Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every byway..."

I think anyone who gets even part way into this crazy business we call 'show' is necessarily ambitious to some degree. It may be a minor thing – Wouldn’t it be good if I played someone my song and they applauded? say. Then that becomes Maybe I could play a whole set in front of people and they might applaud? and before you know it you’re on tour somewhere in the Midwest and complaining that they haven’t got your guacamole recipe quite right backstage.
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky with my ambitions. Quite early on I found a group of people who were willing to play my songs (rather than, for example, ‘A’ Bomb in Wardour Street, which once you’ve got the chords of E and A mastered is pretty much your common room-led path to glory and adulation) and a while later we won an award with one of them. We went into a recording studio. We had a cassette with our songs on with a printed inlay and we even had an official rejection letter on headed notepaper from WEA. A girl at one gig cried upon hearing us play one song which she said spoke to her. We played the local ABC Cinema, then we played at The Corn Exchange. The local paper actually asked us if they could take our picture. Some time later I got to play abroad, I was on a vinyl single, I signed a publishing deal, I went to the BBC studios in Maida Vale and recorded a session, I was on a CD, and then I was on a CD released by a proper record company, with a barcode and available in HMV and everything. Then I won another award!

Well, I say that I won another award. What happened was that The Fragrant and Charming Helen Mulley (pictured above) and I were collaborating on a number of things, mainly through the medium of me strumming chord progressions into a cassette recorder and then handing them over to her so that she could play them in the car on her way to work over and over until by a process of virtual osmosis she had absorbed the rhythms, patterns and tones and was then in a position to write some words, a lovely melody and we’d be laughing all the way to the folk club. One of these was a song which ended up being titled Waste of Angels – the original working title, Then There Was Sunshine, as scribbled on the tape inlay, was appropriated by Our Glorious Leader, who used a very similar compositional technique (and about a third of the chords). Both of these eventually appeared on Songs from The Blue House Too and by various ways and means Waste of Angels started appearing in the nominations list for that year’s Hancock Awards on the venerable acoustic music-based forum Talkawhile, eventually coming out top in a straight tie with John Tams’ Man of Constant Sorrow. Helen, you’ll be pleased to hear, had demurred at the thought of voting for a song she had had a hand in co-composing but was nontheless delighted upon the arrival of a shiny trophy, lovingly inscribed with the winner’s name. Singular. Hers.

This is the way of stuff and although it’s nice to receive plaudits and prizes, it’s sometimes good to be reminded that this is not what we strive for. Adventure, heh. Excitement, heh – a songwriter craves not these things - besides, it wouldn’t be too long before Boo Hewerdine was singing backing vocals on one of my songs, we were opening for Robert Plant and appearing on a film soundtrack, so it was easy to become caught up with the ride we were already on without fretting unnecessarily about who got to keep the resulting hardware.
After the success of album number two we moved on to number three, buoyed by the prospect of spending someone else’s money in the studio and with the promise that it would be available on iTunes (tick!) as well as in (at that point) conventional CD form (tick!). Since we weren’t sure if we’d ever get the chance to repeat this opportunity we resolved to record as many songs as possible - things we were playing live, bespoke numbers created especially for the new album and a few older tunes which we weren’t sure if we’d ever get the chance to commit to hard drive in a professional studio again. One of these was called Little No-One.

Little No-One was originally titled Everywhere and Nowhere In Between and had been sporadically performed by my band gods kitchen during what I like to refer to as our Richard and Linda phase, wherein I had persuaded the rest of the group that what we really needed was a female singer to counterpoint my manly tenor and to occasionally step out from the shadows in order to belt out a heart-rending power ballad to pull in the punters perhaps put off by our regular raw, smouldering manly sexuality*. At one living room get-together with guitarist Steve ‘Kilbey’ Mears I started playing a seventh fret guitar figure, he joined in with a counter-harmony and before too long we had a simple recurring pattern to which I was enjoined to write some lyrics. When it came to pulling together material for what was to become Tree (I think) Helen recalled “…that thing you used to play with Paula” and so we resolved to include it on the list of things to do, the only problem being that no-one could quite remember the words. I checked my big book of poetry, various cassettes were unearthed and scanned with no result until eventually we decided that it would just be quicker for La Mulley to write her own – she, after all, would be the one performing it in the studio.
In the midst of all this we were A & R'ing furiously and someone suggested that what we really needed for the appropriate delivery of the new lyrics was someone with perfect, cut-glass, top-note intonation & inflection and since Julie Andrews was in retirement at the time why didn’t we ask someone closer to the group? With one eye on the furthering of our personal dream team-related ambitions we resolved to enquire gently whether one Judith Aileen de a Bédoyère – Dame Judy from Talkawhile to us, Judy Dyble out of Fairport Convention, Giles, Giles & Fripp, Trader Horne and The Incredible String Band to you – might be entreated to sing on it for us. Turns out she was up for the experience, and so Our Glorious Leader was despatched to darkest Oxfordshire to collect her by car in time not only for her to rehearse and record the number, but to guest with us (or us with her, depending on your perspective) during a short set at the late and lamented High Barn’s acoustic night on the evening before we had the studio booked for the Saturday. Hence I found myself under the bright lights of an Essex venue essaying the guitar solo from Fairport Convention’s version of Joni Mitchell’s I Don’t Know Where I Stand with UFO Club and Middle Earth veteran Judy Dyble, who’d sung it on the album**. Tickety, tick, tick, tick!

Anyone who owns our Junior*** effort will doubtless be aware that such a track does not however exist on the album. It is not to be found on the sleeve, is not evident as a hidden track, a bonus, an extra. So what happened? Well, we spent many a long hour debating the relative merits of all of the songs we had backed up with an eye to bringing the number down to a whole which would flow and change organically over the course of the record. Something that we’d never even (or would ever) play live**** made the cut whilst another couple of new songs didn’t. A cover version got added, one tune with a festive-related in-joke had to go and, finally, Little No-One was quietly retired from active service. One reason was that having five different vocalists on the same dozen or so songs might have been confusing, maybe it didn’t fit the overall mood, but for whatever reason it seemed doomed to obscurity and occasional availability on download sites. Maybe if we ever got round to compiling a career-spanning boxed set overview of our oeuvre we’d find a home for it?
The compilation, the anthology, the career retrospective was one thing I’d not ticked off my big list of things to do, nor had I looked likely to. Admittedly the limited edition double CD Shane Kirk’s Forty, with its jewel case, remastered hits, live tracks and rarities and including full colour booklet had been a treat and a pleasure, but had also also been a one-off birthday present and so didn’t really count,  however word had begun to waft on the wind of a bringing together of material by one Judy Dyble... There’d been a false alarm a few years ago when Universal had started in on a similar project only to get cold feet (there had even been a catalogue number assigned) but it seemed as if having taken the project on herself this time it might go through to completion and after a few hints, a number of excited tweets and, finally some Facebook photographs of the completed artwork, the triple disc, forty eight song retrospective emerged, blinking and uncertain, into the world this week. This is where I get off this crazy ride, I thought to myself. There are no more peaks to ascend, no more milestones to pass, no more certificates to frame – to paraphrase the great Boo Hewerdine, there would be my name in the brackets. I scanned the track listing proudly and there it was – half way through CD two. Little No-One (H.Mulley).             

Judy Dyble's Gathering The Threads is out now.
*That didn’t really come off, to be honest, but we did end up performing as an acoustic duo called Cover Girl which she later fired me from. I still get the occasional apologetic email. 

**The performance ended up on YouTube, where one person commented rather unkindly that viewing the clip was akin to watching half a dozen brickies with a geography teacher (IIRC). Once OGL had checked the source and it turned out to be a guy who had videoed himself pissing off his apartment’s balcony and then uploaded it to the internet we kind of brushed over his finely-nuanced critical sequitur. 

***It’s the grade that follows ‘sophomore’.

****The principally Gibbon-composed Vanilla. It turned out to be one local radio DJ’s favourite song on the album.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

"One of you should have worn a hat; that's what made me get the camera out..."

There is an idea expanded on and monetised in the popular pamphlet Freakonomics that with 10,000 hours practice you can make pretty much anything look casual. We didn't quite go that far in terms of rehearsal time but a lot of prep went into this week’s Tony James Shevlin and The Chancers gig at The Kelvedon Institute. In my adjunctory role as Stage Left Chancer I was able to contribute, suggest, advise and prompt, but the final decisions upon matters of set list, vocal arrangement and appropriate chord inversion were ultimately down to the guy whose name was on the poster - we did, however, defer to Tiny Diva (Stage Right, vocals and percussion) upon matters of wardrobe. “Not those shoes” she issued sternly. “Undo another button on that shirt” came forth sagely.

The set list had been timed, pruned, checked for lyrical subject matter, keys, tempos and instrumentation and ‘tween song intros had been buffed and burnished appropriately. We were in a listening venue, so stretching out on the lyrical exegesis was going to be okay – no danger of losing them while Shev explained, with the benefit of eight by ten glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was, how he came up with that tricky middle eight before the key change. It did not go quite that far, but the intro to Déjà Vu (a song written by TJS at the behest of Larry Page on behalf of Reg Presley, who then went on to record it with three quarters of REM – I necessarily précis here) probably took longer than it did to play the song itself.

There were a couple of new numbers in the set* which were nice for me because I had much less of the redoing the parts that were on the album to perform and more of the this is the arrangement and can you find a bit to go in here? sort of thing to play with. They are also a couple of absolutely corking songs which I really rather hope I’ll be invited in to wrangle when the time comes to record them. That's never a given, of course - only the other night we were discussing the lot of the touring band session guy for (I think it was) Chris Isaak, who I believe takes his whole band in to record an album except for the lead guitarist, who is replaced for the duration by a studio hound and who then presumably has plenty of time to nurse a deepening sense of grievance while he does all those odd jobs around the house that he has not had time to do while he’s out recreating those parts on the road.

So when the time came for my big number I made absolutely sure I was in tune, stepped back slightly so as not to intrude on either the sight lines of those in the front few rows or the raw power of the wall of sound being coaxed from my ten watt Vox and waited for my cue. As it happened, this was the point at which Shev decided to go off-roading. He went into his spiel about the infinite number of songwriters with an infinite number of typewriters. He then continued, guaranteeing that for the duration of the song every single person in the house would have their attention focused completely on his delivery at the microphone. “We did a gig a couple of weeks ago and I accidentally bent my thumb back so far it touched my wrist, so whenever I play an F sharp minor it really hurts, and F sharp minor is integral to this next song. So when you see me doing this face…” (at this point he pulls an expression worthy of Robin Trower at his grimmacitically correct best) “…I’m not doing that lead guitarist face, it means it really, really hurts. Anyway, here we go…”  

*Songwriter’s shorthand #36 – “They’re all new to you, but this is a new one for us too…” 

Photograph of The Kelvedon Institute reproduced without the express permission of Keith Farnish.