Musical Journeys – Following the Songlines

Our lives take us through so many different phases, twists and unknown turns; well certainly mine has. Sometimes it’s interesting to look back and see what crazy things we were preoccupied with in years gone by; given perspective, we might even see some of our past projects in an entirely new light (or maybe come to the safe conclusion we were possibly just a bit deluded at the time).

So, around the year 2000, I suddenly had a hankering to become a wandering guitar man of sorts – a kind of Scottish version of Neil Young or Bob Dylan. Whilst others might just have dismissed this as obvious evidence of a midlife crises, me being me, took the concept a good bit further than it probably ever should have been taken (which most likely wasn’t very far). So, I wrote a bunch of songs about “real life” journeys and then, rather naively, walked into a recording studio in the Aberdeenshire countryside, determined to make my entry into the rock n’ roll hall of fame.

Assynt, the rocks and the rolling sea

The resultant collection was called “Spirit Creek”, and was inspired by journeys to far flung places (physical and metaphorical) and some of the more colourful characters from my own life, with some rather ethereal and ragged Celtic overtones thrown in for good measure. Of course, the expected worldwide fame never resulted and probably was never actually wanted in the first place really, if truth be known, These days I still trip over copies of the CDs which clutter up the house in abundance, much to the annoyance of my partner.

A few years later (around 2008), I recorded a few more tracks, this time in a much more raw and less polished format in a wee studio by the banks of the River Tay in the “Fair City” of Perth located in the heart of Scotland – this second collection of songs went under the name of “Heartbeat”. In truth, it probably was really straight from the heart (we ironic and self deprecating Scots aren’t normally quite so used to expressing ourselves so openly, unless of course we’re either Robert Burns, or alcohol is involved, preferably in industrial quauntities) and it was quite cathartic to write – song writing is certainly a great way of offloading the accumulated emotional baggage of the years and has much to recommend it in that respect as a kind of self therapy.

Anyway, it would be a crime surely not to share these historical masterpieces and some rather dodgy vocals with you all out there. I’m certainly not a natural singer by any stretch of the imagination. However, I’m rather happier with some of the guitar work, despite the fact I do tend to automatically home in on the minor mis-tunings, timing errors and occasional bum notes; though admittedly not all of these were my own creation. In the end though, it was all down to good creative synergy with the other people wo helped me out, teamwork and a good few blazing arguments, not all of which I won sadly.

So for now I’ll promise to stick to the day job, if you let me know what you think…

Spirit Creek:

The Wrong Girl

Assynt

Rolling Sea

Wagon Train

Running

New Day

Heartbeat:

World Gone Crazy
Heartbeat
Another Day
Rebirth
Walls of Jericho
Footsteps
The Flame Within

Still happily strummin’ away
(when nobody’s around to complain)

Rough cuts & unfinished bits and pieces:

Somewhere along the line, life got in the way and so these following songs (below) remain like a collection of rough sketches, recorded in my living room in the countryside near Edinburgh – they have an unfinished quality about them and I think are somewhat understated (probably so I didn’t disturb the neighbours too much at the time). I do wonder though how these might sound with a bigger scale production to breath life, power and greater tonal variation into them ? (I can imagine driving guitar solos, Hammond organs, harmonies and heavenly choirs doing their stuff in the background – maybe even a decent lead singer to boot).

On the other hand, I also like the existing low key acoustic guitar, which isn’t drowned out, forced to synchronise reluctantly to a metronome beat or otherwise constrained, as tends to happen in a studio environment – just simply left to follow its own course; that’s surely good too. Maybe that’s rather like the Taoist philosophy of the simple virtue of the “uncarved block” – or just a case of “less is more”.

For me, listening to these tracks again after a gap of a few years, they come across as somewhat melancholic and introspective (the vocals could certainly have a bit more oomph about them; they sound more like some old drunk slurring away in the corner of the bar, or perhaps how my Dad used to sing in church – which wasn’t something we were particularly proud of). 🙂 Then again, we can all too easily become our own harshest critics; send in the heavenly choirs, the African rhythm section and the keyboard virtuoso and I’m sure the songs could equally well soar upwards to the heavens (I’ll not be footing the bill for that one though right now).

Raining Colour
Turning Point
New Star
Reach Out

Zen and the Art of Songwriting:

Perhaps these raw cuts are interesting from the perspective that they help us to understand the humble roots from which a creative project kicks off – that initial spark, which usually occurs when a wee tune or a few words randomly pops into your head – and how a little technology and some slick studio production, can help to create a fire from these small sparks, usually with some hard slog and a whole load of aggro en route. These days, simply any aspiring numpty can be made to sound like Sting, Bryan Adams or Madonna thanks to the wonders of digital processing technology.

However, the more interesting and profound question, is where do these “sparks” actually come from in the first place ? For me, it’s not generally in the supermarket checkout queue or when my mind is cluttered up with a long list of daily tasks, routines and distractions (which is pretty much most of the time these days); more often than not, it’s when I’m immersed in nature’s rhythms and cycles; whether that’s sitting on the rocks by the sea, walking the hills, or through enjoying a spot of informal forest bathing.

In a Scottish context, Gaelic songwriters such as Julie Fowlis have been particularly influenced and inspired by their surroundings and percieve themselves and their music as being intimately connected with the landscape, both present and past. Rory and Callum MacDonald, of Runrig fame, articulated the concept perfectly in their song “When I Walk Among the Hills”, albeit under the guise of “The Band From Rockall”. In addition to landscape and cultural heritage influences, life changing events (like falling in love, the birth of a child or a death), can also be a major catalyst for creativity, without a doubt – they haul us unexpectedly out of our comfort zone and make us think about the overall trajectory of our lives.

Personally, I think there’s a certain intuitive energy that comes from connecting with the natural world and landscapes though – this can bring everything sharply into focus, like flicking the trip switch and suddenly plugging into the mains voltage supply (instead of our usual, feeble AA battery energy source). However, it’s also subtle, easy to miss, or to ignore completely, as we rush around blindly in our frenetic daily routines and minor quests.

To tune into the “music” we need to find time and space to let the dust settle and the haze dissipate; “Reaching out, tuning in to your soul” as I described it in the song “Running” – the first one I ever recorded. The “Flame Within” – the first composition I wrote, after my guitar teacher assigned me the task of writing a song for “homework” – was pretty much based around the same concept of connection with the natural world. I remember Simon, my teacher (a diehard “blues man” and rock maestro, if ever there was one), telling me it sounded a little bit “twee”, before qualifying that with, “…but then fuck what anybody else thinks !” – a useful piece of advice that has stayed with me down through the years; I can live with “twee” as long as it also has soul and integrity.

Moving decidedly into the metaphysical and the philosophical realms, it seems the ascetic Celtic monks of the Skellig Islands, the Australian Aborigines, the wandering holy men of the Himalayas (the ones that weren’t liars and cheats that is) or Zen minded conservationists like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau understood such concepts better than you or I. For them, the intangible notion of “spirit of place” has been an important theme. That might be found in the collective consciousness of a nation itself (the “Heartbeat”), on a stormy Atlantic coastline (“Assynt”), in a bombed out hellhole in Syria, Iraq or Ukraine (“Walls of Jericho”), by a Himalayan sacred lake or pass, in the Sierra Nevada or Yellowstone (“The Flame Within”), along an old gold rush trail in the Caribou Mountains of BC (“Wagon Train”), or in a Sicilian ghost village.

It could be simply manifest through those inexplicable goosebumps we experience when visiting a tumbled-down steading from the Highland Clearance era; maybe we imagine catching fleeting whispers from the past, carried on salt-laden winds across the ages. Indigenous shamans, poets and writers have been better at tuning into and expressing such powerful voices from the cultural landscapes they inhabit; as a homegrown example, just think of Gaelic poet, Sorley Maclean and his powerful poem, “Hallaig”, in which he repopulates and rebuilds a whole deserted community from the Hebridean Island of Raasay, in his mind’s eye – as if the ghostly inhabitants themselves are springing from the very soil, the trees, undergrowth and stones of the place, where they’ve merely been resting for a while. This was later brought to life later by the late Scottish contemporary composer and innovator, Martyn Bennett.

It’s fair to say that we also inhabit a world of constant turmoil, albeit it one based upon infinite distractions and instant gratification through overconsumption, that we think will make us happier somehow. In effect, these things achieve little, except to isolate ourselves from the real connections and sources of power, including from the little stream (the “Spirit Creek”) that transforms itself into the big river and flows ever onwards towards the deep “Rolling Sea”. Like nature itself, music can also be a raft to help us navigate the rapids we encounter on that, sometimes turbulent and unpredictable, journey downstream.

For someone from a scientific background, these topics also might sound pretty esoteric and abstract, but I think we all function on different levels and we should accept that not everything we can relate to on an everyday inituitive level should necessarily be the subject of a detailed empirical analysis. But, coming sharply back down to earth with a bump (and away from such a load of pretentious old “hippy shit”), at least I can enjoy the smug satisfaction that I can actually play my own instrument and write my own songs – and that’s certainly far more than many of today’s manufactured, one-minute-wonder, talent show participants can do (though admittedly some might sing more sweetly or have better looks).

Bah Humbug ! Maybe that sounds like I’m a wee bit jealous really… I’m most certainly not; authenticity is everything after all 😉

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