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|The Making of 'Answer Ballads'
1. Mrs Jones' Song
2. Maggie's Song
3. Daniel's Song
4. Roxanne's Song
5. Pearl's Song
6. Billy-Joe's Song
7. Marie's Song
8. Bobby's Song
9. Lucille's Song
10. Mrs Avery's Song/Sylvia's Song
11. Dino's Song
12. Jolene's Song
In spring 2012, I embarked on making an album of 'answer songs': in which hitherto silent characters from other people's songs are given voice. This blog is an account of the songs that I picked, and of how I went about writing and recording my 'answers'.
"Sylvia's mother says Sylvia's packing, she's going to be leaving today
"Mrs Avery's Song"
"My baby, your fruit doesn't want to be picked
"We had a tree in the garden back home
WRITING THE SONGS
Writing an answer song to 'Sylvia's Mother' presented me with an opportunity to write 2 replies to a single song. The original song has 3 protagonists - The Voice (ie the narrator), Sylvia, and Sylvia's mother (Mrs Avery).
I have no idea why I picked the idea of a tree as the metaphor for these 2 songs. In fact I don't really know why I felt the need for a metaphor, I could have just written it straight down the line. That doesn't always come naturally to me though.
I sent 'Sylvia' to Bella Hardy to write a tune, while 'Mrs Avery' I already had a tune of my own for, and sent to Jackie Oates, who kindly agreed to sing it. In a way, it might have been nice to have 'Mrs Avery' voiced by an older voice than 'Sylvia', but Jackie sings it so beautifully I don't think this matters. Also, at the risk of sounding pretentious (see footnote 1) , these songs are meant to represent the protagonist's inner voice rather than their real, physical voice. I don't know about you, but my inner voice is stuck at the age of about 12 and a half. Probably why I included in the lyric a reference to the lad from Dr Hook having only one eye, a silly moment which I now regret.
RECORDING ‘MRS AVERY’S SONG’
A few weeks before the studio time was booked, I travelled down to visit Jackie Oates and play her the song I had written for her. This is me and Jackie running through the song in her living room, recorded on my phone:
This little phone recording gave Jackie a chance to learn the tune before we went into the studio. Here is a clip of me and Jackie again, in the garden outside the studio, running through the song again, just before we went in to record it:
I opted to keep this take, because I like Jackie’s vocal. The more I listened to it, though, the unhappier I was with the sound of the band. I tried replacing my main guitar part with some slide guitar by Rod, which sounded like this:
Better, but somehow still not good enough. Then I thought, since I liked the singing, why not just take out the band completely? So I mixed the entire band out, and replaced them with a string section (in fact, one person, Ros Stephen). The Jam did something similar when recording the album version of ‘Smithers-Jones’ (‘Setting Sons’, 1979). So this is what I then had, with pretty much just voices and strings.
I then took a step backwards and re-inserted some of the original band instruments- the pedal steel guitar, some backing vocals, and some piano on the end part. This is how the final version turned out:
RECORDING ‘SYLVIA’S SONG’
I had already worked with Bella Hardy, on the ‘Life Of Birds’ album, and we know each other tolerably well, so I was happy to approach Bella last of all and offer her the most ‘difficult’ lyric, ie the one everybody else had rejected. Hence Bella ended up with ‘Sylvia’, a piece she seemed to have no trouble with at all. She turned up at the studio with the song written out on manuscript paper (ooohh!) and the band went straight into it, getting it on the third take.
The only things I added later were the violin, the washboard, and the cat sound:
1 maybe you should have considered this before you started making a 'concept album'?