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Month January 2017

Guitars, guitars, guitars

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I really like guitars.

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 Songs From 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 as 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 really like guitars.

So long, 2016…

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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…