Day 45: A port in the storm

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A Port in the Storm is about walking along Portobello beach late at night, trying to lull my baby daughter to sleep. She didn’t sleep easily, and cried loudly and often, so I would put her in a sling or in the pushchair and head for the promenade, partly to give her mum a break, partly to steady my own nerves.

The sea seemed to soothe her, and I often wondered why. Perhaps she would have calmed down anyway, just from the walk, but I think the sea helped, its sound and its smell. It certainly helped me. It’s a primal experience, looking out at the place where life on earth began – probably – especially if the stars are out too, and especially if you have a baby in your arms. In the song there are various conflicting thoughts swirling around my head. The sea is comforting – I felt a strong sense of connection on those nights to the beginnings of the universe – but also frightening. We were always keenly aware in moving to Portobello that we were choosing a home that could be underwater in a few years’ time; on a stormy day at high tide the waves would crash dramatically on to the promenade. Portobello was becoming quite an aspirational place to live at the time, and the expensive new seafront homes being built on the prom, battered by saltwater even before they were finished, seemed like a textbook example of climate change denial; they reminded me of things I’d read about the madness of building more and more luxury homes on the Florida coast. We were in a wee flat in an old tenement block two streets away from the seafront, but still not far above sea level.

It’s interesting how your perspective on a song can change over time. A Port in the Storm was initially called When The Big Flood Comes until I decided this was too bleak, focusing on death and the end of humanity in a song that’s mostly about love. More recently it’s become simply The Beach, the middle section of a song cycle on the new album, called The Path, The Beach, The Sea. I like that a song written about the beginning and the end of life is now part of a bigger journey, just as our own beginnings and endings are only a small part of a bigger picture.

I also changed the lyrics in the final section. Originally it went ‘please give my daughters a port in the storm’, a plea addressed to the islands of the Forth – Inchcolm, Inchkeith, Inchgarvie – that you can see from the shore, and to whom I’d sometimes talk in the absence of other company. By the time I was making After All Of The Days We Will Disappear, though, I had two sons as well as two daughters, and it became ‘don’t be afraid of the ocean, we’re going home’.

By home I partly meant the ocean. I had an image in my head of humanity being swept away by floods but returning, in death, to the place where we started. But I also meant our new home in the Outer Hebrides, which faces the sea but from a much higher vantage point. Not that we’re immune from climate change here – the weather is famously fierce and likely to get fiercer, and who knows what will happen with the gulf stream? – but it feels more like home than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, and with an even bigger and more humbling view. Instead of Inchkeith, Inchcolm and Inchgarvie we now look out on the Flannan Islands and, on a very clear day, St Kilda. Beyond that the closest land to us is the Faroe Islands and Iceland. And you can see far more stars here than I ever could from Portobello.

The baby daughter of the song is seven years old now. Sometimes she asks me to play her ‘Beau to the beach’. She still doesn’t like sleeping.

Day 44: The Last House on Holland Island

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The Last House on Holland Island was inspired by a haunting photograph I found on the internet, of a house perched on the water like Noah’s ark, a flock of birds gathered on the roof. It was an incredibly evocative image. Sometimes when I looked at it I saw one of MC Escher’s impossible drawings, a building that could never exist. Sometimes it seemed Biblical. Sometimes it seemed apocalyptic, an alternate finale to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a man and his son finally reach the coast only to encounter further evidence of the end of the world. Most obviously it evoked a world ravaged by climate change, a vision of the near future – or the recent past if you live somewhere like Indonesia, or even my own former home city of Carlisle. The birds could easily be mistaken for humans desperately clinging to wreckage.

At the time the photograph, and the story behind it, also made me think of my dad, a stubborn man who had been ill for a long time but was refusing to accept it.

The last house on Holland Island was built in the winter of 1888, in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA. At that time the island was a thriving community of fishing and boatman families, with around 70 homes. But in 1914 it began to sink into the water, not as the result of climate change caused by humans but because of post-glacial rebound, a process in which land masses rise and fall over thousands of years, as the weight of glaciers created during the last ice age gradually lifts. The west side of the island disappeared first, eroded by the tides, pushing the residents eastwards. For the next four years they desperately tried to protect their homes by building stone walls, but it was no use. In 1918, after a storm damaged the church, the last family gave up and abandoned the island to the water. Nothing more could be done. In truth, there was never anything to be done. Even in the 17th century, when European colonists first settled there – including Daniel Holland, who would give the island its name – the forces that would destroy it were already moving slowly and silently into place.

Almost 80 years after the final family left Holland Island, a man made one last attempt to save it. In 1995, Stephen White, a Methodist minister who had grown up on the island, paid $70,000 for the 1888 house, now the last building standing, and then spent 15 years and $150,000 trying to hold back the water with rocks, wooden breakwaters, sandbags, even a sunken barge. It was an extraordinary act of defiance against nature. But just as in 1914, it proved futile. White became ill and had to abandon his efforts and leave the island. Sometimes I find myself wondering how much Stephen White’s faith gave him solace, and how much it was a source of torment. I also wonder what it might have been like to grow up in that household, watching your father devote his life to such a lost cause, watching it slowly kill him. The photo I found on the internet was taken not long after White finally abandoned the house – you can still see the sandbags scattered around it.

As my dad became more ill he developed a habit of insisting he was unable to stand up properly ‘at the moment’, or was unable to remember simple domestic details ‘at the moment’, as if this was all just a phase. He would irritably blame others for the black holes in his memory: ‘Nobody tells me anything!’ became something of a catchphrase as he gradually slipped away from us, into the water of Chesapeake Bay. He was, obviously, afraid. For every moment when he seemed to be in complete denial, there was another when he would awkwardly silence the room with some morbid, apparently throwaway remark about how in about five years he’d be dead. He was very much like a man looking anxiously out of the windows of his home, seeing water in every direction, and grumpily announcing that he didn’t feel like going for a walk today.

The first time I sang the song in front of an audience was in February 2014, less than a month after my dad died. Since the song is about being afraid of my dad dying, and I was still in shock that it had actually happened, I should probably have cancelled the gig. Looking back, I can’t figure out why I didn’t. It was uncomfortable for me and probably awkward for the people watching.

That gig was the launch of The Winter of 88, my final album as Seafieldroad. The album’s title is partly a reference to the winter in which the Holland Island house was built, partly to the winter – exactly one century later – when I began writing songs on a cheap Yamaha synthesiser my dad had bought me as a Christmas present. There are, of course, also 88 keys on a piano.

My dad bought me the keyboard on the condition that I got music lessons; I agreed, a little reluctantly. I was 15 years old. I bought two tiny microphones and a cassette recorder, and resolved to make futuristic music. My role models were the Pet Shop Boys, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Depeche Mode, the Human League, Kraftwerk, anyone else making music with machines. It became an obsession. Every few months I would record a cassette full of new songs. Some people would call these recordings demos. Being a teenage megalomaniac living in a fantasy world, I decided they were albums. Each had a title and its own hand-made cover artwork. Each was mixed, once it was finished, on to a C60 cassette, so was more or less an hour long. Sometimes I’d enlist friends to play bass, or guitar (as long as it wasn’t too ‘rock’) or to sing. But mostly I made them on my own, creating all the music on my cheap little machine, a little boy dreaming of the future. By album number 14 or 15 I was so pleased with my progress that I was starting to make best of compilations, remix albums and singles too (on slightly shorter cassettes). I kept up this weird behaviour for about six years. By the time I was in my twenties I had recorded almost 40 hours of music, most of which has still never been heard by anybody.

In other words, my teenage years were largely lost to a musical instrument my dad bought me. The great irony of this was that he always seemed indifferent to the music I was making, because, to be fair, it was so alien to him. He liked classical music and jazz, the kind of music he played himself on the cello or double bass. He would be lost without sheet music and was always baffled that my brother in law, a successful professional musician, couldn’t read it. He was bemused by drum machines and pop music in general. He would complain that he couldn’t hear the words, or that it was rhythmically monotonous, or that it had no proper tunes. If this was the future, he didn’t want it. Since I idolised him, I found this incredibly frustrating.

Years later, I formed a band and somehow managed to get played on daytime Radio One, an impossible dream for the 1988 me. There were features and reviews in national newspapers and magazines. One of the songs was used in a movie. I proudly presented Dad with a copy of our debut album, The Regional Variations. As far as I know he didn’t listen to this either. The year it was released he wrote a newsletter for various family members scattered across the country. The Regional Variations – five years in the making, ten more if you include all those teenage recordings, and the achievement I was most proud of in my life up to that point – merited no mention at all. I was furious with him.

It is ironic that the album of mine that my dad would be most likely to enjoy was the one I finished just after he died. The Winter of 88 had tunes that he would recognise as tunes, proper instruments (a trumpet!), no drum machines whatsoever, and choral singing not unlike the music he would listen to at church, which sounded the way it did partly because I grew up going to that church too, and it seeped into my brain. I’ve often wondered whether this album was, subconsciously, my final attempt to reach out to him, despite the fact that when I was writing and recording it he was at a point in his life when music, of any kind, meant less and less to him. Was I turning into Stephen White, revisiting the scene of my childhood, stubbornly trying to rebuild something that was clearly already lost?

The Winter of 88’s physical release consisted of 88 CDs with handmade artwork – based on a collection of pebbles found by the seaside – not a million miles from the handmade sleeves of my 38 early ‘albums’. I had, in lots of ways, come full circle creatively. And like most musicians in middle age, I had stopped trying to write music that sounded like the future. Instead I was mining my own past, emulating the music that had stayed with me over the years, like Mark Eitzel’s 60 Watt Silver LiningTalk Talk’s Laughing Stockthe Blue Nile’s A Walk Across the Rooftops, and David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive.

When I realised this, I felt like I should give up writing songs. It had become my Holland Island, I thought – a lost cause, obsessively pursued with ever diminishing commercial and artistic returns. I thought I should let the island sink and look for a new one.

And then my wife reminded me that this was grief talking. I had become so preoccupied with endings that I’d forgotten to appreciate the process. The point of making music, after all, is just to do it, for fun and excitement and self-expression, regardless of the results. I had forgotten that the first single Swimmer One ever released was called We Just Make Music For Ourselves, and that we meant it.

There is another way of looking at Stephen White’s story, after all – not as tragedy but as triumph. In the end he may not have been able to hold back the tide, but for a while he did. And ultimately that’s all any of us can do. As Sufjan Stevens sings so beautifully, we’re all gonna die. The final lines of The Last House on Holland Island – ‘all these islands will sink, all these houses will fall, we’ll build new homes anyway’ – can be read in two ways. You can conclude that building those new homes is futile, or you can conclude that staying defiantly hopeful, despite the odds, is what keeps us alive.

Days 36-43: Cramond island to Portobello beach

At this point I’m going to cheat and write about eight songs – the whole of the second Seafieldroad album – in one go. It’s not that I’m not proud of these songs individually, it’s just that they’re all about the same thing. Basically Seafieldroad, the album, is an eight-song love letter to my wife Laura – or, as she was at the time, my fiance. And I’m not going to write eight blogs about that. Some things are private, even for a singer-songwriter.

The album opens with Cramond Island Causeway. For the benefit of readers who don’t know Edinburgh, just off the village of Cramond on the outskirts of the city there’s an island you can walk to at low tide, along a causeway of jagged triangular structures that look like the spine of an ancient sea creature. At high tide, though, the island is cut off from the mainland. People who don’t know this can get stranded there. One time I remember some teenagers had a massive party and ended up with their faces all over page three of the Scotsman after getting hypothermia and having to call the coastguard.

When I wrote this song we were living in Leith and would sometimes cycle to Cramond; it was inspired by one particular journey there, on Laura’s 31st birthday. My memory is a bit blurry now, but we were making an art project at the time that involved hiding secret messages in outdoor locations, so we probably did that. Lorn Macdonald made a very beautiful video for this song, in which Laura and I are played by two people much younger than us and the beach is in Orkney instead of near Leith. It’s like an arthouse film version of us, and actually much sadder than the song was intended to be. By sheer chance, Laura owns a summer dress exactly like the one the girl is wearing in the video, which freaked us out a bit when we first saw it.

Cramond appears again in The War Planes Are Blitzing The Town; in fact the song was originally called Cramond Island Causeway 2. I changed the title to avoid confusing people, but the new title probably ended up confusing people anyway, since the song is actually much more about Cramond than Cramond Island Causeway is. The lyrics refer to the war fortifications on the island, a series of concrete bunkers that had anti-aircraft guns on them during World War Two. It’s a song about emotional battles – the war planes are, obviously enough, not actual war planes, they’re all the things in life that make you feel under attack, or oppressed, or isolated. I liked the image of someone feeling lonely and lost, fighting off their own personal war planes from a metaphorical island, and someone who loves them swimming out to the island to be with them, shooting anti aircraft guns by their side. The line ‘Leith must be protected’ has a double meaning – it was the Leith shipyards that these guns were protecting during the war, and it was our home and our life in Leith that I was fighting to protect in the song, in what were stressful times for both of us.

What Became Of Pinky And Honker is a simple love song, deliberately so. The title comes from Laura calling me Honker. Not because I smell, but because when I have a cold I make a slight honking sound with my nose. I wanted to give her an equally silly nickname as revenge, but the only thing I could think of was that she was wearing a pink beret at the time. None of this has anything to do with the song really, I just liked the image of two characters called Pinky and Honker going off on some adventure and leaving their frustrating working lives behind, as we often wished we could. The title has a double meaning – Honker is imagining his old workmates wondering what became of Pinky and Honker, but he’s also feeling vulnerable and wondering whether Pinky is going to stay with him.

If Pinky and Honker did go on that adventure, it was probably to Siberia, as described in There Is A Train That Goes Thousands Of Miles Away, which was going to be called Trans Siberian Express until I remembered that Momus had already written a song called that. Early on in our relationship Laura and I talked a lot about saving up money in a jar so that one day we could go in this epic train trip, ending up in the Far East. Sadly we never managed to put enough in the jar to go to Siberia. We went to other, less expensive places instead, and eventually ended up in the Hebrides, which to a lot of people in the UK might as well be Siberia. Maybe one day we’ll still make that trip.

On the subject of cold places, I Just Want To Sledge With My Baby was a jokey title for a sad, sober song. It was written one incredibly cold, bleak winter, when the snow drove Scotland to a standstill – hence the line ‘the radio is saying make no journey you don’t need’. Musically this is probably my favourite moment on the album – there are shades of Steve Reich in the arrangement, an influence all the way back to Swimmer One’s first single. I remember feeling especially proud of the second section, where the line ‘we’re climbing up the hill’ is accompanied by an ascending chord sequence.

You Are The Only Place On The Map was a sequel to There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City from the first Seafieldroad album. As you can tell, I really like maps as a metaphor – finding routes through life, drawing your own emotional maps, that sort of thing. If There Are No Maps was about the beginning of a relationship, this rejoins the same couple a bit further down the line as they try to keep things together in challenging times, to find new routes through their lives and their relationship. There are references to various places we’d been together, from Turin to Aberfeldy and Manchester, subject of an earlier Seafieldroad song. The end is basically one big apology. I can’t actually remember what I was apologising about now, but thankfully it turned out ok.

The Coastal Path was originally called Seafield Road – after the street in Edinburgh – until it dawned on me that a song called Seafield Road, by Seafieldroad, would result in even more confusion than two songs called Cramond Island Causeway. Seafield Road is not a pretty road. It smells a bit from the nearby sewage works, and mostly consists of warehouses. It was, however, the quickest way to get from our home in Leith to one of our favourite places at the time, Portobello beach, so we would often cycle along it when we first got together, drinking fizzy wine and eating fish and chips on the beach when we got there. I thought this was a neat metaphor for the fact that the road to happiness isn’t always beautiful. Sometimes it is noisy and ugly and smells a bit. At the beginning of the song, Honker seems a bit worried that it’s not going to work out between him and Pinky. Perhaps there are too many emotional obstacles in their way, between them and the beach.

It’s strange listening back to this song now, knowing that not long after the album was released we would get married on that beach, and that for three years after that we would live in a flat two minutes’ walk from it, and that our first child would learn to walk on it. It’s also strange listening back to the album’s closing song, Walking On A Dream, knowing that it would later become the first dance at our wedding – the original Empire of the Sun version, not mine. A happy ending.

On the new album The Coastal Path has taken on a new meaning again. It has become a beginning, the opening section of a song cycle called The Path, The Beach, The Sea, the start of a new journey to the Hebrides. And it’s much more embellished than this simple, bare version, which feels like a sketch now, an enthusiastic first run at something ultimately deeper and richer, like the beginning of a relationship. At the end of this album though, Pinky and Honker haven’t got married yet. They are talking a lot, making plans, walking along the coastal path, by an old rail track, holding hands, the sound of the waves mixing with the sound of the city traffic, the beach just starting to emerge in the distance.

Day 35: Fucking Manchester

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It occurred to me this week that Fucking Manchester is the last song I ever wrote about being young. The song was inspired by an actual weekend Laura and I spent in Manchester, shortly after we got together. We drank a lot, stayed up late, and were so excited to be there that we strode around the streets shouting ‘FUCKING MANCHESTER’. In the daytime we went in search of the Hacienda and Canal Street. At night we looked for places to go dancing and, to our delight, ended up hanging out with a Liam Gallagher lookalike who called himself Dog and led us to a club that played New Order and the Happy Mondays.

Being me, I still managed to describe this hedonistic experience in a way that sounds a little bit sad, as summed up by one of my favourite ever write-ups, from Paul Lester in the Guardian: “Live Forever it is not, although in its evocation of youthful yearning and sense of nostalgia for a time yet to pass, maybe it’s not as far removed as we first assumed.”

I’m currently in Edinburgh for the festival, and I keep seeing couples who make me think of us in Manchester – stumbling around, wide-eyed and in love, thrilled to be there and with each other. It’s lovely to watch, but not something I miss. These days I am more excited by islands than by cities. I’m here to earn us money, and am writing this from a train home in the early evening, after one sensible glass of wine at the kind of reception where I would once have happily taken up all the free booze on offer. Laura is in the Hebrides renovating the house with a sense of purpose that fills me with awe. In our different ways, we are both laying the kind of life foundations referred to in verse two of this song but on a deeper level than I could have understood or aspired to when I was younger. We are no longer ‘floating high in the air’ like in verse two, but instead digging into the earth.

I wrote this song, quite deliberately, as a postcard to my future self. We’d had an amazing weekend and I wanted to create a souvenir, hence all the very specific Manchester references, from Factory Records to – again, typical of me to throw in something sad – the aftermath of the Manchester bombing. I sometimes wish I’d written more songs like this, about other trips we went on together to Turin, or Krakow, or Paris. If I hadn’t written Fucking Manchester I might have forgotten about the moment we had together in the John Rylands Library, gazing in wonder at the Rylands Library Papyrus, a ‘fragment of paper that is older than we’ll ever be’, and wondering how to make the most of our own tiny fragment of human history.

This is how it starts, with love and hope in our hearts. Fucking Manchester.

Day 34: Feeble Jesus

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‘I wonder how he’d take it if we all held him down
And drove nails right through him till he cried out loud.’

I haven’t written one of these in a while, but now that Boris is our Prime Minister – god help us – it feels like a fitting time to revisit Feeble Jesus, the next song on the list, since it’s about somebody who wants to be the Messiah not because he has any wisdom, principles, or obvious leadership skills to offer but because he wants to be adored and thinks he deserves it.

Feeble Jesus was actually inspired by David Cameron, a man who always seemed to me like somebody had built a robot based on a verbal description of Tony Blair – smooth-talking, good hair, talks in platitudes – hence the ‘show us some blood’ references and the desire to bang nails into him just to check if he’s actually human. I found him creepy, like one of those CGI characters in movies that slip into the uncanny valley because the animators couldn’t get the eyes or skin quite right. In my film of his life he’s played by Brent Spiner, channelling Data in Star Trek.

Weirdly though, the song could just as easily be about Boris, or Donald Trump, or the other narcissistic monsters who have risen to positions of incredible power and influence recently by telling frightened people exactly what they want to hear, bullying everyone else, and lying so shamelessly that it’s galling to those who see through it and can’t understand why other people don’t or just don’t think it matters.

Feeble Jesus makes me think of Boris because of Max Hastings’ description of him as someone whose “graver vice is cowardice, reflected in a willingness to tell any audience whatever he thinks most likely to please, heedless of the inevitability of its contradiction an hour later”. The only explanation of Johnson and Trump that currently makes sense to me is that leaders like them are the result of a kind of ideological paralysis. Thanks to the internet, we know more about global problems than ever before and yet we feel powerless to do anything about it because it all seems so complicated and overwhelming. Leaders like Trump and Johnson are the result of people just giving up on believing that anyone can actually guide us through the mess that humanity is currently in and deciding that these men, with their simple, reassuring stories, their unshakeable sense of entitlement and their promises to make everything great again – whatever that means – are the next best thing. With them in charge we can switch off and pretend that none of it is happening. We’re cowards, so we end up with leaders who are cowards. There was a time when half-truths from politicians would cause outrage. Now they lie to us quite openly and we don’t even care.

It’s more complicated than that, obviously. Like the real Jesus, there’s a higher, cleverer power behind it all, whose motives are cloaked in mystery and not necessarily benevolent. The most frightening conspiracy theory I’ve heard lately is that the world’s super-rich have already collectively concluded – probably not together in some secret room but just individually, because it’s common sense – that a global temperature rise of three degrees or more is now inevitable and will be catastrophic, and that the only way forward is to let civilisation fall apart and attempt to clear up the mess afterwards, once half of us are dead – just not the better half, to quote a line from Titanic. So instead of wasting their time on renewable energy or other green initiatives that will just be sticking plasters on an untreatable wound, they’re investing money and influence into the kind of dangerous buffoons who are likely to push us over the cliff edge, while buying up property in places that might escape the worst of the weather, probably with bunkers.

In other words Boris is a useful idiot, and also the kind of leader we will eventually turn on, perhaps savagely, because it’s obvious he has nothing to offer.

I’m trying to be optimistic. In one of my favourite books, Soil and Soul – which I’m currently developing into a theatre show – Alastair McIntosh suggests that the best form of activism is to ‘dig where you stand’. So instead of raging against the world, as I’ve spent much of my life doing, I’m trying to be practical and positive and think small and local. There’s not a lot I can do about Boris, or Trump, or global heating probably, but I can learn how to croft – inspired by my amazing wife, who is much more of a visionary about these things than me – and try and play a positive and useful role in my community.

It’s now the middle of the night though, and because I’m exhausted from doing four jobs at once – one of the hazards of being an arts freelancer, particularly just before/during the Edinburgh festival – I come out with stuff like this.

Enjoy the hot weather.

Day 33: All I Wanted Was To Be a Gangster

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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

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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

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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

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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.