I came to a realisation recently, reading Peter Ames Carlin’s biography of Bruce Springsteen: thanks to digital technology, all of us hopers and dreamers can be just that little bit more Bruce now than when, as a callow youth, I drifted off to sleep imagining trading licks with Clarence Clemons’s sax solos on stage.
As I may have said before, now that there’s affordable soft- and hardware that lets you record to a pretty decent standard on your own, no longer do you have to wait for the A & R man from the record label to discover you in some dive bar, sign you and your songwriting talent up and whisk you off to Abbey Road. No sirree Bob, or indeed Bruce. Now any idiot can translate their musical dreams into mp3 format on their own, and most idiots – this one included – do.
So, although we might be at polar opposites in terms of both ability and amount of resources available to us, the stories of Bruce’s agonising over which songs to put on or leave off classics like ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and ‘The River’ now resonate more with me than hitherto.
Which brings me to FAWM, or February Album Writing Month. Like Nanowrimo, in which prose writers are challenged to finish a whole novel in November, FAWM is an interactive community where the mission, should you choose to accept it, is to complete an album of 14 songs in February – in other words, barring leap years, a song every two days.
A tall order, you might imagine: and you’d be right. However, I participated last year, getting 5 songs over the line, and enjoyed the supportive online community (you’re encouraged to be nice about each others’ stuff, and everyone always is, almost to a fault) as well as that feeling of licence it gives you to focus for those four weeks on just writing songs. Just get on and write something, don’t think!
To be honest, this year especially was always going to be more like February Album Finishing Month, because I technically already have more than enough material for my next one. And yet … and yet …. do they all fit together? Is there a killer track out there, just waiting to be written down? Ah, me and Bruce both!
So, just in case you’re interested, here’s what I produced in February, with the considerable assistance of my vocals and acoustic instruments recording engineer, Graham Crawford (for various reasons, recording into a mic in my own flat at the moment is sub-optimal, and Graham has agreed to help):
1. The Plough
Thought I’d start the year with a bit of fun.
I wrote this one on a Wednesday morning, and recorded it in the afternoon, so we did it live, with Graham on an improvised percussion made up of a kit-made bongo cajon I had and a kick pedal (that’s the pic on Soundcloud). Apart from one false start where I fluffed the words of the first verse it’s first take.
In terms of the song itself, the melody owes more than something to Springsteen’s ‘Devils and Dust:’ I woke up with the line ‘Got my finger on the trigger, got my hand upon the plough,’ which made no sense whatsoever. However, by the time it got recorded in the afternoon it had settled into a more country gospel kind of feel. I’ve rerecorded it since in a more conventional way, and it’ll sound very different from this. I hope the fun we had doing this version shines through all the same.
2. Neighbourhood Bar
Recording-wise this is one rung up the ladder from my first song: recorded the guitar part first, as I wasn’t convinced I’d get it clean enough singing at the same time. Saying that, the guitar’s first take, although I’ll admit the reason it comes in on the descending bassline is I fluffed the very first chord!
Lyrically it’s not super-original, but I just liked the idea of painting a picture of all the bar’s denizens in a verse each. The line about occasionally exchanging a word or two came to me from one such bar I was in one Sunday morning recently (for a coffee) – there were the regulars, all sitting there lost in their own thoughts. A couple of words was all that passed between them.
But then, we’re none of us big talkers in Fife!
3. Let the Right One In
This was actually the first song I wrote this year, but it took a bit longer to arrange with drums, bass and guitars. I basically took the plot of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel ‘Let the right one in,’ a Swedish vampire novel I’d just finished reading.
Scandi horror isn’t my usual genre, but I can really recommend it – it deals with vampirism in the whole context of people at different stages of their lives (and the post-war estate they live in) going through some form of change, whether that’s ageing, the effects of alcohol, or adolescent problems at various stages. Hence ‘we’re all vampires.’
If I were to do more work on this (and I’m not sure I will – it was basically just a way of getting something written) I’d probably punch up the doo-wop feel to the melody with backing vocals.
4. Those Days
Miss Guthrie’s dachsund clearly held the trapped reincarnated soul of a music critic. When it wasn’t farting it was chewing the ankles of her piano students. I didn’t last long, and it wasn’t all the dog’s fault.
Despite that early experience I still wish I’d stuck in. Inspired by the superb piano-led work of other FAWMers, here’s my own attempt at a piano-led song. This is one of the things I love about Fawm – the inspiration to try something different.
I’ve no idea who the down-on-his-luck gumshoe narrator is, but I suspect he treated lacy-gloves girl worse than he was done to. Just saying.
5. Meet Me
My fellow songwriter and mentor Norman Lamont has advised me to start with the drums and bass on any track, and I finally took his advice with this one. Had no idea what the lyrics were going to be when I pulled together the instrumentation.
Then I was on a 90 minute bus journey while recovering from a bout of lurgi and started writing down random stuff. It’s all gone a bit Nick Cave!
‘Meet me when I’m clean and sober’ might be a better penultimate line.
By the way, it’s obvious this is a doppelganger type story, and they’re both two halves of the same narrator, right?
6. The Mermaids
OK, so ‘a cappella,’ ‘folk’ and especially ‘trad’ are not hashtags I imagined myself putting up on a song of mine, but there we are! This started in my head as a kind of Scotch/Irish sea shanty in 4/4, but by the time I got to recording it it had crossed the Atlantic steerage class and ended up as an Appalachian barn dance (or what I imagine that to sound like).
There were some issues with the software which knocked the guitars out of whack, hence the a capella. And I’m not huge fan of trad folk songs, so I decided to give it a bit of a gender bend lyrically.
The first two verses are meant to be sung by the boy, the second two by the girl, and the last both harmonising.
7. Bread and Circuses
And lastly … the only one I had ideas about at the start of the month!
Big shout out to Graham, for the live drums. We had two hours at his house to record the drums, acoustic guitar and vocals. I had this idea for an electric guitar riff that would power the whole song a couple of months ago. Unfortunately when it came to overdubbing that the next day I couldn’t do it consistently at the right tempo , so had to come up with a new one stat.
The sound in my head was 90s guitar bands like Kula Shaker and the Stone Roses, and for once the sound I’ve achieved in a couple of days of recording and mixing is kind of close to how I imagined it.
Lyrically – well, it’s as close to a protest song as I get these days.
And, other than a fragment of lyric I’ll not trouble you with, that was it. Does it help to wrote to a time limit? Absolutely. Does it mean you write stuff you wouldn’t have otherwise? Definitely. Will I use all of these in the future? Probably not. There’s a couple will go to gather dust on a digital shelf, a couple which will maybe merit a bit more work, and two or three definite keepers that will, again, need more work.
In the unlikely event you have all the time in the world to listen to them all, I’d be of course delighted by any feedback. If you don’t have all the time in the world, I’d start at the bottom and work up.
Incidentally, if you’re reading this after April 2023, the links won’t work: I’m too tight to shell for the pro version of Soundcloud, so these tracks will be gone to make space for something else!
Man, you’ve been productive. It’s hard to decide, but I give my top vote to Those Days.
Neil, really appreciate you listening in. Yes, ‘Those Days’ is one of my keepers!