There were two excellent gigs at the Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre last week, featuring three fine female singers, each with their own distinctive voice and songwriting style. On Thursday, Fiona Bevan was introduced by headliner Gwyneth Herbert, who declared that she had fallen in love with her the first time she saw her perform. It soon became apparent why. Her songs were filled with a natural joie de vivre, even when they entertained an element of heartbreak (as in the wittily titled Dial D for Denial). Poppy and eminently hummable, they nevertheless had real substance, and bore the stamp of lived experience sincerely expressed, without straying into Joni or Janis (Ian) confessional territory (a territory I’m always happy to venture into, I should add). She accompanied herself with simple but deft and surely strummed and plucked chords on a nylon-strung classical guitar. She did pick up the ukelele at one point, its happily chugging chordlets providing the perfect complement to her smiling presence, whilst studiously avoiding any nodding and winking Formbyisms. Cradling such a tiny instrument emphasised her tall frame, which was topped by a coronal bubble of hair worthy of Marlene in Blonde Venus. This alternately absorbed the radiance of the stage spotlights, becoming a varicoloured stellar beacon, or provided a retinal after-image silhouette hovering before the backdrop. Her voice was lilting, light and honeyed, with a jazzy, Billy or Ella vibrato leaving the end of each line lingering in weightless suspension in the air, as if she were cherishing the shape and sound of her words. Vocalise syllables were effortlessly overlaid in the upper range, seemingly for the sheer joy of it, and further demonstrated her versatility and assurance without being in any way showy. Alone in front of the untenanted array of instruments waiting for the full band to come, she nonetheless commanded the attention of the audience, and had them spellbound throughout.
Fiona BevanFiona returned to her centre stage spot for Gwyneth Herbert’s performance of The Sea Cabinet, a suite of songs commissioned by Snape Maltings and inspired by a residence along the exposed and windswept Eastern coastline of Suffolk. Herbert’s seasongs are part of a noble lineage. Snape Maltings was converted into a concert hall in the 1960s under the guidance of Benjamin Britten to house the expanding festival based in nearby Aldeburgh which he had instigated in 1948. Britten’s own music had been inspired by the coastline here, and the sea and local landscape is a dominant presence in his best known opera, Peter Grimes. There are faint echoes of the moods painted in the Four Sea Interludes extracted from that opera in some of her settings, from the pizzicato pointillism of Sunday Morning (heard in Drip and Fishguard Ladies) and the sparse evocation of empty expanses of space in Dawn (which she depicts in her own song interludes).
Gwyneth’s songs were akin to short stories, depicting events from particular viewpoints or portraying the inner lives of her characters. She took on their roles, adopting the appropriate singing style, and was occasionally joined by Fiona in what became dialogue duets. This was particularly notable (and hugely enjoyable) in the lustily sparring shanty narrative of The King’s Shilling. Herbert’s pleasingly burred voice dovetailed with Bevan’s higher and lighter tones with harmonious congruence. The role-playing aspect fitted in with the theatrical nature of the evening. The songs were interspersed with a story, read by Gwyneth, about a woman wandering the shoreline, combing for washed-up artefacts which she collects, notes, classifies and takes home to file in her sea cabinet. The songs arise from these lost and discarded objects. They become the imaginative seeds for further stories and portraits, which span the decades and centuries and range from the personal to the folkloric, both tales bold and tall and glimpses of untold lives on the margins and in the shadows. Gwyneth reads these interludes beautifully, with great sensitivity and feeling. She would have been great on Jackanory, and could quite easily have a sideline recording audiobooks.
The words convey the melancholic and time-scoured sense which seems inherent in this landscape. In collecting these drifted fragments of other people’s lives, the cabinet curator seems to be trying to make sense of her own. The songs could be seen as projection of her own displaced self, exhibiting varying degrees of fantasy, the trying on of different personae. But the character in Promises, who remains true to a marriage which swiftly descends into disappointment and abandonment, remaining rooted also to place, perhaps gets closest to the truth. The final image, of a wedding gown made from torn fishing nets hung from her bedroom wall, suggests that a marriage to the sea may be the ultimate conclusion of this lifelong hunting and gathering. A ghost in her own life, she will end up spectrally adrift on the North Sea swell, until she herself becomes a piece of the flotsam, the sorting of which has so fully occupied her years – bones on the shore. Perhaps she will take her place alongside the east coast hauntings of MR James’ ghost stories. It reminds me of the powerful end of the extraordinary narrative poem The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High by Carol Ann Duffy (who I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing at the forthcoming Ways With Words literary festival at Dartington), included in her collection The Feminine Gospels. Mrs Mackay, who has roamed out of her marriage and across the country, but who ‘had finally run out of land’, walks out into the waves, which ‘danced her away like a groom with a bride’.
The bleak, flat expanses of the east coast, the end of the land on Britain’s flood-levelled rump, lend themselves to such sorrowful songs and backward-looking introspection. It is a place where people wash up, where lives run out, and where time seems to hang a little heavier, the past lingering on in local pockets of dense gravity whilst the modern world beyond rushes on. The delicately wistful piano and wordless vocal prelude summons up the atmosphere of reflection and reminiscence which pervades the Sea Cabinet and the intertwined narrative. It has some of the autumnal air of Norma Winstone’s songs, both on her own albums and with Azimuth. It feels like Kenny Wheeler’s plangently sighing trumpet could join in at any moment. The aforementioned Promises also has something of an ECM air, with the keening guitar (Al Cherry or Harry Bird? – it would be appropriate if it were the latter) reminiscent of Terje Rypdal’s echoing electric, which often seemed to be drifting on a chill wind from the fjords. The mixture of Herbert’s cracked and heavy-hearted vocals (more musical character acting) and the effects-drenched guitar also brings to mind Marianne Faithfull’s collaboration with Bill Frisell on the Strange Weather album.
This is definitely the out of season seaside we are inhabiting, a depopulated strand of faded memories and wide horizons drawing the gaze towards introspective distances. The album includes the recorded sounds of steps on shingle and the unceasing susurration of the waves. It might have all been in my mind, but there seemed to be a background whisper of waves emanating from the rear of the hall throughout. This put me in mind of Embers, Samuel Beckett’s play in which these sounds are also a constant presence (you can find Patrick Magee's extraordinary performance of it at ubuweb). In this work, too, the sea and empty shore direct the mind towards memories both sorrowful and bitter, the hypnotically repetitive cycle of the waves’ steady respiration stirring up ghostly voices and phantasmal scenes.
It wasn’t all bittersweet introspection and melancholia, however. The audience was involved in the spectacle, and made to feel as if they inhabited the landscape which was being conjured up. We were encouraged to add our own ambient contribution to the soundscape during one song, Sweeter, with the tips or flats of fingers pattering on palms or softly clicking, thus summoning a light rainshower. She made a more intimate connection with some members of the audience, who had responded to her open invitation to form a chorus for one song. It became apparent that the preponderance of tops with horizontal navy stripes wasn’t evidence of some new fashion trend – these were her handpicked crew of pirates. Such participation was a further manifestation of the spirit with which she involved fans and music lovers in the funding of her recording of the Sea Cabinet songs, giving them back something in return, whether in the form of a signed copy, an individual music lesson or a private concert. The chorus took their place in front of the stage, and she descended to sing with them and direct them with a bit of gestural conduction. The use of the area in front of and around the stage in this and other songs added to the theatrical feel of the evening, the sense of connecting with the audience. It also created a sense of space, the no-man’s land between performer and audience effectively becoming the interzone of the shingled strand.
For the hymn to sentimental nostalgia Sweeter, Gwyneth followed Fiona’s example and picked up a ukelele to sing the happy/sad memory song, redolent of pierrot pierside shows, soaked in longing for times long vanished. Penny Woolcock’s recent film From the Land to the Sea Beyond, compiled for the bfi from archive footage of life on the coast throughout the twentieth century, would be a great backdrop for this song, and several others too. The nostalgist’s sense that the glory days are in the past also pervaded The Regal. Clattering junkyard percussion, with Gwyneth wielding a cheese grater, rhythmically rasped with a stick, conjured up the sound of Mrs Wittering laying out the crockery in her once thriving b&b, going through the bustling motions.
The ocean is used as a metaphor for love lost or turned sour in a couple of songs. I Still Hear the Bells undermined the dream of the romantic escape to an isolated seaside idyll, with images of building on shifting sand, too close to the edge. In echoes of the old legend of the drowned city of Ys which surfaces from time to time (a legend, or a variant thereof, drawn upon by Debussy, Alan Stivell and Joanna Newsom), the bells of the church in which they were married still ring out in the minds of the parted couple from beneath the waters which have engulfed it. This allows for a loud, clangourous chorus, with bell sounds hocketed around and any nearby object co-opted as percussion. Drip, meanwhile, detailed the steadily progressive dissipation of a woman’s identity (or it could be a man), her sense of self drowning in the domineering, engulfing personality of the partner from whom she no longer has the strength or will to get away. The initial brittle jollity of the verse bursts into full-throated soul-testifying in the chorus, Herbert’s voice letting loose a flood of feeling, which this character has dammed up for so many years. It’s a formidable vocal force which is also brought to bear on the siren song Lorelei, an old favourite revived from the All the Ghosts LP. Here, the old destructive Rhine spirit is reincarnated in a modern woman against whom men collide and shatter. It’s seen as her tragedy (as well as her strength) that none of them prove a match for her. The chorus again is powerfully soulful, with an edge of desperation and a folkish tinge to the language.
Gwyneth Herbert - framed by Brighton seafront sculpture?
Herbert’s voice is a flexible and finely tuned instrument, capable of moulding itself to the many and varying forms her music takes (it’s a long while since anyone could sensibly confine her within the admittedly comfortably furnished jazz ghetto). As already noted, it has a sensitive storytelling timbre. It’s capable of nuanced ballad portraiture and atmospheric vocalese as well as soul wailing and blues growling. She put it to more roistering use in a trilogy of rowdy nautical songs. Plenty Time for Praying set the whisky and rum flowing as Gwyneth and Fiona called out a forceful siren song in seductive shanty form, luring mesmerised pirates to their ecstatic doom. Drink swayed along to a Tom Waits junkyard clatter, offering a myriad reasons to seek the oblivion offered by the demons stoppered in the bottle. The King’s Shilling was a Brecht and Weill-flavoured tale of nautical temptation, with Gwyneth taking the role of the man tempted to take to a life on the ocean waves, Fiona as the woman telling him he’d better not, unless he wanted a kitchen knife plunged into his back. The whole ended with a freeform vocal and instrumental tempest, presumably plunging everyone into the roiling deeps and down into Davy Jones’ locker. Herbert’s voice emerged, keening like a seagull, a sea maiden’s shamanic transformation.
There were also tales of invasion, of the island fortress breached. Alderney began with the remembrance of a personal island idyll, an old whistled tune maintaining the air of nostalgia established by the previous songs. But this distracted mood was shattered by the violent, percussion-rocked chorus. This painfully recalled the desecration of this paradise, the quarrying and concreting of the pastures and narrow streets by the occupying Nazi army once the inhabitants had been evacuated. Fishguard Ladies remembered a less successful attempt at invasion, this time from the French, via Ireland, in 1797. The women of the Welsh port stood on the cliffs above Goodrington Sands and, as the song would have it, lifted their petticoats and saw the timid Gallic boys off with a few bawdy choruses. More ratcheting and clattering percussion suggested both the loading and priming of old rifles and the sounds of domestic labour transformed into rhythms of martial defiance. It’s a triumphant, rude gesture of a song which, like all the others emanating from the cabinet, sees things from a woman’s perspective (the perspective of the cabinet’s curator, as I suggested). These are sea songs for the ones who stayed ashore, although as the Fishguard Ladies so amply demonstrated, this by no means entails passive waiting and watching.
The Sea Theme with which the storybook was opened returned to mark its closure, the sad piano chords and softly lulling voices drifting away on the tide, leaving us with a faded and rather melancholy postcard of a now empty landscape. It was a wonderful, theatrical experience (and I can imagine who fantastic it must have been on the Wilton’s Music Hall stage), and large velvet curtains should really have swept across to draw a veil over the finished performance. However, such grandeur had to be restricted to the theatre in my head, and the actors took their bow to deservedly warm applause.
Nancy Elizabeth’s performance on Sunday evening was a more low key affair. It was just her alone on stage standing with guitar or sitting behind her keyboard, although she was joined after a while by a friend on bass to add a bit of heft. He also provided the occasional low, rumbling electronic drone as an atmospheric and slightly ominous bedrock to a couple of numbers. She began with two songs not yet recorded, one of which rode on a hypnotically spiralling fingerstyle guitar pattern in the Nick Drake One of These Things First mould. Most of the material was drawn from her new LP Dancing, however. It’s been a favourite of Stuart Maconie (also heading down this way for the Dartington Ways With Words festival, where I shall be going along to hear him). He’s played several tracks on The Freak Zone, his eclectic Radio 6 showcase for the rarefied, esoteric or just mildly offbeat.
The first of the Dancing songs, Last Battle, was prefaced by ethereal, wordless vocalising, which soared on operatic updrafts. Such fearless flights into the upper register reminded me a little of Lavinia Blackwall’s singing in Trembling Bells (coming up in July at the Phoenix), or the romantic psych-folk stargazing of Shelagh McDonald. There are echoes too of Jane Weaver and her Fallen By Watchbird projects. Nancy soon came back to earth, however, her voice settling into its pure soprano tenor, strong and vulnerable at the same time in an early Sandy Denny manner. A Mancunian common sensibility insures that her songs don’t float off into Narnian realms or folkish netherworlds, any fey waftiness immediately dispelled by the city’s plain, no-nonsense outlook. She remains on the street where she lives and makes her observations from that firmly rooted standpoint. Last Battle is a song which eschews dewy-eyed romance for a declaration of independence and self-assertion in matters of the heart (‘won’t wait in a cage till someone comes to rescue me’). Her pragmatic outlook on love is further expressed in Desire, and could be described as desolate but philosophical. It has something in common with the pleasurable melancholy of Elizabethan lute songs, with their disquisitions on the pain of love. Indeed, the discreet, singularly struck piano chords sound like they could have been transcribed from a strummed lute, the high, yearning vocals of the chorus akin to the emotive singing of a counter-tenor. It’s an anti-lament reaching a position of resigned equanimity, choosing to reject the myth of romantic, ever-lasting love. The forceful Debt with which she ended her performance, was driven by fierce chordal strumming and underpinned by a throbbing electronic drone, which was suggestive of the mountain-shaking bass chanting of Tibetan monks. A song of love and parting, it expressed a rather more active desire to hold on as long as possible, but was once more prepared to let go, to accept a natural ending.
Fiery firmanent - the Dancing coverNancy’s Romanticism is of a rather more broad variety, venturing at times into the mystic. It’s the full-blooded Keats and Shelleyan beast, with a strong golden vein of Blakean vision, leading her to ‘dream cloudy like a poet’, as she sings on Shimmering Song. If she is given to traditional singer-songwriterly bedroom introspection, the expression of personal feeling is soon expanded to connect with the wider vistas afforded by the active imagination. This is perfectly encapsulated in the beautiful sleeve art for the Dancing album, which she designed herself. A silhouetted row of suburban rooftops, compressed into the very bottom of the cover, gives way to rising, arced layers of collaged, varicoloured and textured paper – a fiery firmament coruscating above the everyday. The craters of a full moon, which is limned with a blue corona, are made up of words, luminous and sacred. Nancy alluded to her insomnia during the concert, and this picture suggests that the nightworld she often finds herself awake in is a place of heightened reality, full of wonders revealed to the open and receptive mind.
Cecil Collins - The Great Happiness (1974 version)Simon Says Dance, the single from the album, was half-dismissed as throw-away song thought up during an insomniac phase. It depicts life and love as a universal and eternal dance, moving from waltz hall to disco floor. A sense of mystical connection and the unearthing of the extraordinary from the everyday characterise a number of Nancy’s songs. As she sings in Shimmering Song, she is ‘thinking of ways I can turn a mundane day into shimmering song’. In Death in a Sunny Room, which is by no means as goth-gloomy as it sounds, and which featured a gorgeous piano arrangement, she sang ‘under a giant blanket of stars we spin away’. Intimately personal and astronomically vast scales are conjoined in one transcendent moment. Desire, on the other hand, sees ‘horizons crumble in my hands as I learn new depths of love’, a rather more ambiguous and earthbound metaphor. Indelible Day makes a permanent impression of a dawning moment. There almost seems to be a recognition of some divine, radiant and all-encompassing presence in the line ‘I can see the light of a golden sphere with ubiquitous rays’ (and what a great-sounding word ‘ubiquitous’ is – one of my favourites). Cecil Collins’ painting The Great Happiness comes into mind here, his depiction of a solar, life-giving force filling the sky with light. Nancy’s spiritual songs are suffused with a similarly numinous glow.
She incorporates elements of Indian scales and rhythms into some of them. Shimmering Song has Eastern vocals, additively building up and ascending, two steps up and one back. Raven City also has Indian-inflected melodies, and is her most explicit piece of religious mysticism, essentially depicting a transformation in the nature of the soul. In contrast to most rock and pop songs, this is not achieved through romantic love, although there is an intriguing allusion to ‘other entities’. A moment of transcendent comprehension comes upon her, when ‘I revealed and beheld all the universe in me’. The song was another which Nancy played at the keyboard (set up to sound like a piano throughout), its spacious chords initially interspersed with claps, lending it a calmly celebratory air (clap happy music in a less hysterical register than usually encountered). These turned into rippling, arpeggiated chords which seemed to emulate the shimmering, metallic clangour of the East European cimbalom.
For all the heady mystical themes underlying many of the Dancing songs, Nancy’s self-declared favourite from the album was Heart, which she wrote about and for her grandmother. It’s evidently deeply felt, a real heartsong which empathetically tries to see the world from the point of view of an old woman whose mind has drifted into self-forgetful dementia. It’s not at all depressing, however, finding hope in the continuance of life and the remembrance of the passionate way in which it has been lived, a persistence of personality in some form. In spite of it all, ‘I woke every morning with my own heart’. Another piano song with sublimely simple chord patterns. Nancy seemed to reserve her most emotionally charged moments for when she was safely at rest behind the keyboard (although the makeshift drumstool she was obliged to sit on was, she observed, a little precarious). She finished with no instruments at all, however, delving back to her artistic origins to sing a brief, a cappella encore of The Wheel Turning King, a ritualistic song which she recalled having recorded in a small church for her first EP back in 2006. It brought things full circle in an appropriately all-embracing way. In the end, the beginning.