The singer Susan Anway died in early September. She had sung with a number of bands since the 1980s, including The Magnetic Fields, who announced her passing on September 9th.
Anway sang lead vocals on The Magnetic Fields’ first two records, The Wayward Bus & Distant Plastic Trees. “Susan Anway sings Stephin Merritt songs” went the credits on the sleeve; it was just the pair of them in the band back then. “She was a lovely person and will be missed by all of us”, wrote The Magnets last week on social media, alongside a video of the Wayward Bus song ‘Dancing In Your Eyes’: “When we walk hand in hand in the rain / When we’re young and in love once again / We will dance in the autumn with the leaves in our hair / When I look, I’ll be dancing in your eyes“.
I remember, or I think I remember, Merritt saying in the 90s that he asked Susan Anway to be The Magnetic Fields’ singer because her voice did not have too much personality. I understood that he meant that a voice with more personality, even his own lugubrious baritone, might distract from the song. Anway’s clear, composed voice read the melody line and delivered the words: job done, no distractions. And I can not swear that Merritt said this and if he did so he may have been joking. But the thought of that quote has left me thinking about Susan Anway’s contribution to those records.
In those days Merritt’s songs were too much. His arrangements were kitchen-sink synth-pop Spector, ornate and wired and sweepingly melodramatic. His lyrics scaled scarcely credible heights of emotional enormity. ‘100,000 Fireflies’ opens: “I have a mandolin / I play it all night long / It makes me want to kill myself“. (Excuse me?) In ‘Summer Lies’, Anway sings: “All the sweetest things you said and I believed were summer lies / Hanging in the willow trees like the dead were summer lies / I’ll never fall in love again“. It wasn’t enough for the story in an early Magnetic Fields song to be sad, it had to be ‘The Saddest Story Ever Told’: “Once upon a time we fell in love or at least that’s what you said / You say I can find someone else but I just wish I was dead… And then we’ll quietly grow old / The saddest story ever told.”
Susan Anway’s job here was to ground these songs; to steady them in such a way that they hit home. Merritt’s huge arrangements veered close enough to Spector that it could have been emotionally distancing – was this a PhD in pastiche or a heartfelt set of songs? Even Merritt’s depictions of extreme woe could have been alienatingly arch, more than the songs could withstand, but Susan Anway sang his aching words so earnestly, so free from any taint of irony, that every line landed.
As I’ve been thinking about Susan Anway this week I’ve been thinking about a poem by Ada Limon called Instructions On Not Giving Up. The poem (from poets.org) is as follows:
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees that really gets to me. When all the shock of white and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath, the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin growing over whatever winter did to us, a return to the strange idea of continuous living despite the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then, I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
And I don’t want to over-explain but I’ve been thinking a lot since Susan Anway died about that final couple of lines. About the fuchsia funnels and candy-colored blossoms of those early Magnetic Fields songs. (The Wayward Bus even has a song called ‘Candy’: “Candy, it’s been really nice, but I’ve got to go / Cos I can’t be the part of your life you don’t wanna know“). Those Wayward Bus songs glistened and shone and oscillated wildly and that was all great; and Susan Anway sang in counterpoint, caring and experienced, ready for anything, like that leaf unfurling.
I think about how Merritt specialised in longing and Anway voiced that longing and made it liveable with. Merritt wrote about “diving for a girl you’ll never find“, which I’ve always heard as “diving for a pearl you’ll never find“, and to be honest I prefer my version. Susan Anway’s voice took the longing and loss in that line and accepted it; relished it. Diving for a pearl you’ll never find: that’s what life is, right? Who ever finds the pearl? What would you even do with it if you found it? I’ll take that, said Susan Anway. This may be the saddest story ever told, she sang, but it’s all we have, and I’ll take it all.
Brendan Tallon from Ballinteer has been a restless creative force in Irish musical life for more than thirty years now. Good Friday just gone saw the release of ‘Old Man Superman’, his first new song since 2012’s Saturday Captains, made with Barry O’Mahony, once of Luggage, of whom Tallon speaks highly below. After a solid thirty-plus years as a band leader and collaboratorーCrocodile Tears, The Coletranes, Revelino, Saturday Captains, and Beatclub, the cover band that has kept him in business as a full-time musician to this dayー’Old Man Superman’ is Tallon’s first ever solo release.
Tallon gets into ‘Old Man Superman’ in depth in the conversation below so for the purposes of this paragraph it’s just necessary to say a couple of things. Firstly, ‘Old Man Superman’ is Tallon’s response to the story of the Skilled Veterans Corps, a group of older Japanese men who volunteered to enter Fukushima in 2011 so that younger men with more to lose would not have to. Secondly, ‘Old Man Superman’ is an irresistible song ー punchy, soulful, effusive, incandescent. The inkling to write this piece arose when on a drive home on the day of its release I put it on for the first time, then immediately had to put it on again for the second, third, fourth and fifth times. When that instant electric connection is made I’m always curious to figure out what just happened.
Although I’ve known who Brendan Tallon is since The Coletranes went Top Ten with ‘I Wake Up’ in 1991, and although I’m from Ballinteer myself, I’d never met him and I didn’t know what to expect from our Zoom chat. I had suspected, possibly through one too many listens to ‘Don’t Lead Me Down’, that I might be interviewing some brooding melancholy character. He is… not that. He was buzzing with energy and ideas and associations and with a profound, moving, and infectious love of the song. It was a joy to listen to Brendan’s enthusiastic explication of the art and craft of songwriting.
‘Old Man Superman’ is now out on Bandcamp. A further two singles are planned for release over the next couple of months and an album Love In TheseTimes comes out this summer.
NC: Brendan, thanks for doing this.
BT: This is the first one I’ve done for a long time now, except for Alan Corr’s thing the other day, so I might be a bit rusty.
Was the last time you did one of these for the Saturday Captains album with Barry O’Mahony?
Yeah. Did you hear that?
I only discovered that album literally this week.
It was one of those records. I mean, I don’t know what you make of yourself, but I’d still consider it a real gem. A lot of people missed it. You know, Barry and myself wouldn’t be the greatest as far as publicising ourselves. We were good at doing the music and then the writing but when it comes to anything else we would have been like: we’ll make the music and that’s about all we can manage. So the album definitely slipped under the radar, but I know a lot of people who did actually give it a listen have grown to love it. I’m personally very proud of it.
I didn’t know Barry O’Mahony was still active. I remember him from Luggage, who always had this great lost band status to me. There’s this air of mystique about them, and then suddenly, I’m finding that he’s still writing and recording new songs. I know it’s a few years ago now.
Yeah. Luggage played with Revelino, they supported us a good few times. I knew Barry. We used to go to parties and stuff together but we wouldn’t have been great friends. But since then we’ve become great friends and now I see him all the time.
In fact, I ran all the songs from the new album by Barry first. He’s kind of my lyrical editor and he taught me a lot about writing lyrics. When we were doing the Saturday Captains record he said to me ‘Look, I’m going to look after the lyrics, you look after the music’. And you know, I think he’s one of the most unique writers around that we’ve ever had. He’s a master lyricist. And a completely unique voice and a unique vision and a unique way of using language.
He taught me a lot of things about writing lyrics, because during the Revelino years, I tried to come up with my own kind of voice and my own language. And when Revelino broke up I never stopped writing songs. But Barry taught me to write in a more conversational tone. That’s what he would always say to me: make them more conversational. Remember, my lyrics for Revelino were described once in the Melody Maker as “portentous”ーnot pretentious; portentous. And I thought, yeah, that’s accurate, you know? That’s what I was kind of going for. But after that, I wanted to be more direct with my lyrics. And working with Barry taught me a lot because, talking about the album I’m just about to release, some of these songs were written in the year or two after Revelino broke up.
You’ve talked about being in bands and collaborating, but on the new record is it all you?
Well. I’ve described it a few times like trying to climb Mount Everest on your own, you knowーdoing a solo album and playing absolutely everything. The two things I wasn’t able to do was play the drums and I had Fintan Jones, who plays in my cover band, and is a fantastic multi-instrumentalist, to play sax, clarinet, flute. And he helped me with singing a lot of the harmonies together. The lion’s share of it was just myself here tearing my hair out half the time. But, you know, got there in the end.
You said there are songs on the current record that you wrote just when Revelino broke up. Didn’t Revelino break up the guts of twenty years ago?
Well, I wrote two songs in the few years after Revelino. I wasーI’m always writing songs. That’s what I do. Since the first time I bought a guitar. I did a few guitar lessons years ago withーyou know David Kitt? His father Tom Kitt was my guitar teacher in primary school.
Right! So there you go. So he gave me a few guitar lessons, but then the guitar went under the bed until I was 16 or so. Then I took it out. And the first two chords I learned were G and C and I wrote a song straight away. Before I actually went to learn anybody else’s song, I wrote a song with the two chords I’d learned. So I’ve pretty much been doing it ever since. But when I wrote a couple of songs after Revelino broke up, I realised, OK, I’m going to have to do a solo album. But I was hoping a band would somehow form and I could bring these songs to them, because I just like the togetherness of a band, or brotherhood, or whatever. Then Saturday Captains came along, and that distracted me, but even during Saturday Captains I was writing tunes. In fact, I presented ‘Old Man Superman’ in its earliest form to the lads in Saturday Captainsーwhat do you think of this idea?ーand they didn’t know what to make of it, really. They were likeーno, that’s one of yours, Brendan.
Can you talk about how ‘Old Man Superman’ came about?
Sure. So normally, when I’m writing a songーdo you play guitar?
Do you write songs?
Well, no. I tried, in school, and they were not good enough to encourage me to continue to try.
Right. Well, funny enough, as I was saying to you, the first song I wrote was just G and C. I remember the tune of it and I remember playing it to friends. And they went “Oh, that’s catchy”, you know. So like, straight away, I knewーnot that I knew I could do it but there was something in the songs that I was writing that caught people’s ears or whatever.
But the way I write songs is I pick up a guitar or I sit at the piano and I start playing around with chord sequences. That’s my thing. And singing on top of them, just making up rubbish on top. Gobbledygook half the time, it’s not even English. And if I get a little chord sequence, or a couple of chords that interest me, you’d be amazed how many times the first two or three lines of the song with the melody and the chord sequence just come out of you at the same time. The theme is there, the first lines of the chorus or the verse is there. And this interesting chord sequence.
What always interests me about writing songs, or listening to music, that I don’t think is discussed enough, are chord sequences. And I think any of the bands that come along that make a difference, quite often they use unusual chord sequences. They combine chords in a newish way.
I mean, a classic example is the Beatles, right? Take ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. They’re doing rock and roll, Chuck Berry shuffle, but it’s a G to D to E minor. That’s a folk change so you would expect it to go to B minor but instead it goes G, D, E minor, B major so straight away that’s a new thing. That’s an unusual thing. Having a G, D, E minor, but a B major instead of B minor, that pricks up your ears straight away. And then in the middle eight, there’s a D minor, which is really a show tune chord change, it’s kind of a Cole Porter-y thing to do. It’s a bit slightly jazzy from that original idea. So they’re doing a Chuck Berry rhythm with Everly Brother harmonies to a rock beat, throwing in a Cole Porter thing in the middle with handclaps on it, and it’s all over two and a half minutes. So your ears, I mean at the time, it must’ve beenーWow!
Then something like ‘I Am The Walrus’ has a deeply unusual chord sequence that just works. And then, Bowie’s a classic. If you look at Bowie’s chord sequences like ‘Quicksand’, it’s outrageous, and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is such an amazing song and underneath it all is this deeply strange but beautiful chord sequence. Then bands like the Pixies come along, and they’re using chordsーthey’re not using weird chords, like jazzy chords, like Steely Dan, but they’re using ordinary chord sequences in unusual ways.
There’s so many examples. Take ‘Here Comes The Sun’. It’s just D, G, and A, right? The simplest chord sequence in the world. But in the chorus, he goes D, G, and E7, and that’s the moment where it just becomes something. It’s just one chord. And I’m really interested by those changes that are very sophisticated but totally instinctive. None of these writers probably studied theory. It’s just all instinctive. And that’s what I kind of try to do.
So ‘Old Man Superman’ was one of those songs that I sat down with the guitar, and I started playing the opening riff of it, thought that’s cool, where can I go with this? Next section came along then next section, next section, and it was all done in five minutes.
Pretty much. Five or ten minutes. I don’t know if you noticed that song is in four sections?
Yeah, it starts off and not to get too technical because it would be boring people who are reading thisー
No, go onーI can worry about the readers.
OK, good. So it starts off in A, D, and G. And then it goes into major seven chordsーEmaj7, Amaj7, Dmaj7, B. Then is the riff, which is B, A, G, E, D, and then it jumps into the sax break in C. And it resolves by going to F sharp, back to B, to A. So it’s a really, really weird chord sequence, but I like playing around with those kinds of chord sequences, and making them seem seamless. So you don’t notice that these things are happening. That really interests me. So I had the chord sequence pretty much done, it came amazingly fast, because there is so much to it. But it just seemed so natural.
And so my next step would normally be that I would play around with it, try and sing, but nothing was coming as far as a theme or a melody. So I normally just put it up onto Logic, you know, record it onto Logic with a basic drum beat, stick a rhythm guitar down and a bass guitar. And then every time I go back to the computer to work on a song, I’ll put that on for 10 minutes, I’ll fiddle around with the arrangement of it. I still had no lyrics, so I didn’t know what the song was about, you know. So I had the song and it sat there for about two years. And I tried different melodies and different lyrical ideas and nothing really hit me. And I still had no theme.
And then I took a break. I was just surfing around, reading some articles on the Guardian, various newspapers, you know, and came across an article about Fukushima. And the story wasn’t about the Skilled Veterans Corps, but it was about Fukushima. There was a paragraph that, as an aside, just mentioned these guys. So it just hit me really hard. You know, it was a very Japanese thing to do. But it’s also a very human thing to do. A very logical thing to do. I don’t want to get too heavy into this because it is a pop song at the end of day, you know? But at the same time, I was reading a book called The Closing of the Western Mind? Have you ever come across that one?
It’s by a guy called Charles Freeman. And the idea is, it was about the struggle in early Christianity between the Greek and Arab tradition, which was scientific, and the new Western tradition, which was more mythical. In the Greek and Arabic tradition, the direct translation of the first line of the Bibleーwhat’s the first line? First there was…
In the beginning was the Word?
In the beginning was the Word. But in the Greek translation, the beginning was logic. Logos meaning word, which directly translated is logic. Greek philosophers believed that logic was something that could be found, like gravity, that was an immutable force in nature. That in the beginning was the law of immutable logic. This was God’s mind. The other word that they had was Muthos, which is where a myth comes from. And in Greek and in Arab traditions, these things live side by side. Logic the scientific tradition and myth the ceremonial tradition. And when the battle was engaged, the Roman tradition, which was more into the myth, said that God’s mind was more powerful than the logic, his Word is more powerful than the logic, the myth won over from the logic, and in that way, we were kind of flung into the dark ages. No more learning for two hundred years, and the Greek and Arab tradition was kind of destroyed.
So I was reading this book and the idea that logic was an immutable power was in my head. Then I read the story about this guy, and what he said in the article was that he didn’t see it as brave, this was just deeply reasonable. It was the only logical thing to do. That’s the way he saw it. In the song that became “Logic was his superpower”. So I just went for a walk with this thing in my head and the first two verses came to me while I was walking around Marlay and I just came home. So I had the song then.
There’s something in the song that made me reflect on grandparents in general, specifically my Dad, and a self-effacing generosity I associate with older people. The notion that Mr Yamada would head into a nuclear reactor to save a younger person seemed familiar.
Well as I said, it is very Japanese, but we’ve discovered through COVID that it is quite a universal thing. People will do things for the younger generation that are so selfless.
I also wanted to make a song that defended scientists and the sciences, because you had climate change conspiracies, you had vaccination conspiracies, you have all these conspiracies. Suddenly scientists were all in this evil cabal, you know, trying to form a one-world government. Where growing up, we always thought of them as idols and heroes. And so I wanted to write a song and put it all in there that defended science and celebrated that idea that people will do that. And as I said, not in a sentimental way. Mr Yamada said, this is not sentimental. I’m just thinking that I will get radiation poisoning, and I will get cancer, but I’ll be 85 or 90 years of age. I don’t want somebody who’s starting out their married life, who has young kids to get this. And that played in a lot with my worldview.
So I understood immediately when I read the story, but I was telling Bren Berry, who’s been with me and helping me and my family, my biggest champion, since the early days. He’s been in all the bands with me. And when I had the record ready, I contacted him and said, listen I need help here, you knowーlisten to the songs, tell me what I need to do next. And so he said, ‘What are the songs about?’ So I told him about ‘Old Man Superman’, he thought that was fantastic, you know. And then I sent him the song. And I told him all this, what I’m saying to you here, you know about the book and about my feelings about science. And he goes, ‘Well, you’d never know it from the song, Bren’ (laughs).
But my feeling is that you can’t put all that stuff in, even though that’s what goes through your head when you’re writing a song. You still want the sound to be fun, you still want the song to be something that people can read into themselves. I don’t want to put every word of my thoughts and feelings into it. You distil it down into imagery and if it’s a great fun pop song, it might even travel further with a message than it would if I had written a thirty-verse heavy protest song. So that’s my thing. I just love the power of a pop song.
It’s interesting when you say you’re not trying to dictate what people hear in the song. At work I run a group where we read poems together and a constant in this group is the variation in perspectives on the same poem. If I brought ‘Old Man Superman’ into this group, and I’ve five or six people in this group with me, I know that everyone else will hear it differently than I’ve heard it.
Well the thing is I don’t consider songwriting to be a high art form. I consider it to be a craft. And for me songs don’t have meaning, you know. I always compare it to a furniture maker. If you carve a great table out of wood nobody asks what’s the meaning of the table. They just know that’s a beautiful tableーit’s something we can sit at, that we can have our dinner at, and we can chat around. And songs are like that. I like the fact that ‘Old Man Superman’ is out there because the final creative act in music is the listener hearing it and getting their own thing out of it. Whether that means they want to dance to it, or sing along with it, you knowーsongs should be used, they should be used at parties, they should be used to relax, they should be used to entertain yourself when you’re driving in a car. They should just be out there. They are not things to be hung on walls in fine art galleries.
One thing that struck me about ‘Old Man Superman’ was its confidenceーits willingness to use loads of ideas in one song as if ideas were in endless supply. I was listening to it today quite closely, and even in the first one minute and twenty secondsーa lot happens.
Yeah, a lot happens, and it goes through those four stages I was telling you and it goes through those chord changes, and it goes through different ideas and different themes and different moods. And not every song on the album is like that. But I’ve never been really short of ideas musically. And I listen to lots of different kinds of music. I love classical music and I’d listen to Leonard Cohen and then I’d go and listen to Sex Pistols. I’d be listening to the Pixies or Simon and Garfunkel or Schubert and Eddie Cochran. You’re like a little magpie: I never sit down and try to copy but I just have a broad enough appreciation and influences that I don’t mind picking from here and there. I think that’s the way to do it. I mean, pop music is really like a traditional music now, isn’t it? It’s almost like a folk music: it belongs to all of us and all musicians take ideas from each other and that’s how it develops.
I find my listening has changed quite a lot as I got older: has your listening changed?
To be honest, no, because my job at the weekend is playing music, you know? And then during the week, I’m either with the kids or I’ll be grabbing a few hours to make music. So I don’t have a huge amount of time to sit down and devour albums. If I’m recommended an album, I’ll definitely go and seek it out. But I’m not a record collector so much anymore.
And you know, the place that I listen to new music is in the vanーwhen I’m travelling back from gigs back in the day, when we were doing gigs. You could be travelling at three or four o’clock in the morning and I’d be listening to Late Date and I’d be listening to the Tom Dunne show. And I just love hearing that variety of new music, you know, and it’s so fantastic. It’s all really strong stuff. And especially when you’re travelling, and it’s night-time, it’s a great way to listen to music.
It’s funny because I was mixing the album down in Meath in Ballivor. So it’s in the middle of nowhere and I’d be travelling home at 3AM and I’d be putting on Late Date, or Fiachna Ó Braonáin would be on, or Cathal. And I’d be wondering, you know, would my song fit in there? Some day will it be on there? And it has been played on there. So it means a lot to me that those shows have taken it up and played it because I listen to them so much. I just love the stuff that they play, but I find that I can’t get too obsessed with anything because I find that it does get in the way of my own workflow.
I mean, the last time I got really floored by an album was Joe Chester’s Murder of Crows. That stopped me in my tracks, you know, and it stopped me working for about a year. Not because of the songwriting but don’t get me wrongーI think the songwriting is and the singing is exceptional. But what stopped me in my tracks was the quality of the production and the quality of the recording. And I realised, OK, if I’m going to do an album, that’s where I’m going to have to aim. I don’t know if I’m going to get that high, because I was only learning the ropes as an engineer and learning basic recording techniques. But that’s what I aim for.
And I really wanted the album to sound good because I’m obsessed with sonics as well. Sam Phillips said the first thing people hear is the timbre of a song. It’s not the tune. It’s not the beat. It’s just the overall sound. I was doing a wedding a couple of years ago and there was a song on the radio and I immediately went Oh my God, the sound, just the sound of it. I had to go and find out what it was. It was ‘Across the Universe’ by The Beatles, which I’ve heard a million times, but because it was on a different side of the room I just couldn’t quite pick out the tune. But the sound! The sound was what hit me first. So that’s something that I’m kind of obsessed with.
Because to be honest, I know I can write a good song. I’ve learned a lot more about lyrics, I’ve learned a lot more about my own voice and how to use it. As opposed to Revelino: we just went into the room, it was like playing live, you just played your live set and it was fantastic. And it was great to have a band to work with like that. But now you’re on your own it’s a different work technique. And one of the things about writing for myself was that, subconsciously, I think when you’re in a band like Revelino you know there’s three electric guitars, you know that you’re going to play these songs in Whelan’s. So you know the venue: subconsciously you’re writing songs with that in mind.
In David Byrne’s book How Music Works he talks about that. If you write a song and you know it’s going to be performed in the National Concert Hall it’s going to be different from CBGBs or a little folk club. Even if you don’t know, you’re conscious of that, and subconsciously I was aware that, you know, we’ve got a practice session on Thursday night and if I’m writing a new idea I’m gonna have to bring into this group of lads who are standing there with the electric guitars plugged in the big amplifiers. So you know, there are certain boundaries, which is a very positive thing because you’ve got your rules, you write within the rulesーit doesn’t mean you can’t write great songs. I think boundaries are a great thing and limitations, in writing, and this time, the boundaries were different. I was on my own.
Can you say more about that? What are the limitations now? If you’re free to do whatever you want to do, you’re at home recording by yourself in your own time, then what kind of limitations apply, orーwhat’s the palette?
That is a good question. I suppose I’m limited with what I can do recording here in the apartment because it’s all recorded here. It was all recorded in the apartment, even the brass, and the only thing that was recorded outside was the drums and a little bit of some cello.
I suppose It’s great when you have a full band, because you go into a rehearsal studio, everybody plays the sound together, you can almost immediately get a feel for the entire arrangement. Whereas when I was working on my own, I mean some of the songsーI probably recorded ‘Old Man Superman’ fifteen times. You’re constantly having to build a track up from nothing, until you get to a point where you can judge whether it’s the right tempo or if it’s the right key for my voice or whatever. So that’s limiting you in a way because you’d have to do so much work, you’re not instantaneously hearing the sound of the song. I mean, with a band you can go, OK, let’s go in and do it, it’s this tempo in this key and record it. And immediately, you can kind of hear what that feels like or sounds like. It’s a huge amount of work if you’re doing that on your own. But it also gives the songs time to ferment.
I found that what I’m always trying to do with songwriting is: it’s like you’re going around and you’re clearing dirt off the ground, and you’re looking for slabs with stuff written in them. You’re looking for something that’s always been there. And you’ve just found it; you’ve just discovered it; you haven’t created it. But when I sit down to write a song, I always think, wow, this is exciting. Who knows in ten minutes what’s going to exist. I don’t feel like I write it though. I just feel like I’m discovering it. It’s just chords and it’s words. So I’m just scrambling around the dirt clearing a bit here and goingーwell that doesn’t look good, that looks okay, but it’s a bit cracked. And then you’re looking for something that seems like it’s always been there. And, when you get that, then I’m looking for the right tempo, for the right arrangement. I’m looking for everything to seem like it always was, if you know what I mean.
I know you talked about songwriting as a craft but this feels different: songwriting as uncovering. I love that image of wiping the dirt away and finding what’s already there. There’s somethingーI mean, I don’t want to use the word mystical, but that idea that you can find something that’s always been there but just hasn’t yet been expressed yet, but it’s in the ether; that feels very different from craft.
It is. I often thinkーand I write songs every day. I can pick up a guitar and write a song any time I want. But I’ve never sat down and gone, OK, pen, paper, I’m going to write a song. I doodle, I mess around, I play around here, and if I hear an idea that interests me, I’ll go after it. I stick it down on my phone and I listen to it the next day. And if it still interests me, I’ll pick it up again and try and progress it further. But so many of those ideas don’t go anywhere. I mean, I’ve literally, literally, thousands of unfinished songs that are decent ideas, but the ones that go all the way to being a finished song, something happens that you get the next part, and you get the next part, and it just comes. I do often sit here and think, well, you know, anytime I pick up a guitar, an hour later, that could be a great song, a good song. It could be a song that didn’t exist before I picked up the guitar. And that is definitely a mystical thing. But I do think that there’s a craft to it that you learn. It’s like a sculptor or somebody who builds chairs and tables. You get better at it the more you do it, and the easier it is for you to find things.
One thing that really comes across is just how enthused and energised by this you still are. It’s thirty years plus since The Coletranes and it sounds like you’re still fascinated by what you can discover musically. Like, there’s only so many chords, but there’s an infinite way of putting them together.
Yeah. There’s a guy called Rick Beato, he has a YouTube channel, which anybody who’s interested in music should check out. And he talks about different things, but one of the things he talks about is: what is the mathematical equation if we’re just using eight notes? And it’s infinite. The possibilities literally are infinite. And nothing excites me more than coming up with a new idea. I mean, myself and Barry O’Mahony, that’s what we do for fun. Like, before COVID, what I would do for a night out is I would go over to his place with my guitar, and we would write songs. And that’s what we do, that’s what we find most entertaining. And we can, you know, we’re able to do it. He’s as tireless as I am. He’s the only person I’ve ever met that can literally go twelve hours without eating and never flag.
So in the zone that he forgets to be hungry kind of a thing?
Oh, yeah, totally. We do that. Yeah, we’ve done that many times. And he’s literally been here when we were recording Saturday Captains and he would go twelve, fourteen hours without eating. I couldn’t quite do that now. But I still have the same feeling for it, you know?
OK Brendan, thanks a million. It’s great to talk to you. I love the idea that you and other people who were active when I was getting into bands thirty years ago are still doing it now with as much energy and creativity as ever. It’s inspiring to me, so I’m thankful.
Well, I think we all got into it for the right reasons because we loved music. It wasn’t to become famous. I mean, I never cared about being famous or being a frontman. I just ended up singing because I wrote songs. I just want to write songs the best way I can, produce them the best way I can. And if people get off on what I’m putting out and enjoy it, that’s all I want. And anybody I know who got into music back in those days did because they were just blown away by music themselves when they were teenagers, and the bug just never leaves you. And now every single day I’ll pick up a guitar and write a song and I always feel like God, this could be good. This could be the one!
This is a piece I wrote for State in 2010 on the Louth Contemporary Music Society. In 2010, I loved their first record called A Place Between but other than the existence of that record I knew nothing about them. So on the release of their second album Path I interviewed Eamonn Quinn, who founded the Louth CMS with his wife Gemma Murray, and I was delighted to be able to get a quote from Terry Riley. The Louth CMS have since amassed an immense catalogue of recordings and their festivals and live performances are being recognised by the likes of the Financial Times and the Guardian. A decade ago I thought the Louth CMS story was an astonishing one and they’ve only gone from strength to strength since then, and at every step it’s all been done for the sake of the music.
In 2006, one of the more remarkable stories in Irish music began when Dundalk residents Eamonn Quinn and his wife Gemma Murray had a baby and found that they couldn’t get up to the city for concerts as often as before. Rather than do what a couple in that situation might reasonably do – stay in and stock up on box sets – they decided that no-one was better qualified than they were to bring the world’s leading contemporary composers to their home town. (“I had no idea what I was doing,” says Eamonn.) Thus, with a DIY ethic fit for a punk movement or an Elvis movie, the Louth Contemporary Music Society, or LCMS, came into being.
You could say it snowballed from there. The last five years have seen a remarkable array of composers and musicians visiting Dundalk, writing new work for the LCMS, and contributing to two extraordinary albums. To say that it snowballed, though, implies that it sort of happened by itself; it vastly underestimates the work, force of will, and guts that it took to establish Dundalk as a world centre for contemporary music. Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt are probably the two most acclaimed living classical composers, and they are just two who have visited Dundalk, and would not have done but for Quinn and Murray’s vision, tenacity and willingness to take significant financial risk without prospect of financial gain.
The LCMS went within a couple of years from promoting to producing brand new music, commissioning work by Arvo Pärt (‘The Deer’s Cry’), John Tavener (‘O My People’), Valentin Silvestrov (‘5 Sacred Songs’), and the legendary Terry Riley (‘Loops for Ancient Giant Nude Hairy Warriors Racing Down the Slopes of Battle’). Terry Riley (maybe best known for In C and his collaboration with John Cale, Church of Anthrax) celebrates his 75th birthday in Dundalk at the end of this week.
In 2009, Eamonn Quinn produced the Louth CMS’s first album, A Place Between. From John Tavener’s aching ‘Ikon of Joy/Sorrow’ to Michael McHale’s gorgeous take on John Cage’s ‘In a Landscape’, A Place Between is a meditative, accessible and stunningly beautiful piece of work. The second album, Path, which comes out on November 1st, is probably more adventurous in its programming. Alongside well known and hardly known pieces by Arvo Pärt (‘Summa’ and ‘Von Angesicht zu Angesicht’, respectively) and a brace by Tavener (‘Epistle of Love’ and ‘Sāmaveda’), there are works by young Eastern artists (Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Zurab Nadarejshvili) who hardly anyone in Ireland and beyond will have heard of. Path is diverse, brave, and remarkably moving. Eamonn Quinn is at pains throughout our interview not to make value judgments about music but I will: Path and A Place Between are nourishing and nurturing records to put on when the phoniness and irony that passes for most 21st century art is wearing you down. This is music that is not afraid to be serious and (whisper it) sacred.
This week, I asked Terry Riley for a comment on the LCMS. I asked him whether, in his experience, the LCMS was as singular an organisation as it appeared to be, or if there was a network of similarly productive and driven organisations out there, worldwide, under the radar. He replied: “I would say the Louth CMS is particularly significant because of the dedication, love and devotion that drives Eamonn Quinn to seek out special musicians to bring to his corner of the world. These choices are made on musical worth regardless of their commercial potential. It is these kind of risks that keep music alive.”
State: I wondered if you could start by giving us a bit of background. The LCMS seems to have come out of nowhere but I assume you and Gemma both have a pedigree in contemporary classical music, to instigate an organisation like this. Can you fill me in a little on that pedigree?
Eamonn Quinn: We established LCMS to bring world class musicians and composers to perform and educate in Louth. We have never swayed from that aim. And it has been great. A small revolution in a place never exposed to this music; having Terry Riley here, commissioning Arvo Pärt, recording CDs, Kronos Quartet and Ghost Opera, Philip Glass in Dundalk. Mad when you think about it. In terms of pedigree, I have none and there was never any contemporary music on the scale that we have been doing in Louth before LCMS. I’m still not sure how it all happened though I feel blessed.
I have always been interested in music. I have four brothers and four sisters. I am the youngest so all this music just permeated the house. Most of the boys had their own huge music collections: the Beatles (The White Album and Abbey Road), The Stones, Lou Reed, Dylan, Velvets, Love’s Forever Changes, Pink Floyd, from Syd Barrett to obscure things like Bo Henson’s original Lord of the Rings. I absorbed all that, moving to old soul records, jazz and then contemporary music. Gemma and some friends introduced me to John Adams’s Shaker Loops, Kronos playing Kevin Volans, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, and then on to other things. We moved to Dublin and encountered The Crash Ensemble, who were amazing and still are. So it is an ongoing voyage of discovery. I just found contemporary music fascinating and still do. But nobody needs any pedigree. Music is a gift that we all get to share in either making the gift or receiving it.
Can you talk a little about how you got started? The original seed of an idea – and the nuts and bolts of doing it. The entrepreneurship of the LCMS.
Our first gig was Joanna MacGregor in 2006. I found it difficult to travel to Dublin or Belfast as my wife had our first baby and we wanted the same cultural experiences here in Louth. My wife suggested I organise something – so I did. I had no idea what I was doing: booking artists or selling tickets. But with help from the Drogheda and Dundalk Arts Office, we pulled it off.
Then I decided our next performance would be Terry Riley’s first concert in Ireland. I contacted Terry in San Francisco and he agreed to come to Ireland the following year. Terry also wrote a work for LCMS. I didn’t know this was a “commission” and that normally commissions cost money. But being a kind hearted soul, Terry give it to us for free. I then decided to commission Arvo Pärt. He agreed to write ‘The Deer’s Cry’ for us and come to Ireland in 2008 for the performance. I applied to the Arts Council for funding for the above and the Louth Arts Offices also helped.
Following this, I wanted Philip Glass to perform in Dundalk. This was a lot different from previous projects as we had no Arts Council funds for the performance. We had some funds from the local arts office but the financial risk with Glass was huge. I had just lost my job as well but we still needed to sell something like over 700 tickets to break even. Yet we still kept the ticket price low, 30 euros, to enable people to attend. Also, I programmed the Glass performance to allow Irish performers like Ioana Petcu Colan, Gerard McChrystal and the Dublin Guitar Quartet the opportunity to perform with Philip Glass. That was very important.
By the way, he is a lovely man Philip Glass, very gentle and great company. I collected him from Galway and we took the train to Dublin so we had a great chat.
It must have been some feeling when you realised you’d brought these huge figures to your home town – done something extraordinary.
It felt great. But I also felt great for the area and the people of Louth that we had done it. I was the first person to invite Terry Riley to Ireland. He told me he had waited 70 years to receive this invitation. I commissioned probably one of the most important and popular composers in the world: Arvo Pärt. That performance and commission was very important to me personally and professionally. I know when we were told that he accepted the commission, Gemma and I burst into tears, not just out of joy that he had accepted but also as we wondered how much would this cost and how could we pay for it?
Some of the works on A Place Between and Path are well known and established, some hardly known at all. Two composers on Path (Aleksandra Vrebalov and Polina Medyulyanova) are under forty. Where do you find the works?
It’s a long story. Aleksandra Vrebalov I heard through her recordings on two Kronos CDs. I just got in touch, we chatted and she sent some scores and audio and I knew I wanted to record her (Track 6: ‘The Spell III for Violin and Live Electronics’). Great composer and quite young. Polina Medyulyanova (‘Ewige Ruhe’) I heard by accident on Myspace. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky: I heard his piece ‘Chang Music III’ on the Xenia Ensemble CD (2008’s Eastern Approaches–Music from Former Soviet Republics). I contacted his publisher in Paris and started to study his scores and listen to audio, realizing that he is one of the most important living composers. Amazing.
It’s striking, as Michael Dervan noted in a glowing review in the Irish Times, the extent to which the music on Path comes out of the East.
I thought about this before when I discovered that I had an affinity with music of the former Soviet countries. I know I am more interested in the music from the east than say the US: Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina, Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky and Valya Silvestrov are among my favourite composers. Maybe it is the hardship that comes through in the music, there is a lot of sadness and suffering. For me the music has so much emotional depth it never fails to move me. Shostakovich’s Songs from Jewish Poetry or Silvestrov’s Silent Songs are incredibly powerful works.
Plus, the vastness of the geographical space is so unknowable and the diverse nature of each culture is very appealing. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky is very much a case in point. His music is equally at ease with eastern forms yet he still uses western techniques, creating a unique sound world.
Some of the composers that you have on your albums – like Arvo Pärt and John Tavener – make work that is explicitly religious. I always think of Henryk Gorecki alongside those two. Sacred does not necessarily mean religious and it is possible to be profoundly moved by this music without belonging to a church, but: do you think that people who listen to this music from a secular perspective get the full meaning or beauty? Are we missing something?
It is a good question. I have some friends who are non-believers who love Arvo Pärt’s music so being religious isn’t a prerequisite. To people who are religious, the music can be a reassurance for their faith and possibly even act as an awakening of something dormant.
Most people’s lives are difficult with ongoing concerns about work, money, relationships, family, illness. So how an individual responds to a particular piece of music at that time has to taken into account a myriad set of factors. For example, a person can simply switch off for that seventy minutes of a concert. That is all OK. It doesn’t have to have transform a person, it can simply let them be.
The composers you mentioned are well known to be religious: Arvo is Orthodox, John Tavener converted to the Orthodox though he now seems to embrace perennialist philosophy. Gorecki is Catholic. However, they all write music that is very accessible. And there is a gentleness to their nature which is very comforting and is reflected in their work.
For me personally, music is a sacred art, it is a blessing and a gift.
The Louth Contemporary Music Society’s online festival We Sing for the Future is on April 14-18 2021 and information is on their site here. Their Bandcamp is here.
I only came across Cassandra Jenkins this February through Pitchfork’s Best New Music, when her second album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature was awarded an incredibly precise 8.3 out of 10. I first listened on the drive home from work during which attention can be patchy so the first song I properly heard was the fifth track, ‘Ambiguous Norway’. I heard Jenkins sing “Farewell, purple mountains”, and then “No matter where I go / You’re gone, you’re everywhere”, and I thought, wait: is that “purple mountains” or is that “Purple Mountains”? It was the latter.
Jenkins, I learned, was due to play with Purple Mountains, David Berman’s band, on a tour in Autumn 2019. Berman died by suicide in August 2019 and the setting of ‘Ambiguous Norway’ is a trip that Jenkins took in the aftermath of his passing. (You know this because elsewhere, in ‘New Bikini’, she sings “After David passed away / My friends put me up for a few days / Off the coast of Norway”).
There is a quiet shock to ‘Ambiguous Norway’, which is so hushed and delicate that it feels like a gentle goodbye kiss, that final kiss on the forehead as the person reposes. Jenkins is devastated (“Can’t seem to grasp what happened / I close my eyes”) yet already as this stunned song ends you can hear, I think, early healing. She concludes ‘Ambiguous Norway’ with “I walk around alone / Laughing in the street / Laughing in the street / Laughing in the street”, and I imagine her in the frozen North warmly remembering Berman’s life, friendship, and humour. She would not have repeated “laughing” three times, would she, had she not intended Berman’s famous wit to be memorialised alongside the excruciating sadness.
And it feels all of Phenomenal Nature exists in the shadow of this great loss, concerned either with the loss itself or with healing. The songs allow for the possibility of healing.
In ‘New Bikini’, Jenkins’ family and friends encourage her to use the sea to restore herself: “If you’re bruised or scraped / Or any kind of broken / The water, it cures everything”. By the end of the song she is passing this advice on in turn to a friend: “My friend Grey is sick again / The doctors shell out medicine / And add there might be something in / The mind-body connection / So I told him / Baby, let’s get you to the ocean”.
This manoeuvre一accepting help, then reflecting that help on to others who might also need it一is something Jenkins does again in ‘Hard Drive’, which is as much of a four-act play as anything.
The voice that opens act one of ‘Hard Drive’ belongs to a security guard at an exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in summer 2019. She says, “When we lose our connection to nature / We lose our spirit, our humanity, our sense of self”. A New Age mystic in act two speaks of “chakras and karma and the purple flame / The birth of the cosmos / The ascended masters and the astral plane”. There is a friend, Darryl, in act three, teaching Jenkins to drive at thirty-five, who is unlike any driving instructor I ever had: “Speeding up the west side / Changing lanes / He reminds me to leave room for grace”.
In the song’s act-four finale, Jenkins meets a healer: “I ran into Perry at Lowell’s place / Her gemstone eyes caught my gaze”. It’s not clear if they know each other but the other woman instantly recognises something in her: she says, “Oh, dear, I can see you’ve had a rough few months / But this year / It’s gonna be a good one”. Intuitively she offers: “I’ll count to three and tap your shoulder / We’re gonna put your heart back together”. The songs’ pace seems to slow like a heartbeat on a long exhale as she continues: “So close your eyes / I’ll count to three / Take a deep breath / Count with me”.
Then a guitar makes a metallic sound like a meditation gong and the song acquires this centred stillness; it acquires the character of a heart meditation. Jenkins sings “One, two, three / One, two, three / Just breathe / One, two, three / Count with me”. As the song’s narrator, Jenkins ventriloquises her character Perry, quoting words Perry spoke to her. As the song’s singer, though, any healing words spoken by a character in her song become healing words spoken by her to us.
In this song as it exists within this album, the heart to be put back together was one broken by grief for David Berman. But ‘Hard Drive’ knows that people out there listening have had their hearts broken too, to a variety of degrees in a multitude of ways. ‘Hard Drive’ uses Jenkins’ own experience of suffering to stretch out a hand to anyone who feels fraught, frightened, pained, uncontained. “One, two, three / Just breathe”, says this song’s warm, wise voice; “One, two, three / Count with me“. If I can put my heart back together, the voice says, then you can do yours too. I’ve got you. Just breathe.
One advantage of being into music when you are a psychiatrist is that every so often there is a song lyric that is useful in the clinic. I mean — not that often. But sometimes.
When I get the chance, I like to use a line from a song or a poem or a film to encourage in a patient a sense of being recognised and understood and understandable. The same comforting sense of connection that I got from music growing up and still do. Songs and other texts can provide some concrete proof that a troubling thought or feeling, which may strike one person as idiosyncratic or unacceptable, has been thought or felt by another person, who considered it noteworthy and universal enough to write about.
Recently I was seeing a patient called Róisín*. We’ve known each other a few years through some thick and thin. Róisín told me—among other things that day, and nearly as an aside—that she was experiencing a feeling of unsettling sadness whenever she came across a particular tree. She thought there was something peculiar about this sadness. She didn’t understand the feeling and couldn’t explain it—it wasn’t like there was even anything particularly wrong. She was a little annoyed at herself and this was something she would not have said to many people. Why would seeing a tree make you feel sad? That’s daft!
I was glad Róisín trusted me with this because the feeling she described resonated with me and I did not think it daft. I thought that paying proper attention to the natural world is an emotionally complex act. I thought that fully appreciating the beauty of anything in nature—of a sunset, a snowfall, a songbird, an oak tree—means also reckoning with its transience. What she said reminded me of ‘The Wayfarer’ by Pádraig Pearse, because, though I like to think I can summon poetic verse at will, I mostly summon poems from school. “The beauty of the world hath made me sad,” said Pearse, “the beauty that will pass”. It was that or ‘Advent’.
Around the same time as I saw Róisín, I read Leagues O’Toole highly recommend the new album by Tamara Lindeman’s band The Weather Station, who were new to me. I bought the album, Ignorance, because Leagues has never steered me wrong. When I later read that the core theme preoccupying Lindeman on the record was climate grief, I gave it my full attention. The song that unlocked the album was ‘Parking Lot’.
‘Parking Lot’ is a nimble and careful reflection on the intensity of emotions that the natural world can inspire in us. The song’s context is the degradation of the natural world that is so commonplace that we barely notice it any more. That outline makes the song sound hefty, and OK it is, but it has a lightness of touch that is irresistible — think peak Fleetwood Mac, or The Blue Nile doing Blue Monday. ‘Parking Lot’ is a reflection too on ineffability, on the mystery of emotions that we feel intensely and just can’t account for, like, say, when we pay particularly close attention to a particularly well-loved tree.
Rather than a tree, the focus of Lindeman’s attention in ‘Parking Lot’ is a tiny bird in an urban location that is unnamed but I have taken to be the US West Coast – somewhere dry and unforgiving. The singer starts by describing the scene in the past tense: “Waiting outside the club in a parking lot / I watched some bird fly up and land on the rooftop / Then up again into the sky / In and out of sight / Then flying down again to land on the pavement”. She continues “It felt intimate to watch it / Its small chest rising and falling / As it sang the same song / Over and over and over and over again / Over the traffic and the noise”. Lindeman’s acute attention to the bird’s behaviour inspires compassion. The bird sings to find a mate but the bird cannot be heard and it will not find one. It sings its song “over and over and over and over again”, without hope of success. It’s kind of brutal to witness, which is what the song asks us to do.
Lindeman then changes the direction of her singing and goes from describing the scene to responding to the scene, and the pathos seems to have hit her. She sings in the second person and asks: “Is it OK if I don’t want to sing tonight? I know you are tired of seeing tears in my eyes / But are there not good reasons to cry? / I swear I’m alright / Perhaps you could just let it slide.” It’s not clear who she is asking, but you might consider that the audience for Lindeman’s question is the same as the audience for her singing, and there is something meta about her using her singing voice to ask us to relieve her of her singing duties.
In the following verse, Lindeman interrogates the second-verse emotional response arising from her observations in the first verse. Echoing Róisín’s sentiments, Lindeman acknowledges that the rawness of her response confounds her: “I confess I don’t wanna undress this feeling / I am not poet enough to address this peeling”. The final verse carries on: “And it kills me when I / You know it just kills me when I / You know it just kills me when I see some bird fly / Know it just kills me, and I don’t know why”.
So I like that Tamara Lindeman has made the choice to express this, for a lot of reasons.
In the first place I like that she validates the emotion of solastalgia, which I think is at the core of ‘Parking Lot’—the pain associated with environmental loss, the sorrow we feel when we witness nature changing, suffering, even dying. That climate grief that the Guardian and I mentioned earlier. It needs to be understood and appreciated that if we feel sad and that is the only reason, solastalgia is enough of a reason. Like COVID anxiety is enough, in itself, to be going on with. We don’t need any additional explanations for why we are tired, freaked out, and frazzled, as we sit in rooms wearing masks, as Róisín and I were doing in the clinic that day, so that we don’t virally maim the person across from us.
I like the potential for practical good to be done by this song. Lindeman’s compassion for that little bird, a microcosm of her compassion for all living beings, is going to be communicated to other people, and that transmission of compassion could encourage people hearing the song to act. To be compassionate means to witness suffering, to pay attention to it, and, irreducibly, to work to alleviate the suffering.
And I like that a gifted songwriter and observer of inner worlds like Lindeman has the bravery to say “It kills me and I don’t know why”; that she cannot figure her own heart out sometimes. If she can’t – well there must be times that this just can’t be done. I think it helps people who hear that. I like that she validates a perplexed response to strong emotions and that she models a way of accepting their unknowability.
I particularly like this because I meet a lot of people who are recovering from depression and their emotional experiences have unmoored them and left them constantly questioning how they respond to things. They may have learned, may have genuinely had to learn, that their automatic responses need to be double-checked and unchecked may lead them dangerously astray. This is an important lesson—feelings are not facts, as they say—but constantly second-guessing your own emotions can be destabilising and invalidating and there is a point in recovery when it is important to regain your sense that your instincts are OK.
Songs help us here, I think—they help us navigate emotionally. They set down stable markers. They are guiding lights. Songs that deal in sorrow can help you to relearn that a strong feeling of sadness is not necessarily depressive, not pathological, no longer to be feared. It’s just how a person responds to something sad, and maybe it’s safe to do that again; to feel everything available to you. Pearse concluded, “I have gone upon my way, sorrowful”. Lindeman asks, rhetorically, liberatingly, “Are there not good reasons to cry?”
*Róisín gave her consent for the inclusion of this encounter in this piece.
Neil Hannon turned fifty last week, the day Joe Biden won. That makes him just older than my older brother, which slightly surprised me. That means that my very early twenties, during which Promenade and Casanova were on consecutive years-long loops on my Discman, were Neil’s mid-twenties. I thought we were closer in age; I identified so strongly with those records and they seemed to connect so exactly and essentially to what was going on in my life at the time.
But then he was always a bit ahead of me, signposting.
This was true musically: he led me to Michael Nyman and chamber music and Scott Walker, even to the point of giving Tilt everything I could muster (which was not enough). It was true in terms of other arts: ‘The Booklovers’ actually was my introduction to a good few of the novelists named therein, and ‘When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe’ inspired forays into French auteur appreciation at a time that all I watched was Annie Hall. It was true of real life interpersonal stuff: while he was becoming more like Alfie I was not, but I was thinking – that doesn’t sound all bad. And it was true even of an attitude to life.
I was on a bus from Ballinteer to town some time in late Spring 1994, Promenade in my earphones, when the thought struck me: you know, maybe I could be happy.
I had nothing to complain about but from secondary school through turning twenty I was lonely-ish, in an unoriginal lovelorn late-adolescent way. I was preoccupied with that loneliness and listening to a lot of American Music Club, which might not have helped but which I refuse to blame. Neil listened to a lot of AMC too and he turned out fine. And I just didn’t really expect things to change. I relied on music so much for guidance and all the stuff that made sense to me, that seemed authentic, was troubled, worried, pained, aching. Until – not to over-simplify – I listened to Promenade on the top of a double decker 48A. And a light went on. It’s so vivid. The surge of hope, of possibility, that those songs gave me.
Lately I’ve been thinking about gratitude and trying to think of ways to use gratitude as a grounding. A man I know from work told me last week that he prays twice a day. In the morning to ask for help with the particular challenges that he knows he will face, and at night, having navigated the challenges, to give thanks for the help. He prays to his own God.
As I was listening to him last week I was struck by the beautiful simplicity of these acts. The humility of those prayers, and their awesome power.
And I felt my own resistance to the thought itself of the act of praying; how I can hardly even question that resistance; the associations that prayer has, the religious belief I long since abandoned, the sense of betrayal of one’s younger, fiery, certain self if you were even to consider, now, approaching your sixth decade, kneeling down. How predictable. But you know? Teenagers don’t know everything.
It makes it easier to consider asking for help and giving thanks when you have the support of artists, mentors, poets. People like the poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, whose Poetry Unbound podcast is a twice weekly source of spiritual sustenance; or Joan Halifax, the Buddhist monk whose writing on compassionate care I have hanging on the wall of my office to remind me that every encounter here is an opportunity to connect and serve – so take it.
And as I figure out whether I need and whether I can evolve a new way to give thanks, to adapt to changing circumstances, I will continue to use an old and well-tested way. I will keep connecting with the songs that are as close to prayers as I can currently allow. Songs for which I give thanks, by musicians to whom I owe much.
Songs like the pell-mell pantheism of ‘Going Downhill Fast’: “One butterfly spies a glint in his eye / The birds sing as he cycles by / Oh, why should he feel sad / This world ain’t so bad, and besides / Woe betide he who would frown / when natural beauty abounds”. Or the first song of warm, tender, hopeful, reciprocated love that I remember connecting with, a song of love that felt true and doable, a song that sustained me, ‘Geronimo’: “She puts on a record / And sings into her coffee / He puts a blanket round her, sits her down / And dries her beautiful hair”. Or ‘Tonight We Fly’, Promenade’s perennial, panoramic, elegiac, ecstatic closer, whose concluding lines have never lost their their power as unadorned secular prayer to encourage, comfort and console: “And when we die / Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad / If heaven doesn’t exist / What will we have missed / This life is the best we’ve ever had”.
On October 2nd, Adrian Crowley re-released A Northern Country on Bandcamp. A Northern Country was his third album, following on from When You Are Here You Are Family, which Adrian re-released on Bandcamp last month. I read Adrian say last month something to the effect of how strange it was to listen back to his old records, how young his voice sounded and suchlike. I felt the same reading back over this interview. It’s odd to see how I wrote then. Rambunctious? Foetus? Sorry? The extraneous “crawled from the south” came from an REM biog that I must have recently read, and I’d been to Valletta a few months before. But I liked the interview because I liked Adrian, and loved his work, and he shared generously about his colourful life.
A Northern Country is the name of his album but if the truth be known, Adrian Crowley crawled from the south. He was born in Sliema, a northwestern seaside suburb of Valletta, at the tail end of the ’60s, weeks after his eight-months pregnant mother splashed into the Maltese Mediterranean and hauled out a drowning swimmer.
I like to theorise that it was this rambunctious early life event— it’s the last thing a foetus expects, so close to the finishing line— that imprinted on Crowley the enduring fascination with water which found expression in 2001’s When You Are Here You Are Family. Steve Albini produced, and songs such as ‘Over The Waterway’, ‘Tall Ships’ and ‘Solitary Diving’ had not just the vivid aquatic imagery but also all the grace, innate rhythm and effortless authority of the Palace Brothers’ ‘Ohio River Boat Song’.
Crowley had an eclectic upbringing. “My parents met in Southern Africa,” he says. “The reason I was born in Malta was they had been living in Sierra Leone and there was an uprising there and everyone had to leave. They ran to my grandmother’s house. Then after I was born, we moved back to Cameroon for a few years.”
Up until school age, to be exact.
“So I was too young when I left to have any visual memories— but I’ve discovered that I do have memories, from my sense of smell. It’s really weird. It’s like that theory, is it Marcel Proust? Remembrance of Things Past. He said that he discovered a flow of memories from tasting a little cake he’d last tasted as a kid.”
Subsequently the family settled in Galway and relative normality ensued. Adrian even took up a profession, architecture, for a time but five years ago came the first of his three albums and a move to full-time songwriting, with unexpected perceptual benefits.
“I hear music!” he exclaims. “Since I started doing music full time, I actually hear it in my sleep and sometimes wake up and wonder who left the stereo on—and it’s really in my head. It’s unbelievable. I think it’s a kind of natural aural hallucination. I’ll hear it as I’m waking — it might wake me. I’ll be dreaming music but then it might take me out of my dream. Once I’m wide awake it’s gone.”
Cool: hypnopompic hallucinations. The Aphex Twin uses them as raw material. He should keep a dream book by the bed.
“I often do! But I wouldn’t transcribe them or anything. I’d keep it for ideas, for words that might jump out. Certainly during the last album, it happened to me once or twice, and that expanse of sound that I would have heard while asleep would have been really similar in atmosphere to the first song on the record.”
And, this has happened only since he went full time.
“I think so — I don’t remember it happening to me before. I think it may come from not taking a break, you know? Going straight to sleep and then it continues in your head. It’s quite amazing, whatever happens. It’s really unbelievable! It’s Phil Spector stuff!”
The irony being that with its elegant, elemental, sparingly arranged songs like ‘Morning Frost’, ‘A Hundred Words for Snow’ and ‘Cassiopeia’, A Northern Country recalls Sigur Ros, The Sweet Hereafter or a chamber music Mogwai, anyone but Phil Spector— bar, possibly, A Christmas Gift For You.
“I never really wanted to drown out the bareness of the song,” asserts Crowley. “I never really wanted to cover that. I mean, I love arrangements. I would hate just to say there’s no use for, like, horn sections. Of course I like some records that are like that but I’ve no urge to make one myself. I suppose the way I like to arrange recordings is to use a lot of space, loads of air; give the song oxygen, you know, to breathe.
“Still I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’ll do a concept album about winter’,” he smiles, “but I found all of a sudden that I couldn’t get away from it. Using that imagery seemed the most natural thing to do. I wasn’t consciously doing it, but it was there, not just in the titles of the songs or the words but in the texture of the music. The previous album, I was partly shocked when I discovered that there were loads of water themes. This time, a similar thing happened with frozen imagery.”
So the imagery became a way of acknowledging and immortalising pristine moments.
“I was writing away and there were a lot of fictitious places that I was working on, and it was always set in tundra, or something up north.
“And I think in one sense, my affinity with those kinds of places and images is to do with stretching time, a bit. You know? The great moment that you’re living right now is just stretched a bit more, and it’s becoming widescreen. They’re places where things don’t change. They stay the way they are. Because they’re great.”
“The way everything seems to be moving, whether it’s in film or music,” says Stuart Staples, it’s just entertainment”. He turns up his nose at the word. “You experience it and it entertains you and you walk away from it and it’s gone. It doesn’t leave you with anything; you don’t take anything with you. I suppose we react to that.”
Tindersticks are a band with lofty ambitions. Not for them music that merely passes the time. In an age when a few half-decent tunes and a fingernail grasp of irony can entice 80,000 mostly sentient people to make their way to Meath, bugging the shit out of only a select few aesthetes like myself, Tindersticks aim higher and go a little deeper. Stuart Staples talks about the power of music to lift and inspire you and move you in ways you can’t begin to understand. He does’t even have the good grace to be embarrassed; he beams as he speaks, less of an apologist than an evangelist. Tindersticks have gone all serious on us.
All that may surprise you about this, if you haven’t been in a position to pay 100% attention to the story so far, is that Tindersticks might have ever been anything else. They are legendarily morose; Leonard Cohen without the laughs. Except, of course, as with Leonard Cohen, and as it’s by now a cliché to say: if you listen carefully, then amidst the misery and pestilence the laughs are there; bitter and twisted, but there. The Second Album had ‘A Night In’ and ‘Travelling Light’, straight-faced and stunningly gorgeous, but remember it also had ‘My Sister’, a (literally) unbelievably tragic joke song. Likewise, as soon as Stuart Staples sings, “When do you lose the ability to step back and have a sense of your own ridiculousness / They’re only songs”, on the bone-weary ‘Ballad Of Tindersticks’, it’s difficult to look Curtains right in the eye any more.
Now, though, is Simple Pleasure and now, to quote Jarvis, irony is over.
“Totally,” affirms Stuart. “There’s no irony. In the past, you’d have an idea, have a feeling and write a song and there grew, without knowing, different layers of protection, and irony is one of them. You can be ironic, ‘Oh, it doesn’t mean that much anyway’. But this is like… everything means a fuck of a lot. It’s not overbearing or anything, but our music’s lost a kind of a theatrical-ness to it. It s lost a kind of bombast. It’s a raw emotion we’ve got.
Listening to Stuart Staples, you quickly note that his fervour for his new work contrasts markedly with his feelings for Tinderstick’s 1997 effort (and it was an effort), Curtains. OK on a wet day, but patently the weak link in the Sticks canon. Too tired even to think up titles (‘Dick’s Slow Song’, ‘Fast One’, ‘Another Night In’), the band’s apathy towards it almost spelt the end. Curtains was very nearly aptly named.
“If I look back on the writing of that”, says Stuart, “I felt we kind of dragged it out of us. And I think when you do something like that, if you’re really hard on yourself you could say that we made a record because we had to. There wasn’t one waiting there for us to make, you know? And I think, doing something like that I don’t think it has something at the centre of it, where things emanate, that there’s nothing strong.
“Then to go through touring, looking back I was miserable. Looking back on it, it’s like you’re touring a style; whether it’s the sound, or whether it’s the suits, or whether you’re playing to the idea people have of you, because it’s easy. It’s easier to get through a day being what people expect of you. But you feel, like, really hollow.”
I put it to Stuart Staples that most people thought Curtains was at least alright.
“On the surface, yeah,” he grudgingly admits. “And I’m being really hard on myself now. I don’t think it was a load of old rubbish, it’s just to do with… if you have to deal with a lot of crap every day, but for this hour or hour and a half on stage you can make everything worthwhile, if that doesn’t work — you’re fucked really.”
In retrospect, a split was never all that likely, but, following the nightmare tour. Stuart Staples did consider his career options – “The guy who came around to work on the house, this carpenter, had changed his career at 32. He was really good at his job. I was kind of really envious of him” – but the seeds of Simple Pleasure had already been planted.
“Things got really bad halfway through the tour,” reminisces Stuart none too fondly. “We were playing two dates in Paris and I thought — I’m going to do something that’s worthwhile tomorrow. So I wrote ‘If She’s Torn’. That song, I’d been afraid of it for so long, I was afraid of singing it for so long; I didn’t know exactly what it was. I knew the feelings in it but I didn’t want to face up to them. So I went to the venue the next day and got the group together and made a demo of the music, played it on stage for a couple of hours, just singing it, played it that night, and played it every night since. It was the song that brought us through that tour; we knew we’d be playing it every night. It was the song that showed the way. There was this new feeling and it was just kind of… special.”
The feelings of which he speaks are difficult to put, here, into words; certainly there s a compassion and vulnerability in Staples’ singing and Dickon Hinchcliffe s barely-touched Fender Rhodes piano that can’t fail to give you shivers. But then that’s the point: other than in its naked emotion, how If She’s Torn showed the way was in that, more than on any other Tindersticks record, both in its creation, recorded almost entirely live, and in its appreciation, Simple Pleasure bypasses the brain entirely. You can’t break this stuff down.
“If you’d have told me six months before I recorded this that I d be able to write and sing a song like I Know That Loving, I would have thought ‘How do I get there?’ or ‘What do I need to do?’ But there’s something . . . you’ve just gotta feel something. With us, you re trying to achieve an indescribable feeling. Just, like, the way you feel when you walk down the street, you’ve got this feeling, and our songs tend to put that feeling into a setting so you just try and walk around it, and set the scene of what the feeling is in order that, in the music, it comes out, and makes you feel something.”
For a Nottingham lad, Stuart Staples talks about his feelings an admirable amount.
“You have an idea that makes you feel something, that makes you feel that you want to get it out of you; it really helps to get it out. And then you’ve got to go through these steps, moving you, moving other people, moving the band into feeling something, right down to when you’re mixing it, the way to mix it to bring this sort of feeling out. It’s all to do with that, it’s not to do with anything technical. It’s just to do with however it makes you feel.”
Stuart Staples talks like a proud father: a father who knows what labour pains are like. I tell him that I’m struck by how much in love with this work he appears, and he corrects me, but only just: “I’m in love with the idea of it. I’m probably too close to see it for what it really is, but in my mind I’m in love with the idea of it.” He’s right to be: from the frankly rocking, oddly hopeful opener ‘Can We Start Again?’ right through to the slowly building soul showstopper ‘CF/GF’, Simple Pleasure celebrates just that; allowing all the gravity love and devotion deserves, it does exactly what it says on the sleeve. It’s difficult for a band you know so well to take you aback but Simple Pleasure has moments — whole songs, whole sides — that have you sitting stock-still and silent so as not to miss a note.
A rich and life-affirming record, but the songs are slow and people don’t expect such things from Stuart Staples. “But nobody’s ever understood us,” he shrugs. “As a general kind of a thing. It’s not going to be any departure to meet odd people who really get it, and most of the people that don’t. It s not any new thing. But it’s like, the people who want to buy this record and sit in their bedroom feeling depressed about things, I don’t think are going to get much out of this record. Hopefully, they might get something a lot better for ’em, d’you know what I mean, than a kind of a… wallowing. There’s a real joy there.”
Samantha Crain is a singer-songwriter from Oklahoma of Native American Choctaw heritage who released her sixth album, A Small Death, in July 2020. It is an extraordinary record – rich, candid and poetic. She writes with an eye for personal and emotional detail and adds texture with saxophone, clarinet, pedal steel, and the grain of her voice. I’m a little daunted at the prospect of going back to her first five albums. There’s so much in this one!
The penultimate song on A Small Death is one I’ve been playing repeatedly, called ‘When We Remain’. Crain sings this in Choctaw. On her Bandcamp page , she posts the English lyrics alongside the Choctaw, but she doesn’t sing the English words. Alongside the lyrics she writes: “Writing in the Choctaw language (the language of my ancestors) has become over the past few years, something very important to me. I believe the survival of indigenous languages is the most important foothold in the survival of indigenous cultures and tribes.”
I heard the song before I read the words and of course didn’t understand what she was singing but I understood something about how she was singing.
‘When We Remain’ opens with a simple guitar chord sequence. When I say “simple”, I mean that even I can play it: it goes D, F♯ minor, G, D, A. Crain is not trying to distract the listener with elaborate musicianship. The song moves at a medium pace, with a stately dignity befitting the lyrical content. ‘When We Remain’ is explicitly about the perseverance of a people for centuries subject to persecution. The lyrics are translated into English on Crain’s Bandcamp: “When we remain, we will not be like the beautiful bones of a forgotten city / When we remain, we will be the flowers and the trees and the vines that overcome the forgotten city / We have woven ourselves into the cloth of the earth / We have mixed our breath into the expanding sky”. In Choctaw, the lyrics are “Okla e maya momakma, tamaha chito okla imihaksi tuko i foni aiyokli ahoba hapiachi kiyo / Okla e maya momakma, napakanli, micha iti, micha nan vpi ahoba osh ohmi tamaha chito okla imihaksi tukon okla il vbachike / Yakni i natanna ibachvffa hosh okla il ilai achonli tuk / Hapi fiopa ya, shotik chinto okla il itibani tuk”.
The melody develops as Crain arrives into the latter half of the lyric; as she sings the lines beginning “Yakni i natanna”, her lead vocal is double-tracked for additional ardour and her voice appears a third time, singing the same words an octave above the lead vocal. These harmonics give Crain’s singing a heightened choral quality and the guitar and piano playing augment in intensity as the song progresses. When I first heard the song I remembered Anthony Lane’s description of Bach’s St Matthew Passion: grave and devastating, stern with lamentation.
Then I read Crain say that in writing ‘When We Remain’ she “wanted to write a Choctaw version of something like the old protest song ‘We Shall Overcome’, something we could sing through our hardships and into our victories and survival as a lasting tribe of people”. So “lamentation” was wrong, and her sternness sounded like grandeur, like resilience. And ‘When We Remain’ is explicitly anthemic, a song to be sung collectively with gusto and purposeful intent, but there’s this beautiful poignant delicacy too. The final line in the song is a return to the opening line: “Okla e maya momakma, tamaha chito okla imihaksi tuko i foni aiyokli ahoba hapiachi kiyo”. On the final phrase, hapiachi kiyo, Crain’s voice falls away, softens, cracks on the “k” of “kiyo”.
We expect anthems to end on a soaring high, on a fortissimo declaration of indomitability like ‘La Marseillaise’ in Casablanca, but ‘When We Remain’ ends on a decrescendo, piano not forte. Crain’s tender conclusion is a reminder that even in the midst of righteous collective action there is individual uncertainty; the most militant activist is also a vulnerable person with fears for themselves, their family, their people and their future; and in a better world with fewer horrors to confront, songs of hope and solace like ‘When We Remain’ would not be so utterly essential.
This was one of my final two pieces for HotPress after writing for them from 1993 to 2005 [I’ve been back just the once since]. This was for the HotPress Annual at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006. I had been lucky enough to get the Whipping Boy cover story when Heartworm came out in 1995 – I’m still not sure why I got that gig but someone with more gravitas must have been unavailable – and this was a reunion for their reunion ten years later.
In October of 1995, Gerry McGovern ended his Hot Press review of the then-forthcoming Whipping Boy record with a simple, striking statement: “Heartworm is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard”.
Now rock writing is no stranger to hyperbole, but not here. Not even the slow, painful, implosion of the band over the following five years could deny Heartworm its place in the pantheon, and no-one reading this needs to be told: last year saw the hotpress.com membership vote it the seventh best Irish album of all time. Meanwhile, the newer wave of Irish bands, most publicly The Thrills, pay homage whenever possible. Whipping Boy have, on the strength of an impossibly great album and a disappearing act, become mythical.
Paul Page and Fergal McKee sit across from me, on the eve of their madly anticipated Cork, Dublin and Waterford reunion shows. We’re talking about Heartworm’s poll position, and they are both proud – “Heartworm could have been just another album by a band who were nearly the next big thing, and the album was then forgotten about; the history of Irish rock music is littered with that,” says Paul – and in two minds.
“It just keeps on getting in the way, you know, of other music,” says Fergal, who released a solo debut song, ‘What You Wanna Start’, on MP3 in February 2005. “The whole Whipping Boy thing – will it ever fuck off, you wonder,” he says. “Now, it’s Fergal McKee, you know what I mean, it’s not Whipping Boy. Whipping Boy is another thing. That’s what I thought at the time, you know. But what’s come out of it is kind of interesting,” he continues. “To be able to come back, and be able to play again. You do feel very humbled by it, or feel overwhelmed by it. You don’t expect that, so, it’s a joyful thing.”
Joy is a word you might not have associated with the Whipping Boy story until very recently. They split up in 1998, and in 2000 released Whipping Boy, a largely unheard album so titled because, by then, the band members could not speak civilly for long enough to come up with anything else. It was the worst sort of Let It Be nightmare.
Arguably, the nadir came in 2000 when Fergal and Colm Hassett booked a show in Cork using the Whipping Boy name, although Myles McDonnell and Paul Page were not involved. When asked, at the time, about his relationship with his ex-bandmate, Paul replied: “I have nothing to say about Fergal”. They did not speak for five years.
“The band as an entity had stopped communicating before that,” says Paul. “We recorded the third album, and at that stage, getting over the finish line with it was a major achievement. All semblance of normal band life had broken down. And I suppose, maybe it’s a bit like a marriage where the couple are heading for a divorce, and they think, maybe another child will keep them together. Maybe we thought going in to record that album, if we get through this album, we’ll stay together. It’ll do something for us. The reality was, the day we finished recording that album was the last day we spoke to each other.”
Then that was it, until, on the tenth anniversary of their finest hour, they made the decision to reform. Paul takes it up.
“Well, it wasn’t anything to do with the fact it was ten years. It was a bit of a coincidence. But, you know, we spent a long time totally adamant that we would never get back together. Then, as time goes by, you realise that you’re really only denying yourself something that you want to do. And it was just silly stuff that prevented it. This year it just seemed that everyone had softened in their attitudes. It was the right time.”
Paul is eloquent on the gap in your life that breaking up your band leaves. “It really hit me hard. It’s only when I look back on it now I can see what an impact it had on my life, even outside of music. I just wanted to stop. I stopped playing music for a long time. I hated going to gigs. When I went to gigs, all it did was remind me of the good days I had with Whipping Boy. I’d be there, and I’d be burning with envy. The few gigs I went to, I inevitably came away from them feeling depressed. The better the gig, the more depressed I felt.” Fergal is pragmatic about what you do with the leftover creative energy: “You join a trade union! You take on management,” he laughs. “You use it in another way. You cause shit for the people who cause shit for you.”
But still: the history of reunions in rock is woeful. Bands return, make repeated threats to do the right thing and record, and play tour after tired tour of 15-year old songs. (I’m thinking of The Pixies. Make it stop!) When Whipping Boy come back, will there be new work? Fergal gets in first. “Well we can’t really say that for certain, can we? As such, yet.”
“No,” says Paul. “When we got together, there was no plan really beyond playing these few gigs. I think we’d all like to think that Whipping Boy could write and record a new record. If I didn’t think, at the time that we were asked, that there was that glimmer of hope, I probably wouldn’t have been as interested. Because I don’t really get the whole reunion thing, generally. Many of the bands that I’ve seen reunite have been very disappointing. House Of Love – really bad. I saw The Stranglers a few years ago, but they had a different singer. I think there has to be some vitality and point to a band’s existence. Just getting back to play three gigs, it has a nostalgia value, and maybe on a very selfish and personal level, that you want to get out there and play together again. I’d like to think we’d record. But come January, after the gigs, if we don’t feel a spark, we probably won’t do anything again.”
And that’s got to be the spark between the four of you. You’re going to get encouraged – the Olympia is going to erupt whatever you do.
Fergal nods. “We know in our own hearts and our own minds what works. There’s no point in trying to do something just for the sake of it. The most important thing is to come back, say hello and say goodbye, at these gigs, you know, and then see what happens. We can’t plan further ahead than that. We’ve all got lives, other dependent lives, and all that. And especially if we come back and do another Whipping Boy album, it has to be good for ourselves. There’s no point in us coming back just to make a few bob. We’re not going to do a fuckin’ – I won’t say an Aslan…”
You can say “an Aslan” if you like.
“I wouldn’t like to become a Devlins-type band, you know what I mean?”
“They’re an atrocious fucking band,” laughs Fergal. “At least Aslan have a bit of passion, you know? And a bit of belief in what they do. There’s no point in coming back just for the sake of coming back. It’s a musical journey. Where that stops, no-one knows. You can’t plan these things out, if you start planning things it all gets ruined. The karma goes.
“So you just take it step by step. That’s the way it should be. The magic will keep on going forward, anyway. That’s the whole point. Ideally, there’s lots of things I’d like to bring, and there’s lots of things that Paul would like to bring. If the four of us get that energy together again, then it’ll probably all come true. I can’t be selfish and say I’d love to lead a rebellion, or whatever, you know what I mean…”
Which you might have been guilty of in the past…
“Yeah,” smiles Fergal. “But let’s make music: that’s basically it. See what happens after that. Although I do think it’ll be nice when we’re auld boys, to be up on the stage at 66. Meet you in 30 years’ time. Once every 10 years’ll be enough.”