Yesterday, Wellington band The UnderCuts brought their award-winning “How to Write an Album” Auckland Fringe Festival show to Grafton’s TST Studio. With the tagline “12 hours. 12 songs. One album!”, the group aimed to write and record one song every hour for 12 hours, ending with one completed 12-track full-length LP by the end of the day.
Each hour featured a different rule or gimmick to keep the songwriting process fresh: “Voices”, “sentences”, “election”, “add ons”, “line in the sand”, “drop a beat”, “earmuffs”, “swap”, “silence”, “dance troupe”, “mystery”, and finally, “finale”.
The band featured Pippa Drakeford-Croad on vocals, Ben Kelly on keys, Ingrid Saker on guitar, Peter Scriven on bass, and Zoe Joblin on drums; with the crew consisting of Liam Kelly as the MC, Phil Jones on sound, Sam Irwin producing, and Sarah Burton on marketing.
With the rule of “voices”, the band began writing their first song, Zen And Gemstone. “From the sidelines and into life” became the main focus of the chorus, with the entire band singing and beat-boxing hi-hat noises throughout. As we arrived, the doorman described the track as “a song about horses for the young ones up the front”.
The chorus and the verse came quick and easy, with the a Capella and drums bridge section following next – referred to as the “ch ch ch bridge”. The band ditched the section several times with a resounding “nah” but added it back each time they rehearsed due to how much fun they were having. The rest of the hour was spent talking and joking about various ways to transition from verse to chorus to verse and back again. Kelly, from the back of the room, belted an impromptu “arms out”, soaring over the post-chorus section and was hastily brought up to the stage to complete the song.
“We’ve got one minute until we start again!” the band shouted, “But the clock is three seconds fast, I’m on Wellington standard time”. With no pause, Kelly leapt into MC mode and described the “Liam Lifeline”, where for any one of the 12 hours, the band members could opt to wear a Dr Seuss style hat while taking a break and Liam would play their instrument for the hour. At 1pm, the band introduced the show for the second time to the same audience, who all stayed for the next song.
“What is your favourite place in the world, and why?” asked Scriven to an audience member. She talked about her favourite field, where she would sit underneath a big oak tree and feel calm and secure. Kelly, still in MC mode asked the audience to close their eyes and visualise themselves there in the field, before Drakeford-Croad handed out pieces of paper for everyone to write down how that field made them feel. Here the second rule came into play as Drakeford-Croad began reading out the sentences, piecing them together into what became spoken-word verses over country guitar in the key of A Major. “Pale sapling sweat, swirled oak tang”, “I breathe new air into my lungs, my time, at last, has finally come”, “I feel grounded, I feel peaceful”, “Making acorn villages in the grass”, “Blissful oak”, “I wish I were a tree”, “I'm glad that my phone doesn't work in this valley”.
“Could we make it just female singers? It would really suit the song, and that feeling of isolation with it sounding like one person singing” said an audience member. The two male band members immediately took off their instruments and walked off, not realising that she only meant the vocals. They sheepishly grinned and returned to the stage. “Verse-chorus, verse-chorus, fade out with some ooh’s", said Saker, grinning. Blissful Oak began recording with only 7 minutes to spare.
As someone who has regularly written and recorded music for the past 7 years, I’ve always looked at the song itself as the product and the songwriting process as a means to that end. But seeing it in action showed that it provided a delightful snapshot through a door many people have never been down before. One thing I’d imagine one wouldn’t expect about songwriting is how much of the time is spent talking, discussing and laughing – not actually playing instruments. With ten hours left, the band showed no signs of faltering, having so much fun unapologetically doing what they love – and what I suspect, they would be doing anyway regardless of a crowd of people watching them.
Zen and Gemstone and Blissful Oak can be heard live on the band’s SoundCloud page. The full album will be released on The UnderCuts’ Bandcamp page, alongside their two previous albums created in the same fashion.