Wednesday 5 August 2015

Why do I write songs? (by Ruth)

I love this blog post, why do I play music, by local musician Gary Maginnis. It's inspirational:
It can be really easy to doubt yourself when you think no-one is listening. When you lose confidence in what you are doing and questioning why bother. Stop and think about all the experiences that you could have missed out on, the people you might never have met, the people you now call your friends. 
I think of this quite a bit, actually, as I'm plagued by self-doubt. Bandcamp and Soundcloud, the two places where our music is hosted, give us ways to analyse how many people have played our songs. And not just played; whether they've played it for a second or two, half the way through, or all the way. (Actually, it's the half plays that intrigue and worry me most. A few seconds, then deciding "it's not my cup of tea," I understand. But why would someone listen to half a song and then bail? Was the arrangement too 'samey'? Was it the opposite; they liked it at the start, but the middle eight was a bridge (ha) too far? What did I do wrong with the song?)

We have come to accept - to some extent - that people will listen to music but not necessarily buy it, and learned not to measure success in terms of breaking even (although in the long run, I can see this leading to many independent musicians simply stopping recording albums, though not necessarily ceasing to make music. More on this in another post perhaps). However, I do still have a bad habit of totting up numbers of plays of songs. Surely part of the point in writing songs is for people to hear them?

But then I start thinking, "why do I* write songs?" (For the 'how', have a look at the links to our scrapbook for each song on our album, starting here. Why we perform them is another matter, too**.)
Well, it's easier to start with reasons that some sometimes cite, but which aren't the case for me.

I don't want to make lots of money. (My really out-there dream is to one day make enough to break even and even have a little left over to put towards more recording more songs.)

I don't want to be a famous star. (I'd like us to be well-known enough on the local scene to be offered good gigs that give us the chance of selling some more CDs, and so possibly breaking even, but that's about it.)

I don't want to create some kind of universal music to which everyone can relate. (In fact, given some of our songs and their nerdy, niche references, if this was my aim, I'd be doing a VERY poor job.)

I don't decide what will make a song popular and work backwards, though it is tempting sometimes.

The songs definitely don't 'write themselves' (although the initial spark is sometimes unbidden).

Then things that I fear might be true.

Maybe I'm seeking validation.

Maybe I'm showing off.

And what I know to be true, though it sounds a little narcissistic.

I need to tell my stories, and share my ideas.

Maybe if I look at the songwriting process, that will give me some ideas too. With many of my songs, they've started off as snippets, that have come into my head almost unbidden. What's made me see them through?

I'm a completionist. (Is that a word?)
I enjoy the process of writing songs (not always).
I want to hear the finished song myself (I need to hear the finished song myself)!

But it's also important to think about what I've learned about how the songs I've written are received. When I'm writing, I have an idea in mind (e.g. Shepherds' Delight is in part a memento mori). However people don't always see that, and sometimes, they even see something else, something that I didn't put in there (the lovely chap at a gig who said it sounded like a baby's first lullaby). It's as though the songs, released, take on their own life, their own personality, they reach people in different ways. And, just like one's own child or children, a songwriter has to accept that their songs aren't necessarily going to 'take after' them. That's actually quite hard sometimes. I'll think I've written a song of nostalgic longing... someone else hears a pretty jaunt (and vice versa). So even if I was writing songs to reassure myself there were people out there with the same emotional responses as me, that I wasn't alone... I'd be on a hiding to nothing.

Once the song has been 'released' (both in the music industry sense, and figuratively), it develops ideas of its own. It is like a child.... from the moment they are born they develop their personality, and an important developmental stage is when this personality starts to develop in completely distinct ways to their parent's/s' personality, and they are able to and allowed to take pride in that difference, to be themselves. (I'm speaking from experience here as a parent, too, before you tell me to get in the sea.) Good parents encourage this, accept that their children are different people to them, and love them for the people they are, take delight in this entirely new personality, find joy in watching them develop in ways they might not have guessed. My songs - I like that they are now separate to me, I still love them, but I love watching people react to them in ways I'd never have predicted. They have a life of their own!

So why do I write songs, then? It is simple, really. I write them so I can hear them, hear how my stories sound in their voice. But I release them so I can watch how they play with everyone else. With my nearest and dearest. With YOU.

Are you a songwriter? Why do you write songs? Feel free to comment!

*Marc writes Moss & Jones songs too, of course, and one of them is on our album - it's the title track, in fact - and obviously, our arrangements are pretty collaborative. But songwriting is so individual that I can't say his reasons for writing are the same as mine.

**I don't feel I need to write about this as I think Gary Maginnis' post speaks for most of us.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

The Egg Café open mic/floor (by Ruth)

Every now and again a local music paper will claim that such and such an open mic event is "probably Liverpool's oldest". This is (usually) my reaction:

You see, I remember 1997, when I was a student at Liverpool Uni, and helped promote a poetry-only open mic event at Liverpool's veggie hangout, the Egg Café. The event changed hands shortly after I'd left university, and it started to welcome musicians, too; I moved to London shortly after that, and didn't attend for a good many years indeed, but it continued, changed hosts yet again, and by the time I started singing unaccompanied folk songs in 2011... it was still there. In fact, it was the scene for mine and Marc's first ever gig together, in 2012, when we were two people singing and playing some carols, rather than Moss & Jones.

It's still going now, 18 years since I first started going. (In fact, it isn't the longest running open mic in town; that honour goes to the Dead Good Poets, at least, as far as I'm aware. But it's probably the longest running open mic that isn't just poetry.) It's changed so much in those years. Even in the last four since I started going again, I've seen a turnover of 'regulars' several times; sometimes it's students who come and perform for a year or so and then leave town on graduating; sometimes it's musicians in the early stages of their career who use the Egg's welcoming open mic as a starting board, and when they get a little more well-known, they go less often to open mic events; sometimes people just decide they prefer a different open mic, maybe one with a microphone, and take their friends with them. But new people always come and take their place; keep things going and busy. 

And certainly since I've been part of Moss & Jones, Tony Kehoe has compèred the event, his idiosyncratic presenting skills including lyrics performed as poetry, in addition to performing his own songs. A friendly chap, Tony always encourages the audience to give performers - especially new performers - all their support. His exuberance might take a little getting used to for newbies but it's definitely worth it.

Last night, Monday 3rd August, included the usual mix of poetry and music; covers and originals; it's great to see Tony Kehoe's daughter continuing to develop her skills as a singer and musician; Tony had some new songs which we enjoyed; there were quite a few of us who'd travelled over from St. Helens so it felt like we had a bit of a gang there, though the atmosphere is always supportive anyway. 

We played a couple of songs too and people seemed to like them; friends played new songs too and read old poetry and it was all marvellous.

One of the things I love about performing at the Egg is that it's completely unamplified. It's open mic in name only; a more appropriate phrase might be 'open floor'. It's great for us; that's how we practise of course, so we're very used to it. There's also no stage as such; performers are on the same level as the rest of the audience; they are on the floor, standing just in front of the people listening. For me that's a wonderful thing; it emphasises the fact that performers, too, are audience; there's no getting up and nipping to the pub for a pint once we've done our set; we stay, and we listen. Sans microphone and sans stage there are no barriers between performer and audience and personally, I really like that freedom. 

On a practical level, not having to sing through a microphone means that I am able to move a little more too whilst singing and playing. There are no wires and cables to trip over, either, and the sound is solely determined by mine and Marc's performances, not partly by an engineer. That does, of course, mean that if performing at the Egg, it's wise to remember this, and if used to singing through a microphone, it might be wise to increase the volume a bit. 

We now go to a variety of open mics, and play various full gigs too (this Sunday, we'll be back at the Bombed Out Church), but the Egg was where we started, it's my favourite café in town (I've been going since my late teens, so it's always been the Egg for me, rather than the Acorn) and we'll always go back to play every now and again... as long as they'll have us!

The open mic at the Egg runs the first Monday of every month except if it's a bank holiday, in which case it's the first Monday after the bank holiday Monday. 

Saturday 1 August 2015

Creative Watch Area at Wirral Arts Centre, Friday 31st July

We both have Wirral connections; Marc is from the Wirral originally, and Ruth has extended family there. However, funnily enough, we'd only played one gig over the water before (at Christmas, when we won the Wirral Carol Competition with A Song for Mary), so we were delighted to be asked to play at the Wirral Arts Centre for Seba Rashii Culture Zine's Creative Watch Area.

The Wirral Arts Centre is an absolutely gorgeous venue; a former Unitarian church, it has a beautiful domed stage area with a baby grand piano and marvellous acoustics. It's a pleasure to play there!

After soundchecks, a cup of tea, and some chit chat, we settled down to listen to the first artist, storyteller Andy Johnson, with a musical ghost story to get us all ready for the night! He was then followed by the first musician, Tiki Black.

Tiki took to the stage with her piano, and played a selection of beautiful, haunting, powerful songs. Many of her songs were about the way we try to hide away, behind masks, from our full potential, and were taken from her album, Out of the Black, which you can stream on Soundcloud and buy on iTunes. Tiki has a wonderful voice with a fantastic range, and her dulcet piano playing the perfect accompaniment. Our favourite was the title track from her album, though hard to make a choice as they were all so profound.

Next up was Tom George who started with some poetry. Tom is a seasoned performer; our favourite was moving poem about silence, during which you could hear a pin drop. (Literally, as he made use of such a prop to demonstrate his point!) Then he played some music, accompanied by flautist George Roberts (who played at our wedding), and included the wonderful Dance with my Shadow in his set. You can download Tom's music from Bandcamp.

After Tom came storyteller Andy Johnson again, with a sweet tale, which he told us was originally from Africa, about love, death and family, accompanied this time by Tom on guitar. The pairing worked wonderfully; Tom's incidental music was ideal for the story, but at no point took away from Andy's primary role as storyteller. Andy's gentle voice drew us into the story, with its beautiful message that no one is really dead while they are still remembered.

Then it was our turn. We played a variety of songs from our album, though started with classic folk ballad (Roud 397) Reynardine, which was also the b-side from our recent single. We then used the piano to play a live version of our short choral piece, (No Such Thing As) Wandering Stars, followed by the title track from our album, Amateur Astronomy. We then set out our instruments - including the psaltery - to play a short, live version of our epic multi-instrument track, Stars and Moon and Me and You, Love, which we followed with our a cappella song for Ruth's son / Marc's stepson, When I Was Your Age (which is a bonus track on our album)

We had originally planned to play our single, Ella Brown, at the gig. However, after watching the amazing Radio 1 prom (orchestral versions of classic 1990s/00s dance songs) we decided to dust off our cover of The Shamen's 1992 classic rave anthem, Ebeneezer Goode. It's a funny song to cover, as we are never sure how many people at a gig will remember the original, but we felt that at least one or two people there did, and it went down quite well. Also, the sound man said of our set, "shades of The Incredible String Band," which is quite probably the best compliment we've ever had!

The evening ended with the talents of Vernon Fuller. A versatile, virtuoso guitarist, Vernon switched easily between jazz, blues and acoustica, with catchy songs and a magnetic stage presence. He enlisted the help of a harmonica player in the audience at one point, and then got all of us to join in on some of his songs too. His songs were hugely enjoyable, and you can buy his music via his website; for us, in fact, it was his (semi-improvised?) experimental instrumental with delay pedal that really blew us away and in many ways was the highlight of our evening.

Alas lack of budget meant we weren't able to buy everyone's album from the evening (and it would have been impossible - and possibly rude - just to buy one artist's work and not the others!) so we left empty handed (we weren't brave enough to offer swapsies for our album!) but we'll certainly be listening to their music and keeping an eye out for their gigs in the future. We'd definitely recommend that you go and check them out, and also, go to a gig at the Wirral Arts Centre at some point.

Huge thanks to everyone at Wirral Arts Centre for putting us on such a fantastic line-up, for the sound, and the cups of tea! Thanks to Seb for organising everything, and for the wonderful review of our album in the magazine, too. We'll definitely be back, whether as spectators or musicians, a wonderful place.