Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The album

After an immensely fun Tramlines weekend, I've finally found a spare half hour to sit down and let you know what we're up to. It's just over two weeks until we head into the studio to record our debut album. I wrote down all the songs we've got ready (see left) and it numbers thirteen so far. Some of them are a firm part of our set now (Mary Lamson, South, Men Of Rank); other newbies have recently been added (we debuted Cawing Cuckoo on Sunday at the Folk Forest, whilst Charles Grandison Finney just missed out); others still go back a couple of years but never seemed to fit either of our two EPs (Imitation of Life, Martha My Lover, Old Rebel Sue). Chappaquiddick was one we tried on Your Obedient Servant but when we started recording it, we realised we'd taken the completely wrong approach. We'd gone in very heavy on what is a very simple song.

 Then there are a couple that still require some work. One of these is Marry Me (Ellen Hart) and lyrically, I'm still adding to it. It's another song about Edwin Stanton, a character I find myself returning to. The verses are sketches of his romance with Ellen Hutchinson, who became his second wife. At this point, Stanton was known as Lincoln's cantankerous Secretary of War and as he courted Hutchinson, many of her friends were warning her off the old curmudgeon. He's scarred irreparably from the loss of his wife, child and brother, they said. He'll bring you nothing but misery. Stanton was persistent however, and eventually she fell for him. The song sees Stanton fighting the ghosts of his past, whilst pleading with Ellen that the past is gone and holds no weight over him. A hardened man by now, he doesn't find this argument difficult and despite the night terrors and the daily pressures of the war, here is a man in love, terrifyingly so.

It's possibly the one I'm looking forward to recording most, as he's my favourite character. It's fascinating that someone can go through such a dramatic and tremendous change of temperament as a result of personal suffering. As I sing about in Mary Lamson, Stanton had turned from a carefree, loving husband and father to a driven, angry and ambitious man, as he struggled to provide for his brother's family. His career became his life and this reaction to his mourning created many enemies along the way.

So, I'm still attempting to bring together all these verses, some of which are just snatches of some of these sentiments. Tonight we've got a rehearsal and this is what I want to work on. I want it to go from that persistent voice of proposal (the simple hook line is 'marry me, Ellen Hart') to those voices he attempts to control.

I've got lots more to say, both about the album and our Tramlines weekend, but as ever, I've got to be elsewhere. I'll keep you updated.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Code Duello

Alexander Hamilton was never to be president of the United States of America. Born in the West Indies an illegitimate child, it would never be his right, yet due to his influence and lasting legacy, his face adorns the ten dollar bill. A hugely divisive figure, Hamilton was probably the most vociferous of Federalists (the political branch who believed in the necessity to order and efficiency of a powerful central government) and co-authored the wonderfully written Federalist papers to make the argument. It would never really be won and as such, their industrial revolution sluggishly creeped quietly forward throughout the mid-19th Century. He almost sounds saddened and expectant of defeat when he writes, "An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatised as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty." Hamilton was indeed passionate and it would ultimately be the death of him. In a duel of honour, he was killed by a bullet to the abdomen by vice-President, Aaron Burr.

The political rivalry between Hamilton and Burr was longstanding and interesting in itself as is the reason for the duel, but I was struck by the image of this fatal duel amongst such eminent men. Burr had arrived first with his 'second', William Van Ness, at the appointed time and place - 7am at Weehawken, New Jersey, on the Hudson River - and began to make a clearing for the dueling ground. Hamilton arrived shortly after with Nathaniel Pendleton, his second and the arrangements began. Ten paces were marked out and lots were drawn for position, which Hamilton won. Hamilton fired first but wildly and into the air but it seem he had not 'thrown away his fire', as the custom for this was to fire into the ground. Burr then, hearing the shot fly past him, legitimately fired his own shot into the lower abdomen of Hamilton. He died the next day.

An inaccurate imagining of the Hamilton-Burr duel

The scene is fantastic and, I think, incredibly sad. I wonder how the seconds felt as they prepared and what level of bravado was shown. What did it feel like to be a witness to such an event? When Hamilton raised his pistol, had he made his mind up? According to his diary entry the night before, he intended to throw away his first fire. Was he in two minds? A further theory suggests that Burr himself misfired his shot, as a witness had him step forward after Hamilton fell, as if in regret.  Last night, I tried to write a song about this scene and although they're not finished, there are two branches to the theme. One is melancholy and other quite brutal. Hopefully, they will both become something to bring to the band but they need a lot of work, mostly with the lyrics. I'm wary of trampling too heavily on the character of Hamilton particularly, as I've grown quite fond of him. Burr will perhaps take a more brutal sketch, as I'm saddened by the result of the story, though that hint of regret warms me to him slightly. I'm looking forward to getting to know them better in both songs.