This is a very exciting week as my debut album ‘It Sails’ is finally ready to be released! It feels like this has taken absolutely ages to get to this point. And it has. Probably about three years.
It was a lot of fun recording it with my pals ‘The Roof Gardeners’ (AKA Anna Kissell, Gary Rendle, Tom Fox, and Rory Smith). We recorded some of it at a friend’s house and some at Barebones studio, the new analogue recording studio that Anna Kissell and I have set up together. I then mixed it myself, adding lots of sounds I have found and treasured over the past few years. Then it was mastered at Ill Spectre Productions by Sam Wisternoff. I like the way it sounds, and I hope you will too.
The album launch is this week, on Saturday at Purple Patch, a small farm in St Werburghs, Bristol, run by my friends Jona and Mary Conway. It’s going to be a really nice event, with a bonfire, carved lanterns, food and local booze, and some friends of mine playing: Liam Kirby of the Ninetree Stumblers (solo) and The Woodlice (led by Jet McDonald, playing Ace-Punk-Pop-Folk). Then we will play a set with our full band. And there will be lots of extra dancing and merriment after the music.
Alongside my album, I will also be releasing something that is very close to my heart. ‘Thirty Birds’ is a project that I have been working on over the past couple of years in collaboration with Naomi Millner. Naomi is a writer (and academic, and activist, and general superwoman) who is especially interested in folktales, and in the relation between music and story. We decided to collaborate on a story she had written called ‘Thirty Birds’, with me creating music to accompany her narration.
It is a retelling of a Sufi folktale called The Conference of the Birds and centres around a mysterious beast called the ‘Simurgh’. The ‘Simurgh’ is an Iranian benevolent mythical flying creature. It is sometimes equated with other mythological birds such as the Griffin, or Phoenix. In Persian, ‘Simurgh’ also means ‘Thirty Birds’ from ‘Si’ (thirty) and ‘Murgh’ (birds).
The story is set in the Kingdom of the Birds and follows the journey of a group of birds who have lost their King and are desperately searching for a leader. They decide to go on a journey and eventually meet the Simurgh.
I love Naomi’s retelling very much as it is a hymn to the power of community, and of regaining our own lost power. It has a very strong feminist and anarchistic message as the moral of the story is that we don’t really need a King, as we can all find our own ‘King’ within ourselves, and within our communities.
I’ve been tinkering away on writing and recording music for this story for the past couple of years, really with a view to performing it as a live and ever-changing improvised piece with a group of musicians. We did perform it at the Orkney solstice festival this summer, which was a beautiful experience. I had made the recording as more of a guide to prompt the musicians who perform it live but we thought it would be nice to release it as a recorded version too.
I am giving it a digital release slightly ahead of the album launch as it is a special project that deserves its own attention. So, while it will be included on ‘It Sails’ (as a double CD package), I’ve also uploaded it for listening and downloading on its own.
So, thanks Naomi for your wondrous storytelling. It’s been a real privilege to write music for a story, and I look forward to more of these story-music collaborations in the future.
You can listen to Thirty Birds in its entirety (it’s about 20 minutes long) below or you can wait until Saturday and buy both It Sails and Thirty Birds as a double album at the launch.
I look forward to seeing you all on Saturday. The Facebook event is here. It’s also combining as a double birthday party for Jona and I, who share a birthday week. And I can’t think of anything I’d rather do on my 32nd birthday than finally get round to releasing some of my own music.
Up above is the two track reel to reel machine I bought a few months ago with my pals Liam and Dan of the Ninetree Stumblers. Ever since, I’ve been learning how to use it, and collaborating with my good friend Anna Kissell on setting up a musical collective called ‘Bare Bones’ centred around our new DIY music studio.
The idea behind getting the reel to reel and setting up the studio is to learn to produce our own music, so that we aren’t reliant on other people, or expensive studios and producers. Sustainable production of any art form is tricky. I have procrastinated for years about making a solo album, mostly because I didn’t have the money to make something professional, instead preferring to rely on home-made demos. However, recently, I’ve decided to sit down and teach myself a few basic things about music production so that eventually I can produce more professional sounding music, and have control over the sound.
In fact, it wasn’t a case of sitting down at all, but a case of calling people up and asking advice, as well as begging and borrowing equipment from band-mates and friends.
I want to blog about the making of this album, and explain the technical set-up of all the equipment, so that this can function as a ‘dummy’s guide’ for anyone who wants to do something similar.
We also want to use the studio as a learning space where we can run workshops to teach other people (especially other women) how to record themselves. Music production can be very intimidating, especially for women, who are not socialised to think of themselves as ‘techy’. I’m discovering that a key part of music production is having the confidence to trust your own ears, rather than believing there to be some mystical method of making things sound better that you just can’t fathom.
So, down to the nuts and bolts:
REEL TO REEL MACHINE
We bought a two track Fostex E2 reel to reel machine. Two track reel to reels are usually used to master tracks as they only take a left and right channel from the mixer. This means that once you have blended the sounds from all the different microphones in the mixer, you can no longer alter anything that’s been recorded onto the tape. The beauty of this is that you can do all your mixing with microphone placement if you want to keep things really simple.
Our first microphone is the ‘Josephine’ model from Ear Trumpet Labs
It is a condenser mic (which means it will record the ambient sound in the room- rather than only what is directly in front of it) and has a cardioid (heart shaped) pattern, which basically means that it records on one side of the microphone.
This is what a cardioid pattern looks like:
We are also borrowing another condenser microphone from our friend Tom Fox, who plays sousaphone in my band. This one can alternate between a cardioid, a figure of eight, or a 360° pattern.
Liam recently showed me how to arrange the mics in a midside pattern. I don’t really understand the physics of this (yet) but it seems to produce a lovely, clear sound. You put the cardioid mic in front of the musicians, and place the figure of eight microphone at a 90° angle to it, and directly below. Here is a picture of the set up from when we were recording a Ninetree Stumblers EP yesterday:
With a band like this, where all the instruments have a natural blended level, two good microphones are sufficient (even one would do) to produce a nice sound.
However, my own band’s set-up is not so simple. We have quiet instruments and quiet vocals as the lead, and then have some really hefty instruments as back-up, in the form of double bass, sousaphone, and drum kit. So how to get all these instruments in one room and still produce a good sound? I experimented with making a screen, that can function as a vocal booth when placed beside an alcove. Luckily, the room has a couple of nice alcoves, so it worked well.
I made the screen from a simple frame made of lengths of whitewood (which is very cheap and soft, and easy to saw). I also added some hinged legs so that it can be propped up:
I then tacked a couple of layers of fabric onto the screen:
…and hey presto, we had ourselves a vocal booth, of sorts:
When we recorded, we discovered that the best way was for me and Anna to be behind the screen with the Josephine (cardioid) mic and for the 360° mic to go out in the centre of the room, recording the drums, bass, and sousaphone.
This means that there was also the need for an amp or headphones coming from the mixer so that the rest of the band could hear what I was playing. We experimented with both, depending on whether the song suited an amped sound or not.
As this is already a very long post, I will write a separate one at some point about the detailed wiring up of the reel to reel and the mixers. For now, here is a lovely diagram that Gary drew. This set-up requires two mixers, so that you can record into the reel to reel and directly out to the laptop as you are playing:
So, I hope that’s given you some insight into the mechanics of recording, if it’s new to you. Please ask questions if anything is unclear!
Anna and I will be sharing more about what we’re doing and learning soon. The studio is now available for recording and rehearsal. Get in touch for more details on: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And I haven’t even mentioned yet how the recording of my album is going! We are almost done, and we think the tracks are sounding great. We have two tracks left to record. One of these will be a collaboration with members of the Island Folk Choir, which I am very excited about!
So I’ll leave you with a picture of Gary and Tom, having a lovely time in the studio:
…Oh go on then, as a reward for making it to the end of this epic post, here is a sneak preview of one of the new recordings:
Since I came back from Italy, I’ve been reforming my band (!) and preparing to record an album, which I am going to do in early June, on a reel-to-reel machine that I recently bought with my pals Dan and Liam, the other two-thirds of The Ninetree Stumblers. It is a 2 track reel-to-reel with an illustrious history, having been used in the Mancunian studios where Dangermouse and Count Duckula were once made. So, a lot to live up to.
It’s great having a band again. At the moment, we are Double Bass (Rory McCleod-Smith), Drums (Gary Rendle) Violin (Anna Kissell) and Sousaphone (Tom Fox). I love these folks, they are excellent humans and great fun to play with.
I have a few shows coming up. The first is a solo slot on 12th May at Yurt Lush, next to Temple Meads station, in Bristol. Then there will be a house concert on the 15th May, also in Bristol.
Next, I’ll be performing a mini-set at the Orkney fundraiser night on the 21st May at the Old Malt House. This is going to be really fun, with lots of performers, and Dila Vardar and the Oddbeats headlining (wonderful Turkish-delight flavoured band). I’ll also be doing my VERY FIRST DJ set on the night! In preparation, I’ve been rummaging around on the internet finding some great old tunes from Trinidad, Jamaica, Nigeria, South Africa and the Congo. Come please, and bring your pals. It all goes to support the marvellous magical DIY solstice gathering in Orkney that a group of us are helping to arrange.
You can keep up with other upcoming shows of mine here. I also recently went on the radio to talk to Nuala Honan of the World is Listening about my music. You can listen to this here by finding the entry that says 12.00 12/04/2016.
I have been so busy that I haven’t been doing much song-making lately but I did recently do a fun piece of writing for the website This Place I Found. The idea is that you go to a place, write about it without judging it, and then submit it to the site with a snap. It’s really fun. Do it!
This week I find myself in the Northern mountains of Italy.
I left Rome a few days ago, sad to say goodbye to my new friends there (Elisabetta, Maria, and Christiana- you were such nice hosts!) and got a lift to Verona with some Rugby fans I met via Blabla car. They had been to see the Italy v. Scotland match in Rome (apparently Scotland won so they were a little down-in-the-mouth, but still very friendly).
I then spent a couple of days in Verona. After Rome, it felt relievably manageable and not too overwhelming (top tip- if you ever fancy a trip to the Vatican Museums in Rome, don’t go on a Saturday morning unless you like playing sardines).
The first morning I was there, I wandered around in the rain and popped into a church with a winged cow on the ceiling…
…eventually ending up in the deserted and genteel Natural History Museum of Verona where I saw some weird and wonderful things, including a squatina squatina:
a three headed goat:
and a weasel-fish-boat….(?)
I think that last one is an example of how the Victorians liked to spend their evenings stitching dead animals together to make mythical beasts. However, I can’t find any information out about this, so your guess is as good as mine!
Of course, they also had bugs and skulls and frogs:
The next day, I saw a few more places, including the Roman arena and some Renaissance gardens.
On Tuesday evening, I played at a bar called Malacarne. There was a small but appreciative audience and I got to play without any amplification in a tiny side room with nice acoustics. It took me a while to warm up as people kept coming and going, which made me wonder if I was doing something awful. However, there was a small knot of people who stayed throughout and I played to them, eventually enjoying myself, especially when everyone joined in with a song.
In the audience was a very funny and warm woman from London called Charlie (hi Charlie!) who I got chatting to afterwards. She told me her life story (which she assured me was boring, but was actually very interesting, involving flunking fashion school and then getting a job in Louis Vuitton in Dubai for three years before falling in love and arriving in Italy with her partner and no plan).
I then came to stay for a few days in a village called San Rocco, about 25 km from Verona, with Enrico, who organised the concert. He has been very kind, showing me the best bars and cafes in Verona (he is a beer and wine agent) and feeding me delicious food. He also took me hiking today into the mountains, which were full of snow.
Thankfully, he didn’t make me walk too fast as I kept falling into snow holes made by someone with much longer legs who had walked that path before us. My new favourite Italian word is ‘spluga’, which is used to describe a natural chute that forms in limestone rock. Apparently, there was a 1000m deep spluga on our route today, but luckily I didn’t fall into that.
So, on Friday it is on to Venice, where I will play two shows, and then to Bergamo, where I will play the final show of the tour on Sunday morning as part of Bergamo Film Meeting. The guys who put it on have done me a really nice write-up here. I might have to translate and nick it.
I arrived in Rome on Wednesday and played last night in Fanfulla, a little club in the East of Rome. It’s very hidden, in a residential street, and you’d never know it was there if you walked past.
It’s a really special place- run by a group of friends who love music. I really enjoyed playing- they were a really receptive audience. I also loved Miss True’s set (kind of lofi punk-folk) and a guy called Stefano dj-ing Turkish 70s funk afterwards!
As far as I can figure out, I think Stefano is the brains behind Selvaelettrica, who are a netlabel releasing all sorts of independent music online. I love their description:
Since 2005 we promotes the best weirdos ever, directly from the deep void of music and noise.
We don’t care about quality beats, ethics, mix, genres, style, saturation, space and time…we only care about ourselves…
So I’ve been here in the Tuscan wilds for about 5 days now, and I have another 5 before I go to Rome for the next concert. After Rome, I go to play in Verona, Venice, and Bergamo, and then I’ll be coming home.
The first few days here, it rained non-stop, which was quite fun. It looks a lot like Wales here so the rain really added to that.
Not fancying getting too soggy outside, I stayed in and recorded the rain and the chickens. There is a donkey here too that makes some great creaky-gate noises but I haven’t managed to capture him yet as he is quite unpredictable!
I had made up a banjo thing but was having trouble with the lyrics, so I did some cut-up poetry (free-writing cut up and rearranged). It was really fun, I haven’t done it in ages. Especially as I did it to a mega-dramatic soundtrack of Leonid Kogan playing violin. That was a tip-off from Dan (thanks Dan!). I’d never heard of him before. If you are looking for some beautiful classical violin playing, Leonid is your man. I think most of his recordings were made in the 50s–70s so they sound nice and old-fashioned.
Here is the poem I made whilst the above was playing:
I was imagining I’d turn it into a song over the banjo thing I’d made up but it didn’t quite want to somehow, so I decided to just read the words. For some reason, this feels much more scary than singing. I don’t know why!
Here is what I made in the end. The field recording I posted the other day of chickens is there in the background:
Eventually, it stopped raining, and I was able to get out a bit more and explore. Here are some snaps of the hereabouts:
ugly face man!
most of the woodland paths have become small rivers