THE REALITY BEHIND GRAHAM PARKER’S NEW ALBUM, CLOUD SYMBOLS
In notes about his recent album, Cloud Symbols, Graham Parker explains the disc was spurred by a song request from writer/director Judd Apatow.
“I presumed that meant something previously recorded with a band but not released, so I said I didn’t.” Later, Parker wrote, “It occurred to me that of a bunch of tunes I’d been working on, one song, ‘Love Comes,’ might be of interest, and I thought it was finished enough to send him. I stuck the iPhone on the counter up against the kitchen tiles (which produced a nice kitchen tile slapback effect) and recorded it, voice and acoustic guitar only. Judd loved it and asked how I would record it. I bluffed some kind of vague answer then promptly forgot about it!
“A month or so later, Judd emailed me asking ‘Where’s my song?’ Oops, I better get busy quick.”
That was the inspiration for Cloud Symbols, Parker’s 24th studio album.
In its review of the album, PopMatters wrote, “… if Parker didn’t have such an interesting, soulful voice. Something is compelling about the way he sings that makes everything he croons sound important. Parker doesn’t offer pronouncements in the traditional way. It’s more like he’s that person at the bar who pays for your drinks without any expectation except you listen to his stories. And they’re good stories.”
Glide Magazine said, “… there’s an inspired spontaneity during tracks such as ‘Every Saturday Nite,’ while nothing extraneous appears within the arrangements, including the six on which the Rumour Brass appear. On the contrary, the naturally disciplined musicianship of the core ensemble, The Goldtops (including Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont), evinces an economy corresponding to the uniformity of the production.
As fully and completely as Cloud Symbols recalls the one-two punch of Graham Parker’s earliest albums, there’s no sense of the man struggling to recapture past glory.”
In a recent email exchange, Parker delved deeper into specific songs on Cloud Symbols and other topics related to the album, and his writing process. Parker claimed, “I put off writing songs for as long as possible, because it’s hard. Laziness, pure and simple,” but it’s apparent from his answers that he spends a lot of time on his songwriting.
LOVE COMES FIRST
GP: It was the forerunner to all the songs that followed and ended up on the album. I had some other complete tunes written before “Love Comes” that I put on the back burner because of that tune and the ones I wrote after it. I’ve no idea where the idea comes from, but I’d say it was more musical than lyrical. The second verse about “walking through the streets at midnight” reminded me of Patsy Cline singing “Walking After Midnight,” and that alone made me feel like I had a winner on my hands. I have to thank Judd here for unwittingly kicking my ass into getting on with it. Once that song was successful in its own right I became inspired and knew the kind of feel I wanted for an album. It helped me put songs that were never going to sync with “Love Comes” away and concentrate on a flow of music that was satisfying to me.
Once “Love Comes” was completed and sent to Judd, I got busy on writing fresh stuff to go with it, but there were definitely seeds growing in a small way, seeds of other songs that ended up being completed and recorded for Cloud Symbols. Is “The Sun Out Anywhere” was one such tune, a no brainer that fit beautifully with “Love Comes.” I think I had a good deal of that tune written at the same time as “Love Comes” and just had to finish it.
CLOUD SYMBOLS CUTS
GP: I regularly write some songs in a few different ways—certainly the case with “Ancient Past”—I might have a found a real hook to hang the record on regarding the concept of being fully aware of age and mortality. That song started out as something else altogether. It was called “South China Sea,” but it was similar in the chords and the groove to what the song finally became. It wasn’t hanging together for me in its first incarnation and I really didn’t know what I was getting at anyway, and I found myself using a bit of this overly wordy and fussy song and repurposing it into something much more simple and to the point. These things happen in mysterious ways!
“What Happens When Her Beauty Fades”
GP: I know I found that excellent circular chord sequence out of the blue and those words came right behind it totally naturally and all I had to do was employ something I call “theme association.” People have heard of “word association” but for me some songs write themselves because one line—in this case the song title itself—opens huge thematic possibilities, to point where I could have written twenty verses to this song and still found more. Just that title line opens up all kinds of angles on theme and wordplay and fun. Wisely, I didn’t write twenty verses.
GP: “Maida Hill” is devastating in as much as it entails personal isolation (Songwriting maybe? It’s a lonely game for sure.) But the fourth verse really nails something bigger. I got up the on the morning of Britain’s vile isolationism, otherwise known as Brexit, and was hit by an image in my head of thousands of violent stupid British working-class males, gathering on the shores of our “sceptered isle” shouting “Fuck off garlic eaters, we win!” And they were waving spears as well! It did my head in but made it into the song anyway and is perhaps the angriest political verse I’ve ever written, although not one critic will ever figure it out unless I point it out, because people think a political statement has to be in a loud song where someone is screaming it out at the top of their lungs.
I found myself at the point where it felt complete, and I played it a lot on my own before recording it, finding it deeply satisfying. The same goes for this whole album.
WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING SONGS, TO PARAPHRASE LITTLE RICHARD, THE BOY CAN’T HELP IT
GP: I’m always writing in my head, it’s like a machine I can’t turn off and that process means there’s a residual amount of ideas that get kicked up when I finally can’t stand having all those bits in my head anymore, Even while I’m trying to put off getting down to work I do pick up the guitar when an idea strikes and mess around with it briefly, and I’m also jotting down bits of lyrics. It’s just pushing myself to get down to the real work on these bits and pieces and all the effort that takes. As the old saying goes: ten percent inspiration ninety per cent perspiration.
What inspires a Graham Parker song? Might you be taking a walk in the woods or down the street and an idea, a lyric, a theme, hits you because of something you see?
GP: It could be anything but mostly it’s a partial chord sequence combined with a partial lyric idea that sets me off regardless of input from the outside world, apart from when I might be dealing with a specific subject, which is not that often. It can be a real mixed bag, very hard to pin down.
What comes first, music or lyrics? Or does it vary?
GP: Again, this is not set in concrete but when the real work kicks in, I’m writing lyrics with a guitar in my hands, playing as I’m scribbling lyrics. By the “real work” I mean I’m knuckling down to getting those bits of ideas and turning them into whole songs. Sometimes this will mean I’ll write a song in two or three quite different ways. These things rarely come out in one go to the point where I can call it a song, it requires many drafts and rewrites and a lot of doubt about the viability of everything I’m doing. In the midst of this, when I’m fully in what I call “the tunnel,” the state of mind where things are flowing and the outside world is muted to me, a whole song might pop out to my complete surprise, and it’s perfect!
I think I might have spent even more time writing my older songs. The Howlin’ Wind songs were in progress for a good three years before that record was made, and while writing the ones that made it to that album, it was becoming clearer to me that others were not good enough, so they would remain unfinished or merely forgotten. I was creating my own high standards as I went along with that early process.
Heat Treatment is a bit of an anomaly in as much as my manager said we should get a follow up to Howlin’ Wind out quickly. How I got those songs written and recorded in such a short time I’ll never know! It came out in the same year as Howlin’ Wind. I must have had some bits and pieces in the bag after that first album that had some promise and had no choice but to really get down to polishing them off and writing more in order to make a complete album. I think I saw it as a challenge.
The difference between then and now perhaps is that I was a young man in a hurry and I must have knuckled down to the work of finishing songs with much more gusto and urgency. I’ve made a lot of records, I don’t feel such urgency any more.
PARKER BRINGS BACK MARTIN BELMONT FOR HIS BAND
Guitarist Martin Belmont played in Parker’s first band, the Rumour, and on his first five albums and supporting tours. More recently, he played on two albums when Parker reformed the Rumour for two albums and tours. When it came time to find a band for Cloud Symbols, Parker turned to his old bandmate.
GP: Martin can do really subtle lead and chord parts and I didn’t have to think any further. The songs tell me what to do and which musicians to pick. Once Martin fully understood what I was after on “Love Comes” I knew as I was writing more songs that he was the man for all of them.
At Parker’s request, Belmont recruited other musicians to play on the album. The band was called The Goldtops, named after the studio where Cloud Symbols was recorded. Parker also brought back the Rumour Brass, who played on his early albums, and joined him for parts of the reunion tour.
GP: I think the song “Girl In Need” clinched the horns idea. Martin came up with this great figure right in the front of that song and I converted it into a horns line. Then I came up with the solo which is based on the main melody I sing. After that, I could hear horn lines in the other songs naturally.
This very lucky combination play like they’ve been doing my stuff forever, at the least the softer acoustic tunes. Simply put, they are very, very good at it.
In his album notes, Parker described the band this way: “Martin Belmont was the musical linchpin and his suggestion of the basic rhythm section, Simon Edwards on bass and Roy Dodds on drums, was perfect. Roy’s drum kit seems to grow out of my acoustic guitar, Simon’s bass is endlessly inventive and Martin’s guitar work is tone perfect within every song. And with Geraint Watkins on keyboards we have a delightful mix of quirkiness and sweet country/soul riffs caressing every track. What a unique musician he is.
“And in keeping with my current recording style that goes back to The Mona Lisa’s Sister, the vocals you hear are all live, played along with the acoustic guitar, not one single vocal drop-in took place.”
OLD FASHIONED MUSIC FOR NEW SONGS
GP: I suppose I’d call Cloud Symbols “Old Fashioned Music” if I had to put a name to it. It’s not “rock” per se, it has elements of jazz, maybe a bit of New Orleans is in there, too, not to mention a lot of swing, which fits with both styles of course. There’s that soft side of rockabilly, too, featured on “Nothin’ From You” and “Brushes.” Just old styles. I definitely wasn’t in the frame of mind to be loud and brash.
I deliberately avoided anything that was overtly angry, and I stayed away from guitar rock. I suppose it might be called Americana, and it’s based completely on my acoustic guitar.
SONG SEQUENCE MATTERS
Love Comes was the first song written for the album but it’s the last song. How much thought do you give to sequencing the songs on your albums?
GP: I give it a lot of thought. It should reflect on my feelings about the songs and normally I don’t want anyone else involved in that. It’s a musical and lyrical flow I’m after, but it isn’t exactly a science, far from it, it’s what feels good to me and seems to tell a story, or stories, and get it to where the blend feels right.
Even as I’m writing the songs I’m knocking a running order together, at least by the time I’ve got as few as five contenders.
The same holds true for Parker’s earlier albums except …
GP: I’ve got no memory of older album sequences other than I’ve carefully put the running order of many albums together. In the rear view mirror, it doesn’t matter much and a short time after an album is released I’ve already let it go. It’s for other people now. …
AND IN CONCLUSION
GP: I can honestly say that I like everything on this record, more than most, but I know all my records are good in some way or other and I’m proud of all of them, even the rather hit and miss ones. There’s no hit or miss going on with Cloud Symbols, not a step out of place. I can’t help being fond of “Ancient Past” and “Love Comes.” Perfectly executed, perfect performance, live takes, to say nothing of the songwriting quality.
GP: I’m just trying to do the best I can with the material available. By that I suppose I mean where I am in the “right now,” as it were. My past informs my present, no question, and I’ll never find enough words of gratitude at the privileged life I’ve led because of my lucky and random creativity and the people who get pleasure and all kinds of benefit from it.
Graham Parker’s Cloud Symbols can be purchased at his label, 100 % Records.