Culture

Enough Volume? Carys Eleri takes us on an odyssey through her pandemic pop album

26 Aug 2021 16 minutes Read
Carys Eleri and An Unexpected Pandemic Pop Album Volume 1. Let’s hope there’s no Volume 2. Enough Volume

What did you do during lockdown? Some of us used the enforced confinement to perfect our bread-making skills, others plotted the next trip to the supermarket with military precision or vegged out in front of the TV.

Carys Eleri spent the lockdown recording the snappily titled An Unexpected Pandemic Pop Album Volume 1. Let’s hope there’s no Volume 2. Enough Volume.

And here she takes us through the seven tracks – “a whistle-stop through one woman’s madness in each lockdown from March 2020 to the here and now”, as she describes it.

Song 1 – Fat ‘n’ Clean

This song came like a bolt of lightning, around two weeks into our first ever lockdown. I had a chat with one of my friends’ who said- ‘we’re going to be so fat soon – all this eating junk and not going anywhere…’ and I chimed in – ‘yes but we’ll all be so clean though! All this handwashing and bleaching like lunatics! Babes, you and I are gonna be fat and clean for Halloween!’ And in just one short conversation, I had written the hook for my first pandemic song and went to the piano straight away.

I had written the song in a day or two and shared it amongst friends to cheer people up including the utterly delightful Henry Widdicombe who runs Mach comedy festival and he loved it. Within a couple of weeks, BBC Radio Wales had commissioned a show called ‘Live from Lockdown’ to be produced by Henry’s company ‘Little Wander Events’ and it would be hosted by Wales’ queen of comedy Kiri Pritchard Mclean, and lo and behold – Henry and the team asked me if I would share the song on the show.

I was super chuffed, it meant that my gorgeous producer Branwen and I got to go to work again! Branwen Munn produced every track on ‘Lovecraft (NTSSIC)’ and I loved working with her. My task now was to figure out how the hell I was going to record my vocals remotely!

Griff Lynch from Welsh language band ‘Yr Ods’ advised me on a USB mic I should buy and Branwen advised me to download ‘Audacity’ – vocal recording software onto my very old, struggling-to-do-anything, laptop.

We immediately set up a simple system – I would record the songs as a voice note onto my phone while playing piano to a really bad drum machine sound on my electric piano, so that Branwen could hear the basic structure, chord structures and rhythm. I’d then send voice notes of certain musical points I’d want to hear and write the baseline separately and then have a zoom meeting to discuss conceptually how I wanted it to sound.

Branwen and I have a great understanding and we listen to absolutely ALL sorts of music from pop to metal to acid jazz to drum and bass. She knows exactly who and what I am talking about and normally within 2 drafts – she’s nailed what I was hearing in my head. It’s mad and sort of telepathic with a dash of witchcraft. I remember being pretty specific in terms of the rhythm and groove of this one – I wanted it to be similar to ‘Girls’ by ‘Destiny’s Child’ – which I adore.

Song 2 – Beyond the Fence

In the meantime, Henry asked me if I could write another song to be featured in the show. Having understood the concept of the show where Kiri was locked down in a house with Tarot sketch group, having the prolific comedian Tim Key phone in with mad poetry and the fabulous comedian Lolly Adefope pretend she was holidaying in North Wales from London and Jordan Brooks being side splittingly funny – it made sense that I or my ‘character’ would be framed as living next door to Kiri, where she and the gang would hear me singing loudly through the walls.

I then thought it would be a great idea to write a song about falling in love with a neighbour who had just moved in as lockdown started, but we wouldn’t be able to get too close because of the social distancing rules which had just been put in place. So I decided to write a big ostentatious, yet, clunky Bond-style number called ‘Beyond The Fence’ to depict this bonkers scenario.

‘Beyond the Fence!

There you were looking so fine!

Beyond the Fence!

Your shadow passed behind the clothes on the clothesline.

Beyond the Fence!

I want to call you, but I don’t know your name!

This is so tense!

So much suspense!

Beyond the Fence….’

Where Fat ‘n’ Clean had super-pop vocals, I went full Shirley Bassey on this one. I love exploring the voice. One of my biggest vocal heroes is Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr Bungle). He does it all with aplomb and style from metal to smooth jazz – he has a 6-octave vocal range and clearly loves the exploration into the human vocal ability – he provides the monsters/creatures voices to Will Smith’s film I am Legend and I could watch YouTubes of him doing all sorts of vocals with orchestras all day long.

So, though these songs are comedic and there to make you laugh and smile, I take great care in pitching the vocal tones as carefully as possible. I have spent most of my life acting on stage, screen and the radio so I like to bring big performance to the table and am quite big on story telling while singing.

Having recorded these for the show as audio, I then decided to release them as a double A side single for Tarian Cymru (Wales’ Shield)– a charity set up in the 1st lockdown to raise money for and create PPE for those in desperate need, as the government weren’t providing the correct protection to our vulnerable front line care workers here in Wales.

I decided I would make videos for the songs using my phone, and they featured some amazing faces such as Charlotte Church, Erin Richards, Nick Helm, Catrin Finch and Owain Wyn Evans as well as a host of friends who all did some backing dancing on Zoom. All lovingly edited by Griff Lynch.

Doing all the filming and scheduling myself on top of the other jobs was super stressful, because I had to flip from the creative me to being a tech person! My neighbours must have thought I had lost my mind as I was often in the garden filming myself with a little tripod for my phone while wearing varying costumes miming to loud music, muttering a lot to myself with NOBODY ELSE AROUND!

I wasn’t holding back on performance either so yes – the neighbours – God knows what they must think of me! I have spent the entire time in isolation with mam in our family home in West Wales, it’s more of a rugby area than a jazz hands one so…

The songs are always pretty descriptive and have a clear beginning middle and end story-wise, so I was making mini music dramas each time.

Cover artwork for An Unexpected Pandemic Pop Album Volume 1. Let’s hope there’s no Volume 2. Enough Volume.

Then towards November, Henry got in touch to say he’d like to commission more songs. Three this time that could be used for two BBC projects – another ‘Live from Lockdown’ and an online festival called BBC Gwyl2021 which would feature amazing acts like Gruff Rhys, Arlo Parks, Cate Le Bon, Bret Anderson, Ani Glass… the list goes on. These would have a decent budget this time as they would all be made into mini films with an actual crew!

I nearly cried. I hadn’t worked with another person in person for months. I had gone from travelling the world with my show ‘Lovecraft (Not the sex shop on Cardiff)’ and seeing hundreds of new people every week (which is a personal joy for a social butterfly like me), to nothing – it was really taking its toll.

Song 3 – He Dumped Me on Zoom

Henry and I were keen that whatever I would create, it would maintain a story arc and through-line showing character growth as well as providing all of the lolz. I had already set up a super-heightened version of me singing about eating all the pasta and buying all the bleach, then falling in love with a neighbour – what next?

By this point in the panny-d, absolutely everything was done on zoom. And I just thought ‘He dumped me on Zoom’ would be a great song title. Brutal. Social commentary and satire, playing on the technology itself within the story, on screen and within the soundscape. I wanted the opening vocal to be big and angry, stripped bare while a comedically dark baseline and some heavy guitars would kick in with some comedic xylophones on top. The thought of playing the xylophone really well, but in anger made me laugh so I ran with it.

I was particular in asking Branwen to capture the glitchy sound of the internet within the baseline, and I think I pushed my vocals further than I’d ever pushed them before. It’s right at the very edge of the top belt of my voice, mixed with a rock vocal. It needed so much physical control to deliver while packing a punch with the diction. I nearly passed out a couple of times doing this!

I learned so much while recording myself. Weirdly – this pandemic has taught me how to sing. I have sung for years, but now I am so much more familiar with my voice. Before, I would go to Branwen’s or any other producer’s studio and do several takes till they captured what was the best and would help direct me. But without anybody’s assistance, I had to judge myself and listen back to each and every take, which is so much more time-consuming. I really got into it and started to truly listen to myself and my delivery, my phrasing, my breathing – and I started to challenge myself to be better and better each time until I was completely satisfied.

I am my toughest judge.  All cells behave differently when observed, as do we humans. Once we know we are watched we change our behaviour. Being on my own meant I could fuck up, do the bum note(S), experiment, be myself and nobody would see me. It was so liberating. Which is crazy, considering I was also in isolation.

I would write all my songs in the garage of our house, and I was feeling the pressure of an imminent deadline with these. The first time I’d been repeatedly commissioned to do completely new work for someone else – and working with Henry is a dream, I felt free with complete ownership of my work because he trusts creatives. I was so glad we were set on creating a story arc because when people say ‘you can write about anything’ – I get the willies. I need purpose, meaning, structure and confines so it hones it down to what it needs to be.

Carys and her tree.

Song 4 – I love Nature Now.

I knew I wanted to write a song in the style of the Jackson 5. That unmistakable joyous sound of the 70s just soars. And after being dumped on zoom, I thought that my next move should be to sack off technology, give in to the great outdoors and fall in love with a tree! A classic romcom don’t you think? The song title came pretty easily, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how far I could take my passion for the tree in words without taking it too far, knowing my audience would be almost certainly family based.

I treaded a line, but it was all pretty plausible language plus as it was framed with such joy of that era of music, singing things like ‘I’m so drunk for your trunk’ and ‘I wanna sing to your ring’ ‘As soon as I saw you, I knew, I wood!’ was perfectly acceptable on the radio at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon!

Song 5 – Water Closet

I sat clutching a mobile whiteboard which remained white for 24 hours as I planned my next song. I wrote 5 versions of this song. They were all 8 minutes long and sat somewhere between Meatloaf and Frozen 2. Now my character was living outside full time, so obviously I wanted to write a song about embracing peeing outside! Remember the earlier lockdowns when you went for a walk and no toilet was open when you were HOURS away from your house? People were coming out of the bushes left right and centre. I fully embraced the jungle-wee pretty quickly – there was no choice!

And it left me thinking so much about how this is normal life for most men. Anatomically, it’s easier when you have a hose pipe sticking out of your middle I suppose but then I mastered it and I wanted to goddamn sing about it. And one night it came to me, that I wanted to liberate all of my sisters for life by singing the words ‘Come out of the water closet!’ Very loudly. It needed to be a definite feminist anthem while musically nodding to Destiny’s Child, Mary J Blige with a splash of Gangster’s Paradise.

Back in the days of yore

There was a silent pee-war                                       

Boys would go anywhere

Whipping around without no care – or aim,

And it would go everywhere

The only thing missing was a fanfare

We’d be queuing & queuing inside

It’s time to go outside!

Making a splash

For a while I have started to realise how I construct my comedy songs. I choose a frame that is familiar to all listeners, whatever the story I must tell – a genre or an era of music will guide it to what it needs to be. I am currently working on another album altogether which is far more spiritual and as far away from comedy as you can get – and that is completely different. I turn to my myself alone to write and frame those songs. But with these – it’s another matter and it’s so, so much fun.

It’s all about communication, clarity, fun, pure entertainment – and it’s driven with so much care. These sings were filmed by Griff Lynch and Daf Hughes in the first week of January this year, and I am SO proud of them. My set was the 5th most streamed of the whole Gwyl2021 festival which I thought was bonkers considering it was all original work.

Song 6 – Fat n Keen

Then came the phone call to to another Live from Lockdown. It was around March this year. A year into the pandemic, and I was struggling – we all were. The brief was the same – songs about the pandemic, same ‘character’, and it’s about facing the news that we will ‘emerge’ and be released to the real world again. I had found so much solace in nature during Covid-19, I have slowed right down and the thought of returning to a chaotic normal now is crackers. I had a huge sense of grief when I heard about the vaccine roll out, I wasn’t sure I wanted to ‘emerge’.

So, I wrote this comic but sorrowful song, which is in fact a reprise of ‘Fat ‘n’Clean’ because it would mark an exact year since I had written that first song in this collection, and we were all still in this weird place. It is a folkier version of the R&B original, edging on Sufjan Stevens, dropping into a huge electric storm – to an almost sacred ending, but trying not to veer too far from comedy land. But I had to honour that sense of grief I was feeling at the time.

But I am so happy and unstressed right here

Loving the earth and the atmosphere

Will this mean I have to go online again

Watching the storms – I prefer the ones out here.

But I’m happy there’s a vaccine

And people will be healthy

So, should actually buy a diary?

And Pencil in this Halloween?

I’m so fat n keen for Halloween.

 

Carys

Song 7 – Meteor

And finally, my Meatloaf/Bonnie Tyler moment came. Thank fuck for that. I had been yearning for it for a while. A huge rock-pop anthem about re-entering the world ‘like an angel on fire!’ This is double entendre central, and I am very happy that I absolutely got away with this again being aired on the radio on a Saturday afternoon ‘I’m coming like a meteor!’ and ‘Re-enter me… into the world!’

It’s quite obvious but the metaphor is very plausible. I was thinking about the emerging and how insane the UK government are, and just lifting restrictions too soon will basically be like an asteroid wiping out all dinosaurs making them extinct and so is this it for us? I had to go full Meatloaf. That feeling of wanting all the jabs to be able to ‘swing from every chandelier’ again but the reality of all of this is crazy. I really wanted to use the image of re-entry too, and that I was re-entering the world like and on a meteor.

No video has been done for this yet. I really want to though. It needs a big green screen drama… I wrote this in the same way as usual, and Branwen built it up from the piano and drums only to guitars (she plays everything) to a psychedelic soundscape when I am tearing through space on a meteor with a sort of airline announcement saying ‘All aboard the meteor, there are no safe exits. So just cling on and hope for the best, and please remember the all-important checklist – hands, face, space. What could possibly go wrong?!’

I absolutely loved making these songs, I loved using my skills as a songwriter, comedian, singer and story teller to create a body of work which documents the weirdest time for human life on planet earth – but with joy and hilarity at its core. It’s been such a hard time for everyone, and laughter is the best medicine after all. That and singing at the top of your lungs in the garage.

Grab your copy of An Unexpected Pandemic Pop Album Volume 1. Let’s hope there’s no Volume 2. Enough Volume here

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