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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On loud and quiet – “Oh, I didn’t realize I could be this loud, and heard so far away” (Carrie Brownstein)

I have been a performing songwriter and a musician for over ten years. For 8 of those 10 years I played the acoustic guitar and played mostly quietly. Then two years ago I bought my electric guitar and also started playing bass in some bands. Now I play quietly sometimes and loud some other times. Some times I sing really really softly and occasionally I screetch and holler. And I feel so much happier and more confident in what I do now than I did for those first 8 years. There are lots of reasons for that, with experience being the main one, but being loud has been huge in making me feel like a worthwhile musician.

I don’t for a minute think that loud music is better than quiet music. Everyone wants different music at different times and all kinds of music have the ability to make you feel and forget. But the important thing for me about loud music is that I thought I couldn’t make it, and now I know not only that I can, but anyone can. When you are young and inexperienced and most importantly a girl, it can be easy to feel intimidated. I actually started learning the electric guitar when I was 11. But I had lessons with a man, at school, who taught me Radiohead songs and ‘ob la di ob la da’ and was obviously a bell end. I also had a best friend, who was a boy, who obsessed over his electric guitar, in learning guitar solos and listening to pink floyd. I instantly felt unable to connect, because I didn’t want to do guitar solos then, or listen to Pink Floyd and I didn’t want to learn how amps worked because I was scared I would break them. I wanted to keep everything as simple as possible so that I would feel confident enough to do it. To me the important thing seemed to be doing it, which in retrospect was true, so well done me. So I learned Mr Tambourine man on my acoustic guitar and started writing songs.

It was such a long time before I felt brave enough to use an electric guitar But once I did I realised it was nowhere near as scary as I thought. No one cares when you play a wrong note, even if the note is very loud. It also turns out almost no one understands amps. Things go wrong and break all the time and mostly no one knows why and everyone laughs. The main thing is its an extremely rewarding feeling to play in a band, with bass and drums and guitars. And it is complicated – because you can’t just sit anywhere and do it. You have to have space and you have to be allowed to make noise and you have to co-ordinate. But that is what makes it important. Because it takes effort and negotiation, so what you do is worthwhile. They way you feel afterwards is that you’ve achieved something. Even if the songs are shit.

But there are a number of really important reasons that I love being loud and that have inspired me to be loud and I’d like to list them now. (There are actually way more people who have inspired me than this, but for brevity’s sake these are three big ones) 

The Middle Ones: I started playing shows with The Middle Ones in 2008. At some point, after maybe 2 years of playing together (?) they transformed from being two really incredible writers, singers and artists performing together into like the most powerful stage show of all time. I personally (in my role as a middle ones super fan) site this moment as when I first saw them perform the song Drops with Grace shouting. We had all been playing acoustic twee pop shows together and all of a sudden grace was shouting at the top of her lungs and throwing her shaky eggs on the ground. It was super inspiring and empowering and a lot like when dylan went electric I guess.

T-shirt Weather: When I met T-shirt weather I was touring the UK with Ellis and an acoustic guitar and we were playing songs and being really really super shy about it. It was a really nice tour but it was strange, looking back, to go all that way and play to those people when we had such faltering belief in ourselves. But meeting T-shirt weather was a huge turning point for me. They make music that is half indie-pop and half pop-punk and I remember Tom Sharpe telling me he believed they were the same thing. I guess I’d been essentially playing indie-pop for a few years then but its a really unrewarding genre I think because a lot of it is about self-deprecation and being shy, whereas pop punk is about being a bratty teenage boy. I would say in the last 2 and a half years I have become much more like a bratty teenage boy because of T-Shirt Weather.

Joanna Gruesome: Playing shows with and getting to know Joanna Gruesome has also been a super inspiring process. I definitely never ever would have started shouting on stage if I hadn’t seen Alanna do it. It is such a scary thing to do. But once you start you can’t stop because it feels AMAZING. I also now play in a band with Owen and that has also been very incredible. Playing music with other people is hard and scary and lots of people deal with this by focusing on themselves, and doing their thing right at the expense of other people, or even by focusing on what other people are doing wrong. Owen and Jake our drummer are very very good musicians to play with cos they make you feel like you can do anything. This is such an important quality. I am trying to develop it myself.

The quote in the title is from a Rookie interview with Carrie Brownstein and it is what got me thinking about this stuff recently. When I was young I didn’t think I could or should be loud. And even though I have been writing songs for so long, I don’t think I ever really thought I could be heard. I thought people were listening to the melodies or just weren’t really listening at all. But I have realised that when I play songs, any kind of song, loud or quiet, people will listen, and I can say all kinds of things, which is a really powerful position to be in. That is why its important for people, anyone, to feel that they can be loud when they want to be loud. Because raising you voice and making a noise reminds you of how important your own voice and your own body is. Its a direct example of how you have an impact on the world around you and its good to use it.

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more meaningless words

3 weeks ago I put my album onto the internet bit of the world. It made me really happy when lots of people listened to it. It also made me really happy that lots of really nice people paid money to have it even though I let them have it for free. What is more astounding is that people have bought it that aren’t even my friends but are people I have never met. Bandcamp helpfully sends you an e-mail every time someone buys it, and then you know who has got the thing you made. Its pretty amazing.

Ok so its great. But it is also weird. Making a thing that I feel completely happy with and that some other people like should be just great. But I feel maybe less confident than I did before about myself as a musician and a singer and songwriter as well as just generally a person. It is very easy to detach any meaning from nice words people say about you or your music. And that is what I have been thinking about a lot recently. What does it mean? What does it mean that I made something and people liked it. Is that any reflection on me as a person. Or is it more just a thing that has happened.

To help me think about this I did perhaps the most self-indulgent thing possible and went back and read some things I wrote about songwriting 2 and a half years ago. I like the thing I wrote about the tension between meaning and nonsense being crucial to songwriting. I think the same is true for the whole process of making music. It is both an incredibly meaningful experience and just complete and utter nonsense. The idea of people paying money to download music is nonsense, the idea that it could make me a confident, happy, functional person if enough people like the record is nonsense. But the fact that anyone would make time and effort and pay money to listen to what I have to done is meaningful. But the meaning isn’t located in me, it is in them.

2 and half years ago I wrote about a gap in my songs between the emotion that made them and the song that comes out of it. The gap is where I forget how I got from one bit to another and its what makes songwriting scary – because if you could remember how it worked then it would be easy. But it also wouldn’t be as good because that gap is there for everyone else. That’s where they put their meaning and their nonsense into the song and that’s what makes the song theirs.

Really what I am saying here is, to anyone reading this who has listened to me sing my songs ever, thank you so much. You have done something really ridiculous but really important to me. And I suppose the same is true for all of us whenever we take time to listen to or read or look at anything that someone has made. I really dislike the idea of art being a mystical hierarchical thing. I hate the idea that someone has “something special” or “a gift” which makes them a better person than anyone else. Those ideas are really pervasive and they seep into everything. Even into DIY culture which should be the last place you find any of that bullshit. Its those ideas that make me think making an album could make me a better person. Whereas what making an album does is make a document of the person I am at the time I am making it. And sure that can be useful and satisfying and maybe a little therapeutic. But its not going to fix things. But listening to other people’s music can certainly make you a better person. So can playing shows and putting on bands and eating salad and drinking less beer or drinking more beer and exercising and throwing a dinner party and moving your furniture around and getting a job at a charity and volunteering somewhere and reading books so that you are more politically aware and knitting. These are important and difficult things to remember for me. But I will try.


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two white cranes

I have made an album and now you can listen to it. It is difficult to say exactly why I have done this. I wrote the first song (skeleton) in 2011 in the living room of my mum’s house which is where I live again now. In between those two points in time – writing skeleton and writing this – I have lived in lots of different houses in Bristol and one in Oxford. Lots of things happened and these songs came out and I don’t feel like the same person any more.

I made these songs into an album because they were the songs I had and they all seem to be about loving someone or something so they fit quite well together. It seems like everyone I know is writing songs or making records or drawing things, which is amazing and inspiring but it certainly puts the pressure on. So I did this.

I was intending to make these into a vinyl record. I thought this would make me feel good and powerful. A way of saying HEY EVERYONE THIS IS ME AND THE THING I MADE. But it would have cost a lot of money and then I would have had to have sold those records to people for money and it feels strange equating being in love and writing about it to paying for an object. I thought it might be nice to have objects to take on tour with me, but I would have had to have booked the tour and felt confident enough about myself to make it all happen and eventually it felt like I was putting more pressure on myself than was necessary. So here are the songs free and easy from me to you. Sometimes these songs make me feel good and powerful and sometimes they make me feel small and weak and I have no explanation for that. But I hope they make you feel good. They are all about how very very good it is to be in love.

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no words

I wrote something a while back about voices in music, and it feels a lot of the time like voices are taking over my life, mainly my own voice. The voice in my head is loud and constant and mostly anxious.

Today I listened to The Wanting by Glenn Jones. A friend recently described to me his “secret fetish for oldy timey guitar playing that isn’t fucked up with singing.” This is exactly how Glenn Jones feels to me today, music that is completely unfettered and un-fucked-up. Its floating, winding, drifting with each string, each fret held or not held; it feels timeless. The style he’s playing is called “American Primitive” meaning self-taught but that also gives it a sense of otherworldly, un-connectedness. A music not troubled by modernity, or technology. A romanticizing of a mythic (i.e. fictional) past but one that creates a beautiful artistic space that is happening now.

Glenn Jones moves leisurely through chords. Each string sounds perfect together as a whole. As I sit and listen I find it hard to imagine that these sounds are coming from a guitar. Guitars which are so familiar to me that I can’t even see them when I look at them and can’t really think when I play them I just play. But this music makes the whole idea strange to me.

My friend Bert wrote this the other day about music and expression.

“I guess maybe I’m saying that making art to express yourself is great and maybe one of the best and most fulfilling things in the world but I should definitely not use it to hide behind and never talk about anything because I’ll just be lonely forever.”

Its a useful thing to remember, that music isn’t a stand in for talking or for human contact. I think I often use writing as a tool to connect to people. I write a song or some words and I e-mail it to someone and I feel upset and dissatisfied when it makes me feel further away from that person, although it can sometimes make them feel closer to me. This is a frustration I find difficult to think about.

The need to express yourself gets greater as time goes on and life gets more complicated. The songs I wrote before no longer express feelings I am familiar with. But this makes me wonder about instrumental music. Does a tune lose its emotional reference point or is it just the lyrics that make your songs dated? My songs are so stubbornly tethered to their words and melodies I can’t imagine writing an instrumental.

But listening to instrumental music today is a release. Anxious thoughts are repetitive, circuitous. It has been explained to me as patterns that get forged throughout your brain, unhealthy and restrictive. The songs on The Wandering use repetition just enough for familiarity, but not so much that it becomes boring. The last track is the most repetitive, a great building, circling 17 minute long crescendo with beautiful clunking drums. But by this time the cascade of little notes springing up and in and out of sound have calmed me enough and I can listen to the repetitions and find each time something new. These songs encourage a loosening of my thoughts into areas I haven’t been.

What I like about it is its not drowning anything out. Its not blocking one voice with another, which is what I often try to do. These songs quieten my voice, encourage it to move a little differently, speak a little slower.

There is a similarity between this music and swimming. Where every bit of you is in contact with this slowly moving thing that is one thing (water, music) made up of many, many things (drops, notes) that move around and past you to create the whole and you move around in it and its so much like water this guitar. A voiceless guitar, the man behind it is erased and I can’t even imagine his fingers and all there is is drops drifting.

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