Fire Escape: an experiment in song writing


Sometimes the best thing you can do is abandon that which feels comfortable, let go of the methods which you alway follow, and spend some time flying by the seat of your underwear of choice. And although I’ve been rather productive recently on the song-writing front, I decided to follow this advice myself last week.

My traditional methodology when writing music has always been to let everything slowly ferment, and to allow each idea plenty of time to form. My focus with Cake for Lily has been on wringing every last ounce of prettiness from the music; building up layers of orchestration and ear candy. The net result is that songs usually take in the region of 6 months from conception to completion, in which time every phrase, lyric and detail is sweated over. And always, always, the lyrics are never finalised until all of the music has been written and recorded.

It’s an approach that pays off – nearly 7 years since we released The Boy with Pomegranates in His Eye ep I still have people tell me how much they enjoy those 4 songs and how the layers still reward repeated listens. But that approach doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity, and I must confess that I have always been in awe of song writers who can seemingly start with a blank page at the beginning of an evening and upload a completed track to Soundcloud before bed the same night.

And so, last week, I resolved to see if I could write (if not record) a song in one evening. This approach had some attractions; working at pace means that there would be little time to second guess or over think any decisions. And although some level of technical accuracy or refinement may be sacrificed, the pay off would hopefully be greater emotional immediacy – and what is music if not a means of communicating the feels? Apparently Neil Young writes his lyrics in a single sitting, and once completed he doesn’t do any redrafting or editing for fear of losing the original vibe – he would rather sing a howler of a line if that means that the unadulterated vibe of the song comes through. And while I am no Neil Young (oh but how I wish), it sounds like a good way of working.

But I digress. I had the starting point for a song rattling round my head; a handful of possible lyrics and and general sense of the mood I wanted to create. And I sat there, just my acoustic guitar, a pad and a pencil. And I slowly hummed out a vocal melody and placed chords under it, going back occasionally and filling in the lyrical blanks. Just shy of two hours after I started, I had it. A complete song. Fire Escape.

Now I’m not saying this is the best song I’ve every written, far from it. But it definitely has charm. And the whole experience proved two things: firstly that I don’t need 6 months to write something worthwhile, and secondly that sometimes the stripped down, brief approach (Fire Escape is definitely the shortest song I’ve ever written) can capture the mood as well as a more complex, carefully polished and crafted piece.

The other constant in my usual approach is that even once a song is finished, and a recording captured, it is not released into the wild straight away. Usually I keep songs close, living with them for a while and waiting until there are enough complete songs to put together an e.p. Given the move-fast-don’t-overthink nature of this experiment, I thought it would be a fallacy to hold on to Fire Escape indefinitely, and so the next evening I recorded and mixed it. Just me, acoustic guitar, and some 12 string guitar to make the chorus sparkle. No endless overdubs, no intensive pre-recording rehearsals to drill the song into perfection. I think the take I used was probably the fourth time I had played the song all the way through. And yes it’s a little rough round the edges (especially the vocals), but damn if it doesn’t capture that moment perfectly. It is raw (again, especially the vocals), but that is how I was feeling when playing the song. And having mixed the track, I am now making it freely available for anyone who wants to listen. I suppose I should sort out a Soundcloud account or similar, on which to host it. But for now, if anyone wants to receive an emailed mp3, they can contact me via this blog and I will happily send a file.

Another Neil Young story. According to Shakey (Jimmy McDonough’s authoritative biography), Neil had engineer David Briggs record the band rehearsing the songs for Tonight’s the Night, and as soon as the performances got too polished he had them move onto the next song. The drunken “rehearsals” are the takes which ended up on the album, every fluffed note, mumbled lyric and rickety rhythm. On a technical level the album is a shambles, but in terms of the feels? The vibe? It ranks up there with his best work. I’m still not Neil Young, but this is sort of how I feel about Fire Escape.

So, a song which was written, recorded and mixed in less time than I would usually spend working on a mix of a completed song. And the feed back I have had from people has so far been very positive. Will I abandon my usual method of working? No. But will I continue to develop this faster way of writing as well? You bet.