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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'.
"But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
"We could talk until the cows come home
WRITING THE SONG
Memphis, Tennessee' is a classic daddy/daughter tear-jerker. Daddy is trying to put through a long distance call (see footnote 1) to his daughter Marie, who is only 6 years old. In a neat twist we, the listeners, only realise this at the end of the song- up to that point we are led to assume that 'Marie' is The Voice's lover.
My general experience of dads who make impassioned telephone calls (or buy over-sized birthday cards, or put a sign in their car reading 'Princess On Board') is that they are chronic over-compensators, and poor fathers. So my first assumption about the dad in 'Memphis, Tennessee' was that he was lying to both his daughter and himself- he'd never make it home.
Having decided on the character of the father, the situation of the daughter felt straightforward. She would be independent yet needy; defiantly refusing to trust , yet desperate to do so.
Having knocked together a lyric based around being lonely in Tennessee. (2) I sent it to Josienne Clarke, who I hadn't met before, but who had been recommended to me by Jon Earl (curator of brilliant live music site 'Songs From The Shed' (3)). She came up with a suitably yearning tune, then we met up in Scotland and banged the track down. Josienne has a sweet, young-sounding, yet somehow 'knowing' voice that suits Marie perfectly.
Listening to this song again now, I realise that if it wasn't for me burbling on about it, no-one would know that this is an answer song to 'Memphis Tennessee'. In fact this applies to quite a few of the songs on this album. Maybe this is because I've focused on the character's psychology, rather than the 'story' as such. Never mind- that's just my way I guess. Also, when co-writing a song, it is inevitable that some parts of your lyric will get edited out- in fact, it's good practice to make your lyric deliberately over-long, to give them something to cut out. Quite often the part that is cut is the most obvious, 'explanatory' part of the lyric. This can leave the remaining lyric seeming somewhat vague (not necessarily a bad thing).
RECORDING THE SONG
The first stage in the recording was a demo, recorded by Josienne with her friend Ben Walker. The demo sounded like this:
Now, this sounds pretty good already. But rather than imitating it, I was hoping to nudge it in another direction. I was thinking electric guitar and strings, possibly something in the vein of ‘Simply Beautiful’ by Al Green. I should mention at this point - at no time did I even for a second think that this song would ACTUALLY end up sounding like an Al Green track. But it is important when producing a record to have a clear goal in mind. This enables you to make quick decisions, and not get trapped in eternal ‘let’s try this, let’s try that” exchanges, which are fun, but waste everyone’s time (and my money). So I knew it wouldn’t sound anything like Al Green. But anyway, here’s how it actually did sound:
I was a bit disappointed at first; it sounded OK, especially the vocal, and I liked the bass and drums too. I wasn’t keen on any of the guitar though, so decided to mix all of that out, and replace it with a bit of Rod Clements on the dobro. Here’s is how it sounded with those changes:
Already better, and the vocal was growing on me more and more as I listened to it (especially her pronounciation of the word ‘gone’, which I find strangely moving - i’m not sure if that’s because of the accent, or the delivery). I was keen to get this one right now. So when I got home I sent the track to the marvellous Ros Stephen for a string treatment. Here is the final version, with the strings added:
1 NB this was before the iPhone 5
2 Which unfortunately mentions the word 'frost'. I've never been to Tennessee, but I imagine it's kind of hot. Never mind. I added a note of realism by mentioning cows, which they definitely do have.
3 Have a look at www.songsfromtheshed.com