Sofa Sound  Newsletter

35/June 2009



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Greetings.

On 8th June "Thin Air", my twenty-eighth solo album of songs, is to be released. Once again it's a completely solo effort on which I play, sing, write and record the whole thing.

As always I feel a measure of uncertainty and much anticipation as it emerges into the light of day. Until now the vessel has been hermetically sealed; now it'll be opened up for good. So whatever I've done, whatever I've found, will be out there.

The bulk of this newsletter is about the new record. There are, though, several other things on the go which merit a mention.

Onward into whatever's next!

In the meantime and until later, as ever, thanks for listening.

PETER HAMMILL

The Air is Thin


Even after forty years it remains the case that when I move towards the making of a  new record I do so without an absolute fixity of purpose, without a written-in-stone plan. I hope to be surprised in the course of recording; I hope to find out something new as well as to deliver fresh material. This was never more the case than in the writing and recording of the songs which eventually went to make "Thin Air".
Of course, current recording circumstances are a little bit unusual, since it won't have escaped your notice that I find myself, oddly, a member of an ongoing group as well as a solo artist. Taken together these two careers definitely add up to year-long intensive activity and at times it's hard to tell which one is "the day job". Clearly, though, any material which I come up with which seems to have the perfume of VdGG about it should be reserved for and pushed in that direction for consideration first. Historically, the previous albums I've made while VdGG has been a fully functioning unit have been "Fool's Mate" and "Over" and these were both evidently some way away from the band's musical path.Now, though, since we continue to have this wonderful opportunity to make music together as a trio I absolutely have to dedicate my ensemble-style writing to that purpose. At the same time, of course, it's essential that any solo work that I do must have 100% commitment.
I don't mean to give the impression that I feel in any way hamstrung or constricted by the fact that VdGG is, in its own inimitable fashion, an ongoing deal; but I'd certainly be doing both the group and myself a disservice if I didn't retain that knowledge somewhere in the forefront of my considerations.
Clearly one way in which a differentiation could be made between the two recording camps would be if I concentrated, at least at first, on making a genuinely solo record. I didn't categorically rule out any other contributors at the outset of the recording but starting with the assumption that I would being doing the whole thing myself certainly gave me a solo focus. In the event I am indeed the only performer on the work.
 Even before I'd begun the writing I was aware that there would be significant differences in the lyrical approach. It's always been the case that when writing for VdGG I've attempted to cover subjects in which we've had some common interest and towards which we share at least a measure of agreement in attitude. Solo work has self-evidently allowed me more latitude and I'm able to have more of a personal take on things. Additionally, the latest sets of VdGG lyrics, while remaining fundamentally serious, have a measure of humour ingrained in them, even if some of it's of a gallows variety. The words for this set of songs, then, were always likely to be of more serious mien.
With these considerations in mind I began assembling a loose collection of tunes in July last year, once the summer spate of band activity was finished. (Although I had, in fact, already recorded the basic guitars for one song in a hotel in Bilbao while on tour there in May) A group of pieces gradually established themselves as being a - slightly unlikely - set which fitted together. Once it was clear that, in whatever final form, order or shape, lyrical or musical, these would make up the album I started to work on them sequentially, one at a time. Each one went from whatever kind of bare-bones starting point in which it had originated right through editing, adding, overdubbing to the final mixing process. Then I moved on to the next.
This is not an approach I have used very often in the past; I believe "Out of Water" was the last time I did so. I was, though, able to keep in mind the cumulative effect of each song on the next by virtue of the fact that I'd already picked my "team".
Additionally, it became apparent fairly quickly that strong thematic links were running through the songs' lyrics: disappearance, change, loss, dislocation in various forms were stitched through all of them. Without wishing to paint myself into a corner I was able to keep a general awareness of this thread as I continued working.
As I've said, it turned out that no-one else ended up on the recordings. I must also say that I used my best endeavours not to over-polish them: I was quite keen to leave rough edges audible and visible. I can't unlearn what I know now about recording, but I can at least still try to approach it with something of innocence...
The instrumentation is fundamentally based on straightforward pianos and electric guitars. Behind this front line various elements of sonic disturbance - strings, synths, light percussion washes - peep out from behind the curtains. The voice is, in general, right at centre stage, speaking directly (although it's at times contradicted by various backing vocals....) to the audience. The sonic territory is not exactly comfortable or comforting.
In the end the structures, both musically and lyrically, are impressionistic. There?s something just out of sight, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, going on. The shadows are shifting.
Now, a warning: I'm about to write a little bit about each song, one by one. If you would prefer to hear them for the first time without preconceptions, with no prodding from Artist's Hints, then please skip down to the end of the section. Indeed, I'd have a fair deal of sympathy should you decide to do so; I'm not overly enamoured of the way in which there's a rush to be the first to stream, the first to review new stuff, in the sense that it *can* skew the initial perceptions of the innocent listener. In the case of this record, though, sooner or later a knowledge of some aspects of my thought processes and/or inspirations for the songs would probably be worth having about in order to fully "get" them.
Song by song, then, here we go up to the CAPITAL LETTERS...
"The Mercy": "It is Finished, it is The Mercy" was the last entry in the log of Donald Crowhurst, the solo yachtsman who disappeared from his boat in the Golden Globe race in 1969 after a bizarre and tragic voyage of subterfuge. The song concludes with the (slightly paraphrased) last words of Captain Oates as he stepped out of the tent into the Antarctic blizzard: "I must go outside and I might be some time...." The people here have reached the end of their tethers; and, at that point, try to find some resolution, some salvation, some Mercy.
"Your Face on the Street": In my imagination I conjured up someone I knew by sight from passing acquaintance on the street, who disappeared in mysterious, possibly deadly, circumstances and whose face then proceeded to appear on "Any information"? posters.... This is a loss, and it's inspired by a historic one.
"Stumbled" : This song examines - not for the first time in my work - the extent to which we plan or control our unfolding lives, the extent to which those lives, once lived, might well be car or plane crashes from which we will be lucky to stumble.
"Wrong Way Round": An instrumental bridge to....
"Ghosts of Planes": The Top of The World Club mentioned here really existed, with a membership of two. Its inaugural and only meeting was on 19th or 20th October 1976, two days after VdGG?s one and only New York show. Guy Evans and I stood on the observation deck of the World Trade Center: the future seemed open and universally possible. In fact the edifice known as VdGG was already standing on trembling ground....
For anyone with a mind and a memory, ever since 9/11 the sight of planes overflying cities has held an uncomfortable edge. The slow-motion density, the ripping of the air, the defiance of gravity.... The lines about planes here, the germ of the song, came to me, incongruously, as I attended a cricket match at Lord?s and saw in the background sky the unrelenting trails of Incoming. For me a particular sense of familiar unease suffuses this song.
"If We Must Part Like This": Sometimes you know that the moment of disappearance is incoming, even before it?s arrived. This kind of presentience informs this (already lost) love song. Even while I?m here beside you I feel you already gone.
"Undone" Something of a similar sensation runs through "Undone" - the feeling that, even in the midst of "high days and holidays" one already knows that, in time, they'll be unravelled. To my mind, it's realistic rather than fatalistic to acknowledge that all our careful constructs will ultimately be broken. At a comparatively late stage I changed the person of this song from the "writerly second" ("You..." meaning myself) into the direct First person singular. Correctly so. I don't subscribe to a sense of purposelessness and to tell the truth I don't think that the sense of the song falls into that territory. After all, "undone" is both fallen apart and never achieved...
"Diminished": While "Undone" acknowledges that what we leave behind will be both more and less than we imagine; this song attempts to face the fact that in the end the old scores may well not be settled, the old debts not be repaid. Everything may not, ultimately, be tied up in an elegant, concluding bow. Life is messy and will continue to be so all the way to the finish. Which will, in any case, always be unknown. ?
"The Top of the World Club": And so back to that day with Guy, above NYC. Even while we stood there the events which would lead to VdGG's demise were already ravelling and unravelling, if we did but know it. Our ghosts still fly in the air up there. We, too - the young guys of those days, with all we thought we were heading for - are disappeared.
Along with so much else. But these references do not imply that anything here is "about" 9/11 in any direct way. Not just the buildings came down then. Assumptions, belief systems, senses of continuity also crashed, on personal and global levels. This piece, though, as the others on the record, is not concerned so much with the Big Pictures; rather with the way in which we as individuals can and must face up to what?s coming - and going.
Permanence is not a feature of human life. It follows that disappearance is an entirely natural function of our existence. It's the hope that some of these songs document a few of the manifestations of no-longer-there-ness....
We mark our passages as much by the way in which we disappear, all unannounced, as by our grand planned entrances.
And then we're gone, into thin air.

IT'S SAFE TO READ ON FROM HERE!
So much for the specifics of the songs. In more general terms I'd say that this record more than most is one which will require a number of listens to fully take in. That's as it should be, of course: I don't spend the months that it takes to record an album in the hope of achieving some instant one-off Pop Result. The effect here, though. after my long acquaintance with the material, is very much a cumulative one. In my view the holes between the skeletal shapes are as important as anything.
It must, finally, also be said at this stage that, dark and desolate though the timbre of much of this work is, real life as it comes at us - specifically as it came to a number of people around me in the course of the recordings - can at times be as stern, as unrelenting as anything. The recordings are informed by this.













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OTHER NEWS

As I write I am, of course, in between two exciting bits of touring. I've just returned from another stint in Japan, where I got through a wide repertoire of old tunes as well as, of course, premiering some of those from "Thin Air" in a live context. In a few days (assuming that we duly get our visas on Tuesday morning!) we'll be heading across the Atlantic for the VdGG North American tour. Once again, a lot of revision to be done by all of us!. We also now have an Italian show or so to round off this particular spate of activity. Beyond August I'm not sure what the year holds, but I'd certainly like to do some European travelling again....
On the DVD front the VdGG Paradiso show from 2007 is now about to be released by Voiceprint and we hope to have it for sale here soon. The K group Markthalle one will hopefully follow in short order.
Finally, we're happy to say that we've now got a direct download store, courtesy of BurningShed. Both FLAC and MP3 downloads are available and it goes without saying that this would be the favoured destination for all modern-world cyber-happy types! "Thin Air" will go up immediately and gradually over the next months the whole Fie! catalogue should appear. Links from www.sofasound.com will be up from June 8th.