Invisible Prison – Track by track

Here’s a run through of the tracks from my new album ‘Invisible Prison’, available from July 13th 2020 through all digital outlets.

Start Over Again
This opening track is a driving rock/blues number. The song starts with the guitar and harmonica playing the same riff. As the rest of this album will hopefully testify, I wanted to use the harmonica as a lead instrument that is on par with any other. This is a theme that reoccurs on this album quite a bit and is my statement about the versatility and stature of the tiny mouth organ. The harmonica can stand up against any other instrument and even lead the way. The lyrics are all about starting your life all over again with someone new; staking a claim and changing lanes.

I Ain’t Never Played An English Song With An English Guy
A classic blues riff has been regurgitated for this song, you’ll know it when you hear it. My Grandmother used to live in Bandera, Texas, USA and I was lucky enough to visit her in 2001. My Grandmother’s friend Tillman wanted to take me to an authentic cowboy bar in the local town. He took me out one night and told me to bring my harmonicas as the locals would love it if I played for them. The first bar we went into had a confederate flag pinned to the ceiling with ‘The South Will Rise Again’ printed across it. Pinned around this flag were signed bras. I was informed that the bras had once belonged to strippers that had performed there. The next bar Tillman took me to had a stage downstairs and a band was playing live. This song is about what happened that night and some of the things the locals said to me. They really did think I was Australian and one of them had a cousin who lived in Oxford and the chap thought I might know his cousin as I lived close(!). The band insisted on playing the Beatles classic ‘Get Back’. The bass player was so pleased at having played an English song with an English guy and turned to the rest of the band and said… you guessed it!

Are You A Have Or Are You A Have Not
This is a ‘bouncing’ blues track, mostly a straight 12 bar blues. I grew up and went to school in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. The lyrics are all about the crappy stuff kids at school used to say to me about my family’s financial situation. We didn’t have much money and in the 1980s it was important to have a well known label on your clothes, a games console and decent mountain bike. Woe betide you if you didn’t have all of those things when you were 12 years old.

An instrumental rock track inspired by those types of guitarists that have that one track on their album that gives them a chance to show off. (Kenny Wayne Shepherd in this instance). I thought I would do a similar track of my own just using the harmonica to show off instead of a guitar. As the recording of the track went on I felt less and less like showing off and I felt more and more like just letting the instruments breathe. The drums do most of the talking on this one. The impact of the harmonica when it does finally show off has built up to it and therefore has more impact when it kicks in. The layered acoustic and electric guitars compliment each other and create space to enjoy the driving nature of the track.

I Don’t Know When I’m Beaten
A rolling, almost Country style song. The main rhythm backing is done on a low A harmonica that chugs all the way through the song to create a great percussive backdrop. As to the lyrics, I put myself under enormous pressure sometimes when I should actually just admit that I’m not good at something and I should just give up. This song is all about that feeling. The song also features a guest lead guitar solo by Danny R.

It Hurts Like Hell
A riff based rock-blues song about a relationship break up. (Surprise surprise!) Standard 12 bar format with the guitar and harp sharing the main riff. I’m quite proud of the solo on this one, although I do make you wait until nearly the end of the song to hear it! I did all the harmonica parts on this album in one take without cutting in and out, so sometimes if the harp sounded a tiny bit raggedy in places I just left it because I felt that it added to the raw sound and the overall ‘band’ feel. I didn’t want anything too polished. Obviously if I made a complete stuff up of the solo I started the take again. I think it can be too easy with modern recording equipment and DAWs to record something one note or one phrase at a time, quantise it, autotune it etc etc I didn’t want to slowly drain all the feel out of the songs by trying to obtain a twisted version of perfection.

Passed Me By
I’ve gone pure Country on one which is about how in midlife I feel that everyone else is having a wild time and getting up to lots of things and I’m just missing out being busy working in a factory. I found the tone of the low E harmonica lead to the main melody on this track giving it a simple and almost spiritual sound. The low E harp has an earthy and honest sound and I loved it so much that I made art the basis for this song.

Help You
My take on the classic ‘Help Me’ by Sonny Boy Williamson. I just wondered what it would be like from the other side of the original lyrics. What it would be like to be the one that’s being asked for help but isn’t in a position to be able to give it due to their own self preservation or own understandable weaknesses. Although the song is in a minor key, I played it on a major keyed harp to try and get some dissonance in places and to try to play with the tone of the bends and overblows.

3 Heads Are Better Than 1
A 12 bar slow Blues instrumental track. I couldn’t decide which harmonica to use for this improvisation so I used them all one after another. The first solo is in 5th position on a Low F harmonica, second solo is 3rd position on a G harmonica and the last solo is in 2nd position on an Am Natural Harmonica.

I’m Never Gonna Change
A riff based, almost Indie style song about someone that thinks that they are fine how they are and that they do not need to improve or grow at all. I used a natural minor keyed harmonica on this one so that I could get the minor chords, just like a guitar and cut between melody, rhythm and just plain noise and rawk!

It Beats Me Baby
A rockin’ Blues up-beat number about the exasperation of knowing someone that continually falls in s**t but always comes up smelling of roses. A song about someone that lives a charmed life. There may or may not have been a woman in my life at one point that behaved this way, I couldn’t possibly say. I lost the plot a bit on the solo on this one but as I said earlier, one take and unless it sounds truly awful then I leave it!

I Gave Up My Evening For This
Pumping blues track about someone that goes out a lot but gets badgered to stay in by their partner. When they finally do get to spend some time together all they do is argue.

Waiting Blues
A slow blues track about being unable to get on with your life because you feel that you owe it to everyone else to wait for them. A song about feeling held back, a sombre end to an emotional rollercoaster of an album!

Final notes:
Throughout the album I tried to keep to a ‘band’ format: Vocalist, harmonica player, guitarist, bass player and drummer. The aim was to make an album as a band, albeit with only me on the instruments! The harmonica sound was not created using expensive valve amps or crystal element microphones. I recorded the harmonica acoustically and when required I used the distortion and overdrive settings that came with the recording software, a touch of EQ and Fanny’s your maiden aunt! I didn’t have an electric guitar so my mate Paul Harrison lent me his PRS (thanks buddy, it’s a beauty!). I didn’t actually even have a bass guitar either until my wife bought me one for Christmas, so thank you Ali for that. The drums were supplied as loop samples and single hits, all recorded on live drums in a studio by Nathan Luker and cut together by me in the DAW. The guest guitar solo on ‘I Don’t Know When I’m Beaten’ was supplied by my great friend and fellow singer-songwriter Danny R. I recorded the album in my home studio in Lowestoft using the free Garageband software that came with my 2010 iMac and sent the final streams to be mixed and mastered by the amazingly talented Raoul Crane at Blaze Studios.

Although I recorded this album during the spring/summer of 2020 during the pandemic, I was still working full time at my day job in a factory. My job was considered to be ‘essential’ and I was not furloughed. For that reason I don’t really see this as a lockdown album and the album was going to be recorded this year pandemic or not. I did, however, have plenty of free time in the evenings as the pubs were shut so I got to work on finishing this album sooner than I had originally planned.

Invisible Prison – Track by track

Recording Studio Progress

In 1993 at the age of 17 I shared a house with my music managers/mentors; Norman Ives and David Michelsen. The three of us did a bunch of stuff to get by and earn some money.  We had a harmonica group and did gigs, we wrote and recorded harmonica tuition material and sold harmonicas and a variety of musical goods via mail order. In a lot of ways it was the best time of my life. In all the trading of musical equipment that went on we had managed to procure a Fostex 4 track tape recorder. For the younger generation or those unfamiliar with this device it was a piece of rudimentary multi-track home recording equipment. One could record one’s self separately onto the 4 tracks and then mix them together into a narcissistic blend of Tubular Bells-esque madness. So that is exactly what I did.

Fostex X-18 4 track tape recorder

I had always tried to write songs and tunes with multiple parts but I lacked a way of being able to present my ideas to other people. Don’t get me wrong, I could write and read music notation and had a thorough understanding of music and chord theory. I just lacked the confidence and self-belief to be able to convey my ideas to other musicians without worrying that the other members would trash my ideas or just plain get bored. To this end I shied away from musicians of my own peerage and didn’t even try to form a band. I needed a way to make my own band by playing all the instruments. This Fostex thingy provided the perfect solution for introverted me to record my music as I envisioned it (more or less!).

Uninitiated as I was to recording equipment I made a bit of a hash of it by over-recording the whole thing. I remember the sound being distorted as hell. A standard SM58 microphone was all that was to hand so I used that to record all the harmonica parts and even plugged an electric guitar directly into the Fostex for one of the tunes. They were all instrumental tracks, just me chugging on harmonicas and playing melody lines over the top of the simple chord patterns I’d invented. I remember being totally over the moon that I had created such a thing. Norman and David were very supportive and Norman reproduced a number of copies of the tape to sell via mail order. David insisted I put it out under a ‘Blues name’ so he called me ‘Dynamite Red’ on account of my ginger hair and proclivity to play fast runs on the harmonica. As the recording was done on a tiny Fostex at home and not in a recording studio and being of pretty poor quality, I decided to call it ‘Rough Cuts’. I have a copy of the cassette and I really should get it digitised for prosperity.

In 2013 I bought and iMac when I was trying to start a graphic design business. The business never got off the ground and the iMac sat unused for years. Sometime in 2018 I decided to switch it on and see if it still worked. Whilst looking around it to see what software was installed on it I discovered a little programme called Garageband. This programme was like a Fostex on steroids. I soon discovered that with Garageband I could multi-track record and THEN add effects. And not just any effects, this programme had hundreds of them I could add. Not only did it have effects but it did MIDI and did loops that it gave you for FREE! It had amp simulations for your guitar and bass and pre-built settings for recording a large variety of instruments. My mind was totally blown and I immediately started recording my harmonica again.

The first issue I came up against was how to get the acoustic sound into the Mac. My SM58 didn’t work no matter what adapter I used on the tiny plug in the back of the iMac. I soon discovered that the iMac had a built in microphone so I started using that instead. I chucked together a few drum loops, recorded a bass line by playing it on a regular harmonica and dropping it an octave in the software (you can do that too!) and then I strung melodies over the top. It was just like the old days but with massive digital knobs on! Here’s one of the first tunes I recorded that way:

Okay, So I also discovered iMovie whilst I was about it and set about making silly videos to go with my music. I soon discovered that the recording quality was a bit thin and boomy through the built-in microphone. It was also a pain leaning in towards the Mac to get enough recording volume. I own a few PA bits and pieces and had an old Peavey 8 channel powered PA mixer to hand. It had phantom power so I could use a condenser mic to get a better quality recording. I found a mic on for £25 that looked the business so I bought that. I covered my spare room in sheets and cushions to try and get rid of the ‘boomy’ room sound and actually tried recording vocals. Plugging the ‘tape out’ phono plugs from he PA into the 3.5mm jack input on the back of the iMac created and fairly pleasing result. In fact, my guitarist friend and I recorded a small album worth of songs and released it. Here’s one of the tracks:

Doesn’t sound half bad eh? I was impressed and we released it on iTunes etc to a pretty good response. I was on fire and I loved this new way to record my own stuff exactly how I wanted to. So I went mad and recorded all sorts of stuff and found that I could instantly release it to the world via Soundcloud:

I think it’s fair to say I was addicted. As you listen through my Soundcloud uploads, working from oldest to newest you can (hopefully) hear the progression in the recording quality as both my equipment and knowledge upgraded gradually. The more I recorded the more I heard holes in my audio spectrum and holes in the recording quality. The next steps happened over the next two years. I upgraded my £25 condenser microphone to an AKG to the tune of £170 and then looked into a way of dispensing with the very hissy Peavy amp mixer. I was using the PA for monitoring as well through a couple of well placed PA speakers. I needed those upgraded too, but one thing at a time. After much research into interfaces I purchased a Focusrite Scarlett to the tune of £169. The USB interface was worth every penny. I plugged it into the USB port and plugged my AKG mic into the front. I just sat and listened to the silence for a good 20 minutes after that. The hiss had gone, the tiny bit of latency had gone and the £200 I had spent on a new pair of AKG headphones made it clearer than ever. The monitors would have to wait. As the recordings went on I grew so tired of the crappy sound from the PA monitors I ended up just mixing with headphones.

All this may sound completely rudimentary and obvious to the seasoned musician and I know that as I’ve been playing the harmonica for over 30 years you’d think I would be a bit more savvy about modern recording techniques. I can tell you that I wasn’t and in a lot of ways I’m still not. I am, however, fascinated by it and always looking for new ways to improve my sound and to grow.

After the advent the album with my guitarist friend I noticed that my recordings were coming up quite once I’d exported them This lead to a whole journey into ‘mastering’ and what that means. It’s a tough subject to get anyone to shed some light on and I’m still not sure that a lifetime of sound engineering would qualify me as an expert. My understanding of mastering is to set the volume and mix to a place where they can be heard on almost any device with minimal loss of volume and quality. Its a skill of picking frequencies that need to cut or boost through EQ-ing and a level of compression that creates a reasonable even volume for all the instruments on the recording. Adding a high-pass filter would help with the ‘boomy’ room. The mastering can make of break it and I’ve had good and bad experiences and every shade in-between. Some of my better mastering is on the latest of my Soundcloud tracks, I’ll always be learning it! I found that I would have to use a programme AFTER Garageband to master stuff up. I chose Audacity and use its tools to Normalise, amplify, compress and add limiter to my tracks in a strange brew that differs every time. Indeed, I chickened out of mastering my last album ‘You Don’t Even Know’ and sent the files to the rather awesome Blaze Studios to master it for me. Plenty of studios offer a mastering service and very reasonably priced too.

My finest and most proud moment for my home recording studio was being Able to record someone else. I was at an open mic night in October 2019 and a young man got up to play with a beat-up old guitar, flat cap and beard and proceeded to sing a collection of his own songs. As he opened his mouth on that first song: “Who are we…Who are we-e, does anybody know…” the hairs on my arm stood up. The young man was Danny R and I waited and spoke to him afterwards, I think the young people would say I wanted to ‘fan’ him(?) He didn’t have a CD or demo for sale which made me think. I thought about it over the weekend and contacted him on the Monday morning offering to record him in my little studio. Two weeks later he was round and we recorded his 5 track EP:

Danny R was most impressed with the result and as a thank you gifted me a pair JBL powered studio monitor speakers. Bless his heart! Danny has now set up his own home studio in the same vein as mine and we regularly collaborate on songs from the comfort of our own homes. The JBL’s have improved my mixing ability no end and I’m now hearing even more stuff I was missing in my previous mixes.

My new album entitled “Invisible Prison’ is due for release in July of 2020 and I’ve recorded, mixed and mastered it myself. Funds aren’t allowing for a mastering service this year, but I’m hoping that it stands up to its peers when it gets some airplay. It’s an electric Blues album this time and I’ve used the amp simulators, the bass amps and even bought some new live drum loops to create my very own band-in-a-box. In a way I feel I’ve gone full circle, I feel like I’ve finally achieved what I set out to in 1993. Whatever it is, its been a world of fun and I can’t stop now.

Recording Studio Progress

Harpin’ By The Sea 2017

Last year I attended the awesome ‘Blue Saturday in Bucks‘, this year I attended ‘Harping By The Sea’ for more Harmonica shenanigans.

Here’s what happened:

Back in February I attended ‘Harping By The Sea’ in Hove here in the UK. A one day Harmonica festival of tuition, masterclasses, jam sessions and concerts. A fine excuse to get away for the weekend and spend some time brushing up on my Harmonica skills. Practise is something I rarely get time to do with a young family, a full-time job and all the trappings of life. They are all welcome trappings, but some ‘me’ time was definitely needed in the bleakness of a British wintertime.

I filled up my 17 year old Beetle with gas and trundled on down to the south coast on a 3.5 hour journey that was both uneventful and at times pleasant. ‘Pleasant’ not being a term associated with British road travel, but at 5.30am on a Saturday in February it seemed like I had the roads to myself. Having read the travel advice on the excellent ‘Harping By The Sea‘ website I had planned ahead and booked my parking to a private driveway using my Justpark app. Gotta love the technology! A fifteen minute walk along Brighton and Hove’s glorious and historic seafront to the Brunswick in Hove and I was there.

Once inside the Brunswick, registration was only held up by my bumping into old friends and it was my fault there was a wait in the queue as I was bloody chatting! This was a well attended event and it was great to see so many new faces. Some familiar faces I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, John Vaughan being a stand out guy and between us we held up the line catching up on old times. Once registered I took a table and scouted round for more faces. Relief, the crew from ‘Blue Saturday in Bucks’ were there. Big Azza, Francis and Russ grabbed me a seat at their table and we caught up on the harmonica happenings since the BSiB festival the previous year. For anyone that hasn’t met Big Azza, you really need to. Azza is a total inspiration. Lately I’ve been calling myself a ‘has-been’ when anyone asks about my harmonica career. I was part of a band who did tour when I was much, much younger. I am always implying that my musical career is all over and done with now. Azza is a different story altogether; firstly he overcame throat cancer and did not even pick up the harmonica until he was two years older than I am now. Azza described to me how he dedicated time to teaching people the harmonica, formed bands, put himself out there and got a new lease on his life through playing the harmonica. His band was booked up for the rest of the year, three gigs a weekend! At this point in the year, my band The Harpoon Blues Band, had none at all. I was all woe is me until I heard all this and it made me wanna pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again. Thanks Big Azza.

So onto the learning…

The advanced class is what I chose as I like to consider myself an advanced player. Always dodgy ground for me. What makes one an advanced player? Is it like social class and totally subjective? If you think you are advanced then are you? The organisers, Richard and  Stuart made it clear in the welcome speech that we could change workshops at anytime if we felt that the workshop we were in wasn’t for us. I had my ‘get out of jail free’ card so I felt safe.

Cajun and zydeco were on the menu and boy was it an eye opener. Ably lead by an old acquaintance of mine, Aidan Sheehan it was a rip-roarer of a workshop. Aidan and I had met many years before on the judging panel at the Bristol Harmonica Festival in 2005 (I think it was 2005 anyhow!). He was judging and I was compere at the time, we got on great and he’s a very knowledgable chap. A multi-instrumentalist, Aidan plays harmonica, accordion and squeezeboxes all with the same ease and fluency on each. I had to concentrate to keep up, which was great, this was pushing me and my abilities. The work sheets Aidan had copied had the tab really clearly laid out and he led us through it all by the hand (metaphorically I might add).  In no time at all we were making convincing zydeco and cajun noises. Loved it!

Over lunch attention was drawn to my T-Shirt. I was working at a T Shirt printers at the time and had fashioned myself a little ‘Harmonica Player‘ T Shirt as a heat transfer onto a black shirt. I’d stolen the initial design from a website and added a distressed look, changed the font slightly and boom: self-made designer T Shirt! Big Azza said that if I made a bunch more I’d be welcome to sell them at the next Blue Saturday event. I had a few more ideas I’d knocked up in illustrator in a slow moment at work the week before which I showed round the table on my phone. “I’d buy one of those!” and “Do they come in 4XL?” came the reactions. I put a pin in the idea and decided to give some serious thought to making my own brand of T Shirts. After all, what could be a more perfect combination; Harmonicas and clothing?! I’d found the perfect job.

After lunch it was Lee Sankey’s turn to put us through our paces in the advanced class. Richard had again chosen a very knowledgable and established player in Lee and I have always admired his harmonica playing (even if he does play the harp upside-down!). Lee focused initially on what mad an advanced player, so he asked us which of us considered ourselves proper advanced players.I put my hand up, not really noticing anyone else’s hands going up. I’m sure they went up I was just letting my anxiety show and not noticing anyone else. I managed to get myself singled out at this point. Lee was stating that as an advanced player we should be putting some light and shade into our playing and also should at least be able to do a 3 octave major scale on a diatonic harmonica. He pointed to me and asked me tif I’d like to play one. “no,” I said initially, not wanting to be singled out and have to play to a room crammed full of advanced harmonica players. “Can’t do it?” Lee asked me? Taking this last sentence like a red rag to a bull I played the scale from one end of the harp to the other. Thunderous applause echoed throughout the room. What had I done? It was just a scale! It seems that not everyone can do this and I had forgotten my own abilities. It was turning out to be a day of awesome learning for me.

As I said previously, it was a very well attended event. I’d not seen so many harmonica players in one place since the early days of the Bristol festival. Bloody brilliant to see and encouraging as I think sometimes our beautiful instrument is a dying art. It seems that the only thing that was dying was my knowledge of the community, its easy to isolate in my part of the world. A man from a very different part of the world is Jerome Godboo. This Canadian harpmeister was giving a masterclass that afternoon and I’m glad I caught it. I have to admit to having never heard of the man until the festival but I’m glad I’ve heard of him now. What a player. Jazzy licks with a bluesy twist, this man knows his altered tunings and gave us an insight into a regular gigging musicians experience and lifestyle. A very cool guy.

The evening meal was yet more discussion over what we had all learnt that day, Aidan’s cajun workshop being a favourite so far. After a semi-heated discussion over the use/need for overblows (me being for, the other person being against) the jam session loomed. I could feel the nerves creeping up me from the moment I heard sign ups had been called. I didn’t want to have gone all that way and not played as much as I could! It took some awesome encouragement from Lee Sankey to talk me into it in the end. I signed up to knock out a version of ‘The Blues Overtook Me’ by Charlie Musselwhite from his ‘Ace of Harps’ album. Opting for a slower more acoustic feel than the shiny, bouncy album track I only made one glaring error in playing and then sat down to enjoy the rest of the performers. It has to be said that my friend Mr John Vaughan is an outstanding Blues harmonica player, if you get chance then please check him out. I heard three requests for the video of his jam session slot before he’d even finished playing! His partner Yuki plays harmonica too, and gave the best rendition of Sonny Terry licks I have ever heard (better than Paul Lamb? I thought so). How I wish I could get ANYONE else in my house to play harmonica, but they won’t, John is a lucky guy!

I hung around as long as I could for the evening concert but the day was starting to take its toll on me. I thought it best to retire for the long drive home in the morning, my head full of new harmonica knowledge, my pockets full of new harmonicas and my wallet empty of cash. I caught Lee Sankey’s set (which included a blistering William Clarke tribute) and the start of Richard Taylor and The Blackjacks. Tight. As. Hell. Well worth a listen, especially for Richard’s understated harp playing and his interplay with the rest of the band. I don’t know but I’d wager they know each other pretty well to play that tight.

Thanks Richard and Stuart for putting this on, see you next year for definite, this time with my Harmonica-tees stall in tow.

Harpin’ By The Sea 2017