A hard day’s recording a collaboration between the Dowsing Sound Collective and Basement Jaxx – in fancy dress
So I went as ‘The Count’ from Sesame Street – with a vampire’s cowl covered in numbers, and Puffles went as a bat – spider-covered wings and bow tie included. (Paul Little did the face painting)
Monster #sleepfail didn’t help my mood first thing in the morning. Given our numbers – there were about 100 of us in fancy dress – I didn’t need to be anxious about it. But mind and body when you have an anxiety disorder mean that ‘telling your brain’ not to worry about stuff doesn’t have the desired effect.
Trying to remember the words – and what goes where
The last time I sang for public performance – whether as part of a chorus or solo was in…1996. And that was at sixth form college. So coming up to two decades since. The past four weeks or so that I’ve been part of Dowsing have given my vocal chords the sort of workout they’ve not had since childhood. What made things more complicated for me was that I had very little melody. Much of what I was singing as one of three or four tenor parts was harmony or the bumping underbelly, because our recording was completely acapella. But when our version is released, have a listen out for some thumping beat-boxing by @Skilly_Skillz.
Pop melodies are relatively straight forward to learn. Harmonies – especially when you’ve only got a sample to work from – are a damn sight harder. Even more so when it’s a song that’s not just unfamiliar, it’s not been released. Part of the challenge I found was trying to pick up where our musical genius Andrea Cockerton (who runs and directs us) had extracted which instruments to form our bit of the tenor section. A mixture of bass keyboard, steel pan and trumpet as it turned out.
‘Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sun…shine in…! (Have a sing to this)’
Because let’s face it, it was a lovely sunny day for a weekend in late March. So we flung open the doors for the warm-up and final rehearsals. For those of you that have not seen the debating chamber in the Cambridge Union, the north facing bit has high windows that beamed sky blue loveliness as a cool breeze wafted through the doors on the other side to keep us tenors at the back relatively cool in our fancy dress outfits. Given that I was effectively in black tie with a polyester cloak avec dragon fairy, this was very welcome. It also did wonders for our breathing and vocal chords too – because the Cambridge Union building can be a little stuffy.
Classworks costumes shows its class
In 2013 me and Puffles did a photo-shoot for Classworks in one of their medieval princess outfits, having found out about it through a local Meetup group. Sue, the lady that runs it is a vaguely familiar face from my childhood – one of her daughters being in my class at primary school many moons ago. Classworks provide many costumes for local drama & theatre groups as well as schools & colleges in Cambridge. A shame they had to move from their local premises because they are in the process of being turned into rabbit-hutch ‘studios’ for the London commuter market. Fortunately that didn’t stop lots of people rocking up to their new premises for some sumptuous outfits. (Puffles will tweet the links when the photos are on Dowsing’s website).
Getting the timing right
Not easy when you have a hundred people wearing unfamiliar outfits. Not easy with a hundred people generally. That was probably the toughest part of the gig – trying to keep in time without allowing the tempo to run away with itself. When you hear the track itself, you’ll hear why. It’s got a thumping beat. Yet without percussion support, it’s very difficult to keep time. That’s one of the things that makes acapella singing so challenging: who is the person that ‘leads’?
For the audio recordings, I had my eyes fixed on Andrea conducting us. The thing is, she was dressed as one of my childhood musical favourites: Adam Ant. In particular I ***loved*** this track:
“Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?
Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?
Subtle innuendos follow
There must be something inside”
– Something about the media perhaps?
My oversensitivity in the early takes meant that I sort of lost confidence when it became clear we were struggling with the timing. But a number of early singing drills seemed to overcome the major obstacles and it was ‘Happy Andrea’ in the final audio take. After which I breathed a big sigh of relief. The reason being that when I produced by social media digital video guides, the piece of feedback I got (which also chimed with the basic training I had in 2011) was that audio mattered more than the visuals. If you screw up the audio, it doesn’t matter how good your visuals are.
Coffee break – and scaring the tourists
Several of us went out to get coffees from across the road before we recorded the visuals. So at around 4pm that Saturday afternoon, there was a vicious vampire dragon fairy outside the round church with a vampire handler that likes to count…Along with a couple of tudor princesses, a sailor, a pre-revolutionary aristocrat and Sgt Pepper enjoying the fresh air and the curious looks of tourists from all over the world. Yeah – this is normal for Cambridge. Didn’t stop them from taking photographs though. But that was part of the fun! Afterall, when you’ve been wearing face paints for several hours, you forget you’re wearing them.
Basement Jaxx producers in the background
Just as when BBC Question Time came to Cambridge (see here), one of the signs of talented technicians from a performance perspective is that you hardly know they are there, but still produce excellent output. (“Yeah – it better be good!”) This was the case here. I hardly noticed the production and technical crew, even though I knew they were there or spotted the odd camera or microphone here and there.
Recording the visuals – which was effectively another audio take but with @Skilly_Skillz on a mic helping us keep to time & with the focus on enjoyment and movement – was a much more relaxed affair. Hence I’m sure I was singing it back to Puffles half the time. One other thing to add is that the changing of volume in all of our parts meant that you could vary the emotions you were communicating. By no means was it a TV talent-show blast-it-out and hit the audience with 100% number. The variety of volume was actually written into the piece by Andrea’s arrangement – something that I didn’t pick up in the original Basement Jaxx sample bar a short chilled-out segment in the middle.
The genius behind the collaboration
There are a number of other people and groups that are making different versions of ‘Power to the people’. There’s also something counter-corporate-culture with it too. For decades, the recording industry has been fighting losing battles over copyright. Whether it was ‘home taping’ in the 1980s to Napster case of the early 2000s. And it’s been a losing battle. Just look at what has happened to the number of record shops across the country over the past couple of decades.
At the same time, very talented producers making use of much more affordable kit are now producing their own versions of different songs, mixing and mashing them up. Yet this sort of creativity has often been/still is in conflict with various laws around copyright. Digital media law is still an area that is evolving and desperately trying to catch up with the pace that technology is moving in.
Far better then (from a well-known artists perspective) to give the basics of a track, offer to collaborate with very talented less-well-known people, give them the benefit of your production support and see what happens. That way, you come up with a greater range of more innovative work, where those taking part take pride and ‘ownership of the project’ – which at the same time also does its own viral marketing through social media. At the same time, it has far greater potential to reach new audiences than traditional mass broadcast-style marketing approaches.
“So…when do we get to hear the results?”
In a few weeks time so I’ve been told. Basement Jaxx’s Facebook Page indicates the new album by May 2014.
Watch this – or rather their space. In the meantime, ***thank you and well done*** to everyone there for their stupendously hard work.