Articles

Don’t Let it bring you Down: Sadness versus Melancholia

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People often ask me why so many of my songs seem to be sad and why don’t I write happy songs to cheer people up. I think that’s an important question which deserves a full and thoughtful answer.

In reality, my songs aren’t sad at all; although I readily confess many of them are tinged with melancholy. Sadness and melancholy are very different qualities. Sadness in its classic form generally involves a kind of self-centred hopelessness whereas melancholy (if rightly identified and understood) manages to be creative, outward-looking and subtly hopeful. (Melancholy is merely mournful whereas sadness is solely sighful). Melancholy is like smiling softly and forgivingly through serial tears whereas sadness has an austere streak of bleak remorselessness. Sadness is cynicism dressed up in sackcloth and ashes whereas melancholy is sensitivity clothed in temporary darkness. Sadness has no ground to till and bears no fruit whereas melancholy is the death-throes of wintertime before the buds break through. Sadness is a woeful winter of endless discontent whereas melancholy is tinged with autumn brown which already hopes for springtime.

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How to Avoid Being Ripped-off in Sweden (or anywhere else for that matter)

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Here’s a little bit of helpful information for anyone planning on engaging the services of small businesses in Sweden. Although this information is plainly applicable anywhere in the world, I and other non-Swedish people with whom I have discussed this have discovered it to be especially applicable in Sweden. I’ve done quite a bit of business in my life (not as a business person but as a creative artist purchasing services for my work) and — being an idealist — I have often made the mistake of doing it like a hippie, thinking that I can trust people in the world of the arts and in those lines of work connected with the arts. I’m telling you these things so you don’t make the same mistakes as I have.

Firstly and foremost, always insist on a formal quotation for work in writing — preferably, get it as detailed as possible in a signed and dated contract. If they won’t give you the information you want in the way that you want it, then they’re bullshitting you. Just walk away.

 

If you’re dealing with greedy unprofessional people or scammers (they often behave in similar ways), the first “quote” you’ll receive for work will be a very bare one without any tax added or other extras. Do NOT settle for that.  Always ask the question: “Is this the final figure that I will have to pay? If not, what are the extras?” You see, such people will always quote you a figure without tax. I can guarantee this. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’re trying to make their quote seem as small as possible so you will accept it. They’re hoping you won’t even bring it up at all, until you get the bill, by which time it’s too late for you to get out. This means that what they’re quoting you is up to 25% less than the real figure that you will pay. That is one quarter of the bill! They will not give you the figure and then immediately say “plus tax” and then tell you how much that would be too (which would be the honest and professional thing to do). That will be concealed from you. You will actually have to ask them: “Does that figure include tax?” and only then will they be forced to admit that it doesn’t.

In any case, the whole tax thing is a bit of a joke as far as greedy unprofessional people or scammers are concerned for I can guarantee almost with certainty that they won’t be paying any tax themselves on your payment! Therefore, adding tax to their quoted figure is just a way of bumping up the price even more and making an extra 20-25% out of you which will never be paid as tax by them.

Make sure that you also ask what extra expenses are involved. Get it all formally in writing. Leave nothing to a mere verbal agreement or something in some casual email exchange or spoken about in an internet chat. Ask for a written statement or contract formally signed and dated with all fees, taxes and extras mentioned, otherwise you will get a terrible shock when their bill finally arrives. That I can guarantee.

If you are given a quote involving an hourly rate rather than a single figure for the whole job, then make sure they also tell you how many hours the work is going to take and get that in writing. This is crucial, for otherwise they can make the job take as long as they like (which is tantamount to giving them permission to print money for themselves at your expense), drain all your resources and you will have no comeback at them whatsoever. For a short job, lasting a day or two, an hourly rate is acceptable. But if the job is going to take much longer than that then they should really give you a single-figure quote rather than an hourly one. This is the professional way to do business; so if they don’t or won’t do business like that then they are unprofessional, to say the least, or greedy or planning to scam you.

If, when you ask them how many hours the job will involve, they say they can’t possibly answer that, just walk away. Immediately. Any genuine professional can estimate how long a job will take. It may take a bit of work but they can do it. They should really be able to give you a complete figure for the whole job. This is how professional business is done. If they start waffling about how every job is different so they can’t tell you how long it will take, then it’s either because they don’t want to (so they can keep their options open and get as much money out of you as possible) or they simply don’t have enough experience in their line of work to know what is involved in the job. Either way, you’re going to be scammed, so just say goodbye and walk away. It’s that easy. Walking away from greedy unprofessional people or scammers at that stage of the game will save you a vast amount of money. It could make the difference between your solvency and your bankruptcy.

You should be aware that if you try to question anything later down the line (for example, when you receive a bill from them which makes your hair stand on end!) they will not try to reassure you or receive your queries with a good customer service attitude. Instead, they will be angry and belligerent and try to put the blame back on you. I can absolutely guarantee this. They will claim that there were all sorts of hidden extras which they had not foreseen. Then they will try to make you feel guilty for not trusting them — for daring to question them. They will accuse you of being awkward – of being a difficult client (no matter how friendly, tentative or conciliatory you try to be with your queries). The very fact that you are questioning their business methods will trigger a surprisingly unpleasant response. This is a classic sociopathic kind of reaction and it will shock you. In fact, it’s designed to shock you because they are determined to get their own way (i.e. to get as much money out of you as possible) and they will accept no obstructions. If you thought you had a good relationship with the business person up to that point, that illusion will instantly crumble. You will see another side of them which is ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ in its nature.

It reminds me of an incident I experienced as a child. A schoolfriend went around bragging that he had found gold of great value buried in the grounds of his apartment block. Smelling a rat, I doubted his story and went to check. Finding a patch of earth which had been recently disturbed, I dug it up and there was a hoard of ordinary stones painted gold. (My motto has always been “Leave no stone unturned!” ;-). When I told him (in a friendly and not a sneering way) that I knew the truth about his “gold” he went completely mental and physically attacked me with fists flying, accusing me of trespass and theft and lies.

This is a sociopathic pattern I have seen repeated many times when those who behave dishonestly are questioned by others about their dishonesty. This applies also to business people whose methods are greedy, unprofessional and not upstanding. Even though they refused to have any kind of detailed written contract with you, they will accuse you of not sticking to your (albeit verbal or casual) arrangement with them, of withholding money from them. They will try to make you feel like a criminal who is not honouring his or her obligations. They are very adept at this. It is a vital part of their Modus Operandi to intimidate you into the passive acceptance of their dissembling business practice. They will even turn round to you and say things like “I knew I should have made a contract with you in the first place but I mistakenly trusted you”. Yes! Even though it was them who didn’t give you a contract and who deliberately concealed the true cost of the work (which they knew would be enormous). They are so good at twisting things. This is crazy stuff! You would almost think that they’d had psychological training specialising in how to turn the tables on anyone who questions their business methods. Remember, they will never under any circumstances admit to being in the wrong or behaving unacceptably. It will all be a case of you trying to avoid your obligations and refusing to pay for services rendered. So all you can do at that stage is comply with what they want, which of course is their aim. If, at that point, you decide to challenge them and refuse to pay their extortionate fees unless they negotiate a reasonable figure, claiming that they are guilty of malpractice, they will go ballistic and threaten you will all kinds of legal redress and how they will spread it around that you are a debtor and absconder. This is a pattern I have both personally experienced and been told about by others in a similar position many times.

 

The bottom line is this: A true professional in business will insist on making a written, signed and dated quotation/contract with you. You have every right to be naive and unwitting and the onus is definitely on them, as business professionals, to ensure that you cannot be exploited or deceived in any way by going ahead and putting everything formally in writing in a contract. That is how they should want it to be. The very fact that they don’t is a sign at the outset of their dishonesty. They shouldn’t wait to see if you don’t ask for a written quotation/contract and then go on to accept that without a murmur. Such behaviour is a form or professional misconduct and puts the client potentially at risk. In fact, it reminds me of the people who say that a woman who wears revealing clothing in the street deserves to be raped. “She asked for it!” as they say. So if a business person, after scamming you, says “Well it’s your own fault for not asking for a contract at the beginning or for agreeing to an agreed hourly rate”, they are behaving like the people who say that a woman who wears revealing clothing and is raped gets what she deserves. Your naivete should never be a good enough reason for them to scam you or milk you of your resources. So I say again that the onus is on them to ensure that all is done correctly. However, because so many business people are not real professionals and are not wholly honest and are out to get as much out of you as they can, then it behoves the client to ask for what is not being provided: a detailed, written, signed and dated quotation/contract which is binding.

I’m sharing all this so you are forewarned and forearmed. It isn’t only me who has experienced this but many that I know. Please do not assume that everyone is essentially good and honest, especially in the world of the arts. They are not. If people in business won’t provide you with the information you want and if they won’t give you a detailed, formal, written inventory of the costs as representing the final figure which you will have to pay, then just walk away or you will be in a mess financially and regret that you ever did business with them. Being able to say no or walk away from potentially draining or harmful experiences in life before they happen is one of the most important and empowering lessons we can learn.

One final note. When people in business behave like that, they are “cutting off their noses to spite their faces”; because by treating you in this manner they will not only lose your business but also the potential business of all those to whom you would have recommended them if they had behaved themselves. They are so short-sighted that they cannot see that they would have made far more money from their business transaction with you if they had gained your trust through the time-honoured business practice of “goodwill”. Goodwill in business means good sales service, good work practice and good after-sales service coupled with total transparency. Goodwill and helpful customer service are at the heart of a successful business. Very many small businesses flounder and fail because of greed and/or malpractice, when they could have been flourishing if they had thought in the long-term instead of the short-term. Myopia is not a useful quality in the world of business.

I hope you have found the caveats in this article helpful. I wish I had taken them onboard myself a long time ago! Thanks for reading. Feel free to share this with whoever you want.

 

© Alan Morrison, 2012

Interview with Alan Morrison by Johannes Flink (Director, Folkkulturcentrum, Stockholm)

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Interview with Alan Morrison – March 2011
by Johannes Flink – Director, Folkkulturcentrum, Stockholm

 

“For the release party of your new album “Ride my Heart”, Boulevardteatern described your music as: “British folk-rock with a tint of Northern sadness”. Do you agree to that description? And is there something special you would like to add”

Well, I’ve always found it difficult to classify my music style because it adapts itself according to the song. I don’t want to get stuck in one groove precisely because my songs don’t. Yes, there is Folk-Rock of both US and UK varieties in my music. There is also what can be called “Alternative Country” in there too and West Coast rock. But there are other things which I bring from my own heart which probably can’t be classified.

As for the “Northern sadness”, it is true that a number of my songs are drenched in melancholy. I prefer that word to “sadness” because melancholy has much beauty and longing in it, whereas mere sadness can be stultifyingly stuck in its own trip. I think this is why my music seems to have found a place in a number of hearts in Sweden in particular and Scandinavia in general. You know all about longing and yearning and wistfulness here – more so than in other countries. It seems to be built into your soul. That also must explain why I feel so at home here musically.

“In the so-far reviews for “Ride my Heart”, your references have been taken to be Dylan and Springsteen, whereas your singing style reminded one reviewer of Rod Stewart. Is this your opinion as well? Are these artists really your main inspirations? Or what other artists do you look to for inspiration?”

Actually, of those three artists I would say that only early Dylan has been anything like an inspiration to me. I remember being totally knocked-out as a young teenager by songs like “Masters of War”, “Desolation Row”, “She Belongs to me” and “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m only Bleeding”. They are masterpieces which showed me the importance of the text in a song. They were poetry set to music and that is what my own output is too. I think the references to those three artists in music reviews has come about when a reviewer heard some inflection in my voice which he has then expanded to become a major reference point – one that he or she understands. That’s what reviewers do; but it isn’t necessarily real.

My own musical development grew out of a passionate interest in 1960s groups like the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Poco, Neil Young and Crosby, Stills and Nash. They were all really pure folkies who added rock to the folk. Similar developments were happening at that time in the UK too, with pure folkies like John Renbourn and Bert Jansch forming the group, Pentangle, with the Scottish folk singer, Jacqui McShee. Another true folkie, Donovan, was also bringing a more rocked and jazzed-up folk influence before the British public. Then other UK folk-rock groups came along, such as Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention – both with a pure folk background. It was a tremendously creative and innovative era. All those artists and groups have been a huge influence on my musical landscape in one way or another, even if you can’t hear all of that directly in my songs.

Some contemporary songwriters, such as Lucy Kaplansky and Kim Richey, have also affected me deeply. Listening to them has honed my understanding of the art of songwriting.

However, in spite of all the above, in the final analysis I am me and my true inspiration is my own Muse. I stand alone with my experience and my songs, for what they are worth.

“In virtually all descriptions of your music that I have read, your text-work comes to the fore. It is said about your texts that they are poetic, ambitious and that they all thematize love in some form. How did text become so important to you? And are your texts really the prime motor of your music”

The truth is that I am really a poet who gives wings to my poems with music to create songs. The music is the vehicle to steer the poem into the listening heart. The harmony is the handmaiden for the words. I am first and foremost a wordsmith. Words are the essence of my music. They have work to be. It’s not just about entertainment. Words are tremendously powerful. They affect people at the deepest level, whether they realise it or not. And when they are accompanied by harmonious music then that process is even more profound.

All my songs thematize love in some form because love comes in many forms. In this sense, all my songs are love songs. On the one hand, they speak about what I call the “perils and privileges” of relationships. On the other hand, they address an issue of importance in the social context of the world. So you can have a song such as “Sparks” about a relationship breakdown and what lay behind it alongside a song like “Anthem for Someone’s Child” about the death of children in war. My songs are both born out of love and speak about love. I know it’s a cliché but love is all there is. In that sense, I suppose one could say that with my music you don’t just get words and tunes; you get a whole philosophy. My favourite classical composer, Gustav Mahler, famously said in a debate with Jean Sibelius that “the symphony should embrace the whole world”. That is what I want my music to do also, in my own small way; to reach inside hearts and change people. Nothing grandiose. Just an artist doing what any artist should do. It is like being a mirror of human experience, with all its ecstasies and empathies – all its flaws and foibles. Music – poetry, all art – should reflect the whole of human life. If enough people are changed by music then music could change the world.

On the other hand, your music is built up by complicated harmonies and often comprises a large number of instruments beside the normal rock set, such as violin, mandolin, etc. Please describe your musicianship. What are your musical references? How did you get interested in the particular kind of music that you are creating”

I could write a book about that! I believe that each song is like a painting. A painter wouldn’t use the same colours and tints for every painting. Likewise, I would feel too limited with just the usual drums, bass and guitar. I like to use extra colours for different songs, like cello, violin, pedal steel guitar, dobro guitar, mandolin, accordion, nyckelharpa, French horn, harmonica, etc. If I could afford it, I would have a little orchestra onstage, including a string section! I have a passionate interest in classical music so I have an orchestral feel for the song form. When I’m composing a song I picture the wash of colours in my mind and choose the right instrumental mix accordingly. It’s always been like that.

Interestingly, although I have made music all my life and written poetry all my life, I didn’t bring the two together until comparatively late. The poetry came first and then they started to become songs. I still principally write poems but many of them become songs too.

“Kenny Håkansson of Hellacopters used to tell me that one should always ask a real musician about his instrument and his relation to it, because it always provokes an interesting story. So now I do that: what guitar do you play and what does it mean to you?”

My main acoustic guitar is a Taylor 914. It is my lover and my best friend. Any woman in my life has to reckon with that. There will always be a rival! Many years ago, my first Taylor was a delicious cedar-topped 714 which I bought in the Netherlands. For some stupid reason I sold it after a few years just so I could have a change. Since that time I tried many other top brands but I always missed the unique sound and feel of a Taylor. It simply belongs in my hands. That’s the only way I can put it.

I write all my songs on the guitar and the Taylor is such an inspiration. I feel like a songwriter and true artist when I have it in my hands. I modified the electronics by putting in a B-Band Acoustic Soundboard Transducer for a wonderfully natural airy miced sound.

I also have a Gibson Songwriter Deluxe acoustic guitar which I use for alternative tunings onstage, a Taylor T5 electric guitar, a Godin 12-string acoustic and a Danelectro 12-string electric to bring other colours. But my Taylor acoustic will always be my top choice.

 

“Your album has been produced by Lasse Englund, and people like Ola Nyström from Weeping Willows and the skilled cellist Emili Jeremias have made guest appearances. How did you make these contacts within Swedish music”

In 2009 I went on a songwriters’ retreat in the UK, hosted by Donovan and Maria McKee. There I met three Swedish musicians and songwriters who became my friends. One of them, Maria Blom – who had a record label here in Stockholm – said she’d fallen in love with my music and she asked me to come here and make a CD. Then she introduced me to Lasse Englund. Maria McKee also said she thought I should find a place for my music in Sweden as she felt it would be appreciated here. That’s how it all started. One contact led to another and it seems that their intuition was right.

 

“Lastly, what are your plans for the nearest future and for your musical career as a whole? Will you go on working in the same genre and the same text themes? How do you feel that your music has developed and will develop in the future? What new collaborations have you planned? What are your hopes and ambitions”

That is certainly a set of leading questions! No doubt some things will stay the same and certain elements will change as time goes by – hopefully they will be improvements. I’ve found some very talented young musicians who I’m currently working with in Stockholm, which is so encouraging and inspiring. I like working with different forces for different kinds of songs. So I work solo, with trios and with a full band.  I have plans to make a new CD, on which I hope to include the more orchestral elements I spoke about above – for example, a string quartet in some songs as well as the usual forces. Although many of my songs fall within identifiable styles, I like to experiment. For example, I wrote a kind of rap song recently entitled “ToyBoy”. New genre: Folk-Rap!

One other thing I am working on at the moment is creating a book of 150 of my poems and lyrics coupled with some prose passages which examine, for example, the difference between prose, poetry and song. I’m hoping to complete that by the Summer. It will also have photographs as illustrations.

The bottom line is that I will just continue doing what I have always done: follow my heart. I believe there is a supernatural element to the creative process. I have no other way to explain the way that words and music come together. It is as if something outside of oneself has supplied the lubricant for that. If one is true to one’s art then the Muse continues to provide the oil. That is the least that I could ask for.

Above all, I want to continue to develop an audience of people who love poetry flying on musical wings. It is one thing to write songs; it is quite another for them to find a home in the hearts of others. Then the circle is complete. Then I will feel some satisfaction and fulfilment.

 

© 2011, Alan Morrison

To Ride my Songs is to Know my Heart

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ride_my_heart2

(Alan’s essay for the enclosure in the CD “Ride my Heart”)

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My Valentine’s Day Vow to the Muse

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Valentine Renewal Vow

Before the Muse and all who love her, I hereby solemnly declare that I will never compromise my art in any way:

* I will never write according to someone else’s “formula” or another’s “recipe” for what constitutes “a great song”

* I will never write solely in order to gain popularity

* I will only sing from my heart what my heart cannot keep to itself

* I will never set out to write a “hit”, knowing well that mostpeople apparently cannot distinguish a song from the heart from a turd in the street

* I will never shorten my songs so they conform to a “soundbite” mentality and become less than what I have to say. I will trust in the Muse and her lovers to show me how not to be unnecessarily verbose and how to avoid gratuitousness in song

* I will never follow the direction of the prevailing wind but will go where the Muse directs me

* I will forever believe in the unshaken, unquenchable, unmitigated, unadulterated, bubbled-up, volcanic cry from the individual heart as the essence of the song

* I will willingly learn from others but I will never be a clone or a protégé

* I will only listen to the advice of those who themselves have vowed before the Muse never to compromise their art and never to be blown by the winds of popularity

I swear all this before the Muse on Saint Valentine’s Day today. May she desert me forever if I compromise one iota.

The Gynecology of Songwriting

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People often ask me about my songwriting process. “What do you do?”, said one guy to me recently. “Do you sit down at your desk at 09:00 in front of a blank sheet of paper and wait for ideas to come, or do you just let inspiration happen whenever or wherever?” Someone else asked: “Does the tune come first or do you write the words and then put a song to it after?” The answer is that all these things are possible, depending on the song and situation. Let me explain…

There have been times when I’ve deliberately set out to write a song and got out a pen and paper to do so, not knowing what will come out. But that was when I’ve been given special exercises on songwriting retreats. (I recommend such retreats, for they are extremely stimulating to the creative process. I’m going to one in Gotland, Sweden shortly). Such exercises can be useful to kick-start your brain into a songwriting mode in an artificial situation but it isn’t the way that I would normally write songs.

Some ideas for songs come to me in an instant but they may have to germinate for months or even years in the darkness of my heart if they are not ripe enough to become a full-blown song at that stage. Other ideas will drive me crazy — plaguing me night and day with new elements until I have no choice but to bring it to a conclusion in a song. When that happens, I need to have my little mini digital recorder with me at all times or I can lose a lot of material. Many song ideas have disappeared into limbo because I failed to record my ideas on the fly. I might wake up in the night with what seems like an ace idea and then think “Okay, I’ll shelve that till the morning” — only to wake up horror-stricken to discover that my mind no longer contains a single scrap of it!

Whether or not the tune comes first or the lyric depends on the song. Sometimes I have a very strong tune which comes to me and I develop it into a verse/refrain/bridge structure; but I may not have any words for it at that stage. Then at some later date I’ll have words for it. I once had a tune which I assumed was always going to be a pleasant little instrumental for solo guitar — an interlude in a concert — then I suddenly found that the words which it had been waiting for came to life in my mind about a year later. This was the first time that had ever happened. That song was “Ride My Heart” – now the title song of my upcoming CD. “Snow Queen” also started life as a solo guitar instrumental but then it suddenly merited words about six months later.

I guess it’s true to say that most often I will write a poem to which I will appoint a tune afterwards. Sometimes it is the tune which comes first, as outlined above, but most often it will be the other way round. However, there have been a few where both the tune and the lyrics have come at exactly the same time, as if the song could have no other possible combination. “Just Like the Sea” – a song about making love hyper-passionately – was one of those songs (also on my upcoming CD).

Generally speaking, if the listener of the song says to himself or herself “These lyrics could have no other tune but this; they are the perfect match”, you will find that the tune and lyrics came at the same time. This is not to say that the other songs have a tune which doesn’t fit but simply that some marriages of melody and lyrics were plainly made in heaven!

Some songs virtually write themselves, so fertile are they. Others, however, have to struggle violently to bring themselves into existence! That doesn’t make them inferior. It just means that they had a difficult birth. Yes, songs are like children; and the method or length of gestation is different with all of them – just like children.

Finally, I’m often asked if my songs are autobiographical. Most of the love songs are autobiographical, pure and straight or served with multiple similes. Others – such as “6” – are wholly autobiographical, and some are just semi-autobiographical, a melange of ideas mixed with personal data. Some are just one big metaphor which may have autobiographical material wrapped up in them (e.g. “Colour of a Frown” & “Ride my Heart”). Some are about the experience of others with which I can identify or understand. “Full of Herself” is one such song. It was written about a lovely lady whom I once knew who carried immense guilt about something she had done to herself in the past which later prevented her from being able to love freely – especially in a physical sense. Her sadness overwhelmed me and it became my own and then it became my song. It is a true requiem.

However, whatever the song, I regard them all as really being poems set to music. As far as I am concerned, it is the words which count the most. The music is the vehicle by which the words can move themselves from one heart to another and the tune must certainly fit the context. The music is one big canvas-like onomatopoeia putting the words in a harmonic framework.

Singer-songwriters are artists whose palette is sound rather than paint. They are midwives to the unspoken word and unborn idea. That is a heavier weight of responsibility than many may realise.

 

© Alan Morrison, 2010