Tuesday, 22 December 2009

My 2009 in Albums.

I realised the other day that I can sum up my year by all the albums I've found this year. I tend to find albums that I love quite often, lucky really, and this year has been really good for finding really great albums! I have phases when I find and album where I'll just listen to it over and over. And in a way I can gage how good it is by how long it takes me to get tired of having it on repeat.

So the albums I'm going to mention aren't all from this year, some of them aren't even from this decade! There have been some big albums this year, Kasabian, U2, Florence & The Machine, La Roux & Little Boots all of them were highly anticipated by the big music mags. I liked some of them but I'm not here to pass judgement, there is music for all people and I'm going to share some of the albums that I've loved from 2009.

Alela Diane's To Be Still. She played Glastonbury this year and I found her watching the coverage of that. This is her second album. Now I'm a Folkie so when I heard this album it was heaven, the songs are beautifully written, here finger picking style is exquisite and her soaring voice is a delight. I think from May onwards maybe until August I listened to this album everyday. Stand out tracks include: 'White as Diamonds' & 'Tatterd Lace'.

Yeah Yeah Yeah's It's Blitz! I had listened to their earlier stuff and liked some of it but this album blew me away. It's a great record especially the first half songs like 'Zero' with its synths and I couldn't help loving 'Heads Will Roll' either.

The XX's eponymous debut is a polar opposite to It's Blitz! But the duets on the album are great, like 'Crystalised' and 'Basic Space'. The minimalistic guitar lines are surprisingly catchy and coupled with the synth soundscapes and drum rhythms kept me listening.

Kasabian's West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum. They've been hailed as the successors of Oasis. But I'd say they're a very different entity. Songs like 'Fire', 'Underdog' & 'Vlad the Impaler' are brilliantly catchy, Kasabian always seem to have a natural ability to create songs with amazing groove.

Noah & the Whale's The First Days of Spring. Another Folk album, it makes sharp contrast to their rather up beat first album. When I first heard this album it levelled me. An exquisite 'break-up' album. The lead singer had split from Folk Singer Laura Marling. The arrangement and texture of the songs are understated letting the conviction of the song come through. The instrumentation and vocal harmonies are great too. 'My Door is Always Open' closes the album and out of the melancholy of the rest of the album gives a glimpse of optimism.

Florence & the Machine's Lungs surprised me, not at all what I expected. But I thought it was a really eclectic album, 'Rabbit Heart' and 'Dog Days are Over' are probably my favourite, and I know some people say her cover of 'You've Got the Love' isn't as good as Candy Staton's original but I still like it. Plus I think she has a great voice and I love the use of harp.

Neil Young's On the Beach, this album is over 30 years old but I recently fell in love with it, I'm a huge Neil Young fan, but my favourite album had always been Harvest. On the Beach has some amazing songwriting on it. The groove to the opener 'Walk On' and the dark feeling to songs like 'Revolution Blues' & 'Ambulance Blues' is phenomenal. Young's guitar playing is incredible too, really sharp and cutting, like the lyrics.

Mumford & Sons' Sigh No More, another Folk album, I was surprised how well this album did in the charts for a Folk album. I like this album, but it gets a little repetitive as almost all the songs end with a Crescendo. Still some really great songs like 'Little Lion Man' and 'Sigh No More'. I love the banjo playing on this album too.

Blind Pilot's 3 Rounds and a Sound was on repeat for months, it's just such an easy album to listen to. The vocals have this smooth relaxing tone and the simplicity of most of the songs, just vocals, guitar and, percussion, is very appealing. While the music is simple the songs like 'The Story I heard' and 'One Red Thread' are quite catchy. Other stand out tracks include 'Paint or Pollen' and 'The Bitter End'.

Neil Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. OK The two albums not from this decade are both Neil Young albums but, last year was the year of Dylan this year it's Young's turn. Like On the Beach I had never really paid much attention to this album, until this year. The album's 41 years old but it's brilliant, Young's guitar work on this record is breath taking. The album has 3 of Young's greatest rock songs on it, 'Cinnamon Girl' opens the album, the second is the epic 'Down by the River' an ode to drug addiction clothed in metaphor with a barn storming 5 minute guitar solo and the closing 'Cowgirl in the Sand' which spirals into an 10 minute jam. The think that makes this album so good is that the songs between these three colossal tracks are also fantastic.

Jakob Dylan's Seeing things. He played on Later with Jools Holland last year I think, but at the time I wasn't overly impressed by him, but when I heard the album and especially the song 'Evil is Alive and Well' my opinion was quickly inverted. He has a distinct voice like his father however infinately more ear friendly.

Ludovico Einaudi's Nightbook.  Now and then I discover some new Contemporary Classical music, one of my favourite oxymorons.  And Nightbook really grabbed me.  The piano driven songs interweave with a swelling string section and the use of 'contemporary' percussion gives the music an edge.  'Lady Labyrinth', 'Nightbook' & 'Reverie' are my favourite tracks.

Mason Jenning's Blood of Man was much heavier than his previous album, moving towards a heavier sound. I was struck by one song in particular, 'Black Wind Blowing', a dark story of murder and revenge. And the dirty groove of 'Ain't No Friend' reminds me of the Black Keys. The album has a delicate side too with 'Blood of Man' featuring some delicate classical guitar playing.
The whole album was self recorded with Jenning's playing all of the instruments himself as well as producing, I really love this album.

Travis' Ode To J.Smith. I really liked this album, it's their sixth album and it shows they're still growing. They're known for their soft-acoustic-rock sound but on this record they went back to the heavier sound of their first album and went heavier. Released in 2008 on their own Red Telephone Box label, I thought it was a really great album, they explained that all the songs can be placed in order to make up the day of 'J.Smith' which is a cool concept.
Some of my favourite tracks were 'Chinese Blues', 'Get Up', 'Song to Self' & 'Last Words'.

Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit's A Larum. I only recently found this album and I fell in love immediately, it's another folk album, Johnny Flynn like Mumford & Sons and Noah & the Whale is part of the London Folk Scene but all three artists have their own distinct sounds. The album features some excellent Banjo, Guitar and Mandolin playing and the Violin arrangements give the album an atmosphere of its own. Some of my favourite tracks are 'Hong Kong Cemetery', 'Cold Bread', 'Eyeless in Holloway' & 'The Wrote and the Writ'.

So these are some of the albums I've enjoyed this year, there are plenty of others I could have mentioned like Dylan's Together Through Life & The Dead Weather's Horehound or half a dozen others but the albums I've mentioned are the ones I listened to most and have influenced me musically. What were your favourite albums in 2009? Comment and let me know.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

"Power to the People"

So Rage Against the Machine beat X Factor Joe to the Christmas No.1 spot. And within minutes Facebook was flooded with "Yay Rage!!!!!!" & "FUCK YOU WON'T BY WHAT YOU SELL ME COWELL" and then I saw this status:

"Enjoy this evening, blast the heavy rock until the neighbours complain. We won't get another night like this for a long long time; this is a night of fucking revolution!"

I read this and I had a flashback to Network's "I'm as mad as hell" scene. Well not really. But it has made me think, if this "revolutionary" sentiment is held by young people, the person who posted that status is 16, the sentiment is sadly misdirected. The mass media culture my generation and the previous generation has been born into has somewhat clouded how we see things.

X Factor Joe.

There are more important things happening today in this world than some manufactured TV talent show winner being beaten to the 'top spot' by an American Rock band. War, famine & Climate Change spring to mind.

Their is an interesting paradox here, mass media has helped to inform us about the dire things that happen in this world that's why the 1960's saw so much protest against the Vietnam War & the plight of African-Americans, TV showed people for the first time what was going on. However now it could be said their is the danger that we're becoming desensitised to things like this.

I don't fully believe this though, but I wonder what you think. The protests in London against the war in Iraq showed that people still care enough to show how they feel on a mass scale but perhaps it is interesting to note that in 1969 the poster of that status may have said something very similar about Civil Rights or Nuclear disarmament and not the out come of a Chart battle.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

An Interview with Rob Clarke.

Rob Clarke is a Liverpool based singer/songwriter his new album 'Portraits' is out next year. His work has an honest tone and quality which makes his finely crafted music all the more listenable. The Liverpool Echo has praised his work as being "memorable songs that... evoke the spirit of Liverpool." Rob spoke to me about his upcoming album and about how he goes about writing.

So in the beginning, what made you want to write your own songs?

I was listening to Gimme Shelter by the Stones - had it on downstairs loud enough I could hear it upstairs in the bath- I knew some other people who played guitar so I’d thought I'd leave that to them – didn’t want to follow the herd so to speak – but then it just suddenly struck me I was prepared to do whatever it took or spend any amount of time to play guitar even a bit, even just a few notes or chords...

Who influenced you as you began writing? Do these people still influence you?

From there I always wanted to write songs, everyone that I admired did that and it became the biggest part of it almost straight away – I was trying to write songs before I could play to any standard at all really and I soon found that was pretty much the best part. Have you read Shakey?(The biography of Neil Young by Jimmy McDonough) To me if I’m not sure about something I always try to think what Dylan or Neil Young would do – and if that doesn’t work I think what the Beatles or Stones might do – so they pretty much cover if for me.

Your song Long Way north, has some strong imagery, it reminds me of early Bob Dylan, would you say Dylan is one of your influences?

Yes, a friend of mine offered to get me a copy of North Country Girl when I said I’d heard it ages ago and was trying to remember it but he took a long time to give it to me – after a while I thought it must be easy to play from my memory of it – it didn’t occur to me to get it off the Internet for some reason – anyway in doing that I ended up doing my own type of version, thought that would be more productive.

So that’s how it happened – it was that and also playing in folk clubs where a lot of the songs people sing have narratives to them so I’ve also been influenced by that sometimes as well. Funny though when I play it very few people seem to pick up on how similar it is structurally...

What’s you’re instrument of choice?

Guitar is good, also piano although it sometimes seems more difficult to write on...

What would you say your muse is, what inspires you when you write?

Songs are all around but in saying that they can be easy or difficult to find depending on your state of mind. I think you can write about absolutely anything, anything that’s happened domestically or socially, people you come into contact with and especially things or events that go on in the world or where you live – I’m surprised really that more people don’t write songs about some of the big things that actually happen in the world for good or bad – maybe that’s a part of 'dumbing down'? John Lennon or Dylan weren’t afraid to write songs about real subjects... so what’s to fear? To me a song is basically just your own point of view about something - the judgement about how good or bad it is for later...

Once you get in the zone you can write about anything really – the ideas are all around but once you come out of the zone it can be difficult to see that – Recording and rehearsing can break the flow because you almost inevitably get into a different mindset...what does that tell you – stop rehearsing and recording!

Your song North to West, from you’re forth coming album, is just you and a piano do you favour a stripped back sound?

Yes very much – I like real sounding things but then again I like electric guitar as well so I want to do that ASAP as well...

How do you approach song writing, do you find it is different each time or do you have a formula?

No formulas for me anyway but wouldn’t rule anything out -instinct is probably better though...

You have a new album coming out soon called Portraits, what's the album have in store for listeners?

Ten stripped down acoustic portraits of people and in some cases animals... so if that’s your bag this one’s really for you! The publicity for it will say something like ‘Or an artist, two footballers and a hedgehog’.

How would you describe your music, genre wise? A lot of musicians struggle or are reluctant to categorise their music.

I’m trying to make it timeless I think.

Rob's new album 'Portraits' is scheduled for release on the 28th of February, you can find Rob's critically acclaimed previous album 'Long way North' available to buy on his myspace page here. Also on his myspace you can find his upcoming double A-side single, 'End of the End/Tracey Emins Blues' due to be released in early February.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Wonderwall Music

It must have been 2007 when I first listened to this album, I can't exactly remember where I found it, it's not widely known or available, but it might have been through my guitar teacher we used to exchange a lot of different kinds of music that we both used to buzz off so it might have been him. But regardless of where I came across this album it opened up a whole new avenue of music to me.

The album's cover.

George Harrison's Wonderwall music is perhaps the most interesting concept album I've ever heard. Recorded partially in 1967 in England and then partially in 1968, during the Beatles' trip to India and released on the Beatles' own label Apple. When I first found it I was amazed by the sound of the thing, the Opening track 'Microbes' is awash with Sitar drones and as the album progresses the styles move through Russian folk music mixed with traditional Indian Sitar & Tabla music to farcical movements of music inspired by Cowboy movie soundtracks complete with Tack piano.

Harrison probably more so than the other Beatles' embraced Indian music, above he's being taught to play by Ravi Shankar, a Sitar maestro, Indian classical music played a large part in the later Beatles albums and Harrison can be credited bringing the Sitar and other Indian instruments into western music.

Wonderwall Music is a concept album made up of mostly instrumental tracks, some of it verging on what might be classed as Psychedelia, but I'd say the album touches upon more musical bases than 'Revolver' or 'Sgt. Pepper' did. Many of the familiar techniques from the Beatles' albums can be heard such as the reverse Guitar & Sitar solos.
However the album isn't all Indian music, 'Party Seacombe' is quintessential Revolver era Beatles all it's lacking it John or Paul's vocal line. In fact the only track with any vocals on is 'Dream Scene' which features an Male/Female duet sung by Indian singers.

The album reaches its "conceptual" peak on the 1.16 minute track 'Crying' as a screeching drone begins, that sounds a lot like crying, but it abates into a melancholy melody. This, probably the least 'mainstream' track of the whole album, gives way to 'Cowboy Music' a plodding homage to Cowboy movie soundtracks complete with Harmonica and Lap steel guitar.
'On the Bed' features Flugelhorn over a piano drenched in a chorus effect, while a weaving guitar solo is played over the top of it, as the drums swell in the mix and push the song along.
The album ends solemnly with 'singing omm' which is exactly what it does over a droning Harmonium and a beautiful melody line from a Flute.

George Harrison teaching Micheal York in January 1968

This was Harrison's debut album, not exactly a mainstream offering, but then again I don't think Harrison was trying to get in the Charts. (It actually reached #49 in the USA in 1969, the height of the Psychedelic era.) I think this concept album is a testament to a musician who made the music he wanted to make. That's maybe what impressed me most when I first heard it, I realised that you could make whatever music you wanted, as long as you liked it. Listening to this album opened up me up musically, I hadn't heard Indian music at all before and hearing a Sitar for the first time amazed me. It was the catalyst for a major interest in Classical Indian music but I hadn't listened to this album in over a year until today. I don't know what made me put it on but I'm glad I did and I thought I'd tell you about it.

I've embedded some links in the titles of some of the tracks I mentioned but here is one track I didn't mention called 'Gat Kirwani'.

  1. "Microbes" – 3:42
  2. "Red Lady Too" – 1:56
  3. "Tabla and Pakavaj" – 1:05
  4. "In the Park" – 4:08
  5. "Drilling a Home" – 3:08
  6. "Guru Vandana" – 1:05
  7. "Greasy Legs" – 1:28
  8. "Ski-ing" – 1:50
  9. "Gat Kirwani" – 1:15
  10. "Dream Scene" – 5:26
  11. "Party Seacombe" – 4:34
  12. "Love Scene" – 4:17
  13. "Crying" – 1:15
  14. "Cowboy Music" – 1:29
  15. "Fantasy Sequins" – 1:50
  16. "On the Bed" – 1:05
  17. "Glass Box" – 2:22
  18. "Wonderwall to Be Here" – 1:25
  19. "Singing Om" – 1:54
If you're interested in the Beatles or Indian music you should listen to this album.

Friday, 4 December 2009

An Interview with Aclaimed Norwegian Songstress Ragz

The first musician I spoke to for my series of interviews, songwriter-to-songwriter, was Norwegian born Ragz Nordset. Based in Liverpool she has recorded two EPs Little Stings & Love You Still and played with the likes of Laura Marling, Mumford and Sons & David Ford. Critically aclaimed, described by Liverpool.com as 'Startlingly original' and The Fly Magazine has described her as an artist who bares her "soul through beautifully crafted songs", she gave me the chance to see what inspires and drives her to make music.

Starting at the beginning, what made you want to start writing your own songs?
I can’t remember how old I was, but at some point as a young girl, I started writing. It was just this emotion or vibe inside me and it somehow made sense to make that into songs. As silly as it may sound, it has the same effect as hunger or thirst. If I feel hungry, I eat and if I feel a certain way, I write.

Who influenced you as you began writing?

I grew up listening to my dad’s vinyl collection which contained everything from led zeppelin to Motown and think that was already in me when I started writing my own songs. It’s hard to say what bands or which music influenced me early on, but I actually think the biggest influence was just my big brother. He played guitar and that’s how I started too.

What is your instrument of choice? Do you find that playing other instruments inspires you differently?

My instrument of choice will always just be my voice. Guitar and piano comes as a joint second. Even though I love playing both piano and guitar, they are still just a way for me to carry or inspire motions in my voice. It would be the same way with any instrument really, they trigger different emotions in me and that way inspire different kinds of melodies and songs.

What would you say your muse is, what inspires you when you write?

My muse... I suppose my muse is my life. It’s all based on pure emotion – any changes in myself or people around me will, if it’s significant enough, almost force me to write. The need to tell, express, release or scream about something will, more often than not, become a song.

How do you approach song writing, do you find it is different each time or do you have a formula?
I wish I had a formula, but the only thing that is always the same is the decision and need to sit down and start something. The melody, if I’m patient enough will come alive through the chords I try. I never know how it’s going to pan out, but I hear that is a normal observation for most songwriters.

You're Norwegian, so I was wondering did you start writing/singing in your own language and then switch to English? Did you find this difficult when writing?
I’ve sang both Norwegian and English songs whilst growing up, but I’ve always written in English. I suppose that’s because most popular music was in English in Norway when I grew up. I never thought ‘bout it till a little over a year ago and decided to change my approach a little. I only wrote my first Norwegian song last Christmas, whilst visiting family in Norway. I’m trying to write in both languages now, but it’s still easier in English. Ask me again in ten years and that might have changed.

You've supported the likes of Laura Marling & Noah and the Whale - artists coming from the London folk scene. Do you see yourself as having a lot in common with them style wise?

This is a bit of a difficult one as I still struggle to find artists that I feel I properly share ground with. Regardless of where I am, I stick out like a sore thumb, style wise. This because my music might look folk based (girl with acoustic guitar), but I actually don’t think I fit the folk genre in its traditional sense. On a personal level I feel like I’ve connected with many artists from different scenes. Style wise, I’m still developing.

Are you writing at the moment?
I haven’t written a song for a few weeks now, due to touring and travelling, but there are a few brewing at the moment.

What's coming up for you, any gigs or recording?

We’ve just finished a tour, but there are some northwest based gigs coming up for ‘Liverpool Music Week’ and other events. As for recordings, I reckon early 2010 will bring some studio time for us.

A lot of musicians struggle or are reluctant to categorise their music. How would you describe your music, genre wise?
It’s always about the song for me, which sometimes makes it hard to categorize, but at the moment I would refer to it as acoustic pop/rock. You never know though, as soon as we get the right producer involved, this might change depending on what suits and completes the songs. We shall see.

Ragz' music can be heard on her myspace: myspace.com/ragzmusic. Her EPs Little Stings & Love You Still are available to download, you can find the links on her myspace. Her finely crafted songs coupled with her brilliant voice make her well worth a listen.

I hope you enjoyed this first installment, the next interview will feature liverpudlian singersongwriter Rob Clarke.

The Harmless Musician Type.

This is a brand new blog about music but more precisely a blog about making music. I write songs, it's my hobby and I've always been interested in how other people write theirs. So I've begun this blog which will feature interviews with musicians and songwriters. I personally love to find out the inspiration and stories behind songs. And I'm hoping you do too.

When ever I tell people I write songs they often say "I'd love to be able to write songs" and personally I think there is very little that really stops people. Short of being tone deaf of course. Playing an instrument or being able to sing are not a prerequisite, I'm a prime example of the latter. So I'm hoping to find out what makes some of the North Wests singer/song writers tick, why they write, what inspires them and how they do it.

I hope this blog will introduce you to some great unsigned people that are writing and playing in the North West right now. As well as discover how the art of songwriting is approached by the people who have a passion for it. Maybe you'll be inspired too.