Two gigs, too many miles…

We’ve had two lovely gigs in the last couple of days, and some stupidly early mornings.

Saturday began with me heading into town to pick up a SatNav thingie – I knew better than to try big drives across Europe with maps and google-directions. So I got us a Garmin 250, which was the cheapest one to have proper European coverage (a lot of the low-end Tom Tom ones seem to have ‘European main roads’ – which is no good if you’re trying to find someone’s house, I guess!)

Saturday night’s gig was a house concert in Deal in Kent, in a beautiful Italian-style house, perfect for a house concert. The event was part-gig, part-church social, and it took a while for it to sink in for some of the people there that it was a ‘gig’ not background music for the party, but by the time Lo. got up to sing, everybody was rapt. All in a most enjoyable evening (and one of the biggest house concerts we’ve done).

Unusually for me, the routing of these two gigs was ideal, in that on Sunday morning we had to be at Dover for a ferry at 7am, and were staying 10 minutes away (anyone who’s ever followed the gig list for any tour I’ve done will know that it usually looks like a 2 year old drew the route with a crayon!) – so we drove to Dover, slept on the ferry, then SaNav’d our way though France, Belgium and Holland up to Amsterdam to the home of the lovely John Lester, and had quite a few hours to relax before heading over to KHL for the gig.

I, dear readers, am ALL about the SatNav – It saved us time, money, stress… it’ll pay for itself in about a month, given how many times I get lost usually on tour… You can program it to avoid toll roads, to tell you were the nearest petrol station is… it’s all good (yeah, I know, the rest of the world discovered SatNav some time in the late 90s, but like iPods and loopers with feedback control, I’m very late into the game…)

Anyway, off to KHL – a lovely venue that John had taken us to on our last visit to Amsterdam. The sunday night singer/songwriters night is booked by a local singer/songwriter Marijn Mijnands, and she was headlining the night with her band Ma Rain. It was just a half hour opening slot, but the reception was really warm, we sold a bunch of CDs, and will be back there sometime in the Spring, hopefully… All good. Ma Rain’s set was lovely too – her keyboard player Nico Brandsen is particularly fab, his choice of sounds for everything was perfect.

And now we’s chillin’ in Amsterdam. The cost of parking anywhere near the middle of the city is so high that we drove the car out to the edge to the Park ‘n’ Ride this morning, and got the tram back in, and then slept for about four hours, catching up on all the missed sleeps after the late nights and early mornings of the last few days…

more on indie-musicians and the web

Spent a lovely couple of hours yesterday with Jonatha Brooke – aside from being one of the finest singer/songwriters ever to pick up a guitar, she’s also been running her own label, Bad Dog Records for most of this millennium thus far… So it was great to get to chat about what works, the frustrations and challenges of file-sharing, user-generated content, download sales, gig booking and web promotion. Apparently, a lot of this stuff is being discussed right now at CMJ, so the list of resources I gave J were all the things her lovely people were finding out in New York (only my version didn’t involve wandering around a convention centre listening to sales pitch, and did involve a particularly delicious glass of wine – must find out what it was…)

Given that myspace is fast becoming a time-vortex – where musicians can spend ages getting nowhere fast, just sending out bulletins and invites to other musicians, who in turn send invites and bulletins back, with no intention whatsoever of ever buying eachother’s CDs or turning up at shows – it’s becoming all the more important to highlight the areas that are working, or at least have the kind of infrastructure that means they should work, and are worth getting in on at ground level.

  • has a proven track record, 10s of millions of users, and is becoming a reference point in the industry for what music listeners are ACTUALLY listening to… It’s pretty much a must to get your stuff up on there, they have good sales links, and the radio stations are fab.
  • Reverbnation looks like the best of the new breed – lots of ways of getting the information out, and ways of your fan-base proliferating it via their networks etc. It’ll be even better when they support information ‘pushed’ into the site rather than just ‘pulled’ from it – I’ve already emailed about them, and had a ‘thanks, that’s a great idea, we’ll see what happens’ email back…
  • Facebook is an interesting one – important if only because of its size. Reverbnation have a great facebook plugin so you can put your favourite artist’s music on your page, or your own music. The other great use of facebook is that it’s all set up for people who already know eachother, or have a connection, so the social capital of telling your friends about great music is perhaps more valuable on there. There are also facebook groups, which some musicians start for themselves, and others that are fan generated… all good stuff to mull over…
  • Cdbaby – of course, the finest resource for indie musicians anywhere in the webz. Very well implemented, hugely popular, and constantly innovative. Cdbaby acts like an unofficial global trade union for musicians, campaigning and lobbying big business on our behalf, and negotiating deals with the likes of Tower Records and iTunes on behalf of its artists, and still giving a vast proportion of its revenue back to the musicians. Truly wonderful.

on top of that, if my Google analytics stats are to be believed, the social bookmarks at the bottom of each entry on this blog work – I’m getting quite a few visits from stumbleupon and after people have book marked the pages, or ‘stumbled’ on them. Need to check and see how that’s working out on my main site. (and if you get a minute, and you use stumbleupon, digg, reddit,, etc. PLEASE bookmark some of the site, or forward interesting posts to your facebook chums etc…)

There are loads of others – pandora, iSound, Mog, Bebo, friendster, garageband yadda-yadda-yadda… some more worth investigating than others… Damn, this stuff was easy back in the days when all there was (where Lobelia racked up over a million plays, was getting paid sensible money for those downloads, and signed all kinds of endorsement deals etc…!)

Staying on top of all this stuff is a full time job, but right now I’ve got to go and tidy up, then practice! Do you think I could convince some kids to do all the webstuff for me as work-experience? :o)

Oh, and while we’re on the topic, this post on the is vital viewing – a discussion/presentation about media mega-trends. Gerd’s point about the shift from scarcity to ubiquity is definitely one to spend some quality time considering…

This week in review

So, we’ve done the Stop the War march… What was next? Ah yes, Stars at Scala – one of those bands that the kids listen to that Catster has made me aware of. The album is rather lovely, equal parts bleepy and electronic, huge and anthemic. It’s bleepy to the degree that I had no idea whether on stage they’d be a band or three peoples with laptops. As it was, they were a classic Rock 6 piece – guitar bass drums keys, and two singers who also played guitar and keys.

stars at Scala

What was sad is that they pretty much removed everything from the live sound that made the record interesting. They transformed from electronic rock pioneers into an early 90s stage-2-at-greenbelt fairly dull-sounding rock band. I stayed for about 6 song – apparently they got better after that point…

Tuesday was a lotsa fun – the evening started with Douglas Coupland at the Bloomsbury, with Sarda and Kari. We three Coupland geeks, all v. excited to hear this king of zeitgeisty cool speak. And what did we discover? That he’s a proper geek, talking in half finished phrases, jumping from topic to tangental topic, and reading extracts from his book, or rather from the book within his book, and then from the book within the book within his new book, The Gum Thief. And he was fab. I like geeks, a lot – I like being around them, finding their absence of concern for what’s cool or not comforting (as a solo bassist, one has to gravitate to places were Cool is not a Concern :o) and I found him witty and charming.

douglas coupland

The event ended slightly oddly, with Douglas looking slight uncomfortable, perhaps like he was about to cry, saying something to the effect of ‘you do know this is the last one of these I’m ever going to do. My book reading days are over, thanks, goodnight.’ He did a signing after this, but we were onto new things.

julie mckee

New Things being Julie McKee and Beth Rowley at the Troubadour (a club with which I have a long history, having recorded my first album there). Was great to see both of them play, with their lovely respective bands. All in a lovely night out (though £17 for three drinks and a two bowls of chips was insane! )

beth rowley

Wednesday night I went out to Pizza Express on Dean Street to see Robert Mitchell’s Panacea, featuring Robert on keys alongside Richard Spaven on drums, Tom Mason on bass and Deborah Jordan on vocals. ‘Twas a sublime gig, and Robert’s choice of Deborah as vocalist is inspired – the tunes are really complex jazz melodies, with big intervals and weird rhythmic twists, which in the hands of ‘normal’ jazz singer would end up sounding like Manhattan Transfer does the Elektric Band, but with the superb funky rhythm section of Richard and Tom, and Deborah transforming the jazz into soulful songs, it becomes something entirely different, and beautiful. A very fine gig.

Thursday – a me-gig, another one of these acoustic singer/songwriter nights I’ve been doing, just seeing how what I do works to an audience of acoustic music fans who have no idea who I am. Once again, it was fun and well received, but I’m probably going to knock these on the head for a while, as the way the venues are set up is to get as many acts through as possible in the hope that a) the performers themselves will drink and that b) they’ll bring friends to watch them. There’s very little concern for quality control (last night was a fairly even split between pretty good and Godawful), and a big focus on turnover at the bar. Which is understandable – with property prices being what they are in London, nowhere can really afford to have a half-empty night just for the sake of putting on a cool gig, and none of the venues have got the balls – or capital – to book only great acts, charge and entrance fee, let the bands play for longer, and wait for the night to gain a reputation… Instead they are either 20 min sets, free to get in, happy for the audience to talk, or pay to play band-gets-a-pound-back-for-each-punter-they-bring deals. Total bollocks for musicians, but fairly intractable for venue owners.

it’s why I’m so grateful to have found Darbucka, though I appreciate that I’ll not be able to book there if it gets busier during the week – they can’t afford to have music to the detriment of their business any more than any other venue…

But it’s been fun doing the acoustic nights, wowing a few people and no doubt boring the arse off a few others. :o)

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)

new album! new album!

OK, this album has been a VERY long time coming – the Calamateur Vs Steve Lawson album was actually recorded two years ago, and it’s taken this long for us to get round to releasin’ it!

For those of you who haven’t heard about it before, it’s a collaboration between myself and Scottish singer/songwriter/sound experimentalist Calamateur AKA Andrew Howie. Andrew’s music blends gorgeous acoustic singer/songwriter-ness with odd noises and late-era Radiohead squeakiness, and on this project it’s mixed in with my loopy ambient stuffs, some proper bass-playing (including the gorgeous sound of my Rick Turner fretless acoustic) and a load of my programming and tweaking. It’s tough to remember now who did what, cos we’ve nicked enough ideas off each other over the years…

The official release date is October 1st, but it’s actually available to download now via cdbaby (where you can listen to a minute or two of every track and buy it for) and via itunes (where you can listen to 30 second clips.

And of course, it’ll be up in the StevieStore before too long as well.

Please go and have a listen at cdbaby – it’s a project I’m really proud of, and I’ve been a huge fan of Andrew’s stuff for years – we’ve known each other for over 15 years, and he even bought my Fender jazz off me 10 or 11 years ago, and went to college to study bass before finding his own path through lo-fi loveliness.

Duke Special – officially a genius.

Yup, after last night’s show at the ICA, it can be officially confirmed and empirically demonstrated that Duke Special is a genius.

I’ve lost count of the number of times i’ve seen Duke play, not to mention the various bands and projects that Pete Wilson (aka Duke) had before this band, at Greenbelt and beyond (some of which I’m sure he’d rather forget about, so I won’t bring them up here… :o) But last night’s show was a new high point, and bodes incredibly well for his mainstage set at Greenbelt in a few weeks (I definitely pity the dull-as-shit Delirious who have to go on after him…).

The gig was a double header with David Ford, a singer/songwriter of some ridiculous level of talent (watch the video for State Of The Union for some evidence), but whose band are just a little ragged round the edges… It was a still a great show, with some amazing songs, and probably not something I’d have noticed if Duke Special hadn’t been on afterwards…

Duke has a remarkable ability to pick the PERFECT musicians for his stuff – Chip Bailey on drums is a wonder to behold (and at least half Hobbit…), Ben Castle has long been one of my favourite musicians in the country, Paul Wilkinson is a genius guitarist and bassist with the coolest sounds and feel ever, and the new guy in the band on sax/timpani/keys was up to the talent of the rest of them, a great musician.

Add to that some of the most imaginative and exciting arrangements I’ve heard in a long time, amazing use of dynamics and of course Pete’s stunning voice, piano playing and those glorious songs and you’ve got yourself one hell of a night out.

Was nice to catch up with the various members of the band after the show (bizarrely all the security at the ICA go home at 11, despite the bar still being open, so I was able to just wander through into the green room and say hi – useful for me, not so great for bands who don’t want their guitars stolen…), and then head home.

Roll on Greenbelt!

session day…

After collecting my car this morning, most of today has been spent recording. Having turned the living room into a remote studio, I spent the day recording tracks for an album by LeeSun – a lovely quirky singer/songwriter from Leeds. She initially invited me to go and record with her in Canada back in June, but it was slap bang in the middle of my US tour with L, so sadly I couldn’t do it (how much fun would that have been??), but I offered to do the tracks remotely when she got back, so that’s what I’m doing, in my lil’ studio here. It’s a fun way to work, being engineer and tea-boy as well as musician, and it means I can quickly do multiple versions of a line and send them over to be checked out. This evening I was able to send some MP3 roughs of what I’d been up to over to LeeSun and chat via MSN about what she wanted – very useful. The wonders of the internet. Fortunately, she really likes what I’ve done with the songs – they’re lovely songs, and right up my street – so we’ll go ahead with the rest of the album.

I’m hoping to do more of this kind of work – it’s a great way to be involved in projects that normally couldn’t afford to a) get me to where the recording is happening or b) even afford time in a big studio anyway. This way, I can do it in my studio in a way that suits the budget of the artist/producer, and everyone’s happy. Good for keeping my carbon footprint down as well, i guess, not driving to studios all over the place…

If you’re reading this and you’ve got a project you want me to play on, please do send me an email with some details about the project and you’re budget, and we’ll sort something out.

Revisiting music not heard for a long time…

In the last couple of days I’ve listened to two albums i’ve not heard for YEARS, thanks to the wonders of my iPod – first one was ‘Different Class’ by Pulp, and the second was ‘Being There’ by Martyn Joseph. In both cases, I’d completely forgotten what exceptional albums they are. Common People by Pulp was always a song whose jaunty music belied the incredibly dark social tale in the lyrics (I remember the NME or Melody Maker describing it as a ‘tale of inter-class shagging’, which is a bit like calling Macbeth a story about some mad posh woman…) – the line where they are in the supermarket and he says ‘pretend you’ve got no money, she just laughed and said you’re so funny, I said yeah… but I don’t see anyone else laughing’ is astonishing. Photomonkey Steve, Lorna and I were talking about out-of-touch toffs this lunchtime over coffee, how amazing it is that so many hugely wealthy people have no idea at all how the vast majority of people live… And this song says that better than any number of newspaper articles or documentaries featuring Michael ‘man of the (rich) people’ Portillo… The rest of the album is cracking too, and brings back some wonderful memories.

And ‘Being There’ – Martyn Jospeh’s first album for Sony (he was dropped after the second album) – bizarrely, Sony were trying to market him as some kind of Chris DeBurgh figure, despite the fact that he (along with poet Stuart Henderson) wrote mainly impossibly dark songs about redundant miners and single mothers on the game… Real ‘Lady In Red’ territory there…!! Anyway, again, it’s a really moving album, with some razor sharp lyrics, and a whole load of righteous anger married slightly incongruously with the slick singer/songwriter sound… actually, it’s not incongruous, it just sugar’s the pill a little, in a good way. It’s a great sounding album, full of amazing songs… His next self titled album was equally fab, but Sony really had no idea what to do with him, dropped him, and he’s carried on making stunning records ever since with and without record label support, and acting as opening act to the stars – from cool people like Joan Armatrading to arena-filling shrieking harridans like Celine Dion, Martyn has warmed up the crowd with tales of marital unrest, injustice and exploitation the world over. Hurrah for Martyn. And for Pulp! Anyone heard Jarvis’ record? Is it any good?

Musical diet

i’ve mentioned before how I treat my music listening as a diet – it’s why, after years of trying to be the nice guy, I finally scrapped piles and piles of CDRs that people have sent me over the years wanting me to listen to them – I just don’t have the time for all of them, in between trying to feed my ears with brain food that’ll help take my music to where it needs to be. (I do still listen to a lot of what I’m sent, just not generally the unsolicited CDRs with no info on them…)

So anyway, the listening material so far on these ‘ere train journeys has been as follows –
Annette Bjergfeld – The Kissing Post (an exquisite poppy singer/songwriter record. That she’s co-written with Boo Hewerdine gives you some idea of where she’s coming from. Definitely great ear-food from a melody and joyousness perspective.
Paul Simon – Surprise (never fails to amaze me. Every time I listen to it I take more away from the lyrics, and hear more of the little touches that Eno has added to it. A really really great album.)
Mark Hollis – Mark Hollis (every time I listen to either this album or to the last two Talk Talk albums, I realise again just how much I owe Mark Hollis in terms defining for me what so much of what I do is about – his phrasing, his use of space, the really incredibly wide dynamic range, the emotion… it’s all stuff that I aspire to and try to feed into my music. Truly remarkable timeless deep IMPORTANT music. It’s great listening to an album that feels significant in the grand scheme of things. Not in any trendy way, not because the style mags see it as the soundtrack to coolness, but because it’s the sound of an artist delving so deep into his well of experience and emotion to produce something of worth. It feels like a privilege to listen to it.)
Suzanna Vega – Suzanne Vega (how old was she when she did this? mid 20s? It was her first album, and it’s incredible. That strength of vision, purpose, that depth of self-assuredness in the songwriting and singularity of voice is mind blowing. And it contains ‘Marlene On The Wall’ which is one of the greatest pop songs of all time.)

And that’s just finished – what now? I think a little John Martyn Live At Leeds might be in order – come on, John ‘n’ Danny, gimme something to aspire to…

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