Softly Loudly – In the Middle!

Oh hello, I’m just sitting around, looking wistful, contemplating being almost halfway through the release of ‘Softly Loudly’! Time flies.

Only I haven’t had chance to be this daydreamy for a while. Almost halfway along the album slow release, almost halfway (hopefully) through lockdown 3 and currently (it’s wednesday) halfway between the last song and the next. I’m stealing a moment to reflect honestly, that it hasn’t been quite the calm, serene project that the term ‘slow release’ evokes.

Even though all the hard recording work was done last year, keeping up with the beast that is a weekly song release, whilst doing it anywhere near justice, is mind-boggling, cluttered and sneakily time consuming! But I’m not complaining. When I learnt we would be in lockdown for the entire release, I foolishly imagined a kind of barren time, in which people would have hours to lay around listening to music. But people are busy, productive and sometimes refocussing a little too. I’m noticing how much hope, new ideas and new projects people have. It’s incredible – and reassuring. My humble ‘slow release’ (which feels more like a hurtling release at the moment) is just one voice, and though it’s important to me, it’s impossible to take anyone else’s interest, or headspace, for granted. Every listen is hard won. And worth it!

Still, I think I’m getting there, learning as I go, and the music certainly travelling further than I am! It’s been a privilege to share three tracks with you so far, which are available on all platforms (see links ⬇️).

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Seek me out wherever you like to get your music and if you can, please support my endeavours directly by pre-ordering at emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com/album/softly-loudly and I’ll keep you personally updated about things. 

This Friday’s new track is: ‘Marie Kondo’ – it’s upbeat, thought-provoking and a bit bonkers! AND we’re working on something fun to go with it….

Follow me on Instagram – http://www.instagram.com/emmavoicestudio or Twitter – http://www.twitter.com/Emma_N_S (but mostly Instagram) for regular updates.

Find me and follow me at:

Spotifyhttps://open.spotify.com/artist/5FpFEkqGfW3o1aiGZ3Fo0q?si=tfa4bYCmS82C0mFFRLXgpw

You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClk4UJK468fh4AbNmIWkTyw 

Apple: https://music.apple.com/gb/artist/emma-nabarro-steel/339715836

Amazon: https://music.amazon.co.uk/artists/B002WCGZ4Y/emma-nabarro-steel?marketplaceId=A1F83G8C2ARO7P&musicTerritory=GB

Let me know if I’ve missed one or if you’re listening anywhere else! 

Stay groovy! xx

Or…We Could Just Stay Here

I’d love to say I wrote the song ‘We Could Just Stay Here’ as an ode to the times we’re living in. But I didn’t. It was written and recorded before lockdown, so the title is just one hell of a coincidence! It’s proof of something I’ve long suspected: that songs live in a kind of parallel universe, their meaning constantly reformed and pressed into the new shape of whatever is relevant to the listener or songwriter at the time.

It’s the third escapee from my slow releasing album ‘Softly Loudly’, falling on the third Friday of national lockdown in the UK.

Writing it was an exercise in remaining focussed: setting a very calm, heartbeat-like piano accompaniment and continually pulling myself back to a very specific sensation, wandering around the subject a little and then pulling myself back. I wasn’t calling it mindfulness at the time, but I came to realise afterwards that’s exactly it was. The exception is in the middle-eight where I give-up and start thinking about the bigger picture. But hey, isn’t that what middle-eights are for? The problematic section. The ‘what if…’ moment of the song.

As if to defy social-distancing, physical proximity is strong in the lyrics. So, I’m beyond thrilled that listeners seem to connect with the song in that way, describing it as “a hug in a song”, “enveloping and impenetrable from the outside” and “a warm embrace”. Several people have even said they’ve meditated to it! I can think of no lovelier compliment at a time like this. Alas, we can’t spend all our time cultivating mindful thoughts on our “gluten-free cushion” (thanks for that one Ruby Wax!), but it does feel that the song, and this lockdown, were somehow meant-to-be.

The craziest piece of synchronicity happened when I first performed it live though. A dear friend hugged me after the gig: “I have to catch the train but remind me to tell you a story tomorrow. You wont believe it!”. She was happy for me to share this very personal story here, though it’s heartbreaking.

Two years earlier, sitting at the bedside of her partner who was in the final stages of terminal cancer, she had found a way to calm him when he became intermittently agitated, wanting to get out of bed and leave the hospital. Rather than say, “you can’t leave”, she would calmly repeat: “Yes, we could. Or…..we could just stay here.” It became a mantra for an impossibly difficult time for them both. A skilful way of reframing the situation as a choice, rather than something tragically enforced upon them, with the comforting solidarity of “we” rather than “you”.

How lucky we are to have such an infinite array of choices, even at the moment when we see our lives as unusually restricted. Far too many have lost loved ones this year, and though it’s at immeasurable cost, this surely deepens our experience of what it is to be alive.

Breathe in. And breathe out…..

‘We Could Just Stay Here’ is on all streaming platforms and you can pre-order the full album here:

https://emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com/album/softly-loudly

Can we live in this new way?

Saturday has always been the song people mention after gigs. They seem to relate to the lyrics, though when asked directly “what’s it about?” I had to have a think! It’s the latest instalment of my slow releasing album ‘Softly Loudly’.

I used to perform it under the dubious working title A Wee Song, on guitar, with more of a folky feel. The connection to Scotland (alluded to in the lyrics) inspired the folky pentatonic melody (think Auld Lang Syne!) But today’s bluesy piano incarnation is a good reflection of where I’m at these days. I don’t believe songs stand still. You take them with you and as life alters – their meaning is altered. And life has certainly altered, though the lyrics definitely still resonate.

Saturday was written when my children were much younger, and years before lockdown, when travel was an everyday thing, if you had the freedom to do so. A trip to Scotland (although not my own) captured my imagination because of the crossing of a border that is essentially imaginary – i.e. dictated by humans rather than the sea! It’s about the ebb and flow of staying connected and drifting apart, both geographically and mentally, which is incredibly poignant right now.

We’ve never been so physically disconnected from the rest of the world, and politically from our European neighbours. On both counts I hope the separation is followed by a renewed passion and willingness to connect. If we trust the philosophy of Belgian psychologist Esther Perell: “Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness”, there is hope at least.

It’s difficult to maintain relationships at a distance and it’s difficult to record too! Most of the album was recorded in a fiddly but necessarily socially-distanced way. So we were overjoyed to finally get together for a day in the summer, to record the drums on this track. But when I fell ill immediately afterwards and I had to isolate for two weeks, it really hit home how important it was to be patient.

Sadly those days are not yet behind us, but releasing music is giving me the steady focus I need to get through this month. I’m not taking anything for granted and because we’re so geographically disconnected at the moment, I’m tuning-in carefully to what the songs mean to everybody. I’m thrilled to have listeners all over the world – and those who I see on local rambles: “Oh hi, just been listening to your new track!” I’m very grateful for all the positivity.

Follow me on Spotify or your streaming platform for more songs over the coming weeks. And if you’d like to support the album directly, buy at https://emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com/album/softly-loudly and I’ll keep in touch with you as each song releases. Before we know it, it’ll be spring and we’ll all be together again! xx

Save to the soul reserve

Somewhere along the meandering course of 2020, I became a little fixated by running water, streams, rivers and the general flow of things. I know I won’t be alone here: walking near water stimulates and soothes the senses – and we walked our socks off last year didn’t we? But during one unexpected highlight of government-approved daily exercise, the merging of music and nature truly stopped me in my tracks – and my infatuation was sealed.

Recording the track Soul Reserve was not quite as I’d imagined. We’d managed to capture piano and bass concurrently because Adam (bass) and I were thankfully locked-down together. But in other ways, the fluidity and togetherness of performing the track live had been replaced by communication via file transfer and Neil (percussion), had taken on the difficult task of adding drums remotely, via his own home set-up. Harmonies (Debbie) were carefully and retrospectively placed in the track. Things were steadily coming together, but the process had been fragmented by social-distancing. Creativity-wise, it was tricky to get ‘in the zone’ – (a term I’ve fallen back in love with after watching the new animation ‘Soul’ with my family over the holidays!)

I was walking a familiar route beside a local beck, listening back to some newly recorded takes of Soul Reserve on headphones (not noise cancelling) rubbish enough to allow the shimmering piano line, the graceful, striding bass line, and the delicate cymbal pattern to merge seamlessly with the babbling beck!

It wasn’t just the pleasing audio effect, but the significance of the water that struck a chord. I think of the ‘reserve’ in Soul Reserve as a body of water containing reserves for troubled times. And the reserves are made of memories and experiences that you don’t know quite where to keep. The stream, always flowing but sounding and appearing altered each day depending on the weather, was the embodiment of the stream of memory.

I returned, armed with stereo recorder, to make an ungainly descent down a steep bank and balance on a perilously mossy stone in the centre of the dancing flow of water. The resulting soundscape now opens the track, returning as a kind of ‘surfacing’ at the end, along with some bubbling sounds improvised on the neck of an electric guitar.

I’m happy to be sharing an uplifting song at the start of 2021, when it seems everything but a virus is depressingly stagnant, but we’re constantly reminded by nature, that everything flows. And we need to flow to get ‘in the zone’!

Soul Reserve is available now on all streaming platforms. It’s the first of a ‘slow release’ of the album Softly Loudly. Consider supporting the album directly (invaluable until streaming revenue is paid fairly to artists) by pre-ordering the download (below) and enjoy early access each track, every Friday until the full album release on 19th February 2021.

Introducing: Softly Loudly

Why not listen instead? I’m no stranger to recording words but I’m new to podcasting about myself. It’s weird. I’ll get better at it! (DISCLAIMER: contains musical sneak preview)

It’s my great pleasure to introduce to you, this year’s labour of my musical love…..

s o f t l y . l o u d l y

……an album slow releasing from New Year’s Day 2021.

It’s a collection of songs written over the past 5 years, combining honest lyrics, luscious vocal harmonies, shimmering piano, virtuosic bass, inventive percussion and evocative soundscape, with hints of jazz, contemporary folk, soul and blues. You never quite know whether it will translate in the way you intended. That’s the magic (and the terror ) of this stage!

After so much solo recording and performance, fleshing out the song arrangements with harmonies, bass and percussion has been an absolute tonic! Debbie Harris and Neil Hooton have provided beautiful and rock solid support in the vocal and percussion departments in such generous and caring ways. And Adam Nabarro-Steel agreed to play bass on my songs, something that has surprisingly never happened until now – and I’m so glad he did! After performing live together in 2019, recording was planned for 2020. But we never expected the forever shape-shifting social distancing parameters that would hamper, or should I say shape our recording efforts.

None of the songs are about lockdown – they were written way before, but it’s definitely there. The recording process was turned on it’s head. Some of the drums were recorded remotely and had to be woven in. Daily permitted exercise was often dropping-off or picking up microphones or transferring files. Or walking through a field with a 2 metre head phone splitter trying to discuss takes. I think the time constraints focussed our minds. I had to know exactly what I wanted from every session, because we never knew when the next one would be allowed. There were a few precious moments spent all together, which we mostly squandered on boozy al fresco lunches. (No regrets!) So hats’s off to anyone who has attempt to record in lockdown, or any arts project that requires collaboration.

I found it suprisingly easy to detach from the songs and be objective, distracted by the challenging circumstances. I allowed the ‘process’ to infiltrate them – the influence of the other musicians, the sounds and happenings around me during lockdown. Now that I’m getting ready to present the songs to the world, I’m getting reacquainted with the point of them, only to realise it really is about the process. Even after they are recorded, songs are a never ending story and the next chapter of the story begins with you! I’m hoping to write about, and perhaps record a podcast to accompany each song as they release, so if you think that may be something you’d listen it, please let me know. (And hold me to it!).

On the subject of release, the first track ‘Soul Reserve’ is available on all platforms from 1/1/2021, followed by a song every Friday until the full album on 19th Feb. There was nothing conventional about recording ‘Softly Loudly’ so why be conventional about releasing it? I feel it’s gong to be a slow and drawn-out start to the year. A bleak midwinter. Each song has its own beautiful artwork, details from a larger piece by my eldest daughter Mia Nabarro-Steel. There is no physical album to hold, but the tactile ‘real’ quality in the watercolour brush strokes and the texture of the paper, is the perfect complement to a ‘digital’ album. There is certainly a tactile and ‘real’ textured quality to the music too and I dearly hope you will embrace it.

Softly Loudly can now be pre-ordered here to directly support the album, as well as pre save in your streaming service. Looking forward to singing to you on New Year’s Day! X

In the grand scheme of things…

Listen instead?

The small things still matter to people. Their intricate dilemmas and private challenges are no less vivid against a backdrop of global crisis. Though I devour the news hungrily – and it’s often hard to swallow these days – I’m no less engaged in the minutiae of life. Frequently, I find myself thinking: “in the grand scheme of things…does this really matter?” It sounds defeatist, but this week, it turned around some negative thinking pretty quickly.

I completely missed a self-imposed deadline connected to the release of some new music. And it bothered me – even though the deadline was utterly inconsequential to anyone else but me. I actually lost sleep over it, which is bonkers because “in the grand scheme of things…” You know the rest.

This misplaced anxiety, I soon realised, was just me caring deeply about how the music will be received. But that was really distracting me from getting the work done, so I let go of the arbitrary deadline and decided I could go deeper into this stage of bottling and letting things settle.

Most of the album is about the small and significant details of life, about standing still for a moment and reading them, which feels more and more relevant by the day. The whole process has been genuinely self-exploratory and by that I don’t mean to conjure images of me holed up in a remote state-of-the-art studio retreat in a swirl of uninterrupted creativity – nothing could be further from the truth as my fabulous collaborators will vouch for! But in a reversal of the usual order, the fragmented twists and turns of creating this album have begun to weave themselves into the themes of the songs, written between 1-5 years ago, way before lockdown, but weirdly relevant.

There’s a song about stillness entitled ‘We Could Just Stay Here’ which is oddly prophetic, one about decluttering, one about stashing away good memories for a (mentally) rainy day, another about the nature of interrupted communication (it isn’t called Zoom!) and one about the quality of vulnerability that accompanies ‘wholehearted’ connection. I did say it was about the small stuff. Perhaps I mean the small details within the big stuff…

And it does matter. The details of our complex humanity matter, reflecting in the need to protect the arts and our mental health alongside the economy and our physical health. Slowing down felt almost impossible a year ago, but for many of us, it’s now a necessity. Resisting the urge to rush is an art. A steady surprise, I think, if we allow it to be.

My new album is coming soon! Please follow on IG, Twitter and Spotify for updates.

The Inconsequential Bittersweetness of Lemons

A quick post which began as a runaway Instagram caption.

Inspired by Bandcamp.com, the music platform who are waiving their revenue share today (2nd May – also on 5th June and 3rd of July) to help support artists, I’m feeling nostalgic about the last time I recorded an album – in 2016. Wow, things were different then. I took a picture of the album today, with some lemons. I’m not sure why the lemons…

I can’t wait to share with you the music I’m recording at the moment (more about that soon) but in the meantime, you could catch-up with this very heartfelt album (Leaving a Space) http://emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com today to support this and other independently produced music. You could also listen to the album on whichever streaming service you subscribe to (links below) – don’t forget to hit the follow button. Let me know which songs you like best and why. The feedback would be particularly useful to me at the moment.

I do feel a little squeamish about looking back to old work, as I think we all do at times. Naturally, I want the new album to be ‘better’ in all sorts of ways. But I put my heart into ‘Leaving a Space’ and I learnt a lot from recording it. Enough time has passed now for me to have compassion for the person who wrote and recorded those songs, which have a sense of tender honesty about them. Surprisingly, they’re much brighter than I remember too! But things always seem different in retrospect, however hard it is to look critically at the past. It’s bittersweet…..and we’re back to those lemons! 

That’s what we lyricists do. We take seemingly inconsequential details and squeeze them.

Avian love song…and a mysterious hush!

I’ve been recording the birds. I know I’m not the first, but as I hit record, creep back from the open window and back into bed, I wonder why I’ve never done this before? I’m not exactly an early bird (excuse the pun). But many of us are finding ourselves doing things we’ve never done before. Tuning into things with fresh ears. With the skies and streets quieter, the air clearer and, well, nowhere to go…indefinitely.

So I record my first ‘dawn chorus’, using a small stereo recorder on the windowsill. I don’t have to set an alarm – the birds take care of that! Listening ‘live’, I enjoy every tiny detail, dense and varied songs/calls, mimicry, call and response, even an owl joining in from afar. Feel free to have a listen while you read?

I feel the same kind of stupid tingling excitement as when managing to record a favourite song onto cassette from the radio! (“I’ve GOT this!”) Always missing the beginning. Always!! I resolve to record again the following morning, this time capturing the start, the earliest awakening of tiny sounds

The expected tentative awakening turns out to be more of a razzmatazz opening number! A blackbird (I think) who I recognise from the day before, is the soloist at close range – and what a crooner?

“What better way of advertising to a passing female that you are here and would make a fine father for her chicks than by having a clear, loud and recognisable song?” RSPB

Well, if this male hasn’t fathered chicks by sunrise…..? Another bird, fainter, in the distance, responds to every call with imitation and counterpoint. I feel like an eavesdropper on an exchange I will never fully understand the meaning of. Whether an interested female or a rival male, the fact that only male birds sing turns out to be false, interestingly (cue more research).

But where are the others? There are definitely less members of the choir, and none of the richness and variety of the day before. In fact, hardly anything. I’m going to get technical here. Compare the waveforms from day one and two at the same time:

However woefully unscientific my analysis of the situation, I begin to plan day three – just as two cats start wailing (you can hear toward the end of the blackbird recording). Aha! Maybe the difference is threat. Fear. After the initial blackbird showstopper, only faint twittery, nervous calls can be heard. The audible presence of cats seems to coincide with a reduction in the volume and density of bird noise, but also the quality, variety of the song (or ‘vocalisations’ as I’ve just learned they are called). The auditory mood has swung from joyous to nervous. So domestic cats could be having a powerful effect on birds and their ability to sing and breed (cat owners don’t judge me!) but what’s fascinating is how fear affects the quality and nuance of communication.

I think back to all those tense performances where the hands won’t quite make the effortless shapes I want them to and the voice won’t improvise as freely as I know it can. Music is, after all, just another form of communication, and it is unlocked in moments of overcoming. Overcoming fear, I suppose. I’m going to try and notice when I’m recording this month, how many proverbial cats are wailing in my ear? It certainly brings a new meaning to the phrase: “Cat got your tongue.”

Oh and day three of ‘project dawn chorus’?

I slept.