Hallowe’en Again

What’s scary about the fact that it’s been five years since The Spooky EP? That we are brief flickers of cognisance shortly to be blown out in the gusts of deep time, and that each of our meaningless lives is over in the flicker of a cosmic eyelid. Well – it is meant to be a scary record.

I like The Spooky EP. It was my first collaboration with Dean McCarthy, and remains my only one with Sam Taplin – for that alone, it’ll always be special to me. But it’s also a record with a theme which makes me revisit it every year, and I really appreciate that. A lot of my other recordings I tend to forget or simply not listen to; this one sort of requires that I regularly come back to it. This year, I find it pleasingly unchanged: the solo in track 2 is still my favourite thing in the world; The Dapper Swindler’s vocals on track 5 continue to destroy me; and track 3 still has, despite its pared-down arrangements (two guitars and three vocals) the energy and power of a stadium rock band detonating a series of atom bombs in a massive can of Dr Pepper. I don’t know whether it’s because of anything innate in the record or simply because this is the only time of year when I listen to it, but it seems to suit the season. Falling leaves and crispiness outside, the turning back of the clocks, the distant smell of misty roasting vegetables or whatever – this record really does all that for me.

I think this is the lasting achievement – and the most surprising achievement – about this record: it actually does what we wanted it to do. We wanted a record that evoked Hallowe’en in a certain way (that found the fun, tossed the consumerism; kept the heart but lost the schmaltz) and so we went and wrote one and then recorded it. It almost never happens like that. I’m proud of my other records, but none of them so closely resemble the starting intention as this one does. The most vivid example of this is the last track, ‘Sentiments Expressed…’. I wrote that track because I thought that the record needed a pithy afterward, that the show couldn’t close at the Skeleton Express. And so I sat down and channelled some vibes, and the song just – happened. I talk to other songwriters who have this experience all the time, but it’s very rare for me. My songs turn up sideways, by accident. There’s one idea, and then there’s something in the composition process that changes it. Often, this change is for the better, but I’m glad that I’ve also written a song that does exactly what I first wanted it to. It makes me feel more of a craftsman and less of a conduit.

One of the reasons I was able to do that is because of the strength of the collaboration. TT&J was a curious and wonderful partnership: we did very little writing together (although I will always remember those frenetically exciting sessions very vividly), but there was something about knowing we were collaborating which made each of us, separately, write in a different way. When we put that separate stuff in a room together, it really caught fire. It’s still burning, for me at least, five years later. I hope you think so too.

Forthcoming show!

After the longest haitus since I started this here blog, it’s time for me to tell you that there is a show coming up. Yay show! This one is special for me because it will be my first big one in ages, because I’m promoting it myself, because it’s in the bookshop where I basically learned to read, and because I’ve managed to persuade some friends from out of town to come and play sets with me!

04-faceometer-why-wait-for-failureThis is a picture which I didn’t know existed until I googled myself to find pictures for the events page. Thanks, Tim! It’s a photo from my album launch (already nearly 2 years ago – where does the time go?) and most of you will know already that the awesome loser to my left is The Magic Lantern, a guy who has not let the grass grow under his feet whilst I’ve been moving houses and organising performance arts evenings in Birmingham. Yes, the good ol’ ML is a media force in these straightened times, and it’s a thrill to be beckoning him back to the capital city (of his heart) for what I imagine will be a KILLER of a set.

p03kgy2mMeanwhile, here’s Ditte Elly. There doesn’t seem to be a picture of all three of us together – we’ll soon change THAT – but you can tell that she is a really big deal because she has the word “BBC” near her head. She has an album out which you should listen the ass off of at your earliest convenience. I went to the launch in Oxford a few months ago, and I actually meant to write a really long and deep blog post about how amazing it was, but I got paranoid about becoming too fannish and/or too similar to my last excessively lengthy post about people releasing albums.

This is not the first time that the three of us have shared a stage! We did a show up at the Star and Shadow in Newcastle many years ago when Magic Lantern and I were on our famous Spring’s Labour’s Lost Tour. It was a properly special evening and I have been waiting for the excuse to recreate. Our venue is the recently-refurbished and super-cosy Waterstone’s right in the city centre (about a minute’s walk from New St station, if you’re planning to jet in from a distance), and we’re gonna be playing unamplified amidst the books, trading songs and memories, and having a great time.

Tickets are availiable right now at this link, and the show takes place from 6:30pm on Tuesday, Nov 1st. It’s been far too long since I did a proper set, but this is my dream gig and I cannot wait to get out there. Please do come and be part of it!

Covers

So I was on a covers album.

a0967852264_16I just had a nice postcard from Jamie “Currently in Australia” Doe, also known as The Magic Lantern, and it made me want to write a word or two about the distant experience of being involved with the Too Much Love of Living – Remixes album. It’s Jamie’s superb 2014 album remade by loads of his friends and collaborators. It’s based on a similar project conducted by This Is The Kit, who is also on the record – which means I’m on a record with This Is The Kit. And Rozi Plain! And Sam Brookes! And Hot Feet! And a buttload of awesome other people. (This Is The Kit were on Loose Ends with Jon Ronson this morning, which also means that by the transit of properties I am Jon Ronson).

The song I got to cover was ’28 years old’, which I wrote about in a stupidly discursive blog post a little while ago, long before I knew about this project. It’s the raw heart of the original album in my view, and I wanted my version of it to be raw to match. The challenge of a cover, of course, lies in doing something worthy of the original but technically distinct – so I messed around with some lyrics, popped into the studio with a rather bad cold, and sang the song at about half my usual ability level (and therefore at about 20% of Jamie’s). And then I forgot about it for ages, because the post-production took a really long time.

When I got the package containing a CD from Jamie – beautifully produced, of course, and a snip at £10 – I was more surprised than I should have been to discover that everyone else had put much more effort in than I did. The opening track in particular, Emilia Mårtensson’s version of ‘Harvest Moon’, is a beautiful and complex masterpiece which both showcases her own considerable skills and makes your realise the depth of Jamie’s original piece. The quality throughout is like this – it’s an eclectic listen, as you’d expect from a compilation album, but the overall bar is pretty high. There’s only one disjointed seam, really, which is when I gargle loudly and then start shouting. I don’t think anyone else did their version with a cold.

The gargle is real. The theory was that it masked the ill effects of the virus a little and allowed me to hit the notes I couldn’t hit any more. Dean wanted to edit it out, which shows that although he is a recording genius he still occasionally needs gentle and nurturing guidance. I spent the first few listens to this album with a severe impostor syndrome accentuated by not having heard my own lousy contribution since the day I recorded it, but I’ve come around to it now. I don’t think it hurts to have a little rough edge in there to remind Jamie where he’s from, and I think the song is not quite like his others – it asks for an honesty that only a really well-meant but quite substandard performance can truly do justice to.

In an abstract, ideal world, it’s not how I’d have chosen to appear right before Rozi, and I doubt it’s a track that will win me any ears among Jamie’s discerning audience. But it feels to me Right that it’s there in all its silliness, and Dean and I had a great time laying it out.

Music.

So Very Long 2015

Glancing back at the blog, I notice that I really haven’t been updating it this year. Too bad, because a lot has happened! I’ve played a show in an indoor forest and eaten two separate gluten-free pizzas; been behind the scenes at three different natural history museums; hailed a Christmas llama; listened to Sibelius on swans; had my first real stint of copyediting; been offered strange drinks in Newcastle; attended a Victorian Magic Lantern show and a present-day wedding powerpoint presentation; discussed wine with a group of French philosophers in an 18th-century restaurant; been pissed on by a pretend camel in a listed building; climbed Glastonbury Tor for sunset to the accompaniment of savage beats; sung along to the mariner’s revenge; awoke with Port Meadow’s wild rabbits; carried a curry past an idyllic cathederal; had a reassuringly pink breakfast out; accidentally attended a birthday party; gone back for extra tea in the Sainsbury’s café (the quiet café, we call it) and for one last one in the Railroad; failed to buy a copy of Empire magazine; become, with about three minutes’ warning, the Archangel Michael; had my car smashed up; slept next to a famous diplodocus; found out what a steam room feels like; belatedly discovered Adventure Time; appeared on a covers album; attended a public talk about sleeping on roundabouts; been trapped by seaside cows; been decimated in a Necromunda tournament; learned about unclaimed babies; eaten the best mozarella in history; attended a print exhibition at a Quaker retreat; conspired with the Muse about how to use a door; run a stage at the Moseley Folk Festival; survived swimming in the Irish Sea; bought a house (nearly); bought a hammock (emphastically); had a bucket of water dumped on me by a zip line; talked to teenagers about bad writing; rearranged the tracks on an old friend’s record; cycled the perimeter of an entire submarine base; had a suspciously nice Holiday Inn breakfast; brainstormed in the Royal Society; and lectured on Jekyll and Hyde at a Catholic College. I’ve lost three mobile phones – two to drowning – and ended up with one I really like (cyanogen ftw). I saw the new Star Wars and didn’t die. I wrote about five songs – but I really like them! – and I started a new performance arts night in Birmingham (the next one is this coming Monday!); I also started writing about stupid games in the Catweazle Magazine, which has been a really fun project. My game of the year is Desert Golfing, but of course Mario Kart 8 is right up there. Next year, I suspect, will be about firming up a lot of stuff that is already in process – but Hatstand needs to be successful and FaceOmeter needs a definite next project, and these are my two ambitions as far as you’re concerned!

I’m certain I’ve missed a whole raft of amazing things about 2015 here. I always do, of course, and that’s part of what this annual post tradition I’ve got going on is – it’s a core sample, not a complete planet. Nevertheless, it’d be good to take some better notes next year, so I suppose I’ll add that to the list of resolutions.

You may or may not have a list of your own. I wish you well if so – I thank you for continuing to read this site and to listen to my foolish rhymes, and I trust that we two have many more such capers ahead of us. Forward, and onward, and be well. Happy New Year.

The Elephant in the Room

This is a song I finished lately. It’s about living with an elephant. Don’t think this is an elaborate metaphor for anything! It’s about actually living with an actual elephant. I’m in Robert Frost country here; metaphors are banned.

Before you left,
The times we had!
Two very different bodies
With the same crockery.
In the same warm and immense
Companianable silence –
All our thoughts unexpressed.
There’s no problem with that.

You’d pour the tea –
Your special knack.
A little crackle from the fire
All our hearts could desire.
No need for conversation,
Warmed by our conflagration –
Quiet cameraderie,
From which nothing detracts.

I should have guessed,
I should have guessed I never could know
What’s going on,
What’s going on behind those bright eyes –
How much espoused in their discretely curving brows
Was only my surmise?

I had a dream
That you came back –
Settled into your sofa
Crumpets stuck in the toaster.
And the evenings got longer,
Leaves turned russet round songbirds,
And we sat on serene;
It’s a matter of tact.

I couldn’t say,
I couldn’t say without you starting
What’s going on,
What’s going on when creatures share lives –
Assumed one scene could hold the hopes of different beings
Regardless of their size.

I should have guessed,
I should have guessed I never could know
What’s going on,
What’s going on behind those bright eyes –
How much espoused in their discretely curving brows
Was only my surmise?

Self-Assembly

The Hatstand night is developing apace. I just put up this short film, in which I test metaphor to its limits by building an actual hatstand as a promotional exercise.

If you’re in or near Birmingham I’d love to see you at our opening night on December 7th! More details on this post below.

What else has been going on? Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the company of this insane beast:

2015-10-20 00.28.15There is a small prize for guessing the species.

I’ve just finished a new song called ‘The Elephant in the Room’. It’s about the experience of living with an elephant. So I suppose “living with different animals” has been the theme of recent weeks. But I’ve been having other experiences, too – I’ve been seen at a few Catweazles recently, popped over to see a teen pop sensation thriving at an open mic in Edgbaston, and I got my hands on a first edition of The Hunting of the Snark today. Slow and steady wins the race!

Of Hatstands

The project I’ve been working on for a few weeks is slowly coming to fruition, and I’d like to introduce the world to Hatstand.

hatstand color try2There have been two great influences in my life: the Catweazle Club and the city of Birmingham. I bore the socks off everyone I meet singing the praises of these things, but there’s a problem: Catweazle isn’t in Birmingham. Sick of racking up miles on the M40, I’ve decided to start a performance arts night with similar values three minutes’ walk from my front door, blending my two core interests.

Catweazle has taught me so much, and regulars will anticipate the main features: unamplified, no advance booking, performers enter for free. But Hatstand is not simply a duplication of the Catweazle formula, for this city is unique and requires individual treatment. We’re going to have a pop-up art gallery for visual artists with prints to sell. We’re going to have two intervals instead of one (edgy). We’re going to be based in a garden centre intead of a community centre (super edgy). We are going, I very much hope, to have an actual hatstand (I just lost consciousness).

This is the second night I’ve set up, and I know what the big challenges are. We need a good mix of music and spoken word; a strong communuity of regulars as well as high visibility for passing traffic; and we need an amazing audience who delight in and respect a huge range of talent. Most troublesomely of all, we need all that quickly – nights like this thrive or fail in the first year, and a monthly show only has twelve chances to get it right.

I hope you can be part of those attempts! Whether you’re a Brummie or at a distance, if you find yourself free on the first Monday of the month, starting this December, we need you. We had a trial run this Sunday at the Moseley Folk Festival, which went down a treat – we got Bohdan Piasecki down, Katherine Priddy was there, James Bell came all the way from Oxford to inaugurate, and there were loads besides! We camped out in the old tennis hut while the bassbins of the big stage outside boomed away and we performed songs and poetry for each other – it felt like the start of something new, but also timeless and comfortable, like coming home at the end of a long night.

Perhaps I’m overdoing this. My point is, we’re ten minutes old and we’ve already done a stage at Moseley Folk. We mean business! You’ll hear me yammering away about this loads over the next few months, but don’t wait for that – get your diary out now. Nights like this are the audience, nothing else. We need you. 7th December 2015. 8pm.

Check out the website! It has parallax scrolling so I look modern and cool and I used the guys who are always advertising on This American Life which by the transit of properties means that Ira Glass will personally attend every single Hatstand evening

Recent Events

Dear all, I have for too long neglected this here account of my travels through adventureland. You needn’t think that this is because I’ve been idling, though – I’ve had some mad fun lately and I’m here with you for some edited highlights:

I opened for Thomas Truax in Oxford, which was a real delight. He is a gent of the old school and a fierce mind withal. I suffered a couple of cancellations after that, but I did a few Catweazles to keep me going and I surfaced last Friday on the Catweazle stage at Tandem festival (an indoor book-forest barn stage in the Oxfordshire countryside), where I debuted a new song I’ve got guest-starring Rosie Caldecott. Very excited to play that, especially as Ditte Elly was also there – we sang ‘Child of Monkey Horse!’ together which always makes me feel privileged and special.

2015-06-20 00.18.01It occurs to me to tantalise you with a few song titles. ‘More Like Spring’s Heath’. ‘Big Duck On Campus’. ‘Sad Songs for Happy Occassions’. ‘Several People Whom I Have Known Called Matt’. ‘The One-Part Prelude’. ‘Hippo Calypso’. There are the new generation of tunes I’ve been working on since Why Wait came out last year – some are finished, some are only nearly finished. More are on the way. They’re slow but they’re coming. Stay tuned.

At Tandem I saw lots more of my special friends including two thirds of Robot Swans, M Sage himself, and the inimitable Patti Dale. Then I buzzed off to a school in Somerset to award some poetry prizes and have an individual in a black morph suit with a harlequin mask dance around me with a small rubber duck. Another day at the FaceOmeter office.

There’s been much else besides! I’ve seen Jurassic World and seen loads of awesome people pick up degree results, and I’ve watched a lot of Gilmore Girls. There is the vague sense of an upswing in all of this. It could be deceptive, but things feel pretty good right now in a gentle sort of way. I’m glad you’re all still reading!

Incoming Shows

Dearest friends, I have three wild gigs coming up which I’d like you to take note of..!

Oxford – The Cellar – May 2nd
This is a show supporting Thomas Truax, and it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun! It’s likely to sell out so you may want to grab tickets in advance!

Brighton – St Peter’s Church – May 6th
I’m turning up at this well-located and atmospheric establishment to show the South Coast what I’ve got! Doors at 7:30!

Birmingham – Glee Club – May 16th
I’m appearing at the first ever show in a new space run by the Glee Club. This’ll be an afternoon show, running from 2-6pm. I’ll let you have more details when I know them!

I was in the studio with Dean McCarthy today to record a little something for the Magic Lantern. He captured this dramatic picture of his new record-o-box, also featuring my feet.

CDWnnapXIAEyT3iPlayed the Catweazle Club last night and got a third song (a great honour) for only the second time ever – the set was ‘Hippo Calypso’ (that’s a new one), ‘Unwillingness to Dance‘, and ‘A Strange Visitor‘. I’m also in the latest issue of Catweazle Magazine with a new column about stupid games! In print or live, Catweazle is one of my favourie places to be – it’s been a treat!

The Newcastle Statement

Those who think that writing music is pretentious are right, of course: at least at the level of the indie singer-songwriter, we show off in front of crowds because it suits us. The crowds are often small, and the applause is sometimes unwarranted. We play because we believe that someone else will like it, and there’s an arrogance in there that simply can’t be avoided. There’s something else too, though: that music is the crowd as well as the artist, is the Ritz-trained baker who gave me free dessert, is the stranger who dropped a decent sum of money on a t-shirt of mine for reasons which remain obscure, is the young couple on the sofa who laughed right through my set and meant it, is the older couple at the back who’d never been to a show like this before but said they’d come again.

This is the usual line with which we justify ourselves, but the truth is that we can go so much further – what ever it is, it’s also the tiny café where we did the show, and the two guys whose homemade pizzas made the venue smell amazing and whose hand-decorating made it look warm and welcoming. It’s the taxi to the venue, as well – the driver trying to enter the postcode of the place into his satnav whilst negotiating vomiting Geordies, the slight sense of panic, of being late, of not having a clue where you are, and then of seeing a waving stranger step out of a building you’ve never seen before and knowing, just like that, this is me, I’m here, I’m home, it’s fine now. It’s the train to that taxi, the hour’s delay in the overcast midlands, the overpriced cup of tea which breaks things up at York, the Northern scenery through new headphones. It’s the party after the show, too: always an unpredictable affair but in this case a gentle exchange of vice versas and most-hated tracks taking place in wood-floored flat in Jesmond where people you’ve only met fleetingly before hand you lemon curd cocktails and complement you on your socks. It’s the cocktails themselves. And it’s midnight Müller corners in a window burnt by reflected sunlight, it’s homemade hash browns the next morning, and it’s a sewing room and notes on Pokémon and the theme tune from Wolf Hall and a discussion about the function of craft in the age of mass reproduction. And it’s that walk – one a.m. in a strange city, biting wind, a dangerous bridge, clear skies, bright stars, scary parks, winding roads, the feeling of being shown a place by someone who cares about it. Perhaps more than any of this, it’s the moment when the train home pulls away and you put on some music that’s totally appropriate for the occasion and think the person I just left made this – it didn’t exist before, and then they came along and now I’m here.

I’m not there without them. Without music, not a word of the above – not for me, at least. Every thought of it impossible. Now multiply this list of my own particular experiences, some of which probably don’t say that much to you, by the number of people who were in the crowd last night. What an unthinkable spread of thoughts and actions to have kaleidoscoped together in one room! What an incredible privilege to be the focal point of that vitality for a few minutes, to get some sense of its size and complexity before the kaleidoscope turns and we all roll away again. It’s not that I think my own music – the stuff I write, the stuff I’m playing – directly causes more than a superficial fraction of the adventures which have briefly huddled together in that place. But if I pick up the guitar in tribute to that, if I can reflect some of that energy back to the people who have brought it along, who have made stuff and done stuff and ended up here too, then surely it isn’t just my own conceitedness that makes me do it?

Of course it’s self-indulgent, but it indulges in everyone else as well. It’s brought me friends, and food, and memories, and adventures, and I believe that I am not the only one. It is not the best way to live, or the only way to live, but until further notice, and speaking, now, with some experience, it continues to work for me.

I wrote this on the train on the way there:

It’s just running up to Leeds that the excitement finally kicks in. Three hours on a train, one stationary in a grey field south of Burton-upon-Trent, the other two spent dozing between the pages of a textbook on metaphor, failed to set a mood. The expensive rail fare, the hours travelling – why do I do this? Ever harder to set up shows, to make time to play them. But I’ve always needed reminders (perhaps the reminders themselves are the reason?) and outside Leeds the latest one arrives: twilight replacing the grey, the train’s atmosphere moving from stifled to cosy, my faithful guitar in its battered case perched indecorously in the overhead. The reminder is a physical reaction to some combination of these, or none of them, a tightness of breath behind the sternum, anticipation mixed with uncertainty. Once again, and for the first time in a while, I do not know where I’ll be in two hours, physically or spiritually. But this isn’t a quest for the arbitrary, a wanton desire to full up on new experiences of any kind, whatever the cost: I don’t know where I’ll be, but I know what I’ll be doing. And to remember the what, in this moment, is also to know the why.

At Leeds itself I stand in the doorway and take a breath of fresh Northern air mixed with lashings of Yorkshire rain. The lights of the town burn brighter as the train begins to accelerate away from them – the woman in the seat in front of me plays solitaire on her phone, the large train manager pushes a trolley service of drinks and light refreshments up and down the aisle. Life is a fabulous adventure.