I was privileged to receive an advanced copy of A Secret Life, the latest album by Hull musician, Half Deaf Clatch. And, like all of Clatch’s previous albums, this one’s a little bit different.
A Secret Life is a concept album that follows 432 years in the life of a tree, and describes the world from the tree’s point of view, the changes it sees and the effect humans have made to its world.
I caught up with Clatch recently and asked him how the album came about and his process for writing the songs.
“The theme for this album came about like most of my ideas, it started with a single random thought and then grew out of control from there. It was probably about a year ago when I looked at a tree and thought “Someone could have been hanged from one of those branches a long time ago, and now that kid’s swinging on it.” I know that’s a weird thought to have, but it got me thinking about the lifespan of trees and what they could have witnessed in their long silent lives – and the album just evolved from there...” Half Deaf Clatch
The album has evolved into a piece of work that is highly listenable, with tunes and melodies that linger in the brain, and lyrics that are intelligent, profound and at times jaw-dropping. This should come as no surprise because Clatch has built a reputation not only as a composer of songs and instrumentals based upon original – some might say, left-field – themes, but also for the imagery of his lyrics and the orchestral, virtuoso quality of his performance. Anyone who knows Clatch knows well of his almost savant-level of attention to detail when it comes to making music, and A Secret Life is no exception.
“Slowly the album came together, I kept things simple, there’s only one guitar track on each song, one vocal track, there’s some acoustic bass on a couple of songs, banjo, stomp or bass drum, some handclaps and the occasional tambourine, a little bit of live cello (I’ve just started learning how to play it but have a long way to go yet) and some sequenced cello and string arrangements. And that’s it, everything was played live in one take (apart from the live cello, which took a ridiculous amount of takes before I got it right)…” Half Deaf Clatch
A Secret Life flies the flag for all of the musical qualities that Clatch is renowned for, and in this reviewer’s opinion is probably the finest of his works so far. And here’s why…
“I like to set the scene on my albums, I tend not to think of the songs as separate entities but parts that make up the whole, this may sound obvious, but most albums are put together with songs written in isolation from each other then strung together in a logical (often formulaic) manner. Taproot is an instrumental that hopefully sets the mood, and gently eases the listener into the album. This is the beginning, it’s simple, sparse and haunting. The slide melody is played over a long droning note, there’s a reason for this, the taproot is our tree in its simplest form, it’s infancy – complexity comes later…” Half Deaf Clatch
Beginning with a lonesome, Ry Cooder-esque slide riff overlaid onto a mournful cello piece, the first minute or so of Taproot puts me in mind of the opening scene of ‘Paris, Texas’. This is a very good thing, because, just like in the film, this intro draws back the curtain to reveal a piece of art that is enigmatic, poignant and thought-provoking. The track grows into a melody that becomes the dominant musical theme of the album.
“The basic theme of this song is the forest has a soul, the trees are connected, they have one heartbeat. This isn’t a hippy, new age thing, it’s more folkloric…” Half Deaf Clatch
With the trademark intricate guitar lick and raucous foot stomp, we’re back fair and square in traditional Clatch territory with a song that portrays the tree growing inexorably as part of a forest, still in its infancy yet bound for magnificence. As ever, the descriptive power of Clatch’s lyrics set the scene perfectly, with an incantation-esque chorus so catchy it became my resident ear-worm for about a month.
“I had the guitar parts for this song long before I even thought of writing an album about a tree but could never find anything that fit with the riffs. Then once the tree idea took root (pardon the pun) and I had an idea to write a song about a momentous storm the lyrics almost wrote themselves. Now, this is no run of the mill storm, this is a big one, the kind that causes mass devastation…” Half Deaf Clatch
Our tree is 68 years old when a huge storm hits the forest. A storm portrayed perfectly from the start as Clatch’s vocal delivery and alternating thumb bass create images of dark clouds, brooding skies and thunder; his intricate fingerpicking signifying the first raindrops falling through the leaves.
“I had misgivings about putting another instrumental so early on the album, and if the album had been put together in a commercial way this song would have been on much later, but it was written to follow Storm, so here it is as song number four. Petrichor is ‘the smell caused by rainfall on very dry soil”, and I tried my hardest to write a piece of music that fit this description and also sounded like the dawn of a new day. Not sure whether I achieved that at all, but I really like the result and it’s a lot of fun to play too….” Half Deaf Clatch
At two and bit minutes, Petrichor is charming instrumental, that not only signifies the dawn of a new day, but allows the listener to pause and take a breath from what has gone before, and to prepare for what is about to come.
“I wrote this song as a finger style piece like Sylvan, and for a long time that’s how it stayed. I recorded it like that, but every time I listened to the album it niggled at me, it just didn’t feel right. So, one day I grabbed my slide, stripped down the guitar riffs to their most basic parts and hammered it out in a kind of raucous ‘Delta Blues’ style. I’m glad I did, it works so much better this way. The lyrics tell the tale of our tree being used to hang an outlaw, the idea the sparked the album in the first place…” Half Deaf Clatch
Well, it wouldn’t be a Clatch album without an outlaw succumbing to mob justice. Delivered in typical Clatch style, Outlaw captures the drama and horror as the tree becomes a gallows for a captured highwayman, strung up and summarily dispatched with no ceremony. Stirring stuff.
“This was a difficult song to write, and it exists as two different versions. Originally, I wrote lyrics that saw our tree witnessing a parade of young soldiers ‘going off to war’, it was ok, but lacked the poignancy I was looking for. Then I wrote lyrics based on two young lovers who are torn apart when one is sent off to war, this works much better, but I still don’t like the fact it’s almost a ‘love song’, I guess that’s something I’ll have to live with…” Half Deaf Clatch.
A change of gear from Outlaw, but no less horrific in its own way. It begins with two lovers meeting at the tree and carving their name in the tree’s bark. You know what’s about to happen, but the tune is captivating nonetheless. I’m not sure it is ‘almost a love song’; the use of Yeats’ line, ‘and the world slouched towards Bethlehem‘ is inspired and the opening banjo riff and general mood of the song puts me in mind of the Pogues cover of Eric Bogle’s, “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (a song about an Aussie soldier recalling his downfall at Gallipoli), both songs capturing, in different ways, the futility of war and the damage left in its aftermath.
This is my favourite song on the album, mainly because it’s so nice to play and sing. The song is about urban development, deforestation and the rise of the suburbs. Our tree now stands in a garden, the forest gone save for a few token trees dotted around the new housing developments… Half Deaf Clatch
Fast Forward to the 20th Century, the second half of which begins with a feeling of post-war optimism and the building of a swathe of new housing estates across the country. But of course, as Clatch sings, ‘progress has a cost, it always has a cost,‘ and the tree finds itself as a specimen in someone’s garden, its forest ripped apart and replaced by houses.
This is my favourite song on the album too, and I’ll you for why: The second verse tells of a couple with a new baby who have just moved into the new house. After recalling storms, executions and war, the tree now speaks of hope and a family finding peace as they grow together.
And then Clatch comes out with a line of just six words that changes the mood from rose-tinted hopefulness to a dark, sepia-toned vision of ghostly horror. At the first listen this sudden shift, and the imagery it created, put me on my arse. To me was the lyrical equivalent of being hit around the back of the head with a two by four.
Breathtaking, jaw-dropping and absolute genius songwriting.
“This is where things take a darker turn, there’s a deliberate change in mood here. One of the problems I had in writing this album was how to give the ‘story’ an ending, hopefully one that people wouldn’t see coming at the start of the album or expect from an album about a tree…” Half Deaf Clatch
Raven is sombre, melancholy and moody. At first glance we see a bird on a tree looking eastwards, ostensibly waiting for the sun to rise. But no, this is no ordinary bird; it’s a Raven, yer typical folkloric harbinger of doom and destruction and what’s more, this Raven knows that the proverbial is going to hit the fan. It’s inevitable, just like the rising sun.
Clatch is on home territory here, and the sense of deep foreboding is maintained throughout by his vocal delivery over the mournful cello piece. Understated and chilling.
“This was another difficult song to write… and it wasn’t until I added the strange, sequenced strings that it started to sound anything like what was in my head…” Half Deaf Clatch
The Raven’s prophecy comes to pass and now the tree bears witness to the war to end all wars and the global onslaught of a nuclear winter. The subject matter alone would be bleak for any song, but the simplicity of the banjo-driven melody, coupled with poignant, heartfelt lyrics adds a layer of icy desolation as we consider the tree standing helpless as the air fills with ash:
this was not my fault, yet I feel the cost, I feel the cost,
and I’m choking on the dust…
“When I was writing this song, I had an image in my head of those photos you see of abandoned buildings where the trees and plants have taken back the land. These pictures always look haunting to me, I love them, especially ones of abandoned amusement parks…” Half Deaf Clatch
Seventy years later, the dust has settled and rebirth begins, but I’ll leave it to Clatch to describe how the same came to be:
“The musically astute listener may realise the vocal melody is the slide melody from ‘Taproot’ sang over finger picked chords. Gone is the simple one note drone, replaced with the complexity of harmony. This signifies the change our tree has gone through, it’s no longer the simple sapling, it’s grown, become more complex, just like the backing to the melody. There’s a parallel with the evolution of blues music here too, very early primitive blues (and folk music) had very little harmonic movement, it was only when the music matured over time and evolved that chordal harmonies were introduced.
So, there you have it, A Secret Life – an album about a tree, born out of a random thought about hanging someone...” Half Deaf Clatch
A Secret Life is available from Speak Up Recordings.
Half Deaf Clatch is available at his website.
For more information about me, please wander along to www.richardwall.org
Thanks for your time.