Music brings us together

Last night I played a couple of songs at an open mic night. I’ve been doing that a lot lately, and one of the songs I play is a very sad but also hopeful song called A Moment of Clarity. The song’s sung to somebody at their lowest ebb and it seems to connect with people; every time I play it at least one person will come up to me afterwards and talk about how it resonated with them. I’ve been told some very personal, painful things by complete strangers, sometimes with tears in their eyes. Music does that to people. Other people’s songs do the same to me.

I’m sometimes asked why I still make music, why I spend my time on something with no financial reward. That’s why. To be able to write songs is an incredible gift, and to see those songs connect with people on such a deep emotional level is an extraordinary privilege.

We want to hear from women in music in Scotland

(L-R: Me, Elena Piras, Rosie Bans)

The reason my wee face is there alongside the superbly talented musicians Elena Piras and Rosie Bans is because we’re the Advocacy and Activism working group of Scottish Women Inventing Music, SWiM for short. If you’re a woman in music, we’d love to have you on board.

The organisation is all about putting women centre stage in every aspect of the Scottish music business. That doesn’t just mean musicians, and it doesn’t just mean rock and pop music. It’s managers and lighting technicians, engineers and promoters, composers and tutors and venue owners and DJs and anyone else connected with the music industry at any level. We’re committed to equality for all women, and we want our membership to reflect the diversity of the musical community in Scotland.

SWiM is partly a networking opportunity – I’ve met some very inspiring women through being a member, and I’ve been to some incredible gigs I wouldn’t have known about otherwise – and mainly about effecting change through education, events, lobbying and working in conjunction with like-minded people. I’m really pleased to be part of it and I think that SWiM can help make a real difference.

If you’re connected in any way with music in Scotland, we’d love to hear from you.

You can find out more at the SWiM website.

Well behaved girls rarely make rock history

This is my daughter on stage with The Red Bricks, one of the bands formed at this year’s Girls Rock Glasgow summer school. She’s the one with arms aloft. Sorry about the picture quality, it’s from a video.

The concert is the culmination of the nine-day event during which girls aged 7 to 16 form bands, make merchandise and become even more kick-ass: in addition to the music content there are sessions on consent, on LGBT+ issues, on mindfulness and on body positivity.

It’s really inspiring and heartwarming to see so many girls and young women doing the kind of thing girls and young women are so often discouraged from doing: being seen and heard, expressing themselves and making a huge noise. While not every attendee will go on to be a musician I think every one of them will be positively affected by the experience.

Girls Rock doesn’t just run in Glasgow; it’s in cities throughout the UK and US. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Here’s a link to the Glasgow one so you can bookmark it for next year.

My favourite wastes of time

I start lots of things I don’t finish. I had a go at being a novelist for a while and made a bit of money doing it, but I lost interest after publishing the first one and writing half of its sequel. I’ve got a huge non-fiction book on my hard disk that’s almost but not quite finished and has been almost but not quite finished for around a year now. I attended a comedy writing class and started writing a sitcom. I went to piano lessons for the best part of a year. I’ve messed around with various unfamiliar instruments from the ukulele to the harmonica.

For me, finishing isn’t really the point. It’s the getting there I like. For example, I played harmonica for exactly long enough to work out how to get a tune out of it, then I didn’t pick it up again. The finding out is fun. The practicing afterwards? Dull as dishwater.

I may come back to some of these things, to novel #2 or the non-fiction book or the script or the ukulele. But I probably won’t, because there will be other things to do in a half-arsed manner.

Liz Krieger, I suspect, is a kindred spirit.

As I write this, there’s an almost-new guitar sitting in my parents’ basement, a pair of slightly scuffed tap shoes in my closet, one mostly deformed ring holder on my dresser, and a dwindling supply of handmade thank-you cards — well, somewhere in my apartment, I think.

Collectively, these items tell the story of a decade’s worth of short-lived forays into new hobbies. Over the past 10 years, I’ve taken five guitar lessons, six tap-dancing classes, eight pottery-wheel classes, a two-day letterpress workshop, and two beginner ballet classes. And this ragtag collection of souvenirs is all I have to show for it all. There are no photos of me onstage at some sweaty-palmed recital. I don’t have a side gig selling pinch pots.

Like me, Krieger doesn’t regret any of it: “each one scratched an itch I was having, taught me something, or filled time in a pleasant way.” But the wider world doesn’t always see it that way.

The world doesn’t look too kindly on a dabbler. In fact, there’s another, even less positive word for it: dilettante. It’s a word that connotes a blithe carelessness, a flightiness, a lack of seriousness or depth.

When I was a lot younger and went to regular band practices in various rehearsal rooms, I was often asked “what are you practising for?” What was the goal, what was the point, of all this effort and time and expense?

Partly, we were practising for gigs we planned to do at some point in the future that would somehow turn us into rock stars. But mainly, we were practicing for no reason other than this: practising was fun. For three hours every week I got to make an enormous racket, which I loved doing (and still love doing).

If my only objective had been to become a rock star, then of course those rehearsals were a complete waste of time and money. But I knew I wasn’t going to be a rock star because I wasn’t willing to put in the work. Instead, I had lots of fun pretending to be the guitarist from The Cult, and my bands did some fun things. So as far as I’m concerned it was completely worthwhile.

The same applies to the comedy class, which I enjoyed immensely, and the piano lessons that were often the highlight of my week. I’m still not a comedy writer or a piano player but that wasn’t the point. I was there to mess around, to waste time wonderfully, to learn more about how comedy works and how to play a couple of piano chords.

Having a half-arsed go at things can be wonderful for your mental health – and if you get to the point where it stops being fun then quitting isn’t necessarily a sign that you’ve wasted your time.

To determine the difference between dabbling and quitting, examine your intention from the outset. If you signed up for that basket-weaving class with a specific goal of making the centerpieces for a friend’s wedding or of meaningfully supplementing your income with a basket business, then bagging it halfway probably isn’t a great idea (and might lead to some ugly centerpieces).

But if you signed up to reawaken a creative side that’s felt a little dormant lately, a quick dose might be all you need to get your groove back, and you should walk away when you feel you’ve gotten what you want out of the experience.

You don’t necessarily need to have a destination to enjoy the journey. As the late Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Timequake:

Listen. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.

“The most diverse crowd I’ve seen at the festival”

Glastonbury’s over for another year. Music writer Pete Paphides has been going there since 1992, and he noticed some important, positive differences this year. He listed them on Twitter, noting things such as the move away from plastic bottles and the provision of extra helpers on-site. But the main difference was diversity.

The main thing that gets reported about the Festival is the music coverage. So let’s talk about the music at this year’s Glastonbury, with an unprecedented amount of female performers, and also its commitment to a bill which seeks to reflect the way music is changing, and also the way Britain has been changing.

For years the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity among mainstream festival audiences has been one of those things that you notice and feel a bit uncomfortable about. This year’s Glastonbury was by far the most diverse crowd I’ve seen at the Festival.

Paphides isn’t claiming it’s perfect – while he says it’s more diverse he still notes that the diversity on stage isn’t quite reflected by the diversity of the crowd – but as he says, it’s worthwhile and Glastonbury didn’t have to do it. Tickets go on sale and are all sold long before the acts are announced, so the festival could simply have done the usual stages-full-of-straight-white-guys thing. But it didn’t.

Instead, we saw a much more diverse Glastonbury than ever before. Stormzy rightly got the lion’s share of attention for his astonishing headline slot, but he shared a bill with Lauryn Hill and Sheryl Crow; other main stage highlights included Janet Jackson, Anne-Marie, Carrie Underwood, Miley Cyrus, Kylie and Mavis Staples. Other large stages saw Sigrid, Mo, Maggie Rogers, Babymetal, Billie Eilish, Christine & The Queens, Neneh Cherry, Lizzo, Stefflon Don, Janelle Monae, Sharon Van Etten, Cat Power, Kate Tempest, Dream Wife, KT Tunstall, Grace Petrie, Lucy Spraggan and many more I’m far too old and too uncool to know about. And that’s before you get into the stages for grime and UK rap, of which I know nothing.

It’s not perfect. But it’s better.

As Paphides put it on Twitter:

Glastonbury tickets go on sale before the lineup is announced. Over the next few years, we need to get to a point where fans of all the artists listed by Stormzy in his astonishing headline set, will buy tickets for the Festival, knowing their music be represented there.

UK and US festivals – the mainstream ones – are generally very male, and very straight, and very white. But the UK/USA, and UK/USA music, are much more diverse.

Here’s an example from the other end of the music business. Last night I went to an open mic night in the south side of Glasgow. When you think “open mic”, you immediately think of Ed Sheeran types, wannabe Jodi Mitchells and Bob Dylans.

You probably don’t think of gospel-influenced multiracial vocal groups singing African melodies; harpists; wisecracking reverends; bluegrass-tinged feminist ukulele anthems; chaotic R&B-infused rap collectives; angry Greek rappers; women who wield their guitars like weapons and treat their vocals like samples; electronic improvisers whose melodies fade in and out like dreams; and the odd furious middle-aged trans woman (hello!) tearing holes in her vocal cords.

That’s what music’s like: a mix, a mess, a glorious melting pot. Festivals should be too. Because that’s where the mainstream is now. The music we’re listening to isn’t boys with electric guitars, as thrilling as boys with electric guitars can be. It’s all kinds of genres, all kinds of performers, doing all kinds of wonderful things.

Amazing journalism about an amazing musician

Music fans of a certain age will recognise the name of Ian Penman, one of the best writers ever to work for NME (the NME of its glory days, not the shallow lifestyle brand of today). Here, the London Review of Books gets him to review two biographies of Prince. It’s an incredible article about an equally incredible story.

Even here, he glows distantly like a quasar; it’s hard to make out the lineaments of a true inner life. There is a hummingbird effect: he keeps so busy you can’t see through the blur to make any sense of why he behaves in the ways he does, or makes the decisions he does. A workaholic who writes endless songs about how much he just hangs out. A perfectionist who releases way too much sub-standard work.

A little stage for the ladies

In February, the TRNSMT festival attracted a lot of criticism (including from me) for its line-up: after pledging to improve gender balance, 2019’s bill was less equal than 2018’s.

Promoter DF concerts has now announced that there will be an extra stage at this year’s festival, the Queen Tut’s Stage (for readers outside Scotland, DF runs the legendary venue King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut).

It’ll also make room for members of Scottish Women Inventing Music, a new organisation that campaigns for gender equality across the music business, to raise awareness of what they do (vested interest alert: I’m a member of SWiM. They’re great. You should join).

The announcement has been met with widespread derision on social media. DF’s move misses the point. It’s tokenistic. It doesn’t change the fact that there are hardly any women on the big stage. Look at Primavera Sound: it’s got 50/50 balance already.

I completely agree that the TRNSMT line-up could have been better this year. But I think it’s important to differentiate between what DF Concerts should have done in the first place and what it can actually do after the contracts have been signed and the logistics put in place.

It would have been nice to suddenly see artists such as Robyn or St Vincent or (add your favourite here) displace some of the the current main stage acts, and I’d have bought a ticket in a heartbeat, but if they weren’t available when the lineups were being finalised they’re probably not going to be any more available now.

Is the Queen Tut’s stage tokenistic? Maybe. But is it better to have it than not to have it? I think so. 18 acts who weren’t previously booked for the festival have now got a gig, and that’s got to be a good thing.

Let’s assume good faith here. Let’s interpret this year’s Queen Tut’s stage as a mea culpa, not a hollow PR stunt. Let’s interpret it as the beginning of something positive. Let’s interpret it as a huge promoter saying: “We got it wrong this year. We’re going to do better.”

To which we should answer: “Okay. Great. How?”

In my head there’s nothing but music

Update: I never got to see Prince live, so I’m jealous that the excellent Professor Batty met him. Kinda.

I used to wonder why Prince gave away so many songs, many of which were enormous hits: The Bangles’ Manic Monday, Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U, Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You, Martika’s Love Thy Will Be Done and many, many more.

I think I get it now. He needed to make some room in his own head.

I’m not comparing myself to Prince here – a tendency to wear fishnets and a love of electric guitars is about as far as any comparison goes – but since I’ve got properly back into music I’ve found it almost impossible to cope with the number of songs I’m writing.

Earlier this year, my band set out to record a four-song EP. We ended up recording 13 songs, and then we broke up with our drummer and re-recorded them again. And in the meantime me and bassist Kenny kept writing. And writing. And writing.

Right now I reckon I’ve got 18 songs ready to mix and master, and another 18 in various stages of completeness. And the latter ones are pressuring me about the former. “Forget about those guys!” they say. “You’re with me now!”

I deal with this by ignoring both lots of songs and writing another one instead. I wrote one yesterday. It’s brilliant. Make that 19 other songs in various stages of completeness. It might be 20 by lunchtime. And those are just the songs I’ve written in the last six months or so. I’ve been doing this for years.

Not all of my songs are releasable, I know. Like any musician some of my songs are better than others. But I’m also well aware that some of the songs I’ve written just don’t fit with my band. For example, I’ve got a really great (and really badly recorded) song called I Didn’t Kiss You This Christmas that doesn’t fit the band I’m in. There are many, many more across all kinds of genres.

I doubt I’m alone in this. Music is one of those things where the more you do it, the more you do it: the act of creating something spurs you on to create something else. We’re only human, and we can only do so much.

If you’re Prince, you can pass some of your songs on to others. And if you aren’t, you’ll have to decide which ones to abandon forever.


Music makes the people come together

This has been my view for the last few days. I’m on a music production course at the Academy of Music and Sound in Glasgow. The course is free, and I’d thoroughly recommend it; you can also study composition and songwriting, and the Academy also runs seminars on subjects such as Women in the Music Business.

I’m loving it. I love faffing around with music anyway, but the course has been really helpful. I find with a lot of things I’m really good on the theory and terrible at the practical stuff: I could write you thousands of words on how to use a hammer, but I’d still end up smacking my thumb. Courses like the one I’m on are brilliant because they’re full of a-ha moments: the tutor does X, Y and Z and you think “a-ha! That’s how you do it!”

It’s been interesting for other reasons too. There are nine of us, and we’re all very different: different ages, different backgrounds, different interests. But we’re all united by one thing.

The knowledge that I’m the greatest human who’s ever lived.

Not really.

Only seven of them think that.

It’s music, of course. People who wouldn’t normally know one another have been happily bonding over our shared love of making a racket, and while any creative enterprise is ego central we’ve all got along very well without any diva tantrums (although there’s one more day to go, so it’s possible I’ll kick off later).

It’s been interesting for me personally. When we were dividing up the tasks – we need to write, perform and produce a song – I’d normally try and avoid anything; this time out I was jumping up and down, demanding to write and sing the vocal part. And it’s a bloody hard vocal part, which I’ve had to do repeatedly while everybody has been looking at me. Until fairly recently that would have been a terrifying prospect. Now, I’m loving it.

I’ve joked before that my terrible stage fright hid my terrifying egomania, but I’m not really joking. I love singing, and when I know I’m good – which I am, sometimes – I love singing in front of other people. I love the focus of it, the physicality of it, the feeling that for the next two and a half minutes there is nothing else in the world other than these words, this melody and the beats I’m jiggling around to.

That’s the thing about music. It gives you superpowers. It gives you the confidence to come out of your shell a bit, to use and develop your skills in a collaborate environment, to make connections with people you might normally be too shy to talk to. Music can make us better people.

That’s one of the reasons the squeeze on children’s music lessons is so awful. It’s awful because music is something worth studying, but also because the study of music is about so much more than mere music. To make or appreciate music isn’t just about art, but about science too – whether you realise it or not, you’re playing with hertz and kilohertz, resonant frequencies and all kinds of numbers I barely understand. It’s about exploring, about pushing boundaries, about discovering things about yourself and about the universe.

It’s magic.

And it’s magic that shouldn’t be limited to the children of rich parents, or of musicians.

If music goes from schools, my kids will be okay: they’re surrounded by all kinds of musical instruments and musical apps. My son plonks away on my piano or hits my drums while my daughter uses the iPad to make dubstep.

But if their peers’ parents don’t value music and/or can’t afford lessons, then making music is something they’ll be deprived of until they’re much older.

That’s not just a shame. That’s a robbery. Children’s brains are much more malleable than adult ones (as an aside, neuroplasticity in musicians is fascinating and well worth Googling), and it’s much easier to learn an instrument when you’re seven than when you’re 17 or 27. From Mozart to Paul McCartney, the most important musicians of all time were immersed in music from a very young age.  Prince wrote his first song, “Funk Machine”, when he was seven.

If children with musical ability  lose access to music in schools, they’ll spend the rest of their lives playing catch-up. They might never achieve what they’re capable of.

Imagine the music they might have written.