A Decade In Music

We’re rapidly approaching the end of the decade.

A decade that began just a couple of weeks after my first ever solo gig.

That gig, unknown to me at the time, marked a pretty huge turning point in my music career.

The ‘session’ work I’d be pursuing and doing up til that point was to dry up pretty damn quick when word got out that I was doing gigs on my own, but equally fast, word spread about what I was up to to the people who might like to listen to it, and I started to play more and more shows, and in August 2000 put out my first solo album. A decade later, and here we are… Where? I’m not sure. Continue reading “A Decade In Music”

One from The Vault – interview from BassRocket.com

In the process of transferring my website over to this lovely shiny new format, I removed a lot of dead links to reviews and interviews that were no longer online. Fortunately, I knew a few of the writers, and so was able to get hold of transcripts of the original interviews direct from them.

One that I found was this one from BassRocket.com – the site itself no longer exists, but the article was written by Andy Long, a music journalist that had interviewed me a number of times for different magazines, and always asks interesting questions, the answers to some of which surprised me (I tend not to have pre-written answers to interview questions, so often come up with stuff on the spur of the moment that I look back on and learn from 🙂 )

It’s also interesting to see how few of the projects that I listed as ‘upcoming’ in that article actually happened… The planned recording and gigs with Eric Roche is particularly hard to read about, as Jan 2005 was when Eric was in his short remission period between his first bout with cancer and when it came back and tragically took his life. We talked a lot through his recovery time about our plans for gigs and recording, but nothing ever happened. One of the few big regrets of my career.

Anyway, have a read of the article, it’s from a few months after Grace And Gratitude came out and it’s a good ‘un!

Thoughts and Questions on Originality.

Been having some fantastic conversations with creative people of late on the subject of originality. It’s a subject that seems to lead to wildly different comments and responses from creative people, but rather too often seems to become deified or fetishised to the detriment of the resultant art.

With solo bass being such a niche musical pursuit, I often end up with people thinking that what I do is ‘completely original’, in that listeners outside of the solo bass/looping/etc. cognoscenti have probably never heard anyone doing anything quite like what I’m doing before. It would be very easy for me to claim that I came up with the whole idea and convince people – at least in the moment – that I’m some kind of pioneer in a way that I’m not.

But, it’s also worth noting that some of what I do has been described as ‘pioneering’ and even folks within the ‘scenes’ from which I draw most of my influence have recognised bits of it as being in some way ‘original’.

So what is one to do with that? In both situations the result is that the people involved have another level on which to engage with what I do, but it’s one that holds precious little ‘real’ value.

The first question that comes from this is a) ‘how many records have you ever bought just because the artist was flagged up as ‘original’?’ – and part b) of that question is: of those, how many did you stick with just because it was ‘original’?

The answer to the first bit is probably – if you’re an early adopter and enthusiast like me – ‘a few’. There are a few things I’ve checked out (though these days more via downloads/myspace etc.) that I’ve being pointed to because the persons approach to music making was in some way novel. However, it’s the second half that concerns us – Long term engagement with an artist’s output is based on quality, value and integrity, not gimmick.

This is something that we’re all too aware of when it comes to the marketing aspect of what we do – trying to rebrand dogturds as caviar isn’t going to make people enjoy the taste of dogturds – but originality is trickier because it’s a) less easy to quantify and b) it feels like an artistic consideration first and not a marketing gimmick.

So, here’s the question that will help you to gauge your own reaction to concepts of originality – if everyone in the world did things the way you do, would what you do still have value? In otherwords, when your schtick ceases to be a schtick and just becomes a creative model like ‘being in a band’ or ‘taking photographs’, what is the innate value in the way your story informs the output?

For me, it becomes this – if all the world were solo bassists, would my music as a solo bassist still be worth anything? Or, to frame it in now, ‘what’s the value of what I do to an audience saturated with looped solo bassists?’ This last question is a key one when it comes to putting on ‘branded’ gigs – if I put on a solo bass night, does it water down my brand to the detriment of people’s perception of how ‘original’ I am, or does it just remove the ‘originality/novelty’ element from how they engage with it, and cut to the storytelling?

The reality for me is, as I’ve been telling my students for years, it’s way more important to be ‘good’ than it is to be ‘original’ – a whole load of the willfully obscure experiments that one can end up with when looking for a ‘new sound’ are things that other people have tried and dismissed before inflicting them on an audience.

Influence seems to be the dirty word in so many discussions about originality. The equation seems to go thusly –

Being original is key to my success, therefor I mustn’t experience anyone else’s art that may shape what I do in an overt way because if I hear them, I’ll want to sound like them, and that will ruin my USP (unique selling point), and I’ll be finished as an artist. So as a result, I’ll live my life in seclusion from talented people operating in the same field as me.

This, dear bloglings, is what’s known in the trade as UTTER BOLLOCKS. I’ve seen a few people’s musical paths really messed up due to their phobia of influence. I’ve seen people torture themselves when another band came up with a title similar to the one they wanted for their next album! It’s crippling creatively, but more than that it bears no relation at all to how we relate to art on any non-superficial level.

So from my observation of my own and other people’s reactions to these questions, here are a few thoughts on the creative process as it relates to originality and influence:

  • We are all aggregators: or as Bono put it (possibly quoting someone else) ‘Every artist is a cannibal’. Very very little in the development and progress of human existence has appeared in an intellectual vacuum. Our progress on a macro and micro level is way more often than not evolutionary rather than eureka-moment-driven. We take in our observations of what’s going on around us, filter them through eachother, through the world as we see it, through a complex-but-contained set of experiences and ever-growing opinions and tastes, and decide what to do, what to create, how to create, how to tell our story. Those Eureka moments that do happen are too random to be factorable in steering our creative path. What influences we choose to subject ourselves to is something we’re very much in control of.
  • Influence is influence, whether the influence is from within your own discipline or outside: If I stopped listening to all music, I’d still be shaped in my music making by politics, art, comedy, love, life, illness, nature etc… Everything I do as a musician is shaped by influences, millions of them. Influences won’t negatively impact my art, only unhealthy obsessions will.
  • The problem isn’t influence/no influence, it’s self-awareness or the lack-thereof: People who make great music in isolation won’t suddenly start making crap derivative music if they open themselves up to influence, and likewise people who are so unable to figure out what they want that they just ape someone else’s process to the point of plagarism aren’t suddenly going to discover their creative focus by not listening to their main influences. The problem with obsession is bigger and more fundamental than whether or not your music sounds like another band.
  • Influence is like a diet – it’s the mixture and balance that keeps us healthy: Obsession is not a healthy state to be in. Like eating only potato, or drinking nothing but tea, listening to one artist is going to mess you up. I have for a long time viewed my music listening as a diet, and as such cherish my music listening time like a meal. I avoid junk-food, and crave sumptuous filling meals that meet my dietary requirements. I don’t like eating the same thing day after day, and definitely enjoy the effects of seasonal variation.
  • Style is a medium, not a message – how you say something IS important. Vitally so. But talking shit with a soothing voice is still talking shit.
  • Speaking someone else’s language doesn’t make you think like them, it just makes you able to communicate with the same people they communicate with – this blog doesn’t come across as derivative just because it’s in English. None of us trawl the interwebs looking for ‘new languages’ just because they’re new. Language is there to communicate ideas.
  • Storytelling is an artform that exploits shared history and narrative form: If you’re telling your story through music, things that are familiar have a different resonance from things that are completley alien to both artist and listener. This is one of the reasons why so many creative musicians still find so much to stay within the confines of ‘blues’ – despite the restrictions of the form, there’s still so much great original music that’s coming out that is blues-based and blues-influenced. The language, imagery and resonance of the blues still provides a channel for so many people’s unique stories.
  • the quest to be original might actively prevent you from soundtracking your world: If I attempted to do away with my influences, most of the stuff that makes my music important to me would vanish; the melodic forms, the chord progressions derived from folk, pop and jazz idioms, the phrasing that I’ve absorbed from Joni Mitchell, Bill Frisell or Michael Manring, the bass techniques that I’ve nicked from Trip Wamsley or Victor Wooten. What makes me sound like me is the combination of everything that goes into my music. I throw it all into the mixing pot, and out comes my music. I practice to learn more about how to channel the feelings and emotions that those independent influences bring out in me, and look to find the right amount and blend of ingredients to make me feel the way the combination of all of them makes me feel.

So, where does all this leave me? Well, right now, I’m working on a new album, or at least, I’m getting ideas together to start working on a new album. Some of that involves working out what’s physically possible with the Looperlative, but a lot of it is working out what I want to say and how best to say it. So I’m putting myself on a fairly strict diet. A diet that will contain a whole range of music that generates the kind of response in me that I want from my own music. I’ll be listening to a lot of The Blue Nile, Joni Mitchell, Eric Roche, Rosie Thomas, Theo Travis, Alan Pasqua, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, and then a whole bunch of extreme stuff in as many directions as I can to help me push back the walls that define the stylistic parameters of what I’ve done up until now.

And how I deal with notions of Originality and their value or otherwise impacts every minute of my practice time – do I get frustrated when I play something and it reminds me of some other musician, or do I use that as a model for saying something in their language? Do I get fixated with listening to other solo bassists because I am one, or do I realise that solo bass is in the grand scheme of things nothing to do with whether my music is any good or not, and look at developing the component parts of my musical narrative via influences that are best at those bits – for example, looking to singers for melodic influence, pianists for harmony, and classical guitarists for phrasing and shaping chord/melody ideas?

The end result of this is whether or not you hear those influences, the music is 100% me. It might be a different angle on me that hasn’t come out in other ways before. It might be me as expressed through the playing of other musicians on music that I’ve written for them, but it will be a combination of all the various influences that make me want to do what I do, and will at the same time be both entirely derivative and completely original.

Acoustic guitar abuse…

I’ve just got in from playing my first ever open mic night. In Reading (Berkshire, not Pennsylvania). This follows on from a fun gig on Tuesday night in Croydon, at which I played solo, and then did the first New Standard set for over a year with Julie McKee. Much fun.

What is glaring – and really hard on the ears – at these gigs is how few people give any thought at all to what an acoustic guitar is capable of. Given the amazing beauty and variety of sound that can be pulled out of an acoustic guitar, it seems amazing, and a little bit horrifying, that so many people just hammer the living shit out of it with a pick/plectrum using the same strumming pattern for all songs, never stopping or employing any slight change of technique to shift the sound. Neither do so many of the acoustic guitarists one sees at these events bother to work out what they need to do to their guitar to make it sound like an acoustic guitar.

I’m not talking about virtuosic guitar monkeydom here – you don’t have to play like Eric Roche for your guitar playing to become listenable; just think a little about what the hell you’re doing.

The problem seems to be that the guitarists in question are missing the rhythmic support that hi-hats give them when playing with a drummer, and so seek to replicate that level of blanket rhythm with their guitar – hence the prevalence of strummed 16th notes. Strummed badly, I might add – strumming 16s well is a real art. Not many people do it well. Not many people even choose the right thickness of pick/plectrum to do the job, or strum in the right place on the guitar with the right grip.

You so rarely see an acoustic guitarist playing 8th notes (that’s quavers to you old-skool Brits) – even though it can completely change the feel of a song, more often that not for the better. Even rarer is the guitarist who can actually fingerpick. Or strum with their fingers, or do just about anything else other than strum poorly and quickly.

PLEASE, acoustic guitarists of the world, realise your chance to stand out from the crowd – it’s tempting to think that the world is flooded with acoustic guitar playing singer/songwriters, but very few of them are any good. Here’s a list of people to listen to for great acoustic guitar playing singer/songwriter ideas – some of them fairly simple, some of them not so simple – Paul Simon, Boo Hewerdine, Jonatha Brooke, Jackson Browne, Martyn Joseph, Iain Archer… pay particular attention to how they strum, how often they change it, how many strings they appear to be hitting when they are strumming, and the SOUND they get. If in doubt, turn down the mid range. That’s nearly always what makes your guitar sound like somone playing a washboard.

As for some ideas for what to do with your songs, in the spirit of Eno’s Oblique Strategies, here’s a list of ideas and approaches you can take to your acoustic guitar playing – pick three at random and apply them to the last song you played:

Only strum twice in each bar; don’t play the two thinnest strings at all; don’t play the two lowest strings; use your thumb and fingers to pick lots of notes simultaneously; change to a really light pick; change to a really heavy pick (be careful not to break your strings of you do this); play it like a bass; play as many open strings in each chord as you can; don’t play the same inversion of the same chord in the verse and chorus – make sure they are different; play electric guitar instead (you’d be amazed how cool solo voice+elec guitar can sound); use a slide; mute the strings with the palm of your hand; slow the song down by 20 bpm; speed the song up but play the guitar in half time; get someone else to play the guitar while you sing, just to see what they do with it; sing it accapella and add the guitar in only on the chorus to start with; strum really lightly with your thumb; switch to a nylon strung guitar…

…This last one about the nylon strung was inspired by Lo. who has the most gorgeous sounding guitar – a Takemine nylon strung acoustic. And she plays it in such a lovely variety of ways, mixing up techniques and ideas on every song, and rarely playing full chords, which makes it all the more dramatic when she does. It’s not a particularly virtuosic guitar display (though she does have some more twiddly instrumental stuff that’s rather lovely too), but it shows what can happen when your guitar sounds half decent and you put some thought into how to play it.

Of course, it goes without saying that all of these principles can be used by bassists too. :o)

And equally, you could just do mad shit with your guitar. That’s a perfectly valid route too. :o)

Last date of my European Tour…

Was in Wales last night. Cross Keys to be precise. Somewhere near Newport. Not quite sure where though.

The gig was put on by Islwyn Guitar Club, and as such was half gig half guitar club stuffs. Started with a bit of a workshop from me, which from the feedback on bassword was much appreciated, thankfully… Then onto a bit of a play round, couple of nice guitar contributions, then Andy Long making his solo bass debut, and doing a fine job of it, followed by Alun Vaughn playing a 20 minute solo set – some great playing, no loopage or processing, just six string bass, a gorgeous version of Here’s that Rainy Day, and a solo bass version of Purple Haze that was completely different to Michael Manring’s, which made a very nice change.

I had two 45 minute sets, so did a similar set to the ones in Kleve and Milan – lots of older tunes in the first set, and lots of Behind Every Word stuff in the second, plus Deep Deep Down (Eric Roche’s tune that leads into Deeper Still), and What A Wonderful World. Also had a bash at a completely solo version of Knocks Me Off My Feet as an encore (an encore! I hate encores, but still…), which shows promise!

Drove home, back here just before 3. So knackered now, but so much to do today. Office is in an even bigger mess than usual (more mess?? Surely that’s not possible?) and much admin and gig booking has to be done for the new year…

So there endeth the European Tour – next gig is the Recycle Collective first anniversary gig on 15th November at Darbucka – you SO don’t want to miss that. Rumour has it there are people coming from Denmark to be there… beat that, Italian blog readers!!! haha!

Croydon gig

Just back from a lovely little gig in Croydon, at the Freedom Of Expression night down there. Modeled on quality acoustic nights like the Kashmir and The Bedford, Tim Eveleigh has put together a great little gig down there.

I say ‘down there’ – Croydon’s a hell of a long way away! I’m sure I saw signs just before I got there saying ‘you are now entering Mordor – heyre be dragons’ – I felt like Reapacheep in Voyage Of The DawnTreader, getting into my little boat and sailing off to the end of the world…

Anyway. The line up was fab, but the audience was even better – especially one completely nuts woman who spent her entire time there shouting in a really loud and shrill voice at her brow-beaten broken-looking husband. Oh, and at anyone who suggested she might keep her voice down during the music. A total disaster that just screamed ‘mail order bride’ – came across as one of the most obnoxious people I’ve ever seen, but had sadly left before I went on, or we’d have had some fun.

As it was, I realised just before I went on that I’d forgotten the power supply for the Looperlative!! Oh bugger. Not good at all. There goes all the tunes off the new album that I was planning to do.

Fortunately, help came in the form of the lovely Cara Winter, who had been using a DL4 for some excellent vocal loopage in her set, and offered to lend it to me. Yay! It’s a hell of a long time since I last did a gig with a DL4, that’s for sure! But it meant I could do Grace And Gratitude, Amo Amatis Amare, an improv groovy thing call ‘Mail Order Bride’, and in between I did What A Wonderful World, Deep Deep Down (the Eric Roche tune) and Deeper Still. All in all, not a bad set, which was very well received, even by the mad drunk bloke who kept giving me quite positive heckles, but didn’t seem to mind me just referring to him as ‘nutter’.

So, a fab gig – if you live in Mordor, (or even Morden) do check out Freedom Of Expression – it’s every Tuesday night, and I’m bound to be back down there soon…

one year on

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the death of Eric Roche. On Tuesday night, TSP and I went to see Nizlopi play at KoKo in Camden, and one of the support acts, Newton Faulkner studied with Eric, and commented after the gig when I mentioned that Eric had been a good friend, ‘I pretty much owe everything to Eric’.

I’ve spent a lot of time this last year thinking about Eric, saddened by his death and by the thought that we’ll never get to play the music we had planned, to do the gigs we’d talked about, to record a duo version of ‘Deep Deep Down’. It’s funny, when he first told me he’d wanted me on it, I thought it was an after thought and as I was there he just said ‘yeah, I wanted you on it’, but quite a few people over the last year have said ‘ah, Steve Lawson, Eric told me about you’ and then mentioned that tune as the one he picked out that he wanted to do with me.

I now do a solo version of it, and as much as I enjoy playing it, it doesn’t sound the way it would if it were both of us…

Anyway, spare a thought for his wife and kids, and what they must be feeling – regrets about missed collaborations are infinitesimally small when compared to the loss of a life partner, parent, child…

And if you haven’t already got Eric’s CDs, head over EricRoche.com and order them, they’re all great.

Friday Random 10

here’s today’s random iTunes generated playlist…

The Works – Say Yes
Juliet Turner – Falling (Live)
Juliet Turner – Doctor Fell (Live) (two in a row from the same album? what is random up to?)
Gillian Welch – Everything Is Free
Madonna – Oh Father
Ingrid Laubrock and Liam Noble – We See
Sophia – Another Trauma
Eric Roche – Faja Grande
Bill Frisell – Cadillac 1959
John Martyn – I’d Rather Be The Devil

Yup, I think I’ll listen to that lot again…

Deeper Still

just had a beautiful email from a friend in California about the new album. I didn’t know that this guy knew Eric Roche, but it turns out he was a big fan, and was deeply saddened by Eric’s death. Likewise he had no idea that I knew Eric or would have been inspired to write a tune for him.

His email spells out his own loss, and the feeling of something missing at NAMM this year with Eric (formerly an ever-present figure on the Avalon guitars stand) no longer being there. ‘Deeper Still’, it seems, says something that he was feeling as well as what I was feeling, and I’m once again reminded that this music lark is deeper than all the day to day stuff of marketing CDs and getting gigs and hoping people like it enough to buy it.

It’s emails like this that are the REAL reason for music. They aren’t, to be honest, what I have in mind in the day to day business of being a musician (it’d be easy to pretend that my motives are that lofty, but obviously they aren’t), but they are the reason why music is there. They are about what music gives us, a wordless language to tell stories that we’d never get round to telling with words, or where a particular form of words would alienate some who would otherwise get the message, just not the syntax.

I don’t write music to move people. i write music to tell my own story, and to try and get as deep inside that story as I can. There are certain things within that story – in my case, they are very often deaths, but also environmental, political, social and personal concerns – that can indwell a particular piece of music, and when that comes across, it’s a very special moment. Not everyone who hears that new album is going to get that much from ‘Deeper Still’ – clearly, that doesn’t happen with anything – but to make that kind of connection with someone is a very special thing, and one not to be taken lightly.

Learning the songs…

This is the fun bit – learning the stuff that came out all improv-y and naturally on the recording so that I can play it live!

A couple of the tunes should be fairly easy, given that I’ve had them written for a while – ‘Deeper Still’ (that’s the tune for Eric Roche, it now has a name, write it down so you know what I’m talking about in future) is easy enough to remember, just a bitch to try and play in tune! Scott Peck is fine, cos I know it, though it’ll be odd going back to playing it solo now that I’ve been listening to it for a few days with BJ Cole‘s pedal steel part on it. HappyHappy I can remember, fairly well, as it’s very easy and fairly short.

I’ve just learnt ‘Nobody Wins Unless Everybody Wins’ – a fun little tune with lots of multiply of sync’d loops to get thing to come back a long time in the future. I can play that.

Now I’m just checking out the title track on the album, trying to remember how it goes! Am listening to it at the moment. And have just remembered what happens in the middle. G2 no. 1 routed through G2 no. 2, both of them recorded into the looperlative… the hardest thing to remember is how to set it all up before the tune begins, which aux sends to route to where, which buttons to push to make sure the right things are being recorded into the Looperlative.

In other news, loads of people have been checking out the tunes on my MySpace page – major amounts of plays! MySpace is, indeed, as Imogen Heap’s manager mentioned to me a couple of weeks ago ‘the new radio’.

Right, back to learning these songs!

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