Crow Hill: Track-by-Track

An actual crow on Crow Hill

So here’s a thing no one asked for – a track-by-track breakdown of my new album, Crow Hill, full of insight and nonsense in equal measure. Enjoy!

Crow Hill
I’ve walked up Crow Hill in Edinburgh for years, and it was while doing so last March that I had my stroke. Walking up the hill was also a big part of my physical and mental recovery, so I knew I had to write about it. The feeling at the top is like nothing else, so peaceful and calm. The lyrics here address some of that emotion in a kind of abstract way. Musically, this was a kind of boring, chugalong acoustic song when I wrote it. It really came to life with the harmonising guitar riffs – a tribute to Thin Lizzy for sure! Then I thought I would really go to town on the drums, so I let myself off the leash. After that, piling summery keyboards over it was a non-brainer. Then I deleted the original guitar. Probably the most poppy song on the record, in the end.

The Wave Returns to the Ocean
The title refers to the Buddhist idea of life and death, we’re all waves who return to the ocean when we die. For the lyrics here I loved the idea of imagining a wave travelling all around the world to wash up at a loved one’s feet. So kind of a love story too. The music here is the busiest in the whole record – a lot of guitar parts building up as it goes on. There’s also two drum tracks, a drum machine then live drums later. It’s the same four chords all the way through, just building and building. That’s a thing we used to do a lot in my former band Northern Alliance. And I love the guitar solo at the end – I’m not a great guitarist by any stretch, but I do love a ham-fisted solo!

The Hole in My Heart
This is about surgery I got in January to correct a hole in my heart. They think that was the reason for my stroke. It was such a weird experience, especially being in hospital during covid. But I was in and out the same day, which is incredible for a heart procedure. Anyway, it’s deliberately kind of woozy and dreamy, and the lyrics mention anaesthetic for a reason. It’s a totally disorienting experience, of course, and I wanted to try and capture that. This was one of three songs first written on the keyboard rather than guitar. I think I had a drum loop originally which I replaced later with real drums. It’s all about the mellotron, this one, which is probably my favourite instrument. It sounds like glitchy strings. I guess this sounds a bit Sparklehorsey, which is no surprise, I loved that band.

My Battery is Low and it’s Getting Dark
The title is allegedly the last message from the previous Mars Rover before it shut down. It’s apocryphal, but a beautiful idea. I was obsessed with what it would feel like, being the only thing within 50 million miles, trundling around the red planet on your own, picking up bits of rock. Of course it’s a metaphor for loneliness and isolation, we all feel disconnected at times. Musically this is pretty gentle and fragile, some wobbly synths in there too. I meant this song to be a wee hug to anyone who’s feeling lonely and low. I laugh every time I listen to the bass in the chorus – I’m not a natural bass player but I was having fun, wandering all over the place. So much more fun than just playing root notes.

The Shortest Day
I love Seamus Heaney’s poetry, but there was a quote of his doing the rounds in the first lockdown: “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.” I mean, it’s hopeful, of course, but I wasn’t feeling very hopeful at the time. We did winter it out, and look, we can’t summer anywhere, or it doesn’t feel like it. Anyway, this is about waking up on the shortest day of the year and feeling very low, as if nothing was going to get better. I just imagined the world stopping and never starting again. This was another song written with keyboards and loops first, then mostly replaced. I do that a lot, to be honest, chuck out a lot of the initial instrumentation and see what’s left. It’s like writing books – less is more – cutting to the essence of the track. The guitar break sees the return of the harmonising guitars – I love that shit!

Put the Gun Away
Musically this is kind of creepy, I think. The guitar parts are fucked up a bit, lots of echo and delay and fuzz. And then there are a couple of really weird arpeggiators piling in as it goes on. More fuzzy guitar in the solo, then I love the breakdown which is all synths. Lyrically, I don’t want to go into specifics with this one, but it’s generally about reaching out and trying to help someone who’s suffering anxiety and maybe even panic. I guess the specifics of guns and knives comes from my background as a crime writer, but I wasn’t conscious of that when writing it.

Lost Transmissions
The title is stolen from a book about the history of science fiction. And the ‘forgotten codes’ bit in the chorus was a phrase from a New Scientist article I read. I love thinking about how our memories shape us into what we are, it’s nowhere near as simple as we think. There’s a kind of metaphor running through this song imagining our memories as old analogue transmissions that decay and corrupt over time. And I’m sure that the way I’ve treated my mind and body over the decades hasn’t helped with that. Musically, there are some odd synths rumbling along in the background, I wanted to get into that old analogue feel, like a future-retro Boards of Canada song or something. But this has a 3/4 swing to it, so I was able to let loose a little on the drums with that. Then in the middle eight there are some horns which make me smile every time I hear them. I love horns, but it’s so hard to make them fit into my songs.

The Water and the Sand
I guess there’s a lot of stuff about the sea and the shore in this record, but I live by the sea, so duh. This is kind of a love song, I guess, about long-term love, being irrevocably entwined with another person’s life. But the specifics of the lyrics are inspired by Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation. I love the book and the movie, which are about an alien entity that lands on earth and starts changing and combining everything’s DNA with its own. Another metaphor alert! This is another gentle little soft cushion of a song. It started as a chilled out drum loop, electric piano chords and not much else. I think the original was a lot slower and more chilled. There are some nice plinky-plonk piano things going on here and some very reverby guitar, all-in-all a woozy do.

The Language of the Rock
The title is a line from a poem by Ursula Le Guin called ‘A Request’. I’m fascinated by the idea of time and how we experience it. There’s something profound, I think, in thinking about how other entities experience time and the universe. We all seem so busy in our lives, running around daft getting things done, and space and time to do nothing but think are hard to come by. There’s a great Super Furry Animals called ‘Slow Life’ which has a similar vibe, I think. This track has a lot of slow, sweeping synths and ambient noises, beeps and clicks, then a gamelan turns up in the middle eight. It just sounded right – clanky and organic somehow. This is deliberately a drum machine in this song, just gnarly and tight.

A Planet Without a Star
This is probably the most upbeat and light song on the record, I think. It’s one of the few where the original acoustic guitar was left in and which kind of drives the whole thing. The inspiration from this comes from another New Scientist article – they’ve started discovering planets out there without stars, and I just thought (metaphor alert) that was a kind of sad and lonely existence. So I wrote a song about being pals with a lonely planet. I think that’s a vibraphone or glockenspiel in the chorus, which is poppy as fuck. And then my favourite bit in the song is the arpeggiator in the breakdown, which sounds proper 80s Stranger Things cheese and I love it.

A Chaos of Bees
This is the third song on the record to directly address my stroke and the aftermath. This one is about the actual events of walking up Crow Hill when it happened, then my stay in hospital afterwards. It was such a disorienting time and I still struggle to get things right in my head about it. In the end, I’ve been very lucky, my stroke could’ve been a lot worse, but at the time there was a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, obviously. This is kind of country rock, another 3/4 swagger. I think I dropped the original acoustic guitar again, but there’s loads of organ and electric piano in it, which makes it feel a little gospely to me. This is one of the rare times when a little bit of anger shines through in the music, and I went to town on the drums, especially in the guitar solo.

We Find Our Patterns
I wanted this to be a nice wee comedown after the previous track. The instrumentation is pretty simple compared to a lot of other songs, and I guess it’s mostly a piano ballad of sorts, although it does have that lovely mellotron all the way through too. I was reading a lot about how early humans used music to create a sense of community and I thought it was pretty much still the same thing today. So it’s about how we relate to each other – whether that’s family, community, society, whatever, and the role music has in that. And there’s a goddamn piano solo in it! OK, it’s not a great one, but come on, gimme a break, I’m a drummer.

About Doug Johnstone

I write things
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1 Response to Crow Hill: Track-by-Track

  1. Pingback: New album: Doug Johnstone - 'Crow Hill' - jockrock » jockrock

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