Song Deconstructed: ‘I Used My Head As A Mother’ by Mike Gale
The prolific songwriter invites us in to discover a new song which combines a heavy subject with wry lyrical humour
Whether with his old bands Co-Pilgrim or Black Nielsen or as a solo artist, there’s always been much to enjoy in the songwriting of Mike Gale. Brought up in North Devon and now based in Hampshire, the last six years have been a particularly prolific time for Gale, who retired from live performance in 2018, culminating in his new mini-album The Star Spread Indefinite. Recorded during lockdown there’s a lo-fi charm to it which will appeal to fans of Bill Callahan, albeit with a palpable Englishness to it.
Gale describes the themes of the album as being, “about a pursuit of solitude and calm…” and that atmosphere definitely comes across when listening to it. Curious to find out more we asked him to unlock the secrets of one of its eight songs…
I wrote most of the songs for The Star Spread Indefinite at the end of 2019. I already had a different bunch of songs that I was planning on releasing as an album when some stuff happened in my life that made things a little dark for a while. I thought it would be a good idea to explore those feelings in song and see what came from that. Gradually I ended up replacing all of the songs I’d previously planned on releasing and The Star Spread Indefinite happened instead.
I Used My Head As A Mother is basically me trying to deal with the flood of feelings that I’d been attempting to hold back since my Dad died six-years previous. I’d always felt my role in our family dealing with him being gone was to be the stoic one, not showing emotion, keeping it together so everyone else could let it out. This of course just led to me blocking it all up, self-medicating and not really dealing with anything. When these feelings I’d been holding back inevitably started pouring out I decided to try and capture it.
As I’ve said, it’s quite a heavy topic for a song, so I didn’t want to be too morbid or ‘woe is me’ about the lyrics. I have never been a fan of songwriters or songs that take themselves too seriously and have no humour about them. Everyone has troubles and problems, songwriters aren’t special and don’t feel things more deeply than everyone else, no matter how much some of them like to think they do. So, I tried to keep the lyrics as light as I could while still trying to convey what was quite a serious subject. Someone I love who is a master of this is Bill Callahan, his lyrics are so dry and funny while dealing with the darker side of life.
My favourite line from the song is, “I used my head as a mother, when the going got tough, coz Billy Ocean I’m not, I’m barely sea,” I felt the song needed a bit of lightheartedness to finish things off. I tried to walk that line of serious subject matter crossed with humour for each song on the album but think I captured it best on this one.
The Star Spread Indefinite is my 17th album and in that whole time of writing I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and thought ‘I’m going to write a song that sounds like this today.’ My way of writing from the first song I finished to now has always been to just play around for a bit and let a song develop naturally. Same goes for the music side of things.
Since I finished being in a band situation a couple of years ago I do everything myself, from writing to recording and mixing. I tend to come up with a melody over some chords and then stew on it in my head for a day or so before recording. This gives me time to think about what sounds I think might sound good, structure etc. so that I have some kind of plan before starting the recording process.
With I Used My Head As A Mother it was obvious to me it was going to be quite a gentle feel that would probably require some nice string sounds, flute and ambient wash. It was just a case of building and layering these sounds and when and where they would come in.
I wouldn’t really describe myself as a musician, I am not particularly adept at any instrument but I follow my instincts and really embrace the limitations I have and the mistakes that arise because of this.
Wonderful things can happen when you don’t really know what you’re doing, things you would never have dreamed of adding to a song become pivotal to its sound. I’ve purposefully tried not to become too proficient at any instrument because that space in between is where I’ve always found the real magic in the music I record.
IN THE STUDIO
I now record everything at home on my 32-track Tascam. I have a drum machine, a synth, a sampler and various guitars. I only use a computer to cut up and change the samples I find. I’d say the sampler is my most important purchase as it allows me to compensate for my lack of musicianship and other people to create the sounds I want. My sampler was really central to the overall sound of I Used My Head As A Mother. It gave me the chance to add some beautiful string sounds, some Rhodes style organ that I reversed and made backwards, some piano notes, a vinyl crackle and the opening wonky guitar line. I blended all of them on top of the acoustic guitar, synth flute and vocals.
I usually start with acoustic or electric guitar and vocals and build from there. Recording at home by myself is the most fun I’ve had making music, which is what it’s all about really. It gives me an enormous amount of freedom and time that I never felt like I had in a studio with other people. Although I loved my experiences in studios, I didn’t feel I could ever really get across what I was hearing in my head, mostly because of my inability to clearly express my thoughts in musical terms, it was very frustrating. I’m a very solitary songwriter and recorder, I definitely need space, quiet and time to sort my thoughts out. It’s not for everyone but it works for me.
I’m quite wary of giving advice about songwriting to anyone, it seems such a personal thing that each person should find their own path and way of doing things that works for them.
If I had to give some tips that work for me it would be to follow your instincts, don’t try to write something with the aim of trying to please anyone else but yourself, don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t try too hard. Being able to write songs is a blessing, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to be a tortured artist to create something great. Enjoy it.