Song Deconstructed: ‘From The Blue’ by Painted Sky

Painted Sky
Painted Sky

Painted Sky’s George Brandon: “An inherent challenge of the ballad is to include enough interesting metaphors and impact lines to hook you in, without sacrificing the necessary plot points.”

George Brandon on how he put together this classic folk ballad about a doomed young man lost to the sea

One of the challenges facing traditional folk acts is how to honour the genre’s heritage while finding fresh directions in which to take the music. Judging by the strength of the songs on From The Blue, the debut album by Painted Sky, siblings George (guitar and vocals) and Holly Brandon (fiddle and backing vocals) are more than up to the task. Blending both sparkling arrangements of old favourites such as Sprig Of Thyme and False True Love, with original compositions like The Lakes Of Colfinn and Devil Is The Sun, it’s a record that should appeal to hardcore folkheads and the new generation of fans that are flocking to the scene.

Closing the album is its title track, an epic tale of tragic love and death written by George. Here he takes us to the bottom of the ocean where the song’s secrets are found…

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INSPIRATION

The initial idea for From The Blue was to write an uplifting but tragic, love and death folk song. To summarise, From The Blue tells the story of a young man who falls deeply in love with a beautiful woman, but due to poor choices is sent to make a living at sea. However, as his lover watches from the shore, his ship sinks and he becomes one with the ocean, where he symbolically lives on with her, returning through the waves, tides and currents of the sea.

We sing a mix of both traditional and original songs and, as such, when songwriting this comes with certain lyrical implications. You are almost inherently limited to writing songs friendly to the audiences that listen to the music and dying at sea, though morbid, is a stalwart of the old English folk song.

In terms of genre though, From the Blue is highly influenced by both traditional folk and modern alternative acoustic music, as well as Americana and pop-rock. The song is intended to sound traditional in the lyrical sense, whilst drawing from contemporary songwriting influences.

Painted Sky

Painted Sky’s George Brandon: “When songwriting, the chords are generally where I start, rather than going straight to the melody line.”

LYRICS

As the song is a ballad, I started by sketching out an initial bullet-point structure with the major plot points; adding the feelings and imagery I wished to convey in each moment as I went along. From that point, it was essentially a ‘fill in the gaps’ exercise.

I wanted a consistent chorus for the song. Many folk ballads don’t have a chorus, but in this case, I wanted something to tie the listener down and sit them in the place of hope and love, in contrast to the more exposition-heavy verses.

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Given the slower nature of the melody and the structure of the song, it left very little space for exposition. An inherent challenge of the ballad is to include enough interesting metaphors and impact lines to hook you in, without sacrificing the necessary plot points. I remember actively trying to keep it brief and flowing throughout; this juggling act is what makes the greats, such as Springsteen, the best.

MUSIC

Musically, the chorus and verse have very similar chord structures. Both major, (please forgive my notation) the verse has an I VI IV V structure, with the bass running down from the IV to the II. In the chorus the VI changes to the III, to create a much more uplifting feel, in the resonant, hopeful part of the song between the more sorrowful verses.

The bass run-down was what drew me to the chord structure and when I started singing the lyrics over it, it almost carries you through the lines. As such, I found it felt complete, as this run-down builds into the perfect cadence at the end of each line.

When songwriting, the chords are generally where I start, rather than going straight to the melody line. From there I sing over the chords until I find a consistent tune that fits with the lines I’ve written at the time. Though this is not the case for all the songs I write.

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Following the chorus, there is a minor VI to a I7 motif, essentially a foreboding of the sinking ship to come, repeated in the form of a longer bridge after the second chorus. This dark tone is marked lyrically with the hero’s death and this sequence, deliberately in contrast to the verse and chorus, doesn’t resolve until the run-down from the verse and chorus is repeated. This final run-down provides a sense of relief, resolving into the next section as he is swallowed up by the ocean.

Painted Sky

Painted Sky’s George Brandon: “As siblings, our debut album has grown out of a lifetime of making music together.”

At this point, the song itself goes through a major structural shift following the ‘death’ of our hero to reflect his metamorphosis into being one with the ocean. The time signature changes from 3/4 to 4/4 and we are introduced to a new melody and chords with a driving pulse, reflecting the idea that he is pushing to return to his lover.

The chord structure changes to IV III V VI, where an interrupted cadence and lack of root chord leaves each line unresolved to help the driving feel. Lyrically the song ends with its title From the Blue, which would later become the album title and final track on the album; the line before it, “And with the whales we will sing,” providing the inspiration for the artwork. This brings the song (and album) to its conclusion, an instrumental atonal clash representing his struggle with the sea, based around the root which rises chromatically from the 5th, ending suddenly on some form of diminished VII.

IN THE STUDIO

By the time we recorded this song, we’d realised it was likely to be the final song on the album. That gave it a sense of weight that needed to be reflected in the production. This final outro has more stems than any other point on the album. The track culminates with Holly and I randomly hitting organ notes and thrashing guitars to provide depth, adding as much as possible to instil the level of raucous chaos required. The end needed to feel as wild and as heavy as we could to round the end of the album off with a bang.

For the guitar players, I’m playing this in DADGAD tuning, which I predominantly play in and to quickly summarise the instrumentation: Holly is playing fiddle, Blair Dunlop (who produced the album) is on electric guitars and bass guitar and Fred Claridge on drums.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, From The Blue balances traditional folk themes with contemporary textures and arrangement. As siblings, our debut album has grown out of a lifetime of making music together, as well as the broader folk tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation over the years. Our hope is that the album nods to this lineage, whilst bringing something fresh to the table.

The debut album from Painted Sky, From The Blue, is out now on Gilded Lily Records. For upcoming shows and more head to paintedskyfolk.weebly.com

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