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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.

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Silvester’s Primulas

Heavy as it is was with pandemic worry, my heart couldn’t keep from singing when I set eyes on the flamboyant blossoms in front of Silvester’s Stores on Magdalen Road. It is a real treasure of a shop, run by the son of the man who established it decades ago. A hodgepodge of birdseed, hardware, crockery, and other domestic items, its over-stuffed shelves harken to earlier times.

Some of the stock may be older than I am, but they also carry fine, fresh specimens for the garden. I usually just linger there on the pavement, soaking in the uproarious colour before going on about my day. But since my days have become increasingly circumscribed by the walls of my own home, last week I chose three lovely primulas to call my own. I couldn’t help but hum as I walked down the street with the plants in my arms.

As I arranged them on the window sill in our bathroom, a little ditty entered my head. The next day I put my phone on the music stand of our electric keyboard and pressed record. I then went back and took some more footage of the shop and its environs, watched some YouTube editing tutorials, and, over the course of a few days, stitched it all together into a teeny-tiny film which I released on Valentine’s Day.

I hope it captures some of the delight these flowers have brought to me on these dreary winter pandemic days. I like to imagine the wonder and vitality of their little blossoms careening through the ether, conspiring to connect us in spite of the lonliness of lockdown.

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Sh*tshow

A not-so-subtle analysis of the current political moment.

The idea for the song popped into my head one morning, fully-formed, as my percolating coffee burbled gently under the eerily calm voice of the newsreader. 

As the day wore on, I imagined singing this new song at the top of my lungs at a Bastard English Session. This fantasy put a desperately needed smile on my face. Since I knew James Bell was interested in doing another video collaboration along the lines of Newcastle to Portsmouth, I plucked up the courage to do a one-take video and shared it with him.  He added some wicked harmonies and recruited Calum Novak-Mitchell, Mick Phillips, Laura Theis, Trev Williams, Hannah Gray and Josh Robson-Hemmings (of Threepenny Bit) to join in the mayhem.

The awesome instrument Mick is playing is a nyckelharpa. It’s from Sweden.

Here’s hoping the tides turn soon. May the mean-spirited sh*tshow give way to a pile of benevolent compost, from which a new era might spring.

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Mindful Grumpiness?

I was struggling to find the best way to celebrate the launch of our lockdown video. While I really enjoyed live streaming this summer for both FloFest and Folk Weekend Oxford, now that quarantine is easing and the weather is so beautiful I just can’t stomach making another date with a screen, however wonderful the humans at the other end of the fibre optic cables might be. I loved one Facebook friend’s suggestion of an outdoor live screening in a large public space. The logistics of making it happen, however, were more than I could face. So I asked myself: what do I have to hand that I like using, and which could be a conduit for some sort of positive emotion inspired by the by-no-means-world-historic but nonetheless important-to-me event of our video release? And my eye fell upon a humble pen.

Markers and paper have been very important in our household during this pandemic. Sometimes we doodle. Sometimes we make our own games. Sometimes we colour things in. Often while listening to a podcast, of an entertaining or educational nature. We especially like The Infinite Monkey Cage, You’re Dead to Me, This American Life, The Celtic Myths and Legends Podcast, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, and The Unbelieveable Truth.

So in celebration of the release of the Grumpy Lockdown video (9 pm BST on Thursday 6 August 2020), I offer you the printable below. Print out as many as you want. Give them to your children. Fill one in yourself. Fill in ten, each with a different colour scheme. Share the link with your parents and ask them to do the same. Put them in your window. Or use them as bedding for your new hamster. Whatever. But please, acknowledge the grumpiness and transcend it, with help from music, wry laughter and markers. At the very least you might distract yourself for a while.

Please do take a photo and send it to me through the magic of the internet. That would make my day.