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…
It was probably not a good idea to meet up with my nephew Sam the night before I was to fly to the United States. We hadn’t seen each other since our epic journey across Ireland filming the video for Restless Celtic Heart. “Let’s go for a drink, Uncle Tony”…
So next morning, I’m dropped off at Heathrow Airport, nursing a hangover. I’ll sleep on the plane, I told myself. How wrong I was. Despite the early departure time, a group of lads from Essex let the rest of the passengers know just how suitably refreshed with alcohol they were. They were very vocal throughout the flight making sleep a near impossibility. When they didn’t appear at baggage reclaim I gave in to feelings of schadenfreude, imagining the frosty reception their barrow boy charm was given by Homeland Security.
I was back in Kansas City, Missouri to promote my recording of KansasCity Won’t Let Me Go – one of the songs I’d written on my 2015 US tour – and had recorded specially. But my visit was also about catching up with the many friends I’d made in the time I’d spent in KC. None more so than the ebullient Matt Mayfield who had been my conduit to the many wonderful sights, sounds and people I had encountered in this town which I’ve grown to love.
Kansas City, MO is a people town and my arrival was greeted with a barbecue outside of the warehouse in the historic West Bottoms area of KC where Matt lives. Many of the people I’d met on my last visit dropped by. One of them was Emily.
Emily Evans Sloan is a conceptual artist, photographer and serial knitter. She is also one of the nicest people on the planet. Her connections in the artistic community opened many doors for me on this trip. Plus, she chauffeured me around the city on many occasions.
Emily introduced me to Ronan Collins, a wily Dubliner, now resident for many years in KC. He was responsible for setting up several gigs I would undertake, a radio interview, and a television interview – and all before he had even met me!
The next evening I visited Johnnie’s bar which is mentioned in the KC song. My friend D-Rock was behind the bar. He must have seen me crossing the street because just as I entered the bar, my song fired up on the jukebox. When it finished, everyone in the bar gave a spontaneous round of applause. I felt so honoured.
This was also the night that my friend Scott Stillwell from Des Moines, Iowa came to visit. Scott and I met in Nashville two years ago and wrote a couple of songs together. Last year, he hosted a house concert for me which was a highlight of the tour.
The morning after a night of drinking and singing, Scott and I went for coffee at a new shop down the street in West Bottoms. The Bottoms is full of derelict warehouses that once housed various long-gone industries. The area is set for regeneration (hence there being a new coffee shop). While it is good that the area will be put to good use, we both mourned the passing of the old ways – and so we went back to Matt’s and wrote a song called Used to Be – my favourite line is ‘Loft apartment, hipster fool, a Johnny Cash t-shirt don’t make you cool’.
People in Kansas City love to talk about food – particularly about meat. I have stood by as they have argued fiercely about different food outlets and their varying reputations. “Oh, yeah, their burnt ends are good but I prefer the sauce from so and so…” They will drive across town because they claim the ribs at one place are better than at another. “Do you prefer Gates or Bryant’s?” This is just as important as: “Are you for Clinton or Trump?” (incidentally, I never met anyone who was for Trump).
I rarely eat steak. Not because I don’t like it; I do. It’s because I’m often disappointed by the fare that is served up to me. Let me tell you why. I was in a hotel in Dubai in 1983 where I ate the most wonderful steak dinner; I believe the meat had been flown in from Colorado. In the intervening 33 years I have sought to replicate that gastronomic experience. Actually, less and less as the years have gone by, as the excitement and anticipation that the dish in front of me was the equal or even surpassed my food Nirvana, was gradually replaced by an acceptance that my taste buds would never again attain those dizzy desert heights. Even dining on steak in Colorado last year I was disappointed.
So when Matt said: “I’m gonna cook steak!” I feigned enthusiasm even though I knew he was a first-rate cook.
Matt spent a lot of time preparing the steak. And I mean a lot. At times it seemed more like a scientific experiment than cooking, with the meat being sealed in plastic at one point.
Whatever it was he did – it was worth it. I almost cried as I bit into the juiciest, tastiest steak I’d eaten in – well 33 years. And it was served up with morel mushrooms that only appear for two weeks of the year, which he had foraged for himself on the banks of the Missouri River.
Speaking of the Missouri River, Matt suggested we go canoeing on the Mighty Mo. Everyone to whom we told our plans, warned us of the dangers, that with all the recent rain, the river would be too high and would be moving too fast. Local canoe rental stores had suspended hires for the duration. But still we went. At our departure point, we had to wait while Kansas State Rescue boats that had been out in search of an upturned pontoon manoeuvred their crafts out of the water. But still we went.
Matt saw us as a modern day Lewis and Clark – intrepid explorers who mapped out uncharted territory in 19th Century America, but in my head I was Daniel Day Lewis’s Hawkeye in Michael Mann’s epic movie Last of the Mohicans. I scoured the banks for Huron war parties. At first, we avoided the turbulent parts of the river but after a while we were seeking out fierce eddies, driving our boat headlong into them. I had the most marvellous time.
We stopped at a riverside casino. I moved from Day Lewis to De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. We played ‘craps’ where you throw dice along a table till it bounces off the back wall. I had no idea how to play, and the loss limit of thirty dollars that I’d set myself was reached very quickly.
The casino wasn’t at all glamorous. The bulk of the clientele looked a little sad; there was a sense of desperation in the air, and a look of hopelessness on their faces. I was glad to get back on the river.
I took part in two live radio sessions. The first was on KCFX 101 The Fox. It’s a classic rock station so it was very nice of the host, Brian “The Slacker” Adams to have me on his show. Once on air, we chatted for a while, I told my story and then I performed the KC song acoustically. He seemed very happy with the session. Matt and Emily, who had accompanied me, agreed that it went well.
The second radio session was on KKFI River Trade Radio with the softly-spoken Kasey Rausch. Once again Matt and Emily were by my side. The interview was interspersed with me performing three live songs. I started with Nashville State of Mind. The late night (I had gigged the night before) and the early morning start was starting to catch up with me. How I forced out a vocal, I have no idea. Whilst I don’t think the listeners could tell, I could see out the corner of the one eye that wasn’t tearing up, that both Matt and Emily were holding their collective breath in an effort to hold back the almighty cough they knew I was struggling to contain. Somehow, I did contain it and I started to relax, swimming in Kasey’s velvety voice. Naturally, I sang Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go and finished with Restless Celtic Heart.
There was also a television interview live on Fox 4 News Morning Show. We arrived at the TV station at 8.30am and were shown in to the Green Room and offered coffee and water. I chatted with the guest who would follow me, a vivacious lady named Kim Case Hassler. A production assistant came in and explained how the session would run. She was very excited. I knew this because she told me she was. She said the interview would last a minute and a half and then the song would air for another minute and a half. This took me by surprise as it meant I would barely get to perform a verse of the song. I immediately began mentally editing the song to make it shorter. The intro could go and likewise the solo section. She took me through to a small studio which contained two remote-controlled cameras, where Kevin the soundman sound-checked my guitar and vocal mic. I wouldn’t be able to hear either but would have to rely on the acoustics in the room. I decided that I could trust him to send a good sound to the control room. Another technician came in and put a clip mic and radio pack on me which would be used for the interview. I was then asked to play for 30 seconds in what they referred to as ‘a tease’. This was to air just before a commercial break with a voiceover of “and after the break, we’ll be talking to singer-songwriter Tony James Shevlin…”
While the commercials ran, one of the TV anchor persons came in. He identified himself as Nick, and for the next couple of minutes he was my best friend. I completely missed what he was saying to me as I marvelled at how orange his skin was.
And then we were live on air. He read the introduction from an autocue; I looked away from it for fear I might mouth the words along with him.
I thought the interview went well. This being my third one, I had my patter down to a fine art and I told him how I was on tour in the US last year, came to KC, came back again and again and wrote a song about it. He threw me a curveball when he asked me about which places in the city I found myself going back to. I didn’t want to reel of a list of bars I frequented (that could take up the whole interview) so I waffled on for a bit and talked about how I loved the sound of trains. He seemed to like that. He announced my remaining show dates and thanked me for writing the song and asked me to play it. Knowing I was up against the clock, I was up and running before he was out of shot. From the corner of my eye I saw him leave the room and I never saw him again. He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write…
It was most disconcerting to have to play against the clock, watching it count down, whilst trying to perform to the million plus people watching in their homes. It’s only in the second verse of the song that places in KC are mentioned and I was trying to do the mental arithmetic as I sang: ‘If a verse takes 30 seconds to sing and at halfway through that verse the clock says 19 seconds, how much of the second verse will be sung….?’. And the clock ran down to zero. However, the red light stayed on so I carried on singing. I ticked off the places in my head as I reached the relevant lyric in the song: BB’s check; Johnnie’s, Royals check. Claycomo – didn’t think I’d get that in – check! I’d just started verse 3 and name-checked Boss Tom (Pendergast, Irishman and political fixer) when the red light went out and Kevin gave me the universal cut sign by pretend slashing his throat. I learned later that if my performance had been rubbish they would have cut to the studio once the clock had counted down, where the anchors would have bantered humorously until the break but the director decided to stay with me. Job done.
The gigs were many and varied. There are too many to go through but here are some of the highlights.
One was at a bar called the Brick – the Rural Grit show. There was one microphone that picked up both my vocal and my guitar. The act on before me was a trio of acoustic guitar, mandolin and fiddle and three-part harmonies. When one of them took a solo they just stepped closer to the microphone, stepping back when they had finished. Very old school – but it worked brilliantly!
Weston is a small town 30 miles north of Kansas City, where many Irish immigrants settled in the 18th century. The Stores have names like McCormick’s Country Store, Celtic Ranch and McCalley’s Antique Store. I was playing O’Malley’s Pub, opening for a great rockabilly band called The Culprits. After my slot, the band were kind enough to get me up for a couple of numbers. At one point, I found myself playing stand-up bass alongside the redoubtable CW Hasty. While I slapped, he fretted! I also found the time to pop to another bar in the building where Bob Reeder was playing an Irish set. I ended up sitting in with him and the craic was mighty.
The gig in Matt’s huge loft apartment was one of my favourites. It was attended by many of my friends; there was a warm and convivial atmosphere and I was able to wax lyrical with stories about how the songs were written. I also felt comfortable enough to unveil some new songs that will be recorded later this year, and I sold lots of CDs.
My final show was at Browne’s Irish Market which is basically a shop with a deli counter and a bar. I was surrounded by products which, like me, had made their way across the Atlantic. Naturally, there was a strong Irish presence in the room; the songs, the blarney, the Guinness, the whisky and the craic flowed.
There were also great nights at the Dubliner and The Bierstation. In the former I learned a new word ‘fluffer’ and in the latter I got to meet an awesome Celtic band called Ballybricken (you’re going to have to look up the meaning of ‘fluffer’ for yourselves!).
On a professional level, my promotional campaign for Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go has resulted in me selling all of the CDs I brought with me, I’ve increased local awareness of me, and I have opened many artistic doors in the city, which bodes well for the future.
Away from the music, I have had a bloody good time. I got to taste my friend Rita’s Sicilian sauce which takes three days to make: “I don’t make it for just anyone!” said Rita. I drank a pitcher of Margaritas from Ponak’s Mexican Kitchen, and I won money on the Kentucky Derby. And oh, yes, I got to drive an 18 wheeler truck down the freeway.
When I first looked at my US tour itinerary, artfully put together by James Constable of Oh Mercy! Records, Kansas City didn’t really mean that much to me, other than it was a gig destination sandwiched between shows in St. Louis and Omaha. Little did I know that it would become such an important part of my adventure, and that I would become so enamoured of it and the wonderful people I met there, that I would return not once, not twice – but three times; the last time travelling all the way from Santa Fe, New Mexico in a day, to be with my new friends and share in their July fourth celebrations (a bit too keen, according to the State Trooper who stopped and fined me for speeding in Lawrence County, Kansas).
Each time I came back I met more people who took me to different places. Being a songwriter, I naturally made notes on each visit, and eventually these musings wound up in a song called Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go. At the end of my last visit I debuted the song to those present. It went down very well. They implored me to record it as soon as possible.
Normally, my recording regime is to have all the songs ready and record in stages – the drums one day, bass next, acoustics next and so on. Although I was not due to go in to record a new album until this summer, I felt compelled to book some studio time and bring this song to life.
My first port of call was the Drum Studio in Ipswich. Its proprietor – Martin “Webby” Webb – was happy to occupy the drum stool on the session and it wasn’t long before he and I were toying around with different beats. The eventual part that Webby came up with was deceptively simple (well, he made it look easy!) but was exactly what the song needed. The track bounces along but has a great feel.
A few days later, I was in Oh Mercy! Records supremo Pete Thompson’s Halfway House studio, hidden away in the Suffolk/Norfolk hinterland, where I replaced the guide acoustic guitars I’d previously put down at Webby’s. I was also going to replace the guide bass I’d put down but when Pete and I pulled up the faders and listened to what I’d played, we decided there was no need. It seems that my salute to the bass playing style of the sadly missed Ronnie Lane with its lazy sway was perfectly adequate as it was, it even complemented the drum track (note to self – for better results, from now on, every time I record a bass part, pretend it’s only a guide– it makes for a much more relaxed feel!).
It was time to bring in the big guns – on piano, a man with whom I’ve shared many stages and studios with – the redoubtable Adam Whyatt; and on lead guitar, widely regarded as one of the best blues players in the region – Mr Tim Ainslie.
Adam was up first. We simply ran the track a couple of times and Adam played through it. I could tell immediately that between those two takes, we had enough rollicking licks to choose from (as it happens, we only used the first one in its entirety – Adam “One Take” Whyatt!).
When Tim started playing I knew I had chosen wisely. He’s a very laid-back guy and in the technique that he has honed over many years he can effortlessly mix jazz and blues licks. He captured perfectly, the tone and timbre of how I heard the song in my head, and his subtle and cool playing conjured up the atmosphere and ambience of the Kansas City I have come to know.
Another day, another session; lead vocal and harmony vocal dispatched pretty quickly (I come from the school of: “If you can’t get it in a couple of takes, you shouldn’t be in the studio at all!”). We spent longer in the pub than we had in the studio.
After living with a rough mix for a couple of days, I left Pete to work on the final mix, with me coming in at the end to tweak bits here and there (“pan the piano left, a little” / “a tad more bass” etc.).
The next morning I sent the mix to the master of the dark art of mastering – Pete Maher. As a favour, he mastered the track that morning. It was quite a buzz to know that I was pushing in ahead of one of his other clients, maybe U2 or Jack White or the Killers or the Rolling Stones.
I’m very pleased with the results.
I can’t wait for my friends in Kansas City to hear it and hope that they like it as much as they did on the fourth of July last year.
Here’s another video from our BBC Radio session last month. This is Judgement Day. It features Shane Kirk on guitar and my sister Jules AKA Tiny Diva on backing vocals. You can hear the recorded version of this song on Spotify by typing in Restless Celtic Heart.
A few weeks ago veteran broadcaster and all-round good egg, Stephen Foster invited me into the BBC studios in Ipswich, Suffolk to record a live session of five songs. This is the first of them. I am joined for the recording by my sister Jules on bass and backing vocal, and by Mr Shane Kirk on slide guitar. Filming by Unity in Music. Sound recording and an excellent cup of tea by the wonderful David Butcher. Enjoy!
So, the new EP Restless Celtic Heart has been released and is available on all the major digital platforms. I say new, it was actually recorded just over a year ago. As I was planning my 2015 US tour to promote the album Songs From the Last Chance Saloon, I realised that I had incorporated five new songs into my set and I was concerned that I didn’t have copies of them for any willing audience member wanting to purchase them. As usual, Oh Mercy! Records supremo Pete Thompson came to my rescue with his innate problem-solving skills. “Why don’t we record an acoustic EP of the five songs? We could print up some ‘white label’ CDs to sell at gigs”. Brilliant! So we did.
On the first of two consecutive afternoons, Pete and I settled into Black Monk Rehearsal Studios and we recorded all of the guitars. It was meant to be just one guitar and one voice for each song but whenever I get in a studio environment I get ‘studio fever’ and end up overdubbing extra parts. I used my trusty Takemine acoustic for the main parts in all of the songs except From the Look in Your Eyes; my Yamaha Folk guitar provided the main part for that, as well as many of the incidental lines on all the other songs, only stepping aside for my dobro for the slide parts on Nashville State of Mind and the later riffs on Restless Celtic Heart. And just to give the recordings a warm bottom end, I added some bass lines courtesy of my Indie acoustic bass.
The following afternoon, we set up shop in the CSV Rehearsal Studio, where we added a lead vocal on each song, and my sister Jules came in to provide vocal harmonies on three of the five tracks.
Pete and I gave ourselves a few days away from the tracks, reconvening at the end of the week to listen back to what we had recorded. As we were after a ‘live’ feel, there was very little to mix; with a little bit of EQ here and a bit of reverb there, we were done and dusted in time for last orders at the local pub. As with Songs From the Last Chance Saloon, we sent the mixes over to the wonderful Pete Maher – skilled magician in the dark art of mastering! He took no time at all to make the songs sound shiny and bright. The whole enterprise from entering the first rehearsal room to mastered tracks took less than a week. Outstanding!
Just over a week later, the record label took delivery of boxes of CDs.
Let me tell you a little bit about the songs on Restless Celtic Heart.
Nashville State of Mind
After finishing the recording of Songs From the Last Chance Saloon, I wanted to go out and play the songs in an acoustic environment to see if they stood up in such a naked state. Where should I do this? I know! I’ll go to Nashville, the home of great songwriting! Despite having no music connections in Tennessee, I was lucky enough to secure some spots in many of the city’s songwriter venues and so I booked a flight and a hotel and off I went. I had the most amazing time; the welcome from the locals – songwriters in particular – was wonderful. I wrote the first two verses sitting in my hotel room; it was right alongside the AT&T building – known locally because of its resemblance to the caped crusader – as the Batman Building; the final verse was added when I arrived back in the UK. It’s my salute to the city and the indomitable spirit of the many musicians and songwriters who are its life blood.
Next Big Mistake
I’m standing in a bar, a couple of beers in, with a recently divorced male friend. He spies an attractive young lady sitting at a table nearby. Another beer later, they make eye contact. He smiles at her; she smiles back. Flirty smiles are batted back and forth. I suggest he might let the ink dry on the divorce papers. “No” he says, “She might just be my next big mistake!” My songwriting radar goes through the roof. While I ask the bartender for a pen and paper, he asks the girl if she wants a drink…
I lost someone very dear to me. The pain was so raw that I couldn’t even draw upon the cathartic powers of songwriting. Some years later, I had a dream in which this person came to me and simply said: “It’s okay.” The next day, I wrote the first verse and the chorus of this song. It probably would have remained unfinished but that weekend, both my beautiful daughters were home. As usual, they persuaded me to take them out for a meal in a posh restaurant. A waiter took a photograph of us. He didn’t know it but he had captured perfectly the love and warmth between us. When I viewed it back later, it occurred to me that this was a photo they would look back on when I was no longer around. In this somewhat sombre mood I wrote the second verse. Finally, in an effort to rescue the song from being so morose and melancholy, I wrote the final verse, a manifesto for how I thought my girls should live their lives – with vigour and verve and vitality! So it’s a song about death but it’s also about life, too!
From the Look in Your Eyes
It has been many years since I had my heart broken but you never forget that moment, when you know, deep down inside, that it’s over. No words are needed. A look can say it all.
Restless Celtic Heart
The Irish have always travelled. Not always because they wanted to – but because they had to. The further that I travel away from Ireland, the more Irish I become, so it’s no surprise that I wrote this song in Nashville. The parallels and connections between traditional Irish music and Country music (by way of Bluegrass) are fairly obvious; and there are many ballads that were brought across the Atlantic by Irish immigrants. I’d been listening to a lot of Johnny Cash when I wrote this – the intro riff is a not-too-subtle-salute to the man in black. It’s also a personal tribute to my grandfather and father who personify the spirit and enduring image of the Irish rover.
Restless Celtic Heart is available from Oh Mercy! Records