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.