August is about to end. 2005 seems to have moved towards autumn at a terrific pace. I've not realised just how quickly time has flown and I'm now in even more of a panic than before. This year has been an unrelenting attempt to hit deadlines and targets that I'd somewhat optimistically set myself several months ago (and which were listed in the previous diary entry to this one). Did I miscalcuate just how much I could achieve in that time? Or am I simply slowing down with the weight of the years?
Somewhere along the way, summer seems to have happened to everyone else whilst I've been stuck in my little workroom, assembling one dream or another, trying to make my imagination tangible to others with the aid of smoke and mirrors.
The thing which is draining me most intensely, but also, conversely, proving to be the most rewarding, is the ongoing creation of my 'The Alchemical Adventures Of Sailor Bill' album. This, for me, has been the most important task of the year. It is only now, after working on the album for a long time, that I'm beginning to understand exactly what it's real meaning is. At first, there was a general fishing around for direction and some songs I intially recorded for the project seemed to go off at too much of a tangent. I was searching for a style that might lend itself to my solo live performances on the forthcoming November dates. This approach, it turns out, was a mistake. I found that particular 'angle' less than satisfying for some reason. It just didn't feel as if I was hitting the right emotional target.
It was only when I totally abandoned the idea of making these songs 'practical' (in live performance terms), that the sparks began to fly. The move away from performance oriented material to pure studio soundscapes opened the creative channels for me and I suddenly felt free of the 'keep it live' restraints I'd saddled myself with. Then, with the realisation that a 'theme' of sorts was presenting itself in a couple of the pieces, I struck out in an even more singularly defined direction.
I made the decision to build the material around a symbolic nautical/coastal theme which put things into clearer perspective and, before long, the album's current title emerged from the mud. The use of ocean, shoreline, ship, lighthouse, harbour, pier and seaside fairground images seems, somehow, to manifest, or symbolise, my present emotional and metaphysical state of mind (and life's journey generally). These images also resonate with a romantic, nostalgic wistfulness which suits my current feelings of melancholy. They also demand a little more than the usual rock music vocabulary and tonal palette, something more epic, enigmatic and subtle.
The 'alchemic' notions of transformation of base matter into a higher state also seems apt, as does the reference to myself as a fictional character called 'Sailor Bill'... a salty old sea-dog on one side of the coin, an elegantly dressed matinee-idol Captain on the other. Both pop culture caricatures of sea-going stereotypes but all the more interesting for their whimsical artificiality. Sometimes, the more 'unreal' an image or character is, the more alive or convincing it becomes. We live in several mental/metaphysical states at once (multi-verses as opposed to universes?). Some of these states, usually the ones we consign to the box labelled 'everyday life' are dull and mundane. They mask who we are, rather than reveal. On the other hand, the states of being that we put into the box marked 'dreams, fears, hopes, longings and imaginings' are vibrant and alive, brightly coloured and compulsive.
They are somehow closer to the truth than the visible 'reality' of our public selves. Much more authentic and unique. The 'me' that exists deep within my outward physical form is far more beautiful, liberated, adventurous, unselfish and wise than the nervous, unconfident, aging melancholiac that gets presented to the world these days. I'm always much more than I seem to others..and to myself too. It was with all this in mind that the 'Sailor Bill' persona took root. Can you see where this is going and why?
The next turning point came when I decided to unify as many of the songs as possible by building them around orchestral textures, rather than the more usual rock music instrumentation. Some pieces go further with this premise than others, of course, but I've had to curb the temptation to please some of my audience by adding a veneer of guitar to pieces of music where no guitar veneer is required. One piece in particular immediately sounded less than it should have sounded simply because I overdubbed a guitar solo where it wasn't appropriate. You'd think that, by now, I'd not give such a thing a second thought but, for a brief and undisciplined moment, I almost turned a perfectly beautiful piece of music into a horrendous rock anthem, worthy of Queen or one of their ilk, simply by adding a 'rock out' guitar part, merely to elicit a predictable response from what I'd mistakenly thought of as 'the average listener'. I wiped it straight away after playing it back. Too easy, too cheap. I'm more than just a guitar player, damn it ( and not much of a guitar player at that, in my opinion).
This, I now realise, is not an album for the average listener. Nor is it a product for the average 'me', whatever that might imply. Just as I've had to abandon all pretext of ever performing this material live, I've had to also abandon any thought about what anyone else might make of it when it is eventually released. In fact, the ever sharper focus I'm bringing to bear on the music has made the creative process much more difficult and challenging.
Despite this, it has proved to be an unusually rewarding, if somewhat time-consuming, exercise. There's now almost a hint of a concept album or opera about the project, 'though not in the usual linear story telling mode of such genres. The lyrics, in fact, are fairly minimal, quite direct but visually evocative. The visual dimension is reinforced by the music which has, in places, an epic 'largeness' that I hope will paint a suitable oceanic picture in the listener's mind. There's a very odd chemical marriage of antique and modern in the soundscapes of these pieces. I've made no attempt to rein in my sentimentality, my nostalgic yearnings and there's no deliberate stab at dissonance or commonplace minimalism. It's all richly romantic, densely textured, fantasy-fuelled writing that evokes the feel of old Hollywood or, better still, Golden Age British cinema, movies.
BUT... at the same time, because of my lack of formal musical education, there's something else at work in the music, something that seems to exist apart from academic considerations of form, style and era. Simple but not minimalistic? Innocent but not naive? I don't really want to speculate too much in fear of driving the spirit of it away but... it's perhaps this intuitive element that gives the work an odd sort of quality. It feels, somehow, 'present'. I think this is simply because I'm writing from such a personal, idiosyncratic, untutored position. Stubbornly determined NOT to do what other's might prefer me to do or would advise me to do. Maybe this is music that no one else would want to make, (except me, of course). Maybe it's what's left on the table when everyone else has eaten and gone to bed. It's the residue of something already consumed, but a residue transformed into an entirely unexpected confection. A rich feast? Or maybe it's just warmed over scraps. For me, it is, at this moment in time, all consuming. I'm besotted with it and it refuses to let me rest. The hours I've given to it are never going to return to me.
I've had moments of elation writing and recording this material, and moments of doubt and despair. It has not, by any stretch of the imagination, been an easy ride. Certainly not one of those albums that fall easily from the blue empty void onto the composer's table. I've yet to finish the project or even to listen to a possible sequence of tracks but, I'll hesitantly say that it is possibly one of the best things I've ever done. Of course, I reserve the right, being the artist, to damn it to hell at a later date if the wind changes direction. But, so far, I'm feeling that this is a wee bit special.
Last week, however, a disasterous event: My plug in 24 track Mackie hard disc drive decided to shunt weeks of recorded work off into another dimension. I'd almost completed the recording of a new song, over which I'd laboured for four solid days, (a song that might possibly have provided the high spot of the album), when I turned off the recording equipment in the usual way. When I next turned it on, the hard drive showed no files present... basically a BLANK drive. I stared at the screen in utter disbelief. Where were all the songs? Weeks of work? AND my brand new supersong of which I'd felt so pleased? Also on the drive had been 'The Man Who Haunted Himself,' a song I'd already mixed down to DAT tape but which I'd decided needed a more considerate re-mix before it would be fit for the album. All this and more, it appears, vanished in a digital puff of smoke. I was absolutely gutted, depressed, heartbroken.
Calls to my friend Paul Gilby got me connected to Mackie themselves who, after some over the 'phone prodding and probing, seemed to confirm that all was indeed lost. I then noticed that the hard disc recorder's real-time readout was showing that there was only 3 minutes 44 seconds of available recording time left on the empty drive. If the drive was truly empty, surely it would show more time available for recording than this? The Mackie techs then seemed to think that this might indicate that the song files were still present on the drive but that their index page had become corrupted, thereby making it impossible for the machine to open any particular song file.
So... later this week, Paul is generously going to take the hard drive to a specialist company in London to see if the music files can be recovered. If so, I may get my precious material back and finish the song I felt would be so important to the new album. (And remix the 'Haunted' song). Fingers crossed.
If this process doesn't recover the apparently vanished songs, then I'll have to use the earlier mix of 'Haunted' and attempt a total re-recording of the new song I've lost. It won't be at all the same, however, as the original was so complex, so detailed, so full of 'happy accidents', that it would be impossible to reproduce exactly the same combination of magic and chance that created it in the first place. I can't evenn remember all the delicious melodies and counter-melodies that made up the orchestral sections of the piece, let alone reproduce all the minute adjustments to tone and timbre that each instrument had been subjected. The vocal performance was unique too, a product of time and place, never to be quite as convincing again Plus, the proper moment for its creation has now passed, my enthusiasm cruelly dampened and diminished by the original's loss. But we'll see... I've not completely given up hope yet.
Since then, I've been working on the machine's internal drive and not risked using the malfunctioning external plug-in one. I've almost completed another new song. Not bad going, time wise. It's called 'Here comes The Sea (The Captain's Lament)'. Another big orchestral score and a few guitar parts scattered here and there, but nothing 'guitaristic', just appropriate colour where needed. No gratuitous applause seeking.
The album's opening track will be a pure instrumental though, something to set up the correct atmosphere for the songs. This piece is called 'The Lighthousekeeper's Waltz' and has a sort of 'overture' effect.
But enough talk of this. The album has already turned me into even more of an anti-social semi-recluse than usual. I need to get it finished and off my chest, clear the decks, (to use a nautical pun).
I have stolen the odd day or two from my work to appear human, (although I'm told that I always appear distracted and distant on these occasions) My daughter Julia and my grandson Luke came up from London and we all went to a quite spectacular air show together. Absolutely terrifying... but thrilling. Took some camcorder footage for videogram use. Great to see Julia and Luke though... he's a real bright spark and a credit to Julia's patience and love.
Also, my mother's 77th Birthday. Mum's such a gem and I'm a terrible son. I don't spend nearly enough time with my mother. Or my children. Or my wife. ('Though I have spent most of this bank holiday weekend attempting to take Emi out and about). It's all music, bloody music. And very little else. Now... back to the mixing desk. Need to push on... I'm way behind schedule.
All photographs by Bill Nelson