Wrenleau – The Lucky Suite
Artist Name: Wrenleau
SONG TITLE: The Lucky Suite
Share your biography with us.
We have fifty years’ worth of songwriting experience to draw on, beginning in 1966, in South Africa, and influenced by sojourns in Brazil, Colombia, and the United States.
The names, Wakeford Hart, Amethyst, Room 7, Hashtone Alley and Peter Wale are all those under which Peter Wrenleau has worked as a musician.
The recent switch of last names from Wale to Wrenleau was induced by:
His having been disinherited by his father for the combined errors of having committed himself to a generally futile involvement in songwriting, as opposed to a more conventional profession.
Having ended up so poor because of it that a return trip to visit family in South Africa, completely on his own ticket, was never quite within reach – The middle and last names, Alec Wrenleau are a reorganization of the letters his original middle and last names and, as such, constitute a new beginning on an old foundation, a form of personal transcendence which parallels the essential process of creating new music out of time-tested scales that remain fixed.
Peter’s partner in both life and music is Rachel Christenson. Being so constantly together has given us the opportunity to work on our songs with a degree of attention to detail seldom afforded more conventional songwriting teams. There are pros and cons to this, with respect to the product, but it’s kind of useless trying to analyze them. This is our musical path together and we will walk it for better or for worse as regards how others respond to what we do…
For anyone interested enough to want to know more background information, perhaps the best thread to follow is whatever has been written concerning the creation of Peter Wale’s album of 1972 – The Memoirs of Hakeford Wart. The effort to grow a new approach to songwriting during those years describes an unbroken series of minor evolutions stemming from those first efforts back in Cape Town…
Discuss how you develop your melody.
You know, I really don’t have a method that I’m conscious of. The songs I write normally begin with an idea around which melody, rhythm, and accompaniment begin to gel and grow.
When the idea is somewhat sophisticated, such as the song on Bandcamp called ‘Powers of Nine,’ which advocates for a certain mathematical approach in calculating the kind of tax rates I believe would better serve the interests of the people, as a whole, finding the right melodies to convey the import of the message, while hewing to the unconventional rhyme scheme chosen, was a bit like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. Every aspect of the construction had to comport with every other aspect. It took a lot longer than it took me to actually solve the Cube.
One thing I don’t try to do is either copy or to avoid copying, melodies I might have heard before. That’s irrelevant to me. I put no stake in being original for originality’s sake alone. The piece has to end up being what it wants to be and I try my utmost to be faithful to that mission. It can take a song many years to slowly morph into feeling…
You can find any number of instructional essays online about how to write a good song. Generally, the approach outlined by such authors resides in the idea that there is a certain listenership out there that you are targeting and that you have to produce what they like to hear to be successful. I reject that whole methodology. Good songs come out of good songwriters in all kinds of shape and form and all good songwriters are unique channels for music. The material they write is made out of WHO they are, more than what they can do, as uniquely an expression of their inner being as a child is to a mother.
To be a truly GREAT songwriter, you have to have had – and basically embodied – the life experience needed to give you the authenticity and the authority to stand alone and give a faithful account off yourself, through music, to the world. It’s a quality that the music business welcomes at the beginning of a songwriter’s career, but often tries to suppress later on as the focus of attention on him/her moves up the corporate chain from the more open-minded A&R people in the front lines to the bean counters behind the lines who fear change and a lack of control.
One thing I should add is that using a range of different musical instruments and different modes does tend to stimulate the formation of new ideas in melody.
Tell us your source of inspiration.
I feel most inspired when I’m in a passionate period and really psyched when I feel hopeful or excited. It has a lot to do with the company I’m keeping and where I happen to be living. Whenever I feel really vital, I tend to really engage with writing and practicing.
On the other hand, when the full complex of my circumstances leaves me feeling enervated and mired, when the thrill of life is not there for me, I tend not to have the spark to produce.
Engagement with life is what starts me being productive. Feeling like what I do has meaning for others gives me the juice I need to see the creative process through from incipient notion to a finished recording. In that sense, I guess I’m a bit of a manic/depressive, but not so much as to be self-destructive.
Though I’m happily married, I’m still just a normal heterosexual male and the obvious attention of female admirers who really like my music really kicks my creative side into high gear. In that respect, I’m hardly unusual. That’s just life on ‘Planet Earth’ as a male human being for you.
Tell us the most memorable experience in your music career.
Well, there have been so many. Okay, here’s one:
After my first wife had left me struggling to hold together the woodworking business we had started together, for reasons which (like any clueless male) I am still unable to fathom, or justify, I ultimately decided that plugging on alone through life was not going to do it for me. I needed a partner; not just any partner, but the kind of partner I really needed for me to be fulfilled and one who wouldn’t jump ship when life got hard.
Being somewhat mathematically inclined, I decided to calculate the odds of just somehow running into exactly the kind of woman I had in mind in the general vicinity of where I was living – Seattle. She had to be pleasing to my eye, somewhat younger, slim and fit, mild in temperament, loyal, upstanding, and very musically inclined and as keen on me as I was on her. The calculation of those odds, if I just hung around being a struggling entrepreneur, rendered the rather dismal result that there were all of four women in all of Greater Seattle with whom I would likely be compatible. Somehow, I had to improve my chances.
I elected to take a leave of absence from the business and go on a grand meditation-guided, car-camping search of the west of America until the person was encountered. After two months of rambling across vast distances in my Renault LeCar (which I still drive around), going this way and that, throwing coins, I ended up in the wonderful little town of Ashland.
My first stop was a place that served espresso. I walked up to the counter and saw a young woman who absolutely took my breath away. My first thought was self-defeating. I just couldn’t be THAT lucky. Three hours later, I took my leave, feeling like I’d lost something important. It would be a long night’s drive back to Seattle and the business that would nearly kill me.
Fifteen months later, I was having breakfast with my housemate at a neighbourhood hangout; one of the waitresses walked up to ask if I wanted a refill on my coffee, I looked up and there she was, the same girl. “I know you!” I said. She demurred saying that she had just moved to Seattle and knew no one, to which I replied, “No, you’re the girl from the coffee shop in Ashland”.
Well, that was the start of a chain of chance meetings at various places we both liked and, strangely, I wasn’t getting the usual brush off from her. But how to make things stick I knew not.
On my 44th birthday, I eventually plucked up the courage to invite her out for dinner at a Japanese restaurant I liked.
Afterward, back at her place, there was a guitar leaning against the wall – one exactly like mine, a Yamaha FG 180. I asked if I might play a song. I could sense that she looked little uncertain, but I felt confident and played a song I had written called “Down in Africa.” That was it. It sealed the deal. There’s a version of it on YouTube of us performing it together with Rachel on flute and me on piano. It’s had 11,649 views. Sometimes being a poor songwriter can be very advantageous.
Discuss how you build your song.
I don’t have any pre-set approach to writing songs. I’ve started from every side of the product you can think of – a riff, a topic for the lyrics, a story, a certain beat and tempo base, a melody line, a whole acapella song to which an accompaniment must be put.
Most times the process turns out to be a slowly evolving whole. This gives me time to grow with the song. When writing a song, I think you have to be flexible and patient.
There is no point in writing music unless it is going to be not just heard, but listened to and enjoyed, preferably by as many people as possible. Just who those people are is not something I know of in advance, but one thing I do know is that whoever they are and wherever they may be, they are already potentiated to like what I’m working on. They can’t write that song for themselves. It falls to me then to bring it through for them. When I’m composing, I am acting like a channel for them. In reality, it’s THEIR song too. What is a song without a listener? – Nothing but a cup of water, evaporating in the sun, with no one to drink it. After all, if they were not so predisposed, they would not connect to the music, hearing it only as some kind of noise, the way a dog does.
Tell us how you ensure your music inspires others.
I wish I could say, with confidence, that my music does, actually inspire others. Now and then, some people say nice things, but when I look at the statistics of our subdomain on Bandcamp, I’m far from convinced. After fifty years of trying to improve my skills as a songwriter – forty-five of them wasted on a failed effort to make it in the American arena – I have to admit to not having inspired nearly as many in this market as would have been needed to warrant what I have invested in the writing of songs.
Let’s look at the numbers, shall we? After five years of having had our music up on Bandcamp, until just this past week, not a single person – not even friends or family had bought even one single download. The small price attached is virtually inconsequential. That’s some pretty powerful indifference, maybe even rejection, if you ask me. The ultimate barometer of having inspired others is how much cash they don’t mind exchanging to get a file, a CD, a record, or a ticket to see you live. By that measure, I would be lying if I told you that I thought that our music inspired others.
Now, this may not be what you want to hear but I’m not going to pimp myself giving you a line of B.S.
Discuss the relevance of promotion to the music business.
Hey, without promotion, what’ve you got? There’s nothing more soul-sapping than playing your guts out to a half-empty house, regardless of how much you’ve been paid to do it. People have to know about what you intend to present for their entertainment or enrichment, or they’ve just going to sail blithely on into the distance as they go about their lives, oblivious to what you have to offer.
There are two principal types of promotion – proactive and responsive. The proactive type is a lot more difficult for me than the responsive. It isn’t easy to get people who have never heard about either you or your work to be curious enough to want to check out what you have to offer.
To many of them, you’re just another hungry mouth selling snake oil. It’s really an uphill slog to get that part going. Blogs can help in that respect, especially if you have a compelling story to tell.
Once you have some kind of social presence, on the other hand, it’s a very different kettle of fish. That’s the downhill part of the career trajectory. You go from having your foot on the accelerator to having it ready over the brake.
Tell us what you will do apart from music.
First, you need to understand that, having been driven out of Seattle, after 39 years there, by the insatiable greed of landlords, we now live way out in the mountains of Oregon in a shrunken little town that once had a lumber mill and six times as many residents.
We bought an old abandoned cafe with significant structural defects. Before we could move in, the power company cut the lines, so now we live without externally supplied electricity, on-tap hot water or a furnace (we have snow up here).
Rachel’s siblings very kindly contributed a Honda generator which can power anything we need to run, like the vacuum cleaner, even if we do have to lug it outside and use extension cords.
We don’t so much LIVE up here as survive. Every day, it’s work, work, work, from dawn to dusk, just to keep up.
What we do have is a wood stove and lots of free wood to cook with and stay warm. It’s cheap, but it takes a lot of effort to size the wood properly, all of which we do by hand because we both hate the sound and stink of a chainsaw and because you have to keep in shape to be able to live well in this environment.
Summer, which comes relatively late, is pleasant, but it’s also a time of hustling to get a lot of things done – the extensive garden we have, repairs to the building, the maintenance of another property we own and the caretaking of two other properties.
Grass grows like crazy in the early part of the summer. It also burns like crazy, so you have to keep it mowed so that the town won’t burn down if we have a wildfire.
Aside from that, Rachel has stand-by work at the hospital, forty miles away, which makes for a long day, when you throw in the commute over a couple of passes. The pay may not be lavish, but our expenses are much lower here than in the city.
Then there are the cats we have had to take in that are the product of other people thinking they don’t have to get their animals fixed. We have five who live an indoor/outdoor living and one who is only outdoor. They require daily attention and, to be honest, provide a higher level of a personal company than the other humans in this town do.
As the Beatles so aptly put it, all you need is LOVE. A few townspeople may like us, some, but these cats really love us. Thank God for pets! The downside of this arrangement is that we are constrained in how long we can be away from here – three days max.
Notwithstanding the lack of free time, our life together is rich with interests and the better part of that is that I have Rachel to share it with. We’re both existentialistic in our outlook on life, so virtually everything is opened for investigation. Of course, there isn’t time for everything, and we have a demanding vegetable garden and fruit trees to attend to and keep going through the very dry hot season if we are to get decent yields.
Over the years of working for a living in America, I developed a broad range of practical skills. The upside of that is that I can repair almost anything. The downside of that is that I feel that I have a duty to fix everything that could use those skills; and since things break and wear out, there is never an end to the things that need to be fixed, maintained or tended. Tools, cars, appliances, musical instruments, our house, trees, and the garden – they all need attention to remain in decent condition.
Consider our five vehicles, acquired over a period of forty years for the accrued outlay of $2,800 – a 1963 GMC pickup, a 1978 Renault LeCar, a 1983 Honda Civic sedan, a 1986 Audi 5000 and a 1990 Volvo 740 Turbo station Wagon. That’s an average vehicle age of 39 years, which translates into quite a bit of car work to keep the whole collection roadworthy.
Ironically, we don’t do a lot of driving. On the other hand, we have never been unable to get where we needed to be when we needed to be there, because of car trouble, and always been able to move anything we needed wherever it needed to go.
If all of this sounds a little isolationistic, I don’t blame you. But don’t be fooled. We’re actually pretty gregarious people who enjoy engagement with society.
Aside from the too rare times we get to hang out with friends (because of practical circumstances), I spend a large amount of time using what writing skills I have to advocate for better conditions in society, environmental sustainability, fiscal responsibility in government and lower levels of personal exceptionalism, militarism, poverty and homelessness in America.
List the names of the instruments you can play.
Well, that’s easy: piano and guitar.
Tell us if you have any music background.
I’m assuming here that you want to know whether I had any instruction in music when I was a child. The answer is, yes indeed, not just in piano, but with the school choirs, I sang in.
Tell us the piece of advice you will give to a new artist on entering the music chart.
Far be it from me – a proven struggler in all things musical – to tell anyone how to go about being their own kind of maker of music. But maybe there are a few clues I can shine a light on.
The first thing I should say is that the race goes to the turtle, not the hare. The turtle just keeps on plugging and is not distracted by other prospects, his intention remaining ever fixed on getting to the finish line, whether he wins or loses to the hare. So don’t be in too much of a hurry to make your first million dollars hit record. You’ll be far more fortified for the long haul if you focus more on liking the music, learning about basic music conventions like notation and chord structure and fully appreciating the collaborators, allies, and friends who give you credit as you attempt to progress toward whatever general goals you have in mind, with respect to music. More than anything, life involves the making of memories. The happy ones will sustain your involvement with music; the uncomfortable ones will load you down, especially later in life.
Also, on a cautionary note, limit your personal exposure to people who appear not to appreciate you for the path you feel compelled to follow, whatever aspect of music it relates to, especially those you are expected to be close to, especially direct family and lovers. The closer you are to them, the more potential they have to harm your morale with their indifference or disdain.
You may be God’s gift to the world of music, but if your joy is shattered by some thoughtlessly hurtful word or action by someone you have failed to keep at arm’s length and allowed to get under your guard, it can mean the death of your would-have-been fabulous career. I lie not. This path isn’t all good times, easy lovers, bouquets, and pats on the back. There are snakes in the grass of life and they will bite you if they can, so if you value what you do, learn to recognize where they lay waiting and steer clear of them.
Oh, lest I forget, you should be rigorous about learning what offers to take and what to take a pass on. Bad experiences at the hand of disingenuous actors can break up a band just like THAT!
Last, once you have reached the level where you know, for sure, that people enjoy hearing you perform, unless you want to end up playing at open mic nights at nebulous cafés for the rest of your life, insist on being paid if you’ve been invited to play live before a crowd. If they don’t want to compensate you for your efforts, be sure of one thing: they’ll be using you for their own gain, at your expense; not a good situation.
OK, let’s assume you got really good and made a great recording. You’re ready for the big time, right? Wrong. Even the very greatest song ever written can come to nothing in the world, never having reached the tiniest fraction of the people it should have given pleasure to. In fact, that is exactly what happens to most of the truly awesome songs written; they just die on the vine, waiting for people to come and discover them. Great songs are less discovered than aggressively plugged and promoted.
With every decade that passes, people think up new ways to promote songs and write extensively on what they think works. The trouble with “what works” is that, as soon as the cat is out of the bag, everybody and their mother is out there doing the same thing, effectively negating the advantage gained by any of them. I think you have to be sly, like a cat, if you are to be successful, realizing that any true advantages you gain are only true because they pertain either exclusively, or personally, to you and not to others.
You have to know when to wait and when to pounce, what you can succeed at and what is too big for you. If your social skills are good and you know how to express yourself well, you will be better prepared to take advantage of your opportunities than those whose skills in those areas…
Elaborate on melody and rhythm.
One thing you discover as you become better at songwriting is that certain melody/lyric combinations can go from sounding lame to being very snappy when the emphases contained within them are selectively shifted from the downbeat to the offbeat or twixt the beat, or converted to being three notes on top of a four-beat bar and so on.
The best way to get a handle on this is to find popular songs, from any era, that you are familiar with, that use these techniques and sing along with them. That way, you don’t need to delve into the complexities of how the timing works; you just get a feel for it.
As far as melody is concerned, I pay a lot of attention to having a lot of moving lines in what I do, with all of the lines having their own pleasing structure. During the course of a piece, different sections of the scale will be moved to the fore, and then back to allow some other part to be featured briefly. It is safe to say that my material is melodically dense, in contrast with most popular music these days, based as it is, so often, on loops.
State your future goals.
I’ve had many future goals over the years and none of them amounted to anything worth talking about, except perhaps mournfully. So, with respect to goals, for the most part, I take things one step at a time these days. I tend to get more done that way.
That said, I have to confess to having some mid-range and longer-term goals, with respect to music, and you will pardon me, I hope if they sound overly inflated.
I did not set out from South Africa on a yacht, back in 1972, with small dreams. I wanted nothing short of becoming recognized internationally for the music I would one day write. That goal remains unchanged. And though I lack the means to make the fullest use of the material that Rachel and I have been preparing, my skills have finally reached the point where that material is ready to be recorded in the way I have always yearned to see. The pieces you listened to are the beginning of that process and in the form presented only a demo.
The plan is to elicit the support to produce all of this material in optimal form, painstakingly produced and on vinyl, in a highly provocative album with arresting inserts, using the skills of the very best people for every skill needed.
After that, depending on how I feel about how it all turned out, I’d very much like to try for some traction in Asia. It’s the center of mass for humanity and incredibly diverse. I’m not sure whether this would be a good or a bad thing, but I think it would be a very interesting thing to be at least partially successful in doing if, indeed, it were even possible.
With respect to life goals, time spent living somewhere in Europe (where migrant refugees are humanely treated and universally accessible healthcare is considered a right, not an unaffordable fantasy) is a long-overdue experience we need to undertake.
I can see myself, an elderly man, twenty years on, sitting quietly with an espresso at an outdoor table overlooking the restored Aegean, watching the beautiful young people of the future go down to the beach and the boats on the water, chatting amiably with the expats from elsewhere around the globe, penning a note or two to friends, before retiring for my customary midday nap, after which, I get up, have a shower, put on something nice and go out to dinner with some beloved companion and, thence, off to the universe of dreams, in which, I appear young, handsome and strong, with new dreams – dreams within a dream…..
Surely, that’s not too much to ask.
Share your recording experience with us.
I have been recorded in studios in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Seattle and at concerts in Cape Town and Cortland, New York. In addition to that, I have done a lot of home recordings on some fairly decent equipment. One thing I have not done is taken as much time as would be needed in a studio environment to reach the pinnacle of the potential in any given song of mine.
Tell us the most difficult part of the recording.
The time pressure – When there is pressure to get something recorded, as is normally the case, it acts against being able to just relax and let one’s expressive side take over. This tends to rob the execution of the piece of liveliness, which gives it that special edge.
Discuss the greatest mistake you have ever made in your music career.
This happened in Rio de Janeiro, in 1972 and I never forgot it. Somehow, TV Globo had learned that there was this Anglo-educated piano playing singer available – me – so they asked me to do a rendition of the song, “I Can’t Live If Living Is Without You” by Badfinger and made into a huge global hit by Harry Nilsson. Stupidly, I agreed to the very narrow window of opportunity to practice it up.
The day came, the cameras rolled and I absolutely bombed – a complete meltdown on the launch pad of my career in Brazil. They had a studio orchestra there. It was absolutely humiliating. There is no doubt that it destroyed what credit I had with the people at Odeon records who had been initially impressed with my demos.
One day, I’m going to sit down and absolutely nail that thing and put that little devil to bed.
Tell us how you build up your composition.
I do a lot of rewriting as I go about practicing what I have -deletions, additions, inserts, key changes, modulations, wordsmithing and sometimes, scrapping.
When I’m completely tapped out of ideas about what to change next, I move on to performing the piece as expressively as possible, because that, too, is an important element in existential totality of the piece if it is to be a living and compelling thing.
Discuss the relevance of music.
Maslow’s Pyramid of human needs puts self-actualization at the very top, above power and esteem. To my way of thinking, there is no form of self-actualization higher than a sincere and heartfelt immersion in either the creation or the appreciation of aesthetically exacting outcomes in some medium or other.
Here we are talking about music, but the way of the artist and the lover of art goes way beyond music. It includes anything that can be done with creative finesse.
The special status of music resides in how difficult it is to master convincingly and also because it really is the making of something out of nothing but air and movement through the dedicated application of a great deal of concentration and effort.
The awe we attach to some legendary performer’s offerings is in some way magnified by the fact that he or she is a mortal being – a transient presence in the grand march of time – whose divine and unique form of expression will be heard no more in the flesh after death, except in memory.
With the advent of records we have eased some of the poignancy of that realization, but not completely.
How any given person responds to the question, “Is music relevant?” depends on what level of Maslow’s Pyramid; their consciousness focuses on most keenly.
If they are very poor and homeless, and 100% their energy and effort are being directed toward getting enough to eat and drink to be able to stay alive, they’re not going to think that music is very relevant in their lives. The next step, once the first level has been addressed, is safety and security. People in the throes of trying to meet that need will most likely say that music is somewhat important to them.
In the next step up – human relationships – music begins to be a very important part of their lives, often taking center stage as an enabler of those processes.
One step up from that – development of empowerment and wealth – music becomes an absolutely essential component of just about every action involved, not just as a tool to facilitate events, but also as a personal passion.
In the pinnacle of the pyramid – self-actualization – if the path chosen up the mountain happens to be music, you live and breathe it.
So as you can see, the relevance of music is relative.
Elaborate on the song.
It began simply enough. I liked the sound of a certain chord – a certain voicing of G major ninth, with a jaunty sound to it. It turned into a chord progression with a descending bass note and, viola, the essence of the song was born. The sound of it suggested an upbeat theme and the most upbeat thing I could think of was the hugely positive difference that Rachel’s appearance had made to how regarded life after the awful sequence of life events that had preceded that serendipitous meeting.
A song with three nice verses presently emerged, basically all in one musical modality, which was OK but kind of context with the sad sense of the first two verses.
So I thought to myself, can I use a muted transposition of the basic chord structure, using G minor ninth, and thereby add to the interest factor in the construction of the piece? – And what about an introduction on the piano to set the mood or an overture kind of thing? I tried it and Rachel said she liked it, so I broke up the meter in the poetry of the first two verses to make it even more interesting and added a solo-like kind of break, with a chromatically ascending pivot after the second verse to connect the parts together and a chromatically descending cadenza to finish it off.
What we ended up with was in no way similar to anything out there – no convenient loops, no recognizable genre grooves, no choruses, no underlayment of bass and drums, just endlessly unfolding interwoven melodies and a story.
Well, it got awfully hard to do in one sweep, so before I gave up on it, we decided to write out the whole piano part so it wouldn’t get lost, like so many other big pieces I’d done in the past. That took about two months.
We had a friend about twenty miles distant in another small town who we would visit who had developed a keen interest in software that could write notation and be played back. He offered to transcribe Rachel’s hand-written notation into a program called Audacity. Then we would drive down to his place and edit the work until it played as I wanted it to sound, complete with expression instructions. That sounds simple, doesn’t it? In fact, it was damnably difficult and took more than two months to bring to completion. Putting the voices and recorder parts on was relatively simple…
Elaborate on your artist name and the title of the album.
Wrenleau? Are you sure you want to know? Okay. Way back when I was named Peter Laurence Wale. That was the name I performed and wrote under until 2019.
My father was a wealthy man – a millionaire – but when he died and his will was opened, everything had been left to my sister.
I wasn’t mentioned and ended up receiving only a pitiful fraction from her of what I would normally have been eligible for.
My relationship with my father had never been very close – his choice, not mine – but from my perspective, it had been conducted honourably, throughout.
Being struck from the will drove right to the heart – Memories of times past that I had rationalized away as normal for a British- oriented family suddenly took on a darker and less charitable caste.
I resolved not to have this thrust down my throat without some appropriate response. That response was to end all connection with a family that, in the balance of things, had brought me more grief and diminishment than happiness, and the surest way I had of doing that was to adopt a new name phonetically different from that which my father had given me and, in particular, his name, Laurence.
I would keep Peter because too many who loved me knew me as Peter, but the other two would go.
My one concession, in honour of my natural birth mother, who had left when I was three, was that I would keep the letters of those names inside the new name I chose.
I am now, legally, Peter Alec Wrenleau, half English and half French, in accordance with my complex ancestry, and stretching back to the year 1066 and will, henceforth, be known in the music world as Wrenleau.