When Good Day Mr. Magpie was released in early 2013, I got some nice reviews on fanzines and blogs and I was quite proud of what I’d done. I was fortunate to have the ear of Al Mobbs, who is Chairman of the Association of Independent Music. I asked him what he thought of the album and I seem to remember he said it was OK. I pressed him for constructive criticism.
The issue for him was this: the songs were not consistently good enough. He asked me how many songs I wrote and demoed before starting to record Good Day Mr. Magpie. My answer was around 15, most of which made it onto the album. He said most successful artists write many times more songs than they actually record. They use all sorts of writing techniques, alternate tunings and different instruments, to avoid sounding predictable. And they listen to a lot of new music.
I followed his advice to the letter. This was about seven years ago. During that time I wrote scores of songs of various stages of completeness in various tunings on various instruments. I demoed them on the boat, on an Olympus LS-100 multitrack dictaphone – the perfect gadget for off grid home recording. I listened to them on the train and on my bike. I played them at open mics and other gigs. I listened to the crowd. I listened to BBC 6 Music daily and went to loads of gigs.
I also cast the net wider, firstly by involving others in the songwriting process – Robin Christensen Marriott, Martin Beek, my dad (Jon Avison, aka The Moonbeams) and old bandmates Thom Paisley and Paddy Steel.
I went back to Cambridgeshire for an illuminating masterclass in songwriting with the inspirational Boo Hewerdine, who I admire greatly and for whose unforgettable “brain dump” I am immensely grateful.
From 50 or so sketches of songs, I settled on a shortlist of around 20 or so that seemed to work best. I shared rough demos of these with about 10 musicians, friends and family members – a sort of “focus group” – who kindly took the time to listen to the songs and give their opinions. I set out this feedback in a ranking, trying to work out which songs were most worthy of being recorded properly in a studio.
Of course, there was a lot of convergence of opinion. And there are many people who say that an artist should only do what they want and not play to the gallery or let themselves be edited. Was I succumbing to the artistic equivalent of populism, of mob rule – or should that be Mobbs rules? Ultimately my aim was to make music that might resonate with as many people as possible. For the many, not the few!
My pool of songs reflected my diverse musical interests – folk, rock, jazz, blues, classical. Patrick Steel was instrumental in highlighting that I needed to select ones that were related to each another in style, with the odd surprise thrown in.
By 2016 I’d got together enough songs that enough people liked and that would sit together well. All I needed was a producer who could help bring out the spirit of the songs and make it all work as a continuous sonic journey.