Self-Love and Ladybird Books

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:

http://www.emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com/album/softly-loudly

And don’t forget to follow me in your usual streaming platform to be notified a soon as the album lands. Thanks for listening and reading! xx

Disclaimer: this is my disclaimer

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

Brene Brown

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Disclaimer is the 5th release from the album Softly Loudly, which releases in full on 19th Feb.

Also listen and follow on any streaming platform.

Marie Kondo – A Single Thread

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:

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