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Levi's®/LitNet Origins of songs
Moontlik gemaak deur/Supported by: Levi's®

In our second contribution Clinton Gahwiler of FlatStanley tells how the song “Treading Air” was born, and answers five quick questions.

Clinton Gahwiler
“This is probably the most common form of idea that starts a song for me - a melody that I consider to be catchy enough to be a chorus.”

On the writing of "Treading air" (and "Sunset Ribbon Red"!)

Clinton Gahwiler

All songs start with an idea. The idea can take many forms - a melody, a guitar riff, lyrical content, etc. Occasionally even a title that one likes, as was the case with our song "Real live girl". "Treading air", however, started with a strum pattern. A Coldplay-inspired strum pattern, to be precise!

I had long admired Coldplay's song "Yellow", in particular the simple, steady strumming that ran throughout it. Funny how all the best songs seem to be the most simple ones. I remember sitting at home working out the chords for "Yellow" on my guitar one day, thinking that FlatStanley could use a song that had that nice gentle yet driving feel to it. So continuing the strum pattern I fiddled around with some other chords, when suddenly a melody popped into my head: "I'm not supposed to be in love with you …"

This is probably the most common form of idea that starts a song for me - a melody that I consider to be catchy enough to be a chorus. Often they come to me while driving. Then, so as not to forget them, I have to keep singing them loudly to myself until I get home so I can record them. This was very irritating, not to mention boring, in the days when I was living in Scarborough - a good 45 minutes from work! Later wisdom prevailed, and I acquired a walkman/dictaphone to solve this problem. The band refers to this little gem as our "mini recording studio", on which quite a few entire songs have been written to and from home.

I enjoyed Chris Chameleon's article last week. To use his words, once you've been lucky enough to "kots" up a chorus, then comes the "kak" - the sweating out of a new melody and 2/3 sets of lyrics to make up the verses that will complement the kots part. Occasionally you get lucky enough and kots the lot, but I don't remember it being that way with "Treading air".

The phrase treading air, incidentally, came from a friend of mine called Batya, who is naturally gifted when it comes to words. In speaking to her I often find myself thinking, "Wow that's great, you should write it down!" She's just one of those people who spontaneously come out with amazing lines, which more often than not just pass with the conversations. Fortunately the phrase treading air was one that always stuck with me. I think I may even have told her that (with her permission!) I would one day use it in a song.

The lyrical content for the verses had to elaborate on the bridge, which leads into the chorus: "… all is as it always has been in my world today, but hey - I'm not supposed …" So I just thought about a whole lot of those routine things that happen day in, day out in all of our lives. One image I tried hard to include at the time was of my neighbour walking around outside in her hair-curlers, but somehow the words weren't fitting the melody comfortably - which, in retrospect, may be just as well; it may have ended up as another one of those bad lines that the band would rip me off about for ever more. I have yet to live down a line that I once wanted to include in a song: "… standing barefoot in line for a pizza". (Don't laugh …!)

Anyway, the boring daily images that prevailed were of an alarm going off, the same old stories on the news, same old numbers on my cell, etc (even though, believe it or not, at that time I was still resisting owning a cell phone). My favourite line in the song is probably "I tread my line between heaven and hell, all is well", as it seems to capture the safety (and sadness?!) that many people feel in that comfortable area between having things too good and having them too bad.

At that point FlatStanley was really just Andrew on vocals, Neil and I on acoustic guitar and Clive on cello. The cello added that nice bottom end that was missing as a result of our not having a bass guitar. This all changed when we finally got around to recording a full album.

The first challenge was to find a drummer and bass player that fitted well with the music as well as with the current band dynamics. Ultimately we were very lucky to find Paul (Tizzard) and Rob (Nel), who both brought huge amounts of experience and expertise to the mix. (Paul was the drummer for The Usual, while Rob's claim to fame is that he has played nine Oppikoppi festivals with various bands!) When Andrew and I first met and started playing together we made a conscious decision that the two of us (with zero music training) had to remain the weakest links. After Neil and Clive's significant talents and training, Paul and Rob fortunately maintained these standards. Their input has been crucial in shaping the sound that is FlatStanley.


Once the band was together, we were able to start pre-production with our producer Theo Crous (Spingbok Nude Girls, Kobus!). Pre-production is about arranging and rehearsing the songs as much as possible before actually going into the studio. This is crucial, as studio time doesn't come cheap. (Again, refer Chris's article last week!) I distinctly remember rehearsing "Treading air" in pre-production and Theo suggesting we try it quite a bit faster than we had been playing it. Remember, it had started similar in tempo to Coldplay's "Yellow". Since the initial writing we had gradually been speeding it up, but now we were being asked to really "up" it. So up it we did, and that's how it stayed. Ultimately very different from how it started.

Initially " Treading air" consisted of three verses and three choruses. I had always been a little concerned about this. In fact I still harbour similar thoughts about "Real live girl". Another crucial input that Theo made at the time, was picking up on this same concern and suggesting that we come up with a change part for " Treading air'. In the end it was easy, one of the verses was dropped and its lyrics used for the change part "Morning paper's on the street…" I've since really grown to like this part, and feel the song goes up a notch in intensity at this point.

"Treading air" went on to become the first single off the album. For all of us, a real highlight of the FlatStanley adventure so far was when it went to number 1 on 5fm's High Five. It is just such a huge privilege to know that enough people around the country (other than just our own friends!) had to have voted for the song to get it that far. One gets a similar feeling at gigs, when you see strangers singing along to your songs. As one of the more up-tempo songs on essentially quite a mellow album, "Treading air" inevitably is a great set closer, and it's a truly amazing feeling to see the crowds not only singing along, but also jumping up and down to it.

A further highlight for us was being invited to re-record the song acoustically for the Levi's CD4 album. We knew we wanted to do something different from the album version, but weren't sure what. Aside from deciding to do it without drums and bass, we were really uncertain even when we arrived at the studio on the day.

We did the song one afternoon at Sunset Studios in Stellenbosch. While waiting to start, Neil was scratching around amongst the old recording equipment at the back of the studio and found a crappy old (cheap!) nylon-string guitar. He started jamming on it and suddenly had this great little picking piece. Well, it was recorded and promptly replaced the backing vocals on the chorus. The end result was a somewhat slower and much gentler version of the song, which quite a few people even seem to prefer over the original version.

The other song I was fortunate enough to be involved in on CD4 was the final song on which all the artists sang. As someone who has been a music fan all his life - but until four years ago not personally involved in any form of writing or playing - you can imagine what a thrill it was to be asked to co-write a song with Theo (Crous) which was going to be performed by many of South Africa's top artists. The challenge was to create something relevant to the subject matter (HIV/AIDS) without being too clichéd and cheesy. One also wanted something inspiring rather than too depressing, which in itself presented a challenge in light of the serious subject.

Theo and I got together one afternoon and he started playing a guitar riff that was really nice. We developed a melody line that flowed from that, and then I went for a walk/run on the mountain with my beloved mini recording studio (remember …?!) to find some lyrics. I was looking for a concept that had global relevance, which we could all use as a constant reminder of the dangers of HIV and the plight of those already infected.

I remember having an image of the world in mind, with a giant red ribbon around it, when it dawned (ha ha, pun …) on me that the obvious metaphor I was seeking was that of a sunset. A sunset is a beautiful natural phenomenon which, if used as a metaphor in the song, could serve as a daily (global) reminder. And hey, as luck would have it, sunsets are usually red! Hence "Sunset Ribbon Red …"

Theo recorded a rough version of the song at his home, and then Andrew (FlatStanley) came in and did the vocals. This recording then served as a guide for all the other artists, who recorded their lines at the same time as they were doing their own tracks for the album. I have been spoilt by being in a band with Andrew's phenomenal voice. Having that and some of the most recognised artists in the country singing my words was an amazing experience for me. I remember my hair standing on end as I listened to an early version and heard Arno Carstens's voice come in for the first time on the bridge. All in all just another huge privilege to be able to work with so many talented people.

We have since actually incorporated our own version of "Sunset Ribbon Red" into the FlatStanley live set. If any of the other artists are around, we try our damndest to get them up on stage too. I think Louise Carver's arm must be positively loose these days from all the twisting … I also heard that Karen Zoid and Arno Carstens did a version together recently. The closest we ever came to getting everyone together at the same time was during the shooting of the music video. Hopefully this will soon translate into a complete live performance. In fact, as I'm writing this I'm hearing rumours, so watch this space …


“Treading Air”

My taste leans towards conservative
I'm not a fan of the superlative
I pass by b from a to c
That's just me

Prefer my things to stay consistent
Like my dose of daily supplements
Same old numbers in my cell
All is well

All is as it always has been in my world today but hey!

Chorus:     I'm not supposed to be in love with you
                 I'm not supposed to be in awe of you
                 I'm not supposed to feel that I'm treading air, and you are everywhere

Today is Monday as is customary
After a Sunday that was ordinary
My alarm goes off as it's inclined to do
Nothing's new

FM news is not uncomfortable
Because it seems so predictable
Nothing new to show or tell
All is well


Morning paper's on the street
Nod at all the usual faces that I meet
I tread my line between heaven and hell
All is well


“Sunset Ribbon Red”

On the day the world began
A gift was given man
Something beautiful
Something intangible
Sunrise on paradise
But something is amiss
Love is dangerous

Every evening from the blue
Colour reminds me and you …

Chorus:     One universe one sky
                  One thing we can't deny
                  No matter what they say
                  The price is ours to pay
                  All around the world
                  For those alive and dead
                  A sunset ribbon red

My indignant heart
Our collective soul
Bleeds while we're apart
Needs a common goal
In the womb of tragedy
Lives opportunity
For shared humanity

Every evening from the blue
Colour reminds me and you …


FlatStanley in concert

Five questions

What excites you about the local music industry?

Infinite possibility in terms of song-writing, and the fact that public interest in South African music is on the rise.

What pisses you off about the local music industry?

I think it's a real pity that many talented musicians - many of whom have dedicated huge chunks of their lives to their craft - aren't able to sustain themselves through music.

Are radio stations doing enough to promote local music?

Some more than others. I do believe that if a song and its production are good enough, and it falls into the radio stations' chosen genres, they will play it.

If you have to give an aspiring lyricist advice in one sentence, what would it be?

I think the best songs find a balance between being meaningful yet not too specific, so that they stay open to personal interpretation.

What can local artists do to promote an awareness of HIV/AIDS?

Levi's CD-4 is a great start!

Skryf aan ons/ Write to us:

LitNet: 25 October 2005

boontoe / to the top

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