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

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

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.

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.