Why singing and improvising go hand in hand.

I have spent the last 8 months embarking on a jazz album. I’ll be the first to admit, I am by no means a straight out jazzer, I walked out of a college open day for a four year jazz course concluding that there was simply too much rock and roll in me. (Which is probably why I ended up in the art rock world!)

The elusive element about jazz is that it is a language of it’s own within the musical world, something where freedom and chaos reigns hand in hand with knowledge and sophistication. The one thing I’ve discovered over the course of playing solos over jazz standards or anything for that matter is how inherently powerful singing is and how it can improve your improvisation.

Especially from a guitarist’s point of view; the guitar is a wonderfully convenient instrument when it comes to shape and scales but the negative factor of that is that the mechanical process of playing the instrument can leave the player in a state disregard for the other essential two points of the triangle, the theoretical and the musical. I’ve lost count of how many times I have seen players who’s improvisation has been dictated by their fingers…myself included!

The beautiful thing about singing is that it comes straight from your heart and mind, without any preconceptions: it is immediate. I’ve linked a track that I have played on below and I think out of the entire selection of jazz recordings it is my strongest because I sang every phrase that I played before playing it. It takes a lot of practice but it’s worth it. So if any guitarists out there feel like they are caught stuck in making a fine solo, besides doing the practice, try singing, you may well surprise yourself!

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Setting yourself up for dissapointment

‘There is no point trying to go for you dreams in your life because you are only setting yourself up for disappointment’

For whatever reason, that quote looks as pessimistic as when you read it but is surprisingly passive when said, and I’ve been really surprised by how many times it has been said by young people to me in the last few months.

I’ll admit it, I’m extremely lucky. I have only met a handful of people who found their calling as young as me. As soon as I picked up the guitar at 8 years old, it intrinsically defined me. Therefore I am not very good at empathising with people who have yet to find their passions, and in the past, I have come across as insensitive on this subject. So to make amends to that, I want to at least attempt to offer encouragement by flipping that quote on it’s head.

First of all, when you attempt to go for anything you dream of doing, you are by default setting yourself up for disappointment; but is that truly the only thing your setting yourself up for? Perhaps you are setting yourself up for finding something you have a natural disposition for, or enjoy doing it regardless of your ability, or gaining a load of lessons and knowledge in the process. It’s been said so many times before, but you never know before you try.

Success is a concept that has been held on such a pedestal in society, that it continuously halts aspiring racers to run even before the gun has been fired. The anticipation of failure, the premonition that you won’t succeed is actually more difficult to overcome than failing itself. Well here’s an open secret, happiness in pursuing something is not defined by its success or failures, it’s by the process.

When a child picks up the guitar and becomes so much in awe of the strings and the potential of the instrument, do you think that he or she is thinking about success or having approval when playing the thing? The concept of failure or success is a conditioning that is imposed later on. That’s not to say that when I make records, I don’t want to share them with as many people as possible, but regardless of whether I sell 100 or 100,000 records, I won’t ever stop because I love it too much. There have been times where I have experienced disappointment, felt completely inadequate and failed miserably, but it’s times like that where I trace back and remind myself of the first experiences I had of picking up the instrument. Along with all the inevitable neuroticism and negativity one can experience at times in the creative process, I’ll always believe the following quote that Rick Wakeman once said.

‘Success is found in a garden of failure.’

I have indeed set myself up for disappointment, but I have a heck of a good time!

6 of Cyclists, Half a Dozen of Motorists.

I love cycling, absolutely love it. It is one of the most leisurely things I do on a weekly basis where I do not think about anything else, along with surfing and running. I also am beginning to drive more and enjoy that too, but the more time I spend out on the road on either form of transport, the more I realise that throughout the UK, a majority of people on the road think that the rules are for everyone but themselves.

I cannot believe the amount of times I have cycled on a main road and people in cars have passed me driving whilst speaking on their phones. I once had to make a right turn where a car driving the other way was slowing down, I was unsure as to what he was doing and needed to be careful in order to make the right turn whilst indicating to the car behind me so I take a few seconds to ensure it’s eventually safe to turn right, the car behind me tries to drive on and nearly precedes to crash into me, just so it happens, he was on the phone.

Whilst being behind the wheel of a car, there have been times where cyclists have made utterly moronic and dangerous decisions too. I recently saw a cyclist cut across a three way junction, whilst traffic lights were given the go ahead for ongoing traffic. All in all, trying to give more blame to the other is completely fruitless, and each incident is judged upon for it’s own accountabilities.

I want to be as reconciliatory to both forms as much as I can, the highway laws are out there to accommodate for the two, but more often than not there is unnecessary conflict between the two parties where rage and impatience is blown beyond any sensibility. It was so tragic to read about the deaths of cyclists in London throughout last year and a there’s been recently reported feud between a cyclist and a motorist, where the latter kicked the former in the face so hard that he ended up partially blind and the driver ended up in prison himself for five years. Submitting to that rage, a few seconds of madness and that’s both lives majorly changed.

So here is the conclusion, a very simple one…whilst we are out there on the road, we need to be completely aware, considerate and sensible. It’s simple, but unfortunately, in practice, it is disregarded time and time again.

Is it really worth the risk of speaking to phone whilst driving, or cutting across red traffic lights while cycling or unnecessarily overtaking someone to cause danger just for the sake of saving a few seconds? Ask yourself these questions, because when it comes to an occurring tragedy, hindsight has its virtues, but prevention isn’t one of them.

Your Turn Challenge day 7 – A swing of momentum

What are you taking away from this challenge?

What a truly liberating and enjoyable experience this has been. After a week of accepting the challenge of writing an article every day and shipping out, I feel like I can actually do it, and that there is very little out there stopping me.

After just a week of writing, I have connected with the words of fellow writers across the globe, people have engaged with my own writing and it’s been amazing to see that there’s been this universal process of everyone wanting to express themselves.

Expressing yourself should be a normal thing, but it can be so difficult for some of us because we are held back by what other people think. By writing, we can disregard the latter, because we have created our own space where our writing is addressed to draw our perspective in a way that is complete and considered.

Furthermore, by writing, I am more focused in other areas of my life, my work, my leisure, my mind feels like it has been freed of something each time I write an article.

So my metaphorical hat off to Winnie Kao and Seth Godin for proposing such a marvellous idea. They have truly built a tidal swing of momentum, and I’ll be writing a lot more consistently from now on.

See you tomorrow!

Your Turn Challenge Day 6 – What would Chekov think of this guy?

Your Turn Challenge Day 6

Write about a time when you surprised yourself?

A Man stands in a city street; banging the top of a litter bin whilst chanting in a Rastafarian fashion ‘This town is great!’

In another town, a man in his 50’s regularly attends a nightclub where the music is blasting out; he sits in solitude and reads a novel, whilst men flirt with girls who dance in unflattering dresses.

In a coastal-based town, another man attends theatre shows on multiple occasions, on his own: all who work there understands his passion for an alternate reality as he soaks up the atmosphere inside the auditorium.

As I stand outside a students union with my friend, he points to an oak tree that has been paved around by the side of the road, and observes how it has been there before any of this concrete existed.

A councillor I meet for the first time at a pub explains to me the pride he holds in his job and that because of his duty, people can walk home safe at night, but laments at how nobody appreciates it.

Then all of a sudden, after reading short stories of an author during the day, it came to my mind whilst talking to this man to ask myself, ‘What would Chekov make of this guy?’

I really surprised myself that I asked such a question, but it really aided me in observing what this intelligent man was saying and why he was saying it. My thoughts before were that councillors are generally inept at their job, but here I am standing opposite one of them, having one of the most insightful conversations I had had in the past few months.

The reason I asked that question though albeit subconsciously is because of one simple reason, I decided to invest my time reading and exploring the minds of brilliant artists and writers who observe things that others don’t see, in an attempt to do the same things myself.

Every day, it is easy for us humans to become trapped in our own bubble, riddled with pride, entertaining our minds with trivial nonsense and be hasty to assume and judge others. I think it is important to get in the habit of forcing ourselves at least once a day to shift the looking glass so that we can observe something or someone without our judgement, preconceptions or non-confirmation bias.

Each town, city and village has its quirks, it’s charms and it’s repulsions, but the people there are what make it. It has come to truly fascinate me how the aesthetic of each town is built by such intricate details and characters. The people described above may appear to most as crazy, but in reality they are no different than the rest of us in what makes us human. The more I explore the minds of great writers such as Chekov, the more I realise for myself that life truly is a wondrous thing.

I sit in a café, looking out the window as people pass by rushing to and from places. The clouds gather and a heavy rainfall starts for a brief spell and then subsides to a ray of sunlight. For ten seconds…the street is clear and there is strange but peaceful stillness.

Your Turn Challenge Day 4 – The 3 Essentials of producing a good recording.

Write about something you’re good at doing.

On average, I would say that I spend 30 hours a week looking at a screen like this.

Screen shot 2015-01-22 at 13.10.39

Every once in a while, I sit there and think in order to have achieved what I am doing right now thirty years ago, I would have had to be sitting in a much larger room than my office right now, working on a mixing desk that would be the same value as a car then plugging through interfaces that would be twice the value of said car.

Like this.

Recording in SAE, Oxford

It’s pretty incredible how technology and software has advanced and here I am recording music on a laptop with a couple of microphones and an interface. However, the development in technology does not by default make one capable of producing a good record.

The drawback of having such an abundance of sound engineering at the tips of our fingers is that it is easy to forget the important elements of producing a good recording. A lot of the older records made in the 70’s that have become loved so fondly is because the people behind them were working with limitations.

I sat in a class at metropolis studios with Eddie Kramer whilst he told me the virtues of recording Jimi Hendrix with a four-track mix tape and it has been a revelation to me ever since that going to town and back with Pro-Tools 10 isn’t necessarily the way to achieving a good recording.

So, here are the three-essential things I believe are necessary to producing a good recording.

1.) The Song

Without a good song, a good recording is impossible. What is a good song then? The answer to that is subjective but I think it revolves around three words: and that is conviction, conviction and conviction! It’s about knowing what you want to achieve with your song, the emotion, the feeling or the atmosphere you are trying to create; that doesn’t necessarily mean including a strong chorus or hook, you may be able to produce a good song simply from one or two long notes. The more aware you are of what a song’s purpose is, the more likely you are of producing a good recording

2.) The Arrangement

The arrangement is probably where most aspiring writers initially stumble. You can have a plethora of great ideas but the key to then producing a good record is arranging them in a way that is sophisticated and logical. How much should one section be repeated? How much texture should be added? What is the role of the dynamics? Does that harmony really need to be there? When producing a record, one needs to have these questions continually running through their mind, and being decisive and honest about them when answering them.

3.) The performance

As with the song writing, it is all about CONVICTION in your performance. The delivery, the sincerity, the phrasing, the tone, the dynamics; It is about awareness of the details! In my previous record, there were some guitar solos that took me two hundred takes before I got what I wanted, other solos just required the one take. It is a bizarre process, but it is about what feels right.

When you listen back to your records, it is a very difficult task, but you have to truly ask yourself if what you are producing is at all close to what you want. It is by only being very honest with yourself, that you can expect to eventually reach as close to what you envisaged in that beautiful moment of inspiration.

5 examples of great records

There are hundreds out there, but here are the first five that came to mind, and include some of my favourite glorious moments of production. It is a good exercise for any producer, aspiring or experienced to do – sit back, relax, enjoy listening to music and finding out what they love so much about their favourite records and how it can influence their own work.

The Carpenters – Top of the world

 Talk Talk – I believe in you

 Jeff Buckley – So Real

 Mew – Am I Wry? No

Bjork – Mutual Core

Your Turn Challenge day 3 – The Spotify vs. Musical Artist conundrum

Day 3 – Write about something that you think should be improved

What truly defines the value of something? What really are the principle things that should be considered when anyone is paid a certain amount for what they do or a product is sold for a certain amount for what it is?

That is a pretty complicated question isn’t it? Things like that are incredibly nuanced but for most industries, it is a manageable question, from the price of coffee or designer clothing to the housing market and financial sector (without disregarding the obligatory bureaucracy)

Music on the other hand has in recent years taken that whole concept to another level and I have lost count about the amount of times that I have debated the issue or re-evaluated where I stand on the whole subject. Especially when the digital technology industry is moving so fast.

Over the last year, I have invested a lot of time into experimenting and mulling over ways in which I release and format my music. I use three main ways to distribute my music. My label undertakes one way and I deal with other two (I am very lucky to have a situation where everything is transparent and I have the option of distributing myself). The first way is through Bandcamp where I engage directly with my audience and the second is through a licensing company called Tunecore, which release my music to Itunes, Spotify and any other company willing to spare me a penny when my music gets played.

I was very reluctant to put up my music on Spotify and said streaming companies initially but eventually decided it was the best option to promote and advertise my first full-length release. I have countless spreadsheets of analytical data but if there were one thing I wish I could retrieve, it would be who out of the people listened to my music on Spotify, decided to buy a physical copy of my album. I would feel that then, I actually have some determination of how effective streaming companies are as a platform for discovery.

This is where the problem lies; streaming is a very grey area in terms of how music artists are paid. Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke are two figureheads to have spoken out about it and preceded to strip their catalogue from the service. Without, dwelling too far into the subject though, there is one fundamental improvement that needs to be made from both the streaming company and the artist: and that is attitude.

The attitude of streaming companies

It has been publicly stated that an artist is paid $0.007 per stream of a song. Over one year, I earned just under $20 for 3000 streams. What do you think of that payment? I’ll be frank, it comes across as approved piracy to me.

Spotify recently hit back at the criticism of Thom Yorke and Taylor Swift by stating that it has collectively paid out 500 million to artists in the last year. However, their argument disregards one major thing, and that is the fact that major labels tie in with this with deals that are not necessarily relative to the $0.007 per stream and a lot of the payouts would be to past catalogues, suggesting that there is a massive gap between those who get paid sufficiently and independent artists who don’t. I did do some research on Spotify’s explanation on how it pays artists, and only ended up feeling a bit more perplexed about the whole thing.

http://www.spotifyartists.com/spotify-explained/

Whilst I am still confused enough to be unable hold an opinion that streaming companies are The Devil, I do question its sense of middle ground, and that’s where attitude needs to improve. Streaming companies need to make paying artists fairly and sufficiently a priority as they continue to grow.

In full perspective, it is still early days for streaming, and whether artists like it or not, it is rapidly on the rise, so we have to accept the reality.

The attitude of artists

Having said that about Spotify, I think a lot of the resentment and bitterness from some artists is misplaced and the attitude needs from us can be improved to some extent. Ultimately, as the artist, you have control over how you choose to format your music, you also have control over how you engage with your audience and communicate with them and add a sense of value to the art you display. Just because you release music, does not necessarily mean you have to stream it. The most important thing for any musician to remember when they are out there in the world trying to make music for a living is that music owes you nothing. One of the best artists in recent years to have embraced the new age of music is Imogen Heap. This wonderful woman has enlightened me with a big streak of positivity and I recommend any aspiring musician drowning in cynicism to read her story for a change in perspective.

There can be a simpler answer to the question initially asked.

What truly defines the value of something? You do.