Songwriting Sessions #2 – The Monster of All

The songwriting sessions are a series of blogs taking a quick peek behind the curtain of my songwriting methods to accompany my new songs and look back at some of my old favourites.

I’ve been writing songs for over 20 years now, but still feel like I am finding my stride, my voice, and my audience. Hopefully, someone will find these blogs interesting about the craft of songwriting, or connect with my efforts, or at the very least, the process of writing it down may hale me to figure a few things out.

This week it is a brand-new song, ‘The Monster of All’ written and recorded over 3 days at the end of January 2021. You can hear it here:

Soundcloud – The Monster of All

I tend to write very fast once I have an initial idea I want to expand on. In this case, the lyric came first, with ‘The Monster of All’ being one of my 3-year-old daughter’s characters in her make-believe world!

I think it’s a fascinating turn of phrase, and I am gathering up some of her ideas into notes to adapt into a possible fantasy fiction story eventually (I’m also a writer – see the sidebar for my published books). With this, however, I also thought it was a great starting place for a lyric – loaded with possible double meaning about the monsters inside us all etc. so I set to work looking for the music to go with it.

The music was then written over the next hour on acoustic guitar and refined during recording which was about another 2 to 3 hours, so probably about 5 hours in all to get this initial ‘demo’ version together (I rarely ever believe these songs to be finished as such when recording them all myself).

Once again, a recent episode of my Beatles Podcast had influenced me and I wanted to write something in triplets timing, along the lines of ‘This Boy’ and that general ‘do wop’ feel. So, I started with a pretty standard progression that you will hear in hundreds of 50s / early 60s songs, and then deviated on the 3rd and 4th chords to minor key and diminished variations, which hopefully breaks it out of that natural expectation of a major resolve.

The chorus emerged out of a natural change from the verses, and originally was half the length of the recorded version. The challenge with this came in the recording, trying to make this feel more pushed, lively, louder than the verse, and not just a variation on it. I tried a few things, including string backing and a distorted guitar. In the end I found that dropping the piano out of the verses and bringing it back for the chorus and links gave it the boost it needed (possibly – this is all open to interpretation).

Arrangement wise, I didn’t want this to go on too long with it’s quite steady 98 bpm tempo, so there is a pretty standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus pattern, with no mid 8 or solo section, a couple of repeats of the chorus bridge at the end and then a fade out.

Altogether, I am quite happy with it, and quite excited about possibly turning more of these fiction fantasy ideas into songs and creating a concept collection along with whatever I end up writing. Genre wise, I like the idea of ‘Dungeon Rock’! A blend of prog/rock/folk/fantasy themed songs? What do you think?

Anyway, I hope you had a listen and found this remotely interesting. If so, let me know using the contact form below or via my podcast or SoundCloud page, all linked in this article! I am always open to opportunities and collaborations too.

Songwriting Sessions – Don’t be Scared

This is the first in, possibly, a series of blogs explaining a bit behind my songwriting process, on a new song by song basis, with visits to some old favourites.

I hope someone might find a ‘glimpse behind the curtain’ interesting at least, but if not, maybe I’ll learn something by writing this down!

The first track I’m going to write about is called ‘Don’t be Scared’, and you can listen to it here:

Don’t be scared

I wrote and recorded this in late 2020 after discussing Paul McCartney’s ‘Put it there‘ on my Beatles podcast, and wanting to try something that captures the same feeling of simple, pleasing cadences but with augmented finger picking and that emotional minor shift.

Naturally, I started on the open D chord which lends itself to this style of acoustic, resonant, song. However, I eventually needed to change key so I could hit the high notes slightly more comfortably, so the guitar is tuned down a tone to C so I could still play it in open chords for the main part.

It is still a little high for me on the ‘Now go back to sleep’ lines, but it’s better than it was in ‘D’. Ah well, the singing is always the hardest part for me, but I like to stick with it so I can get songs finished at least.

Instrumentation wise, I kept this to a double tracked acoustic guitar and single vocal. I am still considering doing a fully arranged version with bass, a Cajon, and maybe some other bits, but we will see. I learned it on the Ukulele and that sounded quite nice!

Lyrics:

CHORUS

Don’t be scared of the world. Don’t be scared to sleep. There are people here who will always love you, now go back to sleep.

VERSE 1

The dark nights seems lonely only if you let them in. The sun might seem low we know somewhere its shining. Waiting.

VERSE 2

Dark corners, where secrets greet us in the shadow light. Are empty, there’s plenty love to keep us in plain sight. It’s alright.

This is part a lullaby for my daughter, part advice to me. With the anxiety of the current situation, my mind races at night and has a tendency to imagine the worst. So, this is a self soothing song mixed with a lullaby.

Lyrically, I am quite happy with it, especially the inner line rhymes in the verses: lonely/only, low/we know, secrets/greet us, empty/theres plenty. It’s satisfying to find and see through a consistent pattern when writing lyrics.

Overall I am happy with the song, though as always the home recording has scope to be improved, and the arrangement layered up in this case. I may revisit.

If you have read this and listened to the song (and liked it) please let me, or preferably someone else, know! And if you are an artist yourself and are interested in working with me, or my songs, get in touch! I’m open to ideas and would love to collaborate or just hear what someone else does with my music.

A gig at a leisure centre? Okay then…

So I sing and play guitar in an originals band called ‘Gravity Dave’ (www.facebook.com/gravitydave). We’ve been going in one form or another for a year and a half now, and all of us played in various bands for many years before.

We work hard every Thursday night rehearsing and writing new material. We pay the practice room fee out of our own pockets and of course, all our equipment costs and maintenance and occasionally recording costs and such like. I’m sure you’ve heard all this before if you know anyone in a band, but live ‘band’ music really is becoming the lesser revered and funded sibling of the arts.

On Friday we played a gig in a leisure centre cafe. That’s right, a leisure centre cafe. As in, there were people filing in and out behind us on their way from/to various sporting activities. The night itself was organised by a local music promotions company and takes place in that venue every last Friday of the month. When we signed up for it, not unusually, the thought that the venue would actually be within diving distance of a swimming pool had not crossed our minds. But when we found out it didn’t matter, because we’ve played plenty of conventional venues without audience anyway, so it could be a turn up for the books, who knows? You see, that’s what it comes down to sometimes, just hoping we stumble across the places where folks still turn out for live bands and original music in Stoke & Staffordshire, wherever that may be.

As it happened, there weren’t really that many folk there. Each of the three acts had a small showing with them, mostly family and friends, and the organisers had mustered a small crowd, but all in all, we’re talking less than 20 I reckon (that includes the acts). I must say at this point that the actual music was great and well received by the few who attended. I didn’t really catch enough of the first act ‘The Carpet Lions’ to say much about them here (they had a flight of the concords thing going on, but it felt a little unformed, but they were only teens and it takes some confidence to try that kind of thing), but I did have the pleasure of catching ‘The John Macleod’ band’s set (www.facebook.com/mrjohnmacleod). As soon as they got on stage I relaxed. It would be one thing to play a gig in a leisure centre with next to no audience and a weird line-up (comedy acoustic acts followed by rock/punk acts?!) but seeing a ‘proper’ group take the stage at least gave me something to hold on to.

They played a great set which moved through prog to folk (which actually makes a lot of sense), with a charismatic front man (John Macleod), a synth/accordion player who was able to create studio-esque backing to the live music (adding buckets of ambience) and a meaty bassist working with the drummer to keep each tune powerful and driving. I’m not a music reviewer, so if you want an idea of how they sounded, half of the set sounded like ‘Cake’ and the rest was more traditional (yet brilliantly realised) rock/folk. I apologise emphatically if any of them read this and totally disagree – the long and short of it was, I thought they were great.

So after watching those guys, it was our turn and we did our thing. It’s not my place to review myself, but we were told by the Macleod guys and our support (and the sound guys) that the set was good and people enjoyed it, which is all we can hope for. The usual groan of “It’s a shame there weren’t many here…” came from all quarters, and after meeting some nice new people, swapping details and vowing to gig together at some point, we went home, happy with a nights work and glad to have made an impression on the few that were there, if nothing else.

I don’t know if there is a moral to all this. It’s hard for me to judge because playing in a band myself means I don’t always feel that obliged to go to other nights when I’m not on the bill. That’s not being egotistical, it’s just because all being well, those nights are all rolled into one and I can play and watch all at the same time. Playing at a leisure centre was weird but it still worked in the end because it’s quite simple – a couple of good acts and an audience in one room makes for a night (plus booze, there must be booze). The one element (at least in this area) that is missing is audience. I know you might scoff and say that’s because we don’t have one of our own, but it’s a catch 22 situation really – if the passing audience isn’t there to pick up new fans, how can you expect to get new fans?

My favourite nights are usually the free ones. This gig was £4 a ticket, and the band could get £1 for each sold. We were given 32 tickets, which even if we had of sold them all, would have been £32 between 4 people. That’s £8 each for a night that started at 6pm with the sound-check and ended past 11pm. That’s not the organisers fault as this isn’t unusual for a night like this, but when you think that we pay around £50 a month for our rehearsal room, that’s not even being covered, let alone our petrol and thousands of pounds worth of equipment costs. And anyway, we didn’t sell the tickets because it was out of our usual area, too expensive and  quite possibly, because it was in a leisure centre and I don’t think people’s brains could quite process that!

It’s a familiar story and I think the reason it happens is because we would do it anyway (most times) paid or not. So why pay for something that you can get for free? Well, because we would get better with more time and resources to develop. Your nights out would get better. The music in the country would get better. The charts would get better. The quality of people’s lives would get better (in cultural terms). The local music industries would be better funded. More money for recording studios, photographers, film makers, merchandise companies, venues, technicians etc… as a real culture of good quality live music is fostered. But hey, cover bands get paid. But cover bands need something to play! One day all the bands will be cover bands and when people finally get bored of the sets, it will be because no-one is left making original music anymore. We will be doomed to listen to bad versions of the Kings of Leon for all eternity. We will be Mustang-Sallyied to death.

So this may seem negative but I don’t mean to be. I know the sentiment was there with the organisers, and I’ve been in that position before as an event organiser myself where the last people you think about paying are the bands because all the other stuff takes so much money and time to put in place. Maybe one of the solutions for bands is merchandise – selling CD’s, downloads, badges, t-shirts and what not (we’re going to give that a go as we play our next few venues), but it is a shame in a way that it comes down to that when you’ve spent months or years coming up with a solid 40 minute set of original songs, played them, been appreciated, but not paid.

And it’s not all bad. We are surprised every now and again and we know that it’s up to us to seek out and play the better venues with the bigger crowds, though that will probably mean playing out of the county. Having experienced Liverpool’s music scene directly on occasion and vicariously through my older brother (who plays in two bands up there*), I know it exists. But then, Liverpool has a legacy, as does Manchester, London and Birmingham. Stoke’s legacy is a bit of a mixed bag, but there are bands in almost every spare room and dilapidated factory unit around here, brimming with enthusiasm and ability, trying to get out. I wish we didn’t have to ‘get out’. I like it here, it’s where I live. I mean, going further afield is cool, but it would be nice for that to be an optional extra, knowing that there are plenty of packed (and paying) venues back home in the meantime.

Well this has turned out to be a long post! I’d be surprised if anyone reads this far. If they do, confound my expectations by leaving a little comment. Even if it is just the world ‘splurge’. I’ll know what you mean by that, it will make me happy.

Finally, my band are quite busy at the moment so check out www.facebook.com/gravitydave for event information. I’m on local radio with them tonight, and I guess that might make it into my next blog anyway.

Ta for now. Splurge.

Garry.

Ps. If anyone from VB Music reads this – Keep it up. I’m talking about the broader world we all find ourselves in. The unusual venue is a bit of a hard one to get your head around, especially with it not being near to a town centre, but the way the night was ran and the feeling among the acts was positive. Tickets prices are probably too high for a lot of people, especially when they also need to travel out by taxi to the venue and such like. Audience’s need incentives (free or cheap entry, easy location) and set up a merch table for the bands with someone to man it if possible. I hope this helps and doesn’t sound arrogant, but you do want to build these nights up I imagine and I reckon these few things would help.

* My bro’s bands – Check them out and all that:

https://www.facebook.com/HillaryandtheDemocrats?fref=ts – Hillary & the Democrats

https://www.facebook.com/goodgriefliverpool?fref=ts – Good Grief!