*, featured

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!


Ten reasons to write a song

You can’t find your keys and singing “Where the %&$*£! are my keys?!?” again and again calms you down a bit.

You watched a lot of Sesame Street as a child.

When you sing it, the ache lifts.

You can’t get the riff out of your head.

Those words stick together like cookie dough.

You have a sleepless child in your arms and the whole night ahead of you.

Whenever you said the word “radish” as a child your mother burst into the refrain “Plant a radish, get a radish, never any doubt.” That confused you and yet seemed the natural order of things.

You grew up in an age of catchy advertising jingles and sort of figured out the formula.

You never know when Julie Andrews might turn up and you like to be prepared.

The important things need protection and a gentle melody provides strength as well as comfort.


Winter closes in

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.


Midsummer Meditations from Middleton Stoney

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.

Vince Lynch, Hannah Gray and Josh Robson-Hemmings listen back, attentively.

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.

Tim Howes, triumphant.

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.