You never know when the Songwriting muse will tap you on the shoulder and say ‘how about this for a song?’
I was en route to Amarillo for my next gig. I had stayed the previous night in El Paso – at the El Paso Motel to be exact, my fondness for Marty Robbins getting the better of me. I suppose I hoped that I might find ‘Rosa’s Cantina’ where ‘music would play and Felina would whirl.’ As it turned out, it was one of the seedier places in which I spent the night.
Next morning, I was up at dawn. The cute girl with the beaming smile on reception remarked on my early checkout. I replied with a smile: “Oh well, another day, another town,” …
The line stayed with me. I had only been on Highway 54 for a short while when I knew there was a song stirring in my head. I reached for the digital recorder that I had sitting on the passenger seat in case of times like this and turned it on. I sang the first melody that came into my head and these words came tumbling out: “Another day, another town, on this road that I’ve been running down, I’m making music anywhere I can.”
I’ve written a lot of songs over the years but I can’t remember one that was not changed or edited in some way but I felt this one seemed to be perfectly formed.
By the time I stopped to look for aliens in Roswell, New Mexico, I had added: “I was born with the need to play to the rhythm of a lost highway”.
The final line of the chorus had been one that I had been using for a while on my trip across the US. In various bars and diners I had frequented, people would ask me if I was travelling with a band. “No,” I would say, “just me, a guitar and a car.” All that needed to be added was “I’m a travelling man.”
The verses would be written the following week when I was back in Nashville. A music publisher had asked me if I wanted to co-write with one of the artists on their roster, a young guy called Ty James. At the writing session I offered up the chorus I had and together we wrote the verses. My only stipulation was that if we mentioned US name places, they had to be towns, cities or States that I had passed through on my tour. A couple of hours later we had the finished song. Or so I thought.
A week later, back in the UK, I played it to my sister Jules. She is always the first person that I run new songs by. She liked ‘Travelling Man’ but agreed it needed ‘something else’. We settled on a musical change at the end of the song which reinforced the title. Job done.
I hope you enjoy listening to this song. More than any other song on the album I think it sums up the epic journey I undertook, which saw me drive 11,000 miles, passing through 17 States and 21 cities that made up my American Odyssey.
Travelling Man: drums – Tim Bye; piano – Adam Whyatt; electric guitars – Jonny Miller; backing vocals – Jules Shevlin; pedal steel – Nick Zala; bass, acoustic guitars, lead and backing vocals – Tony James Shevlin
Recorded at Amblin’ Man Studios, Otley, Suffolk, UK by Ian Crow.
I am very lucky that I can call upon the services of so many talented musician friends to come and play on my records.
I have already written about the contributions from drummer Tim Bye, guitarist Jonny Miller, and pedal steel supremo Nick Zala; and when I needed inspiration for a bass part – Steven ‘Kilby’ Mears.
If my record label had said they wanted to put out the album with just guitar, bass, drums and a lead vocal, I would have been proud of what we had. But as I was writing these songs, I already had musical parts in my head, and I knew who I wanted to bring each part to life. And in each case, the guest musician said yes!
Always my first port on call for piano and Hammond organ is Adam Whyatt. Adam and I have played together in many bands. Sometimes it is scary how close he comes to coming up with keyboard lines I have in my head without me giving him any clues. Whether it’s the Country honky tonk needed for Santa Fe Sadness or the bluesy New Orleans romp of Ridethe Mississippi, Adam always has just the right set of chops the songs need. In all, he graces seven songs with his keyboard brilliance. On the re-recording of Kansas City Won’t Let me go, I said, just play what you did on the recording from last year (a US only single release). Adam said: “No, I can do it better!” And he did. When I played it to a Nashville session musician, he said, “Man that cat can play!”
There is one other keyboard on American Odyssey but it is masquerading as an accordion. I had decided I wanted a Tex-Mex accordion sound on Tucumcari Sunset. I had booked an accordionist but they had to cancel at the last minute. Thérèse Miller came to my rescue by playing the part on a keyboard using an accordion sound. But it wasn’t a case of just playing the notes; she thought through the way an accordion player would approach the part, where they would put little trills in etc. and captured it perfectly. It adds a very subtle but important texture to the track.
My song Set Me Down by the Singing River is a celebration of the music that came out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s. Eta James, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin all produced amazing sounds from Rick Hall’s FAME studio. And from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio came tracks from the Staple Singers, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and many more.
I wanted the sound of a Gospel choir so I approached my friend Andi Hopgood who runs the Suffolk Soul Singers choir. I played her the almost completed song and hummed the kind of thing I was looking for. Andi scribbled down some notes and said, “Leave it with me.”
A couple of weeks later, engineer Ian Crow and his friend Gareth Patch who has a mobile recording studio, set up at the choir’s rehearsal room. Andi listened to the song on headphones and conducted the 30 voices through the final chorus, key change and outro. Looking on, I was both nervous and excited. The parts and the performances were everything I hoped they would be. Andi’s arrangement is wonderful and her charges did her proud.
One of my favourite performances on the album is the violin playing of Jan Rowe on When the Rain Came Down. It’s a folk song, finger-picked on acoustic guitar with just one vocal. I wanted to add a classical violin to it. Jan came to my house and I hummed her the motif I had in mind. She wrote down the notes and then on a violin that was made back when Beethoven was ten years of age, she played them back to me with such emotive playing, I nearly cried. We recorded the part on my digital recorder and she played along with that, adding another melody which perfectly complimented the original.
A few days later we met at Amblin’ Man Studios. Ian put a microphone up and we tested the sound – it was beautiful. “Let’s go for a take,” said Ian. So we did. When Jan’s final note had faded away, Ian and I looked at each other in amazement. “Er, that’s it, thank you, Jan,” said Ian. And that is the take that’s on the record. Jan then added the second melody (that too was a first take). She definitely won the prize for quickest session. As I said goodbye to her, I noticed that the bonnet of her car was still warm.
My sister, Jules, aka Tiny Diva, is my sounding board for all things musical. She is the first to hear new songs; the person whose opinion means most to me. She will counsel and cajole, steer and suggest. And when it comes to vocals, her word is sacrosanct. She chooses the keys the songs are recorded in, as quite often, the keys I write songs in aren’t always the best for my voice. I noticed that songs I wrote singing into my digital recorder whilst driving were often in the key of D; I was clearly influenced by the note that is sounded by a Buick LaCrosse cruising on the freeway!
Jules comes to the studio when I record lead vocals. If she says “sing it again,” then I sing it again. The session is not finished until Jules has signed off on my performance. Likewise, when it comes to harmonies, Jules is in command. If she decides that it would be best to have a male voice for a certain harmony, she will patiently school me in the correct notes needed – and she needs to be patient, believe me.
When she steps into the vocal booth, it’s another story. Jules is an incredible session vocalist. She can add layer after layer of great-sounding harmonies from ethereal and delicate on Robert Johnson’s Tears through to the full-on Gospel wail of Ride the Mississippi. An indispensable ingredient of a Tony James Shevlin record is Jules’s vocals.
Making an album is a collaborative process and being with like-minded people in a recording studio is such a rewarding experience. As a writer, it’s a wonderful feeling having musicians around you who can share in your vision for a song. I thank each and everyone of them for helping bring the songs on American Odyssey to life.
After the cold wind and snow of New York, it was nice to feel the sunshine on my face as I arrived at Kansas City Airport. My friend Doris picked me up. After a cup of coffee at her house in Independence, Missouri, we headed in to KC itself, to my favourite Barbecue joint – Bryant’s. Their burnt ends are to die for!
I met up with my friends Matt and Kevin and we spent the evening travelling round several bars including Johnnie’s (mentioned in my song Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go – head barman D-Rock very kindly had it playing on the jukebox as I entered the bar.
Next morning, Matt and I were up early. We drove over the State line from Missouri into a small town in Kansas. At a rather non-descript house, we met a man who had driven up from Biloxi, Mississippi with live crabs, shrimps and crawdaddies. Matt was cooking up a ‘Louisiana boil’ in my honour.
Most of the day was spent preparing for this sumptuous meal that would bring together lots of people I had met during my past visits to KC. The cook-up and subsequent party with poker, pool, and a jam session took place at Matt’s 7th floor loft apartment in a converted warehouse. By 3am the party showed no signs of slowing down…
It was decided that the only way to start a post-party Sunday was with a champagne breakfast. This was followed by liquid lunch at my favourite restaurant – The Genessee Royale.
We were on a roll, so a few more bars were visited until eventually we ended up at one of my favourite KC watering holes – The Dubliner. This was somewhat fortuitous as I had a show there that evening. There was a great crowd in – some who remembered me from previous shows and I picked up some new friends too. This was also my first chance to road test songs from the new album and they went down well.
The night ended at a party for the forthcoming Mardi Gras in a covered market.
My first visit to Kansas City, Missouri was as part of my US tour in 2015. During my time there someone mentioned the Folk Alliance International Conference and said: “You should go! You’d love it!” Again, when I was there in 2016 promoting the release of my song Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go, several musicians, 2 radio hosts, and a TV reporter all recommended I attend the yearly get-together. So I booked a place as a delegate at the 2017 conference.
The mission of Folk Alliance International is “to nurture, engage, and empower the international folk music community -traditional and contemporary, amateur and professional – through education, advocacy and performance”. Sounds good to me.
The event is held in the Westin Crown Hotel. For just under a week, this typically corporate-looking, soulless structure becomes a vibrant, colourful hotbed of acoustic music activity. It is somewhat incongruous to walk into the lobby of a building which you would expect to be wall to wall with corporate suits to find people playing banjos and fiddles and singing in sweet harmony.
The theme of this year’s conference was Forbidden Folk – putting the spotlight on the history of the protest song. One of the highlights for me was seeing Kris Kristofferson perform at the opening ceremony. His voice is now little more than a husky growl but I got chills hearing him sing Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down.
The conference consists of workshops and panels during the day and then gigs during the evening. Many of the workshops were instrument-based such as ‘the Basics of Bluegrass Banjo’ and ‘Intro to Flatpicking’; others less so but still musical-themed such as ‘Songwriting – Getting Unstuck’ and ‘Finding Your Inner Groove – Rhythm Class for all Musicians’.
The panel discussions ranged from the more business oriented such as ‘Diversifying Income Sources’ and ‘PR Power’ to the more culturally embracing such as ‘Women in Music’ and ‘Global Roots’.
What the FAI is more than anything is a chance to network with people in the industry who you would never get to meet in normal circumstances. The place is teeming with managers, booking agents, radio DJs, labels and of course, like-minded musicians and artists.
Prior to leaving for KC I had contacted several industry figures with a cheery email saying “Hi, I’m going to be at FAI. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brains for 10 minutes?” Most came back in the affirmative.
I was at the conference as part of the British Underground – a collection of UK-based acts who displayed a brilliant camaraderie throughout the conference, supporting one another at shows and at play. They were the nicest bunch of people you could wish to meet. And so, so talented! Because of my own commitments, it was impossible to catch them all performing but those I did included Jack Harris, Bella Hardy, Blair Dunlop, Kirsty McGhee, Sam Kelly, Gwyneth Herbert, Ben Savage & Hannah Sanders, Emily Mae Winters, Gilmore & Roberts, and the Jellyman’s Daughter. All worth checking out!
We were looked after by Crispin Parry from British Underground and Neil Pearson from the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The pair were constantly around and available for advice, comfort, and tea and biscuits. I have no idea when they slept.
The early evening gigs are held in the various conference suites. These are the ‘Official Showcases’. One of my favourites was seeing Texan singer-songwriter Darden Smith. It was a master class in how to engage an audience and put across your songs. Another was Kortchmar, Postell & Navarro which features guitarist Danny Kortchmar – famous for his work with Linda Rondstadt, James Taylor, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Neil young, and most famously – Carole King (checkout the solo on It’s Too Late from Tapestry).
For many people, though, the magic of Folk Alliance happens after 10pm when the rooms of 3 floors of the hotel become boutique venues. Some rooms just have the bed pushed to one side and an artist performs in the space; some of the bigger suites will have lights and a small PA. My first show was in The First Timer’s Room. It was something of a shock to find that I was to play to people sitting on the bed and a few chairs. But what the heck, it was nice of them to turn out, so you just give it your best.
My favourite gig was playing in the British Underground Suite (with PA and Lights). Sets are only 25 minutes long so you don’t really have time to settle in – you’ve got to go for it straight off the bat. With so much music to check out, it’s not uncommon for people to pop in, check out a few songs and then pop out again. Crispin and Neil had warned us all that this would happen and not to take it personally. Always remember, you never know who might be watching you. It might be just the person you need in your life right now.
One evening, when I was rushing from one room to another, down the hallway, coming towards me, I saw the aforementioned Danny Kortchmar. Play it cool, I thought. But then I lost it and took my first (and hopefully my last) celebrity selfie!
On the final night of the conference, guest speaker Billy Bragg gave a rousing speech to a packed auditorium, reminding us that with recent political events in the US and elsewhere “we need folk music more than ever. We need people to stand up and tell the truth about what is happening in society. Folk music has always done that”.
I had two days left in KC. On the penultimate day (a Sunday) I played an afternoon show at Johnnie’s Bar. The place was packed with just about everyone I knew from the city. However, four 18 hour days spent in the recycled air of the Westin Hotel plus shows at one o’clock in morning and some serious partying were starting to take their toll on my voice. Thankfully, someone suggested I drink whisky, honey and lemon. It got me through the gig and I now have a new favourite drink.
Matt and I spent my last day in KC canoeing on the Missouri River. It was quite windy but the sun shone and I found it extremely relaxing. Apart from when we moored up on the riverbank and shot at empty beer cans with an old Remington Colt revolver. But that was fun, too.
The next day I hired a car and drove down to Nashville…
It had been many years since I had visited New York City. The last time I was there I had admired the view of the city from the top of one of the Twin Towers. This time I visited Ground Zero and paused for thought at the memorial fountains.
There is something magical about New York. Thanks to the movie industry, so many of its landmarks are etched in our memories: The Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station and Times Square. It’s a great city to walk round.
Despite the cold February weather, I walked up to Central Park. I visited the section dedicated to John Lennon called Strawberry Fields. There is a beautiful mosaic with ‘Imagine’ written in the middle. From there it’s a short walk to the Dakota Building where Lennon lived for many years, and of course, where he was murdered in 1980. I stood outside and cursed Mark Chapman.
Space is at a premium in NYC. So I was very pleased with myself when I secured accommodation in midtown Manhattan for just fifty dollars a night in a 7th floor apartment on a street just off Lexington Avenue. The blurb read “Private loft bed with office space.” Boy was I in for a surprise.
The one-room apartment had been divided into four ‘rooms’ with the strategic positioning of a series of canvas blinds. My loft bed was a bunk bed but where the bottom bunk should have been there was a space with a small table and chair; on the table was an office lamp. There was a small stepladder to gain access to the bed. After you had negotiated its three steps you then took a leap of faith up to the bed. The host’s bed was hidden behind similar blinds. And while those blinds kept her from view, it did not prevent me from hearing her snore the whole night through. The other ‘room’ was occupied by a man I never met, although I did hear him scurrying around like some feral animal late at night.
I spent very little time in the apartment.
New York moves at an incredible pace. If you try to slow that pace down New Yorkers will let you know in no uncertain terms. On the bus in from JFK, one of the passengers couldn’t produce his ticket for an inspector. The inspector said if he didn’t pay up (again) or get off the bus he would “shut it down and everybody would have to vacate the vehicle”. He knew what he was doing. The other passengers turned on the poor man and told him to “get the hell off the bus”. One man offered to ‘assist’ his exit. I told the inspector that I was behind the guy in the queue at the ticket office and saw him pay for his ride. He stared at me as though I was part of a conspiracy to defraud the New York City Bus Company: “Lemme see your ticket!” There was a moment of panic as I searched through the many pockets of my coat. And then a wave of relief when I found it and handed it over. The eventual hounding led to the man leaving the bus. This is a tough city. But often that toughness is laced with humour.
The next morning, I encountered the same impatience in the queue for a sandwich in a diner. I dithered over what bread to have (there are so many and they are barked out at you). A strong Brooklyn-accented voice from the back of the queue, said: “C’mon buddy, I’m missing my kids growin’ up, here!”
That evening, I hooked up with former Suffolk musician, Aaron Short, who now calls the Big Apple home. I watched him play at a restaurant called Tommy Bahamas. I was pleased to note that the young Aaron I remember just starting out in the music business had matured into a fine musician, a confident performer, and a really nice chap.
After his gig, Aaron accompanied me to a bar called American Trash to watch me strut my stuff. It was aptly named. This was not a place where you performed your most intimate, subtle, soul-searching, finger-picked folk ballads. Thrashing the hell out of your guitar was the order of the day. This is what I did and I have lived to tell the tale. Afterwards Aaron and I retired to a late-night bar and put the world to rights. It was good to see him.
The following day I met up with another musician friend – Sophie Jean Kim. We had first met on a Spanish Songwriting retreat, and then again in London where we wrote a song together in Regent’s Park called Watching the World Go By. Jean was still not over the result of the recent presidential election. We could have channeled her feelings of shock and desolation into a song but instead we decided to write a song of hope for the future called Never Give In. We filled it with positive affirmations, about coming together and healing. I didn’t have the heart to tell Jean that I couldn’t shake the image from my head of a little orange man with his tiny hand on a big red button.
After my meeting with Jean, I took a ferry across the Hudson River to Hoboken, New Jersey for no other reason than it was the birthplace of Francis Albert Sinatra. I found an Irish Bar with an Irish barman and had a very good pint of Guinness. They were playing Frank on the jukebox. My mother had been a huge fan, so as he sang One More for my Baby and One More for the Road, I ordered a shot of whisky, looked Heavenward and said: “This one’s for you, Mum”.
Next morning I woke to a city blanketed in snow. I left my host snoring and her roommate skulking about and headed out to play at being Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2. The streets had been cleared of snow, the detritus in the gutters forming little mountains ranges. From the warmth of a coffee shop, I watched the natives head out to work, battling against the falling snow and the biting wind. Nothing stops in this city.
Except the airports. They stop. Delta Airlines had informed me by email that my flight had been put back from 1pm to 8pm. No problem – a few more hours in NYC, that was okay. But when I arrived at La Guardia, the information boards read that my flight had been cancelled (it’s strange that Delta neglected to tell me this).
The desk jockey at the check-in counter told me that I was now booked on the 8pm flight the following night. Summoning up the spirit of a native New Yorker, I looked at him steely-eyed and said: “Not happening, buddy. Get me on an earlier flight!” I had been told that airlines always keep some seats back for more astute or assertive passengers that aren’t happy to accept long delays. He immediately looked at his screen and said, “Oh, look at that, someone has just cancelled on the 11 o’clock flight tomorrow morning. I can put you on that!” “Marvellous!” I said, “that is fortunate”. He smiled, weakly at me. He knew I knew, and I knew that he knew I knew but we continued our charade.
The problem now was to find a room for the night. With the amount of flights cancelled because of the bad weather, all the airport hotels were fully booked. I found a motel in one of the less salubrious areas of Queens (and that’s not easy) called Flushing. The Flushing Motel. It was pretty basic but it was warm, clean and dry. I have a ritual that comes from my US tour of 2015 that whenever I stay in a motel, I hole up with beer and pepperoni pizza. The concierge, a very nice Indian man, thought that I was crazy to venture out in the blizzard that had started up. No matter. A ritual is a ritual and has to be maintained.
Downtown Flushing is predominantly a Chinese neighbourhood. And it seems that the Chinese in Flushing have little or no interest in beer. Every store I went in to I was told “No Beer” by angry-looking ancient and inscrutable shopkeepers. So I wandered the streets of Chinatown on a quest for beer like a frostbitten Jack Nicholson. I doubt that that Oscar-winning movie’s protagonist, private eye Jake Gittes would have shown the dedication and determination I showed that night. Eventually, in the distance, at the top of a hill, I saw a neon sign advertising a well-known brand of American beer. With the resilience of Captain Scott and the thirst of Captain Haddock, I climbed the hill, entered the store, bought some beer, and headed back to the motel, stopping only to buy two large pizza slices on the way. That beer tasted very, very good.
The flight from New York City to Kansas City was only memorable for two incidents. The first was a stewardess who took umbrage at my wanting to bring my Martin guitar on board as hand luggage. I reminded her of Delta Airlines’ policy of allowing musical instruments on board, and because I was still in a New York state of mind, added: “Lady, this is a thousand dollar guitar – it’s not going in the hold!”
We had another run-in later on when she was serving drinks. She looked disgusted when I ordered a beer (it wasn’t quite midday). “What beer would you like?” she asked, smiling through gritted teeth. I smiled back: “It might be easier if you tell me what you’ve got.” She reeled off a list and I chose one. She rummaged around in her trolley. Without apology she said, “I haven’t got that one.” I smiled benignly, “Now you’re just playing games…” I think she withheld my complimentary packet of peanuts on purpose…
Sometimes when I am sitting at my desk, I will catch sight of a guitar out of the corner of my eye. I turn to look at it (mostly, it is my Fender Telecaster – absolute perfection – Leo Fender got it right first time). Often, there is an immediate urge to pick one up and start playing but every so often I just sit there and admire the beauty of whichever one has caught my attention. To me, a well-made guitar is a work of art. They can be just as easily impressive for their aesthetic quality as for the sounds they make. In fact, my friend Shane and I once started a band with the express intention of taking all the guitars we own out to a venue and then just having people admire them. For sure, punters would eventually come up and ask, “Well, aren’t you going to play them?” We would tell them, no – just look at how beautiful they are.
So when it came time to record guitars for the new album, it very quickly turned into a holiday outing for almost all my guitars. Well, I reasoned, what if I got there and didn’t have the right one to hand; how foolish I would feel. Best cover all bases and take at least one of everything.
On acoustics day, the Martin I purchased in Nashville in 2015 was the first in its case. Next was the Takemine; this is my workhorse guitar, bought in 1990, it’s been all over the world, veteran of over a thousand gigs and still going strong. For backup, my old Yamaha Folk guitar – for no other reason than it sounds different to the other two.
A surprise addition to the team was a very old Varsity Spanish acoustic guitar which lives in the bedroom (there is a guitar in most rooms in my house – you never know when the urge to play will strike!). I acquired this back in the early 1990s when I briefly worked in a musical instrument shop in Surrey. It lived by the counter and I would use it to write songs whenever there were no customers to attend to. When I left the shop, the guys presented me with the guitar as a leaving present. I still write songs on it. It came in handy for the solo on the Latin-inspired Tucumcari Sunset (more of which, later).
I love the sound of jangly acoustic guitars. Our default method was to record one track using the Martin; I would double track it and then record the Takemine using a capo so that I could play different shapes but in the same key. On some songs we added in the Yamaha, too (with the capo fixed at a different fret) making a total of six acoustic guitar tracks – it sounds awesome!
The Tak’ took the lead on straight-ahead rocking songs such as Rambling Days and Travelling Man but the Martin pulled rank on more delicate songs such as Santa Fe Sadness, Mockingbird and When the Rain Came Down.
When it came time to record electric guitars, I took three instruments with me. A Fender Stratocaster, a Fender Telecaster and an Epiphone Casino semi-acoustic. The last of these stayed on the bench and was not called into play.
I should qualify what the Fender guitars are. They are Fender ‘Squire’ guitars from 1982. They were made in Japan – Fender’s answer to budget copies of their guitars. The trouble is, they were so good that sales of American Fender guitars suffered (they had been of very poor quality since Leo Fender sold the company to CBS in the late 1960s). To combat this, Fender changed the logos on the Japanese guitars from a large Fender one and a small Squire one to a large Squire one and a small Fender one. Because so few were made of the first run, they have now become collectors’ items. Over the years, I have been offered a small fortune for both my Squires. I couldn’t sell them – we have been through so much together; great gigs, bad gigs (barely getting out alive from the Ad-Lib in London springs to mind!). I’ve even had them stolen (where I chased, caught and fought the thieves!). There have been some amazing recording sessions. And they still play like a dream and sound great.
The Strat was my main guitar on this session. I had re-strung it with quite heavy strings which helped the sound when playing slide on Rambling Days and a very bluesy riff on the Muscle Shoals-inspired Set me Down by the Singing River. The Telecaster came in to its own on songs with a more rock and roll feel such as When Ginny gets her Wings.
These were both put through my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe amplifier combo. I have only ever owned five amplifiers – three of which have been Fenders. I’m sure my bad back is a result of lugging a Fender Twin Reverb up four flights of stairs at a nightclub in Eastbourne in 1986!
In making a follow-up to the SongsFrom the Last Chance Saloon, I was conscious that I wanted the new album to be a continuation of the previous record but not a copy. A constant theme of the last album was that of redemption. However, I had deliberately ended that record with a song called Run Until We Drop – a song of hope. The album will start with Rambling Days which continues the theme of hope being found through change.
I felt I needed help in making the album sound different in some way. As I was already using the same studio and engineer as before, and had played most of the acoustics and the bass myself, I decided I needed some top notch fret-boarding that was beyond my pay grade. Step forward Jonny Miller.
I have known Jonny for many years; more than a decade ago, he was in a band with my sister, Jules, and I remember admiring his playing. In the summer of 2014 we bumped into each other at a music festival as I was coming off stage and he was going on. We chatted for a while and I stopped to watch him play. He has since become my ‘go to’ guitarist of choice and I was very pleased when he agreed to contribute to the new record.
Jonny is a good all-rounder – well he needs to be, as my musical directions to him tend to be varied and vague – “make it a cross between Chuck Berry and Albert Lee”; “More Tony Joe White and less Stevie Ray Vaughan with just a soupçon of Dave Gilmour thrown in”. At each Frankenstein-esque guitarist hybrid I conjured up, Jonny just nodded knowingly and produced precisely what was needed. I like to think it was my artistic vision that inspired him but I suspect he played exactly what he would have done anyway. There was blues on Set Me Down by the Singing River; rock and roll on When Ginny Gets her Wings; funky riffs on Ride the Mississippi. But my favourite of Jonny’s contributions was the Spanish guitar solo on Tucumcari Sunset. I told Jonny the story of how, en route from Memphis to Phoenix, I stopped the night in Tucumcari, New Mexico (picked because Tucumcari is mentioned in the Little Feat song Willin’). It was the date of my wedding anniversary and I was feeling a little homesick. I drowned my sorrows in a couple of beers and watched the sun go down at a nearby lake and wrote the song. My musical map to him was simply: “Marty Robbins”. Jonny played a solo of such extraordinary beauty combined with a technical brilliance that I was instantly transported to Rosa’s Cantina – the bar in Robbins’ El Paso, watching as Felina whirled. Then, just because he can, he added mandolin to Santa Fe Sadness and Mockingbird.
I have always loved the sound of pedal steel guitar. Its lonesome, haunting sound has always appealed to me. I once met pedal steel player maestro BJ Cole when he played at the tiny Manor Ballroom in Ipswich as part of Los Pistoleros. After the gig, I helped him carry his instrument to the back of his battered old car (they are heavier than you would expect). Just for something to say, I asked him if he was working the following evening. “Yes, I am”, he replied. Anywhere nice? I enquired. “In Barcelona with Sting”, he said, nonchalantly. Nice.
My friend Shane had worked with steel guitarist, Nick Zala and recommended him to me. We chatted on the phone and he sounded like my kind of guy. I sent him some mp3s of works in progress that I thought could use some pedal steel. He asked for a couple more tracks so that he could get the feel of the album, and therefore what I was after. After hearing five tracks he suggested he play on all five – not necessarily all the way through – just little bits, here and there. I agreed. However, when I booked Nick to play on the tracks, I assumed that he would come to the studio, and record as I listened to him play. Not so. It turns out that the way he works is to record remotely which means that you send him mp3s of the tracks you wish to add pedal steel to, he records the parts in his own studio, and then sends them back to you for your approval. This is a totally alien way for me to work. I like being in the studio as parts are recorded. So I was somewhat apprehensive when I learned that I wouldn’t be present as the pedal steel became part of my songs. What if I didn’t like what he played? Do you get the chance to send them back with correction notes attached? I didn’t find out because Nick nailed what I was after first time out. The two songs that I thought would benefit from his service were absolutely on the money. So was one of the three that I’d sent to him as a reference of the overall vibe of the album. However, while there was absolutely nothing wrong with his playing on the other two tracks; they just weren’t right for my vision of the album. Nick sent all of the audio files to Ian at the studio and Ian ‘placed’ them on the tracks. Job done.
Although this ‘remote’ recording worked this time, it is not something that appeals to me. I like the organic nature of the way arrangements come together; being an active member of the process. Saying, “Ooh, I like that. Do more of that” and “Can you make it a little less this and a little more something else?” This, for me, is when the magic happens.
I thought that that was it for guitars but right at the end of the recording process, just was we were about to get down to mixing, I felt that Robert Johnson’s Tears would benefit from some slide guitar. Ian had both a guitar and a slide to hand so I suggested it was about time he put his excellent guitar skills to work on this record. He didn’t disappoint. The parts he came up with were both subtle and complementary to the song. And, of course, having slide guitar on a song that invokes the great bluesman Robert Johnson seems somehow extremely appropriate.
I am always pleased when looking back on a year, if I can see that the seeds to any successful event were sown in the year before that. I suppose it’s that I like to see some momentum taking place, some cunning plan that may be coming to fruition.
2016 was such a year for me.
The year started off with the filming of a video for Restless Celtic Heart, one of five songs that make up a 5 track acoustic EP that I had recorded specifically to have as a physical CD to sell at gigs on my 2015 US tour; the video locations included towns, cities, mountains, pubs, and the Atlantic Ocean.
The EP had a very timely release on St. Patrick’s Day. I had very little time to nurse my hangover as I was back in the studio to record a song written in Kansas City MO in 2015 called Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go.
The print was barely dry on the CDs before I was off on a whistle-stop tour of shows in and around Kansas City. Once again, I underestimated the generosity of the American public and I ran out of copies of the album Songs From the Last Chance Saloon, the EP Restless Celtic Heart and the single Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go.
Other highlights of that visit included performing on two radio interviews, being beamed in to the homes of millions of people watching breakfast television, piloting a canoe down a fast-flowing Missouri River, and driving an 18-wheeler down the freeway. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t played in KC in 2015.
I just managed to get a few nights’ sleep in my own bed in the UK before heading back to Ireland for more shows that were the result of the earlier trip.
Halfway through the year, I found myself on a songwriting retreat in a village high in the mountains of Spain. But even this was the result of having attempted and embraced the idea of co-writing songs from my time in Nashville the year before. The week in Andalusia was both intense and inspiring. I met the most amazingly talented people there. I was even lucky enough to write with an award-winning producer and a Grammy-nominated songwriter. I also have great hopes for one of the songs which came out of Spain, the recording of which is currently a work in progress.
For the second half of the year the globe-trotting stopped and I knuckled down to fine-tuning 11 of the 16 songs I’d written on tour in the US. Some were now in different keys (you sing differently when you’re strumming quietly in a motel room in Memphis compared to belting out a song on stage in Dublin). Some had lost a verse or two, some now had newly-constructed middle eight sections.
I felt ready to make a new album, the recording of which takes me from 2016 into 2017. I’ll be debuting tracks from the new album at the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City in February.
So that was 2016 … now let’s see what 2017 has in store…
When I wrote a blog about recording the bass guitar parts for Songs From the Last Chance Saloon back in 2014, I started with a list of my favourite bass players. They were many and varied. Classic rock and blues bassists like Phil Lynott and Jack Bruce rubbed shoulders with session greats like James Jamerson and Carol Kaye and the funky guys like Little Feat’s Roy Estrada and Chic’s Bernard Edwards. And of course, being a massive Beatles fan, McCartney was flagged up (more for the lines he played on songs he hadn’t written).
For this missive on the recording of bass lines for my new album, I thought I’d narrow it down to the players who directly inspired me to pick up the bass guitar – and to continue with it!
The first time I thought ‘I can do that’ was hearing Sting’s bass parts on The Police’s first two albums Outlandos d’Amour and Reggatta de Blanc. The simplicity and economy of his lines which give the songs so much room to breathe was startling. The first time I heard Roxanne on the radio stopped me in my tracks.
The complete opposite of Sting’s frugality on four strings would be the wonderful meanderings of Ronnie Lane – particularly his work with the Faces and his own band Slim Chance. He seemed to be in a world of his own, his lines staggering around the fretboard like a drunk after Happy Hour. By rights, they shouldn’t work but somehow they do, oozing charm and musicality and refusing to be ignored. Check out Cindy Incidentally or You Wear it Well.
You never see the name Randy Meisner in polls for best bass player but the former Poco and Eagles member’s lines are always thoughtful. If ever I’m putting a bass line to a country song, I always ask myself: “What would Randy Meisner play?” He has a knack of varying his riffs just slightly from verse to verse to keep the part interesting. He may have only got the gig in The Eagles because they needed someone with a high falsetto voice to complete their harmonies (check out One of these Nights, or Take it to the Limit) but he brought so much more. And it wasn’t just country. His line on Hotel California is perfect for the song and on Life in the Fast Lane he proves he can rock out, too.
Another unsung hero of mine is Davey Faragher. The Californian first came to my attention with his work on several John Hiatt albums in the 1990s. But time and time again, I would hear bass lines I liked on albums by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Stigers (a great country album from the jazz saxophonist called Brighter Days), Sheryl Crowe and Elvis Costello only to find it was Faragher playing them.
Andy Fraser, in my opinion, is the finest rock bass player there has ever been. The bass playing on the albums Tons of Sobs and Fire and Water is simply outstanding (check out the instrumental track Sugar for Mr Morrison) and of course, he co-wrote Alright Now. Incidentally, when Fraser recorded a solo album in 1984 called Fine, Fine Line, he had Davey Faragher playing bass on it.
But by far and away, the most influential bass player in my life has been Bruce Thomas. I have been a fan of the former Attraction since the first time I heard Pump it Up and I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea from the This Year’s Model album. Ten years later, I would get to learn from him up close and personal when he was booked to play on my debut album for CBS Records as part of Shev and the Brakes. Watching him take the basis demo bass parts and turn them into vibrant, interesting and highly melodic parts was a master-class in bass playing. His style and technique (and his use of harmony notes) was my inspiration when I swapped six strings for four, five years later.
I am very lucky that I get to live with the drum tracks for a week or so before having to commit to recording bass lines. There is no pressure to come up with something instantly; I can try things out, consider and re-jig things that aren’t working as well as I had hoped.
Having said that, quite often, even in the early stages of writing a song, I’m already thinking about other parts; my friend and mentor, producer Colin Fairley used to call it ‘writing a record’ – thinking about it in terms of a recording, not just a song.
For the current recording session, I dusted down my old Fender Jazz Bass (1990). I rarely play it at gigs anymore because it’s just so damn heavy! This was put through an old Ashdown 300 watt amplifier head (1999) and newish Hartke 4 x 10 cab (2012). This gave off a lovely warm, round and full low-end resonance. Any top-end we needed was supplied by the D.I. to the desk.
For no other reason than it was the song we started with on the drums session, first up was Rambling Days. This will be the first song on the album. For me, there is a direct musical and thematic connection with the last track on Songs From the Last Chance Saloon called Run Until we Drop. It was also the first song I wrote on tour last year in the US. Despite having done several gigs in Nashville, Chicago and St. Louis, I was still getting to grips with my new Martin acoustic guitar. I was chilling out in my bedroom in the converted warehouse where I was staying in Kansas City, Missouri, not really playing anything, when I heard the sound of a train whistle coming from the nearby railroad. It was so evocative of America for me, I immediately started writing Rambling Days. I would perform it the following night at my gig in Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club. As I stood on stage, singing it, I could hear the sound of the record in my head – with Bob Segar’s group, the Silver Bullet Band, backing me.
So my bass blueprint was to play what I imagined Silver Bullet bassist Chris Campbell would have played – with just a hint of Bruce Thomas harmony lines thrown in.
I pride myself in being well-rehearsed when I go in the studio, so I’m pleased to report that it only took one take to get the part down.
Travelling Man is an easy mid-tempo country-rock song, very much in the vein of The Eagles, so I did my best Randy Meisner impression. The song is in the key of F#. I detuned the bass a semitone and played the song as though it were in the key of G. My brain just works better in what I think of as classic guitar keys (E, A, G, C and D). Any classically-trained musicians reading this will be tutting right now! This was also a first take.
I had struggled to come up with a part for Set me Down by the Singing River. The song is about Muscle Shoals in Alabama where so much great music from the 1960s and 1970s was made. I would have loved to have had a part something along the lines of what session player and ‘Swamper’ David Hood would have played (‘Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers’ – Sweet Home Alabama, Lynrd Skynrd) but nothing seemed to sit right. In the end, I decided to just sit on the groove using mainly root notes (although there is a funky, bluesy riff between verses that I’m quite proud of!). To my utter shame, it took me three attempts to get it right.
I had also found it challenging when trying to create a bass line for the verse of a song called Ride the Mississippi. Everything I played seemed obvious. Now, I am not against obvious at all, but in this case, for obvious read boring.
I gave up for the evening and went out to see some friends playing in a pub near where I live. Playing bass was Steven ‘Kilby’ Mears. Watching Kilby on stage, it occurred to me that he was a very different player to me. Although he is a massive Beatles fan, he came from an Indie-rock background. Why not ask him to come up with something? So I did. And he did. I would never in a million years have come up with such a brilliant line.
I invited him down to the studio to play it, which he did. I can’t wait for people to hear it!
I had already recorded Kansas City Won’t Let me Go for a CD release available only at gigs in the Missouri city earlier this year but rather than trying to re-mix that version to sound compatible with the new recordings, it was decided that it would be easier to just re-record the song. The bass line for this is pure Ronnie Lane. Engineer Ian raised an eyebrow when he first heard the line but soon warmed to its lilting charm and affable swaying. And the line perfectly sums up Kansas City to me!
When Ginny Gets her Wings is a song about a lady I met in a bar in Colorado Springs CO who told me how buying a Harley Davidson motorcycle had changed her life. I scribbled down some notes as she talked. When I got back in my car and headed for New Mexico, I knew this was going to be a straight-ahead rock and roll song. For the recording, I summed up my inner Nick Lowe – particularly his work with Dave Edmunds and Rockpile. It took me a couple of attempts to find the right groove but I’m very happy with the results.
There are three slow songs in production: Santa Fe Sadness, Tucumcari Sunset and Mockingbird. They all needed very typical country bass lines which don’t distract from the song but carry them through. These are meat and potatoes to a seasoned bassist. All three were dispatched very quickly.
The final track was Robert Johnson’s Tears. I had written a part which develops with each verse. As the track builds so does the bass line. Just as it was on Travelling Man, the bass guitar was tuned a semitone down. To further complicate matters, the guitar is fitted with a device called a hipshot which at the flick of a switch, drops the E string tuning a full tone. This means that the lowest note the bass can now play is an earth-moving C#. I like to think that I employed this note wisely and judiciously. It feels good to play it!
I am pleased with all the bass parts. I don’t think that there is anything flashy or out of place on any of the tracks. For me, the bass has to rhythmically enhance the drums while providing a musical link to any harmonic instruments such as guitars or keyboards. The bass player may be the quiet one at the back but they know that they are holding the whole thing together. Meghan Trainor didn’t know just how right she was; it is all about the bass.
When I set out on a tour of the US last summer I hoped that I might be inspired enough to write a couple of songs while I was out there. By the time I flew home three months and 11,000 miles later, I had written an album’s worth. The songs just poured out of me. I took the notion of writing on the road to the ultimate – a lot of the time I was actually driving along singing ideas into a digital recorder on the seat next to me. Lyrics were jotted down in diners and bars. Once I had reached my destination – usually a venue dressing room or a cheap motel room, I would then work out the chords behind these tunes. They were finished quickly and put into my live set; this is so liberating for a songwriter – performing a song that is only a few hours old is a wonderful feeling.
Although this has been a busy year with travels to Ireland and Spain, and a trip back to the US to promote my acoustic EP Restless Celtic Heart, I’ve spent any spare time I’ve had revisiting these songs and crafting them; tweaking lyrics, changing rhythms, editing and re-editing. I think I’m finally ready to record them.
I sent acoustic demos of the songs to Tim Bye – the wonderful drummer who did such a grand job on Songs From the Last Chance Saloon, and I booked a day’s recording session at Ian Crow’s Amblin’ Man Studios in Otley, Suffolk.
Tim and I rehearsed the day before the recording. He is an incredibly intuitive drummer and has an amazing knowledge of varying drum techniques. In terms of direction, I have only to reference other drummers and say things like “can you make it a bit more Jim Keltner?” or “I’m hearing Richie Hayward on this song” and he knows just what I mean. We seem to share the same ideas. On one song, I said, ‘I want it kind of sloppy like Kenny Jones of The Faces would play. He showed me the initial notes he’d made after hearing my demos. Written next to that particular song title was ‘Sloppy. Faces’. Right there and then, I knew my songs were in safe hands.
At the studio, Tim set up his drums and Ian placed microphones around them. We recorded Tim playing the kit for a minute or two. In the control room, Ian pushed up the faders, and just like the last session when he recorded Tim’s drums, he said: “Er, that’s it.” There was no need for any equalisation, the drums sounded great as they were.
Ian set up a microphone for me sing a guide vocal into and another for my acoustic guitar.
Within an hour, we had dispatched three songs; Travelling Man – a straight ahead country rock- song (my direction to Tim was “it’s sort of Eagles-ish”) Rambling Days (I told him to think Bob Seger) and Take me Down to the Singing River with its Southern Rock feel. The morning had gone well.
After a cup of tea, three more songs were put to bed. First up was a re-working of my last single Kansas City Won’t Let me Go, a funky Ride the Mississippi and a rocking and rolling When Ginny Gets her Wings.
We finally felt it was time to attack the song which was probably going to be the most challenging: Robert Johnson’s Tears. I wasn’t sure how I wanted the drums to go on this. Tim suggested that there shouldn’t be a definitive drum part that would be played in one go, more a build up of parts that would add intensity to the song as each new part was introduced. I trusted him completely and let him have free reign. For the first run he just plays a tom tom part coming in on the second verse. On the second pass, he adds bass drum and snare on the third verse. By the end of the song he adds more toms, cymbal swells, and finally a shaker; the drums sound massive. Then the drums stop completely, leaving the coda of the song as just rhythm guitar and vocal. It sounds fantastic!
Song nine has a Latin feel to it. I had been listening to Spanish radio stations as I drove through New Mexico. I’d parked up by a lake in a place called Tucumcari and as I watched the sun go down, I wrote a song called Tucumcari Sunset. Imagine Marty Robbins jamming with Ry Cooder and you’ve got the idea. Tim certainly did.
We finished off with two waltz-time tracks Mockingbird and Santa Fe Sadness. They needed subtle brush work and a delicate touch. Tim supplied both.
It’s always a pleasure to work with a drummer who plays exactly what the song needs (his favourite drummer is Ringo). It can’t have been easy playing along to just an acoustic guitar and a vocal, trying to imagine how the song will sound once bass, guitars, keyboards and other musical finery have been added.
I’m terribly excited! I feel we have made a cracking start and I can’t wait to record the bass guitar parts
Up until a few weeks ago, you could count the people I had written songs with on one hand and the songs we had written on two. After my visits to Nashville in 2014 and 2015 – which were responsible for half of that output – I decided to explore further the possibilities of collaboration. So it was somewhat serendipitous when I was invited on a songwriting retreat organised by The Songwriting Academy. The deal was you spend a week in a secluded village in the Andalusian hills of Spain with 30 other songwriters, being mentored by 5 experienced and successful songwriters – and write songs with each other; what’s not to like?
An atmosphere of excitement and nervousness emanated from the café in Malaga Airport as the retreat participants assembled round a gaggle of guitars. Introductions were made, complete with potted histories of how each one ended up there.
An hour later, we were drinking sangria around the pool in the Moorish village of Los Castillejos, which had been lovingly renovated by its owner Paul Sluiter over 20 years.
After supper, the guitars came out and a sing-song of well-known covers ensued, many of them being performed by Rob Nicklas whom we christened the “Juke-box” as he seemed to know every popular song ever written since 1955.
Day one: The next morning, the sessions started in earnest; writing teams of twos and threes were sent to various locations around the village. Each team was assigned one of the mentors to support, advise and cajole as the song took shape.
My partners on that first day were two young lasses named Chloe Reynolds and Nicole Roberts. The former was feisty and confident, the latter a little shy (although by the end of the week she had found her voice and was belting out the songs she had written with gusto).
We spent an hour or so finding out about each other and we each played the last song we had written.
Then we settled down to the business of the day. Chloe told us the story of a friend of hers who had died of cancer but who, in the time from being diagnosed with the illness to finally succumbing to it, had lived her life to the full. Chloe wanted to honour her bravery with a song that advocated embracing life. But the song would also have to be about death – a tricky subject to write about without being mawkish and full of platitudes. After Chloe suggested the opening line of “I had a friend, she passed away, I think about her every day” we settled on a title of Before the Lights Go Out with its double meaning – that moment at the end of the day when you think about what you have done with your day, and the bigger picture of what you have done with your life.
I think Chloe struggled at times to write such a personal song with two strangers but the objectivity that Nicole and I brought to the table, and the calm reassurance from our affable mentor Jez Ashurst (who has written for Leona Lewis and Little Mix) that we were on the right track, saw us through. By the end of the day we were happy with the final song.
At the end of each day (after a wonderful al fresco meal in the village street) the songs are debuted with acoustic instruments in a playback session in the village hall. Before the Lights Go Out went down very well – but such is the camaraderie and support in the room that all the songs are well received. Standout song for me that first night was one written by Alison Rily, Emma Ballantine and Sophie Jean Kim called The Flower Seller, which portrays how flower sellers, whom we hardly notice, can touch so many lives with their wares, helping us convey so many different emotions “lilies for the grave, and petals for the bed”. Day one and the bar had been set very high.
Day two: I’m again with two ladies. Alison (who co-wrote The Flower Seller) who is one half of Buxton-based band Sea Shaped, and Izzy Cox Chaparro, a livewire singer from Dusseldorf, Germany. The brief for the day: the song must contain some gibberish in the lyrics – for example, do, do, dos, whoa, whoa, whoas or some such nonsensical words. We settled on Ay, Ay, Ay for a song called Just Talking. Izzy sang lead, Alison played guitar, and I played acoustic bass, with the pair of us singing harmonies. It’s not the greatest song ever written but it’s a nice little pop ditty and the girls were tremendous fun to work with.
As I was making my way back to my house, I passed the house where Nicole was rehearsing with her co-writers Jo Foulkes and Gulli Francoise. I absolutely loved the song they were singing a cappella (with a little percussion). I offered to play cahon for them and they said yes. Prison Skin became my favourite song of that night. I felt honoured to be on stage with these powerful ladies and their energetic performance. When this song is a big hit, I will dine out on the fact that I was there at its birth.
Day three: My name is called out; I’m to write with Chris Neil and Kim Richey. There is a sharp intake of breath from the room. “You lucky bastard,” says my housemate Martin Wardley. Of my two new writing partners, the former has produced records for Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, Sheena Easton, Aha and Mike and the Mechanics as well as being a successful songwriter. The latter is a successful artist in her own right, being Grammy-nominated, and has written for the likes of the Dixie Chicks and Trisha Yearwood.
I went to my room to collect my guitar and gave myself a pep talk in the mirror. “You can do this!” I told my reflection. I needn’t have worried. Chris was an absolute gentleman and a great raconteur. Kim was funny and self-deprecating; by the end of the week, the pair would be adored by the whole group.
For me, the session was a master-class in songwriting collaboration. There were no egos in the room, there was much respect and courtesy but nothing was too precious. Neither of them was happy to settle for the first line that came along, always looking for something better. Chris’s phrase: “I’m looking for something with a bit more edge,” has stayed with me. He told me that in writing sessions in Nashville, when someone comes up with really good line, the other writers point at the door and say: “get out!” I’m pleased to say he gave me several of those that day. The brief was ‘beautiful’. We started thinking about things we found beautiful. I related that the most peaceful I’d ever felt was sitting on a beach in Ireland watching the waves crash on the shore and offered up ‘Waves crash on an empty beach’. Chris said, “No, it should be: ‘Waves crash on an Irish beach’; that’s the ‘edge'”. Kim sang the most beautiful melody, somehow sad and uplifting. Several times the song changed direction and we were happy to let it find its own path. In the end Wind the Clock is the story of someone looking back on moments in their life that they shared with someone special who has gone but whom they know they will see again.
It was an honour and a privilege to co-write with Kim and Chris.
There was no playback session that evening. The entire group de-camped with PA system, electric piano, acoustic guitar and bass and various bits of percussion to the village at the top of the hill and took over the patio of the local bar. We sang the night away playing covers old and new. The only exception was having mentor Ian Dench sing the song he wrote for EMF in the early nineties – Unbelievable. It just so happened that at that point I was on bass and the insanely talented Scott Fleming was on guitar. Both of us had paid our dues playing in cover bands. Ian turned to us both with his guitar and was clearly about to show us the song’s riff. Scott put up his hand to halt Ian, saying: “It’s alright, Ian – we’ve got this!” And indeed we did, but I thought it was a mark of Ian’s great humility to not expect us to know it. The original song has a rap section in it. A new totally off-the-cuff one was provided by vocal powerhouse Charlene Michael. It was a wonderful finale to a very fun evening.
Day four: A day off. And believe me, some of us needed it. Sleep-ins, sun, swimming and siestas were the order of the day.
The group assembled after supper to perform the songs from yesterday. On Wind the Clock, Chris sang lead with occasional harmonies in the verse and pre-chorus from Kim; I joined in on the chorus. Both Chris and Kim played finger-picking acoustic lines and I played bass. I think the song went down well but I was just so pleased to share a stage with Chris and Kim that I hardly noticed the reaction as the performance passed far too quickly. I probably grinned inanely the whole way through the song.
Day five: I’m paired with my housemate Martin and the beguiling Lizzy. While Martin and I look like worldly, been-through-the-mill frazzled and worn singer-songwriters, Lizzy, or Elizsabeth to give her her stage-name, looks like a bonafide pop star. If Nick Drake and Kate Bush had a love-child, it would look like Lizzy.
The brief was ‘quirky’. Martin had an idea for a song which was about a scornful, bitter woman. There was nothing sweet about this lady – she was said to be ‘sugar free’. And there was our title. I came up with some chords in a minor key and we were up and running. After an hour or so we thought we had the makings of a good song. Our mentor that day was The Songwriting Academy head honcho and all-round good egg Martin Sutton. We played him what we had of our song; in a very affable and caring way, he tore it to shreds. He loved the title and saw the possibilities of a song with that title being used in a TV advert for a sugar substitute such as Canderel (have I just made that up?) but not with the bitter and twisted narrative we had devised. He suggested trying a different tack as we could always go back to what we had. After we spent a couple of minutes sulking like recalcitrant school kids being told their algebra homework wasn’t up to scratch, we knuckled down to the task at hand. I banged out a funky rhythm using a chord progression in a major key and Lizzy sang a melody using the phrases we’d assembled from Martin’s notes. The new song was the complete opposite of our original effort. It was light and breezy with a positive message told from the woman’s perspective; she didn’t need her man’s sweetness anymore – from now on she would be ‘sugar free’. We played it to mentor Martin. “It’s a hit!” he beamed.
The playback session couldn’t come quickly enough for us. The great thing about playing songs to a bunch of songwriters is that when they hear what they think is a good line or hook you can feel the energy in the room rise. And Lizzy’s delivery of the vocal has a kooky carefree attitude that totally sells the track. Over the course of the week I hadn’t heard Ian Dench swear. His critique consisted of: “It’s hooky as fuck!” (and he’s written for Beyonce!). Jez said that if he heard it on the radio it would be one of those songs he’d wished he’d written. Wow!
After the session, Lizzy, Martin and I had a little back-slapping, did-that-really-just-happen get-together moment and agreed that Sugar Free was worth pursuing.
About six beers and an hour later, I bumped into my co-writer Martin out on the village street. If I were only allowed one memory from the retreat it would be of the grin on his face as he stumbled towards me. He told me that the positive comments that had been made to him about Sugar Free had totally made his week. I said I’d drink to that. So we did. Several times.
Day six: I thought the day would be something of an anti-climax but I was wrong. Before the writing teams were read out, all of the mentors told how they got started in the business, and Kim Richey was persuaded to sing a song. I asked her to sing my favourite song of hers – The Absence of Your Company – which she did, and it was truly amazing.
I was paired with Italian singer-songwriter Valeria Pozzo. I was pleased with this as I had been watching and enjoying her contributions and performances throughout the week. There is a vibrancy and an honesty to everything she does. Earlier on in the week she had written a song about leaving Italy and her family to pursue a career in London which had struck a chord with me but from a different perspective, that of a parent sending their offspring out into the world.
The brief was: ‘anthemic’. We started with the idea of a song with the theme of ‘going for it’, ‘being unstoppable’, along the lines of Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now or Queen’s We Are the Champions. We jotted down some phrases and I played a chord progression I thought would be suitable. However, my inbuilt cheese-ometer was ringing loudly. Jez came in the room to hear how we were doing. As I picked up my guitar I told him of my reservations. He listened intently. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a bit cheesy. Got any other ideas?” I said I did. What I wanted to say was, “I’d like to write a song about a father saying goodbye to his daughter as she goes off into the world”, except, I couldn’t speak. The words wouldn’t come out, my eyes welled up, and I started to blub. Valeria knew just how I was feeling and she started to cry. Jez looked at the two of us and joined in. “I don’t know why I’m crying” he sobbed. Once I had pulled myself together enough to communicate the idea, Jez said, “This sounds like it’s a much better song. It’s real!”
We set to work; after a couple of hours and a few tears we were happy with God Knows I’m Gonna Miss You. Both Valeria and I were emotionally drained by the writing process. The first verse tells of dropping a loved one off at an airport. The listener probably thinks it’s a break-up song. Verse two reveals the father-daughter relationship. My favourite line is in the middle section “From the schoolyard to the boarding gate – where did that time go?”
Our original intention was for Valeria to sing the second verse from the daughter’s perspective but she vetoed this, thinking the song was stronger sung from just the father’s point of view. She is wise beyond her years.
At the playback session, ours was the last song of the night and the last song of the week. I was worried that I might not be able to keep it together during the performance, as I had yet to do so in rehearsal. Somehow I did, but it was a close call.
The reaction from our peers was immediate; there were tears rolling down many faces, which is a fine accolade, but my favourite comment was from mentor Martin who singled out the schoolyard to boarding gate line. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic week.
To be in the company of so many talented songwriters, hear the fruits of their labour, and to witness the camaraderie and mutual respect shown to one another has been so refreshing in a business that is often portrayed as cutthroat. To be there at the birth of songs, friendships, and potential writing partnerships has been a humbling experience.
There are now 60 more songs in the world that didn’t exist before we all arrived in that Spanish village. The reality is that many of them will be forgotten, some will get recorded and sit for all eternity on a digital shelf, some might get played live on a stage somewhere, but maybe, just maybe one of them…