andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: andrew c ferguson songwriter

Back On Song(writing)

Ferguson Common Good LawA strange weight lifted off me the other day. I finished writing the second edition of my law book, and felt this overwhelming sense of release when I pressed ‘send’ to my publisher with the manuscript.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I feel deeply, deeply grateful that I’ve been given an opportunity to write not one, but two editions of Common Good Law. I have supportive colleagues in Scottish local authorities up and down the land encouraging me; a wonderful editor/publisher, Margaret, at Avizandum; and generous organisations who have agreed to give the necessary financial backing to such a niche venture.

More, I still feel slightly stunned that the first edition sold so well – 300 copies for such a, well, really niche area of the law is pretty good going, and, given the topic is mainly of interest to councils and there are only 32 of them, about 268 more than I expected.

Back in 2006, when the first edition came out, I was as pleased as punch; and next February/March, which is the scheduled publication date for what I’m trying to persuade Margaret she should call Common Good II: Revenge of the Sith, I’ll warrant I’ll be pretty much as the dog with two tails, too.

But things have changed since 2006.

First and most obviously to me, I’m 12 years older. Going over the original manuscript, I was struck at how… jocular the tone was, in as much as a legal textbook can be. In the original preface, I talk about title deeds having an aura of ‘mystery and romance;’ I even speculate whether I was asleep in the lecture that the subject of the book came up in at University, since I’d never heard of it before I joined a local authority.

These don’t constitute a bundle of bellylaughs, I appreciate, but even they struck me as a bit on the … well, racy side for a law book. Some of the other bits of jollity I found myself editing out this time round: maybe the intervening years have made me more of an Eeyore than a Tigger. Although I kept the line in about the Luftwaffe carrying out environmental improvements to Scotland’s urban landscape.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just me. Maybe Western culture, with its 24/7 Twitter spats, increasingly polarised positions and a whole new level of political correctness, is just a little bit grimmer than it was in 2006. I can now imagine someone taking offence at the Luftwaffe gag.

Anyhoo. The whole thing for me was, much as there was some level of intellectual stimulation in rewriting the original book to take account of 12 years’ worth of cases and legislation, I resented the couple of months’ spare time it took, because it meant my music had to take a back seat.

And, leaving aside the big life events in those intervening years (like losing both parents), that’s one change I didn’t anticipate.

Back in 2006, years spent in the Boondocks of Fife had meant I’d focused on writing, at first on my own, and then increasingly in collaboration with others. I’d already had a co-written history book published, not to mention the dozens of short stories and poems that had flowered, briefly, in various magazines and anthologies. Since the early 2000s, I’d taken to performance spoken word with my buddies in Writers’ Bloc. But still…

Despite all those years of it being firmly kicked to the back of the dream cupboard, my dream of being a singer-songwriter in the Bruce Dylansteen mould kept finding its way to the front. 2008, my first Free Fringe shows, saw the emergence of that mysterious alter ego, Venus Carmichael. Various combinations of music and words followed – I remember an Unbound night at the Book Festival in particular as a key moment of realisation that, actually, the standing on stage with a guitar and other musicians bit was far more fun than the spoken word bit – and then, a couple of years further on, I got my chance to join that merry band of country punkers Isaac Brutal, and the music bug bit hard.

But those of you who know me, or have read blogs of mine in a similar vein, will know this already. What’s news to me is that there’s no way back now. The dream of being a writer has reached a plateau I’m happy to be on (ironically enough, after Revenge of the Sith there might be another, history-based, book in the offing, as a publisher has shown an interest) and the only way forward for me is combining words with music.

So, for the next couple of weeks before I’m due to turn in the history-based thing (fortunately something else I prepared earlier, years ago) the only writing you’ll be seeing from me will be right here. Otherwise, I intend to spend as much of my free time as I can performing, practising, collaborating on, and most of all making, music. The computer keyboard I’m typing on right now will once more assume its rightful place – perched atop a proper Korg keyboard, so that I can, at all times, fire up some synth sounds and dive right in, headphones on, clumsily splaying untutored hands across the black and whites.

I also intend to spend more time with my guitars the same way politicians plan to spend more time with their families: cradling them, lavishing attention on them, tugging at their heart strings (that analogy could have gone so wrong there…). My most recently adopted baby, the Telecaster copy, has been sulking in the corner of the dining room mostly since I acquired her, but I know that even my limited abilities can coax great sounds from her.

Where will it take me? I’ve no idea. I’m no longer the 19-year-old kid in his first band at University, dreaming of super-sized stadia and all the attendant perks of a rock n’ roll lifestyle. I’m realistic. I may play no more glamorous venues than Henry’s, the Edinburgh dive bar where the excellent sound people are slightly offset by the furniture that is well, frankly, sticky. And don’t even mention the toilets they share with the Chinese restaurant upstairs…

However it turns out, you can count on me blathering on about it here. It may be the only type of writing I do beyond songwriting from here on in. Stay tuned!

Image may contain: 2 people, people on stage, people standing and indoor

Tribute to Venus Carmichael in full flow, Wednesday, 7th November (pic: manicpopthrills)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Songs in a Scottish Accent 6: Never Forget Who We Are (Slight Return)

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And so, at long last, my solo album/vanity project, Songs in a Scottish Accent, is finished. The box of newly-printed CDs arrived yesterday, and test plays on the home and car audio confirmed that, yes, it’s me groaning out of the speakers.

Go to my page on the album now, and you’ll see that it’s free in return for a contribution to a refugee charity. Not that I’m going to check up on you, of course: stop me and get one next time you see me at a gig or wherever, or write to me and I’ll post it to you; after that, it’s on your head which charity you give to, and how much.

On the page itself, I go into why it’s Songs in a Scottish Accent. Why a refugee charity though?

That explanation’s bound up with the creation of the track I’m putting up below, ‘Never Forget.’ I’d been aware, as most people must be by now, of the spiralling refugee crisis in North Africa and Southern Europe for some time now. However, as I said in a previous post about this track, the trigger for me writing the poem was the sight of English football fans rampaging through a French town, attacking locals and being generally racist and unpleasant.

The poem’s not meant to be just about that, however – nor is it meant to express a view on the post-Brexit domestic political questions we’re wrestling with in the good ol’ U of K: to be clear, the line about living in the early days of a better nation isn’t meant to express a view for or against an outcome of a second Scottish independence referendum, if we get to that. The ‘we’ of the title, and constant refrain of the poem, can be taken to mean any part of, or the whole of, what generally gets called ‘the West.’

In other words, the poem was meant to reflect my feelings about the whole way in which the West has responded, post 9/11, to Islamic fundamentalism by means which, to me, cut away any supposed moral high ground we might lay claim to. Things like the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay; the ‘special rendition’ missions to render terrorist suspects, not to the law’s due process, but to illegal torture methods; more recently, the frankly incredible way Muslim women wearing burkinis were treated this summer on French beaches.

Those might be described as state-sanctioned: but let’s not kid ourselves. The rise in hate crimes since the Brexit result, to give just one example, shows how people – ordinary people, who could live just down the road – give the lie to any complacency that we in the West are in some way more ‘civilised’ than the terrorist nutters who seek to attack us. Tied in with that now seems to be a general climate of fear of ‘the other,’ whether it be our peace-loving neighbours of a different faith than ours, immigrant workers, or even the refugees currently overwhelming aid agencies in southern Europe.

So what did I do? I wrote a poem. Well, that’ll show them!

Perhaps more constructively, I would like to see the fruits of my artistic labours go towards something positive. I’m very, very, fortunate to live in a rich country, with a well-paid, secure job, with family and friends safe and well. Just a few hours in a plane away, on the other side of the continent I still call mine, hundreds of thousands of people – ordinary people, who could live just down the road, but were unlucky enough to live instead in countries ravaged by war – are risking their lives crossing the sea to the dubious safety of ill-prepared refugee camps, relying on the kindness of strangers.

So, if you lay your hands on my CD, enjoy the words and music, but in return, drop some money into a tin either in reality or online, and help these guys out.

 

(Incidentally, in the previous post I had set the words to a Mogwai track. Someone commented on Facebook that I should do my own music to accompany it, and I have. Thanks, Janet!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Songwriters on Songwriting: Me!

The other guys are a hard act to follow. However, while I’m waiting for a couple more in this series to come in, I thought I’d have a go at the questions myself. So…

Andrew C Ferguson is a writer and musician blah blah blah. Since I’ve updated the About page recently, you can always go there if you want a flavour of who the hell I think I am.

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

Music first, almost every time. It’s interesting that the other guys have different approaches, which is why I asked the question, of course, but for me it starts with a tune, or a bit of a tune. It might only be a few notes, but unless there’s some sort of musical hook the song doesn’t get going, really.

Like Norman and Mark, I have a notebook, and jot down lyrics which can sit for months, or years, waiting for the right melody before they become something. I suppose, having written in so many different forms – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, stuff in between – before I dared to call myself a songwriter, I’m stupidly confident I can knock out a few words if there’s a tune of some sort to set them to.

I mean, songs are just flash fiction that rhymes mostly, right? Could explain why mine are so wordy…

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?

Well. Again, I’ve played guitar for years, and that was initially my go-to instrument – usually the De Ville semi-acoustic, because it’s so easy to pick up and play.

However, I bought a second-hand Korg X5D  off Gavin Inglis a couple of years ago. It’s got some good sounds and some not-so good sounds, but one good one is a setting called ‘rock piano.’ A whole lot of songs are starting to come out of that, now. Basically, I’m not a good enough guitar player to know how a complicated chord change, or a melody line, can be played straight away – whereas with the piano, you can modulate chords or pick out a melody with only the most basic musical knowledge.

Having said that, I could never imagine not using the guitar at some point with most songs – it brings a whole different energy. I mean, I’m not planning a whole career of slow piano ballads!

The main thing though is capturing the melody (see below).

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?

Melodies have a really unfortunate way of coming to me at inopportune times – my mobile phone has a collection of voice recordings of me going dah dah-dah, dah-dah-dah dah… as quietly as I can because there’s a tune in my head and I’m trying to capture it before I forget it. I’m usually doing it quietly because I’m in a public place and trying not to have people think I’m in need of urgent psychiatric assistance.

One place I hear a lot of new tunes is in the swimming pool. I’m not sure why: I think it’s a combination of half-heard songs over the tannoy, and the rhythm of the swim. Either way, it’s pretty hopeless – I can’t sing them into my mobile, and when I get back to the dressing room there’s Bogie in the Morning on Forth FM or whatever playing some crap song, and the whole tune just gets obliterated. Really annoying. I’ve composed whole albums in the Fife Institute, but I can never remember them!

If I’m really lucky, I wake up on a non-work day with a tune in my head (they often come to me just at that stage of waking up, when the door to the sub-conscious is a sliver ajar; or, funnily enough, just after lunch) and I can fire up the computer, switch on the keyboard, and capture it without waking the rest of the house up. Then, sometimes, it feels like I’m pulling a kite in out of the sky – it really does feel as if the whole thing’s been up there, waiting to be hauled in whole.

Or, the other analogy I have for the process sometimes is that it’s like that experiment you used to do in Chemistry making nylon – did you ever do that? Where you wind a bit of this glistening thread onto something and, gradually, gently, you pull more and more of it out of this beaker full of gak until you have a great long piece of the stuff. If I have a chorus, for example, but not the verse; and I just have to sit and wait for the rest of it to get drawn out, piece by piece.

The lyrics are a lot more mechanical – after that intial idea in the notebook, it’s a case of deciding what story I want to tell. That can take a while. I’ve got a tune down in Mixcraft at the moment that I think is The Best Tune I’ve Ever Come Up With (I tend to think this about every third song or so) and I’m trying to craft lyrics that are good enough for it.

It’s kind of like the tunes are female friends of mine and the lyrics are new boyfriends who are never quite good enough for them. Work that out for yourself, Sigmund.

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

Fans? Shucks.

Carole King. When I used to write songs back in the day as a student, I had a bad case of Dylanitis and thought the lyrics had to be some sort of mad poetry. Unsurprisingly, my lyrics turned out as if I’d been bin-diving in Bob’s paper recycling – really bad knock offs.

King, on the other hand, taught me that you can say things quite directly and simply and that’s all you have to do, if the tune and the performance is good enough. That came from her crafting songs for other people with Gerry Goffin in the Brill Building in the early Sixties, but she didn’t forget it when she went solo in the Los Angeles Canyons. It’s about capturing an emotion.

Also anyone else who writes lyrics that have the ring of honesty. A lot of the early punk was like that. Though it’s hard to beat as a couplet the Proclaimers line ‘Even with the girls on the back of the bus/there was always the risk of a slap in the pus…’

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 don’t have much of a singing voice. I mean, I can just about hold a tune, but that’s it. I suppose, though, I write with my own voice as the initial instrument, and then stand back in awe when a proper singer like Kelly takes it and does what she does with it. I mean, the very first time she’s done some of my stuff the hairs on the back of my neck have literally stood up. Listening to a playback of my own voice singing makes my teeth stand on edge.

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

Pretty much fixed. I sometimes think a word or two could’ve done with a bit of fiddling, but by then it’s usually someone else singing it, and I feel it’s too late to tell them to change.

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

Dylan (obviously, though he’s still a bad influence)

Nick Cave: I’m a late convert, but the breadth of what the guy does is just stunning. My brother recently called the song Norman Lamont covered (see below) Cave-esque, which I’ll take any day.

Leonard Cohen. Again, a bad influence on me, because he’s got that whip-smart, literate, lyrics-as-poetry thing, but they’re never just smart for the sake of it. And he’s not depressing! Well, not all the time.

And to redress the gender balance, Suzanne Vega. Oh, and Regina Spektor.

 

Andrew C Ferguson can most usually be seen toting his De Ville as one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael. Their EP is still available, but not in the shops.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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