A perfect late summer day welcomed us to London’s vibrant South Bank for the gig at the Royal Festival Hall. The artists’ entrance is hidden away at the back of the building, and backstage has the atmosphere of a library, a studious refuge from the circus of noise issuing forth from the food stalls and street entertainment outside. The walls are lined with framed photos of musical legends from the jazz and classical genres, peering down at you over their glasses in quiet contemplation as you pass. The dressing rooms have upright pianos, heavy soundproof doors, trouser presses, showers and lightbulbs around the mirrors, reminding you that this is a place where world-class classical performance goes down. No pressure then. I bumped into Roy in the corridor, pacing about a bit, trying to settle himself down into the right frame of mind for a big London gig, gearing up for the big fight.
The concert stage at the RFH is both familiar and daunting. I have played there many times, most memorably with Vashti Bunyan when she performed for the first time in thirty-five years. It was so quiet onstage I could hear my heartbeat. I think I could hear hers too. She was terrified. We were all terrified, myself, Adem and Kieren Hebden, trying not to let it show. Despite all this, it went well, which is what you have to remember when you’re in the grip of terror. I was much less nervous for Roy’s gig because we had a few good performances under our belt, but there were still events occurring beyond our control. Unfortunately a family medical emergency meant that our french horn player had to pull out of the gig, so we rehearsed a dep in at soundcheck. Session musicians are amazing creatures. Imagine getting a phone call on Monday morning “Hi mate I can’t make the RFH gig tonight, can you do it? It’s solo. Yeah. Roy Harper. The music will be on the stand. Black casual. Good luck”. We rehearsed the relevant songs until everyone was comfortable, then we scattered off to get fed and watered.
I went to the green room to grab a beer five minutes before the show and encountered Jimmy Page loitering by the crisps. Did I say I wasn’t nervous? Now I was. We took our seats on stage. A violinist colleague once described working with Roy and his music as “herding butterflies”, which is exactly what it feels like, trying to anticipate exactly where his delicate downstroke might fall, and Roy was definitely a bit more nervy than usual at this gig, picking up the wrong guitar at one point, and fluffing a couple of lyrics. It felt a lot more like hard work than Manchester, but the music prevailed and the songs rang out. Roy sang incredibly well. There was perfect rage and venom in “The Hangman”, supported by Bill Shanley on guitar and Beth Symmons on bass. “Cricketer” was particularly beautiful. The audience was mesmerised and the reviews were great.
Planes, trains and automobiles were taken up to a sunny Edinburgh for the final performance on 17th Sept at the beautiful Usher Hall. A more relaxed air flowed through the building, and the onstage sound was warm and welcoming from the minute we started to soundcheck. We were all in celebratory mood because it was the last gig of the run, and Roy was on fine form, having successfully fought off a migraine with a pie. When the time came we took to the stage feeling good. The Usher Hall is the smallest and oldest of the venues, dating from 1914. It has a more intimate, almost theatrical feel, with dark red velvet seats and several tiers of balconies. Roy’s last gig there was in 1969. I wasn’t born yet. My violin was already 250 years old. Time is strange. Or temporary. Or irrelevant.
The hall’s acoustic is fantastic and the hecklers took full advantage of this. “Shut up and play a fucking song” was one of the less charming shouts of the tour. “I will not bow to your pressure, sir”, said Roy, to rapturous applause and much laughter. Then we played a song anyway. Roy shared some personal history with the audience, explaining that he and Tracy got married in Edinburgh fifteen years ago and enjoyed a wonderful honeymoon at The Witchery. “Overpriced” shouted another gruff punter, but warmth and support came from the majority of the crowd, and when we finished with “Cricketer” they stood and cheered for a long time. It was a great night and a fitting close to a very special tour. It has been an honour to perform with such an intelligent, sensitive and witty musician, whose talent enables him to express his poetry and general humanity with an honesty rarely witnessed these days. The ensemble didn’t want the night to end and to prove it we were still drinking and dancing in Harry’s Cellar Bar at 3am. We will go our separate ways for now, but you can catch Roy playing with Bill Shanley at St Lukes in Cork on 29th September, and I hope that some of us will be able to join him onstage again soon.
Dear Bella Union and readers,
Thank you for this honor of letting us put our words and thoughts on your blog. As we’re writing, we are in our black tour van, on the highway a little outside of Hamburg on our way to a gig in Cologne. The sun is burning from a clear sky and it seems summer has decided to do a quick return before finally giving in to the fall. We’ve just played Frank Ocean’s new Blond album through twice, and now on to Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs.
We’ve decided to give this article the focus songs we wish we’d written. You know, songs, that when you hear them you are hit with that ambiguous feeling of extreme excitement and frustration. The excitement of discovering (or rediscovering) what music can do and how it can keep on renewing its language, and then there’s the frustration of not feeling like a competent artist: Why didn’t I think of that phrase? Why didn’t I pick that noise sample? How can she sing something that simple and cut straight through my heart like that? That frustration is however what somehow keeps us on the constant search for originality in what we do.
(The stereo is now playing By Your Side by Sade, btw)
As a band we often get questions like “who are your musical inspirations?” or “who is your favorite artist?”. Basically we get questions that are often targeted as if we were one organism and very often we have to have a fairly long negotiation session before being able to answer them. We come from different backgrounds and have been shaped musically in very different ways, so it is impossible for us to answer like one organism. Or the answer if truthful would be a good fusion…
Anyways, back to our quest of making this list of songs we’d like to have written. We decided to pick two songs each (not that it made it a lot easier, we had internal negotiations for weeks) and describe them individually. We’ve come to the conclusion, though, that it has to be an ongoing list that we will update regularly, otherwise it was simply too hard to boil it down.
(we’ve just passed a sign to Heide Park resort, the A/C is on full power and PJ Harvey and Thom Yorke are chanting “aaahhh this mess we’re in”.)
Tim Buckley: Song To The Siren, sung by Elizabeth Fraser This Mortal Coil [listen]
When I heard this song the first time, I literally had to sit down for it and comprehend what was going on in my ears. I found Tim Buckley’s version, which aurally didn’t really speak to me, and I am in awe of the way Fraser took on the song and changed it. Her tone and insisting tails on each phrase is so original and inspiring. To me, it balances on the verge of something uncomfortable because it is so intrusive on the soul.
Also kudos to Buckley for these lyrics. I would have liked to have come up with the adjective shipless to describe an empty ocean, or the references to the Oddyse, the riddled tide.. yeah, all just really gracefully written.
Etheridge Knight: Feeling fucked up. [listen]
My next thing I would have liked to have written is a poem by Etheridge Knight. it was hard to pick just one of his poems, they’re all sick. The way he describes love as something clumsy and inelegant but yet completely essential for his existence is very relatable and freeing I think. His poems are often a tribute to women, which is great. He is able to level big existential thoughts and metaphors next to something completely banal, which makes his poems extremely relatable and strong. Go look for recordings of him, the way he recites his poems is music.
Lord she’s gone done left me done packed / up and split
and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare
bright bone white crystal sand glistens
dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs—
Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcolm fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing
Asha Bhosle: Dil Cheez Kya Hai [listen]
This hauntingly beautiful Bollywood tune truly is a song that I could never have written, because of my scandinavian heritage… Asha Bhosle is an Indian playback singer, whose voice is featured in over a thousand movies. I’m stunned by the way Indian music, both folk, popular and classical, deals with melody and rhythm. I love everything about this song. The vocal sound and delay effect (I don’t know, but I guess it’s from the sixties), the uplifting melody, her phrasings, the string themes that are different every time they appear. A story (whose words I don’t understand) told in a calm, continuously floating musical universe.
Radiohead: Pyramid Song [listen]
This song has meant a lot to me, musically and emotionally. In my world, Radiohead has always been the main contemporary source of inspiration; a curious, humble, avantgardistic yet historically anchored unit. The chord progressions give the simple melody so much character. The string arrangement is just out of this world, both the clustery flashiolettes in the beginning and the grandiose unisons later in the song. The dreamy lyrics melt together with the instrumental landshapes. It’s sensitive and fragile music that’s still iconic and monumental, a balance i think Radiohead keeps being very good at finding on every album since Amnesiac.
Thelonious Monk: ‘Round Midnight [listen]
I’ve always had a more or less secret wish to be a jazz pianist. And if it could take place in the fifties or sixties, the wish would be complete. Monk was – in my opinion – probably the best, and I think ‘Round Midnight is fantastic. Especially in a shady, dusty solo version, and there are new things to discover with every listen.
Gilbert O’Sullivan: Alone Again (Naturally) [listen]
This song is one of the all time greats for me. Imagine rainy Sunday afternoon and this would be the perfect soundtrack. It’s kind of a mixture between Beach Boys, Beatles and Burt Bacharach both harmonically and melodically, and I it’s one of those songs, that sound incredibly simple, but where you keep discovering small, amazing details every time you hear it.
Bright Eyes: Gold Mine Gutted [listen]
Second song on the album Digital Ash In A Digital Urn released along with the album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning – a truly schizophrenic release, the two albums being each others counterparts in sound and songwriting. The whole album just makes me cry over and over again. So filled with emotion and, like with much of Conor Oberst’s music, it’s almost too much. In a really good way. So many beautiful fragmented thoughts and emotions.
The War On Drugs: Red Eyes [listen]
From the album Lost In The Dream, this song has been following me since it was released in 2013. I remember listening it to it for the first time and just being completely blown away by Adam Granduciel’s ability to write such a beautiful melody on top of a really straight forward beat. It made me wanna go write new songs immediately. And at the same time it made me wanna go buy a motorcycle and cruise down the west coast of Jutland. BTW check out Alice Boman’s beautiful cover of this song on Soundcloud. Wow.
Xiu Xiu: I luv the valley OH! [listen]
This song has the perfect portion of anarchy. Honestly it was very hard for me to choose which Xiu Xiu song to put on the list, because the sound of the band and their embrace of noise provides an extra element to the songs, this is what convinces me that the music is made by human beings and that is why I love it.
When Saints Go Machine: Yard Heads [listen]
There is something about this song that makes me both happy and sad at the same time, the arrangement is awesomely simple and as much as I hate myself for not being the one who came up with that chorus, I always take in an extra scoop of air when it comes on.
You can find the list on spotify (link), please subscribe so you’ll get to hear all the future songs we wish we’d written. It never ends.
The 35 greatest guitar players of all time (changes everyday) –
by M. Ward