I started putting this together after my last album Roadblock in 2008. I wasn’t so much thinking of making a new album as recording a backlog of songs I’d had since the 90s but never managed to capture. So I went about it at a fairly leisurely pace. Anniversary and Empty are the ones that remain from that idea, both songs I used to do at gigs in the 1990s.
I then got interested in producing songs to loops, inspired by John Cale’s Hobo Sapiens, which became one of my favourite albums. The backing track for what became The Monk started with that and I used the approach to cast Anniversary as radically different from its acoustic folkie origin. I also, unexpectedly, started writing new songs, like I Started A Fire, Not About to Fly and The Last Man to Touch You. So by the end of 2012 I had lots of songs onto which I’d layered track upon track and I thought there could be an album there, but I found it all overwhelming. In fact they were a mess. I decided to take them to Daniel Davis and we worked over the whole of 2013 on what was first called ‘Norman’s Rescue Project’ and later the album. With Daniel’s patient editing and clear focus on the best parts of the tracks, I gradually came more and more to think this was probably the best stuff I’d done.
The tracks people had liked most on Roadblock were the ones that shimmered in a kind of dreamy reverb and we’ve tried to use that again, with similar guitar drone loops inspired by Frippertronics working away behind a lot of the songs to give some consistency to the various genre styles.
If there’s a theme to the lyrics it’s probably that someone has lost something in each song – a lover, a self-image, the car keys (joking). )A few notes about individual songs:
- The Monk From the Mountain of Sorrow – the most obviously loop-based song, quite different from anything on my previous albums. There’s some weird and wonderful guitar in there that I don’t remember recording. I do remember Sam and Fi singing the backing vocals as I silently agonised about whether I wanted to change the lyrics. The song is a kind of riff on various scenes and images from the life of Leonard Cohen; it imagines you can saunter down of an evening from the snow of a Zen monastery to a harbour on a Greek island but, well, it’s a song. You can do that in songs.
- Fingerpuppet A philosophical song from quite a few years ago. About how superficial and fleeting our sense of self is, but how it’s a beautiful world nonetheless. I actually asked the late Fraser Drummond to record it some years ago and he said ‘I can’t sing a song about puppets – puppets give me the creeps!’ For what it’s worth, the main guitar part uses Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft tuning CGDAEG.
- Not About to Fly is the lightest, cheeriest track, probably a bit out of character but necessary! There are lots of things in it that I remember from my childhood and some I made up on the same morning as I recalled the actual memories. I’ve claimed them as memories now.
- Anniversary Written in 1990 after I read the epilogue to a new reprint of Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance. The author Robert M Pirsig talks about his son Chris who, as a child, is a crucial character in the book, but who was the victim of a street murder in his teenage years. There was the image of a hole torn out of your life. I used to do the song as a fingerpicky acoustic thing, but over the years tried different arrangements. Daniel added the atmospheric sound effects.
- The Song of Wandering Aengus by Yeats is the third song for which I used more or less the same backing track as I struggled to find the right use for it. I’d always liked the poem since hearing Donovan’s version of it long ago and I have another version with a completely different tune. Like some of my own story songs, it hinges on one unexpected moment that turns the narrator’s life upside down.
- I Started A Fire was a country song I wrote fairly quickly on a bus journey into Edinburgh one day and played at Out of the Bedroom a week later.
- The Last Man To Touch You was another fairly new song that I wrote when I was gigging with Nelson Wright in The Wright Brothers. It’s a European style melody rather than American, and probably influenced by lots of Momus’s songs both in style and lyric content. Nelson wrote a completely different title and lyrics to it which he sings now as Istanbul.
- Empty was a song from my 1990s band Hungry Ghosts. We won a prize of a weekend’s recording and recorded Empty. This version sticks pretty close to that one, and it even has the Ghosts’ superb singer Tricia Thom on harmonies.
- A Leaf Must Fall was a last minute addition to the album. A favourite song of mine for many years it was written by Clive Palmer, a founder of the Incredible String Band, in the early 70s and covered by Mary Hopkin. I’d always wanted to try it but to avoid the guitar in order to not copy the original. The hesitant piano was just a guide which I was going to remove after I’d done my typical kitchen sink production, but coming back to it after a few days I realised it had a vulnerable kind of charm about it so I added as little as possible, and there it is.