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

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.

Alex Chilton (1950-2010) — Obituary from State, March 18, 2010

December 28th was Alex Chilton’s birthday and in 2019 he would have been 69. He died suddenly and young. This is an appreciation of Alex and Big Star that I wrote for State in the doctors’ res room of St Davnet’s Hospital in Monaghan the day I learned of his death—after work, I should add. It was hastily written but deeply felt. My favourite was always Sister Lovers but I’ve grown to love the rest of Big Star—#1 Record in particular—even more since then.

This sounds a bit like goodbye; in a way, it is, I guess.

Alex Chilton, who led Big Star in making three of the most unbelievably beautiful albums in rock’n’roll history, died on March 17th in New Orleans. He died of a heart attack, at 59.

It is hard to overstate his stature, or that of the band he founded in Memphis in 1971 with Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens and the late Chris (‘I Am The Cosmos’) Bell. They are certainly contenders for the title of the best band ever to make popular music.

They never, of course, became big stars. Chilton opened their second album Radio City with ‘O My Soul’ (“I don’t have a licence / To drive in my car / But I don’t really need one / Cos I’m a big star“) but by then the first album #1 Record had flopped on a grand scale; Chilton already smelled commercial doom. (He was intermittently an ironist, and intermittently a Romantic of Byronic proportions.) Big Star recorded three proper albums, none of which sold more than a few thousand during the lifetime of the band. (They reformed in 1993 and released a fourth album, In Space, that doesn’t really count for all kinds of reasons.) They were the archetypal posthumously seminal band, becoming legends only long after they disbanded in despair in 1974.

Peter Buck said that Big Star “served as a Rosetta stone for a whole generation of musicians”. The Replacements paid homage with an eponymous song: “And children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round / They sing “I’m in love, what’s that song? / I’m in love with that song.” Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque was famously all but a retread of Radio City, and it was the imprimatur of TFC that prompted my generation to rediscover them. (We read the reviews, we pretended we knew Radio City, we all sneaked off to buy it, and we all went ‘Wow’.) And it’s been said that if everyone who bought The Velvet Underground and Nico went on to start a band, then everyone who bought Big Star albums went on to be a rock journalist. Certainly, stiff whiskies will be swigged by Dublin hacks tonight.

So we’ve established that Big Star were influential. Every floppy-haired indie combo with a tune in its head and a pair of power chords to rub together has owed something to #1 Record or Radio City. ‘September Gurls’, ‘In The Street’ and ‘Back of a Car’ are the benchmark for punchy, soulful, taut power-pop. There is no fat and not a note wrong with them.

But I am not sitting here today with a hole in my stomach because a the author of some seminal academic works of popular culture is no longer with us. My hack friends and I are staring wearily into our single malts because Alex Chilton wrote songs that ignited every emotion and embroidered themselves into our lives.

We will only know just how ingrained in us these songs are in the coming days, now that we are conscious of our bond with them; so every time we unthinkingly hum a Chilton line or remember a perfect moment soundtracked by a song, as we do daily, we will get a little jolt.

I never hear the glistening opening chords of ‘Watch The Sunrise’ without thinking back to a night necking beers with my friends Nick and Lorraine in 1998 in Elliott Smith’s local in Brooklyn; we were there because #1 Record was on the jukebox. ‘Daisy Glaze’ reminds me of thundery afternoons in Malawi with no electricity, trying to work out the chords on an acoustic guitar. And the first gig I went to with my wife: Big Star in the Red Box in August 2001. I should probably mention that one.

For me, it was always the third album; the album that never really had a name, that didn’t come out till the band was long gone, Third or Femme Fatale, which most people ended up calling Sister Lovers. That record never, ever gets old. There are oceans in it. The songs are finely constructed to make you think that they are falling apart. I don’t know if the rumours about Chilton at the time are true; if he was drinking or on heroin or shooting horse tranquillizers into his eyeball. Sometimes, it sounds like all three at once.

I just know that the songs on Sister Lovers fall apart and come back together and all but disintegrate but don’t. You get vertigo from songs like ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Nightime’ and ‘Kanga Roo’, like you are with Chilton teetering on the edge of the world. And Chilton conducted it like a maestro. As Chris Roberts wrote about the Dexys’ ‘This is What She’s Like’, Sister Lovers is the kind of music that you make when you have done perfect pop as well as it can be done and you are moving on to a purer form of expression. It’s Picasso pop.

Sister Lovers is really tough in parts. It’s harrowing, and you know you are in trouble if you’re relating too closely to about half of the songs (‘Big Black Car’ – ‘Sunny day, highway / If it rains it’s all the same / I can’t feel a thing / I can’t feel a thing… Nothing can hurt me / Nothing can touch me / Why should I care?”).

But what rarely gets mentioned in discussions of Sister Lovers is that Chilton saved for this album his most simple and pure expressions of uncomplicated love; the kind of emotions we live to feel. ‘Blue Moon’ is the one that is on repeat play in my mind. “Morning comes and sleeping’s done / Birds sing outside / If demons come while you’re under / I’ll be a blue moon in the sky / Let me be your one light / And if you’d like a true heart / Take the time to show you’re mine / And I’ll be a blue moon in the dark”.

Songs like ‘Blue Moon’, ‘I’m in Love With a Girl’, ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ and ‘Take Care’ remind us how to live, which is as good a reason as any why Big Star are so important to us and why we are so very, very sad today. Alex Chilton is dead and that is a damn hard four words to write, but these songs are here forever.

Lose Your Self In The Music

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’ve given 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.

Startled Feathers Flying: Sufjan’s Illinois, HP, 2005

I just reread this piece for the first time in a few years. I do like it. Looking at it now I was pleasantly surprised by the “Whack!” I wrote into the description of Casimir Pulaski Day. And I must have really trusted Hot Press readers that they would know where Islandeady is. It’s the townland halfway between Castlebar and my mum’s home place of Westport, just to the right as you head west — like, obviously. Anyway, Up Sufjan and Up Mayo 🥊🏅

The big news about Sufjan Stevens is that he plans to record a full album about each of the states of the USA. This is number two of 50, barring annexations, after 2003’s ode to his home patch Michigan. Well, this just in: there’s no fucking way.

That the mooted project would take 96 years to complete at his current prolific rate of recording is not the issue. On the evidence of his song titles, he’s a bloody-minded guy (‘To The Workers Of The Rock River Valley Region, I Have An Idea Concerning Your Predicament, And It Involves An Inner Tube, Bath Mats, And 21 Able-Bodied Men!’). He may indeed record 50 albums and name them after states. More luck to him. But if he does, it will be a distraction. Sufjan Stevens is no more making records about Illinois than he is about Islandeady.

True, ‘They Are Night Zombies!!’ – epic violin-driven funk in the manner of Curtis Mayfield — owes something to its home place. And Illinoise is often huge, the size of the state. The scale of the arrangements for choir, strings, and brass makes showpieces like ‘Jacksonville’ and ‘Chicago’ sound like the ‘St Matthew’s Passion’ as sung by the Polyphonic Spree.

Still, Stevens can namedrop Abe Lincoln all he likes (‘Decatur’), or unconvincingly compare himself to a Chicago serial killer (‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’). The fact remains that the heart of this album lies outside Illinois; outside geography and biography; outside physical space at all. It lies in ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, named for a local public holiday and sung over banjo, with the minimum of fuss, in a rock-solid whisper, as an elegy to a lover.

As the song opens they’re hoping for a miracle: “Tuesday night at the bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens”. She dies of cancer of the bone on a pale March morning and in a scene so deftly drawn that you’re in the room with him, the narrator sits in the hospital, sure he can still see her breathing. He’s dazed, until outside a bird swoops, smacking— whack! — into the window. Startled feathers flying is what he remembers of sitting alone with the body of his young love, and the betrayal of all the hopes they had. (The bird, a cardinal, is the Illinois state bird. Make of that what you will.)

You can set out to write or sing about states or nations or the global sweep of human history. But states are just collections of people and history an accumulation of moments like these.
When music articulates the reality and mystery and majesty of the moment, suddenly albums that soundtrack states are small potatoes. We have universes on our hands here.

The High Life: Paul Buchanan Interview, Hot Press, 2004

Ah synchronicity, the brain-wracking writer’s friend. I’m struggling to sum up in a sentence the essence of The Blue Nile when Roxy Music’s ‘Mother Of Pearl’ comes on the radio and does it for me: “The search for perfection, your own predilection, goes on and on and on”. Thanks Bryan: your micro-cheque is in the post.

Paul Buchanan’s search, or, more correctly, eternal quest for perfection is the reason The Blue Nile are only now releasing High, their first album since 1996, and their fourth in a twenty year career. They may be perceived as the Terrence Malicks of pop – brilliant, reclusive, obsessive — but Buchanan is too modest to admit the first of these traits and firmly denies the second. “I think what’s perceived as isolation on our part,” he reflects, “what it actually means is, we’re not on TV. TV is isolation. I’m at the bus stop. I’m really not isolated at all. I’m right in it.”

Still, signs of the third trait —acceptance of nothing but the best, sometimes to a fault — are visible throughout his life story, partly through attempts to temper it.

“When I lived in America, I saw a therapist, and it was great!” he says brightly immediately after we meet. “It was fantastic. He wasn’t strictly a Jungian, but he was along those lines. It completely changed my life, in many ways.”

Asked why and how, he expands. “I think my idealism had got me into troubled waters. I expected far too much, I think, from everybody, and I was disillusioned by lots of what I had experienced. I had gone out into the world, I suppose, expecting it to symbolically reflect my relationship with God. And it doesn’t. People can’t consistently do that. I think I was idealistic, but I was demanding as well.”

He pauses. “I suppose I expected the world to be more perfect, you know; and everybody to be true and pure.”

Did you expect people not to compromise?

“Yeah. And I think also, at times, because I was so intent on being good, and well behaved, that I expected everybody to do that, and I would be disappointed if they weren’t. Not only that, but I would sort of attribute negative motives to them. What my psychotherapist would be arguing was—look, it’s not them, it’s you.”

Now that he says this, it did appear to me when I reviewed High that Buchanan was critical of the characters in the songs, notably in ‘Days Of Our Lives’ and ‘High’. Cue a look of horror on his face—“No!”—and a grave shake of the head twenty minutes later: “I’m still obsessing slightly that you might have thought I was belittling the characters in my songs.”

Ultimately, as Alvy Singer postulates at the end of Annie Hall, we look for perfection in art because it’s just not going to happen in real life. You’ll find this ethos epitomised on High in ‘Stay Close’. ‘Stay Close’ closes the album and it has to, because once it’s over you need silence. Buchanan sings miraculously, pre-verbally; he cries, sighs, intimately exhales, peels off his protective layers to fearlessly and flawlessly convey human frailty.

This purity of expression didn’t come easy.

“I think I probably tried to sing that a number of times,” he ponders.” Obviously, the way that I sing, you know, isnae really about technique, or performance. It’s more about feeling the right way – and is the right thing coming out? It’s a bizarre experience. It’s obviously mental as well as physical. I think it’s about me getting what’s inside me, articulating something emotionally.

“Once you’ve got it, it’s OK then so you know what it is. Up until you get it, you know, you’re kind of looking for it. So when you get it, it’s not generally a consequence of lots of different ways of singing it. It’s just then it happens.”

It’s a moment.

“It’s a moment, aye. It’s like what you were saying about being pre-verbal. We’re so used to getting things dressed up in a way that’s palatable to us, which is often quite short of what a sensory experience is. You need to leave a lot of things aside if you’re really trying to communicate with people.”

Genes Genie: Dave Couse feature, Hot Press, 2003.

This is an interview with Dave Couse I published in Hot Press in 2003. Dave was releasing his solo record Genes, which I listened to that year more than any record except I Trawl The Megahertz. This interview was a big one for me — just meeting Dave for a pint was big for me. I *loved* A House and they sound tracked huge swathes of my teens and early twenties and Dave’s lyrics were central to the connection with the band. The wit, the sharpness, and the lyrical full-throated raw emotion. I was at the last A House show in 1997 and I’ll be at the A House Is Dead show in the NCH. I heard Dave on Eoghan O’Sullivan’s TPOE podcast and it reminded me of the esteem in which I held Genes. I also remember the nights of transcribing afterwards. Dave packed a lot of talk into an hour and a half’s chat down the pub.

It’s the early evening of Tuesday April 2nd, and Brian Kerr’s all-new Ireland are pluckily fending off the mighty Albania as I meet Dave Couse locking up his bike outside Ryan’s of Sandymount. Dave knows the venue for our interview well, it’s a couple of minutes from his PR company’s HQ, and you might expect the author of the World Cup 2002 anthem to be aware of the national team’s Euro 2004 timetable, but no: he pokes his head inside the stuffed pub, clocks the crowd and looks disgusted. He had no idea, and anthem or no anthem, he’s not a fan. “I find football incredibly boring. Repetition beyond belief!”

Dave is disgusted because, for the conversation he has planned in this particular pub, we need a bit of hush. There’s a reason the ex-leader of A House has trekked here from his home in Rathfarnham, and it’s not to share an hour of low-quality international football with hotpress. As becomes clear even as we stand on the street debating whether or not to go in, it’s because this is a place with a recently acquired resonance for him.

Dave’s dad Greg Couse, who for years worked down the road and for whom Ryan’s was something of a second home, died last year. Dave’s warm, tender debut solo album Genes is dedicated to him and today his family is foremost in his mind. “I cycled over thinking it’d be a nice idea to do it here. The old man’d be with me, you know?”

As we find a quiet corner, Dave casts his eyes around the room. He says he feels the presence of his father.

Oh yeah definitely. The last few times I’ve been here, you know what I mean? There’s a real sense that he’s here. You can hear him laughing. He conducted a lot of his business from here, and you could imagine that his meetings with all his mates would pretty much revolve around him. That’s the kind of character he was. So I get a real sense of him. I haven’t had that since … since the day he died.”

How long is that?

It’s about ten months now. That kind of thing takes a long time to settle in; the realisation of the whole thing. You’re just left numb when something like that happens. In the next album he’ll be featured in the way of a song. This time all I could do was honour his memory with the idea of it. The whole genes thing.”

The title and the design of Genes both form a tribute, the artwork largely comprising a touching, time-spanning family portrait. You open the CD sleeve to pictures not only of Dave, but of two sepia-tinted strangers and a bright big bald baby peering out at you.

My father is there, as a 21-year-old man. The man with the banjo in 1900 is my grandfather; 1935 is the old man. Then me in ’64 and then there’s my daughter. There are four generations of the Couse family in the hundred years.

The strangest thing was, I was going down to the office, and I had proofs of the artwork in my bag, and I had taken them out in here, just to check them and look at them, and it was like I brought him back in for one last look, if you like. Because unfortunately, he had a long illness, it took a long time, it was pretty horrible. But it was weird when I took out these things and… there he was, you know. Back, and I know it was only a photo, but here again.”

You said you’ll write songs about your dad.

Oh, undoubtedly, yeah,” he avers. “I’ve already written one, in my head. Got a lovely little title for it and everything. I mean it’s a big thing, I’ve never experienced anything as big – well, the birth of my daughter was pretty massive. Add it all together, not long after that he died, it’s a pretty bizarre experience. To have two such massive events so close together focuses you as a human being. I was a no-nonsense person anyway; I’m undoubtedly that now. Because you realise what life’s about, when something like that happens.”

And feelings this huge, this bewildering: can you can express them in song? In words?

Yeah, you can. Always simply, as simple as possible. You just blurt out what’s in your head, right, and then try and tidy it up a bit,” he laughs, “so it’s not written by a four-year-old. You just tidy it up a little bit, but the honesty has got to be at that level, like a four-year-old, nearly, because young kids have this amazing knack of honesty, which I’ve found with our little one. They don’t hold anything back at all. There’s a beauty, and freedom, and strength, you know?

The same thing, when I wrote ‘For Sale’, for Eva. I remember seeing her for the first time, when she was born. I just felt,” he says, slapping his hand to his heart, “this bang, you know. If you listen to the lyrics, it’s all about: Seeing you now, the whole world is here for you, and it’s my responsibility to look after it for you, and if you just hold on to the truth, and love, and passion, you’ll get through life.”

For Sale’ will be known to anyone who has seen any of Dave’s comeback shows over the last two years – roughly the same period as Genes has taken to gestate, from the initial ideas through writing, then recording with Edwyn Collins, through finally releasing it on his own Beep Beep label, a move away from the tangles with majors that dotted A House’s career. “I am now chief executive of the record company, the CEO, I am the A&R department, I am the artist. I’m the talent. But I’m also the post boy, you know?” he smiles.

As befits the cottage industry supporting it, Genes is an extraordinarily intimate record and, by ‘When I First Saw You’ standards anyway, remarkably happy. The comparison I keep making is with Teenage Fanclub’s spectacular Songs From Northern Britain, an album about the inestimable thrill of waking up beside the same old face every day for fifteen years; the likes of ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Peaceful’ and most immediately ‘Intoxicating’, are the sound of a man supremely gifted in the art of writing pop songs, overwhelmed by love for his wife and daughter, who would like to tell them, and us, all about it with as little fuss as possible.

With any luck at all – and if ‘Intoxicating’ is a single – it could be huge; if not, as long as it’s being heard, he’s not worried if the hit never happens. If he’s reading the economic tea leaves right, he’ll muddle through.

This is my theory,” says Dave, “and it could be fucking horseshit for all I know – that music, music does really well in hard times. In the ’80s, when it was hard, that was when bands were getting big advances. I was wealthier in the recession than I’ve ever been. Then the boom came in the early nineties and we started running out of money really fast. So I’ve kind of ridden this boom time pretty much as a pauper, you know. So if there is less spendable income for people, to be into music is really cheap! It’s a really cheap hobby.”

So, Dave, the imminent depression has its up side.

I’m praying for a recession, yeah!” He looks imploringly upwards. ‘Please God make the recession come quicker.’ Everyone else in the world is going ‘Please God, Jesus… if this recession comes in I’m homeless!’ I’m going ‘Make them homeless, Lord!’ At least I’ll be successful.