Dot writes: On Sunday I celebrated Mothers’ Day by making my family go for a long walk on the beach. Hugh and Frank decided to pick up sticks.
Since I quit my job at the start of the year, I’ve been looking around for other opportunities in Dublin. I’ve no doubt that packing it in was the right thing to do, but opportunities for gainful employment seem rather thinner than I had hoped (although there are a couple of leads). The long and the short of it is, however, that I have had to start thinking seriously about starting my own business.
And it is absolutely terrifying. It felt like a big deal signing the mortgage documents on our house but if I am to start a microbrewery, I will have to borrow at least a couple of hundred grand to set that up. I will have to use the equity in our house to back that up, which means it’s not just my future financial security but Dot’s too that I’m risking.
There’s the myriad of costs that starting a business will incur in addition to the capital costs of assembling a brewery (lawyers, accountants, company registration, graphic design for logo etc, website set up costs, water treatment plant for brewery and possibly also for waste water, fit out of the premises, electricians and plumbers fees, transport, further equipment for the brewery e.g. for packaging and cleaning, tables and chairs etc for office, a phone line and internet, brewery management software, kegs and packages, a delivery van and fuel, insurance, rates and rent, not to mention upfront payment of excise duty)
There’s the pressure to sell the beer afterwards. I wouldn’t call myself a natural salesman and while I think it will be easier to sell to businesses than to the general public, it’s still not something I’m particularly looking forward to doing. The pressure is going to be greater because I will already have committed myself and incurred a lot of the inevitable costs before there’s even anything to sell.
Then there’s how frantically busy I am going to be once it’s up an running. Brewing will be but one of my jobs. I will have to package the beer. Deliver it to pubs. Get new pub accounts, manage the ones I have. Chase people for payment. Install taps in pubs, clean lines, make deliveries, keep records accurately. I will probably have to keep abreast of what people are saying about the beer on Facebook and Twitter and specialist beer ranking websites (which may be hurtful some of the time). I will have to be open to run brewery tours and attend meet the brewer promotions in pubs and off-licences. It’s going to be a near 24/7 commitment in the first year at least.
I’ve got skills and experience to prepare me for some of the things I’m going to have to do, but there’s still a whole lot that I haven’t directly done before so I will be outside my comfort zone and on a step learning curve.
Then there’s the unknown unknown’s and the things beyond my control. What if the government brings in even heavier excise rates on beer. Ireland already has the third highest tax on beer in the EU (after Finland and the UK), and a high rate of VAT on top of that. There is a vocal anti-alcohol lobby in Ireland pushing for policies aimed at stopping people drinking. What if the large scale breweries, like Guinness and Heineken declare an all-out war on microbreweries and offer pubs incentives to take other taps out and exclusively sell their products? What if I get sick and become unable to work after I have incurred all the debt?
But still I think I have to do it.
- I don’t see any alternative. Dot has a good job in Dublin and the boys love school here. We are all putting down roots and settling in to a little community. I can’t move anywhere else to find a job. It has to be here. But equally, I have to have a career I can believe in, which will enhance and be a source of my self-respect. Maybe I could find a job as a dustbin man or a janitor or a telesales executive or what have you but I refuse to do it. I refuse to be broken like that. I love my family and have made many sacrifices for them, but every man has limits. Actually, I take strength from this. I am like a refugee. I can’t go back. The boats are burnt on the shore. The only path is to go for it and make it work.
- If anyone can do it, I can. I have reinvented myself in my late thirties as a brewer. It takes guts and intelligence and flexibility to retrain in adulthood and I did that much and more (I graduated with distinction for my MSc in Brewing and Distilling). I’ve proven myself in social situations too. One of the cruelties of life in academia is having to move around the world to find work and I have had to make friends anew time and again in my life. My networking skills have improved (not to mention networking in the drinks industry is a little bit easier once everyone’s a little bit lubricated).
- As to the unknown unknowns, I don’t believe the government will make things worse for microbreweries in Ireland. There isn’t the political will and excise rates are already so high. Guinness and Heineken would face a social media backlash if they tried to drive the little guys out (and the Irish will always support the underdog). I might get sick, but I’ll just have to get insurance to cover that eventuality.
Lastly, I think all of the jobs are within my power to do. The practical task of managing a brewery and producing great beer is something I have already proven I can do. And I think I will be able to manage the sales side of things. For one thing, the exchange seems at root a very mutually beneficial one. The brewery is obviously making a small profit on every keg sold and the pub is too. The pub has to give over space on the bar to the product, but that is a comparatively small burden for the profit they stand to make. They can take a chance at little risk to them. The craft beer market in Dublin is in some ways quite congested, because there are a lot of microbreweries all competing for taps in a few specialised pubs. But I would focus on ordinary pubs because of that. It is better to be the only craft beer offering in a suburban pub than one of twenty in a city centre craft beer pub. I might only get a yes from 10% of the suburban pubs that I approach, which is why I will have to approach hundreds. I’m not fussy. Everyone’s euro has 100 cents!
Dot writes: among the various albums I’ve bought in the past couple of months, Ben Abraham’s Sirens is one that has been quietly growing on me. It’s not that I didn’t like it to start with – I did; it’s mellifluous and very easy to like – but that I have been getting to know the words, which are rather good, and appreciating more dimensions in the music.
I guess this would be classified as folk-pop. The core sound is acoustic guitar plus voice, with various other elements layered over the top (for example, piano, varieties of electric keyboard/organ, strings), and percussion is used delicately – there are drum sounds, but it’s never drum-heavy, and I hear finger clicks, claps and shakers. Most of the tracks have a greater or lesser degree of reverb so that one often gets a sense of a wide, resonant space. Within this resonance one can still hear pleasing details, such as, in “You and Me”, the little synth figure that starts in the left stereo channel and then after a few bars gets doubled in the right. It’s gentle, this record, and sweet, and Ben Abraham has a very warm, flexible voice. The overall effect is lush and, quite simply, lovely. You can wallow in it if you want.
However, this is an intelligent album, verbally as well as musically, and it’s worth thinking about, so I have been – though as usual with me I find it easier to think about the words than the music. Here’s one of the strands I’ve been finding in it: a recurrent interest in singing about singing. For instance, in “I Belong To You”, he starts “If I only knew the song / I’m supposed to sing / To bring you from the days to come / And sit you next to me” and later describes his “lonely melody” that has “only simple words / Even simpler chords / That’s all I have, you see / Until you’re here with me”. The song is his call to the unnamed You – a lover he maybe doesn’t even know yet, still in the future – and also an image of himself, not yet enriched and completed. “To Love Someone” presents song as a temporary refuge while looking for love: “Lately I’ve begun to find / That home is harder to define / I’ll take my dwelling for a time / Inside a lonely song / But to love someone, when you love someone / Well that’s where I belong.” In “Home” (actually, ideas of home are another recurrent theme), he’s singing to someone who’s gone abroad, apparently to New York and then Paris. He sings of how “the garden’s been waiting / and I have been waiting / to show you the things that we made”, but when this is echoed in the following verse it’s “the island is calling / and I have been calling / to show you the songs that we made”. Songs are like the fruits he has been tending, part of the haven he is guarding for whoever it is: “Won’t you come home?” And, of course, this very song is the song he made.
The most striking example of this self-reflexivity is “Speak”. It’s beautifully paced, starting very gently and building up, both in the layers of the music and in the melody (which gets higher as it gets more passionate) and the vocal performance. Here are the words in full. (He posted them on Facebook some years ago, but seems to have altered them slightly for the album recording.)
I didn’t hear you enter
But I know you have been circling my room
I listen for your footsteps
Close my eyes and wait for you to move
You’re hiding like a memory
Teasing like a girl I used to know
You’re tumbling, gambolling
Calling to the weakness in my soul
Telling me to speak
And in one reckless moment
You move a little too close to my ear
I grab a hold with both hands
And scramble to make sense of what I hear
I try to tie you down
With synonyms and sad piano sounds
For a moment you surrender
One moment we both stand on the same ground
And I begin to speak
And all at once you pull away
But I’m lost within your atmosphere
As quickly as you found me
I panic as you try to disappear
I reach out with my fingers
And try to pull the letters back in line
But your words spin out of order
And the pounding in my chest is out of time
And I just want to speak
This is about the strange externality of inspiration, the way an idea can be tantalisingly half-present, and the excitement and frustration of grasping at it, but in the context of an album largely of love songs – and, frankly, outside that context too – it’s also unmistakably erotic: it’s the muse as lover. You can read the metaphor both ways: the desire to write a song, the desire to speak in art, can also be an image of the desire to “stand on the same ground” and truly be at one with another person.
Self-reflexivity isn’t new or unique, and nor is eroticising artistic inspiration. This isn’t even the only example I can think of from recent albums by Australian singer-songwriters: Missy Higgins’ The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle springs to mind, in particular the final track, “Sweet Arms of A Tune”. But I think Ben Abraham does it really interestingly and well, and in a way that makes one conscious of the possibilities that arise within the constraints of that incredibly common form, the love song. Using this form is an opportunity to work out particular variations on the combination of words and music; lyrics can be written that are open enough to be adaptable to listeners’ own situations, when they need them to be, but that – when done well – have a ring of true observation in them. For Ben Abraham it also seems to be a vehicle for thinking about what it means to sing songs, what they can be for, how they are part and not part of the self that sings, how they might be tools in one’s life or alternatively a kind of substitute for other relationships. Because I’ve been reading about Chaucer recently I find myself making a connection with what Ardis Butterfield has to say about the legacy of the troubadours passed down to Chaucer:
Two of the perceptions about love language voiced by troubadour poets provoke an especially vivid response in later poets. One is that writing about love is a profound analogy for the creative process per se; another is that just as courtesy is a way of living as well as of writing, so love poetry is a brilliant means of expressing the ironies involved in trying to live as well as write at the same time.
– Ardis Butterfield, “Chaucer’s French Inheritance”, in The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, ed. by Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, 2nd edn (C.U.P, 2003), pp. 20-36 at p. 29.
I’m not trying to say Ben Abraham is just like the troubadours. But they are writers in whom critics detect considerable subtlety and self-consciousness under apparent simplicity and directness, and I think that’s true of him too.
P.S. If you’re wondering why this wasn’t in my Best of 2014 round-up, it’s because I bought it in 2015. But it was released in November.
Dot writes: consider this tweet:
Thanks to my evening class, I now know what this question means. Sort of. I am so proud of myself.*
I’m doing a ten-week adult education course on recording, mixing and producing music. The class consists of ten blokes and me. Several of the blokes are elderly ex-showband musicians, which is a little intimidating; a couple are computer types; some more are amateurs of various standards; and then there’s an awkward chap who jiggles his leg all the time and seems rather shy. He’s probably the youngest person there but has one of those unfortunate bald spots like a tonsure that’s slipped backwards. The teacher is a sound engineer and composer called JJ Vernon, and he has a website that contains an online version of the course (it’s not exactly what we are doing but very handy for revision or catching up).
I saw the class advertised in a leaflet we got through the door and thought it sounded like fun. The rationale is that I love to listen intelligently and I will have a much better idea of what is going on in the records I buy thanks to this. Indeed, I’ve revisited some of Nick Zammuto’s blog posts and already they are becoming more comprehensible. The secret reason is that I want to sing into a microphone and pretend to be a pop star. Well, maybe not a pop star, because I have utterly the wrong sort of voice, but I could try to imitate Jacqui McShee from Pentangle. Actually I think my turn at the mic is likely to be with recorders, because JJ seems to like the idea of using me and my recorders to demonstrate overdubbing.
So far we have talked about the mechanisms of the ear, the properties of sound, how to plug everything in (this is complicated and to be honest I don’t think I got it), what mixing desks do, several incidental topics along the way (my goodness you need a lot of microphones to record a drum kit), and how to start recording into ProTools. This week some of the guys brought in instruments and we did some recording; JJ handled all the mics, but I was one of the people who had a turn at setting up a recording session, adjusting the gain,** and starting and stopping recording. I have a very strong sense of venturing into Boy Territory, certainly into techie stuff I have never been confident about or even really dared to try. Generally speaking I flinch from leads and plugs and hardware. But now I find myself wondering if I can afford to buy a basic interface and a microphone or two. It’s a silly idea, because I’m never going to be a musician, but the fact is I am enjoying this class a lot. And, well, there are eleven of us, and half the meetings – two hours each Tuesday evening – are already gone, and that doesn’t leave very much time for any individual member of the group to play with the gear…
*What I think it means [N.B. I’ve edited this, because I changed my mind after I first wrote the post]: in ProTools you have a virtual mixing desk, in which each channel of audio has its own fader to adjust the volume of that channel (which would carry the input from one microphone, or one device such as a drum machine). You can then route all of the channels to a master fader, which will allow you to adjust the volume of all of them at once. You can also put in inserts, for example to add reverb or delay or to send the sound out to a monitor so the musicians can hear themselves. Normally these are post-fader i.e. the reverb or delay is added or the sound goes out to the monitor after the volume has been adjusted. But David Wrench wants an insert that will operate on all the channels that go to that master fader, but without being affected when he brings the master fader up or down. I think.
[Further note, a week later: following another class, I now realise I was confounding inserts and auxiliary sends. An insert is more likely to be something like a control for EQ. You can add reverb as an insert, but it’s better to send the sound out to a separate unit – a virtual version of an effects unit – which would modify it and then send it back. I think a monitor would be an auxiliary send too, but I’m not sure.]
** Gain: the signal strength coming in varies quite a lot. Before you record, you need to start by twiddling a knob to make sure it’s in a range the mixing desk can happily handle.
Dot writes: on Saturday I decided to ditch my Society of Recorder Players meeting in favour of spending some time with my family. So obviously we had to undertake some kind of stressful cultural outing to justify this. I was inclined to go to the Irish Museum of Modern Art while Ken wanted to go to Kilmainham Gaol. In the event we did both, as they’re pretty much next door to each other and we had to book a tour to visit the gaol, meaning we had to go there first and then fill in a couple of hours. And even though the walk down the long path to the gallery was enlivened by Hugh lamenting how this was the worst day of his life and nobody understands him, the afternoon actually went very well.
We hadn’t been to IMMA before so we just visited the two main galleries on the first floor. One had a mix of materials but I particularly liked the kinetic art, of which I think the item below is an example. I didn’t have the wit to photograph the description and get a record of what it was called.
The other gallery had an exhibition called ‘Primal Architecture’. This was a slightly difficult exhibition to visit with children as there were several displays that involved objects on the floor, which were obviously inviting to small hands; but generally it was very enjoyable exploring the galleries with the boys, who were intrigued by all the different pictures, objects and installations.
Then we went to the cafe. This was a very necessary pause before going back over to the Gaol.
The Gaol is a cold and intimidating place. Pictures in guidebooks don’t convey how oppressively bare and dingy and cramped much of it feels, or how ricketty the boards are in the open walkways. The tour was excellent, covering a mix of social and political history, and giving plenty of attention to the 1916 Rising without letting it overwhelm all the other material. The guide joked with the boys and made us feel they were welcome on a tour clearly aimed at adults, but I removed Frank rather before the end as he was more than slightly restive. Hugh, however, stayed the distance and was solemnly attentive to all the dreadful tales of the past. Afterwards he said he had preferred the gaol to the art gallery. So did Ken, though I liked the art best myself.
Frank’s favourite part was the cafe…
Dot writes: In her wonderful book Findings Kathleen Jamie has a chapter about her husband’s serious illness. She’s a stern Scottish secularist and even in his extremity, she doesn’t pray. But she notices.
Could I explain to Phil that – though there was a time, maybe 24 hours, when I genuinely believed his life to be in danger – I had not prayed? But I had noticed, more than noticed, the cobwebs, and the shoaling light and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the speckled bird and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet. Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?
– Findings, (London: Sort Of Books, 2005), p. 109
I was thinking about this passage (secularism and all) during the sermon on Sunday, when the rector was talking about Creation and asking us if we knew what the current phase of the moon was? Did we know what kind of trees grew in our street? Could we visualise their leaves or their bark? Because it was this kind of noticing that was needed, if we were to care for the world and not just use it. It was a pretty fierce environmentalist sermon. I felt a little ashamed because I don’t know the names of the trees or the current phase of the moon; I’ve been hurrying along with my collar up and my head down, from door to station and station to door, to indoors. Though I conceive of myself as someone who loves to be out under the sky.
I’m not good at the names of things sometimes – names of trees, anyway. My head refuses to hold them, though it’s fine with strong verbs. I do look, though. I could picture the leaves. I was wondering about how much we use language as the tool of our noticing. For me this is indeed important, and I want to focus on things by talking about them – talking about literature, which I do pretty well, and talking about music, which I do a lot less well but as well as I can manage. (I’m best at noticing human things.) Talking, however, is sometimes a way of interposing a layer of yourself and your interpretation between yourself and the thing, so that your lovely verbal image subtly takes over as the object of your pleasure. I don’t think that’s what Kathleen Jamie does – or rather, her precise noticing becomes a way for others to notice too. But the ideal, the noticing that’s like prayer, is to stay receptive, not to impose. To find the right word and no more, and if there is no word, to hear and feel and look. I’m not sure I’d call it prayer, though. I think I’d call it love.
I will now explain why, in 2014, I became so very excited about Gotye. I’ll be as concise as I can but perhaps you should make yourself a cup of tea before you start reading. I’ll take the three albums in reverse date order, because that’s the order in which I bought them (I’m excluding Mixed Blood which doesn’t really count). I honestly don’t know which of the three is my favourite.
Making Mirrors (2011)
This is a very accessible album, and yet at the same time there’s much to hear in it, details that emerge with repeated listening. It’s musically varied but has a strong emotional arc: self-doubting and anxious songs at the start, a block of more positive material in the middle, and some very personal and honest stuff about love and death at the end. It’s extremely grown-up: the relationship songs aren’t about young love, they’re about long-term relationships, how they go wrong, how they work out, how people hurt or support each other. “Eyes Wide Open” is a song about impending environmental catastrophe – which, put like that, doesn’t sound like a terribly good idea for a song, but it’s an excellent song and I identify with it a lot. And there are several songs about the difficulties of the creative process. But all of this seriousness is set over tremendously inventive and engaging musical textures, and there are moments of pure fun too, such as the pleasingly odd and nerdy “State of the Art”, a song written about and largely on a home organ Wally’s parents bought for him.
Many of the sounds I find so delightful in this record are hard to comment on precisely because they’re unusual and I don’t know what they are. Sometimes the Making Making Mirrors documentary helps me out – so, for example, I know that the sparkling ostinato I love in “Save Me” is the sound of an autoharp, painstakingly sampled note-by-note and played back through a keyboard. But in “In Your Light” – actually my least favourite track – there’s a sound I like very much but I don’t know how to pinpoint it apart from to say it’s an instrumental phrase that partially anticipates the melody of the verse, starts about eight bars in, is presumably a synth sample, and sounds dryly reverberant and like a hybrid between a xylophone, a miniaturised French horn, and a robot.
A particular pleasure is the singing and use of vocal layering. Wally is an unfussy singer, and it’s after listening for a bit that you realise what skilful use he makes of the instrument that he has, a light tenor voice with a warm soft tone that hardens at high volume. There’s some really effective word-painting across the join between full voice and falsetto: for example, in “Eyes Wide Open”, where he sings “or give up / when you can’t even picture your future”, hitting “up” falsetto (breaking a little here) but then returning to the same note full voice on “can’t” (anger or protest). Several songs (for example, “Easy Way Out”) make use of an alternation between vocal tracks so that he seems to be talking to himself. However, for me the most striking use of multiplied layers of his own voice is the swell of wordless backing vocals in “Save Me” that so fills in and warms the texture under the words “And you’re patient, love / And you help me help myself”. It’s full of breath and closeness and it’s very romantic, but not in a cloying way because there’s nothing facile about it; such self-examination and such meticulous work have brought the album to this point. This may be my favourite song of the album. Then again, there’s quite a lot of choice.
Like Drawing Blood (2006)
This is definitely the oddest Gotye album, and the most adventurously varied – or all-over-the-place, if you’re less enthused than I am. The opening sets the tone: it’s a strange little assemblage of instrumental scribbles, snatches of strings and percussion, mixed very quiet so you turn it up to work out what’s happening and then wham! the first song starts MUCH LOUDER. And the song (“The Only Way”) is engagingly upbeat with a slightly eastern-sounding melody, only if you listen to the words you realise Wally is apparently singing in the persona of the angel of death. Or maybe a persuasive murderer. Which is a somewhat unusual stance, for a nice lad from Melbourne, you will agree.
This is an album of wittiness and disconcerting twists. A couple of songs have sharply contrasting sections set into them – the quiet sections in “The Only Way”, the curious brief pause in “Coming Back” where one hears the sound of chalk on a blackboard and a male voice saying in French “La composition”. There’s a very musical species of humour being played out in such gestures. This humour is also evident in “Seven Hours With a Backseat Driver”, a purely instrumental track that starts with jangly piano chords and a honky car horn before painstakingly working out an idea that is jaunty and awkward at the same time. Of all the tracks, “Thanks For Your Time” is the most straightforwardly funny. Again, there’s a mathematical quality in how it systematically explores a musical idea, building up the layers, but there’s also the jokey content of the song – it’s about the frustrations of dealing with customer services – which seems to comment in a self-ironising way on the slightly obsessive musical process going on. And the way Wally sings “Your call is valuable, so very valuable” is touchingly plaintive. “Thanks For Your Time” is one of my favourites.
Emotionally, this is the driest Gotye album. Where it is emotional, it’s sometimes hard to read. The fourth track, “Coming Back”, particularly intrigues me – it’s a tango of dash and flourish, but with a high, vulnerable vocal that speaks of desperation (“I’m clutching at straws, I’m climbing up the walls”). Its theatrical and somewhat artificial air (“La composition” – just an exercise?) has an undercurrent of hysteria. The three most direct songs punctuate the album as tracks 3, 6 and 10. “Hearts A Mess” is passionate and insightful and maybe a little creepy: I can’t help wondering about the character he is speaking as, who wants to “pick apart the pieces of your heart” and “peer inside”, who’s “desperate to connect”. The song works well live in stripped-back versions but there are some very clever complicating touches in the album arrangement, such as the strange little bouncy riff on three notes that sounds like bleeps from a lonely space-station. The motown tribute “Learnalilgivinanlovin” is straightforwardly joyous. And “Nightdrive” is beautifully understated – a portrait of quiet companionship, but with a painful twist because the relationship seems to be over – and I love the way the music at the end is so much more emphatic than the words.
Boardface is quite young and hormonal, but still (already) very good. Wally was less confident as a singer at this point, and/or more inclined to create scenes and characters rather than explore some strand of himself, so a number of the tracks are sung by female vocalists. The style is mostly down-tempo and moody and often reminiscent of 1990s trip-hop; there are lots of scratchy brass parts and strings samples that sound like bits of film soundtracks (in fact there’s one sample I’m pretty sure I recognise – the opening of the From Russia With Love title song, which he uses at the start of “Baby”). The songs deal with a more tempestuous and mixed-up emotional territory than he moves in later: unattainable girls, painful longings, that sort of stuff. But some of them are absolute crackers.
“Loath to Refuse” is a particular favourite: dark spaces in the music, a vocalist with a little-girl voice acting capricious and damaged. “If you don’t want me now / Then you can’t have me later…”, but in the second verse she wants to be alone: “Patience is a virtue my love / The question is, do you have enough?” “The Only Thing I Know” fits much better on this album than on LDB (it appears on the international release of LDB, replacing “A Distinctive Sound”): here its full-bodied Depeche Mode-style doominess feels like a logical escalation of what’s around it, whereas on LDB I find it a little heavy-handed. In “Out of My Mind” I love the contrast between the main line of a vocal melody (the same singer as in “Loath to Refuse”, Michaela Alexander) set over a slow reggae rhythm and the quite rapid horn break that periodically intersects it. “Out of My Mind” also contains the engaging lines “So many signs float by / Only you are signified” – the romantic potential of structuralist semantics! And then there’s “Here in this Place”, which has to be one of my favourite Gotye songs, though I know at least one other fan who absolutely hates it. It is joyously cheesy. There is an extremely enthusiastic saxophone and Wally singing with self-conscious sultriness in a range uncomfortably low for him, mistily contemplating sex (“this prison of pleasures from which we want no escape” – gosh). At the end there’s a harmonic shift upwards, the saxophone detumesces, he starts to sound more like himself, and there’s a quite literal cold shower – it finishes with the sound of rain. All very funny – and yet actually rather lovely too.