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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'.

Original Song:

"Sylvia's Mother"
Composed: Silverstein
Released: 1972
Performed by: Dr Hook

"Sylvia's mother says Sylvia's packing, she's going to be leaving today
Sylvia's mother says Sylvia's marrying, a fellow down Galveston Way"

Answer Songs:

"Mrs Avery's Song"
Composed: Rotheray
Released: 2013
Performed by: Jackie Oates & The Rotheray All-Star Moose Collective

"My baby, your fruit doesn't want to be picked
Your leaves are all folded and furled
Your sadness, like your nakedness
Is not for the eyes of this world"

"Sylvia's Song"
Composed: Rotheray/Hardy
Released: 2013
Performed by: Bella Hardy & The Rotheray All-Star Moose Collective

"We had a tree in the garden back home
It was only seven by four
Now I grow dog roses here on my lawn
Now I got a lawnmower I can ride on
Now I've got a man in Galveston
And I don't need you any more"


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 pictured the characters something like this. Mrs Avery is, at best, a Mrs Bennett figure; at worst, she is a dominant, controlling mother, and possibly with a puritanical religious undercurrent (a bit like the mother in 'Carrie', perhaps). Sylvia, on the other hand, is (unlike Carrie) a bit of a mouse- meek and compliant , a future Stepford Wife in the making. Thus the phone call between Sylvia and The Voice is the turning point in Sylvia's life- her last chance to reject the course laid down by her mother,and a chance that she refuses to take.

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.


Jackie Oates

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:

When the band all joined in, the result was this:

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:

Ros Stephen

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:


Bella Hardy

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'?