Thursday, May 19, 2016

On your bike {musical notes}

The riff in On your bike is another incarnation of one of the musical themes across Setsu, where this or a similar ascending 3-chord riff is heard on Harvest and Practice Perfect (in an E7-chord shape, rather than the A7-chord formation above); but the riff appears even more similarly on the June track (coming up), except in a minor-key guise.

Here, in On your bike, you've got the capo on the third fret. The chords look like this:

With alternate parts snazzy finger-picking and chunky strumming.

Lyrically, the verses focus on three different characters. The junior high school boy:
I get up on a Monday: gotta get off to school
Got my books in my bag, got a black and white uniform
Don't need my jacket now the May days aren't so cool
Shit! 母さん 7.23 ともゆき君's gonna be waiting there for me [母さん = kaa-san = mum; ともゆき君 = Tomoyuki-kun = his friend Tomoyuki]
Where we meet every day at the convenience store car park
Gotta get to pre-school baseball at the school park
Out the door, saddle up, helmet on, but don't do the strap up
It's only compulsory to wear your helmet till you finish junior high, so not doing the strap up is about as open as rebelliousness gets for these kids. Then there's the OL (office lady) with dreams of not being an OL for much longer:
I get up every weekday: gotta get off to work
Hair up, face on, blue office lady uniform
3 years now as a desk clerk
ね—母さん 8.24. No time for breakfast. Out the door
At my desk I dream: me as a bride
But for now I'll saddle up and ride
And the elderly farmer, still working the family plot:
The sun's up, so so am I at 5
The field needs me to bend my back
That's how my crops and I continue to thrive
So saddle up for a wobbly ride again
Not bad for an octogenarian
I am free
Which is exactly why he or she is still so fit at that age. (I was pretty happy getting the word octogenarian into a song, by the way :) ).  They do get up ridiculously early. No daylight savings means the sun is up around five in the middle of Summer.

For each I tried to give the sense that, despite being trapped in their role in society, their daily bike ride is a kind of freedom, however small, not like the rest of us mugs in our cars crammed on Japanese roads.

Finally, this is one of the best middle eights (or bridges if you prefer) I've written, complete with diminished chords. Here's the sequence with the vocals turned down so as to focus on the dreamy guitar effect:

Saturday, May 14, 2016

On your bike

The ubiquitous bike. On your bike, the May tune from Setsu, is an ode to the Japanese bike, ridden by school kids, office ladies in mini skirts and octogenarians. Not so much a mode of transport as a way of life, a great equalizer of young and old, the dignified and the low.

May in Japan, probably my favourite month, as least weather-wise. Spring has well and truly sprung, but you haven't hit the rainy season, where you sweat in places you didn't know you could sweat. You know that once the warmer weather arrives you won't feel cold again until September or October and you can sort your wardrobe accordingly, banishing the winter woollies to storage.

I wanted this tune to convey the sense of freedom bestowed by a warm May day and your own two wheels. Plus, it rocks.

For musical notes check the next post.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Shakuhachi man {musical notes}

Ok, some musical notes to accompany my first post about the ideas behind the song that opens the Setsu album.

Musically, the song evolved out of the guitar riff/chords that you hear in this final version only in the opening and final verses. This bit:

It's an open A-chord for two bars followed by a bar each of G and D chords that keep the C-sharp third note front-and-centre. Given that these are all open chords I came up with a hammer-on, finger-picking style that lent a jaunty air to the whole thing, enhanced by the rising vocal melody that evolved over the top of the chord sequence. (Actually the delivery of the vocal line changed a bit during recording as my voice kept cracking on the top notes of the quiet verses. That's why the sultry intro vocal is an octave lower than the rest.)

I can't recall where the idea came to insert a shakuhachi-playing-monk-cum-modern-day-spy in the lyrics. But obviously that called for some real shakuhachi in the tune. I say 'real' but this is a sample bent beyond all recognition of a traditional rendition. I tried to incorporate the breathy sounds that are a feature of good shakuhachi playing, both at the start and the end. The honkyoku played by these monks, as with pretty much any shakuhachi music, is hardly jaunty: rather it's haunting and melancholy. Hence the lines in the middle 8:
Shakuhachi in any other player's hands
Is melancholy
But I can't help but play this happy melody
I liked the idea that this guy had learned an instrument that was meant to be one thing but that he couldn't help but infuse it with his own cheery disposition. The melody here is far more Western and major-key than you would hear in a traditional piece. Hence, though we start out hauntingly, as the "morning spring wind sounds" in the second verse, we gradually build to the funky chunkiness and guitary goodness in the verse that follows and we head to the park with all the people and blue tarpaulins and eventually get some quite cheery shaku-playing in the remainder of the song.

Almost forgot: the middle section has alternating bars in 6/4 and 4/4 time, 6/4 being something I became somewhat obsessed with throughout this album. Not sure why. The chord sequence here is also in Temple Garden in the massively rockin' outro sequence. These bookend the album nicely, since the Skakuhachi Man turns up at the temple garden. You realise it's the same temple and garden in those two tracks, right?

6/4 (different chords) also appears in the title track, Setsu.

Finally a fun fact: the little taps you can hear right at the start underneath the opening verse are me tapping the back of the Mermaid Guitar in the garden and recorded on my phone. Not the most high-end recording device or sound-proof studio environment but it worked.

And finally, finally, Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture was the place I had in mind when writing this:
Sit beneath this lonely tree
High up on a hill, looking out over the sea
The town below me wakes from sleep
A ribbon of houses wedged beneath the mountains and the sea

A travelling shakuhachi man, I love this cherry tree right here
As I sit a morning Spring wind sounds
And from just above my head the first pink blossom flutters down
I come to this temple this time every year

Onomichi Shrine with Blossom

Friday, April 22, 2016

Shakuhachi man

There were these monks in feudal times - Komusō (こむそう) or 'monks of nothingness' - You can still occasionally see them around, begging for alms, as it were, about as passively as you could possibly beg. They just stand there with - yes - a basket on their heads. Sometimes (as pictured) they wear a basket on their heads AND play a shakuhachi.

In feudal times at least, the particular Fuke Zen Buddhist sect that these guys belonged to was keen on pilgrimages, apparently, so this was where I came up with the idea that a wandering musician could tie the 12 tracks of Setsu together nicely, as an observer of all the other 11 characters in the months/tunes. While the idea of the basket is to 'remove' ones ego, this also made them ideal candidates for acting as spies for the Shogunate, since they were granted the ability to cross feudal borders freely. Apparently no-one thought to be suspicious of the guy who kept hanging around WITH A BASKET ON HIS HEAD.

Next post: musical notes on Shakuhachi Man.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Temple Garden / Karesansui

Temple Garden | 枯れ山水 (かれさんすい) is the closing tune for the Setsu album, though not the last in my release schedule. It's set in March.

As an album closer it's a bit of an epic. Slow tempo, acoustic sections build towards a punchy, rockin' outro with epic multi-part harmonies, which subside into a final poignant denouement. Lyrically, I try to revisit the characters from the other months of the album: the salary man from Sestu, the schoolgirls from Cosuplay, the Yankee Girl from the track of the same name (from July - but also referenced in Practice Perfect as the girlfriend of the Potter's son). And it also references the Shakuhachi Man, about whom you'll hear more in a few days when I release the April track, the travelling pipe player who spies on us all.

Another 'watcher' is the character at the centre of this month's track, the おばあさん (o-baa-san) who rakes the garden in her local temple. Anyone who has lived in a community with one or more of these bastions of Japanese society knows their beady glare, making sure of what everyone in the neighbourhood is doing and that they're following the rules. As a foreigner, initially you find yourself resenting the blatant staring that you can be subjected to by these senior citizens but, if you actually engage with them, usually their face will light up and they can be the most generous-spirited people you're likely to meet.

Temple Garden is about an entirely fictional old lady but is a tribute to o-baa-sans, a salute to their power and their influence as the glue that knits Japanese society together.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Practice Perfect {musical notes}

Practice Perfect began life, in my early sketches, in straight 4-4 time. At some point it evolved into something quite different, verses comprising repeated sixteen-beat segments (two bars of 6 and one of 4 beats). In the end I settled on the final arrangement because I liked how it took you off guard, and had a metronomic quality, especially in the outro sequence. This seemed to fit in with the theme of the song, relentless dedication to one's art.

Here's an early version (without drums but including mistakes) in 4-4 time.

The effect is quite different.

This version also shows how I tend to work on early drafts: lay down a guitar guide track on the acoustic, layer over some other guitar parts (here including bass) and then do main and backing vocal tracks, often the backing parts sung along with the main part all the way through, just to see how it sounds. I seldom plan to use these other than in selected parts but this way you sometimes get unexpected delights. Mostly these are just single takes, improvised as the tape rolls.

Also of interest, to those paying close attention throughout the Setsu tracks, is this motif that appears in several tracks.

These chords are the main riff in the November track Harvest and appear in a minor key version in the upcoming June track about the rainy season. I have a feeling they're somewhere else but can't put my finger on it at the moment.

The lyrics also refer to other tracks (not published yet): the Shakuhachi man will make an appearance in the opening track coming in April and the son in this track has a Yankie Girl girlfriend, both of whom might be the subjects of the July track.

Friday, March 4, 2016


Once I was lucky enough to visit the house of a potter, one who made bizen-yaki. This was, in part, the inspiration for the story in Practice Perfect.

Brownness is it's main characteristic. But like many things that first seem plain to a foreigner in Japan -- what with our being used to gaudy brashness -- the subtlety of bizen-yaki grows on you after a while.
Bizen Ceramics

This potter had this massive kiln, something like this one:


in which he could fire thousands of pots at a time. In fact, they only did two firings a year, as I recall -- quite an occasion apparently.

The ends were sealed off like this for the firing:


and it would be lit for days at a time, reaching an impressive temperature.


Next post: musical notes on Practice Perfect.