Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Challenge

I have, for a number of years, believed that being prolific in songwriting, has more to do with the time you dedicate to it rather than waiting for the lightning bolt of inspiration. So, if it's about making time and it's a skill and a craft that I want to keep improving on, it can be frustrating when time is precious or the only time you have is half an hour before you go to sleep and you're worried about waking up the neighbours' kids.

However...! I make too many excuses and now I am committing myself to a challenge. A modest one, I'll admit, but a challenge nonetheless. I've tried these songwriting quotas in the past, with varying success. A fellow writer suggested I try writing four songs in an hour for two hours solid and see if there was anything worth keeping or see if there were bits I could piece together. I tried it a couple of times. There's wasn't much worth keeping. Still, it was fun trying and I liked the discipline of it. I also wouldn't mind trying it again sometime. I can imagine the results would improve with time. Given my limited hours, my challenge shall be thus: one song per week. One song to take to the band every week. This post makes me accountable so if I haven't posted within seven days talking about a newbie, I expect anyone reading to berate me for it.

Apart from it providing me with a good target, I also want to take in a few new songs to the studio in August. Though we've got enough for a full length album, I'm hoping we'll have time to record more than we need to create a bit of competition for places. I think we're all really looking forward to recording but we've still got some work to do before we're entirely ready. One of the things I'm interested to see when we do get in there is what surprises are thrown up - which songs, with a producer's eyes on them, will come up short and what will unexpectedly come alive.

In other news....

We've entered the Green Man Unsigned competition, with the promise of an opening slot at the festival. I LOVE Green Man, though it's been a few years since I've attended, and we'd love your support if you can spare a couple of clicks. Follow this link to give us your seal of approval. The top ten artists go through to the second round and another ten are hand-picked by Radio DJ, Huw Stephens.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Charles Grandison Finney

I've been trying to write a song tonight about a chap called Charles Grandison Finney. Finney was a pastor in the rural town of Rochester, in Western New York in the early 1830s and had been extremely successful as an evangelical preacher, doubling the town's church membership in six months. Rochester was a fascinating place around this time and is a wonderful picture of some the changes America was experiencing, socially, politically and industrially. With the building of the Erie Canal through the region, Rochester, along with other canal towns,  experienced something of a boom, as trade flourished. Industries sprung up overnight and a hierarchy was quickly established, as previous artisans and tradesmen found themselves on the payroll for companies they could not compete with. At the same time, the 1828 presidential election brought with it nearly complete suffrage for white males. Whereas previously, it was the state legislature that apportioned its votes to the electoral college, now the election of the nation's president was directed by the people, all be it excluding women, blacks and Indians. This new empowerment, combined with a growing industrialisation, caused huge class divisions. Additionally, the Second Great Awakening, the revival sweeping the north-west of America, hit full force in western New York, which became known as the burnt-over district, such was the frequency and potency of the evangelical movement in this region. As such, many of Rochester's town leaders were converted - quite often by their wives - and in turn, the workers of newly converted businessmen were also encouraged to see the light; encouragement being in the form of rewards for those who attended church on a Sunday. A canny way of controlling an increasingly volatile workforce, empowered by the vote. A further tactic - supported by the town's now large religious community - was to turn the town dry; to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Map of the New York State Canals (1853)

Finney saw an opportunity to unite the town's leaders in his mission against the "demon rum". The factions of old political aristocracy and the new anti-Mason movement, had created a hugely hostile and bitter political atmosphere. Finney had huge influence over those he had converted but the old wounds amongst the leaders needed healing if he was to achieve his goal. They were soon to be united into the cohesive Whig Party. In order to compete with Jackson and the party machine of the Democrats, they had to get organised and to do that, they had to bury the hatchet. Religion did the trick and Finney played his part. Harry L. Watson, in his book on Jacksonian America summarises it well: "Finney had converted large numbers of middle-level employees, who now joined the party of their employers and gave the forces of temperance and order an effective political majority at last."

So, I'm trying to write a song about this figure, who fascinates me. I've already got a picture in my head of what he looks like. My idea is to write from the perspective of Finney, as he speaks in a meeting of the Rochester's town leaders. I've got a verse so far but I'm not entirely sure where it's leading. I like the idea though and most importantly, I'm getting into this character - he's fantastic!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

A Brave Sound

Now This Sound Is Brave have been covering us for the past couple of years, since we released our first EP and a delightful bunch they are too. Recently, they've started a great feature entitled, A Good Read, A Good Listen and A Good Drink, with various musicians contributing their thoughts, so I was very excited to be asked to put forth my own preferences. A toughie undoubtedly, but after much pondering I managed to plump for some real goodies. Take a peek right here.

John Trumbull's depiction of the Declaration of Independence.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Double Gig Day

Yesterday was our Double Gig Day, the first we've done in a long time. The sun just about held out for the first, in Weston Park, organised by Toast Magazine, with monies going to the Children's Hospital. I managed to break a D string in soundcheck, which didn't bode well. It 's now becoming a bit of a joke. I've broken about 4 or 5 D strings in the last couple of weeks. I think there's something up with the indent on the bridge. However, we braved on (after replacing the string) and felt it went really well. Tom admitted to forgetting pretty much all the chords to opener, Men of Rank. Didn't notice at the time so I think he must have covered it well. It's quite funny doing the banter at gigs 'cause your instinct is to start asking questions ('How you doing?' 'Had a good day?'), which is a bit ridiculous really. You're not going to have a conversation with the audience. I attempted to unify the audience by asking what the collective emotion was in Weston Park, sensing we may be able to harness our energy and speak as one. I got a few whoops. Twas a lovely affair and I must extend my thanks and congrats to the Toast boys for doing a top job. Thanks chaps.

First time I've played a bandstand. Tick. Oh, and the sound was surprisingly good. Our expectations were really really low. Really low. Much to our delight, the engineers not only did a great job - I could hear my vocal really clearly, my one essential and by all accounts, it sounded great out front - but they were also very decent gents. Hope to work with them again in the future.

Tom mentioned he spoke to a friend after, who, on hearing us for the first time, said we sounded like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and a lighter Queens of The Stone Age! Not heard that latter comparison before. I dig.

Straight onto SoYo, where they appear to own Monday nights. Matt and Tariq do a fantastic job of the promotions there and it's always interesting to see what touring band they've booked. Hungry Kids of Hungary managed to get a very catchy riff firmly stuck in my head for the rest of the night during soundcheck! Lovely chaps and an interesting sound. Really really poppy but with some interesting melodies and tight as a nut. I think by the time they got on stage, the West St crowd were populating the place and the mood changed a bit so they found it harder to hold the crowd. I think it's tough for a touring band when they've no idea what they're stepping into. The singer called it a "weird night" later and I can understand that. You do get a mix of people in there. Mondays are obviously a live music night but if they can keep the night going for a few more hours after and earn a few more quid, they're gonna want to widen the market a little. I think we took to the stage an the optimum time. People had a few drinks in them and were a bit jolly and were up for listening and giving a bit of banter, but they weren't so inebriated that they were acting like tools. Highlights for me were Julia Died of Cholera, which we killed and South (download for free here!). I screwed up the first song, Men of Rank slightly but it wasn't disastrous.

After watching Hungry Kids of Hungary, Ben and I went to the Redhouse with a few friends to keep the night going. We waited it out until they started playing some good music and finally it came: Chuck Berry, Elvis, The Supremes. We tore it up. And then it took it's toll. We crawled back to our beds. Ace night.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Club 60

At the end of April, we played a gig for Sensoria 2012 at Upper Chapel, a beautiful church in the centre of Sheffield. It was a really fun night, which included our own tribute to the late Levon Helm, a cover of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.' The first time performing in a church, I quickly became conscious of some of the irreverent content of my lyrics: "I'll parry and I'll goad / For what greater prize / to win this land / from where religion must die". Oops. No disrespect intended to the Unitarians, though as their website states, they are a "haven of religious liberalism and tolerance." Phew.

Anyway, as a consequence, Jo and Nigel, Sensoria's organisers, invited us to play at Club 60 for their end of festival party. It was the first time we played their and again, we had a great night. Little did we know, Blakey - Club 60s main man - records all the shows, and pretty much straight after we stepped off stage, he took us upstairs to have a listen to the show. We were impressed and got into a conversation about recording with him. He's got oodles of enthusiasm and after talking about our various options, we arranged to meet up a couple of days later to discuss it further. The studio is full of various contraptions that took me back to my childhood - a BBC computer, for example! I remember, as a ten year old, being completely hooked on a general election game I played on my BBC. Hmm, I was a strange child.

So, after discussing some of the finer details, we booked in 5 days of recording in mid August. Were all pretty psyched about going into the studio - it really is like going away on camp! - though we've got a bit of work to do before then. There are a bunch of new songs that need plenty of work on them and we're just figuring out what's going to make the cut. A difficult process but we feel we've got plenty of good stuff to choose from.

One of the newbies, 'Marry Me, Ellen Hart', musically, is something of a tip of the hat to Nick Cave's Henry's Dream - perhaps specifically, 'Papa Won't Leave You Henry' - which I only found out recently was produced by David Briggs, Neil Young's long-time producer. Unfortunately, they weren't too pleased with the results or Briggs' live studio approach, so ended up remixing it. This consequently gave us the Live Seeds album, as they wanted to do the songs justice. Hmmm, still in my top 3 Nick Cave albums, no matter what they think. Lyrically, 'Marry Me...' continues my obsession with Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's cantankerous Secretary of War, as he woos his stubborn second wife. The lady in question was warned off the old curmudgeon by numerous friends (Stanton had turned from a care-free, loving father and husband to an embittered and ambitious man after the death of his wife, child and brother in the space of a few years) but he persisted and soon got his way.

It's looking like it'll appear on the album, along with a few others that haven't been aired live yet. In the meantime, here's one of the songs from the Club 60 gig that will also appear on the album. Tis all yours to download for free. Enjoy.

Our latest recruit

We've had a few different incarnations over the past three years, and I may elaborate on our story along the way, but our current lineup consists of....

Pete David: vocals, guitar
Paul Heath: bass
Ben Fuller: drums, vocals
Tom Baxendale: guitar

Tom is the latest Union recruit, joining us a couple of months ago, and is an excellent songwriter in his own right. Tom and I played in bands together about 8-10 years ago, before he disappeared to London for 7 years. His return to Sheffield coincided with us enjoying an extended spell as a three-piece but I was keen to add a further melodic element. He'd played with us a couple of times before - once at an immensely fun warehouse gig in Hackney Wick - and it was a natural fit. Our musical education has been very similar - with much swapping of recommendations - and he's been a big influence on my songwriting. On Thursday night, Tom played at Opus Acoustics at the Riverside and in terms of craft, it was, as it often is, a reminder to me of how to write songs. Check 'em out for yourself here.
This is Tom's old band, The Rainy Day Club, performing at The Gladstone in that London.