This afternoon I uploaded my 25th song to the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge website. I'm half way to my target, and it's not even August yet. This one was a bit unusual, even for me. I'd been set the challenge of writing a "Fibonacci song" where the number of syllables in each line of the song follows the Fibonacci series: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be a lot easier to do than I was expecting. I had this song all done in around two and a half hours.
I've been having a lot of fun making music this year. It's proved to be a rewarding way of taking my mind off things. And I've really needed it, lately. I'm definitely feeling the benefits of the extra exercise I've been getting of late, but I know I'm still ill and I've been in quite a lot of pain this week. That has meant that I'm not sleeping very well, and my energy levels have really suffered. But I can still sit in the studio and play keyboards, and guitar, and sing, so that's what I have been doing.
I suspect that I'll be doing pretty much the same thing during August.
One thing I've noticed recently is that I am dropping into a state of Flow more and more often as I work on music. This week several of the new songs that I've written just seemed to happen without any sort of conscious effort on my part. I'd start working at my DAW and then I'd look up three or four hours later and realise that I'd just made a pretty decent song. It's a weird, slightly spooky feeling when you can't remember how you did it, what your thought processes were, or even if you had a sense of being present at the time.
It's also extremely addictive. I tell myself that it means I have finally reached a level of competence as an artist where such things can happen to me, and that is about as satisfying a thought as you can get. If you know otherwise, please keep it to yourself. I need all the positive thoughts I can get these days.
The heatwave has finally broken, and it's a much cooler 17°C (or 62°F) outside this morning. Here at my desk, it's a comfortable 23°C—rather better than the 27° or 28° it's been for most of the past week. I was woken up in the early hours by a distant rumble of thunder, and I heard a couple more of them before I managed to get back to sleep. It was more of a doze, if I'm honest; when I went to bed it was still uncomfortably hot in the bedroom even with a fan going, and I'd had another restless and fitful night.
But the Met Office amber warning of extreme heat which I wrote about in my most recent blog post has finally been withdrawn. Instead, it's been replaced by a yellow warning of thunderstorms, and this is set to remain in place until midnight on Sunday.
The change in the weather would have been a disappointment to me back in my childhood, when I looked forward to escaping school for the summer holidays, but these days it comes as a relief. I've been finding it a challenge to summon up enough energy to do anything over the last few days, and I haven't even been able to work up any enthusiasm to cook for myself. As a result, when I weighed myself yesterday I was the lightest I've been since Christmas.
The rain that arrived with the thunder was light, and the ground had already dried out by breakfast time. But larger amounts of rain are forecast for the next couple of days, which is a shame because it's the village fête tomorrow. And the outlook for the week ahead remains unsettled, with temperatures gradually returning to seasonal averages—and maybe even a little bit cooler than that. I won't object to that at all.
I spent a good few hours in the HFO studio yesterday and even though the temperature in there peaked at just under 32°C, I had a productive day. Nineteen days in to the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge, my tally of songs stands at seventeen, so I am way ahead of schedule to hit my target. At this rate, I will probably have reached fifty songs by the end of August. I will be back in there later this afternoon to see if I can add another song to my total, but right now I am being very lazy and savouring the fact that I'm sitting here in comfort, rather than dripping with sweat.
You may well be wondering why I put this much effort into writing music if I haven't got a record deal. And I do put an awful lot of effort into music; since I signed up for FAWM I have written 865 songs, and yes, I have a spreadsheet to keep track. For me, this is serious business.
The simple answer is that I've wanted to do this ever since I discovered that there were things called recording studios where people made music. Now that I have a tiny studio of my own, that is full of gear that I've painstakingly acquired over the last forty years, I'm determined to get as much use out of it as I possibly can. I can't imagine not making music every week. It's what I do; it's who I am. And I'd like to think that writing all those songs has made me a better writer, as well as a better musician, producer, mixer and engineer. From the sort of comments I'm getting on my output this month, other people seem to think I've improved as well.
Yesterday I picked up my acoustic guitar (the one that my friends Mel and David refer to as the "Oxfam Special" because I bought it from the Oxfam shop in Lytham where my aunt used to work). It makes an appearance on song number seventeen, and it sounded rather good, if I say so myself. It's the first time I've played acoustic guitar on a track for a while, but judging by the results I got recording it with my Shure SM7B, it will be getting pressed into regular service from now on. I double-tracked the chorus (which just means that I played the same thing twice, and moved one take to the left side of the stereo mix and the other to the right) and the results sounded enormous, so I'll definitely be using that technique again.
I think it's interesting that even when I can't be bothered making myself something to eat, I will still happily spend hours in intense concentration making music. I have weird priorities these days...
The TP-Link router that I bought recently has continued to perform well, although today I switched my venerable PS3 to a wired connection because it's been giving me a "You have been disconnected from the access point" message every fifteen minutes or so when I've been playing games. I had a spare Powerline connector to run an Ethernet cable into the back of it, because since I got a smart TV, I no longer use my old Humax Freesat box for things like iPlayer.
Quite a few of the software applications I use for music making have had updates this week, and the download speeds that the installers reported seemed higher than expected, so I ran the Windows performance monitoring tool to see what it thought about it. It turned out the apps were correct. At one point on Thursday, the Monolith PC in the studio was consistently seeing data rates of 70 Mb/s for downloads, and that's over a WiFi connection.
I still have a bunch of 2400 baud modems in the loft. It's not long since I welcomed the purchase of a 14,400 baud "superfast" modem as the acquisition of advanced technology. I don't miss the days of dial-up connections one bit.
(See what I did there?)
The Met Office recently updated their warning system that alerts people to the likelihood of extreme weather events (and isn't that a sign of the times?) The latest additions are warnings of high temperatures, and yesterday they issued their first ever amber warning for extreme heat for Wales and the whole of the South West. Look at the map of the area affected, and I'm slap bang in the middle of it.
The Met Office's timing was rather off, because we've already seen temperatures around 30°C here since last Friday, but it got them widespread press coverage. It felt like it had been counter-productive to me, because there were an awful lot of snide comments on social media about how temperatures in the low 30s have happened before. That is, of course, missing the point; while they've become common since the turn of the century, this was not always the case and there has been a 45% increase in the number of heatwave days occurring each year in central England since 1848. I'm guessing that one reason that the new warnings have been introduced is to flag up just how frequently they will have to be issued as climate change kicks in ever more strongly.
But every time we get weather like this I remember that I am very definitely a cold weather guy. At 22:20 last night it was 31° C in the HFO studio, even with the windows open and the fan going (I'd been mixing on headphones, which get uncomfortably hot when the weather's like this, but it was either that or shut the window). When I finally shut down the studio PC, I had a shower to cool off and that was the first time I'd felt comfortable since Saturday, when I drove to Chippenham and back in the car with the air conditioning turned down to its minimum temperature.
I have been having great difficulty sleeping this week. Last night was slightly easier, because I think that the late-night shower had cooled me down a little. The amber warning remains in place until 00:01 on Friday morning. Until then I will just have to suffer, I guess.
Despite the heat I did some good work yesterday, although I did stop for a siesta in the early afternoon because it had become too hot to think, let alone make music. I think that, while this heatwave continues, I shall make taking a siesta part of my daily routine. It helped a lot.
One fascinating thing about yesterday's recording session was the way that once the track took off, and I realised that it was going to be one of my better songs, the temperature ceased to bother me at all. I had stopped being aware of it, because I was in what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, when you are so engrossed in what you're doing that you have no spare attention left over to notice the outside world, discomfort, or even the passage of time.
Achieving that state is one of the appeals of doing work which simultaneously requires all the abilities you have in your skill set and is challenging enough to require constant attention. I can drop into flow when I'm drawing, but it's when I'm writing music that I can sustain the state for hours. That's what happened yesterday. When I'd rendered out the track, I looked at my watch and was shocked to discover that four hours had gone by since I last looked at the clock.
After just fifteen days of the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge, I had fourteen pieces of music finished. That's a good indication of just how important being creative is to me these days.
Because physical activity hurts these days, I've tended to focus on occupying my days with low-impact pursuits. That's been the case for the past couple of years, now; it will be two years next month since the stone in my left kidney first made its presence felt and it continues to remind me it's there on a daily basis. So does the cyst in my left kidney. Being able to take my mind off things has become very important, and I have really enjoyed my continuing obsession with making music. My abilities as a musician, producer and mixer have come on by leaps and bounds over the last twelve months or so. I know I keep saying this, but I really do find it amazing that having a dedicated space for making music has made such a spectacular difference to my endeavours. My Sunday night Twitch streams at the moment are using the Fifty/Ninety Show opening sequence I put together last year, and seeing how cramped it used to be under the bed makes me so happy that I finally decided to do something about it.
However it'll probably come as no surprise to learn that my back garden has rather suffered from the resulting lack of horticultural attention. It's high summer here and everything has been running rampant, all the more so because I had the giant leylandii hedge ripped out a couple of years ago and the garden gets much more light than it used to. All the plants have been taking full advantage, and when I topped up the bird feeders recently I realised that there's no longer much of a distinction between stuff that I planted and things that have just wandered in and settled down by themselves. It has become, quite frankly, a bit of a mess. Worse, the local cats have been using the foliage as ambush cover and wreaking havoc with the bird population. I found the corpse of a male blackbird under the bird table at the weekend.
And it didn't help matters that my recent attempt to control the most enthusiastic weeds with my old Black and Decker strimmer ended in what can only be described as abject failure. I was so frustrated by its performance that I went online to find out what I was doing wrong, only to discover that the kindest reviews of the particular model I had bought consisted of a single, three-word sentence: "Does not work."
This week, things had become desperate. The principal feature of the far corner of the back garden was a bed of nettles that were close to five feet high. A web of brambles had established itself across an entire flower bed and had started growing up the back fence. There were weeds everywhere. Every time I looked out of the kitchen window, my heart sank because the garden looked such a mess. Urgent action was required.
So I gritted my teeth and shelled out for a new strimmer (my third; this time, I made sure that I read lots of product reviews first so that I ended up with one that actually does what it's supposed to do.) After a lot of rain over the past few days, yesterday was dry enough for me to put on my wellies and try it out. It did the job; the back garden looks a lot better now than it did yesterday morning. I've not completely cleared the jungle, because after a couple of hours the green bin was completely full, even after I'd climbed into it to squash things down and make the rest of the pile of cuttings I'd generated fit. But I've got the worst of it out of the way and I no longer feel so depressed when I look out of the kitchen window. The bins are emptied tomorrow and then I can carry on with clearing the foliage—and make a start on the Virginia Creeper on the house, which is now up to the roof...
I went for my regular walk around the back of the village in the evening and walked over two and a half miles. The weather had shaped up nicely and from Church End I could clearly see the Malvern Hills, which are 35 miles (55 km) away. It was glorious. Even though we're approaching the middle of July, I could still hear chiffchaffs calling (most of them depart for warmer climes in August or September) and at one point I just stopped to listen to a goldfinch that was sitting on telephone wires, singing its heart out. As I made my way home through the village, I discovered that the pub I normally call in at was shut, so I didn't get the restorative couple of pints of beer that has become part of the routine; I guess this was better for me, but I could have done with something to deaden the twinges of pain that I was already beginning to experience. I ended the day having exceeded my step goal by a decent margin and went to bed feeling pleased that I'd managed to get in a day of proper physical exercise for a change.
But oh boy, I was feeling the results. I was in so much pain last night that I barely slept. Breakfast this morning was a couple of paracetamol tablets washed down by a glass of orange juice. I am knackered today and I'm sore all over.
So I think it will probably be a good idea to take things easy for a day or two. The garden's not going anywhere...
Football may be coming home, but as somebody pointed out on Twitter recently, it hasn't resided in the UK for 55 years so our current government would no doubt promptly have it deported. And the sight of Boris wearing a fresh-out-of-the-wrapper England shirt underneath one of his typically ill-fitting suits in a photograph from Wembley that is doing the rounds this morning made me throw up a little in my mouth. Craven jingoism, anybody? Just watch the BBC's news channel. You'll lose faith in humanity pretty darn quickly.
Apparently England won their match against Denmark last night and have therefore made it to the final of the Euros. The Euros. I've never been that much of a sports fan but the irony of Johnson and Patel getting excited over a competition designed to celebrate a community whose values and ideals they have utterly and roundly rejected is not lost on me.
And the sight this morning, of English politicians and a wide selection of non-soccer related companies taking it upon themselves to cash in on glory gained from an achievement to which they contributed absolutely nothing, fills me with a heady mixture of despair and disgust. Pass the sick bag.
But hey, that seems to be the way this country thinks these days.
I changed a few things in my sleep routine last night and either they have had the desired effect or I was simply so exhausted yesterday that nothing short of a nuclear explosion was going to wake me up. My watch reckoned that I spent 41% of the night in deep, NREM sleep. For reference, the amount of NREM sleep I've been getting for the last fortnight or so has averaged the mid twenties. I'd probably be feeling quite perky this morning if it wasn't for the fact that I am still being clobbered by hayfever and I have a head full of snot right now. It's not pleasant.
Meanwhile, outside, the garden is running rampant. The Virginia Creeper on the house has reached the roof and is growing over the windows. I really need to sort it all out but right now I'm just not physically up to the task. If I can get a few more nights like last night under my belt, I hope that will change.
Instead, I've been staying indoors and making music. Yesterday, just four days in to the challenge, I'd uploaded song number 6. As I said on social media I may have got the maths a bit wrong as far as my work rate is concerned this summer. I've been pretty pleased with what I've recorded so far, too. I'm having great fun with the new computer based instruments I have acquired since FAWM finished. And I think my chops as a producer are improving along with my capabilities as a musician. It might not be much in the way of consolation for the way things are right now, but I'm happy to take it.
And as you'll see from the banner at the top of the page, I released a new album yesterday. As the music on it was achieved largely through flashy special effects and computers, I decided that it should be called Green Screen and it contains an hour and a half of music. It's yours for free if you want a copy.
But I have to admit that it's profoundly disheartening to look at my Bandcamp stats and see how few of the people visiting my page actually bothered to listen to a song all the way through. I take this sort of thing very personally, and it's depressing. I put all that care and effort into crafting my music, and people can't even be bothered to keep playing one track to the end? I use the fact to motivate myself into improving my skills, but all the same, I'm left feeling insulted. Music has lost all its value to people, hasn't it? I bet things would change if everybody had to get through their days without any at all...
Three days in to the Fifty/Ninety Songwriting Challenge and I already have three songs under my belt. Given that it's early morning as I type this, I expect to have another two songs completed by the close of play today.
This is the first Fifty/Ninety I've done since I completely revamped my home recording setup over the last quarter of last year, and I can already notice a different feel to things. I have a significant amount of new software to use, that is true, but moving my setup to a proper purpose-built desk has given me more room to stretch out and the music I'm producing seems to be stretching out in response. Not having a bed frame six inches above my head has definitely helped as well. The mild sense of claustrophobia I'd get with the old arrangement has gone. And running Ableton Live on a 4K screen or two is another thing that has helped my musical ambitions to grow, creatively speaking. As I've said elsewhere, I'm inspired every time I walk into the room.
But the biggest challenge anyone faces as a musician these days is simply getting what you've done into people's ears. It doesn't matter how much better I get at writing and performing if nobody ever hears what I do. Posting songs on the Fifty/Ninety site means that I have an audience that is prepared to listen, and that provides the biggest buzz I get these days, from making music or anything else: knowing that other people are enjoying what I do. This is how I get my brain to generate endorphins these days.
So please forgive me if I become somewhat obsessed with reporting on my progress on the challenge here on the blog over the next three months or so. Given that I only need to write 5/9ths of a song every day until 1st October I'm currently working at a much faster rate than I need to. I have already started to get a little crazy and absolutely anything is likely to result in me deciding to write a song about it. There are no filters; there's no second-guessing whether any material will find resonances with other people's experiences. The trick is to throw as much as possible at the wall and see what sticks, although I'd like to think that I will be devoting rather more care in crafting each of my creations than Van Morrison famously—and quite intentionally—did to fulfil his contractual obligation to Bang Records back in 1967 (when, during a single recording session, he improvised thirty-one songs that are hideously, gleefully awful).
But if I start posting songs about doughnuts, please be prepared to stage an intervention, okay?
I didn't finish the "Fifty/Ninety: The Prequel" songwriting challenge today with a win, but I still managed to write and record thirty new pieces of music that wouldn't exist if I hadn't taken part. With being rather under the weather I've been avoiding singing over the last week or so and I focused on instrumentals instead. I challenged myself to create music that evoked a particular mood or feeling in a cinematic way, and I think I succeeded. I've certainly had plenty of inspiration from the new toys that I've added to my collection, now that I have Komplete 13 Ultimate installed on the studio PC. There are some beautiful-sounding instruments in the package and I will be making plenty of use of them when Fifty/Ninety gets under way once again tomorrow.
This afternoon I recorded two moody instrumentals, and then went on to capture some external sounds for future productions. Unlike the last set of yellow warnings of thunderstorms that were issued for South Gloucestershire recently, today's actually delivered, with plenty of strikes hitting home in and around the village.
The closest happened about ten seconds after I pressed record on my Tascam DR-40 digital recorder, which I'd set up on a tripod on the bathroom windowsill. It was a sharp, loud, and vicious crack, and not at all like the distant, continuous rumbles of thunder I recorded during the big storm that we got here last August. When I checked Lightningmaps, I could see that the strike hit the play area just off Manor Lane, which is just 150 metres away; no wonder it sounded loud. I got a couple of other dramatic recordings over the space of the next twenty minutes or so. I don't know what I'll use them for, but they will definitely get used sooner or later.
One thing I intend doing tomorrow is getting up rather earlier than quarter past eleven. I had a rough night last night and didn't get to sleep until well after two o'clock in the morning (I gave up trying to sleep and watched most of Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home, which was being shown on Film Four as part of a weekend Star Trek marathon.) I hate not being able to sleep properly at this time of year.
But I am very much looking forward to taking part in one of my favourite songwriting challenges tomorrow. I've updated my Music Page to reflect my latest musical adventures, and the studio is ready and waiting for the kick-off.
I've made a lot of lovely friends as a result of taking part, and I am very much looking forward to hearing what they're going to come up with over the next ninety days. Let's do this!
If you're a musician who is trying to learn how to improve the results that you're getting from your home setup, YouTube—despite all of its efforts to the contrary—provides a valuable resource.
Last night I was browsing videos about some of the virtual instruments in my ever-expanding collection, and came across a demonstration of the main features of the Galaxy Instruments/Native Instruments piano Noire, which was sampled from Nils Frahm's extensively modified Yamaha CFX grand piano. Even though I've owned Noire for a few months now and used it extensively on my album Spontaneous Grand Pianos, I had no idea that it could do some of the things that are shown in the video.
And that meant that rather than going to bed, as I should have done, I had to fire up my DAW and explore things for myself. Two hours later, I had a gently contemplative piece that pretty much came out of nowhere. I love it when things like that happen. As I commented in yesterday's blog, I sem to have got some of my mojo back.
I see the government has found a tame expert prepared to go on the record to say that children shouldn't be vaccinated. Presumably Professor Semple doesn't read the Science Based Medicine website, because the balance of the evidence appears to be quite clear that actually, they should be; indeed, multiple health organizations strongly recommend vaccination for children aged 12 and above.
But given that the government decided this week that the current system of having schoolkids self-isolate after contact with someone with Covid was too tiresome to bother enforcing, I guess that we shouldn't expect anything that resembles common sense to dictate policy any more. When it comes to children, the prime minister's not too bothered with the fine details, after all. We don't even know how many he's sired.
I just wish I could be vaccinated against hayfever, too. This week has been brutal and I'm being clobbered.