Kurt Elling and the Year of Christmas

So it’s February of this year, and The Swingles are on tour in Folsom, California. Although famous for Johnny Cash and the prison, it’s a charming pioneer town with the perfect craft beer place, hippies running pan-your-own-gold demonstrations – and a shop where its Christmas all year round. Dorothea’s Shoppe, a tinsel-and-holly, candy-striped Santa’s grotto, describes itself as “the premier, year-round Christmas store in the Sacramento area” and has somehow managed to stay in business for 50 years. (Almost as long as The Swingles.)

Thinking back to that tour, I realise that Dorothea’s has been our spiritual home this year. As winter gave way to spring, we were writing Christmas music. As spring turned to summer, we were rehearsing Christmas music. On the hottest days of the year, we were recording Christmas music. On long July evenings were were listening to mixes of Christmas music. In the autumn we were designing cover art for Christmas music and putting the final touches to live arrangements of our new Christmas music.

Incredibly, we’re not yet sick of Christmas music.

It’s five years since I first tried to write a Christmas song. My first attempt began brilliantly: I wrote this beautiful, soaring, classic melody and congratulated myself on my rare genius, until I realised I’d directly lifted the tune of “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and came back to earth with a pfffft.

Even failed songs usually have a few parts you can salvage from the scrap, though, and there was this one lyric I liked, which I found myself revisiting later, in that listless week between Christmas and New Year, presumably while wearing a lovely new jumper. “Storms laid the snow thick on the ground” was the line which I expanded it into two melancholy verses about love and the changing of the seasons, calling it The Thaw. I played the tune a few times with my jazz quartet, and half-forgot about it.

It’s nine years since I first heard the name Kurt Elling. I was in New York City with my university group The Oxford Gargoyles, for the finals of the ICCAs (of Pitch Perfect fame). Somehow, we’d managed to hook up a performance in a proper Harlem jazz club, singing a few songs between the sets of a badass singer named Michelle Walker. In hindsight, we were fish hilariously out of water, but Michelle was generous enough to let me sit in with her band for one tune, and afterwards she told me I needed to check out Kurt Elling.

I did as I was told, liked what I heard, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I bought Nightmoves and fell hard for Kurt’s music. I know almost every contour of every phrase on that record – the extraordinary clarity of Kurt’s instrument and the exquisitely moving arrangements grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Over the next few years, as I did my best imitation of a jazz singer, writing songs like The Thaw that borrowed from that great tradition, Kurt was a continual inspiration.

Back to California. The day after my visit to Dorothea’s Shoppe, we have a show in Berkeley, and we hear word that Kurt will be in the audience. I don’t suffer from stage fright, but that night I am out of my mind and my body with nerves. Afterwards he is gracious, complimentary, and every inch the jazz cat with his elegant scarf and throwback idioms.

A couple of months later, as we plan out Yule Songs vol. II, I dig out The Thaw and play it to the other singers as a possible album contender. They like it; Kevin volunteers to write the arrangement. Then we hear that Kurt is interested in guesting on the album. The Thaw, written by a 22-year-old hooked on Kurt’s music, is the obvious match for his voice.

It’s the best Christmas present I could have hoped for. All I have to do is sit back and enjoy as my song is elevated to another plane, first by Kevin’s gorgeous chart – with its poised string-like phrases, pianistic flourishes and even a quote from my favourite Debussy prelude – and then by Kurt’s exquisite interpretation of my lyrics and melody, recorded in a hotel room in LA but sounding like a million bucks. The evening when his vocal take pops up in my inbox ranks in my top 3 trippy email-based experiences.

Yule Songs vol. II comes out on 13th November, a few days before we open for Kurt in a sold-out show at Cadogan Hall. I’m incredibly proud of the album we’ve made. It has everything I want from Christmas – ice and snow, baubles and bells, mystery, memory, magic and merriment. And yes, this is a plug (You can pre-order your copy from Amazon UK or iTunes), but I also just had to tell you that story. Sometimes panning for gold really does work.

What Shakespeare's Thomas More had to say about migrants

A few nights ago I found myself in an airless, sleepless hotel room in Latvia, listening to Sir Ian McKellen being interviewed by Marc Maron on his WTF podcast. At the end of the episode McKellen recites a speech from the little-known Elizabethan drama Sir Thomas More. The play was a collaboration between several dramatists, and it's now widely believed that this particular scene was written by Shakespeare. Here's McKellen reciting it on another occasion.

I was dimly aware of this scene from my undergrad days, but I'd never paid attention to it. This time it hit me like an electric current. And I immediately thought of Calais, and the migrants there, and all the discourse around them. Over the last few weeks I and so many other bleeding-heart liberals have tried to articulate our anger at the rhetoric used to dehumanise these people. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare nailed "the strangers' case" centuries ago.

New Newsom! Or, excavating Sapokanikan

Joanna Newsom has a new music video. For those of us who have spent the last five years scanning the horizon for a follow-up to her brilliant triple album Have One On Me, this is no small event. The song is called Sapokanikan and you can watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s video here.

Newsom’s music is like Vegemite: some wrinkle their noses at it while others make moonshine.* Just as her voice on The Milk-Eyed Mender defied any notion of what singing should sound like (it’s mellower now), her songwriting is almost perverse in the way she returns to the same melodic and harmonic ideas again and again, while wrapping the loops and filigrees of her lyrics around the metre in counter-intuitive ways. I tend to think that to praise a songwriter by calling her a "poet" is to misunderstand the particular challenges of the two forms. Poems are rarely enriched by music and songs rarely look good on the page. Newsom is a rarity in this respect: I love her music but think her lyrics are even better on paper. In the case of Sapokanikan, it helps to have an encyclopaedia to hand too.

If a song has to be read, dissected, researched to have its full effect, has it really been successful? For most, surely, this kind of tricksy allusion is elitist and pretentious. But for me and a small minority of nerds, the cryptic-crossword challenge of unravelling meaning in this way is something to relish. It’s why I love Nabokov’s puns and Tom Waits’s salvaged dustbowl idioms and the collage of quotations in Berio’s Sinfonia.

So I’ll admit that when I heard Sapokanikan, I printed off the lyrics – already transcribed online by my nerd comrades, of course – sharpened a pencil, and tried to figure out what the song is on about. (You can take the boy out of the English degree, etc.) It was worth it.

What will survive of us is...?

Joanna sets out the stall of her influences in the first line, “The cause is Ozymandian”. Like Shelley’s poem, this is a song about relics, myth and mortality. It’s also about New York City, whose streets she paces in Anderson’s video. “Sapokanikan”, which closes out that deliciously obscure opening couplet, was a Native American name for the area now known as Greenwich Village. The living, noisy, multi-storey city is reimagined here as a “lone and levelled” desert.

“Will you remember?” is the central question the song asks, before furnishing examples of lives and loves buried and hidden and painted over. There are the bones hidden by the old Dutch master, the Titian painting discovered under Tobias and the angel, Arthur Streeton’s lost sweetheart Florry Walker. There’s John Purroy Mitchel, New York’s “boy mayor” who defied the corrupt kingmakers of Tammany Hall before his death in a plane crash. There are those who were never famous in the first place, buried in potters’ fields, who will never be excavated or studied.

These characters place the song within what Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America”, buried and mostly forgotten. There’s a sense of the hollowness of any attempt at memorial, be it through monument, flag or song (“The brave-men-and-women-so-dear-to-God/And-famous-to-all-of-the-ages rag”). These men and women are not famous to all of the ages; if they were, I wouldn’t have had to hit up Google in the first place. Those listeners who bother to piece together the shards of story become like the hunter in the song’s final verse, deciphering the stone. The lyric is not merely obscure but about obscurity, “cryptic at best”, its meaning half-sunk.

[An aside – do we think Joanna actually uses Wikipedia? As so often with folk musicians, I want to imagine her in a corner of New York Public Library, blowing dust off a tome about Theodore Roosevelt. The idea of her on a Google deep dive doesn’t fit so well with her image. But then I didn’t expect her to marry the Dick In A Box guy.]

Anyway. Other textual echoes bounce off the lyric too. In the background is the whole tradition of the elegy from the Greeks to Thomas Gray and beyond. The “parks where pale colonnades arch in marble and steel” call to mind the colonnaded ruins in Surf’s Up, by Brian Wilson and Newsom’s erstwhile collaborator Van Dyke Parks. And there’s a strong flavour of Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb, my favourite lines of which are this haiku-like distillation of time passing:

Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground.

Here too, “idling bird calls” soundtrack the long, slow process of forgetting. And just as Larkin’s almost-truth that “What will survive of us is love” jumps out arrestingly from the page, Newsom has a way of cutting from verbose obscurities to nakedly emotional lines like “Will you tell the one that I love to remember and hold me”. Here is the beating heart that pumps blood into the lyric. Here is the poetry that makes the Wikipedia scavenger hunt worthwhile.

The album (Divers) is out on 23 October. On CD, mp3, vinyl and – wait for it – cassette. Hunters, decipherers, nerds, rejoice.


*Except they probably don't.

New site, new blog, new me

Welcome to my new blog space! After years of being brainwashed by This American Life sponsor messages to try out Squarespace, I've given my site a much-needed overhaul. I'm hoping to keep this more regularly updated than its predecessor – though, if you're a long-time reader, you'll know I say that sort of thing all too often. If you'd like to read any of my old blog posts while you wait, they're still live at edwardrandell.wordpress.com.

More to follow soon! (ish)

Ed x