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

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