Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Streetlight Collection + Prospect Tapes

Ever pulled a photo album from the shelf and looked in horror - fingers over your eyes - at the way you dressed in the '80s. Or if you're my age,'70s. Well, putting together this B-side and Rarities compilation has been like that. Has it really been ten years? Some of these tracks need a lot more than youth to excuse them, and unfortunately - being 30 when I released my first album - I don't really have that. I have never fully known how to present a coherent image to the outside world, and my music has always been about an experiment with taste, if not more. These B-sides illustrate that. And more.

I just wanted to do the best by the song, and more often than not that meant admitting defeat and letting the song disappear, to be recycled at some future date, rather than release a bad version. Especially a version dressed up in clothes that didn't fit. Some of my former record labels would literally have had me wearing a chicken suit if it would have meant more sales, but there was always a line somewhere I couldn't cross.

Putting together a collection like this, of songs that by their nature were deemed not A-side material (and good luck explaining this concept to your grand children) is slightly strange. Songs that fell through the gaps, or never made the grade, or songs I simply didn't love enough, or fight for hard enough, or more often - simply refused to let them be massaged into the mainstream by my various record labels.

Some of the songs make me smile now I've heard them again after a few years, and some of the leave me frankly bemused. Why did I write certain songs, why did I do them in a certain way, and why did I leave some of them off albums. The truth is all decisions are made in the best way at the time, hopefully for the right reasons, most of them artistic. Vague as that sounds.

Being signed to major labels does (or "did" for me) mean certain compromises, and I can literally hear a line being drawn in the sand by my shaky hand as I tried to mark out the territory I thought I was fighting for. I wanted to be a serious artist, but still one that could find a big enough audience without watering down the good stuff.

So many of these songs were recorded as part of album sessions, some I have tried several times without nailing them to my tastes, some are bedroom demos. Some I'm really proud of, some make me cringe. But I'd like to - and if you care to read - give a song by song paragraph or two of details I recall about the song, the recording, the reasons for my choices. So let's look at this in the spirit of "no song left behind". And to be fair, some are just the dumb kid at the back of the room, but they, too, need love.

Streetlight - 2000

This song was the first song I recorded totally live, and it changed the way I approach making music. I was in a studio, I can't even remember where, busy recording a radio version of Hidden Camera Show (one that never saw the light of day in this country, but bizarrely I heard driving along Sunset Boulevard a while back, so the label clearly ignored me and sent it out anyway). I was hating it, resenting as usual the pressure to turn a little butterfly of a song into a hulking great pterodactyl. It was the label's habit at the time to call up hugely successful(and often amazing) musicians to come and contribute to my amateurish musicianship. On the debut album there was a roll call of Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo) Howard Jones, Dave Gregory (XTC) and others, who kindly gave of their time for less than their usual fees.

One such musician was Robbie McIntosh - although to call him merely a musician is to do him a disservice (Pretenders, Paul McCartney). The man is a genius and a gentleman. We had a spare hour, we set up a mic, sat down and with one run through, he played additional (all the good bits) guitar on this song. I'm sure I thought we'd polish it up and have another go, but there was no time. This is it. You can hear me smiling through it as his fingers dance over the frets. It was a song written after the debut album's release, I was working on my finger-picking, trying a lighter style of lyrical imagery, and venturing into "doo-doo" singalong territory. The label actually liked it, wanted it released as a double A-side (remember them?) and then wanted it re-recorded with drums etc. You have to laugh.

Black Heart Rodeo - 2002

So obviously we're not in chronological order here, because I wanted you to spiral through time in the way I do when I play a gig, or go on tour. The life I've chosen often seems less linear, and more a whirlwind of memories that present themselves as fresh experiences every day and every show. That's my excuse anyway. I also wanted to put some good ones up front.

BHR - as it is on the occasional set list - is another favourite of mine. I had just bought my first basic Pro-tools rig after the first album, and I was loving the freedom to record beyond the limitations of my old 4-track tape machine. I recorded all of this, and mixed it, apart from the cello part, which I effected and smeared in a way that I have done a lot. Oli rarely forgives me for mangling his craft, but I think I've always liked to twist the strands of things until they make a rope, with which I then strangle my hopes of chart success.

To my mind it's a lovely, mournful song, with some great additional sounds from Tony Marrison. We loved experimenting with found sounds, and I still carry all manner of recording devices about me at any one time. The sessions for Just Like Blood were a lot of fun, as I attempted to move away from the troubadour thing that I felt was growing old. "Let go, let go" is a refrain I repeat alot. Something I'm scared of doing, but it's the very release I look for through music. It's the only relatively healthy thing I've found that lets me not be me for a while.

A Thousand Suns - 2006

From the much-ignored, largely critically panned, love it or hate it King of Cards sessions came this song. I needed to make a record that could attempt to reach out to more people, I'd seen the way the music business was going, and truth is without some hits (one, for god's sake, JUST ONE!) it's now impossible to fund the touring and making of records to a level that would satisfy me (bla bla, stop whining and keep buggering on, McRae).

With that in mind I also wanted to enter the recording process in a spirit of joy, and make something that might act as a counterpoint to my more melancholy stuff. I was trying to channel Peter Gabriel, I wrote this before the book, and before Linkin Park. I also wanted a song with lots of clapping rhythms. My friend and personal percussion God Hossam Ramzy added some Egyptian hand percussion (he's played with Peter Gabriel, Led Zeppelin, and me. All the greats). He also added additional strings recorded in Cairo for Karaoke Soul years before. But that's another story.

Out Of This - 2009

Same sessions as above, in Battery studios in London, and finished in a house on beach in Suffolk. I love this song. I don't know why I left it off the record, it might have been better for it. Maybe I felt it kind of lost the groove towards the end, as I tried to fit another lyrical section in. Who knows, all I know is I love the floatiness of the chorus. And it is a personal philosophy of mine, that out of everything you do, something will come. That's why I end up saying yes to most crazy ideas like The Hotel Cafe Tour, you just never know what's going to turn up.

Opposite Of Love - 2009

Sad piano song #4017. A one take, live recording in my old house in London. I like the idea of the opposite of love, and what it might be. I've come to the conclusion it's not hate, it's the absence of love. And as my therapist tells me, I have such abandonment issues that I can't help but see the death in even the best moments of life. Stupid shrink. (I've never seen a therapist, despite many requests from those who know me. I have a guitar. It's alot cheaper, and will never leave me). Lovely cello from Oli Kraus as always.

I Don't Dream - 2002

Originally called Vanilla And Green, but it sounded a little like a Dulux paint. A little gem I think. I don't remember much about the recording, again at home many years ago, the keyboard sound is the standard sine wave from the first sampler I had, but could never work. This is the only sound I could get out of it. So many songs with "memory" in. It's a good word to sing.

Precious Cargo

From the JLB sessions, in the Dairy studios in Brixton, London - produced by Ben Hillier. For time signature spotters it shifts 7/4 in the rocky bit. Stick that up your yoga mat, Sting! It was a song about a horrible news story, a guy had killed himself and his kids in a car. Too much for me to get my head round, so a song suggested itself. I'm uncomfortable going into too much detail about this stuff, I like keeping my fat opinions to myself in case it puts people off, in some things, anyway. This was also a very rare co-write with my virtual childhood friend, onetime rival, and most beautiful and talented musician, John Hogg.

The Only Thing I Know - 2001/4/5

What to say? This song was freighted with such baggage that it's a wonder I ever play it live - which I did for the first time supporting Paul Weller on a tour of Italy in 2001. It was a pop song that didn't want to be pop. But the label heard it and decreed it would be a single, from that moment on it was doomed. Taken from my hands and delivered to the committee that turns all race horses in to camels. I have sort of hated it ever since, but I keep trying to find a way in, a way to like it again. Which is often how I see performing, as a way of forgiving yourself all your mistakes which you made in the studio, when someone else was paying for it and watching the clock.

There's another version on The Prospect Tapes, which has a relaxed demo crack at it, and a version you may know from 2007's live trio album. Strange, some songs are like relationships that never quite clicked but you can't let go of. A case of "what if".

Home - 2006

A little song given away as an extra track by ITunes for the single release of Please, I think. I like the song, I was about to play it live on BBC Radio 4 once, when I bottled it and played something else instead. Sometimes that stuff happens. It's in my favourite guitar tuning (DADF#AD - if you care) and I do actually "count the years in songs", some years are good, some are a struggle, and if a month goes by when I have written something I like, it's possible I may kill you.

Hear Me Now - 2004

Hmmmm, one of those. My label at the time, Sony, made it plain that unless I wrote a radio song they wouldn't let me mix the album I'd been making in LA. I wrote this to get them to loosen the purse strings. They duly did, I mixed the album, accidentally leaving this song off the finished album - I didn't like it, it's a song for someone else. Just 'cause you can write a pop song doesn't mean you want to be the one to front it. On the day All Maps Welcome was released, I walked into HMV and found it already in the bargain bin for £1.99. Lesson learned. Sony withdrew all marketing, refused all tour support and a few months later I left the label. And so it goes.

Spite of Me - 2000

Interesting story, only for me probably. I recorded this song on my 4-track, slowed it down so I sounded like a blues singer from the 1940s, and it was dashed off as a piece of experimental fun for the debut album. The label made me do it again. Like this. I was aiming for spooky. I like the slowed down version.

Money Shot - 2000

I had a drum machine and I was gonna use it. I've always had a thing about trying to write from different directions, rather than melody, lyric blah blah. I liked the groove, I like mantra type songs, and of course, I like the title.

Soldier Song - 2000

Left off the debut - I didn't love it, but felt I was trying for something. In the recording session we tried a hurdy gurdy, which just might be the loudest acoustic instrument in the world. It's possible to have huge amounts of fun and yet achieve very little. On darker days it's almost my career motto.

Election Day - 2002

Written for Just Like Blood, but I felt the moment had passed to record it. A bit clever clever in the lyric department, but there's probably something in there I've recycled for other songs, which happens a lot. The sentiment probably got subsumed into Karaoke Soul, the world has probably already forgiven Tony Blair. I can't.

Give In - 2002

Again at The Dairy, Brixton. A spare half hour, an open mic - I hate to waste time, so I ran in and wrote and played this. "when the moment comes, give in" - sound advice for anyone, let alone a musician.

Killing Balloons - 2003

I met Simon Armitage on a radio show in 2003, after I'd used a line from one of his poems for the title of JLB. He sent me some words, I put them in a song, best I knew how. One of us is a genius, one of us is working with the best we've got, trying to get better every day. You decide.

Sad Song For The Left Hand Alone - 2002

I was noodling late night in my bedroom studio, coming down after an almost non-stop two year period of touring. It's no secret, at least in this house, that I go crazy when a tour ends. I'm only really happy on the move, it's the only chance I have of trying to outrun myself. Not a tune that was ever likely to trouble daytime radio.

Border Song (War Child) - 2002

I liked this song alot, I tried it once for the Just Like Blood sessions, from which this War Child benefit album version is culled, and once for All Maps Welcome. I think I prefer this version, it has a rougher feel to it. With Ben Hillier drumming, and me Oli and John Hogg crammed into a tiny room trying to act like we were in a BIG room. Something I'm still trying to do to this day.

The Prospect Tapes

This set of ten recordings is from my time in LA. I rented a little house in Los Feliz, Oli and Olli came to stay and we recorded these demos in our living room. Some of the songs went on to be re-recorded for what became All Maps Welcome, some of the songs got thrown into that great recycling bin in my mind, and some just drifted off into the ether.

From the real cicadas chirping away on our porch* at the start of You Will Rise, to the occasional passing truck in the distance, this is recording at its most spontaneous and unfussy. In many ways, I think it's some of the best recording I've done. Before the label started bossing the songs around, before anyone was present to tell us yes or no, it's just the three of us, playing for fun.

Some lyrics have changed, and some arrangements, and in doing so some things were gained and some things (and songs) lost. That's the nature of demos. I don't really do many demos these days, once I start recording a song, there's usually an element of that first recording that makes the final version, if not actually defining it, which is more and more the case these days.

Listen for instance to Jet Engine Lullaby, I'm clearly just making up the words at the very end (and running out of steam and breath), and we don't seem sure how to finish the song. And how The Only Thing I Know excited the label, but became a battle ground.

There's an excitement to a first recording, an uncertainty, a fragility because you haven't quite learned the song yet - that is often so much more powerful than a final studio version, especially one that satisfies the needs of the label.

Which is why I love these Prospect Tapes. For a couple of months or so I was joined in LA by my two best friends, and with no one watching over us, we made these recordings, with gear borrowed from our upstairs neighbour, Petey. It was a time of contrasts in my life, I was simultaneously as happy and hopeful as I've ever been, and yet broken-hearted and inconsolable. If such a state is possible, California was the state it was possible in.

I hope you enjoy listening to these recordings as much as I enjoyed making them, it's rare that I can say that and mean it.

* My A&R guy said that the cricket loop we'd added at the start was a bit over the top. I thought my A&R guy was a bit of a prick.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Let Us Sit Upon The Floor And Tell Sad Stories Of The Kings

Richard christened us The Catshit Kings. Misheard lyrics can be hilarious, not so much in your own song. It is, without doubt, a terrible name. You dream of a band name to rank alongside Crazy Horse, The Attractions, The Bad Seeds... you even make a note of a few in your little black book for possible future use, and then some bass playing comedian ridicules one of your songs and suddenly you're stuck with something truly awful. But it made us laugh, and makes performing that song doubly hard, knowing that behind my back they're all sniggering.

But that's what being in a band is all about. Finding a gang, a bunch of friends who support each other in every way, but also know how to cut each other down to size when necessary. A band is a hard thing for a singer-songwriter to find, let alone fund, and I’ve been lucky through the years, persuading some great people to play with me.

Some stay, some leave, some come back. Touring with me is a bit like a gap year, or voluntary service overseas – the riches may be little but the rewards are great. So here’s to you Laura, Clive, Tony, John, Ian, Ash, Gary, Richard, Dave, Brian, and of course, my brothers-in-alms, Olli and Oli. And Johnny, the best sound man in the known universe, and several parallel ones. I couldn’t have wanted for better friends.

Now the year draws to a close, the money is spent, and after many sell-out shows - often with bigger audiences than ever - it’s time to pack the band back into the box and bid farewell. We gave of our best, every night. We meant it, every night. As The Boss says "no one pays to hear how good you were last night". And that’s why he’s The Boss.

So these October dates will be our last hurrah, our last voyage, our valedictory. Everyone knows that life is different for musicians these days, but it’s changing for all of us. Times are hard for everyone and life is what it is – no violins, no wailing – adopt, adapt, survive. The world spins, things change. Noone's job or chosen career is safe. We are all in the same boat.

And what a boat it has been. Over the years it’s gone from tall ship to barge, from rowing boat to canoe. Now it's time to finally face facts and learn to swim. There will be more adventures, different guises, fewer extended boating metaphors - and fresh projects to get excited about, not least a solo tour ... and before too long the second half of the album... but for the time being it's don the speedos, pull down the goggles and without sight of land or horizon, just swim.

So a big thank you to all of you who came to the shows earlier this year, and to the festivals, and to all of you who have been coming to the gigs for a decade. And to those of you who helped out, who trimmed the sails, pumped the bilges and joined me in the search for land. I hope it was all worth it. I’ve loved every second.

Don't miss this last chance to see us as a band. We're going to send the old girl down to the depths in style.

In the days to come, keep an eye out for me in the rising waters. That dot in the distance, that’s me. I’m not drowning, I’m waving.

RIP The Catshit Kings.

Long live The Catshit Kings.


PS And for any of you choking back the tears, just picture me in Speedos.

PPS... extra-curricular ramblings here

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

My Press Release for the new single

I wrote this press release in the spirit of Morgan Freeman's character in The Shawshank Redemption - you know, where he's up for parole for the umpteenth time....

Press Release:

Tom McRae, new single “Still Love You” (Cooking Vinyl) October < insert date >

“Still Love You” is the second single taken from Tom McRae’s critically acclaimed fifth album “Alphabet of Hurricanes” on Cooking Vinyl.

The Guardian gave the album four stars saying this: “ The Alphabet of Hurricanes reinforces his status as one of Britain's better songwriters.”

The poet Simon Armitage, said of Tom: “Tom McRae is a smart guy…I’m talking about the records he makes, and their unapologetic intelligence in a world where popular music has pawned its soul to the television schedules and the light entertainment industry.”

Mercury and Brit nominated McRae has gained a fantastic reputation for powerful live shows, especially following his recent sold out tour of Europe.

…Wait, I can’t be bothered to keep up the pretence. I’ve been asked to write this press release ‘cause times are hard in the business right now and we’re all trying to help out. So here I am, trying to find things to say about myself that are in anyway interesting. Now I know how you must feel. There really isn’t much is there? I wish there was, my life would be easier. But I write songs, I record them, then I tour them.

When I do release records, most people say they like them, but not enough to write about them or play them on radio. And to be honest, I don’t expect that to change. Not because I don’t think I’m any good, it’s just like I said, there’s nothing interesting to say about me.

Not wishing to be rude, but rather than me cobbling together some guff about my unique blend of bla bla high voice and bla bla melancholic bla bla... there's always Google. You can find most things about me there. Good and bad.

Don’t get me wrong, my life is great. I’ve had a pretty lucky ten years. My fans keep coming, I play good venues in great cities all round the world. I feel I get better at what I do each year, and my life is very rewarding. And that doesn’t make for a very special story does it? Although it does make for a very special life.

That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. I gotta live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So go ahead and stamp your forms, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit.

(I didn't include this bit... but I wanted to. I really wanted to.)

All the best,
Tom McRae

To support the release of the new single I’m doing a short tour of some European Cities.

October 11th Brussels AB
October 12th Paris La Cigale
October 14th London Shepherds Bush Empire
October 15th Newcastle Sage
October 16th Glasgow Oran Mor
October 17th Edinburgh Liquid Rooms
October 21st Bergen, Norway
October 22nd Haugesund, Norway
October 23rd Olso, Norway

PS I'll get round to properly compiling some thoughts, but I'm trying to write a book about my life in the music business, as well as work on the album and organise October's tour, and I'm a terrible multi-tasker.

Friday, 5 March 2010

It’s The Little Things

It’s the little things:

Little things on tour are useful. Years ago it was a case full of cds to listen to, now it’s a video ipod, with all my entertainment needs in a tiny box. A way to stay sane, have room on the bus, and to grab a piece of calm and isolation, even when surrounded by others.

A travel toothpaste, a travel shower gel - stocking fillers for the world’s most practical (and dullest) Christmas stocking. All things that make being in perpetual motion more containable. We don’t even have oranges on the bus, just tangerines. It all has to be small.

Little bunks, enough space to lie down with a (small) paperback on your chest. A little light beside you, a little window to look through as the little towns pass in the night. Little luxuries.

Small is good. The same might be said for the shows. I can sense a little momentum here now, a steadily growing audience. Loyalty and your own word-of-mouth campaigns seeing the room slowly fill up – little by little. But we can still see each other, still hear the heckles, still sing to the back of the room. A little love can go a long way.

Ten years down the line, and many of you are still here – defiantly so. Still down at the front, still hiding in the shadows at the back. Bringing your friends, your children, your parents. Still bringing to the shows the same passion and energy that I hope we, as a band, bring. Still coming with expectation, with hope. Still part of this communication that is live music.

A little group of friends, playing little rooms, enjoying a little evening’s entertainment, sharing little exchanges, hopefully making a little difference to all our lives.

And that is no small thing.

Thank you.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Free Download of New Song

Hello all - as of 10am this morning, Thursday, you'll be able to download a free song from my new album "The Alphabet of Hurricanes" here:

Also there's a video clip here:

I might confess to being ever so slightly excited about giving you a sneak preview of one of my favourite tracks from the album.... but I must maintain my cynical exterior if only for continuity purposes. But I really like the song, hope you do too.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Alphabet of Hurricanes

After your wise, funny, critical, thoughtful and occasionally absurd advice for my press release, I thought I'd share with you what poet Simon Armitage wrote about the new record.

I know it's a bit unfair, especially as you haven't heard the album yet, although there is a free download in the offing! But hopefully you'll be as pleased as I was, as Simon is a hero of mine. It also gave me something to show my family, who still think I work at a donkey sanctuary or something, and are of the opinion that at 40 I should have a real job by now. I especially agree with the opening line - I think he captured me perfectly and with such economy.

Alphabet of Hurricanes

Tom McRae is a smart guy. I’m not just talking about the natty suit-jacket and waistcoat he’s wearing on the cover of his new album The Alphabet of Hurricanes, or the neat way he seems to be goading the dark skies by holding a knackered red brolly, like a storm-battered poppy, to the approaching tempest. I’m talking about the records he makes, and their unapologetic intelligence in a world where popular music has pawned its soul to the television schedules and the light entertainment industry. For four albums and the best part of a decade McRae has followed his own star, gone his own way, been true to those convictions laid down at the very beginning and loyal to his own distinctive brand of song-writing. He believes in language, not just words, and he trusts the silences that sometimes appear in songs – those gaps which open up between verses or even between notes, into which our imaginations pour. Yes there are touchstones: Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Dylan, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Vic Chestnutt, but they’re stepping off points rather than destinations, and what McRae shares with them is the idea of song as an art form. In fact craft might be a more appropriate word as far as McRae is concerned: the song as a kind of craft in which we might float or sail, and the craft required to construct such a vessel.
And now there’s album number five. But what is The Alphabet of Hurricanes? Well, it’s a shipping-forecast of memory, a lexicon of the soul’s meteorology, a Rosetta Stone in the shape of a heart. From Still Love You with its scratchy ukulele and thinned-out voice, like a song through a pinhole-camera, if you can imagine how that would sound. To A is For… with it’s snake-charming, side-winding, fist-strangled clarinets. To Won’t Lie which comes into town under a sombrero on a slow brown donkey with tumbleweed at its heels, and takes a seat next to the band at the back of the saloon, and starts doing its thing until everyone in the bar stops fighting and drinking and starts listening and singing and waltzing. To Summer of John Wayne with its dark piano and minor chords, which has the feel of a slowly resolving black and white photograph on a mantelpiece or an old cine film with the end of the reel ticking away. To the gospel roundelay of Told My Troubles To The River. To the dusk-lit American Spirit, a song sung from the edge of the known world as the sun halves itself in the ocean and McRae’s shipwrecked voice breaks the surface of the water. To the double-tracked Please, which evolves from a toe-tap to a knees-up to a full-blooded stomp and a plea for release, the singer telling us that he doesn’t care anymore when we know damn well that he does. To Out Of The Walls where a songs sits down at the piano while everyone else is asleep and makes its midnight confession, and madness is at the door, and moonlight is at the window, and the song goes on reverberating through the wires and the keys long after the lid has been closed and the light’s gone out and the room stands empty. To the finger-clicking, hand-clapping Me and Stetson which gets us back on our feet again, a guitar line like a mosquito buzzing around in the background, a horn section to blow your hat off, the voice jumping about in a locked trunk with a megaphone and a dictionary before the ambulance arrives. To Best Winter, simple, beautiful, spare, terse, honest, intimate, a public declaration of private matters, a particular examination of universal concerns, handing on to the unravelling storyline of Fifteen Miles Downriver which begins with the unreliable clasp of snakeskin bracelet and ends mid-ocean, middle of nowhere, back of beyond, happy to drift but with one eye on the possibility of land, plotting a course with one of the best lyrics I’ve heard in years.
These are ghost songs by one of our best living song-writers. The world needs more Tom McRae. And, as luck would have it, here it is.

Simon Armitage