Or how I learned to stop worrying and make Calendar - volume I.
(What am I reading right now?)
This kicks off a series of blogs focussing track-by-track on the new album. It will be a mixture of what I wrote about each song at the time of demo-ing in 2014 plus some more up to date thoughts from recording and arranging the songs for release. Plus it will allow me to give proper credit to some of the fabulous work by the musicians appearing on each track. This entry will be slightly longer than future ones as it includes this Introduction.
The project began as 2013 became 2014, I had heard of the practice of "constant songwriting" from various sources (Burt Bacharach, Prince, Lee Reddy & Mat Hibbert) and I liked the sound of it. I had already engaged with it when I started writing back around 1998-99. I was writing 3 songs a day back then, but these were mostly unfocused experiments in teenage angst, rhyming couplets, and repetitive chord sequences. Eventually I figured out what Choruses and Middle 8’s were as I went along with the help of my newly discovered Beatles, and at a certain point, Steve Gunter.
Steve was a singing teacher I’d met around 1998, as I was realising I wanted my life to be all music, all the time - we met for one singing lesson. He taught me to sing ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘For No One’. When he asked me if there was anything else I wanted to learn, I played one of my freshly penned songs to him, and he promptly pivoted all future lessons to a crash course in the history of music and the art of songwriting. He introduced me to a lot of music and even gave me a battered Fostex 4-track tape recorded to start demo-ing my songs on. There will be more on Steve in distant future posts I’m sure, as I wrote a song for him when he passed away, which is slated for Part II of this double album.
Skipping forward to 2013 and I decided to engage in this weekly songwriting project with a fellow songwriter, Jess Roberts. The initial premise being each Wednesday one of us would select a subject to write about and we would both write a song connected to that theme and make a demo in a somewhat “completed” form by the next Wednesday when the process would begin again with the next song. The song didn’t need to be finished in the definitive sense but we needed to have something recorded (as rough or as polished as possible) and be able to step away from the idea in time to move on to the next one. Thus started the challenge!
Track 1 - ARCHIVE
(Remembering something through rose coloured glasses)
First up is track opener, ‘Archive’. Historically I’ve struggled with opening songs for albums. Not with writing them, so much as "realising" them. I tend to think conceptually about albums as projects (they are one of my favourite mediums after all) and that can mean that I will “feel out the edges” of the album before I get a handle on what the larger picture will be, rather like a jigsaw (NB - this is not my approach to jigsaws, much to the chagrin of anyone who has ever had to make a jigsaw with me).
In the past this has resulted in the bold opening statements that I’ve tried to make with the string arrangements of the Johnny5thWheel&thecowards theme for 2010’s TalesOf…, the mad inventor-meets-Muppets of ‘In My Laboratory’ for Music To Shake & Shuffle To (2012) and the tentative steps of the not-too-positive opener, ‘I Don’t Feel Blue’, ironically for an album entitled Positive Songs (2020/21). It turns out that conceptually satisfying is not always representative of the album that follows. This has led, in the past, to a self conscious habit of telling people to “skip the first track” whenever I present them with a new album.
With ‘Archive’ however, I remain surprisingly pleased with the track, both as an opening statement of the album, and as something that is musically reflective of the songs that follow.
Here’s a little about the subject of the song, “Remembering something through rose coloured glasses”, which I believe Jess chose. (These subjects are included in brackets under the title of each track.)
Back in September of 2013, whilst on tour my laptop was stolen by a(n) (un)known scumbag in Birmingham. What this mainly meant was lost data. Lost creative work. Lost production settings. And lost accounts. Which meant redoing them from scratch before this year's online tax return deadline.
I managed to piece it together via receipts, calendars, diaries and bank statements. What this meant though, was re-living the entire year from April 2012 to April 2013.
I'd also just been through a short though pretty intense relationship and breakup so going back through those memories with every receipt and each scrap of paper felt tantamount to a form of time travel to me.
I wrote at the time (31st Dec 2013 to 6th January 2014):
"The idea for a song about someone refusing to let go of the past until they see it from this supposedly mundane perspective whilst redoing my accounts and the memories they brought back to me on 31st December 2013 whilst everyone else was excitedly getting ready for their New Year's Eve revelries."
...Which seems like a standard thing I would say when trying to play down the personal aspect of a song so close to the time the events I was writing about had occurred. This one was actually a personal one. I wrote it at my kitchen table whilst my house was setting up to celebrate New Year's Eve.
I went into Futureworks Studio with producer and musician, Paul Morrice (AKA Cynthia’s Periscope), in February 2020 to commence work on turning the demos from my 52 Project into an album.
I’d just released 2019’s RGB album and at that time Granfalloon was very much a hybrid of electronica and acoustic music and Paul’s background in electronic music made them a perfect fit for this. I asked Paul if he had any recollections of the sessions…
“I approached Richard and asked if he had any material he wanted to record. He sent me a couple of demos, just vocals and acoustic guitar and we discussed how to expand these songs into fuller, more densely orchestrated songs. I mentioned two things that I would be really keen to do. Firstly I wanted to work on something that has a combination of electronics and acoustic instrumentation. Secondly I wanted to record a string quartet.”
I was working with a couple of friends, Tim Davies (drums for 1.21 Gigawatts as well) and Jack Wakeman (check his Dreamstriders), and we recorded the rhythm parts live with us all together in one room. This has been a long held dream of mine… to record with the band all in one room. I’d done it before on one of the versions of my much recorded album Down There For Dancing. There’s really no substitute for reacting to the other musicians in real time.
Then we had some days with the wonderful Ellie Boney (cello - Anna McLuckie), and the equally wonderful George Burrage (violin - Diving Station) to record a string arrangement for the song. This was the first string arrangement I’ve written for one of my songs which I’m proud of. It does more than just follow the chords without being too fiddly or baroque which is something I’d never quite nailed in the past.
Obviously you know the timeline of what happens next… Feb 2020=The dreaded “middle C”. We had the chance to work on two songs before the world promptly (or not so promptly but in a rather a more shambolic fashion) reconfigured itself into something else. For the next few years we would be working remotely. No more recording together in the same room. Everyone (rightly) followed their own priorities… Tim was in Preston, I was in Manchester and Jack moved up to Glasgow (to set up The Dreamstriders - again, check them out).
In an attempt to grandfather this and the other track we worked into the same space as the rest of the album, Cleg (guitar - Granfalloon, Bedlam Six) laid down a complementary guitar track, and Sarah Jane Pearson (vocals) recorded some beautiful ethereal wails when I got back to the album in 2021/22.
The last part of the puzzle was the synth pulse running throughout the track. The was written for the song back during the 2020 Futureworks session but it was something I always heard played on an acoustic instrument eventually. I thought a clarinet but apparently it was way too deep for the range of clarinet. I asked bassoon players and oboists but it was too low for all of them. Eventually a clarinetist informed me it would work on contrabass clarinet. They also informed me that, yes, they could play one, but no, they didn't own one... don't you know how much they cost?! I thought maybe I could hire one but I couldn't find a single place to do so in Manchester. Thankfully I came across Jason Alder, a fantastic clarinetist who specialises in low end wind instruments and lives in London. I was so pleased he agreed to play on this recording. The real contrabass sound is so much richer than the original synth pulse and it makes me so happy every time I hear it. Check out Jason's work at jasonalder.com.
That’s about all I can remember from this session. Thanks for reading. See you for track 2 ‘Witch of Woodplumpton’!