So, the Seafieldroad album is out now – I hope you like it. Here’s a track by track guide. Stream the whole thing below if you want to listen to it while reading.
Brian Wilson karaoke
There isn’t exactly a shortage of songs inspired by Brian Wilson, or songs about Brian Wilson. If I live the rest of my life without hearing another Beach Boys pastiche that’s fine with me. So I procrastinated over recording this song for quite a while. It is, in my defence, not about Brian Wilson but about someone who thinks they are Brian Wilson – hence the line ‘Everyone says they’re me but I know how it felt to write Sloop John B’ (a song from Pet Sounds which, of course, Wilson didn’t write). There are, I admit, some ‘ba ba ba’ harmonies at the end by me and Laura, although they’re not really Beach Boys style ba ba bas (it’s a subtle distinction, but they’re rhythmically different). They’re intended to sound like ghosts – Beach Boys-like, slightly malevolent spirits haunting the character singing the song.
The use of the word ‘karaoke’ in the song’s title has multiple meanings. It is, partly, a joke at my own expense for writing something that has elements of Beach Boys pastiche. But I’m also using the word in the same sense that Dennis Potter used it in his TV drama of the same name – to describe a character whose life is not his own but feels like a karaoke performance of someone else’s. Anyway, Brian Wilson Karaoke is a sad song about the unreliability of memory, inspired by 1. the old joke ‘if you remember the 1960s you probably weren’t there’ and 2. an interview I read with Brian Wilson, from the early 1990s when he was still more than a little flaky and 3. a play by John Mighton called Half-Life, about two elderly people in a retirement home who are convinced they were lovers in their youth and have been happily reunited. Their children are equally convinced that the couple have never met before entering the home, but wouldn’t it be a terrible act of cruelty to destroy this illusion when it is making them happy?
There are no maps for this part of the city
One of the first people I played this to said it made her cry. That’s a good result, I reckon, and all the more satisfying since it’s a song that took years to finish. Long ago it consisted of just the first section and a half-finished, not very good lyric called This Case Is Empty, in which I tried and failed to make an interesting metaphor out of the fact that CD cases in shops don’t have CDs in them. Seemed like a good idea at the time. I then started writing a lyric called There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City (I almost always start with a title) and returned to this piece of music. Lyrically, it’s about transgression – choosing a route through life that doesn’t follow the usual maps. I liked that as a metaphor, which is why it ended up as the title of the album. Musically, this took a fair bit of arranging to get right, given that the later part of the song is more or less the same sequence of chords played again and again (eight times in all) in slightly different ways. The solution was a combination of harmonies and a string arrangement – a very basic one by me that was then fleshed out beautifully, with lots of added flourishes, by Pete Harvey.
Laura wrote the lyric for this one, and very lovely it is too, a deceptively simple lyric about a complicated subject, the subjectivity of truth, especially when it comes to the truth of what you feel about somebody. A different version of this tune appears in a theatre installation that Laura and I made, which has now been built in various places – the Arches in Glasgow, a theatre in Turin and, last month, our living room.
Another lyric by Laura, which explains the unconventional three part structure of this song. The lyric was a poem, really, and not necessaily intended to be set to music, so didn’t have anything resembling a ‘chorus’. The answer was to divide it into three distinct sections, each with a different atmosphere as the story in the poem moves from a pub to a promenade and then on to the beach – signified by some (hopefully not too intrusive) background ambience added by Hamish. I’m particularly proud of the harmonies in the final section – inspired by 1. Sing Something Simple, a radio show by the Cliff Adams Singers that I used to listen to when I was a child (I even asked Hamish to mix the vocals in a similar way), and 2. 10CC (on the last bit of the song). It’s a love song set in an infinite number of parallel universes, in case you were wondering.
Originally I wasn’t planning to put this on the album. It was written long after the rest of these songs, quite quickly, and recorded in a couple of takes as a bit of an afterthought. But Hamish really liked it so on it went. It’s an odd song – it has a quite conventional verse-chorus-verse structure and is musically quite ‘up’, but has one of the bleakest lyrics I’ve ever written, which suggests that music and musicians will always let you down. I was going through a bit of a crisis of confidence when I wrote it, and am not sure I believe any of it, which is perhaps why I didn’t want to put it on the album. But it’s got a catchy tune, and people seem to like it, so I’m glad we did.
I wrote this short instrumental years and years ago, then never did anything with it apart from occasionally play it to relatives to prove that, yes, I can actually play the piano (which, given that much of the music I’ve put my name to is made using machines, is not always apparent to them. Can you tell that this annoys me?). It never had a title, so I decided to name it Advocate’s Close after the street in Edinburgh where this album was recorded – specifically, in a flat containing a beautiful old grand piano. I remain very grateful to Helen Williams and Jennifer Williams for trusting me with a set of keys and allowing me to practise there more or less whenever I liked. This album probably wouldn’t have been made without them.
Stamped addressed envelope
A love song, of sorts. With a lovely string arrangement by Pete Harvey, expanded from a very simple idea (a series of single ascending notes) by me.
All I wanted was to be a gangster
A throwaway song, written very quickly after I told Laura, as a joke, that I wanted to write a song called All I Wanted Was To Be A Gangster. It wasn’t originally going to go on the album at all – like Hanging, it was recorded as something of an afterthought – but I eventually decided it should go on because a lot of the album is quite serious, and a little levity wouldn’t do it any harm, especially between a song as wrenching as Stamped Addressed Envelope and one as bleak and cruel as Feeble Jesus. Also, it’s a good title and looks good on the tracklist. Fact: the melody began as me trying to work out how to play I Should Be So Lucky by Kylie Minogue on the piano.
Another dark song, about a group of people choosing to follow a religious leader even though they know he’s fake, and inadequate, and not able to do any of the things he claims to be able to do. Why would they do that? Lack of self-respect, maybe. Or because it’s less scary to put someone else in charge, and act as if they have the answers even when you know they don’t, than to take responsibility yourself. A song for the times we live in – what is David Cameron, after all, but a creepier, watered down copy of Tony Blair, with the things we liked about him (charisma, eloquence, handsomeness) but without the baggage of the things we didn’t (being a war criminal)? Does anyone genuinely believe that Cameron (or Nick Clegg, a David Cameron for people who couldn’t stomach voting Tory) can transform Britain for the better? Or did people vote for him because they have resigned themselves to the idea that the most they can ever expect from a politician is a shiny, inoffensive businessman who talks in bland but reassuring platitudes that could mean almost anything? At the end of the song the mob crucify the fake Jesus, simply because they’re curious to know what he’d look like if he acted in a genuine, uncontrived, unscripted way, and they suspect the only way to make that happen is to physically hurt him.
All the ways of this love
A love song about exchanging messages on the internet – something that Laura, in her lyric, manages to make more poetic than I ever could. It felt right, therefore, that she should sing on it. So it became a duet. Musically it’s verging on soppy, but no harm in that, especially after a song like Feeble Jesus.
Pop music is full of songs that skirt around fucking, hinting at it shamelessly without actually admitting that this is what the song is about. I wanted to write a song that is, quite openly, about two lovers going somewhere for a weekend in order to fuck. To walk and talk and explore too, as it says in the song, but also, explicitly, to fuck. It probably won’t get played on the radio any time soon, but I really like it – a song about fucking that is also, I think, genuinely poignant. It’s a very hopeful, romantic song about the beginning of a great adventure, and the excitement of exploring a new city (the words ‘fucking Manchester! are also the sound of two people verbally punching the air, delighted to be where they are). It’s a fitting end to an album called There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City, and a sequel, of sorts, to the title track. If the title track has two people nervously and tentatively exploring an unknown city quarter (both physically and metaphorically), this song sees them striding through the streets, emboldened. One of the reviews of the album describes this song as ‘heartbreaking’. Well, it’s nice to provoke any reaction (and it was a lovely, enthusiastic review) but I don’t see Fucking Manchester that way at all. It’s a happy ending.