My new album Butterfly gets released next week. After months of writing a whole new batch of songs, recording the backing tracks, traveling to Prague to record the orchestra and then weeks of wrangling up to 120 different tracks per song into a stereo mix, it’s out. Of course, that doesn’t include all the work needed getting photographs taken and liaising with the designer Richie Crossley on the album cover. Then there was all the editing of the videos as well as redesigning my website.
People around the country rushing to get hold of their copy of Butterfly
Anyway, that’s all done, now comes the hard part, selling some copies. I do have a plan. One of the reasons we had to release the album this week is that we have organised a tour of 14 venues, initially across Wales, so that I can sing the new songs and hopefully sell a couple of CDs. That’s all very well and good but to put together a 2 hour show you need a lot of planning. Last year’s tour was a great learning curve. It was the first tour I had undertaken in about 5 years. It was also solo. In the past I’ve always had my band ‘The Jacks’ to rely on. This past tour was just me, a guitar and a piano.
Where do you start?
Firstly, I have to practice. Having written the songs and played the piano and guitar you might think that should be pretty natural. The thing is some of these songs I wrote the best part of 6 months ago. I only played them a couple of times when I wrote them, and I’ve maybe only sung the words half a dozen times when I recorded them in the studio.
This week I started a crash course in learning to play and sing my own songs. It will take some time. You have to get to the point where its in your muscle memory, the point where you can sing the next line automatically whilst also being able to scan the audience to make sure they aren’t getting bored or falling asleep whilst also looking at your set list and working out if the next song is appropriate given the audience reaction.
Talking about muscle memory before embarking on a tour you need to get fit. Firstly, you need to get your vocal cords match fit. It’s all very well being able to record a vocal in a 20 minute session. A concert means 2 hours’ worth of singing, as well as talking in between songs, as well as chatting to the audience after the gig. For that you need to get your voice in shape.
I remember when Mal Pope and The Jacks started our career doing the clubs in the late 90’s I thought I could busk it. We spent a week rehearsing a new set and I carelessly screamed my way through the sessions. I arrived at the Merthyr Labour Club for our first concert with no voice, and a full house. As I pushed myself to get through the gig I remember looking down at the keyboard and seeing spots of blood. After that I realised I needed to take the whole process a lot more seriously.
Victor Spinetti with John Lennon.
I was given a vocal warm up exercise by Victor Spinetti, the Welsh comic actor. He was in the Beatles film a ‘Hard Days Night’ and became very good friends with John Lennon. He told me that before going on stage Lennon would do 2 things. First off he’d be sick. Secondly, he would do a vocal warm up that sounded like a drill moving through gears. He started in the low register, ending up as high as possible before returning again to a low drill sound. This helped the blood and wind pass through the cords preparing them for a loud gig. I thought, well, if its good enough for John Lennon it’s good enough for me and I’ve done it ever since.
In my rehearsals I start with a vocal warm up and then sing for an hour every day, not pushing too hard but starting to increase the intensity through the rehearsal period.
Rehearsing for a previous event leading to wrist problems…
Then there’s the fingers. The guitar can be a problem if you don’t play often enough. It can hurt to play. The strings are steel, and my fingers are flesh. The steel wins for a while but in time and with enough practice the tips get hard and the pain goes away. I’ve tried everything to avoid having to go through the pain barrier. Alcohol on my fingertips, not down my throat, can help to toughen the skin. A layer or two of nail polish can help to create a protective barrier but in truth there’s nothing that compares to doing the time.
It’s not quite so painful playing the piano but both instruments need lots of rehearsal to encourage muscle memory, so you don’t have to think about the next chord. Again, you need to get to the point where you know the songs so well that you would be able to recite the alphabet backwards and still play the song without making a mistake.
Then there is general all round fitness. Traveling hours in the car, late nights, standing around for hours can all take it out of you physically. Before taking on any lengthy tour I try my best to get my body in shape. I have set myself the task of running 100 km before the start of the tour in at the Wyeside Arts Centre, Builth Wells on 28th March.
This week’s exercise program didn’t start well. I’ve been longing for a break in the weather after all that rain and Wednesday started with sunshine, so I got my kit on. As my knees need extra TLC these days I decided to go off the tarmac roads and run down a grassy bank towards the sea. The further down the bank I got the muddier it became. The trouble was I was going too fast to stop. I thought the only way out was to embrace the mud and the slope and run faster. I can only imagine that it must have looked like that scene from Bambi when he tried to skate on the ice. At least it was a soft landing in the mud as I skidded to a halt.
I wasn’t going to let a little fall stop me. It was surprisingly warm in the sunshine and the mud on my legs soon dried out. As I ran I got quite hot. I decided I probably wouldn’t see too many people on the prom I knew, so I stripped to the waist (top down) in the hope of getting some extra vitamin D.
It was then I took my next blow whilst encountering a complete lack of self-awareness from 3 MAMILs on bikes.
A MAMIL is a Middle Aged Man In Lycra. There are loads of them around and they are easy to spot. Their outfits are far too tight for good manners, they ride bikes which are far too expensive, and can usually be found in a gang. Let’s be honest, I knew exactly what I looked like, covered in mud with an exposed upper body which has probably seen better days. Somehow it still annoyed me when one of this group of pedal powered Hell’s Angels proceeded to point at me from beneath a helmet perched on top of his head which made him look like a boiled egg. From behind his reflective sunglasses, he laughed and yelled at his mates and at me.
‘Look at Him’. Really… mate you need to take a good long look at yourself!!!
When I got home I posted a picture of myself, covered in mud, on social media. People wanted to know if I was OK. Actually, I was a bit all shook up, its amazing that as you get older you don’t bounce quite so easily as you used to, and my back still feels a little odd. But in fact, the only damage had been done to my pride. Don’t worry its on the mend and I should be match fit by the end of the month and if you ever see me on a bike in Lycra…shoot me!