Project Blackbird’s Ming sheds light on the process of creating new album ‘If This Is the End’
Hey Ming, tell us about your collaboration with the fantastic Lynval Golding of The Specials on the song ‘Shake These Trees’. How did that come about and what was it like to work with him?
That was amazing and kind of a surprise for the rest of us, and just underscores what a generous and open-hearted person Lynval is. [Project Blackbird founding member, multi-instrumentalist, and song-writer/producer] Jon has known Lynval for years, having played and toured with him in The Specials’ Mk II version in the ‘90s and then when they reformed more wholly in 2008. Lynval was over in the UK last year and Jon was having a general chat over the phone with him about the album when it came up that he might be open to doing a collaboration.
Jon thought the style of “Shake These Trees” would suit Lynval’s voice, and also that the lyrical content would speak to his socio-political values, so he sent the track over and Lynval recorded himself singing the whole song at the studio of a mutual friend with whom he was staying. After that, we worked on it with our recording engineer, Dave Tidmarsh, editing the vocal parts to make it more of a call-and-answer with me and incorporate Lynval’s ad-libs. This was all done remotely – because of Covid-19 restrictions, Lynval and I were never in the same studio together, though hopefully some day in the future we will be able to perform it in the same place at the same time!
We are all so thrilled to have him on the track and to know that he thinks highly of it, and the album as a whole. I especially am grateful for the additional resonance and authenticity his presence brings to the lyrics of “Shake These Trees”, which are a call for social justice but are made much more nuanced and powerful on a number of levels, I think, when sung in partnership by a British-Jamaican man and a woman of mixed (white European and Chinese) heritage.
What are your personal favourite tracks off the album?
I know I speak for all of us when I say it’s really difficult for us to pin down favourites. The album comprises a pretty eclectic mix of styles and sounds, so what we’re drawn to can depend on how we’re each feeling on any given day and what kind of mood the track evokes. When I asked Jamie, he said he was heavily drawn to “Indecision” because he likes playing it, and to “Letter No 5”. But he’s often influenced by the atmospheric pressure and phases of the moon, and I have noted that he lights up whenever we mention the title track!
Alan says that “Shake these trees” is his favourite to play because it’s “easy and funky”. In terms of listening, he mentioned “Letter No 5” and the progressive nature of the title track which he’s warming to, but added that it’s entirely mood-dependent for him. Jon has similarly struggled to choose his favourites and compared it to “choosing a favourite child – some days you like one better than the others depending on what mood you’re in, but you love them all”.
The track listing on an album is always really important to me, so I’ll highlight the two songs that we chose to bookend the album – the title and opening track with its light and shade that foreshadow the songs to follow, and “Let love”, which is not my favourite song to sing but which I feel brings peace and closure to the album, lyrically and musically. I remember when Alan sent through an mp3 of the guitar riff we’d already selected most of the ideas we were going to turn into songs for the album, but when I heard that tender, delicate line it was kind of a “stop press” moment and I knew we had to include it, too.
This album saw you collaborate with many musicians outside of the immediate band such as drummer Dave Tidmarsh, who was also the mixing engineer and co-producer. Please tell us more.
Jon had earmarked Dave for collaboration early on. We know him personally and have worked with him before – he brings a freshness to what he does, has a great set of ears and an enticing library of sounds, and is also a fantastic, versatile drummer. He was able to skill Jon up with ProTools to enable us to do much of the recording at home, which worked well with the unexpected lockdowns. Dave was always available on the other end of the phone when Jon got stuck with technical issues - he has seemingly infinite patience and is a wonderful teacher as well as engineer and musician.
Jon is the driving force behind recording and I think, having a sense of musical community and connections with so many other talented musicians, he had always envisioned enlisting a number of guest artists. We have done this before (e.g. tabla player Hari Trivedi, who featured on our debut album “Endurance”), but “If This Is the End” saw us working with 11 collaborators outside of the core four band members. The lockdowns again meant that many of these musicians had to record their parts remotely and send them to us, which gave them – like us – a bit more time and freedom to be creative and to familiarize themselves with the tracks. Receiving their respective parts and solos was a bit like getting a non-denominational advent calendar with a delicious chocolate behind each e-mail!
We like how the name Project Blackbird matches the spirit of collaboration you guys clearly have. Where did the name come from, and was this your intention with the word ‘Project’?
Yes, it seems to fit that spirit of collaboration well, and we have often referred to ourselves as a “collective”, though I don’t think that was the original, conscious intention with the name choice. We formed Project Blackbird after the dissolution of our previous, larger band, Bluebird Parade. Project Blackbird was almost a throw-away working band name to give a nod to the fact that the four of us who were in it at that point had also been in Bluebird Parade, and to the sonically darker direction in which we were headed. I had just recently watched the documentary “Project Nim”, and I think the word “project” at the time reflected this sense of something more experimental, a work in progress that was rooted in familiarity but that at the same time opened us up to the unknown, an unchartered phase of our musical adventure.
We hear you’ve opened a guitar shop, how’s that going and how did that come about to start with?
Thanks for asking! Alan, Jon, and I are indeed in the process of setting up a shop in Oakham, Rutland called Moonflower Guitars – we’ll officially open on April 12th when restrictions lift. We are very excited and just a bit nervous because none of us has any significant experience in retail – Jamie is the proper salesperson in the band. The business came about as a very organic and somewhat impulsive convergence of circumstances and events. It’s a long story, but the short version is that all of us – like so many others - have experienced a lot of loss, change, and uncertainty over the past year and have encountered various “questions” about our respective occupations, life journeys, and sense of identity. Setting up a guitar shop seemed to be a perfectly logical response to such questions and has provided a great focus – alongside recording and releasing our album – during lockdowns.
Speaking personally, it is a real joy working together on this additional project. I have been lucky enough to have always been in bands (and for the last 10 years to have had a work partner, too) that are “family” to me, and I feel very fortunate to be able to extend these relationships to other areas of life. The four of us in Project Blackbird have all bonded over shared interests in music (of course), motorbikes, wildlife ponds, and guitars, so naturally it is our goal to one day be in a position to woo Jamie away from his independent landscaping business and bring him on board with Moonflower, too!
We love your video for ‘Laissons Cela Entre Nous’ and the fact you’re using French; Ming, when did you learn this language?
Thank you! I lived and studied in France (Paris/Boulogne) during my junior year of college (university). It was an incredibly formative time of my life and experience, but sadly I have lost a lot of the language in the years since then. Over the past few years, I have reconnected with a few French friends (who fortunately are very skilled in English), and this contact, and the related memories, inspired me to begin to re-teach myself French during the first lockdown last year by setting aside time to complete grammar workbooks and read a wonderful novel, “Né d’aucune femme”, out loud and very slowly!
I’m not sure why I felt that “Laissons cela entre nous” should have a French chorus; it just happened. Although the lyrics are fairly opaque, some of the imagery is drawn from the time I spent living in France. Upon reflection, it makes sense with the themes of duality and fragmentation to have used, for part of the song, a language that represents a very specific time in my life and part of myself, and which I am striving in some senses to regain and reconcile with my present selves.
Your music is also informed by the other arts as well as music, is there any visual artist in particular who influences your sound? We heard one of your tracks is inspired by Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington…
Wow, this question has really made me think about the connection between different artforms and why some pieces work so well for me, personally, as sources of inspiration. I have always been interested in visual arts – painting, sculpture, film, etc - as well as writing and the performing arts, both as an admirer and a participant, and I think there is a strong but eclectic aesthetic that runs through our music as a whole – one reviewer very generously alluded to the notion of “synesthesia”. For the others in the band, this aesthetic may be informed primarily by a collectively eclectic taste in music, but for me as a lyricist it’s definitely intertwined with visual and literary arts. “Baby Giant” was directly inspired by Leonora Carrington’s painting “The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg)”, as well as what I’ve read of her fascinating life, and was the first time I’ve written to a specific artwork. The surrealist style of the painting seemed to fit with the fragmented vocal line; once that was established, it was like trying to unravel the mystery of the images and my own response to a painting and an artist whose work does not lend itself to singular interpretations. As with tales by The Brothers Grimm, which have informed the lyrics to two of our older tracks, there is an uneasy darkness and mystery to the visual imagery within “The Giantess” which I think lends itself very well to the poetic rhythms of song lyrics. There is a poetry in the artwork itself, or in short stories like “The Juniper Tree” (which inspired “Underneath the Ramparts” on the album “Endurance”), and it is a pleasure to try to distil and reshape that even further.
I would like to think that it could also work the other way around. One of the goals for me as a lyricist is to express myself/selves while inviting personal interpretation, recognition, and connection from others; I think that is true for a lot of artists. For that reason, the idea of a filmic artist taking one of our songs and interpreting it is very appealing to me. Some of our songs seem to me, and to the rest of the band, as having a cinematic quality and I’m always interested in the phenomenon of different artforms enhancing, rather than detracting or distracting from, each other. Later this spring, “Baby Giant” will become even more post-modern in terms of artists referencing art when a puppeteer named Tony Sinnett finishes his video for the track – I can’t wait to see it.
Project Blackbird’s second studio album ‘If This Is The End’ is available now to stream & download on the major digital platforms. You can also purchase physical copies via their Bandcamp page.
Watch the video for ‘Laissons Cela Entre Nous’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NelhmznQC0o