Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Hello everyone, how are you getting on? I thought that, now that Catastrophe Hits has been out in the world for a little over a month, it'd be a good to time to post something about the writing and recording of the LP. A warning - please forgive me - the tenses in the following blog will be all over the shop, as some of it's from a diary I kept at the time. Although, you're clearly a person of discerning taste and intelligence given where you've found yourself on the internet, so I'm sure you'll cope with that.
To kick things off with a dash of perspective - I know the most tragic thing to happen as a result of the pandemic wasn't the first Broken Chanter record's campaign being cut down in its prime at only 5 months old. It was alarming, doubly-so when you're trying to get a new name out into the world, but serious threat to life trumps it, eh.
I spent the first part of the pandemic (it's still happening, lads) feeling totally disoriented. I was mere days from heading off on a UK tour with Adam (Randolph's Leap) and Niamh (Moonsoup), which we obviously had to cancel. Maybe one day I'll look out the tweet from the guy who told us cancelling our March/April 2020 shows "didn't make any sense whatsoever" or something to that effect. Huh.
The weeks turned into months. It'll all be over by June, will it, aye?
We get to July 2020 and I have an absolute whitey which rendered me completely useless. I'd managed to keep on top of my physical health during lockdown by cycling bigger and bigger loops starting and ending at my flat, but the old mental health gradually crumbled. Well, quite dramatically and suddenly, actually. Turns out that spending over ten years balancing all sorts of work, life events, and endless touring, writing, and recording can take it's toll. And if you ignore things, jamming them into the equivalent of a hall cupboard inside your noggin for a decade, and then suddenly stop and have considerably more time to sit and reflect and catastrophise, it's all going to spill out.
I don't really want to get into it too much - I greatly value my privacy - but I wasn't sharing how bad I was feeling with those closest to me. And as someone who frequently tweets about mental health and sticks the number for the Samaritans (116 123 - 24 hours a day) in record sleeves, it seems a touch off not to talk about it at all. I didn't take my own advice and I spiralled and ended up in a very bad way. So, don't do that. If you feel miserable, or terrible, or unhappy - it's valid and you are not a burden - talk to your friends, or your family, or the aformentioned Samaritans, then a professional. You are not now, nor will you ever be alone.
I don't want you to think that I'm looking for any sort of sympathy, I am not unique in feeling that unwell, I am just very sick and tired of the platitudes around it being OK to not be OK and talking is good when the very real fact of the matter is that meaningful, actually professional, medical, immediate support is almost completely lacking. It is an issue of resource, I do not mean to diminish the incredible work done by the NHS. Talking to a friend or family member is only a first step. An emergency holding pattern. They are not professionals and cannot do anything more than look after you temporarily, and make sure that you are immediately safe. They're not able to experience what you are experiencing in that moment and it can be close-to-impossible to reason with someone who is experiencing a mental health emergency. There needs to be a professional intervention. It is a painful and very telling fact that many of those we've lost have been open about their struggles.
The life of a musician is not the healthiest. Many, if not most, of the independent musicians you know are more than likely balancing their music career with at least one other job. We keep odd hours by necessity. Work can be snuffed out in an instant (hiya, coronavirus). Streaming and the vinyl crisis have severely affected our income. The dizzying high you feel playing to an enraptured room can have quite the comedown. A bad gig, hundreds of miles from home, to almost no-one, on a Tuesday in the middle of winter, can really smart. Having to be omnipresent on social media takes its toll if you don't set boundaries. Being expected to be constantly available is a very modern sickness. We are too often expected to be happy with drink as part-payment for our endeavours, and the drink is not renowned for its positive effects on mental health.
On tour you use alcohol as a number of things: as a relaxant for those nights where you're not quite feeling it; as a painkiller because you've been lugging amps etc. up venue stairs/flinging yourself about onstage/sleeping in non-conventional spots; as a way to celebrate a record released or a show gone well or just because someone has handed you a can, bottle, or glass. I sacked it off entirely at the end of November 2019, after feeling like I was actually dying following three months of shows, album promo, and the associated drinking.
I said I was going to write about the new record.
I spent a lot of time over the panny-d (just go with it) in my studio cupboard in the flat. It's a box room off the front room that just about fits a desk and a chair, but you grow to lov...accept it. I set myself the challenge of recording an instrumental/ambient EP over the space of four evenings to meet a deadline of the first Bandcamp Friday.
I was quite pleased with Ambient 1: Music For Airing Cupboards. I'd never done anything like that before. I did the same over the course of 2020 for most of the Bandcamp Fridays, each with a title daring Brian Eno's lawyer to send me a 'just stop it' letter. These were great for keeping me flexing the ol' creative muscles, as I was worried if I just ground to a halt then I'd struggle to get back to it, even though at that point I didn't anticipate it ending up being 20 months between my being on a stage in front of folk.
Making the instrumental stuff really helped with just getting me sat down with instruments to start demoing for the second Broken Chanter LP. Since before the first record hit the shelves, I'd been taking to Paul Savage about doing the second one. He started to nudge me more insistently for the demos I had promised but was yet to deliver in about September 2020 and #BCLP2 began in earnest.
Once the demos had been passed around we could, under the new COVID working regulations, head into Audrey's Unit to start making a racket. Masked-up and metres apart, it was glorious to be playing loud music together again after almost half a year. We spent the first 45 minutes of each session chewing the fat, as this was the only allowed interaction with those outwith our households.
October rolls around, and Paul has joined us in the Unit for the first time and I must admit I am a touch apprehensive. The terror of essentially standing there stating “here is a thing that I have written that I have had the audacity, the sheer arrogance, to assume is good enough for anyone outside my studio cupboard to hear” is quite something. We work on Shotgun Savage 1, 2 and Horse Island. Demo/studio names for songs are sometimes fun/entertainingly crude. All of mine are dull and utilitarian at the moment. That's focus, baby! Shotgun Savage 1 to 5 because Paul enquired as to whether or not he needed to fetch his “producer shotgun” when I’d literally sent him nothing by the start of September. Horse Island because, whilst I was packing up my gear to go and record demos in Ardnamurchan (when it was permitted, of course), I’d found a diary I’d kept when doing geology fieldwork in another life in Counties Clare and Kerry in Ireland, longer ago than I’m willing to admit. Horse Island was just off of Loop Head near Kilbaha in Clare. It was neither an Island nor had it any horses resident upon it. It was like a bit of the headland that had gone for a wander only to be tethered to the mainland by a thin strip of cliff, as if wary of it straying too far into the Atlantic. A Famine Bed of shucked oyster shells that sat about half a metre below the topsoil acted as a cold bucket of water thrown over you, interrupting the gorgeous vista surrounding it.
Paul has gotten stuck right into the songs already. Initially, he spends just about the most time talking through Audrey’s parts because he’s a drummer, eh. What a pair of adorable nerds. Audrey’s playing style is such that it’s difficult to tell how she’s physically fitting everything she's doing into the number of limbs she has available.
At times I am embarrassed by the sharp and hilarious decrease in my performance capabilities. Paul sniggers like a schoolboy at my mid-song, four-letter outbursts, spat at my frequently uncooperative fingers. My playing that was already suffering from lack of real practice throughout lockdown (i.e. with others) combines with my unfamiliarity with the new songs, that I have literally just pulled out of my backside, to take its toll. Though while I'm rusty and clunky at first, the songs start to come together, and it is extremely pleasing. Dancing Skeletons is the first one to be a proper song and it feels great. There's nothing quite like finishing writing a song. One that you're really happy with. It's a close-to-overwhelming relief. "I can still do this". Or, "I can still do something that at least I am happy with".
Another favourite amongst the embryonic songs has emerged. It's currently called Pat Ben Atter due to the original demo having quite an 80s tinge. I strip away the palm muted guitar and give it a new home on the song Gone which I'd popped into Glenwood Studio to record for Man on the Minch's fine record The Tide Is At The Turning in September. 'Pat' subsequently turns into something more muscular. Paul suggests we try one thing and we get the wrong end of the stick entirely. The time signature change is the result of an completely imagined production note but sounds fantastic so we keep it. A happy accident and Allow Yourself is almost done.
December arrives and things start to really click. I've not finished many lyrics yet and have just been singing nonsense or vowel sounds to find my way through the melodies. However, the problem with singing nonsense in place of lyrics over partially written songs is that you end up thinking too much about the placeholder vowels. My voice is currently a shadow of its former self. Not having used it properly since the gig for independent venue week TEN MONTHS previously has not been without its consequences. Where has it gone? My control over it is hopeless. Couple that with singing non-words with some grace reverb, and I sound like a jakey, male, Elizabeth Fraser, who’s been on a three-day bender consuming only Mad Dog and steel wool. It is at times a truly horrible experience, listening back to what’s captured on the ZOOM recorder for reference. We are making real progress though. It helps that I’ve actually committed to the structures of the songs we have mapped out so far.
I pop round to Gill Higgin's flat to run through a short song intended as an interlude. I'd played it to Paul when we were sitting having a 'state of play' conversation with the caveat that it wasn't finished. He told me it was. And that it should be left as is, but to perhaps deviate from the standard chords I was playing. And so Filaments got both it's running time and B9-something-or-other chord. Pedro (Man of the Minch) joins me at Gill's, I take them through it, and we're done in an hour. Time for tea and chatting mince.
I start to go for drives in the countryside around Glasgow prior to the festive lockdown, singing at the top of my lungs over demos to find and finish melodies and lyrics. I must have looked a touch unhinged. We disperse for the festive break and I try and relax whilst not having a full album of songs ready despite recording beginning in about 8 weeks. It's fine, totally fine. A demo titled Is It Too Funky, Audrey? never makes it to the stage of being played in the Unit because the answer is, emphatically, "yes". It is never discussed again.
The songs are almost there now, bar lyrics. Melodies are set in stone. We are up to 8 by the end of January and Jill O'Sullivan and Graeme Smillie join us in the Unit. Bart swaps to guitar and we run through all of the full band songs that we have over three sessions. The mood is buoyant as January and February can be a grim time of any year, never mind 10 months into a pandemic, so we're all delighted to be working with each other, and the company is excellent.
March rolls around and we assemble in Chem 19 the night before recording begins for one last run-through of the songs. It's happening. It's real. It's time.
And maybe now is a good time for you to take a breather? Stick a mental bookmark in and click the kettle on. Then come back! And read on…
We spend day one setting up the live room and then Audrey and I track the drums and synth parts of Ith Làn Do Bhìth. Audrey has set up a percussion station and it looks like an incredible amount of fun, but me dicking about on the roto toms is not pushing the record forward any. We layer up the track and it's sounding massive as Audrey switches between kit and percussive apparatus, sounding like about 3 folk at once. The time flies and we have to put it to one side in preparation for Graeme and Bart joining us the next morning.
We track the basics of 7 of the songs as close to live as possible - Graeme and Audrey are a true powerhouse as a rhythm section and it is genuinely thrilling to hear it all come through the desk. Bart bops around from side to side, providing a visually uplifting presence as he shreds away. Stephanie Gibson joins us to sneak about like a ninja in her mask to document the session with her camera. See if you can tell which pictures in this blog are hers and which are mine... It's no difficult.
I find myself on my hands and knees fiddling with a series of pedals as Bart plays his part on Extinction Event Souvenir T-Shirt, trying to make it sound like Michael Karoli's guitar on I Want More by Can. I finally sort of achieve it using the excellent prototype phaser and tremolo pedals from Goldtooth Audio's stable and a Corona (ahem) chorus pedal.
It doesn't work. Paul breaks this to me gently. It's binned. I know it doesn't work and I get over it instantly as there is no point in forcing that into something to its detriment.
The first four days fly in and Graeme switches to piano during the last of his time with us and plays the second section of A Sad Display with a virtuosity that makes me feel like a dunce for spending my time in secondary school music classes learning TV themes by ear because of my inability to learn
to read music, then dropping the subject as soon as physically possible because playing that tune about the swan over and over again is about as inspiring as having a drip of Ovaltine straight into your arm. Anyway, Graeme is extremely good at the piano, is what I'm saying. What was the name of that tune about the swan? Hit me up, Glasgow state secondary attendees of the late 90s.
The next day is a vocal day, and disaster strikes, I lose my voice. Entirely. [Chris Morris Voice] This is the one thing we didn't want to happen. A COVID test is taken, despite showing no actual 'Rona symptoms. LFTs all round. Paul is calm and measured and I don't scream because...well, I can't. Studio days are cancelled, and re-arranged, and the deadline of the end of March, while still far away, looms large because another session is in the studio afterwards, allowing for no delay to the process. I buy some Manuka honey like and absolute mug and am rattling through the lemsips like they're going out of fashion. I imagine I am incredibly easy to live with at this point.
Guitars whose tone were not quite right from the live takes are tracked in place of vocals. Synths are tickled as I croak gently above the keys. My voice returns but has an odd crackle to it at times. Paul turns a Soviet-era mic that looks like a marital aid from Red Dwarf on me, which seems to address the rattle. I look proper terrible in this photo. That's what anxiety, and the associated lack of sleep, about not being able to sing exactly when you need to be able to during a very meticulously planned project does to you. We start with the songs gentler on the ol' pipes and stop me from staring into that void.
The songs are sounding great, and the vocals now being on most of them really is exciting. It is time for the addition of BVs, violin, harmonium, and brass. First enter Jill O'Sullivan with four vocal octaves and and a frightening dexterity on the fiddle.
We spend time layering vocals on Horse Island. It sounds incredible. It's a proper "wooft" moment as everything comes together through the speakers - drums, bass, synth, guitars, vocals, violin, and more vocals. Massive. For two days Jill sprinkles her magic on the tracks and we get significantly closer to our goal. It took a long time for us to give up on the notion of finding a home for the recorded snippet of Jill saying "Space Ghetto" in her Chicagoan accent, to check a mic was on. Look it up.
I feel rude because we are now up against it because of my vocal issues and I have to dispense with the sit about for a blether and a coffee element of Gill and Pedro coming in to do their bits on Filaments. "Hiya; in ye go; catch ye soon". I warned them in advance and we're all still pals. It's fine. What a lovely wee song, eh?
Ali Hendry comes in to face a similar sense of urgency and is very patient with me and my first attempt at scoring brass. Obviously I'd not done anything in standard notation (cannae) and had sent her chords and me playing a synthesiser as instruction. A flipchart and me making trumpet noises with my mouth put the uh finishing touches to her preparation before heading in to pop both FLugelhorn and Trumpet on Rubha Àlainn (taken from the lockdown EP Ambient 2: Taking Mount Florida By Strategy and significantly fleshed out with real instruments).
A final day of odds and ends and my vocals for Ith Làn Do Bhìth as the only person harmonising with me is myself. Paul captures me listening to a voice note from my sister-in-law at the mic, as I had had a final crisis of confidence of my pronunciation and called her. She enlists the advice of Anna MacDonald for further reassurance, who helps me out in-between lambing on Tiree. The song is a healthy melange of Ardnamurachan, mid-minch, and Tiree Gaelic in the end.
This blog is getting considerably out of hand, length-wise. So, I'll wrap it up soon.
Paul spends two weeks mixing and we drop in extra wee bits here and there. We're up to three coffees a day each from the fancy machine in the studio kitchen. I'm pretty sure I can hear the bones in my inner ear rattle and that I can see time. Mixes are taken away at the end of each day, pored over, and then recalls are sorted the morning after before a new track is set up on the desk.
We finish. It is a feeling of pure elation. With a slight sprinkling of fear. Have I done my best? Everyone else certainly has. Were these songs the best I had in me? Yes, they were. It sounds amazing but we are exhausted and our ears are done. I slump on the couch and try and stop my head from buzzing. What an incredible month. Working with Paul has been so very easy - but also a real education. I have learned so much about recording, and songwriting too. I feel energised despite my fatigue.
The record gets mastered, then its name, then beautiful artwork with photography from Stephanie Gibson and illustrations from Jamie Mowat (@tidlin). It gets sent off for manufacture (😬). It gets called Catastrophe Hits as a reflection of the content and the period of time in which it was written. (Would-be) Hits born out of a catastrophe; written following one hitting.
If you have made it this far, well done. That's it. I've got a new record of which I am incredibly proud. It really is great, imho. You should check it out. It is here in no small part down to support from LNFG, Olive Grove and Creative Scotland.
I'm currently planning out my 2022 (as much as anyone can at the moment), so will hopefully be appearing in a venue near you soon.
So, what do you reckon? Any favourite songs, yet? Do you want me to come play in your village, town, or city? Let me know below.
I hope you're very well indeed.
tl;dr I've got a great new record out and it was incredibly good fun and life-affirming to make, but not without its challenges.