Archive for the ‘working musicians’ Category

You know how this one goes….. it’s a night out, everyone’s stayed up later than they intended to, sooner or later there will be a discussion as to what time everyone has to get up at the next morning. As people quiz each other as to what time their alarm will sound, it can get somewhat competitive, a bidding war as to who has the most onerous day ahead.  Now here’s the interesting thing; if you’re a full-time musician, this question will never, ever be directed to you in these scenarios. Example:

John: I’m up at 6.30, what about you?

Michael: Oh god, even worse, I’ll be up at 6. You Liza?

Eliza: I work so hard, I’m not even going to bed. It’s alright for you Cathy, you don’t have to get up in the morning

Don’t I? How did you come up with that idea, then? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve simply been informed of this,  I’d be a wealthy lady. Along with the equally common – and no more accurate – assumption that I’m on social welfare, it’s one of the casually insulting remarks I’ve learned to smile through when the conversation turns to what I do for a living. Why is it insulting? Because we have a strong association between moral virtue and early rising. We’ve heard a lot about this here in Ireland recently, when our newly appointed Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said he wanted to be a leader for ‘people who get up early in the morning’. So, presumably, he has no interest in representing those of us who are still working when those people are going to bed? It speaks very clearly to the belief that work happens between 9-5, Monday to Friday, and anything outside of that is a hobby. But isn’t this kind of assumption about other people’s work duties just bad manners?  So even if it were accurate, would ‘its grand for you, you’re not up in the morning’ be any less ignorant than my hectoring 9 to 5ers with ‘it’s grand for you, you’re at leisure every evening’?

I get the fact that outsiders are generally surprised when they come to realise how hard professional musicians actually work, and if you’re basing your ideas about musicians’ lifestyles on what you’ve seen in the movies, I understand why. The life of an ordinary working musician is something you never see depicted in cinema or television. Screen portrayals of musicians tend to come down to one of two types; the ‘rock star’, seen in such films as Almost Famous, or the deadbeat/starving artist model seen in such films as Inside Llewyn Davis, with drug or alcohol abuse a prominent feature in either case. For sure, there are such people in the music business, but few working musicians recognise much of themselves in these portraits. Self-employed people in any field tend to work very hard indeed, and musicians are no exception; days and nights filled with rehearsals, directing choirs, recording sessions, teaching, weddings, performances, lugging speakers into venues at anti-social hours, and all of the communication and paperwork generated by each of those things, don’t leave much time for guzzling champagne. Most of us do not lead the lives of Led Zeppelin. Why do screenwriters not concern themselves with documenting this? I imagine it’s because, like so many aspects of real life, it’s not very interesting to watch!

It strikes me that if this is true of musicians – that there’s a gulf between the reality of the job and the way it’s depicted on screen – it’s probably equally true of the portrayal of other professions, such as chefs or the police force. So when I meet people who work in those areas, I try not to come with assumptions. It’s just rude. Most jobs look different when you’re doing them. But if you are interested – for example, if you’d like to know what time I get up at – you can always just ask.

A fiddle player’s thoughts on the etiquette of dealing with session musicians……….

Let’s say you’re a self-taught songwriter –  or an indie band  – and you’ve hired a session musician to put those final magic touches to your recording. There’s just one problem….you have no idea what to say to them when they arrive in the studio. Sound familiar? As both a session musician and a songwriter I’ve been both sides of this; I’m well aware that directing session musicians can be an intimidating prospect, especially for artists with little formal training. So here’s some suggestions:

1). Have a clear idea of why you want the instrument on the track

From my own experience, artists tend not to have very developed ideas of what they’d like me to play; they simply have a vague idea that it would be nice to have some fiddle on a track. That’s fine, but if you leave it as wide open as that there’s no guarantee you’ll like what I come up with. To a large degree this is just a matter of taste, and of what you’re hearing on the song fiddle-wise, but keep in mind I don’t have access to what you’re hearing in your head! Do you want it as a texture throughout the whole song, or do you want fills, a ripping solo in the middle of the track? A good place to start is to direct me to a track that you like (by another artist)* which features fiddle. Send me some samples prior to the session, maybe give me some examples of things you definitely don’t want, and I guarantee it’ll result in a more positive experience for everyone – you, me, and your engineer. And nobody wants an unhappy engineer working on their project.

2). Anything is better than a blank page.

You should expect your session musician to do a bit of homework before they show up for a recording session, but don’t make us fumble blindly for information that you’ve got and are not sharing. Most people I’ve recorded for send me a pre-production track and nothing else. Then I spend some time working out the structure & harmonic progression of the tune and build my fiddle line from there. You could save me some time by giving me some paper. Even if you’ve no charts and no idea how to notate lines, why not send me a lyric sheet so I have a road map to work from? Don’t be afraid to state what might seem to you to be obvious – you wrote the song so to you it’s self-evident which is the verse and which one’s the chorus, for example. Well I’m hearing this song for the first time, so it might not be so obvious to me.

Good example: I recently recorded for a songwriter who had some insecurity about his lack of formal training and continuously apologised for the fact that he doesn’t read music. But he sent me a clear plan of the song structure and chords, outlined which parts of the song did and did not require fiddle, and, best of all, was able to sing me a rough outline of the fiddle line he had in mind. Perfect. That’s all I need. And you don’t need to be able to read music to do that.

3). Respect your musicians’ time. Don’t call me in for 10am if I won’t be recording until 3pm.

This is a management issue, not a musical one, but it’s important. I’m amazed how often I’m called in for the start of a recording session, only to be greeted with ‘Oh yeah, we’re just starting in on the drums and bass now, not sure when we’ll be ready for the fiddle’. Did you think about that at all before you gave me the same call time as the rhythm section?! Unless you want a seething musician on your hands, it’s worth spending a few minutes scheduling your session properly.

4). If you’re asking me to work for free, do not, under any circumstances, try to make it seem like an opportunity for me.

About 50% of the artists who book me for recording sessions will try to get me to do it for free, or at the very least look for a discount because ‘we’re on a tight budget’. This is a bit of a cheeky thing to ask of a stranger, but ok, there’s no money in original music so I’m not completely unsympathetic. However if you try to tell me it’ll be good for my career – the classic phrase is ‘it’ll be good exposure’ – you can expect me to double my fee.


Hope that’s some help. Happy recording 🙂

*It is worth noting that most people pick either Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys, or Bob Dylan’s Hurricane.

One of the interesting things I did this week was attend the Music Futures Seminar in Smock Alley Theatre, part of the Musictown festival. It was thought provoking, and I particularly welcomed hearing from delegates from abroad on the issue of creative spaces and audience development. As somebody involved in a lot of ‘arty’ gigs that run at a (financial) loss it was also reassuring to hear from other artists in the same boat. Without wanting to be cynical though, there are two things that you always, always hear at events such as this:

1). ‘This is a very exciting time for Irish music’. It’s always a very exciting time for Irish music. When the recession first hit we heard a great deal about how the arts thrive in times of economic difficulty, and there was certainly no shortage of articles written on the subject. Some of the evidence cited didn’t stand up to much scrutiny though; trad sessions that had been going for years, jazz clubs which had likewise been going long before the Celtic tiger roared its last – and for which in any case nobody is paid – were all suddenly being linked to a recession-related thriving arts scene in a way that as an artist I don’t find plausible. So, that was an exciting time for Irish music. Things are beginning to improve on the economic front, however slowly, and that makes this an exciting time for Irish music too……..

2). ‘The political will isn’t there’. This country has an abundance of creative talent but the political will isn’t there to support it and consequently artists can’t make a living. True, but perhaps we need to be a little more honest with ourselves about where ‘political will’ comes from. It comes from voters. If there were votes to be gained by supporting the arts you can be pretty sure our politicians would make it a priority. But as a nation we have a huge resistance to linking the arts & money; we value music so much that we think it should be free. Ask any musician. If I could pay the bills with positive feedback – or better yet with advice!- I’d be sorted.  But look for a wage and the reaction you’ll get is very, very different. The political will isn’t there because the cultural will isn’t there. If I had a solution to that conundrum I might consider a career in politics.