Some time back I went to a gig at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush. Originally a dance hall and returned to its former glory in 2001, the band I’d gone to see featured Jem Cooke, my daughter. A singer, performer, writer and now showcasing with a keen rhythm section and songs that were going to be her first album. The venue wasn’t perfect and rang like a bell! In short, it was something of a bunfight with her shouting over the acoustics, the drums and the excited solos from the others who all seemed to be trying to get to the end of the song first!
It was an OK gig; nobody left early and her hopeless and inexperienced producers at the time seemed happy with the results. Personally, I wasn’t. Afterwards we chatted in the car homeward and I suggested delicately that she should stick the band on the back shelf for now and work out another route. I went further and offered to be her band and help develop an unplugged acoustic set up in which the songs could be heard and appreciated. I could play guitar, some keyboards and we could start building from the beginning. Then I started to panic; I hadn’t played guitar live for quite some time having been cocooned for years in the studio and before that playing keyboards in a band. Back to basics was the brief and we started working on new material to play live. Get back the chops, work on the scales, go through the pain barrier every day, practice, practice and, if in doubt, practice some more. One condition was that I could always stand back as and when the band was ready to resume and the funds were in place. Needless to say, I was by far the cheaper option. In fact, I was the free option. But I’d offered so no going back. And at the time she didn’t really mind the idea of playing with her dad.
After a short time endorsing her utterly useless, pointless and disjointed writing and production team still trying to produce a hit thinking Jem looked better in fishnet stockings (I Know) and brokering a deal which included them in the forefront and the artist as an afterthought, we bought them out!
It was time to start writing from scratch and, going back to basics, create material that was simple, transparent and easily accessible. The choices of acoustic guitar and an occasional ukulele from Jem gave the songs a simple charm that allowed her to express the highs and lows, the heartaches and relationships she was experiencing at the time without worrying about how loud the drums were or if the bass was in tune.
We started gigging and it was great to turn up, do a five-minute sound check and leave. None of the usual ‘let’s rehearse the entire setlist’ whilst other acts waited their turn. On, off and to the bar!
Back to basics was an eye-opening experience, and after several song writing sessions around the kitchen table, and many try-outs at acoustic nights we had the album pretty much sorted. It was clear however that the only way we’d do this was simply to do it! In the studio, with the same back to basics approach we’d had with the original gigs. No clever production soul-searching or gazing into the middle distance waiting for inspiration. Just the daily routing of recording what we had already written and played live. We finally hit upon the finished product:” I am Jem Cooke”.
Talking to some media friends from Germany during the mixing process I mentioned that we’d got this far. “Send us copies as soon as it’s finished”. They were keen to hear what we’d done………
If you’re stuck and you can’t seem to find a way out try going back to basics. Write simple, easy and accessible tunes. See how surprising and rewarding it can be. You don’t need all the toys, loops and sequencers. Pick up your ‘first love’ and start noodling.