pretty much the same sort of line up – some people who thought they were better than they were, some people who were much better than they gave themselves credit for, and some people who had a coterie of friends around them who gave them much more applause than they deserved. There were a couple of really good turns, and a jazz singer who I met at the bar and to whom I opened a conversation with the immortal line “It was nice, but it went on too long”. 

Fortunately she was of a patient disposition and by the time I’d complimented her on her frock I think we’d decided to get on politely. Naturally by the end of the evening I was roister doistered enough to get back up after my earlier set and do two or four numbers with my old chum Shev, and had had enough Guinness to perform both a blues-inflected guitar solo in one of his songs and emote sufficiently to carry off one of mine. The ghosts of the past were lurking in the corners of the bar, illuminated occasionally by the candles on the chocolate birthday cake.

Shaking hands and complimenting people on their songs, vocals, guitars and mixing techniques, we wandered off into the night, safe in the knowledge than in some far flung bar, there will always be a part of this country that will be standing up with a guitar and saying “This is a song about a crap indie night I went to”. That was a good one. That's how I started. 

Sold an album , by the way. One CD in exchange for a pocketful of change and a handful of compliments. Best deal in the world.