Spotlight on SSG – July 2011

Vic Lewis is being so kind to take over the “Spotlight on SSG” duties for at least the next couple of months. And his featured SSG songwriter is Chris C., a longtime member of Guitar Noise’s Sunday Songwriters’ Group. And if I’m not mistaken, this particular song, “Perfectionist Beginner’s Blues” is one of the first he ever submitted to the SSG:

Vic: First of all, it’d be nice if we got a brief biography from you – born in England, emigrated to Australia, etc.

Chris: Yes, I was born in Oxford in England. As I like to say, “In the first half of last century” – way back in 1946. I didn’t emigrate to Australia but just came here for a quick visit to see my brother who was studying for his Commercial Pilot’s licence in Melbourne. He planned to stay for a couple of years, whilst I was thinking more along the lines of a couple of months. That was over forty years ago now, so we might need to start thinking about re-assessing our plans fairly soon. Mum might be starting to wonder where we’ve got to.

Vic: Chris, you started playing guitar at a late age – 58, I believe – did you start writing songs as soon as you picked up the guitar, or did you pick up the guitar to put music to songs you’d already written?

Chris: I actually bought a guitar in Melbourne in the early 70s but never got around to buying a teach-yourself book or taking lessons. So it stayed in the case “˜maturing’ for the next 35 years. At one stage I stored it in the roof space of my house, in the blistering West Australian heat. Literally right under a “˜hot tin roof’. When I came across it 15 years later and gingerly opened the case I fully expected it to be nothing but a pile of splinters and sawdust and a few rusty wires. But I tuned it up and it sounded just fine. In fact it still does.

Starting to play at nearly 60, and being very casual about it too, meant that a few more years passed before anything as ambitious as a song was attempted. So the next few years were spent noodling my way very slowly towards being able to play enough chords to put a song together.

Vic: You’ve written a lot over the years, from newspaper articles to technical manuals, to a stage musical. Has that helped with your songwriting?

Chris: Oh, definitely. Every type of writing has its own different disciplines and demands but the necessity for learning the general craft remains constant. The idea that inspiration strikes and great novels or songs just pour onto the page is bunk, no matter what some people may sometimes like to pretend for promotional purposes. The reality is that the harder you work then the luckier you get, both with ideas and with structure. But you still need to be able to do a great deal of editing, honest self-appraisal and outright rejection and deletion. That’s common to all forms of writing. Leonard Cohen talked of writing around 60 verses for just one particular song and then rejecting most of them.

I’d also like to point out that I didn’t write a single note of music for the musicals. I was hired only to write the words. But it was a great deal of fun.

Vic: Your style is unique amongst the regular SSG writers – you always seem to find a humorous angle to the current topics. Cna you tell us about your influences?

Chris: I’ve always enjoyed anything with an off-centre or humorous approach. Jake Thackray, Eric Idle of Monty Python fame, Randy Newman, Tom Lehrer, and so on. There’s been a long connection between music and humour going through to the Victorian music halls and back on into ancient history. I enjoy performers like Billy Connolly, Steve Martin, Bill Bailey and Tim Minchin who are all very accomplished musicians as well as internationally successful comedians. Tim Minchin said that the dual roles took the pressure off him because people might think he was a “pretty reasonable musician – for a comedian” and also a “pretty reasonable comedian – for a musician…” Fortunately for us, he’s very good at both. But I do like his idea of disarming the critics by not setting yourself up as an expert at a particular style. People will also forgive a lot if you can make them smile and, at my very modest level of ability, I need all the forgiveness I can muster.

For sheer all-round song-writing versatility I’d probably name Tom Waits though. His range, from out-there experimental stuff and raucous ragers, through to the tenderest ballads is just amazing. His songs turn up on all sorts of albums by other artists.

Vic: Apart from the guitar, you’ve tried various other instruments over the last few years – are we likely to hear any of them on an MP3 soon? Piano, for instance?

Chris: I’ve decided to call myself a collector of instruments rather than a student of them. The range that I own but can’t play is getting too embarrassingly large to claim any genuine connection with them. But the keyboard is too useful to neglect. So I can play a few chords or pick out a melody line, although not always at the same time. But with home multi-track recording being readily available now, there’s no pressing need to have a complete set of performance level skills. I can use the piano or midi keyboard for composing melodies, experimenting with harmony and so on, with only very basic ability.

Vic: The song we’re featuring this month is your Perfectionist Beginner Blues, from SSG Year 6, Week 45. It’s a humorous song, but at the same time one we can all relate to – we’ve all been there and been through that! Tell us about the genesis of the song?

Chris: Well, it’s about the endless frustrations, coupled with unachievable mad ambitions, that we all seem to have as beginners. I had been following the SSG for a little while but knew that it would be years before I could play well enough to do a good backing track (and I’m still not there yet). But I thought that if I wrote about being bad it would excuse the fact that the performance actually was pretty awful. There must be a lot of sympathetic clunkers out there because it got into the top ten for it’s sub-genre on the Soundclick hosting site. To be honest, that’s not actually that hard to do, but it was still a buzz.

Vic: You’ve been contributing to the SSG for a few years now, not just with your own songs but with some useful and perceptive comments – are there any songs from other writers you’ve particularly enjoyed? And of your own songs, what’s you personal favourite – which one are you most proud of?

Chris: Thanks for “perceptive comments,” Vic – I think that must be polite journalistic code for “ramblings of an opinionated old codger”. But I always enjoyed your songs in the early days, because (and I hope you don’t mind me saying this) they sounded achievable. You were good enough to be singing and playing in the pub in a casual way, and your songs sounded genuine and heartfelt. But they weren’t recording studio perfect. They sounded like they were done by a normal human being rather than a super-talented recording star with a zillion bucks worth of engineering behind them. I knew I’d never sound like a Clapton album, but getting close to Vic Lewis in the pub sounded at least theoretically possible. That was both motivating and inspirational.

I’ve always been impressed by anybody who posted submissions with themselves actually playing and singing, so I’ve enjoyed songs from Guitar Noise regulars like Nick Torres, David Hodge, John “The Celt” Roche,James Toffee, and many more (who I’ve probably just offended by not naming. Apologies for that). But I do recall one standout from Kathy Reichart. It wasn’t a sad song, and unfortunately I can’t remember the name now. But it was just so well written and played and her singing so totally in step with the emotion of the lyrics that a few tears began trickling down my cheeks. I remember thinking “now that’s why I keep slugging away at it. To one day hit the sweet spot where it all takes off and flies like that…”

From my own songs? I still find myself singing the chorus of “Surfing With the Duck“ which was a cheerfully daft song. But my proudest moment wasn’t with my own music. It was standing at the back of a theatre packed with people who were enjoying themselves, laughing at words that I’d written, which were being performed on stage by a talented bunch of people who were all my friends. That was many years ago now, but I’ll never forget it. One of the wonderful women helping behind the scenes during that season was kind enough to marry me soon after as well. Can’t buy that kind of memory for any sort of money.

Vic: And finally, how do you see your music developing over the next few years?

Chris: Well, I’m still flapping up and down the runway trying to take off, but I’ve recently set some new goals. I’m aiming to put together a very small collection of my own songs and record them at a sufficient level of quality to be able to put one or two of them somewhere like iTunes. It will involve roping in local musicians to help, and that’s partly underway. I know people with all the necessary equipment and singing/playing/recording skills but I’m hoping to do at least a part of it myself. The aim is just one sale of one song to one customer. And then we’ll see how it goes from there.

Thanks for asking the questions Vic, and thanks to everybody at Guitar Noise for all the fun at the SSG. See you on the forum.