Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Cold Blows the Wind

I think it’s a nerdy drummer thing, but I love jazz waltzes. For me they’re evidence that our appetite for musical complexity is way more sophisticated then we think it is, that music doesn’t have to be childishly simple to be approachable. One way of looking at the jazz waltz is that it is dance music in 9, a meter so odd that it probably lives in a tumbledown house on the edge of music town, and gets pelted with rotten fruit by the rude little marches and polkas when it goes out walking with its mate, the slip jig. I’d been thinking for a while that I’d love to arrange a brash, jazzy, waltz version of a traditional song, using some influences from my favorites – Van Morrison’s The Way Young Lovers Do, Charles Mingus’s Better Git It in Your Soul, Calexico’s – Over Your Shouder (strictly neither jazz nor a waltz, but a relative of sorts from an imaginary Mexican border town) and Dollar Brand’s Blues for a Hip King. I was still smarting from my mum’s pronouncement over the songs I had arranged for our previous album, Matachin – “they’re ok, but you’re not much good at writing a catchy tune, are you?”, and I wanted to come up with a proper old-fashioned earworm. The big problem was, which traditional song to choose?

In many respects, Cold Blows the Wind, aka The Unquiet Grave, was a strange choice. For most people it’s a sad song – one of the bleakest moments in a tradition which takes pride in its preponderance of bleak moments. But coincidentally, I was at the time re-reading Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps – a great, great book in which there is a beautiful and persuasive account of ritual mourning as an ecstatic experience – a wild ecstasy which is neither wholly happy nor sad, but contains elements of both emotions. In my mind's eye the protagonist of Cold Blows was instantly changed from a boring, drippy waif, to the kind of girl Captain Beefheart talks about in Long Necked Bottles – “One night she got to drinking, got out and shot up the town – I’ll be damned she didn’t bring an airplane down”. On another completely different tangent, I was having a go with my rudimentary spanish at translating some J.G. Posada broadsides, as you do, and the incredible prints of happy dancing skeletons found their way into the music too.

Of course, for the kind of treatment that all these influences demanded I needed a new melody, as well as some kind of rousing instrumental tag. I found the first by cannibalising the Canadian version of The Dewy Dells of Yarrow, and the second came to me while I was washing up. Jon's falsetto moment was yet another piece of applied plagiarism stemming from a adolescence spent listening to way too much of The Smiths and The Associates - I didn't fancy my chances selling it to him, but he turned out to be very amenable to the idea (which argues well for him waving large bunches of gladioli around onstage next tour!).

By the time we got to Abbey Road to record Hedonism with the mighty John Leckie at the controls, we’d been playing Cold Blows for over a year in our live sets. We’d suffered the indignity of being derided by American fans of the band Ween for doing a cover of “their” song. We’d even had a few of our own fans question whether we had the maturity to tackle such a old and hallowed text (they have a valid point). Meanwhile we’d been working harder than we ever had previously in the rehearsal process – picking tunes apart, asking the right questions (do you really need three counter melodies in verse two? What does “random burbling, all registers” mean as a performance indication?), then reassembling it without losing track of the original vision. I think we were all clear, without it necessarily having been articulated, that if Matachin was the album where we let it all hang out for better or worse, this new one needed to be more focused, streamlined and disciplined. And it was all working so well until someone let Jon bring his musical saw into the studio…..

Friday, 18 December 2009


BBC Four celebrates merry midwinter in unique style, with an exhilarating blend of folk tradition and burlesque fun. Energetic 11-piece Bellowhead and The Unthanks get together with the impressive young singers Thea Gilmore and Lisa Knapp, plus other special guests.
Steered by genial host Paul Sartin, the assembled artists perform seasonal songs of their own alongside yuletide favourites, ranging from folk ballads and carols to parlour songs and carousing dance numbers, with everyone coming together for a final knees-up.
Filmed at the atmospheric Shoreditch Town Hall, the setting evokes an old music hall combined with a festive Victorian family parlour, bedecked with garlands, period lamps and fireplace. Even the audience are dressed up in old-fashioned finery and prove themselves ready to kick up their heels.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

BBC Breakfast Telly!

I've just got back from an extremely early start 4.30am to be precise.

Now one of the reasons I went in to the music business is because of the hours you get to keep - and I wouldn't want getting up earlier than I did for my paper round to become a habit. However - it was for telly and as we all know - anyone will do anything to be on telly.

Here's a picture of Benji to prove we were on the telly.

As you can see - the BBC have put quite a bit of effort into their festive decorations. Actually, to be fair to them, it looked stunning at 6.30am before it was light but at that time in the morning I was still too bleary to think of getting my phone out and snapping it.

Anyway - this was all in aid of promoting our performances on BBC4's Christmas session - Fire & Ice which will be coming to your digitally enabled screens at 9pm tonight 17th December and it will be repeated on Christmas Eve at 10.30pm.

To promote this remarkable event - we were allowed to play 59 seconds of our song "Whiskey is the Life of a Man" using 45.4% of the band (they said it's a very small studio - actually it's a very big studio with a very small sofa in it). We also answered questions such as "is that an accordion?" and got to plug the New Years Eve gig at the South Bank. As you can see on the YouTube clip below:

This has been brought to you by Squeezy John - possibly the most infrequent blogger of them all. Mery Christmas!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008


Hello again,
I've been thinking about music and health. You can often end up a little unhealthy as a result of music. It might be that you go to a festival and drink too much beer and eat at the Mexican stall for a week, it might be that you spend all your spare cash on travelling to gigs and can only afford to eat gruel for the rest of the year or it might be that you jump up and down too much at a concert and struggle to walk for a few days afterwards. These are all potential dangers to watch out for.
When we recorded the last Bellowhead album, we ate lots of microwave food and meals out. It didn't always work out too well.

Here's Brendan enjoying a microwave beef lasagne with a salad, topped off with a bag of cheese and onion crisps....mmmmm!

Eating out doesn't always guarantee a better quality meal either. Paul was loving his spaghetti bolognese!

Pete found some mushrooms behind a Travelodge...but nobody was brave enough to eat them!
Touring can be quite unhealthy too. Late nights, early mornings, travelling, service station food and perhaps a little beer or two of an evening do not help in the slightest. You know the food is bad if Justin can't eat it.
Squeezy John and Sam even resorted to eating lemons.

Don't get me wrong though, I'm not moaning, it's merely an observation that as a result of music, we don't always take care of ourselves. 
But it needn't be this way. On the last Bellowhead tour we ate well, stopping off at supermarkets to stock up on REAL food! 

Here's myself and Gideon enjoying a smoked salmon and cream cheese baguette with a little glass of Cote de Road on the tour bus.

I decided to continue this new healthy way of life and with the view that healthy musicians are happy musicians. When we arrived there was a toaster and a microwave...adequate but limited.

So I bought a few additions to the studio so that I could cook up a feast every day. 
A slow cooker, a toastie maker...
and best of all...a steamer! Real veg...woo!
So I've been hard at work in the kitchen...
...and look at the joy on their little faces!
Well fed musicians are happy musicians.
So this is my last blog for now, I'll be locked away in the studio for most of January.
I wish you all a healthy and happy 2009. See you at a Bellowhead gig somewhere soon. 
Don't read too much into this healthy blog though. Feel free to bring us treats. 
We like chocolate brownies and wine.

love Rachael xxx

Friday, 26 December 2008

Seasons Greetings

Hello again,
I was going to write to you over Christmas but I thought you might have something better to do than read the Bellowhead blog! But I'll fill you in on the last couple of days.
Twas the night before Christmas and in Newcastle town the Rachael McShane Band were still in the studio working hard! You might think I'm a little mean making my band work on Christmas eve...but I did provide everyone with party hats. Some members of the band were full of beans and festive joy...

...some members of the band were up for working hard

...and it was all too much for some people!

After the hard work was over I headed down the road to Yorshire to see my family. We sang a few local Christmas carols at a favourite being While Shepherd's Watched to the tune of On Ilkley Moor Baht 'At. I think I may have been in trouble for singing "The angel of the Lord came down, the angel of the lord came down, baht his trousers on"...but it made me laugh. I like everyone getting together for a good old sing song at Christmas.
It was time to go to bed and hope that we'd been good and that Arfur would pay us a visit. He's called Arfur in my house as I thought his name was Arthur Christmas as a small child but couldn't say Arthur...of Father for that matter! Anyway, my Mum and Dad weren't sure if he would want brandy or whisky so we left both just in case, two mince pies for if he was really hungry and a carrot for Rudolph.

In the morning...he'd been! He must've been hungry as he'd eaten both mince pies, he obviously had a taste for brandy and whisky as both the drinks had gone and the carot was nibbled too! I hope you all had a lovely day.

I thought one day off was quite generous enough, so today (Boxing Day) we're back in the studio for more hard work. We've just realised that all the shops are shut because it's Boxing Day and all we have to eat is jelly beans and a chocolate orange, so if anyone feels like swinging by the studio with some dinner for us it'd be most welcome. Lots to do so I'd better get on!
Bye for now
Rachael x 

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

It's not cold up north today

It's been a lovely day up in Newcastle today, the sun was shining and it didn't feel Christmassy at all! I think the Bellowhead boys think I live at the North Pole. They keep asking me when I'm moving south and everytime we play anywhere north of the Watford Gap they all pipe up saying "It's cold up north"...well today IT WASN'T! :)
Today we moved into the recording more daylight for the Rachael McShane Band for a few weeks. We went in to get set up today and do a little rehearsing 
before the recording starts. My keyboard player JP was late so we had a little bet on what time he would arrive, with a £3 jackpot...woo! Playing in a folk band we can all afford to splash the cash. Drummer Adam was the winner and JP was overjoyed to discover he'd been the subject of a little game. However, Adam forgot to take his winnings so he will find himself a pound down and myself and bass player Jonathan are 50p up...good times! I get the feeling that it may be the first of many little bets on the reliability of JP! Anway we're all set up and ready to go now, we'll be back in there for more rehearsing tomorrow. No christmas parties for 
us tomorrow, but we might perhaps eat mince pies and wear party hats. 
That's all for today, we've got lots to do tomorrow so time for an early night I think. Sleep in heavenly peas. 
Love Rachael x

Monday, 22 December 2008

It's my turn

Well, I'm taking over from Gid so I'll be rambling on at you for a bit this week. I enjoyed hearing what Gid was up to in Japan, drinking Sake and playing tubas he can't afford...he might be on the other side of the world but nothing changes! Unfortunately not all of us have the luxury of time to go off gallivanting...some people have work to do! 
If nobody told you yet, the season of forced jollity, Christmas is upon us. I usually spend a fortnight eating and drinking too much, sitting about doing nothing and getting frustrated at sitting about doing nothing...but not this year! I decided it'd be a great time to start recording my solo album, so Christmas is officially cancelled for the Rachael McShane Band...sorry guys. 
I'm having a day off today though, getting a few things done, wrapping a few presents, writing a string arrangement, eating a truffle or two. My housemate is playing her Christmas Crooners CD...I think she's trying to get me in the spirit! I like to save the joy for Christmas day myself...although I'm having difficulty stopping myself from joining in with 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town'. Our upstairs neighbours don't seem to like it much, there has been some angry stamping and their Stereophonics tape was turned up a few notches.
I popped into the recording studio earlier to check all is OK for tomorrow. They had a couple of fellas in there recording a Christmas single and I was lucky enough to get a little bit of footage to share with you all. You can watch it here.
That's all from me for today, I shall be back tomorrow. Don't forget "he sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake"
Love Rachael Scrooge-McShane x