One side-effect of busying myself in writing lots of different types of music over the last four weeks or so is that time doesn't pass by as quickly as it does when my routine is the same, day after day. July feels like it's been a long month. And that's good, right?
I've been extremely busy in the studio since last week's blog, and I've made good progress toward my target of writing not just fifty songs for the Fifty/Ninety Songwriting Challenge, but a hundred. As of right now, my song count stands at thirty-five tracks, so my current batting average works out as writing around 1.35 songs a day for a challenge that needs me to write 0.55 songs a day; at this point last year I'd only written twenty-five songs, and by the time the challenge finished on October 1st there were ninety-five pieces of music sitting on my profile page, so I should be on target with a comfortable margin to allow for a rest day or two.
And I think I'll be taking one or two of those next month, because despite appearances to the contrary I'm not finding it easy to sustain this rate of work at all. It's lovely being able to spend hour after hour in what the late Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed Flow, a state of engrossment in work so great that you cease to register the passage of time, but it can be very draining. As a result I've been getting PTSD flare-ups quite a lot this week and I've been feeling very down over the last few days (as is clearly evidenced by the content of many of my recent lyrics). Bill White's comment on song number 35 that he finds more inspiration in the darkness than in the light is very prevalent among songwriters (Bob Dylan's best songs are almost universally full of rage and on the occasions when his personal life was at its happiest, he was accused of losing his edge as a songwriter; when he was in his seventies, Leonard Cohen went back out on the road and wrote some of his best late work after he was ripped off by his manager to the tune of some five million dollars and had no choice but to rebuild his retirement fund from scratch).
No, I'm not comparing myself to either of them. I'm just an amateur hack, but I do write songs, and I know I get more engaged with what I'm writing about when my hackles are raised. And writing songs about such matters which other people can listen to is a way of pretending that you are exerting some control—however minor it might be—over a world that increasingly looks like it is running off the rails. I'm not, of course. But I can pretend...
The trouble is, that's not a great mindset to carry with you in everyday life and what with the pandemic and being ill with other things, I've become a bit of a misanthropic recluse lately. I need to change that.
Less than three weeks after the challenge started, my song count for this year's Fifty/Ninety songwriting marathon now stands at 26. I've passed the half-way point (or for me, the quarter-of-the-way-there point) more than a week earlier than I did last year, and I've managed to finish two songs a day for the last couple of days. I'm having fun; I don't seem to be running short of ideas and several of my recent songs pretty much wrote themselves; the process felt ridiculously easy. That shouldn't be too much of a surprise given that I've now written more than 1,080 pieces of music since I signed up for February Album Writing Month back in 2009. The adage about the more practice you get at doing something the better you get at doing it is a simplification of a much more finely-nuanced reality, but in general terms it holds true. At this point I have almost certainly put in the ten thousand hours of work that Malcolm Gladwell asserted made you an expert practitioner. I'm no expert, but I don't make so many dumb mistakes these days, and I spend less time going down dead-end rabbit holes in pursuit of my creative goals. A lot less time—hence me being able to write and record two complex, fully-produced songs in a day.
If only that were something I could make money doing. Apparently back in the 70s and 80s it was quite possible...
After a couple of extremely unpleasant days in which the UK temperature record wasn't just broken, but smashed by more than a degree, it's turned cooler and overcast here and outside it's a much more manageable 21°C. On Monday the temperature in the back garden hit 39°C, which is the highest I've seen since I started tracking things. Closing the windows and drawing the curtains to keep the house cool worked to a certain extent on Monday, but as things didn't cool down much on Monday night, the heat had started to seep in, and on Tuesday morning it was 30°C upstairs. Sleeping is very difficult for me at the best of times, but for the last couple of days it's been impossible to do more than doze.
So today, I'm exhausted and yes, I know that's pretty much my default condition these days. Yesterday I wrote one complete song and recorded my contribution to a massive collaboration that runs throughout the summer that's known as the Kaiju Exquisite Corpse for reasons that are unlikely to be clarified here. By one in the afternoon it was too hot to carry on in the studio, so I switched everything off and called it a day. Today I'll be back at it for a while, but I suspect I won't be putting in a full day. I have another exquisite corpse collaboration to kick off, but I think the main activity in which I'll be indulging today will be taking lots of naps.
And while the respite is most welcome, we're not out of the woods yet. Weather forecasters are saying that some models are showing signs of an omega block forming over Europe that would trap hot air over the continent for the duration of the summer. If that happens, the extreme heat could return for weeks rather than days. Not good.
The Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge started exactly two weeks ago, and my progress this year (the tenth in which I've particpated) has been considerably faster than usual. I just uploaded track number 20 to my profile page on the site. That's an hour and 26 minutes of music which I've produced in the last fortnight. I feel like the quality of the work I'm doing this year has improved, too, particularly when it comes to production stuff like mixing and mastering. I've still got so much to learn about it all, but these days I tend to be a lot more critical of what I'm doing. I keep telling myself that I know I can do better, and it turns out that I can.
In a normal year, I would therefore be forty per cent of the way toward the challenge target of writing fifty songs before October 1st. But this is not a normal year by any means, and I have set myself a stretch goal of writing not fifty songs, but one hundred. So I'm a fifth of the way toward my target with ten weeks and five days left to run.
Unless something goes remarkably pear-shaped in the next couple of months, I think I can do this. And do it quite comfortably.
Ironically, however, "comfortably" is not a word that can be used to describe my condition at the moment. It is stupidly, frighteningly hot in the UK this week. The weather forecast here has been revised upwards from what it was when I last blogged about it, and by 4 pm this afternoon it's expected to be 36°C outside. I've just checked in the back garden and it's already 35°C out there.
Houses here are built to keep heat inside, not shut it out, because the weather that we're used to is cold and damp. That's looking increasingly like a thing of the past, and how we'll adjust to the changing climate is looking more and more uncertain. Nobody in government seems to be taking anything seriously any more (and I see on the news that our current loafer in chief just skipped today's emergency COBRA meeting because he couldn't be arsed, something that has become a bit of a habit with him).
I open the windows at night to let the hot air out of the house. I'm finding it almost impossible to sleep at the moment, so I've been getting up at around 4 am and closing them all again before the heat starts to build. Right now I've got the windows closed and the curtains drawn, and that's managed to keep the temperature in the living room to a reasonable 24°C. But if things get worse than this (and I don't see any scenario in which they won't) then maybe I'm going to have to start thinking about getting air-conditioning installed...
This time last year I blogged about the fact that the Met Office had issued their first ever amber warning of extreme heat, which covered Wales and South West England. Today, they updated the amber warning for next week that was issued a few days ago to their first ever red warning and it covers pretty much the whole of central England. I'm near the Severn Estuary here, which keeps temperatures down a little, but even so the forecast temperature for here on Monday and Tuesday has been revised upwards to 34°C and further inland, temperatures are expected to reach even higher, up to 39°C in the London area. That talk I mentioned last time of temperatures hitting 40°C in places is now looking like a certainty.
It's worth setting out what the Met Office's red warning means, so here are the main points:
- Population-wide adverse health effects are likely to be experienced, not limited to those most vulnerable to extreme heat, leading to potential serious illness or danger to life. Government advice is that 999 services should be used in emergencies only; seek advice from 111 if you need non-emergency health advice
- Substantial changes in working practices and daily routines likely to be required
- Significantly more people are likely to visit coastal areas, lakes and rivers leading to increased risk of water safety incidents
- Delays on roads and road closures are possible, along with delays and cancellations to rail and air travel, with potential for significant welfare issues for those who experience even moderate delays
At this point, I think it's worth observing that one of the front-runners in the Tory Party leadership race was reported as having accepted a £10,000 donation from one of the UK's most vociferous climate science deniers in January this year. I bet she'd hate for that news story to start circulating again right now. Her multi-millionaire colleague Rishi Sunak is no better, either.
My song count for Fifty/Ninety continues to rise. As of last night, I have fifteen songs for you to listen to on my profile page. If I can sustain my present rate for the rest of the challenge, I'll end up with 135 songs rather than the target of fifty. That's... a lot. You may remember that last year I ended up with a grand total of 95 pieces of music recorded, and I thought I'd gone nuts then.
I'm pretty sure that I won't be able to carry on at my current rate for the duration of the summer (and things are almost certain to take a hit next week when the heatwave arrives and the studio gets too hot to work in with all my gear running), but I think it's a great indication of how much more efficient my music making workflow is these days compared to back when all my gear was crammed under a bunk bed and I considered reaching the challenge's standard target of fifty songs a major achievement.
The new site continues to be buffed and polished with new features appearing as Burr and the gang update the code. We can use pictures in posts again, now, hooray! He likens the process to laying down the tracks in front of the train while it's moving, but the team have done a great job of keeping things from running off the rails. I do miss knowing how many songs have been uploaded to the site so far, though (because I'm a nerd). The site's statistics code is still in development, so there's also no count of how many songs there are on my profile (did I mention that it's fifteen, right now?) and I don't know how many comments I've left on other people's songs, although the fact that as a result I'm not stressing about reaching a hundred comments or more is a bonus right now. I suspect that other people are feeling the same way, as the number of comments that my stuff gets is noticeably down on last year. Every year the number of people taking part in Fifty/Ninety is in the middle hundreds, so it's not a large community at all (my network there is not much bigger than the Dunbar number, in fact) but there definitely seems to be fewer people about.
The new site design also seems to be putting off the idiots who create profiles there in a misguided attempt to improve their clients' web search results. I've only had to suspend one user so far today. That's a good thing.
The first deep field images from the James Webb Space Telescope have been released, and they're every bit as breathtaking as I'd hoped they'd be. There's an insane amount of gravitaional lensing going on (a phenomenon where the gravitational field of a nearer galaxy acts like a mahoosive magnifying glass, turning the image from its normal shape into a curvy, bendy arc) in the first image to be released, which is of the galaxy cluster SMACS0723 in the Southern Hemisphere constellation of Volans. The target was picked because—well, it's a galaxy supercluster. It has a lot of gravity to use for lensing, and as can be seen in this comparison of images of the same region of the sky taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, that magnifying effect has revealed a lot of much more distant (and therefore much, much older) galaxies that were lurking behind it. The light from some of those galaxies set out on its journey to the JWST just 300 million years after the Big Bang, 13.5 billion years ago.
The JWST image was compiled from just 12.5 hours of data, so this is just a taste of what's to come from the instrument in the next few years. By comparison, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image was made from 11.3 days of exposures.
NASA and ESA will be releasing more images today, including some of the Carina nebula, and you all know just how much I'm obsessed with that particular region of the sky:
I am really excited about seeing them.
When I finished Sunday night's live stream, it was 31°C (88°F) in the studio. For the last couple of days, it's been very warm here; one of the sensors in the back garden registered 33°C and I have had to limit the amount of time I spend with all my recording gear powered up. Despite this I've now got 11 songs done for the 50/90 challenge and I'll write another song today before it gets too hot inside.
But I'm somewhat concerned by the forecast for next week from Sunday onwards, which is predicting that temperatures here will hit 30°C on Sunday and 32°C on Monday. Some of the meteorological sites I follow have been talking about seeing their forecast models hitting a staggering 40°C. That's really not good at all.
In that sort of weather it's best to stay indoors, close the windows before it gets too hot outside, draw the curtains or blinds, and sit inside sipping cold drinks, so that is pretty much all I will be doing. I really don't enjoy hot weather.
Four days in to the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge, I'm well on the way to my target of writing not fifty songs, but a hundred. I'm already 5% of the way there, too, as I had five songs uploaded to my profile page on the site by the close of play yesterday.
I had a lie-in this morning and I'm chilling out with a cup of coffee, because yesterday was pretty much full-on; I have finished (for now) tweaks to my next Bandcamp release, which entailed re-recording whole instrument tracks for existing songs because I didn't like the sound any more, rewriting verse lyrics and rerecording vocals, and updating the effects processing chain on the master bus. Despite doing all that and doing a live stream for more than 90 minutes in the evening, I still found time to write another new song—counting the old stuff for the challenge would be cheating, after all—and this one was in 9/8, which is not a time signature that I'm used to. After writing and singing lyrics for it, I know exactly why that is.
But when I finally powered down all my gear in the studio last night, it was 31°C (88°F) in there. It was still uncomfortably warm when I checked inside earlier today, so I'm airing the place out with the windows open for a while. That should bring the temperature down to a workable level. After I've posted this entry to the blog, I'll be back at it once again; I'm having a lot of fun.
The grand recoding of everything continues, so we can't do absolutely everything that the old website let us do just yet, but the new Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge site is now live, and very spiffy it looks too. I will be spending an inordinate amount of time there for the next three months, as this year I plan on writing and recording not fifty pieces of music in ninety days, but a mind-bending one hundred.
There. I've said it two days in a row. I'm committed now.
It shouldn't be that much of a stretch for me, as last year I ended up with a final total of 95 tracks. Did I mention that these days I'm completely obsessed with making music?
It's July, and I've not had the best start to the month. There have already been several power cuts here this morning and I've only just got my TP-Link router back up and running; it does not respond well to outages and it needed rebooting four times before it decided that its connection with the outside world was stable enough to use. I am feeling particularly peeved because one power cut happened just as I'd clicked on "save" on the image file for this month's blog header. When the power came back I had to do the whole thing over from scratch. Bah!
I am attempting to relax by updating the blog to the blissed-out sounds of Ambient Sleeping Pill radio on my big audio system, which is using—somewhat ironically—its Internet connection to stream it into the living room.
I have become quite a fan of Internet radio since I bought a Pure radio for my bedroom a few years back which had the facility built in. When I bought it, I didn't think I'd use the function but after trying it out I rapidly became hooked because the reception over the net was far better than I was getting over the air. The Pure eventually died on me. I wasn't particularly upset, as its matt-black finish had become a nasty, sticky mess that collected dust like it was going out of fashion. Instead of buying a newer model I replaced it with a Roberts radio that was better all round (it won awards) which is still in daily use. I even have an app on my phone that lets me browse for new stations for it, control it from wherever I happen to be, and edit its preset list. I've used that last function rather more than I expected to, because Internet radio stations can be transitory, ephemeral beasts. On more than one occasion I've found one which I really enjoyed listening to, only to find the following month that it had disappeared without trace. My current favourites include a station that only plays music from SEGA video games (Internet radio stations can be entertainingly niche), one that broadcasts radio plays from the 1950s that were adapted from science fiction short stories published in Galaxy magazine, and a selection of ambient radio stations like Ambient Sleeping Pill that I can tune to, set the radio's sleep timer to 45 minutes, close my eyes, and try to drift off to sleep. Thanks to the state of my health these days I'm frequently still awake when the radio switches itself off, but at least I get to listen to some decent music.
I should have a new album for you in a few days. I'm planning on releasing Star Stuff before the songwriting challenge of Fifty/Ninety gets under way on Monday and once again I shall be attempting to write fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st. It'll be the tenth year that I've taken part, and I have a great time doing so—my success rate so far has been one hundred per cent, and last year I rather overdid things and ended up with 95 completed pieces of music by the time October the first arrived. This year, I'm going to try for a hundred songs. Because I'm crazy.
Burr and the team are currently hard at work writing code for a completely revamped version of the 50/90 website that will then be used for February Album Writing Month next year. so it'll be accessed through the FAWM URL. I am really looking forward to diving in to the new site, and the screen grabs that I've seen so far look great.
In the meanwhile, I have another album I need to finish. Out There is coming on nicely, but I need another three songs or so before I can say that one's done. So that's my weekend sorted...