Magpies, Muses and Makeup

by nancyannkerr

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