It’s not just the headliners who are stuck in the past

A company has analysed the gender balance of various UK festivals. The best was Latitude, which achieved a gender balance of 48.1% women; next up was Glastonbury, with 44.6%.

And then there was Download, home of superannuated rock bands whose commercial and artistic peaks happened decades ago.


That’s all performers. Female artists or bands?  2.9%.

Here’s what the poster looks like with the male acts removed.

Pathetic, isn’t it?

It gets worse.

According to festival booker Andy Copping “women like watching bands more than being in them. They just haven’t felt inspired enough to pick up a guitar or be the singer of a rock band.”

There are lots of reasons why women aren’t on big festival stages, but not feeling inspired isn’t one of them. Sexist bookers, on the other hand…

“Hold me love me or leave me high”

One of my musical heroes and a contender for the title of Most Beautiful Man In Rock, Michael Stipe, has released his first solo record. The song, Your Capricious Soul, is the welcome return of one of the most extraordinary voices in music.

Your Capricious Soul – Michael Stipe from JMSPROJ on Vimeo.

I can’t be unbiased about Stipe. I know his voice is a love/hate thing but I’m firmly in the love camp: I could happily listen to him singing the phone book and I’d probably be in floods of tears throughout. As the singer in R.E.M. he was responsible for some of the most important music in my life.

Here’s an example: Walk Unafraid, from the mid-2000s. This is the live version; on record it’s more focused and to me, more powerful (and here’s a bonus: a great cover of it by the excellent First Aid Kit).

The lyrics are stunning.

Imagine listening to this as a closeted LGBT+ person:

Everybody walks the same / expecting me to step the narrow path they’ve laid… how can I be what I want to be / when all I want to do is strip away these stilled constraints / and crush this charade / shred this sad masquerade? / I don’t need no persuading / I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up / and walk unafraid

I made the mistake of playing the song in the background as I started to write this, so of course I’m blubbing now. Don’t even get me started on The Wrong Child.

Walk Unafraid is a really important song to me. It’s what I hear in my head when I’m scared, when I’m pushing out of my comfort zone yet again to do something that makes my heart race. Sometimes it’s all I have on my side.

If I have a bag of rocks to carry as I go / I just want to hold my head up high / I don’t care what I have to step over / I’m prepared to look you in the eye / look me in the eye

I miss R.E.M. so much. I like a lot of bands, but I loved R.E.M. They had a magic to them, a magic that really connected with me in a way other bands don’t. You’ll hear the influence sometimes in the guitar sounds I use or the way I sing some lines.

I only got to see them live once – my second attempt was spoiled because I was in hospital getting back surgery. When they broke up eight years ago I was absolutely devastated: their latter albums might not have been as incredible as their earlier work, but every one of them contained some genuinely beautiful songs – and of course, every one of them featured Michael Stipe’s unique and beautiful voice.

I doubt they’ll ever reform, but if they ever do tour again you really don’t want to get between me and the ticket office.

Introducing the band

Stadium* band photo


With all the drama lately I completely forgot to mention my band. Now a three piece, the first EP by Stadium* – Some People Are Inconvenient – is out now.

Here it is on Spotify.

Here’s the EP on iTunes. And here’s the link for Apple Music.

Google Play is right here.

Do you prefer Deezer? It’s here. The link for Tidal is here. Napster is here. For other services including Amazon, MediaNet and iHeartRadio, step this way.

You can order digital downloads in the format of your choice, or get it on CD, from Bandcamp here.

More news, gigs and other things to follow soon.

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.