A note about ‘Mostly OK’
Producer: John Haworth
Recorded at Eton College, 2001
This is where the story starts, around 2000/2001. My very good friend, John, had put up with being the drummer in our band, ‘Blackflower’*, for long enough, and had somehow agreed to steer the ship on this, my first solo singer-songwriter album. Steady hands, an even temper and a good heart made him the perfect helmsman, and the ideal foil to 17-year-old me.
‘We Wrote a Song‘ went through a few drafts (with a couple of different collaborators) until I settled on the version you hear. ‘Cherrywood Lane‘ was hummed into life on the way back to my dear Stepdad’s house in Danbury, Essex. At second glance, it transpired that no such Lane exists: it’s Cherry Garden Lane. Didn’t scan, I guess. ‘Old Hand’ was a flash in the pan, born out of my early experiments with using a capo and playing A minor shapes. Still trying, still waiting… ‘It’s Not Your Life‘ is the only song here which enjoyed a life beyond ‘Mostly OK’, being re-recorded by the more-than-capable guys in my next band, ‘The Capability’**, in 2002. I can clearly remember the Summer when ‘The Rain Came‘ was written, and the grass on which I was sitting. All a result of the first flush of my Nick Drake infatuation. ‘Life Like a Candle‘ was a classic bedsit fantasia (an exercise in making oneself feel even more miserable). A friend’s younger sister had died, and I morbidly zoned in on her story, without really knowing any details whatsoever. Needless to say, I never hinted to the family that she had been the inspiration. I’ve no idea what possessed me to use Jesus for the second verse, as I’m pretty sure my faith had dwindled by then. ‘End This Now‘ was a poem first, I think, but grew into a song which possibly outstays its welcome. It’s very bleak and despondent, sparse and naive. I think it’s the least successful song on the album, but I felt that these things needed expressing at the time, when I was first grappling with depression. ‘For You Only‘ is the direct relative of ‘I Want To’ (from the new album), and possibly does the job which ‘End This Now’ attempted in less time, to greater effect. Many of my songs have cryptic messages at their heart, some more direct than others. In some instances, they let people know how I’ve felt about them, or about what passed between us. In the very worst (and perhaps most self-indulgent) cases, such as this, they are basically suicide notes.
I’m fond of this album, and curiously proud of it. I did a roaring trade, for about a week, peddling them at school, and a few people have been very kind and kept some of the songs with them. It’s a fairly concise, sparse set of juvenilia, with a gaudy, bleeding-heart aesthetic, but it’s mine, and my pride just about outweighs my shame.
A note about ‘Adventures in the Mirror’
Producers: Benjamin Scheuer, Edward Bainton, Tim Dickinson
Recorded at 875 Studios, NY; edited and mastered in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
Of all the albums I’ve made, in any configuration, under any moniker, this is the most troubling, and the only one which truly grates. Having said that, it’s a fair representation of who I was at the time. Perhaps that’s the problem.
In 2002/3, Benjamin Scheuer (whom I had met at school) extended a warm and very exciting invitation to his home in Westchester, NY, with a view to recording, gigging and writing music together with a band he had put together specially: The Capability*. Ben was (and is) a flash in the pan, who attracts admiration and curiosity from anyone who enters his orbit, and the impression he made on the most buttoned-up of buttoned-up Brits at our school was incalculable. He brought me out of my shell, certainly, and encouraged me to sing and to write and to listen in ways I hadn’t previously, and I’m forever grateful to him for bringing that particular part of me to the fore. Unfortunately, nothing could change the fact that I was an 18-year-old who had grown up (or not) at all-boys boarding schools, and very much the product of a broken home. It’s very possible to draw an introvert out of themselves, but a tortoise is a tortoise, and will always have a shell. Sadly, I rather think that Ben thought he was buying a butterfly, but what he got was a stubborn caterpillar.
This is not to say that nothing good came out of our association: quite the opposite. While we didn’t write collaboratively very much, we brought our distinct personalities to some exciting music, with some incredible musicians. The Capability guys were predominantly Jazz players, who are always the best listeners and collaborators. We made two albums-worth of strong-willed, sometimes chaotic, occasionally bombastic rock, and played some great shows around the US.
When I wasn’t either doing Capability business or being a monstrous wretch, I made the most of living in Ben’s house, where he’d built a recording studio, and got on with my second singer-songwriter album. Some of these songs might have been finished soon after Mostly OK, some of them might have predated it: I can’t tell. Certainly, I wish one or two of them had never been written, but there’s not much I can do about that now.
‘Claire’ was written with the same friend who had helped me with ‘We Wrote a Song’ for Mostly OK, about a shared experience with a girl of the same name. All very adolescent, all very awkward, but not nearly dramatic enough to merit a song. Who knows what I was thinking. The guitar solo can be explained two ways: immediately prior to my first trip to New York, my Stepfather and I had been stuck in the car overnight, during the monumental blizzard of January ’03, with only two cassettes, one of which was Eric Clapton’s ’24 Nights’. Secondly, Ben Scheuer was (and is) a shred-head, raised on Van Halen, and I was very easily influenced…
‘If Only’ acts as a clear precursor to ‘Lavender’ (on the new record), in that it features recorders. The “green candle” is Leonard Cohen’s, as heard in ‘One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong’. The years since Mostly OK had involved quite a lot of sexual jealousy, misery, angst and Leonard Cohen, e.g. I was a teenager.
‘Coffee Morning’ is a dull title for a sweet, if unmemorable, song, written upstairs in my bedroom at home while a coffee morning was being enjoyed downstairs. The crowd you can hear at either end of this recording, however, is a Westchester dinner party crowd (Ben Scheuer included), giving no heed whatsoever to “the myth of marriage”, and quite right, too.
I can hardly bear to listen to ‘Take a Prayer’ these days, it grates so hard. I was trying to do something different, aping a fellow student who was much better at those wordy, off-the-cuff piano songs. I wish I hadn’t tried.
‘Sally-Ann’ is a happier story: written for Roland and Kerry Martin during a stay at Casa Guidi, Florence, which had once been the home of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (hence the clunky allusion to “how shall I love thee?”). I bought a nylon-string guitar while we were out there and wrote the song fairly quickly so that I could play it to everyone while we were still in Florence. Haven’t played it since, of course.
If you listen very carefully (and I’d be amazed if you’re still listening at all), you might be able to hear a click at the beginning of ‘All I Have’. Not a recording glitch, nor a fault with your system. It had taken me such a long time to get the first few bars of the guitar part right, I had become irate. What you hear is the tail end of me screaming “come ON you PRICK!” So, I can’t hear the song without hearing that, but I think it’s fine.
‘Last Rites’ is probably the only song here I’d still consider playing. I want to say that it was brought on, in part, by the death of my Grandfather, but I can’t be sure. I had been morbidly fantasising about death and funerals for some time by then, so the lines are blurred. The electric guitar on this is some of my favourite: a happy accident, induced by a batch of pot brownies and some time to experiment with a delay pedal, perhaps for the first time.
‘The Joy’ enjoyed an awkward afterlife with a band I put together at Cambridge: Elephant Juice*. Chris Hill did a stealthy rewrite for that version, which makes the original a little jarring to me now, though I quite like the build towards the end, and the sly throwback to ‘Claire’ in the last moments. That said, I think the song’s a pile of horseshit. Hey ho.
Thanks are due to Ed Bainton, erstwhile producer of ‘A Little Bit of Darkness’, for doing what he could with all the material I was able to salvage from my time in New York (my relationship with Ben having broken down… mostly my fault). These are demo quality recordings, all deeply flawed, but they give a window into a difficult time. I’m glad this never became an “official” album, even if I still consider it to be my difficult second one.
I’m sorry you’ve had to sit through either this note, the album, or both. The others are better, I promise.
*It should be clear by now that I have never been in a band with a decent name.