So, haven’t posted for bit. No internet! Not strictly true, there’s internet everywhere these days, but no internet at home: I’ve moved house. Haven’t been making music either, for the same reason (moving house not lack of internet). Also after recording Fifteen Horses, I felt pretty spent. It was a difficult song to write and record, creatively and technically. And emotionally!
I’ve got a lot of positive feedback about the song, which is great (but not much on here, ha!), and now I’ve put a bit of distance between myself and it, I feel like I’m ready to listen to it with ‘fresh ears’ and look back at the experience of recording it. The temptation will be to remix it, as I’m bound to find fault, but I’m going to resist. Gotta move on with the new stuff (once I’ve got my studio straight)!
In the meantime I’m gonna put down some thoughts on Fifteen Horses, starting with: what’s it all about?
There’s no easy answer to that question. It came out of a dark period in my life, but ironically the song itself arrived in a really happy place. I say ‘arrived’ because that’s how it happened.
It was September and I was on holiday at Lake Como, Italy with my (then) girlfriend (let’s call her ‘S’). We’d come through, or were going through, a very sad time: her dad had died that summer, of cancer. The holiday was an attempt to try to have a break from the grief – like you can take a holiday from grief. But we tried, and I think we had a genuinely lovely holiday. I think it was lovely for another reason (now): subconsciously we both knew it would be the last we’d have together, that we were going to split up (which didn’t happen for another six months). But the subconscious knows… the subconscious knows. It protects you from the things you don’t dare to tell yourself. But it finds other ways to tell you what’s happening.
I was in the shower (yes I’m one of those clichéd people who has ideas in the shower and on the can), and I was trying to work out something. S and I had been enjoying a perfectly nice day – walking by the lake, eating gelato, soaking up the sun etc, etc – but at some indefinable point, my mood changed. I felt annoyed, irritable. The sun was too hot. I didn’t want to traipse around anymore. I tried (and succeeded, I think) to keep this from S and finessed our way back to the agriturismo at which we were staying. I took a long shower.
What I was trying to work out if the shower was: why was I in a bad mood? What made it change? When did it change? I started asking myself a series of questions that started “Was it…?”, like “Was it when it took a long time for the waiter to notice us in the bar?” or “Was it when S said such-and-such?” and so on.
Suddenly, BOOM, there it was, the first line of lyrics in my head: “Was it the highway in the moonlight, or your moment in the spotlight?” And not only that the melody too, time signature, tempo, even the key (although I couldn’t be sure till I got to a piano). It was incredible. Then came the chorus, BOOM, (this I later changed but that’s a story for another time). I got out of the shower and still soaking wet found a piece of paper and a pen and started getting it down. I had nothing to record audio on, and I was terrified I’d forget it by the time I got back to England. I spent the rest of the trip humming it under my breath and muttering the lyrics to myself. But I think I was being overly paranoid: the moment my subconscious delivered the song to me, it was locked in.
But what IS it about? On a literal level, reading the lyrics superficially, it’s about a man tracing the moment he lost his mind and killed a woman in a motel bedroom, and finding it to be a dream he had about fifteen horses (why fifteen? I don’t know. It was briefly thirteen, but that didn’t feel “right”). But I suppose it’s really about one of my favourite subjects: altered mental states (my song Let It In is also about this). It’s about the fear of, and the terrible temptation to, collapse into insanity.
The song took a long time to record, the duration of which lasted almost exactly the length of a very difficult period of my life, starting with the end of the holiday (and the return to “reality”) and ending with moving house (my studio was the last thing I packed; mixing the song was the last thing I did). In between were the dark times: the continued disintegration of my relationship with S; the first Christmas without her dad; problems with my mental health (mania); problems with my heart, literally (Pericarditis); problems with my heart, figuratively (the break-up with S, as anticipated by my subconscious); the death of my grandmother (the day after S and I broke up); moving away. None of those things are directly represented in the song (well, maybe the mania), and many of those things were an impediment to the song being recorded. But Fifteen Horses is imbued with the emotions churned up over that six-month period; in many ways they make it the song that it is, or it became, more than the info-dump of lyrics/melody/time signature/key/tempo in Lake Como.
Or maybe that’s just how I see it, because I lived through those things at the same time as I recorded the song. I don’t know. Fifteen Horses will always tie me emotionally to that time in my life, just as, for example, the song playing on the radio the summer you fell in love for the first time will forever tie you to that feeling.
And it works in both directions: Fifteen Horses – in other words, the act of creation – helped get me through that time. Sometimes it felt like the song was just about the only thing I had to hang on to. Crawling into a creative space was a good way to get out of my head for a while – better than the alternatives. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again): creation is good for the soul.
In times of trouble, that’s when your soul needs tending the most.