Beacon Backstories: Fire On The Mountain

Fire On The Mountain

Lyrics…

Lyrics…

Premise: Fairy-tale princess gets kidnapped. Loosely inspired by the Beacons of Gondor scene from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

 

Recording Process: Another last-minute unlikely addition to the album, this one started out with a drop-D guitar part that I couldn’t play in its entirety (great start so far for the album with unfinished/impossible to play songs!) We cobbled the guitar together in sections and again I think there were some fairly incomplete lyrics that went along with it until quite near the end. It’s again down to the magic of the studio that there’s a complete song to show for this – listening back to it now the details on the guitar. This was the first of 3 songs I decided would benefit for a bit of piano treatment and maybe that’s when it really started to come together - because the piano line is incredibly satisfying to play. Then Dan added drums, lots of low toms and splashy cymbals, and I put the viola line on top – there is an instrumental draft version still up on Soundcloud here which I like at least as much as the sung version.

 

The bottom note in the vocal line (holding on) is a bottom D! I was quite proud of that. I can’t get there in the normal course of things – I think you can hear from the recording that I’m pushing the limit of my range, but it’s amazing what warm-ups can do.

 

Feature Lyrics:

He’d post a sentry standing watch at night

Always said I was his queen of darkness in his palace of light

 

Listen out for:

Guitar slides e.g. at 0:20

Piano accents at 3:50

Viola line in the bridge especially 3:51 - 4:03

 

Live: don’t know/can’t do it (haha!) but it was a lot of fun with the band!

 

Beacon Backstories: Behind The Lines

Behind The Lines

Premise: Love, separation, war and death

Recording Process: This was very nearly not a song at all, and very much an experiment in writing about something - war - that I know nothing about. Usually I have a fairly settled idea about a song pretty quickly but my uncertainty over Behind The Lines meant it was hard to pin down - I’ve never had so many combinations of possible lyrics and parts of verses for a song before or since! It reminded me of writing poetry in school almost. In the end I related it back to something I do know something about: writing .The central idea of giving someone a book where you’ve written down all the things you’ve felt about them, for them to read and draw strength from when you’re far away – well that’s just the sort of thing I would do.

Musically, I knew I wanted to do something unaccompanied or at least with no guitar, something that would foreground the vocal (don’t get me wrong, I love to play, but singing is the bit I live for) that could maybe be the album opener. I had unfinished fragments of Behind The Lines floating about quite late into the Beacon process – there’s no Half-Light version because it didn’t exist as a song at that point, and anyway it would have been just the vocal… might work, might not. On the day we went in to record Vicky’s bodhrán session she kindly played the rhythm along to a quickly cobbled-together guide track of mis-ordered lyrics and humming – almost as an experiment, but it was enough to give me hope that the song might eventually come together. We kept discussing it during the sessions that followed and Gareth talked about asking Russ to come in and drum, which he did, bringing an authentic WWII-era snare with him. I really feel like I owe Gareth a lot for getting taken up with this song and encouraging me to keep trying ideas lyrically and on the production – not sure I would have persevered with it on my own. I think the vocals went down next, and then we put the viola drones in, recording all the notes of the scale and bringing them in and out on the faders to make chords, until it ended up being the perfect atmospheric start to the album.

Feature lyrics:            

And summoned he no angels there

In the dark, laid his wounds to shadows bare

 

Listen out for:

The augmented 4th in the drone at 3:13

Forever-reverb on the last note of the vocal at 3:47 onwards.

 

Live: works well with just the bodhrán and harmonies, and Vicky’s been known to throw in the harmonies as well. At the launch night we had Maggie Smith put the drone in on her shruti box – it was the first song of the show and a brilliant feature to kick off with.

 

There’s now a video of the hand-written lyrics here.

Lyrics

Lyrics

Orpington Liberal Club - 19th January

Starting back the year after a bit of a break with a gig at Orpington Liberal Club - on a wintry Saturday night in deepest darkest Kent, preceded by curry with friends and wrapped up with flowers and chocolates (I only won the raffle! I’m considering that an auspicious sign for 2019!) It was a shared set with Bernard Hoskin who splits his time between Kent and Cambridge and who I consequently run into a fair bit at gigs - in fact we played back-to-back at one of the OLC garden parties back in the summer. The Liberal Club to me is one of those places that you only have to visit once (particularly if it’s for anything music-related) and you will walk away with a whole bunch of mates and feel at home there forever afterwards. They run a whole range of music events of different scales and genres so there’s always something to get involved with and they do know how to give a warm welcome.

It’s been about 6 weeks since my last gig, and having had some time to pause and reflect I am feeling much more relaxed about things in general; person first, musician second after all. I need some new songs to revitalise what I’m doing live; as much as I love my existing songs, my darkness has shifted and going through the process of stepping back into it because of pressures to perform just seems really counter to me-as-a-person thriving, for the moment. I also just need a whole lot more home alone time to be happy than I thought I did, so I am writing a bit more, and going to other people’s gigs a bit more, and gigging ever so slightly less, and am in a contemplative phase about all things creative which may yet see me more active on the blog and sharing a bit more via livestreaming of what comes out of the process. It has been good to be reminded that, ultimately, creativity is freedom and there are no rules on how you approach it or what you then do with the output. I am feeling ever-better and long may that continue! On that note here’s the first ever outing of Ahead of the Game courtesy of the OLC’s Peter Muldoon:

Beacon Backstories

Beacon  was released a year ago on Monday!

Beacon was released a year ago on Monday!

Something I’ve been toying with (in between getting distracted by Scotland, France, Cornwall, and so on) is writing up a blog series on the stories behind the songs on Beacon and how they came about. This is something I’m tempted to do with every release to be honest, so I usually set it aside, but with Beacon it won’t quite go away - I think because there was so much more involved in its making, there is that much more to tell. I’ve worked on production before, for and with other people, but I think when it comes to your own material, as a songwriter there’s this extra dimension of suddenly having all these extra sounds to play with, but also the challenge of, how do I keep the sound true to myself, and communicate that to all the other people involved?

I think also that something I’m becoming more aware of as I talk to people, is how listeners hear the songs can be so far tangential to where they actually came from and the real sources of inspiration behind them. Sometimes I agree this is better left well alone and the beauty of songs is that they can mean so many different things to different people - I remember reading something Seal was supposed to have said once, about not including lyrics in the album inserts because he’d rather people hear the words the way they wanted to. But I think for me, maybe the time has come that I do just need to talk about it all, a bit, so to coincide with the anniversary of the launch I’m make a start and see how it goes. There were also parts of the recording process and moments within the songs that were incredibly exciting and meaningful for me at the time, which I fear will be lost otherwise. It’s a chance to go back and listen to some of the tracks again with a bit more knowledge of what went into them.

So here, setting the scene for your in-depth Beacon experience, are the characters:

Vicky Keohane - Bodhrán
Aidan Keohane - Mandolin

Father and daughter, Aidan and Vicky are friends I know for quite a while from the Croydon folk/folk and blues clubs - Ruskin House, Lime Meadow etc. They play together as a duo and in various other groups. Hilarity and high-energy abound. Vicky also played on the Doesn’t Take Much EP earlier in 2017.

Percussion
Chris Hyde-Harrison - Double Bass
Maggie Casey - Whistles
Stephen Nurse - Chromatic Harmonica

These are all fantastic musicians who I’ve met through folk clubs or different open mic circuits in central/south London - I think it says a lot about the complexity and wealth of the different live music scenes here that there was no overlap between anyone until we worked on this project.

Gareth Cobb - Bass guitar
Russ Watts - Drumming for Behind The Lines

Gareth was the engineer, mixer and co-producer and it was his studio where we recorded Beacon and Half-light (not to mention These Hours as well). It was so great, after three years of having him work on my stripped-back acoustic projects, to finally have him play bass on Beacon. Russ was introduced via Gareth and the studio to add the military drumming on Behind The Lines.

So that was the palette, and these were the people. We had wind, strings, percussion; a little bit of everything to gently embellish these songs and coax them out of their acoustic beginnings. Piano was recorded at Perryvale Studios just down the road. I wanted a choice of subtle accents rather than a uniform wall of production for this project and was quietly pleased that by accident all the songs came out with slightly different selections for the mix - a couple are just me on guitar plus vocals and harmonies, others have almost everyone on at once, and there’s just about every combination in between. It felt pretty obvious what most of the songs needed as we were going along, and while I suppose there’s always more you can do if you have the time, there wasn’t anything critical I felt missing from these mixes. What was interesting in hindsight, was working the songs up for the launch as an ensemble, and having various members add new things in and swap parts (or even play two parts at once!) - there’s no way we would have done that during the recording stage because the Beacon “band” such as it loosely is didn’t exist until after it was finished - but it’s great to see the songs continue to evolve.

I’m going to be taking you on a tour through bits of the recording process (the bits I remember!) favourite lyrics, live notes and miscellaneous thoughts on the songs and generally feeling grateful for this project and to everyone who worked on it.

I can't believe I haven't posted about LINE (!)

How how HOW can my last blog post be from June?! I really thought I had blogged at least a little bit more than that. My own sense of time has been a little bit out of sync with the speed of things on the internet - the gigs have kept happening, the videos have kept coming in, the occasional new song has been making its way out.

What is really unforgivable is that I never blogged about the LINE (Live in the North East) gig in July - I think you can really blame Scotland for this and for being so darn distracting afterwards. In the end the date got moved from Thursday to Tuesday (thanks to the amazing LINE team who seem able to pull a gig, including full audience, out of nowhere, just like that - I appreciate it takes a lot of work to make things look so effortless!) As a consequence of the change in date though I ended up going to Scotland after and not before - doing a thousand miles or more on my own in the car and soaking up the beauty of the Caledonian summer. I may come back and post some pictures that’ll attest to why my attention may have been elsewhere!

This was an amazing gig on a boiling hot summer’s evening opening for the fantastic Steve Pledger, who up close was every bit the intense and authentic performer I had been led to believe he would be. I was thrilled to have the chance to duet with him on There We Are - the one-off performance of which was captured for the LINE youtube page, link to which below. LINE run some pretty incredible gigs, but more than that they are all just lovely people who really do just care, there were so many sweet surprises along the way and we’ve kept in touch (updates to Jo’s boot collection a concern now dear to my heart) despite the distance (did I mention that I tried to get there via Norfolk? Not the quickest route so I’m told). The audience were really welcoming and we were lucky enough to have Roots and Fusion’s Rick Stuart there who has blogged a review of the gig here; I also had one very good friend come to watch who I knew from way back in my last couple of years of teaching. We all took advantage of Northumberland’s spectacular beaches the next day.

LINE, you wonderful lot, I wish you weren’t so far, but it was one of the highlights of my year meeting you.

Road trips and inspiration

It's not really "news" to say that I haven't been here as much lately! Been making the most of the weather and taking a bit of time out in between gigs to get out and about exploring, on road trips, on long walks, taking some time away in the peace and isolation offered by our wonderful countryside. 

People ask me whether I do much songwriting when I'm away and the answer is mostly... not really! - but I do always have my guitar with me. Sometimes being away from home gives me more of a chance just sit down and try new things or finish up old things; sometimes I just get caught up in the driving and the walking and the miles covered and whatever might be around the next corner or behind the next bump in the road. In a wider sense, though, I'm inspired by the beauty and endless growth in nature, and everything I see seeps down to inspire me - you never know what might resurface in a song at a much later date. 

So that, plus dealing with some life stuff, and being a year older, is what I've been doing really. The gigs are still rolling in and I have a new list of dates to collate and share shortly. 

In the meantime I wanted to share a few of my favourite vistas from the Lake District where I got extremely lucky with the weather last month! 

Resting Place live video, BBC Gloucestershire, and gig on Friday

There's a new video of Resting Place here - this is from the Ruskin House gig in March, with Daniel Fitzgibbon on drums and Aidan Keohane on Mandolin. This is a neat (short!) little song that I love to play live, I remember first hearing those drums in the studio and how the song just came to life (though there's a version on both Beacon and Half-light so you can have it either way). It's also my "angry" song, take that as you will!


I'm very grateful to Johnny Coppin for including it on his acoustic show for BBC Radio Gloucestershire from a couple of weekends ago - it's available on the iPlayer here if you'd like to hear the show in full. 

Also a reminder that I am playing at the inaugural She Shows event at the Leyden Gallery (Spitalfields) on Friday night there is music from 8pm, info here and tickets here. Thanks to everyone who made it to the beautiful (and warm!) night at Blackheath Halls last Friday! I have been playing a couple of friends' open mics this week so rushing around a bit but hope to be back with some more videos and updates over the weekend!

Win or Lose, and naming the muses

I've had a bit of an idea... 

When I was thinking about posting today's video I found myself wandering down a story-path that took me back to where it was written, the various parks that supplied the imagery and the people who influenced the lyrics and the atmosphere. And here I hit the usual difficulty - because I want very much to go into detail about the circumstances and the influences and the people I'm grateful to for being so powerfully present in my life and harbouring my art, but it seems dramatically unwise to call these people out by name or to go into too much real-life detail - songwriting is so personal and subjective and I don't believe any of the people I've written songs about know for sure that the songs are about them (not to assume that everyone would care, but I would if it were me!) 

SO I've thought about using code words to build up pictures of the personae that have been formative for me and would help give some more context to the songs, and at first I thought about stealing some names randomly from some established pantheon - Greek, Turkish, Japanese perhaps - but then I thought, what do I actually care about? Trees! Why not use species of trees? This would let me build up pictures and interlink songs that relate to the same people, and maybe sneak some things into the Language of Trees and Sky blog too. My knowledge not being that distinct maybe we'll all learn a little something too hah. Perhaps I've been over-indulging lately in Robert MacFarlane's nature lexica. Personally, I love the idea of an imagined Forest of formative influences - it reminds me a little bit of Judy Dench's Love of Trees and this quote from her interview in the Guardian: 'Many of Dench’s friends are remembered in trees. “It’s something living that goes on,” she explains. “You don’t remember them and stop; you remember them and the memory goes on and gets more wonderful.”' And of course Tori Amos talks at length about her muses who seem to be very well-defined as individual characters. 

I would love to know what you guys think of this. In the meantime here's the band version of Win or Lose, which appropriately has my favourite ever tree-themed bridge lyric as well as an appropriate dose of light imagery (it is a Beacon song after all): 

Rob Anderson and I used to sing this song a bit although we never recorded it (the rest of the SumnerAnderson collection is here) - the last line of the last verse "I'll be your side-kick, if we ever get that far" always reminds me of singing this with him and of some hilarious side-kick-themed joke poster artwork he did for us - happy times. 

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I've been up in your branches, hanging down
I've been planting the magic in your ground
I've been the voice of illusion in your ear
I'll be the light that guides you
as you go on from here

Video flurry

We're having a video editing day here at ASM HQ (heavily interspersed with coffee and naps!) - I've got a new lyric video in progress and have managed to get hold of some close-up footage from the Croydon Folk & Blues Club gig a couple of weeks ago, thanks to the very patient Colin who videoed practically the whole set on his phone! It's great to have the atmosphere with the band captured, lots of giggles and everyone looking relaxed at Ruskin. If you can make it there tomorrow night you can catch the Dave King Band - Dave King was at Ruskin the first time I ever went there and I've never forgotten his song People My Age. Also there that night was the wonderful Christine Halpin and someone I've still yet to identify who gave a most beautiful rendition of Richard Thompson's Beeswing, a song which has never left my heart as a result. 

Anyway I digress. In summary, we hopefully have live band videos coming down the pipeline of about half of Beacon, not to mention Go Out Of Tune's Half-Light special that gets released next Friday. In the meantime here a couple of oldies from a wonderful gig two years ago in Wandle Park  (not the one with the Beacon tower but another great and much-loved central Croydon park!) - the first live version of Swim Any Sea and the time Renegades got invaded by a helicopter and then a tram. 

Solid Ground - Go Out Of Tune live session video

Here is the first of the videos from the Go Out Of Tune live session last weekend (I'm not sure Max ever sleeps??!) at St. John's Hoxton. There are plenty of reasons why I went with Solid Ground - it just feeling right for the setting being the main one (I made the decision when I got there) and also being the first chance I've had to do a video in this kind of setting I wanted to choose something that was comfortable and that people will know and hopefully enjoy. We made two videos; the other one will be revealed on the GOOT channel next week - it's one of the new album songs but I'll leave you to find out which one when the time comes...

Along the Tracks feature

Neil King featured Beacon and Half-light as albums of the week for this Along The Tracks episode back in February - it's now here on Mixcloud to enjoy in full. It starts with Behind The Lines and ends with Fire on the Mountain and has the Half-light version of Daughters of Mercy in the middle, which seems logical to me as Tide Will Turn was Neil's pick from These Hours if I remember rightly - to me there's a correlation between the two. Many thanks to Neil and to FATEA for their support as always! 

Ruskin House -

Sunday night we had a band gig for Croydon Folk & Blues Club at Ruskin House - our second outing as a band and a great night it was too! I went to the Ruskin Folk & Blues club a lot when I first started playing and a lot of the regulars there supported, encouraged and mentored me as I was learning how to perform - not to mention that it was the testing ground for most of my songs! So it's lovely to play there and we had a great crowd who were familiar with some of the songs. Thanks to the hard work and attentiveness of friends in the audience we've managed to snag some quite good bits of video - the first is here, which is Last Summerand there'll be some more to come. 

Packed night at the cosiest of venues!

Packed night at the cosiest of venues!

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Dan and a happy Maggie with her Shruti box

Dan and a happy Maggie with her Shruti box

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St. John's Hoxton

I had a great afternoon filming live song videos with Go Out Of Tune at St. John's in Hoxton today. We did a version of All These Little Things which will show up on the GOOT channel and a super long take of Solid Ground which will go out on mine. The acoustics at St. John's are just incredible and it's quite a setting as you can see from the pictures. It's been a while since I've done any serious video work and and having that quiet space just for those songs, an hour of calm in amidst the bustle of gigs and travelling and everything else that's been going on, was just wonderful. I'll be back with the video links once they're posted!

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...and other things...

So I had the day off after Eastbourne (day off regular work that is!) - which is just as well as I was on such a high it took almost an hour of post-gig debriefing over coffee and another hour and a bit of a drive home to come off it - and spent some of the afternoon jamming some new ideas with the awesome Daniel Fitzgibbon. Daniel is a top guy but a multi-instrumentalist, he played percussion on Beacon and bass on Reckless Heart (more of which soon!) and played both together on Daughters of Mercy at the Beacon launch night. He has super ideas and his knowledge of chords far surpasses mine I'm always learning something from him. 

Then in the evening we tried some stuff out at the Project B open mic. I probably get to an open mic about once a week these days, mostly to try out new material or meet up with friends, as there are some that only happen once or twice a month and it's the only way to catch up with some people! This was nice and chilled with bass and guitar, we look pretty engrossed(!); I think Renegades was probably the song that worked best in retrospect. 

Today I've been at rehearsals with Sarabande Stone who I'm pleased to say have recording dates coming up! Most of what we do is improvised so it'll be great to capture it in its current format. And tomorrow I'm shooting videos at St John's in Hoxton with the lovely people at Go Out Of Tune - so some miscellaneous non-gig stuff is going on behind the scenes this week. I think about all the people I've met and the experiences I've had in just this one week and it blows my mind!

Photo by Mike Bale

Photo by Mike Bale

The Lamb Folk Club, Eastbourne

I had a really lovely evening at the Lamb Folk Club last night - first gig in Eastbourne for me and the first chance to hear the lovely Rowan Godel, who sang a mixture of her own originals and traditional songs, some unaccompanied - her voice is just divine. You can check out her latest EP September Skies on Bandcamp here. It was a fantastic venue with really great sound and one of the most attentive audiences I've ever played to - I think we both made the most of the opportunity to indulge in every note and as you can see, we had a great time!

Many thanks to Nick and everyone for having us, and to John for all these photos. 

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A little waffle on songwriting, among other things

Image from Instagram

Image from Instagram

Well... I have been writing, and it's been nice - no expectations at this stage, just sifting through the dross of my post-album mind and seeing whether anything sticks, it looks like one or two of them might; the simplest ones to write can be the most effective after all. (The quickest songs I've ever written aside from Dry-Eyed were Swim Any Sea and Wish These Years Away which are both live-set go-to staples now.) There was a time deep in the autumn last year buried in studio work on all those projects when I felt like I might never write again! but I expect that feeling is common enough. 

Creating the right time and atmosphere for writing is an art in itself. So many people say you should (though there is no should when it comes to creativity!) write first thing in the morning and capture those wisps of creative ideas that abound in your head as its in the process of waking... morning being a bit adventurous for my current schedule, I did at least sit down and write first thing yesterday and had a couple of good, workable ideas. 

Things have to change, writing-wise as with everything else. I realise now how much These Hours represents a very specific moment in my life, and as with Beacon revolves around two or three characters who were big influences on me at the time - it secretly amuses me to recall that all those different facets of emotion relate to only a couple of different people. Each album spans a period of about two years where songwriting was so heavily driven by my inability to communicate in real life - I have often feared that learning to open up too much might cause the song stream to run dry, but that seems not to be the case - though the songs are different. My life has taken several surprising turns, and yet most surprising of all is how settled it can feel amidst the changes, how bewilderment and wellbeing can both be so high at the same time, and how often I find myself looking about me with a fresh lens of gratitude. 

Recent gigs & gigs this week

Current gig listing

Current gig listing

I'm in the middle of a really delightful string of gigs - had a lovely night at the Ightham Club on Saturday for the Lamplight Sessions and also at the Running Well Acoustic Music Club in Wickford the Friday before - both incredibly welcoming and attentive crowds for a newcomer like me. The weather has made things interesting and it's become a little routine now of me rocking up back in Croydon at 1am slightly relieved to have made it unscathed! But in reality the journeys home are always quicker - coming back over the Dartford Bridge after the Wickford night brought back memories of childhood trips to see my cousins. 

The night at Revelation Ashford opening for Knight and Spiers was definitely a career-to-date highlight - there are some photos below (those of me are by Mark Flanagan) and some more on the Revelation Tumblr page here

I've got a couple of really great gigs coming up this week: 
- on Wednesday (21st March) I'm at the Lamb Folk Club in Eastbourne on a double billing with the wonderful Rowan Godel - I have been looking forward to this for SO long that I can't believe it's only a couple of days away!

- on Sunday (25th March) I'm going to be at Ruskin House in Croydon for the Folk & Blues Club along with some of the band from the launch night - I absolutely love playing here and always have done, it's as close to home as gigs come and I expect several old friends will be floor-spotting so this should be a fanstastic night. 

If you can make it to either of these it would be great to see you! 

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Readifolk Radio Show - 16th March

The Readifolk Radio Show included Daughters of Mercy in this week's show and made some very kind comments on the Beacon - Half-light double release. I get a secret thrill anytime someone seems to really understand why I released both together and "I can't make up my mind which versions I prefer" is the kind of feedback it's massively rewarding to hear, so thank you! 

Personally I'm glad they picked the Beacon version for the show, as that layered vocal coda after the last verse was one of my favourite studio moments - as much as I like to keep things live, sections like this are where the beauty (and freedom) of production really comes into its own for me. I think I have a blog post on favourite moments from the album coming up soon, if you've got any favourites so far let me know and I'll add them in...