Anatomy of an Album: the songs we were listening to while making the album Sketches.
I’m often asked which songs I was referencing or thinking of when I wrote my own. It seems most often I’m asked after a show, by someone for whom something in my own songs (for example, a melody, a phrase, a particular delivery) touched upon a synapse in the connective tissue of their own listening, their own frame of reference. (For example: at my last show, someone asked me which John Lennon song ‘Night With You’ ripped off. The answer: none, at least consciously – but then yr barking up the wrong tree).
Other people’s readings or assumptions about my work, whether spot-on or a million miles off, I usually find fascinating – and meanwhile, my own memory of the “real” story becomes cloudier over time. As I write this, it’s been four years since the release of Sketches, its process predating that by a couple more years; The Ray Mann Three and that album’s process are almost a decade old. So, as much as a “definitive” Q&A this aims to be for the more curious of you in my audience, it’s also for myself a reminder, in an attempt to avoid rewriting my own history and forgetting potentially valuable lessons for the future.
So: here’s a song-by-song exposé of songs I wrote and songs that informed them – what I was listening to at the songwriting stage, and/or reference tracks I provided to the musicians in my band, my wonderful mix engineer Shane Edwards, and the mastering engineers at 301 to help us all get on the same page, or to inspire us to find something together.
This is the worst example to start with: I wasn’t listening to anything in particular when writing or producing this one. It was the last song written for the album, and written to be the album opener (which, as you’ll discover over the course of these posts, is also completely unrepresentative of the Sketches process). I’d just landed in Berlin, and this song poured out of me – but even this statement belies the process of this song: musically, it was the longest gestation, bubbling away underneath as other songs either came to fruition or dropped off entirely. So when I say it just happened, it really didn’t – it “just happened” after over two years of musical exploration, personal upheaval, and long-fought-for, hard-earned clarity about just what it was Sketches was actually about. Musically, what ‘Move’ looked like at completion didn’t even resemble things at the start – it contains bones from skeletons of the bodies that rose and fell before it.
To give an example, ‘Move’ started out sounding more like this:
Mos Def, ‘Undeniable’ – Mos Def was my beacon during this phase of music-making: his eclecticism, approaches, themes, use of characters, and fearlessness (“Yeah I’m a rapper, and this is hip hop. But here’s a heavy metal track… and now here’s me singing without even a beat… and now here’s something else that might piss you off or not fit in yr narrow frame of what I’m supposed to be doing”). By the time I’d gotten to ‘Move’, I’d wrapped most of Sketches, and still felt like drawing on Mos more overtly. But ‘Move’ refused to sit still, as it were – and more influences came to the party…
Fleetwood Mac, ‘Everywhere’ – I don’t know if I’m actually giving anything away with this one. People surprise me with being able to pick the references I think are too buried to ever be sussed. To date, no-one’s called this one – but this was the final piece in the puzzle.
If my previous album, The Ray Mann Three, mostly referenced late ’90s neo soul & hip hop which itself referenced ’70s funk, then what could be the Ray Mann equivalent of the ’80s revival which by this time (2010) was in full swing in pop and rock music? Post-disco R&B.*
Michael Jackson, ‘Rock With You’ – If I at all fancied myself a dancer, my video for ‘Wannado’ would have totally ripped off MJ’s for this. The 110-115 bpm tempo was out of my comfort zone – which was of course the best reason to attempt to write a song in this feel. Add to that: underneath MJ’s voice and the wonderful strings, the driving force in this song, most audibly in the verses, are drums, bass and guitar – and these, at least, I could write for:
Boz Scaggs, ‘Lowdown’ – in my mind, this song and ‘Rock With You’ are joined at the drumming hip. I sat down with drummer Ross Ferraro to really work out what made these drum beats work, and, as with everything I learned working on my previous album, it’s the combination of a lot of counter-intuitive things that feel awkward to play, but sound deceptively easy.
Further twist: just as King Britt stole ‘Lowdown’ for his beautiful ‘The Reason’, we stole his trick of double-tracking and hard-panning the drums. Then we stripped it back further: the 16th hi-hats heard throughout this song and ‘Rock With You’ are kept out until the bridge in ‘Wannado’. What on earth gave me the idea or the confidence to believe such a thing would work? Well: a Stevie Wonder trick Ross showed me, and…
Aretha Franklin, ‘Hooked On Your Love’ – another variation on this particular groove. In my mind, as she sings this Aretha is twirling on a fog-machined disco dance floor, all dapper and crystal-coloured. To me, the sexiness of this iteration lies in just how feminine it sounds (even though it was written and produced by a man – Curtis Mayfield, who will come up again in this list).
And the twirling girl image stayed with me all the way…
* I understand that another musician’s answer might have been “… erm, Prince. Duh.” But Prince is his own genre; MJ is distinctive, but also far more universal and classic in his pop sensibilities. There’s more overlap between MJ and other music, and that overlap makes him easier to incorporate into a wider range of sounds. But once you go Prince, you’re all in. Besides, I’ve seen too many musicians try to “borrow” from Prince, and come out looking like cheap, watery rip-offs embarrassingly out of their depth. Prince is so much more than the sum of his parts; his x-factor is uniquely his, and without it you’re left with those mere parts, which are cheap and plastic by nature – so the closer one’s imitation gets to those parts, the cheaper one inevitably sounds. I had neither the confidence to believe I could fare any better, nor strong enough curiosity to at least find out.
Full disclosure: ‘Showya’ is my kicking-and-screaming response to pressure to write ‘Smile 2.0’ – an idea which I found boring, stupid, insulting and pointless, but my refusal to acquiesce would have been a deal-breaker for certain parties involved at the time. Longer story short: said parties are no longer involved, but the song remains.
The Tempations, ‘Just My Imagination’ – this song had already been with me for a while: lyrically and thematically, it influenced songs like ‘Gettin Thru’ on my previous album. But in between then and Sketches, I’d been introduced to doo-wop. I was really struck by the feel of those songs from the ’50s and ’60s, and even moreso by the way those feels developed as the surviving doo-wop groups progressed on into the ’70s. Plus: a song made of only two chords? Bring it on.
Aretha Franklin & Curtis Mayfield, ‘Something He Can Feel’ – I told you Curtis would come up again. Again, I hear the minimalism in this (even though, as I’ve written about previously, one of Curtis’ defining penchants is for deceptively-sparse-sounding arrangements that are actually jam-packed with instrumentation and movement).
My challenge to myself, or what I believed I could bring to this in order to not be completely redundant, was to strip back the sound even further: can I replace an entire string section with a single, strategically-placed glockenspiel note? Can I hint at the dreamy sway of an entire arrangement with just a lazily-fingered lead guitar that refuses to “hook”?
Who’s Loving You
The Four Tops, Live & In Concert – one of my all-time fave live albums. You really should listen to the whole thing. The energy is just… wuh. (Plus: it’s another example of the evolution of doo-wop acts into the ’70s that I mentioned previously). At a Roots concert, the band did one of their medleys where Black Thought sang (!) what I’m pretty sure was a Four Tops song. Probably not this one, but it’ll give you an idea of where my listening was at:
The Roots & Cody ChesnuTT, ‘The Seed 2.0’ – speaking of ze Roots: this was a staple of the early RM3 shows, so it was def in our DNA. And now, it was also the reference for both the musicians and the mix engineer. What I learned from covering this song so many times, is that the guitar playing is surprisingly sloppy and un-funky – you need a rhythm section that’s on it to make this song even work. The drums are relentless (and very noisy) – it’s really the strict-as-nails bass holding things together. For what I wanted to say with ‘Who’s Loving You’, I heard that snare as a boxing punch, and the hats as the fancy footwork in the ring. ‘Who’s Loving You’ is a fighting song, dammit – and ‘The Seed’ helped me find the sound of being up against the ropes.
Hold Onto Me
I’mma say it: with this song, I tried and dismally failed. Perhaps revealing the references will illuminate just how far from the goal I landed, and getting into this will do me few favours…
Mos Def, ‘Umi Says’ – dappled moonbeams, so dark and so relaxed at the same time. The less I say about this track the better – just listen:
Olive, ‘You’re Not Alone’ – if Mos provided the groove, Olive provided the emotion. I have no idea why this song floated into my head during the Sketches writing sessions (and there were a lot of moments when songs I’d forgotten about, I wasn’t listening to, and I didn’t even have in my music collection, somehow resurfaced in my psyche) but, operating from the place of base intuition as I was at the time, there was Olive in my head, and in the heart of ‘Hold Onto Me’:
The other side of the ‘Hold Onto Me’ coin: this one, I feel, is exactly the sum of its parts. I made what I set out to; people can most easily pick the listening that went into the writing of this song. So it’s almost redundant to go through this one, but in case yr curious…
Joe Cocker, ‘Woman To Woman’ – even more exciting for me than discovering this song so many years after hearing what 2pac & Dre took from it, was discovering what they left out: an entire groove without the “1”. Every phrase begins with an anticipated note – and not only does that not make it groove less, but through its relentless repetition it becomes the hook. My hack: where Joe’s anticipated note is lower, mine is higher.
Mos Def, ‘Bed Stuy Parade’ – if Al Green and D’ where the patron saints of my previous album, Mos Def was the umbrella over this one. I could write whole essays just on The New Danger and True Magic on their own before even beginning to touch on what they meant to me, or the many fires they lit under my approach to Sketches… in ‘Sometimes’, it’s the most superficial of things I took from Mos: sung-rap vocal delivery and claustrophobically naked lyricism (my most naked up to that point). I felt emboldened to do as Mos does by the way he carries himself while doing so. ‘Bed Stuy Parade’ isn’t the most influential or even most exciting track of his for me, but stylistically at least there are some deeper lessons that I took from this:
MF DOOM – I had the ‘Special Herbs’ box set on high rotation for a solid year: having friends over, doing my taxes, taking a tea break at my day job. I could just as easily talk about Dilla or Madlib in terms of the high drama of the samples over their beats – and while they were the contextual listening of my previous album, Sketches was set in the landscape of DOOM.
MF DOOM – I was hooked by the beats, but over time the tracks on ‘Special Herbs’ that most captured my imagination were the melodic ones. DOOM’s talent for discovering and selecting quirky samples and breaks that would otherwise slip through the cracks is matched only by his transformative power in what he then does with them. Could I reverse-engineer such a track? I wanted to make a track that MF DOOM would sample. I ended up with two.
Barry White & Love Unlimited Orchestra, ‘Love’s Theme’ – while we were tracking in the studio, the musicians on these tracks (bassist Adm Ventoura and drummer Ross Ferraro) referred to ‘Domino’ as “the Love Unlimited Orchestra one”. That’s one side effect of sampling music that samples other music: keep drilling down, and you’ll keep striking black gold.
Tom Waits, ‘Lie To Me’ – in a parallel dimension, I have his voice, and I made this music video.
Black Merda!, ‘Cynthy Ruth’ – during the decade-long absence of D’angelo from music and the rumours surrounding him and his follow-up to Voodoo, one story that caught my attention was an alleged actual quote from him about what he was listening to in the studio: a band called Black Merda! I was excited about the possibility of this new direction for D’, and encouraged by how well the sound of Black Merda! fit within my developing frame of reference (side note: that one reference created an anticipation in me that the whole of Black Messiah would sound more like ‘1,000 Deaths’ – and I was more than a little disappointed that it didn’t). Anyways: ‘Cynthy Ruth’ quickly rose to the top of my vibe aspiration list – and my songwriting inspiration playlist.
Bit of trivia: as a follow-up to The Ray Mann Three, I began writing a psychedelic rock EP, both to showcase what the live band shows with Byron and Grant had evolved into over the previous year of touring, and to take a left turn with the RM3 sound before beginning work on the second album proper. But Byron left the band for John Butler Trio, and the EP was never recorded. ‘Try’ is the only song from that collection to see the light of day.
Side note: for all the noodling that is such a part of the RM3 live show, ‘Try’ features the first proper guitar solo I ever committed to tape.
Jimi Hendrix, ‘Have You Ever Been To Electric Ladyland’ – the whole EP-that-never-happened would have been a total Band of Gypsies affair. After years of forcing my guys to play less, to strip back, to check their busy playing and their chops at the door, sharing this as a reference was quite a 180. I really had to reassure my players on the ‘Try’ session (drummer Grant Gerathy and bassist Joel Burton) that yes, it really was okay to be busy on this one, and that this track wouldn’t work if they “behaved” in the way I’d been so strict on all these years.
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, ‘Magnolia Mountain’ – I almost started an alt-country side project, inspired mostly by the Cold Roses album and in large part by its opening track. In many ways, it’s the opposite of what I try to do with the Three: you can’t sing these vocals with stylish understatement or sexy restraint, you have to let it all out and hang by the skin of yr vocal chords; the playing is big and dynamic, the guitars sound like guitars, not wannabe keyboards or percussive accents… and yet the Cardinals’ approach to playing and arrangement is the most miraculously organic version of what I attempt to contrive when I “design” the individual parts in a RM3 arrangement: the Cardinals, like the E Street Band, understand how what they do comes across on record, and play accordingly; each individual musician understands his place in the overall sound, and plays only as much as he needs to. There’s a lot happening, but it’s never crowded; the music is emotional, it swells and subsides, but no one player overreaches or crowds the plate… the effect is, to my ears, tingling.
Jeff Buckley, ‘Lover You Should Have Come Over’ – it’s not the epic vocals or the lovelorn whatever, so much as the feelings of sadness and desperation and ultimate helplessness. Could I talk about, even convey, such things without the high drama in the delivery? To get what I was going for, maybe it helps to hear what I was trying to avoid (because really, who can do it quite like this?):
Tame Impala, ‘It’s Not Meant To Be’ – this was an additional reference track for the mixing and mastering: how to sound vintage but with just a modern enough sheen.
So this one’s a mish-mash – bear with me. ‘Bleeding’ was the first song I demo’d at the start of the Sketches sessions. The response from the inner sanctum peeps who got to hear it? “Too different from what came before: work your way up to this.” Maybe I packed too many of the things I wanted to explore into the one song – so the rest of Sketches became about breaking these things down and exploring them in smaller parts.
Jonathan Boulet, ‘Ones Who Fly Twos Who Die’ – this album came out during the early, directionless songwriting sessions before anything called Sketches even began to take any kind of shape. My band had fallen apart, and here was another bedroom album by another Sydney artist who didn’t even try to hide that he was his own band: the layered voices and handclaps are all clearly his own, and so what if you can tell? He’s doubled (or quadrupled or quintupled) down on that.
David Bowie, ‘The Jean Genie’ – I wanted stomp-rock and I wanted raw hand-held percussion and don’t-give-a-fuck guitars and handclaps. I wanted to cross-pollinate these things with vocals that owed more to disco than anything bluesy, just to see how it would sound.
The Rolling Stones, ‘Bitch’ – Exile never grabbed me; I’m a Sticky Fingers man. ‘Bitch’ isn’t even my favourite track from the album (it’s ‘Moonlight Mile‘), and I wish I could say ‘Can You Hear Me Knocking’ or even ‘Brown Sugar’ were what I pulled from for this. But no: for whatever reason, ‘Bitch’ is the one that set up shop in my brain, that informed certain choices at the time…
The Beatles, ‘Taxman’ – I also wanted this tambourine sound so bad. I don’t think I nailed it in the end.
Donna Summer, ‘I Feel Love’ – yeah, yeah, yeah. You knew this. Those disco vocals I mentioned: when I first began vocalising ideas over the ‘Bleeding’ beat, I didn’t know who or what I was channelling. After I stepped back from it, I was kind of amazed – again, another song that I wasn’t listening to and wasn’t even in my collection; but more bafflingly, why was a gleeful, heady ballad my go-to in a divorce song? My rule during the Sketches sessions was: Don’t Ask, Just See It Through.
So Long Farewell
Neil Young, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ – ‘So Long…’ was originally written as an acoustic folk waltz. For some reason, in my mind the waltz is the form I associate with bittersweet sentiment. I found it easier to write the lyrics when I played the song to myself in 3/4, and imagined my acoustic guitar was accompanied by piano and maybe even a mandolin, before converting the vocal back into 4/4 for the final song.
Sarah Mclachlan, ‘Blackbird’ – despite my concerted efforts to listen to only acoustic folk waltzes while writing ‘So Long…’, this song kept popping into my head. In retrospect, I think it was the pure goodness in the beautiful, warm, nurturing, mothering tone of Sarah Maclachlan’s voice, and its transformative power over this Beatles cover. Qualities I certainly wanted in my performance on my track, if not in general…
Jimi Hendrix, ‘May This Be Love’ – this song was in every playlist and closed every DJ set of mine in the years between The Ray Mann Three and Sketches. Beyond how beautiful it is, is the sound of rock drums without a single hit of a switched-on snare. I put my waltz song through the Hendrix ballad filter typified by tracks like this:
Sketches: the album
I even had reference listening for putting this together as an album, because Sketches wasn’t intended to be released as an album. I wasn’t trying to write a cohesive set of songs, but instead to release a cross-media series of ideas (musical, visual, verbal, recorded, live, etc) – as opposed to The Ray Mann Three, which was so designed as an album that I had the tracklist worked out before we even began tracking… And yet, although I was all about this non-album approach from the very start, those aforementioned involved parties insisted on packaging the end result in an album format. So taking what I saw as being quite disparately different elements and jigsawing these parts into something resembling an album took, before anything else, further listening.
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs – from song to song, this album swings like a pendulum between slow and fast, acoustic and electronic, quiet and loud, reflective and aggressive. The connective tissue is both musical and thematic – to me, the flow of the album feels cinematic, like musical montage theory: by butting the songs right up against eachother, the album cuts or dissolves from scene to scene, with no fade-outs or intermissions, and the listener (like the film viewer) is inclined to create associations between images, sounds, ideas, even when they may not be there inherently. Other unifying devices, such as motifs, codas, late-stage optimism, and a waveform-like light-dark-light-dark alternation over the length of the album, all help bring a complex array of moving parts together into one sprawling epic.
Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream – making Sketches made me feel the way listening to this Pumpkins album did: oscillating between loud and quiet, not just from song to song but often within the songs themselves, it gave the feeling of really being plunged deep into the emotions of its creator / protagonist, and being swept away, thrown around, caught in the ebb and flow.
The Beatles (the White Album) – I didn’t make the connection at the time, and only years later did a friend describe Sketches as my White Album, but I was listening to this a lot back then. The songs, which are all over the place stylistically, are butted up against eachother and forced into an album-like shape. For a short time my neighbour was the late great Jackie Orszaczky, who once pointed out to my CD-owning ass that back when it was released, the real shock was putting on side 3 and being blasted out yr seat by opener ‘Helter Skelter’, for which no-one was prepared, and which resembled nothing the band had done before that point.
More listening on the Music Page.