The songwriting part of Burnsong 2009 is be complete and I’m blogging this from the back of a splitter van, on the way to the Parliament gig (see Burnsong site for more info about the project). We have a luxurious 4-hour soundcheck booked today, then an evening off in Edinburgh. The gig itself runs 4-6pm tomorrow (Monday 30th Nov 2009) and will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland (the Iain Anderson show) we think between 11pm and midnight the same evening. Iain will be at the gig providing links and chatting to the songwriters.
We (me, Chris Blanden on bass and local session drummer Blair McMillan) have been rehearsing with the songwriters for the last two days, and now have two 45min sets. The first set consists of the ‘winning’ 10 songs – the tracks from which the songwriters were selected, and the ones that will be broadcast initially. These were easy to rehearse because Chris and I had time to work out the chords and structures before the project began, so all we’ve had to do is work out a band arrangement and write the backing vocal harmonies. The second set is a bit more tricky because some of the songs were only finished on Thursday, but there’s some great stuff there, including Lisa’s particularly rabble-rousing up-tempo song ‘Hey Honey I’m Home’, which should serve as a nice ending to the show (although we finally close with the even more stirring Robert Burns song A Man’s A Man For A’That). Needless to say I have not compromised on (over) arranging vocal harmonies – when you’ve got a room full of great singers who love working together the temptation is impossible to resist!
And I learn that every audience member will get a ‘wee dram’ in the break between sets. Proper Scots hospitality!
It occurs to me that we haven’t blogged any information about the tasks. Here’s some background. There are basically five methods we use (at Burnsong and at the UK Songwriting Festival in Bath). They are, in no particular order;
Analysing your own songs.
Analysing ‘successful’ songs i.e. songs that have demonstrably moved an audience, shown through commercial success or longevity.
Peer review – trying songs out in front of other writers and getting comments
Practice i.e. lots of writing.
Tasks that are designed to break habits and increase a writer’s range.
This week’s tasks are;
1. Write a lyric in its entirety and pass it to someone else for setting to music.
2. Write a chorus-form song suitable for audiences to sing.
3. Write a song without using a musical instrument (or for writers who usually work this way, to use an unfamiliar instrument).
4. Write a song in AABA form.
5. Write a song about a place or inanimate object.
The MP3s will be coming thick and fast now. Chris and I will be meeting our session drummer Blair today, then rehearsing the Parliament set for the next 48 hours. Busy!
Emily Ebert I get the feeling when I open up both of my eyes
I steal the morning start at smilin’ on the moment I rise
I must have had a dream that brought me right back down to my size
I wasn’t sure before but all of a sudden I realise
Everything’s changed now
There’s something reeling me in, it’s got me feeling alive
I was afraid for my heart but now I’m not going to hide
But down my weapons machine and throw away my disguise
Been waiting here for a while I guess it’s finally time
Completely different, my life’s been since you are here
Broken the system I’ve been locked to for years
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 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. www.fionamackenzie.org
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. http://www.myspace.com/thescatteredfamily
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. http://www.myspace.com/yvonnelyonmusic
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. http://www.myspace.com/robertocassanimusic
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. http://www.myspace.com/songwriteralexhodgson
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. http://www.myspace.com/nualakennedyhttp://www.myspace.com/ziggycampbell
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. http://www.myspace.com/lisa_rigby
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. http://www.myspace.com/marieclairelee
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. http://www.myspace.com/ajroach
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. http://www.myspace.com/emilyelbert
Yes, I know the blog’s been a bit quiet lately. The studio has actually been quite busy with the Widcombe project and a couple of small freelance things, but mainly I’ve been preparing for a lot of commitments and events outside Bath in November. I’ve started the songwriting PhD (at Surrey) and had an initial meeting with my supervisor, Prof Allan Moore. The working title of the PhD is ‘investigating creative interactions in collaborative songwriting’ and I’ve been reading background materials for my initial literature review. I’ll probably post some more detail soon about the PhD for any interested songwriters or other musicians & academics – I’m hoping that the blog will be useful in this respect, because I want to (continue to) amass a comprehensive list of songwriting-related contacts, publications and interviews etc. So it’s always great to hear any recommendations that people may have for songwriting books or analyses – or, for that matter, any experienced collaborators who want to find out more about the study. There seems to be only one book that deals specifically with collaborative songwriting – Walter Carter’s The Songwriter’s Guide To Collaboration. Not that the PhD is going to be exclusive academic – it will involve interviews with songwriters and a lot of actual co-writing (it combines musicology and composition).
Part of the work involves investigating the psychology of creativity, in musicians and others, so it’s fortuitous that there’s a conference next week at Surrey about this very subject.
And I’m gearing up for a week in Scotland at the end of November working on the Burnsong project. Burnsong is a Scottish (Arts Council) organisation that promotes songwriting – not the songs of Burns himself, but of the values and beliefs he expressed in his work. They run an international songwriting competition, and the ten winning songwriters spend a week writing and recording at a remote farmhouse in Dumfries. We’re then going to perform the songs at a one-off gig (on 30th Nov) at the Scottish Parliament building, which will be broadcast by BBC Radio Scotland. Apparently we’re setting up the whole band on the staircase pictured – I’m intrigued!
Producer Chris Blanden and I worked on the Burnsong project back in 2007 (the songwriting venue was the same, but the 2007 gig was at BBC Glasgow). For 2009, the whole Burnsong event promises to be larger in scale, due partly to the fact that 2009 is the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth. We’ve already heard the winning songs, and there’s some good stuff there, from traditional Scottish folk music to acoustic singer-songwriters, and (I kid you not) a plate-smashing song. I’m planning to blog the project every day anyway (as we did in 2007), and as before will try to get as many MP3s and lyrics online as possible; it’s possible that the project will generate 50+ songs (10 writers, 7 days) and Chris is pretty adept at producing good-quality acoustic demos from the first playback sessions.
And now some bad news. I’m locked out of the studio! Rainwater found its way into the wood of the exterior door, which has now swelled so much that I can’t get it open. Hoping for some dry weather, and that it will shrink a little, so I can book a Man With A Plane. And a guitar recording project came in this week with a 7-day turnaround. So I’m going to do this using Chris’ help and a mobile recording setup. Which, as he says, kinda proves the point that we, er, don’t need studios any more…
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.
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
Listen can’t you hear?
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
As I walked down this fair Parade
One sunny day in June
I met a man along the way
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!”
This post will mainly be relevant to Bathonians, who may know about the ‘search for a song’ for local Bath district Widcombe. The whole Widcombe community thing is great – street parties, arts events, local history and political pressure groups – all in a group of fewer than 1000 people. So today I’ve had a punt at writing a traditional English Morris Dance tune (with local references in the lyric). No audio demo yet (as you know my studio is currently being built) so this is done in traditional notation. Any folkies reading this – do you feel like doing a demo with traditional instruments?
[note – Feb 2013 – most of the links from this 2008 article are now defunct, but the basic principles of how I project lyrics in lectures are the same, so I’m leaving this post online for archive purposes].
I occasionally get asked, by undergraduate students, Festival songwriters, and songwriting teacherswhat software and hardware I use to project lyrics and play back songs for analysis during songwriting lectures. Sometimes the question actually hijacks lectures and diverts us from discussing the actual song, so I’m going to write this blog post about it, so next time someone asks, I can just send them this link and get on with talking about songwriting!
This is unapologetically nerdy and exhaustive, because the people who ask about this sort of thing often want lots of technical detail.
The hardware During lectures I have my Mac laptop with me – it’s a standard Mac Powerbook running OSX andiTunes. This is connected to a VGA projector (see photo) and a mini-jack audio cable connects the Mac to whatever sound system we’re using (in the photo example we used a small mixing desk on the table, routed into the theatre PA system in the ceiling).
My iTunes library is around 6000 MP3s that I’ve collected over the years from various sources. The computer is always live on the ‘net, so if someone in the lecture class wants to discuss a song I don’t have, I just spend the £0.79 then and there and buy it online.
Because I’m sometimes running a PowerPoint or web browser simultaneously, I like to be able to play and pause iTunes remotely in the background. Sometimes I use the Apple remote for this, but most of the time I prefer to use a background application called Synergy, which is a simple iTunes controller that provides play, pause, next track functions etc, using function keys.
Lyrics and MP3s – the background
We all know that despite many years of attempts by rights owners to prevent fans publishing song lyrics online, it’s possible to locate the lyrics to almost any song on the ‘net. But using a web browser to do this live in a lecture is inelegant, and distracts the class from the song. So I combine two techniques – MP3 lyric metatags and lyric widgets.
An MP3 metatag (or to get really techy, its ID3 metadata… stay with me, here – it gets interesting soon!) is simply a way that the MP3 file can have textual information or images (title, artist, composer, cover artwork and lyrics) attached to the file. iTunes has a really simple text editor – just click Apple-I on any iTunes track to bring it up.
So once the lyric is found on the ‘net and then pasted into the MP3’s iTunes lyric info window, it’s there in the file forever, right there on my hard drive. This works for MP3s and also protected AAC files bought from the iTunes Music Store.
So far so good, but that’s still a lot of hassle, especially if I’m running seat-of-the-pants lectures like this year’s SWF (where I asked every member of the audience to write down a choice of song for analysis, then downloaded them live in the classroom). And it’s also not very useful to bring up the Apple-I info window, because the font size isn’t big enough for the class to see on a projector.
In 2005 I discovered Mac OSX lyrics widgets. These are small applications that run in the background using Apple’s OSX Dashboard (i.e. they work with any Mac). There are several, but they all do essentially the same thing – display lyrics attractively on screen from the iTunes lyric data. But that’s not all. If they don’t find any lyric data, they automatically search the ‘net for the lyric, and then extract the text from the lyrics sites they interrogate, and paste it into the MP3 for you. All this happens live, in the background, meaning I can download a song (legally, of course) and then have the lyric embedded in it within less than 10 seconds.
I use several widgets, running concurrently, because they all search slightly different lyric sites. I’ve found that if one widget doesn’t find the lyric, another one will, and then the first one will simply pull the data from the MP3 itself (which will have been embedded automatically by whichever widget found the lyric online first). My current ones are; Sing That iTune, Fire, Harmonic and the defunct but easy-to-find PearLyrics.
Icing on the cake – hot corners
Mac users will know that OSX supports hot corners. So I set up the Mac so that every time I move the mouse pointer to the top left of the screen, it launches Dashboard. Having previously set things up so that the lyrics widgets are always running, this means, in a lecture, all I have to do is play an MP3, sweep the mouse to the top left of the screen, and the lyrics appear!
Sometimes, we have an iTunes playlist running while we’re setting up a lecture – a list of recent hits, or songs in a particular form, theme or genre. So to make this a bit more visual, I also occasionally use Jewelcase, a shareware plugin for iTunes that displays not only the lyric metatag, but also the JPG of the album cover metatag – and puts the whole thing in a beautifully rendered spinning CD jewel case. Projected 20ft high in a lecture, it is a thing to behold!
And a tiny bit more…
This setup works great for lectures, but sometimes we’re discussing tempo. We can usually find the chords and key of a song (just by having an acoustic guitar to hand), and we can see its form usually from looking at the lyric and listening to the playback, but finding the tempo was always a bit fiddly, using a metronome there in the lecture.
So I searched the ‘net for a tool that would enable me to mouse-click along to a track, display its tempo in Beats Per Minute, then embed the tempo in the MP3 for next time. It’s called BPM Widget. Does what it says on the tin!
This week I’m working with a fine group of songwriters in Scotland. We’re staying in the middle of nowhere and have nothing else to do but write and record songs for a whole week. If I can get a web connection I’ll update this blog with photos and audio from the week.