03 October 2011

Beerjacket - The White Feather Trail: Track by track

Today sees the release of singer/songwriter Peter Kelly's new and by far and away best album to date, 'The White Feather Trail'. Better known to the world as Beerjacket, this latest offering sees the Glasgow based singer really stepping up to the plate. Having been treated to some of these first hand in the intimate surroundings of the Hidden Lane Cafe session gig we put on back in May, it has the sound of a man who feels very comfortable in his on skin. As we start to approach that time of year when folk start discussing their potential albums of the year, this wee gem of an album is sure to shake a few feathers. Anyway, that's enough of my ramblings, here's Peter for some sensible words on 'The White Feather Trail'...

Blood Roses

By the time I started recording 'The White Feather Trail', I reckon I had recorded something in the region of 10 different demos of this song and had never known quite how to approach it. It was quandaries such as how to record this song that made it clear to me that I needed help to do justice to this album, as a studio engineer I am not and for all the 'lo-fi' tag has followed me around since my earliest beginnings, it's never really been what I was aiming for.

My old friend Stuart MacLeod (who I've known for more than half of my life) was luckily keen to work with me and without his sensitive production, I know that sonically songs like 'Blood Roses' would've been buried in poor recording flaws and any opportunity to capture performances rather than roughly document parts would've been impossible.

As well as the technical benefits of working with Stuart, I also had the opportunity to add more colour to the instrumentation, as we did on this track with the bouzouki. The theme I've always had in mind when working on my little homemade albums was to have a 'guest instrument', that is one extra 'voice' to open up the basic arrangements. However, until this album, I've never managed to stick to that discipline as I'd tended to chuck lots of extras on top to mask the poorly-recorded rudimentary parts! This time, we barely deviated from that, although there're some lovely ukuleles here which, fairly appropriately given the melancholic atmosphere of the song, Stuart reckons sound/feel like rain.


I think spending a few minutes loosely referencing Plato's cave, punning abstractly on winners/winters and otherwise writing solely in metaphors makes the appearance of a fairly straight pop chorus pretty shocking. This song has been popular with audiences since I started playing it this year, although it's been around for a while behind the scenes while I figured out how to play it as - like Blood Roses - it's probably been demoed about ten times!

The arrangement is pretty full next to previous Beerjacket recordings - mandolin, tambourine, harmonies and the album's first appearance by Louise Connell (Reverieme), as well as the stomp at the song's spine. Whilst I'd like to claim the constancy of the stomp's beat was as a result of my olympically strong calf muscle, in fact it was created by way of recording me hitting a joist on the floor with my shoe.

A friend said in an email the other day that he'd been reading the lyrics to this song and couldn't make head nor tail of what it is about. Obviously I won't spoil it by explaining then.


This song was written a few days before I went into the studio in April and at that point, I knew I was definitely done with writing it after all, having known there was a piece missing. I think it has the fewest lyrics of all the songs and is full of bad jokes, much to my pleasure. It's also full of good seriousness, much to my disappointment.

I wrote the song with Louise Connell's beautiful, magical voice in mind and hoped that she'd sing on the studio version, which luckily she did. The two sessions we did with her were two of my favourites of the whole process. Initially, I didn't feel comfortable thinking of another person singing my lyrics as much of the time, I'm pretty sure no-one knows what I'm on about. However, as soon as I heard Louise singing my words, I felt that even if she hadn't known what she was saying in the songs she was singing on, her voice was saying everything I heard in my head.


I've been playing this song for years but this version is pretty far removed from the one people would be familiar with (if indeed, they are familiar with it.) The 'guest instrument' on this track is a National baritone guitar, which will now remain on my ultimate letter to Santa for the rest of time. Or until he turns up with it, at least.

Despite assumptions over the years that I must be a Nick Drake fan given that I'm a finger-picking singer-songwriter chap, I'd never really paid any attention to him until I began recording this album. Stuart asked me if I liked him on the first day of recording whilst we were tracking guitars and I decided enough was enough, I should investigate. Of course, I realised quickly how much I had been missing and I now must have listened more to 'Pink Moon' than any other album in the months since April alone. My burgeoning Drake obsession fed into the recording of the rest of the album - particularly on songs like 'Island', although the arrangements here are decidedly fuller than the skeletal structures on 'Pink Moon'.

Again, you can hear my shoe being whacked on the studio floor. What a bizarre sight I'm sure that was. I bet Stuart took a picture and texted it to his friends accompanied by a LOL!!! and a smiley with its tongue out.

Poor Captain of the Soul

Since the Peenko show at which this song made its debut, it's become one of my favourites to play. Funny really, given that I felt sure I'd never do it again after that night.

Other than 'Eggshells', which I also wrote on ukulele, it's the only song I've written on that instrument and maybe the only one I'll make a habit of playing live, just to keep it special. I think they're beautiful little instruments, too often thought of with comedic connotations in mind. There's a brass strength to be found in putting yourself in front of an audience with only a ukulele, especially at the start of a set, which is when I've tended to play this song.

The video of this song I did with Rokbun after the Peenko show in the Hidden Lane Tea Room is one of my very favourite things I've ever done in my many years of playing music. It felt pretty perfect as a conclusion to that night and I was so happy to see it when it was completed. It was one of those really pleasing occasions when someone captures the right performance in the right way.

Likewise, Stuart's recording is really pure and basic, just as I'd hoped it'd be.

Jack Chasing Jill

From the earliest stages of recording, Stuart and I agreed that this song was crying out a female voice, partly due to the title's inclusion of a girl's name but also, in my mind, due to a melody I had in my head of a 'So Long, Marianne'-esque backing melody for the chorus. I recorded a guide of it, but it sounded almost exactly like Jimmy Somerville, which wasn't quite what I was going for. Apart from anything else, I might have had to credit him and he hadn't even had to turn up for the privilege. Again, Louise contributed her alchemic tones and lifted the song with a beautiful lightness of touch.

I love the nylon-strung guitars on this song and the simplistic parts, which lend the song a childishness that belies the adult darkness of the lyrics. I'm a massive Will Oldham fan and the last couple of songs on 'Viva Last Blues' feature a nylon-strung guitar sound which I hope we grabbed something of the essence of here.

Amusingly, once we got to mixing Stuart and I were in disagreement about whether there had been a ukulele part on this song which was proving elusive - I was right, it was a mandolin playing the part in question, I was just playing it so far from correctly that it apparently sounded like a ukulele. It works though!

This song is actually pretty much my favourite on the album, although it's the only one I've never played live.

Fresh Legs

I love the auto-harp sound on the choruses of this song, especially since it's actually not an auto-harp at all but a high-strung guitar. I'd never heard of such a thing until I entered the studio where Stuart had an acoustic guitar strung especially for Nashville tuning, which basically creates a similar sound to a 12-string but with only 6. It brings a gorgeous choral sound to this song, aided by the harmonies in the middle section.

I'm not really able to work out harmonies very often as I tend to get a melody stuck in my head and don't have the mathematical mind to dress it up in counter-melodies. Luckily Stuart is great at thinking harmonically and tends naturally towards them when he hears melodies and he could guide my voice in the right directions to create the warm bed of notes and tones you can hear on 'Fresh Legs'.

Crooked Finger

Apart from on this song, there are only acoustic instruments on this album. I've never managed to fully capture my natural sound before, having fallen into the trap of creating recorded versions which sound like someone else covering your songs. I'd consciously set out with only acoustic instruments in mind for this album but had this one song with a keyboard part which I'd demoed using a sound on my iPod. We tried various alternatives when we got into the studio but Stuart kept coming back to that original sound and, in the end, I have to admit he was right. There is, as he said, something charming about it and maybe the fact that I'm playing the part (with some difficulty) squeezing my fingers onto the narrow virtual keys on my screen makes it feel a bit more real and human.

I know I said 'Jack Chasing Jill' is pretty much my favourite, but thinking again, I wonder if 'Crooked Finger' is. I actually really love all of it. There's more mandolin on this song, although this time it sounds like the instrument it's supposed to.

Like many of these songs, it's been around a long time. I wanted to write a body of work which would have longevity and so I felt I had to spend a long time writing and perfecting it until every word and note was in the right place.

The Monsters

As a conclusion to the album, I think 'The Monsters' is perfect. It's the fullest-sounding song and probably the most direct.

The National baritone guitar (Santa, take note) appears again here, filling out the bottom end with hollow, growling chords that were a joy to record. I think Louise appears on more of this song than any other yet, funnily enough, she hadn't even heard it all the way through before she went in to put down her vocals. I tell you, she brings magic. She has a great instinct and the character in her voice is really special.

I've deliberately avoided providing a York Notes-style explanation of my lyrics in writing this track-by-track feature as nothing would disillusion me more about an album I liked than for all the nuts and bolts of the words to be revealed. Happily, this song features fewer words than most songs on the album yet is probably vaguer than any of the others, so it's your guess what it's about.

More stomping features on this track and, even better, we have some glorious triangle in the last section followed by a lovely ting from some Tibetan bells, which hang in the air at the end of the track. The last chord of this song is one of my favourite chords I've yet encountered and it sounds very much as the last chord of an album should sound: like the end.

The White Feather Trail is out now on CD or download, you can catch Peter playing love this coming Friday at Oran Mor in Glasgow. Support comes from Reverieme and Michael Cassidy. Tickets for the gig are only £5 and can be bought in advance using the following link.

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