Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Green is the colour

Helen McCookerybook often comes across, at a very casual first glance, as a pastoral folk singer but this is a bit of a misnomer: Musically and thematically, her work is much more complex. This is a reflection of McCookerybook’s musical history both in punk and post punk but also as frontwoman in the experimental band Helen and the Horns, who owe as much to Doris Day as they do to the Monochrome Set. 

Green is an album that encompasses musical nods towards folk, pop, jazz and swing while also containing a lyrical mix of gentle humour, wry observation and the out and out political. ‘Rainbow of the colour green’ features lovely harmonies and gentle melodies, while ‘Where is home?’ is almost French sounding, a gentle waltz of a tune with a perfect accordion sample that is reminiscent of Parisian cafes in the 1950s. It is a lullaby, a comfort blanket of a song. The pastoral lament of ‘New York’ meanwhile is short but equally sweet and ‘Change the DJ’ has an uptempo jazz feel that reminds me of Peggy Lee; it is one of my favourite songs on the album.

McCookerybook is especially good at telling complex stories simply and imaginatively, and this is showcased through two songs in particular: ‘Danse Macabre’ and ‘At the bathing pond’. ‘Danse Macabre’ opens with the irresistible line “Shoplifting books by the ton, piling them high in his room…” and is a giddy adventure of a song. ‘At the bathing pond’, as well as being structured as a great sing along, is a slyly subversive piece that relates the true life story of a peeping tom (plus his wife!) and his voyeuristic adventures at Hampstead Bathing Pond.

Green isn’t without its moments of melancholy, perhaps best demonstrated by ‘These Streets’ and ‘A good life with a bad apple’. There’s also political satire in the form of ‘So Long, Elon’, a particularly strong song:

 “We’re building a big rocket, with space for all our shoes” 

it begins

“with Bitcoin in our pocket, with nothing left to lose.” 

As environmental satire its more Randy Newman’s ‘Political Science (Let’s Drop the Big One Now)’ or Flanders & Swan than it is Barry McGuire's ‘Eve of destruction’, and there’s an atonal quality to the song which marks it out as the missing link between the Raincoats and Kirsty MacColl. Gillian Wood’s cello provides this worrisome note and her playing serves to gently suggest that things have all gone a bit wrong and that maybe we should be more worried about it all. 

This feeling of unease makes sense in the context of ‘21s Century Blues’ which, along with ‘Soldier Joe’, could be regarded as the most openly political of the songs on Green. ‘21st Century Blues’ appears to share similar sentiments to the Specials recent song ‘Vote for me’ only expressed in a more wry, observational narrative, while ‘Soldier Joe’ is about radicalisation and points to the ways in which fighters become victims of their ideology, a kind of modern day cannon fodder for a cause.

The album ends with ‘Saturday night with the London set’, which feels like the most complex song of the album. On one level it feels like the perfect jazz pop summer song, a modern day Spanky & Our Gang, until you listen to the bitingly observational lyrics. Thematically, the song probably has more in common with Blur’s ‘Charmless Man’ than with ‘Sunday Mornin’. But there’s also a wittiness that is more akin to ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion.’ 

I suspect that McCookerybook has witnessed a lot of celebrities and hipsters, who are ageing disgracefully, out on the town, but as the song nears its conclusion you realise that she isn’t just singing about The Beautiful People, she’s also celebrating those people who are merely out on the town having a good time. This realisation epitomises the heart of Green as an album: Even when McCookerybook is angry, she can still see humour and humanity in the situation. 

Thursday, 25 July 2019

On leaving The F-Word (again...)

Phones and fans, Florence + The Machine, British Summer Time, Hyde Park, 13th July
Back in February I made the decision to resign my music editor post at The F-Word.

On the one hand, this wasn't a difficult decision to make because the post is unpaid; everyone involved with The F-Word is a volunteer. But, on the other hand, I knew that I would miss the camaraderie of my fellow editors and writers at the site.

I originally worked as one of two music editors, alongside Holly Combe, between 2011 and 2013. I was then approached in 2017 in a solo capacity and asked to take on the role again but only for 12 months while the existing music editor took her turn as rotating editor. When she elected, after the twelve months, not to return to the role I was then asked if I wanted to continue on a permanent basis. I agreed but, even at the time, I wasn't sure how long I'd be able to commit for. My life was in something of a state of flux at the time so I didn't feel like I could make any long term guarantees.

The reasons I chose to resign (my actual resignation coming in May) were, essentially, because I felt as though I'd taken the role as far as I could. Because we are a site run by volunteers, and we don't pay our writers, attracting contributors can be something of a challenge. As a writer seeking paid work, I sympathise with writers who wouldn't want to write for the site as I've turned down unpaid work myself. From the editors perspective, it did mean that I was very reliant on my two regular contributors and on my own initiative. And this state of affairs did lead me to conclude, after a while, that what we really needed was new blood.

I re-vamped a few aspects of the music section while working at The F-Word this time, specifically, I introduced a monthly roundup blog post of interesting music news. The theatre section at the site has been running their own monthly roundup post for some time, and it seemed both useful and popular and, as such, something worth replicating for the music section. Due to the situation I outlined in the previous paragraph, it simply isn't possible for us to cover everything relevant to a feminist website that's happening in music land, so a monthly roundup seemed a good way to address those events and releases we were unable to cover in any other capacity.

Over time though, I began to really enjoy doing the monthly roundup post. I was also reading a lot of newsletters and, eventually, I hit on the idea of creating my own newsletter for and about women and the live music industry in the UK.

Hatchie fans, watching Hatchie, Yes, Manchester, June 2019
In another universe, I would have started a newsletter much, much earlier. Going back to 2002, when I created the first issue of my faction fanzine Harlot's Progress, I would have really liked to have done it as an email newsletter, not a fanzine. It seemed so suited to that format. Unfortunately, in 2002 newsletters weren't so much of 'a thing' and the software needed to create one was a lot clunkier than it is today, so it basically felt like a non starter.

Doing a newsletter in 2019 feels like I am going back to my DIY fanzine writer routes though. It feels outsider-y and slightly renegade, a lone wolf corresponding with anyone who cares to listen. Yes, I could one day monetise this venture by using tools and platforms such as Ko Fi and Patreon, but that's not going to happen anytime soon, if at all.

I released my first issue of the Sticks 'N' Strings newsletter in May. I deliberately chose to focus on women and the live music aspect of the music industry because this feels like the battleground for a lot of what women are facing at the moment, both as performers and as fans. You can read more about my reasons for starting the newsletter in an earlier blog post.

From a personal perspective, the newsletter gives me the freedom and space to write about issues that I find relevant and interesting as a music journalist, fan and gig attendee. I can write what I want in an organised but ultimately creatively unlimited way, I can publish it when I'm good and ready, and I don't have to waste hours trying to define a new and nebulous topic for the benefits of a series of editors who won't read my pitch emails anyway or, if they do, won't take a punt on the idea, or on me as a writer.

I will continue to pitch ideas to editors, just as equally as I will continue to write here and on Medium, but I like the structure doing a newsletter gives me, and I see it as an opportunity to learn new skills while still sharing the kind of information I was collating for the F-Word blog posts.

If you'd like to subscribe to the Sticks 'N' Strings newsletter, you can do so using this form. If you're not interested and are annoyed that I've left The F-Word, it's worth mentioning that I also write for Louder Than War and Get In Her Ears, and will continue to do so. Similarly, I'll continue to use this blog to signpost articles I've written elsewhere.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

A salute to Florence Welch

Florence Welch by Lillie Eiger

"They present us with the tantalising mirage of un-alienated labour - work that is actually deeply satisfying - and leave us enviously speculating about their glamorous lives. After all, what may be a highlight of the summer for the audience, appears to be the everyday lived reality of the touring musician. What could be more intriguing and attractive than that?

The truth, of course, is more complicated. I know all too well that musicians face many of the same frustrations and fears as every other worker. On the question of alienation, those of us who tour are actually more removed from the collective - in some senses more alienated - than most. We may bring people together, but we do so as itinerants removed from society and placed in a bubble of tour-buses, hotels, dressing rooms and VIP areas." (Dave Randall, Sound System: The Political Power of Music)

"After our last chat in London, I was like 'Do I really need to stop for a bit?' But yes, this [the anxiety attack] confirmed it. It's sad because I feel at the peak of my performance, of my connection with the audience. There is something special going on in these shows, the exchange of energy. But my mental health has taken a battering. It used to be that that was a price I was willing to pay. I don't think I am now." (Florence Welch, Q Magazine, August 2019)

For those of us long time fans of Florence + The Machine, Florence Welch's announcement of her upcoming sabbatical in this weeks interview with Ted Kessler for Q magazine, was a sad one but not a surprising one. Florence has spoken about her anxiety before, not to mention the insomnia she often suffers on tour. The fanbase are aware of this, and, as she acknowledges in the Kessler interview, we often feel protective of her and of her wellbeing. The Flows are just that kind of a fanbase. That said, it probably says more about me than it does about her that my initial thoughts upon first hearing 'Hunger' in 2018 were "Are you alright Florence? I hope you're alright..." I then watched the interview she'd just done with Annie Mac to announce the High As Hope album and concluded that, yes, Florence Welch did seem to be alright at this moment in time.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the highly emotional quality of Welch's music, and live performance, provide a great deal of catharsis and comfort to her fans while, at the same time, exhausting her as a performer. That she enjoys writing, recording and performing is not in any doubt and, if you've seen her live, you will have seen moments of intense joy on her face as well as the occasional nervous moment. She is not the kind of performer who puts on a mask of perfection: She's real, and flawed, and that is part of the attraction.

Florence Welch by Lillie Eiger
But the relentless schedule modern highly successful artists are subject to would take its toll on anyone, and as someone who also has anxiety, even though I don't know the full details as to how anxiety manifests itself for Welch (we are all different in that regard of course), I can see why the kind of schedule she has would hammer her mental health. Florence + The Machine generally tour arenas for two years to promote each album, playing the UK, Europe, the US, South America, Australia and New Zealand (where Florence's insomnia seems to have been particularly bad this time) not to mention more festivals than I can count. It would be exhausting even without the anxiety, much, much worse with it.

Welch told Kessler "Even in the midst of a full-blown anxiety attack, I can do the show. There's a level of sensitivity that allows me to perform, but it makes functioning otherwise very hard. I don't have infinite resources, I've come to realise. I feel very sorry for the people who work for me because they're like, 'How the fuck do we get her from A-to-B?'"

She has cried on stage at times, and not always because of anxiety I don't think, sometimes simply because she is moved by the crowd's reaction to something she's said. But I also don't think that the fans find that to be a problem anymore than if she fell over on stage, which she's also done a number of times. My concern as a fan is not that Florence Welch shows she's human on stage, or in print, it's more... Is she OK? Should she be up there at this moment in time? Should she be at home on the sofa watching TV with her cat instead?

Florence + The Machine are playing UK and European festivals over the summer, including a return to British Summer Time in Hyde Park on 13 July, but the High As Hope tour will conclude in triumphant style in September with a final open air date at the Herodion Theatre in Athens, a very special venue to sign off from. After that, we wait.

Welch will be working on other creative projects, which is to be expected as she's never come across as the kind of person who could give up being creative. It will just be a different kind of work, and won't involve touring arenas around the world.

As she clarified for Kessler, she's not retiring. She just needs "to not tour for a good bit. I'll be back." Instead, she'll be exploring her creativity in other ways, as she did with Useless Magic last year.

When I started typing this post, I wasn't sure if I was doing the right thing in writing this piece, and I'm still not 100% sure. But I admire Florence Welch's honesty and I wanted to acknowledge that: I think it takes a lot for a high profile performer to not only speak about mental health frankly (although more are doing so recently), but also to take the time to explain to the fanbase why she needs some time off. Before the internet, before social media, it was very common for artists to disappear for years at a time and for their fans to never really find out why until years later, possibly never. Admittedly, both the internet and social media specifically have altered our realities and social norms so much now that this simply isn't an option in this day and age, but I appreciate Welch's consideration to the fanbase all the same.

Throughout this blog post I've quoted liberally from Dave Randall's book Sound System: The Political Power of Music. I feel as though I've quoted Dave slightly out of context, and I'm hoping he doesn't mind because I feel the points he makes in the extract above are worth highlighting in this case. He writes from experience, having toured the world playing guitar with Faithless, Dido and Sinead O'Conner, amongst others. He knows what he's talking about.

Although Sound System is a history of the political power of music, it also reveals a series of home truths about the music industry and the realities of being a musician in the twenty first century. He concludes his book with a 'Rebel Music Manifesto', a call to arms for musicians and would be musicians, and I'd like to finish with an extract from that.

"Good art doesn't try to dazzle with its own brilliance, distract us from reality or parrot accepted wisdom and formulas of the past. It dares to honestly communicate how the person making it feels about their experience of the world around them. When an artist does that successfully, their art will resonate and touch the lives of others. Honesty is key even - or perhaps especially - when times are hard and the message bleak." (Dave Randall, Sound System: The Political Power of Music)

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Live peeks part 2: Hatchie

I had the pleasure of seeing Hatchie, aka Harriette Pilbeam, Australia's new indie rock queen in waiting, sell out Manchester's new, lovely venue Yes in mid June.

If anything, I think I underestimated her: The songs feel so easy, so effortless that you can be lulled into thinking that they aren't anything special, when really, they are.

The song 'Stay with me' is a case in point: It builds and builds, becoming much more than a charming slice of indie pop. It is anthemic, it is a tour de force... it is a total earworm.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Live peeks part 1: LP

I saw LP live at the 02 Ritz in Manchester back in late May and was struck by her charisma and the operatic scale of her performance.

My place in the crowd wasn't great, and I had my face groped by a drunk woman (I will be returning to this story at some point I think...) but I had a great time nonetheless.

The video to 'Shaken' has just come out, and while it's not a live video, it is worth a watch.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Better Buses for Greater Manchester: FourGoods and forays into 'proper' journalism

There's definitely a story in this...
Recently, I have been dabbling in what I like to think of as 'proper' journalism.

To explain, there is a certain snobbery within the world of journalism vis a vis music journalists; a sense that we aren't 'proper' writers and we aren't deploying journalistic skills and training. Which, given the high standards of research and quality of writing that you see in a lot of long form music and cultural commentary, feels very unfair.

It goes without saying that there's an equal amount of snobbery and scorn directed at bloggers by journalists in general (including music journalists): We write for free! Without editors! We have no training or discipline! Which, admittedly, is hard to argue with at times. That said, just because you write for free, without an editor, with no training doesn't mean you can't write. Sometimes it does, but not always. I'd also say, on the financial renumeration point, that platforms like Medium as well as crowdfunding platforms like KoFi and Patreon are muddying the waters so far as the 'unpaid' aspect of it goes.

Personally, I'd say that I occupy a weird hinterland that I'd like to call 'Semi professional journalist/blogger', meaning that I do write for free, but I also get paid for my work sometimes. I've also written for free in an academic context, but because it's in an academic context it's fine and not shameful. Which is a bit of a headfuck it has to be said. Ultimately, I would like to be a fully professional writer, but (for various reasons) it just isn't happening at the moment.

I started writing pieces for the website FourGoods earlier this year. They commissioned me to write about veg box schemes and Brexit (this was before the deadline for Brexit was extended to the 31st October) and, more recently, the campaign to re-regulate the buses in Greater Manchester.

There was no byzantine recruitment process, no weird unwritten rules to somehow know by osmosis and comply with... I simply pitched the veg boxes and Brexit idea to them, they liked my pitch, read my stuff on Medium and concluded that I had the right tone of voice for their publication, and that was it: I was commissioned, I was in. I'd like to say that this happens a lot, but it doesn't: My pitches have a success rate only marginally above the proverbial snowball in hell.

Anyway, back to those buses...

As with most of the UK (London is the exception) the buses in Greater Manchester were de-regulated in 1986 and it's been chaos ever since. It's long been a source of disappointment to me that there seem to be so few people in the UK who care about bus travel, who want to change it for the better, who are willing to stand up and make a fuss about it and agitate for a better deal. After all, commuter groups have been doing just that with trains pretty much ever since the trains were privatised in 1994.

Then, I heard about Better Buses For Greater Manchester. I met Pascale Robinson, saw the campaigners in action, and the rest they say is history.

I have learnt a lot about journalism while writing for FourGoods, and it's also taught me a lot about pitching I think as well. Particularly about not pitching too soon, before you've worked the idea out properly, which I know I've done in the past.

I am looking forward to writing for them again at some point.

Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash