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.

A black tie event

I went with a friend to see Grace Petrie last night. If you’re not familiar with her work, she’s a protest singer with a big voice and an even bigger heart. She described this song, Black Tie, as “the closest thing I’ve had to a hit.” It was spellbinding last night, Petrie solo with just an acoustic guitar.

This was the only one of her songs my friend and I had heard before last night. We were there as much for political reasons as musical: Petrie has been a vocal friend to trans people, and as a result she’s been subject to appalling online abuse. I figured if someone’s willing to put up with that shit on our behalf, the least we can do is go to one of her shows.

I’m glad I did. Petrie is a born storyteller, but while her between-song chat is hilarious her songs have real emotional heft. This song had me (and the young woman in front of me) in floods of tears.

As is often the case with Petrie, the intro is as long as the song. But it’s worth keeping your finger off the fast-forward button because it adds some extra colour to an already beautiful piece of music.

Last night’s show was a real revelation, and my pal and I are now big fans with official merchandise to prove it. If you go to smaller gigs and you can afford it, please buy something from the merch stall: musicians at this level are barely getting by and a few T-shirt sales can make a big difference to whether or not they can afford to pay the rent.

Petrie’s tour is over now, but she’s back soon as support for The Guilty Feminist tour in a couple of weeks time. I think tickets are still available, and she’s worth turning up early for.

Sometimes you surprise yourself

Although I’m a musician, I haven’t performed in public for 15 years.

It’s not about lack of opportunity; even if you aren’t in a band there are plenty of open mic nights around if you want to grab an instrument and play. It’s mainly because of crippling stage fright, something I used to address with that musician’s crutch, alcohol. The longer I went without performing the more frightening the prospect became.

Last night, I played a short gig.

It wasn’t just my first time performing in 15 years. It was my first since coming out, my first as a visibly trans woman, my first time standing in front of strangers under lights in a dress.

I had an icy blast of fear during the day, but it wasn’t as bad as it used to be. Back then I’d be unable to concentrate all day, often nauseous and unable to eat because of the ice cold in the pit of my stomach. It would fade a bit once I was actually on stage, but the fight or flight response means that the most memorable gigs I ever played, I barely remember at all.

But last night I wasn’t scared, just full of nervous excitement. I wasn’t full of booze, either. Just two medicinal whiskys for a cold that was threatening to take my voice away. I’d intended to take beta blockers, but I decided not to. I simply wasn’t as scared as I used to be.

While the gig itself was in sad circumstances and one of the songs bassist Kenny and I played is terribly sad, I loved every second of it. It helped that the room was a positive one, there like us to remember a friend. But even in less friendly environments there is a buzz you get from playing live, from connecting with strangers through songs you wrote in isolation, from opening your heart in a strange room at high volume. That all came rushing back last night.

Sometimes you don’t realise you’re missing something until you experience it again. Sometimes fear keeps you from the things you love, the things that give you life. For me, music is one of those things.

A night for Billy, Glasgow, 27 April

I’m taking part in a special event to remember my friend Billy Samson on Saturday night (27 April). It’s at The Old Hairdresser’s in Glasgow and will feature many of Billy’s musical friends, me (and my glamorous assistant Kenny, bass player in our band) included. Entry’s free but we’ll be shaking buckets for the Help Musicians UK charity on the night, so please come and bring lots of pound coins.

Apologies, the venue isn’t accessible for wheelchair users.

Read it in books

My life isn’t all glamorous launches and rock concerts, you know. Sometimes I’ll stay in and read a book, usually a music one. Here are a few recent reads:

Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out by MARTIN ASTON

This is incredible. It’s the queer equivalent of Revolution In The Head, an incredibly exhaustive (592 pages!) chronicle of the history of LGBTQ musicians in modern culture.

Anything that begins with John Grant’s Glacier and segues into 1920s lesbian blues guitarists is going to win me over, and that kind of contrast is what makes the book so much fun: it’s not a dull historical tract, but a celebration of some incredible music by some equally incredible people.

It’s also a sober reminder of how much progress has happened in a very short space of time. The chapters on music in the time of the AIDS panic are particularly sobering.

UNCOMMON PEOPLE BY DAVID HEPWORTH

I’m a big fan of Hepworth, who helped create Q Magazine, Empire and the much-missed Word magazine. This felt more like a collection of one-shot magazine features than a book, though.

The uncommon people of the title are rock stars, with Hepworth giving each of his chosen ones a chapter (or in the case of The Beatles, a few chapters). He argues that the era of the rock star is over: today, even financial traders call themselves rock stars. The book is his attempt to illustrate the rise and fall of a group of people we probably won’t see the likes of again.

It’s still interesting in places but felt a little insubstantial: perhaps the problem is that it feels aimed at the kind of people who don’t normally read rock stars’ biographies for whom the tales of Fleetwood Mac, The Who and Led Zeppelin may feel sparkling and new.

PLEASE KILL ME: THE UNCENSORED ORAL HISTORY OF PUNK BY LEGS MCNEIL AND GILLIAN McCAIN

I hated this one.

I hated it because like most oral histories, the talking is mainly done by the people left behind by those who ascended to greater things – so it can be hard to concentrate over the sound of axes being ground.

I hated it because it’s terribly edited, giving very minor characters far too many column inches.

But the main problem I had with it is that I was reading it with a 2018/2019 sensibility. Reading about your supposed rock idols committing statutory rape, abusing groupies and generally acting like misogynist arseholes palls very quickly in our more enlightened age.

SMALL VICTORIES: THE TRUE STORY OF FAITH NO MORE BY ADRIAN HARTE

This promises to be the definitive biography of one of my favourite bands, and it’s well-researched with good access to most (but not all) of the band past and present.

But beware: it suffers from the rock-biog curse of pomposity, with some sections almost hilariously overwritten.

If you can get past that – and if you’re not a picky, whinging writer like me, you probably can – it’s probably as good a biog as FNM are going to get.

You do it to yourself, and that’s what really hurts

One of the weird things about doing creative things is that your feelings oscillate wildly. One minute you’re the greatest, most talented human being who ever lived; the next, you’re in a corner weeping about how worthless you are as you set fire to your latest creations. There’s rarely any middle ground. I don’t write a song and think “hmm, that’s okay.” I imagine thousands of screaming fans – for about five minutes, and then I want to hurl myself off the Erskine Bridge for creating such a terrible piece of music.

I wonder, do people with proper jobs experience this? Do truck drivers barrel down the road bellowing “I am the king of trucks!” before the critical voices kick in and they have to park in a lay-by for a cry?

I think the answer is probably no, because being a truck driver and being creative are different things. Truck drivers may well be really creative people in their spare time, but the day job isn’t really about that.

I think part of it is because creating things from scratch is a really weird thing to do. It’s something you generally do for little or no reward (sometimes there are no rewards, just penalties: bad reviews, indifferent crowds, being broke), but the act of creating something gives you an endorphin rush. That’s where bouncing around the room wearing a cape and shouting “I am the greatest of all time!” comes from. Whether you’re composing or performing, there’s a moment when everything comes together and you feel there’s magic in the room – magic that you’ve somehow channelled into this thing you’ve created or helped to create.

And then it goes, because if it doesn’t, if you think you’ve created the very best thing that has ever been or ever will be created then there’s zero incentive to create anything else. Whereas if you conclude that everything you’ve done so far is crap, then the next thing you do has got to be better.

I think, too, there’s the gap between what we imagine and what we can play, or what we can create in other ways. The gap between what I hear in my head and what I can actually play is huge, and no matter how good my version is I can always hear how it falls short. For example, the other week my piano teacher – an incredible musician – had a go at one of my songs, and what she did with it was absolutely beautiful. I’ll never be able to play it the way she played it. In my head I’m a ballet dancer, but in real life my limbs are made of lead.

It’s a strange addiction. You spend incredible amounts of time and effort and money in the pursuit of highs that are only ever fleeting, and which are always followed by the lowest lows. And yet somehow, it’s worth it.

 

A good day for a SWIM

I went to the launch of SWIM yesterday. SWIM, Scottish Women Inventing Music, is a collective of women from across the music industry: performers and promoters, managers and marketers, DJs and drum techs.

It was brilliant.

The day was a mix of formal panel discussions, informal networking and the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to the fabulous and funny Janet Beat, Scottish composer and electronic music pioneer. That last bit was an unexpected highlight, both hilarious and moving.

I enjoyed the whole day. The panel discussions were thought-provoking, insightful and useful and the buzz during the breaks was palpable: so many amazing, inspiring women who do amazing, inspiring things making connections and sharing experiences.

The panels were diverse, too, and I think that’s incredibly important: many of the issues affecting women in music are intersectional, so for example the things that affect all women may be amplified or complicated for women who are also black, or gay, or older, or who have family responsibilities. It was also refreshing to see the panelists drawn not just from the rock concert industry but from club culture, folk, jazz and other genres.

I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like it, and I went away with a head full of ideas and a bag full of flyers and business cards pointing me towards new music (I haven’t checked them all out yet but if they’re as good as the first artist I’ve listened to, Rosie Bans, my ears are in for a really great day).

And on a personal level, this really mattered. From the website:

when stating ‘women’ or ‘female’ this includes all people who identify as female.

SWIM is a diverse, inclusive organisation, and it welcomes non-binary people and trans women. It’s hard to overstate how important that feels, to be in a space that actively welcomes you, where you’re actively made to feel part of the family. I may have shed a tear or two.

Enough about me. SWIM has the potential to be an incredibly positive force in the music business, whether you’re a musician or a technician, a plugger or a promoter. If you’re interested in finding out more, becoming a member or volunteering, you can find everything you need on the SWIM website.