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Behind Calendar II // Emily's Garden

This is the first of my ongoing series of blog posts on the Making Of my new album as Granfalloon, Calendar - Chapter 2. To read my Making Of series for Volume 1, go here.


CALENDAR - CHAPTER II

RE-INTRODUCTION


Last year I released the first Volume of the Calendar project, an album drawing from the 52 songs I wrote in 2014. The project will hopefully arrive in three instalments.


You can read more about how the project grew from its conception here in the very first Behind The Album post I wrote about the project and you can catch up with all things behind the scenes while digging into the songwriting and recording process for each song on Volume I as well.


With the recent release of Chapter II of the project, I’ll be picking up where I left off with these articles about the writing and particularly my collaboration with Lobelia Lawson, with whom I co-wrote this instalment of Calendar.

Lobelia Lawson

Those eagle eyed readers may notice this disparity of co-writing with Lobelia in 2023, songs which I had already written in 2014… How can you write something in both 2014 and 2023? Is our man, Lomax, some kind of time traveller? The truth of it is: I wanted the Calendar project to have an evolving approach to songwriting.


Where the songs on Volume I were largely effective in their 2014 states, and only needed a slight feather dusting and to be recorded “properly” in the studio, the songs which make up Chapter II were built virtually from the ground up, maybe even from below ground… if that’s not stretching the metaphor more than I am already doing… Anyway, the majority of the Calendar II 2014 counterparts just weren’t quite doing it for me.


Hey! You write 52 songs in one year, they’re not all going to hit bullseye on the first try… and it’s been the slow lesson I’ve learned over the 10 years, between the writing and the rewriting, that you can chip away at these things slowly and that their true nature may only reveal themselves after many, many abortive attempts.


With this in my mind, I asked Lobelia (whom I shall refer to as Lo from hereon) to write this album with me, thinking that we could use the 2014 versions for only the barest of inspiration… maybe the original title? Maybe the original subject matter? Perhaps a chord progression here or a lyric there. And on the whole the 2014 and 2023 versions are wildly different beasts as you’ll be able to hear and read about in these blog entries!


So let’s start at the beginning… well the beginning of the middle anyway…


TRACK 1: EMILY’S GARDEN

(Subject matter: Secrets)


WRITING IN 2014

I spent a number of years setting out my musical stall influenced by the other perceived “oddball” songwriters I grew to admire as I fell in love with music. Your Bowies and Walkers, your Newleys and Nilssons, to name a handful…


Johnny5thWheel&thecowards - longer than 12 years ago

When I’m writing I’ll think in terms of albums. Maybe because that’s the format I fell in love with. And I do think about the conceptual elements attached to the edges of the music itself.


It was these things I had in mind, along with a disillusionment with the “desperately trying not to look like they’re trying” bands of the mid to late 2000’s which led to my formation of the anarcho-folk collective Johnny5thWheel&thecowards. I’m not going to discuss the entire history of the band here. You can read about that here. But it’s useful to know about Johnny5thWheel, when, in 2013, a handful of my friends staged some kind of half-creative meeting/half-intervention (what’s the opposite of an intervention? A group enabling, perhaps?) in order to tell me about a wonderful new creative idea they’d had.


The three of them sat me down in one of their kitchens…


“We see it as a conceptual show that jumps from Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn!”


“People would have to follow it from platform to platform!”


“Maybe each form of social media could be its own character!”


They seemed so excited about it, bless them, and they seemed certain that I was just the guy to write what sounded like ‘Social Media: The Musical!’. When I pressed for more information… maybe the story they had in mind… Maybe how the thing would actually work… they were sketchy on the details. They seemed knowingly confident that I could figure all this out on my own.


I tried to feign excitement at their excitement. It’s sometimes contagious like that isn’t it, but mercifully, the idea was doomed to die there in that kitchen…


…Mostly.


In late February 2014 when Jess Roberts, my co-challenger in the 52 Project, made the suggestion of ‘secrets’ as a subject matter for us both to tackle that week, I found my mind wandering back to couple of the ideas I threw around as I gamely tried to show enthusiasm for the steamer of an idea my friends had so sweetly laid before me in their kitchen the year before.


One of those ideas tackled the idea of ‘privacy’, which is, at the very least, ‘secrets’-adjacent. It formed the basis of a song called ‘Pandora’s Envelope’ which I wrote mainly using one of my treasured Omnichords… I think it might have been the OM27 model I call ‘Bonnie’ (she’s one of a pair). I modulated through Bonnie’s drone settings trying to find interesting or unusual chord pairings. Partnered to the 6/8 drum setting on the Omnichord and the straight up and down strum of its harp-plate, the song has a staid feel.



I found something I wrote about the song in 2014.


“...definitely feeling the need to shake things up nine weeks (and nine songs) in. This is the first song I've written on Omnichord (all others have been transposed from original guitar songs).


52 songs with just my voice and an acoustic guitar isn't as diverse or as interesting as I'd like so I do feel the need for a change. After I've reached 12 tracks (seems the right amount for an acoustic album) I think future songs will be more layered and involve more instruments which is something I've laid the groundwork for with this song.


The topic for this track was Secrets which I had already written about for Johnny5thWheel&thecowards (see here: johnny5thwheel.bandcamp.com/track/ivegotasecret-2) so this song tackles the subject matter in a different (way) and I think it will suit a project that I've had at the back of my mind for a while.


The vocals are layered and sung dispassionately to give it a robotic quality and inspiration wise I took from ‘1984’, ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Brazil’ - lots of getting lost in the cogs of the machine. Bit of a Berlin-era Bowie flavour to it as well.”


“...a project that I’ve had at the back of my mind for a while.”?? It seems like I was still kidding myself that I was going to write this musical, even a few months later… Come on Richard! Be real! You hate musical theatre! And you REALLY hate social media! But at least it moved me away from guitar to explore some new sounds and textures. And this song was actually the one that precipitated mine and Peer Van See working together on the second Granfalloon album ‘RGB’ when he approached me at a party and professed he was into the electronic approach and that he was keen to try his hand at something like this as well.


That’s the story of ‘Pandora’s Envelope’. Some interesting chord movements, and the gateway that opened to pave the way to songs like ‘Year of the Rooster’, ‘Broken Things’ and ‘Ambulance’.


I remain unsatisfied with the track though. The concept isn’t well defined, or even interestingly explored, and its flirtation with electronics seems naïve in retrospect. Seems to me, like a concept rife for reinvention.


MEANWHILE IN 2023

I sat down in Lobelia’s front room facing her, each of us with a guitar in hand. Lo, in fact, was surrounded by guitars of all shapes and sizes (okay, just sizes… all of the guitars were guitar-shaped).

Photo by Steve Lawson

I had put together a list of the songs from the 52 Project that needed obliterating/resurrecting… some were denoted by title, and some by subject matter… this one just sat there at number 5 on the list under the single word “secrets”.


Lo and I skirted around the edges of what the original 2014 composition was. I didn’t want to pervert this new piece too much by allowing Lo to hear it or know too much about it. Thinking about that “secrets” aspect, I began to talk about a time in my life that I spent in hospital.


I was remembering specifically being admitted, them not really knowing what was wrong with me to start with. I was in for what felt like a long time and I found it to be a particularly dehumanising experience. That’s in no way a reflection on the nurses and the rest of the NHS staff who took care of me magnificently, but there’s something about being in that environment for an indeterminate amount of time that makes one feel… well… dehumanised.


In order to regain a little control over my life and surroundings, I began slipping out of bed and wandering the hospital halls exploring, very much to the chagrin of those wonderful nurses. They took to calling me Will o’ the Wisp; them coming to do their rounds and finding an empty bed. In fairness, I always made sure I was around when they told me they were coming… but any surprise visits were usually met with a crisply made hospital bed rather than by myself.


It was on one of my safaris that I ventured across a house attached to the hospital grounds. Behind the house was a small garden. It had a bench and a table, and was surrounded by tall hedges. Once discovering the garden, I would return to it often… bringing a book, a cigarette, and a coffee and arranging to meet friends who couldn’t come during my visiting hours. Having autonomy over this space helped me. It gave me a sense of my humanity back.


As I was half-remembering these details to Lobelia in her home, we worked out that my convalescence took place in 2013, putting the experience well within the connective tissue of the inspirations I drew on for the 52 Project.



Lobelia played chord progressions until something sparked my interest and then we adapted it to match the specific passing notes that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It's something I often mention when talking about how I write. I’ll slap the back of my neck and tell someone it’s how I know what’s working in a song but, whenever I do, a look of bamboozled confusion often passes over the listener’s face.


Sometimes I’ll ask a musician I’m working with whether, for example, a harmony line should be *this* note or *that* note, and they’ll respond: “Well it could be either…” Indeed it could be, but which one makes your insides go “YES!”?


Those hairs on the back of my neck, the tingling in my spine; it’s the only radar I have. I’ll fight hard for an idea that makes them move… those little hairs on the back of my neck.


Lo and I sketched out a verse and chorus quickly. We were invigorated by the environment and each other’s presence… our first session on this “new” project. The song needed fleshing out but it definitely felt like we had something. Lo’s harmonies on both voice and guitar enriched it a lot… I don’t think I would have the confidence in my downbeat delivery of the chorus line “In Emily’s garden we can be ourselves” without those harmonies.


We were confident the other verses would fall into place, it would just take time to explore the subject matter, but there was still something missing. Something that wasn’t a verse or a chorus… I tried moving to various other places to kick-start a middle 8 but it felt a little forced so we moved to lyrics and let the ideas bubble in the back of our brains while we talked.


I talked about how I was particularly inspired by a phrase from an interview I had seen previously with the literal gentleman, Gene Wilder.



I was struck in particular by the difference Mr. Wilder saw between the “private” and the “personal”. That something doesn’t have to be private to be personal. The interview is from 10 years ago but the distinction feels more and more relevant, the more we all plunge headlong into a future in which each of us are the main attraction of our own carnivals and freakshows. We put so much information about ourselves out into the world, just in an effort to be heard, and known. It feels like a wonderful idea that some things, even if they are public knowledge, can be “just yours”.


I showed the interview to Lo and we sat idly fingering our instruments for the duration. As the interview progressed, our improvisation grew wilder* and more baroque. When the interview finished, so did we. We looked at each other breathlessly and excitedly discussed the idea of having these instrumental passages throughout the song. It felt lush almost like the garden itself.


The immediate problem that presented itself is one that I’m sure every musician will be familiar with. When we got to those sections of the song we realised we’d forgotten everything we’d just come up with. All the magic we’d cast during those 30-something minutes of Gene-Wildering vanished. We had bits we remembered but not the real juice we’d harnessed.


To paraphrase:


“There's only one rule that I know of, babies - God damn it, you've got to hit that record button WHENEVER you play!”


After much more improvising those sections began to come to life again. I’ve no idea if they contained anything from the original but we were happy with it. It really felt like it conjured the memory of being in that garden.



PRODUCTION

The majority of the album was recorded at my studio, The Dogan. We were face to face in the room, recording both vocals and the guitars live. The recording process lent itself to the quick moving nature of the album and allowed Lo and I to bounce off each other. Dom Major sat in on the session in the producer’s chair. Regular readers of this blog will recognise Dom from my previous work with him and also his own music. He’s got a great producer’s brain balancing ideas for arrangement without a need to overpower.


When the time came for me to arrange the strings parts for those sections, the loose nature of it, and having three distinct instrumental sections gave me the space to go to town with the harmonies and the counter-melodies. I wanted to harness a smidgeon of the feel that Robert Kirby gave his string arrangements on Nick Drake’s work. Writing the parts to dance around Lobelia’s guitar lines gave me some wonderful signposts. The final instrumental section, in particular, leaned heavily on her decision to flatten the usual C# to a C and while the cello followed that, her vocal ad lib there gave me the viola part.


SIGN OFF

Thanks for reading to the end. With the desire to give full context for this album with that re-introduction, and the time travelling nature of the writing process, this entry really became quite a mammoth one didn’t it? But I’m becoming a fan of longform writing now. Whether it’s of interest to anyone other than myself, is another matter. I’ll be releasing one of these a month to encompass each track on Chapter II. Future entries will mostly only be available to my Bandcamp and Patreon subscribers, but there's an entire series that I wrote on Volume I available for free to all.


FURTHER LISTENING


'One of These Things First' by Nick Drake


Calendar's Volume I and Chapter II are available now via granfalloonmusic.bandcamp.com





FOOTNOTES


*Honestly. Honestly. HONESTLY. No pun intended. I can not stress that enough.


















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