A New Album, Part Three: The Artwork

This is part three of a three-part series about the new self-titled album. Read “Part One: The Poem” here and “Part Two: The Music” here.

Drying Letterpress Compact Disc Sleeves
The album sleeves on the drying rack in the studio of Red Plate Press.

Creating the Album Experience

For this album, I am doing my first physical release, a decision informed by the concept behind the music. Poetry is an integral part of the album and since poetic works are traditionally presented in print, a physical release was the perfect format in which to do so. Another factor was the sheer enjoyment of having something tangible connected to the music. I chose compact discs because they are easily accessible, and with the format decided, started looking at the album experience. Here, my main objective was to bring all its ideas together in a simple but meaningful way.

The use of letterpress packaging appealed to me early on. One of its advantages is that the sleeves themselves become works of art: the artist conceptualises the visuals and produces the packaging by hand on the letterpress machine. Moreover, the letterpress process is such that every print is unique: as the paper passes through the press, the ink is never applied in the same way, ensuring that no two sleeves are exactly the same. I spoke to letterpress artist David Armes of Red Plate Press about the album at the very beginning of the project; design began whilst the music was still a work in progress.

Forgotten Fields Compact Disc Sleeve Detail
A detail from the inside of the compact disc sleeve.
Handmade Letterpress Sleeves
Designed, printed and assembled by Red Plate Press.

An Abstract Poem

David responded to my brief with breathtaking minimalism and clarity. He distilled the themes of the album into a succinct visual summary, capturing the very essence of the project in an abstract poem of his own. The process was particularly interesting because there was no digital component; everything was done manually from start to finish. During the conceptualisation phase, each new variation of the design involved setting up the press anew with different or adjusted inks and elements to make a version for us to review. David would expertly assemble the new mockup by hand, every time.

For the final artwork, he used hand-set metal type and geometric shapes to create a truly evocative work. Illustrating a scene from the poem, the cover shows a flight of swallows, conceived as a group of triangles suspended above a field of green. On the back, a swallow rushes through the sky, separated from the others by the spine. This swallow appears in the poem. Inside, the bird motif is repeated, offset by the text of the poem. David used different ink densities—opaque for the swallows, textured for the field—to add depth to the two-dimensional design.

The Release

This release is in many respects a defining one. I have found the focus of my creative work in the poetic and musical exploration of pastoral themes and consider this album (and the EP that preceded it) the touchstone of future works. I am pleased to share this release with the world and hope it will be well received. To everyone who supports my work: thank you.

Forgotten Fields will be released tomorrow, 17 November 2017.

A New Album, Part Two: The Music

This is part two of a three-part series about the new self-titled album. Read “A New Album, Part One: The Poem”, here.

“Verse One”, the first track from the self-titled album.

Six Verses, Six Tracks

I started work on the music as soon as the theme of the poem became clear. Already in December 2016, I had put together a collection of sketches, early experiments with melodies and instrumentation based on the direction the poetry was taking. When at last I had the final draft of the poem, I turned my attention to the sketches. I began by deciding which of them to develop into complete tracks, focusing on the ideas that were most in line with the poetry; and since there were six verses, I conceived of an album with six tracks: a series of movements to correspond with the verses of the poem.

The poem played a central role in the writing of the music and the naming the tracks. As with The Zephyr and the Swallow, where the poetry inspired the music and the tracks took their titles directly from the lines, I looked to the verses to inform my creative decisions. I therefore followed in the compositions where the poem led. I named each track after the number of the verse it described, which resulted in the sequential “Verse One”, “Verse Two”, “Verse Three”, and so on. This helped reinforce the track-verse connection and emphasised the importance of the poetry.

The tracklist of the Forgotten Fields album.
The tracklist of the Forgotten Fields album.

Composing the Music

Like the verses, each track went through scores of rewrites as I wrestled with track form, instrumentation and melodies. I would spend days on an idea only to discard it and then reintroduce it later. Two of the tracks changed structure in addition to receiving brand new parts as late as the final mixing phase! Often, things I thought were cast in stone, had to be altered or abandoned for the sake of a better solution. There were countless interpretations of melodies and renditions of musical phrases, each experimenting with different instrumentation and degrees of embellishment or simplification.

All the while, I had to be vigilant not to overcomplicate the music because I wanted to retain an ambient quality. For this reason, it was important to tread the fine line between “soundscape” and “soundtrack”—how much compositional drama could I use before the music stopped being “ambient”?—the goal was to stay faithful to the poetry without being overly descriptive or orchestral. I tried to achieve this by using only a handful of instruments, relying on minimal compositions to bring the melodies to life. The music, therefore, does its best to sweep one along with the simplest instrumentation.

Producing the Album

Building the music around the poem brought a natural cohesion to the album. As the tracks progressed, the scenes, thoughts and emotions conveyed in the lines slowly emerged in the music. Gradually, the compositions began to reflect the substance of the poetic verses, the sketches becoming with every revision the lyrical pieces I had envisioned, months before. The main themes I set to woodwinds, keyboards and guitars, and accompanied them with synthesisers and strings. The result is a vivid expression of the lines of the poem, the music wistful and musing with moments of joy and regret.

Once the compositions were complete, recording went smoothly. The album is a combination of digital and real instruments. For the latter, I worked with session musicians, artists with an intuitive understanding of what I was trying to achieve and consequently, how their parts needed to be played. I decided to use real instruments, especially for the flutes and English Horn because there are nuances in woodwinds that are difficult to reproduce digitally. Working with session musicians brought home to me the beauty of the real instrument and I am convinced that the recordings are better for it.

Read “A New Album, Part Three: The Artwork”, next. Forgotten Fields will be released on 17 November 2017.

A New Album, Part One: The Poem

The rural beauty of the Western Cape of South Africa, the inspiration behind my work.
The rural beauty of the Western Cape (South Africa) inspires my music and poetry.

Rural Inspiration

Over the past few months, I have been working on a new album. It began at about the same time as my collaboration with Krzyzis in late 2016. Early on, I knew that both projects would share a theme and have a similar concept. These were first explored in The Zephyr and the Swallow—the collaborative EP with Krzyzis—a combination of poetry and ambient music inspired by my love for the countryside. The EP was built around a couplet, a short poem of two lines I wrote to inspire the music; but for the album, I wanted to expand on the idea and write a larger work, a series of verses for a ballad.

The Zephyr and the Swallow EP illustrated a pastoral scene—the wind blows over a field and a swallow dashes into the sky—an idyllic moment of beauty set in a rural landscape. In my youth, at the height of summer, I would spend hours in the fields watching the wind making waves in the grass and the swallows flying overhead. Even now, I find this simple pastime a most enchanting and vivid experience. It is just such a scene I describe in the couplet I wrote for The Zephyr and the Swallow—“Over the field the zephyr blew, / Into the sky the swallow flew”—lines I set to music to create an ode.

Writing the Poem

I started writing the poem for the album in late 2016, going through numerous drafts until I eventually found a form and approach that felt appropriate. In much the same way one agonises over the notes of a musical composition, one pores over a poem—every syllable of every word carefully chosen to exquisitely articulate a meaning or express an emotion. After three months of assembling and dismantling verses, I finally produced “Forgotten Fields”, a self-titled ballad with six verses. In the poem, a daydreamer nostalgically recalls a happy moment in time, surrounded by fields and swallows.

Central to the theme of the poem is the feeling of wistfulness—a longing tinged with regret—conveyed by the imagery. It describes a world of endless fields, swallows impossible to catch, a memory forgotten and rediscovered. The lines are gentle and flowing—the musings of someone lost in thought. They are beautifully read by English narrator Chris Lateano for the compact disc release. “Forgotten Fields”, the all-encompassing title, is alluded to in the final verse:

Far away and left untrodden
Under summer skies
Lie the fields I had forgotten
Where the swallow flies!

This is part one of a three-part series about the new self-titled album. Read part two, “A New Album, Part Two: The Music”, next. Forgotten Fields will be released on 17 November 2017.