A Joyful Thing: Whipping Boy Feature, Hot Press, 2006

This was one of my final two pieces for Hot Press after writing for them from 1993 to 2005 [I’ve been back just the once since]. This was for the Hot Press Annual at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006. I had been lucky enough to get the Whipping Boy cover story when Heartworm came out in 1995 – I’m still not sure why I got that gig but someone with more gravitas must have been unavailable – and this was a reunion for their reunion ten years later.

In October of 1995, Gerry McGovern ended his Hot Press review of the then-forthcoming Whipping Boy record with a simple, striking statement: “Heartworm is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard”.

Now rock writing is no stranger to hyperbole, but not here. Not even the slow, painful, implosion of the band over the following five years could deny Heartworm its place in the pantheon, and no-one reading this needs to be told: last year saw the hotpress.com membership vote it the seventh best Irish album of all time. Meanwhile, the newer wave of Irish bands, most publicly The Thrills, pay homage whenever possible. Whipping Boy have, on the strength of an impossibly great album and a disappearing act, become mythical.

Paul Page and Fergal McKee sit across from me, on the eve of their madly anticipated Cork, Dublin and Waterford reunion shows. We’re talking about Heartworm’s poll position, and they are both proud – “Heartworm could have been just another album by a band who were nearly the next big thing, and the album was then forgotten about; the history of Irish rock music is littered with that,” says Paul – and in two minds.

“It just keeps on getting in the way, you know, of other music,” says Fergal, who released a solo debut song, ‘What You Wanna Start’, on MP3 in February 2005. “The whole Whipping Boy thing – will it ever fuck off, you wonder,” he says. “Now, it’s Fergal McKee, you know what I mean, it’s not Whipping Boy. Whipping Boy is another thing. That’s what I thought at the time, you know. But what’s come out of it is kind of interesting,” he continues. “To be able to come back, and be able to play again. You do feel very humbled by it, or feel overwhelmed by it. You don’t expect that, so, it’s a joyful thing.”

Joy is a word you might not have associated with the Whipping Boy story until very recently. They split up in 1998, and in 2000 released Whipping Boy, a largely unheard album so titled because, by then, the band members could not speak civilly for long enough to come up with anything else. It was the worst sort of Let It Be nightmare.

Arguably, the nadir came in 2000 when Fergal and Colm Hassett booked a show in Cork using the Whipping Boy name, although Myles McDonnell and Paul Page were not involved. When asked, at the time, about his relationship with his ex-bandmate, Paul replied: “I have nothing to say about Fergal”. They did not speak for five years.

“The band as an entity had stopped communicating before that,” says Paul. “We recorded the third album, and at that stage, getting over the finish line with it was a major achievement. All semblance of normal band life had broken down. And I suppose, maybe it’s a bit like a marriage where the couple are heading for a divorce, and they think, maybe another child will keep them together. Maybe we thought going in to record that album, if we get through this album, we’ll stay together. It’ll do something for us. The reality was, the day we finished recording that album was the last day we spoke to each other.”

Then that was it, until, on the tenth anniversary of their finest hour, they made the decision to reform. Paul takes it up.

“Well, it wasn’t anything to do with the fact it was ten years. It was a bit of a coincidence. But, you know, we spent a long time totally adamant that we would never get back together. Then, as time goes by, you realise that you’re really only denying yourself something that you want to do. And it was just silly stuff that prevented it. This year it just seemed that everyone had softened in their attitudes. It was the right time.”

Paul is eloquent on the gap in your life that breaking up your band leaves. “It really hit me hard. It’s only when I look back on it now I can see what an impact it had on my life, even outside of music. I just wanted to stop. I stopped playing music for a long time. I hated going to gigs. When I went to gigs, all it did was remind me of the good days I had with Whipping Boy. I’d be there, and I’d be burning with envy. The few gigs I went to, I inevitably came away from them feeling depressed. The better the gig, the more depressed I felt.” Fergal is pragmatic about what you do with the leftover creative energy: “You join a trade union! You take on management,” he laughs. “You use it in another way. You cause shit for the people who cause shit for you.”

But still: the history of reunions in rock is woeful. Bands return, make repeated threats to do the right thing and record, and play tour after tired tour of 15-year old songs. (I’m thinking of The Pixies. Make it stop!) When Whipping Boy come back, will there be new work?
Fergal gets in first. “Well we can’t really say that for certain, can we? As such, yet.”

“No,” says Paul. “When we got together, there was no plan really beyond playing these few gigs. I think we’d all like to think that Whipping Boy could write and record a new record. If I didn’t think, at the time that we were asked, that there was that glimmer of hope, I probably wouldn’t have been as interested. Because I don’t really get the whole reunion thing, generally. Many of the bands that I’ve seen reunite have been very disappointing. House Of Love – really bad. I saw The Stranglers a few years ago, but they had a different singer. I think there has to be some vitality and point to a band’s existence. Just getting back to play three gigs, it has a nostalgia value, and maybe on a very selfish and personal level, that you want to get out there and play together again. I’d like to think we’d record. But come January, after the gigs, if we don’t feel a spark, we probably won’t do anything again.”

And that’s got to be the spark between the four of you. You’re going to get encouraged – the Olympia is going to erupt whatever you do.

Fergal nods. “We know in our own hearts and our own minds what works. There’s no point in trying to do something just for the sake of it. The most important thing is to come back, say hello and say goodbye, at these gigs, you know, and then see what happens. We can’t plan further ahead than that. We’ve all got lives, other dependent lives, and all that. And especially if we come back and do another Whipping Boy album, it has to be good for ourselves. There’s no point in us coming back just to make a few bob. We’re not going to do a fuckin’ – I won’t say an Aslan…”

You can say “an Aslan” if you like.

“I wouldn’t like to become a Devlins-type band, you know what I mean?”

Explain that?

“They’re an atrocious fucking band,” laughs Fergal. “At least Aslan have a bit of passion, you know? And a bit of belief in what they do. There’s no point in coming back just for the sake of coming back. It’s a musical journey. Where that stops, no-one knows. You can’t plan these things out, if you start planning things it all gets ruined. The karma goes.

“So you just take it step by step. That’s the way it should be. The magic will keep on going forward, anyway. That’s the whole point. Ideally, there’s lots of things I’d like to bring, and there’s lots of things that Paul would like to bring. If the four of us get that energy together again, then it’ll probably all come true. I can’t be selfish and say I’d love to lead a rebellion, or whatever, you know what I mean…”

Which you might have been guilty of in the past…

“Yeah,” smiles Fergal. “But let’s make music: that’s basically it. See what happens after that. Although I do think it’ll be nice when we’re auld boys, to be up on the stage at 66. Meet you in 30 years’ time. Once every 10 years’ll be enough.”

Keith Cullen & The Separate, State, 2012.

Keith Cullen was the founder and head of Setanta Records for an often glorious couple of decades before he called time on the label in 2012. The final release was Orchestral Variations V.1, a covers album by with some really beautiful stuff on it, like Ed Harcourt’s ‘Something To Believe In’ and Mark Lanegan’s ‘Close To Me’, which is my favourite Lanegan moment outside of Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. Fiona Brice’s arranging work on this record was incredible. Anyway, Setanta were a big part of my life ever since I Am The Greatest and it was great to connect with Keith Cullen. I’ve posted my contemporaneous review of the album here too. It is poignant to recall that I fact-checked this piece with the late Seán Hughes.

Underdogs are the best: Keith Cullen Interview

Friday 2nd July saw the release of Orchestral Variations V.01, an album by a collective called The Separate. The album features covers, arranged by Fiona Brice and Rob Kirwan, of a dozen of key songs in Keith Cullen’s life, sung by the likes of Mark Lanegan, Martha Wainright and Ed Harcourt. Cullen, for those of you who were not into spiky independent pop in the 90s, is the founder and owner of Setanta Records, which was a lifeline for much of that decade. Setanta has been quiet for the last decade or so but has kept going, until now. This is definitively its last release; there won’t be an Orchestral Variations V.02.

Through Setanta, Keith Cullen midwifed brilliant albums by the likes of A House, Brian, Into Paradise, The Harvest Ministers, and Richard Hawley, while rejuvenating  Edwyn Collins and even Evan Dando. Setanta brought The Magnetic Fields to Ireland and the UK before it was profitable or popular; actually, by the time they were profitable and popular, Setanta had let them go. Cullen was also to a large extent responsible for the career of The Divine Comedy, signing them in 1991 and putting out everything as far as Fin de Siècle. Sean Hughes once wrote a poem in which he thanked Cullen for cycling up a high street with the master tapes of Promenade in the basket of his bike. (Details of this poem are sketchy, and I’m paraphrasing, but Hughes, asked last week via Twitter if he had written a poem called ‘Thank You Keith Cullen’, replied, “Gosh, I believe I did”.)

On the occasion of their Setanta’s ever album, State thought it would be a good idea to mark the passing of a milestone in Irish music with the man behind some of the finest records in recent Irish music history, Keith Cullen.

State: The official end of Setanta Records is a poignant moment for a particular generation of music lovers in Ireland and beyond. As a friend of mine said “We all have at least one of those records”, and some of us have 20 of them. But these events sometimes mean more, sentimentally, to people not so close to them – is the last Setanta release a poignant, even sad, moment for you?

Keith Cullen: I’ve been pretty inactive as a record label for the last few years, so I guess not really. Having said that, I know there was a time when I felt over it all, and working with Josh Ritter and the Chalets kept me going for a while. Josh is one of the nicest people to deal with and the Chalets were such a real band, dynamically. It’s not sad really. It’s the past. Being reminded of what you did is nice, but I forget bits of films I love within 24 hours of watching them so I can’t say there is a part of my mind stuck in a nostalgia trip.

What inspired you to set up Setanta in the first place in the Eighties? Was there a particular aesthetic or ethic? Were there other labels that you looked to? 

Rough Trade was the only UK record label that signed Irish artists. The best talent comes from the back arse of nowhere, and Ireland filled that criterion in every way in those pre Ryanair / Magners / Father Ted years. Putting Irish music that was not bad stadium rock on the map in the UK was the intention. It worked to a degree, maybe it opened some doors.

Am I right in remembering a Setanta motto “None of your indie tat”?

‘None of your cheap indie tat’ was on a Divine Comedy ad we put in the NME. Most indie music was all rough around the edges then; there was nothing classy going on. At least that was my perception!

Was there a sense then in which Setanta was a reaction to other music going on in Ireland or made by Irish people at the time? I’m thinking of the morass of post-U2 stuff that Setanta could hardly have been further from.

I hated the attention and big deals that bands like Cactus World News, Blue In Heaven and An Emotional Fish got, but there was probably a big dose of jealousy going on there too! Most major label signings are made by muppets who are looking for the next big thing. I had a policy of only signing artists that nobody else was interested in, no point chasing after the Emperor’s new clothes. In a way, those bands were only doing what was expected of them. Having said that, Celtic (Irish and Scottish) artists tend to be less insular than English ones. They don’t shy away from anthemic choruses, it’s easier for Americans to like them and if the Yanks like it who gives a monkeys about Blighty?

One of my abiding memories of the Setanta era comes is that glorious, hilarious, unlikely moment in the summer of 1996, when the Divine Comedy went on to Top of the Tops in white suits to play Something for the Weekend. You must have a list of such moments when you stood back and said – Wow.

Em, I honestly don’t remember that! TV goes over my head, I didn’t see the video for ‘A Girl Like You’ until a few years after it was released. I hate videos. The fact that The Clash refused to go on Top of the Pops was a big deal to me. In this present fame hungry climate people would wonder why anyone would say no to something like that; sounds like a good reason to give up the old dayjob to me.

You’ve written about not wanting to be the old guy at the back of the gig going on about some new act or trying to keep up, and this is a feeling everyone fortyish and up knows well. Has your taste changed?

Someone asked Edwyn Collins what music I liked and he said ‘anything without a beat’ which is pretty apt. I’ve always liked sad stuff, now I just like the sad stuff to be slower, so I don’t miss anything.

If it’s not too much like choosing between your children, are there Setanta records you are particularly proud of?

Ever the obscurist, I still think A Feeling Mission by the Harvest Ministers is a great album, as is Stooping to Fit by Catchers. Having said that, I listened to I Am the Greatest by A House last week for the first time in years and it still sounds great.

What exactly did Séan Hughes say about you in that poem? I recall he said something about you cycling up Kilburn High St with the master tapes of Promenade in the basket of your bike.

Did he? I had no idea he mentioned me in a poem. I do remember he wrote something in the Independent about me. We’ve met a bunch of times, he seems like a nice guy, but I never knew when he was joking because I didn’t have a TV, I was unaware of his humour, I don’t get most comedians.

Can you say a little about late-period Setanta? There were wonderful moments there like Richard Hawley’s Late Night Final and Evan Dando’s Baby I’m Bored.

Evan Dando was very funny but off the wall and high maintenance. He was friends with Marlon Richards. He told me he liked hanging out with Marlon because Evan was the only person Marlon’s dad (Keith Richards) didn’t approve his son hanging around with.

It’s great to see Richard Hawley doing well. It was hard getting things started though. Mojo didn’t want to review his albums because they said ‘we don’t need another Roy Orbison’. I got a call from The Word Magazine two years ago, asking me for £500 so they could put a track from Lowedges on their ‘Best of the Noughties’ cover mount CD. I told them to fuck off. Again, they didn’t review it at the time. NME ran a ‘classic albums’ review of Edwyn Collins Gorgeous George album a few years ago, another album nobody cared about until ‘A Girl Like You’ was a hit. Do I sound bitter?!

And post-label, what you are doing now? I know you published a novel (2009’s God Save The Village Green).

I’m writing a second novel, which is… going. I’m also selling collectable books online, which makes more of a living than I made while running the label!

I was absolutely blown away by Ed Harcourt’s version of ‘Something to Believe In’ by The Ramones on the Separate album. To be the opening track on that album suggests that ‘Something to Believe In’ is a big song for you. What does the song mean to you, and about The Ramones?

That was the track that made me want to make the album. The lyrics are great, but they are killed by the 80’s production of the Ramones version, and it’s not a very Ramones-y song. Neil Hannon covered it at my suggestion years ago. The Ramones? They’re underdogs. Underdogs are the best!

The Separate – Orchestral Variations V1 (Setanta).
As noted in a Keith Cullen interview elsewhere in StateOrchestral Variations V.1 is the final release on Setanta Records, marking its transition from a dormant label (its last release, bar a novel, was in 2006) to an extinct one. This is really it; there won’t be a V.2.
Orchestral Variations V.1, released to formally mark Setanta’s demise, is a collection of songs selected by Cullen, arranged for chamber strings, and sung by a range of impressive names. Cullen picked the songs, paid for the album, and is putting it out. It’s been called a vanity project, and it is, but, then: isn’t all art?
And actually, it works really well. The songs selected go from unexpectedly populist choices (Patrick Wolf’s ‘Old Town’, Mark Lanegan’s ‘Close to Me’, Martha Wainwright’s ‘Stories for Boys’) to the reassuringly idiosyncratic, like ‘Big Sky’ from the Kinks’ 1968 Village Green Preservation Society, or OMD’s taut, puzzling ‘Souvenir’.
Ed Harcourt takes on The Ramones, but does so not through ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ but via the obscure ‘Something to Believe In’: “I wish I was someone else / I’m confused, I’m afraid, I hate the loneliness”, it begins, opening the album. Harcourt, with producer Rob Kirwan and arranger Fiona Brice, does an exquisite job of laying bare the song’s crippling melancholy, not neglecting the hope: “With your love”, it goes on, “I know with all my heart I can win”. It’s a stunning performance.
As is Mark Lanegan’s take on The Cure’s ‘Close to Me’. Covers of hit songs are tough to get right, because each listener has a million associations with the song already; if the cover is too close a copy, like Paul Noonan’s ‘Once in a Lifetime’, nothing is added and the cover quickly becomes pointless. Lanegan, however, utterly reimagines ‘Close to Me’, de- and re-constructing it as something barely recognisable. The Cure’s song was always a classic, but Lanegan’s slowed-down, dissonant version finds layers of depth and foreboding in the song that I doubt Robert Smith knew he put there.
This, here, is how you make a song your own, and it’s an expression of unrestrained but cultivated creativity befitting the final release on a label that is already much missed.
Niall Crumlish 4/5

The Harvest Ministers: You Do My World The World of Good

This is a piece I published in State about six years ago. I love The Harvest Ministers and their release of a retrospective was a big event. Will is a fascinating guy, always creating. This is the first and probably last time I’ve referenced golf in a music piece and I specifically asked Phil in State to leave the Larry Mize bit in, for Will and for Michael O’Hara, and he kindly did, against his better judgment.

Will Merriman formed The Harvest Ministers in 1987, which many people remember as the year of The Joshua Tree or the year Larry Mize jammily won The Masters. It is a long time for a band to have been around, and about time for an anthology – so here we are.

You Can See Everything From Here draws on all five of The Harvest Ministers’ albums, from 1993’s Little Dark Mansion to 2010’s Strange Love Letter, and from their glistening early 7” singles, ‘Six O’Clock Is Rosary’, ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’, and ‘If It Kills Me And It Will’.

During a ridiculous run of form in the 1990s, the Ministers were one of those bands, like The Pixies or The Smiths the decade before them, so overburdened with great songs that they could leave masterpieces off albums. ‘Six O’Clock Is Rosary’ is utterly exquisite: a song so sparse and taut and elegant and lush with feeling that it would be the peak of almost any other band’s career.

The Ministers’ fanbase has never been huge and never half-hearted. You Can See Everything From Here features liner notes in the form of a mini-memoir by Michael O’Hara, who introduced me to the Ministers through his infectious encomiums in Hot Press. He begins: “I don’t remember the first time I met the woman who was later to become my wife, but I remember the first time I saw The Harvest Ministers”. He’s in so much trouble with the missus that you know that he means it.

Michael was not alone in his ardour. You had to commit to The Ministers as much as they committed themselves, in their scrupulously honest, aching songs like ‘Dominique’, ‘A Drowning Man’, ‘Orbit’, and ‘I Hang From A Great Big Oak’, which sounds like you’d imagine it sounds.

As the years have flown in, Merriman has added to his writing a lightness in tone that was not always obvious early on; but he has retained a vulnerability, an openness to the experience of longing, that catches your breath. When you get to my age everyday life takes over and you can get a little shut off from your emotions. The Harvest Ministers songs that populate You Can See Everything From Here open you back up. They reconnect you with emotions that you ignore, or don’t have any time for, but that you have to feel to stay healthy; to stay human. If that’s all I ever got from art, it would be enough.

State: How did The Harvest Ministers initially get together?

Will Merriman: I started the band with a friend of mine, David Duffy, who was the singer. He also played a beautiful harmonica and ‘Can’t Go It Alone’, featuring his playing, appears on the EP ‘If It Kills Me And It Will’, with Gerardette Bailey on lead vocal.

We put an ad in Hot Press (probably) and recruited Padraig McCaul [now a brilliant, successful painter – NC] on saxophone duties. Later discovering that Padraig was a shark and could play almost every instrument under the sun.

I remember the first demos we did with Shea Fitzgerald out in the Music Mint in Glasthule and the innocent pleasure of taking the Dart back into town with recorded tape in hand, proud as a boy who’d just picked grapes all day. Still as a songwriter one is always consumed by the next song and how to write it. I don’t dwell too long on what’s gone before. Never have, never will.

You’re not one for dwelling. Yet here we are with a retrospective! So could I ask you to dwell a little – or at least to draw a line between what’s gone before and where you are now. Do you have a sense of how you have changed, or stayed the same, as a songwriter?

You mentioned ‘I Hang From A Great Big Oak’. Well that’s probably one of the rawest songs I’ve ever written and a somewhat dramatic one too, particularly when experienced in a live situation. ‘Who is this guy singing about hanging from a great big oak, is he for real? But I like that unnerving of an audience, though you have to be careful not to over do it – nobody wants to be reminded too forcefully about how bad things can be. Light and shade, very important.

Strange Love Letter contains a lot of raw emotion. ‘So You Finally Struck Oil’ [“So you finally struck oil / Got your hands on a big pile / All that money that won’t be mine / I bet you’re really proud”] is like someone dreaming of one day maybe having the opportunity to stick two fingers up against the world, yet does the person involved really think it’s going to happen? We’re all full of day dreams, it’s how we handle them that counts.

I’ve always considered songwriting as a craft, not in any in-depth technical way (which is fraught with over-analysis and musical cleverness), but in a basic sense of capturing the song as it is played and sung by the singer – like all the old blues singers or Elvis’s Sun Sessions. You’ve written a song, play it, and while you’re playing it, we’ll record it. Repeat this process till you have enough for an album, and when you have 30 – 40 (or more), we’ll choose 13 or whatever to release. This of course is easier said than done, and writing words and music is not easy and can take any number of years before you are satisfied with the work you have done.

I’m curious what your take is on the connection is that people make with your music. Or another way of asking that is: What do you look for in the art and music that you love?

I’m not sure it’s a question of looking for something in art and music. I think someone fundamentally feels a connection with the piece of music / song they are listening to and it is the same with art, which can soothe, make you laugh, cry and reflect on your very existence.

I was fortunate enough to be standing in front of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ recently and despite the throng of people milling around, I felt myself being transported to an inner place of peace and solitude – not a physical space but a space where one could easily discard as meaningless, the every day irritations which fill most of our lives. Literature has this power too, and books like Infinite Jest and The Old Man And The Sea, though two vastly different styles, are examples.

I think that is why I had such a great time writing the songs for Padraig McCaul’s exhibition ‘The Light of Which I Speak’. There was a connection between the landscape Padraig was painting and the characters within the music, illustrating how a songwriter’s imagination is or should be where everything starts and finishes.

So maybe the people who like our music are drawn in by some of these sentiments. They are the same sentiments I feel when I listen to music.

Chuck Berry never fails to make me laugh. Take ‘Nadine’ – ‘I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat, thought I saw my future bride walking down the street’. You’re immediately swept up in the tale; pure brilliance.The flip side of that is Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’, in terms of colour, for me this is a deep dark blue, an equally engaging brilliant song – you’ve got music coming out from the inside with no frills attached. People like that. I like that.

You might say something about what’s next – where you go from here, given that the anthology is an opportunity to acknowledge the past and move forward.

The anthology will be followed by our next studio album. Work on this is at an advanced stage and I would hope this new collection of songs will be out some time early next year. This is why we wanted to precede this record by the anthology as the idea was to give people who have never heard our music a chance to be introduced to the band.

My mind has already wandered to the album after. A songwriter is constantly moving on, never settling for a second, and the driving force behind all of this remains the imagination.

You Can See Everything From Here is out now http://theharvestministers.bandcamp.com/

Nine Notes on Shortly After Takeoff by BC Camplight

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.

Hold On, Fold In and Pray: Keeley Forsyth’s “It’s Raining”

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.

Hold On, Hold On: Malojian’s ‘The Singularity’

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.

Hope Springs Maternal: Soccer Mommy and the Purpose of Art

Photo of Sophie Allison by Sarah Louise Bennett from Dork Magazine

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s book Art As Therapy begins with an extended reflection on their central question: What is the point of art? Practically, what is its use?

De Botton and Armstrong write from a therapeutic perspective but they propose therapy for the whole population. This therapy is not an intervention for illness but has the aim of mass self-actualisation. They mean that engaging with art can help us lead better lives and they argue that if art has the power to do this it is because art can correct or compensate for a range of psychological frailties that are normal, as good as universal. These are:

  1. We forget what matters.
  2. We have a proclivity to lose hope.
  3. We incline towards feelings of isolation and persecution because we have an unrealistic sense of how much difficulty is normal.
  4. We are unbalanced and lose sight of our best sides.
  5. We are hard to get to know; we are mysterious to ourselves.
  6. We reject many experiences, people, places and eras that have something important to offer us because they come in the wrong wrapping and so leave us unable to connect.
  7. We are desensitized by familiarity… we are gnawed by the worry that life is elsewhere.

In relation to those frailties, De Botton and Armstrong write that art as therapy is:

  1. A corrective of bad memory.
  2. A purveyor of hope.
  3. A source of dignified sorrow.
  4. A balancing agent, displaying the good side of our natures to us and directing us towards our best possibilities.
  5. A guide to self-knowledge.
  6. A guide to the extension of experience, containing ideas and attitudes that, while initially unfamiliar or alien, we can recognise and make our own in ways that enrich us.
  7. A re-sensitization tool… we look at the old in new ways.

Per Art As Therapy, art assists us to live better, more in tune with our potential and our truest selves. I find their framework useful. It’s intuitive to me that music teaches you how to live; I once offended my Dad by arguing in a piece on The Pixies that ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ was responsible for the development of my adult personality, rather than, you know, my parents. Though it makes sense at face value that art is instructive I haven’t really looked at how specific songs teach specific things.

Re-reading Art As Therapy this week coincided with my discovery of a song by Sophie Allison, Soccer Mommy, called ‘Yellow Is The Color Of Her Eyes’. Yellow eyes are not good; they are jaundiced eyes, like you might find in liver cancer, and the woman at the centre of this song is dying. The song inches closer to the dying woman as the verses progress. Allison sings about her firstly in the third person and continues until the concluding verse, when she moves to address her directly; you feel an increasing urgency, like time is tight.

Allison doesn’t declare who the dying woman is and I have avoided any back story; I must say the devastation and pained intimacy makes me picture a mother. Allison is 22 years old and the song sounds autobiographical. That is very young to lose your mam.

As the song begins the woman has not died, but it sounds like she has died by the final verses: “Loving you isn’t enough / You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done“. This isn’t definitive but the “still” is ominous. There are a few minutes of an outro and the last sound is a solo guitar playing ever-lengthening, quieter notes. It has the air of lingering, like they are up to trickery like The Last Leaf, not wanting to stop the song, because as long as the song goes on, life goes on; poignant musical magical thinking.

The song feels full and replenishing; simultaneously agonising and healing. So I wondered about ‘Yellow Is The Color Of Her Eyes’ in the light of the seven parameters of Art As Therapy. It’s not that easy to think how the song or any song could manage all seven of the challenges Art As Therapy sets, but then it shouldn’t be easy; you should have to pay close attention to a song to imagine all of the possibilities within it.

A corrective of bad memory. At its most fundamental, the song is a recollection of the dying woman and of what it felt like when she was still alive. It remembers for the the narrator of the song and for the audience. While the song exists, this woman can’t be forgotten. You imagine the narrator of the song in a year or five year’s time, remembering how it felt to have her mother with her, even cherishing those last moments of illness, because hours in a terminal hospital room are better than no time at all. Allison sings of the bright August sun that you picture streaming into the room, and she evokes memories of easier, less oppressive times: I’m thinking of her from over the ocean / See her face in the waves, her body is floating. If the song were only this act of remembrance, it would still be worthwhile.

A purveyor of hope. Tricky. Songs that end with You’ll still be deep in the ground, then I’ll feel the cold as they put out my sun aren’t obviously inherently optimistic. So why does the song not feel bleak? I think it is the emotional richness. Anything so fully felt feels fiercely alive. It is the tenderness of the words, the singing, and even the quiet guitar as the song ends. We all die; acknowledging this, maybe the hope comes from the love and respect at the heart of the song. The enormous grief Allison describes is proportionate to the love she feels for this woman. Is it something to hope for that we might all, in the end, be in receipt of such a star-sized love?

A source of dignified sorrow. Dignity pervades the entire enterprise. The vocal is warm, grave, compassionate, lacking melodrama. The pace is stately, standing tall, saluting. I love how the song rhymes “yellow” with “yellow” in its jolting opening couplet – like Hey Jude rhymed “shoulder” with “shoulder”. (The bright August sun feels like yellow / And the white of her eyes is so yellow.) You are signalled that there is no poetic tomfoolery in the offing. This is straight; serious; sorrowful; a direct message is being communicated.

A balancing agent. For a song to be a balancing agent it must reveal aspects of the listener that are positive that might not be obvious. I think the song does this in giving the listener the opportunity to mourn along with the singer. Listening to songs can be selfish – art as therapy is arguably selfish. How does this song help me? But I like to think that every time someone plays this song, engages with it, sings it, imagines a scene from it, every time her Spotify count tops up, Sophie Allison feels happy that someone out there is remembering the woman that she loved so much and wrote the song to remember.

A guide to the extension of experience. This needs work. Art As Therapy argues here that art objects that are initially distasteful can reveal important things to the viewer or listener in spite of or even because of their initially strange or distasteful nature. I think of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or John Cage or John Lydon or squalling free jazz – how confusing it must have been to encounter them, and how the confusion was the point. But this song is utterly relatable and played with an aching beauty. There’s nothing off-putting about it.

A guide to self-knowledge AND A re-sensitization tool. Not to over-simplify, but: you hear a song like this and you appreciate the hell of everyone around you and the simple stupid stuff that makes up your life. This is a bit of a theme for me in the last year; songs I’ve instantly connected with on albums I’ve loved have been ‘Funeral Sessions‘ by ALS, ‘Killer‘ by Phoebe Bridgers, and the grief-stricken ‘When The Family Flies In‘ by Julia Jacklin. There’s something about my stage of life here but there’s also the observation as in Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal that awareness of death focuses you on the aspects of your life that their potential absence reveals to be the most important – love, connection, family, friends, music, nature. Songs like ‘Yellow Is The Colour Of Her Eyes’ perform a priceless service as they awaken you to the technicolor intensity of the humdrum here and now.