You Probably Think This Song Is About You

Since I’ve been writing and releasing songs regularly over the last two years I’ve been getting some flack about what the lyrics are about. The songs I write aren’t always about someone in particular or a situation that is actually happening to me at the time. When I was 21 a songwriter friend of mine told me that I should write all my lyrics while I’m young. Regardless of having any music to go with the lyrics or not, he said that I should write down the feelings I have as a young man because as an older, settled down man I wouldn’t have so many wild and tempestuous feelings and that the quiet and mundane feelings I would have as an older man wouldn’t make great lyrics. In a way he was right, my feelings are less tempestuous and less dramatic as an older man but a lot of them are still there.

I didn’t heed his advice and here I am finding that I’m having to draw on a number of experiences from throughout my life in order to create food for songs. I have also found that the mundane does make a good song, please check out ‘Blue Collar Factory Blues’ from my album with Neil Challis. My life does have plenty of ups and downs and still gives me food for songs. I still get angry, but nit as intensely as I did as a young man, nor am I as likely to act as harshly as I did as a young man; the argument with the guy in my office last year would have ended far less amenably if it had happened 20 years ago! So there is the element of intensity that may have gone from my young man lyric writing, but there has added the element of perspective and also the fact that just by virtue of having been around the planet longer I have heard a lot more stories. I have had friends in situations that I have helped them through or news stories I have read that I can draw upon. I dream about lives I could have had, I know I shouldn’t but I do.

The mad thing is that these are all private thoughts and feelings that as an artist I wish to express that I otherwise couldn’t. The issue is wether I should express them or not. What if they do harm? Should I only stick to flattering lyrics? As a Blues artist is that realistic? As a miserable and sometimes suicidal person with mental health issues is that realistic? Should I just not bother to say anything at all if I can’t say anything nice? I think the answer is that art should be for art’s sake and just like anything else, if you think it’s about you then it might well apply to you even if it wasn’t written with you in mind. Maybe it says more about you than it does about the writer? Many people don’t like having a mirror held up to them.

Modern culture is full of questions about who particular songs or characters are about. Was Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter books based on J K Rowling’s ex husband? Was ‘You’re So Vain” actually written about Warren Beatty? Was Adele’s song ‘Someone like you’ written about her ex? The writer of hit TV show ‘Cold Feet’ had his friends testify in a TV documentary that the attitude amongst their group was to ‘be careful or you’ll end up in his show’ and apparently he wrote the whole first series based on actual events that had happened to them. My take on it is that it doesn’t really matter because they are all amazing pieces of art and surely the source material is irrelevant to enjoying the art experience. It’s interesting for sure but not essential to the experience.

As far as my own songs go, I’m just a tiny part-time musician from the arse end of no-where that doesn’t even do music for a living. I get about 20,000 listens a year on Soundcloud which is really just a drop in the ocean. My last song that caused a family riot has only been listened to 120 times, probably not all the way through, probably 100 times but the person it upset. Chill out, no one’s listening anyway, I’m hardly Adele or J K Rowling!

In the meantime I will continue to make up stories for my songs, imagine situations and write about what I know and just reap the whirlwind.

You Probably Think This Song Is About You

Support Slot

One of my favourite parts of being a musician is getting to meet other musicians. During the summer of 2019 I managed to secured a support slot at a tiny venue called The Queen Street Brewhouse in Colchester. The slot was support to a young, up and coming Blues/Rock band from Cambridge. Having stalked them on social media I found out that they played all original music, had an EP out and were working on as new one. This band had been playing some large venues, done radio interviews and had also been nominated for a songwriting award. Needless to say I was expecting big things. One thing bugged me: videos of them playing live were few and far between. This had been a common thread I had been finding with so called ‘harmonica experts’ on Facebook around that time.

I finished work at the plant in Norwich and drove straight to Colchester and to the venue, parked up and grabbed my gear; my pedal board, a bag of leads and a case of harmonicas. The venue was tiny but cozy and reminded me of the Triangle Tavern in Lowestoft. There was a great choice of ales, regulars were propping up the bar and the décor was what I would call ‘ramshackle chic’. The permanent stage and house PA showed me that they regularly had music on so I was expecting some sort of appreciative music-loving crowd at the very least. The main act had already started setting up so I waded my way through the empty drum cases, leads and howls of feedback and made my way to the stage to introduce myself.

“Hi, I’m looking for Jake,” I grinned at the pretty young people who were holding instruments, microphones and the like.

“What’s your name?” asked a chubby, guitar-laden young man in a stripey shirt and black fedora.

“I’m Paul Gillings, nice to meet you.” I proffered my hand to shake, fixed my grin and made eye contact.
“I’m Jake,” he said, returning a rather floppy handshake.

“Nice to meet you,” I said again. I offered my hand, name and grin around to what I suspected were the other band members, one of whom just stared at me and the other two offered a shake but gave no names. Was I supposed to know who they were?

“We haven’t got a sound engineer,” Jake shrugged, “we normally have someone do this for us so we don’t know what to do.”

I’d been in the exact same situation a million times myself so I felt for the young fella, I wondered if I should help out. I know my way around sound gear quite well and I was pretty sure I could get a decent sound for them. I opened my mouth and was about to offer to help when Jake piped up again.

“This is the smallest venue we’ve ever played,” he said, “and we’re never playing here again.”

“Wow,” said I, amazed at their meteoric rise to venues with house PA’s and sound engineers in 8 short months of forming.

It is true to say that I have spent a large part of my burgeoning music career dealing with and solving sound issues. I own two PA’s of different sizes that I choose between depending upon the size of the venue. It almost seemed unfair to me that they hadn’t had the experience of having to deal with lairy musicians that ‘need more reverb in the monitor’, or a Bass player that insists on DI’ing his instrument only to thrash the hell out of it and blow the speaker. I was once in a band that was asked to support a ‘larger’ band at a pub in Norfolk. We were told to bring our own PA to use for our set, when the main act finally arrived they hadn’t bought a PA so they asked to use ours. We obliged but then had to put up with having to sound engineer them. Complaints then ensued from said main act about the poor quality of our PA. Never again, I though to myself. Yet here I was, being tempted to help again. I had to stop myself, keep my mouth closed and let them learn the hard way. To be fair it sounded like they had had a pretty easy ride to stardom so far so what would a little humbling lesson in bad sound hurt them? It might even do them good, I thought to myself.

“Who’s the organiser here? Has anyone spoken about start times?” I asked,

“There is no organiser, or maybe it’s the landlord. I think,” Jake replied.

I decided that with his attitude Jake would be best to sort out his own sound issues. I went over and sought out the landlord. The landlord was a very nice chap indeed, who informed me that they had a licence to serve alcohol until 12 midnight. My stomach sank as I realised that this was going to be a long night with this band.

I grabbed a drink and sat at the bar chatting to the locals whilst the main act continued to set up. The band continued to complain about the lack of sound engineer and criticise the house PA. I found the locals and bar staff to be great people. I was indeed correct in my initial assumption that they liked their music. The small gathering at the bar were looking forward to what was going to be on offer, told me about the regular music that they have in the pub and how much they liked the place. I felt welcomed and my initial nerves slowly dissipated as I chatted to those lovely people. My sinking stomach feeling subsided and I was really looking forward to sharing my music with these people. Our conversations at the bar were punctuated by more howls of feedback and as the band had now managed to get the microphones to work Working microphones meant that their complaints were being projected around the pub for all to hear. A couple of music loving people I was talking to at the bar had overheard my conversation with Jake and were none too impressed with him. You never know who’s listening.

The band had made several references to their ‘fan base’ on their social media prior to the gig. Ten minutes later the ‘fan base’ that they had mentioned arrived at the venue. The lead singer’s grandparents and mum, all wearing the band’s promo T shirts. It was very cute. Amongst the entourage was also a professional photographer, obviously a friend of the band, but he really knew his stuff and had all the gear. The photographer snapped away as the band continued to set up. Peaking over his shoulder at the display on the camera I could see that this chap had a great eye and the photos looked amazing.
“They look great mate!” I complimented, “I’m the support act, if you manage to take any of me I’d be very grateful of a copy.”

“No probs at all mate, add me on insta and I’ll post them up.”

This was great. I could get some good promo photos as I didn’t really have many at the time.

I managed to get in a small soundcheck, I never really needed much, and sat back waiting to start.

“If you wanna start at 8.30, do 45 mins and we’ll go on after that for an hour. We’re off for something to eat.” Jake announced. So off they all trounced leaving drum cases, instrument cases and lead in the middle of the floor in front of the stage. Was I supposed to move that stuff? Did they normally have roadies do that for them? Are the venues they play normally so big that the staff cleans up after them? As much as I love being instructed by a twenty-something, stadium-playing upstart, I wasn’t about to start playing at 8.30 for all the tea in China. I decided that I would start when I wanted to. In the end I started at 8.45: there were people there and I was looking forward to sharing my music with them.

The main band walked back in from their feed at 9.20 as I was in full swing of my set. Were they hoping I’d be finished by then? I made a sarcastic reference to the drum and instrument cases that had sat in front of me whilst I played, which unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears. I finished my set at 9.30 and was immediately rushed by the guys in the band making to set up their gear. Even their photographer friend remarked that they should give me a chance to break my gear down and get out of the way before they came on to set up.

I was expecting good things from this band. I had read the hype, seen the T shirts and felt the swagger and arrogance of youth. Bring it on. I actually, believe it or not, love having my mind changed about people. It’s fair to say that my mind was not changed in the slightest upon hearing this band. Their unresolved sound issues aside they continued to sing off key, be out of time with each other and periodically the Bass player would stomp on a pedal that made the house PA speakers rattle and buzz horrendously. After twenty long minutes the band decided that they had had enough of playing so wrapped up their performance with an original number that we were encouraged to vote for in an online songwriting competition. Vanity press anyone? You know the scam: ‘pay £40 and send in your poem to get published in a book’. I looked it up and this was the same deal, just with songwriting and submitting your MP3 online. Total bullshit.

I had to be up in the morning so I didn’t hang around for my fee and wrongly assumed that the venue would be in touch about sending me my money. I can’t believe I made such a rookie mistake after all these years. Two weeks later the venue informed me that they gave all the money to Jake and that he was to give me 50% of it. I contacted Jake who told me that that was not the deal he agreed with the venue and I wouldn’t be getting any money out of him at all.

Lessons learned: 1) don’t believe a band’s own press 2) you never know who’s listening and 3) make sure you get paid before you leave a venue.

Support Slot

Facebook keyboard warrior

I’ve been observing a chap post, comment and advise harmonica players all over social media lately. It’s actually good advice overall, but I found some observations, especially one comment on my own playing, a little hard to swallow. I decided that I could heed the critique he had made if it was backed up by his own expertise on the instrument. To read what he has to say I thought he would be an harmonica player of God-like proportions.

After much, much digging I finally found a video which contained a sample of his harmonica playing. It was a video from over a year ago, an instrumental with him on harmonica as lead. I was stunned at how this player of over fifty years, dishing out his worldly advice, couldn’t actually play very well at all; poor single note clarity, thin tone, inaccurate note bending, etc.

Personally, I think very long and hard before I comment on someone’s work, knowing how difficult it is to learn to play the harmonica, let alone video oneself and place it up online. I try to be positive and if can’t think of anything nice to say, I say nothing at all, it’s not difficult to just keep on scrolling. I also cringe like hell when placing videos of my own playing/practicing up online, I know I have a lot to learn and I’m always keen to get feedback.

This guy can never seem to help himself though: gear, harps, techniques, players; he’s a world expert. And then you hear him play.

I can’t really decide if I have a point or if I’m just bitter about his comment? 🤣

Facebook keyboard warrior

Taking an original track to the band.

It’s always nerve wracking bringing an original song to a band. Especially when that band is mainly a covers band that throws in a few of the lead singer’s superb original songs from time to time.

The last time that I dared to bring an original song idea to a band was about twenty years ago and to a very different band. That particular band was an all original indie/rock outfit that had very big dreams and ambitions. My song was pretty much ripped to shreds by the other band members that last time. As I recall they changed the key of the song from major to a minor key, added a middle section that was essentially another whole song and then had me change the lyrics to something less personal.

Now, I’m all for band members adding their own stamp to a song and bringing their own musicality to it, but I think back then that those guys went too far. I did have a fairly solid idea of how the song was supposed to go in my head which I demonstrated on the demo I had recorded and presented them with, along with a copy of the lyrics and chords. What we ended up with was nothing like it, even the title was changed in the end.

This time around was an entirely different affair and a much different band. The band did add their own twist to it, not what I’d imagined but better! They didn’t want to change the key or the tempo, the words or the structure. There was just their feeling, vibe for the song being pushed forward. They left their ego at the door and felt their way around the song, got lost in it and were happy to come along on a little journey of my song.

Since then I feel that the song no longer belongs to me but this time in a much better way. The song is now bigger than me, it’s ours, our band’s song. We made it ours by adding empathetically rather than logically to the musical content. I can’t wait to play it out there live!

Taking an original track to the band.

Kongsheng Solist – Harmonica Review

Kongsheng Solist – Harmonica Review

Feeling low…G!

IMG_0025.JPG

What do the two harps pictured above have in common? One is a 365 14 hole Marine Band in the key of G and the other is a Seydel Noble Low Tone in low G.

Tenuous link coming up…

In the 1990’s Steve Baker developed the ‘Steve Baker Special‘ or SBS for short. Based on 14 hole 365 Marine Band harmonicas, and for those that don’t know, it was the laid out with the first 3 holes of a regular diatonic harmonica repeated on holes 4 to 6, then the rest of the harp carried on as a normal Richter tuned diatonic. The other way to look at it is that it it’s another three holes an octave lower tagged on the beginning of a regular harp.
Or just look at this diagram:

SBS Layout.jpg

I managed to obtain a low G version of one of these beauties in the mid nineties from a deal Norman Ives did with Kevin’s Harps, who was the distributor for Hohner USA at that time. My harmonica teacher David Michelsen was a proponent of the chugging technique and made some crazy sounds with the low G SBS. The octave splits on the first 6 holes at the lower end of the harp lost their disjointed sound when compared to a regular 10 hole diatonic as they become true octave splits on the draw notes as well as the blow notes. Like a say, when mixed with chugging this made for a monster sound.

To start with these where just detuned Marine Band 365’s with a multitude of solder on the reeds to weigh them down and make the notes real low. Unfortunately I sold my low G SBS on ebay years ago and haven’t hankered after it since.

That was until I spotted the other little beauty pictured in the main image: the Seydel Noble Low Tone. Before the Bristol 2017 international Harmonica festival I had never seen one. I guess I just haven’t had my ear to the ground! I spotted it on the Seydel stand for a festival special of £55, a bargain for any Seydel harmonica, so I had to see what it was. It’s a lovely weighty chunky little number with coverplates that stand well proud of the reedplates to prevent the reeds hitting the inside of the coverplates when played. Windsavers cover the reedslots at various places to stop air leakage over the large reedslots and in place of old bits of solder are actual chunks of metal on the reeds to weigh them down to those low notes. The chap on the stall also told me that the comb is 1mm thicker than usual as it creates 20% more airflow. Is this true? I don’t know but it sold me!Noble Low Tone.jpg

Pic above shows weighted reeds (bottom left) wide coverplates (bottom centre) and windsavers/valves (bottom right). As you can see by the main image the harp certainly is a chunky little number.

I have contemplated soldering the reeds of the 365 to make a low G SBS but I think I’ll leave it as it is and enjoy the extra notes. I think I’ll go and use my Noble low G more and more. The first thing I’m gonna do with that low tone is make some Cello type notes to go behind the guitars in the indie band I’m in. Then I’m gonna chug out some solo stuff ’till my little heart’s content! Brilliant harp.

Seydel info page on the Noble Low Tone.

Feeling low…G!

Soloing etiquette

I love a bit of band politics and a recent experience has got me to reminiscing about a certain situation that has arisen in bands I have been in:

“I think you two should take it in turns to solo during more numbers,” Came the input at band rehearsal last night. “I think it makes a great extension to the songs and gives you (points at me) a chance to show off your harmonica skills.”  Five minutes later during the soloing section of the song in hand, our guitarist was happily noodling away. As soon as he started I backed off the mic, took the harp out of my mouth and waited out the allotted ‘one time around the verse and chorus’ that he had his turn to solo in. I did my usual introductory riffs to take the lead from him at the end of the turnaround, but to my surprise he wasn’t budging. He just kept on soloing. I tried the eye contact, but his eyes were closed, lost in his solo. It was actually a truly epic solo so I took the chance to listen to what he was playing and felt awed at how good his chops where. ‘I’ll get it on the next one’, I thought to myself. The turnaround came again and… you guest it, he carried on soloing! This time around the verse when the turnaround came the singer had decided that it was time to bring the last verse in so he wilfully started singing, my chance of a solo in this song passed by. I automatically dropped back in to backing mode and the band played on.

At the end of the song our singer wasted no time and addressed the issue straight away.
“When it’s Paul’s turn to solo you have to stop playing so that we can hear him.”
“I did!” protested our guitarist.
“No you didn’t I was here and I heard it!” Our singer shoots back. The singer and guitarist have been in bands with each other for many years now so how they speak to each other looks like crap when written down but is actually always spoken with complete affection.
“Alright, maybe I did carry on soloing, but I did play a bit quieter during his solo.”
“That’s still soloing even if it is quiet, maybe you should just play chords while Paul solos?”
“Yeah man, no probs!”
An amicable solution had been found and the issue addressed.

The whole situation took me back nearly 30 years to the first band I was ever in. I then realised that this ‘solo stealing’ had been happening all my musical life. Thankfully, these days it was dealt with in an adult and (semi) professional manner. Back when I was in a band with 4 other teenage boys, all playing harmonicas it was a completely different story…

We had a tune called ‘Random’s Boogie‘ and we played that tune everywhere. And when I say everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE. It was a mostly improvised 12 bar blues boogie where we started off with a slow section and then after a couple of times round the 12 we kicked off into a fast paced boogie chug. The structure after that was to take turns in having a solo and show off our skills. There being 3 lead players in the band there was plenty of room to extend or shorten the tune depending on the time slot we needed to fill. This made the tune perfect for radio and TV so we wheeled this tune out time and time again. You can probably see where I’m going with this…

The solo stealing started by accident, we just weren’t listening to each other and couldn’t tell who’s turn it was. Everyone wanted to play at once and it just sounded like a dog’s breakfast. Needless to say that the tact of a 13 year old boy is far removed from that of a 30something, so the suggestion that we take turns was not given or taken as lightly or amicably as it was at my recent band rehearsal. To be blunt, we just swore and shouted at each other over it. Far from resolving the situation (quelle surprise), drawing attention to the issue only made things worse. Knowing that stealing each others solos wound each other up we started to do it on purpose. When the solo stealing started out in rehearsals it was quickly jumped on by our managers and musical directors, especially when we were rehearsing for TV slots. We would start just soloing over each other and it sounded proper awful. After being reprimanded we would all play nice and take turns during the next rehearsal. The very second the red light turned on on the TV cameras it was a free-for-all again. We all played over each other, stole solos and made each other really angry. Being the goody-two-shoes that I was at the time I stopped participating and just back and didn’t take my turn to solo, I just carried on playing the backing. I started to feel like a side man in my own group. I began to resent the situation and came to hate playing the tune at all. I was 14, moody and if I couldn’t play I was gonna take my ball home.

What I have taken away from this is that what we are playing, the tune, the song, is bigger than those of us playing it. We are party to creating a great thing and should feel privileged to be part of the song, no matter how small a part we play. It’s a cliche for a reason but the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. The solo is no good without decent backing to play it over. But it’s tough, because if we’re doing it properly we commit ourselves emotionally to the song and give a piece of ourselves away. The trick is not to be too precious about it and give that piece of yourself willingly and accept deference to your higher power: music.

My advice: keep your ears and eyes open, remember what you rehearsed and most important of all leave your ego at the rehearsal room door!

Has any of this happened to you? How are the politics in your band?

Soloing etiquette