Saturday, 29 January 2011

Neil on the Road from Porto.

Portugal is next door to Spain. I had reckoned that as I was in Spain already, I could easily bob over into Portugal and do a few shows. I didn’t take the size of Spain into account and realised pretty soon that it was going to be a long drive.

My place of dwelling was just inwards from the north east side of the Iberian Peninsula, and I was headed for the very west of it, the coast of Portugal. The drive was taken at a snails pace, stopping numerous time en route. I slept in Salamanca.  I did my laundry in the hotel sink and draped it all around the room to dry. I perused the local shops and bought myself some dungarees (god knows why). I’d factored in my need for sleep and ‘corn based snack’ stops, and left myself a good few days in which to undertake the long journey. My drive from east to west was relaxed and pleasant, if a little warm. 

The journey back was a different story.

Money was tight and I was feeling tense about having to book a ferry home on such a budget, not to mention petrol and food. Half way to Portugal, I got a phone call asking If I could be in Barcelona (east coast Spain) on the Sunday for a fairly well paid show. I had a gig in Porto (west coast Portugal) on the Friday. It was doable, I thought. I said yes. I needed the money.

So there I was in Porto on the Friday. Many people tell me that Porto is lovely. It is from Porto that Port originates. I hate port but I bought a bottle of it just because I felt like I should. I didn’t take to Porto. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. Maybe it was because my sat nav didn’t recognise the existence of the place, and so I spent much of my time there driving around in circles. In any case, something bad must have happened inside my mind whilst I was there because I feel worried whenever I think back on it.

I woke up at 5am on the Saturday, ready to hit the road. Due to the promoter taking ages to pay me after the night before’s gig, I’d only had 3 hours sleep. The plan was to reach the Catalunyan boarder before the day was out. After shoving a croissant down my neck, I set off, driving east. Over the mountains and over the Spanish boarder. The sun beat down on my little air-condition-less car all morning and all afternoon. Hardly even stopping to eat, I drove and drove, determined to reach my destination before sun down. At one point I was even driving with my legs crossed. I’d put my left leg up underneath my right one but managed to keep pressure on the accelerator in a way I can’t really explain without showing you. In retrospect, I'm incredulous at the fact that I actually drove like that. I think that you become immune to the dangerous aspect of driving at 90 mph once you’ve been at it for more than a few hours.

More corn based snacks and coffee.

At least I had Neil Young. He kept me company via my car stereo and made me feel like everything was worthwhile.

It should have been an eleven hour drive but I made it in ten because I was playing ‘beat the sat nav’. This game solely entails speeding, so that you get to your destination faster than sat nav would calculate.

After a gruelling endurance test of a drive, I arrived at the edge of Catalunya. I parked, turned off the engine and peeled myself off the car seat to find that I could barely walk due to exhaustion and hunger. My hearing was shot due to the numerous hours of Neil Young.

It’s not because I love austerity that I drove, alone, for ten hours in an oven of a vehicle. It is not because I have little regard for my own well being, or because I have an unusually keen sense of adventure. It is not because I am hard either, or because I thought I might blog about it one day. It is because I am very driven (no pun intended) to play music. A large part of me would much rather stay at home, get a dog and stroll down the canal tow path everyday. I hope that my future will not be full of such alone-ness, tiredness or boiling-ness as that trip was. I’m not sure how to carry on with the life I have created for myself, it seems that it is not recognized as a valuable career, or a proper life path. I have certainly learned many things that you can't put down on paper, but my curriculum vitae is a disgrace and a disappointment. Sometimes I think I'm young enough to start something anew, but what else can I do? I often worry that I'm too impractical, but I can't be anything other than myself can I? We must all find a square hole for the square pegs that we are. I just hope that my square doesn't look like the N620 road through Spain again, and if it does, I hope that it matches someone else's square, and that they will come with me.  

Friday, 28 January 2011

The View From the M62.

I’ve brushed past many different countries in my life as a musician. Some places have seen me passing through dressed as a tourist. (The world of business has taken me nowhere, presumably because I have never done anything business related). Anyway, I’ve been to a few places around this globe, but there it nowhere that stirs my poetic soul more than the North of England, the place of my birth.

I’ve wondered why this is. There are so many more “exciting” places to spend my time. Is it because I have an intrinsic understanding of northern humour? Is it because I have friends here? Is it because I understand the language? Is if because I know what to wear to fit with the weather? Is it because I like my world to be constantly damp? Is it because I am, underneath my romancing of foreign shores, a home bird? I think all of those things are true, but I’ve taken it to another level. See below.

A man I used to know once posed an age old philosophical question to me. At the time I just thought he was winding me up by showing off his superior intellect. However, since then I have been mentally chewing on the question at length.

He sited an example of a ship, built to sail the seven seas. Lets say the ship was called ‘Ethel’. Over the years, Ethel fell foul of many a storm at sea. She started to become rusted and ruined by the ravages of the waves. Her old, wind battered mast was replaced by a brand new shiny mast. Her boot-trampled deck was replaced, as well her salt-rotten underbelly. In fact, every part of her was, over time, removed and replaced - everything down to the screws and bolts that held her together.

I have pondered this. Is this ship still Ethel? Should she be given a new name to go with her new parts? If so, at what point does she stop being Ethel and become, say, Betty? She still looks like Ethel, and she still sails like Ethel.

You might suppose that spending time wondering about this issue is not productive, but I would disagree. (I’m secretly a millionaire you know)

Science would have it that over the course of a lifetime, every cell in a human being’s body is discarded and replaced by a new cell. Nothing in my being, from my birth date to my death, will remain un-renewed. This indicates that the sum of the parts that equal the very essence of what we call a ‘human being’ is not merely physical. (can't believe I just, actually, wrote that down. If I read that cold, I wouldn’t understand it all, but at least I know what I mean). I was Nancy when I was born and I will still be Nancy when I die. There probably won’t be a point in my life where I decide that I’ve got enough new cells to warrant a change of name by deed pole (although I wouldn’t put it past myself entirely)

I figured the defining factor that makes Ethel Ethel might be summed up by the word “purpose”. Without her parts, she would not be able to fulfil that purpose. Ethel was made to sail the seven seas, and so long as Ethel sails the seven seas, she is, and always will be, Ethel.

I don’t mean to get too heavy on you, but my point is thus… my love of the North of England is no shallow matter. I was born here. I breathe the northern air and it melds into my being. I drink the northern water and it flows into my veins. The person and the place are inextricably linked. I’m like a ship, and The North is both my timber and my sea. That seems a bit of an abstruse metaphor. To put it in a less daft way, my body is made from northern atoms, and I also live here.

I first learned how to sail in the lagoon of Wigan in my formative years. Wigan and I have shared something that will never be known by anyone other than Wigan and I. I could not escape that fact even if I were to live out the rest of my days on Mars.

I’m a passionate person in general. I could easily be accused of being overly romantic, but just imagine that boats could speak. I’m sure that, in accord with her stern desire to sail, Ethel would speak very highly of the trees from whence her timbre came and the sea on which she sails.

I think that this is why I adore The North. It is to a point where a warm shiver runs right through me every time I hear a person from Clitheroe say the word “horse”. I adore the way that Mancunians whine and twist their words. Scousers make me smile with their oceanic twangings and every time I hear someone form Yorkshire say “goat” or “boat” or “moat” I want to collapse with excitement (n.b. technically I should be opposed to flattery directed at anything Yorkshire, but the war of the roses was a long time ago and I’m trying to grow as a person).

You can imagine how sensually overloading it is for me to go outdoors. I can hardly walk down my street without hearing a round vowel or a cutting consonant, and don’t get me started on the differing shades of grey you can find in the clouds.

There might be many adventures to be had in this world, but nothing compares to the wonder of walking on the rain sodden soil of home.  There might be dishes of such flavour that a king would marvel at their taste, but nothing compares to a Yorkshire pudding on a Sunday (sorry Lancashire, I’m coming to you – best for last). There might be music that boggles the mind with its exotic harmony, but nothing compares to the Smiths on full volume as you drive down the M62. There might be Azalia, Orchid and Lotus, but nothing compares to the red, red rose. 

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Infinity Pool with a Pina Colada.

Malta got in touch. They had a gig for me in June. After chatting with my friend about our plans for the summer, we realised we were both scheduled to be in Malta at the same time. After more research, we realised we were playing the same gig. Ace! 

He’s a southerner so was on a different flight to me. It was a one off show. You can’t really tour Malta. It’s too small. 

I boarded the flight in Manchester and watched a vampire film on my laptop. I kept having to close my eyes because of all the blood. Half way to my destination I got a bit uncomfortable at the realisation that, apart from babies, I was by far the youngest person on board. I was worried about that. Don’t think vampire films are good for me.

I was collected from the airport by two handsome men. They drove me to a hotel. By this time it was getting on for midnight and I could hardly contain my excitement at the thought that my friend was already there. On checking into my room I found two bags of locally made biscuits with a little note saying “for Miss Elizabeth”. I've since learned that posh hotels do that kind of thing by default, but nevertheless I’d say that was probably one of the loveliest things that's ever happened to me.

The hotel room was huge. I ran around and eventually found my friend sitting out on his balcony in the warm air with a beer in his hand. We sat there and looked out at the sleepy vista as I lamented the lack of drinking establishments in the vicinity. There was no dancing to be had to I went to bed.

The next morning we walked out to find somewhere I could purchase a fridge magnet from. I went through a phase of collecting them. I didn’t have to look far – Malta is literally FULL of fridge magnets. Then we sat out on one of the rocky outcrops that stuck out into the sea. We had another beer and then I returned to the hotel to try and locate the swimming pool. The swimming pool was on the roof, obviously. There were men in white trousers roaming around with trays of drinks, offering massages and towels to the tourists who lay on sun loungers trying to change the colour of their skin. The swimming pool was no ordinary swimming pool. It was one of those infinity pools. The ones that drop off the side of the building suddenly. 

I had to reign in my desire to drink more and more pina coladas by the pool. After all, the very reason I was there was to do a gig that night. I didn’t want to turn up drunk and sunburned to my own gig.

The handsome men picked us up from the hotel and took us to sound check. The gig was great and the air was balmy. Sat outside while my friend played his set, I listened to his guitar as I watched the pigeons pottering about in the warm evening.

The next morning saw me heading back to Manchester, but not before I’d had another dip in the pool and one more Pina Colada.

I can’t stress enough that my experience of touring is not usually anything like Malta was. 

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Never Been to Venice.

Even the very word “Venice” conjures up ideas of Shakespearean romance and Italian adventure in my mind. We were due to play in Venice and I was pretty excited about it. We were to leave the car on the dry outskirts of the town and get picked up by gondola. It was the highlight of the tour. The tour was pretty tiring, and I'd eaten far too many kinder bars than is good for a person.  I was severely looking forward to drifting along a Venetian canal, peeking at Venetian strangers from behind a Venetian mask.

Then I found out that the venue had imploded or gotten waterlogged or something. To be honest I didn’t actually care what had happened. All I cared about what that the gig had been moved to nearby Mestre. There are no canals in Mestre. It’s like Venice’s industrial little sister. Foiled. Disilusioned. Crestfallen. 

The venue in Mestre was a kind of cellar come art gallery. I took issue with the sound engineer (who was also the art gallery owner and the bar man). I know about sound. I’ve been a musician all of my life. I am also a woman, and I think that is why I was evidently deemed to be clueless by this man. I have little talent when it comes to mind reading, especially mind reading in Italian, but I fathomed that this engineer/art gallery owner/bar man thought that by expressing a desire for less volume out front, I was overstepping the imaginary line that fences ‘woman songwriter’ safely away from ‘man sound engineer’.

The gig ended at about 1am. I’d driven from Pisa that day, which took about 5 hours (plus an additional hour of driving round Mestre in a loop, trying to park). Also, we’d have to be leaving at 7am the next day to get to Rome. I was pretty keen to get to bed. There were three of us in the band. When enquiring into the sleeping arrangements the sound engineer/art gallery owner/bar man had in store for us, I found that the situation wasn’t good.

I wouldn’t say I’m extraordinarily highly strung when it comes to sleeping, but I do love my own space. I’m not a fan of sharing beds. It’s not restful for me you see. I am too polite - I would rather lie still with my arm going numb under my body than risk waking someone up by wriggling around. It turned out that this sound engineer/art gallery owner/bar man imagined that we’d all three of us share one small fold-out bed in his spare room. When I learned this I wanted to cry. Tiredness pervaded my very pores and the thought of only a few hours of semi sleep before the 8 hour drive to Rome the next day made me want to die.

Nevertheless, you become accustomed to such things when you’re a not-very-famous travelling musician. I accepted my fate and sat waiting for the sound engineer/art gallery owner/bar man to finish his (apparently last) glass of wine and take us to our place of slumber.

An hour later and he was still drinking and laughing with his friends, and we were still waiting. It was 2am. We decided it best to load up the car and wait in a conspicuous fashion with the engine running. This we did, and on he chortled and laughed and quaffed the wine away.  It was time to take issue with him again. I am English. My idea of taking issue with someone goes something like “excuse me, I was just thinking, it’s nearly 3am and, you know, we’re pretty tired and we’ve got to drive to Rome tomorrow so I was wondering if maybe we could leave and maybe get a little bit of a snooze, don’t mean to be a pest I’m so sorry for asking”. This had about as much impact on him as a feather falling on a Rhinoceros’ bum. The final straw was added to the already weighty load when I asked for the ump-teenth time if I could go to sleep and they laughed at me. They laughed at me. I can’t decipher Italian conversations well, but I knew they were laughing at me. Their pointing at me was what gave it away.

It was past 3am. I was really, really, really upset.

Finally, his girlfriend begrudgingly tore herself away from the party and we were asked to follow her in our car. She was leading us to their house. My heart actually ached I was so hurt. The last thing I wanted was to sleep in their house, unwelcome, crammed into a tiny bed with two other people, for a tiny amount of time, then get up and drive to Rome.

I followed her car with my aching heart and my throbbing tiredness, dreading the imminent future with every ounce of my being.

All three of us thought it at the same time... Then We looked at each other. As the woman who's car we were following went straight on at the round about, I dropped down into second gear and sped off in the opposite direction. I didn’t know where I was going. My sat nav was perplexed. Adrenalin. Get away car chase!!! In my mind’s eye I saw her checking her rear view mirror and wondering where we were, pulling over to see if we were trailing behind, turning back to see if she could find us. But I was heading full speed in the opposite direction.

Through the mountainous roads I drove. Throughout the night and all through the morning. We stopped at service stations and I drank espresso like there was no tomorrow. I ate more kinder bars.

There were cargo lorries full of goods, taking bends far too wide and sandwiching my little hire car between the cement central reservation and their giant wheels. My vision was blurry. Adrenaline kept me happy for about an hour then it was heavy going. We decided that dancing around in a car park might help. Unfortunately there were police men watching us and we got questioned and searched. I think they thought we were on drugs. What were three young English women doing at that hour, excitedly driving a hire car full of instruments and kinder confectionary in a southerly direction? Luckily, all our paperwork was correct and proper due to my amazing organisational abilities, so they let us go. And anyway, apart from upsetting a few wannabe Ventians, we hadn’t done anything wrong.

We arrived into the dazzling sunshine of Rome just before midday. I was friggin' tired but we were, miraculously, alive. Furthermore, I still had my dignity. 

Saturday, 15 January 2011

A Cremeria Near Bologna.

The word “CREMERIA” was written in large ceramic letters down the side of a chimney that stretched upwards towards the sky. I can’t remember what town I was in, think it was somewhere near Bologna. Traffic had been good so I’d arrived early, so was sat in the car park of (what I thought was) an Italian crematorium, the chimney being a notable landmark in the town. That was where I had been told to wait for the promoter.

It was a good hour until he showed up. I decided the moment called for a bit of Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.  I had Arvo Part’s ‘Da Pacem’ on CD so I put it in the car’s player and listened to it while I gazed out at the flat land which stretched away as far as the eye could see. Arvo Part is an Estonian composer, and he writes all his music for God. He is deeply spiritual and cares nought for fame. Choral, sparse, full of heavy harmony and slow notes that drift in and out. The particular collection I was listening to in (what I thought was) a Crematorium car park is heavily minor in key. Foreboding, tranquil, dark.

As I looked out over fields that lay to my right I began to think about all the people who had passed. All the people who had lived and gone. I deeply contemplated the nature of life and death as the heavy grey clouds began to gather on the horizon and move their way towards me. The beauty of life and the whole harmony of the voices enveloped me as I sat in (what I though was) a crematorium car park. It seemed too melancholic to handle. I listened intently as the soft breeze rolled in and everything quietly moved its way through time. It felt like the universe contained nothing but me, eternity and the infinite harmony of ‘Da Pacem’. It was a profound moment.

Just before the promoter turned up I checked the English/Italian dictionary that I kept in the glove compartment. Turns out that Cremeria actually means ‘Dairy’. All my earnest musings on existence had been undertaken next to an ice cream factory, not a crematorium.

It’s funny how music can bring on notions that are far removed from your actual situation.  Reality, once again, mocked my poetic soul that day. 

Grace and I in Denmark.

I was asked to play Roskilde festival in denmark and couple of years ago. Apparently it's like, the size of glastonbury, but in Denmark, hence, organized. I didn't realise this until I got there, by which time I'd already decided to camp. If it was anything like glasto, then I'd be in artist's camping. Much better than staying in a hotel offsite cos i wouldn't wanna miss any of the fun. Deary me, how I misjudged the situation. 

It transpired that there was no artist's camping. Artists don't camp at Roskilde. They get driven to and from their hotels in a very precise and punctual manner. So they put me in the media field. Can you think of anything worse than camping in a field full of media folk? I can only think of one thing that might make it worse.. deathly hot sunshine falling upon your tent at 8am. This was the way it rolled. 

I parked my little tent (which had been kindly donated to me by a Danish man whom I didn't know) in the area of the field which would get the sun latest. Oh, I'm good at judging the best angle of sunshine, thought I, not like all these media types who have put not one second's thought into their tent placement. Unfortunatley I was camping right next to the entrance to the site, so I got not one minute's sleep due to the throng of cocaine riddled journalists jabbering next to my ears all night, not to mention the 8am tent turning to sauna scenario. 

My days there were spent trying to keep cool. One thinks of Denmark as a cold country, but it was hotter that Spain that weekend. The backstage area was the best thing that I happened upon. There were free drinks a plenty and I found myself a little area behind the guitar tech from which I watched The Fleet Foxes. My backstage pass was limited to the hours between 11am and 5pm, but Grace Jones was due onstage at 9 and I wanted to be near her, so I basically hid for 4 hours until she came on. By the time she arrived I was well bored, but she blew my tiny mind. The 60 year old was pole dancing but 6 feet away from me. That moment taught me that one should never pretend to be modest, it's much better to just have fun. 

I'd found a nice thai food stall which I frequented, and I watched Elbow and Nick Cave. Elbow made me smile cos they're from Manchester. Nick Cave freaked me out. 

By the sunday, I was pretty much at the end of my tether. It was hot and I had no one to speak to. Speaking Danish is not on the list of things I can do and although I chatted to whoever would speak English, I didn't wanna tag along with anyone for too long incase they thought I was weird. So I gave in and checked into a hotel in Copenhagen. As soon as I arrived at the hotel I passed out, alone. That was my experience of Roskilde.

1000 Angels.

Bethnal Green tube station saw me tottering through it in a pair of high heeled boots, guitar on my back, last April. The high heels were a new thing due to the horrid break-up I was engaged in at the time. I wanted to look like an attractive woman (n.b all women will understand this - heartache makes you do some stupid things).

Walking a long way with a heavy guitar is not something you want to do in high heels. I didn't realise that Bethnal Green station was so far away from the rehearsal room I was headed to - it looked so close on the map. That there London is not as simple as it looks. 

As I clipped and clopped down the street, I noticed a few bikers were about - seated low to the ground on their squat bikes. Lots of hair. Lots of leather. 

As I grew closer to my destination, more hair, more leather, more bikes. I thought 'oo is it a Hell's Angels outing today?'. Closer and closer to the rehearsal room I became, and thicker and thicker the sea of bikers became, until I was swamped by them.

My feet were killing me. There were Hell's Angels as far as the eye could see. Not only Hell's Angels, but Lithuanian ones, according to their jackets, Spanish Diablos, French Malevolents and all kinds of foreign evil lovers were gathered en masse in this part of London town on the same day I was hobbling down with blisters and the beginnings of muscle spasms in my calves. 

It began to get stupid. I could barely pick a path through the leather-clad people. Women too, with piercings and fishnet things adorning their bodies. Bikes were crammed up close to each other and large men with serious frowns all stood around. I nearly knocked one of their bikes over with my guitar as I weaved my way through the incredibly strange scene. 

The rehearsal room was in sight, and so was a funeral car, parked right outside the door I was trying to reach. 

As I apologetically squeezed past, I thought I best ask what the 'devil is going on?' (although I didn't phrase it quite like that for fear of getting punched). Turns out that a big shot Angel had reached his final stop in life and this was his big send off. Pretty much all of Europe's demon lovers, and also, inadvertently, me, had gathered in that small part of London to see the leader of the Angels off to his relevant afterlife. 

Jacarandas In Bloom.

As the carousel ceased it’s squeaking and turning, the inevitable became apparent – they had left my bag in New Jersey. They’d been right shirty with me at the U.S. boarder as I transferred flights. “step back from the line miss” had spoke the large security man as my big toe fell but one inch out of line. ‘I’m not a terrorist and even if I were there’s no need to be so rude’ thought I, in my very English manner. And now America was responsible for me arriving in Mexico City at midnight with nothing but a harp and a toothbrush.

The previous week had seen me in a recording studio in North Wales with a bunch of Scots. They were ill, really ill. I used to have this notion that you can’t catch colds and flu off a person  if it wasn’t your time to be ill, so I never went down the “stay away from that ill person or else you might become ill yourself” route. Perhaps this was the altruistic spirit in me, but I’ve since become wise on this matter. As soon as I returned from recording, I packed two bags and headed straight off to London.

The first bag was for a trip to Milan for a massive celebration, of a kind, in a stadium just outside the city. I arrived back at my friend’s house in London afterwards, tired out completely. The next morning I woke up hallucinating. I couldn’t move and the bed clothes had turned into sandpaper. My temperature was mirrored by the inferno of a bonfire that the neighbours seemed to be having. My nose ran like a tap and all I could eat was cornflakes. 

The second bag was for Mexico, and I was due to fly there that day. Miraculously, I dragged myself across London, checked in, boarded on time, to the news that my vegetarian meal hadn’t been booked. I prodded a piece of dry chicken but couldn’t bring myself to eat it, not with the state I was in and all. I hadn’t eaten meat for 15 years, and this wasn’t the ideal circumstance to start doing so. I think I must have had a bun and a cake during the whole journey.

So by the time I got to Mexico, I was not in a good way. I’d worn a flowery number for the flight, and fate had it that I would be wearing the self same flowery number for many days post- flight. I went through the whole rigmarole of filling in a bag tracking form and the man at the desk said they would ring me when it arrived. That night I tried to sleep but it was day in my body and night in the streets and I had weird dreams and felt all at odds with myself.

Now I’m not too familiar with the ‘who’s who’ and ‘what’s big’ in the Mexican Media world, but it seemed that they’d all turned out to probe me with questions and take photographs on my first day there. They asked me things like ‘what made you decide to become a folk musician?’ To which my jet lagged answer was ‘I’m not a folk musician’, and ‘do you like any Mexican music?’ to which my brain addled answer was ‘I’m a big fan of the Buena Vista Social Club actually’ (n.b they are from Cuba)

I dread to think what I looked like on the photos of me standing in El Parque de México, in that god forsaken flowery dress, hair all nest-like, face like a wet weekend in Wigan.

My nose bled a lot due to my state of health and the altitude of the city, and I stayed in the spare room of a couple who lived in the posh end of town. The woman could not believe that I was still alive without my toiletries. 

I spent the next few days roaming around aimlessly in the intolerable heat like a vagrant. I managed to buy myself a pair of jeans, some underwear and an eyeliner. Worry was creeping up regarding the lack of phone call from the airport, so I decided to ring them. “Sorry Miss that isn’t a valid bag tracking code” came the answer. It turned out that the genius man on the missing baggage desk had accidentally missed off a digit, rendering my bad untraceable.

I pondered this at length. I pondered again and pondered some more. Once the pondering became tiresome, I got in a taxi and went to the airport. I wasn’t leaving until I had my bag. God knows how I did it but I managed to talk security into letting me go the wrong way into the baggage claim area, and there it stood, my little green bag, packed with precision and care just one week ago. To add insult to injury, they searched me on the way back out of the baggage area.

The next few days came as a bit of a blur as my tiredness surrendered to adventure and I had a proper shower for the first time in days. I changed to sleeping in a different house where more people lived, so I had to make less effort to create conversation, which was a relief cos I was at the end of my tether. Luckily I didn’t have a gig until I’d gotten over the worst of the jet lag and sampled the questionable delights of Mescal.

A deep love of the Jacaranda tree became apparent in my heart. Apparently they bloom twice a year, and the week and a half I spend there saw them dropping petals all over the pavements and cars. It looked a bit like purple snow.

I couldn’t say when it happened, but during the days I spent there, a large sense of freedom happened upon me. I suppose that having no possessions, not knowing where I was, who anyone was, what anyone was saying or how to steer clear of very spicy food is quite liberating. I found myself still alive and able to be happy and I even managed to get my hair cut.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The Barbican Rehearsals.

My boyfriend decided we weren’t compatible on the Wednesday, and I was due to play the harp at a friend’s wedding on the Thursday. I felt like crying throughout the whole ceremony. To make matters worse, I couldn’t even stay to drown my sorrows with free champagne, I had to drive to London. Southward bound. Bound for a heavy weekend of rehearsals.

I arrived at the hotel at about midnight and slept as soon as my head hit the pillow. There could be no room for thinking about how I felt, for I had work to do. The gig was a collaborative affair. Me and two people who were to become dear friends. 

Most people bemoan having to stay in hotels, but I love them. Too many times have I slept on a manky couch in the spare room of a well intentioned promoter. To stay in a hotel is pure luxury, and that weekend I had a room to myself.

My favourite aspect of hotel living is the breakfast. Not the food, but the chance for voyerism and strange conversations. I always wear my pyjamas to breakfast when I’m in a hotel, but some people get dressed right up. This is beyond my understanding, how can you eat breakfast in your proper clothes? That’s more like a very early lunch.

The Barbican hotel was particularly busy that weekend, I reckon. It was hard to even find a table, there were so many people. Whilst I was queuing for the melon I asked people questions about the various kinds of croissants on display, how to work the rotating toast machine, what flavours all the juices were and where the coffee was. Most of the time I was just making excuses to talk to people. I could easily work all that stuff out by myself.

Staying in any hotel is an exciting affair, especially when you have to be up at the same time the corporate folk. It’s like another world, theirs. As a musician, you’re almost nocturnal, and you’re usually travelling when everyone else is working, and you’re working when everyone else is not. You get this feeling that you’re living outside of normality. It’s enough to send you crazy. There is no chance to settle, in any sense of the word. You have to create little ways of making yourself feel at ease. Trust me, it would send even the most straight minded person a little bit strange.

I sat there in the hotel watching families who were obviously on tourist trips. Crying babies and small people running about. I watched businessmen snaffling their muesli. I saw couples eating in silence and I wondered if they were happy together.

Everyday, after breakfast, it was off to the rehearsal room. A hot, soundproof room with no windows. Just the ticket to help you keep your (already loose) marbles. There were lots of musicians to rehearse with. Aside from us three and the musical director, there were harp, woodwind, trombones, a tuba, strings, singers. There was even a chistal bashcet and an ondes martenot. I suggest you google those two things because we’d be here till Christmas if I explain them.

The days were long and hard work. By the Sunday I was about to cave in so I was sent off shopping for the afternoon. I went to Oxford Circus. Oxford Circus is not a good place to relax. I got well stressed and bought something I didn’t need or even like. I tried to make myself feel better with a fruit smoothie. I lost track of time and was running late for the evening meal with the band.

I’m a pretty good map reader but someone had moved all the roads on the way back to the hotel. Luckily, I just made it. “The best fish restaurant in London” was our eatery of choice. I can’t even remember what I ate. It can’t have been that good.

I’ll never forget that hotel room. It was exactly the same as every other hotel room I’ve ever been in, but I will never forget it. The rehearsals were joyful, full of fun and challenge and people and music.  Once the days were over I’d retire to that room, tired out. I’d think about what had just happened back home. My sadness. But I couldn't let it get in for on the Monday, I was due on stage at the Barbican Concert Hall. 

Portholes and Rosemary Rabbit.

I’d set off before light, driving northward towards the coast. Sat in a long line of stationary cars, waiting for the ferry to open it’s large door. I cursed the fact that I’d forgotten to fill up with petrol in Spain where it is cheaper than England. Bilbao, midday, and it was mighty warm. The heat was painful. Sitting in the car was like sitting under a MAGNIFYING GLASS. Standing outside of it on the shade-less asphalt was only marginally less awful.  My face was as red as anything and I was sweating. I could have sworn that the other people in the queue were staring at me, but I just put that down to the mental beginnings of the sunstroke that was probably on the horizon.

To make things tense, I had a fresh rabbit skin in my boot. Now I’m not sure what the laws on transporting such an item from country to country are, but I was not looking forward to explaining it to customs.

I’d been vegetarian since childhood. I’d entered that phase where you question life and death, at the age of 9, decided that death didn’t equal food. I hadn’t touched a piece of meat since (apart from a sausage roll I think I might have eaten whilst drunk one new year’s eve).

The reason I was ferry bound was due to the fact that I’d been staying out in the countryside of Spain for a while. The opportunity to slaughter and eat a rabbit had arisen. This was the cathartic moment I’d been waiting for all my life, I mused. I don’t mean to claim that I actually killed the thing myself, but I watched the whole process. From the wriggling to the gutting to the skinning. We marinated it in the wild rosemary that grew all around in the dusty Spanish ground and we barbequed it on skewers (I haven’t enjoyed rosemary since).  This escapade did not help me come to terms with the death=food issue in the least. Nor did it lead to a healthy desire for steak on a friday or a bacon butty on a saturday like I thought it might. 

Anyway, as I looked at the white fur that was destined for the bin, I felt that It wasn’t right to throw it away. I decided to bring it home and make some ear muffs out of it. After all, I didn’t half get cold ears in the winter back at home and the fur was lovely and soft.

So there I was, waiting to get on the ferry with a horrible rabbit skin in my boot, a few guitars and lots of wet rugs which I’d accidentally dropped in the river the day before I’d departed. The ferry doors opened and I was signalled to drive on, but one moment before I passed out from heat exhaustion. N.b. I’ve got a slightly irrational fear of the bottom of boats, not the whole boat, and I’m not scared of being ON a boat, but I just can’t look at the bottom of them without thinking that the end is nigh. It’s something about the shape, and the fact that they usually have nothing but miles and miles and miles of dark water underneath them. I got a shiver right down my spine as I drove into the bottom of that big boat.

My discomfort was somewhat appeased by the musac that piped around the whole ferry. I had a bed to sleep on and tacky things that were easily purchasable from the gift shop. I sat out on the deck and watched the land disappear into the horizon. Whilst lamenting the passing of Spain, I looked forward to Portsmouth and the northerly drive past Solihull and my usual stop at Hilton Park services on the M6 that, in my mind, marks the point of arrival into my beloved north.  I wrote a song whilst I looked out of the porthole. 

Sunday, 9 January 2011

My Time With The Dogs.

It was a few years back now, I found myself in the countryside of eastern Aragon, trying to build a fire in the dark, and failing. The reasons for my being there were complicated, and I won’t wholly elucidate on that. Suffice to say I was lead there by my curious nature.

I'd say I was alone, but this isn’t entirely true. Four dogs and one kitten were my companions. Ultimately I was there to “look after” these animals, along with some chickens and rabbits that shuffled away inside a wire meshed square of land down at the bottom of the valley. My abode was a little stone house built into the side of an olive terrace that looked out over a vast array of nothingness. The place was so far away from the nearest village that electricity wasn’t available, and neither was running water. I figured that I could make trips to the river to wash, and fill my water bottles up from the abastecimiento communal.

When I was asked to go there and spend three weeks in this situation, I was in the middle of a rainy English summer and the thought of spending some time in the beguiling Spanish sun eating paella was rather tempting. The sun would stay bright and warm until at least 10pm out there, I thought, and I could spend my time in a hammock, reading and pondering my existence, why, I might even write a song or two. It was late October when I arrived, curiously, it was the same day that the clocks went back and summer crept away. 

It came to my attention pretty quickly that making a fire that would burn for more than 30 seconds was not an easy undertaking. My first night out there was spent in cold darkness as I lay under a blanket with my brain turned onto denial mode.

I woke up the morning after and felt it imperative that I get into the village to buy firelighters. The weather was not at all abiding by my vision of spending sun drenched hours in a hammock. In fact, it was torrential and freezing.  I’d had to leave the car at the top of the mud track that lead down from the top of the hill or else I’d have been mud bound. It took me about half an hour to walk up the slippery slope to where I’d left it.

Determined to get into the village, I was as serious as a bull in a ring who’s being goaded by the wafting of a cape in the hands of a man wearing idiotic tight fitting trousers and a daft hat. The car spluttered and failed to start, apparently unaffected by my life or death style struggle to reach civilisation. It, like me, obviously didn’t approve of the temperature of the Spanish countryside that morning.

The dogs had all followed me. One of them stared at me with its head cocked at an inquisitive angle, and the other three sniffed around the shrubs and bushes. I looked at the car for a bit and tried turning the key again. No luck. Choke, I thought, and pulled on an unfamiliar thing that seemed to do no good. After about half an hour’s musing on what to do, and trying the ignition repeatedly, the little fella decided to work and the engine coughed into life. The dogs all crammed into the back seat, I set off into the village.

The local shop, if you’d call it that, had no firelighters left in stock by the time I left. Spanish dictionary in hand, my desire for warmth massively dwarfed my desire to appear sane. I read out something along the lines of “fuegos…… para inferno… erm… erm… parrafino”. With mud up to my knees I stood there, rambling made up words and stinking of dog. The woman seemed to get what I was after when my face grew desperate and I made a charade of me trembling with cold, then a fire burning viciously (with sound effects).

I also stopped for a coffee in a little Cantina, and bought some bread from the Panederia. I poured my entire being into charades and dictionary antics. I wanted company so badly that I didn’t care how much I embarrassed myself trying to communicate with other human beings, and I felt like people understood, despite the lack of shared language.

From the second night onwards, I had fire. I learned that you must put small bits of kindling at the bottom and bigger bits at the top… hide a fire lighter in the middle of it all and you’re cooking with gas (not literally). I lit the hurricane lanterns and sat back feeling smug. Smugness quickly turned into loneliness as I realised that the basic premise of feeling smug is that you have someone share it with. The dogs weren’t impressed by my efforts and the cat was just trying to claw me, so I sat back and vacantly watched the flames devour the kindling and steadily eat into the bigger pieces of timber, hoping that they would last the night. 

Time is very long when all you have to do is feed a few animals. Meal times become the glue of your day and you have to make sure you stick to them or else you start to question the purpose of breathing. I’d be woken around 8am by the dogs clamouring to get out, sleep another hour then get woken up again by them clamouring to get back in. I’d get up, feed them and the kitten and then feed myself, making sure the biggest of the dogs didn’t snaffle the kitten’s food whilst I was preoccupied with putting jam on bread for the human amongst us. Cups of tea were more valuable than ever before during those weeks.

Around a week into the ill-advised jaunt, I heard shooting. Then I heard more shooting. The dog’s ears all swivelled and pointed, as they also, heard shooting. If I’d have thought about it, I might have been worried, but rational thinking comes to your aid at times like this and I felt that so long as I hadn’t been shot AT, then there was no need to panic quite yet a while. Then the clatter of a car came down the track and a man got out with a gun and a woman. My mind touched on thoughts of imminent death as I wondered whether it best to make myself known, or hide. The dogs decided for me as they barked and ran towards the new arrivals. It turned out it was hunting season in Spain. Wild bores, it seemed, roamed these valleys and were ripe game for the country folk of Aragon. No one shot at me, but the noise of bullets echoed and bounced around for many days as the wild bore ran and dodged their fate, and I wished that someone had told me about this earlier.

Books became my doorway to other human’s lives, and I made sure the chickens had enough grass in their huts. It was too cold to wash in the river so I took to boiling the kettle and sitting in a tiny washing up bowl of water to get clean. At one point I saw a snake. I knew there were poisonous ones around, so I walked the long was round to avoid it. I made several trips into the village, and even ventured into the local town once, to buy dog food. On taking a trip to the public toilet in the town, I found myself incredulous at the fact that human beings have such things as electric hand dryers… What an incredibly weird and indulgent use of electricity, I thought, after my weeks of candle light and fire wood.

I was drying my hands after giving them a good old wash with soap and hot water. I was trying to prevent the wound on my hand from getting infected. The kitten wasn’t allowed on the bed, you see. He would repeatedly purr and paw his way under the covers, and I would repeatedly fish the torch out from underneath the pillow, locate said feline and throw him off the bed. At one point, I became so weary of his advances that I neglected to locate the torch, and just picked him up and threw him off the bed. However, my lack of caution meant that the run of events didn’t fall entirely toward the kitten’s misfortune. He dug his little cutting claws into the soft skin that runs down the outer side of the hand, and as I threw the little devil away from me, the skin ripped right along the length of my own paw. In the darkness I felt warm blood trickling into the creases of my palm. Turning the torch on revealed a wealth of red on the sheets. Rational thinking kicked in again, and I covered the injury with alcohol which stung a lot. Lying down, I tried to ignore the pain and declared one to kitten, nil to me. I still have two scars from that kitten. I wonder what a fortune-teller would make of that. 

Now I’d been informed that the dog’s usual barking and running off into the night was nothing to be perturbed by.  I’d been informed that if there was anything actually threatening in the vicinity, I’d know because the dogs wouldn’t just bark  and run around bit, but go “ape shit”. I was sleeping soundly at around 2am in the pitch black, when I was awoken by a small growl. One of the dogs was staring at the wall, ears towards the outside world. No sooner had I come to wonder what the devil was going on, when all four dogs arose and darted out of the building, going, what could only be describes as “ape shit”.  There was obviously something a miss. A wolf? I thought. A wild dog? I worried. Stood in the middle of the room, freezing, my toes scrunched up with fear, I reasoned that dogs have teeth, so it’s fine that they’re out there and I’m in here… although `I was supposed to be looking after them. I was completely defenceless and literally naked in the middle of a room in the middle of a valley  in the middle of country in the middle of a world in the middle of a universe and I was alone and I was scared. The fire had gone out. The dogs didn’t come back for two hours and the kitten carried on clawing me.

I learned a lot during that time, mainly, how to make a fire and not let emotions get the better of me.