Songs come from the most curious places. If I knew where mine came from, I could write one every day. Paddy McAloon composes about twenty songs for every one I write. Prince has made about 12 albums in the 18 year gap since I put out my last one ‘Astronauts And Heretics’—and that’s despite his major label disputes! Yet even before I finished my lifeboat recording studio the Nutmeg, and started to write and record a new album, I’d somehow accrued a backlog of about a dozen new songs that existed only in my head. They take shape while I’m driving, or out for a walk, or in shower. They have words, chords, melodies, sounds. They have full arrangements and even a production style. Yet I’d be hard pressed to even play them to you on the piano, because I’ve never played or sung a note of them.
Then there’s another kind, that come from something very specific. In the case of a song I have been writing over the last three days, it all started when I was checking out a new piece of software called Omnisphere. I was running through the preset sounds, weeding out the ones I don’t like, trimming 1700 so-so sounds down to a personal library of a couple of hundred. Very often when I’m auditioning sounds like that, I play a few notes or chords to see how they work in context. One particularly evocative Omnisphere sound caught my ear, with roughly the tonal quality of a pedal steel guitar. Before I knew it my fingers had found their way to a set of notes and chords that showed the sound of in its best light. I recorded a little bit just so I wouldn’t forget it, along with half a dozen other snippets. Next day I came back to the boat and replayed those snippets, with the unfamiliarity you get after spending a night away from a new idea. All the bits sounded interesting, but this one in particular was really special. as I listened to it, a vocal melody came to mind, phrased kind of opposite to the keyboard part, so I was singing in the gaps. I mumbled the first words that came to mind, and that fit the melody. I have a mic on a boom stand permanently set up over my computer, and I whacked down a vocal so I’d remember the melody. There was no intro or preamble, the vocal came in right from the first beat. I didn’t bother to set a level on the preamp (a Millennia STT-1), and in fact it was a bit hot so the compressor was pegging over. The opening line, which meant nothing to me at the time, was “Canonballs ricochet around the room.”
I had some lunch, did some laundry, returned some emails. I needed to rewire my patchbay to add a second set of speakers, so I spent some time on my back with a flashlight, and while I did that I listened to KCRW’s ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’ program on iTunes radio. Then I put on my headphones and listened back to my song snippet. And it startled me. I’d actually forgotten that the vocal came right in at the start (which was only because I’d been too lazy to arrange an intro.) It was almost as if I was listening to someone else altogether. And it was fantastic! A bit like those songs you hear in dreams, but are never able to properly recapture after you awake.
Forty-eight hours in and out of the studio in short bursts like that, and I have a finished song. Not fully fleshed out mind you, but complete as a concept. A lot of it is the 95% perspiration not the 5% inspiration, and I struggled and deliberated over some of the lyrics and the vocal choices.
But I have to say, it’s gorgeous. Right up there with my best, very ‘me’, but oddly contemporary, post-modern even. It’s a complete reflection of the landscape and colour and atmosphere of this amazing location, and touched by the mood of a novel I read recently by J.G.Ballard. Yet it also carries a lot of history with it, of my mother’s side of my family who were from around here. It’s a lament, though it’s uplifting, not melancholy or depressing.
It will likely take a few more twists and turns, so I can’t tell you the title or post a rough mix. To do that would be to spoil the secrecy of the moment. Why then even bother to blog about it? Only because I feel great right now, a tremendous sense of awe and satisfaction, grateful that the muse favoured me with a visit.
In the author Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful talk at TED this year, she tells of a poet friend who described the moment of creation as a rolling thunder that came for her across the fields, like a bolt from the blue. She had to be ready the instant it arrived, pen and paper in hand, mind fully open and porous, in case the thunder rolled right over her head and disappeared in search of another poet.