Sunday, 9 September 2012

What I did during the summer holidays

This internet thing sure has inverted pretty much every aspect of the music world. Back in the mists of the analogue era, I recall going to the Sunday flea market at the Mid-South Fairgrounds and seeing box after box of studio out-takes from the "Let it Be" sessions, only seeing the light of day nearly a decade after they took place. Once the CD reissue wave began, the industry then at last had a mechanism for getting archival material and outtakes/alternative cuts into the packages. Amazing as it was, however, it was all backward-looking. 

Now, with tools like GarageBand and SoundCloud at our fingertips, it can all be nearly real-time. Albums by major artists get leaked, in part or whole, on a regular basis, to the outrage of the content cartel, but for everyone else, it's entirely possible to release in-process work and have it be a positive, if not integral part, of the process. It can be a form of audience engagement, or a feedback loop, or a form of collaboration, as the re-mix world continues to demonstrate so compellingly. Or all of the above.

It takes some intestinal fortitude to put things out that are incomplete, flawed, or not quite right, but in the words of Robert Fripp, I suppose it might be a valuable exercise in the spirit of "embracing hazard." So here is my embracing of hazard. This is a project I conceived in mid-August, as I felt compelled to take on a challenge, and I knew I had a couple of weeks where pretty much everyone I knew was going to be away, and I would be at a loose end over two weekends, one of them a three-day holiday weekend. 

The concept came to me suddenly one day at work: why not take two weeks, 14 days, and try to record one song each day, each by a different female songwriter? It was challenging in a variety of ways, but in the end, I did manage to do everything you hear on the 14 songs here in 14 days, though it was one-a-day on average, rather than in absolute terms. The first one I did was the P.J. Harvey song - a challenging start, as it's in 7/8. The last one I did was "Natural Woman," which I'm pretty sure no man has covered in its original form. (For the avoidance of doubt, I am straight and do not suffer gender dysphoria - I just think it's a great song, and deserves to be treated with respect.) Everything in between was mostly clustered over the two weekends, and I worked at a pretty furious pace, which often left me feeling a bit disorientated at the end of a session which might cover a Hendrix-meets-Lennon version of Amy Winehouse, Chrissie Hynde, and Exene Cervenka all in the same day.

I thought it would be interesting and instructive to try to get inside material which is associated with very strong female personalities, musical or otherwise, and to try to do something different with it. In some cases, such as the Yoko Ono and Björk pieces, they're as far away from the original arrangements as they could be, whereas others are very close. Some of them just make me giggle. The Blondie number re-imagined as a Specials rave-up was an unexpected turn of events that just came to me in a flash, as was the Guided by Voices "Motor Away" treatment of "Love is a Stranger."

There are some things here I'm not that happy with, from the get-go. The opening number, Jackie DeShannon's epic "When You Walk in the Room" works really well as an invocation of the Willie Mitchell sound, but the vocal take is below what I can do with it. I just haven't girded my loins for doing it over. The second number also needs some re-working of the vocals, and the Martha Wainwright song, the only one where I didn't use a metronome of some sort, suffers from a pretty noticeable tempo-racing, but I still like it. Maybe it creates a sense of time moving ever more rapidly away from hope. I don't know, but that may be my cover story if anyone ever asks. So I still have a little work to do on these, but most of them are perfect in my mind as they are. There is always a risk in ruining something by trying to fine-tune things that don't need fixing, which is why I've listened to it over and over to work out if the things that bother me would really bother anyone else. I'm still working on that one.

Overall, if I had to leave it as it is now, and never touch it again, I'd still be very happy with the outcome as a whole. Choosing a favourite is like choosing a favourite child, but I'm particularly happy with the Velvet Underground incarnation of Linda Heck's unspeakably beautiful "Tattooed Wedding Ring."

Part of me wants to close this project and leave it as a document of a very particular time and experience, and part of me thinks it may continue to expand and evolve well into the future. I certainly had hundreds of suggestions from friends of material to attempt, which are still untouched. A good friend has suggested that I continue it and package it into a live format that can be taken to Edinburgh next year. That sounds highly ambitious, but who knows? A year is a long time.

So the title of this "album" is "About a Girl," and the tracks (with the original artist/writer), in-process warts and all, are:

"When You Walk in the Room" - Jackie DeShannon
"Love is a Stranger" - The Eurythmics 
"You Come Through" - P.J. Harvey
"Riding With Mary" - X (Exene Cervenka)
"Walking on Thin Ice" - Yoko Ono
"Higher" - The Cardigans
"Picture This" - Blondie
"He Can Only Hold Her" - Amy Winehouse
"Don't Forget" - Martha Wainwright
"Tattooed Wedding Ring" - Linda Heck
"(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" - Carole King
"There's More to Life Than This" - Björk
"Birds of Paradise" - The Pretenders
"I Try" - Macy Gray

About a Girl (Work in Progress)

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