Musical practice regime by Nick Cody

Since starting The Small Change Diaries back in 2014 I have increasingly appreciated the importance of regular vocal and instrument practice. I have learned to develop a  regime that without doubt has hugely helped in writing, recording and performing music. 

Every week I have a two hour songwriting slot with Jessica Bowie and we’ve been doing this for almost three years now. Its funny to listen back to early sketches of tracks like “5 string man” and “Perfect Place” and to hear how these developed to be finally recorded and often played on BBC Radio. In each case these tracks benefitted massively from being worked up and such work ups require a great deal of time. The writing partnership with Jessica and other members of the band mean that we get something quite unique with four very different views. It continues to be a fascinating process watching songs unfold.

When we were asked to play the 2016 Lagoa Guitar Festival we rehearsed every week before heading to Portugal. Without doubt this helped with the final performance. When Adrian Knowles joined the band and became musical director, we moved up a level in terms of our musical development and playing with Adrian and Rich Ferdinando is like having Sly and Robbie as your rhythm section, just terrific.

On an individual basis I always make sure that I have instruments at hand where I live are often on stands rather than tucked away in cases. Sometimes I might pick up a uke, mandolin or guitar and discover a musical phrase that’s really interesting. These sketches are always recorded for future development. Sometimes an entire song can reveal itself in a very short period of time and sometimes such sketches might remain dormant for many months. The same applies with writing lyrics. Often a real life event might inspire a phrase or chorus for a future song. The secret in all instances is to record these sketches for future development.

In working on my solo material for an anticipated 2018 release, I am deliverately working in a different way. Some of the tracks are written on ukulele but I’m working out the vocal parts to piano, focussing 100% on the vocal delivery. I’m lucky to have an excellent vocal coach in Alice Higgins and her input has become invaluable in developing my own vocal delivery. It also means that I have a totally different sounding board for this seperate project and the music is quite different to the band material. Working only with a piano in rehearsal sessions is a fascinating experience, On the first track “He’s shooting blanks” I sing and for once don’t play any instruments. With this track I have Alice on piano, Adrian Knowles on double bass and Laurent Zeller on violin. 

Regular practice and interaction with other musicians continues to spark all kinds of create ideas. Many who know me, know I’m a big fan of creating original music rather than covering existing material. Playing an all original set live is certainly not the safe option, but its a real joy to hear a song you have created receive great feedback. At the heart of this creative process is regular practice which means songs have the chance to mature and develop. Another key consideration is to have lessons with really excellent teachers. I’m lucky to have both Martin Simpson and Phil Doleman on hand. Martin remains a big inspiration on my playing and writing and I generally spend a few hours at his house talking about musical development. Phil is a wonderful tutor and “reality checker” especially when it comes to all manner of good advice when playing live. I’m lucky to be surrounded by such terrifc folks which help deveop my own musical pursuits. 

 

 

Instrument explorations and inspirations by Nick Cody

Many will associate me with the ukulele as an instrument with my band The Small Change Diaries and in Nick Cody music, but the uke is  only one of many instruments I play and love. Others include acoustic & electric guitar, mandola, mandolin, dobro, walking bass dulcimer and of course concert, tenor, soprano, baritone ukuleles. Each instrument inspires different ideas, playing styles and different end results. My many years learning from Martin Simpson taught me the value of playing a variety of instruments and the importance of having an attitude of sonic exploration. This is a key ingredient to becoming a more creative and skilled musician.

For the last three years I have been writing and recording with my band The Small Change Diaries. To date we have recorded two albums (2nd album released Nov 3rd this year) and an EP. Its been an amazing journey and in 2018 we will continue to focus on live work and return to the studio in 2019. In the meantime I’m working on a solo project with the first track “He’s shooting blanks” already recorded, as well as a duo project with longtime bandmate Jessica Bowie and an instrumental project. The main band goes from strength to strength and we are delighted to be invited to play at some really wonderful events including Lagoa Guitar Festival, Ilkley Literature Festival and Wetherby Arts Festival. As a solo artist I also recently played in Japan and am soon to do the same in Austin Texas.

As Nick Cody the solo artist I am delibeately exploring sonic territory outside the ukulele and instruments like the Collings 4 string tenor guitar, mandola and mandolin mean thinking in a new way musically. When I first started with the uke I had no idea what I was doing and that naivity is actually quite useful in musical exploration. Of course when playing with a band some basic musical awareness and education is essential as well. I have always loved music and have a diverse set of interests. Instrument exploration and creating original material is a fascinating journey that means opening up your mind to all kinds of new possibilities. 

Yes the ukulele has potential beyond just playing chords….

Let me start by saying I have no problem with people strumming chords on the ukulele, BUT there’s so much more potential with this brilliant instrument. I totally fell in love with the uke three years ago and to date have written and recorded 25 tracks using the ukulele with many more in the pipeline. Prior to picking up the uke I had the stereotypical idea of the uke as a bit of a gimmick and not really “a proper musical instrument” Now I realise how wrong I was. If I had only watched YouTube clips and attended a few uke festivals I would probably have never explored the potential for this instrument. A lot of what I see and hear is at best pretty average. Fortunately there are some conter examples to this and when I set up Original Ukulele Songs (OUS) almost two years ago, players like Victoria Vox, Alan Thornton, Paul Cameron, Phil Doleman and others gave me some hope that the mighty uke can be used infar more creative ways.

My good friend and longstanding brilliant international musician Martin Simpson makes some really useful and insightful comments 8.20 minutes into this clip

Martin is the most extraordinary player and this is a rare clip of him playing the uke. Last year I saw him play live with the uke leaving the audience amazed at a quite extraordinary performance. Of course Martin plays a wide range of instruments and over the years we have talked about how this develops new ways of musical exploration.

I appreciate that there is a place for people learning the ukulele and starting out with simple chords, everyone has to start somewhere. The tragedy in my view is that often that’s where exploration stops when there are so many more possibilities. Such explorations are of course not for everyone, but if players and event hosts want to capture the public imagination in a far bigger way then its important to showcase the uke in a much more expanded way. A crucial part of this exploration is creating new music and not just recycling previous material and the OUS platform is a small but mighty group of artists who are helping with this task. 

Busking in 1977 – Nick Cody

My first experience of playing live to an audience was busking in Guildford underpass in 1977. Those days I played acoustic guitar and on average would earn around three quid an hour which was a pretty good rate back then. An album (this was way before CDs appeared) would be around two pounds forty pence, and I was delighted to fund my first copy of John Martyn’s Solid Air from this work.

Most of the songs I played solo or with my girlfriend at the time were CSNY or Neil Young tracks. I was back then and decades on remain a great fan of these artists. Dylan was also in one of his golden periods and Blood on the Tracks was back then and to this day remains my favorite album. I was just seventeen at the time and playing was pretty basic but extremely enthusiastic. I had an old Kay acoustic that really wasn’t that great and yearned for a Yamaha, but couldn’t afford one. A year earlier I had seen Neil Young play his Zuma set at Hammersmith Odeon in London two nights in a row. He did an acoustic set initially and then an electric set which included Hurricane which wasn’t then released until years later on American Stars and Bars.

This was a fun time and in my view a golden age for singer songwriters. Its funny looking back at this period and how many decades later I have returned to acoustic music with great joy. Its also interesting for me that most of the music I love most was created 1971 – 1975 and when travelling in Europe, USA and Asia most of my listening is from that period.

What is an expensive ukulele?

When people think about ukuleles, the stereotypical idea is often that a ukulele is a cheap instrument that is not really a musical instrument. On online forums, often people can insist that nobody should pay more than “X” for a ukulele, and the “X” will of course depend on each person. One person’s idea of expensive is another person’s idea of what is entirely reasonable. Price does not always determine quality, but of course a hand built instrument made to order will mostly have less cost considerations than a ukulele that is mass produced. 

My first ukulele was a Collings pre-production concert ukulele which cost around 600 quid. Some may consider that to be excessive, but it’s a beautiful instrument and Bill Collings always makes sure that all his instruments are of the highest quality. Such instruments usually hold their value and can be really great investments. Collings no longer currently make ukuleles, so these are going to be hard to find. Of course, if we were talking about violins or brass instruments 600 sterling would be small change. 

It’s all a matter of personal choice and I have learned to have a real appreciation for luthiers who put heart and soul into creating bespoke instruments. The attention to detail and the quality is mostly excellent and of course this excellence is reflected in the playability and the sound. I recently unsubscribed from many ukulele FB forums where people had a habit of spouting opinions about instruments they had never played or heard. It just made for truly depressing and somewhat daft reading.

To date I have favoured ukuleles built by Takahiro Shimo, Bill Collins and a few other builders mostly outside the UK. There are plenty of production models that are “ok” but don’t sound anything like as good to my ears. I no longer get into discussions with people who insist on ukuleles over 250 sterling being expensive as we are clearly looking for very different things in a playing and recording instrument. In the recording studio the sonic differences becomes totally obvious and I thank all those builders who dedicate time and energy to creating such wonderful instruments. So in answer to “What is an expensive ukulele?” its totally subjective and it depends what you can afford and how much you value the investment. Personally for me its all about sound and playability and I’m totally happy to make such investments, both financially and in the time spent in seeking out the really good ones that suit my ears and fingers

 

Working on solo release for 2018 – Nick Cody

In the lest two months having completed The Small Change Diaries 2nd album, I have started working on a solo project “Dark Tales” This is a very different style to The Small Change Diaries material to date. The instrumentation is also different and the first recorded and mastered track has mysef on vocals. Alice Higgins on piano, Adrian Knowles on double bass and Laurent Zeller on violin. For once I’m not playing anything, just focussing on vocals.

The material is lyrically pretty dark and also different to the SCD material. We are recording with Carl Rosamond who did all the SCD material and its sounding great. There’s not a ukulele in sight and I suspect a few folks will be surprised at how different this material is to what I have written and released previously. I’ll be back in the studio before the end of the year as I have two more tracks ready to go and several others waiting to be finished. 

The plan is for a 2018 release and some live gigs to showcase the new material.

Nick Cody

Making an great impression & balancing the books

In recent times, I have blogged about the importance of making a great impression and balancing the books as an artist. Both are essential if you want to achieve genuine success, whether creatively or financially. This blog is based upon my own experience where I have made some ill-advised decisions which at the time I thought were great, but in hindsight really were not. I’m also writing based on my observations of other people. Lets remember we are all learning, but here are some pointers for anyone interested in such matters.

My own business background

I come originally from a business background in 1980s, setting up and running some substantial business concerns. This period was a real baptism of fire in learning how to manage time and financial margins, especially as most of my income depended on getting good results. This also meant working extensive hours, so a working day was often 7am – 6pm. In my other life as an international trainer, author and therapist I built up a body of work which funds my ability to invest in musical projects and instruments. This also allows me to personally fund all band recordings and ensure all musicians are paid properly for rehearsal time.

I work as a  consultant for many business concerns as well as working with a number of business leaders on a 1 – 1 basis. 

 In terms of my own musical interest, not constricted by commercial considerations is wonderfully liberating as I don’t depend on generating a living purely from music. It also allows me to sponsor (sometimes anonymously) musical projects and I often joke that “the one Nick has to work like a dog to support the excesses of the other Nick” In recent years I’ve been interested in exploring the commercial considerations of being a musician and/or running artist events. This has proved to be quite revealing and this article details some of those observations. If you consider any such discussion as “negative” then stop reading now, but in my view it’s an important discussion.

Managing time and reliable income

My business background taught me a great deal about managing time and income. When I made a comment about not being surprised that a longstanding festival had thrown in the towel, this sparked a surprising level of fury from some music enthusiasts. They of course totally overlooked my comments congratulating the festival for its longevity. The hosts had a brand with years of success but in my view made a number of basic errors. The website was not great and in the era of WordPress there’s really no reason not to have a good online presence. The main issue is that they failed to focus on differentiation, so they became just another festival and inevitably this affected the attendance of paying customers. I applaud the enthusiasm for creating such musical opportunities, but unless you balance the books then such enterprises will inevitably be very short lived. 

Similarly, if any event wants to attract serious sponsorship, then it needs to be credible as a potential investment opportunity. If presented properly this should not be a massive task as the whole budget for the event is more than reasonable and the history alone should be attractive to some people if its presented in a positive and realistic manner. As an artist differentiation is also crucial. This is why I strongly endorse people creating and playing original music, as this lends itself to differentiation. Of course, it needs to be well considered and there’s absolutely a place for artists playing cover versions of existing material.

 Begging to be subsidized to play music doesn’t really create the best image

I’m lucky to know a number of people who earn a living from music and all of these have a very strong work ethic and are relentlessly touring and recording to maintain a standard of living. They of course also are highly talented, but talent alone doesn’t pay the bills. Many musicians would benefit greatly from learning some basic business skills which could make a big difference to their ability to connect to a wider audience. I understand the sentiment but I’m amazed when some artists have pages on their websites virtually begging for PayPal donations to allow them to subsidize their musical activities, but that’s just a personal view. A discreet box saying, “If you love my music, I welcome PayPal donations” is one thing. An entire page dedicated to charitable donations with an extensive life story of the woes of being a working (or not) musician is in my view not the best idea. Far better to think about ways to generate good value for appreciative rather than just ask to be bailed out financially. There are many ways to do this of course and most professional artists ensure that they have a number of different income streams, rather than rely on charitable donations to subsidize their musical interests.

Social Media, yes, it’s a business, but remember you don’t own it

The internet and social media platforms can be highly useful in connecting to a wider audience, but they can create an illusion of success that is borderline delusional. One artist proudly pronounced a record number of people liking a video on FB, but only had a tiny number of live appearances schedules and lamented a lack of income generation to support musical interests. The reality is that if you want to connect with a wider audience you need some basic marketing and business skills to make it happen. If you don’t have these skills then it’s worth learning how to acquire them or find somebody who can help you. I have noticed that some performers are so desperate to be noticed they will do almost anything to make this happen and often basic smart strategic thinking goes out of the window.  It’s important to remember that with platforms like FB, the customer is the advertiser NOT the user. The company exists like any business to generate income and like other platforms is there primarily to serve its own agenda: that’s business…

Live earnings

Its increasingly clear that live gigs and festival appearances can generate huge variations in income. My own personal experience is that for a festival set my band The Small Change Diaries have been paid anything from 100 to 1600 pounds! Of course, it’s not all about income, but simply the love of music alone will not pay bills. My own belief is that professional musicians should be paid a fee that is appropriate for their skill level and always seek to look after support bands and fellow musicians. I’m interested in exploring better live opportunities for original artists at present. I was talking to a seasoned musician recently who lamented the lack of enthusiasm in the UK for many people wanting to see even the most seasoned and skilled performers. Part of the problem is the number of enthusiasts just wanting to play for exposure setting up the unfortunate trend of free entertainment. Increasingly seasoned artists get replaced by performers of a lesser standard, and the quality of the entertainment inevitably is affected.

Common Mistakes worth watching out for

Here are some things to consider 

  • Not updating websites and blogs – many individuals start off with great enthusiasm, but then lapse so such information is very out of date and it sends out a message that you are not really bothered
  • Poor quality control on photographs and video – it may seem a great idea to post lots of material taken with an iPhone but as the old saying goes “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” Better to have less material, but of a higher standard
  • Poor use of language and excessive use of superlatives – if everything is described as “awesome” then such descriptions become essentially meaningless.
  • Connecting with too small a pool of people. When I interviewed Bill Collins for a magazine a few years ago, his first question was “What’s the circulation?” These days paper format magazines are in decline and circulation is everything. Even niche music magazines generally have tens of thousands of subscribers to attract essential advertising in these tougher economic times. Before paying for any advertising look at the circulation potential
  • Poor time management. Proper management of time is essential if you want to succeed in any activity. This means a discipline and realizing that “what you want to do” and “what you need to do” are not always the same thing
  • Confusing social and business elements – This is a very common issue. You don’t have to like somebody to do business and its important to focus on “the trades” in any relationship. Many artists and promoters limit opportunities by only interacting with people they consider friends. Yes, it’s of course better if you like the people you do business with, but the focus should be on the business, not who’s your mate. This can result in a kind of evangelism that’s not especially attractive to a wider audience as it seems to be a self-congratulatory group dynamic. Smart artists are always seeking out new opportunities and this means looking beyond FB friends.
  • Over exposure – this can happen with both event hosts and artists where they become a bit hyperactive with gigs and events. The lack of scarcity usually dilutes customer interest.
  • Good communication. I’m amazed at how unresponsive some people are in communications. I have many examples of this including wanting to book advertising and despite promises never receiving information from business owners. All they had to do is e-mail rates and the money would be in their bank account. Similarly event organizers can be very slow to reply to artist applications or worse not reply at all, creating a terrible impression. I know of artists that won’t play events due to the promoter’s dreadful communication skills.

Conclusion

I’m mindful that this is a complex issue and these are my own opinions, others may disagree, which of course is fine. The purpose of such articles is to provoke discussion which is how we can all learn from each other. 

 

 

Beyond the ukulele – instrument exploration

I never consider myself “a ukulele player” rather a musician who plays ukuleles along side many other instruments. Here are some of the ones I love and have or will use in recordings and live work. Please excuse the chat at the begining of the mandolin track, this was one of our “sketch ideas” where what you hear is the first time the others in the ensemble had heard this idea and it shows how quickly these guys can pick up a musical thread and run with it which is why they are so great to play with! 

As much as I love ukuleles, I’m not a ukulele evangelist and have a great love of all instruments that help produce really sonically great music. Bill Collings, Stefan Sobell are great makers and Gibson despite its recent history has had some periods where they made really excellent instruments.

Each instrument inspires a different way of playing and I’m a great believer that learning and playing a wide range of instruments only makes for becoming a more skilled artist. These days I’m mostly looking for how things sound regardless of whether I have immediately play what is in front of me, I’ll figure that out later. 

After signing off on the second Small Change Diaries album due for release in November (digital world wide release in Oct) I have started working on some solo material with the addition of some new musicians as well as old colleagues. The first track is now fully mastered and sounds great. It also doesn’t have me playing any instruments, I leave that up to my colleagues who supply piano, double bass and violin. This is a different direction to The Small Change Diaries and the solo material is planned for release in 2018.

I have always had a great love of music and am fortunate to know some really talented musicians who have helped shape my own ideas on musical direction. Those who know me also appreciate that I have a love for original music and tend to speak my mind while also appreciating that others may have different views. As a collector of instruments I have over 25 ukuleles,  a great electric and acoustic guitar collection and one off instruments that include a Sobell mandola, Gibson mandolin featured here, National dobro previously owned by Martin Simpson, walking bass dulcimer from Austin Texas and other items. 

Carbon Fibre Ukulele Cases

One of the best finds from my latest trip to Japan is the emergence of carbon fibre cases for ukuleles. I had heard about these previously but only saw one last year in Tokyo at the end of my 2016 trip and had no space left in luggage to entertain a purchase. This year I rectified the situation and ordered a tenor from Ukulele Mania ahead of time to collect. 

Most people will be aware of fibre glass cases and there are some quite respectable ones out there which offer good protection to instruments. For my guitars I always went down this route and have a number of Carlton cases as used by Martin Simpson. For ukuleles Crossrock make fiberglass cases but these are very different to  Aranjuez carbon fibre cases which are made in China. Such cases will be familiar to violinists who want maximum protection but the lightest possible option for travel. The first thing that struck me about these carbon fibre ukulele cases is how well they are made and how they are literally half the weight of the lightest case I have come across to date. Of course this comes at a price and many uke players would be reluctant to make such an investment as these are not inexpensive to say the least. 

On this trip I was travelling across most of Japan and had a tenor in a carbon fibre ukulele case and another uke in a standard respectable uke case. The carbon fibre uke case was a fraction of the weight and the difference was astonishing compared to the standard case. These are available in standard colours as well as what Aranjuez describe as the camouflage spec. At present these are  incredibly rare and I can’t find any reference to any online and you certainly won’t find them in the UK. eEven in Tokyo I know of a couple of great stores that can get these items. There’s a specialised company in the USA making instrument cases with this material, but that is an even bigger ticket item. In the meantime, here is a photo of a tenor and concert sized case. I love them and hope that they become more available for musicians. 

carbon fibre ukulele case

 

Sofla soprano ukulele by Shun Yamazaki from Japan

This is a Sofla soprano by Shun Yamazaki. Brazilian Rosewood headstock, fretboard, bridge and pickguard. Body binding is Indian Rosewood. Nut saddle cowbone. Huron pine top, cuban mahogany back, mahogany neck. This is without doubt one of the sweetest sopranos that I have played, a brilliant sound and superb to play as well as a great looking instrument. I played around 20 ukuleles, before settling on this one. 

Japan remains the place for the best ukuleles at all price points and especially custom builds. There are four great stores in Tokyo alone and this one was from a store outside Osaka, “The Ohana Store” no relation to the ukulele brand. Its the second soprano I have bought from these folks and its always a joy to visit.

Shun Yamazaki is a new builder to me and this is a very different instrument to anything I have played before. Clrealy he knows his woods and I love the design on this instrument. Its sonically superb and very mellow to play. I instantly took to it and I suspect it will be a great instrument for writing. I already have dates to return to Japan in 2018 and 2019 and I’m constantly amazed at the great instruments I find there.