Synchronicity. Those moments when otherwise disconnected, separate things come together and by doing so create something special, perhaps even magical. In my experience, these collisions are always unplanned and frequently messy. Vagabond Language – my ongoing album project – and concerts performing its songs – have seen a lot of synchronicity over the last year…
Carl Jung gave us the word, and I started thinking about him because of Mary Webb. Mary is a Shropshire writer and her most famous book – Gone to Earth – was a hundred years old last year. Her old childhood home now houses the family of a good friend of mine, so Mary has always been kind of imaginatively around.
Her book’s heroine, Hazel, is a really fascinating character. She’s a woman deeply in touch with wildness, both in her self and in the land and creatures of her native Shropshire Hills. In the book, she’s also an astonishing, intuitive folk singer. Mary’s description of her singing is stunning:
‘Poor child!’ (says a listener) ‘Is it a mystical longing or a sense of sin that cries out in her voice?’
It was neither, it was the grief of rainy forests and the moan of stormy water; the muffled complaint of driven leaves; the keening – wild and universal – of life for the perishing matter that it inhabits.
Hazel expressed things that she knew nothing of, as a blackbird does. For, though she was young and fresh, she had her origin in the old, dark heart of earth, full of innumerable agonies, and in that heart, she dwelt, and ever would, singing from its gloom as a bird sings in a yew-tree
Isn’t that a wonderful evocation? I thought of Anne Briggs, Portuguese street busker turned Fado star Dona Rosa or Marie Boine’s Gula Gula. I wrote a song for Hazel and it started me thinking about these connections we have – the mystery of the moment when a song – a tune and a selection of words – hits with such power. I treasure that. It also touches that other mystery, ‘inspiration’ in songwriting. Debussy said “Music must come from the shadows” and Mahler “the genesis of a work is mystical from beginning to end. Afterwards one scarcely understands how it happened”. Jung suggests that we access deep levels of ourselves and our history in moments of inspiration or high emotion – sinking beneath the everyday into somewhere powerful and meaningful. I think songs offer a way into those deep intuitions and snatches of memory.
Gavin Monaghan is helping me make the new album. Gavin is an old friend who has moved into a great new studio complex, built in a 1700s former nail factory. He proposed a barter deal – I would make him some art work and he would record my album. I made some wall paintings for him, with themes around inspiration, but I really wanted to honour the work he’s done with so many artists over the years, with something really personal and appropriate. Using bits of this and that – some found vintage 1950s stuff, pieces of naturally shed birch bark, a medical heart demonstration model and some knitted copper wire – I made him a figure. My son calls it the ‘Spooky Illuminati Homunculus’ – Sih for short (he was not at all keen for quite a long time… ) I thought I’d go with Mary’s and Carl’s ideas and let the ideas emerge naturally – not force anything. This took a surprisingly long time.
While I was working on the sculpture, bookings (very happily) came in, for the Melbourne Jazz Festival, More than Folk in Hong Kong ‘s City Hall, some UK events and the Music, Myth and Reality Festival in Bangkok. I was able to play my songs alongside some astonishing traditional musicians – Warwar San on Myanmari harp, Anant Narkkong and the Korphai Thai traditional music ensemble, the Asean Youth ensemble and many others. Synchronicity at its best and most meaningful – taking me deep into roots I barely knew I had, just at the time I was most open to the experience and could most benefit from it. I wrote at the time “soft warm wind on the worm brown water, a coiling slither from the deep green heartland, the Temple of Dawn sparkling in the darkness, water around and in everything. A hall painted with shifting light, a hundred instruments new and strange – pulsing the life-beat of these ancient lands, in the dim lit subterranea of the ancient mind”.
So here we are almost a year late, setting out on the adventure of making a record. Some of the songs have a lot of road in their DNA now. I wrote about one of the songs last year – A Grampus Still Swims in Fingal’s Cave. Pipistrelle, a riddle song about visitors to my home – planetary, aerial, aquarian and human – has also travelled far with me this last year.
The newest song was written a fortnight ago. Driving back from Inverness for a Midlands’ gig I had to drive through two red snow warnings. The actual experience was one almighty white storm – with occasional lulls. The Highlands were stunning – I climbed toward Coire na Ciste in windchill of minus 34 degrees. Glasgow at rush hour was an empty almost alien place – lights everywhere, but in the deep snow covered streets, not a car or person. Driving over snow encrusted Erskine Bridge on my own was otherworldly. Crossing the Solway, later, with its wide open space seemed perfectly balanced between astonishing and terrifying. Windblown snow needles left the road clear for miles, before suddenly making deep drifts right across the road. I felt the danger – and it was evidenced in cars and lorries in disarray on the roadside. But I also felt incredibly in touch with the living vitality all around, humbled, as if in the presence of something great, and other. The Aztecs made gods for themselves that only very slightly resembled people. And that was something like what I felt – as if in the company somehow of real universal power – with which I had a kind of dangerous kinship. Do you remember the Moomins? Cute creatures in children’s stories from Finland? They have a story of the Lady of the Cold – a frost creature that turns anything she looks at to ice. Not evil or malicious though – not at all Game of Thrones – that is just her nature. So I called my song Lady of the North.
Performances and making the album are going to intertwine this year. Worldbridger is a benefit for the fantastic Sector 39 – raising funds to support permaculture students in Uganda. We’ve all seen the ‘Plastic Apocalypse’ reports recently. They are working with the Norwegian Refugee Relief Commission. Next up is the fascinating Reggae Innovation festival at the newly opened Birmingham Conservatoire. Some years ago I spent time living and playing with Rohantha Reggae and the reggae community in Nuwara Eliya in the Sri Lankan mountains, then with the Kuta Beach Boys in Bali and Reggae Traveller in Japan. This festival is celebrating the range of the music and features Jah9 who is travelling over from Jamaica.
The Face of Water the Face of Snow is a benefit for charities Medecins Sans Frontiers and Freedom From Torture. Their work is desperately difficult but so essential and makes this a much better world. I’m joined for that performance by Canadian singer songwriter Jane Siberry – known for her work with K D Lang, including the lovely Calling All Angles. Her version of the traditional She’s Like A Swallow with Hector Zazou is also really worth seeking out. It would be so lovely to see you, somewhere along the road.
2018 A SPIRIT WIFE TOUR
24/3 – WORLDBRIDGER, Llanrhaedr (Ugandan permaculture benefit) https://tinyurl.com/y8vevwcn
31/3 EOSTRE fest Y Dolydd
4/4 REGGAE INNOVATION, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/reggae-innovation-conference-tickets-43928155295
13/4 The FACE of WATER, the FACE of SNOW with Jane Siberry (Freedom from Torture/Medecins Sans Frontiers benefit) In Good Hands Shrewsbury http://janesiberry.com/files/SHREWSBURY_In_Good_Hands_calendar_Mar_18.pdf
6/5 WENLOCK POETRY FESTIVAL the Edge, Much Wenlock https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/FGEJHG
25/5 HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN Hay on Wye https://hay.htlgi.iai.tv
13-15/7 WORKHOUSE FESTIVAL http://the-workhouse.org
9-12/8 PHOENIX Festival Llanfyllin https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/phoenix-alternative-festival-2018-tickets-43779976087
17-19 LANDED Festival Rhaedr Gwy https://www.fatsoma.com/landedfestival
Find out more here: http://www.jonathanday.net/