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The demo vault: Falter
Let's take a tour through old demos, tracing the journey of a song from inception to release.
Once or twice or maybe 437 times you may have heard me mention a tendency to re-write a song many times before settling on a final version.
But what happens to all the versions that get left behind? Some are lost on old phones, many just sit on my hard drive. But no more. It’s time to open up the demo vault.
Let’s trace the journey of a song together, from first idea to final release.
First up, Falter.
Falter started life one day while I was mucking around on a guitar and tried raking my fingers across all the strings in turn. It made a shiny noise. Buh-de-li-de-ling! “Ooh hello,” I thought.
Amateur philosopher that I was at the time, this early draft elucidated theories on the role of process and repetition. There’s no final destination, you’ve never arrived, it’s only the journey. Aren’t I clever?
Don’t laugh, but I remember I had a mission to make The Manual a record of ideas not emotions. That ‘idea’, which seems charmingly misguided and pretentious to me now, was that emotions are temporary and therefore somehow less interesting, less valuable. A good idea is timeless.
The guitar trick was a thrilling discovery, and I saw the song: sharp, cool, upbeat, smart, a little dancey.
Re-reading roles in the same play
Forever make the same mistakes
Note this is only one version from this time. I would have written at least 5 or 6 others.
Bonus fun fact: “Repeat I’m fine” was a secret message to myself. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.
2) An early Falter demo
Weeks go by. I play variations of the song live. But there’s a nagging feeling that I’m forcing a personality on it that doesn’t fit.
One day, I don’t remember why, I started playing it slowly, heavily. Instantly a huge wave of emotion came over me, an epic outpouring of melancholy I’d been locking up.
What is happening to all the emotions that aren’t allowed on this record? The truth - that I felt lost, in pain, afraid - broke through and the song finally connected. Not upbeat, cool and intelligent, but slow, sad, thick with grief. I wanted a word to hook the whole thing on, and along came Falter.
Like an early prototype
Maybe there could be titanic flaws in my design
You can hear my voice break apart on this one. I was feeling it hard. And listening to a lot of Radiohead. There might even be another take of me crying? I can’t find it now.
But don’t be doubting you’re the captain
When you’re standing at the wheel
The repeat idea wasn’t lost of course. You might recognise it as what became Strange Loop.
3) My final demo
Here I’m iterating the lyrics further and further, trying to find the deepest poetry I can whilst also sneaking in references to my beloved Columbo.
Often while writing I have a sense that there exists a perfect version of the song. It tends to sit there watching, judging, noting each fumbled attempt to find it with dismay. Waiting, hoping to be uncovered.
Whilst that can inspire me, or be a driver for creating a better song, it also means I’m usually holding a crappy approximation of something, a shadow of its potential. Often I chase and chase and chase trying to catch that perfect form, and only rarely seem to reach it.
Listening back now this version is definitely coming together. I particularly like:
But I heard if you’re feeling bad
It’s good to tell someone
So now I guess I’m telling you
And that solo chord progression with the clanging octave piano melody is real nice.
4) Calum’s pre-production demo
It’s usually worth nailing down a few basic things about a song before you start spending the big bucks in an expensive studio. What is its tempo and key? Do any bits need chopping or trimming? What is the basic shape, feel or structure? This stage is called pre-production.
After taking my demo to producer Calum MacColl, he and I put together this rough take. We’re making sure we’re on the same page. It’s a guide. A map.
And surely soon one part per million
Will find its way into a nose
The key change was a masterstroke of his. We’d recorded the song in two keys to test which was best for my vocal range. He cut from one to the other during the solo and I saw a fire being lit in his eyes. Most pop key changes go up to provide lift. His idea was to do the opposite. The step down feels like falling, like the floor has suddenly gone.
5) The final studio version
This is all about Calum meticulous, let’s-just-say-it God-level production. The subtle delay on the guitar, the carefully-chosen piano parts, synths, laggy beats, a thousand other tiny details, all constructed over many many patient hours.
Columbo didn’t make the cut, a reluctant casualty. But my perseverance was rewarded with one my favourite ever lyrics:
Just like a castle in the sand
I’m made in the shape of strength yet still I crumble
Kate St. John’s dizzyingly creative string arrangements capped everything off. They’re like a bird with a broken wing, swooping and diving with a sad, desperate beauty. All in all, I’m pretty proud of this one.
You might have noticed that the basic chords barely changed from the first version to the last. As is often the way with me it’s lyrics that take up most of the time. With mediocre ones come endless nagging frustration. With really good ones come great joy and, more than anything, relief.
Did I make good decisions? Did something get cut that should have stayed? Did you enjoy this dive into the vault?
Most importantly, which song would you like to explore through demos next?
Let me know in the comments.
PS. The tour’s going really really well. Thanks so much to everyone buying tickets.
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