I’m listening to two records over and over again at the moment: Two White Cranes’s twowhitecranes and The Magic Lantern’s Love of Too Much Living. They’re both beautiful and gripping and mature works, they’re both notable for how well-crafted they are, and they’re both written by two people I know pretty well. I don’t say that last part in order to drop names (I HAVE SLEPT ON MC LARS‘S COUCH, AFTER ALL), so much as to point out that one of the principle pleasures of making music is the amazing people it puts you into contact with, and the perspectives you gain on art by watching your peers develop and grow.
I’m not aware that Roxanne (Two White Cranes) and Jamie (The Magic Lantern) compared any notes before or during the album-making process, but it seems to me that there’s another similarity between the two pieces of work: they’re both written over and about a period of considerable personal change which seems to have deeply inflected their underlying tone. “We are each of us in a process of becoming”, Jamie writes in his liner notes, “with all that that entails however painful or uncertain”. “Lots of things happened and these songs came out and I don’t feel like the same person any more”, writes Roxanne in one of a series of moving and provocative blog posts on the subject of her new record. There’s something so scary about those last few words of hers. Both of these songwriters seem to have hit a moment – we are all three of us approximately the same age – at which they are confronting reformulations and divergences within both themselves and their social and artistic communities. Jamie talks a little bit about this in a charming film about his record which came out yesterday; Roxanne writes about the distance she feels from her own happiness at the fact she has an audience.
Reading these documents – Roxanne’s in particular – and listening to these two records has been causing me some gentle anxiety over the past few weeks. Much of it is to do with the fact that my own album, which is finally coming out in just over a week, does not seem, to me at least, to have partaken of this mood. It would not be unreasonable if it had: my life has changed enormously in the ten months since I started making it, and now includes a house, a steady job, a family, a bunny, and a car where previously it was largely about my Dad’s spare bedroom, some friends’ sofas, and part-time temporary work with no echo of long-term security. These changes have brought with them an alteration in the time I can reasonably spend doing ‘music stuff’, which feels more like a dreaded ‘hobby’ than it ever has done before. Although I hope I’m in a temporary blip, exacerbated by the newness of the job and some family illness I’ve been dealing with, the fact remains that I’ve scarely touched my guitar in months. I haven’t the energy to organise gigs or send out publicity material – at the very moment where for the first time in years I have a new record (one I’m genuinely proud of) to promote. Even writing blog posts represents an investment away from my other commitments that I may come to regret. It is very, very hard to deal with this when one’s identity as a person is constructed around an assumed inherence – around the belief, which I cling to with all the rigidity of the truly uncertain, that I will always make music whatever else, always play it with my friends and try to get it to people who want to listen. That it is part of who I am that I do this thing.
It is very important to me that it does not become part of ‘growing up’ that I put down my guitar, that songwriting stops being useful to me as a conduit for thoughts and experiences. At the same time, I have to admit that it is by no means a given that I will always write; indeed, if it were, some of the meaning of what I do would be subtracted from it. There is no incentive to go through the heartache, the administrative nightmare, the insecurities, and the frustrations of being a songwriter unless you have a genuine love for it – or rather, there is one incentive: obligation. Is it right to force myself to keep writing if everything else in my life seems to be pushing the other way? Would such a struggle be an appropriate cerebral response to the perils of normalcy eating away at me as I enter my thirties? Or would it be a time- (and money-) consuming struggle against the inevitable, a ill-judged attempt to become what would amount from the outside, if not from within, to being the Dad with a t-shirt on desperately playing his half-baked song ideas to an open mic full of twenty year-olds?
These anxieties are particular to me, and have little to do, I suspect, with those of Jamie or Roxanne. But each of those two has confronted the recent (and different) changes in their own life by stepping up and incorporating it into their musical project. I can’t help but notice that I haven’t.
I’m conscious that in writing this, I’m taking a very different tack to Roxanne, who is almost (from my point of view) distressingly cavalier about her work both in her writing about her music and in the decisions she makes about what to do with it. twowhitecranes was released internet-only with no warning on a pay-what-you-like basis, a gesture that could easily be read as indifference to the work, or to the audience, or to money, or to recognition, or to all of the above. Her shows are advertised on facebook in a register which almost dares you not to come. It’s an attitude which contrasts starkly and, I think, pointedly, with my ten-month blog-o-journey to make a new album, a journey in which I forcibly involved nearly all of my friends. My feeling is that Roxanne has always been nervous of such affairs, but it’s interesting to see her positioning herself this way relative to twowhitecranes in particular, since – for me, at least – it offers the most authentic reflection yet of how she really is as a person. Despite a declared lack of confidence in herself and in the material, this is an album that sees her voice, her musicianship, and her lyrics working (and working together) with an assurance I haven’t seen from her before. It’s an assurance that pushes strongly against the self-effacement with which she distributes and promotes her material. In one of her posts, she calls the whole act of songwriting “both an incredibly meaningful experience and just complete and utter nonsense”, a phrase which in my view explicates both the attention she’s paid to making the album and the guilt that she seems to feel should accompany making that attention public.
Jamie doesn’t have this problem. He’s on a very different path – an exhausting and, I suspect, occasionally upsetting one which has nevertheless seen him garner considerable national attention including plays on Lauren Laverne and a recent review in the Guardian. Those who know Jamie know that he has worked hard for this recognition; those who listen to the album will realise how deserved it is. Pared down significantly from the previous live-jazz-band setup, this is (for the most part) just Jamie and an acoustic guitar, and the immediacy of his performances are the source of its rich emotional potential (and testimony to the skill of Dean McCarthy, our mutual sound engineer). Playing a song well by yourself, on an acoustic guitar, to one other person – a sincere song, one you Mean – requires extraordinary reserves of both courage and self-doubt, and these two aspects of Jamie are in productive conversation throughout the album. The whole thing turns around the fifth track, which Jamie wrote when he was twenty-four, and which changes every year to reflect his current age (on the album, therefore, the song is called ’28 Years Old’). This is an a cappella tune – even more confident; even more fragile – but Jamie’s great risk is that he changes no other lyrics year on year. The updated number in the title is the only difference. It strikes me that this was a shrewd scheme from 24-year-old Jamie, because it presses us up against the fact that songs change year-on-year even if the words don’t, precisely because we move around them, because they settle on us in different ways. ’28 Years Old’ is a kind of homage to Borges’s Pierre Menard in that sense: the lyric “I’ve grown since I’ve left home / In some ways worse, some better” means something really different at 24 and 28, and will be different again at 33. But I wonder what Jamie will do if he finds that he no longer means the words in this song. Will he change them, or stop singing?
Somewhere between Jamie’s measured, cerebral, realistic and yet imaginative apprehension of his situation and Roxanne’s febrile, delicate, loudly unobtrusive painting of hers, there’s my uncertainty about FaceOmeter. It’s not that I don’t think Why Wait for Failure? represents me well, or even that I think it should have to – the songs on this album mean a lot to me, and I’m proud of them. I still feel like the person who wrote them. But I worry about how hard it will be to keep writing stuff like this after this album comes out. I can imagine not minding stopping one day, and the thought terrifies me.
Pressing upon all of this is a question of audience – another question which both Roxanne and Jamie have framed in their different ways. Who should listen to my stuff? Why should anyone care? The difficulties I’ve encountered selling tickets to my launch shows and my own allergy to sending out publicity material, combined with a spreading and thinning of the artistic communities I’ve depended on for the last decade, might by themselves be enough to stop me from writing – it’s not enough to write only for my own amusement, but it is a lot to ask of anyone else to sit and listen to my nonsense. It’s been at least a year since I actually spoke to Roxanne, and that’s a thought that makes me all kinds of sad. But whatever happens next, I’m taking a stand on this one thing: that right now, the three of us have released these different, similar records. They’re evidence of work and thought and love and pain. They weren’t written to be listened to together, but you can listen to them together, and the conversation isn’t without uniqueness. Right now, this second, I am a part of something, though I feel it slipping through my fingers as I say it.