Archives for category: Inspirational

24adTP - modern family 2The Last Advent Panda

24th Dec 2015: Modern Families

Well we made it Panda followers! It’s Christmas Eve and the big day is just round the corner.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed my Advent ramblings with my mixture of reminiscing, ranting and hopefully, some uplifting moments have helped you on your pre-Christmas journey.

This blog post isn’t funny, ferocious or farcical and sits firmly in the sincere category.

We now live in a different and diverse world where families are not what they used to be. Children often have just one parent or perhaps up to four! Men are married to men, women are married to women and friends are sometimes closer to us to than family.

It does not matter who you love, how you love, what your faith is or even whether you have one. The coming days present an annual opportunity not to be missed.

Christmas by its very name may have originated in christianity, but it need not stay limited to those bounds. Whoever you are, whatever you believe in, use this holiday season as an opportunity to connect or re-connect with those you love – family and friends.

Make memories that will last, recount people and places of the past – life is fleeting and moves so fast. Press the pause button and take a little time to enjoy it.

The Panda will return in 2016, but until then, I wish you, your families and friends, the very best that the festive season has to offer, together with a peaceful and hopeful new year.

Advent TP signing out.

 

TP26 GuitarIt’s been a few weeks since the release of Conrad De Souza’s latest single ‘In Two Minds’ and Tarantino Panda catches up with him again to discuss Songwriting and how this seemingly magical art form actually happens.

So how do you write a song?

“It’s that question again!” says Conrad. “I’ve been asked it for so long and I still don’t think I have a definitive answer. Songs come from ideas and in my opinion that’s often where the magical element lies. The idea can be a tune, some lyrics, a title or just a vague concept. It can come to you at any time – at work, on a train, in a dream or occasionally, conveniently, when you are actually sitting with your musical instrument of choice. When that spark comes to you, there are two schools of thought on what you should do about it. Some would say that you should capture it there and then – in a notebook or as a recording, even if that means getting up in the middle of the night. Others take the view that good ideas stay and resonate in your mind and while the less interesting ones might fade in your memory, the ones worth pursuing will still be there when you next get to your guitar or keyboard. As the years have gone by, I try more often to capture them as and when they arise, but that’s probably just an age thing!”

It sounds like you are veering towards the side of art rather than science?

“No, not entirely. It is possible to write songs from scratch very scientifically. It is a craft that can be developed and learned if you have the aptitude. I’m saying that usually the best songs have that touch of sparkle that comes from an idea that hasn’t been forced. You often hear songwriters talk about how their most popular work was written in minutes. It quite literally fell out of their heads and on to the page or recording with minimal effort, due to the inspirational nature of the idea. However, even in these ‘lightning bolt’ moments, it still takes skill and experience to take what you’ve been given and create a truly good song. Great ideas can be killed by over thought, complexity and poor or rushed finishing. That is even before you consider getting the musical arrangement of the finished article right!”

TP26 songlist2You’ve clearly been writing a long time, did it come naturally?

“Learning to write songs was a ‘process’ that came naturally although it wasn’t easy and good songs did not turn up over night. Having learned to play guitar in the early 80’s listening to old Beatles songs, I always felt that the natural order was to learn how to play other people’s songs and then start writing your own. After all that’s what Lennon and McCartney did. It was even more natural for my generation to think that way, because we had grown up in the post-Beatles era, when it was common for bands and singers to write their own songs rather than to rely on the specialist talents of Tin Pan Alley and Denmark Street writers as in the 50’s and early 60’s. I made my first attempt at song writing at the age of about 12 with a song called ‘Time’. My mum quite liked it, but then again she was my mum! I was somewhat concerned by the fact that the riff between verses sounded a bit like the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ so I suppose it gave me an early warning about how easy it was let other people’s tunes creep into yours.

Unfortunately, my subsequent songwriting efforts were poor and in a fit of pique I ripped them all up one day, so I don’t have any record of them to refer to now. I suppose I was only 12, so what the hell did I have to write about?!”

It sounds like you were quite disillusioned, what was the turning point?

“Well about a year later at 13, I was sick of cover versions and started trying again. My first effort was reasonable from a musical perspective, but the lyrics were still sorely lacking in depth or meaning for that matter. The school year began and I found myself in English class with a recently qualified, young and enthusiastic teacher from Manchester. His first homework assignment was to write an essay for which he provided us with a selection of titles. Most were run of mill topics like ‘My favourite day out’, ‘My summer holiday’, ‘The last time I went to the theatre’ etc. etc. However, he finished the list with ‘Alien invasion’. Of course the majority of the class including myself, barring a few of the girls, took to the last topic with gusto! Schooled by Doctor Who from the age of 4 I felt particularly qualified to write a sci-fi epic in two and a half pages of A4. The truth was of course somewhat different. Most of the class including myself, bored our teacher to tears with poorly written drivel. The marks he gave us for our efforts were pitiful with the exception of my few classmates that had wisely chosen other titles. After the embarrassment of making some of us actually read out our alien claptrap and following it with the relative triumphs of ‘My favourite day out’, he brought his point home. ‘Write about what you know! Write about things you’ve seen, experienced and felt.’ The penny dropped. He added that once you’ve learned how to write about your own experiences, then you can start to apply your skills to fiction and other subjects. I went home inspired and started writing songs about ME – what I had done, what I wanted, what I liked, what I disliked, and of course..about girls! The results were markedly improved and I was on my way. Thank you Mr McLaughlin!”

TP26 songlist1Is it hard to be objective, how do you know your songs are any good?

“It can be. Quality control is important. You might argue that the best artists have a sense of what is going to be good and what isn’t. It looks like they only ever write cracking songs, but the reality is that you don’t get to see the ones they’ve carefully discarded. You start out writing all the time, a couple of songs a week! However, over time your output level changes as you become more circumspect. I remember the first time I played one of my songs to a friend (whom I later formed a band with). I could see he was impressed and really enjoyed it. He wanted to learn how to sing it there and then. Little moments like that, fill you with confidence and keep you writing. I don’t write half as much now, but I like to think that more of what I write is of high quality. I also found that it’s healthy to stop writing for a few months from time to time. You can often get into a pattern, writing about the same things, using similar chord sequences and styles. This can work for you when you are writing an album and you want a thread of continuity through it. However there comes a point when you will get into a rut if you keep going. This pause often comes at a natural point, when you have finished working on a live set, an album or other project. It’s time to recharge and refresh your Songwriting Soul!”

Do you think you’ll ever stop Songwriting?

“It’s difficult to imagine a time when I won’t song write. It’s not like a sport where you can no longer compete without a certain level of fitness. It’s also very personal and it changes and grows with you as you age. The way my life is now organised, I have more time to spend on creative pursuits than I have had for many years. My imagination and inspiration has many outlets through my music, my writing and my own business. In some ways I find that ideas, which would previously have materialised in songs are now developing into other things such as fiction, blogs, articles and even business concepts. Songwriting now has to compete with these other creative outlets, but it’s still firmly in the mix. More positively, the amazing music production and recording tools available to the computer-savvy musician, mean that a whole new world has opened up for the creation of songs. In days gone by, I would write with my guitar, bringing a complete song to life before seeking to arrange and record it. I still do that sometimes, but these days I find myself more often sitting at the computer with my Midi keyboard – having nurtured the seed of idea with my guitar, but then having a world of tools and instruments at my disposal to shape and craft the final song. The bottom line is that when you ask me ‘how do you write a song?’ my answer is that I am still learning and hope that I will keep learning for as long as I keep breathing! Otherwise it would all get a bit boring wouldn’t it?”

_____________________________

You can buy Conrad’s latest single on iTunes, Amazon and CD Baby. To hear more of his back catalogue as well as up and coming releases, you can stream his music for free on SoundCloud.

TP

ImageIt’s been almost 35 years since Conrad De Souza was taught his first chords on a £20 nylon string classical guitar and learned to play by learning songs from his ‘It’s Easy To Play Beatles’ songbook. For much of that time he has been singing, songwriting and playing in bands and duos. However, his passion lies in recording his own material and although available to stream on the web for some time, he is now digitally distributing songs for sale on major platforms like iTunes and Amazon.

“As a teenager it was about getting a band together, just like your heroes. That seemed the only way you might produce the sound you wanted, win fans and get a record deal. I joined my first band at the age of 13 when I graduated to an electric guitar and started tinkering with writing songs. The idea of properly recording yourself at that age was a pipe dream and probably just as well – we would have sounded awful!”

Conrad found out early that bands come and go and as an independently minded, only child, he sought out ways to take control of his musical output without over-reliance on others.

“Bands are so enjoyable and rewarding when they work. Its like a group of you against the world, but with occasional exception they have a shelf life and you end up having to start all over again with a new group of people. This can sometimes bring originality and invention, but when you were already on the right track it can be disheartening.

TP24 VL toneI had understood the notion of multi-tracking for some time i.e. recording multiple versions of yourself on different instruments (as necessary) to create a larger sound. In 1981 my attention had been caught by a rather authentic Beach Boys medley released by a ‘band’ called ‘Gidea Park’. It transpired that Gidea Park was actually one man – Adrian Baker, who had performed all the music and vocal harmonies himself. It planted the seed in my head that I wouldn’t always need a band…”

The writing desk in Conrad’s bedroom was regularly transformed from homework torture chamber to makeshift studio, having borrowed all the cassette recorders in the house and strung them together with leads and microphones. Add a guitar, amplifier and Casio VL Tone mini-keyboard and the scene was set.

“Well Abbey Road is wasn’t! The quality was pretty dismal, but you could just about hear me through the hiss of the final cassette recording. I spent whatever free time I had experimenting and recording whatever chart hits and covers I could. However, the excitement really began when I started to write my own songs and I was able to bring them to life with the use of crude multi-tracking. “

Conrad’s second but really first ‘proper’ band grew out of this recording arrangement.

TP24 cassette“Like Gidea Park, I wanted to give the semblance of a virtual band which I named ‘4th of July’. Soon, a friend had joined and we were a duo and then after 2 additional band mates arrived it meant we were no longer a ‘virtual’ band at all, but very real! However, in reverence to its humble origins the band’s first ‘album’ (well cassette actually) was recorded ingeniously in two stages. The music was taped in one band member’s living room and the vocals overdubbed in my living room using the rather basic ‘karaoke’ function of our vertical record deck/music centre. I seem to recall we sold around 30-40 copies in school at about £3 a pop – which I’m sure we considered quite a success at the time!”

The problem for Conrad was that as you get older and more experienced, makeshift recording will no longer do. Back in the late eighties, you could lay your hands on a decent 4 or 8 track recorder if you had the funds, but even then, a professional sound was only really attainable in a proper studio and that was big money if you wanted to do it right.

“My first recording studio experience with a band called ‘The Mighty Llamas” (yes, really!) taught me the important lesson that you can’t rush recording. We couldn’t afford much, so we packed 3 songs into a day and had a separate evening session to mix them. We were well rehearsed, but we didn’t really know how to use the studio tools available to us very creatively or have the time to learn. We had a limited, unenthusiastic engineer, who really didn’t do what we had recorded any justice in the mix. Without knowing your recording tools or having a decent producer to help you, studio recording was hit and miss. The most important ingredient is time and given time means money – this was often out of reach for the struggling band and musician”

TP24 Bonafido CoverSubsequently, Conrad was lucky enough to work with and learn from friends who had invested in expensive home studio hardware. In the late nineties, his then band ‘Bark!’ invested around £10,000 in making an album and producing CDs in a professional London studio.

“We had enough experience between us to understand the minimum amount of time needed to get a good result and we had creative engineers/producers to suggest helpful options and ideas. Spreading the cost meant it took us about 2 years to make the album but we got a result we were all happy with. That said, with more time, I’m sure I could have mixed it better, but that’s probably just the perfectionist in me!”

What that experience particularly demonstrated to Conrad was the level of technology now available to recording artists. In addition to its impressive studio rooms, mixing desk and hardware, it was the sophistication of the studio’s software that mesmerized Conrad.

“The potential for the solo recording artist was amazing and as a guitar band, I knew that we had barely scratched the surface of what it could do. My next revelation was how much of this software was available for home computers at an extremely economical price. I had watched friends spend thousands of pounds on studio hardware in the nineties and as a band we had just paid around £10,000 to make a CD. Suddenly, provided you had a decent PC, you could spend less than £500 on software, interfaces and a keyboard controller and you had the basics for a Studio in your spare room”

His band ‘Bark!’ was reaching the end of its natural life, and Conrad’s attention shifted to home recording.

TP24 Strawberry Yoga Cover“I was impressed by the quality of recording I could achieve. I started out with Cakewalk Sonar software and graduated to ‘the king of home recording’ Logic Pro for Macs. Suddenly I had the time to make things sound the way I really wanted. I recorded new songs and re-visited old ones that I had never previously recorded or where I had been unhappy with the results. When friends and acquaintances are listening to your music and not hearing a major difference to the quality they generally enjoy on the radio or on CDs or iPods – you know you’ve cracked it.”

Recording music isn’t the only thing that technology has changed in the last 35 years for the aspiring musician.

“In the past, even if you could make a record or CD yourself, how were you going to get it to people in an effective way without a record deal? The internet changed that forever. Although I was still making music on CDs in the mid-2000s, I had started to upload songs for streaming on My Space (which was still ‘hot’ back then). Now other platforms like SoundCloud have taken over and these are great sites to place your music and share through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.”

Conrad has taken the next step in digital distribution and released his first single to buy on download platforms like iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby etc.

Image“If no ones going to sign me – I’ll do it myself! The notion of such a thing when I started this journey in the eighties, would have been the stuff of dreams. I’m still like a kid in a sweet shop when it comes to recording my own songs. Starting off with a blank canvas and slowing watching the result emerge. Now I have the tools to do it right and a way to make the fruits of my labour available to the world. The challenge these days is how to market yourself in the vast sea of performers who are all vying for attention. Still, I’m sure technology can help with that too and appearing in a blog on WordPress can’t hurt!”

You can download Conrad’s first digital single ‘The Next James Bond’ from iTunes or Amazon and can stream it on Spotify.

Conrad is currently working on an album for his new virtual band ‘Macrowasp’ for release later this year. You can hear how it’s progressing and other tracks from his back catalogue on SoundCloud.

I think I’ll leave it to Conrad to sum up his musical journey:

“The cassette recorders may have been replaced by an iMac running Logic Pro, but the heart and soul is just the same as it’s always been and long may it continue!”

Amen.

TP

ImageWith the coming weekend to mark the 50th Anniversary of the BBC’s science fiction television triumph ‘Doctor Who’, I have been looking for some way to tip my hat to our favourite Time Lord.

To do so innovatively has proven difficult. The web and most other news outlets have been plastered with material either reviewing the show or it’s influence over the last five decades. I had almost given up and left it to the army of devoted journalists and bloggers who have already trodden the path. However, today I was driven to tap the keys after reading an interview with Peter Davison, the fifth and at the time, youngest actor to assume the role of the Doctor.

ImageHe was speaking about his decision to depart the show upon the advice of one of his predecessors – Patrick Troughton, who had proposed that 3 years was enough before typecasting set in. He recalled how satisfied he had been with decision and how he had actually made the choice quite early, a good year or so before his final episode actually aired. Anyway, to get to the point, he was fine up to the time of filming his last story, but despite knowing it was the right move, was gutted to see Colin Baker actually replace him!

It caught my attention and got me thinking because I, (although somewhat less dramatically) was experiencing something similar today.

After a prolonged period of planning, I had agreed an amicable departure from my last employer to break away from the shackles of ‘commuterdom’ and pursue projects of my own. It has been a lengthy and congenial separation, with me continuing to help out on a part time basis until my replacement was found. He arrived over the last few days and this week I conducted the main thrust of a handover. He is now leading the team I led, receiving the mail I received and attending the meetings I attended.

Like Mr. Davison I don’t regret my decision for a moment, but it’s very strange and a little disturbing to watch someone step into your shoes and walk straight on at the crossroads, leaving you to take the different path you have chosen.

TP20 11Ds 2Change is hard but fundamentally necessary if we are to grow and live life to the full. Perhaps on some level as a child, Doctor Who taught me that. Letting go of an old Doctor was hard, but within a short period you had grown to love the next. With a new Doctor, some things stayed the same, but there is a reinvigorated opportunity for new stories, new companions, new adversaries and above all, new adventures!

How often do we look back on our lives and sometimes not recognise the people we once were? Different jobs, different relationships, different homes may have brought out diverse traits in our personality, even though some of our basic characteristics remain the same. Sound familiar?

We are often the sum of many ‘lives’ perhaps not quite as literally as the Doctor, but in some ways we ‘regenerate’ ourselves – sometimes willingly and sometimes as a result of circumstances beyond our control. Maybe my acceptance of this, my willingness to embrace it and my belief that I can reinvent myself, owes its origins to my Saturday teatime TARDIS journeys.

(As I look down at the lengthy striped scarf I am wearing as I write this on the train, perhaps there were other influences too…)

ImageAnyway, happy birthday Doctor Who and if I’m correct in the above, I hope that current and future generations of children will glean more from the show than just a love of Converse sneakers, bow ties and the notion that a fez is cool!

Now excuse me while I attend to my computer. The old girl is wheezing like a grampus. Perhaps I should reverse the polarity of the neutron flow?

TP

ImageI made a cinematic pilgrimage to the past at the weekend and viewed Robert Zemeckis’s “Back To The Future”, which I must say looked staggering good on Blu Ray and remains to this day one of my favourite films. The unforgettable time travelling DeLorean is sent on its temporal voyages by virtue of the ‘Flux Capacitor’ invented by Dr Emmett Brown. I chuckled once again at the story of how Dr Brown’s device which “makes time travel possible” comes to him in a vision while he is knocked out after slipping whilst standing on his toilet seat to hang a clock! However, it got me wondering how often this type of thing happens in reality. No, not slipping off toilet seats, but dreams and visions inspiring real creativity and invention.

ImageOne of the most famous incidents of this type relates to the song ‘Yesterday’, written principally by Paul McCartney, which was (if not still is) the most recorded song in history. McCartney apparently awoke with the melody in his head and feeling sure that he must have heard it elsewhere, proceeded to play it to numerous people to see if they recognised it. After a suitable level of due diligence, he claimed the tune for himself and under the unceremonious working title of ‘Scrambled Eggs’ (containing the correct number of syllables for the opening notes) it evolved into the ‘Yesterday’ that we know and love. Not only is it a timeless melody, but it inspired the Beatles and their producer George Martin to approach the song differently. The standard 2 Guitar, Bass and Drums format gave way to an acoustic guitar and string quartet. Many might assert that this was the moment the Beatles started the journey that would elevate them from phenomenal pop band to iconic musical innovators. A powerful dream indeed!

Unfortunately, you may have the same problem as I, which is that I frequently don’t remember my dreams. What gems have I forgotten or mislaid by virtue of this infuriating trait? I do find however, that the twilight period between being awake and asleep, whether falling asleep or surfacing from slumber, can be extremely creative and fertile. Ideas for stories or songs that have been bubbling in my head can take focus, or that next phrase or chapter that had somehow eluded me when fully conscious is suddenly blindingly obvious. Often, however, the key is to get up and either write down the nature of your epiphany or record it somehow. All too often, the memory is fragile in these half-woken moments and just hours later, the full ambition of your idea, though explosive at the time, reduces to glimpses that you can’t quite grasp. Perhaps I need a hypnotist on hand to help me unlock these submerged treasures!

ImageOthers, in addition to Mr McCartney, have also been lucky. Mary Shelley’s nightmare became ‘Frankenstein’ and Robert Louis Stephenson’s dark slumbering visions emerged as ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. In case you are wondering whether this is just the inspirational engine of a bygone era, I would point out that modern storytellers Stephenie Myer and James Cameron have both claimed the seeds of their colossal ‘Twilight’ and ‘Terminator’ franchises germinated from dreams. I don’t pretend to understand the science of dreaming or the workings of the unconscious mind, but clearly it is something that most of us experience in one way or the other. I suspect that even when we do remember our sleeping journeys, it requires the right kind of mind to see these as opportunities and not just pleasant or unpleasant distractions while we recharge our batteries. Having the ingredients laid out for you, does not necessarily mean that you know how to bake the cake!

Don’t deceive yourself either, that such inspiration is the domain of those labelled ‘creative types’ who some might venture live outside the realms of the real world anyway and make their living in the arenas of popular culture, art and fiction. Elias Howe solved the tricky problem with his invention of the Sewing Machine following a nightmare. He was about to be cooked by cannibals and noticed that there were holes near the pointed end of the downward plunging spears. TP19 - benzene snakeThis inspired him to unlock mechanical sewing by putting the threading hole towards the tip of the needle rather than at the end as traditionally placed for manual sewing. August Kekulé changed the world of organic chemistry with his discovery of the unlikely ring structure of a Benzene molecule following a dream about a snake seizing its own tail. This circular image came to him as he dozed on the upper deck of a horse drawn London bus.

Artists, scientists and industrialists have benefited from unlocking the power in dreams and I am interested to know whether any readers of this blog have managed to convert dreams into tangible creations, even if on a less grandiose scale than the examples I have referenced. Let me know. I will certainly continue to trawl my dreams for a golden nugget! Just this morning I had a weird experience. I cannot recall my dream, but it was cinematic in nature and I remember a swell of emotion and background music as you might expect at the end of movie. The end titles appeared and at that very moment, as if my body clock were somehow aligned completely with the outside world, my alarm clock exploded into life and I awoke sharply as if someone had pulled the plug out of the TV.

Did I miss an idea for a blockbuster screenplay or was I spared the ordeal of a turgid home movie? I guess we’ll never know…

TP

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