Lessons learnt

I volunteer with SWIM, a charity dedicated to equality in music, and their latest wheeze is called Swimspire: members are asked to share any key lessons they’ve learnt, and I’m one of the members they asked.

My four aren’t specifically for music, as I think they apply to work generally:

  • The smartest, most talented people I know have terrible impostor syndrome. Don’t let it limit you.
  • Say yes to the things that scare you. They often turn out to be the best things.
  • Know your worth. Don’t accept toxic behaviour and don’t be the only person in the room who isn’t getting paid.
  • Be the person others want to work with, not the one they whisper about.

Songs from lockdown

One of the things that helped keep me sane during lockdown was writing and performing music, and the Songs From Lockdown project was a big part of that: each week, songwriters would give the group a challenge and we’d go and write songs based on that challenge.

You can listen to all the tracks here, and the first section is a handy selection of highlights. One of my songs, St Luke’s Steps, is included in it.

HAVR · St Luke’s Steps

I like this song a lot: it’s about the transformative power of friendship, and fittingly for a song from a lockdown group it’s about meeting my best friend when lockdown finally allowed that to happen. It’s more of a colour piece than a story: I’m trying to paint a picture of a moment in time. The fact that it’s reminiscent of Glasgow’s famously atmospheric The Blue Nile is entirely deliberate.

What I liked about the group was the way in which it encouraged everyone to think differently. For example, St Luke’s Steps was from a challenge to write about a colour, hence the line “red wine the colour of the dye in our hair”. That was enough to give me the shape of the song I wanted to write.

Here’s another one, No Ties That Bind. The challenge here was to write from somebody else’s perspective, so I chose to inhabit the head of a father disowning his LGBT+ child. It’s not exactly full of laughs but I’m really pleased with the lyrics – “I walk away from my mistakes / I consider you the worst one I ever made… I can’t love what you became / you turned your back on me when you changed the name I gave” – and the vocal.

HAVR · No Ties That Bind

I did a playlist of all my various contributions, which you can find here. They’re all over the shop musically (deliberately): glam rock, goth, jaunty acoustic and even rap. Because of the time constraints, some of them aren’t quite there but some are close to being finished releases; I’m planning to rerecord and release one of them, Got You In My Bones, on our next EP: it’s possibly the most joyful, most pop thing I’ve ever written and it makes me smile and dance around the flat.

HAVR · Got You In My Bones

Why some people can’t sing

I’m a great believer that almost anybody can sing: it’s more of a craft than an art and the more you do it, the better you get. I stumbled across this 2011 piece, which suggests I’m wrong about 5% of people.

NBC News: Why some of us are terrible singers

[A] study found that anywhere from 40 to 62 percent of non-musicians were poor singers, a rate much higher than shown in previous research.

It also found that roughly 20 percent of people can’t sing accurately because they don’t have good control of their vocal muscles. Another 35 percent of poor singers have trouble matching the pitch of their own voice to the same sound heard in other timbres, such as when it’s coming from a trumpet, piano, or a person of the opposite sex. And 5 percent of lousy singers lack the ability to hear differences in pitch or discriminate between two different sounds.


An American icon

Dolly Parton (image: Billboard)

Billboard has published an interesting profile of Dolly Parton, who Wikipedia describes as “an American singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, actress, author, businesswoman, and humanitarian”. That’s selling her short. She’s an incredible talent, incredibly generous and quite clearly the smartest person in any room.

NME profiled her in 2017:

A ferocious talent who grew up in dire poverty alongside her 11 siblings in a tiny two-room shack, she became – and remains – a powerful entertainment force, as well as a quietly but subversively political one.

Sure, there are the 43 albums, seven Grammys, global record sales of over 100 million, stints as an actress and author and even her own theme park, but she’s also an LGBTQ icon and renowned philanthropist, putting money back into her beloved community and endorsing a whole host of charitable causes. Her theme park, Dollywood, isn’t just a hillbilly Alton Towers; it was built to bring industry to the area she grew up in and create jobs in one of the poorest parts of the United States. Her Imagination Library project has helped to promote child literacy since 1995 by giving over a million free books to kids across the world.

The Billboard piece is primarily about her business empire (Billboard is of course a magazine for and about the music industry) but it’s yet more evidence of what an extraordinary person she is.


“You’re a superhero but some days are Kryptonite”

The final track on our new Messengers EP is called Time Will Put Your Enemies In The Ground. I swithered about releasing a song with that title in the current climate, where body counts are so awful we don’t talk about them any more, but I think people are intelligent enough to understand that the song has nothing to do with what’s going on in the wider world.

Time… is a song of solace for someone going through a hard time.

HAVR · Time Will Put Your Enemies In The Ground

The title was inspired by the famous misquote: “I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure”. It’s a good line and often credited to Mark Twain, but the actual words are  slightly different. They’re by the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow. In 1932 he wrote:

All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.

If you’ve ever been bullied or suffered other kinds of cruelty you’ll know the feeling of wishing another human dead. I wanted to take that dark thought and make it into a promise: you will survive this and you will leave your tormentors far behind.

Like a lot of our songs it’s partly autobiographical, and it’s connected to the opening track, Animal. Both songs are about being dehumanised and demonised, but where Animal is about defying hatred Time… is about surviving it.

Lyrically Time… has a lot in common with A Moment of Clarity from our first EP: it’s acknowledging the pain someone feels – “Some days feel like you’re drowning on dry land / the weight so heavy on your shoulders you can barely stand” – and promising them that they will not always feel so sad. “Time will turn everything around / time will put your enemies in the ground.”


“A zodiac only I know”

The third track from our new EP is called Zodiak. Our bassist Kenny already had the title and most of the tune when I first met him. I don’t think he had the Zodiac Killer in mind at the time, but with that title the song couldn’t have been about anything else.

HAVR · Zodiak

The Zodiac Killer is part of popular culture now, the subject of films and books and podcasts and rock songs. That’s primarily because he was never caught, so we never got to discover the banality of his evil. In today’s era of true-crime podcasts there’s plenty of speculation over who he was and how he got away with it (the police work wasn’t exemplary and may have ruled out the most likely suspect), but it’s likely to remain an open case.

It’s hard to write about this stuff without falling into cliché or tired “edginess”: for example one of my favourite bands, Therapy?, once sang “I know how Jeffrey Dahmer feels / lonely / lonely”, which is pretty teenage. I tried not to do that.

What I ended up with was more of a colour piece. I read a lot of the killer’s letters and was struck by the language in them (eg: “Wouldn’t none of them be missed”) as well as their tone. The killer, most likely a deeply inadequate man, clearly believed he was smarter than the newspapers, smarter than the police, smarter than the public – but at the same time I think he wanted them to decode his code, to give him an out, to stop him because he couldn’t stop himself.

They didn’t stop him, but something did. Whether he killed five people (the official count) or 37 (his claim), there were no reported Zodiac killings after 1969. Jail? Death? Recovery from multiple personality disorder? There are lots of theories, but nobody knows the answer.

Did I get it right, or have I fallen into the heavy metal cliché? That’s for you to decide. But I really love this song, not least because Kenny’s bassline is phenomenal and I get to pretend I’m in Led Zeppelin for much of it. It’s one of our favourite songs to play live. I am not usually the sort of person who says something rocks, but Zodiak rocks.


“If you’re not angry you have not been tuning in”

(Today is fee-free Friday on Bandcamp. If you buy our new EP there, or if you buy anyone else’s music, 100% of the sale price goes to the artist today. If you’re short of cash, all our music is pay-as-you-want – so you can have all of it for free. We want your ears, not your cash!)

Here’s today’s track from the new EP. It’s the title track, Messengers.

HAVR · Messengers

Messengers is about grievance artists and bullshit merchants: when we play it live it features some samples of right-wing clown Alex Jones claiming the Pentagon has been testing gay bombs. Grievance artists are the people who spread bullshit and fear in order to sell something: actual products in the case of grifters such as Jones; personal brands in the case of the more genteel grifters who pollute the pages of the newspapers; political ideologies in the case of the most dangerous ones.


“I am pills, injection sites”

Time for some new music. This is the first song from our brand new Messengers EP, and it’s called Animal.

I hope you love it as much as we do.

HAVR · Animal
LGBTQ+ Music

Everyone is awful

Seven years ago, I wrote about my love for New Model Army, a post-punk band from England.

I got into New Model Army in Kilbirnie Library, in the late 1980s. I was going through a bit of a punk/new wave thing at the time, and the library’s collection of vinyl LPs included one whose cover was a painted leather jacket, the words “only stupid bastards take heroin” disguised but still recognisable on the shoulders. That’ll do me, I thought.

In the decades since I’ve bought a lot of their records and merchandise and been to lots of their gigs. But no more, because the person who designed their record covers and their merch – someone I’ve met, someone I chatted to briefly in my previous life, someone whose art I’ve worn on my chest – turns out to really hate people like me and is very vocal about it.

So a band whose gigs used to feel like sanctuary – a band whose own Twitter bio says “we welcome everyone – equally” – is now a band I can’t go and see anymore, because rightly or wrongly I now worry that some of the band’s fans will share those views. I’m sure most don’t. But it only takes one person to beat you up.

It’s not the first time a band I loved has turned out to be problematic. The drummer of Teenage Fanclub (not the original one everybody liked) is similarly obsessive, and I’m told that the main songwriter in that other famously nice and decent band, Elbow, has also been venomous about people like me. So that’s two more former loves whose logos I won’t wear and who I’m not going to pay to see any more.

It’s as much a practical decision as a moral one. For me, gigs are an important release. They’re a source of joy, an opportunity to escape from the stresses and strains and sadness of everyday life. It’s impossible to have that transcendence when every time you look at the stage you see someone who doesn’t just hate you, but who spends an inordinate amount of their time trying to encourage others to hate you too.

Art can’t offer escapism when the artist is one of the people you’re trying to escape from.

And it’s not just transphobes. People are awful in all kinds of ways, and the older I get the more I discover that people I revered or whose art really connected with me were terrible. It sometimes feels like somebody is going through all the records, films and books that mattered to me and poisoning them. That sensitive author? Beat his girlfriend. That delicate lyricist? Howling racist. That comedian? Sexual predator. The soulful songwriter? Rapist.

I know I’m not the only one to do this: now when someone tells me to check out a new band, a new author, a new comedian, the first thing I search for isn’t their material. It’s whether they’re problematic. All too often, they are. And that applies even at a local level. I was speaking to a promoter the other day who has a never-book list of artists proven to be problematic for reasons ranging from sexual predation to Nazism. It’s a long list.

The artist is not the art, I know. But the artist can poison the art. I can’t watch Louis CK now I know what he did to women, or watch the UK version of The Office without seeing Ricky Gervais the transphobe rather than David Brent the character, or feel the connection with the songs of The Smiths since Morrissey’s racism became apparent.

I feel it most in music, because music is such a personal thing: the good stuff becomes more than just a soundtrack. It becomes part of your identity. Part of your life. So when the people who make it turn out to be terrible, that news feels personal too. The more their art mattered, the more it feels like a betrayal.

I’ve joked before that being trans has saved me a lot of money, because I don’t knowingly spend money on people or things that are problematic. But I’d much rather have music than money.

LGBTQ+ Music

Trying to walk like a man

It took me a very long time to realise how good Bruce Springsteen is: like many people, I misinterpreted Born in the USA as a tub-thumping, chest-beating, USA! USA! USA! anthem and didn’t investigate further. I’m a lot older and a little bit wiser now, and while I wouldn’t call myself a fan – I don’t own most of his albums, and I’ve only seen him live once – he’s written some of my very favourite songs. Walk Like a Man is one of them, and it makes me cry every time.

Well so much has happened to me
That I don’t understand
All I can think of is being five years old following behind you at the beach
Tracing your footprints in the sand
Trying to walk like a man

Springsteen wrote it about trying to be the man his father expected him to be and feeling that he was falling short; his relationship with his dad was rocky, his father unimpressed by his artistic leanings and his long hair. But good songs can take on a life beyond the specific circumstances they were written about, and Walk Like A Man is a very good song.

Here’s Naomi Gordon-Loebl, writing in The Nation, on “the queerness of Bruce Springsteen.”

In “Walk Like a Man,” from 1987’s Tunnel of Love, Springsteen sings about the lessons he learned from his father and whether he’ll ever know what he needs in order to “walk like a man”… the words seemed to perfectly encapsulate my experience of growing up in a body out of alignment with my gender, trying to walk a path that was not made for my feet and being constantly, painfully aware of the dissonance.

Me too. Gordon-Loebl and I were driving in different directions – as I understand it she’s a masculine-presenting gay woman, whereas I’m a trans femme –  but we clearly drove the same road and had the same connection with this song.

That line about being “painfully aware of the dissonance” really resonates with me. It’s a great way to describe the fear and frustration and sadness I felt throughout my old life, my frustration at being unable to perform a role my peers did automatically and effortlessly. I never lost that feeling of being five years old, trying and failing to walk like a man.

As Gordon-Loebl says, Bruce Springsteen couldn’t be more straight. But that doesn’t mean his songs can’t reflect other people’s experiences too. There’s a powerful melancholy to much of his music, and many of his best songs are about people who don’t fit in and who yearn to escape the circumstances they’re in. It’s no wonder that they resonate with people who feel suffocated.

But no matter where it comes from, there is an unmistakable echo of queer loneliness in his work. “Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny, something that they just can’t face,” Springsteen sings on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” “Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop…. I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town.”

…Perhaps nothing is so fundamentally queer about Springsteen as the pervasive feeling of dislocation that’s threaded through his work, the nagging sense that something has been plaguing him since birth, and that he’s dreaming of a place where he might finally fling it off his back.