The Art Of The Story Song – The Key To Narrative Songwriting

At  4.00 o’clock on a December morning, the narrator of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat begins to tell the heart rending tale of a triangular relationship between two men and one woman.

IOK let’s face it, it’s a subject that that is a staple of popular song, drama, fiction and just about any other art form you can mention.  But Cohen –  like all good writers – take this most over-worked scenarios  and turns it into what might be called nowadays, a fully immersive experience that leaves you shaken and stirred.

Famous Blue Raincoat is a song you can come back to again and again,  perhaps because Cohen doesn’t reveal the whole picture. The arc of the narrative is clear.  The narrator is writing a letter to a friend who has betrayed him by sleeping with his wife (or partner), Jane. The couple stay together but the relationship has changed.

But it’s the detail that intrigues. Prior to the betrayal,  the one time friend goes to a station to meet a train, but return alone with his raincoat ‘torn’ at the shoulder. Cohen gives no further detail. You’re left to fill in the details yourself.  Similarly, the betrayer is no said to be living in the desert. At one stage, he intended to ‘go clear.’ Again no further details. What this means is that every time the listener returns to the song, the imagination  builds a bigger world around these carefully crafted pointers.

Cut to Tangled up in Blue, my favourite Dylan song. The first verse references a marriage and relationship breakdown. From there we go on a disjointed journey, where each verse seems to shine a torch into another period of the narrator’s life (it may even be multiple narrators).  Each scene is vivid. You see the faces, feel the pain and joy,  but Dylan doesn’t join the narrative dots.   He leaves that up to the listener.

Compare and contrast with Springsteen, who often writes with the precision of a screenwriter.  It’s all laid out. But here’s the trick. Every time you come back,  you rebuild the scenes a new, because the writer puts a projector and screen into your mind.

I am fascinated by the narrative song – from traditional ballads to today’s rock, rap, folk and/or Americana.   And there is more than one way to  tell a story

Arguably the real test of a story song is whether or not the listener feels inclined to hear it more than once. Give away too much, the song could be like a joke that isn’t funny second time round.

Here some songs – on a spotify playlist – that I feel have stood the test of time – along with a couple of mine.

 

Enjoy

Heroes Next Door – Support Your Local Music Legends

Chicago 2017. I’m standing at a bar in Buddy Guy’s Blues Legends club.  It’s jam night and I’m watching a local singer – the imperious and rather wonderful Holle Thee Maxwell –  wow a crowd that is largely comprised of tourists, such as my good self.

At one point, Holle plugs an upcoming concert, at which she will be playing with members of blues legend,  Willie Dixon’s band.  As it turns out, several members of that band are in the  room, all of them  pointed out by Holle.

For a music obsessed traveler, it is a wonderful moment. This is the America of my dreams.  A place where you can walk a few blocks, pay a $5 cover charge and find yourself standing at the bar with men and women who are an acknowledged part of musical history. And let’s not forget Holle, herself.  A blues, soul an opera singer, she is also part of Chicago’s heritage.

Bert’s Blues

But I live in England, so let’s jump back further in time. I first saw  saw Bert Jansch play in the cellar bar of a pub in North West London and a few weeks later in the upstairs room of a another bar in Clapham.  On both occasions he played inspiring sets that made me a) want to practice harder and b) encouraged me to buy a Yamaha LD10, just like Bert’s.

Bert was, of course, a musical  legend. One of the key figures in the UK folk revival of the 1960s,  he was a master musician who has, by now, influenced several generations of musicians.  But like many on the folk/blues scene, you might find playing a pub folk club on Wednesday and the Albert Hall on Saturday.  He was, in short, not only a guitar genius but also an accessible, jobbing musician. The same could be said for others of his generation, such as Martin Carthy or Steve Tilston.

Close to the Action

The great thing about small pub gigs is that – from the point of view of a guitarist  – you can really see what’s going on – or to put it another way, you are close to the action and can clearly see every piece of left hand fingering and right hand technique.

And if you’re lucky, you might also see a real legend at work. To drop another name, I was once luck enough to see former Fleetwood Mac guitarist at a bar in Southampton.

So what am I saying here. Musicians start off in small pubs and club and in some cases that’s where they stay or return to.   We live in an age of stadium rock, but small venues are where new music is made and where it can often be seen and heard at its best.   So support the heroes next door – the ones that have already earned their place in history and the ones taking their first step in that direction.

Will Playlists Kill The Album?

If you write songs and post them online as albums , you probably spend a lot of time playing around with the sequence of songs.  I certainly do.

Back in the day – when vinyl and then the CD ruled the roost – sequencing was something of an art form.  There was the opening track – the one with which you hoped to wow your audience – and from there you took listeners on a journey that culminated in the album closer. And very often the closing song would be one of the best on the album.  A good final number was like the closing chapter a novel. Whether an out and out rocker or an atmospheric dying fall, it was the climax of the experience.   Sadly in the age of streaming, a lot of listeners won’t make it to the closer.

But hey. Today we still have albums, but we also have playlists.  Now I’m a great believer in albums as entities in themselves, but I have to say there’s something to be said for creating playlists of your own material as well. Songs from different albums that seem to go well together.

And it’s not just me. As reported this week in the Guardian newspaper, increasing numbers of artists are eschewing the album concept and instead creating rolling and ever-changing playlists for the streaming community. Will this destroy the album?  I hope not, but what it will do is provide musicians with another way to package the songs they write and produce.

With that in mind, I’ve just created a little four track mini-list bringing together some bluesy tracks (see below)on Soundcloud and will be doing something similar on Spotify. Hope you enjoy.

 

First Songs – Don’t Throw Them Away

If you’ve found your way to this blog because you  too write words and music for fun or profit, then you probably remember your first song.  This is mine.

What’s more, you can probably remember the circumstances in which you wrote it.  Maybe it was inspired by your first serious love affair – or less sweetly, your first meaningful breakup.  Whatever, the inspiration, I bet you found it easy to write. You were (probably) young and  unencumbered by any sense of your own limitations. You just sat down and let the words and music flow out.

Rediscovery

The reason, I’m talking about this is because I recently rediscovered my own first song after many many years.  The discovery came through playing it for fun and thinking: “you know what, I would like to record this.”  Why? Because it had a strong melody and pushed my voice to places it rarely goes these days. The words were those of an 18 year old – but I could live with them.

So why hadn’t I recorded it before? Well, it was an acoustic song and in 1997, punk happened. I set aside my acoustic, bought an electric guitar and amp, and for a few years, I rocked out. When I returned to being an acoustic troubadour, Come Tomorrow was forgotten.

And now it’s on my new album – Love & Pride, because it seems to fit and I like it. In the words of English songwriter Ralph McTell: “You were my first song and I still love you.”

Let me know what you think. And post your first songs.

 

Why Travel Broadens The Songwriting Mind

In about 24 hours time, I’ll be setting off for Los Angeles to attend an awards ceremony.   I’ll be there on business rather than for  pleasure and I won’t have too much free time – if any – to explore the city, but I’m looking forward to it. After all, travel, is travel, is travel and it’s always inspiring.

A Source Of Inspiration

But hey, I know what you’re thinking. This is a songwriter’s diary – so why is he banging on about travel.  Well simply because a few days ago, a friend asked me if travel is a source inspiration for songs.

Directly or indirectly, I think it is.  In fact some of of my favourite songs have strong travel themes –  Foreign Affairs by Tom Waits, and Joni Mitchell’s Amelia spring immediately to mind. More recently, Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote a wonderful song called Transcendental Reunion on the unlikely subject of queuing up at arrivals.

In my own case, I’ve written quite a few songs that have –  directly or indirectly – been inspired by a holiday, business trip or simply moving between one city and another by air sea or land. So why does travel broaden the songwriting mind?

Alone With Your Thoughts

Well one obvious reason is that you often spend long periods of time alone with your thoughts – say on a bus journey or eleven or twelve hour flight. That in itself can stir up memories that by some kind of alchemy morph into choruses, hooks and verses.

You Meet New People

You meet new people and hear new stories. And maybe also you expose yourself to fresh ideas or even figures of speech that you haven’t heard before.  All these things can feed into song ideas.

You Soak Up Musical Heritage

Last year I visited Chicago and when I was there I made a point of going to a blues club and a jazz venue ( as well as seeing the Killers on the shores of Lake Michigan).  The next album (Love and Pride) had a definite blues tinge. (see above link)

The Landscape Inspires You

And it’s always worth remembering that simply being in in a different place – replete with its own landscape, sounds and smells gets the creativity juices working.

Getting the Juices Running

But the travel/songwriting equation plays out in different ways. As I already mentioned the blues/jazzy feel of much of my last album owes much to a week spent in Chicago. More directly, spending my birthday alone in San Francisco, directly inspired a song entitled San Francisco, New Eve.

But the inspiration can be more circuitous. Years ago, I spent time on a bus driving through Greece from the the city of Sparta. It was full of soldiers returning to camp and none of them looked particularly happy. That experience ultimately resulted in me writing A Soldier’s Pay – a song about an English soldier returning to his camp after a week long drinking session.

So to close, here is a spotify playlist of some of my favorite traveling songs.  Hope you enjoy.

 

 

Long Term Review – Why the Martin DRS1 is my main gigging guitar

Have you ever been in the situation where your ears are telling you one thing while your preconceptions – or perhaps more accurately, prejudices – are sending you an entirely different message.

Let’s wind the clock back to a January day in 2014. I’m sitting in the acoustic guitar room of Andertons Music in Guildford, where I’m playing a Martin DRS1 for the first time.

And my ears are telling me that this is an instrument that I want to spend more time with. It’s not the loudest dreadnought I’ve ever played, but it has a warm , evenly balanced sound that responds well to strumming, flatpicking and – perhaps more surprisingly – my style of fingerpicking (see above). Admittedly the action doesn’t seem particularly low and the neck feel fatter and a bit more clubby than I’m used to, but crucially it is very comfortable to play. And as I sit noodling, watched by an assistant who senses a sale, I become more and more convinced that the sound and feel of this guitar suit me down to the ground.

Those Pesky Preconceptions

Then the preconceptions kick in, for this is not a conventional instrument. I have no problem with the solid Sapele back and sides but I have doubts about the stratabond neck. A fairly standard feature on Martin’s Mexican made instruments, such necks are constructed of thin strips of wood . In other words, its a kind of plywood. It is very rigid (in some ways ways a plus) but for someone used to solid mahogany necks on my acoustics, it looks extremely strange and unfamiliar. Frankly, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to live with it. Added to that, the fingerboard is made from a synthetic material (Richlite) as is the bridge. The preconceptions prompt me to ask myself: “Is this a real guitar or a very expensive toy.

My ears win the day and I buy it.

Fast forward to the following week. I’m really not sure about the neck. The Richlite seems hard on my fingers. I think about taking it back to the shop and trying for a swap.

So what happened?

Three years on and its my main gigging guitar. Initially I took it out just occasionally to gigs and continued mainly use my Yamaha LD. Slowly but surely, however, it inveigled its way into my affections. More to the point, I began to regard as the most practical choice for live work.

For one thing it stays in tune supernaturally well. Despite tuners which on the face of it appear to be slightly flimsy, it turned out to be rock solid. I suspect the stiff neck helps (although the downside is probably less resonance), along with a well cut nut. The tuners themselves do the job. It takes a capo well, too.

I also find it easy to get a good plugged-in sound. The pickup system – Fishman – is very simple and the onboard preamp has just two controls (mounted in the soundhole) for tone and volume. But they work. I don’t know if there’s any science to this, but the warmth of acoustic sound seems to offset the natural brightness of the piezzo pickup when the guitar is amplified.

A Handsome Devil

Last but not  least. I think the DRSI is a handsome devil thanks to chestnut colour of the Sapele. Yes, it’s simple and there is – for example – no binding on the neck or body. But that stripped down look complements the rootsy music I tend to play.

What Don’t I Like?

I use if for recording, but if you don’t get the mic placement exactly right, it can be a bit boomy. And its natural boom tends to be exacerbated when the original recording is compressed during the mastering process. Get the placement right, however, and its fine.

I use the DRS1 for recording, but it’s not always the right tool. For live work, I’ve found it hard to beat.

Here’s what it sounds like on record.

Same old Same Old – Six Ways To Get Out Of A Songwriting Rut

Whether as instrumentalists, singers or songwriters, those of us who play music with any degree of seriousness tend to aspire to finding and developing a recognisable personal style.

And that’s a good thing. Over time our style – or our way of doing things – becomes our brand. It’s the thing that sets us apart.

But here’s the rub. While it’s good to have a recognisable style it’s certainly not good to become predictable. And sometimes, without knowing it, personal style morphs into sameness. From a songwriting point of view, that might mean falling back on certain chord voicings. Or we may find ourselves pulling out variations of the same melody over chord sequences that are always different and yet strangely familiar. Or to put it another way, we end up falling back on those musical tropes and habits that have served us well over the years. It’s a rut.

As a songwriter, I’ve always tried to break things up a bit. So if I’m writing a 10 song collection, I’ll employ different tempos, song structures, keys, and tunings, playing styles and subject matter. This is all conscious activity. Unconsciously, I might well be – for instance – using similar chord patterns but in different keys in two songs. As far as I’m concerned they sound as different as chalk and cheese, but record and play them back to back and the similarities emerge.

So how do you break away from the habits that have become vices. Here are five ways that work for me.

Learn and Play Some Cover Versions

One thing I have been guilty of is focusing solely on my own songs. After all, when I’m out gigging, 95% of what I play is original. So when I’m at home, I concentrate on writing new material or honing existing songs.

The problem is that it’s all too easy to base everything around a personal style – and musical knowledge – that you’re overly familiar with. Maybe also, you forget how to be a fan.

Playing covers reconnects you with the way other songwriters work. The chords they use. How they use melody above the chords. Their use of rhythm. I’m not talking about ripping off other writers. It’s more a case of letting them pull you out of your comfort zone.

Write on Different Instruments

Even changing from one apparently similar instrument to another can re-inspire you. For instance, when I returned to playing live after a ten year gap, the catalyst was the purchase of a parlour acoustic guitar. It asked to be played fingerstyle, and as I explored its musical possibilities, I started to write a whole new collection of songs, which eventually found their way onto the Secret Histories and Firecracker Day albums.

More radically, you might switch from acoustic to electric guitar as your main writing instrument. Or from guitar to piano. Alternatively to take your mind of chords and focus it on melody and beat, you could try building a song from a drum track.

Arrange Differently

The album I’m probably most proud of is Firecracker Day. It’s a stripped down, acoustic purist album featuring voice and fingerstyle guitar. It was designed to ( if such a thing is possible) showcase my guitar work, voice and story telling style. But here’s the thing. I loved the stripped down format but I knew that when I came to make another record, that I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) do the same thing again.

So next time round, I jettisoned a lot of the fingerstyle solo playing and opted instead for layered guitars. Strummed at flat picked acoustics, overdubbed with electric lead lines. This had a double impact on my writing and recording. On one hand, it changed the feel of existing songs. Equally, though, it fed into my writing.

Play with a Band

I play a lot of solo gigs, but every so often I get a band together. And guess what, my writing changes. Once I get a feel for what the band can do, I start writing for that combination.

Get Outside Your Own Life

Most of us start off by writing from experience. Your sixteen and your girlfriend/boyfriend dumps you, so write a song. It’s heartfelt and your friends all like it. But unless you have a more interesting life than I do, writing from personal experience has its limits. So look at the world and people around you. There’s a whole world of stories out there. Stories that can inspire your next hit (if you’re luckier than I am).

Learn Your Craft

On the technical side, there are a huge amount of tools at your disposal. Listen to other writers to see how they structure their work in terms of verses, choruses, bridges, codas, internal rhymes. Equally – and this gets back to playing covers – there’s a whole range of musical styles, scales and chord substitutions that can take your writing forward.

More of this in another blog.

The Autobiographical Song – Just say no (or maybe yes)

Just for the record – in the interests of transparency – I have never done any of the following:

  • Lived in or in close proximity to a fishing port

  • Had a passionate and torrid affair with the wife of a fisherman

  • Seen that affair come to an end because of a tragedy at sea

I only point this all out because one of my songs – the Running Tide – features a character who has done or experienced all those things, and a few more besides. Indeed, in the space of a six minute song, he (the narrator) and his partner indulge in a fair amount of morally sub-optimal behaviour. And along the way he walks a road from a kind of innocence to experience.

Writing in Character

It was actually, a fun song to write. A proper story with characters, a beginning a middle and an end, plus a plot twist. If that sounds a bit heavy, people seem to like it. It’s my best performing song on Spotify and it gets requested a lot at gigs.

But it’s not autobiographical and very few of my songs are. Once, after a gig, a woman who asked me: “Do you put all your relationships into songs.” I probably smiled enigmatically/I wasn’t totally sure if I was flattered or vaguely unsettled by the fact that I might look like someone who has endured and survived several albums’ worth of doomed, tragic or tempestuous relationships. The truth is I write stories and the characters aren’t (usually) me.

Authenticity

So does that make them inauthentic. I hope not/ Maybe the autobiography slips in when I apply elements of my own experience to other people’s stories. In other words, the characters and situation are made up, but I wouldn’t be writing them if I couldn’t, at some level, empathise with the fictional people who I move around my songwriting chessboard. So there is a bit of me in there. Small incidents in my life are enlarged into the stuff of song.

This is a win/win situation, as I see it. I get to write about real feelings and emotions (and situations) but I render them in a fictional format. So – for the most part –  no one recognises themselves in any of my songs and consequently  nobody gets annoyed at having their story framed by somebody else’s narrative. At least that’s what I like to think.

That said, I’ve probably written two or three songs where real world situations – and more importantly real world people – find themselves centre stage. And  it does worry me. What if they Google me one day and find the song? What if they then recognize themselves within the song? What will they think? Will they be annoyed?  Should I take the song out of public view, just to be on the safe side?

Sad to say, I don’t think anyone has ever written a song about me and if that were ever happen, I don’t know what I’d make of it. On one level, I would probably be flattered that they bothered. But possibly also severely destabilised.  I remember reading that the real Suzanne from the Leonard Cohen song of the same name was extremely upset when she was identified as the subject of one of the world’s best selling (and best known) lyrics.

So I think that – by and large –  it’s wise  to stay away from stories that real life people can recognize as their own. And it’s probably even wiser to avoid naming  names . But sometimes as an artist/songwriter, you feel you have to tread the autobiographical /biographical road  – If only because you have a story  a story that needs to be told.  A case of handle with care.

Let me know what you think.

Check out my new album on spotify:  Love & Pride 

Or bandcamp: Love & Pride

Sequencing an Album In the Age of Streaming and Downloads

My new album
My new album

After several months of recording and mixing,  my new album - Love & Pride is available for download and streaming ahead of an official “physical” launch in May.

So at the moment it’s a digital only release and that in itself raises questions about the purpose of “albums” in the age of Spotify and Itunes.

You could argue that the very existence of the album – or the concept of the album –  is a product of a certain kind of music reproduction technology in the shape of the vinyl record spinning at 33 and 1/3 RPM  and giving you a comfortable 45 minutes of music. In other words 10 to 12 songs across two sides. It was that structure that gave the classic albums of the sixties, seventies and eighties their shape.  And the key to most of the great albums was a sequence of songs that took you on a journey from a killer opening track to memorable closer.

And there was probably an assumption that people would listen all the way through. The opener was hugely important.  but so were the songs in  the middle.  The closing track – like the last page of a novel – was also crucial.  It was the closer that created the lingering aftertaste.  It  might be an epic ( such as Jungleland bringing Born to Run to an end)an off-brand surprise (Train in Vain/London Calling )  or the best tune on the album (You Can’t Always Get What You Want/Let it Bleed). None of those songs were throwaways pushed to the end. They were crucial components.   My own favourite closers are  Slim Slow Slider (Astral Weeks/Van Morrison) and I Dream a Highway (Gillian Welch/Time, the Revelator).

(This is my Spotify playlist of closers)

But can you safely leave the best ( or one of the best tracks) until the end today?  To a degree you can. People still buy CDs and downloads and listen all the way through. But – and this is a big but – when someone downloads a new release on Itunes, it might only be one or two songs out of ten.  Meanwhile, if you look at new releases on Spotify, the popularity bars tend to show that it’s the first two or three tracks on an album that get listened to most.

So should we all make EPs instead. Or simply sequence all the best tracks first, leaving filler to the end.

I hope not. An album is a chance to tell a story about where you are musically and thematically at any given point in time. And the sequence matters.

On my new album – which I consider to be blues in mood but not genre)  there are tracks that come from a jazz blues and even soul route and others which tap into a folk vibe. Making it all work together depends on the sequence.

But we live in the modern world and the first four tracks ( the ones that get listened to most – are also in carefully sequenced. You adapt to the times, I guess.

Love and pride is now available for Download and Streaming from Spotify, Apple Music, Itunes, Bandcamp, Amazon, Google and others.

Check it out here.  (Spotify app)

On from bandcamp