The WritingPosted: October 31, 2011
The clocks have gone back and only a couple of months remain until the end of the year; at long last I’ve just about assembled the songs for my next solo record.
This is most unusual. For as long as I can remember I’ve gone into solo recording projects with only a handful of songs actually completed as pieces of work. As the recordings have gone along the other tunes have gradually emerged until the final make up of the work becomes clear, often at a very late stage indeed.
Even after a (working) lifetime hammering away at the coal face of song, the actual mechanics of how those things arrive and make themselves manifest still remain somewhat mysterious to me. There’s never an exact science to it, never a “normal” process. It’s important to allow the song to make itself known rather than force it. To a large extent that involves tricking myself into a state of readiness-to-receive.
It’s comparatively simple to find that state while – nominally – concentrating on the recording process. An immersion in sound world means that the hidden lines of vocal/lyrical sense can make themselves available in a surreptitious manner. I’ve often drawn the analogy between sculpting and songwriting and as one hacks away at the sonic material – by editing or manipulation – the inner meaning of the thing shows up in some x-ray form. At this point it’s possible to know (approximately) what it’s “about” and then get those lyrics and that top line done.
I honestly mean to say that the songs reveal themselves to me. I don’t drive them along, I don’t start out with a specific agenda or intention, musical or lyrical. Whether I’m working with a chord sequence, a slab of noise or a riff I go forward, trusting that eventually the form will unlock the song within. Naturally, this kind of approach leads to a certain dangerous frisson when the recording process is reaching an end. I’ve enjoyed that sense of finally wrapping things up at the last moment.
Still, when I began working on the current project (as yet still untitled and without any specific direction, of course) I gradually came round to the idea that it was time to take a different approach. (Naturally I always try to have some different angle to each succeeding disc in any case.) I was starting virtually from scratch, since whatever backlog of potential material I’d accumulated in the past had been for the most part directed into “Thin Air” and then “A Grounding in Numbers”.
(An aside – I always have some musical material knocking around which has engaged me enough to start working on it, but not enough for it to come through to full form.)
As ever, I began with improvisatory playing on piano and guitar – this much is a given when building stuff from the ground up. Some improvisations were recorded, some noted down and repeated. I ended up with frameworks for seven or eight pieces. At this point I made the decision that before advancing into any further recording work I should actually write top lines and, crucially, lyrics for all of them. That I should make songs, in other words, before making recordings.
This has meant that I’ve been going at an unaccustomed slow pace for the last couple of months. With pieces this bare there’s been a great deal of staring out of the window, of carrying the tunes round in my head while walking the dogs, that kind of thing. Basically immersing myself in each piece in my imagination until the right words and tune came along to make (some kind of) sense.
Some ideas have been entirely new. In a couple of cases I’ve discovered that themes or phrases which have been bubbling away in the waiting folder for years have muscled their way to the front. (Oh, yes, I do have a stock of lyrical ideas and phrases noted down in various books, on various scraps of paper, some of them from decades ago….)
I’m now up to ten completed songs. That’s probably one or two more than the number required for the album.
It’s now my intention to build the recordings around definitive lead vocals; these will be the next things I approach. The original piano and/or guitar parts may remain, or may be replaced by other stuff.
It’ll be the first time I’ve attempted this over an entire project; it should be interesting, I think.
Needless to say now that I’ve reached this stage I may well find myself going off into other directions, other pieces once I’m in full swing. But the plan, at present, is as outlined above.
In due course, I’ll post some notes on further progress….