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.