Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Sam Smith

Yesterday's artist was known to few - they didn't even have a Wikipedia entry. Today's artist is known to practically everyone who follows today's Pop. Along with Adele, One Direction and Ed Sheeran, he's Britain's most successful international star of the last 5 years.

Sam Smith was born in London, England, in 1992. He had good musical training. He was an alumnus of Youth Music Theatre UK and starred in their 2007 production of "Oh! Carol". Before entering the musical theatre, he had been in jazz bands. For a number of years he studied singing and songwriting under jazz pianist Joanna Eden. He attended St Mary's Catholic School in Bishop's Stortford. He was a member of the Bishop's Stortford Junior Operatics and the Cantate Youth Choir.

Smith grew up in the tiny Cambridgeshire village of Great Chishill, where he had an “amazing” childhood with a loving, supportive (and well-off) family, “But I was out in the middle of nowhere, where there were no other gay people, and not a lot of people with the same kind of mind that I had.” He came out when he was 10 years old and he wasn't afraid to speak up for equality at his Catholic school.
"From what I can remember, they believe that you can be homosexual, but you just can't practice it, which is ridiculous," he says. "I would just say, 'I am proof that it's genetic. It has to be, because it wasn't a choice.' And that's it. That's my only argument, you know? You love who you love, and I can't help that I like guys." He made his coming out public shortly before the release of his first album. Here he is, explaining why to Ellen:

For a person who's been out for all these years, he’s only had one real relationship, with the American model Jonathan Zeizel, which ended about a year ago. (Smith has “commitment issues” he’s trying to work out.) Here they are, when they first met:

We were first introduced to Sam in 2012 through Latch, a single by Disclosure where he was the featured artist. The single went 3x platinum in Canada, 2x platinum in the US, platinum in the UK, Australia, Sweden and Denmark and gold in New Zealand.

His next hit was also as a featured artist: La La La by Naughty Boy. It was an even bigger hit: 2x platinum in the US, the UK (also a #1), Australia, Sweden and Denmark, and platinum in the Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand.

Between the two collaborations, in February 2013, Sam Smith released his first personal single: Lay Me Down was a minor hit at first (UK #46), but when it was re-released two years later it was a proper hit, peaking at #2 in New Zealand, #3 in Australia, #8 in the US, #10 in Canada, #14 in Ireland, and #15 in the UK.

The music video for the re-release, which replaced the original, was recorded in St Margaret's Church, Lee, South East London, with the permission of the Rector the Revd. Dr. Alan Race. It was shot in one sequence. It depicts Smith at a funeral in the church standing in front of the deceased's coffin, then a flashback reveals that Smith actually married the man in question in the same church. The video then returns to the present day, some time after the funeral, with Smith mourning the loss of his husband in the empty church.

On 9 March 2015, it was announced that Smith and John Legend had joined forces for a new version of Lay Me Down to be used as the official Red Nose Day charity single. This version was released the same day and all proceeds from the track's sales benefit the charity. It made #1 in the UK, #4 in Ireland, #8 in Belgium, and #18 in the Netherlands.

In October 2013, Smith released his first (and so far only) extended play called Nirvana. The opening track was Safe With Me:

The second song on the EP was the title track:

The single that firmly established Smith was Money On My Mind, released in the end of 2013. It peaked at #1 in the UK and was certified gold or platinum in most major markets.

The song that really made him a superstar though, was his next single, Stay With Me, released in April 2014. The song has become Smith's most successful single to date, peaking at number one in the UK Singles Chart (becoming his third chart-topper there, second as a solo artist), topping the charts in Canada and New Zealand, and reaching number two on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It has also reached top 10 status in over twelve countries worldwide. At the 57th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony, Darkchild's remix version of Stay with Me won two Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

According to Smith, "the song is about the moment in the morning after a one night stand, where the person you are with leaves your house, and you are left by yourself, and it's just a second, where you are just like: 'I wish, I wish'. You don't even love them, you don't really fancy them that much, it's just nice to have someone in the bed next to you."

In January 2015, it was revealed that a settlement had been reached with Tom Petty's publishing company to add Petty and Jeff Lynne as co-writers, and that they would receive a 12.5% songwriting credit. Petty's publisher contacted Smith's team after he noticed a likeness between Stay With Me and the melody of Petty's 1989 song I Won't Back Down. Petty clarified that he did not believe Smith plagiarized him, saying "All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam's people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement".

A month later his first (and so far only) album was released. It was called In The Lonely Hour. It's a sad album, and Sam explains that making it so was a conscious decision: “I don’t have any problem with being the guy whose album people put on when they’re feeling sad,” he says. “In three years’ time, that might completely change, but right now, I don’t mind being the go-to CD when you’re having a glass of wine and feeling a bit sorry for yourself. I like that my music can be this kind of crutch for people.”

Melancholy, he continues, is second nature to him. “I’ve had an amazing life, but I think I was born with a little bit of sadness in me. I’ve always been attracted to those things, whether it’s sad movies, sad music… when you’re sad, you feel everything in a greater way than you do when you’re happy. I’m a vulnerable, sensitive person. I overthink everything. I’m insanely self-conscious about my body, about my music, about everything in my life, and that self-consciousness is what’s keeping my feet on the ground at the moment. If I didn’t have it, I’d become a bit of a pr*ck. I’m thankful for my sadness.”

The sadness didn't stop the album from becoming a commercial success worldwide, reaching number one in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom. It was the second best-selling album of 2014 in the UK, and the third best-selling of 2015 in the United States. It was nominated for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards, winning the latter and losing to Morning Phase by Beck in the former. In the Lonely Hour also received a nomination for Best British Album at the 2015 Brit Awards; the accolade ultimately went to Ed Sheeran for x. It sold over 2m copies in the US and as many in the UK.

In The Lonely Hour was spawned by a not-quite relationship. During his fourth and final acceptance speech at the Grammys in February, Smith thanked “the man who this record is about”, a casual remark of huge significance, considering the occasion. “I read an article saying I was one of the first openly gay men to do that on TV,” he says proudly. “I thought it was an impactful thing to do: to treat being gay as the new normal, on live TV in front of millions and millions of people across America. I’m trying to make it a non-issue, even though I’m fully aware that it is one.”

Next personal single (he also appeared on charity singles God Only Knows and the 2014 edition of Do They Know It's Christmas?), was I'm Not the Only One. A piano soul ballad, anchored by orchestral strings and a gospel structure, I'm Not the Only One deals with themes of infidelity in a relationship and was inspired by a marriage of someone writers Smith and Napes knew. It received a positive response from critics, who praised his emotional vocals and its instrumentation. Commercially, the song was another success for Smith, becoming a top-three hit in the United Kingdom, a top-five hit in the United States, and a top-ten hit in over ten countries. A music video featuring actors Dianna Agron and Chris Messina was released on 1 August 2014 and it features content similar to the song's lyrics.

Next single Like I Can peaked at #9 on the UK Singles Chart, giving Smith his fifth UK top 10 single. It was the 100th biggest-selling song of 2014 in the United Kingdom. It has also charted at #19 in New Zealand, #20 in Australia, and #99 in the US.

It was during the filming of this song's video that he met his soon to be boyfriend Jonathan Zeizel.

Sam once again collaborated with Disclosure and in July 2015 they released a single called Omen. The single was a hit in several countries.

He was now a bona fide megastar. As a result, he was asked to write and sing the theme song for the James Bond movie called Spectre.

“In my first meeting with Sam [Mendes, director] and Barbara [Broccoli, producer], my pitch was that I wanted to create something genuinely timeless and classy,” he explains of the track. “Sam was talking about how a lot of Bond songs are love songs, and how love is an underlying theme in all the films. I write love songs – that’s all I do! – and I felt that was something which could play to my strengths. So that’s what I set out to create, an epic love song.” Becoming the first British male solo artist in 50 years to front a Bond theme, winning a Golden Globe and then an Oscar for Best Song and making history by being the artist behind the first Bond theme to go to Number One in the UK, are just few of the things that he accomplished with this song.

Sam Smith has already began recording fro his second album, which he wants to be more personal than his first.
"I'm very passionate about being relatable. On my second record, instead of looking like I have more money, more airbrushing, I want to actually be more raw and more honest on my second album than my first," he says. "I want to be a pop star that isn't really skinny, a pop star who doesn't have a perfectly even face, where in my music video, I don't look my best, [but] I look raw and human. I want to change what a pop star is. I think that's deep down what I really want to do in music. I want to change that whole idea of, 'When I'm older, I want to be perfect.' I want to change people's idea of what perfection is. That's what I really want."

One of the new songs - called Scar, which deals with the subject of his parents’ divorce – he describes as “the saddest thing I’ve ever written”. Another is about the pressure he feels to conform to an industry standard of what pop stars, male and female, should look like.

Smith has struggled with negative body image since childhood, and even though he’s shed almost 50lb in weight over the past year, “I still feel pressured to look a certain way. For women, the pressure in this industry is horrendous and it’s got to stop. But it’s the same for guys, even though they won’t speak about it. I want to be a voice for that: just because I’ve lost weight doesn’t mean that I’m happy and content with my body. Because of the media, and because of what I feel I should look like, it’s always going to be a battle in my head.”He’ll later call that song “the happiest I’ve ever written”, before immediately qualifying the statement: “Well, at least it’s not too sad.” Either way, he says, “My first album was called ‘In The Lonely Hour’, so people shouldn’t be expecting anything too joyous from the next one. When I write sad songs, I feel like I’m sewing up a scar in me, and the outcome always feels so much better than when I write happy ones.”

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Told Slant (Felix Walworth)

Told Slant is the songwriting project of Felix Walworth, Brooklyn based lyricist, producer, and founding member of The Epoch arts collective. Felix is gender non-comforming or non-binary if you prefer, using pronouns they and them, so that's what we'll be using as well. Walworth started the project in 2011 as a means of marking a stylistic shift in their songwriting, specifically a shift toward understated, ambling arrangements and simple, illustrative lyrics.

A multi-instrumentalist who focuses on drums, Walworth grew up in a musical environment with father Danny Walworth, who drummed alongside guitarist Thurston Moore in the pre-Sonic Youth group the Coachmen. Those of you who don't know Sonic Youth, here's Teenage Riot from their classic album Daydream Nation:

The younger drummer started Told Slant as an undergraduate at Bard College. Walworth's intimate and delicately off-kilter first LP, Still Water, was self-released in 2012. From this album, here's an interesting song called In San Francisco:

Each phrase of the album is less sung, more choked out as best they can manage it, while they create songs as a means of catharsis for all the things they are going through. This raw emotion in the performance gives each track on Still Water a confessional quality, helped along by a very close-mic recording. Lack is one such song.

Ohio Snow Falls is one of the punchier songs:

“I am so fucked up” he concludes on Sleep In. There’s a feeling in the lyrics which is almost like a stream of consciousness: the dark thoughts creeping to the surface and crawling all over your mind like cockroaches, scuttling back into the shadows, but never really going away.

Listening to them, I'm really reminded of Velvet Underground. They were the insipration for so many acts after them... As Brian Eno had said: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band”. We'll get to deal with Velvet Underground more extensively soon.

Though Told Slant functions more like a “solo project” in its recorded state, its live incarnation is arranged and performed by Walworth and Epoch co-collaborators Emily Sprague of Florist, Oliver Kalb of Bellows, and Gabrielle Smith of Eskimeaux. Since the release of Still Water, they have toured extensively, slowly developing a very devoted fan base. No records were released in the meantime, until a few months ago, when their 2nd album Going By was released.

Walworth’s voice revels in its own messy excess, repurposing vocal transgressions into fundamental elements of their singing style. On Low Hymnal, conscious claiming of the queer body’s deviance (“still my body will be an illegible one,”) allows their voice to so powerfully transmit the extensive trauma that queer bodies magnetize.

In Green Nail Polish they say:

I don't want to make my bed for anyone
I don't want to spread my legs for anyone
I like to make my breakfast alone
walk myself to the store
and then back to the porch
you liked my green nail polish
and I liked your short black mullet
it wasn't love but I don't know what to call it

Tsunami begins with a gravelly mumble of “I want to be a good sky on bad day” before choking a register higher into “and today was a bad day.” The weary lyrics bare an “old soul” demeanor.

The lyrics get even bleaker in Sweater:

Talking used to pass the time
And smoking used to pass the time
But talking became a waste of time
And smoking became a waste of time
And my life became a pantomime
Of my life when I liked to be alive

That slippage from comfort to desolation and companionship to solitude is the space Told Slant’s music inhabits. It's not a comfortable place to be, but it feels real.

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Rolling Stones Top 75 Countdown & This Week's Statistics

Before we get to the Rolling Stones Top 75 Countdown, a word. Sometimes it seems that airing one's disappointment pays off. If you've read my comment from a couple of days ago, on the lack of interest for the Frank Ocean posts and on the dialogue with my Irish friend on his Facebook page, you'd be surprised to learn that since then Frank Ocean part 2 has doubled its visits (no change for part 1) and also during the last 24 hours there has been an impressive number of Irish people visiting the blog, after more than a week with no visits from Ireland at all. I've been pleasantly surprised. It is obvious that the path of communication between you and me is open, even if for various reasons that I totally respect, I don't get comments from that many people. Thanks guys and girls for your response! Now, to the Rolling Stones.

The song at #69 is a track from the last important album by the Rolling Stones, Tattoo You (1981). It's called Waiting on a Friend. The song is noted for its dreamy qualities brought on by the soft guitars, smooth rhythm, and Jagger's lilting refrain of "doo-doo-doo"'s. Stones-recording veteran Nicky Hopkins performs the track's running piano. The Stones hired jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins to perform the solo on this song, as well as two others on the album. On his addition to the track, Jagger said in 1985:

"I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy's a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, 'He's never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!' I said, 'Yes he is going to want to.' And he did and he was wonderful. I said, 'Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?' He said, 'Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.' So I did that. And that's very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don't have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat."

Released as the second single after Start Me Up, Waiting on a Friend became a radio staple in the US where it reached #13 on the singles chart in early-1982. It did not fare as well in Europe, reaching only #50 on the UK Singles Chart but as high as #15 in Belgium and #17 in the Netherlands.

At #68 is Tell Me, featured on their 1964 self-titled album (later referred to as England's Newest Hit Makers in the US). It was later released as a single A-side in the US only, becoming the first Jagger/Richards song that the band released as a single A-side, and their first record to enter the US Top 40. The single reached #24 in the US and #1 in Sweden. It was not released as a single in the UK.

Even though the song is a pop ballad, there is a garage feel in the execution that gives it a very interesting edge. A definite precursor of things to come and a great song.

Finally for today, at #67, Shattered, another song from the 1978 album Some Girls. The song is a reflection of American lifestyles and life in 1970s-era New York City, but also includes influences from the English Punk Rock movement. Jagger wrote the lyrics in the back of a New York cab. Most of Richards' guitar work is a basic rhythmic pattern strumming out the alternating tonic and dominant chords with each bar, utilising a relatively modest phaser sound effect for some added depth. Due to the absence of bassist Bill Wyman, the bass track is played by Ronnie Wood. The song peaked at #31 in the US Singles chart.

Now, to this week's statistics: during the last 7 days, all of our major players showed up, so they all gained points, some more and some less. The week's Top 10 is as follows: 1. the United States of America 2. Greece 3. the United Kingdom 4. Ireland 5. France 6. the Netherlands 7. Finland 8. Germany 9. Russia 10. the Philippines. Special greetings to Finland and the Philippines, which crack the Top 10 for the first time. Also present in our little company were, in alphabetical order, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam. So happy to have such a variety of friends!

As far as the all-time list is concened, the only change occurred because of Ireland's last-minute rush: for the first time in months, it managed to overtake Canada and land in 7th place, leaving Canada at #8. At #9 there's still Cyprus and at #10 there's still Portugal. They do, however, feel the heat of the countries behind them: past occupants of #10 Australia, Italy and Spain, as well as fast-moving China and the Netherlands.

France and the UK keep playing catch up in places 5 and 6, the UK shortening the distance to as low as 8 visits and then France widening it again to 16 visits. The Top 4 are unmoveable: 1. the United States of America 2. Greece 3. Russia and 4. Germany.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

St. Vincent part 2 & The Rolling Stones Top 75 Countdown

Anne Clark (St. Vincent) spent much of her time in Seattle writing her third album, Strange Mercy. She described that time in these words: "I would just get up in the morning and caffeinate, and run, and go to the studio for 12 hours, come back, eat dinner alone with a book, have a glass of wine, and go to bed. And do it all over again."

Strange Mercy (2011) received widespread acclaim from music critics. The album was St. Vincent's highest-charting album yet, peaking at #19 on the US Billboard 200.

Chloe In The Afternoon, the album's opener, explores Clark's misgivings about monogamy, particularly the societal pressures on and assumptions about human relationships.

The second track in the album is Cruel, an ambitious song that gets its inspiration from various different genres. It describes the disconnect of fulfilling one’s duty whilst inhabiting the dreamlike reality of a life on Prozac.

Cruel is followed by Cheerleader, a song that reminds us more than a little of Kate Bush. In its lyrics she claims to have “seen America with no clothes on”, and doesn’t “want to be a cheerleader no more”.

Two soundtracks for The Twilight Saga have featured songs from her. The first, Roslyn, was in collaboration with Bon Iver and appeared on the 2009 soundtrack for New Moon; her second, The Antidote, was written for and appeared on 2012's Breaking Dawn – Part 2.

Here's Roslyn:

... And here's The Antidote:

In June 2012, Who, the first single from her collaboration with David Byrne, formerly of Talking Heads, was released. The single came from their album Love This Giant, an intriguing experiment with a very interesting use of horns, which was released in September 2012. Who is a dogged funk track with both parties imprinting their distinctive personalities without it turning into a push-me-pull-you power struggle.

From the same album, here's Weekend in the Dust:

On May 28, 2013, David Byrne and St. Vincent released Brass Tactics EP, which included their version of the Talking Heads' classic Road To Nowhere.

On November 19, 2013, Clark received the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for Performing Arts. A few weeks later, her fourth album, St. Vincent were released, alongside the first single, Birth in Reverse, a song released with the desire to make people dance and “blur the boundaries between a rock show and the theatre”.

The album has received universal critical acclaim, with a 89% Metacritic score. NME, The Guardian, musicOMH, Entertainment Weekly and Slant Magazine named it the best album of 2014.

The second single off this album was Digital Witness. Its lyrics deal with people's increasing dependence on social media. “If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me,” she sings, “What’s the point of doing anything?”

The album is St. Vincent most successful to date. It peaked at #12 in the US Album chart, #15 in Canada, #18 in Denmark, and #21 in the UK.

Another track off this album, Prince Johnny, deals with gender identity and defying traditional gender roles. What it means to be a 'real boy' or a 'real girl'. It’s an ambient and luxurious ballad, affectionate and gorgeously melodious.

On April 10, 2014, Clark fronted Nirvana performing lead vocals on Lithium at the 29th Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

A few months ago, St. Vincent covered the Rolling Stones' Emotional Rescue for the soundtrack of the Tilda Swinton / Ralph Fiennes film A Bigger Splash.

For the last year and a half, Annie has been dating mega-model turned actress Cara Delevingne.

A few words from Annie about her relationship: "Cara is an experientialist—more feet in the fire. I'm less so. If there's a dark room of the subconscious, I want to find it and walk around in it. Sometimes I feel very much in my head and slightly removed from the physical world. For example, I dance onstage, but I don't dance for pleasure offstage. I'll be privy to a dance club or something and just be essentially sober and watch things happen. More as a social observer, like an anthropologist. I'm not in the middle of the dance floor, you know?" She pauses. "That probably doesn't sound like a lot of fun. But I'm having a great time."

Since we've already mentioned the Rolling Stones today, here are three more entries in our countdown of their best songs.

At #72, we have Till the Next Goodbye. A traditional ballad from the Stones' middle period, with slight country music influences, it's found in the 1974 album It's Only Rock 'n Roll. The song has never been performed live by the Stones and is not included on any compilation albums. Yet, it's a great song:

At #71, we find Beast of Burden, from another strong album by the Stones, 1978's Some Girls. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song #435 on their list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Here's a live version:

... And here's Bette Midler's version:

Finally for today, at #70, here's the song for which Paul & John of the Beatles provide background vocals and percussion. We Love You was recorded during the sessions for Their Satanic Majesties Request in 1967. The song is a droning Moroccan influenced anthem of defiance. Outwardly, it was a message from the band to its fans, expressing appreciation for support in the wake of their recent drug busts. It was also an ironic, tongue in cheek slap in the faces of the police harassing them and the Stones' true feelings about it, putting on a cooperative and friendly face while inside they were seething with anger and indignation.

It was released as a single in the UK with Dandelion as the B-side. It peaked at #8, but only made it to #50 in the US, where Dandelion (which reached #14) was promoted as the A-side.