Song Bio #2: From the Headland

IMG_0760Ironically, unlike half a dozen of the other tracks on this album, the music for this wasn’t conceived at the Anglesey retreat for which it is named.  It was the last song that Jon wrote before we started recording, an afterthought in 12/8 inspired by a late-night session listening to Ron Sexsmith.  I find the time signature irresistible, and I do think Jon has captured some of Sexsmith’s musical honesty.  It’s a gentle, effortless rhythm with a melancholic backbone of piano that recalled to me, when I first heard it, the coastline of Trearddur Bay, the way words get caught in the wind and on bright days you have to shield your eyes from the sun.  Listening, I was thrilled.  My head was full of idyllic images from last February.  I scribbled musings over the past few months, equally tender and kind.  They didn’t quite fit, but I told myself I would have plenty of time to complete the lyrics upon our return to the Headland this year, and that this would be apt.  I waited patiently.

Nothing really takes shape as you imagine it will, though.  Not the return journey, not the memories, not the way the ink flows on paper.  Or doesn’t flow.  Sometimes it just bleeds into your mind and dries there.  Sometimes you have to pick the crusts of ink out with a razor and hope for the best.  It may be that when I listen to From the Headland that tension will always be there: the effort of excavation, the phrases that I abuse and criticise through the subsequent post-natal angst, juxtaposed against the apparent ease of 12/8.   This is the song that has taken up the most pages in my notebook and has the greatest number of scribbles and cross-outs.  It is a storm.  I hope that something gentle and true has emerged from the destruction; I’m still not sure.  In the end, the vocal melody walked off on its own and the tone became darker than I expected, less celebratory.  It emerged not in colour, but in grainy black and white.IMG_0713

Like song lyrics, the stories of the coastline, too, are elusive.  Maybe sometimes the binoculars are best left untouched, and words written with eyes closed….Last week I spent ages staring at the sea, trying to decide if the object that the waves kept covering and uncovering was a piece of granite that had come to life with the tide, or a mythical creature disguising itself as part of the landscape.  Parachutes landed in the water from a circling plane – a clandestine delivery?  Hostage negotiators swarming to the naval ship that sat, stolid and silent, miles from the shore?  Bottled messages that would get dashed against the rocks before they had a chance to be read?  We never found out, and went home imagining.

Jon’s highlight musical moment at the current stage of recording: “Thure’s guitar solo, where the first note comes in, ‘weeeaaaaaaaaa’…it just sits…and then goes…”.

My highlight lyrical moment: “The window panes moan/like a Theremin played in a minor key”.

 

Driving Through Norway

We have now done five and a half days’ worth of recording our 13 tracks for Songs from the Headland with sound engineer Adam Ellis at Deadline Studios in Leicester (www.deadlinestudios.co.uk).  Adam’s studio alchemy and golden ears should have alerted us to paranormal prospects of this venture, or is it just that I am feeling especially spiritual tonight?  If so, I must have been influenced by the guitars: Styx and Will were in first at the start of the month to lay down grooves for the rest of us to follow, Jon has done some keyboards and piano, and this weekend was Thure’s turn in the isolation chamber.  On Saturday he donned a new baseball cap, thick-rimmed glasses, and ear defenders (okay, headphones), and therefore looked alarmingly like a rookie cop ready to play out a grudge at the target range.  But on Sunday he lost the cap and glasses.  He braved sciatica to sit down. He spanked his strings.  And on Driving Through Norway, one of the two tracks we’re doing without drums or bass, he turned from rogue cop to restless spirit – conjuring other-worldly sounds like a medium working a ouija board, fingers and slide levitating over an ancient electric axe festooned with glitter and love-hearts.

10978666_931584916865681_3456421137968013435_nLooking back through this and the other photos on Jon’s iPhone, many of them also taken through the hazy double-glazing of the airlock, it occurred to me that I really should start writing about the recording.  It next occurred to me that the best way of doing this would be to write about some of the songs themselves.  So I’m starting, for no particular reason, with Driving Through Norway.  I say no particular reason, but this one is, for me, a highlight of our new arsenal.  It also has an unexpected trajectory that echoes the seemingly random imagery of its title, and therefore exemplifies the roads that I like to think Bluebird Parade songs often become: those less travelled, those that meander off the folds of the map.

Speaking of roads, at the time that Jon started on this tune, he was freshly re-infatuated with all things Triumph.  When he inserted a scratch chorus of “Going our own way” across a driving rock beat, I knew it was no coincidence.  I’m not saying I’ve never mused over the moral dilemma of where I’d draw the line when it comes to prostituting your songs for advertising (entirely hypothetical – no one has approached us yet, not even Vespa), but the idea of Jon trying to manipulate me into writing my choruses for his Thunderbird made me rather indignant.  Ergo, “Driving through Norway” fit the rhyme and meter, and seemed a suitably nonsensical riposte to use in rehearsals until I came up with something better.  And then, of course, it stuck.  But it took slowing it down to 83 bpm, and some late-night, Twin Peaks-esque experimentation with slide guitar and church organ, to have those words suddenly make sense.

Given the geographical nod, it was only fitting to recruit Nikolaj Torp-Larsen, Thure’s fellow Dane, manic piano-man for the Specials, keyboardist on Adele’s Oscar-winning “Skyfall”, farmhand extraordinaire, and all-around damn good egg, to be a guest on the recording.  Nikolaj mused via e-mail that the song reminded him of “Velvet Underground mixed with something more current” before promptly sending us a couple of wav files over from Squat Sound Studios (thesuppliersuk.com).   I’m not exactly sure what a wav file is, only that it is something quite remarkable that allows Nik to more or less play his grand piano in the soundbooth with us, even while he’s out and about touring with Feeder’s Grant Nicholas.  As if that weren’t spoiling us enough, soon to cameo on this and a few other tracks are Laura and Ellie Stanford from the highly accomplished Q Strings – not Danes, no, but cracking musicians and lovely people (www.qstrings.co.uk).

And so to the rest of it: once the song slowed down and darkened, the lyrics wrote themselves.  A terrible cliché, I know, but it must have been that ouija board.  I often imagine being on a radio show (no, not the Melton Eye again, though that would do in a pinch) and being asked by Radcliffe and Maconie, say, or Lauren Laverne, about the meaning of my lyrics.  But in the absence of anyone asking, the properly enigmatic answer for Driving Through Norway is, It’s about taking yourself to a different psychological country.  Taking control where you appear powerless.  It’s about abuse, or being held hostage, or just remaining defiant in the face of forces that want to destroy you.  That kind of thing.  We’ve gone from a Triumph motorcycle commercial to the backdrop of Scandi-noir in a heartbeat: make of that what you will, see what you think when you hear it, and let us know if it stirs your innards.

Jon’s highlight musical moment: “It’s not finished yet.  But I like the vocal harmonies on the choruses.”

My highlight lyrical moment:You’ve had it your own way/But a head is just a landscape/You are not the rightful heir/of the kingdom I’ll become“.