Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Oh Annie!

As promised I'm going to write a blog about the best ambassador pop music could ever ask for; Annie Lennox, specifically Annie Lennox's music (it needs specifying because she's an interesting lady in lots of ways).

Pop gets a bad name. Classical and jazz snigger about it behind it's back. Pop is stupid. Pop has no subtlety. All pop sounds like the Girlz Aloud or U2. Pop in the X Factor. Pop is generic*.

Of course I'm sure pop is sitting at the back of class telling all the cool kids that jazz is a nerd. All jazz sounds like a lounge lizard version of So What or Michel Bublé. Jazz doesn't know how to have fun**.

Ok enough of anthropomorphising musical genres. My point is I don't really think genres matter much. Like any label they can be useful but generally are quite limited (revolutionary I know). Think of sandwiches. Think of the best sandwich you've ever had sitting next to the worst. They're both sandwiches but the word is just so inadequate in describing either.

Which brings me to Annie Lennox.

I listen to a lot of what I call slash music. If you've never heard of it it's coz I just made the name up. What I mean by slash music is music that doesn't really fall into any one genre neatly, like Julie Feeney is pop/classical/choral (as in pop slash classical slash coral) or Rachel Ferrell's (Can I be Me) Soul/RnB/Jazz/pop. People love to categorise things but there's nothing wrong with a bit of genre bending. Mingus apparently tried for ages to get in contact with Joni Mitchell to do some collaborations but was finding it really difficult because her record label was scared if they did collaborate it'd be the death knell of her career. His label of course thought the exact same thing. Imagine! The absolute arrogance of the record labels. Maybe I'm naive but I think that's just astounding. They're an unlikely and great pair, like nutella and salami (ok here's a little tangent that has nothing to do with music or lyrics but it's my blog and I get to write about whatever I want and right now I want to write about how good nutella and salami is. On toast, cheapy white bread toast, now is not the time for health concerns, loads of nutella and spice salty salami. Yum! Of course the Mitchel Mingus analogy doesn't really stand up coz who'd be the nutella and who'd be the salami? Mingus would have to be the salami but Joni Mitchel is nothing like nutella.)

Back to Annie Lennox. Annie Lennox is NOT slash music

Annie Lennox is pure pop. Go back to that image you had of the worst sandwich sitting next to the best. Annie Lennox is the best...I don't know enough about pop to know who the worst is, maybe boyzone. Oh no wait I do know who the worst is. The worst is Westlife***.

Fist things first, pop has to be catchy. Pop is instant gratification. There's nothing wrong with a bit of instant gratification every now and then. Of course there has to be something there to sustain you...but we'll get to that later. Cue the opening bars of Walking on Broken Glass. Oh the joy! Syncopated counter melodies on piano then the strings come in and about 15 seconds in the big percussive crash and the drums kick in. Your hooked. If you're not hooked you don't have blood in your veins (or you've been studying music too long and ear training has completely leavened the hierarchy of pitches to the point where you can't tell dissonance from consonant, don't worry you can be cured I prescribe a week of dancing to Annie Lennox and singing power ballads).

The contagiousness of pop music of course is why it's so popular but it's also why it's seen as shallow, which is ridiculous. Jazz can be instant gratification in a jar, so long as you know where to look. How catchy is Blue Monk? Very. How catchy is (insert name of a million classical songs that I can hum but don't the name of here)? Very. Catchy isn't bad. What is bad is when something catches your attention, but on closer inspection you realise it's not actually a tub of ice cream in the freezer it's left over soup you made last week and put in an old ice cream tub to freeze for later (I promise that's the last ridiculous food analogy).

Usually the ideas behind pop songs are pretty simple. Something like 'I love you' or 'I hate you'. Simple isn't always bad. One of my favourite lines in a pop song is 'I hate you so much right now'. Pretty simple, sung well it's pretty effective. Of course having little twists is always nice. Like Imogen Heap's 'I love you' song Goodnight and Go which is written from the point of view of a stalker, a nice little twist that you only realise in the second verse when she sings about staring in a guys window while he gets undressed and flicks through the TV channels 'and you think you're alone'.

Back to Annie Lennox. In general Annie Lennox's lyrics aren't very 'clever'. I don't mean that as a bad thing. They're more emotional than intellectual. She's an openly emotional lady, that's what I love about her. Unfortunately she probably finds it a burden. Poor Annie, no ones gonna pay attention to your chronic depression if you write anthemic pop songs, even if you do call them Walking on Broken Glass or Dark Road or The Hurting Time. Love is Blind is a great funky ass wiggler, you're on the dance-floor wiggling away having loadsa fun but pay attention and you'll realise you're wiggling to ; 'Sometimes I feel like I don't exist, cut my veins slit my wrists, goodbye goodbye that's all she wrote as she tied that knot around her throat...tired of being so screwed up, tired of all this desperation...'.

I feel like every blog post should have a conclusion or a summary. In conclusion: go listen to Annie Lennox.

**Jazz. Knows. How. To. Have. Fun.

***Westlife's song 'What about now' is the worst song in the history of the planet. You know that song 'The Venga Bus'? It's worse than that. You know the music on the Harry Norman adds? This is worse than that. Now I realize that the boys from Westlife probably had very little to do with the writing of the song but they put they're name to it so now it's out in the world it's their responsability. The chorus is nothing but questions? I swear? Wanna know how to write an epic pop ballad? Just put a question mark at the end of every sentence? The sentences don't even have to be particularly coherent or form any kind of a story or narrative? Hinting that the song might be about a relationship is good coz people love lyrics about relationships but the vaguer you are the better coz then everyone can relate? The lyrics go something like:

What about now?
What about today?
What if you’re making me all that I was meant to be?
What if our love had never went away?
What if it’s lost behind words we could never find?
Baby, before it’s too late,
What about now?
Is that a lamp in the corner?
How about chinese for dinner?......eugh I made those last two lines up but only coz I was getting so bored with the actual lyrics.

Just so you don't think I'm unfairly bashing pop here I promise to write about how bad the lyrics to jazz standards can be sometime.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Who broke up with who? No one cares if you're the guy who wrote 'Come Up and See Me'

First a disclaimer and an explanation. Not all songs are about relationships (duh) and certainly a lot of my songs are about other things but this post is all about songs about relationships because those are the lyrics people react to. At gigs I'll get up and sing 'Kamikaze' with lyrics that stop a hair breaths short of concluding that suicide is the only sane life choice and no one will bat an eye, then I get up and sing broken woman and everyones full of 'ooh whose it about? aren't you embarrassed singing that in front of people? how controversial'...people are mad! So those two questions are what I'm going to try to answer here: 'Who are the songs about?" and "Amn't I embarrassed singing such personal lyrics in front of people?"

Taylor Swift* has pretty much based her career on the fact that people love to gossip about relationships. The entire teenage population of America let out one big squeal when she released a song (with media pleasing, calculated lyrical hints) about her famous werewolf boyfriend. She won't talk about relationships in interviews but she'll go into great detail in a song telling you who broke up with who, when and how. The musical equivalent of a celeb gossip blog. Who cares? Ok well clearly some people do care because she's massively famous but as far as I'm concerned who the song is about in the first place is of absolutely no importance whatsoever because all songs are fiction.

Every single one of my songs is fictional. Every person mentioned in every one of my songs is a character.

Every story ever told since the beginning of time is fiction. That documentary you saw on killer whales? Fiction. The glossy magazine you read on the bus? Fiction. The article in the economist on the IMF that you pretended to read? Fiction. No biography, autobiography or documentary tells the whole story, how could it? There is too much to tell. So many millions of incalculable minute things effect every decision that's ever made about anything that you couldn't possibly recount it all. You experience it once when you're there, after that it's a story, part fiction. The people become characters. It's been edited. It HAS to be edited. You choose what to tell and by choosing that your also deciding what not to tell, that's story telling. That's fiction.

I think autobiographical work is the most fictional of all story telling. You've started editing and screening the events in real time before you've even started writing about them. I read and excerpt from Billie Holidays' autobiography years ago and it had an introduction from the editor saying that alot of what was in the autobiography has since been proved to be completely false. The excerpt described how she was working as a singer and erotic dancer in strip clubs since a young age and how her mother would bring her and argue with the pianist over money. She described how the patrons would drop tips for her on the ground that she had to pick up between her knees (I have no idea how this is anatomically possible let alone something that's supposed to be erotic, how would you stand up once you've got bills between your knees? but that's what I remember...I should probably go try to find this book and read over it and make sure I'm not making stuff up**). Anyway none of it happened. Billie Holiday grew up in a nice, relatively middle class family, lived in the suburbs and had a good education. Of course later in life she got into all sorts of drugs and the wrong kind of men so maybe pretending to herself that shed always been there made the fall less harsh. Billie Holidays poor mother probably did her best and still ended up sitting at home listening to her daughter on the radio sing 'God Bless the Child'.

Or Mingus's autobiography, now that's not just an example of fiction, it's pure myth making. Is it even possible to have sex with that many women at once? Him and Bekowski should get together and compare notes (I really wouldn't want to be there for that conversation, actually if Mingus spoke anything like he wrote I'm not sure I'd understand what was being said anyway).

Anyway back to songs.

Now despite all that of course my songs are inspired by real people. But a character in any one of my songs is influenced only fractionally by the real person who inspired it, and much more by other factors such as characters from jazz standards (as proved by my last blog entry which is so relevant and interesting you should go read it now if you haven't already) or traditions that exist in song writing. My songs are tiny fragments of real events skewed through the lens of story telling and song-writing. Am I embarrassed that someone listening will know something deeply personal about me or figure out who the songs about? No. I hope they'll be reminded of things that are deeply personal to all of us and completely universal.

Also you could say every single character in all my songs are me. Like the way an actor has to find something of themselves in the character to be able to play them with any conviction. In 'Oh Rapunzel!' I'm both the knight in shining armor and the spoilt brat of a princess in her tower. In 'Made of Moon' I'm both the character capable of breaking someone's heart and the character being warned to be wary of having their heart broken.

In conclusion: Last week in college in a room full of boys (boys outnumber girls ten to one in jazz school) I sang the line 'I go to bed with the prayer that you'll make sweet love to me'. No one batted an eye. That's a pretty intimate thing to be saying out loud. If you're gonna be a performer you gotta get over it.

In the next blog installment I'll be writing about...actually I'm not sure yet. It'll either be about 'Kamikaze' (a tune of mine from the Sealegs EP) or it'll be about Westlife. No Really. I got lots of great feedback from the last blog which I like so feel free to leave comments (on myspace or facebook or blogspot or wherever).

*One comment I got on my last blog entry was that there were too many jazz references so here's my token pop culture reference. That said choosing Taylor Swift as an ambassador for pop culture is hardly fair. I promise to write at least one blog entry entirely about the best ambassador pop culture could ever ask for: Annie Lennox. I also mentioned the IMF to prove how topical and current I am but I should probably admit I only learnt what the IMF was a few days ago. Anyway to those of you who don't know who Taylor Swift is, congratulations. I wish I was one of you. She's a young country/pop singer songwriter who mostly writes about her famous boyfriends like Taylor Lautner and Joe Jonas. I'm afraid you don't get a congratulations for not knowing who they are unless you're an american teenage girl.

**I wasn't making stuff up but I'm wrong. Apparently:

"Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood. Much information once not considered true was confirmed in the book Billie Holidayby Stuart Nicholson in 1995. Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, which was first published in 1956, is sketchy when it comes to details about her early life, but has been confirmed by the Nicholson research."

...but I still don't see how it's anatomically possible to pick up a dollar bill between your knees and then stand up.

Friday, November 26, 2010

What's with the lyrics

I’ve had this blog for a while without really knowing what to do with it so I’ve come to the well worn conclusion, ‘write what you know’. What I know is lyrics, more specifically my own lyrics (I should know them I wrote them after all).

So I’m gonna start with Seasnail. Here it goes…

The same characters pop up in jazz standards all the time. There’s the woman who’s waiting around for the man she loves either because he isn’t treatin’ her right or because she hasn’t met him yet (black coffee, weeping willow, mean to me, lover man…etc) and the lesser heard woman who’s in love and he loves her back (all the love songs like the nearness of you, oh watcha doin to me…).

The feminist in me cannot stand this first character, the woman waiting around for some fictional or no good man. Part of me thinks maybe the reason the character is so prevalent in jazz standards is because jazz began in brothels and possibly the character was a useful and lucrative one for the Madames and prostitutes to adopt. But apparently the prostitues at the time were very powerful figures, feared for their vodoo powers and their agility with a razor so that belies that idea (I’m not an expert on this, in fact I’m totally winging this theory but I think the musicians who played in the brothels wrote songs about their patrons the madames so this powerful female character is pretty common in the early blues tunes like: sea lion woman and evil blues).

But maybe I’m reading too much into things as usual, the story is hardly exclusive to jazz standards as proved by the Penelope in the Odysee and every fairy tale princess that’s ever been.

So the character gets on my nerves. Like in ‘ain’t misbehaving’ who is this guy that has Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, two of the most powerful sounding women I’ve ever heard, moping at home all day? and why is staying out past eight considered misbehaving? Or Lover Man, if Sarah Vaughan longs so badly to try something she’s never had why doesn’t she just go out and get some?
But after all my protestations, Seasnail is a ‘waiting-round-for-love’ song. Hopefully one that breaks with some of the tradition. I might be waiting, but I will not wait quietly. Waiting will not be a passive state of inertia. Waiting will be an empowering choice. Contrary as usual the first line in my ‘waitin-round’ song is:

‘I won’t wait for you…’

The contrariness is intentional. What I mean is ‘I don’t have to wait’, ‘I could be writing a not-waiting-round-for-love song if I wanted’, or more precisely I’ll wait on my terms, because then I go on to describe the ways I will not wait…I will not wait:

‘porcelain faced
a *willow pattern plate
in this tent I’ve made from your love letters.

And then the line I love to sing

‘coz I’m so sick of love letters’.

I spend most of my days singing about a world entirely inhabited by weeping willows, starlight, faces that flower and daisy petals to sail away on** so it’s a nice refreshing break to sing about being a horny devil who’s sick of love letters. No matter how romantic or poetic a love letter is it couldn’t possibly compare to the reality of having your love there with you, even if the reality is usually messier (I mean you can’t exactly argue about who’s turn it is to wash the dishes in a love letter).

‘So I’ll wait for you the only way I know how,
Like a bride on fire
Like a statue come alive
Like a horny devil drunk on love and crazy for a fight’

I’ve already decided what I’m gonna write about next time. It’s something I get asked about a lot ‘who are the songs about’ or ‘they’re so personal, don’t you mind getting up on stage and telling everyone your business’…so tune in next week, or possibly a little later on that, whenever I get round to writing it really.

*you mightn’t know what a willow pattern plate is but you probably own one, or maybe your granny does. Willow pattern is that blue on white oriental pattern you see on crockery. It tells some ancient oriental love story about a woman who is about to marry a man she doesn’t love when the man of her dreams shows up and they flee together. I can’t remember what happens in the end, I think maybe her father sends an assassin after them and they die and turn into birds, metaphorically at least. The point is it’s a very romantic traditional love story where the man comes along and saves the lady in distress.

**name that tune: willow weep for me, stella by starlight, my shining hour, stariway to the stars.