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Discontent at the Jericho Tavern

In spite of its being March in England, we managed to have a glorious, sparkly, magical night at the Jericho Tavern. Have a look!

Like many things in Oxford, the place is steeped in history. The current pub was built in 1818, on the site of an inn dating back to the 17th century. A conveninent place to lay your head, if you were approaching from the north and the gates to the city were shut for the night.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the venue was part of a thriving music scene, with Radiohead and Supergrass making serious waves and signing record deals. (When they played at the Jericho, Radiohead was called On a Friday. Learning that fact brings me joy.) Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, I was learning to play guitar, discovering the Indigo Girls, and organising* school music shows. Also writing songs and making jokes with my friends like, “Bumper? Sticker? I hardly know her!” They were, on the whole, Good Times.

Anyhow, I hope you like this song, which I wrote in Chicago, recorded in Middleton Stoney, and now swims through the ether – in this video, but also on Bandcamp and Spotify. I have mixed feelings about Freud, but I have learned a lot from him over the years. The title is very much a reference to his work. Also a way of making peace with longings that pull me in 360 degrees, all at once.

Singing Discontent with the Sometimes Band at the Jericho Tavern was an absolute thrill. My thanks to our incomperable host, Sam Taplin, for holding the space and gathering us all together.

Here’s to surviving March – even adding a bit of sparkle! Bring on the spring.

*I find making decisions about using American or British spelling very stressful. I could tell you more about why, but I suspect our time is better spent in the company of good music. Just watch the video.



Let me introduce you to my cuatro

“What is that?” people often ask when I take it out of its case. The cuatro’s doubled set of steel strings sound somewhere between a mandolin and a twelve-string guitar. When I stumbled into one in a cluttered music shop on a grim Chicago afternoon, I was still reeling from the heavy anaesthetic of a root canal. I was smitten the moment I laid eyes upon its violin-like profile, imagining I might be able to make some pretty sounds were I to take it in my arms.

Having played mostly on nylon string classical or flamenco guitars for several years, the bright joy and assertiveness of its strummed chords were sheer delight. It reminded me of the richness of the steel-stringed Guild I had played as a young teenager, learning folk and pop guitar in the bucolic fields of Appel Farm from Joe Crookston. Playing steel with a pick was wonderfully familiar, and I realised how much I missed it. Yet the cuatro was also different: even though a guitarist could find her way on it pretty quickly, its quality of sound and its beautiful shape were like nothing I had heard or seen before. Emboldened by my anesthetized stupor and possession of a credit card (my father’s), I declared that cuatro mine. I took her home.

My technique on the instrument differs significantly from how it is normally played. The national instrument of Puerto Rico, its mandolin-like upper registers usually sing twinkling melodies which shimmer above the mix.

Go seven minutes and thirty-two seconds into this interview with a child prodigy on Puerto Rican television to see what I mean:

Fabiola Mendez went on to become the first cuatro player to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston–although it was she who taught the cuatro to her teacher, a guitarist. Listen to her all grown up:

This is wonderful stuff. But I am only now discovering it, though I’ve been playing my cuatro for a decade and a half.

My cuatro is a petite, harmony-laden rhythmic powerhouse. It’s not a top-of-the-line model. In fact, it took me a little while to conclude that the distance from the nut to the first fret is just a shade off, meaning that I get better intonation if I keep a capo on the first fret (or above). At the very top of the neck, again, the intonation gets a bit inconsistent.

I do my best to work around its idiosyncrasies, as I hope others would do for me. I know full well that I stumbled upon this strange treasure and fell in love, without research or deliberation. I even entertained the notion of a cosmic connection between my dental work and the molar-like profile of its tuning pegs. Far-fetched as that might be, I am glad I impulsively clung to this (un)familiar instrument. It has illuminated both my joys and my sorrows with a strength I have come to depend upon.


Frosty reflections on the year that was

Creatively speaking, 2022 has been both understated and brimming with life.

After pining for FloFest during two years of lockdown, it was a joy to sing there once again. It was particularly special because my Washingtonian mother and Berkeley-based best friend were able to be there, too. The cold and the rain could do little to dampen our spirits. I even caught the tail end of the dog show.

Rocking out on a canal boat was another musical highlight of the year. We entertained a bustling audience at Mount Place in Jericho, where there was beer on tap and sausages aplenty. Consuming both as I listened to Owl Light Trio fortified me for our set, as did drinking in our idyllic surroundings. When it was our turn to play, Colin Fletcher traded his guitar for his upright bass, transitioning seamlessly from Owl Light to Sometimes Band. His public debut with us was an exhilarating success, if I do say so myself. The audience was warm and receptive, and the setting was relaxed, professional and joyous, complete with mischievous children cavorting just about out of earshot from the stage. Thank you Towpath Productions for another magical gig.

Photo by Clare Rourke

Speaking of magic, the Howard Street Sessions never fail to transport and delight. But the one last November was, for me anyhow, extraordinary. Ben Smith (of Band of Hope and Acoustic Ballroom fame) opened the night with mesmerising loops of fiddle and guitar, pressing all the right buttons and pushing his artistic boundaries with bravery and grace. Then came our set. It included some new material, a sing-along classic, and glimmering finishing touches of raw beauty from Jane Griffiths on fiddle. This on top of Colin Fletcher’s sauntering bass, Hannah Gray’s melodious flute, Josh Robson-Hemmings driving guitar, and Tracey Rimell’s luscious harmonies. The Sometimes Band were in fine form indeed! I felt an instant connection with the audience, who were singing along – heartily, beautifully – from the very first song. I was riding a wave of deep contentment as I listened to John Smith close out the night. Sitting two feet away from him singing Salty and Sweet is a memory I will always treasure.

Over the past year, there has also been a fair bit of songwriting. Walking into town along the river, playing with a tune and a phrase or two as I watch the seasons change, is both energising and consoling. Even when – especially when? – the effort to leave the warmth of a winter bed felt positively Herculean, and the nettles were covered with frost.

So things have been gently but steadily bubbling away, as one day unfolds into the next. No huge tours or record deals. I have a day job I love, and a healthy family. I am grateful for both. But I also need music, and music is so much more satisfying when you share it. I have deeply ambivalent feelings about self-promotion in a digital landscape that is designed to fuel insatiable desires. But I will continue to throw my hat into the ring, in my own little way.

Thank you for joining me in this life-sustaining project. I hope you also find ways to nurture your creative spirit in the year ahead!


A good summer for blackberries

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting family and other monsters on the Île d’Oléron.

When I spied these blackberries ripening defiantly in the cracks of the citadel wall, slightly above a hastily spray-painted English curse word, I felt something big. Was it recognition? Relief? Or something like hope? A mixture of all three, wrapped up in the joy of seeing an unarticulated notion taking physical form.

There are so many reasons to let expletives fly from our mouths. Inaction in the face of ecological breakdown. The amplification of discontent, unmediated by editorial thoughtfulness, and the interpersonal cruelties that criss-cross the globe, propelled by the algorithms of social media. The persistence of so many forms of oppression, as well as the allure and durability of ignorance.

A lot of things are breaking. We don’t know what will take their place. This is scary. So many of my songs are animated by this thrill of panic. As if Eden responds with a call to defiant action and the vitality of love, while also acknowledging the inevitability of death. Maple Seed is a gentler reply to the same fear of dissolution. Tender breezes – where might they come from? Where might they take us?

A breeze brought a blackberry pip to what might have seemed an inhospitable place, a crack in the face of a fortess wall. But it sprouted and grew of its own accord.

I, too, have new songs ripening in my mind. But they bristle at the thought of being rushed. They thrive on freedom and sunshine, which they are greedily soaking up this summer.

Sour or sweet, they never fail to surprise me.


Springing back to life

Oh my fine friends, it has been another trying winter. And we are still here! In a world that needs our creativity and playfulness more than ever.

I have been laying low, regaining strength and looking forward to reconnecting with friends, listeners and fellow makers as the frost begins to fade.

First stop is a housewarming hootenanny at the Oxford Poetry Library on 9 April at 7:30 pm.

Second stop is May Morning. I am overjoyed to be joining the Whirly Band to raucously welcome the rising sun on the steps of the Bodlean Library. This year the first falls on a Sunday, so there should be ample opportunity to nap later.

Both events are participatory, so dust off your poetry journal and your dancing shoes! Though if you are more comfortable watching quietly and just soaking in the energy, that is equally welcome.


More than a Vessel

When I met Jennifer Ling Datchuk on Zoom, all I knew about her was that she lived in Texas. We had been introduced to one another by the good people at Make Music Day, as part of The American Song project. They invited 50 songwriters to capture the stories of strangers from around the country and write a song about them in a single day.

Our conversation was pretty intense. Jennifer spoke frankly about her struggles and desires, as an artist and a woman during the pandemic. A major theme of the discussion was the heartbreaking process of trying to become a mother with help from IVF. After our conversation, I couldn’t get the image of a ceramic vessel out of my mind. I also had a sense of her as such a strong, creative, and vibrant soul, who was pretty exhasted with it all. After playing around with a few different ideas, I settled into a percussive, bluesy riff.

It was a busy day, and we had the time difference to contend with, but I did manage to write and perform the piece within 3 hours of our initial conversation – this after a full day of work. I am pretty proud of that.

I am sad to say that when I watch the video back, my first response is, “Ugh! I look like a tired, middle-aged woman, who could do with a bit more exercise!” But guess what? I am a tired, middle-aged woman, who could do with a bit more exercise. And that’s ok. (Right?)

Sometimes I have better lighting, and am more rested, and look a bit different than I do during this performance, which includes a few mistakes. But Jennifer’s heartfelt response to the song at the end makes it all worth it. Furthermore, I am a songwriter, not a fashion model. Harumph.

I encourage you to dive in and enjoy songs from the other 49 states, too. I was particularly blown away by Colorado and Indiana – the reception of the listener at least as much as the song itself.

Right. Now for a long walk by the river.  And then, perhaps, a nap.