Diary Of A Songwriter: Crawford Mack
The Glaswegian songwriter takes us through the creation of his album ‘Bread & Circuses’, complete with tips from Ray Davies
Something of a musical polymath, Bread & Circuses the debut full-length album by Glasgow’s Crawford Mack shows off just how comfortable he moving across genres such as jazz, rock, electro and classic – always held together via his singer-songwriter soul. The album was recorded in Antwerp and gives into a fascinating insight into Mack’s talent, one underpinned by his time spent studying jazz at The Guildhall School in London.
Also a prolific diary writer, Mack shares with us the run-up to the album’s release, one severely disrupted by Covid-19…
THURSDAY 17 SEPTEMBER
It’s the official release day of the music video for Firing Squad. The track’s been out for a while and keeping this back has been challenging as I’m delighted with the final product.
The song itself was originally inspired by a line that popped out at me when I was reading William McIlvanney’s The Weekend. It basically asked whether the blindfold given to someone facing a firing squad is for that person or for those about to take the shot, to spare them looking their victim in the eye.
I spent a ride home on the underground wondering whether people in positions of authority who abuse or wrong others would be able to do so if they were made to see the vulnerability and humanity of their victims. Then, sitting with my guitar in my flat in London, the opening guitar riff just emerged. I took these initial ideas to my producer, Jamie Evans, and he and I co-wrote the track in his kitchen in Yorkshire on a particularly productive day a few weeks later.
I’ve wanted to work with video’s director, Liam Hendrix Heath, for years. We met while we were both studying jazz at The Guildhall School in London, though he was also pursuing his interest in film-making at the time whilst I was trying to juggle jazz singing with my burgeoning obsession for songwriting in a variety of genres.
We’ve needed all the ingenuity we could muster as, with the havoc created by Covid-19, it’s been a hell of a journey to get us to this point. I phoned Liam back in April to discuss the feasibility of filming a music video the minute the country started to get out of lockdown. A few days later, he pitched me the concept for the video. As he put it, “This is absolutely mental but hear me out: what if we have an astronaut walking past tableaux from his life before going into a Space Odyssey-style vortex at the end?”
We fleshed the idea out, exploring a theme between the astronaut and an antagonist teacher from his past. Even though I love the video I’m sick with nerves: the fear of an apathetic audience is something I’m not sure I’ll ever come to terms with, especially after all the work that has gone into it from everyone involved.
MONDAY 21 SEPTEMBER
I’ve been hanging out with my best mate Richard Rayner for the last three days at his family home near Chelmsford in Essex. Richard is the drummer in my band, and we’ve sorted out some of the stems for the SPD before we have our first band rehearsal since March tomorrow at The Premises Studios in Hackney, London.
I found out a couple of days ago that an outdoor socially distanced festival we were supposed to be playing at the end of next week has been cancelled, which is disappointing though not surprising as we seem to be heading for some kind of further virus-driven restrictions. I’m gutted for the organisers as they have worked really hard to put something on and give the artists some hope. Anyway, we had a rehearsal space booked and all the band were still keen to play. During lockdown, I’ve been drip-releasing singles from my forthcoming album, but it’s been strange to do so without playing gigs.
I’ve been taking advantage of having a bit more space to write in whilst he’s been working through editing some music videos shot on the Southeast Coast of England last week. I’m really buoyant about the week ahead as the main single from my album, A Love I Can’t Live Up To, is out a week tomorrow.
We’re about to set off back to my flat in London when I get a phone call from Glasgow. I can tell as soon as my mother says my name that our family dog, Taggart, has passed on. The grief is huge, not least because our other dog Jura died on the first day of lockdown back in March. My Dad’s just taken on a new job and so won’t be around as much and Taggart was very much Mum’s shadow.
On the drive back to London I reflect on how lucky I am to have Rich as a pal. He always seems to know what to say, and we laugh about the joyous memories we have of my dogs while staying with my family in Glasgow, usually when we were up for gigs. Taggart used to whine/sing along to Miles Davis records when they were on, particularly Someday My Prince Will Come, it was honestly one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
TUESDAY 22 SEPTEMBER
What a lovely day this has been, mainly because the band has seen each other for the first time in half a year. Catch-ups over coffee take the best part of forty-five minutes but I really don’t mind: this kind of atmosphere should never be interrupted. As we work, I fall in love with the record again and start to feel as though I’m reclaiming my identity.
We also start working through the raft of songs I’ve written over lockdown. It’s a wonderful feeling to hear other people interpret the music you’ve written – hearing it come to life whilst still at a malleable point is probably my favourite part of what I do. I’m planning to release a series of concept EPs next year and my head’s brimming with ideas for differing sonic landscapes as we pack up.
Rich and I start walking in the general direction of my flat when we wander past a pub with a happy hour sign… sure, one won’t hurt, will it?!
More than one later it dawns on me that I was hoping to record strings over the coming weeks for a track written over lockdown called Siriously?. It needs to come out before the end of October because of a reference in the lyrics to the current incumbent of the White House and to the UK’s Prime Minister. Much as I’m hoping the reference will be rendered less relevant after the US election, it’s best to get it out promptly as a sort of ‘bonus track’. However, I’ve already planned to be in Glasgow on Friday and the country could well be locked down whilst I’m up there.
So, from the pub, I call Colin Brain, who engineered and mixed my album, as well as David Raberg-Schrello, who’s a cellist pal from Guildhall. He’s previously helped me recruit string players so the call is to ascertain whether we could get a quartet together in the next couple of days. When I get a sense that this could work – surely the only silver lining of a time when so many musicians are out of work – I call Lewis Murphy who has already arranged a string quartet accompaniment for the track and ask if he’d be up for conducting his arrangement so that I can be freed up to keep my attention on how it sounds behind the glass. Amazingly this all comes off within the next few hours and a session gets penned in for Thursday at KONK studios in North London.
THURSDAY 24 SEPTEMBER
It’s strings day and I get up early and go for a run while listening to Father John Misty’s recent release To S. / To R. I particularly love To S. and have it on repeat for about half an hour before making a detour to Ryman’s to print out parts.
Over the course of a very intense studio session, we record the string parts for three new tracks, with Siriously? being our priority to get into good shape. The assistant engineer George is good craic and really helpful. Colin and I have an easy, humorous relationship and we pick right up where we left off. The strings sound great and Lewis conducts brilliantly through the first half of the day before he needs to head off to teach. Mercifully the string players are comfortable with the arrangements by this point.
David stays around after the strings are completed at around 6pm. For the next couple of hours, we find our favourite takes and re-record a bit of guitar and vocals before sticking them through the reverb plates, which is particularly exciting for me as I’ve never used a real reverb plate before.
David and I head for dinner after the session and talk through all sorts of nonsense over some mellow drams of Laphroaig.
TUESDAY 29 SEPTEMBER
It’s the release day for A Love I Can’t Live Up To, the track we earmarked as the lead single of the album. I should be exceptionally nervous and thought this would be the worst I’d ever felt on a release day. Early doors, I’d decided that a national plugger was too expensive to promote an emerging artist with no gigs to speak of thanks to the current circumstances, as it surely can’t be more than a thankless task.
I’d already tried it with the first single release in July and spent the next few months thinking about the amount of studio or rehearsal time I could have used that money on. I may live to regret it, but I’m weirdly chilled out – probably because I’m back in Glasgow and able to busy myself with reading some books I’d been unable to fit in my bag when I last went back down the road to London.
I started writing the single about three years ago whilst messing about with Nick Drake/John Martyn guitar tunings. It’s gone through several revisions and, if I’m being honest, the emotions it explored have changed significantly since I first started writing it. The original lyrics used to dredge up memories from almost a decade ago until I changed what used to be an overly metaphorical bridge at Jamie’s behest – it was good advice and makes the thread of the song far more digestible.
The irony is that the song was started with the bridge that was shelved. I was on a writing course taught by Sir Ray Davies of The Kinks and he devised a task to write a song where the bridge would be the explanation for the rest of the song, a kind of parameter aimed at drawing creativity out of people. He pulled me aside and told me to re-purpose some old instrumental material with lyrics written from a perspective gained since. It’s a very exposing song, and I’m genuinely curious to see what people think of it.
TUESDAY 6 OCTOBER
I’m heading on a train back to London from Glasgow. I’ve got to get myself down just in case Scotland locks down again, as it tends to move slightly earlier than England. I want to try and get a music video for Siriously? filmed pronto. It’s going to be off-the-wall and tongue-in-cheek, and I’m looking forward to letting that side of my personality out a bit.
As we cross the border, I start listening to a track called Neon Crimson by The Paper Kites. We supported them on February 17th at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow last year. At that point, it was the biggest gig I’d done in my own artistic project and a huge moment for me and bassist Jack Tustin. We probably played our best gig to date as a band on that night. Yet I felt quite empty as we walked off stage. I knew it was time for me to start down the path towards my next phase of work, to begin this album that is about to come out.
The day after the gig – somewhat bleary as the guys from The Paper Kites were happy for us to show them some of Glasgow’s legendary hospitality – I went back down to London to attend my Master’s Degree graduation before rushing back north on the last train, this time to Yorkshire to spend the night in a B&B before meeting Jamie Evans the following morning. It had been suggested that he might be a good fit as a producer.
In all the rushing around, I forgot to pack a toothbrush so had to sprint down the hill to the nearest corner shop before it closed… and I literally ran into the man that I soon learned was Jamie Evans. We added a bottle of wine to the toothbrush purchase and went and sat on the stoop outside his house, blethering about our lives for what remained of the evening. We just clicked, and the following morning we started to write this album, Bread & Circuses, together. Eight months later, we finished mixing the music we’d recorded in Antwerp and London.
Alas, the UK-wide lockdown required by the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic happened on the same week as the scheduled release of the first single from the album. The supporting launch gigs were cancelled. At this point, who knows when we or any other bunch of musicians can play live again.
I won’t pretend that it doesn’t feel pretty bleak at present. Because I was so incredibly lucky to study where I did most of my pals work in the creative industries – musicians, actors, dancers, theatre and studio techies, artists. We always knew that making our way in the arts was going to be precarious, but the uncertainty now is beyond anything I could have imagined. It helps to focus on positives though and I can now say that eight days from now, my album in its entirety will finally be released which is something I’m really grateful for to the amazing pals that have made it possible.