Gareth Malone’s latest series, The Choir - Sing While You Work met with critical acclaim and huge viewing figures.
I was asked to do the vocal arrangements for the programme and these were done over the course of a couple of months earlier this year.
Since the programme aired, I’ve had many requests from people wanting to buy the arrangements.
I thought it would be nice and in the spirit of the programme, to make them all available for free, but this is proving complicated for legal and publishing reasons.
However, I am able to offer the sheet music for my arrangement of How Can I Keep From Singing featured in the final programme and sung by all the choirs together.
You can open the sheet music in your browser by clicking on the music stand or download a zip file containing the music by clicking on the download button.
Many thanks to everyone who voted for Wherever You Are. Winning the award means a great deal to me as well as to everyone else involved.
The next step in my Military Wives journey will be the release of the album Stronger Together in November. This was a massive project involving twenty four choirs in locations from Devon, to Scotland to Cyprus.
If I say so myself, the record is pretty amazing and I can’t wait for the public to hear it!
So, two things:
One: Sorry for not updating the blog for a while. I know a number of you are waiting for the next gripping instalment of “So What Exactly Is It You Do?” (I promise this will be forthcoming soon and neither of you will have to wait long.)
Two: Look, I’ve been really busy ok? And what did you ever do for me anyway?
Sorry, that last one just slipped out. What I meant to say was that the last few weeks have been totally extraordinary. In my blog of Dec 26th 2011 I suggested that the logical next step to the Xmas no.1 with the Military Wives was to do an album. Given the weight of public support and affection for the ladies (plus the small fact that we sold over 700,000 copies of the single) it seemed an obvious move to me.
Record companies are generally run by smart people. And smart people generally like to assess situations thoroughly before committing to decisions. For this reason (and a few others to do with agreeing the basis of the record deal with the wives and setting up the charitable foundation) it took until mid January for the decision to be made to go ahead with an album. On Jan 13th I sat in a meeting with Gareth Malone, some key people from Decca, and representatives of the various choirs. We discussed the logistics of making an album and threw around some of the song titles from a short list we’d prepared beforehand. Finally we had to agree on a timeline for the making of the album and this is where the discussion got decidedly scary. The Decca marketing team calculated that in order to have the record out in time for Mother’s Day, I would need to deliver them a finished album on Feb 7th. This meant an entire album, arranged, recorded and produced in twenty three days (with one day at the end to master the record).
This isn’t really possible.
But we decided to do it anyway.
What followed was without doubt the most challenging three weeks of my career. The first week was spent getting all the choir arrangements done and making sure sheet music was sent to the right people in time so that each choir could learn the songs they would be recording. During this week I also had to put things in place for the other musicians who would be playing on the album. This meant preparing guitar and string parts and sending them to the right people who would (over the course of the next couple of weeks) record the parts and then send them back to me online (no time to go and record them in person or have the musicians come to my studio!)
That first week of arranging and organising was in some ways the hardest, as the pressure to get all the pieces in place combined with having to come up with interesting musical arrangements for the record (trying to avoid the corny or predictable) was intense. I was averaging about eighteen hours per day in the studio to get it done. Fortunately, it all came together and at the start of the second week (exactly seven days after the meeting with Gareth and Decca) I left home for a twelve day trip of choir recording!
This next stage involved visiting the five choirs on the record, one by one, to record their songs with them. I engaged the services of a mobile recording company so that we could record the choirs to a high standard without having to bring them all to London. During twelve days, I travelled one a half thousand miles, staying in hotel rooms at the end of long days of recording. I loved the process of recording the choirs and every session was enjoyable even though the pressure was on to get it right. The ladies were all awesome, rising to the challenge every time and never complaining at my constant requests for “just one more take!”
Each day, a motorcycle courier would turn up to collect a small USB hard drive with the previous day’s recording on it, and bring it back to London to Phil Da Costa who was going to be mixing the record with me. This way Phil could start preparing the mixes as we would only have four days once I got home from recording, during which the entire record would have to be mixed and finished!
I arrived home from recording the final choir(Catterick N Yorkshire) in the early hours of Friday Feb 3rd. Phil came over to my studio that morning and brought a computer rig from his studio which we set up so we could be working on two things at the same time. We made a start on mixing the tracks, allocating a number of hours for each title, which we tried hard to stick to. This is really tough as a record never really gets “finished”. You just reach a point where you have to let it go and say it’s good enough. Our mixing time was interrupted for a few hours on Sat morning when JonJo Kerr arrived to record his vocal parts for In My Dreams, the duet which Paul Mealor had written specially for the album.
I liked JonJo from the moment we met. He has huge talent but without the ego often associated with an abundance of ability. We sat together for a while and I taught him the song. We then spent a couple of hours recording his performance.
Once we were done with recording, James and Gratien (the two very talented guys who are behind all the Military Wives videos) wanted to film JonJo singing the song for the promo video. I had insisted that they wait until we’d finished recording before filming as I didn’t want JonJo to have the pressure of cameras in his face added to the pressure of having to learn and record a new song on the spot. So the recording was all done, I felt confident that I had good performances from JonJo in the can and I asked him to sing the song through again just for the filming but with no pressure to make sure it was a perfect performance. As he started singing, his performances were even better and more heartfelt than before. Sometimes these offbeat moments when someone is not trying too hard, or thinking about things too much, can produce amazing results. I quietly hit the record button at that point. All of JonJo’s vocals on In My Dreams are from these later recordings.
After JonJo left (he had to jump on a train to get to his own farewell party before deploying to Afghanistan) Phil and I focussed on getting the album finished. One by one, over the next couple of days, the mixes came together, and as they did we realised that this was a pretty special record. The military wives sound beautiful on every track but still manage to sound like ordinary people singing from the heart rather than like academic choral singing. This, I think is the secret ingredient in all this. This is why we believe every word the women sing.
The final mixing session was a marathon. We started on Monday morning around 8am and finished work on the final track at 7.30 pm the next day, having only stopped for two twenty minute food breaks during the entire time. Manufacturing of the album literally started hours later.
It normally takes me about two and half to three months to complete an album. Those exhausting twenty three days in January and February have yielded a collection of which I’ll always be proud, and which this week, was the top selling album in the UK.
In terms of pushing boundaries and achieving the impossible, this has been as much of an epic journey for me as it has for these wonderful women.
I’ve come to realise that record producers are a little like actuaries, or Lord Mayors, or (the whimsically titled) Ministers without Portfolio.
We know these jobs exist, but often have only a vague inkling of what they actually involve.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked to clarify what exactly a record producer does. Over the years, obscure relatives at family reunions have asked if it’s “some kind of DJ?...”
Others have assumed my job is to go out and find talent (some sort of impresario?), and even those who understand that my role is more to do with making the actual records, have assumed that the job is purely technical (The guy who twiddles the knobs in the studio on the day of recording).
I thought it might be useful to clarify this subject, and perhaps remove some of the mystery around it.
As mentioned in the Dec 15 blog post, a record producer is a little like a film director. The producer is hired by whoever is financing the project (usually a record company) to be responsible for the entire process of creating a record (either a single, or album or sometimes a few tracks on an album).
Below, and continuing in the next blog post, I’ll outline what the process typically involves:
1) Planning and Budgeting
This is simply agreeing on the timetable for getting the job done, as well as what it will cost (eg. what size orchestra shall we use? or how many days in the studio will we need?)
This is getting everything ready for the recording. In many cases this will mean actually writing or arranging the music.
Producers broadly fall into two types: Those who are musicians, and those who come from an audio engineering background. Being of the former persuasion myself, I like to get my hands dirty. I’ll often spend days in the studio on my own, sitting at the piano, or with guitar in hand, figuring out how a piece should be structured. Sometimes I’ll mock up the entire orchestra using sounds on a computer so that everyone involved can hear what the real thing will sound like. This is analogous to an architectural model. The client may say, please move the door from that wall to this one. The record company may say, please make it more epic in the final chorus, or could we have french horns in this bit?
The pre production phase also involves recording any musical parts that will act as accompaniment to the main recording. Once everything is approved and ready, we move to the next stage:
This is where the rubber meets the road. The artist (whether a singer, violinist or an entire orchestra) comes into the studio, and the producer’s job is to bring out and capture the best performance they can give.
This is a delicate and subtle process and requires sensitivity. Essentially, the task involves listening very critically to each take, and trying to then feed back how it could be improved, in a way that doesn’t undermine confidence or morale.
Some producers get this bit wrong. I’ve seen it before and it’s not pretty.
Producing is not about wrapping fragile egos in cotton wool. It’s about understanding that when people stand in front of a microphone and do their best (knowing that every note is being scrutinised by someone who’s job it is to find faults), clumsily worded criticism can totally destroy the performer’s confidence, making a magical take even less likely.
The skill is to subtly guide an artist towards a better performance by highlighting what’s good about what they’re doing, whilst making suggestions on how it could be even better.
If this sounds condescending or patronising in any way, then so be it. Trust me, we’re all human, and we all need a little love. It works.
Next time in part 2, we’ll look at what happens after the recording is done, how the record gets finished, and answer the one question that every single person who walks into a studio for the first time asks.
Well, the aliens didn’t arrive to buy up the competition.
We did it!
Not only Christmas number one, but also the biggest selling single for a few years (over 550,000 in one week).
This really is a fantastic achievement for the choir (especially given the fact that they didn’t exist a few months ago!)
I’ve been fortunate enough to experience successful records before, but never one quite like this.
The degree to which this has captured the hearts of the public is just amazing. It’s hard to think of a more worthy Christmas number one, ever (ok..Maybe LiveAid).
There are two interesting questions which now emerge:
1) How many will it go on to sell?
Getting the number one is totally amazing, but I’m hoping this will continue. I’m hoping that not everyone who buys a copy of Wherever You Are will already have done so.
It would be so amazing if we could get up to 750,000 or day I say it a million? The point is that every record sold, puts money into the hands of SSAFA and The Royal British Legion, both of whom make a real difference to the lives of those who serve or have served in the forces, and their families.
I’m really hoping that the publicity generated by achieving the top spot in the chart will propel the record on to further sales and more money for the two charities.
2) What next?
The obvious move now, would be for us to do an album. There would be sizeable logistical obstacles to overcome, but surely such a huge hit single demands a follow up album?
I’m sharpening my tools just in case the call comes.
Now wouldn’t that be fun?