Castleton: the Devil’s Arse Cave, and along with only a couple of hundred other fans last Friday night, I watched Richard Hawley play his Christmas gig. Picture the Gretsches, acoustics and lap steels being tuned by the roadie, waiting for the band like roosting swans:  they breathe and dream of flight, even when at rest. If you can see this in your mind’s eye, then you know the value of a Hawley gig. All’s alive there and full of longing, even before the first note’s played.

Once airborne,  Hawley, Shez and the rest, dapper even in the cold,  opened up a finely balanced range of material, including ‘Just Like the Rain,’ ‘Serious,’ and ‘The Sea Calls.’  My second Hawley gig, the songs now worked differently. This time, it was less a revelation, more a homecoming. Less ecstasy, more intimacy; even in a cave, even when gusts of icy rain blew past the cave’s mouth, we, we all were,  held tight.

Hawley’s so good at this; he holds an audience as elegantly, and sensitively as he holds a guitar. Never implying superiority to those who listen to him, his playing and singing style always belong to you. His voice unknots you with its rich, sweet darkness, and it’s all done so unobtrusively, like kissing the face of a sleeping lover. He doesn’t ever seem to own his material, or indeed any cover song. He doesn’t even feel the need to dominate the stage. ‘Darlin’ was on a par with ‘Devil in Disguise;’  ‘Lady Solitude’ was partnered by, danced with ‘Silent Night.’ He let Shez take the lead with guitar; his mother and aunt, heavenly when they covered the Everly Brothers ‘I Wonder If I Care As Much’, were watched intently and delightedly by Hawley as he stood behind them. Hawley was both player and spectator–all ears, and always in the music as artist and fan to a degree rare in the egobound business of rock’n’roll.

Simple, really. But so difficult to attain that kind of listening that is self-forgetful; most of us have too much noise in our heads to get to that ‘span of pure attention’. However, watching Hawley at work is an object lesson in duende: he always seems to know the way in. And we get the joy of it: for once, work and rest don’t separate; for once, the weight shifts and lightens; and for once, going to the devil is a shortcut to a wintry piece of paradise. ‘Silent Night’ releasing the dead souls in hell.

[What follows is an approximate interview that took place yesterday evening before The Smoke Fairies (Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire) played their second pub set of the evening, during the ‘aftergig’ Richard Hawley had organised as a delicious add-on to his Devil’s Arse event (see my December 8 posting). I say ‘approximate interview’ because the background noise on my dictaphone was so loud and distorting that I have simply had to guess at what was being said in some cases, although I hope I have stayed faithful to the spirit of the conversation.  

I had just listened to them play to a packed Castle pub in Castleton. They used guitars and amps but no mics, trying to reach a difficult crowd. Most of the audience had been at the Hawley Devil’s Arse gig earlier, but not everyone was intent on listening to the Fairies’ delicate, fierce sound and there was quite a bit of chatter clouding over the purity of their music. I tried my teacher death stare on as many of the miscreants as I could, but most were too drunk to pay much heed to any subtleties of body language. So I closed my eyes and tried to tune in. Actually, it wasn’t difficult. Without a rhythm section, the guitarvoice vortex they create opens a door at the base of your spine if you let it–just close your eyes and surrender.

The Smoke Fairies talk about creating an atmosphere in their songs, as you will see when you read the interview. It’s no idle boast: the Fairies could create an atmosphere of delight even in a howling blizzard,  so unerring is their inner focus and poise.  I would like to see them in a setting where they can really let the poise release into the whole deep song thing; another time, I know I will. But for the moment, I’ll settle for the ‘still-point-of-the-turning-world’  experiences I had in The Castle and The Bull’s Head. Last night’s gig and interview were about getting a glimpse of sublimity. These two ooze talent, sensitivity and intelligence and as yet I, they and the rest of the world have only seen less than a tenth of what they can do. Nine tenths is still under the surface, dangerously good and glistening.]

NICHOLA DEANE: I want to start off with the songrwriting process. Can you describe a little bit about how this happens? Is there a general pattern or is it different every time?

JESSICA DAVIES: It’s kind of that one of us will write the songs and then we’ll show the other one. We’ll try it on our guitars and that will take the song into different directions. We’ll add a chorus or something. We’ll start songs by ourselves and blend them later.

ND: I don’t know if you can describe what happens when a song starts? How does that thing happen? Do you get a visual image, a snatch of melody or a rhythm?

KATHERINE BLAMIRE: It’s probably just an atmosphere. Our words are quite visual, though, based on a visual image, sometimes an idea that’s been kicking around for a long time.

JD: Then I’ll pick up a guitar and play and something will happen…

ND: …And an image and a melody will meld together. Listening to ‘Living with Ghosts’ and ‘Troubles’ I got the sense that travel’s a really important part of your songs’ imagery. Is that a preoccupation for both of you or just one person’s?

KB: Travel is a preoccupation for both of us really. We spend quite a lot of our time travelling around, yes, but it’s also other travel songs that have had an effect on us.

ND: What kind of travel songs?

KB: Blues songs, really.

ND: I wondered too whether you could describe what it feels like when you play your guitars. I’m interested in how that feels, speaking as a non-guitarist, to stand up there on stage, especially as women guitarists. 

KB: We really enjoy the idea that people don’t expect us to come out with this kind of guitar playing, because it’s not normal for women to stand there and come up with these riffs. I enjoy defying people’s expectations. I think that in general its sad that there aren’t more women out there doing this.

ND: Is that because it’s usually seen as a masculine instrument?

KB: It’s actually a much more delicate instrument than people think and can be played really sensitively and I think that’s something that women can explore more.

ND: Do you ever really have that kind of moment on the guitar when you’re really aggressive, when you really rip into something?

JD: We’re trying to be more like that…we’re not wanting to be confined to any one particular way of doing things. So to expand and be more aggressive would be great but we really enjoy that our music is dynamic and it’s about knowing when to bring that in and when to pitch that out.

ND: How long have you been together as a band?

JD: Twelve years or so.

ND: How long have you felt  professional about it? Did you notice yourself developing and changing?

JD: To begin with we weren’t really playing guitar, we were just strumming, and gradually got better, the guitar playing just sort of evolved really…

ND: Was there a moment when you were playing and you thought ‘Oh God! we’re actually doing something here?’

JD: I suppose  we just finally worked out that…

KB: We try to weave around each other rather than one person pushing forward. It’s not really about solos or flashy stuff. It’s meant to be about just creating an atmosphere.

ND: And that’s what’s so amazing about the sound, it doesn’t sound separate. There are two separate things going on but they don’t feel separate. The guitars meld together, the voices meld together…I was wondering too if you have any female guitar heroes?

KB: We were thinking about this the other day and…

JD: Yeah we were both really into Sheryl Crow. We haven’t listened to her for a long time, but it was the way she was extremely raw and very strong as well. There weren’t many women who were that raw when we were starting out.

KB: Also someone like Joni Mitchell  is a great guitarist. She probably isn’t known for that…

JD: But I like the way that her melodies go in ways you’d never expect.

KB: We try to achieve that same sort of idea that you start a song in one place and you end up completely differently. You’ll be playing one thing and then you’ll switch to something unexpected…

ND: That’s what makes your heart stop really, that ability to switch. But what about male guitar heroes?

KB: Well there are so many of those…Well we were saying the other day about that band America. They really started us off.  And a really great slide player called John Anderson. His slide playing is really amazing.

ND: So how did these guys affect your development?

JD: I don’t know. In a way all this has just happened because I think we’ve stayed together for so long and we’ve spent so much time together that the combination of that…

KB: It’s been a gradual process of subconsciously learning from each other.

ND: What’s your first musical memory? Do you remember a moment when you began to be really attracted to music?

KB: I remember being at church as a kid with my parents and it was listening to hymns, epsecially the old ones, which were so stirring and influenced me I suppose without me really knowing.

JD: For me it was television, I suppose. Watching things like Rainbow.

ND: Did they used to sing on Rainbow?

JD: Yeah–Rod, Jane and Freddy.

ND:  Oh God, yeah! So they did.

KB: I think that back then children’s TV programmes used to be a lot more musical. Now they seem to be very simple.

ND: TV tends to treat them like they’re just blobs!

KB: Yeah, like they have to just repeat things at them. I feel quite sad that children’s TV has become so dumb and unmusical.

ND: I see this in the kids I teach too, that they don’t sing as much, that their parents’ don’t seem to teach them nursery rhymes in the same way, and that it affects the deep subconscious parts of the brain.  One last thing: your lyrics sound poetic, they have a poetic quality. Do you read poetry at all or is the poetic quality just instinctive?

KB: We don’t read a lot of poetry but we are interested in poetry. It’s those songwriters who are very poetic, and song lyrics are like poems and I think influences on our lyrics are drawn from other writers who are more poetic, a bit like Joni Mitchell.

JD: I like the songs where you can think of something familiar  and make it seem strange.

ND: One thing I like in the songs that I’ve heard is that they seem like remote landscapes with lots of ice around. I like a bit of  ice in a song…

KB: I think it’s just what comes to mind when you feel a bit isolated, that idea of a barren landscape.

ND: Finally, can you tell me a bit about what next year has in store for you?

KB: We’ve got songs we’re going to record, an EP that we hope to release in March, and hopefully it would be nice to get an album out straight after.

ND: Excellent. I look forward to it. Thanks for taking the time to talk.

[With that, The Smoke Fairies went round the corner, set up their guitars and played their second set of the evening to the crowd at The Bull’s Head, their interwoven voices and guitars the very opposite of any rockstar posturing. Second time around, the lyrics fell on my ear even more cleanly, the landscapes blasted and wild, the exile in them even more pronounced. I came away with a rare  sense of nothing in their material being forced: not a chord, not a harmony, not a single lyric. They sing in a bubble of pure air, in a remote world, and yet that world is as close and familiar as your heartbeat. They’re from the cold sad place under your ribs,  so find them there now. Waste no time].

3, 2, 1…and in the room. It would appear I’m back, although I’m not entirely sure. And before you ask, I’ve not been at those lovely mushrooms in the field below the barn…No, it’s simply the after-effects of listening to The Smoke Fairies. I should warn you; it’s potent stuff. I came across them at the recommendation of that ‘perfect electrometer’ Richard Hawley only yesterday (1). Before I knew it I was on myspace and diving into ‘Living with Ghosts.’ I quickly realised that this music is all about doubles. Two (extraordinary looking) women, two guitars, two voices. Although Jessica and Katherine don’t look alike, it sounds as if their voices are from the same wellspring and their two guitars (one of them slide) like one guitar. It’s as though they’re a split tree, cut almost to the root, and the tree is singing and breathing with two uncannily matched voices. We’re definitely in the realm of the spirits here: dryads, perhaps… although despite the tree analogy I’ve been at pains to set up, there’s also something of a ‘deep deep well’ or a forest pool about their sound (are they naiads or dryads or some kind of sophisticated hybrid?). Man, they’re dangerous: they could lead you underwater and drown you and you wouldn’t care. You’d hardly feel anything but a kind of bliss– a melancholy bliss, but a kind of ecstasy nonetheless.  ‘In my mind we still live there,’ they sigh on ‘Living with Ghosts, ‘ and you know that this is a band that wants to tug you away from outer realities and into inner space. Let them boldly go, and for a long time too, and far. I’ll be there for the ride. Any chance of playing Stratford or Oxford, ladies?

(1) Hawley had glowing praise for them on his forum recently.

‘And if you’re northern, that makes it even worse.’ (Morrissey)

for George Deane

In ‘Let’s Ballad: Richard Hawley, Voicemanguitar’ I talked about Hawley being ‘northern.’ On the Hawley forum later, there was some dispute about whether Sheffield (Hawley’s home town) is really ‘north’ at all. But to me, Sheffield is north. Sheffield has a good deal of affinity with the northern town in which I was born, Bolton. In both cases, being northern is about neglected beauty, postindustrial decay, political radicalism, battered dignity. I’ve lived in the Cotswolds for five years now, and love its landscape (it’s not the chocolate box it at first appears to be). But I crave, will always crave, the Victorian red brick, the blackened sandstone of the north. It hurts me to go there: Bolton looks more impoverished with each visit, eviscerated as it is by the blight of supermarkets and what my Dad calls the ‘sheds,’ the vast hangars full of consumer tat to be found on the Bolton Wanderers carpark that is the ‘Middlebrook’ out-of-town shopping centre. My north fights against this north. My stone and brick north is also a dream place, a place of whinberry-filled moorland. Whinberries could stand as emblems of the north: tiny berries that cling to the earth, that bruise your teeth and tongue with their purple; sour-sweet bubbles containing larksong, reedy streams, peatbeds. Whinberry–a taste I haven’t had for so long but which stays on my palate. Those berries: so many unhealed, stubborn bruises the hill wears like a blazon.  

Call a singer a ‘crooner’ these days and you don’t exactly appear to be giving them a compliment. ‘Crooner’ seems somehow to be the opposite of ‘rock’n’roll.’ Crooners are smooth, unruffled creatures of some bygone era: think of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Bing Crosby. You can’t easily mosh to ‘Volare,’ ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Isle of Capri.’ If punk is all pogo and piledriving, crooning is a fondle well-nigh horizontal. At odds with the times, it’s not designed for mp3 listening (you have to really listen to and feel the quiet bits–turning up the volume in your headphones as you pass the mechanical digger and the ambulance with its siren on won’t aid your appreciation of the music) and it don’t look good on the modern dancefloor. Why then, does crooning have such a bad press? Is it really a synonym for sentimental slop? Perhaps, if your name is  ‘Tony the Rat-Pack style Wedding Singer.’ But take a look at the etymology and there’s the beating heart of the word: ‘to sing in a subdued tone and reflective or sentimental style.’ Crooning, in other words, is singing that thinks, acts as a pure mirror, reflects back emotion. More than that, the word’s origin is ‘probably from Dutch cronen to lament,’ (Chambers Dictionary). And so we return again to duende, saudade; the great sadness that reaches up through modern masters like Richard Hawley and Nick Cave. A synonym for ‘croon’? Perhaps ‘ache,’ perhaps ‘grownup lullaby.’

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In The New Theatre Oxford, a run-down art-deco venue with a strange subterrannean bar and eccentric plumbing, I finally saw the light. Like all good conversion experiences, this one wasn’t expected, but was resisted. And when it came it engulfed me: we’re talking annihilation, bliss, negative capability, no ‘me-ness’ whatsoever. One of those.

The cause of this little epiphany? Richard Hawley, a geetarrman with a terribly un-rock’n’roll name,  on tour with his band, and supported by a rather impressive neo-rockabilly combo, Vincent Vincent and the Villains. For the uninitiated, Hawley has managed to pass most of his professional life safely out of the limelight. Formerly a guitarist with the Longpigs and Pulp, Hawley is a man who who failed an audition with Morrissey because his voice was too good and who was overlooked for a Mercury due to the presence on the shortlist of the talented and more noisy and skilfully self-promoting Arctic Monkeys. Hawley, it seems, is a past master at the ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ syndrome. And in today’s climate of rabid, narcissistic capitalism, where only the very young seem to matter, and where success had better come instantly or it can’t be called success at all, Hawley seems especially ‘out of time.’ He’s a slow burn kind of artist, a rockabilly throwback, a northern Elvis–and someone who describes himself on his website as a ‘speccy twat.’  Not the kind of profile that could lend itself to selling mobile phones or ‘designing’ perfume.

I suppose that all this low-key stuff hadn’t made me feel over-excited about Hawley himself. The beginning of our relationship wasn’t especially promising. A friend from work had given me a CD copy of ‘Coles Corner’ as a Christmas present in December 06.  As I’d never heard of Hawley, the CD languished over that festive season in the glove-box of my car, until the time came to do a post-Christmas pilgrimage to the in-laws, and I found myself playing the record whilst driving across the Norfolk fens. My other half wasn’t overly impressed: ‘he’s a bit of a crooner,’ remarked J, in a  tactful expression of mild disapprobation. I could see his point, and yet, even on that first listen I felt that a) crooning wasn’t a bad thing (you’re reading the blog of someone who grew up listening to Sinatra, Crosby, Bennett and their ilk) and b) those melodies! right from the outset they gave me that feeling along my breastbone, that sweet hit of pain…I began to suspect the presence of some serious duende right away. Elation, longing, emptiness. Oh yes.

But it still wasn’t love-yet. For me to fall in love with an artist (and, by the way, if you aren’t totally, madly besotted with the singers and musicians you listen to, what on earth is the bloody point?) I have to test their records to destruction. My car doesn’t possess a CD changer or an MP3 socket, and therefore you can only play one CD at a time. So I have evolved a method of listening to music whereby I play the same CD over and over again when I’m alone in the car, travelling to and from work. It’s a kind of intensive listening not encouraged in ipod culture, but one which has several advantages. If the record’s ok but not a Great record with a capital G, you will tire of it after about 3 listens. But if it is a Great, it will withstand repeated scrutiny: you become greedy for it, and it plays itself in your mind even when it’s not playing. The music possesses you, and the relationship becomes erotic, amorous. The relationship between you and it mutates from the cerebral to the physical. The music is, to steal from Keats, ‘proved upon the pulses.’ Over time, ‘Coles Corner’ crossed this rubicon.

And yet, and yet…There was still something missing. I bought tickets to see Hawley last September, only to find the gig was cancelled and postponed. But I wasn’t gutted as I might have been if this had been, say, a postponed trip to see Nick Cave. Something within me remained to be convinced that he deserved to be up there with Cave in my personal pantheon of musicians. It only became clear why I’d had these reservations (and why they were misplaced) when I arrived at the gig itself and heard Hawley play.

The first bit of excitement came with the choice of supporting band. Vincent Vincent were exciting, literate and incredibly sharp. Quite often when you go to gigs, the support act is some kind of disconnected distraction from the main event. Not here. Vincent Vincent weren’t Hawley identikits, but acted as well-chosen foils to Hawley himself. ‘Hawley likes these guys a lot,’ I found myself thinking. And so when the quiffed and shiny-suited ‘speccy’ one arrived on stage, it felt like a very natural progression, as natural as I imagine it would have felt to see one of those 1950s touring shows featuring Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis all on the same bill.  Except that this wasn’t a show coming out of the Deep South, but the Deep North.

As soon as Hawley opened his mouth to speak I felt immediately at home. Don’t forget that we were sitting in a theatre in Oxford, heartland of England’s establishment, and here were these magnificent Sheffield tones, coupled with the comic timing of a skilled club comedian. OK, so he’s from the wrong side of the Pennines (I’m from Bolton, originally) but I loved him for suddenly taking away the sense of exile I always feel at living in the south. Right from the outset, when he rallied us with the phrase ‘Let’s ballad,’ that draughty, damp old theatre seemed as intimate as Hawley’s front room, so much so that I wanted to have a chat with him between songs. When he apologized for one song, ‘Lady Solitude’, worrying that it might be ‘crap’, I felt I could almost get up out of my seat, walk onto the stage and convince him just how groundless his fears were.

‘Lady Solitude’ was, in fact, the standout moment of the entire gig. It came about half way through, and by the time he played it I felt I had slipped away from myself almost completely. He had begun his set with ‘Valentine,’ and from the first notes, I realised why I’d had a problem with Hawley up until that moment: on record, he had sounded almost too perfect, as if he suffered from that musical disease endemic in the digital age: overproduction. But then I understood: he sounds flawless because that’s the kind of beauty he’s naturally capable of releasing from both voice and guitar. His is not dry, airbrushed studio perfection, you understand, but a kind of loving concentration on the work in hand.

And what work it was! All of it made 500% more sense when played live. The guitar sounds he produced from the extraordinarily lovely-looking instruments he used on stage had ‘conjured soul from body. ‘ Or was it his voice that did this? Who can tell? His voice and whichever guitar he used were a continuum, with the body of the man bridging the two. I was reminded of Benedick’s comment in Much Ado about Nothing:

BENEDICK: Now, divine air! now is his soul ravished! Is it
not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out
of men’s bodies?

Benedick’s talking about the lute+voice effect here, but nevertheless, the comparison still stands for guitar+voice: the experience of being taken by a song, an experience as ancient as song itself, holy and erotic…and this is how I was feeling before he began to play ‘Lady Solitude.’ A few bars in, however, and I was completely gone: silent tears spilled down my face, so many I didn’t bother to try and dry them. This for me is the ultimate gift that any artist of whatever genre can deliver. Very, very few singers have had this effect on me. It’s a response that’s spontaneous, rare and precious, and amounts to a kind of knowledge about the world. As Nick Cave would put it, that knowledge is saudade, the sadness that lives ‘deep down things’ and which only the truly great can access or retrieve in the form of duende, deep song.

So this, really, is a call to arms. For all those that don’t know Hawley, get hold of Lady’s Bridge or Coles Corner and don’t delay. Your life should not be without music like this.  But don’t expect anything flash. This is the hard part: most of what we tend to consider good these days is flash, jump-cut, neon. Instead, give it time, listen intensively. That’s what this ballad thing is all about. Soul. The long haul. Ravishment. History.