• James McLaughlin

Reflections: The Creative Process

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

Music has the ability to influence our mood and to remind us of a particular place or time in our lives. It's therefore reasonable to assume that memories, and more specifically locations, can influence Songwriting and Composition.

The main objective of this project was to create a 6 track EP where each of the six songs were inspired or influenced by actual visits, photographs, film footage or stories from the following locations:



Guia De Isora, Tenerife


Outer Hebrides

Kelvingrove, Glasgow

Influences and Inspirations

Although each individual Soundscape was inspired directly by a location, the Music Composition and Production Techniques were inspired by several different artists.

Works which were of particular interest to me include:

The Border by Johan Johannsson,

Journey to the Line by Hans Zimmer,

I Drive by Cliff Martinez,

Walking Home by Danny Elfman, and

Waking Up by Explosions In The Sky.

These works are all united by 2 common themes:

They are entirely instrumental.

The music forms part of a Film Soundtrack. These musical pieces were composed to fit with specific images on screen. The music for Reflections was composed to fit with images, feelings and memories of specific places.

Creative Analysis

1) In Dreams (Corfu)

In April of 2018 I was fortunate enough to work as a live engineer at Glasgow Tectonics Festival.

At the Sound Sessions, I had the chance to observe the processes used by Artists such as Mark Vernon, Kim Moore and Ohad Fishof up close. At each session, they would collaborate to create music from seemingly nothing.

Using a mixture of sound effects, acoustic instruments, synthesizers and samplers, each Session resulted in a completely different piece of music.

Up until then, the only track I had written and recorded was Approaching The Beach. Watching these artists at work really inspired me to get a full EP recorded and released.

The music composed for In Dreams was inspired by our family holiday to Corfu.

Viacherro Monastery at Pontikonissi

After a hectic few months of touring and shows it was good to get away and relax.

I was really inspired by the stillness of the water and feeling of tranquillity at Viacherro Monastery at Pontikonissi.

I decided to create a soundscape purely in the key of C, with no chord changes. Instead, I would introduce different octaves and layers of synthesisers playing the same chord and notes but with different textures.

This recreated the stillness of the environment, with each new texture or layer representing the tide ebbing and flowing gently.

2) Approaching The Beach (Normandy)

The inspiration for this Piece came after reading D-Day by Stephen Ambrose which details the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. In particular, Chapter 17: Visitors To Hell recounts the harrowing experiences of troops landing on Ohmaha Beach.

“In general, the men of the first wave were exhausted and confused even before the battle was joined. Still, the misery caused by the spray hitting them in the face with each wave and by their seasickness was such that they were eager to hit the beach, feeling that nothing could be worse than riding on those dammed Higgins boats. The only comforting thing was those tremendous naval shells zooming over their heads…”

“’As our boat touched sand and the ramp went down,’ Parley recalled, ‘I became a visitor to hell.’ Boats on either side were getting hit by artillery. Some were burning, others sinking. ‘I shut everything out and concentrated on following the men in front of me down the ramp and into the water’”

These accounts inspired me to create a sense of dread and apprehension leading up to a confrontation as the troops reached the beach and all hell broke loose.

Another influence was the work of artist Lynda Laird, whose project Dans le Noir was also inspired by the D-Day Landings.

The project features collections of photographs taken in and around the costal bunkers that formed part of the Atlantic Wall along the Normandy Coast. It also contains video footage of the beaches, as they are now but shot from the perspective of being in the water which gives a real sense of being there and seeing what the troops would have seen as they landed in 1944.

Lynda's work can be viewed here.

3) Longing (Guia De Isora)

I lived and worked in the Guia de Isoria region of Tenerife as a Sound Technician at the Atlas Theatre between May and October 2016.

I had the pleasure of working with a fantastic cast and crew. The location was stunning with spectacular views.

Sunset from Alcala, Guia De Isora

Each night I would watch the sunset as I mixed sets on the outdoor stage. The views were absolutely beautiful, but I missed my family and felt that I could never really enjoy the experience without them.

In composing the Music for this piece, I tried to convey the struggle I felt adjusting to life in a new country, separated from my wife and 3 daughters.

My aim was contrast the beauty of my surroundings and the longing for my family to create a bittersweet Soundscape which would reflect both of these conflicting moods

4) Searching (Manhattan)

I visited Manhattan In November 2006 and although I had heard New York described as “the city that never sleeps” I never truly understood how accurate this was until I experienced it for myself.

The city itself seemed to be alive. People were everywhere, rushing around on crowded sidewalks. Cars, buses and trucks jostled for position on the road, horns blared, engines revved. It was almost overwhelming.

During all this hustle and bustle, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my Papa many years before when he talked about his visit to New York:

“You need to remember and look up, son”.

The tall buildings and skyscrapers appeared so tranquil and peaceful, yet the streets below were chaotic. Looking through photographs I had taken, I was immediately drawn to the reflections on the buildings and felt that it fitted the theme of this Project perfectly. It also gave me the title for the EP.

For this Composition, I decided to make the guitar the main instrument.

New York is the place where 3 of my favourite guitarists honed their skills.

Jimi Hendrix at Café Wah?, Jeff Buckley at Sin-e and Bob Dylan at The Bitter End.

Another influence for this Composition was the Stone Roses song Simone. Essentially a reversed version of Where Angels Play. The song has a haunting quality as the gentle guitars shimmer and dip in and out of the Soundscape.

I was eager to try something similar and so started playing a simple chord pattern, allowing the notes to ring out. When reversed, this would give the impression of the chords “rushing in” the same way people and cars rush around the city.

I then added some lead guitar parts using a wah-wah pedal as a nod to Hendrix, himself an exponent of using backwards instruments on songs like Are You Experienced.

5) Stay (Outer Hebrides)

I originally started working on this Piece as part of Masters Degree for the Creative Industries Professional Practice module. I attended a Workshop where the Module Brief was “to create music and song inspired by the Shetland Mermaid Stories.”

Three different stories were introduced during the Workshop:

1) The Mermaid Wife

2) The Fisherman and The Merman

3) The Silkie Wife

I took particular inspiration from The Mermaid Wife. This is a story about a Mermaid stranded on the beach who then marries and has a family with an Islander. At the end of the story, the Mermaid leaves her husband and children and returns to the sea as her family watch from the beach.

The following passage describes how willingly the mermaid left her family in order to return to the sea:

“She burst forth into an ecstasy of joy, which was only moderated when she beheld her children, whom she was now about to leave; and, after hastily embracing them, she fled with all speed towards the seaside.”

During the workshop, I collaborated with Gemma Thomson to create a song which would fulfil the brief. Gemma composed a song which would sit over the top of the Soundscape which I had written and very kindly gave her approval for the use of these vocals to finish this Track.

Culle Bay, Benbecula

The landscape of the Shetland Islands also inspired me. The thoughts of windswept beaches, high cliffs and constant changing weather informed the textures that I would use to compose the music.

I had also visited the Island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides to work on the annual EDF Festival, with it’s own Mermaid Mythology.

Using this as a starting point, I began to create a two-chord foundation to symbolise the tide flowing in and out. I then altered this by using Filters and Reverbs to create the impression of the wind and waves.

As I worked further on the piece, I then added a minor chord progression to symbolise the changing mood of the Wife.

6) Awakening (Kelvingrove)

During my career in live sound, I have been fortunate to work at several events in Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery.

Of particular interest to me is the amount of natural daylight that cascades throughout the Gallery. I was also struck by the huge natural reverb sound in the Main Hall.

Several parts of the gallery influenced this track. In particular, The Floating Heads modern art installation by Sophie Cave in the East Hall, the World War 2 era Spitfire in the West Hall and Salvador Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross painting.

With these reference points in mind, I set out to create a Piece that would be uplifting, and modern whilst referencing the past.

I began by creating a Choral Harmony based on 6 notes. This was the only track on the EP to feature anything resembling a melody and I felt that after 5 tracks of ambience it was time for something a bit more traditional.

This melody is underpinned by a series of drones which continue to build on top of each other in order to reflect the huge sound of the Main Hall.

During my time on the MA Music course, I frequently worked with Laura Currie, producing and remixing several of her songs. Laura very graciously gave permission to use some of her unused background vocals from these recording sessions and manipulate them for use on this Track.

I decided to use a descending vocal harmony lasting for one bar. The audio was then reversed to make it an ascending harmony in order to fit with the music that had been composed. The sample is only used twice, but I think it fits perfectly and really lifts the track.


Throughout this project I tended to mix as I was recording. In order to achieve the tones and textures I desired, I had to layer up several Synth or Guitar parts.

Auxiliary Tracks were created to act as a Buss send for Reverb, Delay and Distortion so that I could dip in and out of these different Effects when needed.

This approach was influenced by a technique used by Johan Johannsson, as he explains below:

“When I use effects I like to automate them. They’re never static. There is always movement. There’s always movement in the processing and the processing is always organic even if it’s a digital VST effect or a chain of them. Every effect is constantly moving, constantly changing in subtle ways. There’s always the sense of movement and the sense of motion.”

Another approach which influenced the mixing of the EP, was from producer Andy Wallace:

“I try to provide things so that upon repeated listening there will be some new things to find that are cool… something that will continue to augment whatever I’m trying to get out of the mix on further and further subterranean levels."

As the EP consisted of ambient soundscapes containing very little traditional melody, I tried to be creative with my mixing choices, using panning and automation so that the Music continued to grow and evolve which each listen.

The final mix of the EP was completed at RnR Studios in Cambuslang.

Control Room at RnR Studios

Sleeve Photography and Design

In order to ensure that the finished EP was completed to professional and commercial industry standard, I outsourced photography and sleeve design duties to two individuals experienced in this area.

My eldest daughter Leah, agreed to take a series of photographs that could be used in all promotional materials. Leah was advised that the theme for these photographs was to be “reflections” but that she had complete creative control in selecting how best to fulfil this brief.

My cousin, Danny Quinn, a graphic designer, agreed to design a sleeve for the finished record.

I was incredibly fortunate to have two close family members who were not only skilled in these areas but willing to lend their talents to the project. The finished product would not be anywhere near as good without them.

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