Category Archives: Opinionated

Reflections and opinions on music

When is a bad gig not a bad gig?

As musicians, we all have our share of bad gigs – myself included. It’s worth remembering though, that regardless of how you felt a performance went, the audience doesn’t necessarily share your feelings.

I’ll give you an example: I played at a venue a while back where I really struggled to hear what my percussionist and I were playing due to inadequate sound separation between where we were playing and another room where a rock band had been booked. As an acoustic act, there was no way we were going to win that battle! I came off stage thinking ‘well that one was a write-off’ – despite trying to keep a professional front on things, I felt that my performance really suffered. I hadn’t played as well as I know I can, and I beat myself up for letting the situation get on top of me.

That ‘awful’ gig got a glowing review from one of the audience members, which he kindly shared on my Facebook site.

An even more poignant example is described in the post below from Rennie Sparks on the DIY Musician blog:

DIY Musician – How Good Things Can Come From the Worst Gigs

I’ll leave you with a quote from Rennie’s post, as it’s a nice summing up:

“…every chance you’re given to offer your art to the world is a chance for adding meaning to life (yours and other people’s). You may not know how meaningful your work is for some time. You may never know. Have faith, though, that what you’ve put your heart into will speak to the heart of another… It adds up.

There have been many other “horrible shows” along the path of my musical career, but the amazing thing is this: There have also been just as many times when fans have told me that they first saw us play and fell in love with our music at a show I remember distinctly as being god-awful, ignored, meaningless.”

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In Defense of Autotune (Kind of)

Autotune – the very word conjures images of young pop-stars cavorting around mid dance routine, glitz, glamour and studio magic, and is about as far removed from the ‘authentic’ singer-songwriter image as you can get (by the way, if you’re interested you can see my earlier post for more on authenticity).

But more on that later… first off let’s look at what Autotune actually is, and how it works.

Autotune is designed to correct the pitch of a singer’s voice when a performance is off-key. It does this by ‘pulling’ the recorded note to the designated pitch set by the user. This is similar to a technique used in sampling and recording, which has been around for a while and is essentially playing back the sample at a different speed to change the frequency (or pitch) of the sound. Autotune is a bit (well, a lot) more sophisticated than this, but it does still have limitations. The further you need to pull the note to get it in tune, the more you lose the natural quality of the singing voice.

Auto-tune can be used to make an out of tune performance good, but there are limits to its effectiveness if you want the vocal to sound natural – especially if the original recording is way off-key.

So, this brings me to my main point – Autotune is just another tool. Studio tools such as effects (like reverb and delay) and compression (used to increase loudness and smooth out dynamic range) have been used for years to get a particular vocal sound; yet these are not demonised in the same way that Auto-tune is.

And as with most tools, Auto-tune can be (in my opinion, is) overused. I put this down to fashion – for many years, producers of pop music have been after ‘the sound’. In the 80s, it was fashionable for vocals to be drenched in reverb, in the 90s vocals are generally further forward in the mix and given quite a lot of ‘punch’ with compression. These days, we have become used to hearing tuned vocals because they are everywhere – it is the current fashionable sound.

Autotune can also be used creatively though – for example, there have been many recent YouTube video hits of spoken interviews turned into songs using Autotune. Perhaps it’s not exactly high-brow art, but it has caused people to re-think what the technology can and can’t be used for.

Personally, I don’t use Autotune on my vocals. This is a deliberate choice, and one that I’ve made for a couple of reasons: I want people to hear the natural quality of my voice – the real me, so to speak. I can usually hear the effect of Autotune, and to me it sounds ‘too perfect’ and a little forced. And, as someone who records at home, budget is a big constraint. Why spend extra cash on something that I don’t really like or need for the sake of fashion? I wouldn’t do that with clothes, so I certainly wouldn’t do that with something as important as my music.

At the end of the day, it’s mostly about the sound that you’re going for. If you want your vocals to sound polished, perfect and up-to-date, Autotune is a tool that can help you do that. But, if you want to record vocals that sound natural and ‘real’, I’d steer away from it. The choice is up to you.

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What Is ‘Real’ Music Anyway?

There’s a lot of discussion among music fans about what is ‘real music’ and what’s not. Usually, it’s more a question of ‘manufactured’ versus ‘proper musician’, which can lead to some frank and pretty derogatory discussions. It is, however, a difficult question answer when you really think about it, but for what it’s worth – here’s my twopence…

When we think about ‘real’ music, what we’re really talking about is how authentic the artist appears to be. Authenticity is about two things; how the artist portrays themselves, and the strength of their musical connection with the listener. When an artist makes a positive connection through their music, they create a relationship with the listener and this is the basis of fandom; the listener begins to buy in to the music and to the artist.

When an artist is fully involved with the production of their music, and are seen to have creative control over it, the connection between fan and artist seems more direct, and thus more powerful. The artist is able to communicate effectively through their songs and through their media image exactly what they wish to portray, whatever genre or style they are working within.

‘Manufactured’ music that appears to be controlled heavily by outside influences (such as producers, additional songwriters and industry professionals) can, arguably, be less effective at creating these same strong relationships with music fans. The  relationships are more transient and changeable, often with the fans quickly moving on to the next big thing.

But the question is, does this make the music any less ‘real’? It may not have been written by the artist who is performing it, it may have snazzy production and Auto-tuned* vocals, but this is nothing new. All music has to be created by someone, be that a producer or the artist themselves. Someone has put their time and energy into writing, playing and recording the songs that you’re listening to. You might not like it, but then that’s your perogative.

So when the latest hit by whomever is topping the charts comes on the radio for the millionth time it’s very easy to dismiss it as manufactured, even when you understand the work that goes into making it. But the truth is, what’s happening there is simply the listener not connecting with the music that they are hearing. Even a self-confessed music snob like me can find examples of pop productions that I enjoy.

In the end, I think, it boils down to two types of music – that which you as a listener can find a connection with, and that which you can’t. You could call this ‘good’ and ‘bad’ if you like (and yes, we all often do!), but really it’s about music you like and music you don’t. It’s all down to taste.

*More on Auto-tune in a future post me-thinks

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My Essential Festival Checklist

It’s nearly festival time!

Festival campsite

2000trees campsite, 2010 (I think)


The first ‘proper’ festival that we’re attending this year is TwoThousandTrees near Cheltenham. It’s a great little festival and I am definitely looking forward to it, despite the doom and gloom forecast by our friends at the Met Office.

Hubby and I have been to a fair few festivals together over the years, so we like to think that we’ve got the preparation part down to a fine art (through learning experiences like that time we forgot both matches and lighter so we couldn’t light our camping stove…).

So, in the hopes of helping out first time revellers and in excitement for this momentous weekend coming, I thought I’d share my list of festival essentials for the prepared and happy camper:

  • Tickets – Seems pretty obvious, but don’t forget your tickets! And not just your festival tickets – make sure you have your travel or parking tickets sorted too.
  • Money – There’s usually a cash machine somewhere on a festival site, but there’s also usually a massive queue. Bring enough to keep you going, but keep it safe.
  • Tent and sleeping bag (of course) – Your home for the duration. Check that your tent and bedding are still ok before going if you haven’t used them for a while. Or, if you’ve got a shiny new tent, make sure you know how to put it up. Ever tried to put up an unfamiliar tent when it’s pouring and all your stuff is getting soaked? Believe me, it’s not fun.
  • Emergency phone – Note the word emergency there.. It is a most sensible thing to have a phone with you, especially if you’re with a group. But please, please don’t spend your whole time texting when you’re watching bands. It’s annoying for the people around you, and it’s more fun for everyone if you let yourself get into the music (sorry, personal bug-bear!).
  • Waterproofs – If you’re out in a field for a few days with only a tent for shelter, it’s bound to rain at some point – this is Britain! And with the summer being as wet as it has been this year, forget your waterproofs at your peril….
  • Wellies and comfy welly socks – Wet ground gets pretty churned up with thousands of people treading on it, so wellies are a definite must. It always amazes me how often you see people wandering around sporting the ‘soaked trainers with ineffective plastic bags over the top’ look.

    The welly socks are a must for me to help stop my always-very-cold feet getting very cold. It won’t work, but I’ll try anyway. Thick socks also keep your feet comfy when you have to walk around a lot between stages.
  • Suncream and Shades – It’s unlikely to be sunny for 2000Trees this year (boo!), but even wet days can have sunny spells. Don’t forget to protect yourself from the sun as you can get burnt much more quickly than you expect, especially if you’re fair-skinned like me.
  • Torch – Guy ropes are hard enough to see in the daytime, let alone at night. Sites normally have lighting round the stages, but getting through a mess of tents without a torch (and after a few drinks) is very, very tricky.
  • Wipes and Loo Roll – Toilet wipes and wet wipes/baby wipes. Baby wipes are good for general hygiene/cleaning up. Toilet wipes and toilet paper for any nasty surprises in the cubicle… put them in your bag or pocket so you’re not caught out! I don’t normally recommend specific products on this blog, but Method Flushable Wipes are pretty good and are environmentally friendly too.
  • Snacks – There’s some pretty tasty food stalls at festivals these days, but the cost of buying ALL your food on site adds up. Hubby and I normally take snacks and some emergency tins of beans etc. And tea. Because I run on tea.
  • Camping Stove and Pans – To heat up said emergency beans. Washing up gear is useful too, but bulky – hubby and I tend to take a sponge and then use our bigger pan as the bowl… a tea towel is also helpful when you don’t have anywhere to put wet pans. Oh, and don’t forget the lighter…
  • Prescription Medicines/Minor Injury Kit – If you have to take medicines regularly then you’ll probably automatically pack them, but it’s easy to forget everyday remedies like hay fever medicine (might just be me…!). Take some plasters, antiseptic wipes/cream and some insect bite cream for those minor mis-haps, and take note of where the medical tent is so you know where to go on the off-chance that something more serious happens.
  • Clothes – Take clothes that layer well together. Being a comfort-over-fashion kind of girl, I am definitely an advocate of bringing plenty of warm comfy clothes, which is a challenge when trying to pack lightly. However, even if you’re a proper fashionista, layers are still a good idea – then you can look good and be warm.

    It’s a good idea to keep a spare set of clothes in your tent that do not leave it. That way you’ve always got something dry to put on. Trust me, it can make a heck of a difference after a couple of hours in the rain.
  • Scissors and String – It’s really surprising how often you need a pair of scissors when you don’t have any to hand. And string is useful for lots of festival things: stringing up a banner so you can find your tent easily, bodged tent repairs, tying stuff to your rucksack to make it easier to carry home – the list goes on.
  • Main stage, 2000Trees

    Main stage, 2000Trees 2009 (not sure who’s playing, sorry)

  • Your sense of fun – Seeing as most of this list is full of sensible advice about being prepared, it’s worth remembering that festivals are about fun, music and letting yourself go a bit. So enjoy!

I’ve probably forgotten something – but hopefully this list will help you be festival-ready, especially if it’s your first time. Let me know in the comments if you think I’ve missed something important, or if you have any of your own tips for festival survival. I love hearing from you!

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Filed under It's My Life, Opinionated

The Favourite Song List

It started with a challenge: Make a list of your thirty favourite songs, he said. As if that was easy.

I should have said ‘no’. I would have said ‘no’, if I’d known just how difficult and all-consuming it would become.

For the past two weeks or so, this list has always been at the back of my mind if I haven’t been consciously thinking about it. It has kept me up late. It has distracted me from work. It has taken over my life and forced me to choose between songs that are loved for different reasons, but loved equally and well.

Today, we sat in the pub and shared what we had compiled. Neither of us could come up with a definitive list, as our opinions changed constantly. And we both tried to limit the number of songs per artist to one… which made it easier to share the broader range of our taste, but more difficult to choose between specific songs.

And now, I’m sharing the list with you, dear reader – in no particular order, I might add.

  • Feeder – Comfort in Sound
  • Muse – Sing for Absolution
  • Gemma Hayes – Back of My Hand
  • Counting Crows – Angels of the Silences (acoustic version)
  • Radiohead – Street Spirit
  • Frank Turner – A Decent Cup of Tea
  • Bob Marley – No Woman No Cry
  • Beatles – Day in The Life
  • Foo Fighters – Hey Johnny Park
  • Nirvana – Heart Shaped Box
  • Garbage – The Trick is To Keep Breathing
  • The Postal Service – The District Sleeps Alone Tonight
  • Ben Marwood –  It’s Harder Now To Break Your Stupid Heart
  • Dresden Dolls – Girl Anachronism
  • Nine Inch Nails – Something I Can Never Have
  • Hell is for Heroes – I can Climb Mountains
  • Idlewild – In Remote Part
  • Biffy Clyro – Who’s Got a Match
  • REM – Losing My Religion
  • Tim Minchin – If I didn’t Have You
  • Kate Bush – Hounds of Love (see also: Futureheads version)
  • The Holloways – Generator
  • Maximo Park – Girls Who Play Guitar
  • Editors – All Sparks
  • The Levellers – One Way
  • Jim Lockey and The Solemn Sun – Morning Wake Up
  • Dive Dive – Ape Like Me
  • Sleeper – Factor 41
  • Nina Simone – Feelin’ Good
  • Van Morrison – Bright Side of the Road

It’s hard to articulate why these are my favourites, and no doubt you will agree or disagree at your leisure.

But what I’ve learnt from this little experiment, what I’ve really truly learned, is that if someone challenges you to list your favourite songs, or films, or paintings, or other cultural artifacts that are easy to love and difficult to quantify… just say no.

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6Music’s Milkshake

I love BBC 6Music – not least because they interviewed the lovely Barry Dolan (a.k.a. Oxygen Thief) and played his single Mestle and Porter the other night… But I love them mostly because they play a variety of music that is constantly different, interesting and, most importantly, good.

Nevertheless, I was still a little surprised yesterday morning to hear Andrew Collins play Radiohead’s Idioteque followed swiftly with Milkshake by Kelis. Even on a station as eclectic as 6, that’s a big jump in style.

Kelis, Milkshake Single

Image from Wikipedia

But, as I was dancing round my bedroom while trying to find suitable work clothes, I was struck by something just a little odd in the lyrics. And because I am pedantic (or pendantic, as Shaun Keaveny would say) I thought I’d point it out.

The lyrics are (as if you didn’t know):

My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, And they’re like, It’s better than yours; Damn right, it’s better than yours,  I can teach you, But I have to charge

I know you want it, The thing that makes me, What the guys go crazy for.
They lose their minds, The way I wind, I think its time.

La la-la la la, Warm it up,
La la-la la la, The boys are waiting

Wait a second? Warm it up?!

I thought we were making milkshake here… Seriously, who warms up a deliciously cold ice cream and milk-based beverage?

Warm milkshake? No thank you, Kelis. No, thank you.

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Why Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ Makes Everyone Cry – WSJ.com

One for my fellow music geeks out there: – I recommend a look at this interesting article on the psychology of Adele’s Someone Like You.

Why Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ Makes Everyone Cry – WSJ.com.

For me, this confirms what I knew all along – music makes you feel awesome. So, I suppose it makes sense that a particular type of audio stimulation causes your body to release dopamine.

Which is a cue for me to crowbar in this joke: Yay!

Serotonin and Dopamine (source toothpastefordinner.com)

 

P.S apologies for the short post today – it’s the start of a busy weekend, you know. Next weeks posts will be longer, I promise.

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