One year ago today I was sit in my room, hungover, on a comedown, confused, upset, worried and generally “not in a great place”. On the fourth of July last year I spent the day with my friends; enjoying the sunshine and getting very drunk. It was a great night which I blogged about – but I missed out some of the background details of that time; details that were not fun, or joyous, or celebratory, and therefore had no place on my blog.
For Under the Mistletoe
If I was a full-time blogger I would have photographed my record player covered in tinsel (it’s red and white anyway), but I’m not, so you’ll have to trust me. This is kind of a weird title for a blog post but hear me out! We’re all very familiar with Christmas music as it’s been blaring out of most shops since August, but there are some absolutely cracking tunes out there that don’t get enough airplay and I’d like to introduce them to you.
Seeing as my job for about 3 months has been curating the best Christmas songs for this event I thought I’d share some of the underrated festive (and suggestive) hits. I’ve also made a playlist featuring these songs as well as youtube links for individual songs in this post, so if you have Spotify you can listen and save along. So here we go with the top bangers for banging! (Sorry)
The Man With The Bag – Jane Monheit
This isn’t the original version, but it’s certainly my favourite. Jane has quite a soft voice and her cool delivery on a relatively fussy tune makes for a song full of anticipation. Perfect for a cheeky party peck.
The Christmas Song – Chicago
Lay those funk grooves down, boys!! This is such an overproduced arrangement of this song but I LOVE it! It’s so different from the original and there are some banging horn lines on this track. A good one for all those festive lounge parties you’ll be hosting in your penthouse flat. (?)
Back Door Santa – Clarence Carter
I don’t know if it’s the overly suggestive lyrics (“I ain’t like the Old Saint Nick… he don’t come but once a year”), the sleazy horns, the fat funk guitar in the background or the honky-tonk keyboard… but this song is SO hot. It’s just an absolute banger of a song. I’ll actually be singing this on Sunday (for Quizmas) in full bed voice, so wish me luck with those frustrated growl sounds! *gulp*
I’ll Be Home For Christmas – The Carpenters
It basically invites you under the mistletoe, it’s that sweet and coy. Believe me, as somebody who has studied Disney music to academic level over the last 7 years, the production on this value of the popular festive ballad is PURE 50s Disney. The choir, the high winds and strings, the percussion. It sounds like it’s from a vintage Disney Christmas film that never got made. Add in Karen’s super-sultry voice and it’s a Christmas winner.
This Christmas – Donny Hathaway
I love this song. Donny has the best voice ever, or at least one of the sexiest voices ever. It’s so warm! His voice is like a brandy for the soul: add in how desperately he wants to have a good christmas with you and his talk of “carolling” through the night and it’s just a deeply sensual christmas tune. Cracking horn line too. This is another one I’ve been learning for Sunday so let’s REALLY cross our fingers I can channel my inner goddess for the whole set!
Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Pearl Bailey & Hot Lips Page
Before you skip over this really overplayed/over-covered song, give this 1949 recording a go. It is HILARIOUS, I absolutely love it. There’s just so much character and atmosphere in the song! The ad-libs from both performers are hilarious, and Pearl is just such a sassy broad (there’s no other word for it) that it really makes the song. There are several times they almost miss the cue to sing because of the crazy improv over the top. I think my favourite bit is right at the end where she says “I don’t got no fur coat or nothing, I really can’t”, and then about 10 seconds later “I’ll tell her to go about her business” with a clear smirk. Brilliant.
Ole Santa – Dinah Washington
Dinah can’t help but sound sultry, and though this song is ostensibly about waiting for Santa to arrive, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to imagine Dinah, dressed in feathered gown, sat at the dressing table and gazing longingly out of the window waiting for her guy to arrive.
Let’s Make Christmas Merry Baby – Amos Milburn
The gentle piano suggest a late-night home alone, the slightly fuzzy production suggest a couple of egg-nogs, and the lyrics suggest… well, what don’t they suggest? He wants to slide our chimney and fill our stockings full of toys! Oh Amos. There’s even a sultry sax solo. It’s all very, very mistletoe.
Dear Mrs Claus – The Barr Brothers
What girl doesn’t want to be wooed at Christmas time? Promises of gifts, holding our hands and distracting the elves for the night, it’s all very sweet and coy. 6/8 is by far the sexiest time signature and the innocent vocal delivery coupled with the humming harmonies in the back, leading into a well-placed guitar solo make this perfect mistletoe fodder. Probably in front of a log fire. Maybe even in matching Christmas pjs. Adultery never seemed so sweet.
I’d Like You For Christmas – Julie London
Julie London has such a soft and sultry voice anyway that she could probably sing the phonebook and it would sound perfect under the mistletoe. But this sweet ballad has some well placed syncopated backing vocals (god knows I love a thought-out backing vocal) and coupled with the high melodies it’s all very intimate and delicate. More of a prolonged smooch than a quick peck under the mistletoe.
Trim Your Tree – Jimmy Butler
This is so, so, so deeply unromantic. But it’s just so hilarious I had to include it in case you hadn’t heard it. The lyrics are ridiculous, the musicians sound like they’re having a ball – the keys player is loving it – and Jimmy is just absolutely going for it on the vocals. Have a sleazy Christmas!
So there you go. A very brief guide to some of my favourite christmas tunes! I haven’t done many music-based posts but this could have been a LOT longer, so let me know if you’d like to hear more.
This is a song I wrote in the summer. Like most of my songs, it’s about a situation I didn’t understand which I mentioned in passing at the time. There was a lot going on. I wrote the lyrics when I was still optimistic about the situation, but I wrote the music later when I knew where I stood.
I thought about typing the full lyrics out into this blog post but I think it’s better to just listen and interpret them yourself. Thank you if you do listen and please let me know what you think!
PeteFest is a festival which was created in honour of my friend Pete who died last year. I’ve posted quite a lot on Pete so long-time readers (thanks both of you) will be familiar with this part of my life, and if you’re following me on social media you probably saw me posting bits last weekend.
Pete’s wonderful parents had already told us: no sadness. The weekend was not for mourning, for grieving, for tears and choking up. The weekend was for celebrating, for smiling, for fun. For embracing and for making a lot of noise. For beer, for sunshine, for cake and for getting involved.
Everything there has said repeatedly; it was awesome. The music was diverse and interesting, the sun was shining, the people were friendly, the pints were flowing. The theme was orange; orange bunting, orange shirts, orange and ginger cake, ginger beer, orange balloons, orange ribbons. Even on an aesthetic level it made the whole weekend brighter; my camera got confused by the higher than usual levels of orange and tried to contort everything into being sepia.
Pete’s family are to be hugely commended for the festival as a whole. Their attitude and determination really dictated the whole festival; I don’t think a single minute passed without seeing smiles and hearing laughter; people dancing, joking, making friends, catching up or sharing a moment. To have a space to meet people we otherwise would not have met without having to outright make a big emotional deal out of it, is amazing. The organisers put in months of work and it really showed.I lost 3 people close to me last year, all unexpectedly and all in their 20’s. Pete’s passing is the only one that has caused people to come together; creating festivals, awards, legacies. I’m not done posting about it or figuring it out (will I ever be?) but that’s not what PeteFest was for. PeteFest was for being happy.
For me, it was a weekend of confronting truths and being surrounded by friends. I intersected with the festival in a lot of ways and it was hard not to see what was happening through those multiple filters: I attended the festival, I played a (small) part in organising it, I performed several times under several guises, I helped promote it, I manned the social media and I made a small attempt to document it with my camera. I was a weak link; I turned in some truly awful performances which I subsequently felt disgusted about, and I also got very drunk. Luckily I had all my friends around. Besides, any festival that ends with the barmen buying you a pint is a success Pete too would have approved of.
I wrote so recently about my wonderful friends and they were all there at PeteFest. I had my closest friends from school days. I had James and Danilo, the remaining pillars of my personal and irreparably broken triumvirate. I had the people I think of as family and I had my actual family, however that goes down. I’m perennially the one with my crap least together, but for my part I fell asleep surrounded by all my oldest and dearest friends; all the people who know me best and care for me most sleeping in the same tent. I remember thinking as I fell asleep; if I don’t feel safe here and now, where and when will I? And that was PeteFest.
Alongside the festival there is also an award set up in Pete’s memory. You can read more about it here. I know a couple of you have written to me in the past that you were so moved by previous blogs that you decided to donate, and I can’t tell you how much that means to me. That I have readers I have never met who are so kind and generous and giving is really incredible. Thank you so, so much for your support and for your love.
Pete further discussed in these posts: 1, 2, 3, 4.
I’ve shared mostly photos of my friends and myself on this blog as I thought it would be weird to share photos of people I don’t know on a personal blog; but it’s weirder I feel that way as a) all the photos are mine and b) they’re all publically on the internet anyway. So if you’d like to see more they are all up on this page. If you’re in one of these photos and don’t want to be – please let me know and I shall remove it immediately.
I was 13 when I became aware of Amy Winehouse, (who was then 19), about 6 months before Frank came out. I was a snobby teen when it came to music; broadly stating that I hated all modern music and immersing myself in forgotten artists from the sixties, jazz singers and long-dead composers, shuffling around awkwardly in record shops across West London. Amy’s music was modern, but I understood the slang, and I recognised the phrasing, the purity, the clarity, lifted from the artists I had grown up loving. She used the kinds of words and chords I one day wanted to be able to use.
I was 14 when I first saw Amy live. She was witty, cool, intelligent. She was the kind of person I wanted to grow up to be. I looked up to her in the way young girls look up to slightly older girls: simultaneously enthralled, scared, and desperate to learn from the big girls in school and the cool kids at the back of the bus. I wanted to know how to write songs like that, how to dress and talk like that, how to engage a crowd like that, how to be funny and interesting. I wanted her to be my older sister. I was a lonely teen obsessed with music and no friends; I blagged my way into as many gigs as possible with other peoples friends. I tracked down b-sides and demos from the Internet. I fell in love with an early unreleased demo, one particular song of hers that I found God knows where. I dreamed of one day hearing her play it live.
That was the year I started writing songs. I was fed up with modern music. I saw an interview with Amy saying she hadn’t been able to find modern stuff she wanted to listen to and thought she’d write her own. I’d been driven by the same motivations, but Amy articulated it better.
Rehab and Back to Black rolled around when I was 16. Suddenly they were all singing Amy. Her fashion got mocked in the papers but I thought she looked beautiful. I already liked pinning my hair into weird up-do’s and I had a series of prized patterned dresses from my beloved Camden, but Amy took it all to 11. I felt almost thrilled when spoke publicly of her love for Camden, the same place I spent all my weekends and pocket money. I borrowed the trend of filling my similarly messy, long black hair with random objects; flowers, hearts, cocktail umbrellas. I went further than Amy; ending up with animal ears, these days my trademark when performing.
I sang at home to Ella or Frank or when writing songs. I practised every day, but I was terrified of people thinking of me as a singer, because I didn’t think I was good enough. Back to Black became the first album I knew word for word. I roamed between social groups at school, feeling bored of all the other people there. With Amy in my ears I shrugged them off, who cared? Her albums became my most constant companion. I bought the sheet music and analysed the chords at my piano when I should have been practising for my grades. I studied the production on the album instead.
During university studying music I still spent long hours listening to Amy. I couldn’t understand how people listened to her passively. Her songs weren’t some crappy pop radio fodder; there were layers, depth, rich emotional meaning. People who merely sang along to Valerie on the radio were missing out on a whole world of wonder. I’d listen to other artists I loved, reading about her influences and connecting the dots. We both loved Dinah, but I preferred Ella whereas Amy often mentioned Sarah. An ex introduced me to Fred Perry, but Amy made me stick around. I gravitated towards messy buns and thick eyeliner anyway as I’ve got big eyes and thick hair, but it was a tiny subconscious homage, every day.
Songwriting had become my strongest modus operandi; everything I thought, felt, said, did, wanted to remember and wanted to forget made it’s way into a song. I kept them largely private, but I wrote songs because I was messed up in the head; if there was no trauma, there was no song. I found my attitude to boys, and to love, and to life, reflected in Amy’s words.
I’d grown up from my teenage crush, but in growing as a musician I was able to better appreciate her musicianship and craft. I often went back to that one unreleased demo I had discovered in my early teens. I’d rarely felt as much of a connection with an artist. I wrote about my relationship to Jimi’s music for my dissertation; but I analysed my empathy with Amy on my own terms. I knew every word of every song. I read every autobiography, watched every interview. She seemed different to the girl I had first seen. I heard her lyrics in my head. I tried to work out her chords on my guitar whilst sat at home, but she was too good.
Two weeks after I finished university Amy died. I was away from home, on a course with strangers, on my first night of a long and bizarre and life-changing summer when I found out. I was heartbroken; I was so far from Camden, from London, from the huge metropolis home we shared, from my guitar, from my notebooks, from my gin, from the things that always made me feel a little bit closer to the girl I’d long ago wanted to grow up to be mates with.
During Edinburgh festival in August of that year, such was the depth of my desperation for Amy’s death that I shared the magical song I’d discovered age 13 with a random stranger. This song I’d listened to and pored over for hours, dreaming of understanding the chords and the words and making music like that of my own some day. I told this guy the whole story. The very next day he told me he’d worked it out; he knew the chords. He started playing it. “Aren’t you going to sing it?” he asked. I tried to explain I wasn’t a singer – I didn’t sing, I played instruments. I was 21, and by this point had spent 8 years writing and singing songs that nobody except me had ever heard. He coaxed me into it and I sang Amy’s song.
We took the song on stage. We got asked to play more. We set up a band, and another band, and another. His name was James, he became my best friend. We got asked to sing some Amy songs at an Amy vigil 2 months after she died. We sang them again at numerous Amy tributes towards the end of the year. We were not a tribute band, and I was not portraying Amy. How could I have? But I felt a connection with her songs, her outlook, her songwriting process and the way she expressed myself. I was not a singer, but I felt like I could sing her songs. I thought I understood her on some level. I thought often about those gigs I’d seen of hers years before; she’d been around 21 then, and I was 21 now. I got it. Eventually, Amy’s songs turned into our own original songs, which turned into my songs, which turned into my life. James got me singing, but Amy got me onto the stage.
I’ve spent four years studying singing. James and I have played more shows and gigs then I care to remember, but the whole thing started back there, a few short weeks after Amy died, with me and Amy’s lyrics and James and Amy’s chords, and both of us crying and wishing she could be here to play that song instead of us working it out from that one unreleased demo, a recording that ranks way up in my most played tracks. That song is my fall-back song, the song I could sing at any moment. I sang along with Amy’s recording in my room aged 13, I sang it the first time I raised my voice on stage, and I sang it last year for my best friends funeral when he died unexpectedly aged 25. I had learned a thing or two about loss firsthand, and it made me think of both of them when I sang it. I almost feel a sense of honour that this one song has given me so much in my life. Maybe I would have sung other songs at some point anyway, or shared my songs with people at some point further down the line regardless. But it was Amy that got me there.
I saw the film last week. I felt a sense of loss and heartbreak all over again; more than ever before I realised why her songs meant so much to me. My friends turned round to me and said how much I had in common with early Amy; the nonchalance, the flirty, friendly teasing, the sarcasm. Her friends said things my friends have said about me. I recognised my own feelings when she talked about needing to have a personal connection to her music. Amy herself said she wrote songs because she was fucked in the head, something I had known to be true about myself years before. Everything she said about music, about songwriting, about her attitude to boys, about her family; it could have come from the script of my own life. I spent the first part of the film nodding and going “Oh my god! Exactly!”. The overwhelming connection I had always felt to her and her songs became clear. I felt my heart ache thinking about how I too had grown up in the suburbs and moved to my own Camden flat, how I’d spent similar nights writing, how I’d doodled over countless notepads.
13 year old me daydreamed of her as an older sister and growing up to be like her, so it was a shock for 25 year old me to watch the film and feel the empathy I’d always felt to her intensify. Amy’s accompanied me for half my life. I never met her, but I’d always felt she never got the credit she deserved, her smart lyrics and impeccable musicianship and witty lines never rated highly enough. The early footage and performances of her are incredible. I hope people re-visit her songs. I hope people change their opinions. I hope people miss her and remember her.
I’m happy with how I write songs now, it’s all I can do and it’s all I’ve got. I’m happy with my little gigs in bars across North London and the odd house. I’ve got my own favourite pubs in Camden now, my own favourite jazz singers, my own songs, my own signature hair, my own style and my own broad London accent. I’ve got my own story and heartaches and life. But I would have liked to have known Amy’s better.
As I said in my post the other week I’ve decided to try and share more of my work! My big focus at the moment is Quizney – a live band karaoke and pub quiz event based on Disney. Our next event is Sunday 15th so it’s Valentines themed (red sequin dress; check) and we’ve moved to a new venue: Proud Camden. It’s one of the more fun places I partied at during my teens so playing there is like closing that little loop in my life!
I’m not the hugest Disney fan in the world so it’s always novel having to immerse myself in the Disney world for each event! Having the chance to study the music in depth is really much more interesting – I studied music for film and musical theatre at Masters Level so analysing the scores and songs of Disney films is hugely satisfying for my inner geek.
Most of my time this week has been based around scheduling promotion, learning the songs, choreographing dances and rehearsing the band. I like to think that despite the poor track record of women writing music for the films (Frozen is the first film to have songs or music written by a woman – Frozen! In 2013!!!) I’m flying the flag by directing and leading the whole night (incidentally the only female in the group). My favourite songs from our upcoming set have to be the Hercules and Aristocats soundtrack – motown and jazz inspired, respectively. They’re just such fun to play!
If you’re in London on the 15th and would like to come then you can get tickets here – you’ll get to hear my host voice…!
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February and Mixtapes
February marks the return of my busy life; gigs, concerts, rehearsals, day trips, parties, exhibitions – it’s all go, go, go in February. I’m waking up! From Queen Elizabeths Hall to Proud Camden to Northwood Hall, I’ll be taking to the stage in a variety of guises and I’m glad to get back to my natural habitat. My bike is fixed, so I can explore. My tax is paid, so I can stop guarding my pennies and return to being a penniless musician. I’m going to Brighton, for Valentines and mod fun, and I’m going home, to help. This is my final month of being in my early twenties.
I’ve made a February playlist and if you have Spotify you can have a listen too. It’s chilled out and grown up, classy and a bit curious. The kind of music you could listen too whilst working from home in the day, or have in the background whilst knocking back a few drinks and then keep playing into the night for when the boy returns and the nighttime activities begin. It’s navy and grey, flashes of copper and occasionally burgundy – but never too dark or oppressive. Dark green corduroy shirts with battered satchels, and with enough space for plumes of smoke to curl and light to filter in through slightly grubby windows. And if that sounds pretentious, those are all the things that this playlist has soundtracked so far this month. Long may she reign.
Once The Musical
(That last picture is just to show you my hilarious post-show face)
This is a very self-indulgent review! Before I get started I want to mention the wonderful people at Seatwave and their new app Timbre which you should check out – more on that later…
A couple of weeks ago I went with James to see Once: The Musical. I saw the original film back in 2006 and on first hearing of the stage adaptation I thought I could imagine a student production playing in a basement in Edinburgh during Fringe, but was perplexed at the prospect of a dazzling Broadway show. It’s not a film that obviously lends itself to a stage adaptation; long shots, sparse conversation, improvised dialogue and slow-burning, subtle documentation have rarely been hallmarks of theatre. The film has no obvious dramatic rises and falls, little character development aside of the two leads and not even a particular drawn out narrative arc.
A lot of characters have been expanded from one-scene cameos into fullblown comedic sidekicks. I appreciate that the story needed to grow to fill a 3 hour show, and whilst I liked the characters of Billy and Andrei I didn’t appreciate the mother, the banker or the overall genre shift. The two leads differed greatly from the film; the Girl had become a lot more fiesty and perky than in the film. I found Marketa Irglova a little naive and simple in the film but weirdly whilst watching the musical it actually changed my memories; I found myself wishing for her naturalistic and wistful performance rather than the poorly-accented and overly comic one I had on the stage (we had understudy Sophie Reid at our performance).
Glen Hansard is dark, brooding and suitably everyman in the film and whilst the Guy (Daniel Hunter) had managed to retain the dark, broody aspects it was without any sense of the earnest, boyish “can’t believe my luck” that Glen has in the film and ended up coming across as grumpy. I wouldn’t describe Glen in the film as particularly charismatic but I think that’s what the character needs on stage; both James and I would like to see Ronan Keating in the role when he takes over as I think his natural charisma will combat the broodiness of the character. However a lot of the accents were all over the place which is a shame; London is one of the most diverse and multicultural cities in the world so where are the legitimately Irish and Czech actors?
The beginning pre-set featured the cast performing as part of an open-mic night; another feature straight out of Edinburgh. The set changes were incredible and I particularly liked the choreography in the flat scene. Musically the show had some impressive moments; the recording scene was a triumph. I’m not a massive fan of the original score and with the exception of “Leave” and “Gold” I don’t think there’s anything that particularly stands out to me and even then I think just love ‘Leave’ because of the vocal lines – Glen’s vocals are incredible and it’s such a heartbreaking song when he performs it. The magic of people joining in mid-song has been proved time and again and it was a nice theme in most of the songs featured.
Ultimately I enjoyed a lot of things about the show without really taking to the show itself. What I really loved is what the show represents for music in a West End theatre. I’ve got a long and varied history of playing music in theatre shows. I first met James during a show we performed about 3 years ago in Edinburgh. Whilst the cast was divided into musicians and actors, we all appeared on stage swapping instruments and performing original folk-pop music during the show (I racked up 8 instruments during the 1 hour show, a record). Whilst back then this was still relatively unique, I feel like now conventions such as: an actor beginning a song and a troupe of musicians joining in, a whole stage singing in 5 or 6 part harmony, melody being recycled during set changes or are now all very common place musical conventions and you could wander into any afternoon show in Edinburgh with “live music” and see a variation on a theme.
What was exciting for me about Once is that these conventions have made it out of the rehearsal room and onto the West End. Actor-musician shows are nothing new (notable examples being 2008 Company and 2009 Sunset Boulevard) but these sort of integrated gig-style shows are. I kept turning around to James during the show and saying “we could do this” – it’s exciting to think the kind of weird, niche thing you’ve spent years doing is reaching a mainstream audience and people are getting to experience music in a new way. The cast should be applauded for acting, singing, dancing and playing throughout. Great production, and as a stand-alone show it’s fine but I still question whether a film like Once can ever translate properly to a stage (and really if it needed to). Have any of you seen Once? I would love to know what you thought!
Thank you so much Seatwave for sending me. Please go and check out Seatwave and their range of concerts – at the moment they’re offering money off for signing up to the newsletter which is pretty rad (also Seatwave have recently launched a new app called Timbre to keep on top of live music which I’ve been using this whole week – speaking as a live music fan, it’s great so gig fans, get on it.) Seatwave are also currently selling The Vamps tickets so get them whilst you’re hot if you’re still mourning McFly like I am (sob)…