There may be countless clichés about how things were done in the “good old days” of music, but clichés do tend to come from a place of truth.
Before computers came along and “cleaned up the mess”, rock musicians bubbled forth with creativity in their burgeoning new genre, restlessly experimenting with the limited tools they had available in order to achieve a memorable sound. Idiosyncrasies were not considered to be undesirable – instead, they were given room to shine. Songs were often remembered for their lyrics as much as their melodies and hooks. Guitarists experimented with new tunings and techniques to create their own impressive and wholly unique style of playing.
Dave Cousins needs no introduction to anyone familiar with the 1960s British folk and prog-rock scene. As the founding member, leader, and principal songwriter of famed rock band the Strawbs, Dave has been a prolific and distinctive songwriter for decades, in genres spanning from folk rock to bluegrass to progressive rock. His unconventional voice has garnered comparisons to Bob Dylan, and critics have praised his instantly recognizable guitar style and lyricism.
Having been involved in the world of music since the mid-60’s, Dave has watched music evolve and evolved with it. Thanks to my friend Dave Bainbridge, who was touring this summer with the Strawbs, I had the amazing backstage opportunity to pick Dave’s brain about how approaches to songwriting and making music have changed over the years, the effects of computerization on these processes, and how the Strawbs have been able to enjoy such longevity and success.
Q: Hi Dave, and welcome to Musical U!
Countless music lovers and critics have commended your musical style, which uses unconventional guitar tunings and an organic, lyrical approach to songwriting. Tell us more about how you developed your trademark style.
I started out as a bluegrass banjo player. Although I played guitar, it was the banjo that really captured my imagination. I learned to play bluegrass banjo, by slowing Earl Scruggs’ records down to half speed and working out what finger patterns he was using. Once you got those finger patterns it all slots into place and you can play as fast as you like. I found it became very mechanical, but what I did notice was that a lot of the Appalachian banjo players, because I had heard them on the Harry Smith collection, were playing in modal tunings. They’d tune the second string of the banjo up to a C.
And I thought, “I wonder what that would sound like on the guitar?” So I tuned my first string of the guitar down to a D, tuned the second string up to C, and the bass string down to D, and suddenly I had the most amazing sound on an acoustic guitar. And to this day I’ve never found anybody else who uses that particular tuning, but I’ve written a lot of songs in it. I experimented with tunings, using classic banjo tunings on the guitar to see what it sounded like.
I developed my musical and songwriting styles from using these alternate tunings. To this day, I use tunings that I’ve worked out myself, that I don’t think anyone else uses. There’s one definite advantage to it: you write songs that are very different to what anybody else writes. The disadvantage is that people can’t work out what the chords are. They can’t work out how to play the songs, so they often come up and say, “What are the chords to that song?”.
As I started to write songs, I started to write the words as well. And I’ve found that as I was going along, some lines were longer than others. So instead of saying, “Oh, I must cut that back and make every line regular,” I’d extend certain lines to be a different length. That gave the song a different characteristic. It made it less mechanical.
What has happened more recently as people have gotten into computerization is they take the lazy method of writing. They don’t sit down and write songs on acoustic guitar and add extra bits if it’s necessary. Instead, they work out the first verse of a song and a chorus, and they cut and paste it on the computer, and as a result, you’re getting mechanical-sounding songs with no variation in them whatsoever. And I find that incredibly sad.
You can just hear it in the songs, that they all sound much the same. There’s no variation. And the only time you can hear it is with people who use real instruments, who actually play it live and work it out by playing the song on a guitar or on a banjo if you like, but playing it live, as it makes the whole difference of the whole thing. And I think that music has deteriorated as a result of computerization nowadays.
Yes, I used to sit in my bedroom and work out songs myself. Kids now record on computers and put the records out, but again, they’re cutting and pasting and chopping and changing.
That’s not to say that we don’t use that, but on our records you’ll find that I’m not particularly accurate at it, so you’ll find your 2/4 bar in the middle of a 4/4 song coming in. And it just adds that little shuffle to it. You can find this in a couple of classic songs. The Beatles song is “All You Need is Love”, where it’s not in 4/4 all the way through, it skips a beat every now and then. You can also hear it in the Blondie song “Heart of Glass”.
It really adds something different to the music.
It gives the song a personality and a style that makes it different. Nowadays people writing at home wouldn’t think of putting an odd beat in a song like that, because they’re not writing and playing it on the guitar. They’re playing it on the computer, cutting and pasting, and it’s taken a lot of the character out of music. Now you listen to the pop channels and you hear voices all being in perfect pitch, all being pitched up.
Bob Dylan never sang in perfect pitch – it all varied! That gave his voice its character and distinctive sound. Somebody once tried to tune up my voice, but it was taken from a live recording. In tuning it up, it put all the instrumentation out of tune, so when you played it all back together it sounds as though the whole band was out of tune, even though it wasn’t. So it doesn’t work all the time and I don’t like it. It’s always a good idea to go back to the old ways: play a guitar, put it in different tunings, and suddenly you’ll come out with a whole different feel and style of songwriting.
Q: In an interview, Joe Walsh mentioned the magic from the ’70s and ’80s, where it wasn’t so computerized. He also mentioned that what happened back then in a recording studio was very different from how it is now: as you said, the cut, copy, paste! What was maybe a mistake back then, we now remember as a magic part of the song.
Have you heard anything that has been interesting new that has captured your ear?
About ten years ago, I bought a record by a Spanish group called Radio Tarifa. Tarifa is the nearest point in Spain to Africa, and so they had the mix of African instrumentation and Spanish flamenco at the same time. Gorgeous record, and on one track the rhythm section was a flamenco dancer. It’s on a record label called Nonesuch Records.
The record was made totally without computerization. They did a live album in Toronto, and then split up. It was a great shame because they were so fantastic!
Q: It’s sad to think how many bands split prematurely – just look at Badfinger, with the untimely suicide of their frontman Pete Ham.
As a veteran of the industry, you’ve witnessed the ongoing transformation of the music business. How have the processes of marketing and releasing records changed with it?
A lot of records are sold on social media. And of course with older bands like us, our fans don’t necessarily use social media in blanket form as the young kids do.
So whereas our records still sell in reasonable quantities, nowadays you can get records that sell 25 million. In the early days, it was quite rare to get big records like that. Someone like Adele or Sam Smith will suddenly take off in a worldwide way. They’re distinctive voices and stylings, but if you look at the writing credits, there’s three or four writers on each track. It’s like, “We’ll just go into the studio, we’ll put you in with a team of writers so you have a share of it.”
How about working it out for yourself?
You have to think in a mercenary way. The opening track of our album is called “The Nails From the Hands of Christ”:
Dave Bainbridge came up with that wonderful instrumental opening, but I thought, “Hang on, it makes the whole thing for a start nine minutes long, so we’ll call the opening part a separate track.” So people want to buy the album and download it, they’ve got to buy that as a separate track, but when they hear it and play it through it’ll blend as it’s meant to be.
And we did that on another song that was 11 minutes long, separated out the beginning of that section, which is me playing acoustic guitar and Dave playing flute and other instruments over it. And that’s now called “The Reckoning”, and it sets up the scene for “The Ferryman’s Curse” which is the title track of the album. So that’s a separate track. You’ve got to think marketing-wise.
I learnt that very quickly when we first put out records in America. We were told that they pay 10 cents a track for the publishing, so I thought, “Hey, I’m writing songs that are ten minutes long in three sections.”
So what did I do? I called each of the three sections by a separate title so they had to pay 30 cents a track for that one song rather than 10 cents for the one track. You have to think like that, and people don’t. They don’t realize what you can do. The downloaders are making money hand over fist and the artists aren’t getting the money, so you’ve got to take them on at their own game. So if you got a song that’s very long, split it into two sections and call it two songs.
Q: That’s a great idea!
And speaking of long, your band, the Strawbs, has been able to enjoy 54 years of success (and counting!). What’s the key to this incredible longevity?
I think it’s all down to the lyrics of the songs: people identify with them. I’ve heard people who have been hospitalized say that they’ve recovered by listening to the albums! I had a young lady who had 11 electric shock treatments come to visit me when I was living down in the west country in England, and said that she’d found the whole thing eased her and gave her comfort. She just knocked on the door of my house and said, “I just want to say thank you.” She came in and stayed for a couple of days and went off and disappeared, and I never saw her again. There are even many couples, in the USA in particular, who get married to one of our songs.
That’s the last part of “Autumn”. We call it the “Winter Long”:
That was one of the songs that was divided into three sections. That is the song that couples either have their first dance to, or walk down the aisle to. The fact that people have decided to celebrate one of the most important days of their lives with one of our songs is very flattering. It means something specific to them, sometimes spiritual if you like. Not that the songs are deliberately spiritual or religious, but people seem to just find comfort in the words. That is what has given us our longevity. Concentrate on your words. Don’t just write, “I love you babe”. There’s much more to it than that.
We have a song called “The Familiarity of Old Lovers”. People just don’t write about that as a song, let alone sing it. Okay, it takes a bit of timing to get it right, but it sets the whole song into different characters. I quite often come up with song titles and then work out what on earth it’s going to be about.
Most of my songs are autobiographical. So if you want to know my life, what I’ve done in my life, it’s all there. I’ve covered them up to protect people sometimes.
I’m essentially writing about things that have happened to me or experiences that I’ve had, stories that I’ve picked up along the way. And that is what gives the music its longevity. Yes, we do nice tunes, but people also remember the words, they can relate to them. They like both music and lyrics together.
While you’ve undergone various changes in lineup throughout the years, the Strawbs have stayed together for a long time – since 1964, to be exact. How have you been able to maintain this kind of longevity?
We just like playing the songs. If we all didn’t like playing the songs, we wouldn’t do it.
Some of the songs are a challenge, that’s for sure – they’re not straightforward, I use unusual tunings, and there are various sections where it changes.
It’s incredibly powerful. I’ve learned that in writing, you don’t have the use the basic chord. You can write other chords around it, and I’ve just got a new song coming in, using that different tuning. Because of that tuning you hear atmospheres and textures that keep our music fresh, challenging, and interesting for us to keep playing.
Q: It’s become your signature. In a review of your album, I’ve read someone say, “You can always tell a Dave Cousins guitar sound as soon as he starts playing.” And it’s interesting that you say that.
One last thing: is there anything you would say to people just getting into music, any encouraging words?
Don’t give up.
Writing Music, “Old School”
We may be living in the computer age, but as any seasoned musician will tell you, there simply is no substitute for the human touch when it comes to songwriting and recording.
The time you invest into crafting meaningful lyrics, adding variation, and experimenting with subtleties in your music will more than pay off. The advantage of this human touch over computerization is immediately recognizable – the latter will create a sound that is uniquely yours.
Dave spoke of how experimenting with different tunings can add a new dimension to your songs. Try it out yourself – there are countless tunings with unique sounds that you can try out besides your standard EADGBE.
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