The Lumineers – Cleopatra

The Lumineers – Cleopatra

For those who aren’t aware, Cleopatra is the 2nd album from the American folk rock band The Lumineers. Today I’m going to make my case for why this is the album we all need right now.

A bold statement, I realize, especially as not everyone is a fan of folk rock. However, even if it isn’t your sort of thing normally, I might recommend giving it a listen at the moment.

The majority of the songs deal with depressing topics via melancholic lyrics. The title track tells the story of a woman who feels she’s missed her chance at love and believes she’ll die alone, Sleep on the Floor deals with two people having to get out of town while they can as they’re decried as sinners, and Long Way from Home narrates the slow death of a man into his final moments.

These topics are covered, and emotionally rendered. The ideas are not dismissed, and the album has a melancholic air.

And, yet, while these issues are treated for the tragedies, etc. that they should be, the songs do not wallow in them. The album on the whole manages to leave the audience with an optimistic feeling. Some songs suggest that while this time is a bad one, it has a impermanence to it. The message is not “this is terrible and the end of everything” so much as “this is a transient situation, we must keep moving and push against that darkness, and in time this will pass.”

Sleep on the Floor might watch two people running from persecution, but it does so with the idea in mind that you can lie down and take it, or move on to something better:

If the sun don’t shine on me today

And if the subways flood and bridges break

Will you lay yourself down and dig your grave

Or will you rail against your dying day

The protagonist in Cleopatra might believe that she missed her chance, but she continues to press on with grim determination:

So I drive a taxi, and the traffic distracts me

From the strangers in my backseat, they remind me of you

But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life

And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time

This “pressing on” is underscored by the music, which is driven with a slight bounce to it that emphasizes the more positive notes that are hidden in the song.

And while Long Way from Home deals with death, it finds a silver-lining in that the death comes as a relief:

More morphine, the last words you moaned

At last I was sure

That you weren’t far away from home

Hardly joyous stuff, but it looks at finding in the darkness whatever light you can, and pushing against that darkness regardless of the struggle, which I think a lot of people might need right now. And I really enjoy the music.

I also want to put in a special mention for the beautiful videos for Cleopatra, which does a great job of depicting the song and doesn’t take time out of that for the band (which can work sometimes but sometimes is jarring), and Ophelia which has a delightful simplicity to it, and that I love for a reason I can’t quite explain.

Note: A lot of what I’m going to say in these monthly music posts is going to be my subjective opinion. If you disagree with me, I’m always happy to discuss music, either in the comments on WordPress, or on the Facebook post I put a link to this in.

A Brit in America #1 – Beer

Living Stateside, I’ve discovered that for many people I am the sole representative for all of Britain, and thus the target of any random questions they might have. Most often that is: “what’s the biggest cultural difference you’ve seen here?” I’ve never felt I had a single good answer to this question, so I thought I’d start chronicling some of the differences I’ve noticed here.

Perhaps owing to who I am as a person, the most obvious place to start seemed to be beer. This isn’t going to be a traditional rant against, or jokes at the expense of, American beer. There are plenty of beers made in America that I like, from Blue Moon, to craft beers, etc., etc. There are beers I wouldn’t touch, like Budweiser, but we have equivalents in the UK, like Carlsberg.

But American beer and British beer are fundamentally different creatures. Notably, American beer is always drunk cold, and the flavours, consistency, etc. are designed towards that. I once queried a friend about drinking cold mead, as I was used to it being a drink that was served warm, and their response was “it’s the south, we drink everything cold here.” Which, sitting in 95F (35C) heat, made a lot of sense.

The real problem in America is when they try to provide British beer. From what I can tell, they just fundamentally don’t understand the difference. There are a few different problems:

The first is one that can’t really be blamed on America: some beers don’t travel well. I had some Hobgoblin that I picked up as an import, and it just tasted off for some reason. (That being said, I actually had some good luck with a Samuel Smith sampler I had at Christmas).

Next is the serving method. English themed pubs are common here. Some do it better than others. I went to one establishment called Winston’s which had procured a Union Jack and a telephone booth, but the similarities to an English pub stopped there: the main beer on draft was Miller, and all the food was standard deep fried southern fare. Olde English Pub, in Albany, NY was a little more successful: the atmosphere was spot on, the music was good, they served one of the best attempts I’ve seen  at fish and chips, and they had a picture of Margret Thatcher over the urinal (not sure that’s relevant, but seemed worth mentioning for some reason). They had Old Speckled Hen on tap, a beer I’m a fan of, so I was pleasantly surprised. But they served it icy cold. Hen is an ale, and drinking it cold was just weird and wrong to me, no matter what the temperature outside: it affects the flavour a surprisingly large amount.

The worst problem I’ve encountered is when America tries to produce a British beer itself. The first time I drank Guinness Stateside was in Tennessee. I used to swear by it when I was in university, so I was excited to have it once more. The best way I’ve found to describe what I was served was that it must have been the product of someone who had only seen a pint of Guinness describing what Guinness was to someone who wasn’t much of a fan of beer. It looked the part, but that’s the extent of the similarities. The taste was entirely different. The issue I really take with it, is that it isn’t a bad beer (particularly as an American beer), but it’s a really bad Guinness. If you slapped a different label on it, I’d probably drink it quite happily. But as it is, I steer clear.

So summary: English beer—good, American beer—good, but let’s just stay in our lanes.

From the Archive #1 – Writing Process

Today sees my first Patreon short story distributed to the $10+/month backers! Between getting the story ready, working on the novel, picking up extra hours at one of my jobs, and being ill, I’ve not had much time this week to work on the a blog post. Consequently, I thought I’d look in the archive for this one.

Back in 2014, I wrote a couple of blog posts for a virtual tour organized by my then-publisher. Since parting ways with said publisher, I’ve lost track of where the posts were uploaded. However, I kept my own copies, and I thought I’d post them here. Below is the first of these posts, and below that is a note providing a couple of updates. 

Writing Process: The Physical and the Mental (November 2014)

Whenever people ask me about my writing process, I’m always intrigued as to whether they mean the physical process of sitting down to write, or the mental process of deciding which words to write. So I guess I’ll try and talk about both.

I’m one of those nocturnal authors. I’ve always found that my most productive hours are between about 11pm and 4am. Not sure why, they just are. Maybe it’s the silence and the lack of external distractions. Maybe it’s that I get appalled when people suggest waking up earlier than 9:30am. When I do sit down to write, it’s in a dark room, usually just one lamp, and with my laptop (my handwriting is awful, left hander’s curse, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to write an entire novel by hand and then type it up). I’ll settle down with a cup of coffee, a can of coke, and a glass of water (yes, all three at once, something nice about the temperature and flavor combination….and the caffeine high) and can sit there and just get involved in the writing.

People have often asked me whether I listen to music when I write. The answer is yes, music is an important part of my life, but when I’m writing I ban (give or take) anything with lyrics, and will sometimes have it so it’s barely audible. Any other time I love good quality vocals in my music, but they can be too distracting to the “writing process.” Its purpose becomes to provide a beat for the work, something to listen to in those moments when I need a short breather, and to block out some of the other, more disruptive noises—I used to live in the countryside surrounded by all manner of noisy night time creatures and farm animals, now I live three feet from the sidewalk in upstate New York and it’s a whole other type of night time creature. Some of my favourites to listen to are movie soundtracks (Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams tend to provide well there), Apocalyptica, the instrumental/orchestral versions of Kamelot and Nightwish, and a small instrumental rock group from Albany called Yoma.

As for the mental side of things, you’ll see articles about how meticulously J.K. Rowling planned her series (with accompanied photo of scrawled blue biro), or hear advice of how you have to have a clear plan written down. That’s not how I work. I plan massively. In fact I have plots already in place that aren’t likely to appear for another seven books or so. But I don’t write it all down in notebooks. It’s truly a mental process—if it’s good enough to put in a book, then I’ll remember it.

Most of what I write in any one session I’ll have outlined mentally beforehand, and maybe thought of a few key phrases while driving, walking, standing in the shower, anytime I’m doing something that requires only a small amount of thought. And from there, I let the narrative and the characters take it away and flow freely.

In all honesty, I do occasionally take a few brief notes to keep track of my various plot strands, but nowhere near what I’m aware that some people do. I find it too restrictive—one of the first novels I wrote I planned out scene-by-scene and the result held little feeling because it was just following a preordained plan. I have also looked back at the brief notes I’ve made after I’ve finished a section and seen something about where a plot is going, or what a character will do and thought “wow, I was really wrong, [that character] wouldn’t have done that…”

For me, the writing process is a source of great joy. It holds elements of quiet contemplation, or having a laugh with a group of your friends (even if these ones are imaginary). I can get very excited about what I’m doing, even if it’s 3 in the morning, dark, and everyone else is in bed.

 

2017 Updates:

It’s no longer true to say that I do most of my writing at night. While it remains my preferred time to write, work schedules have required that I be a little more flexible on the matter. I wonder what 2014 me would have said about me getting up at 7am for a work shift. My desk is always the home of my writing, but I’ve actually started getting some of my writing done now in the café at work before my shift (employee discount!)—sometimes I even write while it’s daylight outside!

I no longer live in New York, having moved to just a little way outside Atlanta back in August. It tends to be pretty quiet where I live, but I still listen to my music. The biggest concern I have when it comes to night time creatures is hitting a herd of deer on my way home.

Jack White

Jack White

I’m going to take today’s post as a chance to ramble about music. As the first goal ($10/month) was met on my Patreon, I’ll be buying some new writing-music every month, and in turn will likely post a blog about music once a month.

I was raised on a slightly odd medley of classical music, jazz, folk, and Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals. I was a late bloomer when it came to popular music, and it wasn’t until I was 16 that I bought the first albums I could call my own, one of which was Elephant by The White Stripes. Their heavy blues origin made the transition an obvious one, if only in retrospect.

Jack White has held a pretty permanent spot in my listening habits ever since, and I feel that he is to me what Bowie is to others (not that I’m not a Bowie fan, he was merely absent from my earlier musical education and I had to be introduced to him in my early 20s). As with Bowie, White does so many diverse things with his music that one song can sound like  a complete departure from the last, and yet if a song by him comes on I’ve never heard before, there’s something about it that marks it as his own.

This has only become more apparent since he started his solo career and developed more and more side projects. The White Stripes largely kept their songs simplistic; shorter songs, mostly under four minutes, picking a single theme and taking it for a walk. There was plenty of variation present (there’s a large distance between, for example, Fell in Love with a Girl and Ball and a Biscuit), but the two person band clearly put a few restrictions on his ideas. His solo music shows him stretching his musical muscles a little further, and being able to take advantage of a larger host of guest musicians. I saw him perform at Bonaroo 2014 and he had an entire stage full of musicians to support him, adding new depth and breadth to the sound of even old songs.

With his first solo album, Blunderbuss, he takes the departure slowly—Sixteen Saltines definitely sounds like a slightly more produced White Stripes song, but within that album we start to hear what can be done with White’s mind applied to a larger band in the form of deeper layering and a fuller sound in songs like Freedom at 21 or I’m Shakin’. By the second album, Lazaretto, we start to see songs like High Ball Stepper [Instrumental]That Black Bat Licorice, and Lazaretto appear, which don’t just take the idea for a walk, but chat with a few friends along the way. The new wider sound doesn’t stop him from providing more emotional songs such as Love Interruption, or traditional blues story songs like Three Women or Want and Able.

White’s side projects are a fascination in their own right. The Raconteurs are best known for Steady, As She Goes, which is a shame, as it could be dismissed as slightly rocked up White Stripes. Their other songs keep to the shorter format, but blend White and Brendan Benson’s styles with elements of rocks and late era Beatles. If you’re not familiar with their other work, give Hands and Yellow Sun a listen and tell me if you think I’m wrong. The band has a genuine sweetness, bitter on some tracks and less so on others, that isn’t apparent in quite the same way in The White Stripes or White’s solo work.

My most recent exploration of White’s work has been The Dead Weather. I knew I Can’t Hear You for some time, but I finally obtained the album Sea of Cowards and was able to listen to the full range of what that collaboration has wrought. The base sound is very different to anything I’ve heard from White before, but still holds that note that tells you it’s him. The most notable differences are the inclusion of more electronic sounds that White has tended to shun in the past, a more intense layering of sound, and the departure from picking a single theme, as The Dead Weather are more prone to pick up one theme and then weave in others. I Can’t Hear You may actually be the most traditionally White track on the album, distinct from Jawbreaker with its notable electronic sounds, I’m Mad with White’s forced “ha-ha”s raising the hairs on the back of your neck, Die by the Drop which seems to draw influences from Nine Inch Nails, or The Difference Between Us with its more intense build of layered instruments and White playing backing vocalist to Alison Mosshart.

There is a risk that I may revisit White here (if more briefly) in the not too distant future, as I have the double vinyl of his release of acoustic recordings from 1998-2016 waiting in the other room. I’m just waiting to have a couple of hours free to listen to it properly.

If you’re a fan of Jack White, I’d recommend giving a listen to Royal Blood. They have a similar sound and I mistook them at first, but it’s too early to tell whether they’re cut from the same cloth or just emulating. We might see great things in the future.

A friend once told me that he didn’t like Jack White because he was too popular, which seemed very strange to me. He may have a huge following, but he’s not forgotten his blues roots. Standing in a crowd of 100,000 people at Bonaroo, he still managed to make it feel like he was playing to 12 of us in a seedy bar somewhere in Michigan.

 

New Patreon Goal

I’ve just set a somewhat ambitious new goal on my Patreon.

As I’ve mentioned before, I currently work two part time jobs and must fit my writing in around those (and, you know, eating, sleeping, having some form of social interaction, and occasionally some personal hygiene). It had never really occurred to me that two part time jobs seem able to take up a lot more time than a single full time job.

Thus, the ambitious goal: if patrons pledge $800 a month, I will be able to leave one of my jobs, and devote that time instead to my writing career.

With the current reward tiers that I offer, that would mean having about 80 patrons, which seems like a Herculean task at this juncture. However, it is something to set my sights on. In the meantime, any shares of my Patreon with people you think might be interested in supporting an author, and receiving a monthly short story in return, would be much appreciated.

If anyone has any ideas or suggestions for higher reward tiers, I’d be happy to hear them (either in the comments here, or through a message/post on Patreon or Facebook).