It's the last day of September. And right now it feels like it's also the last days of the Conservative party. The pound is in freefall and the Treasury has been pointing out that the Tories' explanation as to why this is happening isn't true. Meanwhile, Kwasi Kwarteng's old boss made a killing on the markets by betting against the pound shortly after he had lunch with the Chancellor and I'm sure they'd both like us all to think that those two events were in no way connected and that it doesn't appear to be even the slightest bit dodgy. Liz Truss did a round of interviews with local radio stations yesterday. It did not go well.
Yesterday's poll of voting intentions by YouGov gives the Labour Party a staggering thirty-three point lead. I've seen a number of projections of what that would result in, should a general election be called today. The most optimistic forecast I've seen—for the Tories, that is—would leave the Conservative party with just two seats in Parliament.
Thanks to legislation which was introduced by the very same party, Liz and her cronies don't have to call an election until 2024. But whether they will be able to cling on to power that long is anyone's guess. I think it's looking increasingly unlikely.
The Tory party conference begins at the weekend. It's going to be great fun watching the party implode. Bring popcorn.
It's nearly October, and the Fifty/Ninety Challenge will draw to a close on Sunday. At present I have 110 songs posted on my profile page there, which is even more than the ambitious target of one hundred songs that I set myself back at the end of June. I ought to be at the "gently coasting across the finish line" stage of things now, but as I'm me this hasn't really happened. I've only eased off slightly this week, and for me that has meant only writing one song each day instead of two or three. And that's happening not because I'm running out of ideas but simply because I've been trying to catch up on sleep. This morning I woke up briefly at 7 am and then nodded off again, waiting for the alarm clock to go off at 8:15 and wake me up again.
If it went off, I didn't hear it. The next time I looked at the clock it was twenty to eleven. I guess I'm very tired at the moment, although I didn't think I was that tired. I will be having a rest during October. I'm planning on next week being a very quiet affair. I have a stack of books I need to read, and the mental discipline required for focusing on a book is very different to music production and a great way to unwind while keeping my mind ticking over.
I have a bunch of non-music stuff to do this afternoon, but I'm sure I'll have added at least one more song by the end of the day because I've already written the lyrics for it. I no longer have a specific target for my final song count as I've already smashed my goal, but I will be working away until the end of the challenge. Because it's so much fun.
I've spent most of this afternoon very happily noodling away in my home studio. In the last day I've been busy recording contributions to two collaborations as well as laying down some new stuff of my own. As a result, my count on the Fifty/Ninety site has now reached 102 songs, and there are another three pieces that I played on in the pipeline on top of those. I'm pretty sure that I have a few more songs left in me before the challenge finally draws to a close at noon BST a week tomorrow (when it will no longer be the first of October anywhere in the world). We'll see how I get on, but I love how my new Focal monitors are sounding (and oh boy, was I right to get them when I did; the price of a pair has already risen by forty pounds since I bought mine and with the pound currently tanking worldwide in the wake of new chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng's first budget, I suspect that's only the start. They're not going to be getting any cheaper...)
I was glad I took a break for a few days this week, though. The back garden almost looks tidy. The new lawnmower was able to cope with the overgrown state of the back lawn without any problems and is a doddle to use (the thing weighs about half as much as the Flymo it replaced, and it's quieter, too). I'm still feeling the effects of doing a bunch of physical work for the first time in a month or two, though. I'm very sore, and the gall and kidney stones I'm suffering from have been making their presence felt in no uncertain terms, particularly at night when I'm lying down and trying to get to sleep. It's not been fun.
But mentally, I feel much better now than I did back in June. Setting myself an ambitious goal for the summer (one of my friends described it as "impossible") and actually pulling it off has done great things for my self-esteem. And making music is ludicrously good fun. That's why I do it so much.
I have now found a quarter-terabyte memory stick that plays nicely with my Roberts radio, so once again I have access to my music collection while I'm lying in bed. After my old mp3 player died on me I was surprised by how much of a habit my bedtime listening sessions had become, and I really missed them.
One of the most self-indulgent things I do these days is to just set aside an hour or so, pick a favourite album, and lie in bed listening to it on headphones. These days, I listen to favourite recordings with a different perspective, however. There's a part of me that's engaged with the music, sure, but I'm also analysing how everything is put together. Not just from a compositional point of view but also the recording and production techniques employed, the placement of each element in the stereo mix, the amount of compression or filtering going on, and all manner of other nuances. Some people seem to think that doing this robs the music of its magic, but for me it just adds to it.
I took another day off from music-making yesterday. To take my mind off the woeful state of current affairs at the moment I spent four hours tackling the outside of the house and the garden, which I have barely touched since July. After a month of quiescence during the heatwave, the Virginia creeper on the house had burst into rampant growth and had reached the roof again, so I had to get the ladder out and cut it back. In doing so I managed to slice my finger open on my off-road set of mountain bike tyres (don't ask). There was blood everywhere.
After that task was completed, it was time to tackle the back garden. First order of the day was to remove the brambles that were running amok everywhere I looked. That led to a serious bout of pruning and then sweeping up the mountain of dead leaves that had accumulated in the far corner of the patio. By this point my garden waste bin was already three-quarters full, but I still had the back lawn to tackle. After doing nothing for most of the last two months, it had put on a late spurt of growth in the past week and the grass was 15 cm high in places.
I managed to get the grass in the front tidied up without any problems, but a third of the way through cutting the back lawn, my poor old Flymo gave up the ghost. Its motor sounds shot and would only burst into life for a couple of seconds before cutting out completely. So I pulled out my old cylinder mower from the darkest recesses of the garage and tried that instead. No dice. It was completely unresponsive. I sighed (more out of relief than anything else, as by this time I'd been working hard for about four hours), put everything back in the garage, and called it quits for the day. Neither mower owes me anything, as I reckon the Flymo is at least twenty years old and the cylinder mower is probably closer to thirty. I've ordered a replacement, which should be delivered later today, and I'll take the old ones to the dump next week.
After all that physical exertion, I was a bit of a wreck. I mopped up the blood in the bathroom from my cut finger escapade and then sank into a hot bath for an hour. It didn't really help much and by the time I'd had tea, I was done. I took a couple of painkillers and went to bed, and had the worst night's sleep I've had in weeks. See, it all balances out in the end...
This morning, everything aches. It hurts when I move. I will be taking things extremely slowly for the rest of the day. But at least the garden looks like somebody lives here again.
Last night my subconscious clearly noticed that I've taken my foot off the gas as far as songwriting goes. I slept like a log, and according to my watch at several times last night I enjoyed phases of continuous, deep NREM sleep that lasted more than an hour. I woke up this morning actually feeling refreshed, and I can't remember the last time I could say that. I can feel myself starting to relax, which is interesting because I hadn't realised how wound up I'd made myself over the last two and a half months, although if you've been reading the blog since the end of June I guess it's been pretty darn obvious to you. Back then (and believe me, it makes for grim reading) I wrote "I could really do with a win right now." I think this counts as one.
I suspect that another reason why I slept better last night is that the outside temperature has really started to fall away overnight. Last Thursday night it got down to 5°C (that's 41°F) and that was enough to get me pulling a blanket for my bed out of the airing cupboard. It's been needed on subsequent nights, too. When I checked the max/min thermometer in the conservatory this morning, the back garden had seen a low of 1°C (34°F). I've not switched the summer duvet back to the winter one just yet, but I don't think it'll be long before I do.
I'm also back to wearing jumpers or fleeces inside instead of just jeans and a t-shirt. The sharp rise in energy prices—many times larger in the UK than in the EU, for instance—is a concern for me these days, and I'm sure it is for a lot of other people as well, so I'm in no rush to turn the central heating back on.
With a fortnight of the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge left, this evening I hit my target:
Believe me, I have already derived a lot of satisfaction from seeing that song counter in triple digits. Getting there was harder than I'd expected, but that was partly because I chose to make things much harder for myself after deciding that I wasn't going to include more than a couple of pieces that were recorded by playing guitar into a loop pedal. Doing that isn't what I'd call cheating, by any means; there is still considerable layering and multi-tracking involved in creating pieces like that; they don't just happen. But last year I ended up recording fourteen pieces using that technique, and while it didn't exactly feel like cheating, I felt that was too much in a very odd way that I'm too worn out to elucidate right now. It's not like I was posting songs I'd written before the challenge even started, for instance—for me that really isn't entering into the spirit of the challenge. However, after announcing that I wanted to get to a hundred tracks this summer, I knew I needed to do it properly, and my (completely spurious) rules is rules.
And thus, I have now done the ton. I will be taking things much easier for the next few days, I think. I have been surprised by the amount of mental effort that was needed once I'd worked my way through all of my low-hanging fruit—in the form of all the ideas I'd had since FAWM and had deliberately not done anything about. As a songwriter, leaving things to ripen like that takes willpower. It was worth it, though; I ended up doing some good work in the first few weeks of the challenge. But once I'd used up that collection of ideas, I had to start coming up with more material from scratch. And I had to do so consistently, because I've averaged writing, recording, mixing and mastering at least one entirely new song every day. You learn a lot about being creative when you have to find something else to sing about the next day. And the next. But crikey, the numbers soon start to pile up. If you go by the old standards of LPs, which lasted twenty minutes a side, then so far this summer I've come up with the equivalent of ten albums since July 4th; it would take you six hours and thirty-eight minutes to listen to them all from start to finish. Let that sink in for a moment, if you will. I've worked hard at this!
But right now, I need a break. I'm sure I'll end up writing a few more songs before October, but first I need to decompress and ease back on the obsessive side of my nature which really comes to the fore when I'm making music. This summer, I have unashamedly let it completely take over, but it's really not great for my mental health to do so for protracted periods of time. I badly need to normalise things. That might take a while, as my musical side has got rather used to the idea of getting a workout every day. And my obsessive side has had free rein for most of the last three months. We'll see how much of a fight they put up when I try putting them back in the box.
I recorded a couple of instrumental pieces yesterday and that takes my Fifty/Ninety tally to ninety songs completed and published. I still have more than half of September left to reach my target of one hundred songs. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure how I've managed to sustain the sort of work rate I have—it works out as writing, recording, and mixing one-and-a-quarter new songs every day—since the 4th of July. I think it probably has something to do with letting the idea that I could pull it off completely take over my life. But has this obsession resulted in me leaving everyone else taking part this year in the dust?
Not even close. I barely scraped into the top five.
The latest Blue Origin rocket flight was a bit more eventful than is good for such things. As Scott mentions in his video, it was an unmanned test flight, but the rate at which the escape system accelerated the capsule away from the booster raised some eyebrows; it looked rather alarmingly quick. Had William Shatner been aboard, for example, I can't imagine it would have been very comfortable for him; he's in his nineties. An event like this will no doubt mean that no more crewed flights of New Shepard will be taking place for quite a few months.
Yesterday I wrote and recorded another three pieces of music that varied widely in style from rock to—well, to stuff that I'm not sure how I'd categorise it, to be honest. Only one of the tracks had vocals, and after listening back to it, I rather wish that it didn't. I sound like I'm half-comatose. There is absolutely no energy or vim or enthusiasm to be heard in my voice whatsoever. After all that much-vaunted talk of maintaining quality in my output last week, the wheels have well and truly come off the wagon.
Why? Because I'm knackered. I'm totally run-down, everything hurts, and all I really want to do at the moment is spend the day in bed reading while somebody else's music plays in the background. I was told in no uncertain terms in my Twitch stream chat last night that I'm pushing myself much too hard. And yep, totally agree. I know I am. But I'm not taking my foot off the accelerator just yet.
Because I now have 87 songs listed on the Fifty/Ninety website, and with my contribution to a collaboration that is still in progress already in the can, I just need to write a dozen more songs to hit my target of a double Fifty/Ninety with a hundred songs. Right now I feel like I ought to get those out of the way as quickly as possible so that I can shut the studio down for a while and relax by doing something that doesn't involve making music or writing lyrics in any way. Every year when the challenge is over, the post-event crash kicks in and I don't feel like doing anything at all for a week or so. At this stage, I'm almost looking forward to that. Almost.
So other events meant that we didn't get the Tour of Britain passing through the village last Friday. The main road through the village is now in better shape than it's been for several years, though, as on Thursday the council were frantically patching as many potholes and cracks in it as they could, presumably to make sure that they didn't end up on the news as the result of a pileup.
I will miss noticing the subtle hints that HM would drop that revealed a quite wicked sense of humour. The Chromakey™ green coat from a few years back; turning up at a function with the PM just after Brexit wearing an ensemble in EU colours; the fantastically on-point coded messages of her quiet brooch game during Donald Trump's gaffe-laden visit as President were just the most endearing examples for me. And anyone game for doing a routine with James Bond one moment and Paddington the next obviously had a fine sense of fun.
So, we have a King now. I've never been able to say that before, and I'm sixty-two. That still feels very weird.
The Epson scanner's arrived, and I'm very pleased with the results I've been getting with it. It's nice to have software for it that runs natively under Windows 10 again, too. I think it needs calibrating, as I have noticed the colour balance is a little off, but that's not too hard to do.
So yesterday I spent a happy hour at my big drawing board in the conservatory drawing a page full of new headers for the blog. As I mentioned at the start of last month, I have run out of banner graphics for upcoming blog pages, so it was time to craft some more. You'll be seeing them at the top of the page in the upcoming months.
As I mentioned on Monday, I sat down in the evening to watch the new 4K release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I hadn't watched the film for quite a while, and it still moves at a glacially slow pace (it takes nearly an hour before the Enterprise comes into play, for example.) But let's just put that down to the sensibilities of film editing as they stood back in the 1970s, and move on...
The Atmos soundtrack sounds superb, and clearly a lot of time and effort was put into making it really stand out. I wish I could say the same about the visuals. Yes, the shots filmed on set are gorgeous, and they really show off the 4K resolution and HDR that my TV can handle. And the early shots of Spock's Kolinahr ceremony on Vulcan blend the miniatures with newly-rendered backgrounds far better than the 2001 version could manage. But I was surprised by how bad some of the effects shots still looked, even after the film's much-vaunted "restoration". There are still plenty of thick black matte outlines in evidence on shots of spacecraft or figures in spacesuits. In one or two cases, there is noticeable tearing on these outlines, particularly early on when Mr Scott takes Kirk on his sightseeing tour around Space Dock, which is incredibly distracting. And in the culminating shot of that sequence, as we look past Scotty and Kirk at the Enterprise through the window of the Worker Bee, the whole of what's outside is out of focus.
There's a bucketload of random physical extras in the box set including adhesive stickers and four very cheesy bumper stickers that look like they were put together by the office intern, but overall I think the new release only gets a 7/10 from me. Given that this was put together as the tentpole release for Paramount's new subscription streaming service, I expected something a lot better than this.
These days I get my reading fix from World of Books instead of Amazon. It works out much cheaper to get titles I'm interested in second-hand, too. But there can be drawbacks.
I'm currently reading Confrontations, one of Jacques Vallée's examinations of the UFO phenomenon which was originally published in 1990, and I've ended up with a hardback copy of the book from back then; it's a British first edition. The pages are yellowed, which is probably understandable for a book that's more than thirty years old, because the acids that remain in paper that's used for cheaper, mass-market books tend to discolour the pages after a while. But that isn't the case with this copy.
The yellow discoloration is nicotine. The book reeks of cigarette smoke. God only knows what the house of its previous owner smelled like. Yes kids, back in the day some folk used to smoke truly prodigious numbers of cigarettes every day and this book clearly used to belong to such a person. I've been gently sponging the book with a moist tissue to try and thin out the smell, and the tissue comes away from the paper stained yellow.
My parents used to keep an eye on one older widower with a smoking habit like that who lived over the road from us back in the Bromley days, and at some point Mum decided that she ought to take this guy's living room curtains down and give them a wash, because they were looking a bit... orange. I will never forget seeing them when she brought them back to our house to put through the washing machine, because they were so impregnated with nicotine that they were rigid; she had them propped up against the wall. Ugh.
With 25 days left in the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge, I have now written and recorded eighty pieces of music and posted them on my profile page on the site (where, should you wish to do so, you can give them a listen. You don't have to sign up for the challenge or anything). I have also participated in another mass collaboration project known as the Kaiju Corpse for reasons that are too complicated to go into right now, and that will be added to my total when it's finally released so I have just nineteen more songs to write to make the rather ludicrous target I set myself of having one hundred tracks in the can by October 1st. I've picked up the pace over the last few days and have been writing a couple of songs every day. I'm working hard at maintaining quality, mind; I've started the creative process for every song this summer with the intent of writing a killer, not a filler. I've been pleasantly surprised to find that for the most part I'm still coming up with decent ideas for material and the proportion of songs that I listen back to and think "Ugh, never listening to that again!" is much, much lower than it has been in previous years. Going back and listening to your output can be very motivating; if you're like me, you'll be very motivated not to do anything like that ever again!
But that's an important point, and it's worth drawing out here. If you want to be a songwriter, you need to write a lot of material because that process of listening to your song when it's complete and discovering that what you did wasn't anywhere near as good as you thought it was at the time is—unless you're completely delusional and think you've achieved perfection at your first attempt—how you improve your craft. The songs I post on the Fifty/Ninety site are first or second attempts, but if we were thinking of songs as novels, they would all be first drafts. They're ideas that may or may not have what it takes to become proper songs, even though I'm editing them and giving them a polish right up to the point I render them out and turn them into mp3 files for uploading. If I think a song has what it takes to release it on Bandcamp, I'll go back and start the rewriting process to get it up to spec. But it took me a very long time to realise that going back and editing stuff (like I've gone back and edited this blog entry, incidentally) isn't cheating at all. It's how you end up with better material. It's how your songs (and your train of thought, here) gain clarity. It was discovering that Leonard Cohen wrote seventy-five verses of "Hallelujah!" before he was happy with it that finally convinced me that I really ought to be taking more care in putting together the music I was making, and that a "finished" song didn't mean what I thought it meant.
It's possible to have the opposite problem, I know. Rather than banging out the first draft and calling it done, a lot of people obsess over finessing their songs to the point that nobody else ever hears them. There's a reason why there are so many memes of skeletons sitting at mixing desks with the caption "The mix is almost finished!" underneath: that's what sitting in the studio can be like a lot of the time. Much of that behaviour is driven by fear, because if other people hear what you've done, what are you going to do if they don't like it?
Answer: it depends what it is they don't like. If you're shouting into the mic so much that your voice is distorting horribly, then maybe you should be standing a lot further away from the mic; if there's a trail of bangs and crashes, or noises of heavy breathing before the song starts or after it finishes, maybe you should think about getting some software that will let you edit those parts out; and if you're woefully out of tune, maybe consider investing in singing lessons or a copy of Melodyne. But if it's something that you made a conscious decision to do in the song, that's way more subjective and you'll have to make a choice to either keep it as it is, or take your critic's advice.
Breaking the mindset of fearing to commit is one of the principal objectives of the FAWM and Fifty/Ninety challenges: getting people to tell themselves, "This one's done for now" and letting it out into the wild. Think of it this way: once you have critics of your own, you can call yourself a proper songwriter!
Yes, learning that some of your songs aren't the masterpieces you wanted them to be can be painful. You no doubt invested a lot of time and effort in putting them together. Well, some time and effort, at least. It's tempting to never listen to a song you've recorded ever again (and I know songwriters who admit that they never listen to their old material) but I think that's a mistake. I kinda know it is, because I used to make it. But I realised that you learn to identify what makes a song work fastest by hearing songs that don't work, and the nearest source of songs that don't work is very likely your own early material.
And you're probably wondering why you'd want to inflict the pain of listening to your younger self going wrong on your older, wiser self at this point. But your older, wiser self got that way by making those mistakes. Because in making them, you learn what the mistake is, so you can stop making it. Each disaster is a learning experience. Each disaster is a tiny bit of progress. And that's where increasing your output rate pays off, because it largely makes improvement a numbers game, just as it does with the number of hours you spend practising a musical instrument. (I use the word largely there because your practice needs to be reflective practice aimed toward achieving a specific goal rather than just noodling—but that's a subject for another day...)
Even if you only make the most minuscule amount of progress with every new song you write, if you're writing a lot of them, the quantity starts to affect the quality and you start to hear a noticeable improvement. My total songwriting tally since I became a FAWMer is now over 1,100 songs and I've seen a tremendous difference in what I do compared to what I was capable of producing way back in 2009 when I first signed up. I'm not being egotistical here (or at least I don't think that I am), because I am still making lots of mistakes, for sure—of course I am. But because I'm making a lot of mistakes, I'm improving so much faster than I would be if I was only writing one or two songs a year like I did twenty years ago. Imagine that Paul McCartney told you he could guarantee that you'd become a great songwriter, but only after you'd written a thousand really bad songs. You'd want to get the bad ones out of the way as quickly as possible, right?
I tell myself that my misfires are becoming more interesting these days as well, because they are. They're no longer the sort of howling train wrecks that would leave the listener sitting in front of their loudspeakers, cringing (and believe me, I've made a fair few of those in my time). The old stuff is painful to listen to but each of those stinkers served an important purpose in showing me where I was going wrong. The most important realisation I have ever had as a musician was—still is—that doing this is hard, and expecting to get each performance right first time is unrealistic. I need to do some serious work on my chops before I can get comfortable expecting people to take what I do seriously. And despite the progress I've made so far, they really don't; I was recently complimented on what someone described as an "accidental pun" at the end of a song which was my carefully-crafted and entirely deliberate punchline to the entire bloody song I'll have you know, and thanks a bunch! It's not surprising, then, that I still feel like a hack a lot of the time. I'll probably always suffer from imposter syndrome. And if I'm not happy with most of my output, why should anyone else be happy listening to it? The trick (and it's been a powerful one, at least as far as I'm concerned) is to turn that dissatisfaction into fuel for your creative engine. That unhappiness with what I'm doing keeps me slogging away, hoping that the next song will be the one where I make the breakthrough I'm looking for. I'm not expecting recognition or acclaim any time soon, that's for sure—and please don't take it upon yourself to detail the ways in which I suck still further, because I'm quite motivated enough as it is in that regard, thank you very much.
The approach I've written about at such great length here does work; that's why I felt it was important to go into so much detail. And it doesn't just apply to songwriting, either. The more you keep at identifying the bad things you're doing in your creative process so you can stop yourself doing them, the more space you're making for letting the good things starting to move in.
Even though I've got to the point where I can (very) occasionally play back something I've just done and think to myself, "You know what, that's not bad..." I can always hear something that highlights my shortcomings as a musician, my tendency towards verbosity as a writer, and my appalling lack of any vocal skills whatsoever. Despite this, this year I've been pushing myself extremely hard to deliver on quality as much as quantity. I think that's made a difference to the music I've made so far. And I'll continue to do that as I write the next batch of songs for the remaining part of the challenge. Onwards!
But not tonight. This evening, I am taking a break from music-making. The 4K release of the restored Director's Cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture that I ordered as soon as it was announced more than six months ago arrived today, so I am going to open a nice bottle of Malbec with my supper then install myself on the sofa and nerd out for the rest of the day.
Last night I wanted to scan in a page of a book for a Twitter thing, but I discovered to my dismay that my trusty Canoscan 8400F wouldn't switch on. Despite my best attempts, it remained completely unresponsive. Waaah!
It doesn't really owe me anything, as I've had it for the best part of twenty years and I've used it a lot (I scanned in thousands of pages from many editions of the Fortean Times with it for Bob Rickard's archive project, for one thing.) It's so old that Canon no longer provide drivers for it on their website, although by using it from within GIMP I easily side-stepped that particular barrier.
But I scan things regularly, so it's not a piece of equipment I can really manage without these days. However, when I started to look for a suitable replacement I was very disappointed to discover that Canon seem to have abandoned the area of the scanner market where the 8400F used to reign supreme. I need a scanner that can handle slides and 35 mm negatives, not just paper documents, but the price of the Canon scanner that did all that was more than three times the budget I'd set myself, so I rapidly abandoned the idea of buying one.
Instead, I've gone back to Epson as a manufacturer. It should arrive tomorrow.
It's September. With thirty-one days until the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge ends on October 1st, I have twenty-nine songs left to write if I want to hit my target of writing not just fifty songs in ninety days, but a hundred. When I first decided that I was going to try to do this, I must admit I thought I was being ambitious and probably also a bit mad, but for the last week or so I've found myself thinking that I could actually do this.
I will probably still push myself quite hard, though. I'd like to get to the finish line with a comfortable margin of days left in the month. And that will give me some spare time to come up with some new banner graphics for the blog; this month I've used the last one from the reserve of titles I produced last year.
It's all about staying creative. It really is...