IIa. Domestic Minimalism is an archive of 21 essential songs from the I Want Too Much era of A House. The band recorded these in Dublin’s Sun Studios before departing for Inishbofin in late autumn 1989 to record the album in the Doonmore Hotel. The Sun Studios collection lived until recently on a lost cassette in Fergal Bunbury’s garage. Domestic Minimalism lasts under an hour. No song outstays its welcome.
Domestic Minimalism contains versions of eight songs that A House put on I Want Too Much. Though I know these well, as you do a thousand listens later, they still sound new. A core function of Domestic Minimalism is to remind us that how we hear and respond to songs that inhabit us never stops changing. Dialogues evolve over decades. There are memories associated with albums of a lifetime but the music is not nostalgia. AHOUSEISDEAD but their songs are not.
The remaining 13 songs on Domestic Minimalism are not on I Want Too Much. ‘Why Must We Argue’ was on side B of the CD single of ‘I Think I’m Going Mad’ but none of the remaining dozen were released until now. As such, another thing Domestic Minimalism does is to expand what we’ve heard from A House.
I Want Too Much, along with every A House album, gives generously to the listener, but there can only be so much shared on any album. The Sydney singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin, talking about her masterpiece Crushing,once told me how “bizarre” it was to be snapshot-portrayed and defined by her songs: “I write something privately. I record it semi-privately. And then you go and perform that version of yourself repeatedly for like a year and a half. It’s very strange. I love it, but it’s strange.”
This quote came back to me after Fergal Bunbury recently said much the same thing: there’s far more to any band than everything they’ve released. Even a decade-long wide range of recordings conveys just a fraction of their experiences, emotions, and opinions. For an act to release the unreleased lets us know them better.
If we needed a third reason to immerse ourselves in Domestic Minimalism it might be that the title directs us to a different way of hearing A House: ‘Marry Me’, ‘Now That I’m Sick’, and their contemporaries being called minimalist.
This would not have occurred to me. Not least because the review that directed me to A House, Lorraine Freeney’s Hot Press double six for I Am The Greatest, used “baroque” to describe ‘When I First Saw You’. That made sense and if I recall one thing from Inter Cert Music, it’s that baroque means Bach, who was not much of a minimalist.
Terry Riley, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, and Steve Reich are credited as musical minimalism innovators, while a 2023 book On Minimalism provides a list of artists from multiple genres. Kraftwerk, The Velvets, Donna Summer, John Coltrane, Lubomyr Melnyk, Arthur Russell and Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders are among them.
Eamonn Quinn, of Louth Contemporary Music Society, who Riley and Glass have collaborated with, helped me understand minimalism by giving me a digestible definition: “Minimalism is characterised by repetition, pulsating rhythms, and overlapping phrases”.
Another helpful thing that I’ve read about minimalism, and I’ve experienced in listening to Glassworks by Philip Glass, is that minimalism at its best provides hypnotic repetition.
Domestic Minimalism does this all the time.
There are patterns in Domestic Minimalism. Songs open with spartan arrangements. ‘Now That I’m Sick’ was central to I Want Too Much and is equally so here. Its intro is a recurrent, jarring, discordant single note, A flat. Fergal Bunbury has told me “my perfect guitar part would have one note, repeated, forever”, and you can hear that here, while in ‘Why Must We Argue’, the opening notes extend to two.
In parallel, Dave Couse emphasises the lyrical subjects of songs through vocal repetition. He opens “Now that I’m sick” with those words and follows this dire state with many others — now that I’m timid, stupid, hungry, poor, angry —until he ends where he started: sick, sick, sick.
In ‘I Never Had Any Medals’, which opens the album, there’s a metallic melodic riff and choruses in which Dave Couse sings “never” twelve times in a row: “I never never never never never never never never never never never never had any, had any medals”. In ‘I Hope That You Fail’, the chorus seethingly states the song title, then, as Couse crescendos, his voice restates a single word: “I hope that you fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail”.
Even in songs two and a half minutes long, single highly selected words can be repeated such that they become a meditative mantra. And this from Dave Couse, a lyricist who does not lack verbosity.
On Domestic Minimalism, superb songs we haven’t heard, that could have comprised a Protest Songs alongside the Steve McQueen of I Want Too Much, include ‘Small Pieces of Me’ (“With your fair hands / And your big mouth / Rip my heart out”) and ‘You Break Me Up’, a song that would, guitar-wise, be nicely covered by The Wedding Present.
There’s ‘I Can Hardly Stand’, which opens with another isolated guitar note, a solitary G this time, and flies through a diatribe: “It doesn’t matter who you are / Where you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve got / In fact probably the less you’ve got / The more likely you GET HIT”. ‘Never Saw Johnny’ is a marked contrast, a bleak poignant portrait: “Coping with this life / Rewards Johnny an early grave / Ooh I never saw Johnny.”
As the album ends with ‘Marry Me’, we’re back to minimalism that even I can recognise. Dave Couse describes his adoration of the subject of the song (“You’ve cheekbones designed by an architect / And a figure of porcelain / Ready to crumble in my hands”), then he and Fergal Bunbury sing “Marry me” in the final chorus about sixty times. Each time I hear ‘Marry Me’ and tap my foot to try and count the recitations I end up in a trance. I guess I have personal experience now of hypnotic repetition.
So when I started immersing myself into Domestic Minimalism, I found the idea that these songs are minimalist opuses absorbing. I’m always wondering why I fell for a particular set of songs. Maybe this explained my lifelong love for I Want Too Much. On Miminalism quotes Michael Paradinas, μ-Ziq, about hearing Philip Glass for the first time when he was 16: “I thought, what the fuck is this? It’s brilliant, and it hasn’t changed for 12 minutes.” I heard I Want Too Much at 17 and this rings a bell.
Still, I have concluded that I appreciate the songs on Domestic Minimalism not just because of their technique. Not a surprise, I suppose. There is renowned minimalist music I find unaffecting. I go back to Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians every so often to try to connect but no luck so far. It does very little for me though it’s an acclaimed archetype of this genre. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh once told me that a group of gifted musicians playing a Steve Reich piece sounded “nearly more humans as robots rather than humans as animals”, and I think I know what he meant. I’ve never been drawn to dispassionate technical brilliance. It’s a gap in my music appreciation I can’t do much about. That would be the post-punk in me.
But of course The Ramones had minimalism too. The Buzzcocks’ ‘Boredom’ has a two-note solo and the song is a CPR. Bands like these pretended they didn’t know how to play. They let on they were unaware of the majesty of their sound but in simplifying their arrangements to the fewest chords they could, they cut to the cardiac chase.
I keep thinking of that Kraftwerk title Minimum-Maximum. When I’m listening to musically minimal songs, I want the emotional maximum they also provide. Minimalists like The Velvets, The Ramones, John Coltrane, Kraftwerk, Lubomyr Melnyk and A House are magicians as much as scientists because they find exactly the right notes in the right order and they play them over and again: that’s how they move you.
I want songs that strengthen, sustain and guide me, still as I head for 50. I want songs that make me cry, sigh, beam, and dream. I want shivers up my spine. I love minimalist music only when, like A House’s oeuvre, it is vulnerable, brave and beautiful. With extra points for funny.
I need songs that I can treasure and I need the time spent with them to be as well spent as the time spent doing anything else on earth. That’s a lot to ask, too much maybe, but it’s not when A House is around. Some songs do all of this nourishing necessary work. 21 of them are here.
On a family picnic in Co. Wicklow in the 1970s, the childhood Nick Kelly fell into the river Slaney and nearly drowned. When he was fished out by our dad, he said he’d seen God. The boyhood Nick Kelly wanted to be a priest when he grew up. The college-going Nick Kelly studied Philosophy and lost his faith. His mother was his greatest champion. His faith returned after the deaths of our parents, and God became his friend. Nick spent the last few months living in Wexford where he got to know the people and places. It was the happiest I’d seen him for some time. Last week Nick Kelly decided he wanted to leave Wexford, to be with God.
When Nick came into this world he was made mostly of heart and soul. The other bits had to fit into the space that was left. Throughout his life his key skills were love and kindness.
Heart and soul Heart and soul Nick Kelly – Heart and soul.
The 5 year old Nick Kelly learned about loyalty by choosing to support Liverpool in the 1977 FA Cup Final. His loyalty endured. Nick went to Anfield several times to see his chosen team. Nick applied that loyalty to all his friends in the years that followed, and that was reciprocated.
Heart and soul Heart and soul Nick Kelly – Heart and soul.
Our English uncle Chrissy would bring our dad Jazz records, and Elvis and Beatles records for the kids, Teresa, Anne, Catherine, myself and Nick. So started the music in our house.
13 year old Nick Kelly goes to his first concert with his older brother and his big sister and he is hooked.
Rock and Roll Rock and Roll Nick Kelly – Rock and Roll.
Nick’s English Teacher in school saw something special in his writing and encouraged him, and suggested books for him to read. His Arts degree included English, so Nick devoured ever more books.
Nick Kelly – filled with books Books and books and books and books.
Nick found friends at each stage of his life. He had more female friends than anyone I know, because they saw he was so kind and caring.
Heart and soul Heart and soul Nick Kelly – Heart and soul.
Nick rejoiced in journalistic schooling from the older hacks who’d earned their stripes over many years from the school of hard knocks. The campus was the late night bars of Dublin City. Nick loved all the arts, and was a scholar of most of them. Art galleries, plays, movies and film festivals, TV dramas, and the radio and TV music programs of the day. As a result of this, Nick had an expansive view of everything. His concert reviews were never similar, as he’d eke out references from the stage and match them with the likes of an Andy Warhol painting or a Harold Pinter play. I vividly remember Nick breaking down a favourite song of ours named ‘Scott Miller Said’ – by a favourite Irish band The Revenants. I got the gist of it – a song about loss as it happens. But Nick dug deep into the cryptic references and their meaning, from across the artistic spectrum.
Nick would see in technicolour what others would see in black & white.
Memories of Nick on the telephone in our family home interviewing the world’s biggest or best musicians, in New York or LA, un-phased by the magnitude of the star because he could hold his own, recording the conversation on a Sony Walkman he won in a raffle when he was a kid.
Rock and Roll Rock and Roll Nick Kelly could match them all.
Nick didn’t care about owning a house or a car or the other trappings of life. His treasure trove was in his heart and his head. He was a true romantic.
Heart and soul Heart and soul Nick Kelly – Heart and soul.
Nick was forever losing things: phones, wallets, keys, coats, the lot! His guardian Angel was a busy man! The guardian angel and St Anthony – the patron saint of lost things– set up a support group for Nick to help get his stuff back. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, Nick’s passport falls out of his back pocket and flies off in the wind. Nick walks on obliviously. On its way to the East River the passport gets stuck in the railings of the bridge. A passer-by grabs the passport and runs down the bridge to return the passport. It was a regular habit that when things went wrong, they would generally turn out all right. About once a year the Guardian Angel would have to enlist St Jude – the patron saint of lost causes – to help Nick get out of trouble. Nick kept them in employment, and they loved him too.
Nick Kelly – filled with love Loves his family Loves his friends Filled with sunshine Filled with joy Filled with the wonder of a little boy Loves the animals, dogs and cats The felines sit upon his lap.
Filled with words and words and words Guitar chord changes and a long fretboard Pure artistic eye and ear He’d tell you about it over a pint of beer.
He was kind and generous, there is no doubt He would give you his last penny and go without Filled with poems and quotes galore Checking the half time scores at 4.
Music festivals and a two-man tent Nick Kelly was heaven sent.
I got the news about Nick after stepping off a late night plane in Heathrow airport. As there were no more planes back to Dublin I got one the next morning. As I walked into Dublin’s Terminal 1, I heard some people talking about a rainbow. When I looked out the window, there was a full and beautiful and sharply coloured rainbow on the tarmac and you could see the whole length of it clearly. I’d never seen anything like it before. I took it as a sign from Nick that he had reached his chosen destination. Around about now, I expect Nick is going to the retirement party for his Guardian Angel, they’ll be reminiscing about all the chaos and fun they had. I’m hoping Nick applies for the role to be my Guardian Angel… with some help from St Anthony of course!
Delivered by Joe Kelly on November 1st 2023 at St PiusX Church, Terenure.
A problem I’ve always had with respect to my musical fandom is that when artists whose early songs I love keep making records, I tend not to listen to their new stuff. This goes even for artists who, after reaching perfect peaks early on, carry on creating fine work. Like Bill Callahan after A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, Will Oldham after I See A Darkness, or Lambchop after ‘Theöne’. “New stuff” meaning anything they’ve done since 2005, 1999, and 1996, in that order.
I think there are a couple of reasons for this.
One is that there is so much music out there, old and new, that you can spend literally half your waking life with tunes playing, soundtracking hours every day, and you still miss out on so much that would be so good to hear. You learn this sometimes when you ask people on Twitter to recommend songs on a certain subject and they reply with songs by acts whose work you are embarrassed to realise you barely know. Like John Prine or Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits or the Doors; but the list is loooong.
Another reason is that when an artist releases something pristine early on I tend to move on because that work is as good as it gets. Not completely—I thought The Magnetic Fields’ Charm of the Highway Strip was perfect but stuck with them through 69 Love Songs, and then I was full—but largely. I don’t quite understand this but I guess I think: they can’t improve on that so let’s not waste time. Let’s give them thanks and try someone else.
In the case of Lambchop, they had released two great albums when they ended the second, 1996’s How I Quit Smoking, with ‘Theöne’, a song that instantly lodged in my heart, which was longing for love. ‘Theöne’ told you what it was like to meet the person with whom you should share joy and meaning. It’s the words, mostly simple enough, and the quaking, hopeful but uncertain, vocal of Kurt Wagner: “But don’t you know / This must be true / I can do nothing / But think of you / So there’s the phone / And here’s the number / You are the one”.
Technically, Lambchop ended the album with ‘Again’, a short sweet replay of the string section’s shimmering contribution to ‘Theöne’, which indicated that even they knew how special ‘Theöne’ was. How could you not?
How I knew, partly, was that like a handful of songs, ‘Theöne’ guided me when I needed to make the biggest decision in my life: who do you wish to spend your life with, and how do you tell her?
Telling someone you like them is mostly not easy, and pre-Sharon me had no idea what to do, but it turns out that when you meet Theöne, the one you’ve dreamt about for years, and you know it’s her, and you can picture a real-life future together, then telling her you love her is kind of easy. Not telling her would be more difficult. Having great songs to guide you can help you make these big decisions, the best decisions you’ve made.
When I say this, I am thinking of ‘Theöne’ and ‘This Is What She’s Like’ by Dexys Midnight Runners, in which Kevin Rowland articulates with wordless vibrant vocals the lightning love that Michael Corleone felt for Apollonia in The Godfather Part I, that he now feels for a non-fiction person. He is trying to describe this to Billy Adams and by the end of the song he is understood: “You-a, do you get my drift? / Oh yeah, I’m starting to get the picture”. I felt too that I understood this when I met Sharon, in 2001, but because Rowland rhapsodises without words I couldn’t do what I could with Lambchop’s song, which was to sing it to her, into her ear, in Neary’s of Chatham St of all places. This was very early on! We’d been together about a week and I just knew I needed no-one else ever. So it seemed like Lambchop had done as much as they, or anyone, could.
It’s fairly recently that I’ve given much thought to whether this reason for moving on from an act makes sense or is slightly silly. Maybe stick with them? Maybe they have more to offer. And maybe if you stay with brilliant artists who recount how they fell in love, they will later tell how they are experiencing lifelong love.
Actually, no offence brilliant artists, but I don’t think that happens too much. Songs tend to be about when love starts and when it ends. The stage curtain being opened and then being closed. Not the play itself.
There is obviously nothing wrong with songs being about how love ends. That can help the lonely listener cope, with experiences like being left by a lover or being the one who must leave, which brings Julia Jacklin’s ‘Comfort’ to mind: “I’ll be okay / I’ll be alright / I’ll get well soon / Sleep through the night / Don’t know how you’re doing / But that’s what I get / I can’t be the one to hold you when I was the one / Who left”.
Though I tend now to be more attentive to how it is to lose someone you love because they have died.
I’ve listened to Sufjan Stevens’ new Javelin a good few times. Sufjan’s albums are compelling, even compulsory, right from the off—then your relationship with them, that dialogue, develops and enriches as you listen again and again. Sufjan is someone I haven’t applied the stop listening rule to. I first heard him in 2003 when Michigan came out and I’ve been enraptured by Illinois and Carrie & Lowell in particular since, but all his solo and collaborative albums have diamonds in them, like the title track of The Ascension and ‘Lacrimae’ from A Beginner’s Mind, with Angelo De Augustine. Reasons for not moving on from Sufjan are the constant fascinating changes in artistic style and the subsequent returns to his quiet and courageous vulnerability, like in Illinois’ ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, Carrie & Lowell’s ‘Fourth of July’, and Javelin’s ‘Goodbye Evergreen’.
‘Goodbye Evergreen’ is, I’m fairly sure, Sufjan’s eulogy for a man he loved and has spent his life with who has literally just gone. My understanding is that the song is about his partner of fourteen years, Evans Richardson, who died in Spring 2023. Sufjan has not said this specifically but he has dedicated the album to Evans and it is hard to see or hear the song any other way: “Goodbye, Evergreen / You know I love you / But everything heaven sent / Must burn out in the end”. This is the opening verse of the album and he starts singing these words in the album’s opening half-second—speaking of courage. Evergreen seems to work as a nickname for Evans and I hear in it that this love is alive. It’s winter where the singer is but the trees haven’t lost their leaves.
I often wish I knew less about the specific subject matter of a song, as if knowing the story makes it less relatable; but is that right? Sufjan’s tribute to Evans, that is not in the song and that he published just after the album came out, includes qualities and feelings that are universally familiar: “This album is dedicated to the light of my life, my beloved partner and best friend Evans Richardson, who passed away in April. He was one of those rare and beautiful ones you find only once in a lifetime—precious, impeccable, and absolutely exceptional in every way.” Knowing who Carrie was didn’t stop me adoring that record and knowing whose death is being mourned in a song like ‘Goodbye Evergreen’ doesn’t stop that song from helping anyone listening who’s going through grief, or one day will, which is all of us. What a huge gift from an artist.
So listening to Lambchop and Sufjan and other songs that give me goosebumps it occurs to me that songs are largely about when love starts and when it ends.
But I am in love now with someone to whom I conveyed this love in 2001, to whom I gently, daftly, but clearly and autobiographically sang ‘Theöne’, and who replied in kind. (Honestly I can’t write that line without sitting here shaking my head, still stunned.)
I think of Teenage Fanclub’s ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’ here. Norman Blake sings “I don’t want control of you / It doesn’t matter to me / Don’t want this love to stay the same / But grow with every year” and I remember how that sounded in 1997. And I’m crazily lucky to have gotten to the other side of that song. After all this time it’s still growing. Blake suggests that the growth, evolution, increasing enrichment by love never ends. 1997 me could have been forgiven for not allowing himself to believe that this incredibly fortunate fate lay ahead.
So my question mentioned early in this post, for Twitter yesterday, was as follows: “Thinking about love songs. The greats seem to be about seeking, finding, and declaring love. Lambchop’s ‘Theöne’, Dexys’ ‘This Is What She’s Like’. I can’t think of many songs that tell the story of sustaining love. Still feeling the lightning years later. Any good examples?” And I got some good examples. Thank you so much everyone who came back to me.
I was able to note that there are fine, fine songs by people I don’t know at all or enough, who I should know and now do, a little at least. I was able to note that there aren’t huge numbers of these songs out there sent to me so I think my sense that this subject matter is difficult to sing about is mostly right. And I noted that one or two of these songs hit the cardiac bullseye though only one so far made me cry. (Thanks Michael Mee.)
Not as in this is sad, but as in Ben Folds ended an album, Rockin’ The Suburbs, with ‘The Luckiest’, a song that I related to completely, realising, not for the first time, that lifelong love is all you can ask for.
Now I have heard even since hearing this song that Ben Folds’ relationship that inspired the song is over. They broke up. So when he sings that he wants to grow old with this person, and that dying in old age shortly after the partner dies seems the right way to go, you know one of them no longer feels this, or both. (Folds jokes “I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you that I know we belong”, but it’s not really a joke.)
You know that the happiness described in the song isn’t there as it was. But you also know that happiness can’t be eternal. It can be as long as it lasts and I don’t think happiness can be any purer or stronger than it is in the song, or, to be honest and awed, than it has been for me since Sharon and I bumped into each other in 2001.
The fact that Ben Folds’ relationship ended does not weaken the song. The feelings he sings about are real. They will always mean something even as and when they change. And change can, will—must, eventually—happen for all kinds of reasons.
There’s no better way for me to end this piece than using the opening verse and chorus of ‘The Luckiest’, as the song does exactly what I asked, articulating the pure pleasure of seeing the same person every day and being unable to imagine being happier than seeing her face, holding her hand, waking where she is. I would ask that anyone who has made it this far plays the song, if you don’t already know it. If ‘The Luckiest’ breaks your heart, as it may, it’ll also mend it: “I don’t get many things right the first time / In fact, I am told that a lot / Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles and falls / Brought me here / And where was I before the day / That I first saw your lovely face? Now I see it everyday / And I know / That I am / I am / I am / The luckiest.”
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been perusing old Hot Press magazines. I wrote regularly in Hot Press from 1993 to 1997 and I wrote a good few things from about 2002 to 2005, and then I stopped, except when I pleaded in 2019 that they might let me interview Julia Jacklin who was my heroine (they did). Most pieces are from the 90s and after all this time it seemed worth saving whatever pieces I can find by late teen and twentysomething me and Pritt-sticking them into an A3-sized sketch book. That way I can look at them the odd time, Sharon can too, and the kids can read them so that now and then they can find an album review I wrote when I was their age: Oh my God Dad didn’t have a clue even then did he.
Something I like about having written for Hot Press so long ago, in such early days, is that I get to read in quite a lot of detail what I thought and how I felt about songs when I was quite different than I am now. I get to read my young self amateurishly but ardently navigating what felt like complicated works. At times I changed largely for the better because of attention I had to pay to albums Hot Press gave me, on condition that I dived into them. Not a problem! I’m thinking of The Breeders’ Last Splash, The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen, Kristin Hersh’s Hips and Makers, Neil Hannon’sPromenade, GBV’s Alien Lanes, Tindersticks’ Tindersticks and Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues. Right now I’m particularly recalling and revering Smog’s 1997 Red Apple Falls.
That Smog album was the last one I reviewed before having to take a break from Hot Press because I had to start being a doctor in July 1997. It was a good place to stop. Red Apple Falls was and still is such a fine expression of how life can fill with colour as you grow up and that things that have felt tough can become easier, gentler, less lonely. I’m not saying this is universal — D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was a popular but dubious notion — but it’s possible even when teenage you thinks it’s not. (Smog’s ‘Teenage Spaceship’ from 1999’s Knock Knock, deserves its own post: “Flying around / The houses at night / Flying alone / A teenage spaceship / I was a teenage spaceship / Landing at night / I was beautiful with all my lights”.)
Smog’s Wild Love drew me into Bill Callahan’s writing in 1995 and its musical and lyrical sparseness were appealing, particularly the song ‘It’s Rough’: “Oh, it’s rough / Baby, to live / Oh, it’s hard / Baby, to survive / Everyday lately / My mind feels like glass / Ready to be smashed / Ready to be smashed”.
I remember liking songs off Wild Love because they were not what I considered overconfident songs, like most were, that expected us to aim for thrilling loving relationships and to be unsatisfied until we found one. ‘It’s Rough’ just asked you to be aware that you weren’t going to have the love you needed in your life and the song seemed to wonder if there was much point in carrying on: “Oh, it’s hard / Baby, to survive”. This seemed sensible and better than wanting the thing you couldn’t have. Of course you never stopped wanting it.
Wild Love was bleak and was followed by the arguably darker The Doctor Came At Dawn. When I met Callahan just before the daunting 1996 Doctor album came out he told me, “There’s a lot of death on the new one. I was just thinking a lot about death lately… just passing visions of coffins, vultures, things like that. That’s all”.
1997’s Red Apple Falls was distinctly and rapidly different. Much of the immediate evidence of the emotional shift was the music not the words, like the soothing French horn that intros the opening song, ‘The Morning Paper’. It was the stirring pedal steel that enhances the comical ‘I Was A Stranger’ and the trumpet that colours ‘Ex-Con’, along with “Whenever I get dressed up / I feel like an ex-con trying to make good”.
Some of the clearest change was lyrical in that relating to Callahan’s Red Apple Falls lyrics meant looking outward more than inward, cautiously but genuinely welcoming potential relationships rather than confining yourself, as Wild Love had, to inevitable aloneness. In the case of maybe the album’s standout song, ‘To Be Of Use’, Callahan works to figure out how we might make things better for those around us, even should life remain rough: “Most of my fantasies are of / Making someone else come / Most of my fantasies are of / To be of use / To be of use / To be of some hard / Simple / Undeniable use / Oh, like a spindle / Or oh, like a candle / Or oh, like a horseshoe / Or oh, like a corkscrew / To be of use / To be of use”.
I guess why these records continued to mean so much is that when you knew Wild Love and The Doctor Came at Dawn, then you heard Red Apple Falls, you could feel the heavy hopelessness lifting. You have to be aware of the early work to know that those awful bleak frozen feelings, should they be familiar, aren’t going to stick around. You have a songwriter sharing his emotional evolution experience and letting you know that viewing the future as being empty is an illusion. ‘To Be Of Use’ gets easily added to a playlist of songs that give me goosebumps mostly because of the hope that Smog song brings in contrast to the song from the year before. But ‘It’s Rough’ has to get on the playlist too because those songs are effectively partners; yin and yang.
‘To Be Of Use’, especially where it exists among the songs that surround it, is a permanently perfect moment. This four-syllable phrase, so simple, so short, so tattooable, has stayed with me and not only when using a corkscrew, though I’ve hummed it nearly every time I’ve opened wine. Mostly over the last quarter century when I’ve been trying to establish if what I’m doing at home or at work should help or might not. I don’t think you ever quite know if what you’re doing will improve things for those around you. You’re not in control.
But having a Smog-inspired to be of use as your goal means you have constant signposting in a direction that is, on average, over a lifetime, going to be better than its opposite. It makes decent life easier and should mean you do less harm than good. And it makes you appreciate the music you’ve lived with. When you are young and an artist you love has suffered and struggled in a way that is relatable and is now telling you that things have changed and can change for you, you can believe him. He has been there and he is coming out safely the other side and you can follow him. Talk about to be of use: songwriters can do no more than this. No-one can.
When I started writing Gold Soundz essays, the method for choosing the song to write about was to randomly pick one from a playlist of songs that give me goosebumps. Although John Lennon’s ‘Love’ is on that list, it was not chosen by Tidal shuffle. ‘Love’ selected itself by being in my ears, head and heart for the entire last ten days, so that I can’t let go of it. “Love is real / Real is love” is a May mantra.
It’s hard to be sure why a song implants itself like this, particularly one you’ve heard hundreds of times, and writing can help figure that out. Then maybe you can stop listening obsessionally and move on to the next song. Still, right now I want to keep listening to ‘Love’. Every so often you go through a phase with a song when others seem unnecessary: this song does everything that songs are supposed to so it’s the only one I need.
Which begs the question: what are songs supposed to do? Can one song do it all?
I mean: songs do all kinds of things. They keep us company. They make strangers into friends. They educate and exhilarate. They speed up then slow down your pulse rate. They provide an auditory environment that improves focus and aids writing (thank you Stars of the Lid). They soundtrack a mosh or a Macarena.
But I’m thinking here about songs that operate on a particular level, that are existential as well as exciting. Not to be too hierarchical but I bow most deeply to songs that tackle core questions we are trying to answer ourselves and can’t. Songs that help us make sense of life when it seems strange and nonsensical. Songs that find peace for us when we can’t find it. One song can do all that for a while and usually this is through our dialogue with the song rather than its monologue. The listener is a co-writer. I listened to ‘Blue And Grey Shirt’ by American Music Club on repeat in late 1992, early 1993, because when Mark Eitzel sang “I sat up all morning / And I waited for you” I knew exactly what he was saying and no-one else said it like him. I needed to listen to his generous song of loneliness to process that awful emotion. The song, which was of love as well as loneliness, was of immense practical emotional help. I haven’t needed it since, but it still means so much and I’ve needed many other songs along the road. John Cusack in High Fidelity asks: Which came first, the music or the misery? It is so obvious that it was the misery. Music is not toxic. It is nothing but healing.
Part of why ‘Love’ is loveable is because of its context. It comes on halfway through John’s 1970 Plastic Ono Band, his first solo album, also known as the Primal Scream album, which has John’s enduring emotional injury arising in childhood as the subject of most of its songs. ‘Love’ comes on and soothes for a while although ‘God’ arrives soon after (“God is a concept / By which we measure our pain”).
The album starts with ‘Mother’, in which John addresses his mum, Julia, and his dad, Alfred. Alfred, who had left John and Julia when John was three, was alive in 1970. Julia had died in 1958 when John was 17. She had not taken care of him for more than a few weeks since he was five. The lyric of ‘Mother’ begins: “Mother / You had me / But I never had you / I wanted you / But you didn’t want me”. John’s mother was the subject of ‘Julia’ on The White Album too but that was a shimmering declaration of filial love (“So I sing the song of love / Julia”) rather than a song about being abandoned (“Mama don’t go / Daddy come home”).
The album ends with ‘My Mummy’s Dead’, a song in which John still sounds grievously wounded, although differently. He sings the brutal lyrics in a nursery rhyme melody as if the only way he can sing them is pretend they are fantasy: “I can’t explain / So much pain / I could never show it / My mummy’s dead”.
So in the midst of all this skin-peeling pain comes the grounding, gratitude and grace of ‘Love’.
‘Love’ is not healing in some straightforward way. It has its own ambiguity: “Love is needing / needing love” is sung by someone who spent childhood years without enough love and who had, when leaving his first wife Cynthia, left his first-born son bereft of paternal love as he was left himself.
Still I think ‘Love’ can be said to be mostly healing because it says: even when you went through all the abandonment John went through since age three, you can fully experience love (“Love is you / You and me / Love is knowing / We can be”). Then, pained though ‘God’ is, John ends that song declaring that he no longer believes in anyone but “Yoko and me / And that’s reality”, and ‘God’ becomes an epiphany in that moment. Even for a Beatle—a person at the highest peak of human achievement—there is no moment more exquisite than the moment union with your soul mate begins. When your perspective on life changes because you experience life through her eyes, not just your own, and your life is so much richer than it was ten minutes ago.
Hence, those of us who are not Beatles can experience the pinnacle of happiness, which for John was not his career peak (‘A Day In The Life’ in 1967) but was meeting Yoko in the Indica Gallery in 1966. Like my Mam and Dad meeting in the TV Club in 1966. Like, for me, the July 2001 Monday when I walked into the Pearse St Drug Treatment Centre having just started training there, when I found Sharon working as a nurse and when she smiled at me and the rest of the room blurred and faded from sound and view. Or the moment a few weeks later, about 48 hours into our offically going out, that we each realised we wanted to have a baby, each said so, and neither of us panicked and ran away. Or early 2002, when Sharon and I returned from Paris and I was expecting the pining melancholy I’d always experienced on a return from holiday but I realised: wait it doesn’t matter at all where I am any more—not if she’s there. I don’t have a 1967 Sergeant Pepper moment to compare these to but they were more ‘Oh My Love’ moments anyway: “Oh my lover for the first time in my life / My eyes are wide open / Oh my lover for the first time in my life / My eyes can see”.
What ‘Love’ reminds me is that a song meets you emotionally where you are and a fine song may do this once while some songs meet you many times when you are in different places throughout your life.
I am connecting with ‘Love’ in May 2023 in a way that I could not have done at Christmas 1990, when I first heard the Plastic Ono Band album. Back then my notions of love were mostly as you would expect from a socially struggling adolescent listening to The Smiths. The song detailing my “love” life at the time was ‘How Soon Is Now’. The scene from the club where you’d like to go, “So you go and you stand on your own / And you leave on your own / And you go home / And you cry and you want to die”, felt true and not melodramatic. Just as Morrissey’s praise of death by double-decker bus in ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ felt like a perfect, pure way of sharing a fate with the one you loved while now it seems tragically life-negating. The Morrissey lyric argues against sharing everyday life with a person you love, because they may find it difficult to love you back, because the lightning bolt of early love can’t last and because the daily is dull. Every day is like Sunday, Morrissey would later add. Well, not if you love they’re not.
What other songs say is that young love matures, expands, and improves, like the love in Teenage Fanclub’s ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’: “I don’t want control of you / It doesn’t matter to me / Don’t want this love to stay the same / But grow with every year / And every day I look in a different face / The feelings getting stronger with every embrace”. In 1984’s ‘Grow Old With Me’, a song that’s so beautiful but hard to listen to as John Lennon never got to enact it, John sang“Grow old along with me / The best is yet to be / When our time has come / We will be as one / God bless our love”, an attitude to sticking with, or merging with, your true love that I share now so much more than that of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. “Love is living / living love”, sings John Lennon in ‘Love’, and in 1990 I didn’t understand him. I didn’t listen. Now it’s the truest couplet.
In fairness to Morrissey, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ and even ‘How Soon Is Now’ feel lyrically alien in 2023 not because of anything he said forty years ago but because at this time soundtracks to loneliness, Smiths songs that gently squeeze your solitary shoulder, are surplus to requirements. I have stupendously lucked out with an utter lack of loneliness in the last twenty-two years since I met my one true love and I can’t remember what loneliness even feels like. (16-year-old me would be: Wow.)
Like other John Lennon songs, ‘Love’ is one I find more poignant than I might otherwise because he didn’t have long enough and things ended so quickly. It focuses my mind on music’s attempts to find meaning in life including making peace with the difficult fact that life often ends too early. Even in normal length lives, loss does loom. I think I am attached to this song now because it is such a simple gentle statement of what is most important in the life you share with your loved ones. When you recognise that life is not infinite, you find yourself feeling like you were twelve years old two days ago and you find yourself also asking: what is the best way of using the time that is left?
The answer is in this song and it is stated clearly without drama: it’s to give and receive love. To do so casually day to day, hour to hour. Don’t put off the precise expression of love and make sure that all those you love and value know it. Earlier I wrote that ‘Love’ does exactly what songs are supposed to and for ‘Love’ to provide elegant guidance on how to experience love and maximise its joyful expression seems to be as useful as a song can be. Life doesn’t go on forever and if you were to be in your final hours knowing that everyone you loved will always know that you loved them—as my mum knew last June, to pick a not entirely random example—then that exit is as good as it can be.
In ‘Love’, John equates loving and receiving love with other acts. Love is touch, touch is love. Love is reaching, reaching love. Love is asking to be loved. I think of his line “Love is touch, touch is love” now, and I gratefully recall some of the many hugs I’ve been glad to have. I think of our youngest child, who, watching Teen Titans or Totoro on the couch or reading The Beano, whether heading off to sleep or just after waking, likes having his head on your chest and his hand on your belly. I don’t know if I’ve paid more attention to this because of an increasing awareness of the hasty passage of precious time, but I do know that there’s no experience more precious than this, and that an everyday event can be the most magical one.
It was wonderful that John Lennon, who was given so little love as a boy, could develop his ability to love others heading into his thirties. As the years pass, the most important thing about love is how it continues. Its recipients benefit from it not just when it’s given but throughout their lives. Others benefit too. Think of the grandchildren whose Granny and Granda taught Daddy how to love. Love goes on.
I sometimes think about John’s ‘Love’, the acts and states of being that John equated with love, and the song’s haiku brevity, and I wonder—did he leave anything out?
Well. Love is comfort, comfort love. Love is courage, courage love. Love is caring, caring love. But love is not completely straightforward. Love is concern. Love is grief. Love is trepidation. Love is longing.
To say that these are positives and negatives is to realise that loving someone is not only elevating your life to heights it cannot otherwise attain but also that loving someone is setting you and that person up for mighty loss. At some point sadness like no other will ensue. One could say that the worst thing about a person dying is not what they themselves lose but the pain their passing causes to those who loved and love them.
In John’s ‘Love’ I hear him sing “Love is you / You and me / Love is knowing / We can be”. I hear the present tense in this but in a song like ‘Love’ I also hear an eternal tense. Though we won’t both be around forever, our love lives on and our relationship remains. Love you gave is love you can still give even after death and it stays imprinted in the person you gave it to. I feel that in what my Mum gave, which I still carry in my bones.
That’s why giving love right now is the best use of what time you have. Love causes grief but also strengthens those you love so they can be as strong and happy as possible and that’s what I have to believe matters most. John from early on and right through The Beatles felt not good enough until Yoko arrived. When we are loved enough, for long enough, love can ease the feeling of failure that is so familiar, that constant worry that we can never be a good enough person. Love can ease this agitation. Love is real, real is love, sang John, and he covered almost all bases in this perfect song. He could have added one thing: love is peace, peace is love.
One of my favourite things that songs do is that they mythologise normal places. Not everywhere is Athens and even there, one is in Ancient Greece while one is in 1980s Georgia. Any place in which a song is set may be special solely because it is in the song. There’s nothing intrinsically mythical about Summer St in Boston, the donut shop on Polk St in San Francisco, or Penny Lane in Liverpool, but were I in those cities I would be making pilgrimages to those places because they are in superb songs by Throwing Muses, Sun Kil Moon, and—surprise!—The Beatles. I did visit Summer St on my J1 in 1994, with the Muses’ Red Heaven on my Walkman, possibly puzzling passersby because strolling the scene of this song was making me smile. I didn’t make it yet to Polk St, from ‘Glenn Tipton’, or to Penny Lane, but I did stand outside Paul McCartney’s north London house for ten minutes in 2019, which is totally fine and not sad.
‘Personality’ by Whipping Boy, from side two of Heartworm, does this work of creating local folklore as well as any song. ‘Personality’ is one of half a dozen Heartworm songs that I could write about in a column dedicated to songs that send shivers up my spine. (‘Morning Rise’, the closing song, missed out only because I’ve gone on about it enough.) Aungier St and Dame St, where ‘Personality’ is located, have felt special since Autumn 1995, when Colm O’Callaghan gave me a pre-release cassette of Heartworm, and on my way home to Ballinteer on my bike my heart and mind melted. On Aungier St I always hum the song and sometimes walk a little on air because of the following lines: “The fantastic thing about the female / Is that she was put on this earth to be admired and adorned, not abused / Or so the Senator said one night in J.J. Smyths/ Where all the punks had played and the jazz men have their day.”
Now, I have to say that is not the only reason Aungier St has sparkle: I used to essentially live on Aungier St as my wife Sharon lived on the top floor of an Aungier St flat during our early days. Good times.
I headed in to J.J. Smyth’s a good few times in the aftermath of Heartworm coming out. (As an alternative to The Long Hall, a fine pub on the cover of a fine Jubilee Allstars album—listen here.) I saw the late Louis Stewart there, a jazz man having his day, and other times I sat with a book and playing Heartworm, feeling at the centre of things. One of the song’s verses ends with “All our lives spent Underground”, meaning in the club at the junction of Georges Street and Dame St, where bands in the mid to late 80s lived and learned, like A House, Something Happens, Into Paradise, Power of Dreams, and Whipping Boy.
‘Personality’ does more than capture and beautify or beatify a place. It captures a time. The song opens with a gorgeous rising, falling, echoing guitar intro by Paul Page leading to Fearghal McKee narrating one of the more memorable couplets in music: “I want to marry a personality / Someone who looks just like Koo Stark”. Even in 1995, few knew who Koo Stark was, apparently a famous photographer since the 1970s but best known in the 1980s as a partner of Prince Andrew’s, so pinning the song to that period. The song contains lyrics I’ve never properly absorbed or understood (“Sunken dreams for Mr Field / Sold out to the Longman Oz / Solid days and Liquid nights / Red boy loved our pavement fights”), which has not hampered my appreciation of the song. There’s no harm when songwriting stays mysterious. Lyrics don’t need logic.
That said, sometimes Whipping Boy lyrics are hazardously direct. My son Michael, who is eleven, got into Whipping Boy this year when he heard ‘When We Were Young’. Michael is finding his way, as you do, mostly immersing himself in electronic music about which his Dad has no clue, and he made an iPod playlist for bedtime wind-down not long ago. There wasn’t too much serene ambient music on this playlist and there was no Max Richter. Eleven of the twelve songs were pneumatic drill dance and the twelfth, though not techno, was ‘When We Were Young’, another song that does the opposite of assist sedation. What Michael and I have not done—yet—is talk through what the words of the song mean: “Babies, sex and flagons, shifting women, getting stoned / Robbing cars, bars and pubs, rubber johnnies, poems”. I guess some of this is on the way, in ten or so years if Michael takes after his not-quite-Casanova 1990s dad.
Walk up to the corner of Aungier St and Longford St Lower now and you won’t find J.J. Smyth’s. It closed in 2016. It was replaced by another pub. For all I know, the Thomas Moore Inn is cropping up in someone else’s lyrics; I’d like to think so. The Underground became a gentleman’s club (air quotes) called Lapello, a depressing fate arguably worse than demolition. Another Dame St Underground opened in 2017 but closed in 2020. Venues that took over from The Underground as a nurturing ground, like the legendary Attic, did not last too long, although while the Attic survived it nurtured some of the finest music I’ve known to emerge from Ireland.
J.J. Smyth’s and The Underground being gone is paradoxically partly why I love ‘Personality’: the song evokes a vivid memory of places crackling with energy that moulded people including those playing the song. It documents how important it is to have formative homes from home where we meet ingenious inspiring mentors who encourage us to try new things. Fearghal McKee sings “People grow old / They get bored, they forget to take a risk”, but they didn’t do that in the Underground while it was hopping. I admit I don’t know where today’s analogue to the Attic or Underground or J.J. Smyth’s is. There are reasons for this. I don’t flounce around town as I did in my early twenties. I rarely get to gigs and they are mostly in the NCH. Nineties me is unimpressed. And as far as I know, it is becoming impossible to run a ‘Personality’-style creative cradle, small venues having been described this year as “on their knees” because of urban rent and the aftermath of COVID.
‘Personality’ is not all time-stamping. The opening couplet of the second verse is “I wish I were in a bright green field / Staring at the bright blue sky”. If I am walking on grass and the sky is clear, Fearghal’s vibrant voice and Paul’s radiant riff come back to my mind and it feels like I’m in the song as I’ve been for nearly thirty years. Songs that elevate the most everyday of experiences are crucial like songs that elevate a street corner or a time in the life of a city that in was not all great. Songs remind us that everyday experiences must be savoured. You don’t experience beaming primary colour nature every day and you will only experience it for so many years. You remember now when you were young and if you become eventually elderly you will remember when you were older, maybe longing to return to those days. We don’t get to.
What we get to do is to have blissful experiences alongside the bad ones as long as we live. Rammed lightning gigs. Lying down out the back of your house under a May cherry blossom, closing your eyes, and soaking up sun before it inevitably rains. Connecting with songs that are old, new, or both as they continue to evolve. Laughing with the love of your life with wonderful music in the air. Ageing as slowly as possible alongside her, she who transformed your life when she accepted and reciprocated the realisation that the dawning closing lines of Heartworm rang true: “I can’t help thinking that I love you”. Savour this: it’s as lucky as anyone can get.
Wendy Smith and Niall Crumlish talk through how a song, story, and sunlight collaboration begins.
Acoustic Mirror By Wendy Smith.
Early morning on Wednesday 31st August while still in bed before getting ready for work, I checked my Twitter feed. At 7.15 am, I received a direct message from Niall Crumlish. The message started with “Just want to say I’m in hospital, I am going to theatre. I am going there now.”
“Right”, I thought, sipping my first Earl Grey tea of the day, barely awake.
Until that moment, Niall had been a Twitter acquaintance. I’d read his pieces on his brilliant blog Psychiatry and Songs and admired his writing about music, which details his close listening to a huge range of songs and artists. His knowledge of music is vast.
He told me he needed surgery. It sounded serious. He said the song holding him up that morning was ‘Life of Surprises’. It was moving to hear the music of Prefab Sprout, my work, Paddy and Mart’s, was woven into his life, including ‘the best elements’ of his life. He was going into theatre singing a line from a Sprout song that he heard in my voice: “Just say that you were happy, as happy would allow / And tell yourself that that will have to do for now”. This was undoubtedly an unexpected moment in Niall’s life, in his work and family life. I wondered what the surgery might mean, what exactly was going on. It seemed significant that Niall reached out to share this moment in such a direct way. I wanted to respond in a meaningful way.
Before receiving this surprising early morning message, I had often thought Niall would be a good collaborator. We share an intense passion for music, an interest in how music sustains us, how our stories can be told through the music we love and how it helps us make sense of the world. The potential for collaboration is the kind of creative notion I often have but don’t do anything about. Busy at work, busy at home, I struggle to make time for my creativity, my artistic life outside of my job. Anyway, I sent a message to Niall wishing him well and told him I’d had this thought. Maybe I wanted to send a more direct line of connection than him listening to music I have made or me reading his blog pieces.
The next day, the day after the operation, a new message arrived: “I am doing well”. At this point, I didn’t know the details of the surgery other than an unusual symptom of musical déjà vu he’d mentioned. I didn’t really know what was going on. I didn’t want to ask for updates or for contact. It was clear he’d need time to recover and we barely knew each other. Still, I wondered how he was. Another nine days silently passed by so I pitched in with ‘How are you doing Niall?’ He replied to say he was doing okay, and that he had a meeting with his neurosurgeon and excellent specialist nurse scheduled in the following week to talk about treatment. He told me a bit more about his family, his extraordinary wife Sharon, his dad, and his three children.
Niall shared that after only six days of musical symptoms he’d been diagnosed. He followed with a detailed description of how throughout his life he lassoed songs or lines from songs to ground himself, to anchor and guide him. In the days leading up to diagnosis, when he cast out a line for a song to act as a touchstone as he always had, he couldn’t find it. It wasn’t there. After a lifetime of anchoring through songs, this absence sounded scary. Also, I wondered how such a unique symptom might be explained, properly heard, and understood. After only two weeks of messaging, we were in at the deep end.
For whatever reason, perhaps because we shared common interests, Niall was comfortable sharing his experience with me, while checking whether I was okay to hear it. I was.
Niall’s connection to music had become clearer through the absence of being able to cast a line for a song he needed and find it. There was fear that after surgery it might not return, but with huge relief, the connection between music and his autobiographical centre remained intact. And although there was a lot going on he said collaboration was appealing. We agreed this would require us to get to know each other better.
From there we sailed into an exchange, getting to know each other beyond public Twitter posts. We chat in messages and emails, not in person. It is a written conversation. We send each other music, mainly songs, with some classical pieces. Over four months we’ve shared hundreds of tracks and artists we love, sometimes explaining why and what they mean to us. To keep track we created a shared playlist, and by December 21st the list included close to two hundred songs.
Extremely obviously, given that he is a psychiatrist, Niall has a psychologically minded approach. I really like this. He wants to help, he’s kind, compassionate, measured, generous. He thinks about other people’s feelings and experiences, understands how to detail or be specific in what he writes, knows how to get it right without alienating and without expressing judgement, even if like all of us he is judging.
I wanted to understand more about the connections Niall makes with music. I did quite a lot of wrapping my head around his frame of musical reference, his lassoing music for guidance in a concrete, direct way.
I’ve always been interested in the way music contains and expresses our experiences, feelings, and memories. How composers and songwriters can tap into this instinctively or use common musical patterns and cadences to express and evoke emotions. We all know music uplifts and consoles; I’ve always gravitated towards consolation through melancholic music—the blues in a wide spectrum of musical styles and tones. Obviously, for those of us who love it, and who doesn’t, music is an accompaniment to our lives. Songs are like maps or radar that can help us find our way. Although Niall’s musical lassoing is different from the way I find music helpful, we share common ground in music being a foundational part of our lives.
I connect most deeply to the sound of songs, their chord structure, instrumentation, the qualities of production, melody lines, the way the voice sounds, harmonies, and the way music breathes and pauses. Of course, words are important too. I often think of music as an acoustic mirror that reflects who we are. It can be a witness that helps us feel fully seen and heard. I have found it especially useful for what is beyond words, what seems inexpressible or even unspeakable. With music whether there are lyrics or not we don’t have to explain, instead, we can sing, create sounds, or listen.
There is also an obsessional aspect to music-loving: the best record lists, playlists, charts, exactly which conductor, which artist or orchestra, which live performance or recorded version is best, our favourite, which album cover, how we listen on vinyl or digital platforms, and which is most ethical. I would rather be obsessional about music than some other things that can be preoccupying.
The continued conversation that began the day Niall had surgery coincided with his diagnosis and treatment. It corresponds with a time in my life when both of my sons are now adults and I have a renewed intention to expand my creativity, especially my writing.
For the last year, the thing I have found most beneficial is being part of writer, psychotherapist and yoga teacher Stella Duffy’s online yoga and writing workshops, where I have learned to write without pause, unedited on a crossed-out page in a cheap notebook with a nice pen. The main thing is to show up on the page as often as possible. I try to do this every day without judgement and without editing. I find it hard to make or find the time, and when I do have time a vast need to do absolutely nothing seems to surface. I like spending time thinking in a quiet space if I can find one. This does not help me to write.
Collaborating with Niall has made me make time and space to write on a blank page as I am doing now. And to dare to share that with another person. That is the hardest bit for me. To let go of the page and give it to someone else regardless of what they might think about it. Harder or easier with someone who is a psychiatrist, I am not sure. When I’ve shared pieces online in the past, I have used the prefix “Psychiatrists look away now”; well, there’s no chance of that here. It is hard to share. I edit thoughts like everyone does, to be careful of other people’s feelings, to be socially acceptable, and not to appear stupid or wrong.
Each year in winter I post on social media about the waning light and I look forward to its return. I bring a lot of people who struggle with winter along with me. Considering our respective circumstances, I wondered if light updates might be a manageable collaboration with Niall; short posts which can be relatively spontaneous and something I am used to sharing with others. I suggested it to him and he said a quick yes.
The light updates or daylight posts started when my youngest son was two or three. As a solo parent, I had to get through the winter months alone with two young children and a full-time job. Though I had lots of support from friends and family, I found the long dark nights difficult and often frightening, especially when my children were unwell and I was night-watching. In Autumn all I could see before me were months of darkness. I found a way through the darker months by breaking the weeks into manageable chunks. From Samhain at the end of October, when the clocks go back, to Winter Solstice in December the days get shorter and the nights longer. This lasts for about seven weeks. Then, over six weeks from Winter Solstice to Imbolc in early February, the days become noticeably longer and light is returning along with spring flowers and the dawn chorus.
I post light updates in case they help others. I usually use nearby Newcastle Upon Tyne as the location for daylight hours, so perhaps they are most relevant to people living in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, but others can get the drift too. I post times of sunrise and sunset, the number of days to Winter Solstice, the hours of daylight each day, and how many seconds or minutes of extra daylight we can enjoy. I post photos I take myself on walks and other people send photos of what light looks like where they are. My friend, the artist Emily Hesse called this ‘measuring daylight’. I really like that. Measuring daylight feels like time well spent.
For our collaboration, we agreed to post a song, a photo, a few words, maybe a haiku or tanka from Niall, or a fragment of my writing. As Niall is based near Dublin, and I am in Northumberland, I decided to use Dublin as the location for daylight hours. Once started we expanded to two posts per update with two songs, an A and B side, sunrise, and sunset. This was Sharon’s idea. So, we chose photos showing the quality of light in a particular place and linked them to songs. We selected songs or pieces of music mainly related to winter light by artists we love and, in the process, helped ourselves and hopefully others who appreciate longer daylight hours to get through the darkening days of winter.
Altogether between Samhain and Winter Solstice, we posted thirty-eight light updates including about seventy-six photos and songs. We invited others to help, and eighteen lovely people sent photos, lines, or songs. There were contributions from Ireland, England, and Wales, gorgeous photos of light in Dublin, Galway, the Lake District, Northumberland, the North York Moors, Tynemouth, London, and Powys. Sky, sea, trees, birds, lots of birds, horses, shadows, frost, sunrise, sunset, and all rays of light in between.
Working on the light updates with Niall has been wonderful and I have learned a lot. Though working together had come completely out of the blue the detailed listening to music and piecing posts together felt like familiar territory. As a singer and performer, I focus on the sound of voices blended through harmony, working out what that might do to a song, how the combination of voices might scaffold, embellish, create atmosphere, or what it might communicate to others. While writing this piece I’ve wondered whether creating the light updates together has been a kind of unexpected duet.
Just Say That You Were Happy As Happy Will Allow By Niall Crumlish.
On Wednesday August 31st, I woke early. I was in a six-bedded room on a neurosurgical ward called Adams McConnell in Dublin’s Beaumont. I was in hospital as a patient not as a doctor for a change. I was due in theatre that morning for a four hour operation that would involve my skull being opened. Kind empathetic nurses woke me at half five to give me medication that would assist surgeons in conducting my operation. I didn’t sleep again. I was not massively relaxed. I had slept for three fidgety hours. Nine hours is normal for me.
As light rose I sat looking through a bedside window facing west. I was due a craniotomy so that a structural abnormality that caused musical neurological symptoms I had first ever experienced on August 20th could be excised from my left anterior temporal lobe. It hadn’t been remotely obvious eleven days earlier that there was anything the matter. It was 11am on Friday 26th August that I knew with reasonable certainty that something was up. A hundred and eighteen hours later, I would be asleep in theatre with a saw buzzing.
Lives can upend quickly.
I went to work on 26th August as if nothing was wrong because essentially nothing was. Then I had symptoms in my Inchicore clinic office as I was talking intently with a member of my team. Though what we were talking about was pressing and fascinating legally and psychopathologically, I realised minutes into our conversation that I couldn’t continue. I couldn’t attend to what either of us was saying. I was distracted by what seemed like a song in the ether trying to get me to identify it. I couldn’t hear the tune or lyrics of the song but it was niggling at my musical memory and I couldn’t focus until I knew what song it was. Five minutes later, after I’d used an excuse to ask my colleague to leave, this song that itched at my musical memory turned out not to have been a song at all. It was gone; vapourised. There was no residue. It is so hard to explain this.
That conversation is to this date the last conversation I’ve had about any patient. I never had a symptom while seeing a patient. I miss seeing patients. I miss my work family. I miss being useful in the south inner city. I look forward to getting back, which slightly surprises the version of me who was never happier than when setting up the work email auto-reply telling contacts he had just headed off on seventeen days of summer holidays.
On Friday 26th I was rapidly assessed in the ED in St. James’s, seen by a brilliant neurology colleague, and scanned. At half four, imaging all done, my colleague had to call me. I was told that evening that I had to go to Beaumont as soon as possible and I arrived close to midnight. I hung around the hospital for the weekend taking steroids, clasping my wife Sharon’s hand, meeting friends, and relying on songs; real songs.
On Wednesday 31st at 7am, the ward was still quiet. Although not listening to music I had music in my head. Not unusual, as Tom Jones would say. It was one song. My musical memory, which I have relied on every day for decades for guidance and resilience, was playing a song it had chosen wisely: ‘Life Of Surprises’ by Prefab Sprout. I was hearing one couplet over and over. Well, I didn’t hear it. It was auditory memory: when your brain hums a song to itself and it seems like you hear the singer’s voice but you don’t. The couplet was “Just say that you were happy as happy will allow / And tell yourself that that will have to do for now”.
I didn’t deliberately select this song or couplet. Still, I had signed a consent saying if surgery goes wrong you may experience stroke or death. My mind likely selected this song because it was a terrifying morning and this was my musical memory giving me strength and settling me. Telling me—this is not all good, but remember how lucky you are. Which I am. That morning, for a couple of hours, I heard this couplet in Wendy Smith’s voice. Wendy’s Prefab Sprout harmonies are typically higher-pitched than Paddy McAloon’s lead, and they are generally sung with a hushed compassionate tenderness. Usually, over the years, when Prefabs songs have hummed themselves to me it has been her voice I hear them in rather than Paddy’s.
I knew Wendy a little. Not well, but we had followed each other on Twitter for a few years and she had messaged me kindly about my mum’s death in June and about her eulogy, which I wrote. Now I was about to go down for perhaps the most momentous four hours of my life and I was hearing her voice on repeat, repeating lines akin to what I would later learn in meditation to be a sankalpa. In my memory she was singing a heartening steadying mantra in a song that was providing spiritual and concrete protection. At 7.15 I direct-messaged Wendy on Twitter to let her know what was happening and ask for her good wishes. As you do.
I wrote: “Wendy, I hope you don’t mind me DMing you. Just want to say. I’m in hospital. I am going to theatre. I have complex symptoms including odd musical déjà vu symptoms. I need surgery. I’m going there now. I wanted you to know that songs have as always been sustaining me and the one that I have holding me up this morning, waiting to be taken to theatre, is ‘Life of Surprises’. Your music is just so important, so founding, so woven into the best elements of my life. I know you know this from my recent playlist but this illness has arisen since then! I appreciate your work so much. Paddy’s and yours. I am here singing ‘Tell yourself you’re happy as happy will allow, and tell yourself that that will have to do for now.’ I hear that in your voice. Wendy, wish me luck and we will see each other on main Twitter soon. Niall.”
The playlist was one on Tidal called Goosebumps, which I had begun to build after my mum died and which featured songs that made my hair stand on end and/or spine tingle including several songs by Prefab Sprout. I also had to add, when I checked with Sharon just before heading to theatre: “My wife tells me that ‘Life Of Surprises’ was on an early mixtape I made for her. Over 20 years ago. I’m not lying about ‘woven in’.”
I have since then often wondered what it must have been like to wake up that morning on the receiving end of this message. At work: “Any news, Wendy?” “No, not much.”
There are all kinds of ways that a reasonable person could respond to this message. One is—Eek please don’t send me messages like that. I would have completely understood this. But there are also kind, courageous, graceful ways of responding. I didn’t read Wendy’s reply until I woke up properly the next day, September 1st, 24 hours after going to sleep, but Wendy was replying as I was being put to sleep just before nine on the 31st. In what she wrote so soon she provided clear compassion, good wishes and much more, including friendship, an offer of collaboration, and a way to find light and energy during potentially the darkest few weeks of a life.
It took a few weeks of recovery post-op for me to be able to get properly into regular contact with Wendy. She regularly checked in and I said I’d get back to her. I wondered about her proposed collaboration. Is this realistic? What does it mean? I am a psychiatrist into music and writing. I’m a longstanding fan of Wendy. We talked about writing separately and together. We talked about why we write—not entirely for the same reasons. I was a little into haikus and tankas by this time. By the time we were in touch regularly in October, the timing was good as we were heading for Halloween and walking towards winter. Wendy had a fine plan. Every year, she runs a Daylight project on Twitter, which finds contemporary light and beauty primarily in photos and music when it is perhaps most difficult to find this beauty. So Wendy asked me if I could take and find photos, write short texts to accompany them, and to find songs to accompany light and words. I said oh yes.
We have finished the Daylight project since the December Solstice and I have wondered why I was so eager to do this particular piece of joint work apart from the obvious reason that it was an opportunity to collaborate with Wendy Smith, who I have listened to for years, whose post-Prefabs work in Sage Gateshead is also important, inspiring, and energising, whom I have come to consider a close friend, and whose taste in music is almost comically close to mine. Wendy said early on in the Daylight project that it was important that I pick a good few of the songs because her taste in music is that bit too melancholy. My favourite artists of all time, alongside the Prefabs and Beatles and so on, are Smog, Lubomyr Melnyk, Julia Jacklin, American Music Club, Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Circuit Des Yeux, and Sufjan Stevens, so yes, good to have me offset the melancholy. We sent each other plenty of songs that the other didn’t know and then really liked.
And I think there was something critically timely about this for me.
In October 2022, during much of getting to know Wendy, I was wading through a period of post-hospital, post-tests anxiety and uncertainty. However, it was not until November 2022 that I was going to experience some other downsides of being a patient who needed the treatment I did, which is post-treatment tiredness, apathy, and an excessive wish for isolation. Baseline I’m fairly introverted and lethargy leaves me needing to be even more alone. This felt so seasonal, so in tune with the shortening days and lengthening nights, that a pathway through the literal and figurative darkness felt important. I mean, to state the obvious, I have a wife and family and friends around me who are unbelievably generous and caring and Daylight was not everything that kept me going. My wife Sharon kept me going in everyday life and in Daylight too by contributing beautiful pictures and songs so many times. But as well as having family and friends, having deadlines to find and select pictures of bright beauty and allocate songs to them and every so often spin out a haiku—this was a job that really helped energy arrive on days when otherwise it very well might have decided not to.
So. It is still winter. It is spring soon. Imbolc and St Brigid’s Day are less than four weeks away. I am not sure what our collaboration will be next, now that we no longer have to worry for now about the light. But we’ll work on something. Sharon and I will in Kildare and Wendy will in Northumberland. That’s my hope, anyway. And I will cherish whatever we find to work on. One thing I did not know about being properly sick until the days began to shorten last Autumn is that when you become sick you do not lose the belief that you need to do something with real meaning unrelated to illness. If it is just sharing a song or a snow scene or drafting a haiku that half a dozen people read. Like Smog sang: “To be of use / To be of some hard / Simple / Undeniable use”.
Mary Hopkin’s ‘Sparrow’ is an unusual inhabitant of my Goosebumps playlist because I heard it for the first time in Autumn 2022. It is not one of those songs that has thousands of associated memories to machete through to get to what the song would say if first heard today. That is itself surprising. ‘Sparrow’ is a song that was released on The Beatles’ Apple Records. I first dived into the Beatles in 1987 and I have read tons of books about them, including books about Apple Records, all of which feature Mary Hopkin as she was the first artist other than The Beatles to release on The Beatles’ own record label. Maybe this illustrates something pretty obvious that I only realised here when coming to the end of the piece, which is that music was not always as immediately universally accessible as it is now and your 1960s kitchen might sometimes need to be silent.
Hopkin’s first single on Apple was ‘Those Were The Days’, with a B-Side of Pete Seeger’s ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’. That number one single was produced by Paul McCartney in 1968, when he didn’t have much else on except releasing The White Album, prepping Let It Be and Abbey Road, trying to figure out how to keep The Beatles going, and falling in permanent love with Linda. Mary Hopkin’s second single had a McCartney song, ‘Goodbye’, on the A-Side and ‘Sparrow’, written by Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, who Mary Hopkin praises highly to this day, on the B-Side. The Apple release schedule around the time Hopkin was releasing these songs included ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Get Back’, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, and ‘Something/Come Together’. Late brilliant Beatles if poignant because we all know what happened next. The Clash told us quite a while ago that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust but still: that is quite the environment to be mixing in.
How I encountered Mary Hopkin’s ‘Sparrow’ was that in September I tweeted about bird songs. I have another Tidal playlist called ‘Tern! Tern! Tern!’, which is an amusing (chortle) play on Byrds words. I was looking to replenish the playlist. It opens with the Byrds version of this song by Pete Seeger and then the second song is ‘I Like Birds’ by Eels, because I am quite a concrete thinker. As it happens, the title is also a play on Hopkin words given that ‘Turn! Turn’ Turn!’ was one side of her first single. I did not know this until literally today, December 21st 2022: lifelong learning! One reason I was tinkering then was because Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which provides ‘Turn! ‘Turn! Turn’ with its lyrics, was a reading at my mum’s funeral in June: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven / A time to be born, and a time to die”.
I asked Twitter friends to send me songs about birds for this playlist and lots of people did. Much to my surprise, Mary Hopkin was a respondent. Even more surprising that I didn’t know the song given that I instantly knew who she was, knew that she was a central person in the Beatles’ Apple Records and have been a tad on the Beatles obsessional side for two-thirds of my life. It quickly turned out to be—let me see what I said in October—dizzyingly beautiful. ‘Sparrow’ came out as a single B-side and was not on Hopkin’s 1969 album Post Card, which seems bananas, but no more so than ‘Penny Lane’ not making it to a proper Beatles album. I guess The Beatles were like: we’ll have another one in the morning. ‘Yesterday’ arrived in a dream.
So this is a song from a period and place that I love, non-revolutionarily—Beatles London in the late 1960s. Apparently some of the work was done in Paul McCartney’s house on Cavendish Avenue, to which, as a forty-five year-old, I walked miles in pilgrimage to stand outside, pausing en route outside Abbey Road. But that is not what draws me to this song or to any of the Beatles songs done since he moved in there in 1965. Equally, there is relatively little connection via autobiographical memory to this song. Not none, but I only just heard it. That feels freeing: it’s the song not so much the associations. Although it has to be a little bit of those.
One key thing is that this is a song about the glory of little flying things, a subject on which I support the song. The most normal of flying things, if any can be normal. Since the start of the pandemic I’ve become more attuned to and invested in birds. I live in the country in Kildare, we have a few fruit trees and hedges with berries around the house, and we would always have robins, blackbirds, magpies, tits and sparrows flittering around. When I had to work including conducting clinics from home from March 2020 for some reason I decided to stock up on feeders and seed including nyjer, which attracts the brighter finches, the gold and green ones and the punk-pink redpolls. I saw goldfinches far from the house and given their then-rarity and obvious beauty I wanted them nearer, and they are now. Our local nyjer supplier likes me, I think.
I saw so many sparrows that spring! To the point that I under-rated them. I would be disappointed by the sight of a sparrow as much as by the sight of a crow. With crows you might think you have seen a buzzard and crows are equally graceful in flight, but then when you see it’s a crow you are disappointed. This is not fair. What did the crow do wrong? Similarly in spring 2020 I would think I’d seen something like a dunnock, redpoll or wren, but it would turn out to be a sparrow and I’d be like not another one.
As Hopkin, Gallagher and Lyle point out, this is completely missing the point. Their point is that although just brown, black and grey, and as common as muck, building nests from gutters all over England, the sparrow is a glorious creature. Hearing ‘Sparrow’ makes me like Sparklehorse’s ‘Hundreds of Sparrows’, a song I’ve played hundreds of times, a bit less. Why is each sparrow worth so little? Who is devaluing and misvaluing? Beings and phenomena and experiences do not have to be kaleidoscopic or rare to be precious. Experiences like hearing a sparrow sing, watching a leaf fall and land, or holding your son’s hand are at least equal. The clear reminder that Mary Hopkin provides of this in ‘Sparrow’ is maybe why I love this song the most.
‘Sparrow’ opens with a quick church bell and with the song’s protagonist setting the scene: “On Sunday morning everyone will leave the house / Dressed for the Sunday service”. The music in the church itself sounds good and it sounds like the singer needs it: “When Eleanor sings in the choir / It’s like a lark in summer”. The protagonist goes directly from this comparison to her praise of the sparrow, generally considered less lofty than a lark: think of ‘The Lark In The Clear Air’ or Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. She follows by appreciating the song and motion of the oft-ignored bird: “The sparrow sings, the sparrow flies / With mighty wings he reaches / As high as any other bird / He shall inherit all the earth”. She sings this twice. There is choral accompaniment emphasising what she says. The choral accompaniment heightens for the second chorus, to press home her love of this bird that R.E.M. might, if they paid attention, call the king of birds.
Something fascinating about ‘Sparrow’ that I am mostly noticing as I listen to it and read the words while writing this essay is that the song’s protagonist needs the song of the sparrow. It is as if the music of nature keeps us going—some of us at least—and it is because there are times that we lack that music that we made the man-made kind. She follows the first chorus with uneasiness about the silence of the evening; forgive me if right here I think of the night-time bird-song silence in The Beatles’ 1968 ‘Blackbird’ being broken only by the forlorn male looking for a mate with no hope of finding one.
In the second verse, Hopkin sings “A wealth of silence will descend upon the town / In colours of the evening / The thought has troubled me before / I know alone I need a sound to fill each moment / I had to find it out my way / They couldn’t stop me leaving”. The sounds in this village, though glorious, are not quite enough to keep someone who needs to be immersed in music at all times. I have to say—this all sounds familiar given the length of Goosebumps playlist, the songs on which that I heard first, thirty-five years ago, are Beatles songs that were in the air in Abbey Road and Apple fifty-five years ago when Mary Hopkin was in those places.
‘Sparrow’ ends surprisingly and, I think, amazingly. The day starts on Sunday at church and amidst nature. A grounding time and solid places. Then the protagonist moves towards evening and misses the morning singing so takes steps to retrieve her intimacy with music. There is no choral accompaniment or religious grandeur to the final verse, which ends on a note of uncertainty, which can also be taken as excitement: what’s next? The protagonist is young, I think. I don’t like equating characters in songs with their performers but it sounds like its protagonist is a woman of twenty-ish who is deciding on her future. She is stretching out and moving away from home because there is not enough music around. She needs music to live so she needs to leave.
I listen to this today and think: well this was 1968. You could not just reach over in a village amidst making a lentil pasta sauce and put on, as I’ve just done, a song from twenty-three years earlier that you suddenly acutely needed to hear. When you need music to survive, you go where you will find it. Sometimes that is the source of the sound of a lark, in a church or ascending from a field. Sometimes in summer it is hedges where sparrows reside. Sometimes, though, it is not those. As the final verse reminds us, humans, despite our faults, are not all bad, because we create music when and where other creatures will not. So the protagonist ends the songs away from the village, stepping into a new life replete with music and possibilities: “Through the blue and hazy drift of after two / A saxophone is moaning / I rise and step into the cool night air”.
In March 1987, when Sign O’ The Times by Prince came out and The Joshua Tree was just out, I was in first year in secondary school. I was coming to the end of first year in a boys’ school, St Benildus’ College in Kilmacud, where I started in September 1986. That means I was almost exactly in my educational and social development where my eldest child, the beautiful, warm, compassionate and funny Olivia is right now. She is of course a completely different child than I was. Ethically engaged, climate-conscious, interested in animal welfare, aware of and respectful of natural variation in gender and sexual preference, while in 1987 I was just afraid of being called gay or nerdy or bad at sport, two of which I definitely was. When Sign O’ The Times arrived I was slightly younger than she is now because I wouldn’t turn thirteen until the end of first year in April 1987 and she turned thirteen just after starting in secondary in August. But man—I was a stupid kid. I don’t blame me entirely and our generation has probably done a better job of providing ethical guidance to our kids’ generation than the generations did before fist-clenched Catholicism declined in Ireland but it also seems quite late now to educate a generation about, say, an extinction crisis that there is little prospect of resolving.
Sign O’ The Times was released on March 30th 1987, while The Joshua Tree had been released on March 9th, 1987. What a month! As a boy in a boy’s school in south Dublin, I didn’t get Prince at the time. There was one boy in the class who did and told us all about him. This boy was more mature than I was. You could tell this through conversation, in the sense of what he talked about as well as the depth of his voice, and you could tell it in the P.E. changing room. This was at a time that there were boys who appreciated the sexual aspects of Prince’s music more than others who were on the threshold of puberty but really unfamiliar with it and its sexual implications. So a song like ‘It’ would have been a puzzle (“I want to do it baby all the time, alright / Because when we do it girl, it’s so divine, alright”). We would have had to pretend we knew what Prince was singing about and just try to escape down the corridor before being proven as bullshitters—look, there’s a badger with a gun! ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ would have been completely baffling and kind of still is.
It was safer in school to stay in the realm of male non-sexual songs like ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and even what appeared non-sexual like ‘With Or Without You’. You could like ‘With Or Without You’ and write U2 on your schoolbag without signalling that you understood the longing in Bono’s voice. You could like ‘The One I Love’ by R.E.M. without knowing what it meant for someone to be a simple prop to occupy your time, although I remember older boys boasting about getting together with, having sex with, then discarding girls. At that age I was also just about hanging on to religion, planning to get to Heaven, so the saviour-like aspects of Bono’s performance were still a way of connecting with that band. These were the aspects that resulted in Paul Wonderful of The Joshua Trio riding a donkey into the Baggot Inn in December 1987, shortly before I went about losing my religion for all time in 1988. And it was intoxicating to have a band from Dublin that was so huge. I grew up in Ballinteer and my family home is less than two miles from Danesmoate, where Adam Clayton lives and where The Joshua Tree was rehearsed and in part recorded. I remember heading up to our local Superquinn after the album release, queuing behind a man who was buying a box of Corn Flakes and recognising him as the bass player in the biggest band in the world. I left him alone.
It was about three and a half years later, the summer of 1990, when I fell properly in love for the first time, in the Galway Gaeltacht, that Sign O’ The Times hit home. I remember after my late summer departure from the Gaeltacht that we went on holidays as a family to Donegal, where my Dad is from. I was angry that I had to go because I wanted to stay in Dublin and hang with my first ever girlfriend so holiday snaps are of me looking sullenly out to sea in a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. We stayed in a house in Drumboe near Stranorlar where my Dad was born and where his father, my Granda, lived until his death in late 1982. Dad did not grow up there because his mum died when he was one year old, so he was reared by amazing aunts in Convoy, a village a few miles away. I sat out in the driveway of Granda’s house listening over and again to Sign O’ The Times, draining the car battery by using the car’s tape deck, focusing on what I considered the core songs: ‘Sign O’ The Times’, ‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’, ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’, ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, and ‘Starfish And Coffee’. By the time we got home the flame of young love had dwindled and I was dumped.
‘Starfish And Coffee’ is a spectacular song. I wonder now if I connected to it because it dealt so clearly and funnily with the problem that everyone of the age I was then has, which is fitting into school and society despite your idiosyncracies. Prince and his friends Kevin and Lucy are at school first thing in the morning, observing classmates and studying human behaviour like Björk would a few years later. Prince’s classmate Cynthia Rose is like no-one else and stuns him and Lucy. Prince praises her unpredictable uniqueness: “Cynthia wore the prettiest dress / With different color socks / Sometimes I wondered if the mates were in her lunchbox… Cynthia had a happy face, just like the one she’d draw / On every wall in every school / But it’s all right, it’s for a worthy cause / Go on, Cynthia, keep singin’.” The song’s chord structure is really simple and you can play along if you are middling on an acoustic. It has the same chords as Johnny Cash’s ‘Hey Porter’—fact. There are no solos like Prince played on ‘Purple Rain’ or ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ or on that live version of ‘When My Guitar Gently Weeps’ that, when Prince died, many deemed the high point of his career (not me).
So ‘Starfish and Coffee’ occupies a particular slot on a complex challenging album.
Prince is everywhere on Sign O’ The Times. He is sexually voracious and questioning (‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’: “Is it really necessary for me to go out of the room / Just because you want to undress? / We don’t have to make children to make love”). He is politically enraged and exhausted in the title track: “A sister killed her baby ’cause she couldn’t afford to feed it / Yet we’re sending people to the moon”. He sounds maybe preeningly self-satisfied on ‘Slow Love’ and a little spiritually self-righteous on ‘The Cross’, never my favourite song on the album despite its epic closer anthem status. As a bit of maturity set in, early teenage disappearing into the rear view and voice cracking then deepening, ‘It’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ became brave and fascinating songs, while the happily mutally agreed rapid coupling in ‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’ made a young man think: can that kind of liaison happen in real life? No: it couldn’t. No-one was going to ask me to take a bath with my jeans on and if they did—let’s imagine that something similar happened, once, on a J1 summer—I would, unlike Prince, panic, say no, and head for the hills. But it was a nice introduction to the work of Joni Mitchell outside of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’: “Oh, my favorite song, she said / It was Joni singing / Help me, I think I’m falling“.
‘Starfish and Coffee’ is one I love on this record because it takes a breath in the middle of all the surrounding intensity. It is easy, energising and relaxing. It is pro-human, pro-diversity, pro-surprise. It is an encomium of someone young who is always courageously going to be her own person. In our teens, and later, struggling to form shipshape identities, we needed to hear this kind of thing from someone who was himself, until his desperately disappointing early death, immovably his own person. It was the only Prince song of that period or probably any that could get on The Muppets. Millions of kids will have seen it, understood it, and taken it with them through their childhoods. Prince, Cynthia Rose, and her socks must be happy with that outcome.
I came across Palace Brothers early on, in my life and theirs, in October 1993 when I was nineteen and ‘Ohio River Boat Song’ and There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You were Will Oldham’s calling cards. Soon, Oldham’s calling cards would be Palace Music’s ‘New Partner’, from Viva Last Blues, which Glen Hansard covered, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s ‘I See A Darkness’, which Johnny Cash covered on American III: Solitary Man, the same album where Cash recorded Nick Cave’s ‘The Mercy Seat’ and U2’s ‘One’.
Of course Will Oldham wouldn’t have been too over-awed by this. He was not into awe. A vivid memory of seeing Will Oldham live is when he was lying asleep on the stage he was sharing with Nick Cave at Liss Ard in West Cork. It was 1999 and Cave’s current release was still the reveredThe Boatman’s Call. Cave said he didn’t believe in an interventionist God but then many thought on foot of ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For’ that Cave was himself a god. Sleeping Will seemed not to think so. In fairness, by 1999 Oldham had released ‘I See A Darkness’, the song that Johnny Cash would cover, so he and Nick Cave were songwriting peers. Nick didn’t mind. He’d been in The Birthday Party. He’d been there.
In October 1993 there was a Melody Maker review of There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You and I was riveted to Melody Maker at the time. I don’t remember the review well but I remember finding the language of the album title attractive and mysterious. There is no-one“what” will take care of you. Not “who”. So I popped in to a Palace show that happened to be on that night, 24/10/93, in the Baggot Inn. It was a Sunday. Happy days living in the suburbs of Dublin, a bus and short walk from all kinds of spontaneous excitement.
This turned into one of the most transformative musical moments of my life. There are just a few moments when you have years of retrospect to draw on that seem like important branches in your musical tree. Like side one of American Music Club’s Everclear and Pixies’ Doolittle, side two of R.E.M.’s Green and AMC’s California, then much later IBM 1401 by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Where you realise: oh this can be done. In this case it was the scope of what a songwriter can sing about, how broken a voice can be, and how much you do or don’t have to trust the veracity of the voice you are listening to. Truth comes in different guises.
In Autumn 1993, arriving at the Baggot, I had never seen a picture of Will and his appearance shocked me. He stood on stage so thin and frail, almost invisible if he turned to the side. He was wearing jeans that had a belt and still slipped down his legs. His voice was not like one I had heard. It was hoarse and rickety and vulnerable with a tone both harsh and help-seeking. I think a lot of people in The Baggot were encountering Will for the first time. I remember surprise and sympathy—an “Awwwww!”—that rippled across the room when he sang, in ‘I Had A Good Mother And Father’, “I just thank God he’s able / For to give me so many good friends”.
The band around him was surging like The Bad Seeds. When he sang ‘Ohio River Boat Song’, his wavering vocal was at the centre but the surrounding sine wave of sound carried you up and down as a roaring river would. I didn’t at the time recognise David Pajo, the lead guitar player, who was directing that swelling sound, and who was in Slint, the cover photo of whose Spiderland it turned out Will Oldham had taken. I would get to know him when I met Will and David the following day at a free lunchtime gig in the UCD bar. I bought them pints. In 1993 I was in medical school, based on Earlsfort Terrace rather than Belfield where the bar is, but I was choosing gigs over lectures as I always would.
‘I Am A Cinematographer’ is the song that ends Palace Brothers’ second album Days In The Wake. This came out, then called Palace Brothers, in August 1994, less than a year after There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You and in the same year as a cluster of summer EPs containing the songs ‘Gulf Shores’ ,’Trudy Dies’, ‘Stable Will’, and ‘Mountain’. Within another year, he would release Viva Last Blues. Oldham was prodigious.
‘I Am A Cinematographer’ sets out Oldham’s stall as a writer of huge breadth and depth painting on a canvas as wide as the oxbowing Ohio River that flows through his home town of Louisville. Oldham documents his departure from Louisville in this song but he refuses to allow the songs to be only about himself in real life. He refuses to be like Morrissey who was only interested in songs that were about himself (“Hang the DJ / Because the music that they constantly play / It says nothing to me about my life”).
Oldham demonstrated early in his Palace career that he was interested in the stories of others more than in his own. He wrote unafraid fiction. The songs were about whatever was in front of his eyes or in the recesses of his mind, acted by protagonists like in plays. This was big news for me in 1994 because I assumed singers were telling their own stories and wanting us to like them. But that is limiting and you need to have people taking chances and sounding like dangerous or uncouth people in their songs. I didn’t know this about Oldham on There Is No-One and it just dawned on me over time.
Oldham’s songs have always been narrated by himself and by reliable and unreliable narrators like Gogol stories. As have many but not all Smog songs. I don’t think there is an Oldham equivalent of Smog’s tender 1999 diary entry ‘Teenage Spaceship’, for instance. ‘Mountain’, released in summer 1994, just before Days in the Wake, has its lead character fuck a mountain (“And I’d do it with a woman in the valley”).
On Viva Last Blues‘ brave but barbaric ‘Tonight’s Decision (And Hereafter)’, the narrator says “I have heard death cry, I have heard him falter / I have heard him lie and escape unscathed / When he comes for me I will fuck him, oh / I will waste him in my own way”. 1996’s ‘Disorder’ has a protagonist say about “Lisa or Laura/ (I know not her real name)”, that he sees in her “a reason to live / Which was past just a symbol of woman and luck / That I will never be lacking for something to fuck”. I remember reviewing this and expressing astonishment at the use of the word something. These characters are not Will Oldham being kind. They are whomever the cinematographer from Days In The Wake points the camera at. So there is this enormous liberation in this very early declaration of how Palace intends to proceed.
Oldham opens the concluding song on Days In The Wake with “I am a cinematographer”, and continues that he “walked away from New York City / And I walked away from everything that’s good”. He walked away from California too. He left these places where things might be comfortable because he wanted to see what he could find out there, like a 50s beat poet refusing to yawn or say a commonplace thing, and to convey this to people who would listen to his stories of rage and failure as well as tender love. There is third-person pain and copious sin here as there is in other oeuvres so Oldham creates a new body of work while attending to old ones. In 1988 Nick Cave died deservedly in a mercy seat. In 1968 Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. As Palace and beyond, Will Oldham’s words witness and recount all sorts of brutal inhuman inexcusable things. Yet on Days In The Wake he also sings, pleadingly, gingerly, in a persuasive first person: “I send my love to you / I send my hands to you / I send my clothes to you / I send my nose to you / I send my trees to you / I send my pleas to you / Won’t you send some back to me?” Cinematographers contain multitudes.
Throughout six weeks in October and November, I was commuting with my wife Sharon from our home to Beaumont Hospital for treatment with radiotherapy delivered by some of the most expert, kindest, most apologetic radiotherapists one can imagine. They were apologetic because of the four radiotherapy machines in use in St Luke’s in Beaumont, one kept breaking down daily. The radiotherapists were front of house when calling in someone like me who had been waiting an hour or two longer than expected.
I explained that as a 25-year clinician with overbooked clinics my entire career, 70% of my St James’s and Inchicore outpatient appointments begin with me saying I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. I said listen: for one thing the music here in the waiting room is good as it is RTÉ Gold. I heard Bob Dylan’s ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ the day after I went to see him in the 3 Arena and I wanted to tell the whole waiting room. When the staff said sorry, I said apology accepted but I thought no more apologies more suitable. I won’t name the staff but I will always remember them and I did name them in the thank you card I dropped in on November 17th, when I finished radiotherapy. That was seven days after I saw Pavement in Vicar St for the first time since they broke up in the 1990s. I wore a Pavement t-shirt to therapy the final day for protection.
I am a scientist, as Guided By Voices would have it, or at least some sort of scientist. I did medicine and I moved to clinical research with clinical practice and I published papers using data that required statistical analysis. I am medically trained, with an MB BCh BAO that had its Silver Jubilee in April, and I understood the science of the radiotherapy offered by Beaumont. I am not sure how much I would rely on myself to deliver a baby based on a 1997 Bachelor of the Art of Obstetrics, being a 1974 breech baby myself, but the degree letters are legal after my name. “Is there a doctor on the plane?” is a question one does not love hearing decades out of acute medicine and surgery but I once tweezed an earplug out of an external auditory canal on a plane back from Lanzarote and I have never received such an adoring look from another man.
So ‘Gold Soundz’ became the title of this series of essays at the show in Vicar St and unexpectedly came up for its own essay really soon. Last week I shuffled and was taken aback by the track the shuffle chose. There are more than five hundred songs on the Goosebumps list. I have been twice surprised now by the closeness between me and a song that comes up quickly and randomly, but then, maybe, don’t define a playlist by its somatic impact—its bypassing of the brain to hit home.
‘Gold Soundz’ has tracked me through my adult life like other Pavement songs, mostly on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain if I am honest. I know that hardcore Pavement fans reach for Wowee Zowee or Slanted and Enchanted and I’m like that with bands or artists I feel particularly possessive of, like American Music Club, whose Engine is unsurpassed, contrary to popular opinion. Increasingly, I’ve come to consider that Crooked Rain is perfect and it is partly perfect because of the apparent imperfections and inconsistencies. Albums need bumps and diversions and digressions. If one starts an album pristinely and continues it that way then it fades as you go on. Songs for Drella needs the bitter rage of ‘I Believe’ and the confusing mess of ‘A Dream’ to allow the listener to adjust and prepare for the tearduct target archery of ‘Hello It’s Me’.
So on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain we have perfect openers and so much variation in dynamics. We have the abstract pause of ‘Newark Wilder’, the clamour of ‘Unfair’, and the Fall caterwauling of ‘Hit The Plane Down’, so we are not just hearing perfect slacker pop. Then off we go again: the bewitching wishing of ‘Fillmore Jive’. I carried a bleep in multiple hospitals from summer 1997 to winter 2002, between being a urology surgical intern in Louth to a post-Membership psychiatry trainee in Tallaght. In 1999, in Portiuncula in Ballinasloe, I was a medical SHO and while on call I was the most senior immediately available doctor to look after you if you came from east Galway or Athlone with cardiac collapse. This was crazy. I could not sleep. What if someone arrives in from Loughrea and I fail? To my bleep, and career choice, and to hospital switch, so many times I pleaded, in Stephen Malkmus’ voice: “I need to sleep / Why won’t you let me sleep?” This was an era of 120 hour weeks and 60 hour calls. ‘Fillmore Jive’ could not help.
‘Gold Soundz’ was on this list because of my early connection to the song and album and because of how much I related to the lyrics way back when. In 1994, turning twenty, I felt like the lead character in this song felt about himself: “So drunk in the August sun / And you’re the kind of girl I like / Because you’re empty, and I’m empty / And you can never quarantine the past”. Maybe their finest verse and the source of the title of their Best Of, but in summer 1994 I was in America and feeling empty too. As one would hear in American Music Club, Palace Brothers, Kristin Hersh, Blood on The Tracks, and The Magnetic Fields’ ‘Born on a Train’, which no-one in Europe yet knew. The Divine Comedy’s Promenade and A House’s Wide Eyed and Ignorant were off-setting this loneliness although A House’s ‘The Comedy Is Over’ was wincingly truth-telling: “On the days I made you laugh / I thought I was halfways there / Now it seems that halfways is nowhere.” Ouch.
I was using music that resonated and I was using, as I always have and still do, sound as a source of emotional fullness. It helped to know that one could feel empty and not be alone in this. Smog, over the years, were particularly helpful here. In 1994 and 1995, Bill Callahan’s songs on Julius Caesar and Wild Love were about nothing but frozen isolation and by 1997’s Red Apple Falls they had warmed so much, in ‘The Morning Paper’ and ‘To Be Of Use’, that you knew change could come. In ‘Gold Soundz’, you had this loneliness but you also had shrugging optimistic lightness. You had Stephen Malkmus rhyming remember with December. Hey—he is a fun ragged poet! He does not care too much what people think. Once I heard him sing “So drunk in the October sun” live and I always enjoy when singers play with songs. Playfulness brings joy. I was a soupçon of disappointed when Malkmus decided not to sing “So drunk in the November sun” three weeks ago.
I didn’t know if I could go to Pavement on November 10th. I was over a month on radiotherapy and by then you are feeling things. The side effects were fine but they would preclude one from going to a show and standing for two hours. Any shows I’ve been to since becoming unwell in August have been seated—Christian Löffler and Grandbrothers, Julia Jacklin, Bob Dylan, and Pavement. Pavement was planned months ago, long before any of this, and I thought I was not too pushed about seeing them. But at half one on the morning of the show, Foggy Notions’ Leagues O’Toole direct messaged me to say there would be a seated ticket for me waiting in the box office and I realised I was delighted and craving this music.
I did not know whether I would buy a Pavement t-shirt. Since Beaumont began, I wore a t-shirt every day usually under an Autumn sweater (thank you Yo La Tengo). Each shirt was a band or singer. Radiation was not being directed at my chest or abdomen and so I wore t-shirts as if they were armour or the musicians were talismen. This meant I would only wear a t-shirt of someone who I thought had the resolve and robustness to keep me still and safe so the treatment would help not harm. Sharon bought me two Iggy pop t-shirts on these grounds, one of which reads “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.” I told my old friend and boss, author of 250 scientific papers, about this and he said: If Iggy Pop doesn’t protect you, who will?
Additionally, I wore shirts from A Lazarus Soul, Julia Jacklin, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Guided By Voices, Rival Consoles, The Wormholes, and A House. Technically the last one there was AHOUSEISDEAD but that is about rebirth not death so no problem. I did not wear my B.C. Camplight shirt bought in 2020 because as much as I love him and Shortly After Takeoff, he has a song called ‘Cemetery Lifestyle’ and his t-shirt depicting ‘Born To Cruise’ has a skeleton driving a van. So this seemed like asking for trouble. My Pixies t-shirt from the 1991 Point Depot show I saw the day I finished the Leaving Cert did not get an airing either. I thought the radiotherapy staff might wonder if I was OK if they saw 1991 on my long-faded clothes.
I didn’t think I would want a Pavement t-shirt because I had this memory of them as Stockton slackers: lazy and likely stoned and not too concerned: “I could really give a fuck”. I thought harm would not be magically prevented by their presence. Then I saw the show and they were as fierce and fiery as lava. Bob Nastanovich bobbed and roared his lungs to within an inch of their and our lives. Spiral Stairs sprang, strummed and smiled. When I came home I opined that the exchange of love, energy, and joy between the band and audience was unparalleled and I maintain that. Stephen Malkmus stood mostly smiling to the side of the stage rather than act as an oligarch and the whole band swept us away. As the show came to an end I realised I needed to hold on to this energy in the remaining days of treatments. I ran down during the penultimate song of the encore and picked up a t-shirt that I knew would help to keep me well. I wore it the next day. The therapists smiled and understood. They know you can never quarantine the past.
‘Apology Accepted’, the final song on The Go-Betweens’ fourth album, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, has one of my favourite opening couplets. The late Grant McLennan opens ‘Apology Accepted’ with “I used to say dumb things / I guess I still do”. This couplet is one I recall every time I say something dumb, which is every day.
I think a lot about how song lyrics are often there to teach us—to remind us to do better and sometimes signpost how. Arguably ethically demanding, but in a good way. I’ve found this couplet to be slightly opposite, unless teaching oneself to go easier on oneself counts. I find these as self-compassionate a couple of lines as you will find in a song, outside of The Walker Brothers’ ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’. Maybe not: McLennan beats himself up in the rest of the song, and the further I got into this essay, the more I twigged he was maybe right to do so. But there is no law against being selective in what you take from texts.
I was going to be alliterative and authoritative in the opening paragraph and say that ‘Apology Accepted’ is the final and finest song on Liberty Belle, but I don’t know that it is. There are no songs better than it anywhere but this is a genius album. I clicked with Liberty Belle in 1995, nine years after its release. I had encountered The Go-Betweens first in Hot Press and then in the RDS on 24th June 1989, when I was fifteen and they supported R.E.M. It was their final tour as a full band, supporting their final album 16 Lovers Lane before a couple of kinda reformations in the 1990s and 2000s. When I say kinda, Forster and McLennan reunited and called themselves The Go-Betweens. Lindy Morrison did not get back in. I suggest read the book about Lindy Morrison called My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn and decide whether the two lads alone were the band. (They weren’t.)
The Go-Betweens broke up just after I saw them and I was kept busy with bands that were still going. So my attention was not drawn to Liberty Belle until a magisterial revisiting of the album by Melody Maker journalist Andrew Mueller. Andrew wrote about Liberty Belle in a booklet called Unknown Pleasures: Great Lost Albums Rediscovered that accompanied the March 4th, 1995 issue of MM. I still have that booklet on my bedroom bookshelf. It’s a bit of a sacred text. It is where I learned properly about Dexys’ Don’t Stand Me Down too, from Chris Roberts in that case. I think I might have have mentioned that album before.
If this song is not unambiguously the finest Go-Betweens song, why choose it? I didn’t choose it, just to be clear. Chance chose it. It meets criteria for this essay in that it is on a Tidal playlist of songs that give me goosebumps or, at least, spine tingles. This column was almost called Shivers Up My Spine after the A House I Want Too Much song but then I went to Pavement in Vicar St. My wife Sharon chose this song by shuffling Goosebumps last Friday and seeing what played first. Shuffle played ‘Apology Accepted’ and I thought: Oh God. How do I write about that? There are oceans in it. The hundreds of times I’ve heard it, the incessant singing along. The friendships and relationships it’s woven into. The vast number of my mistakes that it has soundtracked.
That said, there are five Liberty Belle songs on the Goosebumps playlist. Robert Forster’s ‘Spring Rain’ opens Liberty Belle and ‘Spring Rain’ is the song I had to bring on tape when I picked up a secondhand red Opel Corsa on 24th June 1999. This was ten years to the day since the RDS show and that timing was honestly not on purpose. However, it was my first car, and I needed ‘Spring Rain’ on the stereo so I could leave the Deansgrange dealership while “Driving my first car / My elbows in the breeze”. I’ll always be grateful to Forster for saving me thousands of euros due to his disdain for motoring. “These people are excited by their cars”, he critiqued, contagiously, teaching me not to care what I drove except when electric cars came along. “I want surprises / Just like spring rain”, he continued, and I agreed. Spring rain is less surprising in Ballinteer than in Brisbane, but still.
The question for any Gold Soundz song is: why does a song give goosebumps? Can you ever really know? You can try to know. Why is ‘Apology Accepted’ on such a list? Should it be?
Well, it’s a raw, intimate, precarious song. A man who has a penchant for carousing alongside melancholy sings abrasively and abradedly about pain, shame, and failure. Early in the song, without laying out the relationship between the singer and the person being sung to, he sings, “More used to naked men / You said leave the light on / Don’t be frightened / I don’t know how long / I can wait to see / If my apology’s accepted”. As listener you are left wondering: who is “You”? We don’t know. We don’t find out what he did. We assume he said something thick and irritable. We all do that then grimace and wish we hadn’t. That’s right, isn’t it? (Wrote the essayist anxiously.)
McLennan continues, “Too proud to hang my head / In shame beside your bed / But sometimes you want something / So bad, you’ll grab anything / You said that’s ridiculous / There’s only one thing that precious / I don’t know how long / I can wait to see / If my apology’s accepted”. While revisiting ‘Apology Accepted’ since the weekend, I’ve also been going through a Sign O’ The Times phase and all I think of is how opposite this song is to Prince’s ‘Slow Love’. The protagonist in ‘Apology Accepted’ would love to be the lead in Prince’s song: “The man in the moon is smiling / For he knows what I’m dreaming of / Tonight is the night for making slow love”. McLennan’s character kicked off the night with that in mind, then fucked it up, somehow, failing sexually with a woman much more experienced than him. He then flailed at her, hurt her, and wants forgiveness. Is that it?
The song concludes with an ambiguous verse. I must say I have noticed this now, during the November Tuesday morning hours of this essay, more than before. McLennan sings with high expressed emotion, with Lindy Morrison’s drumbeat steadying him and guest vocalist Tracey Thorn empathically harmonising, “Time and time again / Your soft eyes close in trust above me / Such a simple question, I pretended I was sleeping / I didn’t know anything but you I’m keeping / I don’t know how long I can wait to see / If my apology’s accepted”.
We don’t know the simple question. We don’t need to know. We know that he can’t answer the question. We know that he wants his apology to be accepted yet he can’t quite act as a wise person probably would. Like, roll over. Turn around. Turn the light on. Talk. Know that shame is permanent if you act like it doesn’t exist.
I like that I don’t know the details of what happened and that you don’t need to know the details having heard ‘Apology Accepted’ hundreds of times for it to continue to give you goosebumps. The goosebumps have changed a little in texture. Today the song feels darker, more isolated. As a listener I now place less emphasis on the appropriateness of reconcilation and I have less interest in the protagonist being forgiven. I’m separating out the dumb things said from the frustrating avoidance through pretending to be asleep. There is conflict here and it needs courageous resolution not just passive attenuation with pretence and the passage of time. The protagonist does feel pain but he did it to himself (oh god there’s Radiohead now). He is shocked by his own behaviour. He is desperate for readmission to the relationship but there is no sign that he can do what he needs to do. It’s up to her. He is angry, wrongly. I have to say that thinking about this right now, hundreds of listens later, I picture his lover looking at him, turned away, faking sleep, and going: he’s wide awake. He won’t talk. I’m sick of this. I’m leaving.
So here’s my drum-roll take, thirty-six years on: the apology is not accepted.
This is as much of a surprise to me as Spring Brisbane rain was to Robert Forster. I always took the title of this song as a statement, interchangeable with ‘Apology Is Accepted’. Well—no. If it was, Grant McLennan would have called the song that. It does not say that anywhere in the words. Neither the arrangement nor McLennan’s vocal delivery say it either. The song is a cliff-hanger. The final couplet is “I gotta know / Is my apology accepted?” Today, at least, it seemed like the answer is no. The protagonist has to know that his apology, whatever exactly that was, was accepted, because he demands, righteously, that it is. He made a mess of things and he needs to be told that he behaved OK, but he didn’t. He has sexual and emotional needs and he can’t meet them and neither can his lover. He gotta know about the apology for ego reasons, not for mutual relationship reasons. Not so that his tender, sombre lover can work on repairing their relationship through helping him to change, to man up in ways that are vulnerable and mature. That final couplet is not as forgiving as I have always found the opening couplet.
In November 1991, I read a review for A House’s I Am The Greatest that was written by Lorraine Freeney for Hot Press. I had been reading her for a year or so. I had just started college and I didn’t know Lorraine but I loved her writing and highly valued her opinion. I started in Hot Press too in 1993. We have been close friends since then and I still do both of those. Lorraine gave I Am The Greatest a double six on the HotPress dice and she wrote that ‘When I First Saw You’, track seven, the song that segues into ‘I Am Afraid’, had a haunting quality with “sustained, ominous baroque chords crowned with gut-wrenching vocals”. That sentence stuck the album on my Santy list. I played the album, those two songs more than most, to death. I have played. Not past tense.
One thing that intrigues me is how songs evolve and grow with you. Well, they don’t all have to. You partner a song and then you can move and grow together or you can go your own ways.
Some songs are critical to life decisions at one point and then they are released just to be great sounds again. That was Dexys’ Midnight Runners’ ‘This Is What She’s Like’, from Don’t Stand Me Down, for me. Kevin Rowland assured me indubitably, through whooping, when I had not met and then when I had met the woman I needed to spend my life with. I broke up with someone great in 2000 when I first heard ‘This Is What She’s Like’, because the ecstatic adoration in the song just did not resonate with our relationship. I did not want to waste the time of the person I was with. I played ‘This Is What She’s Like’ when I met Sharon in summer 2001 and it said Bingo. I no longer needed the song as a guide. Long ago I put it out to pasture, no more workhorse blues, but I still stroke its nose every so often and say Christ, thanks Kevin.
At the start of my relationship with I Am The Greatest, I paid less attention to ‘I Am Afraid’ than I did to ‘When I First Saw You’, because paying attention to ‘When I First Saw You’ was not volitional. When the song finished, it didn’t. There was post-vocal reverb but that was not all. On ending, ‘When I First Saw You’ grabbed me and shook me by the lapels of the James Dean red jacket I was trying to look cool in. It mussed my quiff.
I was seventeen then eighteen in 1991-92. I arrived blinking and hoping to college from a lonely few years in a boys’ school. In UCD, I was frequently, incompetently, in love. I understood when Dave Couse sang “I was in awe of you / I needed to have you / God you’re beautiful, you really are / God I need you now, I need you now”, but I had no clue how you would go about meeting those needs. Not for ten more years.
I play this song now and I am still blown away by it in a way that is as literal as it is figurative. I am not synaesthetic but Dave Couse’s vocal sounds as a force nine gale would feel. I have to breathe deeply to assume the impact safely. The song clears my sinuses. Couse’s voice pierces through my heart space to my spine and I shiver. Some of this must be bad memories. I don’t miss that early longing. But it’s gratitude too. Thank you for letting me know I am not alone. Thank you for keeping me going.
‘I Am Afraid’ stood out on I Am The Greatest for me in 1991 because, well, for one thing, I could play it on the acoustic. I could strum with confidence and I could fumble along to Fergal Bunbury’s limber, empathetic lead line. Also, I heard the words. While I didn’t need these words as much back then as I needed ‘When I First Saw You’, we have stuck together. No retirement for them.
On ‘I Am Afraid’, Dave Couse, who is ten years older than me, sang explicitly about his fears and he declared that he was not brave. Well, technically, he said, “It’s not that I’m not brave / It’s just that I’m not brave enough for you”. If at seventeen you hear singing about twenty-something interpersonal problems, you might reasonably be pining for personal problems that attenuate your isolation, and you might disagree that they are to be feared. Couse sang “I am afraid to drink too much, because of what I might do”, so my GABA, my amygdala and I conferred and replied together: We are afraid not to drink too much, because of what we might not do. This remained true for—ten years maybe. Who’s counting?
‘I Am Afraid’ opened with “I am afraid of the dark”, and I was not. I liked dim light because that way you could shun and be shunned while walking around Ballinteer or town, without making a big deal of it. Headphones and the Discman that Blonde on Blonde inhabited helped. My stomach churned if I had to bump into someone I was uncomfortable in meeting. I was, as such, afraid of the day, as the second half of the first line said. Couse did this a lot. Not afraid of this? How about its opposite? Ha! Gotcha.
I don’t recall now being then perturbed by many of the next listed fears: “I am afraid to be unloved, I am afraid to be forsaken / I am afraid of doing wrong and to be never be forgiven / I am afraid that you will find I’m not the man you think I am / I am afraid to be on my own and of the unknown”. I was afraid to be on my own but I was used to it. I was not afraid that people would find I’m not the man I think I am because I was not a man. Who was I? No clue.
In ‘I Am Afraid’ an unmissable moment was when the music stopped and Dave Couse, a cappella, revealed “Ever since I was a small child / I cannot sleep at night / Without the light on”. I mostly mentally skipped this one. Even my ten-year-old brother slept in the dark. Then Couse stood on stage including at A House’s final show in 1997 and stretched out his arms like on Calvary, disarming himself while crying this out, and I didn’t properly appreciate even that act until recently. I am not brave enough for two, he said, but I am brave enough to be beamed at by bright lights before you to tell you that I suffer and lack courage so that I can help you sense, admit, and remedy your own fear and pain.
There are fears in ‘I Am Afraid’ that emerge as the song and seasons draws in, that don’t shrink. My core fear for years is “I am afraid that you will find I’m not the man you think I am”. One has to get to know yourself to validate this fear, which matures like vintage wine. Live through Sinatra’s ‘It Was A Very Good Year’ and arriving in UCD is the first verse while draining vintage wine is verse four, in the autumn of one’s years. As wine matures, taste improves but dregs pile up and crappy characteristics become visible. At seventeen, it’s hard to parse out flaws. At forty-eight, it’s easier.
‘I Am Afraid’ concludes with a verse in which Couse examines and elicits fear of two opposing things: “I am afraid of growing old / I am afraid to die, but it’s something I must do”. ‘I am Afraid’ can momentarily trick me into thinking that I am still afraid of growing old but I am not. I am afraid to die. I heard John Lennon last weekend singing “I can hardly wait to see you come of age” to his son Seán on 1980’s ‘Beautiful Boy’. John died at the end of that year, when Seán was five. Seán has always had Yoko Ono and he seems fine. Still, I have two such boys and a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful girl. I can hardly wait to see them come of age. I dreaded old age and now I crave it.
In Vicar St in December 2019, at the second AHOUSEISDEAD show, Eva Couse, daughter of Dave and star of his 2003 album Genes, sang ‘I Am Afraid’ as Dave accompanied on vocals and Gretsch, Fergal Bunbury played that graceful and resilient guitar line, and Eva’s friend and Fergal’s daughter Mairéad Bunbury drummed. They had done this together in June at the NCH too. I was there in June.
There are moments when Eva has to stop what she is doing because the crowd is singing to her and to her family and there is a moment towards the end where she elevates the pitch of her vocal by an octave because she is in front of her Dad, declaring on his, her, and all our behalves, “I am afraid to die / But it’s something I must do”. It is an act. And I know she and her family have experienced losses that were predicted and painted in song by Dave Couse and Fergal Bunbury and are rightly, always, to be feared. Then she and her dad and Fergal and Mairéad all hug each other as they close the song and you watch and you think, this, here, this is peak human life.
In September, I was in hospital for the treatment of a condition that made itself evident to me only in late August. I am long out of hospital. I am having the best care and treatment anyone could have. I am recovering. Low’s ‘2-Step’, in particular the part sung by Mimi Parker, who I just learned died last night, November 5th, was critical to my recovery and to my knowing that I would recover. Her singing signalled to me that a potential devastating consequence of a new-onset illness, a consequence for which I was trying to but could not conceivably brace myself, was not going to happen. I am not a crier but in my single room, when she sang, I wept.
It’s hard to describe exactly what my core symptom was that required hospital admission, but it was musical. Of course it was.
Let me try.
What I experienced was something that you could call musical déjà vu. Déjà entendu? My B in Leaving Cert French is unsure. I found myself on three occasions in six days thinking that I was remembering a song that was just out of reach, but I was not. I would realise five minutes later that what I had glimpsed as a tune or a lyric was not one at all. This was odd and it taught me something that I hadn’t been consciously aware of, which is that my musical memory constantly reaches out to adhere itself to a song relevant to what’s happening.
It’s not just a memory function, either. It uses a lot of my cognitive power because it is at my core. My sense is that songs have been so important to me since I gave up religion in 1987 (the year of The Joshua Tree and just before Green) and that it is music that I worship. Music provides my commandments. Just—ten thousand commandments. What was unusual about these symptoms was that my mind was reaching out to adhere itself to a song that wasn’t a song. This is why I call it musical déjà vu. You know how you are sure that you’ve done this thing before, until minutes later you are sure that you have not. Same, but for songs.
It is easy to think of examples now that I know this happens. My cousin the other day asked that if I saw a woman we both know, I would say hello. Bob Dylan’s ‘If You Say Her Say Hello’, from Blood on the Tracks, arrived unbidden and unfortunately for my kids got stuck on Tidal in the kitchen with me hollering along. When I wrote “to my knowing” in the first paragraph, my mind started singing ‘The Not Knowing’, which closes the first Tindersticks album. In Naas this afternoon it bucketed down as we left the bookshop. At the time, I silently sang the riff to The Beatles’ ‘Rain’, but now, having mentioned Blood on the Tracks, I have to hear ‘Buckets of Rain’. I was reading through this piece with my wife Sharon when she used the term “anchor” to describe the role that a song has for me and not un-telepathically we both conjured Björk and we laughed.
So this seems all like good fun and sure, yes it is. But there’s more to it and there are so many songs that are deeply meaningful in a way that is hard to describe. There are songs that I have attached myself to, or they have attached themselves to me, or both.
Only after I first experienced this symptom did I notice how often I have written about songs teaching me how to live. In fact, dating my music-based decisions to 1987 is dating them too late. I wanted to be a priest when I was ten in 1984 but at eleven, under the influence of Live Aid, I decided to become a doctor. I titled a piece last year about The Weather Station Guiding Lightsand I wrote in a 2020 piece about BC Camplight the following: I still use songs like BC Camplight’s to remind me to try to be a better human and to continue to teach me how to do it. It’s crazy that I still rely on songs like this. I’m not far off fifty years old. I meet a lot of people and I’ve had a lot of experiences. I still need reminders?
I met my friend Dr Killian O’Rourke in hospital a couple of days after admission and we talked through this. We looked at simple things like ‘Open House’ from Songs for Drella. Killian and I wrote a paper together once and because I was first author we joked that I was Lou Reed and he was John Cale. I’m nothing like Andy Warhol—I don’t like Brillo that much, for instance—but I long since latched on to this ‘Open House’ lyric or it latched on to me: “It’s a Czechoslovakian custom my mother passed on to me / Give people little presents so they remember me”. Anyone who’s had me bring or send something since 1990 owes The Velvets.
Then Killian and I talked about bitterness. I am incapable of bitterness. Now, I am an inordinately lucky person. Bitterness would be mostly comical. Still, at the time we were having this conversation I’d been landed in hospital with a near future of deep uncertainty and potential calamity. People including me were worried. But I couldn’t locate any bitterness. This is for two musical reasons. One is Mark Eitzel’s ‘Bitterness’, from The Invisible Man, and one is Prefab Sprout’s ‘Life of Surprises’, from Protest Songs.
In ‘Bitterness’, Eitzel sings “Bitterness poisons the soul”, and that’s it. In the context of American Music Club’s oeuvre and Eitzel’s solo output, this statement carries huge weight. The first song I ever heard by Mark Eitzel was ‘Why Won’t You Stay’, which opens 1991’s Everclear, a tender exhaling account of finding a friend who died by suicide, which is something I did ten years later. My friend owned vinyl Low albums that I inherited, including Secret Name, which I still have and which hosts ‘2-Step’. Eitzel’s songs are full of trauma and and he has never been sheltered. If he rules out bitterness as a response to life events, then that needs to be taken very seriously.
In ‘Life of Surprises’, Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith sing some of the most important words I’ve ever heard, that embedded and embroidered themselves into me in a way that incalculably improved my life. This was a long time ago—’Life of Surprises’ is on a mixtape that I made for Sharon just after we met in 2001. There was one daunting morning in hospital that I woke early, humming “Just say that you were happy, as happy would allow / And tell yourself that that will have to do for now”. There is then the core couplet that matches Eitzel’s lyric: “Never say you’re bitter, Jack / Bitter makes the worst things come back”.
The reason it was necessary for me to write this down and talk it through with Killian, asking him to write it down too, was that I feared I was about to lose this musical anchoring. I wanted in a week or two’s time, if things had changed, to have written down a relationship with songs that I would work to reattain.
During the conversation with Killian, I logically concluded that songs like ‘Bitterness’ and ‘Life Of Surprises’ are musical lassos that spread out from me without me knowing I’m throwing them, that wrap themselves around touchstones or longstones, and ground and steady me when I need them to, which is always. I feared that due to illness or treatment my musical centre would be disconnected from my autobiographical centre, so those lassos would not work. All the grounding and guidance I’ve acquired over the guts of forty years of listening to songs by so many brilliant and beautiful and wise people would be gone. That I would not be able to distinguish between lyrics that meant something and lyrics that were nothing. I don’t know how possible is it to empathise fully with this but I imagine many music lovers can. Imagine all the lessons, the emotional range and stability learned from songs, evaporating. How lost can one person be?
So I avoided meaningful music for a few days after admission.
Then, a week later, there was a point when I had to see what had happened. Symptoms were better, treatment was in place, and I have a playlist called Goosebumps on Tidal that aims to include all of the most emotionally significant songs in my life. I started the playlist in July after my Mum died and it keeps growing, to just over four hundred songs now. I thought: well, the only way to know if songs still mean as much as they did in July is to put on this playlist. If I get no goosebumps, then things have changed. I stuck on headphones and as casually as I could—as casually as the rabbit in your headlights off Unkle’s Psyence Fiction—I hit the shuffle button. Randomness felt important.
My phone played six songs. It did not take six songs to know I was alright. It took one.
The songs came on in this order: ‘2-Step’ by Low, ‘This Woman’s Work’ by Kate Bush, ‘Quiet Heart’ by The Go-Betweens, ‘Like a Song’ by U2, ‘The Waltz’ by Dexys Midnight Runners, and Aphex Twin’s ‘aisatsana’. All these meant something but it It was Mimi Parker’s singing on ‘2-Step’ that told me I was OK and that my mind and heart were intact.
It’s hard to convey what an enormous gift this was from Mimi Parker to me.
In a way, in fact, it was my anticipation of her singing when Alan Sparhawk started singing that did it. Alan opens ‘2-Step’ in his also beautiful voice and his contribution here is foundational. It’s like he is the first to get his chisel to the marble, but Mimi makes the Pietà. So as the song came on, I heard, for the two hundredth time, Alan sing “And the light, it burns your skin / In a language you don’t understand / It’s not that hard / It is not that hard”. My eyes began to burn. I was moved. I was intensely moved. And I thought: wait, this is not the peak. It felt like a peak. But it was base camp.
Mimi joins Alan soon and then she takes the lead vocal such that the song’s summit is when she sings “2-Step / Around the room / Kneel down on white / 2-step around the room / Kneel down on white”. Her voice, its solidity and its intensity and its quivering, is just so enriching. Listening to Alan opening the song, I felt my heart already full, like my lassos reminded me Morrissey’s was in 1994, and I thought: wait—if Mimi’s singing moves me more than Alan’s does, and it always has, and if my heart is already overflowing, then, how does that work? Where does this emotion go?
The answer was, that is when weeping begins, and it soon did. It was not as gentle as that of George’s guitar and it lasted five songs, to the end of ‘The Waltz’, which is itself eight minutes long. ‘The Waltz’ is one that ties me to Sharon, having been second choice after ‘City Sickness’ for opening song at our wedding disco, so it was completely weep-worthy.
A half hour of weeping is deeply unfamiliar to me but it was not distressing. These were tears of relief and joy, then quiet calm. ‘aisatsana’ in effect held my hand and led me out of this emotional turbulence so I could rest. I stopped the phone at that point.
I don’t quite know how to end this from here.
I am so terribly sorry to hear that Mimi Parker has passed away, just months after I saw her play live the only time I ever did, in April in Dublin. I wish I had sent this message to her while she was alive. I hope that Alan Sparhawk gets to read it when he is ready. Sharon and I wish him our most heartfelt condolences and I hope that my gratitude to him and his wife is obvious and well-explained. Low have taught, contained, sustained, nourished and elevated me for my entire post-adolescent life. They will continue to do this forever as will so much more music and I know this because of Mimi’s voice as experienced in hospital in September 2022.
The words of Circuit Des Yeux’s song ‘Walking Toward Winter’ that are printed on the sleeve of their 2021 album, -io, are not quite the words that the band’s leader Haley Fohr sings. This is what moves me most about this song, and the bar is high. Other affecting elements of ‘Walking Toward Winter’ are the synthesizer, percussion, bass and strings arrangement, Fohr’s supple singing, the song’s printed lyrics, and its title. Did I miss anything?
‘Walking Toward Winter’ is a song that I don’t want to over-explain with a backstory, as if it has one literal narrative meaning. No song does because every song is a dialogue between singer and listener. There are a few interviews with Haley Fohr from the time -io came out that discuss losses that she had experienced that drove the creation of songs like ‘Walking Toward Winter’, ‘Stranger’, and ‘Neutron Star’. I avoided reading them because I don’t want my connection to a song to be influenced outside the bubble of the song itself.
Title-wise, walking towards winter is a courageous but dubious act. December, which some have wished out loud would be assassinated, doesn’t need us to move towards it. It will show, right on time, after November. I don’t know about you, but this dimming, hushing period of the year is not one I relish. When crocuses, elder, and birdsong return in Spring, I often think back to the quicksand it’s been since Halloween and wonder: how the hell did I get through that? But it’s not like you have a choice, unless you choose to walk toward the cold, leafless and lifeless. You can only do that when winter is a metaphor, although the song seems to be hitting me hard again as our days literally darken. November Rain? November pain more like.
In ‘Walking Toward Winter’, Fohr sings about someone to whom she is close. She opens with “i’ve got my favourite thing / right beside me / and i am not afraid”. She does not specify what that “thing” is, but it may be her friend or a memento or memory of that friend. Fohr notes that while she is not afraid, she is not invulnerable: “i don’t want to go through all the seasonal hardening / cause you know there’s an avalanche that lives inside of me / and it’s ready to flow”. Fohr sings with rich texture but with immaculate containment, managing the avalanche, unlike, say, in ‘Stranger’, in which her singing is more volcanic than even the most dynamic form of frozen.
Who Fohr means by “you” is deliberately not clear. This “you” can be her friend or the listener or both. But later in the song she sings in the second person to someone whose hand she holds, who is in the song not outside it: “i’m breaking as your finger fit into mine… trying not to face / the storm that’s arrived”. She is “frozen just by the idea of taking a step / the fear of falling through, of finally settling in”. In a song about winter, you wonder where this step must be taken. In my mind, Fohr and her friend are at the edge of a lake they must cross, covered in ice that may crack, although “settling in” suggests an exhausting suffocating snowdrift like the quicksand above. The published song lyric concludes “walking toward winter hand in hand with you / our voices meet in the dark / first close, then closer, then your words become mine / and i’m walking toward winter with you”.
Again, I don’t want to imply that there is any definitive narrative meaning, but what I hear in Fohr’s aching melody and vocal tone as well as in her words and the song’s taut, resonant arrangement, is that the person whose hand Fohr was holding is gone by the end of their walk. They are at the edge of the ice together and then she is alone. Their voices find each other, then her friend’s voice dissipates and disappears. Still, though her friend leaves, she keeps going: “I’m walking toward winter with you”.
Although ‘Walking Toward Winter’ is a desperately sad song, there are a couple of things that I have observed about the song that provide me with solace.
One is a completely subjective, oddball, and refutable observation, which is that Fohr’s lyric writing in lower case, including “i”, is reminiscent of that of the great poet Lucille Clifton. Clifton wrote The Death of Fred Clifton about the death of her husband in 1984, and she wrote it in his voice, with the timing of the poem bridging his passing from this life to—wherever. The full text is:
and I saw with the most amazing clarity so that I had not eyes but sight, and, rising and turning, through my skin, there was all around not the shapes of things but oh, at last, the things themselves
Oh, at last! I mean—Lucille makes this dying thing sound pretty attractive.
Another is there are what feel like meaningful, song-reframing disparities between the printed lyrics and the sung lyrics. For example, she added a “that” to, and removed an “of”, from the line “cause you know there’s an avalanche that lives inside of me”, which became “cause you know that there’s an avalanche that lives inside me”. The lyrical differences are not huge but I think they mean two separate things.
Firstly, the fact that what is printed is not what was sung tells me that ‘Walking Toward Winter’ was vibrantly alive as Fohr recorded it, which means that the love declared in the song also was.
Secondly, the song ends with three words that are not on the lyric sheet at all. The final words, after “i’m walking toward winter with you” are “I love you”, or, sotto voce as they are, “(I love you)”. That they are not included on the lyric sheet means to me that the words were added as recording was happening by a person who just could not, despite her capacity to curtail emotional avalanche, curb her cascading love for her lost friend. Why is this important? Maybe it’s not. The subject of the song is gone and the singer is grieving. But it feels important.
These words are not as they are on the sleeve because Haley Fohr changed them in the moment, unable not to. For a song about approaching and encountering death, ‘Walking Toward Winter’ is so alive, so pulsing, so present, that it almost undoes death. Walk towards winter all you like but winter is not the end. Seasonal hardening must segue into seasonal softening. Dylan said “Death is not the end” and Haley Fohr’s incandescent whisper says that here. Crocuses know when to show and they always will. As Mark Hollis already told us.
And yet I’ll gaze The colour of spring Immerse in that one moment Left in love with everything
Julia Jacklin plays Vicar Street on November 3rd. This is her first show in Dublin since 2019 and the first on the European tour to accompany her August 2022 album, PRE PLEASURE. I’ve hardly been to any gigs since that pre-COVID year. Even in 2019, I only made it out to nine shows, two of which were hers. So her playing in less than two weeks is a big deal for me and for many others. (Below, I’ll touch on why this level of anticipation is a potential problem for Julia Jacklin in the coming months.)
2019’s Crushing remains my most-played album of the Bandcamp era, basically the last ten years, despite competition from Sufjan Stevens, A Lazarus Soul, The Weather Station, Circuit Des Yeux, The Innocence Mission, and Andy Shauf—among others. I’d never even heard of Andy Shauf until Julia Jacklin told me about him. (He’s so good.) Crushing is up there with R.E.M., Mark Eitzel, The Go-Betweens, The Beatles, and The Breeders. I ordered PRE PLEASURE off Bandcamp on purple signed vinyl because I don’t care any more about coolness.
PRE PLEASURE is a quiet, subtle, stunning record. It is cohesive, gripping, visceral, fluidly melodic, cleansingly honest, and leanly poetic. It is masterfully arranged. Its songs have sounds that are sad, joyful, unsettling, uplifting, gut-knotting, and comforting. Sometimes all at the same time.
I say quiet and subtle: I think those are fair adjectives and not at all reprovals. There is no ‘Turn Me Down’ on PRE PLEASURE, as there was on Crushing, and as far as I can hear there is no counterpart Matterhorn peak, but there’s just as much immersing Rothko colour on this record. I love ‘Turn Me Down’, but I so admire how Julia Jacklin, a trained operatic singer, restrains herself so that the drama in her songs is not confused with melodrama. She is really good on the guitar too and could easily crank out a ‘November Rain’ but decides, for now anyway, not to.
Julia Jacklin adds authentic drama to her albums by filling their songs with narrative specificity and rich vocal texture. She sings like a Sydney sean-nós, elongating lines as little or as long as each needs and filling each phrase with layer upon layer of meaning. This verbal and non-verbal microscopic granularity expands the songs rather than shrinking them. Jacklin sings about life situations that are so clearly experientially truthful—not necessarily i-dottingly factual—that listeners let down their guard. The audience goes: Oh God, that has happened to me.
Think of ‘When The Family Flies In’, from Crushing. Jacklin’s depiction of learning of a friend’s death in her Corolla outside a bar is so vivid that so you can smell the beer, leather, and car-freshener crowding in. The deceased is someone the lads in the pub don’t know, so she’s on her own with her friend: “Oh, the last thing that I sent to you / Was an irrelevant music video… Well goodbye / Well goodbye”. Has anyone hearing this song not had an experience just like this? Haven’t we all lost someone and felt ashamed as well as shocked and sad? Yep. Have we shared our grief-associated guilt with anyone? Nope. So songs like Jacklin’s provide validation and even absolution, putting a firm but gentle hand on our shoulder, like the guy does twice, for some reason, in ‘Hey Jude’.
The clarity in Jacklin’s writing reminds me of the work of her friend Tamara Lindeman. ‘Where The Family Flies In’ is glued, I think, to the song that closes The Weather Station’s Ignorance, ‘Subdivisions’, which opens “Got in the car and the cold metallic scent of snow / Caught in my throat as I reached out to turn on the radio”. Lindeman doesn’t mention the crunch of ice but you can hear it, so all senses are covered, grounding you in a frozen front seat. Or there’s ‘Stars’, from The Weather Station‘s How Is It That I Should Look At The Stars. ‘Stars’ sits you on the roof of a remote car. You note in the night sky the heavenly bodies that have guided and steadied us. That have let us know, since homo sapiens arrived, where we are (not that only humans use celestial navigation). It’s also a song in which you hear the following: see the light from that not-so-distant star? Since the light hitting my eye now left that star, we have utterly fucked our planet. The only liveable one of all the billions rotating those glowing rocks. There’s nothing out there of real value: “Nowhere up there is a place like this / Not one waterfall, no river mist”.
The resonance and relatability of songs like ‘Turn Me Down’ and ‘When The Family Flies In’, along with ‘Love, Try Not To Let Go’, ‘Too In Love To Die’, ‘Be Careful With Yourself’, and ‘End Of A Friendship’ from PRE PLEASURE, is why Julia Jacklin might be in trouble on tour. Like at old Eitzel gigs, audience members bring our personal lives to the shows and project them onto the stage so much that she maybe needs the lights facing her turned up so she can’t see tears in the front rows. I think here of Orwell’s Why I Write and extend that slightly into Why I Perform. A tour is in some ways a nightly re-unearthing of trauma. Is this why someone like Julia Jacklin performs? Does this help her? It wouldn’t seem so—and I am conscious that she told me that she can sing her most popular songs looking like she means it but really thinking about the catering. I was glad to hear it. That is healthy.
Jacklin sings songs that deal with emotions that are as deep and difficult as any human feels, and not just humans. Grief is not confined to our species. When I hear ‘When The Family Flies In’, Sufjan’s ‘Fourth of July’, Mumblin’ Deaf Ro’s ‘The Birdcage’, or Circuit Des Yeux’s ‘Neutron Star’, I think of my mother Mary, and ‘Let It Be’, and of John Lennon primal screaming through songs about his mother Julia on his first solo album. I think of mother orcas that carry their calves around for weeks after they die. I think of elephant grief. And grief is not just about bereavement; it’s about any permanent ending, with none of that “closure” bullshit. The endings of once-tender relationships are so hard to navigate and tolerate.
Writing about perplexing experiences is in one sense processing; it’s unweaving, understanding. I’m sure that is why Julia Jacklin starts a song like ‘End of a Friendship’. I mean—processing is what I’m doing now. But I don’t have to read this bloody thing out loud. And hasn’t the processing been completed by a singer-songwriter long before the tour starts? Then, it becomes more about the audience processing through your music using the performer as an emotional tool. So at that point the performer is aiding the audience, not herself. I do wonder whether even for a writer as generous, brave and personal as Julia Jacklin, there are things she cannot say in songs she’ll have to sing every night. In 1992, Michael Stipe chose Automatic as an album he would not tour and thus could safely voice his dying grandmother in ‘Try Not To Breathe’. Doubt he would have stuck it on Monster.
PRE PLEASURE dramatises heightened life particularly forensically as it ends, through companion closing songs ‘Be Careful With Yourself’ and ‘End of a Friendship’. This closing pairing reminds me of Crushing‘s openers, ‘Body’ And ‘Head Alone’. Those songs voiced opposing and equally valid takes by the same protagonist on the issue of bodily integrity: (‘Body’, “I guess it’s just my life / And it’s just my body” vs ‘Head Alone’, “I don’t want to be touched all the time / I raise my body up to be mine.)” Artists know that uncertainty is constant. Nothing is locked down.
‘Be Careful With Yourself’ is a declaration of love that sounds like it’s directed at the friend who is lost in the final song. In ‘Be Careful With Yourself’, Jacklin’s character is so twinned to her friend that she threatens taking up lethal habits if her friend won’t quit hers: “Please stop smoking, want your life to last a long time / If you don’t stop smoking, I’ll have to start, shorten mine”. ‘End of a Friendship’ then tells the story of what the title says it will. It recounts a terribly painful interpersonal event and ponders its significance. What it does, as Jacklin songs often do, is to proffer this event and reflection to the listener, asking—Sound familiar? I hope this helps! (I think the answer to Why I Perform for Jacklin is this. It’s this abundant generosity.)
‘End of a Friendship’ opens with the slightly panicked protagonist trying to rationalise a traumatic story to herself. She is back in a hotel room having finished dinner with a close friend. They got hammered and argued about something and they left dinner separately. Initially, the singer hopes things are still OK (“We don’t have to agree all of the time”). Jacklin is careful to stay in present tense self-talk: “Remember she wants to be by your side / Be by your side”. This is a way of keeping the listener in the present tense too, in the same space as the singer, like in that pungent, poignant Corolla. Listening, you are reminded of those remorseful hours after too much Tempranillo. By 3am, your chatty chilled buzz is gone, sleep is unsteady, and your pulse might be flickering too quickly. Red wine stains your hard-brushed gums and you have a tattered fraught feeling. The protagonist drifts into uneasy sleep but then her friend bursts into her room to castigate and abandon her.
First when I heard ‘End of A Friendship’, for some reason I thought: this is is not momentous. This is platonic friendship, not the true love that singers are always going on about.Even after a bunch of listens, the lyrics didn’t really land. I thought: friends fight.
Although the song hooked me straight away, the lyrics were not what embedded themselves. I grew to love this song because of its arrangement. To be irritatingly honest, it was the way the opening chord change and closing confluence of strings, guitar and voice reminded me of cherished early Tindersticks. Even today, when I walked around our garden listening to these songs a dozen times, I heard Stuart Staples’ voice creep in before Julia’s voice enters ‘End of a Friendship’. In fairness, I think the chords of the start of ‘City Sickness’, which was the first song played at my wife’s and my wedding dance, are the same as the chords that open ‘End of A Friendship’. And the dignity of the closing guitar and strings combination hands solace into any listener reconciling themselves with the shitty set of circumstances described, which we will all go through, if we haven’t already.
Then I realised my take on the song’s lyrics was—well—wrong.
This is nothing small! The protagonist is demolished and devastated. She is paralysed and powerless: “Woke up to hear her say that she couldn’t stand it that she couldn’t stay / Out here on the road, it didn’t feel right / She listed the things about me she didn’t like / I sat there in silence, accepted our fate.”
I tried to remember when I’d last had a fight like this that terminated a friendship; that amputated it. I couldn’t think of any. I had an argument in the USA in 1994, post-booze, that seemed to threaten a couple of friendships—we were close enough to be on a cross-country Eitzel pilgrimage to San Francisco and there were voices raised—but we made up in Sun Studios Memphis later that same day over a single shared bottle of Heineken. One friend I could have lost took the above wedding photo fourteen years later. Of course I’ve lost friends. Through death or through distance. But not in a conflagration like in this song; through a simmering down. I have attempted rekindling and rekindling has been attempted with me, and it usually doesn’t work. We’re not who we were back then and we have no time and lots going on. But there you are. What this song hones in on is the brutal disruption of a friendship that seemed like fusion.
The question that keeps coming back to me about these two songs is: does it matter if the friend in each song is the same? Does a loved one tenderising you as she leaves you invalidate the affection that went before? Does a relationship ending like this make the relationship meaningless? Well—no. It can’t. Everything ends.
Jacklin’s pairing of ‘Be Careful With Yourself’ and ‘End of a Friendship’ has had me ruminating about the paradox of the eternal and transitional. This makes me think of the love that passed between Jacklin’s character and her friend’s character, and how the death of that love is a little fictitious. It’s completely true, too, but the love they shared doesn’t die. It’s retained. It has changed them. It hurts but it has helped. Spiritually. Epigenetically.
In relationships, nothing is eternal. We grow and change and move and die. Every moment is one moment long.
You receive a final smile from, hear final words from, and hold hands with your Mum. You pop to Vienna to sit in the Prater with your future wife, because Orson Welles was in it once. You say “Hi Kim” to Kim Deal on October 1st 1990 outside the Stadium and she replies and you still know, three times the age you were then, where you each were on the SCR footpath. You smell your babies’ heads for the first time and your olfactory brain can smell them for you still, at will. On a random Tuesday, your son, who is seven, nuzzles into your left side angling for your arm and says, from nowhere, “Daddy, every day is special”. You wish you could freeze that moment but you can’t. That does not devalue it.
Even simpler things. You inch into the sea at Curracloe in July and tread clear cold water when ten metres away—splash!—up pops a seal that stares or glares at you. Transfixed, you maintain eye contact as long as you can. It’s two minutes. Then he or she ducks under and heads off to the Saltees. Perfect moments can’t last. Their brevity, their entry into the past tense, does not diminish them.
I have this habit of going in to the kids when I’m off to bed when they are asleep and whispering to them how much I love them. How they are the greatest. I like telling them that no-one has ever been loved more than they are by me. I mean—it’s true. I’m hoping their sleeping brains hear. I tell them when they’re awake too. I learned from my wife that you don’t have to be sparing with the I Love Yous. They’re not depreciated by frequent use. But I like telling them then when they’re asleep too. I like when I whisper in their ears while stroking their heads and they murmur or twist in slow wave sleep, as if they heard, which they didn’t. I want to keep laying down this solid cerebral layer of love. Then in a generation, they’ll still know, and if and when they are mums and dads, they’ll know how to transmit the love I gave them to their kids, and maybe their kids to their kids in turn. They’ll know the language, verbal and non-verbal. It just gladdens the heart to think that a night whisper now could make someone more secure, happier, in thirty or fifty years.
The song that ends PRE PLEASURE is about the end of a friendship. But the more I listen to the album the more I listen in reverse and land on ‘Be Careful With Yourself’. I just think that the love that appears to be lost in the final song is not lost. The song beckoning me slightly more is the one that depicts love at its most active. Love doesn’t end. Like energy and matter, it is neither created nor destroyed. It’s continually reflected, reabsorbed and re-transmitted. “Love goes on anyway,” sang The Go-Betweens, keeping it steady and free of mystique. Paul sang “The love we take is equal to the love we make”. I don’t know. That seems not quite the point. John sang, on his Primal Scream album, “Love is real, real is love / Love is feeling, feeling, love / Love is wanting to be loved”. I agree with that.
All the love we have to give away we have because we received it. Because it was quickly or slowly infused into us. The love we radiate, the love we share, does not stop there, even when a friendship ends. Love keeps moving, sparking, restoring and replenishing, bouncing back at us and generations that will come after us like the light from those stars that The Weather Station sing about. As The Breeders once asked: Does love ever end? When two hearts have torn away? Or does it go on, and beat strong anyway?
Fergal Bunbury is, in his own words, the guitarist and strategist with A House and AHOUSEISDEAD. Well: he has been both but is not both now. A House broke up in February 1997 with a final farewell in the Olympia. I was there, singing, swaying, drinking and mourning. I also attended AHOUSEISDEAD when they accepted an award for I Am The Greatest in the NCH in June 2019.
A gig I did not go to was the Pixies’ 20th anniversary Doolittle show in the Olympia in 2009. I wrote in the Irish Independent why I would not go and that is an addendum here. (It’s also here.)My essential point was “Ilove Doolittle too much to watch it being mummified.” Fergal and I started talking about Pixies last week. He told me that Trompe Le Monde was “the zenith of indie guitar rock”. I disagreed because Doolittle is. I shared with Fergal my 2009 piece.
Responding, Fergal addressed something that had never occurred to me: the correlation and contrast between Pixies’ trajectory since breaking up in 1993 and A House’s since 1997. On Twitter, he said: “The name AHOUSEISDEAD was inspired by Death to the Pixies, which I thought was the best title ever, until they fucked it up by coming back. Call yourselves something else. PIXIESAREDEAD.”He sent me a clear, detailed, handwritten reflection on A House and Pixies on September 25th, and he agreed that I could publish it here.
Fergal Bunbury, still produces fascinating, fractious, moving music, nowasFBU62. And let me just say: A House are among the bands I’ve held closest to my heart my whole life since age 17. One of my emails to Fergal ended like this: “Coda. I have the title track of I Want Too Much on right now. Fucking hell, Fergal.”
I am delighted to host fErGaL here.
Fergal Bunbury. September 25th 2022.
Niall, I really enjoyed your piece.
As for the Doolittle gig? You were right not to go. (Neither did I.)
I firmly believe that once a band breaks up they should never reform. (That goes for The Velvets too. No-one talks about those gigs.)
That may sound strange, considering the I Am The Greatest gigs, but I have spent 25 years saying NO to an A House reunion, turning down far less money than Pixies were offered!
When we were approached about playing to receive the Trailblazer Award (Microdisney & A House being the only bands so honoured!), my only stipulation was that it could not be advertised as A House. Hence AHOUSEISDEAD was born.
The idea was to play the NCH and then write new songs and play smaller venues as AHOUSEISDEAD, playing a mix of new & old songs. The NCH was a huge success but was all seated so we decided to do one for the dancers & dreamers at Vicar Street.
Each gig’s setlist was old songs but we radically changed ‘Take It Easy On Me’, ‘How Strong Is Love’, ‘When I First Saw You’, ‘I am Afraid’ and ‘Here Come The Good Times’, and as I said the plan was always to write new songs, which we did, just before the world shut down for two years. (I spent the lockdown writing stuff that was released on Bandcamp as FBU62).
A very wise man less than half my age once told me “No Kim Deal, no Pixies”, and he’s right. The tensions that split the band—one of the best bands ever—inevitably resurfaced, and that was that. Everyone has seen some fairly laboured Pixies gigs from aroundthis time on YouTube etc.
Then, the new material came. As I said here, the pressure to call themselves Pixies was probably immense. Don’t underestimate the pressure we were under to use the A House name. And Pixies would have been under even more pressure. I guess what I’m saying is: they could’ve and should’ve said no. Like we said no. Come up with a new name and start again. As creative people, it should’ve been easy.
As an aside, I think there is a very good long piece to be written about the AHOUSEISDEAD Trailblazer/Vicar Street gig. Old musicians, new musicians, left-out musicians, (there were 3 generations of musicians in the band), crisps, pre/post-Spotify, acrimony, Garageband, record deals, band break-ups, promoters, trying to make a living, old against new music industry, creativity. I think some of the issues we’ve touched on here could be examined in more detail with a specific focus on AHOUSEISDEAD and a wider point of what it takes and means to be a musician in the 21st century.
September 2022. In 2019, Eamonn Crudden of Dead Elvis asked me if I would write liner notes for a forthcoming anthology called You Never See The Stars When It Rains by the great Dublin band The Wormholes. I had loved The Wormholes for twenty-five years and I was thrilled to be asked.I wrote my liner notes in July 2020. It took me quite a while; the guts of a week, much of which was a scuba-deep dive into the wonderful music of The Wormholes, the rest of the Dead Elvis oeuvre, and much brilliant mid-Nineties Irish independent music. You Never See The Stars When It Rains came out in November 2021. Pieces by me and musician & historian Stephen Rennicks were included in the vinyl sleeve beautifully designed by Niall McCormack, who was back in the Dead Elvis days the singer with Jubilee and a Hot Press colleague of mine. The Blackpool Sentinel published my piece last December. This month, I asked Colm O’Callaghan from The Blackpool Sentinel if it was alright for me to publish it here, just so it’s archived online alongside my other stuff. He said yep. Thanks Colm.
In 1995, opening a review of The Wormholes and Jubilee Allstars in The Attic, I wrote: Now is as exciting a time to be a rock n’roll fan in Dublin as I can remember. No longer do you have to wish that you’d been aware of the existence of the Underground a decade ago; everywhere you look, these days, there’s another crowd of lo-fi misfits getting it together to borrow or steal distortion pedals and to promise as fantastic a few months as that legendary summer of ’85.
Music journalism rewards strong opinions whether or not they are not supported by facts but here, for once, I was on to something. As Daragh McCarthy’s film The Stars Are Underground depicts, the mid-1990s were genuinely great days to be into independent music in Dublin.
The sequence of events is broadly as follows.
The DIY ethos of the first wave of punk and post-punk dwindled in the 1980s, when the intrusion of major labels into Dublin in the search for U2’s successors became stifling. As the Nineties arrived, bands who were more energised by creativity than careers chose not to await A&R department approval and punk ideals reignited.
Artisan labels like Blunt and Dirt released amazing music by the likes of Mexican Pets, Pet Lamb, Female Hercules, Luggage, and The Idiots. Sunbear formed their own label to release their evergreen, eponymous, and only album. Niall McCormack of Jubilee Allstars, interviewed in The Stars Are Underground, said it simply: “There’s just loads of people putting records out. You don’t really care so much about being part of an industry, but just purely for the love of putting out records”.
At the centre of things was Dead Elvis Records, the label founded by Eamonn and Óg Crudden, brothers from Dundalk, along with Eamonn Doyle and producer/ engineer Marc Carolan. Between 1994 and 1999 Dead Elvis was at the heart of Dublin’s lo-fi flourishing and another band of brothers, The Wormholes, from Ringsend, was the heart of Dead Elvis.
Anyone reading this will already know that the late Dave Carroll played the drums and sang in The Wormholes while his twin brother Anto Carroll played the bass and keyboards and Graham Blackmore played guitar and sang. They all wrote songs although increasingly as they went on their songs became the sounds they unearthed in the ether as they played together, improvising with inhibitions in abeyance. When Dave, Graham and Anto joined together in full flow they made an almighty and liberating noise. Three was the magic number.
The Wormholes’ Chicks Dig Scars, named by Evel Knievel via The Simpsons, was Dead Elvis 001 and Dead Elvis’ final release in 1999 was The Wormholes’ third release, long in the works, Parijuana: Four Years In Captivity. The album Scorpio, recorded after Parijuana but released before it, was released in 1997. All three albums are represented in this anthology.
The Wormholes were the first band to release on Dead Elvis but they were not the first Dead Elvis band to whom I became devoted.
My ideal album in my early twenties was sparsely recorded, direct in its storytelling, melancholy in tone, and immediately relatable. As in: Big Star’s Third, Smog’s Julius Caesar, American Music Club’s California, Magnetic Fields’ The Charm of the Highway Strip, and Kristin Hersh’s Hips and Makers, specifically ‘The Letter’, because the lyric of ‘The Letter’ was so obviously autobiographical and was the most anguished on the album.
So into this aesthetic, some Dead Elvis bands fit more snugly than others.
I connected instantly to The Sewing Room’s And Nico, with its loping careworn chronicles of doomed attempts at romantic connection and loneliness numbed by intoxication. The dreamed denouement of Eamonn Davis’ ‘Lord Let It Be Over Soon’ was that he and his disappearing lover would “achieve a kind of intimacy that drink would only ruin”, a far-off prospect for me and my social circle, reliant as we were on pints for social ease. I laughed in wincing recognition at Stan Erraught’s ‘Miles Away’, which laid responsibility for any failures of connection with the protagonist, not his hard luck stories: “All she wanted was a word from me / All I needed to say / Was ‘I am here beside you’ / But I was miles away”.
Jubilee Allstars, another fraternal outfit, delivered pointedly uncomplicated yearning lyrics sung shakily by Niall McCormack and accompanied by taut strumming and drumming. In Motion’s Alan Kelly, on ‘Until My Dreams Come True’ from The Language of Everyday Life, sang “No matter how far I go / Loneliness is around / No matter how far I go / It will follow me around”, and he buried the pain in jangly harmonies, so even better. These Dead Elvis bands got me through my left brain—my more readily accessible hemisphere. They got in through their use in lyrics of language I understood, through the literal meaning of their words aligned with vibrant melody and empathetic arrangements. I really loved those bands and I do to this day.
The Wormholes got into you in other ways—right-brain ways.
They were viscerally thrilling and their music bypassed the usual central processing. When The Wormholes initially engaged my heart it was not in the way that other music engages with the heart as the metaphoric seat of warm emotion. It was the way a jolt of adrenaline engages your heart. And The Wormholes required you to listen with your whole body. The crunch of the guitar on ‘Leave The Blanket In’ and ‘Lay It On’ and ‘Riotman’ is not just a cerebral or auditory experience. It is somatic, experienced just as much in your stomach and sternum.
I always loved The Wormholes live where they took the roof off the place but it took a while to appreciate their records properly; the love and bravery that went into them and how music can speak to you in a different way if you learn to let it. And then for me their music acquired, alongside its raw chaotic energy, a beauty and depth that was obviously always there.
If Jubilee Allstars were The Replacements and In Motion The Byrds, The Wormholes were The Stooges. They were loose and electrifying, intense and poetic, furiously tilting at transcendence. Like The Stooges or Sonic Youth, like Sun Ra or Slanted and Enchanted, the freedom with which The Wormholes played their music was the meaning of their music.
The tracks from Chicks Dig Scars are tricky to write about in 2020. I played this album a lot quarter of a century ago so my impressions of Chicks are embedded in my memories of those years and obscured by everything that has happened since. It is hard to have a clear view of songs that are ingrained in you. Like ‘Leave The Blanket In’ says: the past is rushing in.
But it is an extraordinary album and the songs chosen here are classics.
‘Leave The Blanket In’ is a force of nature, with its open longing (“I want to see your skin / I wanna touch your / I wanna lick your…”) and its distorted vocals and heavy guitars somehow comforting, like a layer of cotton. ‘12AM’, which live was an immersive exploration of unyielding noise, is taut, then explosive, then joyful, and the glorious jubilant “A-roo doo doo doo doo doo” that underpins the second half of the song – well, that’s always been just one of my favourite sounds. ‘In My Head’ is immense, rocket-fuelled by anxiety and frustration and a touch of tired malevolence. ‘Tryen Alone’ is touching and empathogenic. The Wormholes had range.
‘Lay It On’ is gloriously riotous (“Get out of here you ain’t no good / Leave this fucking neighbourhood)”. Also, in ‘Lay It On’, The Wormholes may have been responsible for the greatest music video of the No Disco era, their friend Phil Doab jerkily dancing up a storm in Ringsend. It was good to check in with the video while writing this; I’ve taken The Wormholes pretty seriously in this piece and it was good to be reminded, via this pandemonium on Pigeon House Road, that they didn’t take themselves too seriously.
Then, ‘Rooftops’ has a poignancy that—well, in the aftermath of Dave Carroll’s untimely passing, ‘Rooftops’ just aches: “Miles and miles of rooftops / Grey bleak and unrelenting / My life is like a rooftop / It goes on forever and ever / And I wanna know / Does it end? / Does it ever end?” The final representation here of the Chicks era is ‘White Coat Ilyad’, from the ‘Lay It On’ EP, the descending minor chords of which attain peak Pavement’s unsteady grace.
The anthology continues with two sides composed largely of pieces from Parijuana: Four Years In Captivity. The central positioning of Parijuana makes sense: it is a highly distilled expression of Wormhole personality. I came to Parijuana relatively recently and I always understood it as the bridge between the song-based Chicks Dig Scars and the improvisational music that Dave and Anto later made with E+S=B and Amygdala. Parijuana was improvised and made over a period of four years from 1994-98 with production by Stan Erraught and Marc Carolan.
The first Parijuana track here is ‘Out Of Place 94’, a masterpiece of unease. “You want it all,” sings Dave Carroll, alongside ascending guitar chords above a rumbling distant bass. “You won’t let me in / I see it in your grin”, he continues, and there’s no satisfying resolution afoot. The song ends with waves of electronic noise and I imagine the band in the studio researching which wavelengths of sound are the most unsettling. And yet: Dave’s vocal on this is just so gentle, so defenceless, like something ineffable disappearing across the horizon.
‘Mission Hall’ is the Wormholes at their most simultaneously ragged and delicate. It opens with a hesitant piano melody before Dave’s drums join in, and you hear the band coming together, then separating, and the music waxing and waning before ending violently. Parijuana songs like ‘Mission Hall’ work well with your eyes closed so you are in the room with them while the music ignites. The room the band recorded this song in was Mission Hall in Ringsend, where Graham’s parents worked. ‘Mission Hall’ sounds different each time you hear it, although knowing it was recorded on The Wormholes’ home turf adds a grounding sense of place.
‘We Can’t Play for Shit E’ is rooted in Anto Carroll’s bass. It has to be rooted in something; something has to keep this music moving forward as it drifts and hangs like a dark fog. There is a lot to love about this piece—its serrated energy, its abundance of ideas, the vocal that arrives at six minutes for one line only—but what I love most is the trust in the band; the attachment. ‘We Can’t Play For Shit E’ is the sound of unshakeable connection.
‘Riotman’ could have graced Chicks Dig Scars. It is more of a song than an improvisation and it has a clear direction, with unrelenting bass, drums, guitar, and squeals of harmonica. In my mind this song sits alongside Sonic Youth’s ‘Cross The Breeze’. There is a pummelling urgency and the refrain of ‘I wanna know’ echoing Kim Gordon’s ‘I wanna know / Should I stay or go?’ These are earnest agitated demands yet there is a meditative stillness that music like this allows you to enter, as phrases reassuringly repeat themselves and your body’s rhythms and the rhythms of the music are aligned. You are in the song, not separate.
Like Faust covering The Fall, ‘Blame Superstition’ is a Krautrock-grounded stream of poetic consciousness. The kinetic driving rhythm frees up Dave Carroll’s singing in form and content, his tone drawling then abrasive, his improvised lyrics harsh then daft and playful (“The people around here / They can’t understand me … I think I’ve been abducted by aliens, I think I’ve got a rash”). This is how you sing in a lyrical language you invented. Someone in L7 once described J Mascis’s guitar playing as the ultimate expression of freedom and I think of that description when I hear the howls and squalls and raucous applause that close ‘Blame Superstition’, the unleashable exhilaration of Parijuana. ‘No Second Chance’, then, could have been on Nuggets.
‘Mark Chapman’s Revolver’ is expansive in its ambition—a reimagining of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ named after John Lennon’s assassin no less. But you don’t need to know the backstory to immerse yourself: to turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream, as it were. A classic Dead Elvis meandering guitar line threads through Dave’s vocals surrounded by a sonic landscape that could be Neu! covering Panda Bear, and it is quite rapturous.
1997’s Scorpio is represented here by ‘Go Under’, which has a harmonica-led litheness recognisable to fans of Brian Jonestown Massacre, and ‘Bee Mee’, which is somehow both pugilistic and plaintive. ‘44 Bulldog’ and ‘Free The Tones’ round out the choices. ‘Free The Tones’ is a collaboration with Dublin electronic pioneers Decal, a spacious piece that showed the openness, inventiveness, and curiosity that Dave, Anto, and Graham would bring to E+S=B and their other post-Wormholes incarnations.
It was incredibly exciting to be in Dublin when the bands of The Stars Are Underground were in their pomp and years later I used to look back on that time with a sense of sadness, a feeling of something somehow unfulfilled. The Dead Elvis / Blunt / Dirt bedrock bands did not become successful in the way I thought they might become, and that I thought they deserved to become. They broke up, or moved on, and most never played anywhere bigger than Whelan’s.
This was and is the wrong way of thinking about it. It may even be an 80’s A+R man way of thinking about it. When you look in 2020 at what came out of the Dead Elvis era and you see that so many of the mid 90s players are out there even now continuing to create art.
Eamonn Doyle, who left Dead Elvis early on, is now a painter and photographer. Eamonn Crudden teaches film. Marc Carolan is a successful sound engineer and has toured the world with Muse. Pat Clafferty of Mexican Pets paints. Stan Erraught, PhD, is a lecturer in the School of Music in Leeds, working at an intersection that I didn’t know existed between Immanuel Kant and popular music. Brian Mooney of The Idiots recorded some of the most painfully beautiful songs of 2020 as The Next New Low. Of Sunbear, Colin Morris and Joe Chester released new music in 2020 and Chester has a prolific output of solo work and collaboration. Niall McCormack of Jubilee Allstars is a visual artist, his design company called HiTone, which was the name he gave the label on which his band released their first single. His brother Barry, too young to be allowed into Jubilee for their first few songs but who later joined, has released six solo albums.
Brian Brannigan, an inspirational writer and performer with A Lazarus Soul who found his own inspiration as a fan of all these bands in The Attic in 1990s Dublin, told me in 2019 that the scene in the city at that time was “probably the greatest local music scene ever… every band was different. They were just such great bands”. Brian told me that Dave Carroll in particular was an inspiration to him: “I never met a more infectious and passionate person in my life”.
I wrote earlier half-apologetically that I’ve taken The Wormholes very seriously and if I do, which I do, I am encouraged to do so by the likes of Brian Brannigan elevating them and proudly stating how they influenced him. It’s important to recognise when art has an effect on your life and I think it’s important to let artists know that they do, when they do. When I think now about The Wormholes I think that they are an example to us all. They had the courage and integrity to follow their music where it took them. The anthology you are holding demonstrates this. In this way, they behaved artistically the way idealised artists do and created a body of brilliant work.
I think I owe The Wormholes and although I am not a musician I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve learned to appreciate how master musicians who are committed, close, and courageous, can take an idea, flesh it out and run with it, to follow the idea towards its conclusion: a piece of music that could never have arisen any other way than the way it just did. How those musicians go straight on to the next piece because the next piece is the interesting one. How it never stops because the music is right there. You can reach out and touch it. Just follow where it goes.
The Wormholes’ music showed me how staying with master musicians while they take that high-stakes journey is thrilling; how trust between musician and listener pays off. How when you listen back to an improvisation it won’t sound quite like it did before because your listening is part of the creative act and you are different now than you were when you heard it first so the music is different too. How improvising can reach an ecstatic conclusion that could not have been reached any other way except by those people in that room in that combination at that moment. How the music made in those moments by The Wormholes, by Dave Carroll, Anto Carroll, and Graham Blackmore, is music at its most sublimely alive.
In a song by R.E.M. called ‘Untitled’, Michael Stipe proclaims his love for his parents.
I made a list of things to say But all I want to say All I really want to say is Hold her and keep him strong While I’m away from here.
In April, Mum attended the funeral of an old family friend online with my wife Sharon. She couldn’t attend in person. The eulogy that morning was a moving account of a life well lived and Mum said to Sharon, “I wonder what they’ll say about me”. Two weeks ago, I held her hand and I asked her what she would like us to say. But I had waited too long and she couldn’t tell me. So I tried to tell her what I would say.
I told my Mum I would say how much I loved her. How much we all loved her. How much we appreciated her. What a wonderful mum she had always been. How grateful we were that she and my dad, Tom, had founded and shaped our close and happy family. That all this closeness and happiness was her doing. I told her I would talk about her happiest moments.
When I think about these moments, I think about photos of Mum across the decades.
The one I’ve been thinking about most is a picture of Mum and Dad in Dublin in Spring 1969. They have just come out of the cinema. There was a man on O’Connell Street who would take your picture as you passed by, and you could go back and buy it off him. Dad told me that he only took photos of the handsome couples. Looking at this picture, you’d well believe him. Dad is dark and dashing and Mum is so beautiful. She had just turned 21. Her hair is pulled back by a band and it is hard to look away from her face. Conjure in your mind the brightest smile you can–now brighten it. She is luminous.
Many of Mum’s happiest moments were in Mayo. Mum was born Mary Lavelle in Westport in 1948 and was lovingly reared by Paddy and Nora. She had one sibling, Michael, who is still in her phone as Little Brother. When they were young, Mum dearly loved Michael and also found him annoying, because that’s the deal with little brothers. Mum moved away and Michael stayed in Westport but he would drop everything in a heartbeat for her. Some of Mum’s sweetest smiles in her final few days were for Little Brother. The corners of her eyes would crinkle up when she saw him.
During her Westport childhood, Mum developed her remarkable gift for friendship. There are school photos from the Fifties of Mum with her best friends Mary Mulhern, Maureen Moore, and Bernie Conway. Photos from sixty years later show the same quartet, thick as thieves, in hotels around Ireland, sharing afternoon tea and a sneaky G&T.
Mum moved to Dublin to go to Carysfort in 1965. She met Dad on Halloween night 1966 and they married in Westport in August 1969. Mum and Dad have always lived in Dublin, but she retained dual citizenship. Mum and the four of us boys would head down to Mayo during 1980s summers and luxuriate in western freedom for two long months. Dad had to work and I felt so sorry for him heading back east on Sundays. Something we learned from Mum that we never unlearned was that dread of the return to Dublin after a trip to Croy.
Mum taught primary school for over thirty years. She taught in Rutland St from 1967 and loved it. She started in Our Lady’s Girls after her first baby boy arrived in 1970 and the fledgling family moved to Woodpark in 1971. She taught here for the remainder of her career. She loved when a child she had taught greeted her as an adult and told her what she was up to now. She loved to help people flourish.
Mum never lost her gift for making friends: in her schools, in Chestnut Grove, on holidays with Dad, and even on John Houston Ward in St. James’s, where she spent a couple of months last year, becoming the matriarch of her six-bedded room. I work in James’s so during a visitor ban I could still sit with her and get the gossip. She knew everything that was going on for the ladies in her room. She was endlessly interested in other people and when she trained her attention on you, you felt you could tell her anything.
Another joyful picture shows Mum and Dad in Malawi in 2007, when they came out to visit me and Sharon with Sharon’s mum, Geraldine. Mum loved to travel but she was not fond of flying, and Malawi meant flights from Dublin to Amsterdam to Nairobi to Lusaka to Lilongwe. At least those four were all on proper passenger aircraft.
We then took them to Nyika, a mountainous national park in the remote north. Nothing that you could reasonably call a road went into Nyika so Mum had to fly again, this time in a tiny six-seater Cessna, bumping and swerving around clouds. Mum dreaded this, but she did it. The joyful picture is of Mum in a jeep on a bright blue day on a game drive to spot leopards and zebras. Dad’s arm is around her and her smile expresses ease and affection and fulfilment and shared adventure.
I keep coming back in my mind to that picture of Mum and Dad on O’Connell St in 1969.
I sometimes wonder, when I see an old photo of a beaming young person, how they would feel then if they knew how their life was going to turn out. So I’ve been imagining a conversation between Mum at the end of her life and her younger self.
Here’s what I think Mum would say to young Mary:
You’re going to marry this man. You are going to keep teaching. You will nurture generations of kids. You will nurture your own children. You will have four boys. Your home will be filled with laughter and music and books. You will rear your boys to be secure and happy and they will all do fine. They will have their own families.
Young Mary asks: Will I have a daughter?
No–but you will have four daughters-in-law who become your daughters.
Now–It won’t all be easy. There will be sickness and sadness. You will suffer a serious depression after one of your boys is born. But that does not rupture your bond with that boy. If anything, it makes it stronger. Your grief when your mother dies will be hard to get past. It will take you a few years to recover. You will recover.
Young Mary says: Listen, I know life can be hard. I accept it. Can we get back to the good stuff?
You will have nine grandchildren. When your grandchildren arrive you will thrive, and you will help them thrive. You’ll be a hands-on, go-to Granny. You and those kids will dote on each other. You will give and receive an astronomical amount of hugs. You really enjoy living, Mary.
Young Mary says–that all sounds pretty good. But what about Tom?
Oh, but Mary. That’s the best bit! He is by your side every step of the way. For the fun and craziness of raising the boys. Through all the harder times. For all your travel. For sunsets in ancient cities. For cocktails and cruises. You navigate your lives arm in arm. You have the romance of the century. And when you get sick for the final time on the day of your 51st wedding anniversary, he is there with you, and he is there for you to the very, very end.
And young Mary says: Sign. Me. Up.
Now, we are here and we are stunned and we are so sad. Mum was the beating heart of our whole family. We have no concept of a world without her in it. We have a lot of fumbling around, finding our way, ahead of us. But I also want to remember to be grateful, to be happy for her and for all of us who got to be with Mum and experience that boundless love of hers.
I must mention Mum’s final few days. An Irish Cancer Society nurse who cared for Mum on the last two nights of her life told us that witnessing how Mum was while dying made her less fearful of her own death. Mum modelled a way of living in her final moments that could give anyone courage. She stayed so plainly herself. She kept minding us. In her final week, when she opened her eyes it was to beam that luminous smile and tell us, so tenderly, that she loved us. We told her too. Nothing was left unsaid.
Three days before she died, Mum turned to Dad, seated a few feet away. She said “Tom–don’t be afraid”. I have to say I gasped. Mum was days from dying and she knew it. She was accepting our care and still bestowing her care upon us. The way she stayed present and nurturing, to the end, was her final and greatest lesson in love and bravery.
I sent Mum a poem last summer. She shared the poem, so I have taken that as her blessing to end with it here.
Late Fragment. By Raymond Carver. And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
Circuit des Yeux is the band led by the dizzyingly talented Chicago singer-songwriter Haley Fohr. In October 2021, Fohr released -io, Circuit des Yeux’s sixth album, which is named for the innermost moon of Jupiter. Wire magazine described -io as “a suite of baroque avant-pop songs delivered in [Fohr’s] mesmerising contralto with smouldering intensity”. The WashingtonPost compared Fohr’s singing to Anohni, Scott Walker and solo Beth Gibbons, and in its operatic, fractured beauty, -io reminds me of all these artists and of John Cale’s haunted and heightened Music for a New Society. As I’m writing, I can hear Cale’s ground-glass voice: “If you were still around / I’d hold you / I’d hold you”.
-io’s opening track, ‘Tonglen/In Vain’, sets the tone. Tonglen (“sending and receiving”) is a Tibetan meditation practice about which Pema Chödrön wrote, “Put simply, the practitioner breathes in the bad and breathes out the good, taking on the suffering of other sentient beings”. This might sound squishy, like loving kindness practice can, sitting there wishing well to the world. But Tonglen practice is fully realised when the meditator, off the cushion, acts to alleviate suffering out in the world. For Fohr to open -io with a Tonglen meditation signals an intention to use songs to transform suffering into healing, which is what -io sets about doing.
Fohr wrote and recorded-io in the aftermath of the death of her grandmother and the death of a friend by suicide and the songs are suffused with grief and love. They are generous, expansive songs. Fohr, her band, and a 24 piece orchestra perform with grace and dynamism and Fohr sings with extraordinary intensity. She is a virtuosic singer, with a four-octave voice, and on the penultimate song ‘Stranger’ she hits the C two octaves above middle C, which, take it from me, is high.
The first song I properly connected with on -io was the song that precedes ‘Stranger’, called ‘Neutron Star’. The central image of that song is of a supergiant star that has collapsed, so that what was radiant is now dark and frozen. It can only be an elegy for Fohr’s friend as she sings “You became atrophied astronomony”. Pretty bleak, but then you learn that a neutron star, though no longer emitting light or heat, has all the mass and gravitational force of the supergiant it once was.
So Fohr’s friend has died and nothing can change that but these relationships don’t end. What one can hear in ‘Neutron Star’ is that we navigate our lives orbiting suns that continue to shine and other suns that we no longer see but that still keep us close. You can hear that the people we love who pass on are imprinted in us, epigenetically, still steadying and guiding, and that is a comforting thing for a song born out of suffering to say.
As the penultimate song, ‘Stranger’ occupies a particular space on -io. ‘Stranger’ is to -io what ‘Northern Sky’ is to Bryter Later, ‘Turn Me Down’ is to Crushing, and ‘This Woman’s Work’ is to The Sensual World: an ecstatic peak that brings the record to its emotional conclusion and cannot be followed, but also can’t end the album, because the listener would be stranded, so the record needs a settling out-breath (‘Oracle Song’, in this case).
‘Stranger’ opens with a sustained piano chord and Fohr’s voice arrives as it dissolves: “What a woman I passed / On 21st Street”. She opens in a lower register, cradling the words. “Just passing by”, she continues, “But if our eyes did meet”. 21st Street, Chicago, is a busy neighbourhood—this must be the stranger. (And here you might in your memory hear Scott Walker harmonising: “Do I hear 21, 21, 21?”)
The melody line moves upwards and Fohr moves from observing the stranger to addressing her: “I might have tried what you tried / I might have cried what’ve cried / I might have lied what you’ve lied / I might / I might have seen what you’ve seen / And I might have known what you’ve known / But I don’t know much of anything”. Fohr elongates that final “know” across seven syllables and lands on “much of anything” with humbled resignation, as if something terrible has taught her the limits of understanding.
In the second verse, still addressing the stranger, she sings “You’re my sister / You’re my sister”. Fohr then takes a moment and again sings “What a woman I passed / On 21st street”. But when she sings “street”, this time, she can’t move on. She sings the word “street” four times—each enunciation of the word is stretched across two bars of music while Fohr calls upon her four octaves of vocal range, percussive piano races in sympathy up and down its registers, and a valiant cello grounds it all. I think why Fohr invests all this energy in an ardent repetition of the word street is because the meaning of the word isn’t the point. That word is just where she is in the song when the wave of grief, love, and longing hits her.
I mentioned the high C in ‘Stranger’ earlier and the precise pitch of a note is not normally something I would even think to check, but that high C is a moment of potent somatic connection. Every time Fohr approaches that note, I find I have to pause, straighten my back, and take a breath in till it passes. This response is not deliberate and it feels like my body independently making itself spacious enough to accommodate all the sound and feeling in Fohr’s song. It feels like being filled with light.
The song ends with Fohr vocalising wordlessly—keening, ululating, channeling sounds that are ancient and ancestral to express a fathomless grief that comes from further inwards than language can go.
So: what is going on in ‘Stranger’? Well: who knows. Everyone will bring something different to and hear something different in a song like this. But you can hear the work of healing.
As I hear it, Fohr articulates in this song both the unmooring earthquake shock of the death of friends and family and the dazzling gift of being alive alongside other people in the first place.
Fohr addresses the stranger as if she knows her and she sings “You’re my sister,” so the stranger is, paradoxically, per the rules of poetry, her sister. But how? Certainly, the singer may think that the stranger is her friend who has died. It’s so familiar:that illusory moment when you recognise a person walking past, only for the pit of your stomach to remind you one second later that it cannot, under any cirumstances, be them. Like when you wake from a thrilled relieved dream (“There you are!I heard you’d died!”) to relearn the grey fact that they are gone.
But just as possibly, the intensity of the singer’s grief has broadened and heightened her awareness of the preciousness of life; the splendour of every breath. The stranger is not a stranger because every woman alive is, in both a poetic and a concrete sense, her sister. Death’s looming imminence alerts the singer to the stupendous unlikeliness of two beings being born on the same planet at the same time who can recognise, understand, and appreciate each other; who can connect, if only for this vanishing, unrepeatable moment.
When you think how many forms the matter that makes up two people passing by in Chicago could have taken in the billions of years since the atoms that form them formed, how many light years could separate them if the Big Bang had banged slightly differently, then the distance between two humans on a street seems very small, and the use of the word ‘sister’ to describe a so-called stranger seems not so out of place. So Fohr allows the listener into her grief to remind us to rejoice because we are here, alive, together. John Cale sang “If you were still around / I’d hold you”. Circuit des Yeux sings: You are still around. Hold each other while you can.
-io is available at Circuit des Yeux’s Bandcamp page. Circuit des Yeux plays the NCH on Friday April 15th and tickets are available here.
Tamara Lindeman has returned, having barely been away, her gongs for Ignorance still gleaming. An email that both brightened and quietened last Tuesday brought news of an imminent Weather Station album How It Is That I Should Look At The Stars and a new song to hear now, ‘Endless Time’.
‘Endless Time’ is a quiet, subtle song that feels huge. It feels hard to move on from. It is a love song and an act of witness as things fall precipitously apart. The arrangement is simply Lindeman accompanying her own voice on piano, the sound of each softened as if outside in the snow.
Despite the hush there’s a palpable urgency from the opening bar. Lindeman’s vocals arrive simultaneously with the opening piano chord, as if settling introductory chords are an extravagance. She sings “It’s only the end of an endless time / I wake up in my own bed, the curtain open wide / To let in what light the sky has to offer today”.
Lindeman is Canadian and I first imagined the skies darkened by last year’s summer fires rather than winter rainclouds, but it is winter in the song: “We could walk out on the street and buy roses from Spain / lemons and persimmons in December rain.” Lindeman returns to this scene towards the end of the song: “We can still walk out on the street and buy champagne grapes / strawberries and lilies in November rain / It never occurred to us to have to pay.”
So, not to read too much into one word choice but that “still”, from this singer, at this time, surely says: Lytton, British Columbia, literally burned last summer, and in response we are so inert and careless that we are still prepared to fly some fruit ten thousand kilometres so we can throw it in the bin.
So I suppose any question I had that new Weather Station songs would still have climate breakdown as a central theme is already answered by those lines. This song occupies a space in which catastrophe is here and life just carries on: “They don’t put that in the paper / You won’t hear it on the news.” The disconnect derives partly from denial (“Maybe at first, you can’t believe your eyes”) and partly from nihilistic malevolence: “You have to use your eyes / And it’s so painful how everybody lies / Nobody tells it straight / They try so hard not to meet your gaze.” As I write about denial I reflect on my own first sentence in this paragraph, my own use of “still”, as if one climate album is all you get: are you still going on about that?
When you could easily argue that all art in 2022 occupies the same teetering existential space Lindeman is singing from and the artists not explicitly acknowledging climate breakdown should be the ones being questioned: why are you not going on about that? I mean, there are reasons. There are other themes! But when I hear The Weather Station or read Richard Powers and Amitav Ghosh I can feel an impatience with those other themes: if there is any chance that the world is literally not going to be liveable in the lifetime of our grandchildren, then I might look askance at art that disregards this.
In the end, ‘Endless Time’ is a love song. I think it is addressed to a former lover: “We laughed so much we wore lines around our eyes”. The singer remembers a photo of the pair of them. In a song steeped in colour I imagine the photo faded and orange, like the photo in ‘Nightswimming’, taken years ago. Lindeman sings “You can see it in that picture of us from long ago; how we changed”. And it feels that in the time since that photo was taken, since the ‘Nightswimming’ photo was taken, not only have those people changed but everything has changed and the act of remembering has changed.
When the natural world is collapsing, every old picture is an elegy. Listening to ‘Endless Time’ I can’t help but reflect that a photo taken five years ago was taken in when Northern White Rhinos still lived. A photo fifty years ago captured a world in which were three times as many wild animals as there are now. We made it impossible for two thirds of them to survive. Though I know those numbers are true I can’t absorb them, they are too much: Maybe at first, you can’t believe your eyes. And all the evidence is that the future will be worse.
It does seem there might not be any turning back and I think ‘Endless Time’ starts from and bravely ends in that dark sad unforgiving place. What ‘Endless Time’ might be saying as it ends is that we can still have songs, we can even have love songs, but they will be songs in a time of dying.
Stephen Shannon is a musician, composer, and producer who grew up in Wicklow and is based in Dublin, where he built and runs his studio Experimental Audio. He has had a somewhat stellar career in recording and producing music since he started out in the early Nineties, when the organisers of the Dublin indie club Dazed asked him to be their live sound engineer. (Stephen told me, “They asked ‘Can you do this?’, and I said ‘No’, but they had nobody else to do it, so that was where I started”.)
Shannon’s list of production credits includes Chequerboard’s The Unfolding, Barry McCormack’s The Tilt of the Earth, and Slow Moving Clouds’ magisterial Os. In the last five years he has moved more into music for film and TV; I won’t list his credits like IMDB but I will say I’m a fan of the soundtrack to The Lodgers, on which he continued a fruitful collaboration with Slow Moving Clouds’ Kevin Murphy. Shannon might be best known as half of Mount Alaska, along with Cillian McDonnell. Mount Alaska’s Coordinates EP came out this year and ‘The Subterranean Heart’, from 2019’s album Wave Atlas: Season One, featured on the soundtrack of Lenny Abrahamson’s Normal People.
Shannon also records as a solo artist as Strands and it was because of brand new Strands music that I was keen to talk to him now. Strands’ only previous album came out over ten years ago and I had assumed that this musical identity had been shelved until a new album called Inner Spaces popped up on Bandcamp on October 1st. Inner Spaces’ nine songs of rich, textured, emotional electronica, inspired by the memory of long walks in Wicklow and a locked-down longing for open spaces, have since soundtracked my own less ambitious rambles across Dublin 8. I’ve been playing Inner Spaces too on the evening drive to Kildare, sometimes detouring past the West Wicklow mountains, closer to the scenes of the songs, to add some crepuscular poetry to the spin home. I haven’t yet walked up Kippure listening to ‘Kippure’, but it’s on the list.
NC: Stephen, the new record came as a lovely surprise. I wasn’t expecting it, then found it on Twitter and Bandcamp, and soon I was listening to it a lot. Is this maybe your third release as Strands?
SS: About ten years ago, I released an album and two EPs. The EPs were a collaboration with some other musicians I admire: Chequerboard (John Lambert) and Thomas Haugh, who was making music under the name of Húlk at the time. They’re two old friends now. So maybe the second proper release.
Then how this new album came about is that around December, January of this year, I suddenly just hit upon something, I was just incredibly prolific. I just started making so much music. I got a new Mount Alaska album finished as well, at least all the composition. I finished about sixty pieces of music in the space of about six weeks.
So I was making music non-stop and I really wanted to release some of it. But I didn’t want to just throw it onto Bandcamp under a different name or under a pseudonym, so I decided just to dig up that old name again—Strands. Then a little label called Remote Town came on board, and they’re based in Wicklow and all my songs are about walking in Wicklow, so I just thought it was perfect.
Did the lockdown suit you in some way in terms of creativity?
I enjoyed some aspects of the lockdown. My wife and I get along really well so we didn’t mind getting locked up together. She’s creative as well, she’s a writer (Sinéad Gleeson). When I wasn’t making music, we were jamming together, we’d have a couple of drinks and it just happened very organically that we just started creating things.
We’ve done a couple of creative pieces together. We just finished doing a piece for an exhibition in the Rua Red gallery: there’s a giant textile map that Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon created, and they invited us to come up with an accompanying audio piece. So Sinéad wrote the words for it and I did all the music and soundscapes and sound design for it. And that was really enjoyable.
And so this whole lockdown for me was just about creating things, when there’s nothing else to do. The Strands album came from that as well because during the lockdowns, you weren’t allowed more than five kilometres from your house. And I’ve always been a hill-walker. So I’d go up to Massey’s Wood or Cruagh Wood or Hellfire at the very nearest, and go walking there for three or four hours and just put on headphones and listen to music. And I just couldn’t do that. So if you look at the album sleeve, it’s a photograph of the sky. In lockdown, the only clear space I could see was when I looked up at the sky, and whatever was in my imagination. So I just made music and titled the songs after all the places I’d love to walk. It was a way of escaping.
Remember when before it was five kilometres it was two kilometres.
Well, I live in Crumlin—total suburbia. You can walk five kilometres in any direction and you won’t get to an open space. But I was still trying to go for long walks, just so I could have a bit of peace and quiet. Like if you go to Ballymount Industrial Estate there’s loads of fields and commons there. So it feels like you’re in a little bit of an open space, it’s nice. So I do have a real hunger for that kind of thing.
It’s a bit of a contradiction, because when I was a kid, I used to love going for really long walks over hills and mountains and by the sea. I grew up in a little village in Wicklow. But what I always did was I compiled tapes of music and listened to things really really loud, so I’d be walking in this cute, peaceful, beautiful place and listening to Billy Idol (laughs).
As I got older, I suppose I carry that with me and if I really like a song, I’ll get it even more if I’m sitting by a lake or walking in a forest or something. So I do still listen to a lot of music when I go for walks. It is about peace, but it’s more about solitude, I suppose.
You mentioned to me the other day that you liked Wormhole back in the day.
Yeah—I love Wormhole!
So we must have been getting into bands around the same time, early to mid 90s?
The path I’m on now, my career, I was just starting out then. I ended up doing live sound for Wormhole at least once because I used to be the sound engineer in a club called Dazed. It was an indie club on O’Connell St, a quarter of a century ago now. I used to do live sound there and there were indie bands there every week. The likes of Sunbear, In Motion. I would have done live sound for all those bands. And that was the first time I had the controls, manipulating sound.
I was just given a shot at it by the guys who ran the club. They asked “Can you do this?”, and I said “No“, but they had nobody else to do it, so that was where I started. That’s where my journey of putting sounds together started. So I remember that time and it was a very exciting time, and I was a big Wormhole fan. I thought they were amazing live. Really big energy. Some great bands from that era, amazing bands. I was a big fan of this band called The Idiots. They were a big drone rock band. They did two hour jams on stage. They were amazing.
Funny you mention them. I don’t do a lot of interviews but I did one with Brian Brannigan two years ago and he mentioned Brian Mooney of the Idiots as one of his favourite songwriters of all time. Then of course Brian Mooney started releasing stuff as The Next New Low and he’s releasing new music now every month.
And it’s really good. It’s great. Yeah, I love Brian Mooney’s stuff. He’s a lovely guy as well, I’ve known him from back then more or less. There was another guy in that band called Jimmy Eadie, and he produced and recorded Jape’s album The Monkeys in the Zoo Have More Fun Than Me. He produced ‘Floating’. I really admire Jimmy as well. He’s working full time in Trinity now, teaching sound design. That’s his job. But for a long time he was, I would say, the best engineer / producer in the country.
I’m keen to talk about the new record but could you just talk a bit about the journey and turning points from being an indie sound engineer in Dazed to now?
I think there are a couple of turning points for me, that made me a little bit atypical, I suppose. I was playing in a couple of bands, I ended up in a punk band called Paranoid Visions, who became Striknien DC. And I think I grew tired of the Dublin scene and I emigrated for a few years. I went to Sweden and I ended up playing in a couple of bands in Gothenburg. And those bands had access to recording equipment, analogue equipment. Reel to reel recordings and mixing desk and some decent equipment.
That was where I really learned my craft, because I ended up recording a lot of local bands in Gothenburg. And for free, because I was just so excited and so into it. So I really learned how to record and mix and work with music while I was there. Then I came back here and I just got myself a basic setup, just an eight-track machine and a couple of microphones and ended up recording a couple of indie bands here. I just slowly started breaking into the Irish scene and recording and mixing bands, and ended up eking out a career for myself just from recording and mixing. And from that I built a studio.
My intention when I built the studio was: I just want to be able to record bands forever. I just love recording and mixing and producing. But in the last five or six years, even after the first Strands album, I just felt the itch that I wanted to not do that as much. I guess it’d become a bit repetitive for me. And I grew into making soundtracks for TV and documentaries and I really enjoyed that because I guess I realised that I’m more of a musician than I am a producer or an engineer or a studio engineer.
So with that I was using all my skills—I was playing guitar and piano and making sound but I was also mixing what I did and recording it, so it felt like a perfect combination of all the skills I’d gained over the years, and I just really enjoyed it. Just before you called me there, I have a deadline and I was working on a piece of music and it’s so engaging, I just love it, you know? And I think what I really love to do is just to work with sound, and the Strands album is part of that and working with soundtracks is a part of that. And of course when I worked more with bands, that was a core part. But somehow I managed to eke out a career for myself along the way, and I do make a living from it and I love it. My golden rule, you should always have a job where you don’t feel like you’re working (laughs). And I do have that, luckily, you know.
So the Inner Spaces album was recorded during the pandemic in your studio from where you are talking to me now. Each song is titled for a different place in Wicklow—the mountains and the sea. Can you talk me through the origin of the album?
Well, the core of the record is basically me imagining walking in those places. How I feel on the way, how I feel when I’m there. And just the experience of being there.
For example, there’s a track called ‘Seefin’. In County Wicklow, not too far from Kippure, there’s this place called Seefin. It’s an old tomb—apparently over 5000 years old. And the tomb was empty when they excavated it, nobody knows who made it, what kind of people they were, or anything about it. When I’m there, every time I’ve been there, there’s never anyone there. But it’s totally breathtaking.
It’s a big mound, but it has a sealed door. And it is an amazing place to be. I think it’s made all the more exciting for me because I’ve only ever been there alone. So in many ways it only exists in my mind, if you know what I mean. So I literally thought about the approach to Seefin tomb and made a piece of music. And then if you listen to the track, there’s a transition point where, in my mind, I’m there, and there’s a shift in the music.
Then there’s a track called ‘Silver Strands’. And that’s a play on the name Silver Strand, which is a beach in Wicklow. But it was also a place I used to go to a lot in the late 90s, because there were loads of parties there, techno parties where everyone danced and took drugs and had a good time. When I go there now, that’s totally burned into my memory. So that music is about the memory of a place. If you were standing at a place and you’re alone but something significant happened there, somehow you might hear echoes of the sound that was going on. That place was bustling and there were hundreds of people there all dancing, and all these people have grown up now and they’ve got families. But it’s that same space, and there’s that question: does that place hold any of that memory?
I suppose it’s taking little journeys in my own imagination and having a fixed theme or a place or a journey to help in the composition and the construction of a song. So you’re working on the arrangement, but it’s always something you return to as a stepping stone on the way, you know: you think of a place you’d love to go and you imagine being there. And then if you reach a lull in the song, in some ways that’s significant as well.
For example there’s a track called ‘Sugarloaf’, which is the most obvious one. That is literally about the walk to the peak of Sugarloaf, and I have this habit, when I get to peaks of hills or mountains, I just do a panoramic shot with my camera. And of course because I shot little videos when I got there, I did accidentally, or maybe not so accidentally, record the sound of the wind up there. And I use that sound in the song.
I was wondering about the other locally collected sounds that ended up in the songs. I’m not sure if I would call them found sounds, that’s probably not the right phrase, but, like—there are bird sounds on the song ‘Tay’, isn’t that right?
Yeah, there are. I did record that but I can’t remember where I recorded it. I have a little recorder I carry with me; I love recording the ocean for example.
You know Strandhill in Sligo? There’s a beautiful beach along there, but further in towards Sligo town the beach gets very rocky and when the waves go back out the water sizzles through the stones, and it’s the most beautiful sound. And the one day my wife and I were there, I didn’t have my handheld recorder. But I was standing there listening to the sound of the water just sizzling through the stones—just so beautiful.
But you know, there’s been a couple of times, in Leitrim— a relative has a little house and we go and stay there sometimes —where I used to go on really late night walks to record night sounds. And it’s so quiet, where our house is, that there’s no sound of traffic or anything. So I was walking through a field with a torch and a handheld. And I had it turned up loud and I had headphones on and a fox howled. I think that’s where the mythology of Banshees came from, that fox’s howl. It was so loud. And I had the sound turned up so loud in my headphones, that I completely terrified myself. I was shook.
I’m sitting there kind of wondering what it must be like to pay attention to the world the way you do: you must have a slightly different way of experiencing the world in the sense that it sounds like your ears are more attuned to what’s going on than most ears. I’m sure we’re all walking past interesting sounds every day that we miss and you don’t.
Well, I know that I’m far more focused on sound than I am sight. The guy who I make music with in Mount Alaska, Cillian, he’s a really old friend, and I love what we do, but he generally looks after the visual aesthetic of the band, as well as working on the music with me. I don’t think about that, or track titles, till the end of the process. This Strands album is an exception but I generally work with what I hear as my focus.
That’s probably one of the reasons we’re having this conversation, because I’m fascinated with how a non-auditory experience ends up as sound and it’s so strange and magical to me. It makes me think of synesthesia. You have a particular experience in, say, Kippure, and there’s a musical rendering that captures that experience in sound. I’m fascinated how that musical capture comes about.
Well, I think if you asked anybody to do their musical version of Kippure, every single one of them would be different. Somebody else would come back and it would just be a one-note drone. For me, places like that have such significance because, for example, Kippure, I made a commitment to myself when I hit 40 to walk up Kippure every year on my birthday. I just set myself this challenge to walk to the top of Kippure. It’s about a seven kilometre walk to the top and it’s uphill all the way. So it’s not an easy walk. It’s fine.
And so I have this emotional attachment to Kippure as a challenge. And when I listen to the music of ‘Kippure’ now, it has that kind of resonance as a challenge. If you listen to the song, there are stages to the journey. There’s a final approach where it’s a lull, and then the happiness of reaching the top. So for everyone it will be different but for me, it’s a propulsive, tough-sounding thing.
There’s a lot of motion in the songs; I didn’t at all want to do something pastoral, you know, a sunny meadow on a beautiful day. I wanted to do my version of the place.
You’ve said about two songs now, ‘Kippure’ and ‘Silver Strands’, that they’re each a representation of the place, but they’re also representations of associations that you have with the place.
It’s definitely me in that place. It isn’t a song about Kippure, it’s about me and Kippure. It’s my experience of it, it’s my attachment to it. And then of course it was me missing it, because I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t be there on my birthday this year. I couldn’t go there. So it’s about me and those places.
Luggala is another one that has some non-musical recorded sound in it. Is that a train?
No, it’s the sound of a piece of metal, like a bell. It’s a piece of metal and it’s blowing in the wind, and it’s knocking off something. So it’s making a sound. ‘Luggala’ is a really small mountain; it’s a steep hill more than a mountain. And again, it’s a place I go to where I’m nearly always alone when I get there. So I was imagining a place during lockdown where I was nearly always alone when I went there. I was certain in my mind that there was nobody there at all. So I was literally trying to make a piece of music imagining what a place would sound like if there was nobody there at all. I was trying to put music to that, the music of a place that’s been abandoned or been left for whatever reason. Pandemic being the main reason for us, but just imagining a space making a sound with no-one there. But it’s also a place I love. You can see a view of Lough Tay from a much higher place and if you look down It’s totally breathtaking. You rarely see something so beautiful.
I want to ask you about ‘Lobawn’ as well. It’s funny that ‘Silver Strands’ has those techno party associations. When I heard ‘Lobawn’—of all of the places on the album I’d never heard of Lobawn before—when I heard the track not knowing the place I thought, well this has got to be somewhere that Stephen was at a rave because it really goes off.
Ha! No. It’s just that it’s a really hard walk. I was trying to get across how tough it is. You’re totally breathless, you have to stop for a few breaks and it’s a big peak. There’s no climbing involved, but it’s a tough walk. So it’s just about the joy of getting there. It’s a celebration. It’s beautiful and it’s just—it’s a total win to get to the top of Lobawn.
What it was, was that about three, four minutes in, there’s that build, and then it kicks in—the way that if you were standing in a field at a party in your twenties, when that came in you’d be giving it loads.
I’ve experienced that of course. I mean, there’s more than a little influence from that time in my life as well, going to those parties. I DJ’d at those parties as well and I was very much part of that scene. It’s part of who I am. And so when I make music completely freely, with no influence of any kind—I literally tried to leave everything at the door and make the record myself. I didn’t play the songs for anybody while I was making them, I just made it. And then I got the label support and put it out. So it was a surprise to almost everyone who knew me. I just wanted it to be very personal. And I suppose that’s the way it came out. So that part of who I am and my past came to the fore a little bit.
I’m always interested in the records and musicians that were important to people early on or important now. Who’s pivotal or influential or who do you really love?
There’s a few. Did you ever hear of a guy called Rival Consoles?
Yes. I like him a lot.
His second last album was from 2018—Persona—and it’s probably the best album I’ve heard in the last 10 years. He’s totally amazing. What I did with the Strands album, I suppose it’s the more artistic approach to electronica and beat-driven music. A bit more abstract, still propulsive. So that Rival Consoles record was a real touchstone for me.
And then there’s loads of stuff I listen to when I’m working with Mount Alaska as well. (Opens Spotify). It says here the last two albums I listened to were Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Sufjan Stevens (laughs). There’s an artist called Lorenzo Senni, he’s Italian, he made an album called Canone Infinito—he’s amazing. Julianna Barwick, Niklas Paschberg, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Ben Lukas Boysen. Of course Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Another guy I love is Max Cooper. He’s from Northern Ireland and he’s made some beautiful, beautiful music. He makes quite propulsive beat-driven music as well as abstract gentle music. The thing I love about him most is if you spend a bit of time listening to him, especially on headphones, his attention to detail, I’ve never heard anything like it. Just tiny little moments and fragments happening bar to bar; totally beautiful. Every time I listen to it, it just brings new things. So that’s an influence as well, his approach to music.
And then some of the classics. I always go back to Steve Reich. I love repetition in music. So I find Steve Reich relaxing to listen to—the longer the better, and the more repetitive the better. And there’s so many things I listen to all the time. I love Boards of Canada, just keep on going back to Music Has the Right to Children. So dark and beautiful.
Have you ever heard of that Nigerian guy William Onyeabor? Like Fela Kuti but poppier. He was brilliant. There’s a song of his called ‘When The Going Is Smooth and Good’, and if you listen to that, and then listen to my track ‘Lobawn’, you’ll hear there’s a big influence. It’s almost a tribute to him. It’s like a William Onyeabor hats off.
I’m just thinking what it must be like to release music like this. You talked about how solitary a process this was: making music by yourself about trips you mostly take on your own. Music from your memory and imagination. So it’s something very personal, completely yours, then suddenly it’s out there in the world, and you don’t have that much control over it or how people respond to it.
Yeah, I’ve experienced that before—that short period just before you release something. It’s a scary time! It’s a strange thing. You’re about to relinquish all control of it; it’s going to be gone and, love it or hate it, it’s gone. It’s out of your control. It is kind of scary. But once it’s out there, it actually feels really good. It’s gone now; it’s available for anybody who wants to listen to it or not listen to it. It is quite panicky leading up to it, but I feel really positive about it once it’s gone.
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 stuck to my office wall to remind me that every encounter 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 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”.
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.
One. My core taste in music has not changed all that much in thirty-odd years. My range has expanded but I continue to be drawn to pained, melancholy, or even devastated songs sung in the first person that have a ring of autobiographical authenticity about them. Dramatic songs, often but not necessarily funny. ‘You Don’t Have To’ by John Grant, ‘I’ve Been A Mess’ by American Music Club, ‘When The Family Flies In’ by Julia Jacklin, ‘Funeral’ by Phoebe Bridgers, and ‘I Want To Be In The Mafia’ by BC Camplight. That kind of thing. I’m not thrilled about this; I would like to have evolved a more sophisticated aesthetic. I have never wanted to be the guy applauding Mark Eitzel in ‘Gratitude Walks’, in which the singer is “drunk on the kind of applause that gets louder the lower you sink”. But I’ve known that song and been aware of this problem since 1993 and I’m still that guy, give or take. I worry that enjoying the expression of an artist’s pain – and it is enjoyment, among other things – is sadistic, voyeuristic, and/or parasitic. (I suppose if I’m buying the albums, it’s symbiotic.) I do a fair bit of rationalising about this.
Two. I settled in to Shortly After Takeoff when I decided to treat the first-person protagonist of the songs, BC Camplight, as a heightened, fictionalised version of Brian Christinzio. It helped me to think of him like Larry David in Curb, or Louie in Louie, or Steve Coogan in The Trip, or Patrick Melrose in Edward St Aubyn’s books. That way you can inhabit the songs completely and worry about the protagonist less. It’s also just more accurate. Larry isn’t Larry all the time, and BC Camplight is not BC Camplight. That would be exhausting.
Three. In 1996 in an interview for Hot Press in a bar beside Liverpool St Station, I asked Stephin Merritt about depression and, basically, if he was OK, beause of the depressive and suicidal content in the Magnetic Fields’ album Get Lost (“Time provides the rope / But love will tie the slipknot / And I will be the chair you kick away”). Stephin Merritt scolded me, saying you should not confuse the artist with the art and “When I listen to Abba songs I don’t want to know about Bjorn Ulvaeus’s life”. So that was me told and the interview didn’t go great and I gave out to myself for my artlessness. And it was a useful lesson that I never forgot, and he was right. Then in 2017, he released 50 Song Memoir, with one song to sum up each year of his life. The 1996 entry was ‘I’m Sad’.
Four. It is hard when you are a psychiatrist to hear songs about emotional suffering without thinking you should be helping somehow. That is a lot of songs and is probably part of the reason I’ve migrated towards music without words in the last ten years.
Five. I was reminded listening to ‘Back To Work’ of the powerful piece by Anna Borges in The Outline a year ago called ‘I Am Not Always Very Attached To Being Alive’. This piece is worth a read for anyone who would like to better understand what is like to live with suicidal feelings and self-harm.
Six. The final verse of ‘I Want To Be In The Mafia’, almost a coda, is the world’s quietest, gentlest slap in the face. The lines are “I’m beginning to give up / There’s nothing in my cup / I’m hoping it’s a phase / I’m longing for the days / In the Mafia”. In a song inspired by cinema, it is the equivalent of the camera in Goodfellas pulling back from Ray Liotta to show the set empty behind him; the funny guy scene but with no-one else in the bar.
Seven. The description of psychosis in the second verse of ‘Back To Work’ is stark and the understated jocular delivery is a masterpiece of deflection. The verse, in a song that soundscapes the gruelling grind of relapsing depression, describes delusions of guilt of an extreme variety. He sings “I know the Devil and his wife Denise / They worship me / I’m their kind of guy / I bring them peace.” I had to read these lyrics; you can’t hear them that well and I wonder if BC Camplight wanted to hide this verse in plain view. When your depressive psychosis is such that the Devil is worshipping you, it’s serious. Depressive religious delusions are some of the most harrowing existential experiences a person can have. Maybe the only way to capture the gravity of this in a song is by ironic contrast, the skipping sparkling acoustic guitars and the device of the wife Denise drawing attention away from, and illuminating, the enormity at hand.
Eight. The appearance of BC Camplight’s mum in ‘Back To Work’ makes me think of the other characters in the songs and their perspectives. His mum, who comes across in this song as harsh, and whose perspective we don’t hear. The friend* who is with him in ‘Arm Around Your Sadness’ when the delivery they don’t remember ordering arrives (“some vegetable peeler thing”). The chemist in the same song who no doubt patiently listens to the protagonist’s bullshit (“I made up some lie / That I require no prescription / Because I’m American”). The richness of these songs after the first few listens partly comes from the cast of characters, the world that is created, which is not a vast world, but it is human-sized. And I think of BC Camplight’s Dad, Angelo, whose death is the ground zero of these songs, and the heart-emptying earthquake of filial grief for which you can never be prepared.
Nine. I still use songs like BC Camplight’s to remind me to try to be a better human and to continue to teach me how to do it. It’s crazy that I still rely on songs like this. I’m not far off fifty years old. I meet a lot of people and I’ve had a lot of experiences. I still need reminders? I guess you drift towards being better, then drift away, and back and forth it goes, and music guides. It’s not even that I use songs deliberately – they do it themselves. I know that this week, I listened to ‘Cemetery Lifestyle’ and thought of a person whose escapades could add verses to that song, and I reflected in the light of the song on my own feelings towards that person. My irritation and reluctance to locate the appropriate compassion. My high-horse wish to blame and abdicate. And the song reminded me: take it easy man. If you can feel warmly towards BC Camplight waking up in a stranger’s banana suit in a Nando’s car park after God knows what, you can feel warmly towards this real person. It helped. I need this.
*On 14th May, the day after posting this, I realised who the “friend” is, and that late-dawning realisation drew a gasp, and the song changed and deepened. I do like when that happens.
At a time like now, it’s hard not to view every piece of new music through the prism of the pandemic. Sometimes that is pointedly the right prism through which to view it. With their respective works the ‘Quarantine’ EP, ‘Hearts Off The Latch’, and ‘The Singularity’, three Irish acts, Lazy Bones, Arrivalists and Maloijan, have alrady crafted cogent responses to our current predicament – a sort of artistic first draft of history. Then there is the work that couldn’t have been created with this specific viral event in mind but nonetheless speaks apparently explicitly to the moment.
Keeley Forsyth is an actor and artist from Oldham who released her first album Debris in January. The eight songs on Debris are raw and metallic and magnetic. Forsyth’s rich vibrato wide-ranging voice is surrounded by cello, guitar, piano, and electronics, and the music is mysterious and emotional. The imagery is allusive, sometimes repetitive. The entire lyric of ‘Large Oak’ is “Large oak / Descended”, which Forsyth repeats, keening, while her own voice provides a whispering comforting counterpoint, the three-word lyric carrying a mountain of emotional information like a worker ant lifting many times its own weight.
One of the most immediate songs on the record is ‘Look To Yourself’. It’s a song that goes route one lyrically, the narrative directness of which feels earned, given the abstract poetic quality of much of the rest of the writing; like ‘Everybody Hurts’ felt earned because it shared a record with ‘Find The River’ and was by the band behind‘9-9’.
Forsyth sings “Look to yourself and you will see / Everything that there is to see / Look to yourself and you will know / Everything that there is to know”. She sings with incrementally increasing urgency as the song progresses. As I understand it, the song was originally addressed to her daughters and it works outside that context as an anthem to emotional self-efficacy; an act of encouragement to us to pay attention to and cultivate what is within us rather than avoid ourselves through perpetual distraction.
It’s a message that is always timely and pre-COVID seems prescient. You hear ‘Look To Yourself’ at a time that learned helplessness could easily hold sway, and you allow yourself to wonder whether you might have untapped wisdom and potential within you. ‘Look To Yourself’ imbues peace.
Then there is the glorious ‘It’s Raining’, which inevitably evokes Scott Walker but on which Forsyth’s voice sounds to me more like Odetta circa Dylan.
I passed over ‘It’s Raining’ a few times on early listens of Debris, impatiently en route to ‘Look To Yourself’ and the scintillating final song ‘Start Again’. My wife Sharon drew my attention to it and the COVID crisis added to it, offering further context. It is a troubled song that opens with imagery of distance and isolation: “My love I think it’s raining / I hear the tidal / Waving from afar / From an island / They call home”. Even the language of tides and islands is unsettling as it parallels the tsunami imagery widely applied to the pandemic in the near future. That opening “My love”, though, that steadies you.
There is uncertainty and a feeling of failure in ‘It’s Raining’; the lyric recalls Bill Callahan’s yearning ‘To Be Of Use’ when Forsyth sings “Should have been an umbrella / Or a bulletproof windscreen / Maybe something simple / Like a piece of gold / Never knowing its place”. But then it becomes about hunkering down. “The sea is trying / And it’s pushing you away / Hold on, fold in and pray”. Hunkering down to see out a storm, praying for better days: these are hopeful acts; the song says it is not stupid or blind or comical to work towards better than today.
I hope I’m hearing ‘It’s Raining’ right because if I am, what I’m hearing is an honest, aware, wary voice say, in April 2020, that hope and trust are valid; as we quieten to a hush, batten down the hatches, and hold our breath.
Erratum April 4 2020: When I posted this on 30th March, I wrote that the vocal on ‘The Singularity’ was by Jason Lytle. It’s not. The vocal is by Stevie Scullion. I copped this only after playing Malojian’s Humm album on April 3rd. ‘The Singularity’ is a bonus track at the end of Humm and when I heard it in that context it dawned on me. So that’s embarrassing, and it was gracious of Stevie and Jason not to point this out at the time of first posting. Stevie clarified via Twitter that he sang and played piano and Jason “produced it / fixed it / worked his magic”.
On Saturday March 28th, my Spotify Release Radar playlist threw up a song that was completely new to me, ‘The Singularity’, by Stevie Scullion of Malojian and Jason Lytle of Grandaddy. The song was completely new to me not least because it was completely new.
On Malojian’s Bandcamp page, Stevie Scullion says that he wrote the song on Friday March 13th and sent his parts to Jason Lytle that night. Lytle “worked his magic and sent it back” and it was ready for release by the following Monday. I didn’t know any of this back story when I heard it first or when I shared the song last Saturday, but the speed of its creation does, to me anyway, make the song that bit more amazing.
‘The Singularity’ is simple and timeless in its construction. Scullion plays a beautiful piano melody and flowing connected chords. Anchored by the piano, Scullion sings with grace and frailty. He sings about the present moment. The lyric opens “Plug your phone in for a while / Watch the bars go up and smile / Never need to leave your home / These days kids play on their own”. At times his voice is barely there at all; it’s an echo of a voice. The chorus is “Is there anyone here / Who can heal the trembling of my heart? / If I show you my fears / Could you heal the trembling of my heart?”
As the song concludes there are voices in a higher register, floating above Scullion’s; it’s hard to know whether those harmonies bring comfort or elegy. Scullion sings “Hold on / Hold on disease / For the singularity“. When I wrote this first, thinking Lytle was singing, imagining I guess that he had a hand in the words, I wrote “You are reminded that Lytle was navigating the intersection of technology and tragedy as long ago as ‘Jed’s Other Poem’.” So – that was wrong, but not horribly wrong. It’s not un-Jed. Right?
In the last few weeks I’ve found that I have been using music as a tool, and I’ve been needing it to serve specific functions. I’m not crazy about this idea, and don’t think art should necessarily have to do anything to justify its existence. Still, music can do what other arts can’t do now; I can’t read fiction for instance. Music is more visceral and at a frayed moment it can ground and elevate me at the same time. Music that works now has to be equipped to acknowledge the palpable existential unease and simmering anxiety of life now and has to somehow settle the dread. So it’s not escapist but taking it on.
This is true of music recorded long before the coronavirus like Os and Starfall by Slow Moving Clouds. In their case it’s Kevin Murphy’s resonant, earth-like cello that provides the fundamental reassurance while Murphy’s falsetto, Aki’s nyckelharpa and Danny Diamond’s eagle-like violin aim towards exaltation.
It’s true of Stars of the Lid for reasons I don’t quite fathom; maybe it is the reminder, as shimmering, subtly shifting tones wash by and dissipate, that all is transient. It’s true of the Flaming Lips ‘Bad Days’, which for a solid 25 years now has been a voice of a calm in crises, not all of which were, in retrospect, all that serious. It’s true of Keeley Forsyth’s ‘Look To Yourself’: “Look to yourself and you will see / Everything that there is to see / Look to yourself and you will know / Everything that there is to know”.
I don’t have an ending to this piece and I have to head and feed the kids and the birds. I just wanted to say to Malojian and Jason Lytle and everyone mentioned here and many not mentioned that I appreciate what you are doing. The song asks “Is there anyone here who can heal the trembling of my heart? If I show you my fears could you heal the trembling of my heart?” As ever, if anyone can, it’s the artists, who keep us going, to whom we owe so much.
When a song really connects we say it spoke to me but in my experience that doesn’t quite capture it. A song speaking to you must do so from a distance but I increasingly find that when I connect with a song I feel no distance from it at all. I hear Julia Jacklin’s ‘Turn Me Down’, The Blue Nile’s ‘Stay Close’, Nick Drake’s ‘Know’, or Phoebe Bridger’s ‘Killer’, and I’m in the middle of the music, surrounded, swathed, fully present, breathing in time: right there and nowhere else in my mind.
There is not a long list of songs that have this immersive effect. I don’t quite know what qualities distinguish them but it’s the kind of thing I wonder about.
I think they are all songs in which the writer makes it easy to take their perspective or that of the song’s protagonist rather than hearing it from your own perspective.
It is freeing to dissolve into the song’s point of view; to meet its characters on their turf rather than your own; to lose your self in the music. We take this for granted in other art forms but less so in music; the kind of ardent indie I was reared on at least. Music that says nothing to me about my life now sounds pretty good. It’s about somebody’s life and maybe I want to hear their story for its own sake.
They are all songs that are minimally arranged but they are rich with emotional detail, containing layers that reveal themselves and repay time, trust and intent attention. I think here of ‘Know’, with its urgent recurring guitar phrase and the reverberation in the studio of the final word of every line Nick Drake sings. You have to strain to catch each echoing last lyric and it is this effort that transports me into the studio beside him when I hear it.
These songs have no clutter and there is time and space between the bars to process what’s just happened and to anticipate what’s coming. They have moments when you need to take a breath to be ready for a crescendo, like that tingling slowed-down moment that opens the bridge of ‘Turn Me Down’ – “So please just…”
‘Killer’ is enveloping in a few ways. The piano, emphatic yet cloud-soft, the strings that seep in to the second verse then dissipate; the three rising notes Bridgers allocates to the word “all” in the line “And I’ve given a-l-l my love”. The sheer unexpectedness of the imagery: “I can’t sleep next to a body / Even harmless in death / Plus I’m pretty sure I’d miss you / And faking sleep to count your breath.”
The moment in ‘Killer’ where I take a breath and dive in is right before the second verse because what follows is harrowing and comical and extraordinary and I know I’ll get something new from it each time.
A lingering E minor ends and Bridgers sings:
But when I’m sick and tired And when my mind is barely there When a machine keeps me alive And I’m losing all my hair I hope you kiss my rotten head And pull the plug Know that I’ve burned every playlist And I’ve given all my love.
I mean: my rotten head. I ask you.
I knew ‘Killer’ had connected when I noticed that I was feeling those last couple of lines in my body as much as I was hearing them. I didn’t know what I was responding to because it not an intellectual response but it was, I think, to a young person planning how she and those she leaves behind might make peace with her future passing.
I connected with ‘Killer’ around the time this autumn that two long-time friends of mine died, each a beautiful and loved and missed young man. I kept wondering how ready can you be. How ready can you ever be? Do we get readier? I’m not ready.
And I heard “I’ve burned every playlist and given all my love” and, scouring for solace, at first I felt some relief. I heard: when you have given all your love and there is none left to give, it’s time. Like a star, you burn out and you rest. Inconveniently, though, this was nonsense. It was completely backwards. As I get older I don’t have less love than I used to have. If anything every day feels more poignant and precious; I feel fuller.
And yet ‘Killer’ felt right and only a few days after I heard the song first I went to the funeral of one of my friends, John. His sister spoke about him and his unbelievable generosity as he knew he was dying. He lived in Australia but he came back as much as he could to be with his friends and family; not for himself, maybe, so much as for them. He had a huge circle of friends in Ireland and he said his goodbyes and the people who loved him felt the warmth of his presence.
I thought of how John approached the end and the line “I’vegiven all my love” ceased to express the draining away of a person’s supply of love. This does not happen. Love is self-replenishing. The phrase came to express the act of offering love and kindness at every opportunity. I know I don’t do this. And I know I give too much significance to songs but I do trust songs to remind me how to live better and ‘Killer’ can be a little red flag that pops up when I’m failing to show kindness.
Be kind, show love when you can, make sure that those you love know you love them, and cast that net as wide as you can. Then you are living well, without regret, and if you live well, then, when it comes, you might, maybe, be as ready as you’ll ever be.
A Lazarus Soul are Brian Brannigan, Joe Chester, Julie Bienvenu, and Anton Hegarty. They released their fifth album The D They Put Between The R&L last month, launching the record with a joyous, replenishing show in the Grand Social. They released the single ‘Long Balconies’ on June 14th and they have shows coming up with Damian Dempsey and at All Together Now.
Steve Wickham plays on TheD too, as does Vyvyenne Long, whose cello contributions to ‘Funeral Sessions’ and ‘Lemon 7s’ add further richness and profound beauty to a couple of the greatest songs I have ever heard. Brian Brannigan told me that the band arrived in Long’s house in the mountains of Wicklow on a stormy afternoon. They showed her the songs, he said, and “She was like ‘Holy fuck, this is dark!’—then she got really into the stories.”
Vyvyenne Long’s reaction to The D resonates with mine. The moment I knew I was dealing with a masterpiece was when I felt the shiver of the closing couplet of ‘Lemon 7s’: “Pills ground down like powder, ’til your problems are no louder than / A little infant whimpering for Ma to come and help“. But the same song is at its heart a love song, the lead character “A lady with a love so fine and genuine that only few could know“. Brian Brannigan calls ‘Lemon 7s’ a “love story in darkness”, and that captures something essential about The D: these are songs of love for home, family, and community, in hard times. The songsare deadly serious, with themes of social exclusion, addiction, alienation, and abuse, but they are suffused with compassion and elevated by humour and a battered but hardy hope.
This is a conversation that I recorded with Brian Brannigan on June 10th. We covered a lot of ground. The themes and origins of The D provided plenty of raw material, including enjoyable excursions into musical inspirations like Nick Cave, Nyabinghi reggae, Mark Eitzel, and The Idiots. Brian spoke warmly about his formative years in The Attic in the 1990s and about his friend Dave Carroll, of Wormhole and E+S=B, who had died the week before. Brian messaged me the day after we met to say “We rambled – I forgot we were doing an interview”. I felt the same way, and I hope that ease and unguardedness comes across in the piece.
NC: Congratulations on the album. I am curious what it must be like for you now. We met at the album launch, and that was an amazing celebratory night. But even since then, the reception for the record has been incredible. What is it like to be on the receiving end of all of that?
a bit strange. We’ve been making records for twenty years as A Lazarus Soul,
and we haven’t had that reception before, so yeah – it’s a bit odd to begin
with. But it’s kind of something that’s happening in social media, really, to
me, you know? Because we’re not playing, we’re not out there all the time, and
then I’m just back in work after two weeks or so. I kinda feel that people’s
relationship with the album is theirs now, the album is theirs. Bar playing
gigs, it’s someone else’s now. But it’s nice. It’s good to get that positive
What do you think people are connecting with in the new songs?
I haven’t got a clue. The only thing is they’re more song-based, like ballads, and maybe that’s just in our DNA. And maybe people were waiting for a record like this. I don’t know. People that like A Lazarus Soul can’t understand it (laughs). People that like the other records can’t understand it. They’re wondering like why people are attracted to this record. It’s not really for us to say, you know? It’s just for us to put them out there and we’re just happy that we’ve had a positive reaction. It is, it’s strange.
Something that I think runs through the album, like in ‘Lemon 7s’, ‘Metal Railings’, and ‘Funeral Sessions’, is the attention you pay to the social forces at play in people’s lives that dictate what happens to them, often more than choices they make themselves, and that we don’t really give enough credit to.
You know, I’m probably going to ruin this by saying this, but, the album wasn’t written as a piece. So it was very much an album of circumstance. It wasn’t meant to fit together and at one point it really didn’t fit together. So before we wrote ‘Black & Amber’ and ‘Long Balconies’, the album wasn’t gelling basically. We had it in a different sequence and it wasn’t working.
There was no agenda more than any record that we’ve made before. On past albums, we had a really strong idea of what we were doing and there was a title hanging around and all that. This record seemed to just come together itself. It wasn’t forced. Them social issues and themes: it wasn’t a grand plan. It wasn’t like me going, I’m going to write this record about what’s going on now. And it wasn’t a big statement that we were making.
When I’m writing, it’s very much, I’m writing a sentence and then the next sentence. I don’t ever stand back to examine the songs when I’m writing, and the next song is completely separate. So it just so happened that when it came together, I didn’t even realize it, but it just so happened that when the album came together, I didn’t even realize it until people started listening to it, that there was all these things going on that people were talking about. I didn’t see that at all. I work in a very small way. I didn’t see the songs fit together. And then there was definitely a time where we felt that it wasn’t even sounding like a record at one stage. Then we wrote ‘Black & Amber’ and ‘Long Balconies’. ‘Long Balconies’ went on to the album after the album was finished and mastered.
Yeah. And that kind of changed the whole – you know, I had a sense when we wrote the song, that’d be a great second song. But when you’re writing a song, you can’t tell what anybody’s going to think of it. You have a very different relationship with a song when you’re writing it than does someone listening to it. And you can never imagine what anybody will make of it – nor should you care. You’re just writing the song. So a lot of things that people are saying about this record, we were completely oblivious to.
One of my written questions is “Did you come at the album with an initial overarching vision like a novel” and what you’re saying is that you didn’t.
No, absolutely not. On other records, we have, but on this record, it seemed to write itself. There was loads of little accidents that happened that pushed us in particular directions. You know, I didn’t even realize that the Black & Amber was so close to O’Devaney Gardens. I’d found photos from Last of the Analogue Age, where I’d taken pictures of the Black & Amber and I didn’t even realize it. So there was something subconscious hanging around in my head.
Then I was in Gmail one day and I found the photographs I’d taken five years earlier. Then I wrote ‘Long Balconies’, which was inspired by O’Devaney Gardens plus some early memories of flats where my granny lived. I only realized when I wrote ‘Long Balconies’, and knew it was going to be the second track, that the two things were really close. It’s only up the road. Strange things happened like that.
I didn’t know ‘Long Balconies’ was inspired by O’Devaney Gardens. I had visualised Dolphin House. There are lots of long balconies.
Yeah, completely. It was initially inspired by a short documentary by a film-maker called Joe Lee, who spent a lot of time in social housing complexes and he was filming. But it was inspired by early memories as well of Granny Brannigan in the flats in Ballybough. Those barrelled stairwells are some of my earliest memories.
I wonder if some of what people are emotionally connecting with in the songs is compassion. You are telling stories of people who have difficulties for which they are punished – disproportionately to put it mildly. People for whom things are set up so: you are born into difficulty and struggle, and then we punish you for being born into difficulty, thereby creating further difficulty for you. And you don’t hear these connections being made much in songs, do you?
No. Maybe in Jinx Lennon or Damien Dempsey’s stuff. But yeah, there’s a huge divide in this country, and it’s getting worse. But again, this wasn’t a big statement that I was making. To me, they were very small stories that I was focusing on.
So you take ‘Lemon 7s’ for instance. It was a couple that lived out beside me in Maynooth. They begged for cans outside the shops. I was just telling their story. It’s mostly a true story. A little bit of drama added, but mostly true. And it just so happened that they were sleeping in a tent, which is what’s happening all over Ireland at the moment. But you know, I was just writing their story and that’s what it is. And there happened to be addiction and there happened to be homelessness in the song. But really I was telling a love story in darkness. But what really struck me about that relationship was, they seemed to be madly in love, even as, as I say, they were on the bottom rung. And they had nothing. Actually sleeping in a tent.
So, you know, to me I was just telling a sad, tragic love story. Both of them died in the end. One had died when I wrote the song. Like you’re saying, people don’t tell them stories and that’s my place, to tell them stories.
I’m thinking about homelessness and addiction and the role that we don’t really acknowledge that a person’s circumstances play in their addiction. We treat addiction as if it’s a decision that individual makes.
completely. You know, one of, one of the big struggles I had with this record
was ‘Funeral Sessions’, and it was using the word “junkie”, which I hate. [“All the drunkards they stay local / All the
junkies go to town”.] It dehumanizes people.
went to great lengths on Last of the Analogue Age to tackle this on the
last song, which is called ‘Last of the Analogue Age’. And I was rallying
against people like that who use the term “junkie” or write people off, you
know, so they almost become invisible. It’s like homeless people or people with
addiction and how people just completely ostracize them.
But ‘Funeral Sessions’ came and that line came to me and I thought the best way to say it was to use the word. I struggled for six, seven months with whether I should put that song on the record just because of using that term. But I think in the greater context it worked. It’s a striking term and I was writing from someone else’s point of view if you like, so it kinda made sense to use it. But yeah, I definitely think that society ostracizes these people. They dehumanise them in a way. A lot of the time it is probably a product of circumstance or area or whatever.
‘Metal Railings’ touches on the same thing: how a person’s chances of going to prison depend so much on circumstances of birth and and on social forces for which they’re not responsible. It makes me think about how individuals can represent more than just who they are. You’ve got an individual judge passing down a judgment on an individual person but really what you’ve got is two quite different worlds meeting represented by those two people.
I think you hit the nail on the head. People that are in charge of people that are making them decisions can never fully understand or, in my opinion, don’t care about the people they’re passing sentence down on. They’re part of the problem because the system that we have is fundamentally flawed. Poverty makes money for people and I don’t think there’s any great appetite in this country to fix that.
Those people can never understand jail. They can never. It’s a different story if you’ve come through something and gone on to something else. If you’ve been there and you’ve moved on, you can look back, I think you can understand it. But if you’ve never been there, you can never understand it.
I mean, I grew up in Finglas. My family went on to get social housing. I was the youngest of nine so I used to go with my sisters who were a lot older and stay with them while their husbands were working, in fledgling estates like Primrose Court out in Darndale, and in Tallaght. I loved these places and I’ve seen them grow up and I’ve seen what they’ve become. Fettercairn out in Tallaght as well. So you grow up seeing them and you can understand how they work. Someone in the system can never understand, I don’t think. I don’t think they care.
When you say you love those places and you’ve seen what they’ve become, just explain that to somebody who maybe doesn’t know what that means.
It’s very hard to come out of them places. To me, social housing should be mixed with private housing. You know, you take people who are not well to do, you put them all together, and these places get stigmatized. It’s very hard for people to get jobs. Accents even stop people from getting jobs. They’re neglected.
Ballymun for instance. Not only did they leave thousands of people living
together, there was no bus route out there. When they started there was no bus
route or buses would go out very seldom. It’s almost cutting people off. Until
something becomes real estate, there’s no real appetite to fix them problems
and they just let the places run down.
But in saying that, what happens is that people in them places band together and you get an amazing community. People help each other out, you know, people share, help each other to the next bill, so you get an amazing community as well. But there’s so much social problems around these places as well that ultimately they’re gonna fail. So I think you need to mix up social and private housing.
OK. Can I ask you about Elvis Costello? I believe you were not thrilled about his accepting an OBE [the day before this interview – NC].
Oh, me and Joe [Chester] are just like [sighs dramatically]. It’s like, I grew up a huge Morrissey fan and a massive, massive Smiths fan. And we were talking about how your heroes eventually let you down. Joe mailed me some piece on Morrissey last week and it was appalling. He’s a mad Elvis Costello fan so I mailed him back, he’s like – it’s not quite as bad (laughs), but, yeah, we were both really disappointed. Joe actually adores him. So yeah – it’s just sad when people let you down like that.
Rubbish. It’s rubbish. It’s like Nick Cave’s reason for playing Israel, you know.
What was Nick Cave’s reason for playing Israel?
I don’t know – it was so rubbish (laughs). It was about music –
Transcending something or other.
Yeah, yeah. And I’m a huge Nick Cave fan as well. So.
I am in the middle of reading Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life and a band that keeps coming up as an inspiration to the 1980s generation of American post-punk hardcore bands is The Birthday Party.
I loved, I was absolutely mad about The Birthday Party. Yeah. Just the power and energy and the violence and everything about that band, I was fascinated with.
Hardly at the time?
No, no. I got into Nick Cave on Henry’s Dream. I heard Henry’s Dream outside Freebird on O’Connell Street and I was just completely smitten by it. And I went back and I love The Good Son, Your Funeral My Trial, you know, all them records. Not so much after that. Let Love In is a good record, but to me, Henry’s Dream’s the pinnacle. But sometimes when you come to people, the album you come in on is the one. Like I know a people that came to Nick Cave later, and they love albums that I think are dreadful. But that’s their experience with him.
The Boatman’s Call? You wouldn’t rate that as much?
No, not at all. I’m kind of baffled by people’s love of that record. I think I can understand people liking the first half of the record but I think the second half of that record is dreadful. I think it’s actually really weak. Even if he had have spaced the songs out, do you know what I mean? The first half of it is great. And then just like ‘Green Eyes’ and ‘Black Hair’, I think they’re really poor songs. Where Henry’s Dream is a masterpiece. Henry’s Dream had a huge, huge impression on my writing.
Oh yeah, huge. Probably on this record.
Just talk a bit about that cos that’s not something I would naturally understand.
Cos he was kind of writing ballads but he was writing them… they were like Western ballads. To me, that was the closest Nick Cave ever came to writing ballads. But in his own way.
As in songs with stories?
Stories, and to me they sound like punk traditional ballads. I’d say he was listening to a lot of Irish ballads and I think he’s said in interviews, not particularly about that record, but he talks about Irish folk songs. And I think maybe that was a big influence on that record. I can hear folk songs in that record, even though it’s dark and gothic and punk. The storytelling is very kind of folky.
I think ‘Funeral Sessions’ is very much inspired by that record. That record had a massive impact on me, it really did. And then even stuff like ‘Christina the Astonishing’ and ‘Straight to You’. I can see parallels between that and ‘Tar Road’. And ‘Funeral Sessions’. I mean, we do reference, sometimes when we’re playing, we do say “OK, do this Bad Seed-ish”, we’ll use them terms.
Did you listen to a lot of folk songs or are you steeped in folk songs?
Not at all. Absolutely not. And even when I was writing this record, I avoided stuff like Lankum and that. I saw what was happening with the songs and I tried to stay away from it because I knew where we were going and I didn’t want to be influenced by it. Strangely enough, probably the biggest influence on this record was reggae, old reggae records. There’s amazing melodies. What I’ve tried to do, when I’m writing songs in the last couple of years is write these really strong vocal melodies. So when you bring the music to the vocal melodies it complements it as opposed to the vocal melodies following the music. I listened to some Nyabinghi, Rastafarian music where it’s chant music and the vocal melodies are incredible.
Nyabinghi? [writes on hand]
Yeah. They’re a Rastafarian tribe. They play this really kind of simple tribal drums and they sing over with these amazing vocal harmonies and so yeah, I listen to a lot of that. I say I listen to a lot of it, I have maybe three albums, Count Ossie and Wingless Angels are two that I love. Count Ossie was a Rastafarian drummer. He was one of the first drummers to record that music. And that just has a lot of Rastafarians chanting over his drums and it’s incredible.
Is that like the seventies or sixties?
I think he would be mid to late sixties. It’s like a Jamaican folk music in a way. Mixed with a kind of American gospel. So I think what they did was they would take gospel airs and then put their own Rastafarian tilt on it. And then Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Bob Marley, old reggae, very organic-sounding stuff. That’s a lot of what I was listening to. And then Joe reckons that makes sense cos it’s Jamaican folk music. But Joe was very much influenced by folk music.
So you know, something like ‘Black & Amber’, I wrote ‘Black & Amber’ and I was playing it on the guitar like it was like PJ Harvey or something. Then when I sent it to Joe I just sang it into the phone. I didn’t know whether the song was any good. I hate playing songs to people when I’ve just written them. And I woke up one morning and just as I woke up I took the phone and sang it. So that’s what you’re hearing is me waking up, that’s why the voice is so scratchy. So I emailed it to Joe on the phone. He lined it up on ProTools and played along with it and recorded it on reel-to-reel tape. And he emailed it back to me and I said: that’s it. We did nothing more with it. And that’s the first track on the record.
Something that I haven’t seen you talk about, I haven’t seen anyone ask you about, is the whole Traveller theme on the record. Several songs refer to Traveller themes, Traveller identity, Traveller ethnicity.
Under this record is a story of – I adopted my daughter from Ethiopia. And there’s a story of me moving from Finglas out to Maynooth, only 20 miles, but not really fitting in and not finding the sense of home. And at the same time there’s adopting my daughter, my mother and father died within nine months of each other.
So there was me becoming a father and also having that line cut back to my own parents and a lot of this record is – it was years ago, it was like nine years ago, but I didn’t really write about it then. It was about me finding community through my daughter and finding a home, and the two of us as well because she’d lost so much coming from Ethiopia to Ireland, much more than I’d lost. And her of being in such an inspiration to me to just get on with things and how tenacious she was, and how strong she is and how she just, you know, just made it work for her.
Like she has an incredible energy and, and she just, you know, like for instance, we came back from Ethiopia and she just woke up the next day and just was like, as if this was her home. She met my family and she just jumped into my family’s arms and just was an inspiration to, you know, how to just get on with things.
So all this is kind of going on underneath.
So, and then talking about Travellers – there’s inter-country adoption. Other stuff that was going on, which you would never get out of the album, is the migrant crisis – well, you might obviously in ‘Tar Road’. But you know, becoming a father gives you I think a greater empathy to see that and being the father of a black child and just seeing how those kids were, and families were just left washing up on the beach. That had a massive effect on me.
The picture of that small Syrian child. [Alan Kurdi].
Yeah. It broke my heart. And so, kind of bringing it back to the kind of racism that we have, you know, with Travellers. All of these things, all these strands, were going on in my head when I was writing the record. We grew up in Finglas, so I lived right beside Dunsink, probably the longest Traveller camp in Dublin. We lived side by side for so long with no trouble, just normal day to day. The shop we went to was the same shop the Travellers would go to and they’d get credit, you know. We lived in relative harmony for years. So I suppose all those things are in my head but I kind of see parallels between all these things.
‘Tar Road’ is where do you draw the direct comparison, isn’t it, between the way that we treat migrants, and the way that we treat Travellers.
Yeah. It was actually a John Connors documentary I was watching. They were talking about old Travellers. They were saying when there used to be Travellers all over the country they’d be helping farmers and they were tinsmiths. And they were saying that they’d love a tar road because they wouldn’t cut their feet. And that just started me thinking about the migrant crisis from the east and Africa. These strands just run around my head and end up in songs.
I listened to the album a lot for weeks after I heard it first and I had this feeling as I walked around of being slightly different for having heard it. And this is slightly embarrassing to say, but I found myself, during encounters with some people, maybe trying to be a bit kinder, because of your songs. And that made me wonder about the ambitions that you might have for the effect that your music might have. Are you writing songs so that people enjoy them, and maybe are moved, or is there a part of you going – can’t art influence people to be kinder and more compassionate, and do you imagine that your own art could be having an effect on the way that people treat each other?
On a very selfish level, I write songs because it calms me and it focuses me, and it’s a kind of a meditative thing for me. That’s why I write songs. It focuses my brain more than anything else. And I take pleasure in doing that.
And when I’m writing, it’s about the lyric I’m writing. I’m not taking the weight of the world on me when I’m writing a song. It’s more like it’s a mental thing. It’s like a mental puzzle and it feels right when the right words are in. I’m not always singing. I’m thinking a lot of the time. I’m out walking and thinking. And when I get the right word I can feel it. I’m not even speaking or singing. It’s in my head, and sometimes I don’t even know I’m doing it. So on that level it very much is an enjoyable thing and it’s not, the songs to me don’t seem that dark or heavy.
I suppose if there’s one thing I’d like, it is, like you say, to show the human aspect of these situations. But it’d be incredibly egotistical of me to think that these songs could change anything.
Sure. That’s understandable.
My relationship with music is like: I get up in the morning and even at the weekend I find the reality of life tough. I wake up, and we’re living in a country where it fucking rains, and it’s grey. Even on days off – we work all the time, and on days off you expect to feel differently but when it’s grey out, I find it hard, you know. The realism of life can – you know, it’s hard to actually go, “Oh this is great”. I mean, we should be happy to be alive. But what I find is, especially in the mornings, and I’m not a great morning person, and then I put on a record and it transports me somewhere. So if it’s a reggae record it brings that kind of Jamaican flavour to the house and straight away it lifts me. So that’s my hope when I make a record. If I could do that for one person, to me that’s a success in writing a song.
Transport someone, lift someone, inspire someone – anything. Make anybody feel anything, but changed. To me, music and kids and animals are like an alchemy that makes the ordinary magic. And if a song does that for someone, you know, even one person, it’s a huge success. So that’s my hope because that’s what music does for me. So not so much the content of the song. If I can lift someone in any way.
I was wary of this question because I realize that asking somebody “Do you think that your music is important” is an awkward thing to do and yet you and I and many, many people have all – our lives are different, and we behave differently, because of all the great music we’ve heard.
I suppose, when I’m writing songs, the last thing in my head is “What is anybody going to think of this?” It’s usually when something’s finished. To me, you know, I have a mad idea and it becomes a song and I go with the mad idea. I’m long enough at this to know that a mad idea eventually will turn into a song, or some of them will. Something will click somewhere along the line and the crazy idea becomes a song, but it’s not really until we finish the record that that I start going “What is anybody going to think of this?” And it’s not like, are we gonna inspire people or anything like that. It’s just – I really hope this is not shit.
I want to ask you a couple more things. I’m always curious when I meet people about the music that formed them. You’ve mentioned Nick Cave and those reggae performers. Who else are the big, big people for you?
If you’re talking about when I was getting into music, The Smiths were, Joy Division, a lot of English indie bands. Pixies, Sonic Youth, that kind of stuff. But probably Brian Mooney out of The Idiots had a massive effect on me.
Yeah. His lyrics. He’s a really under-rated lyricist and songwriter. He’s still doing a lot of stuff now that’s absolutely genius. He keeps posting stuff online that’s incredible. Yeah – his lyrics and his phrasing in his placement of words in very, very loud, noisy songs. I was fascinated by his words and his phrasing and the tone of his voice as well. So he had a massive influence. He has a line in the song ‘Pinned’: “I think I’m going to cut thin ice”. And that line alone had a massive impact on me. It had a huge impact on my lyrics.
I don’t know what it was, but that line was always a line that we’re trying to replicate. It’s hard to explain, but to me it was the ultimate. It’s like the Silver Jews, you know, I was talking on this blog the other day and I was saying, “I want to be like water if I can, ’cause water doesn’t give a damn”. That’s probably my favourite couple of lines in a song ever. And every time I write a line, I try and get within four miles of that line, or those couple of lines. Maybe with Brian Mooney, it was the way he said it, it was the delivery; it was, you know, it was what he didn’t say. “I think I’m going to cut thin ice.” Do you know the song?
I don’t. And I feel like I’m really missing out.
They were a really heavy band, you know? It was kind of like a slow hypnotic beat with really heavy guitars over it. And he recorded really lo-fi as well.
Cathal Coughlan and Fatima Mansions. Cathal’s a big hero of mine. In later
years, Vic Chesnutt. I think Vic Chesnutt was the greatest songwriter of our
time, possibly my favourite songwriter. Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse and the
Silver Jews. And Mark Eitzel, they would be who I would consider to be the
Did you say Mark Eitzel? Are you a big Mark Eitzel fan?
Oh yeah. I think Mercury is one of the greatest albums.
Talk about formative. Mercury was not my first album of his because I got Everclear when I was 17. California is probably the album I’ve listened to most in my life. And I started writing about music by writing about Mercury.
And like we were saying, you come to bands on certain albums, I came to them on San Francisco. I think they did a Dave Fanning interview that night before they played the Tivoli. And they played that song on the show, the one with “Mercury” in the chorus… ‘Challenger’. They played ‘Challenger’ and me and me mates were like – what the fuck is this? So we went to see them the next night. And we were just absolutely blown away by it.
When you mention Brian Mooney, that whole period of music in the mid-90s, the Attic scene, was really special. Your Wormholes and Sunbears and so on.
That was my introduction to music. I was 17 or 18 and living in Finglas and I used to walk into town and have two or three pints of Guinness and stand at the cigarette machine on me own and watch The Idiots, Wormhole, Sunbear, Luggage. So that was my introduction to the local music scene and it was probably the greatest local music scene ever.
I mean really. Talk about timing.
Yeah, I just walked into this world and at a time where I was just a teenager and I didn’t have a place in the world, and I found this amazing scene. And there were theses incedible people that invited me in. I’m actually starting to see it again now in Dublin. There seems to be that openness in music and supportiveness.
But back then, you know what, no-one ever thought they were ever going to do anything. Every band was different. It was such great bands. Me and Martin Kelly from Sunbear argue about The Idiots or Whipping Boy. I mean, the Whipping Boy gigs, pre-Heartworm, were probably the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen. There was like eight gigs that I went to where I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that since. There was one particular one in the Project where The Idiots and Whipping Boy played together. And I would say The Idiots were actually better than them. Martin reckons that The Idiots are the greatest Irish band ever. Definitely, The Idiots are up there. Wormhole as well. I was at Dave’s Mass the other day.
You knew Dave?
I used to go and see Wormhole and I didn’t know them then, but then years later I started going see E+S=B and we used to chat. I used to go to gigs and we’d chat for hours and we had similar kinds of backgrounds. My father worked in the same places Dave’s father worked.
I was working on a documentary that never got made and once we went down to the house where they lived. It’s this amazing footage. We went down and they [Dave and his brother Anto, also of Wormhole] were still staying in the house that they grew up in, in Ringsend. They actually were very naive when they released the first album and they put the home address on it so we were able to find them because they were still there. We went down and did an interview with them and I never met a more infectious and passionate person in my life. We were just, he was talking about music and the film crew and all, when we went outside we were like, holy fuck, he’s amazing. Just the most amazing interview he gave.
So then I used to go to see E+S=B and we played with them in The Joinery one night. And I used to go to gigs and we’d just chat for hours. Just one of the most incredible people I’d ever met. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. Life conspired. The Wormholes played two gigs, and we never fucking play, and the two times Wormhole were playing, we were playing. On the night of our launch they were playing. Dave wasn’t, because he was sick. It’s a big, sad loss.
The songs on The D are a hard look at hard aspects of life. Do you generally feel optimistic? Do you think things can be better?
Yeah. I believe in humanity and I suppose I think there’s very human aspects of this record. I think there’s a lot of negativity in the world. The world is in a bad place. But I find day to day human kindness to be very inspiring. I see things around me all the time that I go, all right, that gives me hope. And it’s usually on a smaller level. So you see people helping people. No, I am optimistic. I think there’s goodness in the world and I think if you can find the goodness in these situations, they’re dark situations but I think there’s a chink of light in these songs. You know, the people that find love and find compassion and, you know, in some cases like in ‘Black & Amber’, there’s a little bit of humour in the melody, you know?
“For he comes home legless and he after a fish supper.”
Yeah. And there’s people surviving this. So I think there’s an inner strength in the songs that in those little things, if you look, there’s little hints in there that the people are surviving. And the strength of the community I was trying to get across in the record as well. So there is optimism in there in those dark situations.
I’ve thought about ‘Funeral Sessions’ in this light. The dad is trying to connect. And that itself is hopeful. The song makes me think of all the times that this conversation doesn’t happen. Where there’s a connection that isn’t made, and not because there’s no will to make it, but sometimes people just aren’t able.
I think in families it’s incredibly difficult to articulate these things. It’s almost like – those channels become dead. And it’s sometimes very hard to open them up again. Almost impossible. Families are strange units. We fall out with people, we don’t say the things that we want to say. Even though you know you should say them. It’s almost easier to do it to a stranger. It’s almost easier to be kinder sometimes to a stranger than it can be in families. And especially going back.
I think what we’ve come from in the past — like, I’d a good relationship with my Dad, he was a great Dad, but we never talked emotionally. And even though we had a good relationship, it’s very hard to go, Jesus, he never told me he loved me. Where I tell my daughter fifty times a day. She’s immune to me telling her how much I love her. So I think maybe things are changing, from that generation to us. We’re becoming more open as a people. I think we’re learning from our mistakes.
I interviewed Julia Jacklin in Whelan’s on March 30th 2019. She was at the time my favourite musician on the planet and I was listening to her new album Crushing all day every day, so – I don’t know how well it went from my end. I had to work pretty hard to come up with questions other than “Why are you so amazing?” She was great though – gracious, generous and quite happy to get into some fairly serious stuff with me even thought she was just off a ferry, and heading on another ferry in a few hours after her show. The piece is published in Hot Press and I’m posting this because there were bits that I liked that didn’t fit in to 1800 words. The transcript is tidied up a little bit and divided into themes for clarity. Our meeting began with me giving Julia a copy of Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, which was out that weekend.
JJ: I’m reading a lot at the moment actually, so this is perfect. I’m trying to not use my phone, so I’ve just decided that if I have the urge to pick up my phone, I have to pick up a book instead. So I’m actually just charging through books. It’s amazing. I feel so much better mentally than I have.
NC: Great. Em – your album is amazing.
JJ: Thank you.
NC: My three year old is singing ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’.
JJ: Oh no! That’s too early.
NC: Today, while I was brushing his teeth, he was singing it.
JJ: That’s very cute.
ONE: EMOTIONS OF TOURING AND PERFORMING
NC: I’m thinking about the process of being on tour with the kind of songs that you’re singing now. You were talking about ‘Turn Me Down’ in DIY magazine and you said “Gonna be interesting touring it for over a year”. And I have thought about that before with people like John Grant. What it must be like to perform such personal material every night on stage to strangers. How is it?
JJ: Yeah, it’s interesting because I feel like it changes every night
and it changes as you progress through the songs. A song like ‘Don’t Let The
Kids Win’ off my first album, I’ve sung that song hundreds and hundreds of
times. And some days I feel nothing. Like, I’m up there, and I’m definitely not
looking like I’m feeling nothing, but honestly I’m – I’m quite dead inside
(laughs). And I’m thinking probably about the catering or something. But then
like last night I just choked up a bit because it just makes me think of
things. So songs do surprise you.
This album’s been different than last time because the songs do feel
heavier to perform. And it’s not even just me performing them and bringing my
own experiences to the stage every night. It’s more that I know now that a lot
of people have really delved into this album and it’s brought up a lot of
things for them. And so then when I’m performing every night, I feel that
pressure that, even if I’ve moved beyond that feeling, if I’m not feeling it
tonight, that there’s people out there who are going through that and have come
to the show because they are, and I feel like I have to perform with everything
I have for somebody else, you know? So, it’s just odd.
NC: It’s quite a lot to carry, isn’t it?
JJ: Yeah. Yeah, it is. It is quite a lot. Luckily it’s only like an hour
and a half every day. I think if it was for longer than that, it would be
NC: It seems like it’s an important skill to be able to perform without
necessarily having to excavate the emotional origins of the song onstage.
JJ: Yeah. I think this whole job is just, like, bizarre. Whenever I think about it, I’m like: Oh, so I go through something traumatic. I write something privately. I record it semi-privately. And then suddenly you go and perform that version of yourself repeatedly for like a year and a half. It’s very strange. I love it, but it’s strange.
NC: How do you mind yourself?
JJ: I think it’s one of those things that’s not not talked about enough in the music industry and I don’t think there is enough support around it. Because it is quite grueling and especially for someone like me or for anyone who leads the band. Not only are you having to do that every night, it’s kind of your project, so everybody that’s with you is doing it for you. And you’re having to manage a small business on the road and make sure that everybody is financially and emotionally satisfied with the work. I’m definitely getting better. But for the first two years, while there were some wonderful, exciting, amazing times, there was probably some of the saddest and hardest times of my life as well. Just trying to make sure everybody was happy all the time around you is exhausting. You’re not only doing that with your team but then every night you get on stage and you’re like, okay, I’ve got to now make sure that everybody who’s bought tickets is also having a good time. And it can be very easy to just be like, my own feelings will be last on the list. Or I’ll deal with them when I have a day off, and then you never have a day off, so then you don’t deal with it. So, yeah, I mean it’s just not the best environment for people who are struggling as well because it’s also just full of alcohol and like, everybody kind of expects that if you’re a singer-songwriter that you also like to party, or if you’re a musician. So yeah, it’s strange.
NC: On the emotional demands of your work and the lack of supports. I’m thinking of my own day job in psychiatry. Doctors don’t always look after themselves but about two years ago a few of my friends got together and we have this group every month where we meet and reflect on the the emotional impact of the work. And it’s supportive and a really important point in the month.
JJ: Right, great!
NC: But what do you do? Who’s there for you?
JJ: Well I guess that’s the biggest part is that a lot of this job, part of your branding is to maintain this level of fun and enjoyment. So I’ve had wonderful moments on the road where I start talking to another singer-songwriter or another leader of a band. At first you’re like “How fun’s this, how cool’s this?” And you’re both eyeing each other up, being like, who’s going to be the first one to say “It’s not great all the time, is it?” And then you slowly break down those barriers and then you can get to the core of things.
I think a lot of that’s just based around this job is so rare for most people and it’s, it’s got a lot to do with hard work, yes, but honestly, it’s got a lot to do with luck, timing, and the way you look, and your age, you know. So to be able to get to the position that I’m in is actually incredibly lucky. And you know, whenever I say that, people are like, “No, you’re not lucky, you worked hard”. I’m like, come on. I worked hard, yes. But there’s so many factors that benefit me from the beginning.
NC: What are they, do you think?
JJ: I think being young, being, I don’t know, a white person, being, like, moderately attractive, aesthetically pleasing, you know, that’s just the reality of it.
NC: I suppose being Australian and not, say, Zambian.
JJ: Exactly, exactly. I mean the music industry is full of middle class white kids from the western world. It’s not like we’re all like the most talented people in the world. Because of that, you’ve gotta be very grateful, which I am, but then it feels like if you kind of make any allusion towards it not being ideal or something, then it feels like you’re kicking all the people who want what you have down. But I guess it’s like: it’d be nice if we could have a once a month meeting of musicians to be like, “Okay, how are we all?” (laughs).
NC: Are there people that you’ve connected with? Aren’t you friends with Adrienne Lenker?
JJ: I know Adrienne yeah. And Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, Stella Donnelly and yeah, just lots of female singer songwriters, we can definitely have those moments where we’re like, let’s be real about this. And it’s really nice.
TWO: SIMPLICITY IN SONGWRITING
NC: Can I ask you about the decisions that you made in the album? The songs seem fairly direct, musically and lyrically. So how did you arrive at that decision that you wanted things to be – pretty clear.
JJ: That’s just the kind of record I like, you know? Like a Gillian Welch record. You know what she’s singing about, you know what chord she’s playing. It’s not that mysterious. And that’s just kind of music I’m drawn to, but also, that’s my ability. I’m not an incredible guitar player, I don’t know many chords (laughs). I think I’ve got a great ear for melody and I can write lyrics, but in terms of being a technical musician I’m not one, really. And I think when I came into the second album, initially I was like, oh yeah, my second album’s going to be super-produced, because that’s what I felt like a second album had to be. But then when I got there I was like, “But you don’t know how to do that”. You know? Like, I would hate to have a situation wherein I got an a producer that could do all this stuff that I didn’t understand and then create something that I couldn’t even play. I feel like with music, for me, it’s always just like try and document to the best of your ability at the time whenever it is, and then you can’t ever regret what you do because, you know, I can’t play any better than that. I did my best, I think. And I feel like as well because the lyrics are so direct and stripped back, any over-instrumentation would have taken away from that. And lyrically as well you feel like good songwriting means you have to be very poetic and metaphorical, and have all these tricky things that don’t make sense really but sound interesting. As I’ve gotten older I’m like, oh, that’s not true at all. Like, if you write a good song that people can understand instantly, it doesn’t mean it’s not good just cause it’s easier to process.
NC: [Waffly question about Jacklin’s singing, her voice carrying a lot of emotional information, so the songs surrounding the voice maybe need to be kept simple — not too sure what I was asking here.]
JJ: I think my singing’s changed a lot over the years, especially since the first album. I am surprised that I sing the way I do because I did classical singing for a long time and I feel like that should have stamped out any individuality. That was my experience – of being scolded for ever trying do my own take on anything. Well, I think a lot of that with my voice is that with this album particularly, I really wanted to just have the vocals right in the front and I wanted to record them very intimately with the microphone, whereas with the first album I was just kinda like, can we put a whole bunch of reverb on there? And I just was a lot more self-conscious as a person and an artist, so I just kind of wanted to cover everything with just like a padding of effects and safety. Whereas this new record, I just finally understood. I think when you’re younger and you first started making music, everyone tells you, oh, imperfections make music what it is, you know? And you’d be like, no they dont, shut up! I want to be perfect, you know, I suck and I want to be perfect. And if my voice wasn’t just like perfectly in pitch or whatever, I would just have to re-record it. And then I realized that just makes, especially with my kind of genre, like pretty bland, non-feeling albums. So with this one I was like, I’m just going to sing the way I sing.
NC: Did you have to work your way back to your own voice, in a way, then?
JJ: I think so. I don’t know. I think I was just like, yeah, I don’t know, I just wasn’t afraid of it anymore. I wasn’t worried. I trusted whatever came out of my mouth. I think when I was younger, I didn’t fully back myself vocally. I’d always, every night I’d be like, oh I don’t know what’s going to going to happen. Whereas now I just, I have full faith in whatever happens (laughs).
JJ: I think I tried to read that, but it has a pay wall.
NC: Yes. I was asked to write a piece about predatory men. I cited you at the end in a way that I’m not totally sure was right. So I wanted to check. I ended by saying that maybe we should stop agonizing over whether we can watch Woody Allen any more. And I wrote: “I propose that we use what we can, including our cultural choices, to ensure that women now and in future don’t have to sing songs about their bodies being the property of careless men.” That was a reference to ‘Body’. “And I propose we cease agonizing over whether to keep listening to predatory artists. We can just let go. Perhaps listen instead to the women who survive their predation. They might have important things to tell us.” Is that too strong a reading of your song?
JJ: Ah, thank you. No! I like that. That’s nice. Cause I do feel like that sometimes. When we are agonizing over Ryan Adams, I’m like, man, there are so many better female singer-songwriters and male singer-songwriters than Ryan Adams. I mean, sorry if you’re a big fan. Like when people for years have told me that I need to listen to him because he’s so incredible and Id listen and be like, he’s a decent singer songwriter, but I don’t get it. And then when this came out, a few people were like Oh no, but he’s such a hero. I’m like, I don’t know if I have the time to be in that discussion because I just feel like that would never happen with a female artist. We just don’t get the same kind of leniency. We can’t be disgusting people in our private lives and still have people listen to our work. So yeah: that was very nice. I think we should listen to more women.
NC: One interesting question to me was: if you’re going to decide you’re turning away from those guys, who do you turn to? I read something you said about your song ‘Convention’, which refers to Donald Trump at the Republican Convention in 2016. About why do we pay all our attention to the worst voices. That song is nearly three years old now. Do you think in the intervening period, have we got any better at listening to voices other than that kind of voice?
JJ: Yeah, I think so. Some days I feel very disillusioned by the world, but I do feel like even though we’ve got a long way to go, I do feel empowered as a woman, as to people actually listening to what I have to say. Even with this album, I feel like people really listen in a way that I was worried about. I was worried that I would put this album out and I was going to get thrown under the bus. Written off as like, she did it for the press, or for the #MeToo movement. I did get a few comments like that and they go Oh, Julia’s gone political. Which I find hilarious that if you speak about your experiences, just basic human experiences as a woman, it’s political apparently. But I do see a shift in the way that – it just feels like women in music are getting pushed to the front in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I feel like people are genuinely being believed. There’s definitely a big group of loud people in the Internet who are always going to be misogynists, so I don’t really have any energy or time to try and convince people like that, that they’re wrong. But I think that maybe there’s some people on the fence maybe starting to listen a bit more.
NC: It’s quite a powerful thing, isn’t it, to say to somebody like you that by describing your own experience you have gone political and that somehow invalidates what you are saying. Like: I’m sorry, who’s decided this?
JJ. Yeah, it is silly. Yeah.
NC: But it happens.
JJ: Yeah. It’s a great time to be a female musician, but then it’s also like if you write about like feminism or just your body or whatever, it’s like this hilarious idea that it’s a trend at the moment. It’s trendy to be a woman, apparently, at that this moment in time. I feel better about it though. My stepdad gave me a book the other day. I think its very easy to think that every single thing is totally shit right now because it can feel like that so much. And my stepdad gave me this book about 1960s Australia, and oh my God. Yes, things aren’t great now, but to see actually how far we have come. In Australia you still needed a husband’s signature to get a credit card in 1968 or something. In 1975 you couldnt get a bank loan. So that put things a little bit into perspective for me.
NC: I will finish up because I think we’ve probably done half an hour and you’re busy. But can I ask this: Is the person in ‘Body’ angry, or not angry? Because the song can make the listener feel angry.
JJ: Ha. I don’t know. To me — no. Or at least, not angry because I feel like the person in ‘Head Alone’ is angry. Right? I always feel like ‘Body’ and ‘Head Alone’ are sister songs.
‘Head Alone’ to me is when I’m feeling empowered and when I feel like what I say actually matters and maybe that if I ask for space, or if I advocate for myself, that people might actually listen. And so I feel encouraged, but also, you know, I feel angry about it and there’s nothing else I can do than scream a pretty self explanatory line like the pre-chorus line (“I don’t want to be touched all the time“). Whereas ‘Body’ is more resigned to my fate as a woman in this world, that maybe things would never improve and maybe no matter what, no matter what you say or try to explain or express your humanity to people, there’s always going to be these deep-seated ideas about what I’m supposed to look like and what I’m supposed to do and how I’m supposed to behave in my private life and my public life, that I’m going to essentially die without ever being able to break free from or change people’s minds.
But then sometimes with ‘Body’, I feel like on the one hand its defeated – I’m defeated – then on the other hand there is something quite empowering to me about the end line (“I guess it’s just my life / And it’s just my body”). Because sometimes it’s actually really nice when you realise, especially with a certain person in your life who maybe treats you poorly or treats you differently because you’re female, there is something nice to suddenly just be like, well: There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can say. There’s no amount of communication or anything that I can say to change this person’s mind. And, like, now I can move on.
I think it’s when you’ve got that middle room, when you think, if only I can just show them the statistics of female sexual assault or maybe if I can really show them the facts. Maybe if I can tell them personal anecdotes to make them understand why this certain thing is traumatic to me, then maybe they’ll change. And that is way more exhausting sometimes. And some people are just always going to be the way they are. It’s not my job to convince people or to change people’s minds. It’s not my job at all.
FIVE: FAVOURITE MUSICIANS AND WHY
NC: Let me ask you about musicians or records that you really connect
JJ: Probably my biggest one that I listened to the most would be Leonard
Cohen. Gillian Welch, Fiona Apple, and a guy called Andy Shauf. Oh, he’s very
cool. I toured with him and it was a bit awkward because I was just very
obsessed with his music. They’re probably the four artists that I return to
over and over again, and will always listen to their albums from start to
finish and get completely immersed in what they do. Whereas there’s other
artists I love, obviously, maybe not ones that I will continuously return to
like some sort of little home.
NC: I saw Fiona Apple mentioned elsewhere this week as being very important to another musician. I don’t remember who. I missed the Fiona Apple boat at the time.
JJ: Well, I think I missed the boat at the time too, because alot of people’s perceptions of her were just so different to what my experience was like. I think she was really, she was kind of blown up when she was 18, 19, to superstardom. So I think a lot of people know her just as this young person who kind of went a bit crazy, you know. Whereas I had just kind of followed her personal life and I was too young to know that period. But Extraordinary Machine was one of the first albums I heard, which was her third album and I was 13 and my first boyfriend introduced it to me. It was just one of those moments that I’ll never forget because it was like the first time I heard something that that I really liked and I didn’t feel like I was being told to like it or my mum listened to it or whatever. It was the first thing that I went like, oh, I really like the sound of this and I don’t particularly know why. But then, over the years, it’s just – she’s an incredible lyricist. She has a way of talking about the dissolution of love in a way that I totally needed and related to. I don’t feel like many people write about it the way that she does. Yeah. She’s great. You should have a Fiona Apple period.
NC: You said that when you play these people’s music you get immersed in
JJ: Yeah, completely immersed, and I think it like reminds me of why I
do this. I think it’s very easy to get so lost in this industry, to be like,
why am I doing this? Is it cause I’m a massive narcissist? Is it because I like
the sound of my own voice? Is it because I enjoy socializing? Once you get into
the industry, it can be quite confusing for me. And so I feel like they’re the
kind of artists that I listen to going like, oh that’s right, it’s because I
love songwriting and they’re all masters, just absolute masters of the song.
NC: Did you learn a lot from these people?
JJ: I think so, yeah. Definitely, when I first started song writing, I think most people do this, you basically feel like you’re, you know, deconstructing a meal backwards. I’d listen to Gillian Welch’s ‘I Dream a Highway’, you listen and you’re like, OK, this makes me feel this and this and this and this – why? And I think she in particular made me go, OK, you don’t need a chorus in every song to make people connect with it. Like with ‘Body’. That, I reckon, came from my love of her music because she doesn’t lean into the typical songwriting structures. She doesn’t just give you verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge. There’s definitely a few songs on this record where I think I was just more confident in my ability, so I didn’t feel like I had to squish every idea into that kind of structure. That I felt like I could just experiment a bit and try not to do that a few times. Yeah. It’s nice.
NC: Where else would you say there’s an experiment with song structure?
JJ: Well yeah, like ‘Turn Me Down’ is one, and ‘Body’, and ‘Head Alone’. I mean,that is a verse, pre-chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus. That never really repeats. I think if you heard my first album, it’s a bit more formulaic, songwriting-wise.
NC: I’m thinking about the structure of ‘Body’. It’s got this really nagging quality. Like, I was wandering round the house for days, going what is it about this song? You know the way it resolves? That’s seemed like a deliberate songwriter move.
JJ: Are you saying about ‘Body’?
NC: I am saying about ‘Body’. First of all the chords aren’t all in the same key, and then they are, just when you get to “I guess it’s just my life, and it’s just my body”, which is like, to me, that’s the message of the song. This fucking sad, resigned moment of – you’ve no right to be angry. Just take it. I felt like you did that musically. [I’ve written about this here.]
JJ: I think with songwriting, that for me especially, I’m not, because I’m not a technical musician, there’s no real like: “And then I thought, I will now use this code and that will make this happen!” It’s just like, I try every chord in my small knowledge book and then I’m like: that, no, no, yes, great! Just a lot of trial and error, really. It’s not some wonderful secret craft.
NC: An Irish interest question really to finsh up. In ‘Pressure to Party’, there’s this wordless vocalising at the end – is there a little Dolores O’Riordan in there?
JJ. Oh, no. I’ve gotten that a couple of times, it’s nice. Yeah. It was definitely not intentional, but nice outcome. Yeah. Well, thank you. Thank you for the book!
NC: Hope you enjoy it. Here’s a pic of my son who was singing ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’ by the way.
JJ: Ah, he’s lovely. [Indulges interviewer by looking at interviewer’s phone wallpaper.] It’s funny the people you find that connect with your songs. Last night in Manchester, I was looking out in the crowd during ‘Head Alone’ and there was this was this old man in a flat cap, punching the air, yelling ‘I don’t want to be touched all the time‘. And I thought: You are not who I thought I was writing this song for.”
Get Lost by The Magnetic Fields was the only album I gave double six to in Hot Press that the editors allowed to stay with full marks. Probably because I’d been there a few years at that point and maybe because I obviously liked the record a lot. I still do. I mean, when I wrote at the end that after forty-eight hours with the album I knew I’d still be listening to it years later, well, I wasn’t wrong. Merritt and the Magnets hadn’t had too much success at the time although they had some brilliant albums like Charm of the Highway Strip, Holiday, The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees, as well as Wasps’ Nests by The 6ths. It was the Magnets album after this one, 69 Love Songs, that changed everything for Stephin, and it was such a delight to see him and his colleagues, who still perform with him, being so widely lauded. He seems … like he got happy. I didn’t predict that in this piece and I’m glad I was wrong about that. This is an album review I just found for the first time in a good while, in a March 1996 Hot Press with Nick Cave on the cover. The issue also had a Frank Black interview by my esteemed colleague and great friend Nick Kelly. The Magnets and Nick came together later at the wedding ceremony that Sharon and I had 12.5 years later, 15 years ago, in September 2008. Nick read Brian Doyle’s essay Yes and my uncle Michael and cousin Damian opened the ceremony by playing and singing, as I asked them to, ‘With Whom To Dance’, which was the opening track on the Get Lost I owned. In the review you’ll note I quoted the line of this song that goes “I’ve no hope of falling in love” — which was then perhaps not completely appropriate. Michael didn’t tell me he was going to do anything about this but the words he brought while Sharon and I and everyone listened intently were “I’ve hopelessly fallen in love”. I had done so indeed, still have, and I’ll always be grateful for this deft alteration of one of my favourite songs.
THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: “Get Lost” (Setanta)
THIS IS the blackest bubblegum there’ll ever be.
It’s not that there’s any shortage of competition for the title — I think it’s been accepted, at long last, by even the most cloth-eared, filthy-flannel-clad rockist redneck that the production-line Pop bequeathed by Lamont and Dozier, Bacharach, Spector, ABBA and the better boy bands is far more than just an exhilarating but cynical exercise in form, wild young love as cashcrop … the tales of lust, longing, life, death, magic and loss that these Gods among men hid behind sweeping orchestral swells and plastic smiles are all too real, and they could draw tears from a dead man.
New York City’s Stephin Merritt is The Magnetic Fields, and he worships all the above too, but he shouldn’t; he is their equal, at least. He lives reluctantly, observes keenly, writes words with grace, wit and crushing pathos, picks with uncanny precision chord changes that manipulate your moods marionette-like, and from every event and emotion fashions an (almost invariably) unbelievable bleak sonic sculpture that is utterly perfect in every respect. EVERY respect.
He does overtly what Spector did covertly — it’s the Nineties, so there’s no need for subterfuge lyric-wise. It’s OK to cry, and boy does Merritt know it: at times, he leaves Emily Dickinson looking like a Girlie Show presenter. “Moons in June,” goes the heartwarming first half of the first line of the first song, ‘With Whom To Dance’, a crooner: “I’ve given up on that stuff”, goes the second half, and the litany of betrayals and years and years of sideburn-greying experiencing experience that go into this line alone make your stomach turn. “I’ve no hope of falling in love,” he goes on, and it’s been said before, but it’s rarely been meant before. Stephin Merritt means it — nobody could be this good a liar.
Thankfully, he can dish it out too. He will survive. ‘When You’re Old and Lonely’, a poison-pen letter to a traitorous ex, is as cruel a few minutes of music as I’ve heard since prime vindictive Dylan. What starts as an outlandishly funny apparent reconciliation attempt — “When you’re old and lonely you will wish you’d married me / I could build a fire for you and bring you cakes and tea”, sung more gravely than a mid-crisis Michael Buerk — and blossoms, beautifully, somehow, into “When your golden loneliness is heavier than stone / You can call me up up and say ‘My God I’m all alone / All alone’.” All pretence at any warmth is gone, the need to love and be loved has vanished and been replaced by simple, childish (but oddly calculated) spite. It’s quietly chilling. It’s unwisely honest and it’s pure brilliance. Genius, really.
So, a masterpiece, then. What we call a minor masterpiece, I suppose: it won’t change the world, you see, because it’s not loud enough, and because though it’s not a dance record it only has (save us!) synths on it, but it is a collection of thirteen of the finest songs imaginable.
And it’s rare to be so sure so soon, but having owned Get Lost for all of forty-eight hours I can already fearlessly promise you this … when in three years, five years, eighty years, whenever, your baby’s done left you, when you want, yet again, the one you just can’t have, when you’re old and lonely and Oasis’ bland Tory inanities just can’t hack it, The Magnetic Fields will be around. Get Lost will be there, a tearstained, Southern Comfort-soaked friend indeed, ready and able to articulate, better than anyone, all your miserable fears, spent dreams, and — despite yourself and itself — not-quite-forlorn-yet hopes. There will be no better records than this, ever.
The only time I ever met Bill Callahan I interviewed him for Hot Press in 1996 just before he supported Palace Music in Whelan’s. I can’t find the published interview, just the couple of pages I typed and submitted, but I think HP published it just as I’d written it. This was not my first time seeing Palace (that was in 1993) but it was my first time seeing Smog, and I was deeply into Smog’s 1995 album Wild Love. I’m still highly attached to that album partly because it’s a fine record and partly because my friend Brian who bought this on vinyl, understanding how great Smog were before most people did, passed away in 2001. I inherited his vinyl and I still own it and play it every now and then. The timing of this Whelan’s show was such that Palace had recently released Viva Last Blues while Smog had released Kicking A Couple Around and were about to release The Doctor Came At Dawn, probably the darkest point in Bill Callahan’s career. Red Apple Falls showed up next. While Bill Callahan playing alone with just his acoustic guitar and a foot-operated tambourine was one of my favourite shows, this interview below was not one of my favourites. I was in awe of him, trembling, and he was really quiet. The piece is about 60% my words not his and that’s about six times too many. Still I thought it ended OK and his statement about signs of life showed where Smog was heading, and Bill’s still going.
SOMETIMES YOU can tell straight from the start when somebody’s going to turn out a little off the wall. You can tell, alright, when instead of doing the normal things with those topsy-turvy teenage years — drinking, smoking, popping pimples and running like the wind at the sight of the opposite sex — they behave like Bill Callahan.
“Yeah, I spent most of that time in my room,” confesses he who is Smog, “sort of trying to think of scenarios for my songs. Sadly, they were extremely bad. I was, like, sixteen, trying to write songs, with no themes, trying to cover up that I had no themes. I used to write about things in Alaska, cold stuff, like moutains, snow. Frozen things.” He smiles, as gleeful as he gets, and stares.
This is all pretty worrying. Puppy love you’d expect, but perhaps not paeans to all that is bleak and barren. Didn’t anyone think to have a word? “My parents never knew,” he confides. “Nobody ever heard those songs. They were for my ears only. Even then, I had my own little world.”
Such youthful intensity was bound to bloom into at least a little full-grown moribund readjustment — a mood that crops up with alarming regularity in Smog’s work (which just so happens to have been, in the eight years of their existence, some of the most wondrous that the American underground has thus far offered up.) I remark to Bill that last year’s Wild Love is the only record I own that can match my blackest moods (and I own all of AMC); he laughs, quietly.
“Well the next one’s worse. It wallows, I guess.”
Death death death, then.
“Yeah, I have this little problem with death. There’s a lot of death on the new one. I was just thinking a lot about death lately. I don’t know why; but it’s not obsessive, just passing visions of coffins, vultures, things like that. That’s all.”
Smog’s current release, the staggering four-track EP Kicking A Couple Around, contains no corpses. In fact, it’s easy listening, all in all: just the falling asunder of friendships that were once your whole life; the all too easy crossing of the line between love and hate; the horror of feeling-free fucking; and there’s more, but you really don’t wanna know. All done by Bill alone, with a single, barely brushed, acoustic guitar (“The thought of doing an overdub made me nauseous”), it has a savage intimacy that only Palace can compete with.
And there’s more than misery. What people miss, when they hear the likes of Wild Love and the current Kicking A Couple Around EP, is what people always miss when a deep throat sings deep songs (see The Sewing Room, The Magnetic Fields, Leonard Cohen, and the rest): they miss the jokes. Of which there are few, but — because they’re surrounded by biological warfare — when they come, they’re damn funny.
“Yeah, that’s unfortunate,” says Bill. “Because you can’t write really bleak songs without any jokes. I mean, it’s possible, but it’s too heavy, you know? It’s kinda foolish. If it’s too serious, it just kind of cancels itself out. There’s only one angle to it.
“It’s funny,” he muses. “Until tonight no-one ever asked me about humour, but tonight, twice it’s come up. There must be a black Irish sense of humour or something.”
Maybe so. But still, sometimes it’s a bit blatant. Take ‘Be Hit’ off Wild Love. “Every girl I’ve ever loved has wanted to be hit / Every girl I’ve ever loved has left me ‘cos I wouldn’t do it / Seems my sensitive shmuck can be given by / Any old shmuck / Alright now”.
“Yeah, well, people don’t get it. They just hear the first line and they get angry, or whatever, you know. It’s just, it’s a subtle thing in the music, but people don’t mention it. They just talk about how depressed this guy is, or something. It’s frustrating. They don’t mention that there’s a sense of humour, which, is, you know … a sign of life.”
AHOUSEISDEAD are due to play in Whelan’s on 21st and 22nd September. It’s now four years since Dave Couse and Fergal Bunbury started the life of AHOUSEISDEAD, playing I Am The Greatest in the NCH and Vicar St in 2019, and the upcoming shows are focusing on I Want Too Much, which some consider their masterpiece. I certainly seem to have been quite into that album when I wrote the below review of their final show as A House in March 1997. I’ve been perusing old Hot Presses in the last few days with a view to scrapbooking pieces from a pile of dusty and damp HPs I’ve had in the attic for donkeys. It’s just over thirty years since I started writing for HP — my first live review was of A House in the SFX in June 1993 — and some of the issues are from before then, like the 1988 one with Graham Linehan’s Zig and Zag interview as the cover story. I was surprised to find a number of pieces that I’d forgotten I’d written and of all of those maybe forgetting this one was the most surprising. Of course I remember going to the final show of my favourite Irish band but I did not remember that I’d written it up. I’m proud I was asked given what I would consider the high magnitude of this moment and the piece was OK to read. There are typically bits of my bygone writing that I’m not hugely fond of decades later, but I’m glad I got to publish my feelings about this band when they closed the final curtain.
A House / Revelino / Harvest Ministers (Olympia Theatre, Dublin).
BOTH REVELINO and bill-openers Harvest Ministers strutted their sturdy stuff — but on the occasion of A House’s final farewell, they’d both have been outclassed even if Black Francis and Gene Clark had been on stage not just in spirit but in person.
“The best Irish band ever” was Brendan Tallon’s heartfelt tribute to the headliners and it made sense. In as much as these titles mean anything — list-making belittles everyone, and exactly what criteria you might use to decide that this band is any more blindingly beautiful than Neil or The Stars or The Sewing Room or Sunbear or The Smiths by the grandparent rule I neither know nor care — then A House are the ones for me. When I first saw them, I was entranced with them; when I first saw them, I was in awe of them; and while they may not be the only ones that I-I-I-I, the only ones that I-I-I-I will ever need, they’re as close as I’m ever likely to let a group get. (Note for those not in possession of I Am The Greatest: those last few lines are very funny and profound indeed. Just so you know.)
So, although A House have their detractors for both musical and stupid political reasons — not as many as Fergal Bunbury likes to think, but they’re there — just about everyone in this in this packed and ancient theatre shares these sentiments, making for an atmosphere unlike any other gig I’ve ever attended… there are grown men weeping openly. There are grown rock hacks with the snuffles, and they only get emotional when they’ve missed a free bar.
Mind you, A House do rub it in. They kickstart with ‘Kick Me Again, Jesus’, from when we were young and the whole world just had to be theirs, and there are massed going-grey groans. ‘Patron Saint of Mediocrity’ pops up early, and I wish my ex-friend who says all Dave Couse does is write list songs, sure anyone can do that, could have been there: ‘Patron Saint’, a list song and proud of it, is as overwhelming as ever, with a swagger and a fury and a naked depth of feeling that defies belief. “I’m not a genius”, he proclaims. Well… if you say so.
‘Shivers Up My Spine’ is even more than usually appropriate, ‘I Am Afraid’ also (“I am afraid to die / But it’s something I must do”), and even though I could have, and have in the past, done a better version of ’13 Wonderful Love Songs’ than its authors do — it’s all new-fangled, ambient and atmospheric when it should be a magnificent crushed cry, as easy listening as steel claws down a blackboard, and a verse is missing — it is the one song I’d been praying they’d play as it all ends, and I’m a crumpled heap, but happy.
The end comes with a few key tunes: ‘Here Come The Good Times’, ‘No More Apologies’, which they doubtless regard as their anthem, and it is a wondrous thing so long as it’s not about the music biz, but it is, and then ‘I Can’t Change’, terrifically sad but serene, just the mood of the entire evening.
The best Irish band ever, gone because no-one gave a bollocks about them, but gone with a wry sigh, good humour and a painfully great last night on earth. They’ll be missed.
I’ve been perusing old Hot Presses that have been unread in an attic for decades and that had and have pieces in them by me and friends and esteemed colleagues. Plan is save some of them in a scrapbook as well as here. A fair few pieces are in the magazines and not on the HP website though loads are there too. Some I’ve seen since 2000ish but many I haven’t. Here are couple of Afghan Whigs reviews I did in my first HP year while about to turn twenty, of an album and show that blew my tiny little mind. Still do! Listening to ‘My Curse’ in particular while transcribing the album review sent me stupendous shivers. The guy with the circled head below is me beginning to review The Afghan Whigs in The Rock Garden, quite close to Greg Dulli, fuelled by angst and rapture. OK no notes taken, but I remembered the show well, and I still do.
THE AFGHAN WHIGS: “Gentlemen” (WEA)
MUST WE fling this dazzling but thoroughly harrowing filth at our pop kids? Let them dream, I say. They—we—shouldn’t have to go through an aural ordeal like Gentlemen. Breaking up is hard to do, that much we’ve already established, but, Jesus, does it have to be like this?
As a young person, it’s my privilege to be blithely ignorant and hence optimistic about my chances of achieving lifelong spiritual fufilment; so, although the number of even mildly rewarding relationships I’ve been a part of could be counted on the fingers of one elbow, I still feel it’s not unreasonable to expect Ms. Goodbar to, any second now, pop her Juliette Binoche-resembling face around the jamb of the door and enquire “Voulez-vous avoir hitched?”
Whereupon we’ll wander off through the honeysuckle to say howdy partner to the moon gliding down behind Lake Pontchartrain as we make our airy way towards a higher state of being. It’s not much to ask, and it will happen.
Or will it? Now I’m not so sure. I’m fairly certain that Greg Dulli, singer and songwriter with the Afghan Whigs, he of the amusing facial hair and the recently extinguished love affair, felt like that once. Which makes it all the more crushingly disillusioning to hear him explain in gruesome detail just why this falling-in-love lark serves no purpose but to squander valuable emotional energies that would see a more bountiful return (i.e. any at all) if invested in a cute fluffy puppy or a record collection, now there’s an idea.
Gentlemen is a song cycle (modelled on Astral Weeks, says Greg, although any similarity is solely in the layout) whose central theme is the laborious disintegration of a relationship which has gone away, way past its so-much-look-at-this-twice-and-you’ll-contract-incurable-botulism date.
Its pain—and pain in present in unhealthy dollops—derives not from love but from the contempt Mr Dulli feels for someone he can’t believe he once would’ve killed for; both she and he need desperately to find something more than this claustrophobic degradation (“Hurt me baby / I flinch so when you do / Your kisses scourge me / Hyssop in your perfume / Oh, I do not fear you / And slave I only use / As a word to describe / The special way I feel for you”) but hey, you know how it is when you’ve subsumed so much of your partner’s being into your own that any separation results in heroin-like withdrawal symptoms. No? Me neither. I don’t relate, and I hope I never can.
Of course, being a paragon of machismo, as evidenced by his prodigious goatee and his announcement in the marginally self-loathing “I got a dick for a brain”, Dulli blames his lover for both his and her cloying, self-belittling behaviour (“I warn you / If cornered / I’ll scratch my way out of the pen … You want to scare me / Then you’ll cling to me / No matter what I do … This must be what jail is really like”—’What Jail Is Like’).
Presumably, he couldn’t go so far as to write a song which acknowledged his own part-responsibility for the sorry state of his affair, so any humble pie consumption is left to his cover of ‘I Just Keep Coming Back’, which would be gut-wrenching but it’s the last song (not the last track, though—that honour goes to ‘Brother Woodrow / Closing Prayer’, a ravaged, perplexed instumental) and by then one’s gut has been truly wrenched and replaced by a blob of lead-flavoured jelly. Play it apart from the rest of the album and it alone is worth the price of admission; in some states of the U.S., there are laws against this type of helpless, confused poignancy.
Of course this record is essential, if only to enlighten people like me who wonder “Why can’t people just be nice?” as to the reasons for the oddest of human behaviour, and as to how not to follow in the rather treacherous footsteps of Greg and his ‘friend’.
Buy it, and hope you never need it.
November 1993. P.S. in 2023: I’ve no idea how that only got 10/12. Not even 11! I was new.
THE AFGHAN WHIGS (Rock Garden, Dublin)
GIGS ARE there to be enjoyed, no? NO. Not this one, at any rate. There’s more to an Afghan Whigs concert than standing at the back, humming along and taking the odd smiling slurp from your tipple of choice. Greg Dulli screams, he moans, he smiles on the odd occasion, he glares at his audience in a most disconcerting manner, he exorcises every demon he has and a few more besides (I’m sure if you ask him nicely he’ll exorcise yours as well), and consequently an evening in his company involves as much endurance as enjoyment. Bob Dylan famously replied to a journalist who mentioned that she enjoyed listening to Blood On The Tracks, “I don’t know how you can enjoy such pain.” Tonight was like that.
Greg Dulli looks like a regular guy, now more than ever, since he shaved off his moderately Satanic goatee. But he’s not. What he is, is a fucking lunatic. Gentlemen was the joint finest album of last year, in particular because of Dulli’s gloriously demented songs and singing; his talent for losing the rag and howling at the moon with impotent rage is only seriously rivalled in the ’90s so far by Dave Couse on the jaw-dislocatingly brilliant I Want Too Much. But unlike an A House gig, there is little let-up on the intensity, and Couse-esque jokey meanderings are few and, indeed, far between.
The songs, live, are just as punishing and as emotionally cleansing as the songs, on record. The guitar break on ‘Be Sweet’ still sears, the lines “What should I tell her/she’s going to ask . . . Yeah, I think she believes me/Every word I say/I think I’m starting to believe it all myself . . . ,” from ‘If I Were Going’ still make you cringe if you have ever lied to someone you shouldn’t have, and their version of ‘My World Is Empty Without You’ still makes you shudder and wonder.
The encores were beyond belief, consisting of the two key songs from the album, ‘What Jail Is Like’ and ‘My Curse’ (which he doesn’t even sing on the record because it’s so hurting and hurtful as to be positively depraved), their warped love sent out charging with a viciousness and ferocity some say pop can no longer hold. Striking stuff.
Four days later, we’re still recovering. In a few weeks, we’ll be saying it was fun. For now though, you’ll have to settle for draining and curiously uplifting. A night to remember.