I’ve been a fan of Jonathan Day’s music since he sent his album ‘Carved in Bone’ (read our review). He’s a very keen traveller and always seems to be off on some journey, so much so that I find it impossible to seperate his travels from his music as they feed each other. After hearing a recording he did for BBC Radio 4’s Listening Project (included below) on which he talked about travelling with his daughter Niimi I thought an article for our ‘Folk Life‘ series would be perfect and he very kindly obliged. So here he is, in his own words. I’ve included some recent photos from his American Tour & Eastern travels…
Travelling with Music
There’s something magical about travelling with music. Perhaps because music is itself the closest thing we have to magic – I don’t mean sleight of hand or techno-marvels but a real approach to transcendance and communion. I know music can also be trite, twisted, propagandist – even banal, but sometimes I see a certain look in someone’s eye and I know we are really communicating. All those necessary barriers we put up to protect ourselves are down for as long as the music lasts. Real communion – being to being, deep, important, amazing. We pass the songs through the fire to renew them: in that space we can renew oursleves, our connection, our humanity. Even just travelling with my guitar changes the way people respond – they open up somehow, let you into their lives with a nervous smile.
The road for me is a place of blood harmony – travelling is written onto my bones. I was conceived in a derelict church, on land left wild after its ruination by Roman iron mines. My mother was 18 with no intention of making me. My grandmother, in turn, bore her at 17, fathered by a half-Irish sailor who died near Trinidad when my mother was three. My great grandmother was the daughter of a displaced Welsh coal-miner who married my great grandfather, a horse trainer in a circus, after he fed sandwiches to her starving children. My childhood amongst these people set the context for my work.
I learned early on that the Business of music was not the road for me. Years ago I played a festival in a forest in Armagh. We headlined the Friday night to an audience who were just about visible behind crash barriers and security. It was enjoyable and they were kind and appreciative. After the gig, in the early hours I sat on a forest picnic table across from Ian Archer, a lovely songwriter. We swopped songs in the darkness, with the first blue hint of dawn in the sky. The following evening I played music with three people I’d just met, in a camper van. The profoundity of those songs is still with me – rare and beautiful moments and so much more precious, in a way, than trying to reach out across that dark gulf to the people whose faces are only hinted at from the high stage.So I took a narrow way, inspired a lot by Woody Guthrie – his rambling life seemed to me a better way to live. Critic Catherine van Ruhland (Greenbelt Festival) described my music at the time, accurately, as “Long nights with sages, poets and painters and long journeys wandering around Europe playing its streets and cafes are here held in song. His work takes its heart from time, silence and the mad, mundane and quietly beautiful vision of those who share the road.”
After many years travelling I guess I listened to Jack Kerouac, when he said “One day we have to get somewhere and do something”. I washed up in Shropshire. I like the quiet, the animals and the trees. There’s something important in the curve of a bird’s wing as it cuts the wind and the jumbled stones which break the earth on a round hill’s top. There are intuitions which shimmer and call in the buzzard’s mewl or the fox’s flash.
Living in a variety of semi-derelict barns and forest lodges I wrote songs and literally played them into the bright forest mornings. It was blissful. A couple of wonderful musicians – Joe Broughton and Kevin Dempsey – encouraged me to record some of the songs. That became Carved in Bone – they were instrumental in bringing that album to life and I’m deeply thankful to them.
Carved in Bone brought new opportunities and I felt really interested again to head out onto the road. Shropshire – and wilderness in general – remains a very necessary foil to the hectic, brilliantly coloured roads I travel.
Life, it often seems to me, is like a string of beads: moments strung like pearls on the fading continuum of my passing. Here are some of those moments, translucent milk-white things, rainbow chased, their pitted surfaces scarred by heavy wear and the worrying of fingers.
So often the most powerful moments in music are not in concert venues or on festival stages. Last year I was travelling between engagements in New Mexico, on a US tour. The darkling of the day brought the need of a place to nest. I favour the high and wild, so seek out mountains when I can, or forests. Somewhere I can breath, somewhere I can see. Leaving Santa Fe this day I was uncertain. So many intriguing names on the map, each promising a different kind of doorway into a variety of lights. In hindsight, though, always only one way remains, our lives the traces of a thousand choices left unmade. I had to choose the way I would take my life – and which possibilities I would ignore forever. I turned, laggardly and uncertain, towards Taos. Names further on had confirmed it for me: Trinidad and Walsenburg, of which Woody Guthrie had sung, and Cimarron, full of mountain wildness – stallions drumming on the roof of the world. I hadn’t looked particularly carefully, and had no idea that I would follow the gorge of the Rio Grande, until I did it. So, thereby, the most fateful moment of my tour was made inevitable, an encounter with life and death, powerful, and with the smack of eternity. The water sparkled in sunlight, collapsing cliffs looming overhead. Deep in the gorge, I stopped for ice-cream and soda at the Sweet Take Out. A lovely old lady smiled from its service hatch, content with herself, with us and with the world. Her sign said “I’m retired so stop asking me to do stuff”. I drove out over the lip of the canyon, saw it cut a knife gash across the high land. Distant mountains bookended the gently sloping sage-green plain – like a picture from a storybook, exactly like the Time Life Library Geography volume I had bought with my pocket money as a child. Closing the circle, of this, my little life.
So beautiful a place, I thought I’d come back and watch the coming solar eclipse from there, expecting to be alone. After a high cold camp came a beautiful mountain morning (I didn’t think too much about the ‘Beware Rabies’ signs nailed to the trees…) and a helter-skelter drive down to Taos Pueblo. I was unceremoniously waved away: it was closed. Turned out not to be an act of pique by the dwellers who still claim these ancient muddy condominiums – they were dancing a secret ritual for the Moon-Eats-Sun, ensuring she would regurgitate him, after their momentous congress was done.
I was wrong about the solitude – and I was glad. A happy party crowd, of school kids and school Ma’ams, accountants, professors, local renegades temporarily returned and flat land dwellers up from the heat of the South. A kid, obsessive and clearly deeply loved, fetched an enormous telescope out of his father’s car. Properly equipped with filters for the burning light, we saw the sun the size of a plate, and an orderly queue formed full of smiles and cell phone music. A very pregnant blonde girl smiled and talked with me about travelling and her coming child – up from Albuquerque, she and her Latvian man. I sang Dumshe Nachte, an old Baltic song I’d once learned. She was so excited at the coming birth, might even be during the eclipse. He was philosophical, thinking they had been lost in their lives before the child, who gave them purpose, a reason to be. The moon slid across the sun, like a seductress assassin, with a knife hidden in her knickers. It darkened and the birds grew quiet, the shadow covering the mountain lands. A brilliant ring of fire remained and I captured it against all hope, perfectly through the telescope. Once he was fully dead, his fiery blood spilled for all to see, she, supercilious, self satisfied, replete, let him go slowly, like a dog freed finally by a bitch. The light did not return: it was sunset now. As the moon moved away a crescent sun hung in the sky. Over the ochre and sage brush plains, throat slit by the Rio Grande, the coral red star set in a turquoise sky. As it sank the crescent point remained – a triangle of sun setting, while the Tiwa kicked the dust and danced.
Amazing, I know. I can imagine a crone saying soothfully to me as a lad “you’ll live to see the setting sun triangular” and I would have thought her mad. But here it was and here am I to say however much we know, there can always come things entirely unexpected.
Sometimes it’s the contrasts that are most remarkable. It was a time of black and white in my Shropshire hills. The Shein brook which winds along to the Hafren/Severn covered itself in ice. Wandering its upper reaches, I found otter tracks. A really profound feeling, silently welcoming back this elusive creature of water and air. I followed its path over the frozen weir and through the thickets and eyots…wandering from open reach to reach across the snowy ice.
I first saw the small feet and the swish of its tail on a deeply overcast day, snow clouds overhead stuffed to overflowing, filtering the light until everything was a shade of white or deepest brown. The leafless trees scratched themselves into the snowy hillside, rising above the stream. Two Fallow deer, perhaps a mother and child, watched me suspiciously, tasting the air for any hint of what I might be, high stepping skittishly in the field’s corner until eventually retreating into the scrub.
In the grey dawn light, as I set out for the airport, white stuff was falling from the sky and a skein of geese flew over my house. Magical moments just when you least expect them.
Some hours later I floated down to the desert out of the clearest blue sky, just after sunrise. Even so early, the light was piercing and brilliant white, impossible to look into. A dawn mist lay over the sands, mauve-gray hills in a low ridge and then the Arabian Sea, moon coloured in the morning. The airport was a silver wing, cool and shaded. A thrush like bird was flying inside, with the sweetest song…
Later still, flying into Suvarnabhumi, Bangkok, there was light on the salt pans, through a mist, stained tangerine by the late sun. The pencil grey sky was broken in places by teal green and an intense, dense powder violet. I found myself in a place of colour, as home was drained by winter to the purest of monochromes… and I said to myself, what a wonderful…
I love left field venues, like The Clover Grill, Bourbon Street, New Orleans – unchanged since the ’70s, a perfect past age place. The manager is a man who flits and shimmies, acid tongued. In a flash of his eyes he tells the pain of his ill-fitting form, his passion to survive and prosper, his demand to be taken as he is and a quiet invitation to be his friend. Head cocked to one side, he sent me a challenge: “with me, or against me? You’re choice baby” and danced off across the room. I tried for the former… His friends he calls ‘ho’ – I never make it that far, remained ‘baby’ the whole time. It was enough.
I played my Triangulin. It has a beautiful sound, hand made for me by a white-haired woodcarver, far away and long ago across the sea. One of the audience called my playing ‘soothing’. Outside was the coruscation of Bourbon Street, Crescent City – a caterwaul of sex and style, deep blue voudou on tubas and growl, uncomfortably close to invocation – aching country singers in intaglio, slashed vest Southern Lord-I-was-born-a-rambling men. As a girl in the dark doorway of a ‘Hustler’ club opposite shook her thonged and unappealing ass at the world, I took ‘soothing’ with a smile.
Running into unexpected performances is another of my favourite things. In Tsim Sha Tsui on tour, I was offered an amazing gig on a 1950s tenement roof top (thanks to guitarist Brain Lau for promoting). A bitumen-black star-splashed sky was jigsaw puzzled by towering and looming concrete and glass. Occasional clouds caught their neon stained skirts on lightning conductors and microwave masts – I played songs about the Northlands and thought about Suzie Wong, whose long ago story climaxed on exactly such a roof. Despite being themselves half a world away, the lakes of Pontchartrain have never sounded more like home.
My music is an attempt to catch these evanescent rays of light and hold them – like making a horcrux in Harry Potter, a place to hide your greatest treasures and take them out, still dew-fresh, when they are needed. My feeble and halting attempts to touch the burning heart and suck the marrow of my days leave these residues, songs like storm rime on a wrack. If you’ve made it this far – thanks for being interested. Our new album ‘Between the Worlds’ will be out at New Year, along with a book of pictures and writing about last year’s American tour.
See you then ; )
Travelling the world: Jonathan and Niimi (BBC Listening Project)
Breaking the waves Tour
6 July – Sun Festival
19 – 21 July – Festival at the Edge
27 July – Lea Cross Festival
9 August – Farmer Phil’s Fest
17 August – Jazz Happens, Bangkok
21 August – Cat Tower, Bangkok
7 September – Fordhall Festival
21 September – Bookworm Cafe, Hong Kong