When you’re writing songs at home in your bedroom, it really does feel like you’ve pulled the sword from the stone and done something impossible. With nothing more than your thoughts and words and fingers on strings, you’ve built something that wasn’t there before. Like a magic trick. It’s not a house or a cupboard or shelves or anything tangible or practical, but the first time I did it I thought I was a wizard or something, and I couldn’t stop.
I’ve been a working musician now for over twenty years and still get that same thrill of creation when a new song pops out. There are literally thousands of singer-songwriters in the UK alone, and being able to stand out and make yourself heard may be the biggest challenge. I remember when I did one of my first open mike nights at a pub in London, everyone gets there at 6pm, scrambles to write their name on the A4 sign-up sheet to get a good time slot, then you watch everyone else and wait your turn. All I was thinking was – as act after act got up and sang their songs to a very chatty audience (except for a small coterie of invited, devoted mates) – don’t be boring. Get their attention. Make them listen. It definitely didn’t work that night. So I went home and started writing songs about things other than break-ups, feeling blue and some generic pastoral nonsense, and started trying to tell stories and add jokes and fuse my personality with the wider world, including politics and social issues, inspired by the likes of poet John Hegley, early Billy Bragg albums and Billy Connolly’s shaggy-dog stories. Once I’d I found my ‘voice’, I felt much more comfortable in my own skin as a musician. I still get edgy around ‘actual’ musicians, who look at my fingers on the fret board rather than listen to the songs, but it’s been a key to unlock live work for me…reading the room and trying to create a positive atmosphere between performer and audience. I’m now working on my sixth album and will be going on a UK tour myself later in the year, as well as hopefully returning to gigs in Europe and Australia, if/when travel restrictions are lifted.
Ever since I started though, like many other musicians, I’ve had other jobs to supplement my income, and since moving to the West Country I’ve been lucky enough to become Creative Director of Wiltshire Rural Music. This has involved programming monthly events of (mostly) classical music, setting up projects such as Music On The Move, in which we collaborated with the Mobile Library service throughout the county and took musicians into small rural villages, bringing live performances to schools, village halls, pub car parks and phone boxes. So many people got to enjoy music in a way they hadn’t for years, right on their doorstep. It has informed everything we’ve done since, including the charity’s current mission to work with people living with dementia and celebrate what music can do for isolated individuals and groups in care-homes across Wiltshire. One of my highlights during the first lockdown was being able to programme a project called Dial M For Music, in which we made ‘musical phone calls’ to people who were missing direct human contact. Essentially, these were just phone calls, but the music we played (involving cellists, songwriters, pianists, trumpeters and flautists) proved a real tonic in difficult times. Being told down the line by a man’s long-term carer that “it’s the first time he’s smiled in ages” made everything worth it. Art is entirely subjective though, so I remember crashing down to earth on the very next call, by being told “this is load of rubbish” from a care home resident who couldn’t believe I didn’t know any Perry Como hits.
Being given the chance to work with Trowbridge Town Hall during the pandemic has also reinforced how important it is to create a sense of community within the town itself, a vision that has been pushed forward by director David Lockwood. With Wiltshire Rural Music I was able to programme a series of lockdown events called ‘Live at the Town Hall’, with the help and assistance of Town Hall staff and Kieran Moore from Sheer Music, a brilliant and valuable champion of the local music scene. Having programmed lots of shows during my time in London, especially cross-genre events that mixed music with comedy and poetry, it felt great to be involved in the act of creating live events again, even if no audience could attend. It’s not quite the same sensation as writing a song, but putting a gig together and being able to create a show is incredibly rewarding. You are giving other artists a chance to do what they do best, and putting something positive into the world. For the Town Hall shows, we felt it was important to be able to give artists the chance to be back on an actual stage rather than in their living rooms singing songs to an iPhone camera for the benefit of their social media friends. For the musicians themselves, the joy was in the act of standing on a stage where they make their living – under lights and hearing their music coming back through a PA system – that made the difference to their self-worth and (I think) made for six really moving and surprisingly emotional performances. You can catch them all here.
For the next year then, I’ve been given the job of programming Saturday night grassroots music events at the Town Hall. It’s such an exciting challenge. After a year that has shaken everything and everyone to their core, the arts will come back fighting. It has to. Audiences will need things to see that aren’t available on a streaming service, art that is created in front of them. Or a communal sense that we’re interacting with something together; whether it’s cinema, theatre, comedy or music, or any number of artistic endeavors. I want to fill these nights with a varied programme, taking in as many genres and styles as we can, harnessing local talent where possible and turning Trowbridge Town Hall into somewhere with a reputation for innovative and inspirational live music. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the Town Hall was home to some famous names like Cat Stevens, The Who and The Small Faces, as well as many other acts that either were or went on to become legends of the music world. Many of the acts we will be booking are not household names. You many not have heard of them. Yet. They will be bands, duos or solo artists either just starting out on their musical journey or people with a strong and committed local or online following. You will almost certainly hear folk, punk, rock, rap, hip-hop, country, you know…the good stuff. I welcome any and all top tips and suggestions from all of you though, so please get in touch if there is something you’ve always wished to see in Trowbridge and we’ll do our best to make it happen.
I’m 43 now and still obsess over music as much as I did when I bought my first vinyl single from Woolworths (Debbie Gibson’s Only In My Dreams if you must know). When I’m at festivals, you’ll find me pottering around all the smaller stages, looking for a new artist or band to blow my mind. When it happens, I still get the same tingle up the back of my spine as when I was 18, bouncing around at an indie disco. I want to see people of all ages coming together every Saturday night, for a few hours, together again in a room. Trowbridge is a wonderful town with a proud history of brilliant live music. I hope you get that same feeling when live music finally returns to the Town Hall.
Image by: Jamie McDine