the jelas

i wrote a review of the jelas ep Beetroot Yourself 3 years ago and facebook memories just reminded me, but also the original site it was on has gone! so here it is. I still 100% love the jelas

The Jelas/Lego

Today I did two things: I watched The Culture Show documentary about Lego and architecture, and listened to The Jelas’ new EP Beetroot Yourself.


I always think of The Jelas as smart and complicated. To me any song in anything other than 4/4 is complicated but I think by anyone’s standards The Jelas are pretty intricate. They are angular and fidgety and their lyrics are poetic and funny and it all fits together perfectly but only just. Listening to their new EP Beetroot Yourself makes me think about complexity in art. How its one of the best, most rewarding things a piece of art can be. But how it also can be terrible and off putting and self-indulgent and elitist. The Jelas are none of these things, but why?

I think the components of a Jelas song are really wonderfully accessible. The vocal melodies are really strong and simple and they carry the songs forward. The guitar and bass riffs are controlled and the drums are melodic to me, rather than repetitive. In fact there’s a complete lack of repetition, which is probably where the sense of complexity comes from, but familiar elements keep you listening. Furthermore the lyrics are totally and completely beautiful. They are poetic, filled with imagery and metaphor but Colin and Nat’s delivery is so unaffected they never come across as pretentious, only truthful. They do the things that the best of lyrics do which is talk about both the mundane and the profound in strange and exciting ways.

“The Italian coffee maker is tall and has got broad shoulders, he’s the definition of a tough barista”

In the documentary I watched this morning Tom Dychoff showed how the invention of Lego coincided with the epoch of post-war architectural ideals. Ethical and imaginative, modernist architecture put together simple, plain, unadorned spacial elements (so bricks) to create socially oriented buildings and cities. Dychoff draws a link between the simplicity of Lego with this focus on easily constructed egalitarian architecture. He also compares Lego builds to the post-modernist structures of the late twentieth century, brightly coloured shapes collected into fantastical towers.

I imagine this EP as like a city, built of so many little lego bricks of riffs, melodies and rhythms. Where The Jelas stand out is the freedom of imagination that goes into their songwriting process. What they create is an asymmetrical tower block, with square turrets and tiny triangular windows filled with pus but the elements are the same bricks anyone would use. Their subjects are universal concerns; long term relationships, illness, time.

The feeling of egalitarian, utopian concerns are not imagined. The Jelas are super DIY and unwavering members of the Bristol music community (I’ve borrowed their amps and drums loads of times). Their songs are generous and are created from the perspective of ardent listeners as well as talented musicians. This EP is powerful, beautiful and fun. An example of imaginative play enacted and formalised into a real life thing, like a lego pre-fab. True DIY.

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alexandra leaving

A death is a good time to remember a life; to reflect on how lives affect and interact with each other. Reflection goes on for years after a person is gone, forever shifting in the memories and realisations left behind.

I remember listening to Leonard Cohen in the dark of the wine shop I worked in, after hours, when we had locked the doors and turned the music up and opened a bottle. Jane told me to listen to this: her favourite Leonard Cohen song. Different to my favourite Leonard Cohen song, but in this time of his departure its this shared memory that comes back to me. I can see her clearly, sitting on a wine crate, cigarette in one hand, glass in the other, eyes closed.

“And you who had the honor of her evening,

And by the honor had your own restored –

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;

Alexandra leaving with her lord.”

It is remarkable that one person has written so many words, so perfectly poignant, so ready to be repeated to ourselves and to each other. But everyone, when they depart, leaves behind moments and words and memories and making sense of them takes forever. There is something very sweet in mourning someone collectively loved, collectively known. There is no need to explain this loss to someone.

When my dad passed away, almost two years ago now, I had so little understanding of death and grief. I had had no experience of loss like that. I didn’t know what to do or expect or feel even. And I had no way of explaining it to anyone else. I don’t think the process of mourning and remembering him will ever end, of making sense of our life together and our lives apart, before I arrived and after he was gone.

But I know that every time another person leaves us, especially these artists, who meant so much to him and to me, it is another chance to process, to reflect, to feel sad and happy and most of all grateful for the people who’ve shaped us. My dad loved Leonard Cohen, he loved all kinds of music and there is no question that this is what he gave me, and how he shaped me. And with every passing year and every passing inspiration I remember a childhood filled with music and think about how it led me to the life I live now. 

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Reasons to make an album

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about making a new album. I have made two under the name Two White Cranes and I’m very happy with them both – both seemed to be enjoyed by the people who heard them and both really accurately capture particular (and very connected) periods in my life.

The process of recording and releasing both was super interesting. The first one I recorded for free because of the very kind Matt Stevens who let me come to his place of work over two weekends and use a demo studio to make them, and he used his prodigious skills to make them sound good. I got very confused about how to release that album but eventually I put it online for pay what you want and a very surprising (to me) number of people bought it and I used that money to press some CDs with the help of Stitch Stitch records.

The second album was recorded at Sound Savers in London with the very nice Mark Jasper. I paid for this recording with my own money. This was partly because Trust Fund (a band I was in at the time) had been given some money by a record label and I got a bit of that money and decided to use it to make the Grubs and Two White Cranes albums. I guess at that point in time making music seemed like the most important thing to be doing so it seemed like a good thing to spend money on. I then split the cost of making CDs with Stitch Stitch again and Oddbox records made a tape version. Later on Happy Happy Birthday To Me also made a tape release in the US.

So basically that’s how I did it before. Once I did it for free and once I used my own money. But now I don’t know what to do. Although its amazing and liberating in many ways to make a record for free it relies on luck and it also means not paying someone to do it, which feels unfair as I know so many really brilliant and self employed record producers.

I’m not really in a position to pay to make a record again right now but if it was something I really wanted to do I could save up I’m sure, if I was determined. The truth is though making an album no longer feels like the most important thing in the world. I want to be able to live in the city I’ve just moved to (Brighton), which means having a job. And I guess I want to read books and swim and stuff like that. After I’ve paid for rent and chocolate and other important things I could definitely save up what’s left to make a record fund. But that takes time and there’s this weird thing I have with songs where I get very afraid they’ll get too old to record and then they’ll never be recorded, they’ll be forgotten. That’s a big fear I have. What if these songs stop seeming worth recording after a year or so of living only in my brain. The other thing is they tend to get bigger and more complex, the longer they stay in my brain. And when I eventually do record them they might not have the simplicity that is probably my favourite thing about my own music.

Another thought I’ve had is trying to get funding. I’ve looked in to some funding options and they sound good but the main problem I come up against is trying to convince myself, let alone someone else, why I should make an album. I guess I do know why I want to make an album – because its fun and meaningful and satisfying. And perhaps I feel like I need to quite a lot. And because it gives me such pleasure when people listen to my songs and tell me they like them and that they mean something to them. That feeling is just honestly the absolute best. Those reasons are all so selfish though. I have no idea how it would help the rest of the world if I made an album. I suppose I do know that I can inspire other people who feel they want to make music and that’s one of my favourite things about being in bands.  But I can do that by playing live and probably better because when I play live I make all my mistakes so everyone knows that anyone can be on stage if they want.

Camille said I should make some demos myself which I think is a good idea so I’ll try and do that for now, in my bedroom. I suppose the interesting thing to me is that the decision to make something and put it into the world sometimes seems so easy and sometimes seems so hard. But what I’m trying to think is that the difficulty and the indecision are not necessarily signs that something is not worthwhile or not good enough but more signs that I am understanding more about the process of creating something. Speed and simplicity are not the only valuable qualities in music (although for a long time I felt they really were!) and it is probably ok to take my time and let some songs fall away if they need to. 

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Cafe Kino

I’m currently preparing to leave bristol which is something I’ve done before but it feels a lot more final this time. One of the main reasons is that although I’ve made a lot of connections in bristol in my roughly 20 years of living here (on and off) this time I am leaving the biggest and most immovable one which is Café Kino. All my other connections are friends and bands and family members who will visit and tour and send me facebook messages. But Café Kino is so much more than a person or a place.

I became involved with Kino when it first opened on ninetree hill in 2006. I volunteered as a front of house assistant for a few shifts before I left for university. I remember sitting at the window, reading middlemarch and hoping no one would come in because honestly I didn’t know what I was doing. I was so shy then; I was scared of everyone there, but the founders of Cafe Kino were a group of extremely welcoming, caring, thoughtful people. They taught me how to make coffee on the beautiful machine (which lasted until 2015) and over the years everyone involved have taught me thousands of other things. How to listen, how to express your ideas, how to run a venue, how to make a kino burger, how to make a rota, how to do sound, what to listen to, what to read.
I visited Kino a lot when I was away at university, watching it grow, watching it move across the road. I remember helping to prise up the concrete covering the beautiful tile floor and refurbishing chairs in my holidays. When I returned to Bristol in 2012 I started working there full time. My time at Kino has completely changed me as a feminist and a musician which are probably the two things I identify as most strongly. The people I have worked with there have inspired me in countless ways. It is the only place I have ever worked where I always felt good about my abilities and how I looked, where I felt emotionally supported and understood. I’ve done customer service in so many environments and it’s the only place where, despite it often being insanely busy, I’ve felt confident and sure that my colleagues are there to help. I have listened to/watched/performed more music there than in any other place in the world. I have been there at cleaning 7am and at 1am. I have been there with boyfriends, family members, new friends, old friends and touring bands and its always been a friendly, happy, exciting place to be.
I urge all of you to support the places like this in your cities, which are not only important because of the art they foster but also because they are amazing places to work, nurturing skills and ideas. Most of all I want to tell you that co-operatives are an incredibly powerful and radical thing. I try to use the principals of respect and responsibility I’ve learned from working in a co-operative in all areas of my life; in my other jobs and my bands and in my relationships with other people.
Anyway to finish my love letter to Kino I just want to list some of the musical and culinary experiences I’ve had there that have affected me the most.

Top 5 shows:
(I can’t remember the dates or even years of any of these shows sorry)
Harry and the Potters + Martha + Frozy – Grace Denton put this show on in the summer and it was the most packed I’ve ever seen the basement. There were loads of young people, everyone was jumping around. This was the first time I ever saw Martha and I also spent the rest of the evening hitting on harry potter so it was honestly the best night of my life.
Glenn Jones + Headfall – Headfall are some of the most important people in Café Kino’s history. They also happen to be the best band in Bristol. Glenn Jones made one of my favourite albums to play on Sunday morning shift. So yeah this gig was pretty perfect.

Ichi + The Middle Ones – This was part of the incredible year with the middle ones. Anna and Grace did one show a month for 12 months with a whole loads of amazing supports. This one was fun because the basement was being redeveloped and the show was upstairs. Ichi was incredible as ever and The Middle Ones played on ninetree hill and I sang with them.

Tenniscoats + I Know I have no collar + secret Rachel Dadd – This show was super magical. The tenniscoats played totally un amplified and they were just incredible. Everything about it was awesome.
Los Cripis + Bellies + The Sorry People – Los cripis are an amazing garage band from. We took them to the hillgrove afterwards and made them eat pickled eggs. Bellies really nailed it too.

Honourable mentions: Every Hallie & the Annies set, The Nervy Betters, Jeffrey Lewis, MXLX, Pete Shadbolt talking about physics.

Top 5 food/drink:
Spicy Burger with a hash brown and peanut butter – The spicy kino burger is one of the human races greatest inventions. The burgers take fucking ages to make but it’s totally worth it. Also the mayo that we make at Kino is better than any other vegan mayo you can buy and I know because I’ve tried them all. You can only add fun extras like peanut butter if you’re friends with the chefs which I am.
Bacon sandwich with vegan cheese – The day we got vegan cheese at café kino was really a day to remember. If you add it to the bacon sandwich then you’ve got a guaranteed party.

Black Americano –drinking a black Americano in Kino on a quiet morning is an incomparable pleasure.

Any soup Jenny has ever made – Every chef at Kino is incredible and they all have their own talents. Jenny is really a flavour machine and her soups really make me happy in a way I didn’t know soup could.
Every cake ever – cake at kino is so much more than cake.

Honourable mentions: Dave’s cold brew, fizzy espressos, Jen’s ice teas, the coleslaw, curly fries.

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I have been on tour in America with Joanna Gruesome for the past few weeks, playing shows and venues that are a bit bigger and a lot less welcoming than I have been used to. It has been a relentless and tiring experience, playing more shows and travelling further and for longer than I ever have before. Its been amazing but its also coincided with my feelings towards my body, my clothes and my gender shifting hugely.

This has happened for a few reasons I think, some of them really positive. This past year I’ve been surrounded by incredibly inspiring, thoughtful people who have shared their own experiences of their gender with me and this has changed the way I think about it forever and I am so grateful for it. There are also loads of incredible bands who are using their music and performances to express ways of approaching gender that have helped me to think about my own. The new Spook School album is probably one of the main reasons I’ve been thinking about this stuff loads on this tour and I recommend you all go and listen to it now.

This week I read this article by Katie from Priests and it totally helped me to align some of these thoughts that have been flying round my head all tour; both the positive ones and the negative. This quote particularly expresses something that feels close to my experience although I have never expressed before to myself

I’m not sure I am a woman. I am pretty sure I am not a man. I’m not sure I know what it means to be a woman beyond being read as “woman” in others’ eyes, and the experience of being perceived does not an identification make. Being a woman is not something I consciously “do” on a regular basis.”

Its may be inevitable that my thoughts about the fluidity of my own gender, the excitement of all those possibilities and the rejecting of a binary that has been hindering my relationship with myself and my body for years, has coincided with this period of intense performance and scrutiny (both self scrutiny and laying myself open to scrutiny from outward eyes). My bandmate Kate and I are in a slightly unusual position of having replaced Alanna in Joanna Gruesome this year and our genders played a role in us being chosen. Politically and sonically it was important to have non male identifying bodies and voices in the band. And even though I understand this and believe in the importance of this in terms of increasing the visibility of non male genders in music, I guess until recently I didn’t think about the ramifications for me of being in a band because of my gender.

I have been a performing musician for 10 years and that whole time I have identified and performed as a woman and have on the whole been comfortable with that in the spaces I’ve played in and have often felt proud of being a woman and inspiring other women to start playing music. However I’ve always aligned that position as a woman with the need for a level of attractiveness which I have also never felt I possessed. This is an anxiety that has come and gone in the different bands I’ve played in – sometimes seeming more relevant, sometimes less. Reading Katie’s writing this morning for maybe the first time in my life expressed to me concisely and in a way that made sense where that anxiety comes from.

My relationship to femme practices has always been an uncomfortable one. When I was a preteen I started to reject what I saw as femme clothing and outfits – I never learnt how to wear make up, I stopped wearing skirts, I never really knew what to do with my hair apart from dye it bright colours. I don’t wanna be simplistic in what femininity is, because a lot of what I did as a teenager was perform a femininity that I found in music and other cultural influences. But it was never overtly femme. I have for a long time, and still do, reject being femme, sometimes in the name of a sort of feminism that sometimes makes sense to me but always out of fear. The fear that if I attempt to appear femme to the world and fail then I will be failing at some crucial aspect of my gender. I have instead turned to some concept of my “natural” gender. But what are the signs of my natural gender? My body shape? My voice? Relying on these has always left me feeling anxious that they also fail to conform to gender as I think it should be. On this tour more than ever I feel that my performance of my gender is failing – its not representing how I feel inside and its not fulfilling the political possibilities of my gender either, as a woman in music. I’m realising now that idea of femme is also my idea of attractiveness and in my mind I am failing at both.

Performing every night is definitely contributing to these anxieties because every night I worry that the clothes I’m wearing don’t express what they should. I worry that my body shape doesn’t fit with the guitar I’m playing and that everything about me doesn’t fit with this band that I have joined. And I worry that my failure to be femme or feminine correlate with my failure to be attractive. And that if I am a woman on stage but I am not attractive then I am worthless. These beliefs are deep rooted and hard to shake, especially in cities so far away from home where the audience is compiled of strangers.

I guess I want my performance on stage to become less connected to any gender. I want to be femme or not femme or femme and not femme all at once during any given performance but for that decision to be motivated not by fear but by excitement at the possibilities. And I wanna get more used to and more comfortable with the idea of how little that femmeness has to do with my gender. And how little femmeness and attractiveness are connected and how little attractiveness has to do with performance. These are all things I know and believe in logically but which are firmly seated inside me and which are hard to control when I am tired and vulnerable.

I don’t think I have a conclusion to these thoughts but I think I have found it so helpful to listen to other people’s experiences of gender and it seems important to talk about them. So often gender is reduced to an outward appearance – the power is given to the audience who read your gender and define it. I want the power to lie within me, I want the ability to define my gender with words and ultimately I want that definition to be as complex and endless as my experiences. It is not one thing or another thing. It is a continuing relationship between me and myself.

The stage is such an exciting opportunity to perform and be what you can’t be everyday, outside on the streets because its too dangerous or too tiring. But its still a space where the audience is reading you and defining you. Ideally I would want this to change. I would want all of us to change the way we interact with performers. Not defining them and gendering them and scrutinising them. But listening to them and watching them in a much more open way. I feels like performers have always been playing with ideas of gender, provoking audiences to challenge these binaries. And that’s amazing. But it isn’t just the performers job. One of my favorite things about DIY is the idea that everyone, performer, promoter, audience is responsible for the space, both physical and cultural, that you are in. Audiences are just as responsible for changing the cultural reliance on gender binaries in performance.

But I suppose if I want to keep performing music in bigger spaces, in bigger bands, which I definitely do, I want to find a way to reconcile how I feel about my self and my body in these spaces which I feel I have little control over. I guess I want to feel comfortable presenting my body to the world and probably just not give a fuck what they read in to it or take from it.

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“Sometimes the point is a momentum, a fact, a quality, a voice, an imitation, a thing that is said or unsaid.”
Renata Adler, Speedboat

The song is named after Renata Adler, an incredible journalist and writer, more prolific in the seventies although she is writing a new book at the moment I believe. She wrote two novels – Speedboat and Pitch Dark which my friend Dan leant me and they are both incredible.

The song is not about her particularly except in the sense that after I read her novels I was pretty influenced by the disjointed style and I feel like I can hear that influence in this song (but I might be full of shit). Her narratives are non-linear but they still feel very concrete, very much grounded in reality, and not obtuse or inaccessible like other disjointed narratives I’ve read. So in this song I tried to replicate that in the way the lyrics are disjointed and not really particularly about one thing but there are specific terms which for me ground the lyrics in a reality, hopefully stopping them from being meaningless or trite.

But mostly this song is exciting for me because of the arrangement; this is probably the first time I’ve felt happy with how a song has come out beyond the lyrics/singing. I hope you like it anyway.

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So Much Water, So Close to Home

“So much water so close to home” is the title of a very distressing short story by Raymond Carver. I liked the phrase a lot so I decided to use it in a song and then I reread the short story last night and remembered how upsetting it was. Its about the wife of a man who goes on a fishing trip with a group of friends. They find the body of a young woman in the river and don’t report it straight away but continue drinking and fishing for two days and then report it. In the story the woman finds out and is increasingly afraid of her husband and other men. So I guess the story is about male violence and trust (or lack of it).

So in many ways the story doesn’t relate to my song all that much, because my song is not about male violence. It is mostly about a conversation I had with my friend Dan about the similarities and differences between short stories and songs. I guess I forget the bulk of the conversation now but what I remember and what the song is about is the way short stories include very concrete details and objects which are often crucial to their effectiveness when you read them. So in the short story  “So much water so close to home” objects like plates and cups, bottles of whiskey and bedding are all anchors that make the people in the story seem more real and make the emotions in it more effecting.

In my song I was trying to talk about how we only sometimes do this in songwriting but how it can be so effective. Because in a story it is crucial but you sweep past it because you are thinking about the plot. But in a song any element of a lyric can jump out at you at any point and if that element is an object I think that can be really powerful. It is maybe my favourite kind of songwriting and I think lots of my friends are good at it.  Oh Peas in “Year of the horse” only mentions weetabix once but it is always my main memory of the song and the weetabix, in my head, embody all of the physical and emotional stress that the song evokes, which is pretty incredible for such a well established cereal brand. King of Cats, in the song “naked fucking bodies flying high”, uses all kinds of words in awkward places so that they jump out at you and you have all these concrete objects to latch on to in your head. The “News reporters” and “Old People” and “Brightly coloured paper” in the song are very vivid in my mind.  Actually that song has a lot more in common with the Raymond Carver story than mine.

Anyway, as well as the short story the song is also very much inspired by a really really beautiful poem by Raymond Carver. Here is the full poem:

Morning, Thinking of Empire

We press our lips to the enameled rim of the cups
and know this grease that floats
over the coffee will one day stop our hearts.
Eyes and fingers drop onto silverware
that is not silverware. Outside the window, waves
beat against the chipped walls of the old city.
Your hands rise from the rough tablecloth
as if to prophesy. Your lips tremble …
I want to say to hell with the future.
Our future lies deep in the afternoon.
It is a narrow street with a cart and driver,
a driver who looks at us and hesitates,
then shakes his head. Meanwhile,
I coolly crack the egg of a fine Leghorn chicken.
Your eyes film. You turn from me and look across
the rooftops at the sea. Even the flies are still.
I crack the other egg.
Surely we have diminished one another.

Again the objects in the poem take up the main focus and act as a conduit for the emotion. But also it is just a painfully accurate depiction of what happens when two people who shouldn’t really be in each others lives anymore are still eating breakfast together on a regular basis, which I guess is the other thing the song is about.

Overall the thing I liked about Raymond Carver’s title, and the reason I used it in my song is that it seems to carry such a multiplicity of meanings. It could mean that going off to find water elsewhere is pointless, or bound to lead to trouble, or that you feel rich in how much water you have, or that you feel scared by all the water right there surrounding you, that all your fears are closer than you think. And the water in that phrase can mean anything really. Water is one of those slightly empty words, ripe for everyone to have their own idea about. Which contrasts the coffee in the song because coffee is only ever coffee.

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