The Songs


I wanted to write about the songs individually, for several reasons. Reading what I have to say might be of interest, but isn’t in any way essential. If anything, I’m keen for you to do whatever you can to make the songs your own, so if reading my ravings is going to pollute that experience, stop here. There will also be some guitar-related business, which isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste, but is something that I wished I’d had when listening to Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, among others. Also included are some fragments of recordings (usually voice memos), often made on the way to catch a train, or babbled like a lunatic in the middle of a busy street. They’re here to show where some of the songs started, and might be illuminating and, perhaps, entertaining.

When I Was Young (EADGBD)

This is my fourth album. I seem to have established a pattern, when ordering the songs, for putting the song I believe to be the weakest, or most derivative, or clichéd, first. They are, in order: ‘We Wrote a Song’; ‘Claire’; ‘A Secret’ and ‘When I Was Young’. I know for a fact that there are some friends who have never listened beyond ‘A Secret’, and, while I thank them for listening in the first place, it does pain me.

Is this a good way to start? Telling you that I believe the very first song on this new record to be the worst? Perhaps not, but hear me out: it doesn’t matter what I think. There are times when I’m embarrassed or disgusted by all of these songs! What I might dismiss as derivative is possibly just catchy. Clichés are useful, and only the most earnest, brow-beaten songwriter can shun them entirely.

In any case, I’ve grown fonder of ‘When I Was Young’ over time. It bears relation to ‘Nightingale’ and other past endeavours. It started with the guitar and followed on quickly with the first verse, almost complete. The other verses came easily, but I spent months, possibly years, trying not to give in to that chorus. Oh well, it’s here now and won’t go away.

Stick around, folks! The best is yet to come!

‘When I Was Young’ early draft: A Voice Memo from 2012, when I think the song was first drafted.
Second (?) draft: A Voice Memo from March 2013, recorded at home. Perhaps the first full run-through of this song.

2 Lavender

I can’t remember why, but I was cat sitting at Justin Quinn’s house, when we lived nearby. I also took the opportunity to burn some sought-after Jazz CDs while I was there. Nobody’s perfect. I started singing the first part of this song on the way home, and was tickled by its whimsy. Whimsy isn’t really my thing, when it comes to songwriting.

I’m not sure how long I left it, but when I came to write the rest of the song, it stopped being about Justin Quinn’s cat pretty quickly, and became the echo of an experience I never actually had. There’s a photograph, which I’m afraid you’ll never see, which suggests that I might’ve had this experience, and I’m sure I wished at the time that I was having it, but I didn’t. It was a daisy chain, in any case, and I’m not even sure it was for me.

As an aside: “you made a lavender crown” was “you made a lavender scarf” in an earlier draft. Imagine! “Frown” became “laugh” and I made reference to “the last time that somebody made me a scarf”, which was my Grandma, and it was a Dr Who scarf, and I was probably 9 or 10. Nobody, to date, has ever made me a crown.

Lavender Demo 2013 (recorded at home)

3 The World’s Widow (EADGBD)

A dear friend bought me a great book. It’s called ‘Aura’ by Carlos Fuentes. I can’t remember why he bought it for me, but I’m very grateful that he did. It’s a mysterious, supernatural fairytale horror story; slender and beguiling. Years later, I bought another edition of the book with an essay by the author in the back, in which he brought to light some of the influences on the work, among them: Maria Callas, Miss Havisham and the ghoulish, mirror-filled apartments of Parisian women.

I don’t really sit down to write songs about any event or circumstance in particular: they just happened, somehow. Why I ever thought to write a song in response to a book, I’ll never know, but that’s exactly what happened here. It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I tried, and I love the way the recording has turned out (mostly thanks to Justin Quinn and Chris Hill).

The title is a reference to Carol Ann Duffy’s collection, ‘The World’s Wife’.

Here’s some guitar fiddling around what became The World’s Widow. At the time, it seems to have been called ‘Havisham’. 10th June, 2016 (voice memo).

4 Father’s Day (DADGBD)

This started as an idea for a singer who was, at the time, the girlfriend of a good friend. She was starting out and getting material together, and the one recording I’d heard of hers featured some intricate and nifty guitar work, inflected with sweet harmonics. So, I decided to have a go at something similar, and got stuck almost straight away, as often happens. Shortly afterwards, the friend and the singer parted company, and the token gesture no longer seemed appropriate.

A little after this time, an old teacher of mine died. However complicated or tangential our relationship, I had inevitably seen something of a father-figure in him. It may not have been Father’s Day when he died – I can’t remember – but the first line of the second verse suggested itself before anything else. As is often the case, the experiences and feelings given voice in the song are a mixture of mine, those I’ve imagined, and those of others. I think the little epilogue spells that out, though. As to whom that section is addressed: I find that there are people (both living and dead) who are easier to talk to through the prism of a song, rather than in real life. Almost everything I’ve ever written has been a coded message to someone or other.

If I have a favourite tuning, it’s this one (DADGBD), but I don’t really do favourites.

‘Father’s Day’ ramblings: A Voice Memo, on the move, from late March 2014, aurally jotting down lyric ideas for the song.
‘Father’s Day’ sketch: A Voice Memo from February 2016, in which I lay out everything useful I had at the time (not much) for ‘Father’s Day’.

5 House

Justin Quinn wanted to hear ideas for short, ephemeral pieces to fill holes on the Wealden album. I hastened to my oracle (or purgatory) of half-ideas: the voice memos on my phone. I had the whisps of melody that you hear, fledged out, here. I played around with framing and reframing the idea, and sent my fumblings to Justin. When I hear back, I’ll let you know.

The best thing to do was to leave well alone and give the melody the time of day. Here it’s played on two guitars and piano, as well as sung.

This is about being in, or going back to a place which ought to feel familiar and safe, but, for whatever reason, has turned against you. If you’ve ever been back to a childhood home, where another family is now living, fully embedded, then you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about.

Here’s a voice memo from April 2015, sat at the piano, spooling out things I’d been humming and singing for a little while, which I sent to Justin Quinn to show that I wasn’t completely bereft of ideas.
More ramblings from April 2015 (voice memo).
Even more ‘House’ ramblings from April 2015 (voice memo).

6 Before The Fall

This one fell out of my head, a little more than half-formed, in the same, long winter of discontent that gave birth to ‘Stray Dog’. Another vaguely coded message slipped under the door of someone, or no-one in particular. On the face of it, there’s more truth in these words than any others in this collection.

I play a baritone acoustic guitar on this song, the idea of which is much more appealing than the reality: imagine trying to play harp music on a suspension bridge and you’re close. One more take would’ve finished me off.

‘Before The Fall’ (‘I Go’) first draft: A Voice Memo from November 2015, recorded in our shed. I hadn’t been very happy for a little while, and this one just fell out of my head.
A second attempt at the song, in rough shape, from July 2016 (voice memo).
A little aural working-out of the middle section of Before The Fall, which never made the cut, mercifully (voice memo).

7 Stray Dog (BBDGBE)

This was born, almost fully formed, out of a spell of potent, overwhelming and almost hallucinatory depression. I was in a strange city, far from home and far from myself. The dog is the black dog, of course, and even he’s looking a bit worse for wear.

The guitar figure is a cousin of that in “Somewhere Behind You Eyes”, but doesn’t hurt as much to play. In this case, the sung melody, along with most of the words, came first, followed by the guitar part, which is in a new tuning for me (BBDABE).

Does it help to write this sort of desolation down and sing it? I’m really not sure. For the time being, it just takes me straight back to that place. Perhaps it’s meant to serve as a reminder, or a warning. I might go back to that city, but hopefully never to that place.

‘Stray Dog’ first thoughts (voice memo): This was recorded on the streets of Glasgow on October 4th, 2015, as the idea came to me, in a daze. It was late, and the dog was never far from my heels.
More mutterings from the streets of Glasgow, 4th October 2015 (voice memo).
Rough draft (voice memo): Eight days after the song first reared its head, here I am, in my Glasgow bedsit, figuring out how I might possibly play it. The tuning was a new one for me.
Here, I’m trying to figure out the short section about the tolling bell, with mixed results. 14th October 2015 (voice memo).

8 Eclogue (EADGAD)

It’s hard to write about this one. I’ve put myself in someone else’s shoes, and imagined a long walk in them. I’m not great at long walks, particularly not on my own. Very occasionally, I’ll find wonder and inspiration in the natural world, but more often, I’ll find hiding places, cliff edges, deep pools and the cold, dense darkness of a wood. This narrator is finding traces of a loved one who is gone; looking for clues to their whereabouts, or messages hidden in a half-blown dandelion.

Someone very close to me once went for a walk and never came back. If I went out to look for them, it might go something like this.

The song started a long time ago, with the guitar part in a favourite tuning (EADGAD). I started singing some ideas over that with Matilda James, my long-time collaborator and dearest friend, but the words we were singing were a little too frightening and suicidal (“from the branches of an old tree”), so I left it well alone for a few years, wheeling out the guitar figures from time to time and wishing I could do something with them. The song poured out almost in one go, when I eventually got down to it, and took me slightly by surprise.

For anyone who ever heard the song ‘Pigeons’, which I used to play with a band called Elephant Juice (who later became The Silver Lining): this is the only other song I have written using the same tuning (EADGAD). Not likely to come up in any pub quizzes, but a little bit of trivia, nonetheless.

Also, for the keen-eared choralist: yes, that’s an echo of “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” (Lasst uns Erfreuen) in the chorus. Choirboy for life, me.

‘Eclogue’ early draft (voice memo): A draft of Eclogue from 27th August, 2012.
A draft of Eclogue from 4th March, 2013 (voice memo).
Some indecipherable guff (supposedly intended for Eclogue, but never included) recorded in public, somewhere, on 27th July, 2014 (voice memo).

9 Anywhere

I remember singing a version of the first chorus of this song, quite a few years ago. It might’ve been 2009. I remember being near a river, and feeling fairly despondent. I might’ve been in Richmond, but I can’t be sure. It existed, as many of these songs did, as scraps until we’d started recording sessions, at which point I decided to give the whole thing a go and see what came out. Unsurprisingly, it sounds very much as I’d imagined, in the whole.

It’s all quite straightforward: he’s happy to go anywhere, as long as it’s right here. Escaping without moving an inch; hiding in plain sight. Making one record every ten years.

I recorded this song on the exquisite instrument which Mike Parle built for me.

Some sketches for ‘Anywhere’, as it began to come into focus. Occasionally (hilariously), I attempt to sing the bass and melody lines at the same time. Ha! 21st June, 2016 (voice memo).
Some more indecipherable guff, presumably recorded in public. You can just about hear the chorus of ‘Anywhere’ at the end, but the rest is a mystery to me… from 10th June, 2015 (voice memo).

10 When We Go (DGDGBflatD)

This is named after the Bill Frisell tune of the same name. I’d like to know why Bill named his tune as such, but he’s not taking my calls (because I haven’t called him). Suffice it to say that I think that’s where the similarities end.

I can’t prove it, but I’m fairly certain that this started with the open G minor guitar tuning (DGDGBflatD). It features one of those signature, undulating guitar figures that is always on the edge of becoming irritating, but hopefully never manages. This must be one of the oldest ideas in this collection, going back almost as far as 2008. The writing of it coincided with losing my religion, however flimsy it was.

A draft of ‘When We Go’ from 9th August, 2012 (voice memo).
Another draft of When We Go from 27th August, 2012 (voice memo).
And here’s a version, recorded at Justin Quinn’s house in 2012: When We Go (JQ)

11 I Want To

I once wrote a song called ‘For You Only’, which I recorded when I was at school and which ended my first album. That song and this one have the same parents: incurable melancholy and a decent piano. I was “at work” when I wrote this one, and immediately made a recording of it (which you can hear, below). It’s pretty bleak, even if its messages aren’t immediately clear to the listener. They’re quite clear to me.

The happiest thing I can say about this song is that I play the oboe on the recording: a first for me. Chris Hill used an EHX Pog pedal to add a lower, mellower octave to each of the three oboes we’d recorded, giving the effect of a larger wind ensemble. I had sackbuts and cornetts and St Mark’s, Venice, in mind. I’m prone to flights of fancy.

‘I Want To’ (‘How To Prepare’) demo.