This is part 2 of my notes on The Wassailant, covering how I put them together, where the ideas came from and what I make of them a year on – all that good stuff you might find in an album liner. This post is going to cover the second half of the album – Sounds of the Winter through to The Wind and the Rain. If you want to read the first half, you can find it here.
Heads up by the way – The Wassailant is currently on sale on my Bandcamp at 40% off. I was originally going to run the sale until Thursday 16th December to mark the anniversary on the 15th…but in hindsight it seems a bizarre choice to take a holiday album off sale so close to Christmas. So I’m extending the sale to the end of the year – grab The Wassailant at £4.20 between now and 1st January 2022!
5: Sounds of the Winter
The lyrics for this one are from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I’m not a Whitman expert but I do know he was a bit of a revisionist – he kept adding poems to new editions of Leaves of Grass over the course of his life. I’d never read the version that contains this section until I found it online, trying to find a completely different poem I’d earmarked for The Wassailant. I found it so striking and evocative and so the other song quickly fell by the wayside (and isn’t on the album – maybe someday!). It was fun to do something that put a string arrangement in the fore and let me play fast and loose with tempo and time signature – it let the music ebb and flow at the pace the words seemed to ask for instead of it being fixed to a steady beat. I thought about putting the instrumental that follows the song proper onto its own track, but decided to keep the two parts together. They share part of the same tune and I already knew I’d have Minuet as an instrumental to break up the flow of the album. Mixed in there as well is a bit of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (the bass) and Veni Emmanuel, a plainsong Advent Carol (the electric guitar). This was perhaps the second thing I recorded for the album and if I were to do it again, I’d set my up my room completely differently. There are a lot of instruments occupying the same general sound frequencies and recorded on the same mic – which made this a bit of a nightmare to mix, especially the instrumental! Huge thanks to Maki Yamazaki who very patiently listened to my early mixes and pointed me in the right direction. Fun and meaningless fact, the cough at the end was recorded on its own little take with the file name “mouse police”. If anyone understands that reference, they win a gold star or something.
I love Minuet, but it’s got only a shaky connection to the holidays at best! All I can say is that I wrote the main tune on my mandolin on Boxing Day 2015, and I’d had it hidden in my back pocket since then. It think it fits in pretty with the rest of the tracks, though, and it’s a good, fun palette cleanser between the more substantial songs. The original inspiration for this was Robin and Marion by Nickel Creek. I was listening to them a lot at the time, and I spent ages learning the gorgeous mandolin solo, which I can still just about play! My track’s much humbler in comparison, but one day I want to be able to write an instrumental like they did. Something to shoot for, anyway! It takes me a long time to record things on my own, but Minuet was a breeze – so much of it was ready to go that I think the bulk of it was done in one afternoon. I didn’t originally plan for any percussion – I only wrote and programmed the drums because I prefer recording to a drumline over a click track, and I always meant to take them out later. RL Hughes was my test audience for this track and she convinced me to leave them in – going back and comparing my two versions, she was right!
7: Unto Us
This is one of my favourite tracks but it nearly didn’t make the album. I had a very specific idea for an angry song about Christmas but it was a real struggle to write and record. As always, the lyrics took me a long time, and after that, I couldn’t seem to record a mandolin sound I was happy with. Thanks to Jessica Law and Nick Siepmann for the great advice that got me out of that rut! After that, I had to do quite a bit of work to keep the things interesting over the full length of the song, adding bits like the spooky choir and the church bells. If I’m honest, I’m not sure it’s perfectly paced. If I did it again, I’d probably be more ruthless about cutting verses to stop it getting overlong – but at the time, I was so relieved to finally have lyrics I was proud of that I went ahead and recorded everything I’d written. It’s a pretty bitter song, and maybe a bit angrier than I meant it to be. I meant it to a bit of a joke about a couple of (in my perspective) hypocrisies in Christianity but I think it comes off as more of a rant…it turns out I have stronger opinions than I expected! Jesus has always been a figure that different groups people project themselves onto in different ways and at different points in time, but it bothers me that I’ve met so many people who somehow manage to construct an apolitical Jesus. From the secular side of things, Jesus is an inherently political figure. He a child of a military occupation, born to a people whose political and religious rights were oppressed; he lived a life of poverty and chose to spend his time supporting those who society neglected; he was considered a destabilising influence by the political and military powers of the time; and eventually, he was executed as such. Even from a spiritual viewpoint, his main message was one of radical love and forgiveness – and a meaningful commitment to those ideals has to have a political dimension. I was raised Christian and that’s more or less what I’d still call myself although I’m not sure that many Christians would agree. All the same, I think if you ignore Jesus’ politics you open the door to all kinds of complacency – it may just be my experience but it feels to me as though a lot of words are said and repeated but there’s not enough engagement in the meaning. Something gets lost when the movement becomes a loud voice within the establishment. The thing that was really getting my goat when I wrote this was something I’ve sort of felt in the air at times in churches. It’s hard to define but it’s a kind of self-satisfied belief that goes completely unexamined – that because we say those words, we’d never treat a human being with the rejection that Jesus faced. In other words, that we’re better, perhaps more enlightened, than the people of Jesus’ time. It could never happen now. And that’s so transparently not the case. How, exactly, have humans improved ourselves? Society still brutalises those who can’t conform. We still turn a blind eye to injustice, suffering and death, all while helping ourselves to all we can get, serving our own interests. We can say all that should belong in the past, but we continue to do it to millions each and every day. So, if a divine messenger really did appear here and now, I’m betting that the story would play out in a very similar way. Which means we learnt nothing the first time around – and we’ve had a couple of millennia to take the lesson to heart. And that’s a depressing thought.
8: Bethlehem Green
Honestly, this one’s a bit twee in places, at least lyrically. I didn’t really plan on writing any overly sentimental songs but here we are! It’s a little against the mission statement, but what are you going to do? It’s a Christmas song. I kind of like the last verse though. Actually, the words were a late addition – I wrote the music loooong before I had any plans to make a Christmas album. I think I was saving the tune for the right moment. I wouldn’t trade the string accompaniment on the instrumentals for anything, but like Sounds of the Winter, this was a bugger to mix and get everything sounding clear and balanced, especially with the penny whistle. It was worth the effort though; and I think the experience taught me a lot that I’ve been able to apply to other things.
9: The Wind and the Rain
This is another Shakespeare song – this time it’s the epilogue of Twelfth Night. Apart from the (metaphorical) wintery weather, its link to the festive season is pretty tenuous. Twelfth Night isn’t a festive play at all, except that its plot hinges on role and gender reversals – cross-dressing and reversal of servant-master roles was a feature of traditional celebrations on the twelfth night of Christmas. As a child, a teacher told me that the play was first performed on Twelfth Night, but as far as I can make out it wasn’t – so it doesn’t even have that situational link! Anyway there’s a brilliant tune by an anonymous composer this song’s often sung to, and I heard it performed when I was eleven and fell in love with it. I didn’t really set out to write my own version, which, like a lot of songs, is really just the result of messing about on the guitar. Eventually I found myself singing the words from Twelfth Night, and that was that. Along with Wassail Carol, this was what made me decide to do the rest of the album. I started with a demo version I did on my phone, which was pretty rough and ready! When I write violin solos, I tend to start out by improvising until I’ve got a rough shape and tweaking from there until it feels right, but with the demo the violin sections felt right straight away, and they’re almost unchanged on the album version. Sometimes you get lucky!
…And that’s the end of the album! I hope you enjoyed these notes, and as always, thank you for listening. The sale’s on until the end of the year!
2022 is shaping up to be a big year – with any luck, Rat-Tailed Rover will be launching early on in the year to tie in with the release of Small Saga, and meanwhile I’ve been hard at work writing for the next album proper. I’m almost at a place where I’m ready to make some announcements, so stay tuned! Wishing you happy holidays and a safe new year.