The Heart Of The Year

‘The Heart Of The Year’ by Claire Aberlé

I’m letting this summer song jump the queue.

It’s dark outside, and cold, and raining noisily – none of which I object to at all, but all of which now offer a strong contrast to my still fresh memory of visiting the Avebury stone circle on June 21st to watch the sunrise on the longest day of the year.  Before summer is too far behind us, I’d like to describe this little hymn to its solstice and the celebrations that take place annually upon it.

This was always going to have a rousing chorus; that much was clear before we even began to write.  It had to be an anthem for the longest day, a pagan singalong!  And the best way to achieve this seemed to be to put the song’s perspective right in the middle of the solstice celebrations, hence the ‘here and now’ lyrics in the chorus:

‘Hail, oh hail the rising sun
The longest day is come!
Hail, oh hail this golden morn
The longest day is born!’

The verses set the scene of a summer solstice celebration in a stone circle.  Verse one welcomes you to the occasion; verse two describes the moment of sunrise.  The lyrics are simple and literal.  We wanted to describe what happens and let the listener draw her own emotional inferences from that, rather than describing what the solstice feels like to us, or to someone else.  Such an event exerts a powerful emotional influence on its observers in ways that are personal to each of them, and in simply outlining the scene we give a nod of deference to the solar system’s inexorable and indifferent cycle, whose vastness of scale both humbles and uplifts those who take the time to witness its pivotal moments.

Onto the music.  We wanted depth, harmonic richness, and warmth, and so began my favourite part of the process.  I think it’s relevant at this point to digress a little into a few words about what chords actually are.  As guitarists, we tend to think of them as shapes first, and then, if we study the matter a little more deeply, we begin to appreciate them as combinations of notes.   Further investigation and greater familiarity with the harmonic palette eventually allow us to become even less dependent on the shapes and to think primarily in terms of inter-related notes.  This is when you might choose Cadd9 because you know you want the notes C, E, G, and D, and not because it’s an easy little hop away from a G major.  Not that there’s anything wrong with stumbling across the perfect chord for the job because your fingers just happen to land there – let creativity flow by whatever means it will! – but freeing oneself from ‘shape dependence’ opens up a new realm of harmonic possibility for the composing guitarist.

Anyway, the verses use Em11 (mentioned before in these pages as a delicious fusion of E minor and D major), Dsus2/B, whose bass note drops to Bb to pull us down to Am, then Csus2(#11) (I got that from Genesis), and one of my well-worn favourites, F^sus2 (133010).  The bridging section leading to the chorus hangs for a while on a D/G (I got that from Focus).  It’s mysterious, warm, slightly ominous when sustained for that long, and blossoms very nicely to an A7 for the chorus.

The chorus reaches Am by its 7th and 8th bars, before repeating from the A7 – the minor to major shift providing a little reflection of the renewed hope with which sunrises generally – and major solar events in particular – have long been associated.

There’s a video for this one.  That was part of the reason for going to Avebury this June.  I captured some beautiful scenes and asked many marvellously attired celebrants for permission to film them.  You can watch it here:

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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April Fool

'April Fool' by Claire Aberlé

‘April Fool’ by Claire Aberlé

We didn’t want only obscure subjects on ‘Calendar’, and ‘April Fool’ is the first of the songs on the album to be concerned with a widely known annual custom.  Just as April typically treats us to the year’s first warm days, its song presents the first splash of levity on the record.

For this irreverent subject, we wanted to play with the words a bit, so we employed a few instances of single words rhyming with pairs of words, like:

‘Spring your surprises
Wrapped in disguises
The telling of lies is okay today’

And, taking it further:

‘You’re on the loose, full
Of tricks to confuse all
Your friends and bamboozle
Your family’

I love that kind of game, but you can’t do it in a serious lyric.  In a song about playing tricks, though, it couldn’t be more at home.

Atmospherically, I wanted the song to blend childlike playfulness with a hint of something mysterious – something sinister, even.  The 3/4 rhythm and water bottle shaker contribute to the lighter feel, while the melodica part and the vocal melodies bring in another influence.

Let’s look at those vocal lines.  In the chorus, when we get to ‘trying not to get got’, one voice is singing an E while the other takes an A, and the underlying chord is a Gm7.  So we’re getting a 6th and a 9th over our minor seventh – a bitter, crunchy couple of notes in that context.  It’s a harmony that’s used elsewhere on the album to similar effect.

The guitar solo – very much a ‘warts and all’ job – was actually just a first-take placeholder that was intended to be replaced when a ‘proper’ solo had been written.  But when I came to remove it I found that I really liked its scrappy character so it was left as it was, creaking stool included!  It’s nice to balance the hours spent anguishing over the EQ of a reverb by keeping a guitar solo that just fell out in one messy lump.

The extra lines at the end of the final chorus provide a long-winded and (for the writer, at least) very satisfying means of executing a key change so the coda is a tone up from the rest of the song.  Why do all that elaborate chordal movement just to emerge to a repeat of an earlier lyric a tone higher?  I think it feels like you’re setting up your trick, balancing a bucket of water on top of a door or whatever, and then, after the brief pause, you’ve done it – got one up on someone, pulled off your elaborate prank, and now you’re standing there laughing at them, proud of your success and knowing they can’t get you back because the morning’s over.  And the lyric that repeats is ‘April fool!’

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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Here’s To Maybella

'Maybella' by Claire Aberlé

‘Maybella’ by Claire Aberlé

With each song on the ‘Calendar’ album, one of the first tasks was to choose a perspective from which to write.  Should we use a narrator’s voice, or should we present the story from the point of view of one of its characters?  If so, which one?  As these are historical songs, we often had the option of writing with the voice of a central character, but it was also possible to assign parts of the song to non-specific people from the period we were featuring.

Many of the songs include a shift of perspective, usually from the narrator in the verses to a character in the choruses.  This fits the broad idea of verses being wordy, descriptive, scene-setting material and choruses being calls to action, pleas, or statements of purpose.

‘Here’s To Maybella’, our March song, contains such a shift.  The verses tell the story in a factual and linear fashion, with the voice of a historian or folklorist, while the choruses celebrate Lady Maybella’s selflessness and determination in a more ‘pub singalong’ style, starting with “Here’s to Maybella!” – like a toast in song, and with the 3/4 rhythm accentuated by the metre of the lyrics to give those lines a hint of swaying tankards.

The story is essentially this:

In the late 13th century, the kindly Maybella was married to a miserly landowner called Roger De Tichborne.  On her deathbed, she asked him to remember her by providing for the poor people of the parish each year.  Roger handed her a burning log from the fire and declared that he would donate to the poor the yield from whatever land she could crawl around before the wind blew out the flame she was carrying.  Maybella managed to cover 23 acres – an area still known as ‘The Crawls’.  Over 700 years later, flour is still given to the residents of Tichborne by the parish priest every 25th March.

Lyrically, we wanted to tell the story of Maybella’s terminal ordeal, and celebrate her perseverence and commitment to her cause.  Pretty obvious choices really.   The lyrics are presented from a temporally ambiguous position; is it a contemporary folk song or could it have been written a couple of hundred years ago?   I liked the idea of pretending it was old so I excluded any references that would locate its perspective in the present.

Musically it doesn’t do anything particularly strange.  There are some unusual chords in the chorus, whose purpose can be illustrated by comparing them to their unenhanced counterparts as follows:

Under the lyrics “Here’s to Maybella, her courage and strength, she crawled on her knees the breadth and the length”, it could have gone:

D, – , Em, – , Bb, C, G, –

But instead I used:

D, – , Em11, – Bb6/C, C6/D, G^, –

The Em11 is 022232 – like an Em and a D simultaneously (the note of G is absent, but it is implied).  This serves to keep hold of the D major from “Here’s to Maybella” while we raise the lower end of the chord to accompany the citation of her qualities as additional objects for our toast: “her courage and strength”.  Since the Bb has a 6th, and a C in the bass, we could think of it as a C11 with no third.   The same goes for the C6/D; it’s a D11(no 3rd).  They’re fingered x33333 and x55555 respectively.  The G^ is played 3x443x with a decorative figure that includes the open top string – a sixth, which I often include when voicing a G^ this way.

I’m sure you’ll agree there’s much more depth in these extended chords.  I’m not opposed to the use of a handful of primary triads; many great pop songs have required nothing else from their guitar parts – and you’ll see in subsequent articles that ‘Calendar’ features a couple of three-chord numbers – but more atmospheric songs require a mood that is helped along by some less common harmonies.

The verse uses fairly standard chords, but at its end, just before the chorus comes, there’s a musical analogue to the wavy effect that was used on TV in the 70s to indicate the shift between reality and a dream or a memory – and here it heralds the change of perspective from narrator to singing celebrant.  It’s a simple trick on the guitar: over an A7, a little two-part harmony is played which includes an augmented 5th for a touch of tension, and each time it occurs in the song, that movement is emphasised more strongly by the strings and woodwind.  The verse/chorus junction would work fine without any of this, but the brief pause and a splash of harmonic ambiguity lend a little drama to the retelling of this moving – and quite tragic – tale.

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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The Devil’s Footsteps

'The Devil's Footsteps' by Claire Aberlé

‘The Devil’s Footsteps’ by Claire Aberlé

I remember being captivated by an account of this delightful old mystery in my parents’ Reader’s Digest book of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts when I was about ten years old.  The same volume also contains the fascinating tales of Kaspar Hauser, a preserved mammoth with buttercups in its mouth, the Patterson Bigfoot film, supposed locations of Camelot, the Mary Celeste, and a vast range of other delicious mysteries – and includes (on p.435, if you have your copy to hand) a particularly chilling print of a werewolves’ gathering.

My parents still have theirs, and I was fortunate enough to find my own copy at a car boot sale a few years ago.

When Mavis and I were looking for material for a February song for ‘Calendar’, the Devil’s Footsteps cropped up and I knew straight away I wanted to work on that.

The story, briefly, is this: On the morning of the 9th of February 1855, early risers in the south of Devon were confronted by a chilling sight in the half-light of the wintry dawn: a line of hoof-shaped prints in the deep snow, traversing houses and walls, crossing rivers, and even seeming to pass through drainpipes and narrow cracks.  The prints suggested a two-legged creature with hooves, leading many to fearfully speculate that the Devil himself had paid a nocturnal visit to their county.

Brilliant, isn’t it?  So, on to turning it into a song.  The first step, as with each of these songs, was to find the voice for the piece.  Who is telling the story?  Here, it’s a couple who have woken up to this freak occurrence and are asking one another what on Earth has happened.  The tone is one of worry and fear.  They’re not really having a conversation; they’re in a breathless “what the hell was that?” mode.

We thought a three-line verse would serve this air of unease well.  Here’s verse one:

‘Did you hear that sound
Borne upon the night
That echoed all around?’

Bit of poetic licence here: there wasn’t a report of any sound.  Still, it adds to the picture.
Line one rhymes with line three, clearly.  But I felt that second line’s loneliness and wanted to pair it with something, so it feeds the rhymes for verse two:

‘And what is this strange sight?
The snow is crossed by tracks
Pressed deep into the white’

And the pattern continues with verses three, four, and five, despite their being separated by choruses:

‘What beast leaps over stacks
And fences, walls, and rooves
And slips through pipes and cracks?’

‘How could a creature move
And leave where it has stepped
A single line of hooves?’

‘What thing around us crept
Across the snowy ground
While we, unknowing, slept?’

So each middle line rhymes with the outer lines of the following verse.  But what of the final middle line?  Well, it finds its partners in the first verse, thus hinting both at the seeming endlessness of the footprints and the unsolvable nature of the mystery.

The chorus brings only a slight perspective shift in this one.  It’s in the voice of some kind of narrator, but he’s with our protagonists.  Maybe he’s an inner voice, speaking more generally and speculatively.  He wonders what this means, rather than what exactly it was.

‘Footsteps in the snow
Does an ill wind blow?’

Musically, the verse moves through an intriguing pair of major-minor shifts: C to Cm, then F to Fm, before climbing to a warmer Ab^, which slips down easily to a Gm7, which of course presents us with the obvious opportunity to land back on C as if we hadn’t been anywhere.  This movement through the mysterious, then into a kind of reasoning, and finally back to square one mirrors the wide-eyed but ultimately fruitless speculation of the witnesses to this bizarre event.

For the chorus, we shift from C to F#7 – about as much of a gear change as you can get – for that kind of feeling that occurs when you realise afresh the magnitude of something you’ve just been pondering.  (Remember, this was a rural community of the mid 19th century: the physical existence of malevolent preternatural entities wasn’t something to dismiss as readily as we might today.  They would have been pretty scared.)  This is followed the first time by an F^s2 – a lovely, rich, floaty thing, and the second time by an Fm to prevent any kind of comfort setting in, before rising to a G7 which of course propels us back into the verse.

The strings make a significant contribution to the mysterious mood of this strange little number.  It’s quite short, quiet, cold and without much of a chorus, but it’s certainly one of my top 3 on the album for its spooky air.  To me, it sounds like that old Reader’s Digest book.  My ten year old self would be thrilled.

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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The Winter Of 1684

'The Winter Of 1684' by Claire Aberlé

‘The Winter Of 1684’ by Claire Aberlé

The coldest English winter on record was that of 1683-4.  It was so intense that the Thames froze to a depth of almost a foot, and turned into an icy road along which stalls were set up.  Goods were traded, horses and sleighs were raced on the ice, and there was plenty of boozing, cavorting, and uncontrolled sliding and tumbling.  Well, you’d have to do something to take your mind off the cold…

This took our fancy as a subject for our January song.  Of course, it meant the album would have a chilly start – not the most welcoming introduction to a new band’s debut CD – but we soon saw that it was very fitting for the album to start with a cold feel and gradually warm up through the first three tracks.

How to make music sound cold?  You can do it in the mix – plenty of brittle top end, dial out some warm frequencies, use a bright, thin-sounding reverb… but (a) that’s a bit crude, a little blunt, and (b) we didn’t want too much variation between the spectral contents of our songs – they should be able to sit together and sound like a unit, not a compilation.   So we did it with a mixture of chord progressions, structural elements, and arrangement choices.

The song opens with an instrumental run-through of the chorus.  Am, G7s4, F^s2, E7: a standard descent, root-note-wise, but with the G and F chords nicely altered to send a bit of a wintry breeze through the progression.  Each chord contains a remnant of the previous one: the G7s4 carries the C from the Am; the F^s2 holds the G (and an F and a C) from the G7s4 and supplies an E to the E7.  The normal Am, G, F, E7 series wouldn’t have such a relay of common notes running along it.

Then we get to the verse chords.  First, Am6: minor sixth chords are brittle, chilly, uncomfortable beasts most of the time, and to open our verse with one was quite irresistible.  Then this horror follows: a D7s4 with a flattened fifth and an intact fifth in the next octave (x56585), from which a slightly more comfortable E7s2 emerges, but even that still sounds cold.  Line two of the verse has a Bb6 with a raised 11th, a bit of a shock after an E-rooted chord, but the E and D are carried over, so the shift isn’t too jarring.  There’s then a quick movement through a couple of other chords before we land, finally, on something we can just about trust: an E7.  The first thing we’ve been able to touch without wanting to recoil from its icy feel.  The people suffering in that dreadful winter would have found comfort in short supply, and by choosing this run of unwelcoming harmonies, I was attempting to represent their unease.

That’s the harmonic choices.  Structurally, the songwriter is  – or jolly well ought to be – trying to find the most efficient and elegant way to lead the the listener through a cycle of teases and satisfactions, using the juiciest and most exciting elements of their song to play with people’s expectations.  A common trick is to have a long verse, then a chorus, then a shorter verse before the second chorus.  You make ’em wait for it the first time, then when they’ve heard it once and are geared up for more, you give them the pay-off sooner the second time around.  Well, I didn’t want to do that.  The second verse of ‘The Winter Of 1684’ is the same length as the first.  If it were supposed to be a pop song, I wouldn’t have done it like that.  You expect that second chorus to come around after four lines, but it doesn’t.  Like that freezing bloody winter, the second verse drags on longer than you want it to.

When the chorus does come, there’s a shift in perspective.  The verses are from a narrator’s point of view – a historian’s.  That sets the tone for the whole album, in fact.  This narrator describes the conditions of that winter.  But the chorus is from the point of view of the Londoners living (just about) through that season.  There’s hope there – they’re stating facts about the end of the winter – and end it must, as all winters do – but there’s a desperation in the words, like they’re reciting statements in the hope that the repetition of their cries will bring about the change they long for.

“The cold will fade, the ice will thin, and we shall be delivered
When winter yields at last to spring and liberates the river.”

Arrangement-wise, the classical guitar, multi-layered, breathy female vocals (a choir of Bees!), light strings, and occasional woodwind provide a cool setting for the harmonised lead vocals, whose lines were written to include the strongest flavours in the underlying chords.  The iciest moment, though, is where the two final choruses join together and the violins hold a G# from the E7 over into the following Am, bringing all the protracted cruelty of that wretched weather right to the fore of the soundscape for just a moment.


To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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The ‘Calendar’ Concept

Mavis Ellen Jackson has been a songwriting client of mine for several years.  She’s a prolific lyricist and melody writer who doesn’t play an instrument and therefore requires someone to capture her tunes and arrange some harmonic accompaniment.

I’ve worked with Mavis on well over 150 songs, producing and recording most of them in my studio.  I’ve always found it an enjoyable and rewarding exercise, and have been proud to return the finished product to Mavis: her song, my production.

photo of 'Calendar' by The Straw Horses

‘Calendar’ – the CD & booklet

In May 2011, Mavis had an idea for a project that she thought I might like to be involved in from the start:  an album of folk flavoured songs based on events from British history.  There would be 12 of them – one based on an event from each month of the year.  The idea instantly appealed and we set about choosing our first subject.

With a few good ‘what happened on this day in history’ books and a handful of British history and folklore websites, we soon found a wealth of topics to choose from for each month.  Sometimes these resources provided everything we needed; other times they served as a launchpad to deeper research.  We certainly weren’t lazy, locating original sources and interviewing experts where necessary to ensure that we had all the facts we needed for each song.

We didn’t set out to write too factually of course, but we did want to fully understand – and feel – what we were writing about before we began to put any lines together.  In subsequent articles I will tell the stories that we wrote about, and explain how each subject shaped the writing and production of its song.

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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