84. IT MATTERS NOW – Jonatha Brooke

We’re sitting on adjacent sun loungers topping up the tan in the Mallorquin sunshine. I’m plugged in to my ipod. I reach over and hand the ear-buds to Sue. ‘Have a listen to this,’ I say. ‘I’ve been listening to it non stop for a few days now. I can’t get it out of my mind, but I’m still not sure what it’s all about..’ Sue listens to it a few times, her head nodding slightly to the rhythm, her face thoughtful, smiles at one or two of the lines. She gets a bit more insight on it than I do, I think, maybe a woman to woman sense of empathy. ‘some boyfriend or partner,’ she suggests, ‘who’s vindictive, or can’t let go of some wrong..’

I knew Jonatha Brooke was bound to be cropping up somewhere in this series of essays. She’s too good, and too haunting a songwriter to leave one alone, once her songs have encountered you. I thought I might have been writing about ‘Inconsolable’, a track I keep coming back to with similar goosebumpy results, or songs charting her relationship with her mother – not just the whole album looking at her mother’s descent into dementia, but earlier stuff too like the wonderful ‘Angel in the House’. But no, here I am, writing about a song from the odd (I think of it as) middle-career album ‘Back to the Circus’ – an awkward release in some ways – eg the UK distributors knocked off the great covers on the original album (eg God only Knows, Eye in the Sky) and padded it with a few tracks from the previous album Steady Pull. Bonkers or what? Despite it all, there are some true crackers…and this one, practically ignored on first listen, has stolen in to my consciousness to the point where… well, like I said in the first paragraph.

Ok, let’s get into the song. The opening lines certainly back Sue’s reading – ‘Sour, sour grapes make bitter wine/ You’re no funny valentine/ you take such pleasure in revenge/ A perfect settled score/ but it just whets your appetite for more..’ It’s a scathing indictment, straight off, it’s pretty vitriolic. But somehow it’s not the heart and pulse of the song. The refrain is intriguing – the first person voice proposes – what? – a more hopeful perspective on life and interaction? ‘Listen how my heart beats inside me/ It’s the story of a thousand better days..’ Implying that, somehow, perhaps, she is able to hold onto a bigger picture of the possibility of improvements and potential… What we call hope, I suppose. Here is the implication also, then, that the second person of the song, being addressed, is unable to see that, and rather is stuck at the hurdle of a present upset and disappointment or hurt. She says ‘And I wish I could say anything to take away today’ and here comes the rub: ‘but it won’t matter when we’re old/it matters now’.

Sorry, perhaps I’m making heavy weather of this, perhaps I’m being a bit dim… But this core and much repeated line seems ambiguous. Is the idea: let’s not agonize or dwell on these present momentary drawbacks and disappointments, but instead realise that in the longer scheme of things they will pale into insignificance? Or is it rather: the time for addressing this relational problem is now, rather than letting it fester into the future? Without wishing to appear sexist or overly-binary in my thinking, I wonder: is this more often the gift of a more ‘feminine’ perspective? – to say ‘it’s not nothing, it needs dealing with: it matters.’ Consider the song’s bridge: It matters now, it mattered then/ It matters how why or when /If at first you won’t try/You’ve gotta try again’ – a plea for hope and action, not just passively succumbing to defeat or resignation.

What do we make of the images and ideas of the second verse? ‘You break it now[hope?/dreams?] you own it/Like original sin/But you cannot take it with you in the state you’re in’ . In some odd way a challenge to take responsibility? The final verse is a brief couplet: ‘what price love, for how much pain?/What a surprise –you pray for rain’. Is this, then, juxtaposing two contrasting outlooks: the first a recognition that love inevitably calls for sacrifices, compromises, difficulty and ‘price’; the second outlook intrinsically pessimistic and calling forth its own defeat?

Well, as you can see, I’m not really any clearer about it than I was sitting on that sun lounger a few months ago, but I still keep listening and listening to it! And this is the wonderful Jonatha Brooke, many of whose songs retain that poetic edge of uncertainty, that makes us work at it, doesn’t hand us facile platitudes on a folk-rock plate, but gets you engaged, feeling, listening, thinking. In this respect with a compositional skill not unlike that of Dar Williams (see blog essay no.52)

It was being a bit of a Bruce Cockburn completist that brought me into acquaintance with Jonatha Brooke, when I heard her song ‘War’ (on which Bruce had duetted). The voice was a strong and intelligently distinctive one, I felt, right from first listen. And I am indebted once again to John Van Tiel for acquainting me more fully with her work, not just as a solo performer, but also in her coffeehouse performances with Jennifer Kimball as ‘The Story’. All the albums are worth chasing up. I’ve seen Jonatha perform live only once, in quite a low key venue, a small club in Bristol, but what a performer – clear and confident about the power and validity, I think, of her elegantly constructed compositions. (Bit of trivia – her band included, on bass, the remarkable Gail Ann Dorsey. Someone in the audience told me they had attended the gig just to see Gail perform!). It was a great evening.

So, I have no other anecdotal or autobiographical material into which to weave this odd little song. And maybe, who knows, it won’t even pass the test of time; maybe in a few years it won’t matter at all. But it matters now. [Ha – see what I did there?]


44. SANCTUARY – Red Horse, & THE VALLEY – Jane Siberry

We had a sermon, a few months back ,on Psalm 23: the priest said that it was one of those pieces of sacred literature which somehow resonates strongly and roots itself firmly into the memories –surfacing and surviving even in the senile, in stroke victims etc.  (Like Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ in Gillian Clarke’s poem about reading this in a care home).  You know what I mean.  And I believe it –even in a largely post-biblically-aware civilisation, there are these residue echoing strands…

I’m not sure what Eliza Gilkyson intended from her lovely song ‘Sanctuary’: was she indeed trying to write a psalm 23 for the 21st century?  Was it a love song for a significant other couched in the assumed elegance of semi-biblical echoes?  Was it simply an acknowledgement of her awareness of an overseeing/accompanying ‘presence’ in her life?  I don’t know –but it is a most enriching song –  its pace and its melody cradling measured tones of peace that entirely marry to the lyric.

It starts with that straight biblical ‘lift’ of course –‘…  The valley of the shadow…’ but from there on, the ‘deathly shadows’ of modern experience are expressed in fresher, more original ways –‘in the crowded rooms of a mind unclear…’, ‘through fear’s dark thunder…’, ‘through the doubter’s gloom and the cynic’s sneer…’, ‘…  The sea of desires that drag me under…’ My favourite is one I’m not sure I fully understand – ‘though I’ve been traded in like a souvenir…’!  And, like the iconic psalm it sort of emulates, this is a prayer for every one.  ‘Though my trust is gone and my faith not near…’ – for strugglers, for believers, for doubters – the affirmation we all long for –‘Thou art with me.’ And yes, please note, family, another to add to the list: I want this recording played at my funeral.

One particular memory I have of it is when, a couple of summers ago, I tried to walk sections of the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway.  Trying to follow the maps, I found myself (between Hengoed and Maesycwmmer, for the record) stuck in the middle of a huge brambled-up area, hoping to find a path, but increasingly snagged up and hardly able to move.  In all of this, for at least 40 minutes I think, before emerging much scratched and bloodied, my iPod played ‘Sanctuary’ into my earbuds, and it was a most appropriate and energising prayer.

On the ‘Red Horse’ recording, it’s sung by Lucy Kaplansky, and with the other two songwriters on this sharing-our-songs project –John Gorka and the song’s composer Eliza Gilkyson, singing backup and harmonising.  As with ‘Cry Cry Cry’ (Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell) another great album and project similar to Red Horse, I don’t know whether these collaborations are driven by creative or commercial impulses – but  I can’t help but  love the end results of the co-operative, composite venture – these remarkable  recordings.


Looking again of the lyric of Jane Siberry’s ‘The Valley’, I’m not exactly sure why I’ve always automatically associated it with Psalm 23 – and yet I have the kind of gut feeling that she was aiming for something of the feel of it (?), in certain places anyway – ‘the valley is dark…  You walk through the shadows…  You trust the light…  The shepherd…’ Rhythmically, and and as regards tempo and tenor, it’s very close to Gilkyson’s ‘Sanctuary’.  When I first heard it, it was on that amazing Christmas (live) double album ‘Child’ –and while there are distinctly quirky choices on there,  I felt this song had a genuine spirituality and solemnity to it.  Since then, I’ve heard it in her original early album recording (on ‘Bound to the Beauty’) and also as a stunningly good cover on KD Lang ‘s wonderful album of songs from Canadian songwriters.  In each case my original impression is confirmed. More about Jane Siberry very soon. Though I’ve written more about ‘Sanctuary’, I hope this one doesn’t get overlooked:  listen to this recording.

In this song, the affirming refrain is ‘You will walk in good company’ –and although I’m not entirely sure what Siberry intended from that either, in my head it has the same psalm 23-type sense of ‘Thou art with me’.  I love it when songs lead me back to God, whether they intended it or not.

9. POWER – John Hall

It might be something to do with spending so much time in the garden, willing all the little plants in our ‘wildflower garden’ to take root, to start blooming, watching them perk up after a nice spring shower and (even more) the subsequent bursts of warm spring sunshine; but whatever it is, I find myself bursting spontaneously into ‘Give me the warm power of the sun; give me the restless flow of the waterfall…’ *

I usually stop before I get to ‘… But won’t you take all your atomic poison power away…!’ Maybe not out of principle, probably more because I can’t remember all the words that precede it. But maybe also – a bit –because that cry somehow seems…I don’t know…perhaps a little naive and unformed now; attitudes towards (some forms of?) nuclear energy have perhaps shifted since the early seventies, haven’t they? And those promoting nuclear reactors have tried hard to make a case for the ‘cleanness’ of the source – compared for instance to the burning of fossil fuels. Still, since Fukushima 2011…might we be swinging back to John Hall’s sentiments? Let’s stick to the song.

The song, I think, more or less ends the ‘No Nukes’ film about a series of concerts organized by the Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.) –a film with which I was so enamoured – late seventies? early eighties? -that I saw it at least twice in a cinema setting –Cardiff’s chapter arts centre probably; and have subsequently obtained the DVD. The film showed iconic 1970s singer songwriters earnestly engaged in an enterprise of conviction. There was a kind of evangelical fervor to their involvement –James Taylor, Carly Simon (still a married couple at that time), Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Graham Nash –these last always a safe bet for liberal, democratic stances.

In the course of the film you see them perform, yes, but also in impromptu rehearsals –preparing, for instance, a joint rendition of Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-changin’. And we also witness John and Joanna Hall’s ‘Power’ song coming together, in snatches, in a suitably organic way, till it finally surfaces complete – chorus and verses and all, in the final open-air concert which concludes the film.

And it is stirring, of course –seeing that measure of lively ‘belief’ and ‘purpose’ in their take-it-in-turns delivery of the song, and the message gusto in their harmonised chorus. There is a kind of ‘creationist’ faith (as in ‘creation theology’) there, that’s undeniably attractive: let’s use the natural things, man.

*And now I think of it, I’m not sure I sing it right: surely it’s the restless power of the wind, and the steady flow of the waterfall? That makes a little more sense.