The last few months I’ve been traipsing into the Famous Gold Watch in varying states of doubt, mania and occasional bouts of bewilderment, as producer Cameron Laing and I weave recorded sounds into something resembling songs.
For the first album, The Prick & the Petal, I brought the band to a cottage in Brandenburg north of a city deep into the woods, for 4 days, and we played the songs, walked through the trees, and burned crockery – one small pot, but, that guilt sticks with ya. We entered the famous gold watch after our sojourn in secluded nature and hashed out the album in four days of live takes, all playing together.
This album is very different. As it’s about Solipsism, the notion you can’t truly be sure of anything existing in reality outside of your own conscious state, and, as it was recorded largely during covid, we recorded our parts separately.
Cameron and I held up in the sound booth (it’s a room really, but, booth sounds better), waiting with clenched teeth until the end of each bass, piano, banjo, vocal and shamisen take until we could utter the utmost pleasurable of sentences: “I think we got it.”
Our lovely original drummer, David Michalke, took a hiatus from live music, and so the percussion fell on me to get across. I’ve always been an admirer of bashers. Every since I heard Aphex Twin, who completely reconfigured what rhythmic hits could sound like, my ear has leaned toward the stranger sounds you can mesh into a pattern that pleases the ear and itches the feet.
As a result, this album has a biscuit tin full of glass and a bodhrán full of pennies as our main drum-kit. I’m so taken with the sounds, I brought the biscuit tin on the road and nearly impaled my foot on stage in Darmstadt. The biscuit tin is now fully deceased. The bodhrán featured at my last full live band gig – our halloween cabaret, and, well – the results were good once I managed the fix contraption in place, after it bolted across stage left during the opening number. I finally know why drummers take eons to set up their kit – those pedals are unruly beasts that need to wrangled and tied down.
Now that the main bulk of the recordings are taking care of and we enter the mixing and mastering stages – the question arises, who is this for, exactly? It’s the job of the artist to make art that resonates, otherwise it’s just a masturbatory exorcising of what lies within the psyche spurted out upon the world in some sticky egoy mess. Let’s move swiftly on from that analogy as soon as possible, just happy it didn’t evolve a large trench coat.
I’m of the opinion those making a piece of art are equally non-plussed by it initially as any onlooker. As such, the artist can only give a subjective interpretation as what the art means, if any. This happens through taking the art in, and feeling whatever it arises as a result of it – just as anyone observer would. Just because the artist had a hand in making it, doesn’t mean they have a complete understanding of it.
I came to this conclusion, like all my better conclusions, while having a guinness with my friend Gary in an Irish pub last summer. He asked me what I thought “Look For Me When You’re Leaving”, a ballad from the first album, was about? A simple question. The gift of the gab and a hundred stoats couldn’t have helped a syllable of sense come from my mouth. “Lost love?” I said, in a voice leaping octaves in glaring uncertainty. He seemed unsatisfied. “Yes, but, there’s more there, isn’t there?”, he said, and so I rattled off my interpretation of art spiel you just heard and quickly made excuse to order more crisps. He’s right, though. There is more there. I’m sure of it. The inkling comes over me when I’m singing it. There’s some kind inevitability and conniving sense to how the character ends their affair. Do I know, why exactly? Not in the faintest. But, I know song meanings have a way of creeping up on you, even when you’ve already sang them many times, and thought you’d already formed a firm interpretation of them.
First time I realised this was during the umpteenth time singing Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne” – I used to end my live sets with it, so I had it deep in muscle memory and could just sing without having to worry whether I could or not. Playing Marianne one night in front of a bar of people in Berlin, the line “I’m cold as a new razor-blade. I told you I was curious, but I never said I was brave” stood glaring out in front of me, like I’d just heard it for the first time. “Jesus” I thought, “he’s talking about suicide, the instrument he’d use, the thoughts, but knowing he’d never go through with it”. It seemed obvious, but never in countless renditions had I ever noticed before. Of course, I could be completely wrong, but, I felt it. And so, it’s my interpretation now. Not through conscious thought, but, because the feeling etched itself onto the words, and are now inseparable in my mind. Of course, maybe Leonard didn’t notice either. After all, he famously said, “if I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go their more often”.
This sentiment seems common among songwriters I’m particularly enamoured with. Take Townes Van Zandt’s mindset for example, that “a great pencil in the sky” is responsible for all the good sounding ones. The best thing you can do when a song is coming through is stay out of your own way. Write whatever comes, as fast as feasibly possible – or risk losing your way. Tom Waits uses the fisherman analogy, that you have “to get really quiet to catch the big ones”. Songs seem particularly squeamish, and liable to scurry off as quickly they came if you let a thought in like: “maybe, this could be better, cleverer”. Quiet the mind and listen, and sometimes the big pencil drops.
For all the songs on this album, I followed blindly, uncomfortable and menacing feelings that arose all the way down the rabbit hole and back out again, never knowing exactly why or where I was going. Some sessions were cathartic, and some left me worse off and world-wary a while longer, only to arise again unfettered by any feeling but relief that it’s on the page, and coherent.
The whole album is an airing out. It’s for the begrieved, and for grievances against those who’ve gone. Not out of malice. Not out of sentimentality. Just because you can’t leave without leaving a trace, and songs simply colour between the lines left. This album is about facing challenging emotions directly on, whether by fighting back, with hope, or completely giving in – as the song dictates.
I don’t think there’s such things as sad songs. What we call sad songs are there for those who need to be empathised with. Songs do this through immersing you in a feeling, till then you’ve felt utterly isolated reeling within. Hearing it expressed outwardly through sound imbues you with a sense you’re not alone feeling it. Once you resonate with a shared emotion, it loses its power over you, and the feeling disperses. This relief is tantamount to joy. And if sad songs bring joy, then you understand why I don’t believe in them.
This album is for those who need it, when they need it. Feelings that are deemed uncomfortable, sheerly by their blatant absence in popular culture espoused by exposure. It’s a dry-clean service of an album, really. That’s only my interpretation, anyway. Maybe, ask Gary.