Over several years from the late 1990s, Charlotte Yates provided NZ Musician with a regular songwriting advice column. In the decade since has released a steady stream of albums under her own name, alongside three much admired albums of poems by highly regarded NZ writers put to music – James K Baxter (2000), Hone Tuwhare (2005) and Witi Ihimaera (2011). She co-ordinated and musically directed the albums which include tracks by many well known local artists.
‘Archipelago’ is the name of her recently released sixth personal album. Charlotte is something of a collaboration specialist and on this album it is fellow Wellingtonian, mix engineer and producer Gil Eva Craig, who provided an outside perspective as co-producer. The result is an album of gentle beauty and meaning. Rather than an interview, we thought we’d ask Charlotte to explain the genesis of some of the tracks on ‘Archipelago’, so that we might all learn something of how such an experienced songwriter goes about their craft – a homage of sorts to the contribution she made to NZM back in its earlier days.
Take it away Charlotte… 2,3,4…
Initial doodle lyrics detailed quite specific aspects of family separation and high level conflict but it became almost a folk song in terms of its imagery and phrasing. I tried to thwart expressed tension with a simple homile really, that it only takes a heart to make a home, and how front and centre that needs to be in a messy divorce. I liked how the chorus couplet, ‘With the creeping of the light, when the dawn dispels the night’. God knows where ‘dispel’ popped up from, but it did and it stayed.
A Heart to Make was the first song Gil Eva Craig and I co-produced, and I loved that she set a very naked lead vocal over a backing vocal sample. This device heightened the whole album’s start, with a clarion call, ‘Come my love, we’ll sell everything’. Gil pushed to use my original demo vocal/acoustic guitar, then carved and shaped it with beats, bass, and all sorts of electrickery. I added backing vocals and electric guitar riffs and shimmies. This was the beginning of a weekly to and fro song production line. At this stage, the album was going to be called ‘Songs of Wrong Doing’.
I owe the first line of this song, ‘I was playing with love and squalor’, to one of our cats. She bolted in through the cat door on to a bookcase, kicking off a little paperback copy of JD Salinger’s short story collection For Esmé – with Love and Squalor, and other stories. I caught the book as it fell and got the opening line from its title. The melody was built over an arpeggiated C#min7 to an anticipated open string jangling B major repeated chord progression.
At the end of the bridge, the same chords are used with a lyric hanging over them, ‘When you tremble like a leaf a tree has never known’, sung on a simple but hopefully intense two-note repeated motif. Gil played a lovely ascending bass line from underneath which I thought reinforced the fragile image. At this stage, the album was going to be called ‘Diaries of Darkness & Light’.
This song was mistakenly left in a pile of demos I’d given Gil while I worked on another project for a month. When we reconvened, she’d taken the demo and run with it sonically. When I stammered, ‘But this is a reject’, we had our first disagreement – to which she very diplomatically said, “I would ask you to seriously reconsider.” That was hard to refuse.
Sometimes sticking a song in the drawer and leaving it for a while can help. Again, we kept the original vocal and acoustic guitar. The funky little breakdown in the middle was a mistake, but we kept that too. The chords rearranged themselves in endless variations, which was a pain in rehearsal, but made a good bed to sing over.
The song tries to express a modicum of hopeful support when you’re worried about your love being caught in the mire of parallel parenting and making ends meet, and feeling pulled every which way. Being in what Mansfield called one of Wellington’s ‘southerly busters’ gives a similar experience. I think it’s just middle age.
This song wrote itself. I have one draft with a couple of corrections. My younger stepdaughter’s 10th birthday provided lyrical colour – she was obsessed with the Titanic and wore a straw boater, a very strange lace white dress and a string of pearls to her Titanic-themed birthday party. One guest arrived in scuba gear. And I was ‘…sinking while the iceberg floats’.
In production, the track is lifted from pity paralysis by a tiny bell riff and the first guest we worked with, Tom Callwood of Phoenix Foundation, who brought a lovely swaggering double bass groove to the song. His strings are pure gut and gave a deliciously different texture. However the bass was so fat, drummer Darren Mathiassen had to re-record the percussion track to use the tiniest, highest tom he had because the double bass completely filled the low end. The track also introduced Gil’s Eb tenor horn to the mix.
A particular patch of song writing ended here – particularly bleak – probably because I was particularly over being unable to drive or move much in recovery from a back operation. My stepdaughters asked if I could write a happy song. Now, the album is called ‘Archipelago’.
This song was my take on the Canterbury earthquakes. Written just after we had snow in Wellington for the first time in 45 years and I was struck by how quiet it was when it fell.
‘And where is the breath between the blows?
The dust refuses to settle and silent falls the snow.’
I wrote the song very quickly, using dominant major sevenths (D/G) in the verses and the relative minor in the chorus. I used a song form I like a lot – ABABB. Feels succinct and I can use more wordplay lyrically with a simple map. However it totally stalled in production. It was the second track Gil and I worked on together and it went down a real cul de sac and stayed there. Too many parts, too many beats, too much Burt Bacharach. Nightmare.
So we admitted defeat and I later re-recorded it very basically, as it had been written. With the guest flautists’ help (brava Michelle Scullion and her gold flute) and some relevant percussion we cheered it up a bit, and ‘Surely the sun will rise’.
The rest of the songs were written in 2012. Lighthouse was the first. From our dining table, I’d been watching Palliser Bay Lighthouse for months – on for nine seconds, off for six. It became totemic and on my birthday we walked the new track across the Wainuiomata River bridge to meet it. Panoramic views and you feel very on the edge of the island and right on top of the shipping entering Wellington harbour.
That freedom and immediacy contrasted with the enclosure and minutiae of MRI scans, ultrasounds, fearfulness and waiting in clinics for results, inspiring the narrative of song and the chorus lyric, ‘Let your love be a lighthouse for me’. I’d written quite a formal riff as an intro which Gil added a bass counterpoint to, but we both put dollops of funk into the arrangement – she used what I called the ‘Parliament bassline’ and I added a little bubble electric line in the verse. I liked the Eminor to Emajor mood change from verse to chorus. However, if we’d had more budget, we’d have thrown it at the string section, which was a solo viola (Susan Fullerton-Smith) and violin (Slava Fainitski), both of Orchestra Wellington, who overdubbed themselves admirably. But we could have had the whole band. It was a massive relief to be freed from string samples.
This started as the sole remnant of a reject song whose bridge became the chorus. Co-producer Gil said it didn’t fit on the album and I took a week to realise she’d actually said was that it didn’t fit on the album because it wasn’t good enough. Five months later it was rebuilt. Better. Great smashed out hi-hats from Shapeshifter’s Darren Mathiassen.
Lyrics lifted directly from conversation – we’d been pounded by a northerly rain storm in the night. In the morning, my love turned to me and said, “My dreams are like sand and I can’t hold them.” Title and first line of chorus. Yes, I was listening to what she said, but all’s fair in love and songwriting, what’s mine is yours etc. etc. and sometimes grabbing a good line takes precedence! Nice guest piano from Vicki Thorpe. Big chord clusters.
I now live with two teenage girls. The 16-year old is tall and beautiful, yet astoundingly and resolutely unaware of the fact. She has occasional pimples, which can reduce her to a snivelling heap in a trice. She has all the brains in the world and is yet unable to switch a light off or remember to feed her cat. Yes, every day they need feeding. And then there are the reasonably indelicate social negotiations of the adolescent cohort – will she/did he/why doesn’t he/when will I/why can’t I etc. etc.
Luckily, we have a mutual admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald and it was two of his juicier lines, plus my less than adequate step-parenting, and my empathy for anyone trying to survive adolesence, (or having to live with it), that prompted this song.
‘Someone put a thunderstorm over your head (these lines are Yates)
Someone put a cloud in your sky
But you pull the covers up over your face
In a street for satisfied eyes’ (this line is Fitzgerald)
The track started with a stripped back two-chord riff on acoustic guitar, which I could never repeat as tidily. The feel was the feel on the day. I rang saxophonist Jeff Henderson and asked him for a mad acid scramble, badly imitating a teenage squall as a tenor sax down the line. He played exactly what I heard in my head, and MP3ed it from Auckland. Yay!
I liked the word ‘stain’. I liked the image. This turned into a rock song with a, ‘Yeah, we all know it’s the wrong thing to do, but fuck it, let’s do it anyway,’ sort of intention. When I was putting lead guitar on the track, I mistakenly imported the entire track instead of just my lead lines into the Pro Tools session, so when we played the song, the chorus was a monster wall of sound – sort of Phil Spector on even more drugs than usual. It gave a good pointer to crafting the track. Gil fuzzed up her Steinberger bass and we happily bashed away.
I’m a sucker for 3/4, well more like 6/8. Songs I write in this time signature never make me much money but they sneak their way onto albums. This song started from a line in Romeo & Juliet; ‘Eyes look your last’. And I continued; ‘…through a hole in the night’. We kept the track very simple – just an acoustic strum, vocal and a little tremolo guitar call and answer.
The chorus was supported by a fairly full backing vocal section. Gil’s brainwave was to call in Greg Johnson to duet on this – we’d seen he was touring NZ with a gig at Bodega, so thought we could get him to pop round to Bonfire Audio for a warble. Turns out that gig was cancelled, but he sent a vocal session over from LA anyway, complete with a sweetly mournful trumpet solo in the outro – a lovely surprise.
This is Gil Eva Craig’s remix of my track from the 2005 ‘Tuwhare’ album – which I set Hone Tuwhare’s poem Mad to music. Gil asked if she could remix it and showed it to me, promptly securing her role as co-producer. Gil got great feedback on her re-mix from George Masenberg at a masterclass in Sydney. Once I found out who he was, I went into shock for about three days. Sometimes, it’s better not to know.