stories behind the songs
Find out more on the backgrounds, thoughts and feelings behind each song as Annemarie pens track-by-track for her new record created in Malawi, Africa.
1.SIZE OF THE SKY
The first track of the album begins with a soundscape of audio I’ve captured on my phone for the last 4 years. We created a drone from a guitar strum and layered on top audio clips from gigs, crowds, safari drives, traditional drumming groups, choirs passing on the back of pickup trucks, audience cheers from festivals I’ve played and local musicians busking on the roadside to create a wash of Malawian culture to transport you to this beautiful country. When I first arrived in Malawi I noticed the size of the sky - it’s vast, the bright sunshine and it’s horizon stained with red dust. Five years on I am still in awe of the sky. I wanted this piece to capture that feeling you get when you arrive in a brand new country when you step off the plane - the heat rising off the tarmac, the smell of the air and a brand new culture to explore. Embracing the feeling of being out of your comfort zone - I love it! I wanted a big song to start the album with, a hit of sound, just like how the Malawian culture hits you - it’s consuming and emotional- “Stepping out, just outside these walls, there’s a world that sings only the brightest sounds”. This was one of the first songs I began writing when I arrived in Malawi and it really set the tone of the album - I felt a new sense of freedom and creativity with so much to navigate and experience. The line "I've got monkeys on my roof" always makes me smile; in a few of the recording sessions we had to stop mid take as there was monkeys running around on the roof and the microphones were picking them up! This song features the wonderful Lusubilo Band on brass. There’s lots of collaboration on this album so consciously decided to have a single vocal on Size of The Sky as a nod to this journey being one I’ve taken and made happen independently.
As soon as I arrived in Malawi I got suck in and went to every jam session and show going! I began to meet musicians and the Malawian music industry opened up for me. I wanted to write a song with a strong hook line that no matter your background, culture or language everyone could sing together. There were often shows I played at the beginning where the language barrier was difficult as I was still learning Chichewa and felt I couldn’t connect with the audience. This song helps to breaks these barriers down with the line "Hey, Osadandaula" everyone can sing, which means ‘don’t worry’ worry - the Malawian version of Hakunamatata! This song talks about how moving away from friends and family is hard and spending this short amount of time we have on earth away from the ones we love seems wrong. But if you are going to be away you have to make the absolute most of every moment and seize every opportunity so when things come to an end, as they always must, you can look back and have no regrets. Don’t worry and focus on now. The chorus features The Jacaranda School For Orphans, Lazarus, Waliko Makhala and Agorosso. I’ve performed this song at festivals and venues all over the country and to have so many people sing it along with you, and sometimes shout it at you down the street, is brilliant!
3. OUT LOUD
This song is the only track on the album that I didn’t write in Malawi! I actually composed this song when I was 19 years old about the importance of speaking for feelings and staying true to yourself. I had never recorded it and wasn’t planning on having it on the album, but one session we started jamming it and the guys bought a whole different vibe and feel which I absolutely loved, it’s incredible watching cultures merging together! I always made sure to keep my writing flexible, sure I had ideas about the song’s styles and compositions, but it was great to invite the musician’s artistic suggestion. For example, Manyozo Tchado, who’s featured on Electric Guitar, began jamming this really great riff at the start of this piece - something I hadn’t even imagined. So rather than the introduction I’d composed, I fell in love with his line and that’s what we went with instead! Anthony Spriyano is on backing vocals, drums and percussion - his shakers are made from deodorant bottles filled with seeds!
4. Where you belong
I was inspired to write this song from a conversation I had with a musician. I was talking about missing home and I remember him saying ‘be where you are now’.
It really stayed with me and got me thinking- it’s hard to be away from friends and family for such a long time and I miss home every day, but this is the path I have chosen for the moment, so embrace it and make the absolute most of it - then it makes it worth being away from everyone. But it’s good to acknowledge these feelings and embrace the balance and keep checking in with yourself. The title was inspired by a piece of art work I saw at KwaHaraba, an amazing arts gallery and cafe in Blantyre. For the song’s composition I decided to go with just vocals and guitar, I wanted to keep it stripped back with the lyrics as the focus. I recorded this song on my beautiful Lowden guitar in the UK and then recorded the vocals in Malawi.
I remember recording these vocals over a few days around the time when the first COVID-19 lock down came in for the UK and I was so worried about all my friends and family -
I really channeled these feelings into the performance.
5. Blue sky thinking
I wanted to compose a song that was fun! A total hit of sunshine and energy, that’s the feeling Malawi gives you! I was inspired by the music here in Malawi as a lot of songs are written around just three chords, in this case G, C & D. I feel sometimes in western music ‘three choir songs’ are shunned as ‘simple’ but I saw it as a challenge – to write a song that catches your attention with just three chords, it’s really hard, so I wanted to give it a go! It’s also the perfect song to jam with Malawians, everyone knows G, C & D, again, breaking down boundaries. I knew I wanted a really strong lead guitar line so wrote the melody that Manyozo Tchado plays perfectly on the electric - super bright and catchy. The song features Waliko Makhala on spoken word – in Chichewa he speaks in the importance of collaboration and how we must think without limits- the meaning of Blue Sky Thinking! We added the effect on his vocals to sound like a speaker on the back of a pickup truck. (They’re often driven round the city and used to advertised, it’s such a typical everyday sound of Blantyre city, so I wanted to feature it in the song!) Over all the song promotes positivity - we have a choice as to what we want to focus on and the energy we attract. “All I’m asking for is a bit more positivity please so we can have blue sky thinking” – you can make the everyday special if you choose to. This song was recorded in 5 different locations – Ituma Music Productions for drums, Lusubilo Band on brass on the shore of Lake Malawi, acoustic guitar at The Music Farm in the UK, Pamodzi Studio and choir in The Jacaranda School For Orphans’ hall! We had so much fun recording with the Jacaranda students – they had ALL the energy and just would not stand still while we trying to record! I made a deal with them - get the main vocal takes down and then you can dance all you like! So the cheers you can hear on the song are the jacaranda students having the best time, I’ve never seen people embody joy like those students do! The Lusubilo Band live right in the North of Malawi, a good 18 hour drive away, so I worked with them over Whatsapp - I sent them the song to have a jam around and then a day later I got a reply saying ‘done!’ We travelled to Nkhata bay and met them in the north of Malawi so they didn’t have to travel all the way to Blantyre on minibuses. We set up the studio on the lake shore at the amazing Mayoka village, had a brilliant 6 hour recording session in 30 degrees before jumping in the lake afterwards to cool off! There are over 32 performers on the song celebrating the power of collaboration! I really hope it makes you smile!
6. tell me of a time
“Tell Me Of A Time” allows a moment of rest in the middle of the album, something that I’ve tried to do whilst living in Malawi – step back, take a moment to reflect and then carry on. Collaborating with all these wonderful artists was brilliant, but I didn’t want to overcook the arrangements and have every instrument going on every song just because it was available. So I decided to try a slightly different arrangement, just acoustic, electric and bass guitars. The wonderful Stan Phiri on the bass underpins the acoustic so well, he really grounds the song with the root notes whilst adding some intricate riffs. I then invited the amazing Faith Mussa to add electric. I began collaborated with Faith Mussa just as COVID-19 hit Malawi, we were able to meet once to jam then recorded remotely - I sent him the tracks and he recorded his parts in his studio in Lilongwe and sent them to me. There’s always a way! Man, I’ve never met anyone who makes a guitar sing like Faith does. Listen out for the ending when Faith mirrors the vocal line on the guitar, I absolutely love it. Tell Me Of A Time talks about the enormity of expressing emotions and trying to document our lives – how do you begin to sum up experiences, through photos? Writing? It’s something I often contemplate and I think at the end of the day the only things we truly have are our memories.
7. like you mean it
“Like you mean It” was a challenge to record – the song naturally speeds up and slows down so we didn’t record to a metronome. Anthony Spriyano layered up takes of hand drums and percussion and we built the track up from there. I really wanted to include some ‘stomps’ in the middle section to emphasize the first beat, the song is in 3/4 so it has a nice strong down beat. I decided to record the stomps on the stage at The Jacaranda Cultural Centre in Blantyre. The Jacaranda Cultural Centre has been such a huge part of my life living here in Malawi - it’s a cultural centre linked to The Jacaranda School For Orphans, a space for events, concerts, art exhibitions etc and the funds made from the centre support the school. It’s a real hub for the artists here in Blantyre and I’ve met and seen so many amazing musicians there, it’s also where I met the album cover artist Ellis Singano for the first time! It’s opened up so many doors for me, I’ve seen so many incredible artists on this humble stage, and have performed there a number of times myself, I just had to include it in some way on the album. So we set the studio up at JCC, mics under and above the stage, and recorded the stomps with the Jacaranda employees (who are all ex-Jacaranda Students!) We had fun recording - I don’t think the guys quite understood why I was asking them to stand on a stage and stomp their feet, but when I showed them the track afterwards, they loved it!
“Like You Mean It” is a no nonsense track - it’s about not giving up on yourself and surrounding yourself with people who are good for you, who root for you, ground you and positively challenge you. I’ve learnt a lot moving to Malawi and have become much more aware of negative energy, life’s too short to spend your time trying to make people happy who aren’t on your team. Instead spend the time and energy on the people who you truly love and hold them in your heart with gratitude. I sometimes feel that kindness can be seen as a weakness. 100% not true. “Never again will I seek approval of those who will come and go, because I have no time for throw away lines, talk to me like you mean it” The Jacaranda Cultural Troupe feature on beautifully strong backing vocals – all girls, yeah!
8. then we're home
This is song was a challenge to both sing and play, I really pushed my vocals to the max. I wanted to include some intricate guitar work and what’s cool is the majority of the song is play on two strings. As soon as I started writing this song I thought of Agorosso, his unique, earthy vocals would fit so beautifully, and his harmonies are gorgeous. “Then We’re Home” is a piece I wrote for my husband, Andy Liles - it’s a dedication to the journey we took together. Everything we’ve done in Malawi, the good, the bad, the challenging, the total extremes of emotion, we’ve experienced both as individuals and as a couple. We’ve tried our best to support and listen to each other through out this journey whilst recognizing we’re both individuals and our own thoughts and feelings are valid even when they’re not agreed with. When we left home, we became each other’s everything, in this foreign country we became the only thing that was constant, and that’s really intense! But we’ve learnt so much about each other and ourselves, and we’ve always got each other’s backs. I absolutely love the instrumental section, it was such a challenge to play (and took a few takes!) but so great to express emotions through the guitar, as well as voice.
9. tikale panopa
“Tikeale Panopa” means to “focus on now” - we’re only here once so just go for it, if you don’t try you’ll never know. Sometimes we wait for the right time or the right sign to do the thing we’ve been wanting to do, but I believe you make your own opportunities and there’s no such thing as luck. The song begins with guitar layered to create this dreamy, floaty atmosphere. I wrote the lyrics "just above the clouds I heard you say, high enough to see the earth curve and watch it fade away" whilst flying from UK to Malawi. We stopped over in Ethiopia and I remember watching the huge African sun set out the window of the plan, it was beautiful and really set the tone for the piece. Goma Nyondo and Kennedy Phiri, both amazing guitarist feature on this track. Kennedy plays a line on the electric inspired by music from the northern region of Malawi. As soon as Kennedy started playing this line when we were jamming the piece, it totally threw me off! The beats are accented differently and I had to really concentrate on my timing, I had trouble locking in - but I love being tested, it’s a great reminded that there’s always more to learn. I wanted the track to build up and crescendo towards the end, so each instrument was carefully placed a create this effect– bass, cymbal, percussion, harmonies. Again, it was so tempting to throw down a load of instruments because they were available, but by carefully adding them, when the buildup does drop it’s so much stronger and effective. The structure mirrors the lyrics - when you finally make that decision and go for it, the feeling of release and direction is so liberating. I loved singing this piece - the vocals are so dreamy and the melody soars.
10. rhythm as they run
“Rhythm As They Run” features guitar body percussion to mimic the rhythm of the Malawian foot-steps. The majority of Malawians walk everywhere as they cannot afford their own cars - the market lined streets are packed with people walking, running, chatting, selling - it’s almost like the streets have their own rhythm, early in the morning as people are going to work, and as the sun is setting when people are moving to their homes, it feels like the whole city is on the move. I wanted to include and acknowledge some of the lessons in gratitude I’ve learnt living in Malawi coming from the western world. There’s no right or wrong to any of it, it’s just what I’ve experienced whilst living in Malawi and what I want to try to include in my life and take with me- “only now can I see, how immaterial the material can be”.
11. one more step
“One More Step” is an instrumental I wrote in memory of my lovely Grandmother who passed away in November 2018. It was a really difficult time and reminded me how far away from home I was. Even though there’s nothing you can do, at times like that you just need to be together to support each other, so I flew back to the UK for a couple of weeks to be with my family. I really wanted to write something for my Grandma, and when words fail, music speaks. It’s a moment of reflection and stillness in the craziness of this energetic album, reflecting how I felt at the time. The piece is in a beautiful C alternate tuning. I didn’t feel the need to write lyrics- it didn’t need any, the music sings.
12. nkhani yhatu
Oh man, this track was so fun! Omex Chimpeni absolutely smashes it on drums! We recorded his drums at Ituma Productions in Blantyre and just as we were about to record, the power cuts. The engineer, Gresham Mokwena, turned on the inverter but it gave off a loud buzz and the mics were picking it up. We only had a couple of hours to get the drums recorded as we’d rented the kit and moved it from one side of the city to another which was a mission in itself! So we covered the inverter with the drum bags to muffle the sound, then in between takes, we’d lift the bags off every few minutes so it didn’t over heat and burst into flames! It was hilarious! Not ideal when you’re trying to concentrate on a session in a sweltering hot studio, but it gave the song a real sense of energy and Omex played the most awesome takes. “Nkhani Yhatu” features Faith Mussa on vocals and ‘Badza’ a traditional mouth instrument from a carved tree piece and often painted in traditional patterns. It’s such a unique and interesting sound. “Nkhani Yhatu”, meaning ‘Our Stories’ in Chichewa talks about how it’s great to be inspired by others but not let it sway or deter you from your story – “As for me, I am happy knowing who I am!” I’ve always seen the music industry not as a competition, but rather a place to carve out your own space. There’s enough space for everyone to succeed, and celebrating someone else’s success doesn’t diminish your own. Listen out for the super intricate bass lines played by Stan Phiri – so awesome!
13. Usiku Okongola
“Usiku Okongola” meaning ‘Beautiful Night’ in Chichewa, is written about my favorite time of the day – just as the sun is setting, the sky is a hazy dust-red and you can hear the city on the move travelling home. It’s a sigh of a song, with lots of yummy Maj7 chords, letting go of what the day has given and relaxing before the evening hits and the city comes alive again. Right by our house there’s a small road that Malawians use to pass through. Every evening I hear the guards out on the road changing shifts, have a great chat and laughing away just as the last of the beautiful light is fading. It makes me smile every day. So I recorded a soundscape just on my phone of their chatting in the distance, the crickets coming to life and the birds singing, and sampled it for the beginning and ending of the song. This song features a good friend of mine, Code Sangala, on vocals and guitar. I wanted to keep this song super chilled and write the first verse in Chichewa, which translates to: “Beautiful night, I saw you coming, from the mountains above, to the lakes below. Beautiful night sing me a melody, as the light fades out, at the end of the day.” Throughout the creation of this album I’ve been super aware of cultural appropriation. I didn’t set out to write an ‘African’ sounding album, I’m English so why would I do that?! Haha! But rather to find a balance between my own singer-songwriter style and add flicks of the amazing Malawian vibe, respecting both mine and the Malawian culture. I’m so grateful to Code for the Chichewa guidance and teaching me the correct pronunciation.
14. Tigowane [Live]
“Tigowane” was recorded live at Pamodzi Studio with Patrick Chimbewa. I met Patrick at his ‘Sounds Of Malawi’ performance at The Jacaranda Cultural Centre and was memorized by his music. Patrick plays the amazing home-made ‘Nsasiba’ - a traditional instrument made from a wood carving with a thumb piano on the bottom and a mouth piece on the top, which he was taught to both make and play by his Grandfather. Patrick is a one-man band! He uses a small pot covered in chitenje as a foot drum and ties bells around his ankles – amazing! We composed ‘Tigowane’ together, which means ‘to share’. I explained to Patrick that the album celebrates and highlights the importance of merging and sharing cultures. The piece translates to “Come to Malawi, come to England, let us dance together and share.” I really wanted a live track on the album – there’s something about the energy that you just can’t beat. When we were composing the piece, I noticed that Patrick’s Nsasiba was tuned in between the key of B and C. There’s no way that it could be tuned so I flattened my guitar by a semi-tone to fit instead. That’s when I decided this song should be captured live in take, it needed to be played together. Again, the song is similar to Blue Sky Thinking with the use of simple chords throughout - C, F and G. The structure is typically Malawian - long in length with lots of verses rather than a main chorus. I added the powerful vocal line towards the end "Ay, Tigowane" with a move to the relative minor, Am, giving the piece a release from the major chords and really accentuates the album's closure.
I consciously placed “Tigowane” at the very end of the album as a dedication to all of the Malawian musicians involved – this song perfectly sums the creation of the album, with the very last line of “Share and come to Malawi”.