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Wot use is the arts? Reflections from the Arabian desert

I'm a long way from home. Last night I was in proper Arabian desert. I watched the sun sink over dunes half the height of the Brecon Beacons, and this morning I saw a herd of camels drifting between little knots of blue green vegetation that looked about as appetising as plate scrubbers.

(Actually I think they were plate scrubbers - who knew they grew in the desert?)  I'm here for work and always with work trips I don't plan. Somebody else has planned my itinerary and handed me a ticket, I know what work I have to do, so beyond packing the right number of pairs of socks I don't prepare for the down time part of my trip. Which means I always load my poor little iPod shuffle at the very last minute and end up making some pretty bizarre music choices. This time there's one artist who I don't even recognise on there. But in my hurry I also made some good choices....things I haven't listened to for ages. Today I had a long taxi ride with a driver with whom - we soon discovered - I did not share a single word of one language (he at least had the merit of having three to chose from I only have one) so I gave up trying to ask after his family in sign language and plugged in my earphones. Up popped all kinds of things....the Bhundu Boys, Curved Air ( ah...remember them?) an acoustic version of Talking Heads' 'Heaven', some Kate Rusby I don't think I ever heard before, ditto June Tabor, Stevie Wonder, and lots of lovely vintage early Beatles that I haven't heard since a party at the Bologna Book fair two years ago where twenty something Groovy Italian publishers were bopping about to stuff I hadn't danced to since I was four. Anyway it was an odd, if rather marvellous, sound track to the stark Omani landscape, of moon like mountains, and dots of green vegetation on russet, beige and lavender grey pebble- desert . It made me think and feel so many things - as music does -and along with the emotional stream of consciousness, I also thought about how I use music. And I do use it, to give me energy cheer me up, make me cry, calm me down. And that in turn made me think of some of the talk there's been in the press this week about arts funding. All the usual debates dragged out again...theoretical choices between curing childhood cancer and funding a theatre company which represents everything in courgettes, you know the kind of stuff. It's true there are tough choices to make, but what we all need to hold in our minds is that, yes survival is important, but there has to be a reason for surviving. Humans are, if they are anything, engines for explaining the world - through science, and through art in all their wondrous diverse forms, even courgette theatre and Schroedinger's cat.

So in answer to tabloid-esque questions about WOT USE IS THE ARTS   below are some artists and tracks and their very specific uses, to demonstrate the Immense Utility Of The Arts ( apart of course from being about our biggest export - Ed Sheeran's just been here to Oman and my books and those of many other British authors are translated into a gazillion other languages - none of which of course I speak).

For Creating a Calm But Enlivened Atmosphere on long Drives

(This requires a mixture of up beat optimism underpinned with melancholy, struggle or pathos)

Charles Trenet

the Bhundu Boys

For The Happy Remembrance Of Past Relationships (when you don't want to do too much crying

David Bowie Life On Mars

Kid Creole and the Coconuts I'm Not Your Daddy

Olly Murs Dance With Me Tonight

For  Cathartic and Indulgent Misery (possibly involving gin drunk in a hot bath)

Lana Del Ray Video Games

Talking Head This Must be The Place

Almost anything by Adele

john Martyn Couldn't Love You More

For Raising Energy Levels on the Way to Tedious Meeting or Shopping Expedition

Scissor Sisters. I don't feel like dancing

Weather Girls Raining Men

The Only Ones Another Girl another planet ( this is an efficient choice as you only need the intro, played VERY LOUD)

For Hoovering

Los Lobos La Bamba

For Dusting

Beyoncé. All The Single Ladies

Womak and Womak Teardrops

For cleaning the Bath

Queen Don't Stop Me Now

Marcus Collins Seven Nation Army

For Existential Reflection When At Home on. Saturday Night

David Byrne Heaven

Rosanne Cash God is in The Roses

Nick Drake Time has Told me

Bobby Womak the Bravest Man in the Universe

Georgia Ruth The Week Of Pines (also good for making salad)

For Proposals of Marriage

The Magnetic Fields  Time

For Driving to a Date

The Broken Family Band Cinema Vs House

for Driving From a Date

Lady Gaga Baby You Were Born this Way

And finally some gender specific tracks...

For Ladies Holidaying Alone ( especially on the first occasion )

Lisa Gerard Now We Are Free

Be Bop De Luxe Ships in the Night.

Anyway....I hope you find it helpful. Please feel free to tweet us your own Specific Uses Of Music.

New songs, old songs, memories, and crap Dylan lyrics

Sooo like I said last time we’re trying to build a new playlist. We’ve given two Rosanne Cash ones their first outing at open mic nights and we have a Roo Panes and a couple of Karine Polwarts up our sleeves, but we’re hampered by the fact that we’re both going to be spending most of the next two months in different countries. I’m also trying to learn some Joan Baez - partly in the vain hope that I might actually manage to accompany myself on one or two of them one day (if you heard me trying to play guitar you would laugh out loud at this point).

Listening to the Joan Baez songs - Nu Bello Cordillo (yep its in Spanish - no pressure then) and Farewell Angelina (which has some of Dylan’s WORST lyrics) I came across Silver Dagger. I hadn’t listened to it since I was 14 and it took me right back to my parents sitting room, with the ‘Radiogramme’ - my father’s pride and joy, like a sort of polished acoustic blanket box in the corner of the room. My father played classical records, Verdi’s Requiem every Sunday morning at a volume that would not have been out of place in an Emmerson Lake and Palmer gig. His position all the time my sister was a teen was that ‘pop music’ was a danger to his stylus,  but by the time I hit adolescence a decade later he’d softened. So I was sometimes allowed to play my Elton John and Wings on the sacred Radiogramme. But the Joan Baez must have been something he liked. I think the record was my sister’s, left behind when she left home and played when she visited, because I remember it drifting through the house, not shut behind a door. Through Silver Dagger on spotify I heard my sister’s voice, singing along, and floating about in a home made cotton maxi frock. I remember how I felt too, oddly disturbed that, although she was bloomingly pregnant, she was singing along to ‘ all men are false, says my mother, they’ll tell you wicked loving lies’. Somehow that line was the foundation of a new kind of thinking for my little teenage brain, a beginning of seeing myself not taking a conventional female route in life (that, and my Mother constantly telling me that independence was the most important thing). I hear it now and it still gives me a shiver, a tremble in an old fault line. 

Hillaire Belloc said that to write songs ‘was the best of all trades’. He was right of course, because songs have that power, to lodge in our hearts as catalysts for change, as inspiration or simply to capture a moment and put us right back into it. We could tell our lives highlights in songs. We can also tell different versions of our life-narrative - pick the sad songs and your autobiography is a tragedy, pick the ones you flung yourself about to on the dance floor and you have a life of triumph.

So just for fun, here are five of my life songs and the snapshot memories they bring.

True Love Ways - Buddy Holly. This is my sister again, pre access to the Sacred Radiogramme. She and my brother had to play their music on a reel to reel tape recorder.   Tinny and bland but I can hear Buddy singing out now and see my sister in capri pants and  a baggy sweater, and enough mascara to plug a major plumbing leak.

Video Killed the Radio Star - The Buggles. There was a cellar bar at my college at Cambridge that was the envy of the other colleges. A hotbed of leftwing radicalism, drugs, sex, boose and dancing. I wasn’t fussed about anything but the dancing, and three nights a week I bopped holes in my shoes. My best mate, Martin was a fave partner cos he didn’t care what he looked like on the dancefloor either - although actually, tall skinny and with an explosion of the reddest hair on the planet, he looked rather cool. I have this song on my shuffle and play it often when I’m running, and it takes me to The Kings Late Night Bar, and Martin (whatever happened to that gorgeous blond boy who always stood near the door I wonder, one of of ‘The Northern Lads’...ah!)

Under African Skies - Paul Simon. Of course everyone played this album TO DEATH. It was the theme tune of BBC parties when I was presenter for about three years. By the time my son was two in 1989 I’d almost stopped playing it, but we must have had it on pretty often, because one day, out of nowhere Joseph stood on the windowsill of our cottage and sang, word and note perfect, the first half. He must have felt that, as the song began with his name, it was his. I can hardly listen to it now without choking up. Even writing this my eyes are prickling. I can see him, little green top and teeny jeans looking through the window and singing.

Eternal Flame - The Bangles.  I know it’s a soppy choice, I know. But the memory it carries is important and comes in two layers. It was hit when my daughter was born. And she was the cutest, easiest baby, a gorgeous little bundle and this song makes me think of that precious up-with-the-angels few days after I brought her home. The song came back to me years later too. I was swimming, quite a way off shore, in Greece, and my daughter was walking down to the beach to join me. I watched her walking, strong and well and confident. The song played again in my head and connected up that little bundle with this fabulous young woman, making time and life fold.

Now We Are Free - Lisa Gerard.  It’s the closing theme from Gladiator, kind of a weird song as Lisa Gerard (who clearly has an ego the size of a major planetary system) is famous for singing words that she makes up on the spot. Normally lyrics are very important to me, but somehow the meaningless words here carry just what the title suggests. For me this is about freedom. I don’t play it often cos I don’t want to use it up, but I save it for moments when I feel most liberated,  most free, when I’m traveling on my own. So it got played in Crete, watching the mountain and the coast whiz by from a bus window; it got played on the valparetto crossing to the Grand Canal, in the back of a jeep in the Garo Hills in N India, on the flight over the Amazon from Bogota and on the deck of a boat in Dominica. When I hear it it makes me think of all the journeys I still want to take.

So those are five of mine - there could be a hundred - but what are yours?

Nicola Davies

A reflection on songs and songwriting

We’ve done quite a few gigs this Summer, not as many as we’d like, but as many as demanding jobs, families and our rather haphazard way of getting gigs, will allow. It’s been wonderful, and now we have a set we can play comfortably and with confidence. All of the songs in it we like enough to live with for a long time, and some of them we love enough to go on singing until we drop off our zimmer frames. But arriving at that set has been a lengthy process, of trial and error, of loving and then losing. We are always suggesting new songs to each other (even when we’ve sworn to close the list of ‘new things to learn) but some songs that we loved at first listen, have ended up being dropped. Sometimes that's because no matter how much we like them, we can’t add anything to them or make them our own.  And sometimes that’s because the song itself just isn’t strong enough to stand up to being practiced and performed time and time again. Sometimes songs that didn't seem that promising blossom into something new and wonderful. Just singing a song over and over can allow it to reveal itself to you. 'Dancing in the Dark' did that for me - I had always been very rude about 'The Boss' until i learnt - really learnt- that song, and now understand how good he is, and how great that song is. It’s like shoes - some look pretty but then they rub as soon as you’ve walked down the street in, but other pairs you dance, walk, run in for years and they still feel and look great. Only the best songs stand up to being sung over and over, only the ones you really love are the ones you can sing a thousand times and never fail to tell the story they contain.  

So what makes ‘the best songs’ the ones that you really love? For me it’s structure. I like something with a good strong framework. ‘Leaving Eden’ by the Carolina Chocolate Drops has got that structure: the halting waltz timing, the tough story of the verses and the lyrical lament of the refrain. The marriage between words and music, between the imagery in the words and the emotion in the music is perfect. There isn’t a line or a note I would change. My connection to that song has only got stronger with every time I’ve sung it. I want to be a better singer so I can do it justice, and every time we do it it’s my chance to be better at it! There are others in our set like that - Gillian Welch’s ‘Hard Times’, Rosanne Cash’s wonderful ‘Roses and Thorns’ (I drove off the road and cried in a layby for half an hour the first time I heard that on the radio) and probably every single song that is dipped in folk tradition - from Scarborough Fare which is neck deep, to ‘Santiago’ by Show of Hands, that’s only up to its knees.  

Paring our set down to the things we can do and do, with the same heart every time has made me really think about the process of song writing and about how that marriage of words and music is made. I hadn’t articulated my vague thoughts to myself until I went to see Rosanne Cash play at St Georges in Bristol a few weeks back. I’d booked the ticket as soon as the gig was listed, so I was right in the middle of the front row. It was one of the most wonderful live performances I’ve ever been to for all sorts of reasons - the quality of the musicianship, the depth of the feeling between Rosanne and her musical partner and husband John Leventhal- but it crystalized something about song writing in my head. Most of the evening was devoted to the album ‘The River and the Thread’ which is as Rosanne said “that old fashioned thing, a concept album”. It’s about the South and the stories of Rosanne’s family roots. It is in fact, narrative non fiction. 

Now in my day job I write, and a lot of what I write is narrative non fiction, for kids. So I’m always having to package up the world in small, digestible parcels, richly seasoned with emotion and imagery. And I have to think about marrying my words with an illustrator’s pictures. Hearing Rosanne Cash talk about the process of writing the songs for her album sounded just like what I do when I’m writing picture books. I almost jumped up on stage and hugged her because it felt to great to find another person thinking in the way I do.

I came away from the gig with something inside me turned over like a leaf, a realisation that maybe writing songs wasn’t as impossibly difficult as I’d thought it was. Mike and I have written one song together and performed it, but somehow we ran into the sand after that - I wrote words, he wrote music but they didn’t seem to get together. But last week for the first time in more than a year we tried to put them together...and it started to work. Suddenly I could see how words I’d written would fit to the some of the string of lovely melodies and riffs Mike's invented.

So our big new task between now and the end of the year is to work on a new set. New songs by other people, (several from The River and The Thread, a couple of Karine Polwart, more Kirsty MacColl, a few bonkers acoustic covers...Kid Creole and the Coconuts maybe?) that we can love and sing time and time again. And new songs that we’ve created that maybe will have some of the characteristics required to live with us for a long time.

Nicola Davies

Back at BRfm and feeling great!

It’s not far from Abergavenny to the lakeside studios of lovely Brynmawr FM but it seems Pangolin are doomed to make the journey into an Expedition. The first time we went up there in the spring, we were in convoy: me and Mike with the guitars and banjo in one car, with Marcus and ‘his mistress’ (the double bass) following. Oli, being a Young Person (and therefore in possession of a fully functioning brain), came on his own. I don’t know how many times we went round the same roundabouts but it was definitely enough to arrive with a nasty case of motion sickness on top of my already raging nerves. Boy, I was nervous that first gig. Instrument players, you may think nerves play havoc with your finger coordination but it is nothing to the ruin they wreak on a voice.

 Anyway, yesterday it was just the two of us. Marcus is back with the blues and jazz and Oli’s doing full on final degree year (we miss you guys!) so no convoy and we didn’t get lost. But we didn’t get off to a good start either. I almost took the sump off my car going down the track to Mike’s house, realising too late that the pressure in one of my tires was almost negative. I pumped the tyre. We loaded up and before we pulled away, Mike ran through a checklist: six string, twelve string, banjo, uke, stands, music stands, capos, set list, finishing with


Bananas are an essential item. Mike read somewhere that their potassium content staves off nerves, so a banana a piece is the minimum preparation for any gig (Brecon jazz festival fringe was a two banana gig. I don’t think I’d cope with something that would be a three banana performance).

“Oh and I’ve got drugs too!” Mike, “Here, d’you want one?”

I thought we might suddenly have got a bit too rock and roll, but he held out a packet of the herbal remedy ‘Kalms’, which are made of essence of nettle root extracted by fairies in moonlight, or something.

“Mmm thanks.” I said. Try anything once, me.

 As we drove away I was busy saying that I didn’t feel nervous (those fast acting Kalms perhaps?) but my driving seemed to be telling another story: I may have hit one or two kerbs, and Mike just may have been looking a bit pale by the time we rocked up outside the studios. I pulled into a bay just by the studio doors. There was a sort of crunching noise.

“I think you drove over the kerb.” Mike said

“No, no!” I said airily, “There was a stony thingy in this bay. I must have crushed it.”

Mike sensibly didn’t say a word.

I’d expected the studio to be freezing in this weather. I’d dressed in lots of layers because my experience of cold radio studios in my career with the BBC taught me that shivering from cold easily transmits into shivering from nerves. But as we carried in the instruments (and bananas) I noticed it was lovely and warm (if you watch the video you may notice I’m pink and shiny). There was another sort of warmth too: once again Dan James (the host of the show) and the BRfm Boys were SOOOO lovely, SOOOO welcoming and SOOOO completely professional I began to really not be nervous. It felt like we were all working together to make the best music we could, and that if Mike and I could just do our best they would make us sound great.

So, for an hour the team laboured with cables and connections. Mike and the Boys had conversations that might as well have been in ancient Greek as far as I was concerned. Not only can I not play any instruments but wiring a plug is my biggest technical achievement and even then I have to look up which wire is which. But they were all so capable and so meticulous that it gave me confidence. We had time to run though lots of numbers - especially the ones that had been giving me nightmares - and I felt more and more relaxed. Our mics and foldback were absolutely perfectly set up. I could hear my own voice at just the right level to adjust my tone and tuning (well within my own small limits anyway). In short it began to feel like FUN, so when Mike said, ten minutes before the start of the show,

“D’you want a banana?”

you know I almost felt I could have said no. But you can’t be too careful so I had two sugars in a cup of industrial strength tea and I felt good to go. Not nerve free but not in the usual ‘rabbit in headlights’ condition I’m prone to.

 Our first number was a Kirsty MacColl ‘England Two Colombia NIl’. Mike played this perfectly almost the first time he tried (some people are just so talented it makes you sick)  but it took me a year to learn it. I sang it all the time to fix it in my head. I think my neighbours in the terrace where I live probably really hate the song now But it still feels like going straight for the North Face of the Eiger as an opening number. It wasn’t perfect - hey, I’m not Kirsty - but it was a Good Job, and after that everything else felt really great.

We sometimes worry that the songs we do are too diverse; our set list yesterday included a Bruce Springsteen, Elbow, Athlete, Kirtsy, Cara Dillon, the Avett Brothers and Nick Lowe. So not what you’d really call ‘folk’, not what you’d really call anything specific. but I think that’s OK. We choose songs we love, and love playing and if we love playing them there’s a chance our audience will love listening to them.

 So yesterday, thanks to the incredible care and craft of Dan James and the wonderful people at BRfm all our hours of practice paid off, we were able to shape each song, and make the emotions and stories ring out. We were almost as relaxed as if we were rehearsing in Mike’s spare room, with nobody but a waggy terrier to hear us.

 There was a little confusion over the timing - the studio clock turns out to be a bit fast so we had to do a rushed version of a Nick Lowe song cos our Elbow finale ended two minutes before the end of the show. But even that didn’t phase us too much. We came off air and felt, not the awful relief of our first gig, a sense of having survived an ordeal, but real elation: we knew we’d done almost the best we could.

 Back in the car, we grinned at each other in a very slightly idiotic way as I went round a roundabout for the second time.

“I think we did really well.” Mike said

“Must be the bananas and the drugs.” I said

“Looking forward to doing some new stuff now...”

“Yess!” I replied, “I love the songs we did today but we have been practicing them a LOT. We can do some new Kirsty ones and some Christmasssy ones and...”

Mikes phone rang, and after a brief conversation he told me to turn the car round,

“We’ve got to go back to the studio, “he said, “a bit of your car’s fallen off in the parking bay.”




Live at the BRFM Vault

We set off in convoy for our gig at Brynmawr Radio. Me and Mike with the guitars leading the way and Marcus with the double bass (‘my mistress’ as he calls her with a characteristic wicked twinkle) bringing up the rear. It may seem ridiculous to behave like a wild west wagon train when going such a short distance but there was some uncertainty about which roundabout, and which industrial estate, and a lot of turning maps around upside down and side on. I didn’t say anything, hell I’m a girl what do I know about map reading?

Anyway...the boys were right to have convoyed up because we did a little tour of roundabouts and then arrived in the right industrial estate but couldn’t find the radio station. The only clue was the two ladies having a nifty fag who said ‘S’over b’there butty!’ Unit number 23 had no sign except for one saying to keep the door closed and keep the pollen out. For a moment I thought the situation had all the hallmarks of a comedy disaster “we had a gig on the radio but we couldn’t find the studio...” but when we pushed open the pollen notice double door, we entered an Alladin’s cave of music. Posters and CDs lined the walls of a windowless warren of offices and little studios. We were in the right place! But would Olly, coming on his own all the way from Hay and not in any sort of convoy find  it? We fretted. And five minutes later Olly breezed in calmly,

“How did you find it?” we asked, amazed

Olly, 21 and sensible just looked at us as if we’d landed from Mars (or the mid 18th century) and said

“Sat nav.”

So with Pangolin, Featuring Olly Lewis all assembled we were ready to set up. Brynmawr radio couldn’t have been nicer, everyone smiled, everyone was pleased to see us. And then they showed us into the studio where we’d be playing. I’m not sure what I expected, a cupboard with one microphone I think, because that’s what you get in BBC regional radio studios (the one in Taunton that I used to do interviews from was above a chippy) but what we got was a proper sized stage, proper mics, and individually supplied fold back. We had lots of time for sound checks and run throughs while the crew set up cameras to film us (!!!) and everyone made us feel very very welcome. 

I have to admit that I get nervous. I do lots of performing in my proper job and my pulse rate doesn’t go up at all, but singing is different. Fluffing a note is somehow the most personally humiliating thing a human can do. And fluffing a first note is SO easy. I’m acutely aware with Pangolin that everyone else in the band has played loads of gigs but before this last year the only audience I’ve sung to is a small flock of sheep. But Brynmawrs warmth and welcome was so fantastic that my nerves weren’t as bad as I expected. We all felt really at ease and supported. So when the ‘two minutes to on air’  announcement came (what I used to call the ‘beam me up Scotty’ moment when I did live telly) we were all actually looking forward to playing.

A quick interview with Dan and a migration across the studio floor through cable spiderweb and we were off. We’d picked some of our favourites, ‘Levi’ , ‘Eight More Miles’ ‘Leaving Eden ‘and ‘Across the Borderline’ for starters. Things we’d enjoy playing and that would warm us all up and shed the nerves. The boys of course all played brilliantly with Mike’s voice as always sounding great - he never sings a wrong note, not ever. It was treat to be performing with such professional sound and to be able to hear all the instruments so well. 

I still cant get over the delight of singing with instruments, Marcus’ double base holding up my voice like a cushion, Mike’s guitar and banjo weaving and blending with it and Ollys fabulous slide, soaring over the top. I think we did a pretty good job. I really enjoyed it - especially singing ‘Leaving Eden’ and on my folk home territory “Parting Glass”.

The songs went out unmixed or at least just mixed on the hoof, and Brynmawr did a great job, but we’ll be going back in soon to do a proper mix and edit so we have a polished version to put on the website so you can hear it and see us play - (watch out for me going cross eyes looking at my mic so as to avoid staring at myself on the studio monitor).

Thanks to everyone at Brynmawr for a fab time. Hope to see you all again soon. And thanks to Mike, Marcus and Olly. It’s a privilege guys, especially the roundabout touring.

Nic Davies