Glorious Blog

Chris's Blog Archive: February 2016

I went more than a little bit crazy this month. It was all thanks to the event we know as FAWM, or February Album Writing month. The idea is to write fourteen songs in the entire month. As it's a leap year, the goal was to collaborate with another participant and thus make the grand total fourteen and a half.

But I went bit further than that. Quite a bit further, in fact.

I went crazy. I ended up writing twenty four songs on my own and co-writing another seven songs.


Yeah, I went nuts. 31 songs written or co-written; that's over double the required amount.

For now, I'm toast. Full update when I've recovered.


I was listening to and commenting on another batch of songs uploaded to the February Album Writing Month site last night when it occurred to me that I hadn't done anything to the blog for a while. When I investigated further I realised it's been two weeks since that last entry. Ooops. This is what happens when you get involved with something that is so creatively rewarding when you're in a situation where you pretty much have as much time as you want to devote to it; it takes over your life, and down the rabbit hole we go.

Which is why this year I've already left more than 430 comments on other people's work, and why so far I've uploaded 13 songs that I've worked on, either alone or with friends. It's why I have another three collaborations in the pipeline awaiting completion. That means I've already reached the target of 14 and a half songs to write by the end of February.

But it doesn't mean I'll be stopping. Hitting an arbitrary target is nice, but it's not why I take part in the event every year. I've realised that FAWM gives my creative process a kick up the backside, and I'm going to use that impetus until the clock runs out. Last year the song I'm most proud of in my FAWM output was the last thing I wrote, and it was my twenty-first song of the month. Before FAWM, I wouldn't have written that many songs in a decade.

FAWM is also a laboratory. It's where I develop my understanding of the broader creative process. I use insights and creative tools that were invented or discovered by professionals in other creative fields, and I've successfully applied them to the process of creating music, of writing songs. In particular, I should mention Jeff Vandermeer's source book on writing creative fiction, Wonderbook, which is a veritable treasure trove of ideas to get you unblocked and writing something amazing. I have notepads and post-it notes scattered around the house so that if a title or an idea occurs to me, I can write it down there and then, rather than telling myself I'll make a note of it later and, of course, completely forgetting what it was. Inspiration can strike at the most inopportune moments; the thing with FAWM is that because you're using your inspiration more regularly, you become better at noticing that it's striking, and learn to do something about it.

Inspiration, I've discovered, is something very different to what is generally referred to as the Muse. I've learned that the idea of the muse is useful as a way of gauging your emotional connection with a piece of work, but equally I have discovered that if she doesn't want to take part, you should press on anyway. You will find that, despite expectations, you will still end up with something. It may even be something pretty good; despite how precious we can be about how important the whims of fictional constructs resembling diaphanous Greek women are to the end results of our work, you'll find that people also respond to work done while the muse was taking a break. Sometimes they'll respond more enthusiastically to these tracks than they do to works that you thought were going to change the face of popular music. Ironically, you are not always the best arbiter of your own achievement. That can be a comfort when the well is dry and you're struggling to create something that meets your exacting standards of proficiency, competence, taste, or acceptability.

And we're getting to that point in FAWM, this year. The low hanging fruit has all been taken. The tracks for your twelve-part concept album based on your favourite childhood book have been recorded. That fun song that popped into your head while you were eating lunch has been jotted down and will be ready to record tonight. But you're not done yet. You're still a few songs short of that magical fourteen-and-a-half songs (it's a leap year, remember) that you have to get done by March 1st.

This is the best part of FAWM. This is when things get interesting, because it's when desperation starts to set in and those creative filters of proficiency and acceptability must, for the sake of meeting the deadline, be thrown out of the window. This is when people think to themselves, "okay, what if I just get my cat to sing this one?" or "that squeaky elevator door has a really interesting rhythm, how about I record it on my phone and use it as the drum track for a song?" Desperation makes people take amazing creative choices; the last half of FAWM is where the real gems start to appear.

What encourages people to press on when they're feeling so desperate for inspiration that their cat suddenly becomes part of the action? (I'm not knocking cats here, I hasten to add. One of the old hands of FAWM, Mojo is an insanely talented artist who, with - and even, sometimes, without - the help of his human Joanne Gabriel, records some really extraordinary pieces of music. How he manages it without opposable thumbs is truly inspiring.) Wouldn't it be easier to just give up, you're no doubt asking. Well, yes, it would, but that's not the point.

FAWM is often compared to National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, which takes place every November. There, participants attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in just thirty days. The approach that both NaNoWriMo and FAWM take is to break down that daunting process into more manageable goals. Goal setting is at the heart of succeeding in any creative endeavour. As inconvenient and downright obnoxious as they seem, deadlines are hugely important. If you ever want to write that novel you've been promising yourself that you'd get started on, it's no good at all having a deadline of "some day." Change that to a goal of "I'll have the first draft finished by the end of July this year" and suddenly everything changes.

Stuff just got real. Goal setting equals motivation.

Those goals have to be ones that you can relate to, though. So you break the process down into chunks. You set yourself daily goals. In NaNoWriMo, if you write just 1,667 words every day throughout November, you'll have reached your goal. Let the larger processes sort themselves out - just focus on hitting your word count. In FAWM, we just concentrate on getting a song done every two days. Two days, to write one simple, three-minute pop song? How hard can that be, right?

There is a huge difference between FAWM and NaNoWriMo, however, and it's this difference that pushes people onwards into the creative madness that is the last week or so of FAWM, and it's what draws me back, year after year. When you complete your novel for NaNoWriMo, you upload it to the website and a computer program checks that it has the required number of words. If it does, you "win" for the year and you get a little banner you can add to your website.

This doesn't happen in FAWM.

Here, when each song is finished it's uploaded to the website, or to a music hosting site, and real people listen to it and provide you with feedback. It takes a certain amount of bravery to leave yourself open to appraisal and criticism of your creations, and that must never be forgotten by anyone taking part in FAWM. The support and encouragement that is freely given every year on FAWM make it one of the most joyful experiences you can ever expect to have as a creative artist. FAWM is a global gathering of songwriters and musicians of all abilities and, to borrow an academic term used to describe how novices become part of a profession or craft, the Community of Practice that exists there is second to none in its inclusiveness. When your creative tank is dry, nothing fills it up faster than positive feedback on what you're doing.

You wake up one morning and realise that there are people out there actually listening to your efforts. Suddenly, you're writing for an audience.

Even more astonishing, they seem to actually like what you're doing.

It's huge fun.

No, it's more than fun. It's insanely addictive. That's why the blog has been taking second place this month.


As the second week of February Album Writing Month gets into full gear, I'm doing very well. I've already got six songs under my belt including two collaborations. As well as getting up to my usual digital antics I've recorded stuff on analogue with my old four track Fostex and a cheap dynamic mic that have both been in a box in the back room for the last few years, I've tackled some prog rock with challenging time signatures, and I've been pushing my singing voice in all sorts of new directions.

The singing part has been interesting. By all accounts I've been trying to sing in the wrong range for all these years. The third song this year was recorded on the nine string, and after trying to sing the melody I realised it wasn't in any of the keys I normally write in when I know I'm going to sing. After trying to sing high and sounding like a strangled cat, I decided to drop the notes I was going for by an octave, and suddenly a rich, expressive, and (most importantly) controlled voice suddenly boomed out. "This is interesting," I thought, and decided to see if I could refine things.

And half an hour later, I had this:

You may have noticed a resemblance to Sir Christopher Lee. If you did, you're not alone. Mel told me I sounded like him last year, but it has never occurred to me to sing like him before. When I posted the song on FAWM, it led to Daniel, one of my FAWM friends who runs the Pop Mythology website, asking me if I fancied singing in that style again - as Sir Christopher's character in Attack of the Clones, Count Dooku. It was such a bonkers idea that I immediately said yes. He sent me a sheet of lyrics, and as I read them I tried to imagine what style they would be sung in. Then I remembered that Sir Christopher had recorded several Gilbert and Sullivan pieces (in his grandest, most scenery-chewing style) and the music pretty much wrote itself. The Korg M3 is unsurpassed when it comes to sounding like an entire orchestra - hardly surprising, as that is what it was designed for. I think I ended up with six separate tracks of synth, including a very aggressive tympani section. But most surprisingly, the vocals are a single take, apart from a doubling of lines on the very last couplet. The end result turned out rather well, I thought.

I seem to be doing a lot of collaborations this year - right now I have three in progress and I'm about to have a look at a possible fourth. Part of the fun of FAWM is interacting with other musicians and there is no better way to do this than to work together on a track. I'll keep you posted on the results.

Count Dooku was the first track this year where I've used a hardware synth. My workflow is becoming more and more integrated into Ableton and I love the Push as a compositional tool. I'm finally getting to grips with it as a MIDI controller for performance, and the last firmware update seems to have made it much more responsive. As a result, I've been using Live's own library of software synths. For atmospherics and basslines it does really well, but I know I wouldn't have got a convincing full orchestra out of it as quickly as I did with the Korg - the whole track took less than four hours to record.

But FAWM isn't just about making your own music; it's also about listening to music made by the other artists taking part and leaving helpful, constructive comments on each song. I've been listening to tracks when I can and right now I'm closing in on my 150th comment. And the thing that has struck me this year, more than any of the other years I've taken part, is the staggering leap forwards that a lot of my friends have made in their writing and playing. Some people's work is now better than so-called "professional" efforts and more than one FAWMer really ought to have a recording contract by now, as far as I'm concerned. Wander over to the site and have a browse through some of songs that have been uploaded and have a listen for yourself. I'm sure you'll be surprised by at least one song.


There's a spectacularly blue sky outside right now. It's a most welcome sight after several days of absolutely foul weather with Storm Imogen giving the South West a real hammering. It was so windy on Sunday that I gave up recording vocals; the mic was picking up too much noise from outside. Then I was woken up at 03:30 on Monday morning by the sound of hail clattering against the bedroom window, and it rained so hard that the back door started leaking. Let's hope we get a few more days like today, because the back lawn is a swamp at the moment.


I finally made it over to see Ruth and Will's place in Slad yesterday. It was good to see them. They have a lovely home high up in the woods, and a spiffy wood-burning stove in the kitchen to keep the place warm.

The amount of wildlife visiting their garden was extraordinary - we spent quite a while watching a vole, which would venture out underneath the bird feeders to gather food before scurrying back to its hole in the dry stone wall. There were plenty of birds around to drop food, too: within ten minutes of arriving I'd seen blue, great, coal and marsh tits, a robin, and a nuthatch visit the bird feeder hanging up outside in front of Ruth's desk. One of the great tits was extraordinarily fat!

Rebecca was down for the weekend too - we had a nice curry at the Spice Mahal on Friday night - and Rebecca's brother Matthew joined us too. After lunch we went for a walk around the area, and though we didn't make it across the valley to the wood which is named after the valley's most famous resident, we were walking through some pretty impressive old woodland. It was a very blustery day - some of the trees were creaking quite menacingly - and there were fallen branches lying across several of the paths. I was glad I'd brought wellingtons as we negotiated some of the larger patches of mud; it's been very wet and windy for the last week and as I sit here typing I can hear the wind roaring around outside as the southern edge of storm Henry arrives in the neighbourhood. After recording gusts of 105 mph in Stornoway a few days ago, Scotland is getting the worst of it once again.

In the evening we all went into Stroud for a meal together. It was a very nice way to finish off the weekend and I was very glad to get some fresh air in the countryside. I should get out of the house more often.


And so it's February once again. I'm about to head upstairs to make a start on the first song of my eighth FAWM. It's going to be a good month.