Nine original songs, plus covers of The Most Ugly Child, k.s. Rhoads and Karyn Ellis, in the rawest of settings – sung live in an abandoned Police Station with only a baritone electric guitar for accompaniment. Songs that are personal and political, intimate and irreverent, boneheaded and beautifully-crafted sit side by side, forming a unique musical narrative.
Comes with liner notes and chord sheets pdf.
Produced: Daniel Wright Photograph: Ralph Barklam Design: Michael Wong
What artists inspired you while you were writing and recording Fifty Five Stories Down?
When I first pitched the idea (one voice, one guitar, live, no overdubs) to producer Daniel Wright he asked me if anyone had done an album like this before. Other than Billy Bragg(Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy) I had no idea! So I did some research and found a few. The most influential were Dylan – of course! – (The Times They Are A Changin’), Willie Watson(Folk Singer Vol. 1), Ani DiFranco(first album), Anais Mitchell(Xoa), Loudon Wainwright III (A Live One) and Joanna Newsom(The Milk Eyed Mender).
What inspired you to pick up the baritone guitar? Is that your regular axe nowadays?
The baritone is my main guitar now, at least for singer/songwriter stuff. Daudi Matsiko inspired me as he plays in what is essentially DADGAD but tuned down to Bb. He explained to me how it was helpful in covering more of the bass frequencies when you’re playing as a solo performer. At the same time I was listening to bands like Cleft who play without a bass player and detune to an extreme degree. I considered doing the same but knew all the intonation problems that brings. So I hunted down a Danelectro baritone on eBay. Playing all my old songs was difficult in B so I tuned it down even further – 7 frets below a normal guitar. The lowest string is tuned to A=55 htz which is where the title of the album comes from ‘Fifty Five (Stories) Down.’
Having this guitar has had an effect on my playing – guitar heroics, wild string bends and giant stretches are pretty much off the table. It makes you play ‘dumb’ – I like it!
Where’d you record the album?
In a rehearsal room belonging to Nottingham singer/songwriter Daudi Matsiko in a derelict police station. His ‘neighbours’ were a painter who played religious music while re-enacting 50 Shades Of Grey with ‘lady friend’, a math rock trio and some Vikings. It was hard to get enough quiet to finish the record.
What gear did you use to record?
Pretty much the Danelectro baritone straight into a Fender DeVille amp. Hardly any effects. A Boss chorus on Brave, an auto-wah on See You Dance and I used a TC multi-effects unit for tremolo on Can’t Hang It On Love and chorus/pitch shift on Architects. That’s it apart from some sleigh bells!
Anyone you’d like to acknowledge for their help in the making of the record?
Producer Daniel Wright really helped in selecting the songs and then suggesting edits and tweaks till the material was as strong is it possibly could be. He also let me cover one of his fantastic unreleased songs called Black Sky.
Ralph Barklam (photo) and Michael Wong (design) really captured the moody ‘Blue Note/Verve’- style image I wanted for the cover. And nearly every song on the album was premiered at The First Tuesday Songwriter’s Group who gave invaluable feedback and encouragement every step of the way.
Where were you when you got the idea for “John Lennon Blues?”
In my studio writing songs for February Album Writing Month! I had a really bad cold when I made the first demo, I knew my voice wouldn’t hold out so I had to capture it in one take. As I got to the end I started coughing and had such a bad ‘episode’ I coughed till I pulled a muscle. That version was more strummy standard tuning song, influenced by Lennon’s Yer Blues. Later I took a riff I’d been playing on the Baritone and sang the vocal line over it instead of the chords.
But to answer the question properly I’d written a song called ‘Guns’ which was a humorous take on America’s obsession with the right to bear arms. One section that didn’t make the final cut became the chorus of John Lennon Blues. It’s a sad fact that violent men seem to be most threatened by people who are committed to non-violence. And the irony that if those men had been able to violently defend themselves they would have survived to continue preaching the gospel of peace, but then would have discredited that very message.
Were these songs all written on bari guitar, or did you transpose some of them down?
John Lennon Blues (version 2) and See You Dance were written on baritone. Architects, Mistletoe and most of Brave were written on piano. The rest were originally standard tuning guitar songs. Pretty much all of the songs stayed in the same keys (as it relates to concert pitch) as I moved them to baritone, so I had to relearn them in new positions on the fretboard for baritone. I don’t have a big enough vocal range to sing ‘em in different keys!
You play some very complex guitar parts while singing, “Architects of Our Unhappiness” being one example. Did you consciously work on that or has this coordination come with experience?
The last verse of Architects is something I had to work on endlessly. I was trying to get inversions and counter melodies that reflected the lyrics (“an upside down place, gold buried deep...” etc) and gave a hint at what I’d tried to do originally on the piano.
The ‘chord-melody-without-the-melody’ style of Mistletoe was another one that took a lot of work. I was aiming for Joe Pass and Carole Kaye play a Burt Bacharach session, but I think I missed it by a mile!
What’re the keys to a cozy Christmas song, Matt?
C major of course! On Kiss Me Beneath The Mistletoe I wanted to get that warm comforting christmas vibe which I think comes across in songs like Mel Torme’s Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) and he uses things like harmonising the ascending major scale and using lots of close voice leading, lots of major 6 and 7 chords and the occasional 11th. So that’s what I did! I especially wanted the music to have that kind of vibe to lull the listener into a false sense of security with where the story goes. I initially started writing the song as a very stiff kind of Victorian hymn – which would have been funny – but after coming up with the first line I felt that musical direction would lose a lot of people. (Not that that’s ever stopped me before!).
Which songs were the toughest to write/record?
Can’t Hang It On Love was the hardest to record – I did numerous takes trying to find a way to interpret the song that did it justice and then completely rerecorded it at a later session. Tonight was the toughest to write and went through a lot of changes. It started out sounding like The Mouldy Peaches but then I dropped the key a few times, took out the bridge and generally tweaked it into the near-spoken word piece you hear on the record.
Which are your favorite tracks?
[Inserts standard ‘choosing between my babies’ speech] As ridiculous as it sounds for someone with no hits I planned this album as a kind of ‘greatest hits’ compilation and shortlisted the songs that I’ve had the most positive reaction to from others. So as songs, I like them all.
But as a recording Architects is very special to me, because after all the reworking, arranging and practice I captured it in one take/first take, which I struggled to do on the easier songs. I’m very happy with Black Sky because I find it very difficult to make cover versions ‘mine’ but I felt I inhabited that one. I was at the first ever public performance that song when Daniel played it at the First Tuesday Songwriting Group, and learnt it from the video I shot on my phone.
And I have a special place in my heart for the live recording of Sweet Baby Hand Grenade because it sums up the album with mistakes and missed chords still in place but the magic of a pub crowd spontaneously singing along as well.
Magic and Mistakes. Maybe that’ll be my next album!
I used to teach a band of crazy 10 year olds called Exploding Penguins.
Today I found some old sheets with the (very long) shortlist of rejected names. Here’s a few of my favourites. Think of it as a window into a 10 year old mind.
Talk To The Hand Cos The Face Ain’t Bothered
The Viscous Potatoes
Kacey And The Braindead Doofuses
The Flamingos Of Chaos
Tunnels Of Hell
The Best Band In The World
When I hit New York in 1974 it wasn’t with a bang but more of a whisper. The folk scene was dead. The only thing that could fill a club was a rumour that some celebrity would be there. But there were numerous good writers who seemed to take their work seriously.
Our songwriters’ meeting grew organically, first with two of us meeting every week (myself and Maggie Roche), then a group of us at the English Pub on 6th Avenue (including David Massengill, Brian Rose, Tom Intondi, among others), then the Cornelia Street Café for five or six years and (when art could no longer get in the way of commerce) at my Houston Street apartment where it has met ever since, with a few guest venues when I was out of town.
Over the years a certain process has emerged, a process that works to fuel, inspire, encourage, teach and validate the writing we do. This manifesto is an attempt to put down some of the truths that I now hold to be self-evident.
The songwriting process
Everything about writing is a process. It is a process that one must immerse oneself in to be good. We have to stop thinking of the song as a commodity. We have to stop getting hung up on the song itself, as an end in itself, and pursue the process.
The process means giving yourself the license to be something new, something potentially better or worse. To have fun writing. To trick yourself into new ways of looking at the world. Only then can you reach into your own emotions and touch the emotions of someone else without dragging everything else in a moving van with you. If you showed up at a “first date” with a moving van with all your belongings it would never allow the relationship to start.
The only thing that makes you a songwriter is writing songs. And writing songs. And writing songs. Just write. Write now, judge later. Finish the song, even if you suspect that it is no good. Finish it. Plug ahead. Even if it is only a half-baked idea got on the subway or in the car on the way to your weekly songwriting meeting, go with it. Finish it. Even if you wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea, write it. Sort it outlater.
Sometimes it takes you years to realise that you have written (for the better or the worse). Have faith in yourself, in your creative process, not in your critical process. No one ever wrote a song or improved their songwriting byhaving an opinion on their own song or someone else’s song. Theonly way to improve is to write.
The process #1: Write a song a week.
Sounds simple. It is and it isn’t. Make that non-negotiable item on your calendar. No excuses. None. Jobs, kids, weddings, funerals, hurricanes. Still a song a week. If you write a song a week several things will happen.
1. You will improve. In spite of yourself you will improve. 2. It will force you to pay attention, to seek out things about which to write. To find metaphors on just what is interesting out of the seemingly mundane 3. It will force you to take yourself less seriously, to not second guess yourself out of a good idea. 4. It will force you to take yourself more seriously. If you are going to call yourself a writer and think of yourself as a writer you must write. 5. It will take the pressure off you to expect everything you create to be great. If it fails it doesn’t matter. There will be another one next week. Give yourself the right to fail. 6. It will force you to expand your horizons: to try styles and ideas you wouldn’t have tried – and at least you will have written something.
The process #2: Get together with other writers once a week.
Not every other week. Not the first Tuesday of the month. Every week. This gives you a self-imposed deadline and a group of U.N. observers to enforce the deadline.
This group can also include other ‘kindred spirits’. Our group has included novelists, photographers, poets, painters, playwrights and actors. Make it fun. We always cook up a big pasta, people bring wine, beer or organic fruit juices (or whatever they think will help them enjoy the process).
This is also a mutual support group for this out-of-the-mainstream line of creativity we have collectively chosen to pursue. We cook together, we eat together, we drink together. We chat, socialise and have fun and then, and only then, do we play what we have created that week. If anyone hasn’t created that week they don’t play, however they can still participate.
The process #3: True criticism focuses on what is being done right.
Criticism is a harsh word. It can only come when there is a feeling of trust between the participants and only when the participants are intensely aware of where the artist is coming from and where the artist is attempting to go. If you get together with the same people every week you will develop this sort of intimate creative critical relationship where everyone is equally vulnerable and everyone is fully aware of each other’s capabilities so that one is not comparing one against the others but rather against what they are capable of and their own line of progress. This allows writers of all different levels of maturity to participate at whatever level they are currently at.
We rejoice in each other’s successes, minimise each other’s failures, and suggestions for improvement are specific and coming from a desire to see each other improve and write as well as we possibly can.
Why songs move us
In that we are dealing with primarily our emotional language, let us look for a moment into what and how it is that certain songs seem to grab us by our heart strings. Often it is a song that seems to place us in a whole different place, transport us almost physically out of where we are. This can be done by a description, a character, a story line, a scene evoking a time of year or a time of life, certain weather or sounds or smells. It is the physical plane that attaches our emotions and transports them.Not the cerebral rational part of our brain.
Often I have heard someone say, “I don’t know why that song affects me, but it does. I come to tears when I hear it”. Often it can be the slightest bit of detail that makes the difference between grabbing that part of the listener; detail that alters their perspective, forces them to look at something from a different angle, so that they forget to “think” about the song and just be in it.
What bought most of us to writing songs is that we were once moved by a song. We want to be able to move others the way we were moved. Later we may be distracted by ego considerations and economic considerations in the fame-and-fortune department, or the quit-the-day-job department, but still what drew us to this was emotions. Let us not forget that.
In order to improve as a songwriter one must completely transcend the ego. This seems to be a paradox of sorts in that most people who go into songwriting and /or performing are thought of a being egotistical. Perhaps this is due to the lack of realisation that the self one needs to write is dramatically opposed to the self that one needs to perform. One is introverted, the other extroverted. In order to tap into the subconscious one has to put aside any importance of the self and become a vehicle, not to form any judgment or any expectation but rather to ‘go with the flow’ and it is a flow.
Aristotle said, “Genius is merely the ability of clever theft”*. Consider two ‘good’ songwriters who go to an open mike. One spends his time trashing everything he hears, putting down the amateur, pointing out all the clichés and the lack of musicianship. The other concentrates on what (although admittedly little) is being done well. A good line here, and idea unrealised here and a melody that is great as far as it goes. Which one will profit from that experience? One will know everything that he shouldn’t do. Though his ego feels satisfied, he’s learned nothing new. The other has some good ideas programmed into his central computer to resurface when they are needed. For this reason,at our songwriters’ meeting we try to keep the criticism to the pointing out of what is being done well.
We can only learn from failure, by the attempting of something: If we wallow in the failure aspects of that exercise we don’t gain anything, but, if we focus on what little we have done well, we can do it better the next time (without our self-esteem being so shattered as to get defensive). No one ever improved their writing by putting down someone else’s writing.
Out of control
We live in a society that tries to control everything. Nature, psychology, history (spin doctors), health. Creativity is something we cannot control. That does not keep us from trying. Everything in our educational system forces us into rational behaviour, analytical behaviour, clarification, dissection and, most of all, adulation and imitation.
True creativity is far different. We have to unlearn everything we have learned. We have to give up the control. All we can do is program our computer (our memory) with as much useable fodder as possible: experience, imagery, tradition, vocabulary (musical and verbal), so that when we tap into that other energy we don’t have to break off to look something up or try to remember where we put something (in its neat compartment or in its file in the mechanical computer).
Call it channeling, transcendental meditation, tapping into the muse – call it what you want; it is something that comes from the subconscious and affects the subconscious of the listener.
A song is a two-way street
A song is not therapy for the writer. It is not just what he wants to say (propaganda or otherwise). It is also what someone wants to listen to. I am a big fan of Beauty: the beauty of emotions. When it comes from an emotional place and affects the emotional fabric of the listener true transcendence takes place. A songwriter must always remember that the listener is as important as the singer; that without the listener the song, like a tree in the forest, doesn’t exist (or make the sound).
Editing is crucial
Everything that comes from our trance-like creativity is not golden. It must be weighed against the needs of the listener. I remember in high school someone asking the English teacher how long an essay had to be and he replied (in dated language of the early sixties), “It should be as long as a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep it interesting”.
That is, interesting to the listener. Clear concise language. However, I have never been afraid to challenge the listener a little bit. Give them the credit of intelligence. Songwriting is not like journalism. It does not have to be written on an eighth-grade level.
Often at our meetings when someone has played some long, rambling song, I ask them to explain in twenty-five words or less what they were trying to say. They proceed to give a concise explanation, clear and to the point. Then I say, “write that song.”
The first step of editing is to get out anything that is bad writing. The second step is harder to learn: You have to get out even the good writing if it does not serve the point. It is difficult. The lifeboat is leaving. There are too many people for it. They are all good and deserving people. But if they all go in the lifeboat, it will sink!
Melody is half of a song
And then there was melody. Melody is half of a song, and yet most often ignored or not understood by the songwriter. Test: Sing the song a capella. If there is no melody there is no melody. No amount of chord progressions or production or harmony can make up for a lack of melody.
Unfortunately melody is perhaps the most metaphysical part of the song. There is really no way to teach melody. One has to learn it. One can study melodies, imitate them,pirate them until something clicks and voila! – melody. A good rule of thumb is: Do not write melodies on the guitar. You will hear harmonies and overtones and tend to write melodies that follow chord progressions. Piano is worse. You hear the whole orchestra. Strip it down. Go for a walk. Whistle your idea. Try singing verbal sounds until they fit a pattern of notes.
If songs are to be at their best, they are not poems set to music or words crafted to a melody but rather both words and melody crafted together, so that the gestalt of the two form something that transcends the sum of its parts. Now I am not saying that all songs should be sung acapella, but if they can’t be, then back to the drawing board.”
*Actually “Genius is a faculty for clever theft.” is a quote from Jill Johnston: Marmalade Me (p.155).
Here’s a short video of Suzanne Vega returning to the Songwriter’s Exchange