I am happy to report that the creative challenge I set for myself last month has been achieved. With help from the brilliant Dom Faber, I finished writing ‘November,’ which we performed at Catweazle during the month of the same name. It was delightful to peacefully ponder harmonic structure in solitude; thrilling to hear the music take flight in Dom’s trustworthy hands; and a joy to focus on a new vocal melody and freshly-penned words in the warmth of the Catweazle spotlight. Thanks be to Catweazle, now and always.
As we slip into December, I find myself pondering darkness and light, longing for warm duvets and sumptuous sleep as well as the crackle of fire on a cold, dark night.
I have asked my family for some time to focus on the Flights and Landings artwork over the Christmas holidays. That, and a Solstice Catweazle, are my creative goals for December. (As well as keeping up with cello practice. The novelty is wearing off so raw enthusiasm must give way to gentle persistance.)
I hope that you are cozy and safe this winter. Thank you for making time for my creative adventures and good luck with your own.
May our fires burn brightly on the darkest of days.
The first time I went to Jon and Colin Fletcher‘s recording studio in Middleton Stoney, I got a lift from some friends. That day, about a year ago now, I took a back seat to all things navigational and gazed dreamily out at the clouds over the rolling countryside as we neared our destination. Apart from the verbal abuse hurled in our general direction from a rarely-seen neighbour as we were setting out, it was all rather picturesque.
The studio had an up-in-the attic sort of feel, lined with shelves overflowing with books, brimming with microphones, headsets, and cables sprouting out of a suitably substantial mixing desk. Most importantly of all, Jon listened attentively, offering the gentlest encouragements as he sat patiently at the controls.
Last year we recorded three songs in a day—something of a record in my book, at least if we are talking about recordings one would actually like to listen to again and share with others. I had sketched out a to-do list, and things went strangely according to plan. In addition to my voice, cuatro and guitar we had Hannah Gray’s glistening flute, Josh Robson-Hemmings’ driving guitar and Vince Lynch’s rock-steady bass. We had been playing together for years as part of the Half Moon All Stars, a backing band for James Bell. Jon recorded us all at once, in the same room, and the simplicity of the set-up and our familiarity meant the songs could breathe in a way I had never really experienced in a recording studio before.
I left feeling elated and grateful that we had captured so much of our live sound. But there was something missing, and—for a change—I knew precisely what it was.
It was the accordion.
Not just any accordion, but Tim Howes’ accordion. I had such fond memories of the twinkling surprises which came out of his squeezebox when we rehearsed with James and his giddy gaggle in the Half Moon Pub on a Monday evening. I wanted that spirit, playful yet assured, to be brought to one song in particular.
It took a year to make it happen, but we did it. First, before a live audience in Blackwell’s as part of Folk Weekend Oxford, and then in Jon’s studio.
When I set out for Middleton Stoney this time, I could not gaze dreamily onto the landscape as I had done before. I was attending to daredevil cyclists and avoiding oncoming traffic and merging onto motorways with the confidence of someone who took the UK driving test FIVE TIMES. I also shed the pretence of pastoral fantasy and stopped at the garden centre in the shopper’s paradise/consumer hell of Bicester on the way. I admired the foliage but bought nothing more than a cheese scone and some ‘air dry’ terra cotta from the neighbouring craft store, from which I shall make my own garden gnomes. But I digress.
Or do I? For me there is something about growing up in all of this, about integrating music into a rich life which includes a lot which is not music. Getting there myself and not killing anyone. Planning and following through and building a structure in which something more spontaneously beautiful might happen. Embracing middle-age (I mean seriously, a garden-centre?) along with the more playful, child-like aspects of myself.
The song we recorded over two midsummers, ‘On Your Shore,’ is about vulnerability and acceptance, welcoming and being welcomed, difference and belonging. With such heavy themes it could easily sink in the mire of earnest solemnity. I have tried to counterbalance its seriousness with instrumental buoyancy, particularly from the flute and accordion. The refrain and melodic structure came to me in my mother’s kitchen in Washington, DC, and I finished the lyrics in my adoptive home of Oxford, England. It is fueled by a longing to make sense of my own migrations, as well as to articulate an ethical stance regarding what we owe one another as human beings in the current era of global flows, where some of us circulate more freely than others. I want you to hear it, and I hope you’ll keep checking back so you’ll know when it’s finally released from captivity.
I promise I will let you know. (If you want me to email you, just let me know.)
Postscript: I recently fell for a neglected garden gnome in the Orinoco tent at the Cowley Road Carnival and brought it home. But I still plan to make mysterious mischievous monster figurines of my own devising from my Bicester terra cotta.
“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.