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26 June 2017

Insight: Blessed Relief - notes on a collaboration

Peter Dasent & Tony Backhouse Image: Peter Dasent & Tony Backhouse  

Peter Dasent writes about his collaboration, over several decades, with Tony Backhouse. The resulting album Design For Living will be released on the Armchair Records label on 7 July. The album launch will take place in Sydney on 22 July with Tony Backhouse (vocals, guitar), Peter Dasent (keyboards), Jonathan Zwartz (bass), Evan Mannell (drums), Virna Sanzone and Lisa Spence (backing vocals), James Greening (trombone) and Andrew Robson (alto and baritone saxophone).

> Read more 'Insight' feature articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists (scoop.it).

On Saturday 22 July, I'm playing with my old friend Tony Backhouse, under our collective moniker Blessed Relief, for the launch of our album Design For Living. The album is a collection of 13 songs we've written together over the last 30 years - Tony writes all the words, I write most of the music, and Tony sings and plays guitar while I play piano and other keyboards.

I've known Tony since 1977, when we were introduced by a mutual friend in New Zealand, songwriter/guitarist/artist Fane Flaws. The three of us formed a band called Spats, which morphed into the Crocodiles in 1980, a successful 'new wave' pop band featuring Jenny Morris on lead vocals.

So, the release of our album marks our 40th year of friendship and collaboration, and, incidentally, Tony's 70th birthday in May 2017. So happy birthday Tony, and what a great way to celebrate!

Our collaboration is principally as songwriters, although we have performed together a lot in various configurations, and hope to do so more as Blessed Relief. Songwriting partnerships are usually between two people - think Lennon/McCartney, Becker/Fagen, Rodgers/Hammerstein. In the case of the last pair, and that of most writers of musicals, one person writes the lyrics and the other the music. But outside musical theatre, especially in the realm of pop music the lines are more blurred. Paul McCartney is rightly regarded as the great tunesmith, but he wrote some of the greatest Beatle lyrics (think 'Eleanor Rigby', for example).

'I Live for Symmetry' - a live performance
by Peter Dasent and Tony Backhouse in 2016.

With Blessed Relief, it's Tony who writes all the lyrics, although occasionally he'll start with a title I have suggested.

While we didn't write together in the early days, we had mutual respect for each other's musicianship, and also shared a fascination with the musical details of songwriting. Unlike most pop musicians we knew, both of us read music, and had done some academic study, so we would find ourselves discussing anything from Steely Dan's use of 'mu' chords (major chords with an added second) to Little Feat's glorious rhythmic shenanigans, to the mysteries of our favourite Stockhausen works.

Actually we have very different musical interests. Tony has a huge knowledge of black American gospel music, he conducts vocal workshops all over the world and, with the establishment of the Cafe Of The Gate Of Salvation in the mid-'80s, is a seminal figure in the now-flourishing a cappella scene in Sydney. I'm generally more interested in instrumental music - in no particular order, Nino Rota's Fellini scores, Thelonious Monk, Frank Zappa, Erik Satie. The place where we meet is a love of great melodic pop music, by which I mean the Beatles, Steely Dan, XTC, David Bowie, and many others.

We both found ourselves in Sydney in 1981, part of the trans-Tasman musician migration (think Split Enz, Dragon and more). At some point in the mid-1980s Tony started giving me lyrics, either because he couldn't use them in any of his projects, or, in his words 'because I got sick of my own processes and I figured you'd [write the music] in a way that would surprise and interest me'. These lyrics were usually quite obscure, oblique, and amusing. I think the first one he gave me - now the opening track on the new album - was 'Man Goes Shopping'. The first verse begins 'In his hunger for life, he takes another drag - shuffles his thoughts - there's no end to them'. I set this to a languid melody and fruity chord sequence that I fondly imagined could have come from Donald Fagen. Fortunately Tony liked it and wrote subsequent verses based on that melody, and, many years later, I wrote the melody for the bridge.

This became the pattern for the way we worked. I'd get a lyric from Tony, I'd set it to music, and he'd add more lyrics. A couple of times we sat around the piano together, usually to work on a bridge (or 'middle eight'), lyrics propped up in front of us; I'd play a few chords and tentatively sing something, and Tony would pick up on it and inevitably improve it. Another time I described a movie I had just seen (The Ballad of Narayama) to Tony over the phone as 'just another view of life and death' - next day there was a message on my answering machine: Tony singing my words as the first line of a new song. The song 'Design For Living' began because I just liked the phrase, and I set it to an expansive melody with a ridiculous chord sequence that I rather pompously thought David Bowie might have come up with (G - Eb - Bmaj7 - Fm). We were huge Bowie fans, we loved his use of European vocal harmonies over funky black rhythm tracks.

When it came time to record, the collaborative process took another turn. We pretty much agreed on the form of each song - a version of the classic combination of verses, choruses and bridge, with some sort of intro and a vague idea about how the song might end (i.e. 'that'll be a fade…'). We recorded in the time-honoured tradition of getting the bass and drums down, which would then leave us to add vocals and instrumental overdubs at our leisure. Leisure being the operative word. The rhythm tracks were recorded in 2005 and the album is coming out this year. For good reasons though - conflicting work schedules; the tyranny of distance, with Tony working overseas most of the year and then relocating to New Zealand - in fact we did most of the overdubs in our own time, occasionally checking with each other that we were on the right track ('what about this for a string idea?' - 'yeah brilliant').

There did come a point when we needed to be together. Tony is something of a perfectionist when it comes to vocals and would often send me a vocal take that I thought sounded fantastic, only for him to say 'Nah, I've got to do it again'. After several years of this I decided we had to actually collaborate on the vocal tracks, and so we went into the studio in Sydney and I acted as vocal producer, directing Tony from the control room ('Yes, that was an excellent first take. Maybe a bit flat on the second syllable of 'shopping'.) I'd had a lot of experience doing this producing albums for Justine Clarke, one of the Play School presenters for whom I've written songs and produced four albums. In this way we completed lead vocals for all the songs, and then it was time for the backing vocals. Apart from Tony's own parts, on several tracks we employed the services of Sydney jazz and session singer Virna Sanzone. Virna's amazing ability to sing anything Tony presented her with, not only with soul, passion and pitch-perfect accuracy but also a straight face, was quite remarkable. I took a back seat for these sessions as Tony is of course the vocal arranger par excellence, but I was able to be a third ear.

The final part of our collaboration, once the vocals were down, was the instrumental overdubs. Here again we mostly worked quite separately - Tony did string quartet arrangements on two of the songs which I never questioned, and I did horn arrangements for which Tony had a couple of suggestions, but we both knew exactly what the songs needed. I think we just had, by this late stage, a really clear mutual idea of how the songs should sound, and, with a few exceptions, we both knew what we needed to contribute, Tony with guitar and me with keyboard parts.

Of course once we'd finished the complete album Tony went ahead and re-recorded a couple of entire lead vocal tracks…

So there you have it. One story of musical collaboration. Some people collaborate a lot, some work on their own. My own experience is that to write songs I need to collaborate with a lyricist, and in addition to Tony there are several others with whom I regularly write - Arthur Baysting, Fane Flaws, Jane Lindsay to name three. I know that Tony and I have a unique relationship, based on years of knowing each other and understanding our mutual musical aesthetic for a particular project.

Further links

CD launch at Foundry616 on 22 July at 8:30pm - event details in the AMC Calendar

Peter Dasent - AMC profile

Peter Dasent - homepage (www.peterdasent.com)

Tony Backhouse - AMC profile

Tony Backhouse - homepage (www.tonybackhouse.com)

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