Willow Neilson’s Lightbulb Life

Lightbulb Life CD ArtAlbum tour dates in Australia

4 December  at Bennetts Lane, Melbourne

10 December at 505 in Sydney

20 December at Bangalow Bowling Club

Still restless after a trip to Europe, in 2003 / 2004 Willow Neilson went to Shanghai for the first time as an ‘adventure’, taking up a 6-month contract with the CJW Jazz Club in Shanghai, playing 6 nights a week. It must have felt a million miles from his rainforest childhood but this unique city nevertheless found its way under his skin.

When the contract ended he was a little burned out from the party lifestyle he’d been living. He returned to Australia, and was soon teaching four days a week and gigging maybe once a week. He started a Graduate Diploma in Education but soon realised that teaching was not for him. Shanghai was calling, and he was back there on an AsiaLink residency in 2006, exploring his own compositional practice and collaborating with local musicians. When the residency ended, he stayed on. He says the life he’s able to live there suits him better than the options that would have been available in Australia. He’s playing regularly at Shanghai’s JZ Club; at least three or four nights a week and teaching maybe one day a week. The ratio of teaching to playing would have been reversed back home in Sydney, with four or five days of teaching and maybe one gig a week. He sees more opportunity in Shanghai, and says the scene there is also very international, with musicians from Norway, Germany, Israel, Peru, Columbia and the USA and many other countries. Talking to him on Skype, he’s excited about his life there, about the opportunities to make music and by the projects he’s involved in, including working with musicians from Yunnan province, creating jazz arrangements for folk songs from the region (‘Moonlight Beauties’ on Lightbulb Life gives a taste of this project).

Willow’s latest release Lightbulb Life has been in my headphones for the last few days. It’s a sound window into an exotic location, an insight into a city and its people through Willow’s ears.

Because he’s also an accomplished writer, Willow has created text that explains each of the songs on this album – each complementing the tune it describes. The whole piece is reproduced here with his permission but is also available (with music) on the Lightbulb Life website >>>>



This song was influenced by ‘The Rumba Club’ group’s track ‘Baltonimo’ from the album Espiritista They call this groove ‘Bomba Experimental’. This song is one of the many illusive and complex rhythms on the album. I called it Microcosm because it feels like rhythms within rhythms, a swirling vortex of different points of groove. I have attempted to maintain the groove but give it some more motion in the harmony than that used by ‘Rumba Club’, providing a chord progression instead of a static one chord vamp.

Microcosm also refers to how I feel about the Shanghai music scene, it is as though it is the united nations of groove, I play with musicians from Mauritius, Cuba, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Norway and many more, essentially it is like a microcosm of the musical world.


This was the first thing I remember about arriving in Shanghai, the recorded greeting within the taxi. This specific one includes the 57575777 restaurant number advertisement that many Shanghai residents would imitate to one another. It was just asking for me turn it into a song. I recorded the greeting on my little hand held recorder and then sampled the receipt machine to begin the beat and then using the time stretch function in logic pro helped some of the phrases to shift into rhythm, most of them fitted without any manipulation though. I transcribed the melody of the woman’s voice and then harmonized it to create what I like to call ‘Comedy Bossa’. In the studio we improvised with it and Peter Scherr came up with the awesomely funky two bass grooves that create the second half of the song. This song is dedicated to Matthew Herbert, a producer I have admired for many years through his use of random sampled sounds.

Sunday Story

This song is composed by Coco Zhao. I laid down a sequence using Chinese percussion and Balinese gamelan samples to provide the mood from which the band played some very beautiful music, especially pianist Steinar Nickelson.

Coco Zhao is one of China’s unique jazz vocal talents and an old friend. His collaboration with violinist and producer Peng Fei and their group Possicobilities were part of my inspiration to return to Shanghai. More about him here www.myspace.com/cocozhao

Translation of the song lyrics-

Sunday afternoon, I am sitting in the cafe just cross the street,
the crowded street, and the quiet waterlily by the window
the constant passing by wheels, and layers of shading souls
they all bustling on the edge of this city
While a cigarette is disappearing in my undecided hands

Don’t understand the lies under those colorful street billboards
while the movie theater is showing some stories which has nothing to do with me
What is changing me, and what makes me reminisce
the distance of each other is neither far nor near, just in a blurry zone
While all these thoughts have paused in a moment which I can’t explain by words.

Lightbulb Life

This is the title track of the album. It is part of the group of compositions I used to explore various grooves from around the world. This is a folkloric rhythm called ‘Maracatu Nacao’ and comes from the north of Brazil in the Pernambuco region. The Maracatu often accompanied a parade where a slave was chosen to become ‘the king of the slaves’ to watch over all the others for the Portuguese colonialists.

This was one of those compositions that was written pretty naturally and quickly unlike some of the other grooves I worked with which took a long time to understand. Big thanks to Brazilian percussionist Leonardo Susi and drummer Alex Ritz for offering me some deeper insight into this rhythm and for their great playing on the track.


This joins ‘Taxi’ and ‘Recycling Man’ as my ode to the Shanghai soundscape. Learning Chinese I would often repeat phrases from within the recorded dialogues I was studying until I could sing along. Chinese, with it’s tones, is a particular musical language that does often feel that it needs to be sung, people assume a tonality when they speak it, centering their first tone around a specific note. Language is essentially music with a signifier and signified attached to it. There is much esoteric writing upon this connection usually springing from ‘in the beginning was the word…’

These compositions are influenced by the work of Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal from his album Festa Dos Deus.


This song uses a Tony Allen rhythm, the famous drummer from Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat bands. The title is my new family nickname, given to me by my brother in law, dedicated to him as he introduced me to Fela Kuti’s music. The etymology of the name goes, Willow, Willowbian Tube (similar to fallopian tube), then Tubey, then the Australian accent which turns ‘TU’ in ‘Ch’ becoming Choobie. The name stuck so that my nephew, whose voice you hear preceding the track, when asked my real name at show and tell couldn’t remember it. This song is for so many of us who live far from our families here in Shanghai.

Secret Society

The intro to this song features actual construction noise recorded above my apartment on Luban Lu, Shanghai 2003, no effects have been used to magnify any of that noise, it was really that loud. To endure the sonic rape my ears were enduring I would pretend that they were an avant garde percussion ensemble giving a suspenseful and dramatic performance, ranging from enthusiastic group improvisations to dramatic pointalist minimalism.

Construction noise is like an initiation to Shanghai life, most people who have lived here for any substantial time would have endured it at one stage and can compassionately relate to one another when one of their own is suffering the plight of the hammer and drill. The tune uses the ‘Abakua’ rhythm from Cuba, a group that requires initiation rituals in order to join.

Moonlight beauties

The vocalist on this track, Jing Song hails from Lijiang, the beautiful ancient town in Yunnan province. I met him through the owner of the Blue Papaya (a great place to stay in Lijiang) Wu Shan. We all sat around a hearth inside a dark room whilst various people from Zang and Naxi minorities sang songs to one another in the informal ‘get up and sing’ style that is so common in China. Everybody spoke of Jing Song in high regard and I was eager to hear him but he was complaining of a cold and didn’t want to sing. Finally he was coaxed into ‘just one song.’ The beautiful melody that he emitted is the recording that introduces this song. It hushed the room and left it silent for moments after, broken only by people’s sighs and a giddy giggle from a female admirer. I used the recording to write this arrangement around his vocal, recorded it in the studio with the group and then sent it to Jing Song for him to re-record the vocal over. It sounds as though he is singing it in Mandarin on the intro recording and then in the original Mongolian on the version with the band. I love this song dearly and it represents the beginning of my current project working with ethnic minority vocalists from Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan.

Survival Charades

The title of this song refers to my first period of time in China, having arrived to play a contract gig at CJW and not speaking a word of Chinese I often felt I was having master my skills at Charades in order to survive. I had a black out in my apartment and the most difficult thing I have ever had to try to mime was ‘candle’.

The song is part of the group of compositions exploring rhythms from around the world, this one uses the Afro Peruvian rhythm ‘Festejo’, big thanks to Peruvian Pablo from the JZ latin band for his lessons on this rhythm which, navigating, ironically felt like Survival Charades for many of us.

Recycling man

Every morning I would hear the usual group of elderly early risers talk loudly about their affairs, gathering outside to buy ‘cai’ (vegetables for the morning meal). One old woman had a laugh almost like a kookaburra, I would muse before pulling the pillow over my head and trying to block it out. The sizzle of the woks next door subjecting the vegetables to an oily doom would be accompanied by the regular calls of trash recyclers either blaring loudspeakers or ringing bells.

Like an ornithologist I began to recognize the different calls of these trash foragers as they began their day as I struggled to get back to sleep. The various pitches and rhythmic rate of their bells and the words they called out signified their breed. Around many streets of Shanghai you can see these trash foragers pedaling or pushing their carts laden with their ‘catch.’ Like the bowerbirds from my home town sometimes these recyclers appear to specialize in an extensive collection of a single type of random item stacked high upon their three wheel bike fitted with tray, from household electrical wiring, cardboard, plastic bottles, pieces of wood or mountains of Styrofoam boxes assembled like white powdery Lego pieces.

The king of these collectors is the appliance recycling man. Over a loudspeaker he blares a grainy recording on a loop rousing all within its sonic radius. Long before I knew what the words meant I was singing the rise and fall melody of his voice, as though it were some mechanical bird-call. The call of kongtiao, dian nao, bing xiang, wei bo and xiyiji would be blared on a loop.

These groups of hunters often circle the block numerous times in case suddenly someone releases the impulse to dispose of that shaky and leaky old washing machine, decrepit AC or the old TV forsaken for a flat screen. The call would crescendo and decrescendo along his route past my apartment. I would often rise to see the appliance recycling men, their catch strapped to the back of their bicycles, from smaller loads of old transistor radios and tape decks to huge hauls, the most impressive being a 10 inch TV and a bar fridge strapped to each side of the bike, the recycling man’s legs powering against his pedals as he shifted the large weight.

As the loudspeaker call would fade into the distance I would sometimes dream of them returning home with their mechanical patients then proceeding to operate on them, their electronic entrails methodically cut out, like surgeons harvesting organs. ‘This belt drive is going to provide new life for an old Samsung washing machine.’

This composition is part of the ‘speech and music’ project. The CD launch will feature a new evolution of this composition.

Jia Xing Seng

This is a cover of Cui Jian’s song, the title meaning Fake Monk. Cui Jian to me is like a shining beacon of artistic integrity amongst the Chinese music scene, the other ‘popular’ artists usually inspiring nausea. When I first lived in China I performed a lot with pianist Xia Jia and drummer Bei Bei who turned out to be members of Cui Jian’s touring group.

Cui Jian’s live show is definitely worth seeing and this song of his is by far my favorite. It describes a wandering libertine which could be the description for most travelling musicians. This song was recorded at Yuyintang which is suitable for a rock song like this. I use effects on the saxophone and we decided to give the song dirty south groove.

Album tour dates in Australia

4 December  at Bennetts Lane, Melbourne

10 December at 505 in Sydney

20 December at Bangalow Bowling Club


Album personnel

Willow Neilson- soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones and Maestro Sound System for woodwind (12)Alex Ritz-drums and percussion (all tracks)
Steinar Nickelson- keys (all tracks)
Peter Scherr- electric and acoustic bass (all tracks)
Leonardo Susi- percussion (1,2,3,4,7,8,9)
Theo Croker- trumpet (1,3,7)
Toby Mak- trumpet (7,8)
Lawrence Ku- guitar (1,3,7)