20 Jun 2015

Everyone Can Sing!

I've always maintained that everyone can sing.  I've never encountered anyone who was truly "tone deaf".

Ask somebody a question.  Say, "Would you like a cup of tea?"  Notice how the pitch of your voice changes? Perhaps it goes up on "tea"; perhaps for that more sympathetic tone it goes down at the end... 

The fact is, you're altering the pitch and tone of your voice at will.  Higher and lower; louder and softer; longer and shorter... Singing is exactly the same, though of course it's a little more regulated.  

So if you think you can't sing, try this:

• Make the highest sound you possibly can
• Make the lowest sound you possibly can
• Make a sound somewhere in the middle

Now you've made three notes of different pitches. 

See if you can make a sound in between the middle one and the low one.  That's four.  

Now a sound between the middle one and the high one.  That's five.

That's where we all start. With practice - and, of course, time - you learn how to divide these gaps into ever smaller "slices" and how to reproduce each sound at will.  

So sing often, sing without shame, listen to the sounds you're making, and enjoy the sounds you're making!  

And if you're somewere in the London area, maybe you might want to check this out - a choir for people who "can't" (for want of a better word) sing!  


Now go and make some noise! 

16 Jun 2015

Happy Birthday, Harry Nilsson!

Harry Nilsson Smoking A Fag
Harry Nilsson, 15th June 1941 - 15th January 1994

Nilsson is one of my biggest influences as a singer and songwriter.  When he was in his prime, his voice was just beyond compare; and his best songs wouldn't have disgraced Lennon & McCartney.  Even if you've not heard of him, you'll have heard him - "Can't live, if living is without you..."; "Everybody's talkin' at me.  I don't hear a word they're sayin..."; "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do..."; "You put de lime in de coconut you drink em both up..." and so on and on. 

For the uninitiated, I recommend you check out the albums Nilsson Schmilsson and Harry.  The former was the biggie that made him a star, beautifully produced by Richard Perry; the latter is a slightly earlier album that sounds like what music might have sounded like had Rock n Roll not come along - it's one of my 5 favourite records, and if you don't absolutely adore at least one track on there, you simply have no heart.

He was a flawed man, bent for whatever reason on sabotaging his own career, and could be a bit of a bastard when he wanted to be... but he was also capable of this.

1W1P - w/o 15th June 2015

Dreams - Beck
One of those artists I've always meant to investigate further... and this track is a cracker.  It's a bit like Fenech Soler or Friendly Fires, but a zillion times better than either of them.  Zillion's a proper number, right?  And that breakdown at the 3 minute mark is a brave move!

Sun Is Shining - Axwell
The Scandinavians produce some great music. This isn't great music. This is more tedious dancefloor fodder designed to get lots of people in the same place to spend money on beer.

Diamond - Izzy Bizu
She can sing and it's a canny song. Nothing that'll set the world on fire, though, and unless she pulls something really special out of the bag she'll soon be replaced by the next music college alumnus with a pretty face and a quirky name.

Can't Feel My Face - The Weeknd
Better than The Hills (reviewed at the beginning of this month)... and there there some cool ideas in between the Michael Jackson impressions.  This guy's either going to fade away to nothing or do something awesome.

Scud Books - Hudson Mohawke
I like it, but... er... 1W1P - w/o 8th June 2015

She's a Witch - Gengahr
And another North London band fronted by a bloke with a terrifyingly middle-class name crops up and does something completely forgettable. They'll do well.

Pages of Gold - Flo Morrissey
Sometimes she'll do something interesting with a melody, but it's just so unbearably self-satisfied it make me want to run away and listen to Joni instead.  I kind of wish I liked it, but I just... don't.  Mind you, there are better tracks than this on her debut album, Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful, so maybe I'll re-think in a few months.

Cry No More - Vaults
It's kind a cross between Lana Del Rey and Florence And The Machine, but with a much better singer. This doesn't do it for me, but there are enough intriguing ideas in it to send me investigating their other stuff... which so far sounds largely the same, which is a shame.

Real Joy - Fono
This sounds quaintly old-fashioned now!  Don't know why, but it reminds me a bit of The Creeps (Camille Jones and Fedde Le Grand)... which is a better track, now I think of it. Listen to that instead.

History of Touches (Krampfhaft Remix) Björk
She's always going to do something worth listening to, is Björk.  A wonderfully intelligent, imaginative and fearless artist, I don't think she'll ever top 1997's Homogenic, but this enchantingly personal, vulnerable and mundane track wouldn't have sounded out of place on that record.  The album version is also lovely - check it out!

Something Like Happiness - The Maccabees
It's almost not horrible, this one.  And then that crappy horn section comes in half way through and you just want it to end. You want it all to end.

Intoxicated - Martin Solveig, GTA
Well this week we started with a belter of a track, and we finish with more or less the exact opposite.  It's like something Calvin Harris sneezed. 

13 Jun 2015

1W1P - w/o 8th June 2015

One Week One Playlist
Peter Falconer, musician and idiot.

Dead Inside - Muse
Last week's playlist included the track Reapers from Muse's new album, Drones, which I rather liked. This sounds like My Chemical Romance doing a bad Muse impression.  I can't imagine even Muse fans will like this one.

Brown Sugar (Remastered) - The Rolling Stones
Bit of sacred cow slaying here, but I don't think the Stones were good enough musicians or songwriters to turn out consistently good material, but occasionally they struck gold. This excellent 1971 track has been ripped off more times than you can count - and speaking of being ripped off, you can now buy Sticky Fingers again in remastered form!

Scud Books - Hudson Mowhawke
Glaswegian Electronic artist Hudson Mowhawke's first album (Butter, 2009) was a fun mix of triumphant hands-in-the-air club tracks and clever silliness.  In a way, like a slightly less chart-friendly Basement Jaxx.  This is a bit more hip-hoppish (you can imagine Kanye West or someone similar ruining it with some moronic drivel over the top) but no less enjoyable.

Ain't Got No... - Tove Styrke
Styrke has been compared to Robyn and Annie in the past, but apart from being from Scandinavia, slightly electronic-ish and able to sing in tune, for me that's where the comparisons end. This just makes me want to listen to Robyn or Annie instead and turn this off.

Head Above The Water - Palace
The vocals aren't my thing at all, but the production and playing style are really quite nice. There's a real feel of early-mid 70's Island Records acts about it that I like.

Low Season - Ritual
Laid back indie-electronica... Even with the remarkably ordinary vocal performance, I do like this one. Not afraid to just wallow in its own atmosphere and let other noises drift in and out.  Very nice.

Fire Under My Feet - Leona Lewis
Poor Leona.  Easily the best singer ever to come out of the Popstars/Pop Idol/Fame Academy/X Factor/Britain Must Be Stopped reality show circus, she's been shunted from one hit-making producer/songwriter to another.  I'd love to hear her do something completely different for once, but instead she's yelling this Toby Gad track. Nothing at all wrong with wanting to pay the bills, but isn't she bored of this shit yet?

I Of The Storm - Of Monsters And Men
vi - IV - I - V.  It's the favourite chord sequence of the neo-folk scene.  And it has been for years.  Of Monsters And Men play with the formula here by omitting the final V, and can somebody please turn this crap off before I put my foot through the monitor and send Spotify the bill?  Dreary crap.

Never Let You Go - Rudimental feat. Foy Vance
Blimey, it's been a while since I've heard any Drum and Bass, if I'm honest!  Arrangement's pretty good, but I wish they'd either had a more interesting vocal line or just had the balls to leave the vocals out altogether.

Believer - DJ Fresh, Adam F
These DnB DJs are like buses, aren't they? Here come another two!  Rather old-fashioned, this one.  The closest I ever got to enjoying DnB and jungle when it was first popular was being slightly into Prodigy and - of course - the Bowie album Earthling.  This definitely reminds me of that era, anyway.  Maybe that's why I prefer it to the Rudimental track.  Either way, it sounds like a likeable curiosity from a bygone age, not anything that's going to set the world on fire now.

Powerful - Major Lazer, Tarrus Riley, Ellie Goulding
I liked the Major Lazer track from last week (Lean On) and I'm finding this one rather intriguing, too.  I just wish they'd used someone other than Ellie Goulding on it.  A great mishmash of styles both in terms of performance and production.  Wonder what they'll do next!

2 Jun 2015

1W1P - w/o 1st June 2015

One Week One Playlist

Caught - Florence + The Machine
Pleasant, rather old fashioned track featuring an unusually inoffensive vocal performance by Welch.

Hey - Slaves
No-nonsense thrashing about from this new modern British punk band, that also happens to be beautifully recorded.  Excellent!

Reapers - Muse
Clear homage to Rage Against The Machine in this one.  I never bought their tortured droning, so while I'm sure some Muse fans will bemoan Mutt Lange's production, I think it's a welcome change of tone!

Lean On - Major Lazer, MØ, DJ Snake
I liked this track on first hearing and I'm liking it more and more on second and third... This is what they should have done with the 90s production revival rather than just re-hashing the same old shit. Lovely.

Ready - Kodaline
Unremarkable Coldplay-alike.

Put Me Down - Aquilo
Reminds me of those 80s blue-eyed-soul bands like Hue & Cry.  Doesn't do it for me, but there are some pleasant noises.  And it's short.

The Hills - The Weeknd
Now, this one isn't very good, but I'll be very interested to hear the stuff this bloke comes out with when he grows up a bit.  Lot of potential...

Get Low - 50 Cent, Jeremiah, T.I., 2 Chainz
All Fiddy's promotion for the new album suggests this is a NEW sound, more mature than his previous work, and showing how much he's developed since 2003's Get Rich or Die Tryin'.  Now, I'm no expert on hip hop, but lyrically speaking, I can assure you this is just another massive $wag & Hoes cliché.

B a noBody - SOAK
Very nice song, with a production designed with Teen Drama placement firmly in mind. A bit like Birdy but much less awful.

Some Kind of Heaven - Hurts
Not very good at all.

Somebody - Natalie La Rose, Jeremih
Awful music for awful people.

Together - CAZZETTE, Newtimers
I guess there must be a market for this sort of crap, but much like the Kodaline and Natalie La Rose tracks it's a bit depressing that people still haven't moved on.  This could have appeared on any Hed Kandi compilation from the last 15 years.

29 May 2015

1W1P - w/o 25th May 2015

One Week One Playlist

Waiting For Love - Avicii
More ghastly pentatonic yelling from the Scandinavian wunderkind.

L$D - A$AP Rocky
Get past the adolescent lyric and there are some really interesting production ideas that caught me off guard.

Leon Bridges
Classic 60s soul voice - I'd love to hear him collaborating with Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings. Drum pattern made my eye twitch, mind...

Pstereo - Emilie Nicholas
This song's about 2 years old now.  I wouldn't have liked it in 2013 either.

Love Me So - Stereo Kicks
Drop your prejudices: yes, they're a boyband; yes, they're X-Factor alumni; but get past that and just listen to the song.  No, it's still rubbish.

Ready For The Fight - Port Isla
Sounds like something Chris Martin wrote while he was on the toilet, then sent it to Avicii for a second draft.  Awful.

State of Mind - Ady Suleiman
Really not my thing at all, but if it is your your thing it's very good.

Carry Her Home - Saint Raymond
Like Ady Suleiman, Saint Raymond (Callum Burrows) is from Nottingham. Unlike Ady Suleiman, this track has absolutely nothing to recommend it. Oozes smugness from every cynical pore.

Like Acid Rain - Unknown Mortal Orchestra
The first track on this week's playlist to make me want to listen to more of that artist.  They're a bit Beatles-y, which is always good, and a bit Sly Stone-y, which is similarly ace.  Occasionally a bit too Jamiroquai-y for my liking... but I quite like this one. And it's only 2 minutes long!

21 - Hunter Hayes
There's some really great country music around. There's some bloody awful country music around. This is neither. Meh.

Yoga - Janelle Monáe & Jidenna
Does nothing for me, but it's refreshing to hear a female singer in this genre that isn't trying to sound like Beyoncé or Rihanna. Also gets bonus points for the line, "You can not police me, so get off my areola!"

Delilah - Florence + The Machine
I don't get it. Do you get it? Why's she always yelling at me? 

12 Mar 2015

1W1P - w/o 9th March 2015

One Week One Playlist

Lay Me Down - Sam Smith, John Legend

Believe - Mumford & Sons
Interesting departure from their usual sound.

2Shy - Shura
Luscious yet crystalline pop. Kind of like Donna Lewis if you remember her.

Medicine - Sunset Sons 
If you like Kings of Leon, you'll like this. If you don't, you won't.

Baby Love - Petite Meller
Absolutely horrid 90s vibe, but cracking vocal production.

Modern Love - Coasts
Yet another British University Indie band with an earnest delivery and changeable accent. Foals, Friendly Fires, Bastille, Mystery Jets... Yawn.

Forget - Marina and The Diamonds
Some nice ideas, let down by a sub-par chorus

Rebel Heart - Madonna
Manages to be dull and irritating at the same time. Distorted kick drum horror. But then I don't like Avicii so what do I know?

Pray to God - Calvin Harris, Haim
Good things: Calvin Harris isn't singing on it. I like Haim's vocal style.  This is a bit meh.

Fade Out Lines - The Avener & Phoebe Killdeer
Canny late-night deephouse. Eerie.

Vertigo - Mini Mansions, Alex Turner
Scissor Sisters, 80s Roxy Music, bit of Elbow in there... I like it!

Handsome - The Vaccines
Instantly forgettable; will no doubt be played to death on Radio 1 until people buy it.

13 Nov 2014

Make your notes count!

As an artist, every note you play or sing, every sound you make, every step you dance, every brushstroke you commit to the canvas should have some sort of purpose.

That purpose might not always be artistic - if you're working on, say, a Czerny piano study, then those notes, those sounds, are designed to improve a particular technique... but they should never be "just notes".  

That's why I get annoyed when I hear guitarists like Rusty Cooley or Joe Satriani, singers like Whitney Houston, Beyonce or Boys II Men, or see dancers like Chris Brown.  While their technique and control of fast and complex passages is astonishing, I feel myself constantly asking "Why are you doing that? How does that scale/inflection/movement add to the meaning of the work you're performing?" 

There are other people who will argue to the end of time that I'm doing the above artists a disservice. After all, how many couples out there have had "The Greatest Love Of All" as their first dance?  Wept their eyes out over "End Of The Road"?

And conversely, there are plenty of artists I enjoy and admire (composer Franz Liszt; pianist Oscar Peterson; drummer Terry Bozzio) who many would argue are flashy bores who are interested in nothing more than getting as many notes into a bar as possible. 

Clearly, then, deciding who exactly is guilty of this sort of aesthetic nonsense is very much a subjective thing... but I stand by the idea that whatever artistic act you're doing, you should make sure every part of it is somehow adding to the meaning of the piece.  Otherwise it's not art - it's just work. 

I'll finish off with a quote from Leopold Mozart (1719-1787) from his Versuch einer Gründlichen Violinschule (1756) that makes me chuckle:

Many imagine themselves to have brought something wonderfully beautiful into the world if they befrill the notes of an Adagio cantabile thoroughly, and make out of one note at least a dozen.  Such note-murderers expose thereby their bad judgement to the light, and tremble when they have to sustain a long note or play only a few notes singingly, without inserting their usual preposterous and laughable frippery. 

21 Feb 2014

Weekly or Fortnightly lessons?

Most of my students come for weekly, hour-long lessons.  However, I'm often asked by potential students who are a bit short on either cash or time if half hour lessons would suffice, or if fortnightly lessons might be better.

Except with very young children (up to, say, seven years old) I would always recommend hour-long lessons.  At that age, even if they may not currently be capable of concentrating for 60 minutes, learning the self-discipline to be able to concentrate for an extended period of time is part of becoming a better musician - and it's a skill they can apply to everything they do.

And to the weekly/fortnightly question I always give the same answer:

I would rather have a fortnightly student who practised every day than a weekly student who didn't.

In other words, what you do away from the lesson is every bit as - if not more - important than what you do in the lesson.  I can't make you into a better musician; but I can show you how you can make yourself into a better musician. 

26 Oct 2013

Eggs: How to make a living as a musician

Somebody once said about art, "You can't make a living, but you can make a fortune." (If anybody knows what the actual quote is and who said it, I'd very much like to know.)

This is a pretty accurate description of a lot of creative jobs - artists, musicians, actors, writers... a jobbing actor will constantly be searching for the next mean-paying job, while Johnny Depp gets paid six zillion a film.  

And for musicians, spreading yourself about is par for the course.  There are good times, when the money is pretty steady; and there are bad times, when you're wondering how long you can last before you have to get a proper job!  So having your eggs in one basket is never a good idea - if all your money comes from function band work, what do you do in the quiet January-March period?  If all your earnings are from teaching, what about when everybody buggers off on holiday for the Summer?

So you need to have other sources of income to cover you for when your preferred source runs a little dry.  With me, recording was my main source of income, but when the 2008 recession hit, things started to get a little lean.  So that's when I beefed up the teaching side of things.  I took on more and more students, and meanwhile started getting more gigs with a function band for extra chunks of money at the weekends.  

Band work is a very funny thing.  Clients often think they're paying you to stand on stage for two hours and play some songs.  What they forget is that they insisted that you turn up at 3 in the afternoon to start at 9pm, and to get there you had to set off at lunchtime, meaning the 2 hours for which you're getting paid is actually getting spread over a 13 hour day.  And if you normally have students in the afternoon, you have to factor in the teaching work you lost as well...

And students come and go, of course.  For every committed, long-term student, you'll get three or four who say "I want to learn how to sing" when they mean "I want you to make me able to sing instantly."  These high-turnover students (which, I must stress, are no less deserving of your time, energy and professionalism - snobbery doesn't do anybody any good) mean that you have to have a constant stream of advertising flowing from your studio, on teaching websites*, Yellow Pages, in magazines and newspapers, and even cards in newsagents and music shop windows.  

Inevitably when on these teaching sites, you're asked what services you offer.  You tick the box marked "Singing tuition", but it occurs to you that since you've been playing flute every Sunday in a local wind band, why not offer to help out beginners with their flute playing?  And your main hobby since you were about 12 has been tap dancing, so why not tick that box, too?  Before you know it, you're earning money from more sources than you ever realised you could.  

Some people would say this is a bad thing.  Spreading yourself too thin distracts you from whatever ambitions you might have had when starting out.  I don't buy that.  If you really want to dedicate your life to writing music and nothing else, then you'd not need to spread yourself thin - you'd go on the dole, live in a squat, and eat nothing but stock cubes in tepid water.  But for the less fanatic amongst us, we need a few creature comforts, a decent place to live, and let's not forget the fact that if you're married or living with someone you'll need to pull your weight financially.  

Let's not be romantic about this: sometimes, being a musician has to be WORK, just like any other job.  We'd all like to just chill out with our pals and jam away in the studio all the time, but that's not going to buy the baby a new bonnet.  But the reason we don't jack it in when things get tough and become accountants is because we love music too much.  So how do we make the WORK periods seem as little like work as possible?  That's where diversifying your income really helps.  

I love teaching.  I really enjoy the excitement in somebody's eyes - even the most jaded and pessimistic of students - when they 'get' something they were previously struggling with.  And because I teach several subjects (singing; piano; theory; songwriting; production) my mind is constantly having to work in different ways, rather than having to hear myself harping on with the same lessons over and over again.  I play in several function bands all with different styles, each getting different types of gigs - so it's not so bad having to play friggin' Love Shack on the Friday because I know on Saturday I'll be playing Mr Blue Sky.  I also have my recording and production work ticking along - some bands, some solo artists, and some theatrical/stage companies, all with different styles and goals, needing a different approach.  Then there's songwriting, composing, and voiceover work.  Please understand, I'm not saying "Look at me! Aren't I wonderful for having so many strings to my bow?" Not at all.  What I'm trying to say is that over the years I have been forced partly by finance and partly by restlessness to spread out into different areas - and unless you're very lucky indeed, and have a hit single that pays your mortgage, you're going to need to do the same thing.

And on top of this, you must - must - make a little time for your own music.  For me, this is playing classical piano, improving my jazz piano, making horrendous noises with Fat Pigeon, and recently I've picked up the ol' saxophone again.  None of these things are earning me any money, but that means they're mine.  They don't belong to the taxman.  

So to stay afloat as a musician in tough times, I would boil this whole thing down to these two pieces of advice: 
  1. Diversify your sources of income, so you're not reliant on one thing. Apart from this making good financial sense, it stops you getting bored with doing the same type of work all the time;
  2. Make time for your own music.  For your own sanity and self-esteem, you can't dedicate every waking hour to paying the bills; and how depressing would it be if your piano became nothing but a money-making tool rather than a beautiful, creative, living organ?
That's my take on things.  How do you keep the wolf from the door in a creative industry?

* My favourite and most useful has been TheTutorPages.com
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