15th December will be one year since The Wassailant came out. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long already. If you listened to it before, hopefully you’ve had a decent break from it and can enjoy listening to it again with fresh ears this season. If you haven’t listened to it before…check it out, it’s cool!
This time last year I was so focussed on getting the album done in time for the big day that I never really wrote down very much about the songs, where the ideas came from, how I put them together, and how I felt about them – all the kind of stuff you might find in the liner notes of a physical CD.
I’m fairly sure The Wassailant’s going to remain digital only for the foreseeable future (CD printing is expensive) so I thought I’d take the opportunity to put some of those notes up on the blog. I’m gonna do it in 2 chunks of songs so the post doesn’t get too long.
Oh, and don’t forget – if you haven’t yet taken the plunge on The Wassailant, the album is going to be on sale at 40% discount (£4.20) until the 16th December! If you like the music but can’t afford that, you can still help me out by putting it on your holiday Spotify playlists – every play helps!
1: Wassail Carol
I love cheap puns, so I always knew the album had to be called The Wassailant, which meant I had to do a song about wassailing. I’ve talked about wassailing elsewhere on this blog, but I love the fragile balance between warmth and hospitality on a cold winter’s night and the vague undercurrent of menace just beneath the mask. You’re going to enjoy the company and the revelry, but you don’t want to say no to the wassailers when they come calling. Different regions in the UK have different wassailing traditions and songs. The majority of lyrics from this track are bastardised from the Yorkshire Wassail Song. That’s a version I’ve known since I was small, but never much cared for the tune, so my version has new music! The penultimate verse that plays with the violin solo, along with a couple of stray lyrics here and there, actually come from a different version, the Gower Wassail Song, which is one I discovered and really took to when I was putting the track together. All the same, the two songs definitely share some lyrical DNA, although I couldn’t tell you which came first, what songs they’re descended from or how the lyrics came to travel from region to region. It’s interesting to notice how they’re alike in some areas and wildly different in others.
2: Lob Lie-by-the-Fire
This is my favourite track and probably the one where the final recording’s ended up sounding the closest to the picture I had in my head when I wrote it. Although I recorded most of the backing instruments pretty early on, I ended up putting off recording the vocals for months – they were probably the very last thing I recorded for the whole album. That’s partly because I kept tweaking the lyrics and partly because something always seemed off about my voice when I came to record. I was in pretty poor voice for much of 2020 after getting COVID and I think it shows sometimes on the album – but I liked Lob enough that I wanted to make sure I got the best take I could give. The song kind of wears its 70s folk-rock influences on its sleeve, and I intended it as a sort of reply to Jethro Tull’s Jack-in-the-Green, which is a very different flavour of song but with a similar subject. Like Jack, Lob is a wild but benevolent nature spirit, and he has many different guises and roles – in fact he’s often synonymous with Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Goodfellow, Puck, the Green Man, and the rest. Depending on who you ask, he might also be Jack the Giantkiller, so it seems he even flirts with being human once in a while! Anyway, in his Lob persona, he walks the roads from spring to autumn, waking the natural world up from a winter’s sleep and seeing the crops safely to harvest. When the days get shorter and darker, he snoozes by the fire and recover his strength for the long walk ahead. The idea for this song came after I read Linda Newbury’s children’s novel, Lob, and the lyrics are influenced by that book and particularly by Edward Thomas’ poem of the same name.
3: Cherry Tree Carol
This is a traditional carol based on a story from the wonderfully named “Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew,” which is an apocryphal gospel that was written around 650CE and collects early traditions surrounding Christmas and the nativity story. It’s in no way a part of any version of the Bible and I’m sure most of it is completely forgotten now, but there are one or two traditions it seems have introduced that have stuck around – most notably the donkey and ox that show up by the manger in every children’s nativity play to this day. I’m sure someone will take exception to this, but to me, this feels like New Testament fan fiction, and the carol certainly reads that way – a little slice-of-life scene fleshing out how the whole immaculate conception thing affected the dynamic between Mary and Joseph. In short, Joseph is a miserable bugger and has a good old sulk and gets petty about some cherries before an unborn Jesus shuts him right down! There’s no end of traditional tunes the Cherry Tree Carol has been sung to, but this one is far away my favourite. There’s something very mournful and haunting about the tune, especially in the final verse with the prophecy. I kept most of the traditional lyrics intact apart from one line that called Mary “meek and mild,” like every dull retelling of the story you’ve ever heard. Honestly, I object to that. It has always bothered me how Christianity holds up “meekness” as an aspirational quality, especially for women, via a certain depiction of Mary. Mary seems like a remarkable person. In the story, she’s a single teenage mother shouldering the burden of prophecy and bringing up the world’s most precocious kid. She seems like she would be many excellent things and reducing her to a “meek and mild” bit player seems like a real failure on the part of Christian tradition, at least to me!
4: Blow, thou Winter Wind
This was the first track I recorded that actually ended up being on the album and also the first song I’ve written using DADGAD tuning for my guitar. It’s a very folk-friendly tuning that’s open but neither major nor minor, and it’s also the tuning that Tim Ledsam uses on the vast majority of Mechanisms songs. Blow, thou Winter Wind is the song that ends Act 2 of As You Like It, which is my favourite Shakespeare play. I’m told that I have terrible taste for that, but there you go. The play’s a delightful jumble of comedy and melancholy and is constantly experimenting with gender identity and presentation as well as sexual orientations. It’s fun! Like all of the songs in Shakespeare, the words have survived where the original tunes are long forgotten so every version gets to invent itself to some extent – I hope you enjoy my interpretation! There’s a cheerful nihilism to the lyrics, which somehow manage to be biting but jolly all at once. Funnily enough, although the song swears off friendship as nothing more than a performance, it appears at the point in the play where Orlando has proved his own worth as a friend by saving his old servant Adam. Even stranger, the character of Adam vanishes without a trace after this scene. I’m not sure what that says, but I’m sure it says something!