Saturday, 16 January 2016

Pushing backs against the grain

One thing David Bowie’s music taught me was to be honest in your creativity.

David’s work, outlook and creative processes have been the best art and music teaching I could have ever wished for. In addition to his music, his creative approach and his thinking still inspire me to this day, and will continue to do so.

I’ve always cited Bowie as an influence on my own music, but it is perhaps less evident, with my work being instrumental. But the atmospheres and textures of his music on albums such as Low are often what caught my attention, and that seamless integration between his music and its associated visuals – the videos, his personas and album cover artwork.

One thing that David said during a 1997 interview with Alan Yentob, was, “If you’re really turned on by what you’re doing, there’s bound to be other people out there who like it.” This really resonated with me, and as a self-taught musician, I’ve found it to be very true.  

I also shamelessly admit to borrowing that phrase, as it has become a creative motto to me. It has always been at the back of my mind whenever I publish a new piece of artwork or music. It no longer matters if I’m not the most accomplished player or whatever – I’m the best I can be, doing my best at this particular moment. And quite simply, if I like it, others will too. What more encouragement could you ask for? And I’m not sure I would have ever thought that way without those words from Bowie.

In another interview, David once described himself as “the ultimate recycler”, and I think that it true of any artist and creativity in general. You absorb your surroundings and influences, then reshape and repurpose them in your own way.

A week ago, I was still digesting Blackstar – this exciting new album from David Bowie, with no inclination – like everyone – of the nigh-on impossible to accept news that would be just around the corner.

“If I never see the English Evergreens…”

Now knowing the album’s now evident theme, the song Dollar Days now feels like the most honest and emotional song on the album, if not most open and vulnerable song he’s ever written. 

There’s a finite beauty to Lazarus. It’s over. Written from the future, where there’s no turning back.

“I’ll be free…”

But on Dollar Days we're back on the final path, and there's a real sense of angst and frustration, of the knowledge that he had little time left, yet he still had work to do; perhaps wanting to pull off another Ziggy moment and surprise everybody, but not in the way he eventually would.

“I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again…. I’m trying to.”

Through those lyrics alone, you can sense his undying creativity was driving him forwards, pushing him on to keep going, working and creating.

Blackstar’s closing track I Can’t Give Everything Away, also has a sad finality to it. It is as if he’s saying, “you can’t have everything, but here’s one last lot”. If Dollar Days is denial, then in some ways, I Can’t Give Everything Away is a resigned acceptance.

So in one sense, the whole album makes me think of the stages/cycle of grief – that so many fans around the world are now experiencing:

Denial > Anger > Bargaining > Depression > Acceptance

It does feel like the loss of a friend or close family member. Yet, I didn’t know the man and had never met him, beyond standing a few meters away during the two times I saw him perform live (see my previous blog entry about that!).

But to those of us who took David’s music to that extra, deeper level and gleamed so much from it, it is unsurprising that we feel such a very personal loss. Not only knowing that David won’t be around any more, but also that internal sense of loss, attached to our own memories and all our personal experiences of his music that shaped our lives.

But Blackstar is an incredible album as a work of music and creativity alone. While in many ways it embodies his musical legacy, to my ears, it follows a similar thinking to the kind of more experimental albums that he put out in the 1990s – The Buddha of Suburbia, 1.Outside and Earthling. All three of those albums sounded ahead of their time at the time, and still sound incredibly current today. They included similar jazz elements that would go on to form the backbone of the music on Blackstar, and sit comfortably alongside it. It’s a great shame that much of the music press and critics didn’t have the brain capacity to understand or appreciate those albums at the time.

Its is worth noting, that despite being a similarly adventurous album, Blackstar was already headed for the number one spot before Bowie left us. So it pleases me to know, or at least hope, that David was aware of this, seeing his final work already embraced so enthusiastically.

On Blackstar he sings "Somebody else took his place...", yet we know that his particular boots will never be filled. David Bowie was always ahead of the game, musically, artistically and visually, and he stunned the world in so many ways right to the end.

“Ain’t that just like me.”

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Never Wave Bye-Bye...

I have been obsessed with David Bowie’s music for many years, so any new release is an event. And since Friday, I’ve been absorbed in his latest album, Blackstar. As I played the album repeatedly over the weekend, I had started mentally writing an analysis that I planned to post here.

Then yesterday, the unthinkable news broke of David’s sudden passing.

My first few plays of Blackstar on Friday afternoon, left me asking a lot of questions, especially wondering whether tracks such as Lazarus, Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything Away were somehow autobiographical. David has rarely been so openly personal and emotional in his writing – on occasions you have to fight through layers of metaphor to see what lies at the core, but not so in this case. The songs are open and vulnerable. However at the time I had simply concluded that he was writing from his perspective of life at his age, with mortality an ever more poignant subject – and how devastatingly true this transpired to be.

Playing the new songs late into Sunday evening, they were still going round my head on Monday morning when I woke up to the news I’d foolishly hoped I’d never have to deal with.

I've known of David’s music from an early age, but it wasn't until I was in my teens and working out what music turned me on, that I found myself properly discovering David’s music after seeing the promo video for Jump (They Say). The album Black Tie White Noise had just been released, so that was my starting point.

That musical discovery took me on a very long and exciting journey, as over the years, I waded through Bowie’s back catalogue, exploring his various phases and incarnations. The release of the 1.Outside album in 1995 had a profound effect on me, and I still hail it as one of his greatest and most underrated works. Like much of his music, it still sounds ahead of its time today.

Seeing David perform live on the Outside tour was an incredible experience, as was seeing him again years later in 2003, on what became his final tour. Amazing concerts and memories I’ll forever cherish.

“Ain’t that just like me?” is one of many lyrics on Blackstar that have now become all the more significant. Indeed, only David could have you mesmerised and inspired by new music one day, and leave you heartbroken the next.

Ever private and always humble, Bowie clearly wanted to avoid letting on he was ill, and the inevitable media onslaught and sensationalism that would go with such an announcement. This was one dark secret he kept until the very end.

The fact that he wrote and recorded the whole album and worked on the Lazarus stage play whilst he was, unbeknown to us, battling cancer, is surely a testament to the man’s creativity, focus and willpower. He wanted to see both projects through to the end, and that he did, making his final, brief appearance on stage in early December at the premier of the Lazarus play, then holding on long enough to see his final album released on January 8th, his 69th Birthday.

Although the music on Backstar now speaks for itself, Jonathan Barnbrook’s cover design is no less profound, a star icon in stark black and white, and the only David Bowie album cover not to feature the artist in some form, nor his name (at least in conventional lettering). Through its simplicity, this cover stands out like a bright star among Bowie’s many iconic album covers, making its mark almost like a full-stop at the end.

When an artist goes before their time, their work often feels unfinished. Although David undeniably still had a lot more to give, he had carefully crafted what he knew would be his final album, a closing chapter to his incredible discography and musical legacy, reflected in the final moments of his video for Lazarus, which sees him playfully busting some of his 70s stage poses before walking backwards into a wardrobe and closing the door. Theatrical to the end.

Few artists have inspired me artistically and musically like David Bowie has. I have felt a connection to his music on so many levels, and it has been a true soundtrack to life, through both difficult and good times.

We have lost an icon and a legend, culturally and inspirationally. But while David’s black star will be shining bright somewhere up there, his music will live on forever here, with us. Even so, the world without David Bowie is a duller place.

We will celebrate all things Bowie by continuing to listen to his music and observe future generations discovering his five decades worth of artistic brilliance. David made it alright to be different; a reassurance to those of us who never quite fitted in. Nobody will ever replace him, nor be able innovate or challenge things the way he did. David Bowie was there at the right time and could only do all that he has achieved in this particular timeline.

To have been able to enjoy his music, to see him play live and simply to exist at the same time as David Bowie is a precious thing to behold.

Thank you, David.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Into the dark...

My album Dark Corners was published via Bandcamp today.

As mentioned in my previous blog entry, the music on Dark Corners is made up of tracks that were originally written for other albums. So in my mind, before it had a title, this was a collection of ‘homeless’ songs. Tracks that didn’t fit in their parent albums, but ones that still had potential and which I felt deserved to be part of my discography.

Dark Corners comprises tracks that originated while I was working on Traces, Sentient City, Panorama and Timeshift, plus a couple of other recent demos. And I wanted it to be very much a “demos” type album, presenting the songs in a slightly more raw state. Not only to allow a slight insight in to my working process but because even in this unpolished state, I felt these tracks all had a certain something, that could easily be lost through overworking them.

But what I hadn’t expected was a common new theme emerging.

When discussing the album with my friend Richard Hayes (whose ears have been subjected to my recent music in all of its states of creation), we’d soon agreed that the music on this album had a darker, more psychological, perhaps ghostly or supernatural mood to it. This was reaffirmed in the sleevenotes Richard later wrote for the album:

“The dark places of the physical world around us may conceal the strange and the menacing.  But much more so do the immaterial and limitless depths of our own minds.”

The music shifts regularly between the contrasting moods of light and dark. Unpredictable, and a refreshing change from the science fiction aspect that drives much of my work, even if some of the music here grew out of science fiction origins.

In-keeping with the more gothic nature of some of the music, for the artwork, I decided to finally make good use of a photo shoot from a couple of years ago with photographer Dave Yeaman taken in Sheffield General Cemetery – a fascinating place dating back to the 1800s, and disused since the 1970s. This was an ideal opportunity to use this kind of imagery.

I usually like to plan out an album – come up with a concept, a title and settle on a general sound palette. Dark Corners seemed to plan itself.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Venturing into dark corners...

When you work on an album, its inevitable that there will be "leftovers" and other half-finished ideas. Tracks which didn't quite fit, or somehow weren't right for the final album. It is always worth keeping hold of these, and more often than not, when you revisit them later on, you can usually hear their potential and see just what is needed to complete them.

I've been amassing a collection of such tracks over the last couple of years, and have recently worked through the best of them, creating a whole new album in the process – Dark Corners.

It is very easy to overwork a track and somehow lose the initial spark that held it together. So for this project, I have deliberately kept all the tracks close to their original 'demo' state. Obviously any blundering mistakes have been ironed out and I've mixed the tracks to sound consistent, but there is still a pleasing spontaneous feel to the music.

Dark Corners was an appropriate title in many ways. Many of these tracks – unintentionally – had a much darker vibe, and were clearly something different to the science fiction or dream-based tracks I had previously been working on. A dark, psychological theme started emerging as the tracks were finished off. Something a little unsettling and questioning.

The full album download of ten tracks does with a digital booklet, containing a specially-written introduction by Richard Hayes...

"Something moves in the shadows. Just outside our field of view. We cannot be sure what it is. Perhaps we have imagined it. But perhaps not."

The track Scarred is available to stream on Soundcloud.

Dark Corners will be available via Bandcamp on 8th January.