writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Songwriters on Songwriting: Martin McGroarty

Second up in the series on songwriting is my friend and musical collaborator Martin McGroarty. I’d known Martin through work for about 25 years before I knew he was a singer-songwriter: and boy, can he write a ditty or two! Here’s how he describes himself:

I’ve dabbled with music and songwriting on and off (family commitments and life situation permitting!) over the last 30 years or so. It’s only in the last 6 months or so that I’ve really got in touch with playing gigs and thinking about music again properly – marriage break-ups are hard, but they give you so much time for music! Also coincided with my first ever successfully adhered to New Year’s Resolution – to grab 2015 by the nads and kick the shit out of it.

On with the questions:

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

I have to admit that I find the whole process of songwriting tortuous. I am definitely not a natural. [ACF: Yes, you are. Get on with it.] I have added words to chord sequences I’ve come up with first, but it’s usually about what I want to say in a song first – so it usually starts with the words for me. And it’s usually words about some great drama in my life that I feel compelled to write about – my way of processing pain or telling someone how much I feel for them. I’m going to have to learn to write stuff when I’m not in the midst of some personal crisis or other….

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

My favourite songwriting tools are a pen and a bit of paper. As I said, it’s usually the words that come from how I’m feeling about something or someone that arrive in the old grey matter first. When I get round to thinking about the music part of it, I’ll be bashing about on the acoustic until I get something I like, then try and match the words to it. When I used to play in a band in my younger days however, I did write a few songs on the bass guitar (words and music) – principally because I couldn’t play acoustic guitar then and the bass was my job in the band.

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

As I said, I’m not a natural at this songwriting business. [I’ve warned you about that already. ACF]

I love the idea of my songs existing as wee gems of beautifully structured, musical, melodic, literary works of art floating about in the ether, just waiting to be captured and crystallised over a can of lager. But it’s just not the case unfortunately – the reality is much less romantic than that (Lager? Romantic?).

I’m a bit of a wordsmith – always have been and always enjoyed word play – but the musical part of it is work for me, often quite hard work, getting the two parts of the song, lyrics and music, to meld together. So my songs start off life in two completely separate places – the words side, the easy bit for me and which therefore gets all the attention and is spoiled rotten; and the music side, which is very much the poor relation and has to live in the attic until I need to reluctantly let it out and feed it.

I usually start with one line of a song that can appear in my head from nowhere. That then gets expanded into a storyline (I’ve always liked songs that tell a story – though the danger with that is that it can get very literal, so I try to be clever and obscure the message a bit). That’s the part of the process I enjoy the most. I suppose that where the ethereal part of it can kick in for me is when I finally try to put the words and the music together….the melody seems to come from absolutely nowhere and, if I overthink it, it just doesn’t work.

I think that some people are so good musically that they can write brilliant songs that have random words or phrases in them, rather than beautifully crafted story-telling lyrics. The strength of my songs, I think, is in the lyrical side and as long as I can get something musically competent enough to be the vehicle for that I’m happy with it.

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

Kevin Taylor is a name that will not be familiar to many people. Kevin and I have been friends since we were toddlers (so that’s a shade over 21 years…..) and it was Kevin who gave me my first taste of music and playing in a band when we were at High School. I was utterly fascinated by the way that he could come up with all these brilliant ideas for songs and then we’d work out bass and lead parts for them, and he’d come up with a few lines of lyrics and a melody appeared, and there it was… a song.

Many of the chord shapes I play and the chord patterns I use to this day come from how Kevin played/plays guitar. He’s been a huge influence on me musically. And when I write now, I’m never happy until I know Kevin’s heard my song and hasn’t told me “it’s pish”.

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

Now, I write for me and for what I know I can deal with vocally. When I played bass in the band however, I did write songs (lyrics) for Kevin and our lead singer, Paul Smith – often again from a single line that Kevin or Paul would have in their heads that magically re-appeared as a Pulitzer Prize winning novella after a McGroarty writing session. It worked a treat, because the music was already so strong that a decent story-line lyric added to the song, rather than “made” the song.

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

Yip. Usually when I can’t remember the words, or where I am in the song, so you can get a Club Mix, an album version or a 12” single mix of the song depending on what night I’m playing and how drunk I am…..

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

Apart from the aforementioned Mr Taylor, among my favourite songwriters ( and it’s hard limiting to three, but I enjoy the intellectual challenge of it) are Neil Finn, James Grant and Neil Young.

Martin is playing at the Eagle Inn, Coatbridge, supporting Gerry Cinnamon, on Friday 24th April. Then, as winner of the Texas Scots Talent Competition 2015, he’s playing at the Texas Scottish Festival in Arlington, Texas on May 8th and 9th.

For those of you who don’t know him, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, who also play a gig on 24th April, at the White Horse, Canongate, Edinburgh







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Songwriters on Songwriting: Norman Lamont

For the first of a short series on songwriters in the Edinburgh area, here’s an interview with Norman Lamont. First up, here’s how he introduces himself:

Despite being described by friends on the Edinburgh scene as ‘a legend’ or ‘the king of Edinburgh songwriters’, Norman Lamont is growing comfortable with obscurity. He continues to gig with his band The Heaven Sent, and produce albums, the most recent being last year’s All The Time in Heaven.

And now for the questions:

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

Almost always a bit of both, that is, a line or two complete with a melody and tempo. That suggests what the rest will be, which is work. The music is easier than the words. I’ve had melodies with a few lines hang round for twelve years waiting for me to knuckle down and write more words. Some are still waiting. (Gravestone ‘He never did finish that —-ing song’)

I do write words on their own, but never as embryo songs; they’re just scraps of stuff I keep for when I’m scrabbling around trying to finish something. When I write them I think they’re rubbish; years later when I find them I think they’re brilliant compared to the rubbish I’m writing now. My room is full of notebooks.

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

Usually I write in my head, and then work out the guitar chords afterwards from the completed stadium version I hear the E Street Band playing in my head.

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

I’ve had that experience a few times. Driving or walking along the street I just open my mouth and start singing a completely new song I haven’t planned. It certainly clears the pavement. When I examine it, it’s often linked to something I’ve been listening to earlier in the day so it’s not that magical, but it feels that way at the time. But that’s just the start – the rest is work and anticlimax.

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

A semi-retired Edinburgh singer called Dave Christopher, not known by many. He let me join his band in Glasgow in the 70s and it was the first time I’d actually met someone whose songs astonished me. He has a McCartney-like gift for melody.

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

I’ve never tried to write for someone else, as no-one has ever requested such a service. I often ‘hear’ a new song with someone else’s voice, but when I play it to people they don’t often recognise my mangled interpretation of that person, which avoids charges of plagiarism.

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

Structure stays the same, but every time I sing in front of an audience I find new ways to sing them, often with new melodies. Somehow there has to be an audience for that to happen.

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

Rennie and Brett Sparks (The Handsome Family)
Paul Simon
Brian Eno
Leonard Cohen (you did say four favourite songwriters, didn’t you?)

Norman is doing one night at the Acoustic Music Centre @ St Brides on August 16th, by which time a new, more light-hearted album may be complete, probably to be called Gurus At The Bar. New songs appear with startling regularity on his site,

For those of you who don’t know, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, the only known tribute band of the legendary – some dare to say imaginary – singer-songwriter from the L.A Canyons via Arbroath. You can catch more of her story, in words and music, at the White Horse, Canongate, on Friday 24th April. Facebook event is here.








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Passion in the pasta aisle – or, why I love Fleetwood Mac – but won’t go to see them

Passion in the pasta aisle – or, why I love Fleetwood Mac – but won’t go to see them

What a strange place my local supermarket, Morrison’s, is. First there’s the Eighties rock-show style dry ice partially obscuring the living herbs in the fruit and veg section: I mean, whose idea was it to put that in? You half-expect Alice Cooper to loom out of the mist at you, offering a suggestively shaped courgette.
As you venture further amongst the greenery, the mists clear but things get weirder, as it becomes apparent that a disruption of the space/time continuum has led to tomatoes, for example, being available in January; in fact, so much of the fresh produce appears out of season that the whole concept of ‘season’ appears to have disappeared in this retail demi-monde you’ve stumbled into.
Okay, so I know the real reason for these little bags of unripe tomato-based water is they’ve been dragged out of the cold, unyielding Southern European earth with the aid of acres of plastic sheeting and some underpaid Morrocans made to sleep on a toxic agrichemical dump between twenty hour shifts, but let’s face it, if anyone had the commercial clout and corporate hubris to change the laws of physics, it would be the UK’s Big Four supermarkets.
Stumbling clear of the fruit and veg, dazed and confused, you might encounter further reality paradigm shifts amongst the alcohol, where any of the discounted wines are clearly sucked into a wormhole in space as soon as the shelves are stocked, that being the only reason that NONE OF THE WINES ON OFFER YOU WANT ARE EVER THERE.
But none of the above, for all its discombobulating effect on your general mental well-being, can compare with the music they play at you as you shuffle round, slack-jawed, filling your trolley with what you think you might want in three days’ time.
Ah, the music! I remember one time we shopped on Saturday evening instead, and they were playing showtunes. I mean, showtunes! I thought they played music to make you slow down and buy more stuff, gently calmed by reassuring melodies tickling the back of your medulla, didn’t they? Your actual showtunes. That stuff frankly just made me want to kill.
The Saturday morning selection, to be fair, is generally more palatable in a ‘best of MOR over the decades’ kind of a way. I’ve admitted before to having a high tolerance level for MOR (or is it AOR, I could never quite tell the difference?) that forever banishes me from the land of fully fledged, golden-eared musos. I mean, if you actually listen to it going round, as I do, there’s some unusual stuff mixed in there amongst the Dr Hook and the Sheryl Crow. Sometimes even the Stranglers sneak in.
I guess, to be honest, all this shows I’m overthinking it: it’s meant to be aural wallpaper; music for people that don’t really like music. But that doesn’t take account of the fact that even an MOR classic can inspire powerful emotions amongst customers; memories, dreams, fantastical imaginings that mean the family sized bag of fusilli pasta just gets missed that day.
A case in point. I can remember it as if it were yesterday: I was in the cooked meats section of the chiller cabinets when Fleetwood Mac’s classic, ‘Go Your Own Way,’ came on.
Morrison’s, what have you done: how on earth was I meant to find the sliced chorizo or, indeed, the Swedish meatballs, when the break up song that documented my every late teens to early twenties relationship crisis was blasting out above the hum of the refrigeration units? I mean, those heartfelt lyrics that man, you just knew almost by heart! That simple yet brilliant acoustic guitar riff scrubbing across the words! And, finally, that paint-blistering electric guitar solo at the end, telling the story – your story – better than the words themselves could (particularly as packing up, or indeed shacking up, wasn’t actually what any of my girlfriends of the time wanted to do, to be honest).
As I drifted, emotional flashbacks crowding me and my trolley, out of the chilled meats and onwards to the sandwich spreads and then, perchance, the cheeses, it was almost a relief for Buckingham’s guitar heroics to be interrupted by a colleague announcement inviting Donna to lend a hand at the checkouts. Almost. Still deeply annoying though. No offence, Donna.
Okay, so I’m overstating this for supposedly comic effect. Actually, it could just as well have been the dishwashing and detergents aisle: I’m fibbing when I say I can remember it as if it were yesterday, because it happens once every three months or so. My point, if I have one, is the music you grow up with, the music you first fall in love to, the music you chant at protest marches in your heady, idealistic youth, can still exert a strong emotional pull many years into your so-called adulthood.
And, in the interests of political balance, that for me goes also for ‘No More Heroes,’ ‘God Save the Queen,’ Roxanne,’ and most of Elvis Costello’s early stuff, before he started writing operettas and shit. Ditto Abba, as I have previously confessed without the need of waterboarding.
Anyways. My knowledge of Fleetwood Mac was, for many years, strictly limited to ‘Rumours,’ their classic 1977 album, and its not so classic follow ups, ‘Tusk,’ (of which more later) and ‘Tango in the Night’. However, my first conscious awareness of them came through an earlier single, ‘Rhiannon,’ which Wikipedia tells me was released in the UK in April 1976. I would have been a callow youth of 13 then (yes, I really am that old), an impressionable age to hear Stevie Nicks’s honey-voiced vocal, let me tell you.
It was only recently that I bought, through the all-encompassing might of Amazon, a CD of the album it came from, ‘Fleetwood Mac,’ the 1975 album which, I will argue, if not the equal of ‘Rumours,’ is certainly pretty damn worth a listen, having been eclipsed long ago by its successor.
(As an aside, when I talk about ‘Fleetwood Mac, the album,’ I do mean the second album Fleetwood Mac produced called ‘Fleetwood Mac.’ Not to be confused with the first album Fleetwood Mac produced called ‘Fleetwood Mac,’ in 1968. The second one, also known as their White Album, apparently. Not to be confused with the Beatles’ White Album… oh, you’ll get the picture in a minute).
So. For those of you not intimately aware of the band Fleetwood Mac and its history, by 1975 the original group, having scored early successes with hits like ‘Albatross,’ and having produced nine albums (including that first eponymous one) had been reduced personnel-wise to the gnarled blues-rock stump of Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass), with McVie’s wife Christine having now joined them on keyboards and vocals.
In need of a guitar player, they decamped to Los Angeles (as you do) and were introduced to Lindsey Buckingham, who could clearly play a bit, but insisted on bringing along his girlfriend of the time, Stevie Nicks, with whom he had just released an album, ‘Buckingham Nicks.’ And so, on New Year’s Eve, 1974, the classic ‘Rumours era’ Fleetwood Mac line up was forged, in a heady mix of Californian winter sunshine, emotional baggage and, I shouldn’t wonder, a couple of celebratory lager shandies.
The really unusual thing about this line up wasn’t the instruments they played, but rather the combination of three singer-songwriters in Christine McVie, Buckingham, and Nicks. All extremely talented, all very different in style, somehow different collaborations of them were to produce some of their best work, although, as we’ll see, a lot of the songs were actually solo efforts.
So, for example, ‘Fleetwood Mac’ (‘the album’) opens with ‘Monday morning,’ a medium-paced, country-tinged rocker that the likes of the Eagles could have churned out equally well. A sunny, upbeat start to the album, musically it bears a strong resemblance to the opening on ‘Rumours,’ ‘Second Hand News,’ being both Buckingham compositions, and both short and sweet at under three minutes. Even lyrically, there’s a similar feel to it: the difference, ,mainly, is the later song had more care and attention put into the guitar work.
Overall, as on Rumours, the solo credits outweigh the collaborations: Christine McVie contributes ‘Warm Ways,’ ‘Over my Head,’ ‘Say You Love Me,’ and ‘Sugar Daddy;’ Nicks gives us ‘Rhiannon,’ ‘Crystal,’ and ‘Landslide,’ whilst Buckingham’s other solo effort is ‘I’m So Afraid,’ a harder-rocking number to finish the album, with a wig-out guitar solo from your man the last thing you hear.
For me, Christine McVie shows a strong influence from Carole King on her songs. ‘Warm Ways’ is a very mid-Seventies, keyboard-led schmooze; ‘Over My Head’ is again full of electric keys and yearning lyrics about a new love; whilst ‘Say You Love Me’ is the pick of them, a soulful, country-tinged rocker featuring Buckingham on guitars and banjo on the single version. It was a hit at the time, and it’s easy to see why: sunny, upbeat, funky and with a great vocal.
It was the kind of vibe McVie was to repeat – with even more success – on ‘Rumours,’ with ‘Don’t Stop,’ and ‘You Make Lovin’ Fun.’ The difference was, on the latter album she also contributed ‘Songbird,’ a classic piano ballad, recorded on a Steinway in a concert hall to give it its haunting, echo-laden sound; and ‘’Oh Daddy,’ a chilly, beautiful song reportedly about Mick Fleetwood, the ‘father’ of the band.
And then there’s Stevie Nicks. For a long time, Stevie Nicks felt like a guilty pleasure to me, because she seemed to represent the worst of that West Coast, hippy-dippy, ever so slightly pretentious lyricism that was just waiting to be swept away by John Lydon and co. Never, indeed, mind the bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols.
And yet. And yet. ‘Rhiannon’ might be about a Welsh witch, and feature sixth-form poetry like ‘she is like a cat in the dark/and then she is the darkness,’ but it features a real earworm of a guitar riff, which is also eminently playable (go to A minor and fiddle about on the chord, budding guitarists – you’ll work it out for yourself) and, of course, that voice of hers. ‘Landslide,’ a quieter, melodic number, is lifted by that same glorious instrument, and Buckingham’s sensitive acoustic guitar.
Buckingham has to take most of the credit for the arrangement, one presumes, for ‘Crystal,’ the last and greatest of Nicks’s contributions to the album. For a start, he sings it, not Nicks. Then there is the utterly gorgeous cascade of acoustic guitar, complemented perfectly by Christine McVie’s keyboards. When I bought the album recently, I recognised one or two of the songs, but this – this masterpiece, sounding as fresh as the day it was recorded? Not that I could remember.
‘Fleetwood Mac’ became an instant hit, far greater than anything the previous incarnations of the band had done album-wise. And so the pressure began to build on the band for the next album – effectively, for this line up, that legendarily difficult second album. And into the studio they went, for about a year, giving rise to rumours and, er, ‘Rumours.’
On that album, Christine McVie was to reprise her King-esque, keyboard led, soul-funk Seventies thing, and then top it with those two classics, ‘Songbird,’ and ‘Oh Daddy.’ Buckingham was to pen ‘Second Hand News,’ ramp up the guitar wizardry on ‘Never Going Back Again,’ and just generally raise the craft of sympathetic guitar sounds – electric and acoustic – to a whole new level. (For an example of this, the bonus edition of ‘Rumours’ I now have features an earlier cut of ‘Go Your Own Way,’ without that magic acoustic guitar scrub. Suddenly, it’s fine, but it’s just not … special?)
The band as a whole were to collaborate on ‘The Chain,’ two separate songs by Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks spliced together, with that iconic bass solo from John McVie, and, of course, lashings of electric guitar from Buckingham to close.
Nicks was to contribute ‘Dreams,’ ‘I Don’t Want to Know,’ and ‘Gold Dust Woman,’ the latter an astonishingly frank – for its time – account of the dark well of cocaine addiction she was headed down.
‘Fleetwood Mac’ doesn’t quite match up to that in its songs, even if it had had the same irresistible back story of everyone breaking up with each other whilst off their tits on just about everything. For about a year (legend has it they took a day and a half to agree on the tuning of a piano). But it’s like, the band climbed Kilimanjaro one year with ‘Fleetwood Mac,’ and then next year donned respirators and conquered Everest with ‘Rumours.’ There’s no denying Everest, but Kilimanjaro’s quite a thing, too. And they did it without respirators. Or the right boots.
After ‘Rumours,’ things didn’t go so well. They gave Buckingham his head production-wise on ‘Tusk,’ and he had them lying face down on a tiled floor singing their vocals, because he thought that would produce the sound he was looking for. Or so he said: he might’ve just been taking the piss. I suspect it might have been quite difficult to tell at that point.
To be fair, just as Springsteen has said about the making of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ ‘Tusk’ was being made in the monstrous, lumpen shadow of punk. The sunny, emotionally open West Coast vibe had gone, replaced by something a bit more pared back, and Buckingham, like Springsteen, felt the wind of change at his back. New, harder-edged heroines like Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde emerged, and the only other way to go for female singer-songwriters seemed to be off-planet, like Kate Bush. For the blokes, wig-out guitar solos were only for the metal guys with poodle haircuts. It all got a bit tribal for a bit.
Two things happened in fairly short order to me recently: one was I bought, for the first time, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks…’ on CD. It was, like ‘Rumours,’ recorded in 1976, although not released till October the next year. Time hasn’t, for me, been so kind to it – although it’s hard to top the singles, particularly ‘God Save the Queen,’ and ‘Anarchy in the UK.’
The second thing is that I was reminded by someone that Fleetwood Mac, the complete, Rumours-era package, with added Christine McVie, were coming soon to an aircraft hangar near me, viz Glasgow’s SSE Hydro. The tickets are about eighty quid.
I won’t be going. For that money, I’ve seen Foals, Temples and Lucy Rose, three separate gigs with younger artists at the top of their game, with the added bonus of being in much smaller venues than the SSE. Much as I wish Fleetwood Mac well on their pension pot tour, I fear I would feel I was being marketed a reheated soufflé rather than something just out of the oven. Besides, I don’t think Daughter and Heiress would go with me, and the Redoubtable Mrs F doesn’t like standing at gigs.
1976 was such a long time ago. Blimey, next year it’ll be forty years! We live in such a changed world now. Fruit and veg with no seasons. Wine bottles disappearing into wormholes in space, and celeb culture oozing into every crevice in the collective unconscious. We change with it, or run the risk of becoming a heritage item.
But next time you see some middle-aged bozo pushing a trolley in Morrison’s, making strange guitar-like noises under his breath in the cold meats aisle, listen to whatever it is musically punctuating the customer announcements, and have a care.
If it’s ‘Go Your Own Way,’ that bozo could be me.






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The War on Drugs: Preview

And so, at the end of a challenging week, to see The War on Drugs (don’t forget the ‘The’) at the Usher Hall tonight (Saturday). The band first crossed my and Daughter and Heiress’s radar (as so often these days) with a slot on Jools Holland; since then, their latest album, Lost in the Dream, has come out to universal acclaim, gaining five stars in the Guardian and Uncut, amongst many other places. Any band that invites comparisons with Dylan and Springsteen will invite attention from yours truly: as well as a modicum of suspicion – are they too derivative?

In fact, on listening, the band’s sound is anything but. It’s a subtle wash of ambient guitars and brooding, throbbing synths. The lyrics – principally a meditation on front man Adam Granduciel’s downward spiral into paranoia and depression when he finished touring the last record – do take a bit of a left turn into Springsteen territory at times, particularly on the title track; and the opening song, Under the Pressure, could be renamed A Bit Like Dylan without losing the scan of the chorus line, and would provide a fair summation of Granduciel’s vocal stylings.

However, this is scant criticism coming from someone who, on waking up yesterday morning, scribbled down the lyrics to The Greatest Song Bruce Springsteen Never Wrote.

The portents are promising for tonight’s gig: by all accounts their recent appearance at the Brixton Academy was a success – see, amongst others, the Digital Spy review. For those of you without a ticket, here’s some recent footage taken by one of those annoying types who can’t live in the moment and insist on holding up their iSam. I haven’t watched it: that would feel a bit like skipping to the last page to find out whodunnit.

For what really happened tonight, Daughter and Heiress is writing a review for altmusicbox – her first for them – so stand by…





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Seeing it to the Finnish: How I Built the Kantele

Here in the UK, they used to have a TV programme called Changing Rooms, the basic premise of which was some bozos would turn over their house to the production team in all good faith and see their slightly dated pine furniture and half n’ half wallpaper living room transformed over a weekend into an Arab souk, or something similar. They always acted amazed and pleased.

Anyway, the presenters consisted of the aptly named Carol Smillie, a foppish designer fellow called Laurence Llewellyn Bowen, and the working-class bloke wot got all the work done whose nickname was Handy Andy. A joiner (I think) to trade, it was he who made Laurence’s wildest dreams a reality (no, not in that way – keep your minds out of the gutter) with the aid of nothing more complex than a band saw, a couple of screwdrivers and a lorry load of mdf.

Handy Andy. Wonder where he is now? No, me neither. Anyway, meet Handless Andy. Yes, dear reader, your blog may, like the Liam Neeson character in Taken, have a very particular set of skills, but DIY has never been one of them. Despite being a property owner for some 27-odd years now, the simplest tasks around the house beyond entry-level banging something in with a hammer have eluded me. Only the other day, I installed some splashback tiling in our bathroom more in hope than expectation, and its ability to stay on the wall for more than ten minutes after I stuck it there was virtually a cause for breaking out the cooking champagne on the part of the Redoubtable Mrs F. (It’s still there: two weeks and counting).

Despite my inherent lack of ability, I’ve always retained a particular fascination with wood, and the idea of working with its natural beauty to produce something of value. So recently this led me, finally, to, a US site which supplies all sorts of musical instrument kits, and, more in hope than expectation, I bought the means to construct a kantele, a Finnish folk instrument from the same stable as the zither, or dulcimer. I bought the kantele kit on the following grounds:

– it looked like a cheeseboard with strings, so worst case I’d have a cheeseboard;

– I’ve had a soft spot for things Finnish since spending some time there in 2006 with my friend Hannu, meeting his family and friends Esa and Saana, and being inducted into the mysteries of the Nordic sauna (and let me tell you, till you’ve stood outside a wooden hut in the woods, the sea washing quietly towards you and cold beer in hand  as your heart threatens to burst right out of your chest from the sheer intensity of the heat you’ve just experienced, stark bollock naked, you’ve not fully lived);

– a quick squizz round Youtube revealed the thing had a haunting, ethereal sound which I had stupid levels of confidence I could reproduce if I could only make it all stick together.

Fortunately, for the sticky-together bit I had my secret weapon. My father in law, as well as being a very eminent physician, now retired, is extremely good with his hands, and has a shed of proper old-school drills, vices and other instruments of torture Christian Grey would kill for. The Good Doctor built most of the family home’s storage space himself, for goodness’ sake. So, after a quick chat with him, I sent off for the kit.

The first thing to say is that the kit, though not cheap, has materials of excellent quality – the wood in this case being walnut and mahogany (African, so a sustainable source – I checked); the metal work being similarly robust, and everything machined to a good finish. The instruction manual which (as we’ll see) we had occasional reference to was clear, in plain English, and easy to follow.

The second thing to say is that the consignment was held up by those pirates at the HMRC, who ransomed it for an extra thirty quid import duty, so remember to factor that in, at least if you’re in the UK.

And so came the glorious day – actually, an evening – when we ventured out into the Shed of Wonders to start the first phase of construction. According to the manual, we were to stick the first long bit of walnut to the big bit of mahogany, clamp it, and wait an hour before sticking the next long bit to that; then, finally, the third bit. However, the Good Doctor had other ideas, and after about forty minutes all four bits were glued and clamped. I left my precious baby, clamps hanging from her like some sort of strange metal leeches, in the Doc’s care, and headed off into the night.

The next time I saw her, with clamps removed, was something of a relief:


although it looked a bit like four weird-shaped bits of wood stuck together, the key thing was they were stuck together the right way. The glue ooze wasn’t too bad, and I approached the next session with a little more confidence. Next steps consisted of gluing the tail piece and the ‘snail’ bit on; in another departure from the manual, I held off gluing in the fancy rosette till much later on, once I’d had a chance to sand the area underneath down and apply a coat of varnish, as I didn’t see how I could possibly do that with the rosette in.

The final, crucial stage that required the Good Doctor’s input was drilling the zither pin holes. This is, I reckon, the part which needs most care and precision, because if you don’t get the holes straight, you’ll end up with zither pins wonky as a row of British dental work, with associated tuning problems. Fortunately, the Shed of Wonders had not one, but two fixed drills, which allowed a much better job than any hand-held drill could have done.

Then came the sanding. Again, I approached this with low levels of confidence, and chickened out of using my electric hand sander (which I suspect had been a purchase of my own Dad’s from one of those Lidl promotions retirees queue  in the snow for on Thursday mornings) and took it on with nothing more than a sanding block and the two recommended grades of paper over a couple of sunny, if Baltic, winter afternoons out on the patio. Somewhat to my surprise, I didn’t manage to dislodge any of the glued together bits: even more to my surprise, edges which looked like they would never disappear melted beneath my frenzied assault. Really quite soon, it looked like this:

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Ok, so I know that doesn’t look so very different, but you weren’t really there, man! And yes, I did wear a plaid shirt whilst outside in the cold, sanding away at my bit of wood. Even metrosexuals get to be macho sometimes.

A week of applying clear varnish and letting it dry ensued – I got quite OCD about this, and put three coats on most of it, and four on the playing surface. Then, a Thursday night came when, after several weeks of fitting this into all the other stuff that goes on here, I tapped the zither pins in (lightly) with a hammer before finishing with the tuning tool, as directed by the manual, fitted on the strings (the online video was particularly helpful here) … and … it was done!

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Isn’t she beautiful? Just like any stringed instrument, the tuning took a couple of days to settle. However, it now holds its tuning just as well as any of my guitars. And you can even listen to my first, stumbling attempts to play it…

I’d thoroughly recommend to anyone fancying a go at making a musical instrument from scratch. Just either be handier than Handless Andy here, or have your own version of the Good Doctor on speed dial.






If you see an advert underneath here, I didn’t put it there.

… in the meantime …

So I’ve started my review of Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous album, at least in my head, but since it’s been available in all good record shops for 40 years I’m reckoning there’s no pressing hurry.

In the meantime, if you want to hear a rare example of my attempting to sing, rather than speak, over music, my latest Soundcloud release can now be heard…

The Way They Do Things In West Memphis: Lucinda Williams Album Review

So there you are, having a drink in a bar in West Memphis, kind of wishing you’d stuck to the tourist trail rather than going off-piste in search of the ‘real’ experience. The band setting up in the corner look like they might have just finished beating someone up round the back, never mind the punters, one of whom seems to have moved his bar stool uncomfortably close behind you. Key scenes from Deliverance start to project themselves at the back of your imagination.

Eventually the drummer strikes up, big, tattooed forearms bearing down on the skins like they owe him money. It’s a low down, dirty beat, heavy as the hot afternoon, and when the guitars and bass come in, you’re still not sure if it’s going to be blues, country, rock, or a mélange of all three. You try to work out a way of asking your new friend on the bar stool behind you that, without using the word mélange.

Just then the barmaid, who’s done everything to make you feel welcome bar spit in your drink, comes out front, slings on an acoustic and exchanges a few muttered words with the guitarist. Then she fronts up to the mike and stares you dead in the eye, as if to say, ‘What?’

Except if it’s Lucinda Williams it would come out as, ‘Whuuut?’

That’s exactly what Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is like. Musically, it draws from that primordial swamp of country, blues, soul, and all the other truly North American DNA that rock staggered out of, muddy and baying, all those years ago. Except it stays down with one foot firmly in the swamp: though it only occasionally uses lap steel guitar, there’s a country structure to many of the songs; on others, a shimmering Hammond organ reminds you of the gospel influence.

And then there’s Williams’s voice, a remarkable thing that’s three parts Eartha Kitt, two parts Stevie Nicks, if the latter had spent the last thirty years drinking bourbon and smoking Virginia Gold Cut; half ways between a growl and a yowl, like a partially tamed mountain lion that’s been given a guitar.

If this all sounds a bit too, er, rootsy for you, I should say that there’s an intelligence behind the lyrics that takes the material way beyond your average Louisiana bar band. Indeed, the double album kicks off with a poem by Williams’s father set to music, Compassion: ‘Have compassion for everyone you meet/ even if they don’t want it/ what seems conceit/ always a sign…’

Elsewhere, Williams preaches eloquently against the enemy of righteousness, good, kindness and love (‘Protection’) fearmongers and foolishness (‘Foolishness’) and, it seems, Old Nick himself (‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’); evoking that gospel (or maybe that should be Southern Baptist) root.

Elsewhere, my favourite so far (as you might have gathered from the opening sequence) is ‘West Memphis:’ ‘I was framed and sentenced/to a life in prison/for a crime I didn’t commit/wasn’t nobody listened/or rose to my defense/somebody planted the evidence/and he’s been lying ever since/but that’s the way we do things/in West Memphis.’

The other thing that sets this album apart is the musicianship. The drums – and this is a compliment from a guitar player who normally pays little attention to what the bozo at the back’s doing, past keeping the beat – lay down a heavy groove that drives the songs; the guitars themselves sound great, and there’s some scorching work on them from Tony Joe White and Bill Frisell. As well as good stuff on the organ from Ian McLagan, there’s judicious use of backing vocals to sweeten Williams’s lead.

This is a superb double album, which will merit listening to again and again to get the full effect. One thing, though: if you find yourself telling your nearest and dearest that this is how you roll, and if they don’t like it they can get the hell out of the way, you’ve probably had it on repeat one time too many.

Unless you’re actually from West Memphis, of course. In which case that’s absolutely fine.


lucinda williams

A Note To My Followers

Dear Followers,

First of all, a belated Happy New Year! Let’s hope 2015 is a kinder twelve months to the planet than the previous one: without wanting to sound like a beauty contest consultant, world peace would be nice, plus maybe a cure for Ebola. Frankly, I’d settle for an aggregate reduction in people being beastly to each other generally.

I’m not going to tweet or Facebook this post, partly as an experiment to see what difference that makes, but partly because I want to make this a post just for you, my select band of followers, to use as you wish. You’re a small but select bunch of, as I write, 27: you include, of course, Daughter and Heiress, the voice of youth; and my friend and  Edinburgh writer/performer/generally talented type cygnoir. The rest of you, I don’t think, I know personally, but I wanted to thank you for hooking into my world. Blogger followers seem, in general, a bit more faithful than the here today and gone tomorrow world of Twitter: and, frankly, I’d far rather read something longer than 140 characters most of the time.

So here’s what I’m going to do. Firstly, I’m going to follow any of you I’m not actually following already; and then, over the next week or so, I’m going to make a point of reading your blogs, and making some – hopefully not too inane – comment.

You might want to comment on this post. That way, you’re making yourself visible to a whole 26 other faithful souls who follow me, not to mention my thousands of non-following fans in Brazil.

In the meantime, have a good year. I plan to have lots of new things happening for you soon.

2015: the Surrealist Year Ahead

As the macadamia air rage case accused, conglomerate heiress Cho Hyun-ah comes to trial, there are surprising outbreaks of sympathy from budget airline travellers, following Cho’s heavy-handed prosecution by the South Korean authorities. Things start quietly with passive-aggressive piss-weak coffee ‘spillages’ on Easyjet, but a Ryanair flight is forced to divert and land at Paris Charles de Gaulle after a flight’s complete crisp quota is used in a flash mob ‘Pringle shower.’
With no one passenger claiming responsibility, the airline is forced to allow the entire plane load off at an airport which is actually in the city it’s meant to be in for once.


Incensed by stand up comedians’ jokes about always having a sale, furniture retailer DFS hosts a’full price weekend.’ Backed by a campaign featuring Shane Whatsit from Series 4 of Celebrity X Jungle Wipeoff, the event is a surprising success, with queues for sofas that really do cost £700 forming from the early hours.

‘It just shows her at number 22 what a cheapskate she really is, buying that leather look five piece for £199.99 the other week,’ says Dolanda Chewit, 34, of Skinflats.


As the immigration debate heats up, a group calling themselves ‘Angle-land for the Anglo-Saxons’ romp home to a surprise by-election win on Hastings Borough Council. The victory speech, by Councillor Harold Godwinson, is taken off air after complaints about the bad language. In a carefully worded press statement, the party apologises for any offence but insists it is ‘time we stopped them bloody Normans coming over here with their posh words and taking all our jobs.’

In a seemingly unrelated development the newly-formed Viking Party, led by a Harald Hardrada, campaigns for an independence referendum for the Danelaw.


Buoyed up by the success of Stephen Hawking film The Theory of Everything, geek chic reaches new levels altogether. Joey Essex is spotted wearing black-framed glasses and carrying a Charlie Stross novel, which he claims to have read; thinking woman’s crumpet and fellow sf author Hannu Rajaniemi takes over from Dara O’Briain as host on the hastily renamed School of Really, Really Hard Sums.

In a definitely related development, sales on Amazon of second-hand copies of Jim Jardine’s seminal textbook, Physics is Fun (Heinemann) skyrocket, although the real value is reserved for any that don’t have the handwritten sub-title added by previous students, ‘is it fuck.’


On the Planet Zenussi, the elections to the Chamber of the Ultimate Overlords of the Lizard People are thrown into confusion, when the three main candidates rip off lizard masks to reveal themselves as none other than David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. Enraged, the Lizard People launch a retaliatory strike on Earth.

Unfortunately a glitch in their version of Google Maps indicates that the Houses of Parliament are located in Aberfeldy. Armed only with stout walking sticks and umbrellas and led by their community council office bearers, the locals drive off the entire Imperial Zenussian Assault Force, before going back to whatever the hell they do in Aberfeldy when not under intergalactic attack by saurian life forms.


The legendarily tough world of the South East Yorkshire Cricket League is rocked by the arrival of a new recruit to the ranks of Uppenceworth. Flanked only by a single thick-set bodyguard, the newcomer is at first reticent about his name, before revealing that he is in fact Kim Yong-un, disillusioned with the American imperialist sport basketball, and keen to learn the most quintessentially English game of all.

Quickly nicknamed ‘Yoong Oon’ by his team mates, the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea turns out to bowl a beguiling mix of leg breaks and googlies, and makes a reliable pair of hands at first slip. He excels, however, as a dashing middle order batsman, and Uppenceworth’s star is soon in the ascendant in the Second Division.

However, a hotly disputed lbw decision during a match with local rivals Nobbut Ornery leads to repercussions far beyond the usual on-pitch fisticuffs. In the pub after the game, Yong-un’s captain manages to persuade him to call off the nuclear strike on the umpire’s house at the last minute.

However, dark forces seem to be at work when the village of Nobbut Ornery literally disappears off Google Maps, to be replaced by a symbol which resembles a cricket box; whilst all reports of the match in question suddenly 모두사라. I mean, 지옥빌어 먹을!


T in the Park, the annual Scottish drinking festival, is deluged with complaints about the music coming from various locations around the new venue.

‘I ken there’s always been bands playin’ somewhere in the background, but there seems tae be a lot mair of them this year,’ storms Shug McLush, 24, of Queenzieburn. ‘I mean, live and let live, but I’ve got a sledge full of lager tae get through here. I need focus.’

An ashen faced festival spokesperson admits he had no idea of the scale of the problem. ‘It’s all very well having background sounds for when you’re rolling around the grass grabbing at legs, but I’ve told Slipknot they’ll have to do an acoustic set if they’re distracting people from their drinking.’

Tinie Tempah really is tinie.


The world of sport is rocked as the World Anti-Doping Agency adds common place stimulants such as coffee, chocolate and bridies to the list of banned substances. Former England cricketer Freddie Flintoff is outraged. ‘They’ll be banning lager next,’ he fumes.

Seeing an opportunity for controversy-fuelled viewing figures, Channel 6 + 99 host a soi-disant ‘experimental Olympics,’ where alleged scientists monitor the effects of common illegal substances on sporting performance. The 100 metres world unassisted record is broken several times over by runners on various cold remedies; the boxing doesn’t go so well when the first two contestants are mistakenly given cannabis resin instead of cocaine.

After a few failed attempts to hit each other and much giggling, one tells the other ‘I love you, man,’ and the two sit in the middle of the ring, asking the increasingly restive audience if they have any toast.


Technological advances continue to drive consumer demand. Amongst them is the Belty, a belt device which monitors the wearer’s waistline and advises when it’s time to lose weight; the Tagg Pet Tracker, which allows pet owners – or significant others – to track the whereabouts of their pet/partner; the Shine Activity Tracker Device, which allows the wearer (or significant other) to track activities such as walking, running, swimming or, indeed, other physical activity via a smartphone; and the Wine Alarm, which sets off a loud beeping sound if blood alcohol levels in the wearer rise above a preset level.

Ok, so I made the last one up. But they could probably do it.


Following the slump in sales of celebrity biographies, The Guild of Ghost Writers publishes a collection of near career death experiences by its members.

‘I had the contract to write Beyonce’s next misery memoir;’ one recalls. ‘I was heading towards a white light of inner peace and a pretty tidy advance cheque. Then the market crashed, and the next thing I knew I was back on Planet Earth, trying to work on my own novel. I mean, I had to just make stuff up. A plot and characters and everything. It was horrible.’


Swedish ‘alternative and experimental music fusion group,’ Goat, are forced to suspend their Twitter feed after cyber assaults by some particularly unpleasant trolls. Only by eating extraordinary amounts of calories and renaming themselves Billy Goat Gruff are they able to drive the trolls away … oh come on, look it up!


The sky is full of strange portents. Herds of Gloucester Old Spot are seen wheeling in formation above Wiltshire. A plague of giant wasps descends on Cowdenbeath. The face of Simon Cowell appears on pizzas all over southern Italy.
Jesus of Nazareth and the Prophet Muhammad descend arm in arm from the clouds, to try to convince jihadist nutters Al-Quaeda they’re getting it wrong.

Then 2016 dawns, and things get a whole lot weirder.


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