SWAG 9: “Germander Speedwell”

This is the longest track on ‘One for Sorrow, Two for Joy’ and is a predominantly pastoral piece with a gentle (if heavy at times) pace. The track starts with two ‘found sounds’ creating an atmosphere. They combine to serve a very real practical purpose of taking the listener from the fast and frantic pace of ‘A Fool’s Journey’ and into a more relaxed space ready for the song itself. They also have a more personal place though.

The first sound is a music box, and thereby hangs a tale. I was in a particularly bleak phase of my life, moving house, taking loads of the detritus one collects to the landfill. On one journey, I’d emptied my car of rubbish and was pausing before driving home. Out of nowhere came this haunting melody. I couldn’t help myself and tracked it down to this old, beaten, wooden musical box that one of the staff there had saved from the landfill, wound up, and left playing. It was heart breaking, to be honest, hearing this musical box playing possibly for the last time before being disposed of forever, proudly playing its song over and over, and ever slower as the clockwork lost its energy. It seemed too much of a metaphor for life and, after a quick chat with the guy who had picked it up, I took it back home with me. It’s very fragile and I don’t wind it up that often, but I did record it one day so its voice had a chance of living forever … and here it is.

Along with the musical box is some bird song. This is birdsong I’d recorded in a place called Llechryd in West Wales at 6 am one morning. This was the third time that the extended Mercy clan had had their annual holiday at this particularly tranquil place and, indeed, it was here that I’d gone out at dawn one morning and took the photograph of the swollen river from a bridge that became the cover to The Water Road. The Mercy clan bash has become very important for the family. There’s something of the good humour and togetherness triumphing in the face of adversity about it, for reasons I won’t go more into here, but the birdsong takes me straight back there.

Amy’s vocals and lyrics are nothing short of haunting on this track. Germander Speedwell is a wild flower and there’s some folk lore surrounding it that she’s used to weave some remarkable passages together. She has been deliberately ambiguous with her meanings and metaphors, here, so I’ll say no more.

This track is deceptive. It sounds like a gentle stroll in the country and yet it was by far the most difficult track to record for most of the players. The acoustic guitar part involves a lot of changes of left hand position and this, as any guitar player reading this will know, tends to lead to ‘string squeak’, that scratchy unmusical sound your fingers make as they move up and down the strings from one note to another. Good technique helps … not changing your hand position helps, but some acoustic pieces are really difficult to play cleanly, and this one was a real horror. I’d presented a ‘final’ version of this to Rob during a visit to Aubitt about 6 months before the mix, and he rejected it. “Too squeaky, can’t do a thing with it”. Back to the drawing board I had to reinvent the way I played the parts and, with judicious use of ‘fast Fret’ on fingers and strings, finally ended up with the parts as you hear them.

There is a section of music that ends the track that also appears in miniature between first and second verse, that’s also a bit of a test despite sounding really simple. The section is built around chords and root notes that combine to create the impression of a piece that is always building, always moving ‘up’. It starts with two chords, the second extends the first and this is the primary cycle. This pair is then modulated six times (transposed) to get a group of six cycles. This group of six is then modulated a further three times to get a sequence of eighteen cycles. The modulation is chosen to keep the upward movement illusion going, but the net result is that the music pretty much moves through many keys without repeat.

Brad Waissman at Aubitt studios

Brad Waissman at Aubitt studios

Difficult enough to remember, we now have the time signature for our two chord cycle which is, to all intents and purposes, 25/8. The first chord of the cycle is played in 12/8 (with a 6/4 feel) and the second is played in 13/8 (also in a 6/4 feel, but with an extra half beat added). So, eighteen cycles of alternating 12/8, 13/8, travelling through all the keys is somewhat of a challenge to the memory for anyone. The spec for Paul and Brad was to build the piece up from a relatively gentle start to a dramatic finale, whilst expressing themselves along the way. The challenge for each of them was remembering exactly where they were in the section so they didn’t peak too soon. I actually recorded a guide track of me counting back from 18 to 1 along with the music to enable them to keep track, and they did it wonderfully in the end.

Also of note in this end section is just how Thomas’ organ playing keeps the illusion of an ever upward climb going, despite not being able to just keep modulating chords upwards on the keyboard for fear of scaring all the neighbourhood dogs before the end. He achieved this through dexterous real time adjustment of the drawbar settings for the Hammond as the piece progressed.

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