andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: norman lamont

New Collaborations

I written before about creative collaborations, and how, basically, I’m a bit of a slut when it comes to them. I’ve never really seen writing or making music as a solo activity – especially the latter; and some of the things I’m proudest of in my output have happened that way: for example, the poetry pamphlet I did with Jane McKie, Head to Head, back in 2008.

Now I’m pretty much set on a musical journey (apart, perhaps, from more novels and a travel book) collaboration comes more naturally. Playing in bands kind of means you have to work as part of a team, and I never weary of hearing any song – but especially one of my own – tried out for the first time, and, sometimes on the first, the second, or maybe the third run through, something clicks, you reach the end, and you look at each other with that look that says, we had something there!

Recording is a different process from rehearsing or playing live, of course. I’m really looking forward to finalising the tracks I’ve been working on with Mark for the Isaac Brutal acoustic EP, of which more soon. But when it comes to solo work, up to now the collaborations have been few and far between.

And then two come along at once. I’m very chuffed indeed to have been asked to play guitar on a track by a new friend, Audrey Russell – let’s hope my playing is up to it! No such anxieties, however, with Norman Lamont‘s abilities. He came over recently, brought his electric guitar and effects pedals, and within the space of a brief evening, had laid down a beautiful, haunting contribution to a track I’ve had on the blocks for quite some time.

Here’s the result. It’s definitely going into my next solo album, although by the time I get that finished I may have tweaked it. If I do, it certainly won’t be to take out Norman’s contribution!

In the meantime, as with all my solo work, it’s free to download, but if you do, please think about donating to a refugee charity.

[technical glitch – I’m waiting to upload an updated version of this. If you can’t wait, go to my Soundcloud site]

(Incidentally, if you haven’t heard Norman’s music before, you’re in for a treat – and he offers free stuff on his site)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Undiscovered Self: A Profile of Norman Lamont, Singer-Songwriter

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A shorter, more tightly edited version of this profile appears on Norman’s own site here.

Does the creative spark flare brightest in early adulthood for all of us? Or for some, does the onset of, say, middle age create new impetus, new muses either spiritual or temporal?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and especially since reading Norman Lamont’s comment on his website that he’s been writing songs for 45 years, but he didn’t start writing good ones till his 40s.

Of course, this is in many ways typical Lamontian self-deprecation – I’m sure his twenty- and thirty-something output contains fine material – but my own appreciation of Norman’s work is inevitably coloured by the fact that I first got to know him in early 2011, when putting together a tribute night to His Bobness called Dylan Uncovered. The format was for each artist to do two covers of the great man, plus something else inspired by his work. In Norman’s case this was, inevitably, ‘the Ballad of Bob Dylan,’ one of his best known songs – and written, by my reckoning, long before his forties. I’ll let Norman himself tell you the story of that one, but, for me, his whole performance was one of the highlights of the evening.

Partly I just wanted to steal him and his bandmates to be my own backing band! Although they’ve since mutated from the Invisible Helpers to The Heaven Sent, Norman’s fellow instrumentalists in both switch between that folk-rock mix of acoustic and electric bandwidths that, in my head, I mostly hear when I have an idea for songs. Norman’s output is eclectic to say the least, ranging from the folk and rock genres through jazz influences to ambient electronica, but at its core is a body of work that follows that golden thread of songwriting craft from Dylan, Leonard Cohen, through others such as Nick Cave (Norman and his band also played at my next curated night, Cry of the Cave People, and made the Grand Lord of Goth’s songs his own too).

Of course, many know Norman for his long held affection for Cohen’s work, and I was delighted to play a small part in his Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen in November 2015. This was one of a series of tribute nights to the now sadly departed Canadian singer-songwriter, and Norman’s recent post about his loss is not just a fitting tribute, but telling in small details on how much Cohen’s approach has influenced his own style. Cohen’s ‘humble’ performance in front of a sell out crowd, for example, ‘stuck with [him] as the right way to approach an audience.’

In the same post, Norman mentions where he was living at the time of various Cohen album releases, including Rotterdam, London, Manchester, Staffordshire, and latterly, thankfully for us east coast Scots, South Queensferry. He’s been a fixture on the Edinburgh singer-songwriter scene since 1990. I’ve now seen him perform several times, and been lucky enough to share a bill with him on a couple of those occasions. In person and on stage, what shines through, apart from superb musicianship and songcraft, is the charm, self-deprecation and wit. Characteristically, after the Dylan Uncovered night turned out to be a logistical nightmare for which I, as an inexperienced gig promoter, was totally unprepared, he took the trouble to write and thank me for asking him to play. It was much more than most of the rest of the bill did!

A typical Lamont song – if such a thing even exists – will often use storytelling skills to drive the lyric on, whether of the shaggy dog variety as in ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ or a tauter form, as in  ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ where the telling detail of the sexual rival’s journey to meet the narrator’s lover ‘he checks his watch, he mouths a song’ unwraps the fierce emotions underneath. One of my favourites from his last album is ‘Not About to Fly,’ recounting an Ayrshire childhood, from the sound of it, well spent. How many other songs begin with a line like, ‘When I was a spy I stuffed some wires in a jam jar/ left it buried by the river bank where it’s transmitting still…’? Musically, the opening mandolin motif leads into some superb violin playing before the rhythm section of (acoustic) guitar and bass underpin the whole; but the song’s flexible enough that the band could perform it equally well with Norman toting his Stratocaster.

My perennial question for Norman when I meet him these days – apart from, ‘when’s the next album coming out?’ is ‘why in hell aren’t you far better known than you are?’ It’s a dumb question to ask any artist, but dumb questions can still be valid ones. Perhaps he doesn’t push himself forward as brazenly as it takes. Maybe it is that age thing – after all, if anyone’s going to grab attention in today’s overcrowded Youtube/Soundcloud/Bandcamp melee it’s probably not going to be a fifty-plus singer-songwriter who relies on strong melody and intelligent lyrics, and doesn’t generally pause in the middle to rap over a Limp Bizkit sample.

Well, if this blog persuades one more initiate into the cult of Norman Lamont, it’ll have been worthwhile. Let the world go to hell in a handcart – standing at the top of 2017, it certainly looks headed that way – if we’ve got Mr Lamont to help it explain it all, the journey there will seem that much less bumpy. And the good news for all of us is, the well’s showing no sign of going dry. ‘I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded,’ he tells me.

Amen, amen, amen to that.

Footnote: when putting this profile together, I asked Norman a couple of questions – basically just to get a couple of quotes from the man himself in somewhere. Typically, his responses were so well written and witty they’re far too good to fillet, so they’re printed in full below.

When you’re recording an album, do you have a sound (whether it’s Dylan’s wild, thin, mercury sound or otherwise) in mind for the songs?

– On a song by song basis, yes I can pretty much hear it all in my head, a full arrangement. That’s about 60% of the songs. Not for an album, which is why my albums are such a patchwork of inconsistent styles. I just hear and create songs then try to shoehorn them into a collection.  That’s my pattern and I actively try to disrupt it now in a few ways:

  • taking a half-finished song or idea to the band and seeing how it ends up
  • starting a song on the computer from a drum track or a few chords, then trying to match some random lyrics from my notebook to it
  • in the case of the band album, using the same people and roughly the same intrumentation for every track.

I have to say none of these have been as successful, I don’t think, as the songs that are fully ‘heard’ in my head like I Started A Fire and The Last Man To Touch You. Often when I make them up I’m driving so they have to be quite catchy songs for me to remember them till I get home. By that time I’ve pretty much arranged them in my head. But I’m trying to persevere with the ‘disruptive’ methods. An example of that would be Song of Wandering Aengus from the last album where I had the backing track I’d made for a cover version of someone else’s song, but replaced the melody with a new one and Yeats’ lyrics.

Do you release groups of songs as albums as they come chronologically, as it were, or are there a lot of songs that you hold back till they find a right fit?

I have the recordings in half-finished states for years, dipping in and out until suddenly one night I’ll get a glimpse of what this or that one needs to make it good. I don’t really think about albums other than ‘have I got enough for one?’  I think those days may be in the past and I’ll just put them out as I finish them. I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded.

Name something you enjoy about the recording process, and something you don’t enjoy so much.

I love arranging, throwing instrument after instrument on then taking them off again leaving maybe only a bar or two of this and and a trace of that. I hate the software. At first I thought it was Cubase that was playing jokes at my expense but now I realise it’s any software I use. They conspire among themselves to trip me up. They tune into my level of eagerness to get started and plan their malfunctions in proportion to my sense of urgency.  An alternative explanation is incompetence, but I don’t buy that.

You can also read my interview with Norman which formed part of my ‘songwriters on songwriting’ series right here.

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All the Time in Heaven: a (very brief) album review

I should, like all moral reviewers, start by declaring any interests. Norman Lamont has been on the bill of both gigs I’ve ever organised, namely Dylan Uncovered and Cry of the Cave People. He was recently an audience member at a Tribute to Venus Carmichael gig. He’s also, as it happens, just covered one of my songs, brilliantly so in my biased view, on Soundcloud: Somewhere You’re Out There.

However, I don’t owe him any actual money, and I don’t know him that well personally, just through music, as it were: I didn’t know, for example, that his daughter was in Nepal when the earthquake hit when I went on Saturday to see him at A Night for Nepal, at St Philip’s Church, Joppa, on Saturday. Norman read a (beautifully written) note from his daughter about her experience of the eathquake. It was a great night, with Nepalese dance, Bulgarian folk songs, blues harmonica, and custard filled pastries: Norman’s performance with his current band, The Heaven Sent, was the highlight though.

I also got the chance to buy a copy of his recent album, All the Time in Heaven, which showcases Norman’s songwriting and arranging skills perfectly. When I listen to stuff as good as this, I do wonder how, even in the cluttered landscape of music and musicians we all live in, guys like Norman aren’t better known than they are. Standouts so far on a limited amount of listens are the single, Not About to Fly, a jaunty story of childhood conspiracy theories; and Fingerpuppet, where the lyrics are counterpointed perfectly by the gorgeous acoustic guitars.

However, I’m thinking the opening track, The Monk From the Mountain of Sorrow, is one that will repay several listens – it’s complex, musically, with, again, rich lyrical underpinning: based loosely, I understand, on elements of Leonard Cohen’s life story.

But don’t just rely on what I say: have a listen. The link to Not About to Fly’s below. One other thing I didn’t know about Norman I take from that song: he’s from Ayrshire, the other end of the Central Belt coal seam from me in Fife. Maybe that’s why I feel an affinity!

Next up, I have the effrontery to answer my own interview questions. Plus musings on music and publishing business models, and some discoveries in an ex-Council Edinburgh flat.

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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, normanlamont.com.

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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More News from Nowhere (well, from the esteemed Mr Lamont, actually)

What attracted you to the idea of a Nick Cave covers night?

– it was the chance to do a duet on Henry Lee with a friend ( but not, thankfully, recreating the video!)

How did you come to choose your set? Was it your favourite Cave songs of all time, the ones you reckoned were most playable, or a mixture of both?

 

 

– probably my favourite songs and the ones I thought I could deliver; I don’t have the voice for the likes of Tupelo

Cave uses some pretty interesting instrumentation at times. Did that inspire you to change things up from your usual sound?

 

 

– I believe my keyboard player has some tricks up his sleeve

Any particular challenges in rehearsal? Were there any songs you had to leave on the cutting room floor?

 

 

– when we started rehearsal I had a bad cold and my voice was a good bit lower. It sounded great. Now I’m back to normal and I’m struggling to reach the low notes!

Have you something special up your sleeve for your performance, or would you have to kill us after you tell us?

 

 

– the songs speak for themselves so we’re just going to deliver them and get out the way

Finally, do you have any particular Nick Cave anecdotes you’d like to share, either from one of his gigs or otherwise?

 

 

– somewhere I saw Toyah Willcox mention that Nick had brought his kids to her panto performance in Brighton and was to be seen laughing and singing, waving a foam pointy hand and definitely being an off-duty prince of darkness

 

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