If you happen to be spending the 14th of February in South Korea, you might be inclined to give a man the gift of chocolate. And if you are Finnish, you won’t be doing Valentine’s Day but Ystävänpäivä – ‘friends day’! We grow-up with so many customs surrounding love and I started thinking about the myths and fairytales we peddle, one rainy afternoon several years ago, in my lovely village library.
There’s a shelf of ladybird books, satisfyingly neat and uniform, in a choice of blue or pink. Without getting into the politics of colour and gender stereotyping, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that the tales told within the pink volumes invariably feature the dramatic rescue of a floundering damsel, and conclude in a wedding or ‘happily ever after’! There are few such ‘romantic’ endings in their blue counterparts.
The idea of salvation through romantic love in these deliberately categorised ‘girls books’ got me thinking about my own girls and their fast-developing minds. The seed of a song was planted!
I think it’s ok to be honest about the less sparkly side of love, not through cynicism but pragmatism. In song, Joni is the queen of it:
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions that I recall
I really don’t know love at all.
Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now, 1967
But here’s a wise and experienced woman, whose ladybird-book reading days are presumably long gone. (Disclaimer: I have no idea if Joni Mitchell reads ladybird books!).
Love has endless manifestations, and the type at the root of health and happiness, is surely the love we show to ourselves. I know I would have dodged a bullet or two if I’d learnt that sooner. Self-care is high on the agenda right now, while our interactions are reduced, we turn increasingly to our own reserves to sustain ourselves physically and mentally. If we manage to do this, we’re happier, kinder humans and we influence those around us, including our home-schooled kids, to care for themselves as much as they do for others. So from a fleeting thought in a village library several years ago, comes something I believe in today more than ever. (Cue twinkly Disney music….)
Of course, my daughters are way too cool to listen to ‘Love is Easy’ now. So I’m sharing it with you instead. Happy Valentine’s Day!
It’s been fun to share a song every Friday for the last seven weeks and I’m excited that the album ‘Softly Loudly’ releases in full next Friday (19th Feb). If you’re enjoying the music, you can support it directly here:
Hello! Thanks for popping by. Softly Loudly is an album recorded in 2020, releasing weekly between 1st Jan – 19th Feb 2021. Here you can read a little about each song, beginning with the most recent track. Grab your headphones too, as you can listen while you read, Hope you enjoy!
I’ve been determined to write something to accompany each of the songs I’ve released this year. Disclaimer, being the oldest of all the songs, is the one I’ve found the hardest to contextualise, and I’ve been procrastinating terribly. I mentioned this to a friend, who helpfully pointed out that that was a kind of disclaimer in itself…….Touché.
I’m an ideas plagiarist. What I’m thinking about (and writing music about) often has a lot to do with what I’m reading, and around about the time I wrote Disclaimer I read a couple of books by the author Brene Brown. Brown’s quotes have been popping up frequently during the pandemic, within the context of mental resilience, so I’ve been reminded of her unique work.
A recurring theme throughout her books, podcasts and TED talks, is that vulnerability is both necessary and uncomfortable. The way we often distance ourselves from our own work, and from what we really mean, is to protect ourselves from judgement and the terrifying prospect of being ‘wrong’. But in doing so, we fail to express ourselves fully, or express anything that is unique about ourselves. I don’t pretend to have solved or overcome these issues through writing a song (far from it).
I’ve learned though, that being wholehearted leads to one of two outcomes. 1. Embarrassment, shame. 2. Joy and true-connection with others. The gamble is utterly exhausting in itself, so usually we choose a fairly ‘beige’ path. There’s nothing wrong with this and in some ways it’s necessary. But I find it fascinating, the way we chose our engagement level as a sort of ‘hedging of bets’. I’m guilty of this myself so I understand it. I’ve nothing against beige either, by the way. Gosh, check out all my disclaimers!?
I experience both the ‘cringe’ and the joy factor when I write a song, record it – and put it out there for people to actually hear! My collaborators and I faced the recording challenges of lockdown without hesitation, and particularly on Disclaimer, the remotely recorded drums and and separately layered harmonies sound completely unified, committed and brave! No disclaimers are really necessary.
Music is something I seem to ‘lean in’ to the discomfort of, although it still scares the bejeepers out of me. Most of us have something we want to be braver at and learning about other people’s true colours (even beige) is always a joy to me. Although it’s not always easy to jump in with both feet, a little heart-on-sleeve wearing once in a while, goes a very long way.
You can’t spell wholehearted without A-R-T
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Disclaimer is the 5th release from the album Softly Loudly, which releases in full on 19th Feb.
Some songs decide to grow outwards in all directions. The new track ‘Marie Kondo’ sprouted lots of little stories. The kind that connect you in a hidden way to the people you can’t be with: a cohort which recently includes pretty much everyone we know.
But before this was the case, I was advised by Marie Kondo (author of ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying’) to have a chat with a dress before throwing it away. It was meant to help me let it go! Although, I didn’t manage to declutter my wardrobe that day, I did write a song – and named it ‘A Single Thread’ (after a line in the first verse). When another bestselling author, (my favourite in fact) Tracy Chevalier, published her latest novel: ‘A Single Thread’, I thought it a welcome piece of serendipity. But when I read the novel (and it’s brilliant by the way) my mind attached the title stubbornly to the book only. So the song acquired the working title ‘Marie Kondo’. A zillion labelled audio files, emails and messages later, the title stuck!
The ‘thread’ is still there though, as in the dress itself and the story it tells. But a solo dress became an ensemble of inanimate objects, when I asked my collaborators to bring an item of their own. Something that they couldn’t throw away. This is when Debbie, who sings beautiful harmonies on several of the album tracks, segued effortlessly into knife-sharpening:
“I have in my kitchen draw an old bone handled knife and its paired sharpening tool. I have a strong sound triggered memory when the knife hits the sharpening steel of 70s Sunday lunches , my grandpa standing at the head of the table and performing a sharpening ritual prior to carving the joint of beef. As a child I had no idea what he was doing but knew that this sound meant yummy food. The knife is well past it’s best but every time I have considered throwing the set away I have given it a quick sharpen and realised that nothing sounds the same.”
— Debbie Harris
And what an awesome sound it is! We had fun recording a stereo ‘stroke’ across two mics. And, we prayed she wouldn’t get stopped by the police on the way home with a carving knife on the passenger seat! It’s a precious ‘audio’ memory of hers – and now ours. So I’m thrilled to include it.
Neil also threw a little bit of history into the mix, with a table that represents the emergence of his drumming self:
“When my dad sold our family home where I grew up as a kid, he had no space for this collection of coffee tables in his new place. I’m unfortunately a bit of a natural hoarder and given I had spent so many happy hours using these tables as bongos, to my parents constant annoyance, I couldn’t bear to see them on ebay or in a skip. I think they are actually quite a fancy make for their time but I just remembered them for the great sound they make, so had to keep them. They’ve been hanging around our house for years now, never quite having a place to fit in, but definitely found a place to fit recording this track!”
— Neil Hooton
You can see that the first rehearsal was al fresco due to the lockdown. The table is neatly complimented by a waste paper bin and brewing bucket to form the ‘Marie Kondo’ cocktail kit! The plumber fixing a pipe on Neil’s roof that day, considered our efforts a very unusual pastime.
Adam chose a delightfully versatile item, also from the 70’s!
“Made in France, bought from a petrol station and given to me by my mum. These wine glasses are the epitome of the 70s drinking style, when my parents were ‘cool’. When we smashed all our wine glasses, from clearly having too many parties, my mum gave them to me, saying she had no use for them any more. Frowning, I accepted and soon realised that ‘they don’t make them like this any more’….I still have them all apart from one which we smashed during the recording of Marie Kondo. I don’t like them. They still serve the function they were designed for. I can’t throw them away.”
— Adam Nabarro-Steel
I’m not sure Adam would agree but I love the glasses even more since they featured in the song! Not only did they sound great when skilfully tickled with a chopstick, they also led us to debate the respective merits of using water or real wine to create the perfect wine pour track. Finding out (it was tough job) led us conveniently on to a rather boozy Monday lunchtime, but I digress:
The dress that inspired the song doesn’t really make a sound, but when we needed to beef up the bass drum (no offence to the brewing bucket!) I picked up my beat-up old busking guitar, its lack of strings making it no less a candidate for the job, and thumped it! The poor guitar had already sustained several injuries through the teenage busking years. But nostalgia wins. It will NOT be thrown away.
The point of this is not that we’re hopeless hoarders, but that the track is laced with unusual objects which hold the stories of the people they belong to. Though we saw each other very little throughout the year of recording (2020) these snatched moments of relative closeness are sadly now the subject of nostalgia themselves. And the folks behind the memories, are exactly what make them so precious!
Oh by the way, wine poured into a glass sounds more like wine than water does. We checked! Repeatedly.
Marie Kondo is the 4th release from my forthcoming album: Softly Loudly. You can hear it on all platforms, watch ‘Making Marie Kondo’ below and buy the album 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:
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 performit 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
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.
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 savein your streaming service. Looking forward to singing to you on New Year’s Day! X
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.