Thursday, July 13, 2017

"There was a young woman from Bath..."

Say what you will about the Victorians, but they got stuff done. Take Nelson, the oldest city in the south island of New Zealand. The geographical centre of EnZed, bordered by mountains, with little or no arable land to its name, the plucky Victorians decided to settle there anyway, what with it having a nice harbour and that. I mean, the weather’s nice and everything, but after a while you’re going to need to grow stuff, and the market for Marlborough Sauvignion Blanc wasn’t as big back then as it is now. Still, that harbour, eh? What that harbour needed was a lighthouse, and so in 1861 the good folk of the Nelson Provincial Council bought one. Sixty feet high, made of cast iron, and only the second permanent lighthouse in the whole of New Zealand. Being Victorians, they had it built in England and then shipped half way across the world in order to be erected on the treacherous Boulder Bank. Obviously at this point though, the boat bringing the disassembled tower had to negotiate the entrance to the harbour without the aid of a lighthouse…
Back in the present day Mr Wendell, La Mulley and myself had gathered in The Snug with the idea of writing some songs. I had a riff which sounded like it might work on the fiddle (which would also help disguise its origins as badly-played version of the intro to a song by the band Heart*) which we played around with for a bit and then bashed out a quick reference demo, resolving to get back to it later. At our next session – hosted by Mr Wendell. I believe – we added a middle section, tinkered with the start and boldly resolved to eschew the traditional verse-verse-chorus-middle 8-verse-chorus formula rightly so beloved of songmongers everywhere and go with an A-B-C-B-A structure which maybe wasn’t right and proper in and of itself, but which felt like the sort of thing we should probably do in the circumstances. The only part of the jigsaw we hadn’t located in the box were any lyrics. The hive mind decided that the feel of the piece was stormy. Possibly a storm at sea, a traditional folk trope which might usefully incorporate the 12/8-ness of the verse in a swirling, discombobulating maelstrom of emotion. And that.

La Mulley and I have had conversations in the past about the folk tradition, and how many, many ballads would have had much foreshortened narratives if there had been better healthcare. Stories regarding any number of fair maidens out for a rove all of a May morning who have been deceived as to their lover’s true identity merely by them being all in disguise are legion. Provision of decent optometry and prescription bifocals would wipe out the provenance of most of these tales at a stroke. I’d been listening to Paul Mosley’s The Butcher a lot around this time. The album features a storm and a lighthouse as twin pillars introducing a splendid folk opera concept album. Thinking back to my foray to Aotearoa the previous year, “What if…” I suggested “A young fellow from, say, Bath were to be enjoined to help transport a construction to the other side of the world, promising his faithful young fiancĂ©e that he would send for her as soon as he was established in the exciting new land of opportunity..?”
Once Helen had constructed a beautifully poignant narrative, we corralled the rest of the group and set about arranging the setting for it. Parts were tweaked, suggestions made, instruments abandoned, capos surrendered; indeed all of this was still going on when we were called to do some recording in the latest of a string of roomy chapels – this one belonging to the formidably-named order of the Strict and Particular Baptists in Swavesey – up to and including the tea break where we figured that we nearly had it down, but not quite nearly enough. The arrangement was all there, and Helen was singing clear as a bell, but in one corner Wendell was having trouble with the bodhran-inspired twelve string part, and in the other my attempted Keith Richards-louche power chords were dropping like discarded skull-rings all over the place. In a moment of quiet desperation I suggested that we swap instruments, and immediately it became apparent that his proto-Paul Weller style was going to fit a lot better than mine into that particular pocket. Three takes later, we had it.

Naturally there’s a lot to take in there, with the folk tradition, the reimagining of a real-life story, the working through of the instrumentation and Helen’s brilliant, brilliant lyric, which I can’t read all the way through without getting a little teary even now, even though I know it’s a fiction. So when people ask me what the song’s about, naturally I have only one answer. “It’s about four minutes”.    


*We would also later discover that Refugee by Tom Petty, Hundred Mile-High City by Ocean Colour Scene, She Never Said by The Church and The Needle and the Damage Done all shared at least some of their DNA with our work, which cheered us all up no end.

Much help and inspiration was afforded by the work of B.E. Dickinson, who I’ve never met, but to whom I offer thanks and acknowledgement.    

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