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When I settled on the working title for the new album a couple of years ago I had no idea how much things would change in that time and just how relative it would all become. It seems as if the world has gradually edged into a darkness that is touching us all in some way or another and I personally find it a lot harder to come to terms with what I read and hear and see around me. This year I’ve found myself retreating more into myself and focusing on my immediate surroundings, in particular the garden where I embraced the relative simplicity and the natural order of things. I found it reassuring and positive and felt a sense of control as I attempted to manage the ever changing environment and perpetual challenges. I found my mind drifting towards the album.
Trying to decipher the constant stream of pain, anger, injustice, hate and ignorance coming at us from so many different points on the planet and in so many guises I’ve found impossible to manage. Just watching Channel 4 news last night on the Syrian crisis when they attempted to unravel the multi faced fighting factions,their friends and foes, allegiances and supporting shadows was nigh impossible to fathom. My head was reeling from rewinds on the hard drive as I tried to unravel it all and even glimpse any solution. I couldn’t find any input balance from this constantly sprawling and engaging conflict with all it’s devastating worldwide consequences and was struggling to stop my mind from shorting out as it was reaching overload. I had to find a way to deal with this in the lyrics but I had no idea how to approach it. Add together the dark energies from natural disasters and the other manmade madness and It was all too big. Weltschmerz indeed.
When Romaine Thorel, keyboard player from ‘Lazuli’ had sat down with me in the control room just over a couple of weeks ago the first thing he wanted to know was what was the album about and how did I hear the direction. I’d just seen a story, again on Channel 4 news about an old man who operated the last “garden centre” as one of their series of articles on the besieged city of Aleppo. He worked together with his 2 sons trying to hold together a small corner of normality, pruning roses and growing lavender plants that he sold to people to put on the traffic roundabouts that were traditionally islands of flowers. The attempt to keep them planted up throughout the airstrikes and bombardments was an attempt to hold back the chaos and provide a reminder of what it used to be like before the war. The man was known as “The Guardian of the Flowers” and referred to the daily sound of conflict as like “listening to Beethoven”. He passed on many wise sayings dressed in gardening allegory and I was reminded of the Peter Sellers character in “Being There”. The article struck a chord in me and I was captured by the man’s story as it played out on screen. As you would expect there wasn’t a happy ending and at the end of the piece the broadcaster announced that the old man and one of his sons had been killed in an air attack 3 weeks after filming and the garden completely destroyed. I’d been genuinely touched by the film and was upset as the piece concluded with an interview with the distraught and confused younger son who had survived the bombing and who was now alone in the living hell of Aleppo.
I knew then how I had to approach the lyric content of the album and told Romain that rather than attempt to encompass the big picture that I’d wrap it up into bundles of stories about people; individual characters with their own experiences and ways of dealing with Weltschmerz. I already had a few in mind. By patching together these tales I could employ different styles, influences and techniques and if there were 10 songs to be written I could work with different co writers on each one but use a core band to hold the playing together so it didn’t become too sonically diverse. I’d have to deliver my own take and comment and saw that as 2 “bookends”.
When I started writing the aborted autobiography back in 2009 when I was recovering from my second vocal operation I’d started to think about the spaces I’d grown up in and inhabited over the years. When I was about 4 years old my parents had moved my young sister Laura and I up to the converted attic space in our house in Glebe Street, Dalkeith. My grandfather had come to live with us and we didn’t have enough rooms. The attic would become my bedroom, playroom and den as I got older. It was my special place where I hid away and allowed dreams to take hold. I climbed up to it on an aluminium 2 section pull down ladder and through a hatchway that had a cover on it to stop us falling through it. My parents locked our doors at night to stop us wandering around and at the time I had no conscious thoughts about what could have happened if there had been a fire below. There were no windows only an iron opaque glassed skylight that for years I couldn’t lift and which became my spyhole on the small world I knew outside. It might sound claustrophobic but I loved that room and felt safe there. In 2009 when I started to think back I came to realise that in all the places I have ever owned I have had a “big room” and every one has been brightly lit through big windows or French Doors. Even the Studio renovation which created yet another big space had velux windows added. I’ve been recreating ‘the attic’ everywhere I have lived but I’ve added the components I missed including “escape routes” along the way. I’d been thinking again about the ‘Big Room’ and what it meant to me when my father died and I revisited a lot of memories around then. It had played a very important part in my development including being the environment where I first started listening to music and where I used to spend a lot of time reading. ( It doesn’t take much mental effort to join together the dots and see a version of the ‘attic’ on the first 3 Marillion album covers! ) I’m not exactly sure how yet but that’s where I can see the lyrical ‘bookends’ coming from.
The album was starting to take on a shape of sorts and there are enough ideas flying around to catch and nail down. The green book designated for this project’s scribbles and scratchings now lies on my desk and can be found next to me on the couch when I’m watching TV hoping to trap those fleeting moments of inspiration before the wine takes hold.The pages are filling and there are some interesting notes already.
Romain had asked for lyric ideas before he came over but I had only sketches. I’d bought a #Yamaha P115 digital piano on recommendation from Steve Vantsis as I needed a keyboard for Romain and others to play during the writing sessions. I’ve decided to take the same approach os on the ‘Feast’ sessions where the songwriting will come from basic instruments and not from copying and pasting on software programmes. Romain liked the idea and after our initial discussions in the control room he started to rummage around on the keys for ideas. We only had a couple of days but I felt that was enough for our introductory session.The Yamaha was inspiring being played through the studio #KEF LS50 monitor speakers and I let Romain find himself before we sat down and started to sculpt something together.
He came up with something inspired between early ‘Blue Nile’ and Erik Satie. A melancholy melodic piano piece that later grew into a slightly held back epic saturated with cross rhythms that had a tip of the hat to early ‘Yes’ and ‘Elbow’ as it suggested a lot of vocal cross play. At the moment it is a rough sketch but we were confident enough to nominate it as a potential final track on the album and as my ‘bookend’ lyric started to evolve, a title of “The Fat Lady Sings”. It’s early days and Romain and I plan to get together again later in the year in between his commitments to ‘Lazuli’. Steve Vantsis will be coming up here as well in that time and eventually we will bring people together to work on ideas in groups once the one on one sessions start providing basics. There are a number of people out there who I’d like to co write with, some past contributors others new faces I have to speak to. This album is going to take a while to write and I won’t commit to recording until I am sure it is ready to move to the next step. I’m lucky in that Calum Malcolm, who will be producing ‘Weltschmerz’, respects my idiosyncrasies and understands inevitable delays. We have penciled in studio recordings here for next May/ June for a potential album release in early September. It all depends on the writing and I really want this album, my last, to be special on all counts.
It could mean that we will be recording and playing festivals around the same time but that could be a positive as the early ‘Feast’ performances definitely helped us in the studio.
One factor which is coming more and more into the equation and which I have to seriously take on board is my physical health. As you have probably become aware in the last year I’ve had recurrent back problems and these have to be addressed sooner rather than later. Cortisone injections in my spine helped me get through the ‘Farewell to Childhood’ shows but as a long term solution are inadequate and are only masking the real problem. They last about 3 months and as I had my last injection in April I am currently in a lot of pain and discomfort as the spinal issues are manifesting themselves in my legs and I have trouble with balance and movement. I had MRI scans on my spine a year ago but heard nothing back from either that, the X Rays on my knees or the ultra sound on my shoulder in May when I was told I had a torn tendon by the operative who said a surgical operation may be required. I’ve become exasperated and told my local doctor that as much as I sympathise with an underfunded and overstretched NHS system which has been great to me over the years I have to look for other solutions as the bottom line is that at the moment I could not even consider touring. Somehow I have to manage this problem within the writing of the new album and find time for a potential operation and recovery before the intended shows next Summer. I have to admit that this is first and foremost in my mind just now as it’s debilitating me on a daily basis. I am seriously concerned as without a long term solution I may have to completely reconsider touring as part of my career. And that is a game changer. I have to look forward and stay positive about all this. Obviously I can still write and sing but the physical demands of touring on a bus are out of the question until I can find a solution either through extreme physio or an operation to deal with my spinal injury. The good news is that I’m not dead yet 🙂
The year, as I have mentioned in recent blogs , has been demanding and draining on every level and I am now in a position to address a lot of outstanding projects. Steve Vantsis has been an invaluable help and in the middle of his own ‘Tilt’ band project has managed to put together and engineer the live album from the ‘Moveable Feast’ tour from 2013/14. It’s been a very long time coming but we settled on 2 live shows, one from Wurzburg featuring Foss Paterson on the first incarnation of the touring band and the other from Karlsruhe featuring John Beck to give us 2 very different sets with vastly changed setlists to take in that extended event. They sound magnificent and Calum Malcolm will be mastering the recordings in the next month or so together with the ‘Farewell To Childhood’ recordings to give me 2 live releases to coincide with the “Field of Crows” remaster with the brand new Chris Kimsey remix of that studio album in November.
The live albums will be in the same physical format as the remastered albums; hardback folder with 16 pages of images and sleeve notes incorporating photos from Kai R Joachim who shot both tours as well as my own backstage shots. “Moveable Feast” will be 4 CD’s of audio while “Farewell to Childhood” will have a live DVD from Berlin together with 3 audio cd’s. With both live releases the prices will be kept competitive and we will be offering free tour t shirts with multiple orders across the live albums and the remasters as part of the drive to finance the ‘Weltschmerz’ album.
The ‘Polska” DVD/ blu ray as part of an elaborate Fishheads Club acoustic set release will be put together some time this year and more announcements on fund raising for ‘Weltschmerz’ will be announced as the months go by. This will include the remasters of ‘Vigil’, ‘Internal’ ‘Songs from the Mirror’ and ‘Suits’.
‘Weltschmerz’ is going to be an important album for all of us I hope. It’s going to need your support on every level. It isn’t just another piece of disposable plastic. I would like to make a statement with this. It’s the last one I intend to write and it has to be special.
Indy and Proud