Before the release of ‘Tales of Love and Defiance’, we asked Thomas Madison to sit down with Michael S. Carpenter and get his thoughts about the record. It turned into a detailed and insightful analysis of the album.
Q: To start with, why don’t you tell us about the album?
I’d be happy to. It’s my new album, it’s called Tales of Love and Defiance and I’m pretty pleased with it. Fourteen all-new tracks written and recorded throughout 2019.
Q: How did it come about? What made you decide to record an album?
My last album (The World at Large) came out fifteen years ago; since then I’ve been putting out single songs, except for a group of four done some years back. But in 2018, among other things, the Beatles released a 50th anniversary box set for the ‘White’ album. Listening to it, I was struck anew about how wide-ranging and diversified that album was. And it really inspired me to make an album of my own. Why not?
Q: So you set to work? How did the process begin?
After the holidays, I geared myself up to write. I wanted to come up with around 14-15 songs. If that meant writing more and then picking the best, okay. As it turned out, I did write fifteen songs, along with some partially-finished others.
Q: How many?
Uh, I’m not sure of the exact amount. I know there were several sets of lyrics floating around and at least one attempt at some music without words. None of them ever gelled into complete songs, despite me trying to do so. Maybe I’ll get back to them at some point.
There is one that’s fully written and left over. I have the rough tracks down and still listen to it from time to time. I’d like to complete it eventually because I think it has potential; I just got stuck on it, like you do sometimes.
Anyway, I ended up with fourteen songs, which is what I set out to do. Getting back to your question, in mid-January, I sat down and knocked out five sets of lyrics. Then I worked out the music, either with a guitar or at the keyboard. Off and running, I suppose.
Q: Did you have a style in mind for how the album would eventually sound?
No, I went off each song separately. With something like The Story of Me and You I wanted a kind of jazzy chord structure with lots of strings and horns. A song like Scoundrel was always going to be a rock & roll number, and so on. Then each of these contribute in their own way to the overall sound of the finished record.
Towards the end, I was thinking in terms of trying to avoid having every song be a ballad. So things like Hammer Hammer Hammer were meant to be a counterbalance to that.
Q: If you had to sum up the album in a few words, what would you say?
It’s really all there in the title, isn’t it? The songs really are tales of love and defiance; each of them seem to fit under one or the other.
Q; Was that the plan all along?
No, the title for the album came along relatively late in the process. I think I had well over half the songs written beforehand. I was actively trying not to focus on a title until I was nearly done –
Q: Why was that?
…Because I didn’t want to shoehorn myself into a concept prematurely. At one point I thought about calling it Journey’s End, but that seemed to suggest I was winding things up, which I hope won’t be the case!
Q: So I guess it comes back to what the songs are about, as individual scenarios of their own, then.
Q: Having said that, many people will I’m sure, want to know the meaning behind each of them.
Songs… (pause) are not always straightforward in what they mean. You might have an initial idea, which you use to develop the lyrics, but often they take on a life of their own and end up being completely different to what you started out with. Many of the songs are about specific people or events, but some aren’t about anything at all.
Q: Nothing at all?
Well, you might be trying to find something to write about, so you take an idea and stretch it into something that has nothing to do with your actual life. Or you’re inspired by someone else’s song and you write your own version, but change it so it’s yours and not just a copy.
Q: Can you provide any examples?
One of them is Give Up the Ghost. I have no idea what it’s about. I don’t have any clear memory of how I came up with the lyrics. I suspect it was just something that fit the melody. That was the first part of the song I came up with, and then it’s just a matter of finding something that sounds interesting and works with the notes. I did the same thing with a song not on the album called The Truth in Any Way; I was just messing around with the guitar and came up with some chords. The first line or two of the song just came out of my mouth. I had no clue what it meant.
Q: How long did it take you to record all the songs for the album?
I started in mid-January 2019, and finished principal recording just before Christmas that year. Then after the holidays I took a few weeks to redo some vocals, add some percussion and generally tighten up and edit some tracks.
Q: And was this a continuous thing, working so many hours a day, a set number of days per week, or were there breaks in between?
Looking back now, it seems like it was nonstop, but it really wasn’t. I was always thinking about it, in one way or another. I’d have to work around whatever was going on in my life, around school schedules, day-to-day stuff and so on. There would also be stretches where I’d need to listen to tracks in progress over and over again.
Q: Was the writing all inspired, or did you have to sit down and force yourself to come up with songs?
A little of both. You’d gear yourself up to write, but nothing would come. Or you’d need to finish a chorus or a middle and just beat it out. Knowing I needed so many songs at any given point meant that I would always try to push the issue. I couldn’t sit around and wait for inspiration; I had to nudge myself towards it as much as possible.
Q: Do you think that made the material better or worse than it would otherwise be?
Um… I don’t know, really. I think it helped get me in a more receptive frame of mind, certainly. I’m aware that if I had written a song a day later, or even an hour, it might have come out totally different. So I can’t compare what might have been with what I ended up with. Looking back now I’m amazed at how I was able to stumble into what you hear when you listen to the record. I don’t think I could have… preconceived some of the material beforehand. I just moved forward in small steps, and found that I had gone a long way by the end.
Q: What was the process you followed in putting down the tracks? Or did you have a method at all?
There was a kind of process, yeah. Most of the songs had a rough demo to work from, which I would use as a guide to setting up a drum track. That would then be imported into Cubase and I’d start to layer parts over that. Usually there would be a scratch guitar and vocal, both of which would eventually be replaced. I’d score some parts, mainly string and brass, as well as piano, which would also be imported.
Q: You’d do the orchestrations?
Yes; I’d write out the parts with software and the computer would then render the tracks. I do play some keyboard parts, but it turned out to be easier to write them for the most part. Acoustic parts, like guitar and vocals would be done on an external portastudio then copied into the computer. Bass and electric guitar could be routed directly into Cubase through my amp, which has a USB connection.
Q: This is the first time you’ve sent your raw tracks out to another studio to have them mixed. Why did you decide to do that?
Well, several reasons. One is that in the past, people have said to me, “Have you ever considered going to a professional studio?” So I wanted to finally explore that option to see how it would sound. It was also partly laziness; after writing and recording for nearly a full year, I was tired. I wanted someone else to EQ the bass track or figure out how much echo to add to the vocal and so on.
Another reason was that it was always cost-prohibitive in the past. It was a running joke that I was recording on a shoestring budget. But I had finally sold a guitar that I had been hawking online for years and would up with a tidy little sum. So I decided to treat myself and splash out a bit on this album. I wanted something really special to share with my friends and family.
That’s also why I decided to get a real pressing done, with a professional photographer taking the cover shots, and having something that didn’t look cheap for a change. Sure, it was a bit of an indulgence, but I kept thinking, “Why not just this once?”
Q: Will you do it again?
See, that’s the dilemma; it’s come out so nicely that I’ll have to decide what I’m going to do next time – go back to doing it on the cheap, or open the wallet again?
Q: Many songwriters see their creations almost as their children; do you have any favorites?
Do you mean on the album, or in general?
Q: On the album.
I do like ’em all, but I’ve also not enjoyed most of them as well. And that’s because I’ve been so involved in them. When you’re trying to sort out a second rhythm guitar part or get through the bass line or just sing the damn thing halfway decently, it’s hard, y’know? So I’ve been through the mill and back with pretty much all of them.
That said, it’s easier now in that I can sit back and enjoy them more like other people might. The one I’m the most impressed with is Come Back to Me. I think of all of them, the writing and recording of that one came together in a very powerful way. I remember how much I enjoyed the fact that all the pieces fit so well.
Other songs, like You Went Down the Stairs have a powerful emotional grip on me as well.
Q: What’s that one about, if you don’t mind me asking?
I’d prefer not to say, in all honesty. I’m happy to admit that Come Back to Me is about my wife and our relationship. I’m very much sometimes seeking her voice like a beacon in the darkness. But You Went Down the Stairs is something private that had a great impact upon me. I’m not comfortable talking about that one in too much depth at the moment.
Q: Okay. I can respect that. What about Don’t Believe? It seems pretty clear in depicting you as a skeptic.
Some years before the album, I wrote a song called Have No Faith, which I described at the time as an atheist hymn. I felt there needed to be more songs that took a critical view of religion. Don’t Believe is pretty much Have No Faith Part Two. I know some people may not like it, but I needed to write it.
We spoke a few moments ago about how as a writer, you try to imagine things just to get a start on writing something. The other side of that coin is that you do write about things that are very much on your mind. I write about people I know, about situations I encounter and also my views on certain subjects. I may disguise some things for various reasons, but other times I don’t.
Q: It’s clear you feel very strongly about this.
Absolutely. Religious people have no problem singing about their faith and how their belief makes them feel. So there shouldn’t be any reason for me to not do the same. If I want to write a song that says ‘be skeptical and question what you’re told’, I will.
Q: And you slip in a Beatles reference, as well.
“You say you want a revelation”; yep. In fact, that was how the song came about in the first place; I got that line, and the rest flowed directly from it. Hopefully I won’t get sued.
Q: You said just now you write about people or events you know, presumably in your own life; Is there much of that in the record?
Some, yeah. I’m Done With You is about a friend that turned out not to be such a friend. I was a bit put out and expressed myself musically.
Q: That one has a real Dylan feel to it.
Yes; it was modeled after one of Bob’s songs, but don’t ask me which one!
Q: Any others?
Well, Nikole is obviously about my daughter, for one. Free From Sorrow is a vague sort of look back at my year. When you are writing songs, like in this case for a year, what you often end up with is a sort of snapshot of your life. If you know how to read the songs, that is.
But as I said before, not every song is biographical or meant to be taken literally, or anything. It’s that mix of reality and fantasy just to get enough material together.
Q: We talked earlier about the time it took to compose and record. Was it like an assembly line, churning out material day in and day out?
No; well, towards the end you’re just wanting to finish it, of course. You start out thinking you’ll knock out twenty songs in a week. But the reality is quite different. You can get into a groove, where you’re able to manage a flow between writing and recording. That’s when it’s fun. But other times you get periods of writer’s block, and that just leads to panic.
Q: And you went through all that?
Oh, all the time. It was good to push myself though, by setting a goal and working towards it.
Q: What are your hopes for this album?
Just to get it out the door and into the hands of other people. I kept a very tight lid on it while recording; almost nobody has heard much of it. Other than the engineer down in London, no one had managed to hear the entire album.
Q: Really? Even your family?
I wouldn’t even give my wife the titles. She was totally in the dark, other than a draft of one set of lyrics which I made some minor changes to later.
Q: Why all the secrecy?
(smiles) I liked the idea of how it used to be; you’d go to a store, buy an album, and have no idea of how it sounded until you got it home and opened it up. Nowadays, everything needs a ‘preview’ or ‘sneak peek’ and so on. As soon as it comes out, it’s all over YouTube and the Internet within minutes, if not sooner. I wanted to try and recapture that mystery of hearing it fresh, and all at once. Let it hit the listener in the face rather than “Yeah, I heard this one already” with every other song.
Q: That’s very ambitious. So has she heard it yet?
At the moment, no. But soon. I think she’ll like it. I hope so, anyway.
Q: After that, what’s next for you?
I never know. I’ve barely touched a guitar since I finished recording in December of last year. I’d like a bit of a creative rest to let the juices percolate a bit, then I’ll probably drag out an instrument and eventually start writing again. I’ve been so focused on this project for so long that there’s really not been time for anything else.
Q: Well, thank you for your time. Do you have any final words you’d like to impart?
Well you’re welcome. I’d just like everyone in the world to demand a copy of the album so I can afford to make another one. That’s a modest enough goal, right?