The sounds of places, and the road to Firsby station

It is 16 May 2016, a Monday afternoon. I am in a field in a remote part of rural Lincolnshire, just behind a potato warehouse, juggling an array of digital devices to record sound and images. In front of me is a bonfire of pallets, the air dense with wood smoke and pollen. Industrial sounds from the warehouse mingle with birdsong. Behind me the vast plains of the county extend north for mile on mile, to Alford, Willoughby; east a little to Sutton, Mablethorpe, Skegness and the North Sea.

I’ve already spent two days in Leicester, in the home studio of my producer Ben Siddall, getting all the instruments down for my new album We’re Never Going Home. Ben and I spent a further day in Sheffield on the vocals. Today’s field recordings, in the tiny village of Firsby, are the final piece of work.

The bird chirps and occasional sweeping past of cars that I’m recording here will be sent to Ben to mix in to the song ‘Dream of Firsby Station’. The protagonists of this historical love song express a fear that its eponymous setting – where they meet – will one day cease to exist. They turn out to be right: the station was closed in 1970 and mostly demolished a year or so later, although the song ends before this point is reached. By adding to the song these sounds, gathered from the exact spot on which the station once stood, I’m hoping to add another layer of meaning as well as atmosphere to the track.

It’s down to the song’s listeners to judge whether the field recordings succeed in bringing this additional poignant/ironic perspective to the story. But I’m convinced that Ben’s expertise has at least made the project a success acoustically. As well as blending in the sound of Firsby, he’s introduced an intense, cyclical delay effect to the guitar. This means that for most of the track, alongside the instrumental sound being played at any particular moment, the listener experiences a wash of background tones generated from notes played half a minute earlier. It’s the perfect way to embody in sound the implication in the lyrics that the past, the present and the future bleed into each other like watercolours. More importantly, it sounds way cool.

This is one of a number of field recordings featured on the album. I grew interested in recordings on location when I listened to those made by Longbarrow Press, in which the performances of poets are enhanced by the ambient sound of various outdoor settings. My album, too, includes a poem, ‘The Pull’, recorded on location and accompanied by the sound of north Atlantic seabirds. Another track features sea-sound captured in Cleethorpes and Grimsby, where I grew up. One song is named after the map location in Sheffield at which I recorded the sound of the River Don which features throughout the track. (I was drunk and it was the middle of the night, but that’s another story.)

There are semi-accidental aspects to these sounds too. Having found a new sequence of guitar chords, I often make a quick recording on my phone to avoid forgetting it. One such sketchbook recording finds its way on to the album unedited and unadorned, with my seven-year-old describing his drawing of an underwater camera. At a deserted and rain-drenched Chesterfield railway station one evening my friend Kelly Snape started to play the piano in the concourse; I instinctively whipped out my phone to preserve the moment in audio, again with no thought of ‘using’ the recording for anything, but somehow it ended up working beautifully as the very last sound on the album.

Another way in which the new album departs from my earlier stuff is the use of different instruments and techniques. On a country pastiche called ‘Don’t Marry an Anarchist’ we brought in a session banjo player, and I added slide guitar using a Budweiser bottle. ‘Golden Goal’ is a song based entirely around piano. Alongside the guitar and bass, ‘Second City Autumn’ includes a mandolin but no vocals. On one song there are no instruments: an a capella cover of My Favorite’s synth-indiepop classic ‘Homeless Club Kids’.

But the field recordings are the most fitting innovation because We’re Never Going Home is about places, and states of mind, and how the two affect each other.

The album is released on 24 July 2016. I can’t wait to hear what you make of it.

So, that potato warehouse I crouched behind with a camera and digital audio recorder? Before it was a potato warehouse, it was the goods shed at Firsby station. And it’s fair to say that as a 16-year-old, when I started to play guitar and write songs, the destinations I envisaged involved a little more in the way of hotel room debauchery and a little less in the way of arable produce distribution. The road I ended up following, of course, proved to be a little more Bobby Wratten and a little less Bobby Gillespie. But if you’re doing something creative, and you’ve any respect for your role and your chosen medium, you follow that road wherever it leads. I’m happy enough that it led me to Firsby.

3 thoughts on “The sounds of places, and the road to Firsby station

  1. I appreciate the patience required and often difficulties encountered in capturing natural field recordings, as you will have experienced whilst recording at the potato warehouse; so I am somewhat surprised that those recordings, which all have their own unique subtleties and nuances, never to be repeated, are simply ‘drowned out’ by an overlaid music track!

    Each to our own, but I would prefer to listen to your original field recordings.

    Nevertheless, I wish you success with your albums.

    1. Thanks for listening and commenting, The Field Recordist!

      As a musician with a nascent interest in field recording, I guess this is the obvious way for me to be approaching it. But I appreciate your perspective. As it happens I will be releasing a set of field recordings from the same visit to Firsby – they’ll be on my Soundcloud in a few weeks’ time. Maybe you could drop by again for a listen?

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