Laura Cannell: Hi Stewart, So here we go, I thought I would ask you some questions and please can you can ask me some too? A conversation really…
We were going to work together live for the first time in July at Kings Place which has now been postponed until 2021, the idea for a collaborative piece was already in our heads though. At the same time I was working on a piece I was commissioned to compose for the incredible Irish Contemporary Cellist Kate Ellis called ‘The Last Wild Wolf in Ireland’, and the premiere for that was also cancelled.
One email led to another, and with the addition of Kate on Cello and Double Bass and new writings from Jennifer Lucy Allan and Polly Wright we made an album which is out on my Brawl Records label this autumn called ‘These Feral Lands Volume I’. But none of us met or spoke to each other in person, and you didn’t all hear each others parts until they were whole pieces.
Stewart Lee: I remember you asking me about writing some words for the live version of your landscape project. When we first spoke a few years ago – at Radio 3 on the Xmas Mixing It – I was surprised to find you were from the same part of Norfolk as my birth-family, who I had eventually traced after years of putting it off, and that your Mum knew my sister, and that your friend Polly knew my auntie. Obviously, I am sort of belatedly fascinated by the myths and geography of that region as I suppose biologically I am ‘of’ it, but culturally it is irrelevant to me. I spent lots of time in East Anglia in the early ’90s weirdly, and always find it a bit frightening… sort of vertigo-inducing. The skies are too big. I don’t really like being on the right hand side of this Island. I like the middle, the west and the top end.
LC: This is interesting, I hadn’t put it into words before but I did a project with the brilliant Angharad Davies called Mythos of Violins a few years back, and we performed in 3 countries England, Wales and Scotland, when we were in Wales on the extreme west coast I felt that same vertigo of the sea being in the wrong place, I lost all sense of direction. I don’t get it in the North, one of my favourite places is Northumberland (and ancestrally its in my blood), but the west makes me woozy.
SL:Anyway, it seemed like the right thing to write about Norfolk/Suffolk and other locations connected with my newly traced family, as you asked about what landscape meant to us. And I suppose my relationship w those landscapes is complicated. What do you think about the landscape you write in and how it affects you? You are very much from there.
LC: I am quite stubborn in that as soon as someone you say that I am very much from here, I want to fight against it. It’s good to have a place to draw ideas from, but it’s more about what isn’t here that I’m interested in, always looking at the spaces in-between. Creating new things out of seemingly void spaces. I have gone from wanting to leave Norfolk at 18 and moving straight to London, which I did, to gradually returning for the space. I realised that so much of what I need is visual space, I get a bit aggro if I’m around buildings too much. The nature changes all the time and buildings stay the same, I find it rigid and I find it hard not to get into repetitive thoughts patterns about buildings and the people in them. In the countryside I like the stillness because my head is never quiet, it’s always noisy except when I am playing or creating, so I don’t need extra noise. But getting the balance between isolated, inspiring and outright depressing has taken a few years.
I’m glad you wrote about Norfolk and Suffolk, and the Welsh Borders.
LC: Did making this album help your head during Lockdown? Did it need helping?
SL:It was great to have something to do. All my live work is over and I just did home-schooling of the 9 year old. It was such an escape, and it directed my reading to all the source materials I needed. And it made me think about being outside.
LC: I know that I got completely obsessed with it, and it got me through a really hard patch (with a loss in the family from C19), which is why I optimistically called it Volume I.
SL:I’m really sorry to hear that. We escaped immediate tragedy but there are deaths in our extended network. I feel guilty that I quite enjoyed the 1st month – silence, birdsong, no traffic, the smell of flowers instead of petrol, clear skies day and night, and all of Columbo on DVD, because we were insulated against immediate disaster. How was the process of the record different to others?
LC: It also felt like such a departure for me in some ways, working with words, although when I think back through my previous performing, before I was a solo performer under my own name, I have actually worked with quite a lot of spoken word/storytellers. But working with you was different as your words, speech and vocals feel like an equal instrument and very much in tune with the idea of leaving space. I didn’t feel like an accompanist, it felt like a band even though we’ve worked remotely.
SL: It’s really kind of you to say this. I felt very honoured to be asked – we love your music in our house – and I was very worried about letting you down. Maybe I have done? Who knows? The more I tried to get the vocals to work the worse they got. Shirley Collins (name drop clang) said I can only sing any song well once, the first time I do it, and then I try to perform it. I know I sent you another effort at the Barsham Light vocals but I think the originals were maybe better even though they were even more tuneless. It is particularly shaming because what you sent through is so brilliant. At least there’s lots of parts of the album where people can hear just you. I was proud of the words though. Usually I try and slip the writerly writing into the comedy so it was nice to just be able to do it for real.
LC: You recorded some of your vocals as individual tracks, and because they were improvised they came out in harmony which I love, I know that you sing at the end of your current show Snowflake / Tornado because I jumped up on stage with my fiddle in Leicester Square Theatre earlier this year. Do you think you would go further into singing? (asking for a friend / thinking about TFL Volume II). Also do you have a favourite traditional song, and have you ever been taught one purely by ear?
SL: My favorite trad song is POLLY ON THE SHORE. I know it from The Trees’ ON THE SHORE from 1970, which I got in about 1986, but a blind bloke used to sing it in the folk club in Oxford that I went to in the Port Mahon pub up Cowley Rd in Oxford around 1988. I got to sing it with TREES when the reformed a couple of years back. When I had a crap acid-folk band (we did 3 gigs 1989-91) we used to do a psychedelic heavy metal 20 minute jam on it.
LC: I LOVE this song, I just revisited it because you mentioned it! (also my dad sings it all the time in his van).
SL: I don’t think I can sing really, but I was in a church choir (I don’t really know why – my childhood friend Nigel Short got me to join it and he now runs a posh choral group called Tenebrae) from 1975 to about 1979. I loved lots of the music especially Tallis. We did 3 services on Sundays and weddings on Saturdays and 2 or 3 practises a week. I liked the language of the Anglican services, and the pacing of the sermons, and soaked it all up. We went on week long courses where we filled in for Cathedral school choirs during their holidays at St Asaph, Hereford, Gloucester, Tewkesbury. I remember Mouseman carvings of little mice and weird bench ends in the cathedrals. On the St Asaph trip one of the ex-trebles had hardcore pornography which I was shown on a day trip to Bedgellert which freaked me out. In Hereford I think I probably slept in a room once occupied by the young Arthur Machen, the horror/mystic writer I am now a huge advocate for. The choir also had a weird claustrophobic atmosphere too. The choirmaster was periodically obsessed in quite oppressive depth with whichever boy soprano was the best at any given time, and the ex-trebles and priests used to go off on long weekend trips to Amsterdam. The ’70s was like that. I think my love-hate relationship with organised religion may have been formed by this clammy experience. I love the art and philosophy and history of the church of England but it also nauseates me, sickens me on a visceral level.I am glad I listened to all those services though, as it decodes Blake and Milton and all the greats. I also did classical guitar to grade 4 but then then teacher said I was as much use as ‘a fart in the wind’ and he was right. I wish I had worked at guitar and I should have learned the saxophone. Alan Wilkinson and Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann look so free. All I ever wanted from stand-up was for it ti give me a life where I was free. Did you do music as a child? I mean – what meshed together to mean you ended up sounding like you do and operating in the space you do? There is no-one else.
LC: I think Tenebrae is another name drop (esp. in the classical/early music world). I didn’t know about all of your singing, I love Tallis too and all those renaissance polyphonic composers. I used to sing in a Renaissance Choir in Beccles run by Philip Thorby, a professor of Early Music and major inspiration to my early music learnings (he also guested on some of my old bands albums on viola da gamba).
We’ve found quite a lot of common ground in terms of attitudes towards the practice of improvisation as well as our own personal folklore histories. These Feral Lands has acted as a vessel for us to do our own thing, and then bring it together into a coherent (to us) whole. I think it’s really interesting that we can bring such different ideas together, we didn’t really discuss what any of it would sound like at all. It’s all based on not over planning.
SL: It’s kind of you to say that. I was in the dark really but I knew what you had sent was great, so I tried not to get in its way. My son, 13, helped me record the vocals, in our cat-shit smelly cellar, on his computer, but he was so embarrassed by what I was doing he couldn’t stand being in the room during the actual recordings. My family took personal offence at the Black Shuck one. They said it wasn’t fair to make those sounds in the house and were worried people at the bus stop outside would hear.
LC: I did feel bad for you trying to record the Black Shuck track near other people! It’s not something you can do if you feel inhibited/unsupported by people nearby! This has been the main reason for me doing so much recording in rural churches! When I’m experimenting I don’t want to know or be worried what anyone else thinks or the noise! Anyway they will have just thought it was an toothless local haunted by a demon dog and carried on along their way.
SL: They all like your stuff though, and it was great when we went to that installation for the soldiers at the tower of London and we could identify your sound in the mix, even though we hadn’t known you were part of it. I expect they will just think I have ruined half of your record. I am glad it was all something you felt you could work with. Writing the words was therapeutic for me and I am usually entirely resistant to writing anything so obviously personal. But I worry that the addition of words limits the emotional range of what you do. Your music makes us make our own choices. It doesn’t direct them. The words have put a gloss of meaning on it haven’t they?
LC: But that’s what I wanted. I have been so adamantly instrumental for my whole career that I wanted to see how it would work with words, and especially the contrast between your explosive diaphragm driven expulsions and the more personal and folkloric vocalisations. There is plenty of space in there.
As a starting point I sent over some solo violin improvisations recorded in January 2020 while watching a buzzard outside my living room window, who was watching me.
SL: I didn’t know you had been watching a buzzard. That is why they were all called Buzzard 1 or Buzzard 4 and things like that. It really makes sense that you were improvising off the sight of a buzzard. That is exactly what they feel like. The pieces are stationary like a hovering bird of prey but vibrant and alive at the same time. I don’t know how anyone can create in a vacuum. I sort of argue with another version of myself in my own head, like someone with two personalities. Sometimes the other voice makes me do things I don’t really know how to do. Do you know the painter Gina Southgate? She was at ATP. She paints improvising musicians in real time. She sees the finished painting I think as a kind of collaboration with them.
LC: I thought at the time that none of it had worked, I was judging in the moment, I honestly thought it was all grot.
SL: I don’t know why you would think that of them, as they are great, except that I normally hate everything I have done after a while. I have to revive a show I was half way through touring, that I wrote in 2019, when the theatres open next year and I don’t know what I will think of it. I don’t really understand people reviving their old work – we aren;’t the people that wrote it anymore – but I do love it when my fave bands tour a classic album or whatever. What do you think of things you did a decade ago?
LC: Having seen your latest show I think it will be an amazing for people to experience it now. There is so much breadth to it and now that we have all shifted together, in some kind of reckoning and grief, I think it will be even more poignant! (I’m not being complimentary for the sake of it, I’ve already got you on the album!)
A decade ago I was touring and writing music with my band Horses Brawl. How I feel is that I was desperate to prove that I could play and write music, I was insecure but also completely driven, I knew I had something to say but I didn’t know what and I think some of the compositions had a very intense energy because I was frustrated with some of the places we were playing and the scene, because we basically didn’t fit into any scene, but would get bookings at Arts Festivals, airplay on BBC Radio 3, Arts Centres, but often I felt I wasn’t playing to my peers, though I think we did play Cambridge Folk Festival around that time. I was desperate to find people like me who were immersed in music but not either completely old school classical in mindset or rigidly traditional folk or just totally different. Anyway…
… when I listened back to the Buzzards in April at the beginning of our project I realised that I needed to open the door and see what response you would have to this music without telling you too much, and the pieces are now the backbone to the album, they are in every track, whether audible or not they are all there.
SL: This sounds nuts but when I am doing a new show, at some point in the development I will perform what I have in hand a bit drunk, to see what a pissed incoherent remix of the material does to it, like handing it over to someone to deface, or improvising with a stranger. It is usually improved. The act has the persona of a belligerent drunk, or a half-cut person who thinks he is clever and people should listen to him. But it is an act. I’m not someone who has enormous faith in the idea that chemically altering your perceptions is a key to creative breakthroughs. It makes me sad when I see these old punk guys I like fall off stages fucked. It reminds me of things in my childhood I’d rather forget. I do eat a lot of cheese though which is good for dreams I suppose. What do you think? There’s a good cheese from Bungay isn’t there? And that St Peter’s ale?
LC: ’He was off his head on Baron Bigods Cheese & St Peter’s Ale when he wrote this bit!’, did you know they have a vending machine in the middle of no-where for that cheese? I like the idea of doing a pissed version, in private. I can’t drink and play at all. I used to find it really stressful doing gigs in bands with people who could (or did). I just felt like I had got to this great place of being open and free with my playing and combatting performance anxiety etc, and getting as close as possible to my intentions. I don’t really get why you do all this work to create something, and when you come to share it with people you do a weird drunk version! I know some people do it to calm nerves or because they think they do it better ‘relaxed’ but my plan is to be so in the performance that however awkward it feels I can use that and channel it into the playing. I say, have a drink after or the next day! Let the audience have a drink and do your thing with wild abandon and as much cheese as you like, and I personally don’t want to watch someone off their head, fall on their head (unless it’s part of the show).
When you are creating new material do you actually get rid of anything or do you keep creating and making and them come, back to ideas?
SL: I love abandoning things. I gives me a sick thrill to dump something I have worked on for months. But it is different every time. The UKIP half hour episode of Comedy Vehicle that is always on social media took about as long to write as it does to say. Some other half hour bits took 2 years of back and forth, until nothing of the original draft is left at all.
LC: Or do you do something else entirely? Sometimes I forget that that best thing is not to make a judgement on what you are doing in the moment, the feeling to the performer can be so different to the outcome.
SL: We are lucky in comedy. The laugh noise tells us how it’s going. What do you look for in audience responses.
LC: I decided a few years ago to stop second guessing what the audience response should be. I think I look pretty grumpy when I’m listening and watching music, so I think it’s fair enough not to get a visual response like that. Also I really want to go on stage and just play without talking, but I always end up talking, I think it’s good to acknowledge that we’re all there together, and that also gives people an opportunity to let out a sound, otherwise they are usually being very quiet. My favourite thing in the world is whoops at the end of an improvisation around a 5th century psalm of repentance, I live for that stuff kind of response. I think my best verbal audience was at Unsound Festival in Poland a couple of years back, they were all really cool and they loved it!!! I had no idea until the end of the set when the room erupted.
SL: Do you consider yourself an ‘entertainer’ or an ‘artist’ or both. I have tried self-consciously I suppose to make ‘arty’ stand-up but I like the fact that I am performing it in a vaudeville tradition where it was supposed to be entertainment. It grounds it. What’s the difference between what you do now and playing at ceilidhs?
LC: I think it’s that difference between functional music and a performance. In ceilidhs people tend to fall into different categories, drunk, Ernest, and self-conscious. I did ceilidhs for about 10 years around East Anglia, London (and one in Ireland). It’s not about the performer, you are playing traditional tunes in your way, and people like it, but it’s not about you. Thousands of fiddlers could do that job. But I can be at the same venue performing my music and they headspace is in a different world. I remember once playing at Ceilidh at The Union Chapel in London, and then a few years later performing my music. I don’t think I’m an entertainer but I do have a lot to give from the stage, I think that’s the most important thing. It’s not about the audience just being entertained, it’s about sharing time and feelings.
If something feels like a battle in performance, do you push into it more?
SL: I try to see how bad I can make everything go before I turn it around. Mark E Smith always seemed to be trying to snatch failure from the jaws of success, and then make the jaws of failure vomit the success back out again. I suppose I have copied that. Do you ever feel audiences are on the edge?
LC: I’ve spent a long time trying to see how crunchy and dissonant I can make my overbow fiddle playing before I give some sort of release or resolution… if I do. I think that sort of suspended sonic angst is an amazing place to be, to go from crunching, biting atonal strings to a pure individual note. I think a lot of my playing is quite feral, and I’ve played into that more and more since realising that I don’t want to be and am not a classical violinist. I’m not neat but I have ways of playing that I’ve developed. Like I said earlier, it’s about a vessel for performance and expression. I need to feel that edginess in order to feel like something is happening. I think people have been on the edge with my music, I love pulling them in, and strangers being visually surprised at themselves that they liked it whether they wanted to or not.
These Feral Lands Volume 1 is out on Friday 13th November 2020
www.brawlrecords.co.uk & all good record shops