Wednesday 21 November 2018

The General Relativity Of Success And Failure

I was very sad yesterday. One of the projects that I was hoping to be working on next year with poet Susan Richardson, didn't get its funding. We'd been shortlisted after the 1st round of applications and had, had some very positive encouragement from the funders, but this round was unfortunately unsuccessful. I know so many folks who know all about the highs and lows of the funding game- but as I've been posting a fair bit about successes lately I thought I'd keep it real and post about the disappointment also.

Most of the time it’s a gamble being creative. You do it, but you have no idea how things are going to be received. You hope that what you’re making will fly, knowing full well that the opposite is always possible and that your creations might fail, flop, crash and burn. Sometimes they do fail. Sometimes things go quite well, but not as well as you’d hoped. Sometimes they’re incredibly well received, but that doesn’t translate into anything substantial beyond the moment of critical acclaim, and occasionally everything seems to come together at the right time, in the right way and all is hunky dory… till the next time you create…. And then it’s back to square one all over again… 

I am still waiting on the results of another funding application for my big Stone's Throw, Lament of the Selkie project next year. It's hard to hold it all lightly, knowing that all the planning and dreaming may not work out in the way that I want it to, or maybe even in the way it deserves to. I was aware that last time I was successful with R&D funding, that for all my joy and excitement there were many worthy and exciting ideas that didn’t get to be made. How sad this business is that we’re all scrabbling round and forced to compete to be able to realize the creative visions we have.

On the up side of things Susan and I following this funding rejection are still going to find a way to make some new work together and will be plotting the next strategy for this soon.

Anyway, yesterday I needed a bit of space to lick my wounds. I walked away from what I had planned to be working on as I found I couldn’t focus very well and instead I ended up writing a new song about Jackie Leven. And now today I find myself asking if I would I have written this same song, without the disappointment of failure? Did something new get born from the frustration of yesterday’s crushed hope? Could this have existed without it?   

Jackie (for folks who don’t know about him) was a Fife born singer-songwriter, who started out in rock outfit Doll by Doll (after having to leave his hometown because of local gang violence). After a tumultuous time, with the band imploding and a serious mugging that damaged his larynx and nearly cost him his voice, Jackie became addicted to heroin… Eventually Jackie managed to get himself clean, created The Clore Trust charity to help addicts and headed out onto the road as as a blues- tinged, balladeer in the tradition of artists like Kevin Coyne.

Jackie, like Kevin Coyne, observed the lows, the grime, the seedy, the pain, the mundane and the obscene. Always a storyteller and often hilarious, Jackie wove a tapestry of complex broken characters within his songs, but in doing so he gave them dignity and a spark of beauty.  

I met Jackie when I opened for him back in 2007 at the Barfly in Cardiff. I’d heard many stories of both praise and disdain about him from other artists, but on the night I met him, he was a lovely person and an extraordinary performer. Bill and I walked away from that gig commenting that it was a crime that Jackie wasn’t more well known, it certainly wasn’t for lack of showmanship, musicality or ability. Riding the rollercoaster of success and failure Jackie, sometimes spoke of his own disappointments that his work hadn't had the recognition over the years that others had achieved. He also spoke of the ongoing need for rejection of comparison. He followed the muse and made the work and that in itself was success... the comparison game is a battle every artist faces, no matter how successful...It takes a lot of conscious effort not to be continually dragged into and down by it. 

The day I found out that Jackie died, I was working on my Selkie project in its original form, a collaboration with composer Gill Stevens who had introduced me to the folklore tales. Gill and I stopped for lunch and suddenly we heard an enormous bang. A blackbird had crashed into her glass conservatory roof and died. Moments later as Dylan, Gill’s husband carried the dead bird away I saw the news on my social media feed that Jackie had also died.

It is just a week since the 7th anniversary of Jackie’s death.

My original Selkie project with Gill also didn’t get it’s funding. We then planned instead to create a streamlined version of it that would be performed on my return from touring in Italy. It was to be the last project before the birth of our daughter and it was another outcome that didn’t work out as planned. During that tour in Italy I fell from the stage and injured myself and lost my ability to perform for a season…

Life is funny....The letting go of that incarnation of the project was painful yet it led to a completely different version of a Selkie project, which in turn led to my album, which in turn played a part in my mental recovery, (see the 10 part Turbulence blog series on that) which in turn led to this years arts council funded R&D project, which has led to me putting in the application for the big grant to create the full touring show…Which may or may not happen…

Yesterday’s disappointment brought into sharp focus the reality of the fact that I might not be successful in this next round of funding for the Selkie project…

But I will cross that bridge in a few weeks time- when I come to it.

In the meantime, today has been a day for pragmatism… I’m still sad that specifics of my project with Susan won’t be realised in the way I’d intended them to at this time. It’s hard not to feel deeply frustrated after all the effort and time that goes into applications not amounting to equivalent outcomes, but I can’t stay in that place- I know it too well and I know that it won’t help me to stay there… Today I need to pick myself up, dust myself down and reassert my perspective on the general relativity of success and failure…

So for now I’ll just remember Jackie and focus on the fact that I have written a new song.
(I’ll see about recording a version of it soon)

Here’s a link to Paul Du Noyer’s excellent in depth article on Jackie Leven

Author Ian Rankin on Jackie Leven

Here’s Jackie’s own tribute to Kevin Coyne, anotherr hugely underrated artist... 

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Liberating Rapunzel (Confession of a 6yr old)

Earlier this year I attended a series of creative writing workshops and at one point during one of the sessions we had to do some free writing based on a childhood memory. 
I found myself writing about an incident that happened just after my 6th birthday when I was about to move from Nottingham back to Australia.

I had a favourite library book of Rapunzel, retold and illustrated by Jutta Ash.  

It was a book that we continuously checked out so that I could re-read it again and again. It was mostly the pictures that I loved and I would pour over them repeatedly. The story was based on the original Grim Brothers version that is a lot darker than the modern day Tangled rendition of the tale. In the retelling, Rapunzel is a musician who sings from her tower and captivates the heart of the prince riding by. Interestingly in this version of the story he doesn't ever rescue or save Rapunzel- they both end up banished, separated and in the wilderness until ultimately the power of Rapunzel's song brings them back together once more, along with the twins that Rapunzel has happened to have given birth to in the woods! (There is much that could be unpacked here: is this a really a story about teenage pregnancy... or the power of rock n roll? But I'll leave all that for another day)  

Part of me suspects, that for me personally herein these pages lies an early identification with my own desire to make music. Did I look at the image of Rapunzel and see the ultimate folk singer? The Pre Raphaelite version of Joni Mitchell? Or maybe it was always just my own desire to catch myself a partner? (My singing certainly managed to play a part in captivating Bill my husband to be when we met, sooo many years ago!) 

Anyway back in Nottingham in the run up to the big move there was a moment when I was requested by my slightly frazzled mum, to help her by putting a few of my favourite books and toys that were selected to be shipped, into boxes. I spotted Rapunzel on a separate pile with a stack of other books that we had to return to the library. I can remember the frustrated, disappointment that I would have to give up this book and after a brief battle with my conscience I sneakily hid the Rapunzel library book into the box with the items that would be shipped. 

And so this Rapunzel book has stayed with me through every move back and forth across the world that I’ve made since that day 35 years ago. I think in my own way I was claiming a little piece of life for myself in the midst of all the letting go... and now it sits on my 6yr old daughter's shelves. 
(She quite likes it, but is generally much more fond of her space books!)  

Here’s the free-write as it came out during the workshop a few months ago…

Liberating Rapunzel
(Confession of a 6yr old girl)

I am climbing the stairs.
“Pack up your books” she said.
The boxes are ready
The piles are stacked high…
And I?
I am aware of the pile to my left
Smaller than the rest
She has put them there,
“These are not to be packed”
They’ll be returned
The last library trip
Before we leave”

And I didn’t have a name for it
But looking back, I can recognise

Rapunzel, the girl with the long golden hair
I so loved the words and the pictures of her
And I know that I shouldn’t,
And I know it’s a sin
To take something that isn’t mine
I love this book
With the patterned spine

Rapunzel she liked to break the rules
Letting that boy into her bedroom…

And so I choose

I choose to accidentally remove her from the pile
They’ll never find us
I justify
I can always pretend that I didn’t know
That somehow this was the one that got away

And Rapunzel she liked it
And so did I
Guilty, but without regret
I stash and pack her 5 books deep
And watch as the packing tape
Seals her fate
And so Rapunzel gets to leave her tower
And I am her liberator
But I worry that I have buried her
Am I really her traitor? 
It's a long way to travel
to Australia
“I’ll see you on the other side”
I whisper in my mind, while rehearsing my surprise...

“Oh mum look,
 We never took back this library book!”

Monday 4 June 2018

Under This Blue

I grew up near the coast in Western Australia and I also grew up in the landlocked English midlands of Robin Hood territory, Nottingham.
I lived in both places, two separate times and moved within each of them a total of 13 times before I’d reached 12. So much moving in early childhood created an undercurrent of trying to figure out my place in an unfamiliar landscape that flowed through much of my life.

It was a childhood yo-yoing between,
Sunburn, wide, open skies, barefoot running on scorching beach sand
Suburban grey, low hanging cloud.
Chilblain fingers of the icicle window-pane, winters
That we shivered through, in our joined up houses.
“Ay-up me duck”-
Took over from
“How’s it goin?”
I had to remember that lollies were made of ice in England
Although they were sweets in Australia,
And chips were crisps unless they were hot
(This is vital information to assimilate in childhood)…
Then later as a 12 year old –
Flip-flops were definitely not thongs in Nottingham
And more importantly “Spunky” is not the word to use to describe the boy you think is good looking. (as that's just taking it to a whole new level!) 

The ocean however, has always felt like home. 

In my early years the Australian beach was something I took for granted.
I remember watching electric storms over the water. 
Swimming in the evening to try and cool down during a heat wave….
 All the waves… Diving into them, getting dumped by the big ones, rolling over and over, feeling as though I would drown, But I loved it.
I loved being in the water, imagining myself as a mermaid.
My hands would wrinkle and I’d always be the last one out.
My parents yelling,
“Time to go now, Rachel get out, it’s time to go!”

It’s easy to romanticize the Aussie life, but when I was there, I missed the green… the forests, seasons, the countryside and the old buildings and narrow roads. I missed my grandmother and her well-spoken, good-mannered, kindness and probably most of all, I missed her big old farmhouse surrounded by fields.

It was a childhood of contrasts.
It was a childhood of leaving.
It was a childhood of arrival.
It was a childhood of grieving…

Memories… Some we cherish and some sneak up on us triggered by sight or sound or word or smell or face.

There was one particular summer that my mind holds onto.
I was becoming a good swimmer.
I’d won some races in the pool at school.
My Dad began taking me to the beach in the mornings before school.
He’d sit on the sand and I would swim.
And there for 30 minutes I would wake up in the water, on my own.
Floating, splashing.
Red eyed.
I perfected my backward somersaults and my underwater handstands…

I was also in awe of the sea. As much as I loved it, it frightened me… I knew about sharks and I knew about currents and I knew about waves so big that there would be no chance that I could out swim them. I knew about jellyfish and seaweed and in all this knowing there was the understanding that this ocean that I loved, was not necessarily my friend. I had to be wise to it, if I was going to survive it.

In December 2011 I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child. Suddenly my own childhood began to sift my thoughts. I recalled my life of migration as I watched the refugee crisis unfolding within the world around me. I recalled the ocean and sensations of swimming, being submerged in water, as the fetus swam and turned somersaults inside me. I found myself returning to that summer in the sea, pin pointing the moments when I felt completely comfortable in my skin, doing my thing, being myself. Being part of the landscape, not just on it, or next to it, but actually in it, working with a force that was greater than myself... counting the waves as they washed over me, just as the child growing in me was at once herself but also a part of me, working with the life force of my body.

All this became the backdrop to my Somersaults song... 


Under this blue 
Back somersaults 
Who would miss me? 
And why so much? 
Keep staring up 
Keep drifting out 
Who would miss me? 
And know my touch 
Under this blue 
Under this blue 

Into this deep 
Head back and kick 
Tight to a ball 
Head back 
And fall 
Keep turning 
These summer 
Summer somersaults 

Today I have just signed my daughter up for swimming lessons. 
I wonder how she will take to it...

Tuesday 27 March 2018

Lament Of The Selkie (Research and Development Project)

As many of you know I was delighted to receive Research and Development funding from Arts Council Wales, with support and funding in kind from Llanelli's Fwrnes Theatre. The grant offered funding to explore turning my latest album Stone's Throw, Lament Of The Selkie into a multi art form performance.  I have been privileged to have spent 10 days of this last month collaborating with Gig Theatre expert Lucy Rivers of Gagglebabble, Autobiographical story telling expert Eleanor Shaw of People Speak Up  and socially engaged practitioner and Visual Artist Bill Taylor-Beales of Hushland Creative. (Yep the very same Bill I've been married to all these years.)

In order to do this the project explored ways of combining the mythological selkie story, with my autobiographical story of injury and immobility during pregnancy and the birth trauma that followed.  It wasn't easy trawling through the layers of my trauma again, but Lucy, Eleanor and Bill were incredibly compassionate and empathetic and enabled me to find processes to engage with the content.

Throughout the project we sought to find new collaborative and creative ways of retelling these stories through a combination of music, song, spoken word, storytelling and visual image. Our objective was to create the initial foundations for a full-length show that could be toured in the future.

Below are a few pictures of our initial collaborations, story boarding a script, that I later went on to develop into a first draft version of the show.

As part of the research element of the project, a session was held in collaboration with People Speak Up, providing discussion, consultation and conversation about the themes and content of the project, with women from the local community. The women were also invited to contribute their own voices, through audio and video that could be used in the final sharing performance piece. We also put a call out online for people to be involved in this aspect of the project and received input and contributions from women from all over the world. I'm so grateful to everyone who contributed, this aspect of the performance piece has really moved the project into deeper realms. For our next round of funding we're going to explore taking this idea into each location we perform in, so that we can create site and community specific elements to each performance. (See one of the videos we created below at the end of the blog.)

We shared our final work in progress on March 7th at the Stwidio Venue, of Ffwrnes Theatre. The Q &A discussion that followed the performance was enlightening as it became apparent that this content and subject matter of birth trauma is so rarely explored on stage. I have been staggered by the amount of positive feedback I've had throughout this project regarding the subject matter and need to hear stories that reflect the reality that so many women face.

So, now we are in the final stages of evaluating the project and looking at the next round of funding to fully produce the piece. I will be bringing on board  a director and script editor (dramaturgy the official word) to help further develop the stories as well as lighting and sound designers for phase 2. We're also going to develop the "women's voices"  community / audience development opportunities for each of the venues we perform in so that we can continue to include the voices of women that we encounter in each final performance.

Huge thanks to all who have been involved with each stage of this project, offering support, answering questions, sending me audio/ video and text, endorsements, attending the events and sharing the info on social media. A big shout out to Lucy Rivers, Eleanor Shaw and People Speak Up, Bill Taylor-Beales, Jonny Rees, Sharon Casey and all at Ffwrnes Theatre, Henry Rees and Arts Council Wales for enabling this all to happen.

I'll end the blog here with one of the videos we made that included women's voices both locally and globally. During the performance Lucy and I provided live music underscore, but we've added soundtrack here online to give a sense of the atmosphere that the music created to the visual images.

Stone's Throw Exit film with underscore... from Bill Taylor-Beales on Vimeo.