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Monday, 6 January 2014

What's the point in making an album?

Having spent some time trying to get re-acquainted with the idea of making and performing music (after a few years in which work and stuff had taken over), I have decided that 2014 will see me record, and then release, an album.  What is the point, you may well ask, in undertaking a project like this?  Do people even listen to albums these days?  Don’t they prefer to just pick and choose individually-downloaded tracks?  And, perhaps more to the point, what’s the point in an unknown middle-aged bloke making an album?  Who on earth is going to care about a vanity project like that?  Who on earth would want to buy it?   

I do understand that not many folk will reckon that what the world needs right now is some more middle-of-the-road pop music.  I won’t be surprised, therefore, to encounter a tsunami of indifference (with perhaps the odd showery squall of derision), but I’m going to go ahead with it anyway.  And, in a series of blog entries over the next few months, I will look to explore some of the considerations and processes involved in recording an album. 

Among the questions I’ll try to address are: If you are not making a living from music, what is the point in making an album?  Why, indeed, bother writing songs at all?  What does the process of making music do for the soul?  How will I decide which songs will go on this album?  What will these songs be about?  Who is going to play on them?  How will they be recorded?  What would I like them to sound like? What is it that makes certain sounds and musical arrangements attractive or unattractive?  How much money am I willing to flush down the toilet spend on recording the album?  Do I have even the remotest chance of recovering some of my costs?  And, if I am to do that, how will I make people aware that this album exists?

If my current selection of sketches and demos is anything to go by, what I am going to end up with will probably be a middle-aged sort of album; by that, I mean that the music will be middle-of-the-road, with an emphasis on song construction, tasteful arrangements and songs that are shackled to the ball and chain of ‘verse’ and ‘chorus’.  That’s the kind of music I’m invariably drawn to and it’s the kind of music I usually end up making.  I see no need to apologise for that, because there are really are only two kinds of music: the kind you like and the kind you don’t (or perhaps, in this case, there might be a third category: the kind that will embarrass my kids and family).  This album certainly isn’t going to be ‘cutting edge’; I’m way beyond the point of trying to surf the zeitgeist.  There was a point in my life when I knew (and cared about) what was going on in the world of contemporary music, but those days are long gone. I wouldn’t recognise the zeitgeist now if it stopped me in the street and hit me on the head with a vinyl copy of James Blake’s latest album. 

Whatever else happens, I’m planning to have some fun doing it and writing about it, but I also hope that a few folk might be interested in reading about the development of the project.  So … to kick off, there’s a link at the bottom of this post to something I’ve been working on for a while.  I think it is just about finished and it feels at the moment like it might turn out to be one of the signature tracks on the album.  It’s called ‘Far side of the moon’. The theme of the lyric is ageing and disillusionment, with the far side of the moon representing the point at which someone is completely cut off from a place (or a mindset) they used to inhabit.  In a state of existential ennui, the individual might come to terms with things that may not previously have been viewed with any degree of positivity; but on bad day, that person might be tempted to measure life in terms of the things they don’t have, as opposed to finding comfort in the things that they do.        

My starting point for songs usually involves banging out a few chords on guitar or piano (that will be a topic for another post), but in this case, it began in the studio with me just playing bass guitar along to a drum loop.  At the start of the session, I had no idea what I was going to play; all I knew was that I wanted to try a slightly different approach to constructing songs.  I recorded six bass lines to match six different drum loops, then lived with these demos for a while to see if I had anything worth developing.  Of those six loops, there are now perhaps three with a chance of becoming songs for the album.  I should point out here that I am by no means an accomplished bass player.  The truth is that I am barely even competent but, thanks to the excellent working relationship I have with Eddie MacArthur at Stealth Studios, I knew that the session would not be wasted.  His technical skills consistently allow me to get the most from my very limited musical abilities.      

As I listened to the demos (usually in my car, on the way to and from work), various melodic ideas began to form and -in the case of this particular track- I started to focus on a general feel for what the song might be about.  Once the mist had cleared, I was able to work out the chord structure and the architecture of what would become the final arrangement.  For quite a while, the breathy backing vocals sounded like they might have been the main hook, then -relatively late in the day- I managed to come up with the guitar motif.  I’ll talk some other time about how musical influences get absorbed into the process of writing and recording, but I can spot a couple of powerful influences on this recording.  It may have started with a slightly haphazard process (and one which could have potentially wasted a bit of time and money), but I find the end result quite pleasing on the ear.  And that, ultimately, is what this is all about. 

Far side of the moon

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