Sweet Lovely Nancy

The secrets of my mind and the best of my goodwill

Magpies, Muses and Makeup

It’s Easter, and for me the end of a bout of unprecedented, dizzying busy-ness. Amid the usual mad clutter of mummyhood and bodysurfing the paperwork ocean that sloshes thigh-deep around our house I’ve done lovely consecutive UK tours with two outfits (I mean bands – although actually I did just wear the two outfits) – often with the children in tow; did some TV and radio things that were a bit daunting; was part of Folk by the Oak/EFDSS’s latest new music project The Elizabethan Session which apparently shook me up and uncorked a flow of music like mead from a flagon; and I finally got my solo album Sweet Visitor finished and on the precipice of release (out July 14th), with the seriously dedicated help of James Fagan and the other clever people I know who step in all cool and organised when I’ve resorted to crying and typing simultaneously (“cryping”) and eating cake icing out of the packet.

It’s been exhilarating – and productive. I wrote, or had a hand in writing, five new songs during the few days spent on the residential part of the Elizabethan Session, and surprised myself as much as anyone else with this sudden prolific rush. I still feel new to songwriting (Sweet Visitor will be the first album written and sung exclusively by me) and the process fascinates me. Other records I’ve made have featured one two of my own compositions at most, and in those days the writing process was a little akin to childbirth: long, messy, painful and with a result that is destined at some point to embarrass one in public. Now I’ve an embarrassment of repertoire that’s mine, and the writing seems to flow so much more easily. I should thank my many muses.

Someone at a gig recently pointed out how often my songs feature magpies and whiskey. They are both favourite images for me and often seem to seep or flutter into verses without my conscious intention. Queen of Waters, from previous album Twice Reflected Sun, has both magpies and whiskey in it, and jays as a bonus. I will branch out happily to include crows and ravens, and basically anything that looks good against a fresh-cut wheat field in about verse 3 of a slightly apocalyptic-themed country song – the sort where the protagonist tries to get a snog by saying “Well we’ll all be dead eventually anyway – hey, look at the sunset”. The score in Sweet Visitor’s lyrics, according to my tottings-up, stands at Corvidae: 4, Grain-based alcohol: 3 – so still an enduring couple of themes for me. (One of the magpies is of the Australian variety – very different looking and with a sweet, warbling song – justifying the line in the song where magpies sweetly sing which has been soundly challenged by a number of northern-hemisphere folk-twitchers. I love this.)

I don’t actually drink whiskey very often (I find the usual resultant nausea and self-loathing a bit off-putting and anyway I can get those more cheaply by watching Mamma Mia on Netflix) but magpies are fantastic birds and a rich, nuanced source of imagery. Their association with bad luck is part of it – as a child I went through quite an obsessive phase and couldn’t imagine seeing a lone one without reciting “Hello Mr Magpie, where’s your lovely wife?” to negate the bad vibes. (It was part of a repertoire of superstitious tics that I couldn’t really sustain – now I laugh in the face of solitary bird life. I waltz under ladders. No harm will come to me, as long as I keep grinding my teeth on either side in patterns of seven beats to the bar, while my toes tap in time on the opposing sides. Just like everyone, yes?) I also love that magpies appear black and white, but are in fact streaked with iridescent blues and greens. In the west we connect them to bad weather, death and thievery. Witches shapeshift into them, and under their tongues they carry a drop of Satan’s blood. They have a shameless, grating cackle. They are Dionysian, mardy muses – I am definitely “coming back” as one, if the Benedict Cumberbatch’s Duvet gig falls through.

Beyond those overt images that inspire, and in amongst the words and stories, I am always aware of the individuals who silently people my songs – you could easily be one. Thanks! Whether I was in your company when writing, or had you in mind for some reason. If a conversation or music shared with you turned into part of a song, if I flew over your city in a plane and wondered what you were up to. If I’m married to you and you say helpful things like “Yes, that may scan, but it’s not actually a word in any earthly tongue.” If you aren’t here any more. I am grateful for your part in a song, and likely think of you in every singing. In writing that first magpie-ditty Queen of Waters – five years ago – I was thinking about the lovely artist Lizzy Doe who designs a lot of our CDs: the image of a magpie gathering diverse and shiny pieces and crafting them into a story reflected how I saw her visual work, and how the songs I like seem to have been evolved. A Sweet Visitor track – Sickle and Harvest – is rammed-full of crow’s feathers and liquor, and I wrote it after a late-night banjo-and-whiskey sing with some of the Full English band, at Chieveley Travelodge (I am DEFINITELY in it for the glamour). It’s a plant-mythology love song in the tradition of The Seeds of Love, with mistletoe as the central image, because Melrose Quartet had been touring in the spring and we’d seen so many of those epiphytic clumps exposed in the still-bare trees. Every song on this album has a cast of friends and muses. I love also the way songs attain their truth and vigour in the ear of the beholder – my song Now is the Time I wrote to celebrate the actively peaceful people I know who keep art and justice alive in their thoughts and actions, but according to others it’s a secular hymn or a song about climate change….so perhaps it is. It’s all about the people. People fill you up, and songs come out.

I’m glad they do, and I’m glad for all the music that people carry with them, and choose to hear, and choose to sing: this is sometimes the most empowered act in a person’s existence. Handily for me, the colourful influences of other personalities in my songs compensate for the fact that I have the popular culture knowledge of an Amish child raised by wolves. I’m useless beyond the late 1800s. I am mired in folk language. Folky folk-folk. My other half has nicely introduced me to some contemporary musical concepts such as The Guitar and The Middle-Eight (I hate middle-eights. In 40 songs I have only written one. I feel if I can’t express myself in nineteen rhythmically-identical stanzas then I’m not really trying) but even he falls foul of a childhood of Anglo-folk-revival vinyls – in a baguette shop recently he asked that his be “rent in twain” instead of cut in two.

Without doubt, my knowing shed-loads of folk songs was part of the formula for my output (under reasonably pressured time constraints) on the Elizabethan Session – there I was with seven incredibly inspiring musicians; nine days to write, perform and record new music inspired by that era and by Hatfield House (where we performed and recorded – CD out in September ). In the Herefordshire farmhouse surrounded by apple trees where we wrote and rehearsed, we had the rare privilege of time and space in which to allow for the development of whatever arose. I quickly knew what I wanted to write, and I had a repertoire of template songs from traditional sources to hang my new pieces from. It was delicious – I loved every minute. I loved responding to the brief and found the subject far more stimulating than I’d imagined something based around a dead monarch could ever be. We wallowed in anachronisms (a country song based on Elizabeth’s own poetry; that hoary old combo of e-bow, harp and shawm; slide guitar on EVERYTHING) while also trying to enter into the feeling of that period with some sense of personal authenticity– as the historian Ian Mortimer put it when talking about experiencing the past: you do it as yourself, and use your own feelings as a reference for how life in that time was lived. It sounded a lot like songwriting generally. Dr Mortimer is massively present in several of my songs from that project – especially The Shores of Hispaniola, which introduces Elizabeth through the prism of her enthusiasm for slave trading – England seen through African eyes. On the first evening Mortimer had us sitting in near darkness, a few candles flickering, and sailed us through an A-Z of Elizabethan Britain: a dark place and time, where windows were tiny and light was for the privileged, and where the colour red (robes, spices, blood) had deep significance and the power to shock and thrill. Synchronously, one night as we stepped into the yard we saw a huge, blood-red moon rising. Red was splashed about in our songs.

Of course the 21st century would keep intruding into our Iambic-Pentametric retreat – as in The Secret History when the students would look up from their Greek textbooks with ancient eyes, and find the present gauche and confounding. One March 2014 phenomenon that was jarring and yet chimed somehow with Elizabeth’s austere, chalk-faced embodiment of a female power-figure (the “woman-king”) was the social media trend of women-posting-pictures-of-themselves-without-makeup OH YES IT’S TURNED INTO A BLOG ABOUT MAKEUP-FREE-SELFIES but don’t panic – there’s a cool bit about autoharps before the end. Wait! Come back! Hello?…

Like a lot of gender stuff, it can be condemned as trivial, flippant, and yet the simple act of women showing their bare faces raised consciousness in ways beyond the original intent (support for cancer charities) – I had some great discussions on the subject and learned things about other women that were both refreshing and familiar. Women’s sensibilities concerning beauty and exposure are as broad and complex as you’d expect. Our inestimable Elizabethan collaborator Hannah went several furlongs further and posted pics of her underarm hair – prompting a gorgeous flurry of shots of hairy parts. After the revolution, such an act will qualify you to be queen, for a bit.

I’m a feminist and I’m reasonably confident body-wise, and I wouldn’t have thought I’d be able to spin out a conversation about tinted moisturiser beyond a few nanoseconds, but here’s a thing – today is my first day for a long time with no gig, no workshop, meeting or professional engagement of any kind, and so it’s also my first day with nothing at all on my face (other than my favourite Turmeric and Bergamot facewash – I love this product for two reasons: 1) it’s from India, and I naively think this bypasses the western cosmetic pharmaceutical bullshit machine but it probably doesn’t and 2) it sounds like a comedic multi-ethnic New York cop duo: “Turmeric and Bergamot investigate!”). Equally alarmingly, I have recently managed to be convinced by the electric television that not only do I need to rub costly lard onto my face lest I spontaneously crumble into ash, but that this needs to be differentiated into “Day Lard” and “Night Lard”! What’s that about? I was at Greenham, for goddess’s sake. I am the scion of a line of lionesses with autoharps (see?).

“It’s complicated”, as they say. Maybe soon I’ll give everything the flick except my camping-favourite, Wright’s coal-tar soap (Bergamot? She’s got a gun! Over! Whaddaya saying? Talk to me Turmeric! Man down! Man down!) but I’ll tell you what beats most things for me as far as face- and soul-baring goes – I co-wrote two songs with other people on the Elizabethan Session. Actual collaboration! At the same time! This is new and terrifying, for someone who “does songwriting” in safe confinement, where no one can see the silly parts or the failings. This was momentous for me. And additionally, the fearfulness associated with presenting shiny-new songs to a bunch of other singers, day on day, and letting one’s work be vulnerable to criticism or rejection or change, is something I will learn from. I felt consistently a bit sick actually, and not just from the stabbings and bloodsports we were writing about, but from adrenaline. Everyone was so supportive though, and collaborations happened so organically and generously, that I think it worked, and going with the discomfort paid off. So to all my Elizabethan muses: Hannah, Rachel, Martin, John, Emily, Bella, Jim – thanks so much! You have seen me (metaphorically) without my slap on, and we all survived.

34 Photo: Elly Lucas

 

 

Nests

I like to think of our musical relationships “nesting” one within another, like Bronfenbrenner’s Russian dolls: from the first snug sounds sung between parent and child, to the wider musical cultures that surround us, if we’re lucky – people buying records, writing songs, chanting, generally administering their own sound therapy, with minimal side effects (if you don’t count celebrity). Macrosystem nurtures mesosystem. An ecology of music born of, and replicating, the intimacy of the microsystem. Music-making through the generations, we weave complex schemes binding system to system and leaping others, looping back. From a moment when players’ eyes meet over a tune, to the ultimate universal archetype – that unifying recognition that, regardless of genre, this is the sound humanity makes when it needs to sing the raw truth. One thing I have always loved about folk song is that it straddles the intimate and the grand, the earthly and celestial spheres. As “the peoples’ music”, it is accessible, asks to be learned, exists to function and so contains the seeds of it own maintenance. Simultaneously, as an art it remains unfathomable.

In good and bad times there’s something undaunted about an old song or tune, which seems to impart strength to the player, the singer or listener. Some would relate this to a concept of having “roots” – to me that word is too redolent of place, of some originating earth. I can see that contacting whatever one identifies as “roots” might help us feel at home in someone else’s home. My roots may lend me strength while acknowledging their equal in the “other”: your roots. We may forge our own routes to memories of estranged homelands or loved ones. But musical heritage, and especially with regard to its geographical provenance, is rarely a “clean line”. I once heard someone apply this term to English fiddle music, of all things – one of the gnarlier “traditions”: full of broad contemporary shakeups and deep, hot-cheeked schisms about what actually flourishes under that banner. My musical heritage isn’t a clean line; it’s a briar whose roots are hidden, which twists confusingly, and which flowers at unexpected points.

Cultures continue to clash and groups to – often bloodily – assert their dreams of soil and independence. My friend and songwriting guru Alistair Hulett first planted an idea for me: that we have the choice to clarify our feelings about who we are and the systems we live under; to modulate the effects of media manipulation and nationalistic spin; to empower ourselves – through a kind of autonomous self-description: a list of the characteristics that make us up, in order of those which we find most pertinent about ourselves. For Alistair, the position of a worker trying to survive as a particle in a capitalist food-chain was paramount in his self-identifying, far above Scottishness. “I don’t need a national identity” he said “I’ve got a passport if you need to see where I’m from.” He also once told me, when we were in Australia: “I don’t think there’s anything more vulgar than a blue sky.” This is the most Scottish thing ever said.

(Since you ask, the list of traits in order of personal significance with which I describe myself to myself goes something like: 1. Feminist 2. Pacifist 3. Working person, but you know, an Artist, sort of, so a bit off to one side. …. and English at about number 14, some distance after Surprisingly Wily Leg Spinner and Amateur Shark Expert.)

I think of Alistair often, and the way his music straddled the ancient and the contemporary. At a political songwriting workshop at Woodford festival, in the 40-degree Queensland heat, I watched him concentrate for the entire hour on presenting a traditional Scots ballad. He could have talked about fifty of his own songs. His performance was gripping. I saw young audience members become inflamed by something utterly new and thrilling to them. Alistair harnessed that strength, the indefatigable shapes inherent in that material which had ensured its immortality and brought it there to us that day, to tell us what it was like for poor people at that time, and now. And in doing so, he surrendered ego in favour of the oral expressions of a collective musical culture – a continuum of employment of the same musical shapes, within which his own writing (and singing) was firmly nested.

Structural manifestations of orality that have given life to, and are retained within, the very musical fabric of the tradition – as songwriters we borrow these structures and hang our own stories upon them. The ancient source, the sounds and shapes of our dreams – available to all and encompassing our nested, necessary relationships like the largest Russian doll. Somehow unassailable through incredible age and seldom having been, well, really cool. I have friends who are experts in ancient Norse Sagas – if you’re going to troll them you’d better actually BE a troll.

I think of Pete Seeger – and Peggy too, whom I had the chance to hear and share a stage with last month – and the songs and singers who inspire me to try and be strong yet gentle (without sounding like a toilet roll).  I am now, more than ever, nourished by an extended family of nested relationships forged, in many different ways, through song.

In An English City Garden

I lived happily without a garden for a long time. As a narrowboat liveaboard I spent nearly a dozen years ephemerally wallowing, like a particularly carefree, self-employed otter, in any parts of this landscape of water and green that could possibly serve as communal and welcoming spaces, to those of us abiding (mostly) by the requirements of the waterways authorities while still trying to find a kind of freedom in a life afloat. When boating is going well, some of the finest, semi-wild places in England are yours. Wherever you bang in your pin, that’s your home. We seldom envied the lavish gardens we occasionally cruised past in the smart southern villages, the lawns and roses viewed uniquely from waterside. In allowing me that intimate view of human nature planted – unfenced, so generously, or perhaps in the assumption that the water boundary afforded privacy enough – they had fulfilled their function for me. My garden was a pot of rosemary on the roof, which had faked its own death more often than S. Holmes.

Suddenly, thanks to serendipity and rock-bottom northern house prices, I find I have a garden, and a lovely one, I think. It seems to be where most of my songs start out. They do significantly better than the carrots, it being a city garden and filled with “soil”, actually the assorted collective tragedy of a billion industrial and domestic histories: steel, bricks, coal, looms, wire, teeth, clogs, wedding rings, those frightening metal Victorian baby teething rattles, coffin hinges, all ground roughly up into gritty particles which are dagger-like and near-fatal to navigating fledgling tubers. Over the back wall is the cemetery, which I like to think leaches bone and marrow and blood generously back into our land like crepuscular fabric softener. The blackberries are literally something else.

Gardens and music go together, and not just at Glyndebourne. What hardy perennials Cecil Sharp planted in our collective folk consciousness (this is really a thing, they talk about it on Radio 4 all the time now) when, reclining in the vicarage garden in Hambridge, he heard John England’s earthy tones for the first time, singing The Seeds of Love, a Real Folk SongTM! I like to imagine Cecil doused in lavendery Somerset sunshine, sitting up sharply (ha!) from his wicker chair, and incredulously, tremulously lowering his little round specs, very much in the style of Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park (“They DO sing in modes!”). It’s the wellspring of a whole mythology surrounding the last throes of a working class rural music and the collectors who poured their life’s energy and quite a lot of sanity into both keeping it alive and pinning it down.

(Last summer I helped workshop a wonderful new play called “Folk”, by Nell Leyshon, at the National Theatre, and in the process discovered that this beloved, Merchant Ivory-directed, Vaughan Williams-scored “Folk Sherlock” fantasy is, in fact, more or less, fantasy. Simon Russell-Beale read Cecil Sharp’s part. Sigh. You could roast meat in his voice. It’s like a voice got wrung out and then cooked again in its own voice-juice. It’s a confit of a voice.)

At the 2003 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Kazuo Ishiguro encapsulated so beautifully some of the things many of us felt it timely to question about heritage, repertoire and national identity in English vernacular music, questions the folk community was then exploring with increasing depth and articulacy, albeit often in musical form rather than verbally. It took a writer to make it explicit, and to offer us new words to help us describe what we might find, and where. Ishiguro’s sentiments chimed with musicians like Chris Wood and evolved into the unofficial motto for a newly tender and nuanced appreciation of English folk culture. To paraphrase (I think): the treasure we were looking for was in our own back yard.

I love the metaphor of heritage latent in the soil or thriving among a confusion of serviceable garden blooms. From songs on the air around Charles Marson’s Somerset vicarage, to a discreetly buttoned treasure-chest hidden in the shadows of some Ishiguro-esque orangerie (stay with me), it seems that access to some garden of the mind can be integral in liberating our creative selves.

From my attic window, I can see almost every kind of garden there is (well, it’s a bit light on the moats.) Neat, food-producing. Showy, floral, herb-edged. Neglected, wild, green and catty. Concreted. Several houses in the terrace are combined into one communal living scheme, and their garden is a treasure  – if I was seven again I’d spend all my time there hiding, naming snails and scraping my knees. Two doors down in the other direction, the entire garden is given to chickens. There’s not a scrap of grass. Riot fences have been roped together to contain the chooks. It’s wrong, but we call it Hen-tanamo Bay.

What I can’t see is no gardens, but there are certainly no gardens in the lives of many. There are families and individuals in our bit of town who are recently arrived, fleeing something or seeking something else, with barely a possession or a permanent living space, let alone a patch of green. There are allotment schemes helping refugees grow food while in temporary accommodation. I am so lucky to be able to go out and dig, to get out there and breathe, and to know – more or less – how to try and get things growing, on a piece of land I could call mine if I wanted. Or mine and the bank’s.

Because it’s not really mine – I’m just passing through for now. Perhaps I’ll end up staying long enough to crumble down in to particularly sarcastic gravel and ruin my descendents’ carrots. More likely I’m just a visitor, like most people in this post-industrial suburb with its strange and unsettling moments of urban almost-beauty. It’s why I feel at home here. My garden isn’t even really England, in the same way that my songs aren’t English. We just find ourselves here, today. An English garden, like an English music, is a treasure chest from a billion international migrations, watered with tears.

Place and heritage are so complexly felt, and so individually. Personally, I’m not really interested in national identity. I try not to define myself or others in terms of where we come from (I am truly thrilling to accompany through Passport Control). It’s probably thanks to my upbringing (my mother was a Young Communist and my father was SWP, I shouldn’t even EXIST) that the song lyrics “This land is your land, this land is my land” and  “No-one has any right to buy and sell the Earth for private gain” permanently jostle each other in my head like the best mash-up ever.

Not only is my back garden not really mine, but neither is the treasure buried there really my treasure. And it needn’t be, for it to be something amazing, something to be treasured.  We are all visitors.

Thanks Kazuo Ishiguro, Chris Wood, Woody Guthrie, Leon Rosselson.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.