This is the second of my ongoing series of blog posts on the Making Of my new album as Granfalloon, Calendar - Volume 1. To read the first in the series go here.
'Witch of Woodplumpton' made its radio debut on BBC Introducing on Saturday night. Many thanks to Will Wolstenholme and the team for their support.
Track 2 - WITCH OF WOODPLUMPTON
(Meg Shelton, the witch of woodplumpton)
The second week of the year and, as memory serves, I was playing a London show in Peckham. Some friends (Jean Genie and Jonny H) had seen that I had announced this self imposed songwriting task and they suggested the subject matter to me while I was there. This hopefully explains the veering from the broad concept of the previous week to the incredible specificity of this second week. It also introduced a new idea to the project, that people other than myself and Jess could suggest themes.
Given our shared Lancashire connections, it makes sense that we would all be interested in the folk tales and the history of the area. A lot had been written about Meg’s supposed exploits and (mis)deeds. As per usual anything involving witches it boils down to a mixture of misunderstood Pagan ritual, white witching, and man’s excuses for horrendous cruelty to women. I should make it clear that I’m on the anti-witch hunting side of things. I played this song on a Belgian tour and there was a witch in the audience with only a basic grasp of English who admonished me greatly after the show for my song “celebrating the burning of witches”. I was sufficiently chastised to always give a brief explanation before I play this live now.
My notes here were written in January 2014:
“Both verses take in altercations that Shelton was supposed to have had with different farmers. The second of which involved her landlord who bet her she couldn't beat his dogs in a race while she was in rabbit-form (supposedly a favoured form of hers). She was said to have insisted that the landlord did not release a large fierce black dog that he owned though, as it was too dangerous. The landlord, of course, set his black dog after Meg and it bit into her hind leg, so the story goes.”
It’s funny that the first two songs I wrote that year ended up as the first two songs on the album. Must be getting the hang of “conceptually satisfying”.
This is a good time to introduce some of the rest of the lineup for this album… Andy Lyth is a drummer I’ve worked with since 2005(?) and a key member in Johnny5thWheel&thecowards. You don’t just get a drummer with Andy though. He has a wonderful musical mind that can turn its hand (mix those metaphors real good, Richard) to most things it fancies. He has, since I’ve known him, picked up accordion and also now… banjo, which he plays on this track. I did get a message from him that him and his partner enjoyed a good waltz around their kitchen to this song after recording his banjo part, but there remains no visual confirmation of this.
Daz Woodcock also played bass in Johnny5thWheel though I met him when he was playing with one of my favourite bands of all time The Murmurs Of Tension. If you missed this St. Helens Psychedelic Experience during their tenure in the mid to late 2000’s then I’m sorry. Incredible band, incredible songs, R.I.P. guys. Looking forward to the reunion tour.
Daz’s bass runs on this song are incredibly tasteful, almost orchestral. I really wanted this recording to have a ‘Danse Macabre’ vibe. Ellie Boney and George Burrage returned on strings (now recorded in my home studio, The Dogan), with added pizzicato from Robin Koob (violin - Run Remedy).
Sarah-Jane Pearson appears again with some backing vocals on the pre-chorus and shared vocals on the chorus. SJ came in for a few tracks on this album. It was great to work with her.
I asked Cleg, who recorded guitar for most of the album, to consider acoustic instrumentation for this song. The layers of acoustic guitar and mandolin he put together are exquisitely arranged. I love the offset harmonic strikes on the mandolin that punctuate the final lines of the chorus. I love the way his duelling acoustic part builds on my initial ‘Danse Macabre’ section and twists it into something new. This really is a tour de force for Cleg, though there are a few of those on this album.
Goal: Stay out of the way (until the instrumental break).
This was another beautifully arranged tune that was quite full by the time I got to it.
For the main guitar part I opted to enter at the pre-chorus as it starts on a very "guitar-friendly" Em chord. I also went against my natural instincts and played with a pick so it would cut through the mix a little more (a lot of the parts were finger picked and I didn't want to muddy the waters with more of the same).
The mandolin part in the pre-chorus dances around the other parts with some strummed chords and quick arpeggios (the great thing about the size of the mandolin is that you can cover the majority of the fretboard without having to move your hand much, this makes the part sound much trickier than it really is).
For the chorus I kept the guitar in its lowest register and mandolin up high. This was mainly to stay out of the way of everything else.
The guitar in the instrumental section starts by keeping the same rhythm as Richard's part but creating some melodic variation.
The second half of that section I had a lot of fun with: An Em chord allows for lots of open string shenanigans so I leant into that hard by using the high e string as a pedal point until the descending run. That descending run ends later than one would expect which is something I always appreciate as a listener as I think it's unexpected and pretty exciting (whether that was achieved or not is not for me to say).
Lomax: And thank you for reading. Longform writing isn’t my wheelhouse (I will always prefer the safety of my first love, the song) but I’m enjoying writing these posts so I hope you’re enjoying reading them.