Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Music Miscellanea

Blue Lily Commission review

Lovely review here for my new Blue Lily Commission album Shall We Go For A Walk? , from Jeff Fitzgerald of the online magazine ‘Psychedelic Waves.’

(Four Journeys here / The Undrugged Orchestra here.)

Special thanks to Jeff for his thoughts.

shall we

Carolyn Hillyer & Nigel Shaw

I first saw Nigel Shaw playing live in 1994. My then wife had been told by a colleague that he was playing a gig in Bedfordshire, quite close to where we lived and worked, so we went to see him. He played solo: synthesizer and Native American flute. I was captivated by that flute, which must have been one of the earliest ones that he played. After the gig I chatted to him about it. He was friendly and approachable – a lovely chap.

I liked the music on CD, but it was only after we moved to Devon a few years later that I really got into his music, and that of his equally extraordinary partner Carolyn Hillyer. We used to see them at local gigs in Devon and Cornwall, and soon his influence affected my own music – I bought a Native American flute from him, not one of his own, but one made by Guillermo Martinez, a Californian he worked with. It’s a gorgeous instrument, that I still play. I got to speak with them quite a few times, which was always a happy, positive experience. Nigel is open and friendly, with a charming manner; he has the same obsession with and love of musical instruments that I have. Carolyn is I think more serious, perhaps more intense, and she has a distinct ‘mystical’ quality about her. I remember watching her preparing for at a gig by the River Wye a few years back; she seemed to be staring into some other world.

Over the years I realised just what special talents these two were. Nigel had begun in New Age circles, but he was by far and away the best musician in that genre, and really not part of it at all, except perhaps in the early days. Dartmoor, the land, and tribal societies were strong influences on them both, which gave their music a deep foundation.

Over the last twenty-five years their music has diversified, progressed and deepened. Some of the music is like Nigel’s early stuff – haunting flutes, synth washes and other light instrumentation. Meanwhile, Carolyn has produced an amazing series of tribal and song-based albums, a really extraordinary part-improvised album using just her voice, and there is a strand too of what they call ancient folk, which are my favourite works.

Their music I find deeply soothing, not just because of the quiet, ambient quality of much of it, but because of that foundation in land, seasons, weather, nature. It anchors me. Nigel’s Dartmoor trilogy is particularly strong here, but so are other favourites – the icy/upbeat Ancestors, and the beautiful Nocturnes. Each album has its joys and delights. When, a decade or so ago, my personal life was a wreck I listened to their music for weeks – it helped get me through. I bought all the CDs I didn’t have from Shrewsbury’s alternative shop.

Nigel and Carolyn both make their own instruments, for themselves and their music, and for others; they run instrument-making courses too. They have played with many musicians from across the globe. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to receive one of Carolyn’s shamanic drums, made with her own fair hands from sustainably sourced deer hide. It’s a lovely thing, and records beautifully. Hopefully I’ll have one of Nigel’s flutes in due course.

Even though they make a living from their music and all their other activities, and are well known, I’m still amazed at the lack of public recognition. Why isn’t some production company making a documentary about them and their lives? They’re well known in Devon of course, and in alternative/underground circles, but I’d love to see some sort of national recognition – a film would be perfect.

Where to begin if you don’t know their music? Songs Of The Forgotten People will always be a favourite of mine – truly an inspirational album – but also Ancestors, Weaving The Land and Riven. Carolyn’s Ice is a favourite, as are Nigel’s Nocturnes and Dartmoor Journey.

You can find them at Seventh Wave Music. Happy listening!

c & n

Fear Of Melody

About fifteen years ago I began thinking about melody. I’m not sure what the motivation was for this; perhaps a personal need to go back in pop history when songs seemed more tuneful. At the time, my band was going, so it seemed natural for me to understand melody by trying to write it. And, of course, that wasn’t easy. In the end I found that what worked for me was what I called the Neil Young Method. Young basically goes with what comes to him first thing in the morning, when his subconscious dreaming mind is close to his conscious mind. In such a way he wrote gorgeous songs with amazing melodies like After The Gold Rush, Only Love Can Break Your Heart and Heart Of Gold.

Whether I found myself able to write a unique melody is a question best left to those who remember the band and bought the albums. What I can say is that using Young’s method I found many melodies that seemed fresh and original to me, and after a while I had more than I needed.

One of the themes of The Autist is the loss of melody from music being symptomatic of some deeper malaise. It has struck me during the last couple of decades that more popular music now than that of, say, the 1960s or 1970s, is lacking those wonderful, sometimes extraordinary melodies: I’m thinking of Paul McCartney’s classics, many Motown classics, The Byrds, the Beach Boys, John Phillips’ songs, Paul Simon, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, and so on. Did something happen around the turn of the millennium that sucked some of the melody out of popular music in the West?

It seems to me that such a thing might have happened. As a practicing musician I used to wonder if it was something to do with the increasing use of computers in the recording studio. Using software rather than analogue tape can channel musicians in a certain direction: loop-based music using samples for instance. Some groups – FSOL stand out here – can use loops and samples in an original way, but for me something is lost around this particular time. But perhaps there is more to it than computer software.

What, then, is melody? Melody for me is a direct connection to the emotional heart of human existence. With melody, feelings can be evoked without the need for words – you only have to think of instrumental themes like Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1, or many themes from famous films, like Francis Lai’s unforgettable theme from Love Story. Melody is our path into feeling, emotion and mood – think of the theme from The Snowman…

So I can’t help wondering if the loss of melody from popular music is diagnostic of a deeper problem. We live in a world where computers are the environment, not just some handy thing in the environment. Our world has become one of calculation, algorithm, statistics. The analogue age is over: this is the digital age. Could it be that the loss of melody in popular music is a symptom of emotion, and therefore of human values, receding from our world? Could the reported increase in ennui, in numbness, in the Western world also be symptomatic of such a lack?

This was the thesis I had Mary Vine put forward in The Autist. Mary has been working on a case involving Tarrington Smith, a brilliant melodist – “… a Mozart, a McCartney…” – murdered in mysterious circumstances. The case leads her thinking in a certain direction. I wonder if she was on to something when she spoke about the loss of melody from the world? Because, if so, that’s scary.

The Autist front cover

Kate Bush On Creativity

I spotted a few interesting quotes over the weekend while reading an interview given by Kate Bush for Mojo music magazine. I’ve been a fan of hers since hearing ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and have followed her fascinating and wonderful career since then.

In the interview she gave some insight into her take on creativity.

“I don’t like working in commercial studios… I don’t like the dissipation of the focus. ‘Cos you might be in the middle of doing a vocal and you look through to the control room and you’ll see somebody walking in looking for a pair of headphones or something. I think it’s very important to get the creative focus and it’s very easily distracted. The creative process is, I think, very much about trying to keep this focus throughout all these things that are trying to destroy it.

“It [her personal studio] is a quiet space that you create from. I think of it quite often as being similar to people who write books and stuff. It’s disciplined, and quite often they do it in the shed in the garden, because they need that quiet space.”

It’s fascinating to read about her stress on focus and discipline. Being an author – for all the wonderful perks – is extremely hard work. But you have to be focused and disciplined the whole time, not just to write a novel but to be an author over a period of years. I talk a lot about how I write a new novel intensively during a comparatively short period of time (see Tony Ballantyne interview), but it’s not just that, it’s the whole long-term slog that new writers so often struggle with.

Focus, imagination, discipline, extremely hard work – the stuff authors are made from.

mojo kate bush

James Everington’s Music For Writers

This week quality genre author James Everington has chosen my music for his “Music For Writers” section on his blog.


My music, part 8

I began this week’s musical wander by saying: I rarely talk in author or SF circles about the music which I write and record, because generally speaking I’ve had a bit of a negative response to this aspect of my creative life, in those places anyway. Some people are interested and supportive, but at least as many are the opposite.

I’m sorry to say that some people in the creative world suffer from envy. When I was a newbie writer I suffered from envy a bit myself, until I realised it was a waste of time to compare myself with others on the basis of what in the end is more luck than anything else. I’m quite tempted now to try again with mentioning, and even promoting my music: maybe link to a few pieces and try and sell some CDs to literary friends – Facebook and real world. Envy is about feeling you have nothing within yourself and not wanting to see it in (successful) others. Envy is difficult to admit to, and most people use the inaccurate word jealousy when they describe it. But there’s a lot of it about.

Anyway, I’m no proper musician. I’m completely self-taught and do everything by intuition. I’m not a natural live performer either. An ex-girlfriend gave the best description of what I do when she called me a music builder. Although the instruments I play are about letting what’s inside of me out, my real home is the music studio. There, the balance of musical building and expression is just about perfect.

Here then is my final choice of favourite pieces: Culture 2 from the Blue Lily Commission album of the same name. This track was a bit of a renaissance for me, as BLC had been dormant for a few years when I recorded it. All the keyboards and synthesizers are played live on this one, not programmed, so the piece has a lovely relaxed vibe to it.

Steve live 2

My music, part 7

Some of the music I make is uptempo, it’s not all ambient or deeply meaningful!

One of the joys of working with the Logic recording studio system is that Logic comes with lots of software synthesizers, that you can programme easily, then alter in real time to give your music flow and progression. I use many of these software synths on my more electronic or synth-based music.

One of the pieces that worked particularly well was Luftgesang (Song Of The Air), written and recorded in 2009. I was at the time going through an unbelievably stressful personal situation, and I realised soon after the piece was finished that it expressed everything I wanted at the time – freedom, peace and quiet, a chance to fly away from house and home. Music saved me during this period. It gave me something to think about and do outside all the other stuff, and, because it’s music, it was a way to express what was going on inside me. Later I recorded a companion album, Wassergesang (Song Of The Water) using similar techniques.


My music, part 6

More about my non-literary creativity…

The other thing about living in and with nature is feeling the turning of the seasons. As with most people sensitive to the natural world, that cycle of change means a lot. The neo-pagan movement has done much to promote the stations of the sun, and there’s a lot to be said for using it as our annual calendar rather than the imposed, Christian, historical one, which only means anything if you believe that stuff. The eightfold wheel of the year is one way of connecting – or reconnecting – with the land, something we desperately need in the Western world.

I particularly like this wheel metaphor. The two solstices, the two equinoxes, and the four Celtic cross-festivals add up to a constant, ever-changing, ever-renewed calendar for people who love the land. Yule, Imbolc, the vernal equinox, Beltane, the summer solstice, Lughnasadh, the autumnal equinox and Samhain… all deeply evocative.

I have done a lot of music based around this neo-pagan calendar. With my band Mooch we did The Pagan Year, and a couple of years ago The Pagan Year Rewilded, between which I worked with Beck Sian and Shelagh Teahan on Stations Of The Sun. In my solo work I’ve done A Seasonal Round and other pieces.

This piece was one I did a few years ago to celebrate the winter solstice. I don’t own the guitar I used to play this (for the slide sound and the backing chords) but I could definitely see myself making more such pieces…


My music, part 5

Continuing the non-literary ramble…

Much of my music has land, weather or seasonal themes. A while back I wanted to record an album using a digital string orchestra (a real string orchestra being well beyond my budget!). The theme was to be primal, elemental: ocean, forest, mountain, water. I wanted to make some films to go with the pieces, so I spent many happy days filming the sea, rivers, mountains and anything else that looked suitable in various parts of Wales.

My idea was to have one strong melodic theme anchoring the four ten-minutes pieces, with each piece having a second theme, which would counterpoint the first, and develop alongside it. Lacking any formal compositional training I just did was seemed natural and right, and, by and large, it worked, or so I was told. And Landscape is one of very few of my own albums that I’ll go back to listen to.

Here is the first movement: Sea.

Here is the third movement: Water. This section was often remarked upon as a favourite by those who heard the whole thing.


My music, part 4

Without doubt the best singer I’ve worked with so far is the gifted Beck Sian, aka Rebecca Sian Robson. Beck and I met through a local mutual acquaintance, Chris Gill, who I mentioned in part 2 of this music trek. In fact Chris himself met Beck through sheer coincidence at a petrol station in Wales, so this whole strand of my musical life depends on nothing more than random chance – often the way.

Beck and Chris had previously recorded her second album, but Beck wanted something different for her third, Ye Olde Silent Inn. I don’t sing, but I did write songs for my band Mooch, so we struck a deal. I would record her album at my studio, the Studio-by-the-Stream, and she would sing most of the songs on the Mooch album Stations Of The Sun. This was back in 2012 – 2013, and it was a wonderful experience. We had much fun, learned a lot, and made some great music.

Ye Olde Silent Inn encapsulates Beck very well, I think. She wanted to immerse herself into the land and the culture around her, for although a native of Australia she was sensitive to the British landscape. She played gigs locally and looked for other local support or lead opportunities – she would have enjoyed the marvellous and Beck-like Rheingans Sisters, playing locally. So Beck was both an enabler and a massive talent, enjoying what her region had to offer – local gigs, local venues where she herself might play, and the land itself – but adding to it in her unique way. Yet although she did love the Welsh Marches, for this album her heart was set on the Yorkshire moors, an area to which she relocated a few years later.

Working with Beck remains a standout time in my musical life.