You are excrement. You can turn yourself into gold.Alejandro Jodorowski, The Holy Mountain (1973).
Life’s too short for reinvention.Will Oldham, in conversation with Ross Simonini (2021).
It is quite an incredible thing to witness him perform, not least because he cannot do a song twice. It’s one take and that’s it.Sean O’Hagan, interviewing Artangel’s Michael Morris, on Lonnie Holley, The Guardian, 2 May 2022.
What is it that I do, and what use does it have in the world?… Who gets to be creative? ~ Dr Catherine Anne-Davis, AKA, The Anchoress, 2021, on Sodajerker, Episode 223.
Some Thoughts on the ‘Project’
The ‘project’ is a ubiquitous term the ideology of which has been subsumed into numerous facets of our neoliberal culture. The result is that the individual – by establishing their own deadlines – or meeting those of an outside agent – is either subject to, or subjects themselves to, a climate of exponential growth, wherein, we no sooner end one project, than begin the next. The cycle is in exhaustive, and the dividing line is, the deadline. For artists, especially female artists, there can be very little distinction between life and art, one bleeds effortlessly into the other, and back again.
The American seminal intellectual and controversial feminist, Susan Sontag, gave ‘life and project’ a good once over, concluding that we couldn’t have both. This is interesting, considering her official biographer, Benjamin Moser, has described Sontag’s life as a project of self-transformation in his definitive Sontag: Her Life and Work (2019). Indeed, Sontag herself, said:
The only transformation that interests me is a total transformation – however minute.Susan Sontag (2012:102). “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980”, Macmillan.
Can the ‘project’ lead to transformation though? Over in performance studies, philosopher and performance theoretician, Bojana Kunst, views the ‘project’ through a performative lens. She unpicks its role in the conditions of artists under capitalism, in Artist as Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism. Moreover, if we venture further into popular music scholarship, we find the term as historically relevant to the art of songwriting and record production.
The American singer-songwriter and iconoclast, Frank Zappa, came to define his creative excesses, which culminated in albums, as ‘project objects’. He held them as unique bodies of work which exhibited a ‘conceptual continuity’. This continuity manifested in recurring themes, ideas, or motifs, or threads from one album to the next. Similarly, from one idiosyncratic visionary to another, in the language of the American filmmaker, David Lynch, (who I remain fascinated by for his intuitive and non-linear filmmaking), this ‘thread’ would be termed an ‘idea’, or a ‘feel’. “We all have a feel“, says Lynch. For example, there is a methodological crossover between spontaneous song/writing and how Lynch made his surreal film Inland Empire (2006), which was improvised from scene to scene, with actors coming in for the day, and having no idea what they were going to do or say, and Lynch feeling his way around each scene.
Your identity as a musician – or as a painter, poet, dancer, whatever, is not determined by public experiences. Hey, it’s great to play Carnegie Hall, but even that is extrinsic to the actual music making… It’s your intrinsic relationship to your creative pursuit which defines you.Ted Gioia, The Honest Broker, February, 2022.
In terms of how we go about navigating the creative pursuit, I might turn to the work of the under read German-Korean cultural and political philosopher, Byung Chul-Han. In The Burnout Society (2015), for example, Han speculates that it is our drive towards ceaseless productivity engineered by our “service-oriented culture” that is generating an epidemic of “self-exploitation”. If we relate this to popular music and the music industries, in general, through the prism of social media, it resonates with the way in which your average indie musician is expected to be ‘always on’. In our Instagram simulacra, to opt out or take a break, is to more or less become invisible. However, by curating our lives for ‘free’, for all to see, in the (prophetic) murmurings of Radiohead: You do it to yourself, you do… This is just one way in which improvising the making or performing of songs is a contemporary marker of resistance. It says, this song is enough, and by extension, I am enough.
I am not a product, do you hear me?Lyrics from “You’ll Never Look at Yourself”, a spontaneous single-take song which I then converted into a performative video piece, 2021.
Algorithm-generated playlists squander and squelch music’s capacity as a means of communication.Will Oldham, interviewed by Ross Simonini, 2021
I want to connect, but I don’t want to conform.Mary Gauthier, quoted in ICMP’s ‘Why We Write Songs’ . Roundtable hosted by Sophie Daniels, 19th January 2022.
My friend, Donna Matthews, passed on the following quote in one of our many email chains, which she dictated to me, fired up, on her way back across London from a gig of an evening, as she does:
Craft must have Clothes; but Truth loves to go naked.Thomas Fuller (1654 – 1734)
In this sense, spontaneous song/writing is truth. It is anti-capitalist. It is probably gendered. (But Aristotle was correct in that the soul has no gender.) Moreover, in terms of Fuller’s quote, and Von Kleist’s ‘marionette’ (1810), it is similarly a vehicle for the operation of the soul.
Below, are two texts: Night Driving and Some Notes on Fire. These texts were written, read aloud, and performed as audio pieces now uploaded as Episodes 1 and 2 on my uox confusa show on Mixcloud. When I write, and I am left with a disembodied text, I tend to want to back through the body. This I have come to know as the best form of editing.
Editing is a place where the poem (and the self) can be remade, or increasingly fractured, so as to be remade.James Byrne, 2016, A Poetics of Desire, unpublished doctoral thesis.
What I relish about editing, (aside from the painstaking act of writing itself), is getting rid. Slamming the delete key just feels good. When I’m struggling with a text, reading it out loud is a distancing tool or one of de-familiarisation. The ear knows best. I am reminded of Clarice Lispector, who writes, in The Hour of the Star:
I am not an intellectual, I write with my body. And what I write is a moist fog.Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star (1977).
On scouring the final cut from “Blue Valentine”, to capture screenshots, I realised that I had begun to categorise these shots by body parts, or by location, inside or outside, eyes-closed – eyes-open seemed to me to be the most obvious binary. I also noticed the various shapes and turns I made with my body. I showed a friend a few stills over coffee, and he said I looked like a butterfly. This made me smile. At one point in Glen Coe, I seemed to turn my body into a chrysalis, before letting it loose into the golden landscape. The sun dancing on my dress. I can still see it in the lens. Tattooed on my retina.
bell hooks (1952-2021) has sadly passed away. How we tend to use the present perfect. It's always encouraging to find scholars who write on love; for this is, I think, what we should all be writing on, and for. 'But she made demands on the world. She believed criticism came from a place of love, a desire for things worthy of losing ourselves to.' Here she is, with some fragments on love:
The one person who will never leave us, whom we will never lose, is ourself. Learning to love our female selves is where our search for love must begin.Communion: The Search for Female Love (2002)
The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (1994)
Song making is akin to night driving. It's a venturing out into the unknown. It's a turning to glance across the loch at the darkening sky grasping its patches of lucid blue. It is an interdisciplinary intervention in that one form can lead to another. It lends itself to the mystical. Walter Benjamin (1928), for example, perceived of ideas as being "... to objects as constellations are to stars" [translated from Trauerspiel, 1928].
I start with fire. It invokes making and unmaking, unpredictability, risk and danger, lack of containment, connection, and divination. Fire is a beacon; and it spreads. Fire has often been brought into proceedings in an attempt to capture in language the impulsive and improvisatory nature of how songs may come about. For me, working quickly puts to bed the rational and over-thinking mind. It brings relief.
If the point of feminisms is to create space, then this is a feminist practice. The American alt-folk singer Gillian Welch talks about how songs inhabit their own time. I'd say that songs change time. They are prophetic. If we take Nick Cave at his word, they can "predict futures". They also have a damn good go at salvaging our pasts. They say sorry for us when we can't. They pick us up, and move us on. The songs that do this stay with us forever, (if one believes in the word forever). Then there's what I call "these fires inside" which come about when someone loves your song.
I engage in rituals of listening cocooned in noise-cancelling headphones under blue light in the early hours can transport us to a world which doesn’t exist, but which is always there, on the horizon, just before dawn. "Is this desire?" asks PJ.
Spontaneous songs can be strange. They can assume nebulous and twangy forms. They can surprise us (which is surely the best thing?) They can be brief spurts, or, they can go on and on, seemingly replicating the female orgasm, like Patti did (Middleton, 2006). We are always rippling beneath the surface. And even Nick improvises, madly, yet measured, Warren looking on. Professor of Cultural Studies at Flinders University, Australia, and author of popular culture, Tara Brabazon has spoken on the ‘porous PhD’ (2021). I perceive this as a watery, theoretical thing, which is can move towards the edge. Here, I don a neon blue wig with bangs off Amazon, gold-sequinned dress, and cream Mod boots. I am blurred, then in the frame. Some kind of replica, gyrating in the November light, as big as the hills.
We begin with the shower scene: a burning ritual. "Bring pink roses, not red." she said. I stand up straight, turn my back, and then my neck, crouch, cup the wig, straighten it, take it off. I hold the projector up high, twirling it around the camera, being baptised in temperamental fluorescent neon, pink to brown, blue to red. Each time I take the lighter to a rose, it burns my fingers. Who'd have thought a rose would take so long to waste? We stop at TJ's Diner - an American themed restaurant - on the way up. I’ve been here a few times. We mostly have the place to ourselves. A few couples come in to breakfast. The pretty waitress in her early twenties is pleasingly benevolent. "Is it okay if she dances on the table?" asks S.
I lock myself in the disabled toilet and get changed. I look in the mirror. The dress fits, just about. I pose, dance, crawl. I record. "Sing louder", she says. "Louder". I stand in front of the star spangled banner emblazoned on the wall and turn my arms into clock hands. I have no idea why I am turning my arms into clock hands. I take a selfie of me and Jimi. It strikes us the flag shots are masculine somehow, and how we might need to put a filter on the diner scene later to soften it. I crawl from the shower, to the diner, to the wild.
On the way back, we hit a deer.
Later on, she WhatsApp-ed me.
On the subject of animals, and feral encounters, my song, "Stuffed Animal" is to be featured in a film with no name based upon the myth of Icarus, currently being directed by ultra lo-fi, critically revered director of the Argentine New Wave, Raúl Perrone (Ituzaingó, 1952). In this film, I also duet in another scene with aka Ariel. It is exciting to have a song or two go out of the laptop and into the world. At no point, were any monies exchanged. aka Ariel and I duet-ed for free. I gave my song away to Rául for free, never having met him, and never likely to, knowing only that he hardly ever leaves Ituzaingó, that he makes them (the critics) come to him.
………………………………………………………………………………………………………….Some Notes on Fire
I went to gather some notes on fire.
That songwriting, it must have been like being possessed by fire.
I felt like an imposter. The songs, they fell out of me; I didn’t try to write them. Do you know what I’m saying? They just fell [italics mine] out of me.Tommy Tiernan, in conversation with Sinead O’Connor, on the Tommy Tiernan Show (1st Feb, 2020).
When La Grange you say came together in like one of those two-minute deals…It seems to me that some of the best songs come together that quickly. When you gotta’ labour over ‘em [italics mine] , they’re not as good for some reason, why is that?
It just sucks out the energy. If you can just get it, you know, lightnin’ in a bottle is rare.Howard Stern, interviewing Billy Gibbons, of ZZ Top, on The Howard Stern Show, 2013.
Anger is fire and fire moves things.Nina Simone, cited by Lisa O’Neill, in Serious Livestream Extra, streamed live, June 20th, 2020.
Babe, I’m on fire.Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Nocturama (2003).
Johnny Cash ‘sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire…Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One (2004: 217).
I wanted the narrative to be in free flight all the time… so you didn’t know what it was exactly, because I didn’t.Warren Ellis, Nina Simone’s Gum (2021).
What happens to knowledge when form gets transformed? What of ontological spills, epistemic shifts, or methodological entanglements?
Project/Object is a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no technical name…Think of the connecting material in the Project/Object this way: A novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel.Zappa (1989). The Real Frank Zappa Book. London: Simon and Schuster.
Each album or ‘project object’ has its own song world consisting of music video and experimental touring. Fire is a beacon, and fire spreads. On the Space Junk Broadcast Tour, scheduled for summer 2022, I will become a beacon, moving around the country with my Blackstar portable amp, in a camper van turned into a personal theatre, playing the album to whoever, or whatever, might hear. I will be performing on camp sites and in impromptu, unfixed or unusual sites. My research question for this specific activity is What happens when I go on tour? It could be that nothing happens, and so in turn, I ask: What then happens to this nothing-happensness? I have decided to try something different. On Spotify I am one of many artists who is sucked in and spat out. My rationale is therefore to do something in the real world, with a sense of play, and see where it takes me. This is a sort of episodic performance art. Or it may be something else entirely which I'm unaware of. The impulse is to do it though. Historically, the guerrilla gig is a radical property in that it can appear and disappear at will, go unannounced, or undocumented. The Space Junk Broadcast 'Tour' will be shared on social media and documented through video and photography which will be included in my PhD portfolio. I will be travelling with a Blackstar portable amp, electric guitar, and a portable projector in a camper van around Scotland as a roaming personal theatre. My friend said I needed a vehicle for engagement, and so I've gone and got one, literally. I have applied for funding from the Royal Musical Association for the tour. Part of the tour will be performing impromptu gigs in campsites and other, unusual locations. I will be gathering behind the scenes footage of the tour. If I was in America, I'd be staying in motels but because I'm not in America, and we don't have motels, I'll be staying elsewhere, when I'm not in the van. I have come up with a brief 'Bibliography/Discography' for the tour. See below. .......... Cortázar, J. and Dunlop, C., 2007. Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. Brooklyn: Archipelago Books. Elujoba, Y., 2022. Lonnie Holley’s Life of Perseverance, and Art of Transformation. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/06/arts/design/lonnie-holley.html> [Accessed 5 May 2022]. Friedman, K., 2005. Fluxus. Providence, RI: Rhode Island School of Design. Lost Nation Road. 2019. [DVD] Directed by I. MacKenzie. USA: Storyhive. Orphan Wisdom. 2022. Nights of Grief & Mystery - Orphan Wisdom. [online] Available at: <https://orphanwisdom.com/nights-of-grief-and-mystery/> [Accessed 5 May 2022]. Redfern, M., 2021. Kevin Morby Announces 4-Track Demo Version of His “Sundowner” Album. [online] Undertheradarmag.com. Available at: <https://www.undertheradarmag.com/news/kevin_morby_announces_4_track_demo_version_of_his_sundowner_album> [Accessed 5 May 2022]. Shadow Kingdom. 2021. [DVD] Directed by A. Har'el. USA: Veeps. TheCollector. 2022. Allan Kaprow and the Art of Happenings. [online] Available at: <https://www.thecollector.com/allan-kaprow-art-of-happenings/> [Accessed 5 May 2022].
Fire is useful to start an inquiry into how songs have been made, and how I make songs. It can be a case of ‘convert[ing] something’ (Dylan, 2004: 51). Fire invokes risk, power, contingency, lack of containment and control, connection, divination, and transformation (Bachelard, 1977).
One-take impromptu records exist (Broughton, 2005; Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie Prince Billy, 2016; Springsteen, 1982) yet those written by women songwriters (Cluck, 2006, 2014; Talbot, 2018) generate a lacuna in the literature. There are precedents: Patti Smith’s seminal and incantatory Horses (1975) and PJ Harvey’s compelling four track demos (1993, 1995; Mongredien, 2020) each resembling forces of nature. Aptly, Gustav Thomas (2019: 69), the pseudonym, summing up my methods, distinguishes what he coined ‘Wild Pop’ from improvisation in its "commitment to make the final version in the moment of its inception; to make definitive performative statements without preconception, planning or rehearsal".
In contemporary alt-folk, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s "immersive songwriting" (Deusner, 2016) and Bill Callahan’s pioneering imminence (Clarke, 2020) dwell in a radical phenomenology of time (Barbaras, 2008; Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Merleau-Ponty, 1962) as Other than labour (Graeber, 2018). Such music making and experimentation affords ‘…more lucid explorations, less urgency’ (Fisher, 2017). There may be at play a Žižekian tension of "embrace or escape" (Parker, 2004: 123) between getting lost in the material and emerging through it; symptomatic of albums being ‘a general confrontation with the world" (Grubbs, 2014: xi).
In common with the American frontman and unapologetic blues-rock cavalier, Jack White, I tend to write "…whatever comes out of me..." (Doyle, 2013) "by myself, as …a very intimate experience..." (Blake, 2020; cf. Drake, 1972). Writing about a practice which isn't ordinarily written down, or engaging in ‘self writing’ (Foucault, 1997a; 1980), is ideological, as it assumes value. Furthermore, deploying storying as (re)interpretation and critical autoethnography can illuminate epistemological intimacies and uncertainties (Holman Jones, 1999; Gannon, 2004a, 2006; Grant et al., 2013; Reed-Danahay, 1997) and ‘…enact the affective force of the performance event again’ (Phelan, 1997: 11). I will now conclude in a way not to 'stop thought' - as Anne Carson might put it - but to finish here. Knowledge is infinite, and, so to deploy military metaphors such as,'locate the territory', and 'occupy the niche', is to reinforce neoliberal (and patriarchal) ideologies of research as a 'gap-filling' exercise. If knowledge exists in gaps, and knowledge is infinite, then that would mean an infinite number of gaps. I return to bell hooks, who, in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (2012: 281), reminds us that:
“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is – it’s to imagine what is possible.”