Photograph: Annelie Rosencrantz.
From left: Johnson-Jay, Tom Worrall, Vin Goodwin, Hannah White, me.
As singer-songwriters and performing artists, we have to go out there and play on a nightly, weekly, or monthly basis. There’s no better way to roadtest new songs, woo new Facebook likes with some suitably needy-yet-quirky banter, and hone your playing. And thank God there are so many awesome venues, so many promoters who don’t get too shirty if the requisite thirty people don’t show up to be etched onto the telltale scorecard, so many glorious friends and (touch wood) fans who’ll come out on a school night to show their love and support. It’s a buzzy and beautiful scene, grubby in places, glossy in others. (The Troubadour, in particular, holds a very special place in my heart.)
That said, it might also be true that there’s a certain formula, a kind of drill, a pattern that repeats and a habit you can get into, after a while, if you play many gigs with three or four acts on the bill that bear no particular relationship to each other. You turn up, aggressively guard your allocated soundcheck-time, schmooze the sound-guy and don’t mispronounce his name. You make sycophantic comments to other musicians while secretly hoping that their set will be a dull and lifeless thing. You wrangle and negotiate for bits of drum kit, sustain pedals and the like that you’ve left in the minicab, promising drinks in return. You ignore the other artists, although perhaps make a point of clapping ostentatiously when they look over. At the end of the night, you wonder whether you were better than the other musicians that you played the night with, as though it’s been a Darwinian competition and the audience could have voted you out at any time.
Now, I am not saying that I do it, indeed I try very hard not to – but I’m saying we’re all, deep-down, a tiny bit guilty of (sometimes) falling into the trap of thinking that we need to somehow musically belittle and defeat the gentle souls who happen to be sharing the stage with us. Such negativity cannot be beneficial: whatever rich emotional depths we travel to in order to write music can hardly be compared to the cheap, bitter sensation of wanting the support slot’s set to be over so that you can get on the stage and show people how it’s really done.
Is there an alternative, though? Yes: instead of inwardly screaming with joy if someone’s singing is off-key, or their sound levels are all over the place, we can offer other artists support, beer, a spare plectrum or cable. Swap business cards at the end of the night. Tweet about each others’ performances and plan gigs together in the future. I’ve met a lot of artists at gigs who have become beloved friends. Better than enemies, any day.
This is what makes the genius of In The Round so demonstrably apparent. The legend goes that in 1985 Fred Knobloch and Don Schlitz drunkenly came up with the idea of songwriters sitting in a circle to perform: “let’s put four chairs in the middle of the room, facing each other, turn around the lights, and see what happens.” The setting for this brainchild was The Bluebird in Nashville, where shows to this day continue to be held in this format.
In 2009, songwriter Mark Aaron James started the Music In The Round at the Forge Camden, preserving the original setup and vibe of the Bluebird. The event was taken over by Australian artist Johnson-Jay, and it’s just returned, rechristened In The Round, at the same venue. With Johnson-Jay both performing and presiding over the running of the night, three or four other artists take it in turns to play a song, perhaps with a story that goes with it. You listen. You collaborate freely, as the moment takes you. Or, if you’re panicking, you stay quiet, knowing that the C chord you thought of playing might well clash with the F sharp minor you’re worried the song might be written in. But – whatever you do – you feel included in a circle that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts, and full of awe and respect and admiration for your peers. The choreography of the space dictates that the audience is likewise drawn in: it’s less confrontational than a typical stage setup that puts artist and audience facing each other like tennis opponents.
I was lucky enough to play at the inaugural In The Round earlier this week, with JJ, Vin Goodwin, Hannah White and Tom Worrall (whose deft piano improvisations allowed me to contribute BVs with impunity rather than embarrass myself with a flurry of wrong notes). It was a magical evening. Vin’s ‘Falling Man’ found an impromptu three-part harmony; a beautiful new song of Hannah’s had a chorus that, appropriately, repeated the word ‘love’; JJ’s ‘Meet Me in the Middle’ was rendered exquisite by Tom’s masterful accompaniment. An audience member called Sam jumped up to contribute some cahon. And I played a new song, a duet, which Vin sang with me.
In the Round is exactly what a night of music should be, and I will be returning there as an audience member as often as I can, not to judge, fret or think thoughts of one-upmanship.
Just to feel the love.
Bestival 2012 - I took one picture. And it's terrible. But you do get the general impression of the everlasting blue sky, candyfloss clouds, adventure-playground edifices and primary colour schemes..
Am back from Bestival with a smudge of sunburn on one arm, a bizarre ringing in my ears despite the stupendously expensive fitted earplugs I got from Boots several years ago, lost immediately, and just found at the back of a drawer and very tired feet from miles and miles of walking in wellingtons.
I loved my gig at the Swamp Shack (less so the tortuous, unsignposted drive around various organic chicken farms trying to find the artist car park) and playing keys for the delicious 2forjoy and her very talented boys. Loved wandering around discovering bands I didn't know (Jinja Safari and Tankus the Henge were favourites) as well as those I did (Bat for Lashes and Roots Manuva particularly enjoyable). Loved the Moroccan food stall, the crepes we had for breakfast every day, the comparative peace of the campsite and the high-up glades beyond the Ambient Forest where people sat around reading the Observer and rolling babies in pushchairs over the tended, flower-fringed lawns.
I also loved the wildlife parade, except for the man who thrust a hissing snake at me and the people who put clothes pegs in our hair while we sat by the Main Stage waiting for New Order. There were bears, pigs, tigers, men in matching (quite natty) leopard print safari suits with rolled-up legs, giraffes, peacocks... and two bearded Noahs with a sign that read 'WE NEED TWO OF EVERY ANIMAL' (I hope they managed it). There were four Tellytubbies who were resolutely in character the whole time. And everywhere we went, people were singing Awimbawe.
This is what we played:
2. You Were No Good
3. Night Owl
4. Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
6. Blue Roses
Of the above, four are new and will be on the next record. I chose the Soundgarden because I was fairly confident that it would pour with rain and the lyrics would blend with the weather... even though it didn't, I still really loved playing it. Dom Green and Alvaro Lopez were the perfect people to share a stage with - particularly adored Al's eclectic, varied drum patterns and Dom's synth bass genius.
Hope to procure some other (better ie taken by professionals) pictures anon.
No particular reason for this one, other than that it came into my head as I sat at the piano. It’s a very unpolished cover; makes me feel sad as it always does. I’ve always wondered about the story behind the lyrics.
Here is an entire gig’s worth of footage – featuring the sublime Kate Feldschreiber on BVs and cello
Head to 1.09.00 or thereabouts, and enjoy.
I recorded this on International Women’s Day – Ani diFranco’s ‘Talk To Me Now’.
Here are the lyrics:
He said ‘Ani, you’ve gotten tough’
‘Cause my tone was curt
And when I’m approached in a dark alley I don’t lift my skirt
In this city self preservation is a fulltime occupation
And I’m determined to survive on this shore
You know I don’t avert my eyes anymore
In a man’s world I am a woman by birth
And after 19 times around I have found
They will stop at nothing once they know what you are worth
Talk to me now
I played the powerless in too many dark scenes
I was blessed with a birth and a death
And I guess I just want some say in between
Don’t you understand
One a day to day in a face to face
I have to act just as strong as I can
Just to preserve a place where I can be who I am
Talk to me now
I was very lucky – and proud – to be a part of the Maggie’s London Night Hike in 2010 and 2011. Here’s a video of last year’s hike – I do appear for a nanosecond at the Royal Geographical Society, playing the piano.
Maggie’s was set up by Maggie Keswick Jencks, who was inspired by her own experiences to create a safe space when cancer patients could go to find support and advice. It’s well worth checking out at www.maggiescentres.org and the video of the London Night Hike is viewable here.
So: the plan was to perform a song written by an artist born on the day of the gig; the chosen gigs were my monthly Troubadour residencies. How did I do? Well…
January – gigs don’t really start at the Troubadour till February.
February 3rd – I performed ‘Look What They Done To My Song Ma’ by Melanie Safka
March 3rd – I performed ‘Autumn is Your Last Chance’ by Robyn Hitchcock, and a mashup of my song ‘Lila’ and Metallica’s ‘Sanitarium’ (it being the 25th anniversary of the album release. Yes, not a proper birthday.)
April 7th – I performed ‘Don’t Explain’ by Billie Holiday as part of my song ‘Free Likewise’.
May 23rd – was my album launch night. We played Morphine’s ‘The Night’, but I fear it was nobody’s birthday.
June 16th – a death instead of a birth – James Honeyman-Scott from the Pretenders, and I played ‘Kid’
July and August – didn’t play
September 1st – planned and rehearsed The Bee Gees’ ‘I Started A Joke’, but the gig ended up being an exact run-through of the Bestival Set, and so featured instead ‘Lovecats’ by the Cure.
October 6th – I totally failed to play a Birthday Song. As far as I remember.
November – missed due to illness.
December 1st – Hurrah! Played Bette Midler’s ‘The Rose’. Thankfully didn’t end on a note of abject failure.
So, an honest roundup of 2011:
Number of Troubadour gigs: 8
Number of Birthday Songs played: 6
Number of Birthday Songs that didn’t break any of the rules played: 4
I’m considering trying again this year, but would be interested to hear other ideas