Meet and greet


Day 1

Nine of the eleven songwriters are now here – our final two, Nuala and Ziggy, arrive later today. For the first full day we started with a discussion of last night’s task, which was simply for everyone to write ten titles and then discuss with the group how they might be developed further into lyric ideas and eventually complete songs.

This was followed by a lecture in which we discussed some of the techniques, challenges and pitfalls of the songwriter’s creative process, and some playback of existing songs, including Rodger and Amy’s song ‘Renegade Fishermen‘ from 2007 (a word-setting task), plus some pop songs including Sarah Bareilles’ Love Song, The Beatles’ Yesterday, George Formby’s Little Ukulele and various other songs that came up in conversation.

And then onward to the first full task, which is to separate lyric-writing and lyric ‘setting’ (i.e. writing the music). Each songwriter is to write a lyric in its entirety, and then pass it on to another songwriter for completion. This is the simplest form of collaboration because it doesn’t involve any negotiation; some songwriters find it very liberating to write music for a pre-existing lyric, although some have difficulty with writing a lyric with the knowledge that they have no control over how it’s going to sound.

Our week at Barncrosh Farm coincides with the terrible Nov 2009 weather that hit Cumbria and to some extent our current location – Dumfries and Galloway. 30 roads are reported closed, so we may end up with more songwriting time than we planned!


Burnsong – the beginning

Burnsong 2009 - if you look up from your lyric-writing pad, you may find yourself playing stare-out with a llama.

Burnsong starts next week. I’ll be spending a week working with Chris Blanden and ten songwriters at a remote Scottish farmhouse in Dumfries (with resident llamas!), followed by a gig at the Scottish Parliament on 30th Nov, which is to be broadcast by the BBC. It’s a daunting thought that the songs we’re going to play haven’t actually been written yet but there’s something energising about rehearsing a band set at this speed!

The winners have been identified, and we’ve heard the initial songs (i.e. the ones written before the event). Here’s a list of the people we’ll be working with.

Fiona J Mackenzie
The first Gaelic speaking winner of Burnsong, Fiona J Mackenzie is a native of Morayshire, lives in Dingwall and is well known as a Scottish Gaelic singer and teacher. In 2004 Fiona was nominated and won the BBC Scotland Traditional Music Personality of the year. Well known for pushing the boundaries of Gaelic song, she is unafraid of experimenting with styles and genres as well as being passionate about her desire to make the learning of Gaelic language & song as accessible to as many people as possible.

Andy Tucker
Andy Tucker is an Edinburgh-born singer/songwriter. Formerly of The Dead Beat Club Andy is now singing with The Scattered Family – a broad musical collective of musicians from all over Scotland. Over the last few years, Andy has shared a bill with the likes of The Beautiful South, Seasick Steve, Angus & Julia Stone, Ian McNabb, Kim Edgar, Karine Polwart and Martin Stephenson playing everywhere from Portmahomack to New York’s east village.

Yvonne Lyon
Singer-songwriter Yvonne Lyon is among the best and brightest emerging talent currently from Scotland. She has recently received national radio support and is winning over many new fans with her strong, creative melodies, demonstrating a voice that can be both fragile and intense. Yvonne has consistently drawn and stirred crowds across the UK with her emotive performances.

Roberto Cassani
Scots-Italian Roberto Cassani sings his stories with lots of humor and a curious Scottish-Italian accent. Roberto is a in parts bit poet, a bit troubadour, a bit of circus clown. A superb songwriter and a master entertainer, Roberto Cassani is cheering up audiences nationally and internationally, as well as getting radio play and featuring in some of the most prestigious festivals around.

Alex Hodgeson
A previous Burnsong winner in 2005, Alex has gone on to perform as far afield as South Africa and Malaysia. He also regularly performs at cultural events around Scotland. Alex Hodgson lives in Prestonpans with his wife Isobelle and two children. By day, Alex is a technician at Preston Lodge High School.

Nuala Kennedy and Ziggy Campbell
Nuala and Ziggy met in the Burnsong Songhouse in Nov 2007.  They immediately struck up an affinity and wrote several tunes together during their tenure. This year they have played incendiary sets at the Edinburgh Art Festival and at the Big Tent Festival in Fife. Nuala also accompanied Ziggy in a sell out performance playing alongside his latest BAFTA nominated sound installation, Cybraphon. Both have their own busy gigging schedule with their own acts but continue to write and play together.

Lisa Rigby
Lisa was born in England in 1974 and moved to Scotland when she was 8 years old. With family roots that are an Afro-Caribbean-Celtic, she describes herself as “ A Scot of the world!” Lisa is currently part of Edinburgh band Townhouse, that was picked as a finalist of Radio Forth’s Forth One to Watch competition this year. Lisa was also a previous Burnsong finalist in 2007.

Marie Claire Lee
Glasgow based songwriter Marie Claire Lee has supported among others the likes of Mercury prizewinner Julie Feeney, world-renowned Ojos de Brujo and, more recently, rising stars Mr Kil.  Marie Claire currently plays with The Lotus Project and Engine7. Recent gigs include The Edinburgh Fringe Festival Mannifest Festival (Isle of Man) and a live session on BBC Scotland Radio Vic Galloway Late Live show.

A.J Roach
A. J. Roach was raised Scott County, Virginia. The relentless touring and recording schedule that A. J. has kept since 2003 has paid off. In 2004, he was the General Category recipient of the Chris Austin Songwriting Award at MerleFest in Wilkesboro, NC. In 2006 his sophomore full-length album reached the number 1 spot on the Euro-Americana Music Chart. In 2007 his song, ‘Black Lung’ was included on a compilation album that was thrice nominated for Grammy Awards by the Recording Academy, and in 2009 A. J. was selected as an Emerging Artist at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. A. J. currently lives in Brooklyn, NY where he is working on his third full-length album.

Emily Elbert
Emily Elbert joins Anthony as another of the first winners of the Burnsong International Song Contest. Raised in Texas on a musical diet of Antonio Carlos Jobim, James Taylor and oldies radio, 20 -year old Emily has a passionate, self-taught approach to her song writing. Emily has toured extensively throughout the United States, opening for artists ranging from G. Love & Special Sauce to Richie Havens. She is currently a student of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

Shower Thee People

The studio has been busy since its completion. Or rather, its near-completion. Everything is sorted technically so I have 16 simultaneous inputs available, 12 of which have valve pres via the M1F. Howard will be returning soon to fit the XLR wall plates and do the relevant soldering.

Remember the holes that Artis drilled for the cables?
Remember the holes that Artis drilled for the cables?

So in the absence of wall plates I’m just poking XLRs through the holes in the walls (which are now the only route that sound can travel between the rooms – a pretty clear example of how effective the studio’s soundproofing is).

The studio will have three main functions – a recording/co-writing space for commercial song projects and work relating to my Songwriting PhD; a production facility for the CDs that go on the cover of my guitar books (e.g. the next book in the Complete Junior Guitarist series); and, er, everything else – i.e. whatever other musical opportunities arise that sound fun or interesting. In this third category I’ve undertaken three projects recently – a Techno remix of a James Taylor song, a community-based recording of some local people’s original songs, and (mainly to test out multiple drum mic-ing) a prog-rock drum session for a couple of CM graduates, Chris and Tom.

The Guitar book

The Complete Junior Guitarist was published in Sept 2009 and early indications are that it’s doing OK in the shops. The people at Music Sales tell me that there’s a dearth of good-quality guitar teaching material aimed around ‘Key Stage 2’ (i.e. junior school kids aged 8-11), so this is the book I’ve tried to write – not patronisingly full of pictures of anthropomorphic cartoon animals as younger starter books can be, but not based on particular bands, styles or artists, as more teen-focused books often are. So the book ended up quite ‘serious’ but I think this matter-of-fact editorial tone is what a lot of kids this age like to read. What I’ve avoided (I hope) is ‘dumbing down’ of the audio (there are 52 tracks on the cover CD including backing tracks for all the pieces, and I used live session players for bass and drums rather than compromise by programming the kit part). The book also focuses on short melodic pieces, as opposed to chords, which are much more difficult for the beginner – I’ve never understood why some guitar books do this.

I’m hoping to write book 2 in the series during 2010, and the home studio will enable me to try out ideas for the next book’s cover CD without worrying about the ‘meter running’ pressures of hired studio space or players’ time (although, as before, there will always be a pro drummer on the final session – I’m not going to be a good enough kit player any time soon).

Thanks BTW to everyone who helped me to choose the title for the book (see previous blog entry) – Complete Junior Guitarist won the day, which has the added advantage of making this book the first result when these three words are typed into Google.

Song for Widcombe

A guitarist mic'd up with an SE100 condenser in the dry room.
A guitarist mic'd up (with an SE100 condenser) during one of the Widcombe project song sessions.

In an earlier post I mentioned the Song For Widcombe community project, and the song I submitted ‘Widcombe Rising’. Since then I’ve gotten to know the lovely people involved in the Widcombe Association and become generally more interested in Mummers‘ plays and songs. The association wants to put together a CD of its top 10 ‘finalist’ songs, and I listened to some of the original demos, which were varying in quality depending on the kind of recording kit each songwriter had access to (some only existing in sheet music form). Given my views on Performance vs Songwriting, it seemed only fair that none of the other songs on the album should be compromised by a technically poor demo – so I agreed to run some studio sessions for those writers who didn’t have access to decent recording kit. The motive for this wasn’t entirely altruistic – I need to test the studio as much as possible to check the signal paths and get to know the patchbay, layout, ergonomics etc… plus the sound of the room, mics & speakers. And given the varied collection of instruments that Mummers’ songs may include (concertina, fiddle, melodion/accordion, piano, recorder, flute, piccolo, bass drum, bodhrán, guitar, upright bass, banjo, and multiple male and female voices) this was the perfect opportunity.

Here are a few descriptions of the ensembles we’ve done already – there’ll be a playback session of these and others in Widcombe in a couple of weeks. I won’t post MP3s for now, as I don’t have permission from the writers to do so, but hopefully this will be forthcoming once the project is over; you may also be able to download the tracks from iTunes at some point in the future.

  • 4-part male voice folk choir and bass drum
  • G&S-style piano and male voice
  • Piano, guitar, sampled Tuba and male voice
  • Folk band including concertina, piccolo banjo, floor tom, snare, recorder, fiddle, guitar and multiple voices
  • Folk band including programmed kit, electric bass, sampled fiddle, accordion and tin whistle, guitars, multi-tracked male voices, handclaps and tambourine

At the other end of the musical spectrum (or certainly some distance along it) I did a session yesterday for a couple of Bath Spa graduates who needed to do some drum tracking for a ‘prog’ album. We did a deal – they get a day’s free recording time, and I get to use their (excellent) drummer Tom on a future session for no fee. Traditional community bartering… perhaps all this olde worlde folky-ness is affecting me more than a little…

Tom does some drum tracking in the dry room. An unusual drummer - no rack toms.
Tom does some drum tracking in the dry room. An unusual drummer - no rack toms, and two hi-hats.
Vocal and guitar take in the control room.
Chris puts down a vocal and guitar take in the control room.

Techno Techno

Finally, here’s a mix of a track I did a couple of weeks ago with a old mate from my days at Future Publishing. He’s a fan of classic Techno (and knows much more about it that I do) but has always had a soft spot for James Taylor (the songwriter, not the jazzer). So here’s our remix-in-progress of JT’s Shower The People (You Love With Love). It’s turned out a little more ’70s Disco than ’90s Techno – I blame the off-beat handclaps on the intro. The track is, of course, doomed to unreleased commercial obscurity, considering its obvious and constant use of uncleared samples of a well-known recording, but hey – it was fun. And James – if you’re reading this, hope you forgive us for timestretching you up to 130BPM.

Shower Thee People MP3 (JB & DR remix)

Buy the original on iTunes

Michael Jackson Quiz

Some past and present Bath Spa students will know that I occasionally compile the ‘audio round’ for a pub quiz in London. My quiz-making partner prides himself on setting particularly tortuous questions, and the audio rounds have to conform to the same brief. This has the added benefit of creating some quickfire pop song knowledge quizzes to entertain/annoy  Commercial Music students.

When we started putting these together, we used simple audio quiz tricks such as playing excerpts backwards.

2004 – backwards audio quiz MP3 download.

Then we started getting more adventurous. Here’s one we did in 2005 that was purely based on drum intros (MP3 download). Give you a clue. The first one isn’t a Motown hit. Subsequent quizzes have become ever more cryptic and high-concept. You’ll see what I mean soon.

So what has all this to do with the late great Michael Jackson? Well, we felt that we couldn’t let his passing go unacknowledged by a tribute in quiz form. The quiz runs tomorrow night (Monday) so I can’t release the audio file for the Jacko quiz just yet – but I’ll post it up here early next week after it’s had its public debut. If readers of the blog start getting into these, I’m happy to post up other past audio rounds. Use the comments option on this post, or send a message using the contact form. I do try to set up the quizzes so they can’t be Shazammed. This is not a problem when the quizzes play live (mobile phones are banned of course) but if you’re going to download these and have a go, I’ll just have to trust you!

In the meantime, use the box below to give your answers to the backwards and drum quizzes. This is the quiz version of ‘market testing’ so this feedback does actually help us in compiling future quizzes.


And we sing it every year (oh yes)

Thanks to all the musicians who offered to play on the Widcombe song. The consensus was that my original proposal (FTP-ing Logic files and hoping for the best with plugin compatibility) was just too impractical for the different tech setups you all have. So here’s a simpler solution.

  1. Download the MP3 of my demo (done in the new studio, of course!).
  2. Using whatever multi-track kit or software you own, add a track of yourself playing your instrument (or singing) on it.
  3. Send me the audio file (320kbps MP3 should be fine) of your part only and I’ll drop it into the mix. Don’t worry about lining it up – I’ll figure all the tech stuff out.

I’m looking especially for ornament folky-ness – there’s an approximation of a whistle/recorder part on the final chorus. Plus, of course, you need to join in the main theme after each chorus.

If we find a male vocalist who’s improved on my guide vocal (shouldn’t be difficult!) we’ll use that for the final version.

We’re in G major BTW. Well, of course. And it’s 95 BPM. See this previous post for the full brief.

Widcombe Rising – MP3 download

Widcombe Rising – pdf of sheet music download


Widcombe Rising
Words and music by Joe Bennett, May 2009

English Morris feel, 2/4 bounce; crotchet=95

So let’s all join the Mummers
G                     C
Listen can’t you hear?
G                           C
It’s the sound of Widcombe Rising
G        D7     Em        C
and we sing it every year, oh yes
G/D           D7    G
we sing it every year

G                          D
As I walked down this fair Parade
G                 D
One sunny day in June
G                D
I met a man along the way
G                    D
Who said good afternoon
C                      G             C                     G
I asked him for directions to get to Pulteney Weir
C                G                  D                          G
He said if I was going there I wouldn’t start from here

I asked him if he had a job
He cheerfully replied
“I sit by the canal all day
(Just) watching for the tide
And since I started working, I think I’ve done some good
From Allie Park to Beechen Cliff there’s never been a flood!”

So let’s all join the Mummers…

He said he lived in Abbey View
Had been there all his life
And now that he was ninety-two
He wanted for a wife
He said “I’ll love her truly, and give her all I can
As long as she lives less than fifty paces from The Ram!”

So let’s all join the Mummers…