Everything is upside down. Music helps. Come and see us at The Lamplight Club in Sheffield on Fri 3 March, along with The Gentle Good. Tickets here.
The last time Gareth Bonello (The Gentle Good) came to Sheffield was the day after the General Election. We weren’t feeling too good then either, but we sang to a similarly bruised audience and we all helped each other. Here’s a video of the two of us singing together that night, performing Gareth’s beautiful song ‘The Fisherman’ – you can hear the proper version on his latest album ‘Ruins/Adfeilion’, which is out now on Bubblewrap Records.
More gigs coming soon.
Tomorrow, Fri 3 Feb, Bandcamp are donating 100% of their shares of any music purchases to the American Civil Liberties Union. So you can help protect human rights and support independent musicians (cough cough) and treat yourself all at the same time.
A video of Al Reffell‘s beautiful film projection to accompany my song ‘Emily, the Diver‘ is now available to watch! Read on below the video to hear from Al about her approach to it. I loved working with Al, she really got what the song was about and brought it to life in such a gorgeous way, as you can see…
Thanks to Joe Kriss and Jake Barrett.
Al Reffell on Emily, the Diver:
“I was delighted to be offered the commission to create a large-scale projection for singer/songwriter Nat Johnson’s ‘Emily, the Diver’; one of three songs celebrating the Brontë sisters, written for the bicentennial celebration of their lives and commissioned by Wordlife for Off the Shelf Festival.
There were three songs representing the three sisters to choose from. The songs explore aspects of the sisters’ lives and personalities using elemental symbolism and ideas of liberties expressed through each sister. It was great to receive these contemporary interpretations – compelling narratives, each with its distinct individual tone, both musically and lyrically – laden with rich visual imagery.
Which to choose?
I am familiar with some Brontë literature and had been particularly drawn to Wuthering Heights many years ago, reinforced by my love of walking the open moorland areas of Yorkshire – but more distinctly I have carried with me a quote from Emily Brontë, made art inspired by it and it resonated with my connection with the element of water.:
“I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.”
I am a swimmer. I have a friend who is a dedicated swimmer and artist who was happy for me to photograph her ‘swimming’ on her living room floor! for the video with patience and understanding of the process. So I had my Emily…swimming and diving through the piece in stop motion.. drawing a parallel between immersion underwater as immersion in the creative process of writing.
So we see Emily as misunderstood – obscured to the public with her ‘face of fog’ and ‘body of clay’ (connected to the earth? brittle/fragile?) – this invoked for me a strongly mysterious image. Along with her ambivalent presentation to the world, there is also her ambivalence towards her work being published. She disappears from public view – preferring to dive down into her hidden creative place…
I wanted to bring in more traditional Brontë imagery, including the Haworth parsonage and classic Top Withens moorland scenery from Wuthering Heights – but on investigating Emily’s life and looking through archive material from the Parsonage Museum collection I learned that Emily also drew and painted – one of these paintings being of a pet hawk she owned called Hero. This captured my imagination along with a delicate pencil drawing of a moorland bird – the two seemed to perfectly represent the duality here – ‘life giver, life taker,’ ‘port-wrenching power and starboard compassion’ – seemingly opposing energies emerging from the same source and drawn together (in love?)
I also wanted to bring the viewer into the room in the Parsonage where the writing happened but to represent this obliquely. The lyrics offered this opportunity directly with reference to the wallpaper and I was delighted to discover has a floral pattern winding through trellis – so it became animated in to life as both the dining room and (Anne’s) garden.
And in the growing and disappearing of the flowers her element represents an essential life giving force to the sisters’ creativity, but again there is ambivalence in this ebb and flow and a difficult relationship with Charlotte creating tumultuous weather as elemental forces collide – with a lot of sheets of paper flying about as a result!
The paper sheets found their way into the piece initially as Emily’s galleon – I bought a copy of Wuthering Heights as I knew I wanted the text represented somewhere and this paper ship seemed an obvious place, but then I started playing with cutting the pages and placing them on a lightbox – they started to follow Emily around as she was swimming – ‘brideless train of eternity’ – an idea that she and her work were bound together in this element which represents total immersion…from which she emerges at the opening of our song – and to which she returns – ‘taking her place’ once more in her natural environment.
Emily’s immersion was mine also – a lovely piece to work on.”
Great turnout at the Save Sheffield Trees protest earlier today. Find out more here about why many people in Sheffield are angry about the way Sheffield City Council are ‘managing’ i.e. chopping down our trees.
You’d think that because we know so much more about Charlotte Brontë’s life than we do about her sisters’ it would be easier to write about her, but it only seemed to make my task much harder. I struggled a lot with this one, ripping it up and starting completely from scratch several times.
Thinking of a shape had helped me write the other two songs; the trellis shape of Anne’s and the starry lines of Emily’s, and in the same way I tried to pin Charlotte to a circular shape. I was thinking of the sisters walking around their dining table in the evenings, as they read and discussed their work with each other (Charlotte even continued to circle the table alone after her sisters were gone).
It seemed to me Charlotte was the driving force for their circular evening walks; it was Charlotte that found Emily’s poetry and came up with the idea to write and publish, it was her momentum encouraging the sisters’ writing and whipping things up – like a tornado – to release that work into the world. But whilst this circle shape seemed to work to a certain extent, I couldn’t reconcile it with Charlotte’s changes of heart, changes of mind, all the contradictory aspects of Charlotte’s character and the parts of her I didn’t understand (and some I possibly didn’t like!). Every time I thought I was getting somewhere I felt as though Charlotte was stood in front of me, arms crossed, saying ‘nope, that’s not me either’.
I took a break from Charlotte’s song, hoping that some distance would help. About a week later, I was taking a walk by the river and thinking – given the watery surroundings – of Emily’s song, not of Charlotte’s. I sat down right on the edge of the bank so that the water would drown out all the other sounds. It was then that I saw a huge cloud of flies over the river; an ugly, chaotic, floating mass of tiny insects. But as I looked more closely, and focused on individuals in that mass, I saw that there was order to it after all; each fly had a path to follow – left to right, turning, right to left, turning – until it paired off with another fly mid-air and floated away from the cloud.
Back at home I thought of their flight path, and of Charlotte – that wind I couldn’t grasp and pin down to a circle. Her contradictory nature. Her resistance and forcefulness. I could see the shape of her now:
(I’m sure Charlotte wouldn’t be flattered that mating flies helped me on this, but that’s the truth of it, what can I tell you.)
And now I could see that when she moves from left to right – the direction of writing – she is her pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’; a writer, a free-flowing thought sharer, a mind laid bare. But when she turns and moves from right to left, she is Charlotte Brontë; confused and unsettled, wanting to love and be loved, wanting respect and adoration, unsatisfied and self-conscious, with feelings of failure and regret. It is Charlotte’s many selves, outer and inner, that make her as hard to grasp as the wind.
Charlotte, the Levitator (element = air, liberty = mind)
“The wind shifts to the west. Peace, peace Banshee – ‘keening’ at every window! It will rise – it will swell – it shrieks out long: wander as I may through the house this night, I cannot lull the blast.” – Lucy Snowe, Villette
Picture the Parsonage, with Emily and Anne already busy writing inside; cultivating their imaginary world. Charlotte is outside, restlessly circling the building, protective, contemplative – the face she showed to the outside world – but also full of frustration and impatience at her place in that world. Charlotte felt left out in society, with neither marriage nor satisfying work seemingly open to her, ‘born only to work for a piece of bread’* and carrying a broken heart around with her too – but unable to express all of these thoughts and feelings. She was forever waiting for something to happen:
A stillness she can’t bear, this curling, swirling air But she holds her breath and – from right to left – patrols the perimeter
It is only when she changes direction and writes that she is able to enjoy a sense of freedom and fulfilment. She goes in to join her sisters, releasing her own talents into that garden, using her inner thoughts as her art; the bottled up feelings pouring out onto the page:
Oh a breeze breathes relief – she comes in, then what’s in is released Soars to ceiling height and – from left to right –
spreads her secrets to each dew-soaked leaf Decanter, thought-planter, blow through the grass and speak at last Set em flyin’ dandelion, come sing out loud, don’t whisper now Navigator, levitator, over mist prevail to fill that sail Before you turn again, weathervane
As a writer, Charlotte – like Emily – can exercise control over language and meaning, as though controlling the weather. She has power within the garden of their writing, fuelled by her innermost thoughts and feelings. Importantly, she has another kind of power that can elevate – levitate – her sisters’ work, driving them all towards publishing:
Weeds to tumble and stalks to bend Soil to crumble and breath to lend Prithee pepperpot-shaker, show your power, sea-shaper Take us up, take us out, sky’s friend*
Hair-tangler, cloud-wrangler, it’s up to you when the sun breaks through Take us higher, spread this fire through the great outside, be satisfied Fog-lifter, seed-drifter, your own heart as proof, tell the truth Before you circle back on your corkscrew track
It is here that Charlotte turns again on her flight path, from Currer Bell back into Charlotte Brontë. The release of the Brontë novels into the world, the suspicion cast on the Bells’ gender, and the attacks on their ‘coarse’ and ‘unfeminine’ work was not the kind of attention Charlotte had longed for. She wanted fame, yes, but not to be thought of as a scandalous person. Charlotte wanted irreconcilable things for her time it seems; to be respected and loved for her mind, but still to be seen as a dignified, dutiful woman within the bounds of 1840s society.
Her frustration begins to take a negative effect on the garden within the Parsonage dining room. Charlotte is now the last sister alive:
But with this tidy turn, the wallflowers wince and waver Flickering the lamplight, dropping the temperature Throwing back the bushes, like a tossed head of hair Right to left – so bereft – blowing a cold, cold air
In an attempt to clear herself and her sisters of accusations of coarseness, and regain their reputations as good clergyman’s daughters, Charlotte wrote the ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’. In this, she described Anne’s depiction of alcoholism and bad marriage in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as “an entire mistake”, dismissing Anne’s courageousness, uprooting her garden and leaving her seeds to lie dormant; Anne’s work is always the last to be appreciated:
Refuter, uprooter! “I gift to thee a dormancy”
Charlotte described Emily, with her secluded life, as someone with “no worldly wisdom”, saying “an interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world”, seemingly discrediting Emily’s powers of observation, learning and language and removing Emily’s ownership of her talent, drying up Emily’s waters:
Chastiser, capsizer*! “And evaporate this sinful strait”
Charlotte’s biographical noticed seemed to be an attempt to dim her sisters’ ‘Northern lights’ and simultaneously garner more respect for herself:
Oh banshee, how can she! “Watch me dim the Northern lights”
Despite this, she would soon ‘turn again’, and write Villette; becoming Currer Bell again and pouring out her inner dissatisfaction:
Turn again, hurricane!
Charlotte, however, could not keep these ideas of her sisters’ ‘innocence’ alive any more than she could keep herself alive (happily married and expecting a child, Charlotte died shortly before her 39th birthday). And as time has gone on since her death, all the Brontë novels have been through different phases of reputation; each sister’s work has been, and continues to be, rediscovered and loved. Time is the real owner of liberty:
The wind can but grasp at the hands of time Wise-turner, late learner, all liberty thine.
I think I went on a little bit of journey with Charlotte on this song, and though she’s not my favourite of the sisters as writers, she was a fascinating and complex person and I have much more respect and admiration for her than I did before. I’m glad that she found some happiness towards the end of her life, however briefly, in marriage. They said that she looked like ‘a little snowdrop‘ on her wedding day. It is Charlotte’s handwriting that I emulated for the cover of the tiny lyric books that accompany the CD.
*”This hag, this Reason, would not let me look up, or smile, or hope; she could not rest until I were altogether crushed, cowed, broken in, and broken down. According to her, I was born only to work for a piece of bread, to await the pains of death, and steadily through all life to despond.” – Lucy Snowe, Villette
**Charlotte said that the sky was her great companion after her sisters were gone
*** Also in reference to the ambiguous shipwreck at the end of Villette
And here’s a video filmed at the Upper Chapel on 14 October at Off the Shelf:
If there’s anything I haven’t explained well enough, or if you want to ask anything about The Liberty System, feel free to get in touch – leave a comment here, email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet/Facebook me.
With thanks again to Off the Shelf, Beverley and Ilkley Literature Festivals.
As I said in the last post about Anne, the Gardener, don’t read if you don’t like your songs thoroughly explained…
I bloody love Emily Brontë. When I was 20, a friend lent me his copy of Wuthering Heights. I turned my nose up at first, but he assured me I’d enjoy it and placed it in my hands (thanks, Neil B). I’ve now read that book more times than any other (except perhaps for Fantastic Mr Fox but I was somewhat smaller then.)
And the more I know about Emily, the more I love her. I had never read her poetry before this project, which is mainly what inspired the song – after all, I didn’t want to have to follow Kate Bush; I had to come at Emily from an angle other than Wuthering Heights. I loved finding out more things about her; she was nicknamed ‘The Major’, she could really whistle and she had a huge dog called Keeper. Her father let her shoot a gun out of the window every morning. She didn’t have much time for strangers. She refused to see a doctor when it was suspected she was dying, choosing to carry on with her usual duties up to her final day.
So back to the Liberty System…Anne’s garden is growing as she writes – though her plants are thirsty – and now her sister Emily is returning home to the Parsonage too. Emily, the Diver (element = water / liberty = soul)
“…While gazing on the stars that glow Above me in that stormless sea, I long to hope that all the woe Creation knows, is held in thee!
“And this shall be my dream to-night – I’ll think the heaven of glorious spheres Is rolling on its course of light In endless bliss through endless years…” – Emily Brontë, ‘How Clear She Shines!’
With all of the Brontë sisters comes this myth, a myth that seems to say ‘here were three weird, isolated Northern women who just happened to write some books somehow’. And in Emily’s case, she herself has been transformed into a Cathy-like ghost who must have wandered wild on the moors, and written in a trance*. I wanted to separate Emily from her myth and see her as a sophisticated, intelligent writer and someone with fantastic perspective and insight.
To begin, we see Emily in her mysterious, mythic form, and it’s a watery one for the purposes of these songs. In the poem ‘How Clear She Shines!‘ (excerpt above), Emily is lying on her back, looking up at the stars, and it feels like she is willing herself to have some kind of out of body experience. I picture her there, floating between the mirrored vastness of moor and sky, in that ‘stormless sea’, but now she is returning home. You cannot quite picture her though, for we don’t know enough about her; she is like a cloud of watery stars.
From depths returned, floated back to land Face of fog and body of clay** Diamond dust, evaporee
She crosses the moor towards home – the ‘tragedy’ of her certain death before her – angry and strong. Where Anne’s song is trellis-shaped, Emily’s at this point appears to be a straight line:
A river cut deep, a path drawn straight Seen from above the line of fate Face of fog and body of clay The earth moves out of your way
Powerful and terrible as Heathcliff, lonely and cold as Cathy’s ghost, Emily appears as a black wave rolling towards the house, ready to smash through the windows and flood Anne’s garden. She is dragging that immense feeling of forever – the sky, the sea, the moor, infinity – along with her; all of history, all who came before her:
Myth sees you ride a dark wave neath the moon
Dredging all worlds from the ancient salty blue
A brideless train of eternity
Dragged in your wake across the cold country
An aside at this point…still avoiding Kate Bush, I instead channeled my no.1 hero Joanna Newsom for this song. I see similarities between Emily and Joanna – they both write about the big picture of existence and communicate it with painful beauty – so I wanted to bring this connection in. Attempting to use Joanna Newsom as an influence is a daunting thought in itself – I mostly wanted to channel her in order to create those looping long phrases in the chorus that go from major to minor to help make the point. This song did go through a few different incarnations, with more wandering sections and extra lyrics, before I cut it down by about a minute and a half!
Back to the lyrics, and at this point, just as Emily in her dark form roars towards the Parsonage, she shakes off this myth version of herself. When shadows are cast through a fog, the result is crepuscular rays (see top right in Oliver’s artwork, beneath the diving birds):
But on a damp and still morning – ah! Your shadow there cast crepuscular
Now that the ‘real’ Emily is illuminated, we look to her talents. First, her ability to give just the right amount of watery inspiration to her sister Anne, as we briefly slip back into Anne’s melody. Then to Emily’s own writing powers; her superb ability to balance light and dark, to create great structure and drama:
And in the garden your rain falls far from the plain Each mark met with arrow’s aim Your current strong, your clouds right wrung A bay where floats your galleon
Quencher, oh drencher, life-giver, life-taker Feed these roots, fill these boots, blot and cross the wallpaper*** With port-wrenching power and starboard compassion Love finds a lover, but a storm soon comes thrashing
Enter Charlotte. The story goes that Charlotte discovered some of Emily’s secret poetry, and it was this that gave Charlotte the idea that they should attempt to become published writers. Emily was furious with her sister, but Charlotte’s gentle campaign eventually won her around to the idea (with meek little Anne adding that she’d quite like to join in too). Charlotte, whose windy song I’ll be explaining later in the week, arrives as a steam-devil; a type of small hurricane that has the power to pick up and transport water (or make it invisible…), which she duly does, driving Emily to ‘advection’ – advection fog is caused when warm air (Charlotte) blows across a cold surface, such as water (Emily). This kind of fog can cause hazardous conditions. And so it is that Emily’s ‘coarse’ book is transported to the cities by Charlotte:
Then with mingled affection your steam-devil of a sister Drives you to advection, that oft-brewing half-twister And comes a creeping fog from her petting conquistar Downward and townward to menace the vista
Emily’s work shocked the public. Her perspective is unwelcome.
A low-lying, eye-widening solitary cloud A galaxy unfocused unsettles the crowd
But Emily is not concerned about the public and their day-to-day nonsense and what they might think of her – she knows how quickly time passes, how opinions change; see the generations skip by in Wuthering Heights. Anyway, she didn’t write it for them, she was not a fame-seeker like Charlotte, she was creating art for its own sake, whilst trying to help her family’s income. She didn’t announce herself in London when Charlotte and Anne went to reveal who the Bells really were. She was happiest at home, where she could focus on the thoughts that mattered to her.
But you’re far from there – you are diving again For no soul can be loosed in this world of men
Closer to home is closer to you…
And so Emily, aged 30, dies. She returns to the watery ‘infinity’ of her poems, submerged in that long hand-to-hand chain of writers and artists; all those that came before her (like Byron, one of her influences) and after her (like Sylvia Plath, who she influenced):
…Closer still is the infinitely starry, salty blue Diving and grasping for hands outstretched Take your place in the chain reaching down to the depths
A consumptive Emily, refusing to see the doctor until her very last day, only adds to this idea I have of her; that she was so aware of her mortality, of her tiny window of existence, that she wasn’t about to lay down and waste the last few months she had because a doctor told her to. She was so fiercely alive, and tried to take in as much as she could while she was here. She was fascinated and frustrated by the infinity she knew she was a part of, but that she would not be able to consciously enjoy when her illness took her.
Al Reffell made a beautiful animated film to go with Emily, the Diver, which was projected onto the outside of the Upper Chapel (see pics here). I’ll be able to share a video from the night soon. in the meantime you can see it projected this Saturday 29 October onto the CAST building in Doncaster – more info.
*Lucasta Miller talks about this more eloquently in her book ‘The Brontë Myth’
**”I’m happiest when most away I can bear my soul from its home of clay On a windy night when the moon is bright And the eye can wander through worlds of light –
When I am not and none beside – Nor earth nor sea nor cloudless sky – But only spirit wandering wide Through infinite immensity.”
– Emily Jane Brontë
***At the Brontë Parsonage you can see some pages of Emily’s notebook, where she has crossed out huge sections and blotted over others. It was an enduring image in my mind, not as neat and tidy as her sisters, but determined and alive.