How to write a book and an album in one year

Christmas came early for me in 2010. I emerged from Kentish Town underground into falling snow and my leg buzzed into life with answer phone messages from a literary agent and a record label. I learnt in quick succession that in little over a year I would be having a book published and an album released. What’s more, they wouldn’t just be coming out in the same year and the same month, but in the same week.

I broke the news to Leo, as well as the rest of my band, before heading to the pub to celebrate. Looking back, I probably should have been more worried about the challenge that lay ahead. After all, although the book had been planned out and written up into a proposal, only the first chapter was actually finished. Although some songs were recorded, I wanted the album to be a coherent and progressive piece of work. An album of the old school vein, it had to span a whole raft of themes, not just be a collection of tunes.

As you would imagine from its title, writing Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild required a lot of time spent outdoors. The book is about the simple things that we can all try that help us draw closer to, and reconnect with, nature; the importance of being, in every sense of that word, in the wild. It was going to be an amazing journey; a year of carving elder whistles in far-flung corners of woodland, building igloos on snow-topped mountains, sleeping in leaf shelters and cooking up on campfires under a clear canopy of stars. What it could not be was rushed.

Leo and I circled the days we would be travelling and writing. The few windows left for creating and recording an album seemed too few; they would need to feature nose-to-the-grindstone songwriting and studio time. It was hardly the Rolling Stones-style ‘year-on-a-Caribbean-beach-polishing-off-chord-sequences-with-a-pina-colada’ I had imagined.

So, how do you write a book and album in a year? Well they say if you want a job doing, give it to a busy man. In my favour, I have always written words and music simultaneously. I see no real difference in the creative process of either. Some ideas turn out to be a nice paragraph, others fit perfectly with a chord sequence. I am drawn to writers whose lines seem musical too; Roger Deakin’s nature writing, Dylan Thomas’ prose, Kerouac’s jazz-like rambles. Similarly, I have always been a lyrics man and it is the more narrative musicians that affect me most. I was also lucky that I was working with Leo and the boys in the band – all stagger me with their talent and ability to realise a vision.

It was last February, that Leo and I bundled out of London to track animals in through the snow and mud of wintry West Wales. We were soon following a fox’s prints into a dark wood. Holed up and waiting for its return as night fell seemed unnatural and unnerving. We talked in hushed whispers about things neither of us had discussed with each other before, our childhoods, growing up. Over those first few weeks writing we came back to the point time and again, that as we look more closely into the land we invariably look more closely into ourselves. It was something that would become a defining element to the book. It became more reflective, more philosophical. As well as imparting the techniques for the simple things that draw us closer to nature, we were writing about its impact on us too, the benefits of birdsong on the human brain or how finding a fossil can bring a unique and important perspective on our own life and death.

This changed my songwriting too. It became rawer, as honest as I could stand to make it, exploring something of what it is to be alive in Britain today. One night I watched a video of that punk pioneer Malcolm McLaren railing against what he saw as the burgeoning ‘karaoke culture’ and calling for people to be true to themselves, to create. This struck a chord with me. I started thinking of songwriting as a process indistinct from chopping wood; it has to have our sinews, sweat and tears.

As I wrote, surprising crossovers between the book and album began emerging. Leo and I had found a unified voice easily and we were writing of the change that occurs when we take the time to leave the urban and walk out into the wild. These are experiences that can be heard on the album too; as we spent days doing things I had last done as a boy, I remembered things from my childhood I had thought forgotten. This gave rise to songs like ‘Sleeping in the Woods’ and ‘The Fire’: “Somehow I felt peaceful there, flames licking up the cool, night air. Wind whispering through the telegraph wire, singing to the fire.”

In finding the voice for the book, I had stumbled on my songwriting voice too, a voice I’d been chasing down and trying to perfect for nearly twenty years.

The rest of the band began to expect something new to learn every time we rehearsed. We had hit a rich seam and it soon became clear that we were really recording a double album: side one the full-band, epic-folk sound of a Saturday night, that feeling that no matter who you are, where you live or what job you do, the world is yours. Side two, the Sunday morning, was a dark dawn. The same things but viewed from the other side; faith, hope, love in the cold light of day. It was something we could all relate to. The characters were drawn from reality, people trying to make something for themselves, sometimes soaring, and sometimes falling.

It strikes me now that the book and the album are about the same thing: learning to live in the place we find ourselves, both physically and mentally. Creating them at the same time meant each had a profound influence on the other; this gave me a new way of writing. Perhaps, ultimately, it was the making of both.

  - Rob - Drawing of a robin

What do you get out of slowing down and spending time in nature?

Yesterday, I had a very pleasant chat with Sean Moncrieff on NewsTalk Ireland.

Listen here

We talked in particular about the transformative effect that spending quality time in nature can have.

As you become an adult, there’s a lot of other pressures, and these things fall by the wayside… there are parallels with meditation; little rituals that help you become mindful and bring yourself back into the moment…

There’s so much in favour of spending time reflecting on and experiencing nature. We all know this instinctively, we prefer a room with a view or a house with a garden, and yet many of us rarely take advantage of the abundant (and potentially free!) resources out there.

Listen to Leo on NewsTalk Ireland

- Leo -

The benefits of being in nature; are children losing out?

Rob spoke to Hannah Murray at Talk Radio Europe: Spain a couple of days ago.

Listen here

Nowadays, less than a quarter of children visit a local patch of green weekly. What sort of damage could this do in the long run?

The human animal evolved to live in nature, and it has a very powerful effect on us when we spend time in nature – when we slow down and spend time in it.

Are we so worried about the risks of letting children roam, that we are exposing them to the larger risks of becoming disconnected from the world around them, of becoming too used to fast-cut media and 2D screens?

Listen to Rob on Talk Radio Europe

- Leo -

The Joy of Snow: a reconnecting experience

Marcel Proust once wrote that “a change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves”. He was right; nothing changes our group consciousness so entirely and immediately like the weather.

Yesterday, as snow started to fall across most of the UK, there was a tangible shift in people’s mood for the better. I watched as men abandoned the usual arm’s length distance we all tend to keep each other and helped to manoever wheel-spinning cars, or run to steady someone as they slipped in the drifting white stuff. Sledges came out, kids squealed in delight and adults abandoned their plans for the day, dressed up warm and went outside to play.

Snow reconnects us with nature in a profound way; it reignites our love for the outdoors. We want to be outside, to enjoy it. We carve snow into primitive sculptures, we build temporary shelters from it, we read the symbols wildlife leaves in it. We all become craftsmen, artists, trackers, warriors. But this is the mindset with which we should always approach nature. Regardless of season and weather, we belong in nature; it creates a physical and mental transformation in us. We go out in one frame of mind but always return richer.

The simple joy of catching snowflakes in your mouth!

Having started a walk as the first flakes fell, Rosie and I were lucky enough to have a front row seat as the landscape changed. A veil of grey descended and the soft fall floated down in silence. Bare oak boughs by the river seemed weighed down with the white; all became beautiful, painting-like. Snow has that levelling effect. It levels us too. We become closer to nature and closer to our real nature as a sociable animal, evolved to draw pleasure from our surroundings.

Perhaps we should all remember the joy of snow and aim to always view our landscapes as if a fresh covering of had just fallen.

 - Rob - Drawing of a robin

Manufacturing a strong mind

In the January 6th edition of the Times Literary Supplement (yes, it sometimes takes me a while to get round to reading these), Andrew Scull discusses Raymond Tallis’s book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, a valiant attempt to rout the advance in popular science of the conviction that all human activity can ultimately be explained through neuroscience.

(You can read the article online, but the TLS website is pay-only.)

Hand gripping a stone

The opposable thumb in all its glory

Scull notes that:

When our ancestors descended from the trees and began to walk on two legs, our forelimbs were free to evolve in radically new directions. … [We] developed a large opposable thumb, and the human hand evolved into “a stunningly versatile organ for interacting with the world”.

He goes on to observe that the ensuing increase in the use of tools appears to predate language by perhaps millions of years, and that our gradually enlarging brains “were a necessary, not a sufficient cause of the change in human nature and consciousness.”

This leaves tools themselves as a key transformative mechanism in human development. In our book we talk about Lambros Malafouris’ related notion that tools form a sort of external support structure for our brains, with cultural artefacts outside our heads just as important to our way of thinking as the neurons themselves.

What Tallis seems to be getting at is that the real situation is still way beyond our understanding. What we know in the scientific sense about the mind is incredibly limited when compared to the vast complexity the mind has generated: myriad cultures and indeed science itself.

I think the takeaway for me is that what you do profoundly affects how you think.

Because we haven’t got to the bottom of this mechanism by a long chalk, it’s always risky extrapolating from it, but that’s never stopped me before, so I’ll have a go.

Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods gives a number of detailed examples of the mental health benefits a natural setting can lend when it forms one of these external mental structures for children. He also shows how the destruction of a specific environment a child feels connected to can cause reactions akin to those of bereavement.

Because we evolved in situations wildly different from the settings most of us are now in, it’s important to take time to ‘reset’ and get back to the wild in some small way. Maybe one day we’ll understand our own minds well enough to bring them up to date, but that’s a very long way off.

I suspect many of us harbour these mental landscapes from our youth, even if we spend less time in them physically now. I know how important my own childhood experiences of nature are to me, how about yours?

- Leo -