So my marriage was over and I was starting out again. And something very strange happened. I actually found my voice, quite literally.
Some friends of a friend invited me round to their place and by pure chance they had a range of musical instruments and recording equipment in their house. If I see a guitar I will gravitate to towards it, I don’t know why it’s just something I’ve always done.
Naturally my hosts asked the question ‘do you play the guitar’? My stock answer, mainly because it’s true is ‘yes, but very badly’. Fortunately they weren’t the shy retiring sort and pretty soon all sorts of instruments and songs were being played. One song was The Police classic Every Breath You Take. I’ve loved that song from the first time I heard it and even though I couldn’t play it I knew the words.
So there I was in front of a microphone singing Every Breath You Take to a simple guitar backing played by one of the hosts. I didn’t realise it but they were recording it. When it was finished there was a bit of a silence before someone said something like ‘you can sing’. Well, yes I could. I could certainly hit all the right notes of Every Breath You Take. To me it was just something I could do, something I’d been doing most of my life, but to everyone else there it was some of a revelation, Sean can sing.
Bolstered by this I picked up a guitar and played and sang one of my own songs, again not realising I was being recorded. We traded some songs around, had a great evening and eventually I went home.
It could have ended there but it didn’t. A week or two later I was invited back and this time they played me what they had recorded, except they’d put on a proper backing track to both Every Breath You Take and to my song.
My first reaction was to cringe with embarrassment at listening to myself in the company of virtual strangers. The second reaction was one of intrigue. Without knowing the chords to my song they had put together a backing track which fitted very well. I was impressed they had done that and also delighted it actually sounded quite good.
At that time I still had very little experience of hearing what I sounded like. I’d done some recordings on my cassette player but it was just a few and the sound quality was predictably very poor. This was on another level. This was proper reel to reel multi track recording and the difference in quality and clarity was stark. They were very encouraging and wanted to do more but in all honesty it wasn’t the time for me. Coupled with my chronic lack of self confidence about my music I wasn’t mentally in the right place having just gone through a messy separation and in the middle of an even messier divorce. I said something non-committal and left it there.
But the seed had been sown. I had heard what I could sound like. I had played one of my songs to people who seemed to know something about music and they had not only recorded it they had gone to the trouble of adding a backing track. In short, they liked what they had heard. The boost that gave me was tremendous. The feelings I had when I was in the band came flooding back. This was something I could do, I could write a song and people might actually want to hear it.
At the time I had started living with Annie. I’ll leave all the personal stuff to one side but Annie gave me the confidence to actually express myself through music again. Although my 12 string guitar that only had 6 strings had come with me from the marital home I had become very aware that it really wasn’t a serious instrument, it certainly wasn’t good enough to record with, no matter how poor the recording equipment was. Fortunately, Annie had a decent acoustic guitar and I commandeered the thing and started playing it a lot.
This was the mid 80s and although CDs had started to come in the music playback of choice was the cassette tape. Most homes had cassette players and many had twin cassette tape players. The idea was that you could record from one player to the other using blank cassette tapes. Most people used them to compile their own mix tapes of their favourite songs but many people also used them as a crude multi track recording setup.
Basically you recorded onto one cassette tape and then played that cassette back whilst you simultaneously recorded a second track. By doing this you could actually record a number of tracks effectively one on top of the other. The downside was that tape hiss, or background noise from the tape, quickly became the only thing you could hear as your recording was submerged under a sea white noise. But if you stuck to two or at a push three tracks the results were acceptable.
There was no way this crude system beat a proper multi-track reel to reel tape recorder but it was a way to overdub on top of a single recording and could be used to flesh out what in my case would otherwise just be a guitar and voice.
I ended up with any number of cassette tapes and happily spent hours swapping them back and forth to record my songs. It started to give me confidence about what I actually sounded like and also the merits or otherwise of my songs. Also, for the first time ever I could demo songs rather than have to try and remember them based on a few notes about chords and a handful of lyrics. It was something of a step change for me and started me down the path of wanting to record my music more professionally. What I was going to do with those recording wasn’t something I’d thought through but one step at a time and all that.
I pulled out some of the songs I’d written whilst I was in the band, some of the songs I remembered from my time in London and started to work on the first of a new batch of songs. Eventually had enough to put together over one frantic weekend a cassette containing ten or eleven of my songs. It was my first attempt at putting together an album. The recording obviously suffered from the limitations of cassette to cassette recording, there was no attempt to record in an acoustically dry environment I just recorded in the living room. But nonetheless I had in my hands the first ever collection of my songs.
Despite having this cassette I couldn’t bear to be in the same room as anyone listening to it so it remains something that very few people have actually heard. In some respects that’s probably a good thing but in other ways it wasn’t good at all. Because no-one heard the tape there was no feedback, good or bad. There was also the question ‘so what’? I had a tape of my music but what was I going to with it? The answer turned out to be not a lot. It didn’t spark me into doing anything other than what I’d done for years, write the occasional song, play the guitar and keep what I was doing inside my head.
But, as it turned out, it was another small step towards where I am with my music today.