Breaking the Bonds of Lockdown: “Atlantic Skies” by Stephen Godsall

Writing and producing one track per week in quarantine has yielded, for composer/guitarist Stephen Godsall, a new CD coming next month that bubbles with optimism, swirls with color and sports unexpected changes. Totaling 18 tracks, the album “Atlantic Skies” is a potpourri of techno/New Age/jazz vibes that takes the listener on a discovery of his own lockdown meanderings. “Edge of the Wilderness,” for example, abounds with complex textures largely directed by guitar. The harder, more rock-centric “Jimi Hendrix Gig Economist” bounces gently while Jimi’s voice peeks through in bits and pieces. The lyrical “Used to be a Singer” has a softened, mournful quality, and the funk-infused surfer vibe of “White Water” is whimsical and satisfying. A compilation of the vast array of moods and head spaces that we have universally experienced during the recent pandemic, this CD gives voice to creativity that mirrors personal growth and exploration.

What inspired your new CD, “Atlantic Skies”?

There were two inspirations; firstly, landscapes and skyscapes, hence the title. It’s very much rooted in the outdoors and wild places. Secondly music itself; the joys and challenges of making music. The saddest song on the album is “Used to be a Singer” about not being able to make music any more. For me the happiest song is “More than Jazz?” which suggests that despite the challenges, jazz is infinite and changeable. And editing Jimi Hendrix’s last interview to create the track “Gig Economist” surprised me; even he was still worried about how to fund a tour.

Is there any common thread among all the tracks that tie them together musically?

Good question because I’m aware it’s a very diverse set of tracks. There are several common threads; they’re all guitar-based compositions, even where the guitar doesn’t appear in the finished product. They were all developed through improvisation. And every track refers to either the landscape theme or the musical one.

How do you think you rose to the challenges of not being in the studio together?

The original plan was to include a lot more live tracks. Instead, we had to work remotely a lot of the time. Some of the musicians I planned to work with weren’t set up for remote recording so I ended up playing more parts myself, particularly drums and bass.

The process became one of starting with a rough track, getting players or singers to record alongside that, then reviewing each part in the light of what they added. It’s different but strangely I think there’s just as much interaction between musicians.

“Mental” is a good example; we’d recorded pretty much all of the track then asked Hazel to add vocals. She added a lot of ideas and harmony parts; I needed to re-do the guitar and bass parts to create the space for her to shine through.

What was the most gratifying aspect of making this CD?

The input of other musicians. I’m always thrilled by the way they can take half-formed ideas and bring them to life. Also being thrown back on my own resources; for instance, I rediscovered my love of playing drums.

What was the most surprising to you during the entire journey of writing the songs?

I challenged myself to produce a track each week in 2020 and the album is drawn from those 52. Around half the tracks were already sketched but having that pace of work meant I couldn’t explore too many options; you just have to trust that any starting point will lead to a useful result. I was a little concerned I’d run out of ideas but quite the opposite occurred – practicing composition at pace sharpens you up!

What are your plans for getting this out to audiences when it drops next month?

In the short term, the lack of live performances is a challenge we have to work around. I will be using other media; obviously online but also radio. One radio presenter told me that the music is radio-friendly because it’s different from most music he gets and surprisingly accessible to people. YouTube channels are also a way to reach different people; for instance I’ll be appearing on Paul Mansell’s excellent “Ukulele Sessions.” One thing I’ve decided to avoid for now is releasing this album on Spotify. Their current model seems to be about exploiting musicians rather than supporting creativity. So I’ll be concentrating on Bandcamp for distribution.

You’re active in several bands. How do you keep them distinct in your mind when playing; and what are the ways they differ?

The main difference is whether I’m band leader/arranger or taking the lead from someone else. I enjoy both approaches. The way I play doesn’t change a lot between different genres but I’m always trying to learn new things. For example, working as a sideman with Sarah Bolter has really helped me raise my game as a jazz guitarist.

How would you describe your individual sound or style?

My personal sound as a player is nylon-strung guitar played finger style with a lot of syncopation. As a composer I’m most interested in fusing genres but in a new way; that means avoiding established “fusion” styles. Instead, I try to develop jazz ideas within a new context, be it classical, electronica or alternative rock.

Which do you consider your primary instrument?

Guitar is my main instrument and the one I tend to play live. I start each day by practicing guitar and composing with it. Most days I’ll also play keyboard and drums, and a few times a week I’ll work with banjo and ukulele. Despite their similarities to the guitar they lead me into quite different territory.

Can you actually do 15 different things with a ukulele? (one of the tracks on this CD)

You can do far more than 15! Although I’ve played uke for many years, I’ve only recently become more aware of the growing ukulele culture and the range of superb players in every genre from bluegrass to classical. There have always been fine jazz players like Lyle Ritz.

What is happening in the scene right now in the UK?

In terms of players and composers the UK scene has probably never been stronger and there’s some really exciting music around.

Musicians have suffered terribly through the pandemic though; I have friends who were doing five gigs a week and now have absolutely none. Government help for freelance musicians has been little or nothing. Whilst there has been support for larger venues, the grassroots venues and promoters are on a cliff edge, as are most festivals. Some have closed and a lot more are at risk. People have reacted in different ways. The lucky ones have been able to use the change of pace to explore new ideas. Others have found it hard to even practice with no end in sight; some have given up on music.

I’m optimistic that at least some parts of the scene will come back stronger but they will certainly be leaner.

Your hopes for “Atlantic Skies”?

When live gigs return, I plan to put together a small band to tour the music. Some tracks I can perform solo, others require a rhythm section, singer and at least one sax. I’d love to see the tunes performed by other musicians and singers so I’m making the lead sheets available for download on my website. One of the encouraging things about the project has been the enthusiastic response from musicians.

It’s a risky album in being hard to pin down and rather ambitious, so I hope people will give it a few listens. It takes a while to unfold. I’m going to work hard at finding new listeners, one by one if necessary!

Other comments?

I’m already working on the follow-up. With the lack of gigs I’m working on remote recordings with some top-flight UK jazz musicians, which in itself is exciting. Plans are in place to produce six instrumental pieces and six songs over the coming months. 

For more information visit https://www.stephengodsall.co.uk/home.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) 2021 Debbie Burke

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