What made me suddenly decide to dive deep into five recording projects at once? The usual thing, of course. Death. When flamenco guitarist Michael Olsen’s died this April, I heard a voice from within: Finish your work.
It was an echo. Danny Guspie, another musician friend, yielded at last to cancer on January 2nd of this year. We had played music together off and on for 4o years. Danny was 56. Michael was 68. I am 61. Impermanence is here to stay. Fear not. Finish you work!
I began shortly with a recording blitz which lasted three days at the house of our friends Terry and Pamela O’Neill while they weren’t watching. My last DNL CD was finished in 2008; it had taken five years. [see: Rivers, Kings and Curses as featured on the “Best of 2008” episode of NPR’s Celtic Connections. (Yes, I’m proud!)] So, in the 12 intervening years since that album, you might ask if I have any other material worth recording? Funny you should ask. I actually have enough material for two albums.
The first album consists of my versions of ballads (trad/DNL songs) and my meta-blues songs. If meta-fiction is fiction about fiction then meta-blues must be blues about blues. And that’s about right. So, I’m calling this one Ballads and Blues partly because of its content but also because in the early 1960s there was club in London by that name run by Ewan MacColl out of the venerable Princess Louise Pub. For people who were my mentors and heroes, the Ballads and Blues Folk Club was THE club to play.
And since my album titles are usually so strange and singular, I wanted to try something different for a change.
The second album is all original material and will bear the name Star Thistle. The Golden Star Thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) is a noxious weed round here. Introduced from Europe, it is quite pretty and very painful if you step on it or into it.
My recording process is very simple, so simple that if I tell you about it you might not fall asleep even if you know nothing about sound recording. I sit down in front of three microphones and play a song. They are good microphones, however, and they are placed just so. I record into a vintage (as Apple calls it) MacBook using the free software that comes with every mac: GarageBand.
“The Secret of Billy the Kid” (trad/DNL) from Ballads & Blues [in production]
But wait . . . there’s more: I also placed scratch vocals on drum/guitar tracks recorded about 40 years ago by Phil Kemp [1952 – 1990]. I was, of course, the electric guitarist. Pat Meehan (who has played on nearly all my albums) was the drummer.
These were my first songs written, mostly from 1972 to 1975 in Toronto. I had found my voice there so, bear in mind, that nothing can be more affirming and grounding for a writer.
While the rest of the world was obsessing with disco, prog rock or country rock, Pat and I were playing music which seemed to blend Fairport Convention with the Who (in their earlier permutation). We did not know we were a proto-New Wave Band.
When the New Wave scene did begin, Phil and I befriended Richard d’Andrea who played bass in the Know with Garry Valentine (ex-Blondie and now, as Gary Lachman, a respected author of books on occult philosophy) We wanted Richard to join our band but we figured he was too busy jetting back and forth from CBGB’s in New York and Madame Wong’s in LA. Not that we asked, of course. We were too much in awe.
Phil had a very independent record label called Wat Rock Records. So he would haul a tank of a tape recorder to where Pat and I were playing (Pat’s bedroom usually) and capture what we were doing, which I had always felt was pretty good. But life intervened. Then death. [see: above]
I inherited Phil’s machinery and all our tapes and spent the first part of the 1990s learning the basics of sound recording. I also began the long process of digitizing the project as far it had gotten. Then, in 2014, Richard d’Andrea agreed to join the band, as it were, and lay down the missing bass tracks on the project. Here’s a song (one I still sing today!) awaiting bass:
“In the Fog Appointed Darkness” (DNL) from On Earth by WatThe? [in production]
Problem: Could I as a 61 year-old still sing as a 21 year-old? Not as big a problem as I had expected.
“April is the coolest month” —B. S. Eliot