Neil Young’s 1974 album, On The Beach has always been one of my favourite records. I always loved the stripped down instrumentation and production and many of the songs are like uncut poetic gems, all the more beautiful for their raw unpolished quality. Like Springsteen’s Nebraska, this album captures the full scope of a songwriter at the peak of creativity, uncensored and essential. Here’s my version of the song, For the turnstiles, one of my favourites from the album and a song that playfully evokes mortality and the exit or turnstile that awaits us all at one point or another. In hommage to his original banjo part, I played the song with slide guitar and fretless banjo.
Songs I love
I started recording this series of covers about two years ago with the idea of sharing versions of songs that have inspired me over the years. Some of the songs are by known songwriters and some are traditionals. I’ll be recording a new one every month and uploading them up as I go along. All the songs are downloadable for free in exchange of your email, so you can be alerted of any updates directly in your mailbox.
I’ll be recording in my home studio but the lo-finess’ll be part of the process. For the most part, it’ll be just a case of putting a mike in front of a guitar or any other instrument that comes to hand with another for the voice and pressing record with a quick mix afterwards.”
I hope you’ll enjoy these tributes to the songs and songwriters I love.
As many of you know I’m an unconditional fan of the late, great Reunion island songwriter, Alain Peters. I recorded his song, “Mangé pour le cœur” on my 2014 album with cellist, Vincent Segal but I hadn’t yet recorded a song of his for my collection of covers, Songs I Love. Now that I’m more than half way into vol 2 of the series, I felt like it was time to go back to the Créole master to pick another of his beautiful songs to play.
This year, I’ve also been working on a new Hear My Voice ep for my label, Beating Drum with singer and percussionist, Oriane Lacaille and so I took the opportunity of her stay with us to record the Alain Peters song Caloubadia together.
Orianne’s father the great accordionist and singer Rene Lacaille grew up and played with Alain for many years in the 70’s. Singing Caloubadia with Oriane, allowed me to connect to the rich cultural roots of that magnificent island the other side of the world and pay tribute to one of its greatest songs.
The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s musical arrangement of the poem ”My Heart’s in the Highlands” by Scottish poet Robert Burns for countertenor, organ and bagpipes is without doubt, one of the most haunting songs I’ve ever heard.
I was utterly spellbound the first time I heard the version recorded by the organist Stephen Layton and countertenor David James in 2003. Even without the music, the poem with its vivid picture of the Scottish highlands is majestic enough but with Pärt’s masterful composition, it becomes the song of a universal longing to return home and seems to speak to all of us, whether we come from the mountain, the desert or the sea.
I’ve recently been collaborating with guitarist and oud player Gregory Dargent and chatting one day about what we could play together, we realised we were both unconditional Arvo Pärt fans. Being mostly for choir or orchestra, there’s not much of Pärt’s music that could work with just a voice and guitar but ”My Heart’s in the Highlands” seemed a perfect piece to try and paint as if it were a timeless, traditional folk song.
It’s been a while since I’ve released a new cover from the ongoing Songs I Love series so here’s a version of the beautiful southern Italian serenade “Bella Ci Dormi”.
I first sang this song in 2010 when my friend Mauro Durante invited me to perform with his band Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino at the festival Le Notte Bianca in Puglia. ‘Bella ci dormi’ was traditionally sung by musicians under the balconies of women who were being proposed to but the tradition of the serenade and the custom of paying a musician to sing as a gesture of love has all but disappeared. Even if the concept of the serenade could do with a little C21st tweaking, I can’t help thinking that making a mixtape or a digital playlist for someone doesn’t have quite the same romantic quality as being sung to under a balcony in the light of the full moon but I may be wrong!
Mauro visited me recently at home as we were writing the lyrics for a song on the new album called “Bring down the wall”, my words in English, his in the Salentino dialect. In between writing lyrics, we also found the time to record together a new cover for Vol II of Songs I Love.
Here’s ‘Bella Ci Dormi’, as always it’s a simple, no frills recording with Mauro on violin and me on guitar. I really hope you’ll enjoy it!
Given my love of her writing, I really should have already covered a Joni Mitchell song in the series by now. As a lyricist she’s in a hallowed place all of her own and I can’t think of anyone else who writes with such invention and grace. Little Green almost hurts to sing. It tells the story of the daughter Joni Mitchell gave up for adoption. One can only imagine the torment of a young mother having to give up her child and it’s tempting too as the verses unfold to question her for doing so. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a moving piece, taking us as listeners, deep into complex and ambiguous emotional waters where compassion, sorrow and forgiveness can mingle? I wonder how Joni’s biological daughter feels about the song, would she have preferred it to have remain unwritten, unsung? It makes me think that writers are inevitably selfish beings as nothing is ever off limits for them. Shining a light on events that others might rather hide is hard for the people that inspire the stories. But despite the sorrow Little Green calls up, I have no doubt the rest us are better off for hearing it. The beautiful guitar part here was played by my friend the South African Guy Buttery. We met when I toured South Africa in 2008 with Nibs van der Spuy, I’ve collaborated on a few songs of Guy’s over the years, including one on his next album, I encourage you to discover his amazing music, he has a crowdfunding thing going on for his next album, I hear guitar buffs can even bid for one of his guitars! http://igg.me/at/guybuttery/x
Franchement, vu comme j’adore ses compositions, il y a longtemps que j’aurais pu inclure une chanson de Joni Mitchell dans la série! Comme parolière, elle évolue dans une sorte de sanctuaire qui n’appartient qu’à elle – je cherche en vain quelqu’un qui écrive avec autant de grâce et de sincérité. ‘Little Green’ est une chanson très sensible, poignante. Elle raconte l’histoire de la fille que Joni Mitchell a dû abandonner et confier à l’adoption. On peut imaginer les tourments d’une jeune mère acculée à laisser son enfant ; mais au fil de l’histoire, on a aussi envie de l’interpeller sur son geste… C’est sans doute ce qui rend ce récit si touchant, et qui plonge ceux qui écoutent dans les hauts fonds des émotions complexes et profondes, là où peuvent se fondre la compassion, la tristesse, et le pardon… Je me demande ce que ressent la fille biologique de Joni à l’écoute de cette chanson : aurait-elle préféré qu’elle demeure non-écrite, jamais chantée ? Je réalise que les auteurs sont en fait des êtres assez égoïstes, qui ne se posent aucune limite. Porter au jour des événements que d’autres préfèreraient cacher n’est pas sans conséquences douloureuses pour les personnes qui inspirent ces récits. Malgré la tristesse que ‘Little Green’ éveille, je suis convaincu qu’une autre part de nous est heureuse de l’écouter.
Sur cette reprise, la superbe partition de guitare est jouée par mon ami Sud-Africain Guy Buttery. Nous nous sommes rencontrés lors de ma tournée là-bas en 2008 avec Nibs van der Spuy. Je vous invite à découvrir son incroyable univers musical. J’ai contribué à quelques chansons de Guy ces dernières années, y compris pour son prochain album. Il y a une campagne de financement participatif en cours sur ce projet, et je crois même qu’il y a des enchères possibles pour une de ses guitares. Avis aux amateurs ! http://igg.me/at/guybuttery/x
Since I first started up Songs I Love, the series has been a way for me to share songs with some of the different friends and artists that I play with. So last summer while recording Jenny Lysander’s album Northern Folk, we also found the time late one August evening, to record a cover for the ongoing Volume II of the series.
Nottamun Town is an old English folk song that I first discovered on Fairport Convention’s 1969 album ‘What we did on our holidays’, their version was sung by the great Sandy Denny. Between takes recording Jenny’s album, we’d spend a lot of the down time listening to music. I love playing records for friends and seeing the excitement on their faces as they discover new music. I played Jenny some of my favorite singers like Anne Briggs, June Tabor or Joni Mitchell.
Listening to Nottamun Town, some of you may be reminded of Bob Dylan and he used the same melody for his song Masters of War. There’s a trance like cadence to the strange and original lyrics in Nottamun Town and Dylan used this relentless and hypnotic rhythm to great effect in his timeless anti-war anthem. According to various sources the original song dates back to medieval times and there’s a theory that the surreal nature of the text relates to the traditional day The Feast of Fools, during which time which power was briefly conferred on those in a subordinate position. On this day, the fool took his revenge, the servant beat his master and the cat chased the hounds! So for the full sensory experience as you listen to this song, picture a Hieronymous Bosch painting in your mind and enjoy!
“Met the King and the Queen and the company more
Came a riding behind and a walking before
Come a stark naked drummer -a beating a drum
With his heels in his bosom come marching along”