Writing and performing a song can be a powerful way of communicating something from deep within yourself. Of course, we all know many examples of churned-out, commercial drivel which say very little about the performer, whoever wrote the song (I hesitate to call them songwriters) or the bosses who selected it. But real music by real songwriters performed with integrity can be so powerful, so intimate and so precious.
I’ve talked before about the welsh singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph and how I’ve been a fan of his music since I was a teenager. Part of his appeal is the raw emotion he conveys in his live performances, particularly in songs like Turn Me Tender or Kiss The World Beautiful. I was blessed to spend the weekend at Pipefest, a small festival hosted by Martyn and friends at Lancaster University. As well as a wonderful evening gig, Martyn and guests Yvonne Lyon (amazing vocals and words), Tayo Aluko (Paul Robeson play-writer and performer) and Stewart Henderson (poet and lyricist) shared some of their thoughts on song-writing.
I’m not sure I was aware just how many MJ songs have lyrics by Stewart Henderson, including absolute favourites of mine Turn Me Tender and the epically titled Whoever It Was That Brought Me Here Will Have To Take Me Home. I knew Stewart had written the lyrically complex Everything In Heaven Comes Apart and hearing him read some of these verses alongside Martyn brought them alive in a new way. He also joined Martyn on stage to perform Thunder and Rainbows together. But Turn Me Tender and Whoever It Was… are both performed solo by Martyn with such conviction and beauty that you really would believe he wrote the words himself. Maybe the creative process was more collaborative, or maybe it was writing the tunes and arrangements that let him make the songs his own. Either way I have overlooked Stewart’s contribution before, and that made me wonder how much of the soul of the songs actually lies with the writer; and whether some of the spiritual journey I have readily identified with in Martyn’s work is actually Stewart’s instead. Or perhaps a product of some alchemy between them, a sharing of souls.
Yvonne Lyon was a new artist to me, a singer from my beloved West Coast of Scotland. Her new album, More Than Mine includes some very personal reflections on her own family background. The tender song A Difficult Kind talks about trying to come to terms with emotional family history, and how that person holds a part of her. She talked about the therapeutic value of writing such personal material but her vulnerability was touching, even before such a supportive crowd. Stewart talked about some of his family-themed poetry and how it was easier since some of the main subjects have passed away. He also talked about deciding whether something is right for public broadcasting or for private use.
Some of the songs I have shared on this blog have felt less personal after some time has elapsed, and one of the songs I shared at the pre-Pipefest open mic session was over nine years old. I know the writing of it was much more personal, but I’m not sure that the performance would have conveyed much of the emotion which birthed the song. Accompanying myself on guitar (which I do rarely in public) meant I had to concentrate much more on getting the chords right, leaving the vocal performance more ordinary than I would have liked. I’m not sure the soul of the song came across and while I felt vulnerable in displaying my limited guitar talents, I feel I probably protected myself emotionally. Putting the song out there is one thing, and still a significant step. But putting yourself out there, writing the lyrics which tap into personal pain or struggle and honestly sharing that with a live audience or whoever listens to a recording is an generous, perhaps sacrificial gift.
Taking the time to blog honestly and with care is another medium for soul sharing, and as I come to the end of my first year as HeartenSoul I am generally pleased with my archive of material. I know I have upset people with the odd post, most notably the last one, but I hope that some of the open conversations which have ensued have made the discomfort worthwhile. It’s a challenge to know how personal to be, how much to share and how to handle the lack of response at times as well as the response. On balance I think it has been helpful to me, and if it has helped anyone else then that’s a bonus. I’d love to get more interaction with readers – do you blog? Do you write songs or poetry? Do share a link in the comments if you’re brave enough. Part of what helped over the weekend was a receptive and compassionate audience, and I hope that’s what is on offer here too.