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.
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.