Day 33: All I Wanted Was To Be a Gangster

Ray Liotta Goodfellas

Songs can come from the strangest combinations of places. All I Wanted Was To Be a Gangster, for example, was inspired equally by Kylie Minogue and Martin Scorsese. I was trying to work out how to play I Should Be So Lucky on the piano and ended up changing some of the notes and writing a new song instead. I must have recently watched Goodfellas, and so Ray Liotta’s opening line from the film became, more or less, the title of the song.

It’s a pretty throwaway song, if you can describe a song about wanting to murder people as throwaway. It was prompted by a cliché I was weary of seeing in movies – the formerly violent man (gangster, soldier, professional hitman etc) who just wants a peaceful domestic life but is drawn back into violence against his will as a result of his wife/girlfriend/children being threatened or killed. The message of such films, often, is that a violent lifestyle is a natural thing for a man because our job is essentially to be the protector of vulnerable women and children. Often the violent death of the man’s wife/girlfriend is used to justify his return to violence. Sometimes there is a brief moment when he looks in horror at his bloody hands – is this what I am? – before he accepts that yes, this is what he is, and gets on with smashing in more heads. It’s macho, sexist nonsense, for the most part, even if some of the more intelligent takes on the trope do critique it a bit (Unforgiven, A History of Violence, The Bourne Supremacy, Blade Runner 2049 etc). Goodfellas, to its credit, is a bit more honest about how much men just enjoy being powerful and frightening. And then there is Breaking Bad, in which a man spends five seasons of a TV show pretending to himself that he’s embracing a life of crime and violence to protect his wife and children before finally admitting that it was actually because he liked it and was good at it.

All I Wanted Was To Be a Gangster was a slightly frivolous attempt to critique all this. It’s about a man travelling in the opposite direction; he yearns to be violent but keeps getting drawn back into a quiet job putting library books in alphabetical order, because that’s what comes most naturally to him.

That man, if I’m honest, was partly me, vicariously enjoying all those movies about violent men while sitting at a desk editing things for a living. Hang on, though. Was I fooling myself just then when I said I was critiquing violent movies with this song? Was I actually doing something much more straightforward – expressing my own subconscious fantasy of being a gangster? Is this song my Fight Club? Do I secretly want to spend my evenings punching other men in basements in order to feel less emasculated, more alive? I don’t think so, given that I wrote it while trying to work out how to play a Kylie Minogue song, but who knows? Men are weird.

Day 32: Advocate’s Close/Stamped Addressed Envelope

Edinburgh-700x495

Advocate’s Close and Stamped Addressed Envelope represent two extremes of my songwriting. The first is a throwaway instrumental whose title has no significance beyond being named after the place where it was recorded. The second is so personal that I’m not going to say anything more about it here.

I was always quite pleased by the way one segues into the other though, the almost jaunty piano melody of the first track slowing down until it matches the slow, melancholy pace of the second. It actually sounds like they’re two sections of the same song, but that’s all down to sequencing. They were written and recorded at different times.

The reason this pleased me is because I’m nerdishly obsessed with track-listing. I’m one of those people who spent years making compilations, sometimes for myself, sometimes for other people (whether they asked for them or not). I was, in short, one of those men who read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and thought, oh god, that’s me. I do think it’s an art though – a great compilation, or just a great album, should take you on an emotional journey, and it’s jarring when track-listing is done thoughtlessly. The order in which songs appear can change the whole meaning of an album, after all. Think of Let It Be…. Naked, which transformed the original Let It Be, partly by taking out Phil Spector’s strings but partly just by putting the songs in a different order. Opening the album with Get Back, for example, suggests from the off that this was the Beatles getting back to the basics of being a live band after the studio experiments of Sgt Pepper and the White Album (they broke up instead, but still).

So I would set myself lots of compiling rules – similar to the rules of script-writing in many ways – based on the idea that an album should tell some kind of story. An opening song should either grab you immediately, and establish a mood, musically and lyrically, setting the scene, or it should work as a short prologue, which is then built on or undercut by the second song (chapter one). Your choice of the penultimate and final song is very important too, this being the end of the story. My ideal scenario is something quite epic as your penultimate song, a dramatic finale, followed by an epilogue-style closer. And I was always very pleased with myself when the final song on a compilation revisited the themes of the opening song in some way, bringing you full circle.

Ok Computer by Radiohead is a classic example of an album by one artist doing this – it begins with a car crash and ends with someone saying ‘idiot, slow down’ – I like to think that the closing song is a premonition of the opening song, and everything in between is Thom Yorke’s life flashing before his eyes as the car tumbles off the road. Another favourite example is Carbon Glacier by Laura Veirs, whose opening and closing songs, Ether Sings and Riptide, mirror each other in their descriptions of people coming back from the dead, either through their children – “souls lost into the ether of death come back wise in the eyes and the arms of newborns” or by a narrow escape from drowning. Both songs were a big influence on Dead Orchestras.

Inspired by albums like these, I went on to obsess over the track-listing for every album I have released, spending almost as much time thinking about what order the songs would be in as I did about the songs themselves. I was particularly pleased with the tracklisting on The Winter of 88, which begins with an island sinking and ends with a ferry journey to a new one.

I wonder if people brought up in the age of downloads still think like this. Has the carefully sequenced album become a lost art? Now you have playlists, on Spotify or iTunes or your phone, that go on for hours, mood-setting music to fill an entire evening rather than 45 minutes. That’s a different kind of journey, one without a clear beginning, middle or end, one more likely to interrupted at any point, by a drunk friend taking over the DJing, or a train arriving at a station. Playlists like these are probably more in tune with the 21st century, and its ambivalent relationship with narrative. Younger generations have been brought up in a post- post-modernist culture that endlessly picks storytelling apart, questioning whose story is being told, why that person gets to tell the story, what prejudices they bring to it, what assumptions are being made about the audience, whether the ending is really the ending etc.

Not that I lacked self-awareness when making my youthful compilations. Among the hundreds of home recordings I made as a teenager was a song about making compilations, in which a boy falls in love and begins making a compilation tape that will perfectly capture every stage of the relationship he’s in – a happy and excited song to capture the first flush of infatuation, an angry song to soundtrack their first fight etc. Listening back over his unfinished project, the boy decides that what the compilation needs is to finish with a sad, reflective song. And so he abruptly ends the relationship. I’m not quite sure why I wrote this song, perhaps as a reminder to myself never to be as horrible as this, to remember to value people and relationships over music. Given that I spent most of my teenage years in my bedroom writing music, I’m not sure I took this advice to heart.

 

Day 31: Emily By The Seaside

3218

Emily by the Seaside was based on a dim memory of the 1987 film Wish You Were Here, starring Emily Lloyd. All I could remember was that it was about a teenager living in a seaside town who becomes pregnant with an older man who abandons her, that she isn’t treated very well by other people either, and that she tries to get an abortion but ultimately decides to have the baby on her own. This bothered me and I wanted to give her a happier ending. In my version the town rallies around her and tells the man to ‘go to hell’. ‘A lot of these people here care about you,” the narrator tells her, “they’re less shocked than you think by what you’ve been through, don’t push them away.’

At the time I had one young daughter and was exploring my anxieties about how the world treats women – The Dark Ages, from the second Swimmer One album, does something similar. Looking back, though, it’s quite a patronising song, and probably a bit sexist too. Wish You Were Here – as I later remembered when I bothered to do some research – is actually based on the early years of Cynthia Payne, who went on to run a famous brothel in Streatham and turned her notoriety into a celebrity career as a writer and after-dinner speaker. It was a great story, after all – she was famously jailed for four months in 1980 after 53 men were found in her house, including ‘a peer of the realm, an MP, a number of solicitors and company directors and several vicars’ .

Wish You Were Here is one of two films based on her life, both released in 1987; the other one was Personal Services, with Julie Walters. That same year she launched her own book about her life, Entertaining at Home. In 1988 she stood for Parliament to try and change Britain’s sex laws. In 1992 she did a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe. If I’d paid more attention then, I might have realised that there was a more interesting story to tell here. Somehow I’d mostly forgotten that the point of Wish You Were Here was that it was about a defiant, unconventional, outspoken young woman, a survivor in a sexist world rather than a victim of it.

Emily Lloyd, meanwhile, seems to have had quite a difficult life at times, struggling with long-term mental health issues. On the days when I wonder whether I should have written a different song about Cynthia Payne I sometimes also wonder whether I should also write a song about Emily Lloyd. But then I remember how many amazing female musicians are already out there telling stories like this, based on actual experience rather than imagination.

This is, in fact, part of the reason why I’ve stopped writing songs. I decide I should maybe write something new, and then I hear something as brilliant as Green Light by Lorde or Bury a Friend by Billie Eilish, and I think, nah. When I was younger I’d hear songs on the radio and cockily think ‘I could do that’. Now I think ‘maybe my daughter will want to do that one day’.

 

 

Day 30: There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City

There Are No Maps For This Part of The City is a love song about two people making a romantic connection in an unfamiliar place. In my head it’s set in Edinburgh or somewhere equally full of wide-eyed tourists, hence the reference to ‘no pull out guides to what we should do’. The lovers are surrounded by advice for visitors on what to do and where to go, but none of it is going to help them navigate this particular situation.

That’s because There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City is also a song about betrayal. The reason the narrator is feeling lost is that he’s cheating on someone else. This is easy to miss since it’s referred to only fleetingly, in the line ‘I never wanted to hurt anybody’ – a fact that says a lot about how little he’s thinking about the person he’s supposed to be with, or considering how she might feel about all this.

The more distance I have from this song, the more this detail bothers me. It’s quite a manipulative, self-justifying song – you’re clearly supposed to feel that the person singing it is doing the right thing, and that his hesitancy (‘maybe if I love you at all I should let go of your hand now’) is because he is a fundamentally decent, thoughtful person, wrestling with his conscience, rather than a coward and a liar. It even has that classic love song staple, the lush string arrangement, which begins just in time to distract you from the admission of betrayal. I find myself wondering what I was really doing with the final line, ‘is that sound the world exploding or is it just this bar closing?’. It suggests that, subconsciously, the person in the song knows he has set off a loud and destructive bomb in his life but is choosing to dismiss it as the harmless background noise of shutters slamming shut or rubbish bins being moved. To be fair, it is also a love song; it’s not describing a one-night stand or a fleeting encounter, it’s about the end of one thing and the beginning of another, something that is often messy and painful. But he’s clearly not dealing with it very well and in hindsight I’m embarrassed for him.

One of the first songs I remember hearing about betrayal was Run To You by Bryan Adams. The music is supposed to be thrilling, like the affair it describes, but the lyrics are incredibly cruel. I’m thinking in particular of ‘I know her love is true but it’s so damn easy making love to you’, and the opening line, which sums up the spirit of the whole song: ‘She says her love for me could never die, that’d change if she ever found out about you and I’. In some ways I quite like how honest it is (with the listener, at least). It doesn’t paint Bryan in a good light at all. Running to someone doesn’t sound romantic, it sounds needy and desperate, and the more times the words ‘run to you’ are repeated the more needy and desperate Bryan sounds. There’s actually only one line that seems like a justification: ‘oh but her love is cold’. Otherwise it seems like Bryan is completely aware of what he’s doing and just doesn’t care.

The most extreme version if this that I can think of is It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy, one of the most appallingly funny songs ever written about betrayal, for the sheer brass neck of continuing to deny you’re cheating on your girlfriend even after she’s caught you ‘butt naked banging on the bathroom floor’ with another woman. Which is better? A song that tries to find beauty and poignancy in an act of betrayal, effectively making excuses for it, or a song that bluntly tells it like it is, like Amy Winehouse singing ‘I told you I was trouble, you know I’m no good’? Perhaps it depends on how often you’ve been betrayed and how often you’ve betrayed someone else.

A footnote: six years after it was released, There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City was used in a play called Jumpy at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, directed by my friend Cora Bissett. The scene Cora used it for had nothing to do with infidelity, it was about a mother having a difficult time with her daughter and trying to find a way through it. I quite enjoyed the irony of a song about someone destroying a relationship becoming the soundtrack to someone desperately trying to protect and preserve one.

Day 29: Brian Wilson Karaoke

R-2888498-1480848041-2323.jpeg

Brian Wilson Karaoke was inspired by the famous saying ‘If you remember the 1960s, you really weren’t there’. I’ve spent more time thinking about this than is probably healthy. What if you don’t remember the 1960s, then? How do you know you were there?

The Brian Wilson in the song isn’t the real Brian Wilson. The giveaway is the line ‘Everyone says they’re me but I know how it felt to write Sloop John B’ – which, as any serious Beach Boys fan will know, is the only song on Pet Sounds that Wilson didn’t write. This ‘Brian Wilson’ probably was there in the 1960s, indulged in every psychedelic drug available, and is now living a mostly housebound life in LA, imagining himself as a former rock star in hiding and mistaking random visitors for fans and journalists. Does he actually believe he’s Brian Wilson or is it just a comforting fantasy? I’m not sure he knows anymore.

I saw Brian Wilson play live in Glasgow a few years ago and the experience stayed with me. Perhaps I caught him on a bad night, in the grip of stage fright – and perhaps I was also projecting my own anxieties about performing – but he seemed oddly absent, staring into space as he sat behind a keyboard that he didn’t appear to be playing very much and which looked like it was there mostly as a protective shield from the audience. His cracked, croaky voice often sounded lost and out of place among his band’s perfect harmonies. He didn’t talk much either, as I recall. I wondered whether the gig would have sounded that different had he not been there. It was like watching a really slick Beach Boys covers band, but with an actual Beach Boy sitting with them, mostly for us to stare at and think ‘wow, that’s Brian Wilson’.

I’d been really excited about the gig. Wilson had recently, finally, completed Smile, the Beach Boys’ famous lost album from the 1960s, and these shows were being celebrated as a wonderful creative rebirth. At last Wilson had conquered his demons and finished his masterpiece. But in some ways this felt like a collective act of wish fulfillment. The Smile that Wilson finally released, after all, was really a cover version of Smile, by someone so traumatised by the original recording process that he’d forgotten about a lot of it and had to be reminded of what he’d been trying to achieve by his lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and a new group of musicians who were clearly Beach Boys fans and invested in the project for their own reasons. And it wasn’t entirely clear how Wilson really felt about it all, at least judging by his behaviour in media interviews. Was it as therapeutic as his fans wanted to believe it was? Who knows?

Years before Brian Wilson Presents Smile was released, I remember friends who were obsessive Beach Boys fans talking reverentially about this lost masterpiece, like Indiana Jones discussing the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. I was happy to join these conversations, it was seductive, but to me it felt a bit like a Macguffin, like the Ark or the Grail in the movies. If I was honest with myself, what was most exciting about Smile wasn’t the possibility of actually hearing all this music, as beautiful and extraordinary and groundbreaking as it was, even as sketches, but the journey, the act of imagining an alternate universe in which Smile had been released, and the immediate cultural impact it could have had.

I wonder if any of that really matters though. In historical terms, Smile already existed in all the ways that did matter. Bootlegs that pieced together what the album might have sounded like had been widely circulated for decades, and had been a huge influence on most of the same musicians who would have been influenced by a completed version. Would the course of musical history really have been all that different had Smile been released in its finished state? Is it possible that Smile was actually more influential for not being finished, more powerful as a myth than as reality? And does it have the same power now? I realised while writing this that I’d barely listened to Brian Wilson Presents Smile in the ten years since I wrote Brian Wilson Karaoke. I hadn’t even remembered that a follow-up to Wilson’s version, a reassembled collection of original recordings called The Smile Sessions, had been released not long afterwards. By that time I must have lost interest. I’d already finally heard Smile. Box ticked. Film over.

Neil Tennant (yes him again) once joked that big celebrity fundraisers like Live Aid might be better if all the singers just walked on stage naked, stood there for a bit, and then walked off again. His point (I think) was that what we mostly want as audiences is to enjoy music on our own terms but occasionally get to gawp at the people who make it.

I wonder if that’s true. When thousands of people watch a hologram of Elvis accompanied by a real band, faithfully recreating his live shows, is it enjoyable because people who never saw him perform in life get to experience something close to the real thing? Or is the important thing about the show not the authenticity of it but the act of imagination involved, the indulgence of your own Elvis fantasies? If you watch your favourite singer on stage, in real life, isn’t that also an act of imagination, in which you project your own needs and desires, reflected in the way their music speaks to you, on to a stranger? And if so, does it ultimately matter whether that stranger is actually on stage or not? We tell ourselves that we’re making some sort of human connection with them but are we, really?

One of my favourite responses to the first Seafieldroad album was from someone in America who had been listening to it in the car every day on the way to see his mother in hospital – the journey time being about the same length of the album – and found it comforting. I remember being very touched by this but also perplexed. I couldn’t think of any song on the album that was written about anything resembling that experience. If anything it’s mostly about fatherhood and being in love. He seemed to have heard a completely different album to the one I’d made. Was that a human connection? Actually I think it was; there’s something about sharing music that is so fundamental to human experience that it’s vanity to claim any of it as your own. It just wasn’t quite the human connection I’d imagined when I wrote those songs.

A confession: I’m currently going through a bit of a crisis of self-belief as a result of a much needed reality check. This will be a good thing, in the long term, but at the moment it’s a lot to process and so perhaps all the thoughts above aren’t as coherent as I’d like them to be. I thought I remembered significant events in my life with a reasonable amount of clarity but perhaps I didn’t at all. I’m suddenly seeing some memories from a different and often unflattering perspective, like one of those films in which you watch the same scene again and again from different angles, and each time a deeper meaning emerges.

The writing of this song is one of those memories. At the time I didn’t see anything of myself in this character, it just seemed like a fun conceit. Now though I do feel a bit like my ‘Brian Wilson’. I’m in a fog, wondering how far my capacity for self-delusion goes and to what extent I am the person I thought I was. I wonder whether I was sending myself some sort of subliminal message when I wrote this song, whether I was aware of what I was doing in my life on some level but wasn’t able to articulate it consciously, and whether I was doing something similar by also writing two songs about fakesters. Perhaps the song doesn’t mean what I think it means at all, even to me.

Day 28: Hanging

NINTCHDBPICT000462845938

“I don’t care what people do in relation to Michael Jackson and his music. What I’m interested in is continuing the conversation of who are we worshipping and why, and making people look at the whole story. Michael Jackson was incredibly talented, there’s no questioning that. But just because someone is talented doesn’t mean they’re not a predator.” Wade Robson

Hanging is about the dangers of idolising pop musicians. The song was released in 2010, but has been on my mind a lot recently, partly because I’ve revisited/re-recorded it for the new album, partly because its subject matter is currently topical, thanks to Ryan Adams and Michael Jackson.

Last week I listened to Thriller for the first time. I hadn’t planned to, I was just driving across Lewis a couple of times and there were various CDs in the car that we’d bought in a charity shop a few months ago. I’d forgotten we even had a copy. It was strange, stumbling across this CD just as Leaving Neverland was about to be televised and everyone was talking about it. I wondered if I’d feel differently about these songs, most of which I knew from the radio, at this moment in time.

I didn’t, for the most part, although it made me think a lot about fandom. The first bands I loved as a teenager were A-ha, Prefab Sprout and the Pet Shop Boys. In each case it was partly because I felt a human connection to them. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe seemed ordinary and relatable, a music journalist and an aspiring architect. They were also from the north of England, like me (Newcastle and Blackpool). Paddy McAloon was another northerner, while A-ha were three Norwegians trying to make a life for themselves in the UK; a lot of their songs seemed quite melancholy and lonely, and the lyrics were clearly the work of people wrestling with an unfamiliar language. All three bands were funny and clever and self-deprecating in interviews, and seemed like people I might get along with if I met them. I saw a lot of myself in their songs.

On one level, then, I think I can understand why so many Michael Jackson fans are so hostile to Leaving Neverland, and are protesting his innocence even now. If I’d been told that Paddy McAloon or Neil Tennant had been abusing children, what would it be like to have to acknowledge this was true? Abusers are deeply manipulative, dishonest people. Would I feel that I’d also been manipulated and lied to for years? Would I feel somehow complicit in the abuse? Would I wonder what bad things I was capable of myself, given how much I’d related to these people and their music? Yes, yes and yes, probably. It would be a very difficult thing to accept.

On another level, though, I wonder what on earth goes through the minds of Michael Jackson fans. If you feel a strong connection to Jackson, what is the nature of that connection? What is it that you relate to in a multi-millionaire with a face systematically destroyed by cosmetic surgery, who lived alone in an estate designed like a children’s theme park, sharing his bedroom with other people’s children? How was that connection not severed in 1993, when Jackson paid $23 million to Jordy Chandler’s family after they accused him of child abuse (not the same as a guilty verdict, granted, but pretty damning)? How on earth has it not been severed now, when the evidence that he shattered the lives not just of children but of whole families is more compelling than ever?

As a teenager it would never have occurred to me to be a ‘fan’ of Michael Jackson, however much I liked some of his songs. It was partly because he was just so famous and ubiquitous – wouldn’t being a fan of Michael Jackson be like being a fan of shops, cars, or roads? But it was also the weird quasi-religiousness of it all, which always made me uncomfortable. Jackson’s public image often suggested he wanted to be seen as a kind of god, especially by the early 1990s, with songs like Heal the World and Earth Song, that ridiculous statue he floated along the Thames, the likening of himself to Jesus, the vainglorious performance at the 1996 Brit Awards, and the insistence on being referred to as the ‘King of Pop’. I’ve often wondered whether there’s a correlation between Michael Jackson fandom and religious observance. The relationship between him and his fans seemed more like a human/god dynamic than an equal exchange between kindred spirits.

A few days ago the comedian Pete Davidson made headlines by comparing the Catholic Church to R Kelly. My first reaction was that the joke would have been funnier if he’d said Michael Jackson. Catholic Church representatives sexually abused children for decades in plain sight, manipulating vulnerable boys in thrall to god-like power. The Vatican’s self-righteous demand for an apology from Davidson, ‘disgusted by the harassment by those in news and entertainment’, sounded very much like a statement from the Jackson estate.

After watching Leaving Neverland music journalist Laura Snapes wrote: “The irresistible power Jackson brought to his music is the same power he wielded to abuse children and hoodwink their families into letting him do so.” This, I’m assuming, is what Wade Robson meant when he said we should consider “who are we worshipping and why”. That said, the danger of focusing on obvious eccentrics like Michael Jackson is that it diverts attention from abusers like Ryan Adams, more outwardly ‘normal’ men who present themselves (like Jackson) as sensitive and vulnerable, but are actually calculating and exploitative.

Hanging wasn’t actually based on examples as extreme as Jackson or Adams (although a few lines in the song could apply to either of them). It was more that there were a lot of male singers around 2009 who prompted the sarcastic observation ‘he must be very sensitive to have come this far’, in other words a suspicion that, in order to succeed in their field, they couldn’t possibly be as sensitive as they made themselves out to be. The final section is about me worrying that I might be one of those singers, perhaps someone like Tucker Crowe from Nick Hornby’s book Juliet, Naked, a singer-songwriter who is admired for his sensitivity and emotional insight by a small following of mostly middle aged male music geeks, but is really a self-obsessed prick. That’s still an active concern ten years on. The lesson is that separating art from the artist is pretty much essential if you’re going to avoid disappointment.

Day 27: The Truth / Tesseract / All The Ways Of This Love

Andrew and Laura Tiree

It’s Laura’s birthday this week, which seems like a good time to be writing about The Truth, Tesseract and All The Ways Of This Love from the first Seafieldroad album, because she wrote the lyrics for all three, as well as singing on two of them (in addition to two other songs on the album, Feeble Jesus and Brian Wilson Karaoke). If it hadn’t been for Laura, in fact, there might not have been any Seafieldroad albums. She was the person who gave me the confidence and the motivation to make them; in some ways these three songs were the template for everything that followed.

Laura and I have been a couple for over ten years now, and are raising three children together. She is, in more ways than I could ever list, the most important (grown up) person in my life. Before all that, we were friends who bonded over music (theatre, art, film and books too, but mostly music). And as people who make a connection through music sometimes do, we ended up writing things for each other. The first one was Here’s Your Train, Safe Home, which I played to Laura on a train from London up to Scotland, three years before it was released. I wasn’t planning to admit it was about her, but she really liked it and I couldn’t help myself. There were obstacles to us being together at the time, is all I’ll say about that, but if you know the song you’ll know that this is the kind of confession that changes the whole dynamic of a relationship in a way that it’s difficult to go back from. The Truth was Laura’s response. I wrote some music for it and played it to her. Three years later our friend Camille sang it for the first dance at our wedding.

full

Laura hasn’t released much music herself. Once I Jumped I Was Fine, from the Whatever Gets You Through The Night album, is the only available recording by her band the Tea Dance Orchestra, although they played live a few times (Jethro Collins’ photo, above, was taken at the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh in 2008). She co-wrote and sang on the Swimmer One song All The Things That Make You Want To Disappear and has been an important creative sounding board on loads of other things I’ve recorded (including the final stages of the Dead Orchestras album, for which she contributed vocal arrangement ideas to four songs).

She’s a really good writer, incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about music (her DJ sets are always excellent), and is a much more poetic lyricist than myself. The main reason you haven’t heard more of her musically is that she’s really good at lots of other things as well, surviving for much of her adult life as a multi-tasking arts freelancer (as opposed to a full-time staff journalist who was also in a band, like me). Instead of recording songs she’s been making theatre, helping other people make theatre, leading a dance organisation, doing an MPhil, founding/programming festivals, teaching, producing, mentoring, running her own company etc, as well as constantly learning countless new creative skills at a speed that frequently leaves me awe-struck. Successful or even just committed musicians are often people who neither know how to nor want to do anything else. Laura does.

The photo at the top of this page was taken on a Calmac ferry on another birthday: my own, in 2008, the first year we were together. Laura’s present to me was a surprise surfing lesson on Tiree; I had no idea where we were going until we got to Oban. It was a very happy weekend. I can’t get over how young we look.

 

Day 26: All The Hits

th_cover_front

All The Hits is a short song of consolation. As with We Just Make Music For Ourselves and Come On, Let’s Go!, the idea was to subvert a clichéd pop music phrase and try to find profundity in it. ‘All the hits’ here are actually ‘all the punches’ – the emotional and physical knocks you endure throughout the course of your life. My original idea for the lyric was a list of 20 forms of suffering, counting down from 20 to one, like on the Radio One Chart Show, in which descriptions of suffering would somehow become exhilarating and hopeful. I still quite like that idea.

The music for this one was entirely written by Hamish. In fact it’s pretty much his original home recording (with a melody and lyric added by me), which is why it sounds a wee bit rough in places. I think it works, though, and it was nice to do a Swimmer One song that we could finish in less than a day; sometimes the arranging and mixing process would go on for months.

I also think this is one of my best lyrics. It’s a song about the way that pain and failure can often end up being the making of you, sometimes by creating an opportunity to do something different and better. I was particularly pleased with the closing line, ‘everything will be ok, just not in the way you expected’, which has frequently been my experience.

Day 25: Ghosts in the Hotel

Ghosts in the Hotel was an attempt to create my own version of Hotellounge (Be the Death of Me) by the Belgian band dEUS. This might come as a surprise to Hamish from Swimmer One, who wrote 90% of the music. Until recently it would also have been a surprise to me. It was only while listening to dEUS again a few weeks ago that I realised what I had done. On some subconscious level, Hamish’s demo had reminded me of a dEUS song – not Hotellounge itself, but Sister Dew from their Ideal Crash album. The distorted electric guitar riff at the start was reminiscent of a few other dEUS moments, so it might also have been a general dEUS-like vibe that I subconsciously tuned into. Anyway, I immediately started writing a lyric set in a hotel.

Hotellounge was my first introduction to dEUS, and I was obsessed with it for years after I heard it by chance on the radio – Mark Radcliffe’s evening show on Radio One, I think. Who were these people? They sounded like they might be American, but there was something about some of the lyrics that suggested English was the singer’s second language – ‘as a matter of speaking’ instead of ‘in a manner of speaking’, the odd grammatical construction of the ‘take it back your analogue’ line. It reminded me of the unusual turns of phrase you’d fine on early A-ha albums (‘take on me’ ‘I dream myself alive’ etc) as a Norwegian songwriter explored the possibilities of the English language.

Hotellounge was incredibly evocative, right from the first line. ‘There’s an elevator only takes one down’ made me think of Mickey Rourke descending to hell at the end of Angel Heart. ‘It’s my daily bread but I’m unfed’ also felt Biblical. What was this hotel lounge, really? A church? The afterlife? Limbo? What was that reference to Rickie Lee Jones’ voice all about? What was the meaning of the line ‘Have another cigarette, I tend to forget’ that suggested someone haunted by regret? And the final line is just wonderful: ‘See that man in the left hand corner, see that woman, their love story’s famous’. The song then leaves your imagination hanging. What love story? Why is it famous? dEUS, come back!

I love Hotellounge partly just because I really like songs and stories about hotels. Other hotel-set favourites include Hotel World by Ali Smith, Mainstream by David Greig, and the films Up in the Air, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Lost in Translation and The Shining. If something is set in a hotel I’m pretty much always interested, so recommendations please. Hotels are soaked in symbolism. They offer physical comfort while also representing all that is fleeting and insecure about human existence. A home that is not really your home, filled with ghosts of previous inhabitants. Encounters with strangers, sometimes trivial, sometimes life-changing. Temporary romances. Loneliness. People adrift, in between places that actually mean something to them. But they also host joyful moments – wedding receptions that bring friends and families together. Decadence. Bad behaviour. Throwing televisions out of windows. Hotels – the best ones – can be weird and quirky and beautiful and spark your imagination. Places you only occupy temporarily can, after all, allow you to step outside of your usual habits and find a fresh perspective.

Being me, I mostly wrote about ghosts and loneliness. Someone – a spirit? – is waiting in a hotel lobby for someone else – a lover, a relative? – who might never show up. They have convinced themselves that because a hotel lobby is a space that people constantly pass through, then the person they’re waiting for will eventually arrive, because at some point everyone will. They might have to wait hundreds of years, mind, but it’ll happen.

There is, rarely for Swimmer One songs, a video to accompany Ghosts in the Hotel. It wasn’t actually made for the song. Our friend Daniel Warren was making a dance film, thought Ghosts in the Hotel would work as the soundtrack, and so asked the dancers he was working with, and us, if that would be ok. I couldn’t see an obvious connection to the lyrics but I certainly wasn’t going to object. It was filmed in a hotel, after all. And I like that the song itself has become a kind of ghost in this very different hotel. It doesn’t really matter what I think the song is about, anyway. Music lives longer than any of us. And so songwriters are also ghosts.

 

Day 24: The Fakester Genocide / The Fakester Resurrection

The Fakester Genocide and its sequel The Fakester Resurrection (yes I wrote a sequel song) were both inspired by an incident in 2003 when the social gaming website Friendster deleted thousands of fake identities, prompting a rebellion among computer geeks called ‘the fakester revolution’. It’s not much remembered now and Friendster was dissolved last year – if you do an internet search for ‘fakester genocide’ in 2019, most of the results are links to our song – but I did manage to find a description on a website called mxplx.com. Here’s the final section, which makes some astute observations about the way people behave on social media in general. It’s equally applicable to Facebook.

Although Fakesters had taken on a collective impression of resistance, their primary political stance concerned authenticity. In discussing Fakesters, Batty was quick to point out that there’s no such thing as an authentic performance on Friendster—“None of this is real.” Through the act of articulation and writing oneself into being, all participants are engaged in performance intended to be interpreted and convey particular impressions. While some people believed that “truth” could be perceived through photorealistic imagery and a list of tastes that reflected one’s collections, the Fakesters were invested in using more impressionistic strokes to paint their portraits. If we acknowledge that all profiles are performative, permitting users to give off a particular view of themselves, why should we judge Fakesters as more or less authentic than awkwardly performed profiles?

Being me, I wrote a sad song about it. The premise of The Fakester Genocide (from Swimmer One’s first album) was that one of these fakesters has genuinely fallen in love with someone else who has also assumed a fake identity. When his soul mate’s online profile is deleted without warning, he is bereft. How will he ever find her again, when she could be anyone, anywhere in the world (and might not even be a she)? The answer, the song ultimately suggests, is that since she only exists in his imagination, he can find her again in his imagination, ‘in the unsaid words in sentences, in the spaces between strangers on trains’, which is all very poetic but perhaps not very practical. Although, philosophically speaking, do the people we love truly exist outside of our imaginations anyway? I suspect this song was also influenced by my love of the film Solaris (both the 1972 original and the 2002 remake), in which an alien species unwittingly tortures a grieving husband by repeatedly creating physical manifestations of his dead wife; since all they have to go on is his memories of her, they end up creating a kind of monstrous distortion of her, based on his feelings of guilt, regret and sadness. It’s a great movie.

The Fakester Resurrection (from Swimmer One’s second album) expands on this theme. The fakester is now living inside Second Life, a virtual world that people from across the world can explore as avatars. Like the characters in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, he has gone there to escape the real world, which for various reasons (pollution, climate change, loneliness, too much responsibility) is less appealing.

The Fakester Resurrection was one of Swimmer One’s most ambitious songs, musically and lyrically – it was 12 minutes long, and split into four different sections, an idea that (for my part, at least) was very much inspired by Jane Siberry’s equally epic The Bird in the Gravel, which has a similar structure, as well as multiple perspectives and characters (if you’ve never listened to The Bird in the Gravel, you must; it’s amazing). Jane Siberry also wrote sequels, incidentally – a series of songs on separate albums, all very different but all called Map of the World. So I stole that idea too.

If we’d been more successful, I’d have loved to do The Fakester Resurrection live with a full band and orchestra. We did, at least, get to perform an imaginary version of that, at a spoken word night in Glasgow called Words Per Minute and then at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I sang along to a backing track while Laura held up a series of placards describing what was happening in our imagined big budget production of the song – ballet dancers, the Scottish Opera Chorus, bonkers ideas like the Statue of Liberty emerging from a pit of sand. It was a lot of fun, and I love that I can say that my band did a gig at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.