Tuesday, August 31, 2021

From Drawing Club on Sunday

These Japanese TV ads are so dreamy to draw from; I can't stop!

Mixes Mixed

Up that hill again (I suppose I'll miss you, Gipsy Hill!) for the final day at One Cat Studios, a day of mixing, and by some miracle recording a Christmas song for the WIAIWYA Christmas compilation album. The mixing was fine-tuning really, and both me and Robert had made the same notes about what needed to be done to make the tracks sparkle. The day involved a lot of concentrated listening, but was really pleasurable nonetheless.

I've just managed to put a non-distorted bass line on a song in the kitchen today, which is a weight off my shoulders. I have been having bad dreams at night, which I think were associated with a seemingly unsolvable problem which has solved itself. Groovy, baby! Now I'm going to have a couple of days ears-rest before resuming the solo album: I think I'm going to try some vocals before the autumn bugs kick in that strangle my vocal chords and, in combination with 'teacher's voice', take all the bounce out of my singing.

Alas, I have had to decide not to take to the stage with the Loud Women crew to join a mass sing-in of Reclaim These Streets at the Loud Women Fest in September. I have three gigs the following weekend, the first ones for months, and just too many people have come down with Covid in the last week. Even the double-vaccinated people have been really ill, and the non-vaccinated even more so. I have had the jab but I can't risk singing in a group. It was such an exciting thought that I said 'yes' to straight away, but the virus is just getting too close to home. The Preston Pop Fest seems to have resulted in a lot of infections too- and that's on top of the other people that I know. I think it's back to being very, very cautious- so I want to teach online again this year. I have no idea whether that is going to happen.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Review for 'She's at the Controls' in The f-Word

Big thanks to Cazz Blase for this review. It was so hard to finish this book, which basically was completed in lockdown with all that weight of anxiety, confusion and everything else. Thank you to everyone who has read it closely and who understands what I'm talking about.


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Mixes Arrived

I almost forgot, because it was past my bedtime when the mixes turned up. Normally when you leave a studio you leave with listening mixes but that doesn't seem to be the practice at this one, so there's been a week's ears-rest before hearing them. An email turned up from Robert, who is on tour with Swansea Sound at the moment, and I downloaded them in between dreams.

I can't believe that we recorded six songs to such a degree of completion in only two days. I suppose that's what we did last year too, and of course that's the way you did John Peel sessions back in the day. But we are not a band who play gigs: we don't have that 'all playing together' gig rehearsal experience. Obviously because of the pandemic, we have done nil gigs ,so there's a looseness and spontaneity to the recordings that I really like. Mostly though, I feel really proud of the way we have collaborated. The song bits that I've sent to Robert: well, I would never have finished those. 

And I think he has sent me just such rambling snatches of music, too.  We have literally 'finished each other's song sentences'. There's a type of song that I sometimes write that is simply too complete for me to write lyrics to; something about the music becomes imprisoning. In those, Robert busts me out of jail and imagines sonic possibilities that are out of my personal stratosphere. In his, I feel that I am drawing curtains aside to reveal melodies and ideas that are hidden in his chord changes: you just need to know where to find them amongst the layers of sound. That's without my admiration for his ideas for lyrics, which seem so obvious once they land in the spaces of the song. Sometimes he is replacing lyrics of my own that didn't work with lyrics of his that do. In turn, I get the opportunity to imagine scenarios into soundscapes that I could never create myself.

So after a late night listen, I felt immeasurably proud of our songs above anything else. In the greater scheme of things, writing songs is a negligible activity, but I hope this music makes people happy and articulates things for them when they hear it. It has crystallised together out of the same experiences of the past three years that we have all been through, and it feels like it belongs to everyone and not just us.

Bass Strings

Well, the horse refused a jump yesterday. Some of my songs need a bass groove to thread them together, and the strings on my bass are prehistoric. So I went to the music shop and bought some strings.

When I got back home I realised that it's been (ahem) 40 years since I changed the strings on a bass guitar.  In my head they turned into vicious metal snakes, writhing and scraping their shiny silver roundwound wire ridges against each other, and hitting out aggressively at my vulnerable fingers.

'Leave that till tomorrow', I thought. And now, of course, it's tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Song of the Unsung Heroine

This video was made by Gina Birch in 2010. We filmed it in a second-hand guitar shop in Denmark Street in London; they were very casual about us filming there. Apparently the shop was a bit of a star. The song appears on this album, too: https://helenmccookerybook.bandcamp.com/album/take-one-download-only

Herons, Earrings and a Fantastic Film

I went on a fruitless search for a shop that would sell a single gold hoop earring. 

Two weeks ago I went to see Summer of Soul, which has to be one of the best films ever. Not only is it an excellent music documentary, it is also a film about political action and possibility that speaks to the nature of racism and the ghosting of its even existence, let alone an entire New York community who set up and attended a concert in Harlem that now, it seems, was intended to be forgotten.

Nina Simone's blazing anger, Steve Wonder's positive and uplifting songs, Hugh Masakela, Jesse Jackson, Mahalia Jackson: all ages were represented and celebrated in front of a delighted audience, some of whom climbed up trees for a better view. The neighbourhood's kids were there, having their own experience at elbow level. It is a fine and moving film which I would love to show to my students if I get the chance. Do go to see it if you can; you will feel moved, angered, energised and most importantly, educated in the best way possible- through musical experience.

The earring was a mask casualty. I put on my best dress and posh earrings for the occasion even though I went on my own, and at some point I must have taken off the mask in the street and also unhitched the earring. I guess eventually I'll have to just buy another pair. Sometime.

The earring search was yesterday, on the way to visit my pal who has had a broken leg, ironically while feeding a goose with a bad leg in Wanstead. She sped through the low traffic area in her wheelchair, decked out in camouflage finery with large matching umbrella tucked behind her and a backpack full of duck biscuits. Once we were at Wanstead Flats, we fed Egyptian Geese, Canada Geese and a very friendly and greedy white duck from the flats of our hands, getting the occasional nip in the process. In the distance a woman appeared and scattered a huge amount of wildfowl food on the ground and massive flock of mixed birds appeared, including a heron who stood in the shape of an imperious number seven and overlooked the proceedings. A cormorant relaxed on a small island, at one point inspected by a curious swan.

Wanstead Flats could not be more different than Barnet. For a start, it's flat! The grass is beaten down by footfall and there's a visiting Fairground set up across the way. Yet all around the pond there are masses of colourful wild flowers in tufts and tussocks where little chicks can hide from the marauding seagulls. It looks like a children's painting of the ideal pond. 

So that was yesterday, and today will be back to recording. I've had a week off from listening to my own stuff and I'm going to re-record some songs with different guitars. They need grooves, and I will have to re-string the bass and get grooving. 

Here is the heron flying away to find rats.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Drawing Club: 1980s Japanese TV Ads


Shades and Complications

Over the last two years it seems a lot of people I knew have been 'taken before their time'- that is, in their fifties as opposed to even their sixties. Partly, this is to do with Coronavirus, but partly also due to other causes. This is profoundly sad, because every human being contributes to the colours of the gigantic painting of humanity. But we can't all love one another, because we are too different from each other, and some people's burdens make them difficult to get along with. And what's the point of psychopaths? That's one thing I'll never understand. Tolerance takes a lot of work, but we have to learn how to do it because hatred is so destructive and fills people with unhappiness.

Yes, bereavement makes you brake suddenly: time stops for a moment and you take stock of yourself, your friendships and your family. The bag is shaken up, new alliances form, and old ones fall away. Shaky relationships collapse because truth hurts. Dishonesty is outed and surprising kindness emerges from the shadows. Layers of artifice crumble away, or armour is reinforced.

Your smallness in the greater scheme of things becomes overwhelming, and the perspective alters each time. You can't tell people you love them all the time, because love has too many shades and complications. At the funeral you see people whose past is intertwined with yours forever, but you probably will never see them again, because the last link has snapped with the death of the person who held you in that chain of friendship.

Breathe in, breathe out....

It's Monday and the world has turned again bringing a new landscape of questions; it's probably time I got my guitar out to interrupt these dark thoughts.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Recording Session 2

Gypsy Hill is very very steep, and I was dreading climbing it with the increasingly heavy Green Goddess on a day when global misogyny was dragging my spirits down. The combination of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan (what hopeless 'help' we Westerners were, if democracy was so fragile after all those years!), and the incel shooting in Plymouth that revealed a huge iceberg of hatred for women that feels completely undermining and destabilising, all the more so for the fact that it has always been there. 

And the fact that maybe it always will.

Somehow, for my mood, the recording day was transformational. I'm not sure how and when it happened: big things like Jon putting bass on to the tracks, smaller things like Ian double tracking a harmony vocal, and that texture really adding to the track. Replacing some of my own tired-sounding vocals with stronger and clearer ones; Robert, who is left-handed, playing bass upside down on part of a track, and icing the cake beautifully. A tiny detail, two musical moments of a bell tree sparkling at the end of musical phrases. The songs stand proud, and call on our respective musical influences. Even the steep hill at Barnet station at the end of my journey felt scalable after such an energising day.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Little Egret from Sunday Drawing Club

I drew this in memory of Nick Page. The only time I've ever see one was just a couple of days after he died. It was floating shyly about in the shadows of the trees that line the brook, and I thought I was imagining things at first; it was a lovely creature, and I've never seen it since, although I search for it every time I walk there.

Sunday, August 15, 2021


A few months ago, Youtube started tinkering with 'views' on the Fatberg video posted there by Gare du Nord on mine and Willie Gibson's behalf. The 'views' had gone up to well over two thousand, then suddenly dipped to much less. Gradually they rose again, fell, and have finally consolidated at just over two thousand. This has also happened with one that I posted myself, with a lot fewer views; every time I look, it's lost ten more views. Soon it will have a minus number!

To add insult to injury, they have started putting ads on personal video uploads without passing on the income, and without uploaders being consulted about what is advertised on their videos. I had no idea this was going to happen, because of course I didn't read the small print of the last thing I consented to. The video is question is the one for A Good Life With A Bad Apple, which like Fatberg (which so far has avoided being targeted for an ad), has more than 2000 views. It's tempting to just take it down and re-upload it, to be honest. I will consider that; my 'views' are so small anyway that it makes sense to delete and re-upload at regular intervals to avoid getting spammed by unwanted ads from a greedy service provider!

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Studio Report

We had concentratedly busy day yesterday: we started with Ian putting drums on the three tracks we recorded at the last session. Ian has a huge repertoire of colours in his palette, more than a non-drummer can possibly imagine, and has an ability to speak to the music that is already there with what he plays. This could be because he writes songs himself, or it could simply be because he is an exceptional musician.

We then recorded the guitars and vocals for the next three songs, and believe it or not, the drums too. It was intense work, but such a pleasure. It's almost like there is no wastage. Yes we chat in tea breaks, but once we are in there we graft like there's no tomorrow. This is so different to working at home alone as I have been; it took a couple of hours this time before I felt socialised, but between us we have a working groove that feels really natural once it gets going. On Monday, Jon will record his bass guitar and we will listen for backing vocals spaces, record better vocal takes if necessary, and maybe even do some rough mixes.

On the way back, I just missed every train ,which would have been irritating if I hadn't been so tired. On my journeys I have been reading a book on recording: there's dedication for you.

Lovely to hear from my friend Daniel Coston in North Carolina!

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Wearing Somebody Else's Body

I am wearing somebody else's body today and it's not comfortable at all. Yesterday I went swimming, which was wonderful (it's almost impossible to book a space, so that alone was a miracle). I stopped after my elbow reminded me it had been broken a few years ago and needed a rest, but the general experience was amazing.

Alas, today my body is not so happy. It doesn't even want to sit down: it just wants to complain. 'I don't belong to you', it's whining: 'I belong to someone else who treats me with more delicacy and respect'.

Huh. I'm not impressed. Get a grip, body, or I'll take you swimming again!

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Steal This Car

There was a 'Protect Your Vehicle from Theft' leaflet stuck under the windscreen wiper of a swanky car in the swankier part of town. It looked like it had been there a while.

What a clever trick for car thieves: it's obvious the owners are away! All the thieves need to do is come back and commit the theft the owners are being warned against. Genius.

Pretending I'm In France

Travel abroad is off the cards for anyone who hasn't got double the money they'd normally have in order to pay for Coronavirus tests. Add to that the stress of wondering whether the country you have travelled to is suddenly going to become off-limits, and what should be a relaxing experience becomes an exercise in risk management, a rollercoaster of adrenaline (I'm not going to list a third thing in case I begin to sound like a Government three-phrase slogan factory).

On my morning perambulations, I hit on a solution. For the last half mile, I pretended that I was in France. The south of France, because it was sunny and quiet and everything was bleached out and dry. Over there beyond those houses, perhaps, could be the sea: and further inland, there could be those tree-lined routes to exciting villages with shaded squares and elders playing boules at lunchtime.

It worked!

Tomorrow, I'm going to North Carolina, and on Friday, I'll be in Berlin. And from those fantastic locations, I'm going to send you all hundreds of imaginary postcards.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Rehearsing for Friday

It's back into the studio again on Friday, so from today onwards I'll be re-learning the new McCookerybook and Rotifer songs after a few weeks of just playing and recording my own new stuff. I mean 'material'. Got to get professional here! 

I was thinking about all of us with our CDs and records piled up in our living rooms, secretly waiting to be discovered. We are sure this is going to happen, if we wait long enough. Even maybe after we've died. Music lovers will find our music, and start burrowing excitedly through our personal archives, bursting out from a pile of LPs, eyes shining with excitement: "Wow!!! Look what I've found! The only existing copy of....".

I have always reckoned that McDad's lifelong interest in alchemy and the impossible Knight's Templar, all rolled up into the science of antimony, kept him going for years beyond his 'time'. Undertaking activities that other people might regard as pointless is a remarkable motivator, and often gives relatively small pockets of people a great deal of pleasure. 

Face it, you're extremely unlikely to meet a Beatle (actually, even when I was in the same room as Paul McCartney I didn't want to meet him, for various reasons). But you can still go to see a small band or artist play, and will them to create something sublime out of their music that will transport both you and them to an entirely different universe.

If you become richer and richer and famouser and famouser, you realise just what a tiny isolated planet we live on, and start to think of travelling to Mars. 

Sometimes the world in front of your nose is big enough and beautiful enough: it's just that the pursuit of fame and money makes you unable to notice it all.

Monday, August 09, 2021

Giant Haystacks and Lauren Price from Drawing Club Last Night

The theme was the Olympics and almost all of us started there, but this was Drawing Club so of course we drifted, off course, and visited wrestling on our meanderings. Darren Hayman was painting a beautiful tree in his neighbourhood, and Duncan drew the view out of their window on to Portobello Beach.

I drew Giant Haystacks, after starting off with Lauren Price. I'm not a boxing fan, but I am a wrestling fan. I do really admire the female boxers though; it's great to see these toughies finding a role in life that suits them, and excelling at it.

Once again, the dreamy evening chat rambled on and fixed itself to the drawings with invisible threads.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Another Song Demo Recorded

Back to the Green Goddess again to record the guitar parts for another new song. I had to listen to the phone recording to try to work out what the chords were, and I think I've got it. It has an oddball rhythm that's resisting guitar overdubs but that's OK. Another time, another time. 

And doing the vocals... well the washing machine is on a three hour cycle so there's a lot of washing machine noises on the harmonies. It's a demo, so that doesn't matter: I'm just consolidating what I'm going to put on it anyway. Luckily this is a happy song, because rather a lot of the more recent ones have been a little rueful, which is hardly surprising given what this last 18 months has thrown up.

Unforchly it's now housework time, but I read a thread on Twitter about Santana, and I've got one of their albums which will be just the motivator to get that done with.

Saturday, August 07, 2021

Rainy Day Randomness: Boring Saturday Posting

I waited until the rain stopped this morning before going out for a walk. Of course, it started raining again as soon as I got out there, and I've now got a standard Celtic mop of curly hair as it returns to type because of the wet.

Undaunted, I dressed in rain mac and wellies and went out again, this time to the market, convinced that nobody else would be about: but they already had been about and the fruit stall was lacking in some of the stuff I was sure I'd be able to get hold of. I came away with an interesting mix of tomatoes, though.

When I got back home, I couldn't get the welly off my right foot. It seemed to take hours of prising, twisting, yanking, meditating and almost-crying before it finally slurped off rather ungraciously.

The sun came out, briefly and hotly, and I decided to go across the road to fill in the fruit gaps. They it started raining again just as I was gathering my thoughts. I probably 'ought' to carry on recording, because yesterday's frustrating day proved to be a learning day, and the accidental juxtaposition of yesterday afternoon's demo with an older song formed itself into the beginning of a track listing for my next album.

But no. Wrapped in a  blanket against the cold, I see that Come Dine With Me is on TV and Michele is making mini shortbreads. Irresistible!

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Mixing in the Kitchen

After trimming a song down last week, I've totally self-indulged this week with a song that lasts more than five minutes. It's a 6/8-er which even has a 'shoop shoop' section, and I'm not ashamed.

I've spent ages getting the guitars right, and probably need to spend more ages, as I get better playing through it. I've swapped from a semi acoustic to a solid body to get a bit more twangle in the sound, and I've been positioning the overdubs in the space and meanwhile making a list of what I need to learn (fades, for starters: I'm still using an ancient version of Logic and they didn't have fades in the Stone Age).

I'm learning by experience about microphones and what they do to a (my) voice, too. I've been using the SM58 for guide and backing vocals, and have become quite used to the resonance it gives a vocal in the chest voice: a kind of friendliness, almost. So now I have a friendly microphone and an unfriendly one for those cooler, more aloof vocals. I'm getting every song to the 99% finished stage so I can really enjoy icing the cakes when the time comes- that's putting the final vocals to them, and then mixing them properly and editing out the rubbish. How many songs have I started? Six. I think I'll do ten for this album. If I write more between now and releasing it, I'll edit some of them out, but I'm happy with the ones I have chosen because they are meaningful and I don't consider any of them to be fillers.

I know my ears, and I know my ears are tired. I'm going to read a detective novel for a while to absorb some nothing. That vinyl/streaming radio show is on tonight, late. I've done my homework and I feel a bit silly for thinking it was yesterday- I took the call on the high street with traffic roaring by. I might even post my homework here on my blog, because I think it's quite interesting!

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Monday, August 02, 2021

Shoutifications In The Emptiness

Me and Offsprog One had a late Portugese lunch in Vauxhall after I'd spent the morning marking (more to come tomorrow). It was lovely. I don't think I have ever had such a fresh Pastel de Nata, warm from the oven.

Afterwards I walked along the South Bank, past the long, long memorial wall for people who have died of Covid. I found a pen in my bag and wrote Julia's name up there, Julia Craik from the Premises. For such a good, kind and imaginative person to have suffered and died last year, right at the beginning: I was asked to run another song writing workshop there but I can't manage to, at least not yet. She was so lovely. So I just wrote her name in one of the waiting pink hearts and sent her some love.

Around the London Eye, it was very crowded and smelt of chips and cooking oil. What a dump the area around County Hall has become; perhaps a statue made of consolidated chip fat would be a good memorial to the odious Margaret Thatcher, who cheapened life and brought out the worst in everybody. Further on, outside the Royal Festival Hall, it wasn't so bad. I crossed Waterloo Bridge and walked up through Covent Garden, noting with sadness the closure of the Tintin shop, and later, up Tottenham Court Road, the big, empty grey windows of former Habitat, once a beacon of British optimism and sophistication.

People were thin on the ground, this end of town. There was a man, right down the other end, with a shopping trolley, yelling at the top of his voice. As I walked down the road to Warren Street he was following behind, making people alarmed with his aggression and volume. Should I call the police? 

I saw the police 'stopping' someone last Monday, five policemen and women, and one civilian, who they had flattened on the pavement. When a woman came out from a nearby house to film them, they climbed off him, put the handcuffs away, sat the chap up on the wall and called an ambulance. His crime? Shouting. I spoke to him because I heard him saying that he didn't want to get into an ambulance. I told him it would be better to do that than to stay there with those five police officers, that he needed to move the situation on. I think he understood. They would have done him harm.

The Metropolitan Police are bullies, not public servants. I didn't like the look in the eyes of those police officers. Today, I wondered whether to simply wait for the shouting man, to ask him to stop shouting in case the police were called. I could not work out what was more important, his safety or my own. In the end, I decided mine was, but I'd like to be able to calm a person down at some point. 

I need to learn how to do this.

Drawing Club Last Night: Barcelona Barber Shop


Sunday, August 01, 2021

Dexter Bentley One Minute Wonders Show

Click here for 180 minutes of one minute tracks! This is such a good show with a lot of my music pals' music on it: Lester Square, Spinmaster Plantpot, Bettina Shroeder, James A Smith, Lucinda Sieger, Papernut Cambridge, Tigersonic and Dirty Viv. A selection box of poetry, songs and electronic music perfect for a rainy afternoon. My track Little Heart-shaped People From Venus is in the first part: