Lyric set part five: Neighbour of the Year

The Figureheads came to a natural and peaceful end, with Kev moving away. I’d started to write more acoustic and sparse songs again too; it was almost as if I was more comfortable making quieter music again, who knows. And over the space of sixteen months, I wrote and carefully recorded a new album, my first solo album.

I’m not giving away much about it at this point, and ideally I’d like you to hear it when it comes out (hopefully late this year) and form your own interpretations before I tell you the stories behind the songs. All I’ll say for now is that it’s an album about dealing with anxiety (though not music-related this time!) and that after the personal success I felt I’d achieved by being open and honest and using songwriting as a tool to help me figure things out on the last album, I embraced that aspect of songwriting again. Writing this album helped me through a bit of a rough year and also helped me to emerge from it a much happier version of me (hello!).

Performing with Hannah and Katherine as ‘Nat Johnson & Friends’ these days is perfect for me and for these new songs. They’re both incredible musicians and amazing women and I feel so safe and happy on stage with them. Our friend Penny pointed out how unusual it is to see two multi-instrumental women on the same stage and that makes me really proud too. Here we are in soundcheck last Friday:

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Songs played:

Not Now, Horse

March, March

I’ve Been Shot

Dog (live version below)

Shelter

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the Lyric set. As I said at the start of this little blog series, I’m thinking of touring it in the future. If you’d like to see us play it in your town, let me know.

Thanks again to the audience at Firth Court, to Jo Gavins and Simon Armitage and all the crew at the Lyric Festival and to Ed at Sort Of…Films for the footage. Thanks also to Kev and Graham for having better memories and internet searching powers than me, and to Katherine, Hannah and Oliver for learning a whole bunch of MSTU/Figureheads songs on my whim.

Here’s the live version of ‘DOG’ from last Friday. If you haven’t read what this one’s all about, I explained that over here.

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(Re my ‘who called the cops?’ at the end, there was a siren going past as we ended the song, but you can’t hear it on the video!)

Lyric set part four: I’m Across, I’m Ashore

After Roman Radio, when the real Figureheads emerged, we started to find our sound. I first heard it in our cover of Don’t Worry Baby (I knew that we were headed in the right direction the first time we reached the chorus in rehearsal) and we developed it more on the ‘What the Heart Pours Into’ EP. I knew after that that we all understood and agreed intuitively how each song should sound – we were all on the same page – and knowing that I could totally trust my band to back up the sentiment of every song let me focus more on the lyrics for the next album. Suddenly, I really opened up.

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I’d always found songwriting therapeutic in terms of it being something to focus on and forget about everything else, just that act of creating that consumes your mind and for that short time is all that matters. But lyrically, I’d always been a little bit wary of laying myself too bare in my songs; I’d tended to encode things that were very personal, or make things seem light-hearted when in truth they were serious to me. As I mentioned last time, some openness and vulnerability had come through on parts of Roman Radio, and that’s the lyrical direction I was now going to take. I started to use songwriting not just as a way of venting my feelings but of actively working through stuff.

I stopped worrying about what people might think when they heard it and just concentrated on what was going on in my head. Every song on I’m Across, I’m Ashore is relevant, as I worked through what place music had in my life post-MSTU and reprioritised everything I knew or had known. Astronomy and The Steeplejack both sum up the album in different ways, whilst the songs in between deal with different parts of my thought process as I finally managed to get over the past.

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I returned to Thee Sheffield Phonographic Corporation to release this one, knowing that it would be both the last Figureheads album and the last album to be released on that great little label. It felt right, and it was. This is a really important album to me. It was released on Valentine’s Day 2012.

Songs played:

Hedgehunter – This is about all the things I wanted to be when I was growing up; a musician was never something I considered as a possibility. Suddenly, somehow, that’s what I was trying to be, and then it seemed like it was over and I had figure out who I was again. I had to remember that music isn’t all there is to me. Here’s last Friday’s performance:

 

I Know I’m Good – This is about the paranoia I had felt for a long time since the break up of MSTU; the pain that came with worrying about people who had never really forgiven me, the people who gave up on me because I wasn’t ‘popular’ any more, all the people I thought judged me, laughed at me or whispered behind my back, whether they actually did or not.

I reminded myself that what other people think of me isn’t what’s important – I know me better than anyone else. I know that overall I’m a good person and that I try my best. No one’s perfect, everyone makes mistakes and so on. Maybe there are things in the past that I could have handled better but I can’t carry that around with me for the rest of my life.

So it’s peppered with little details about me that only I would notice or understand, reminding myself about what makes me unique in some fairly mundane I suppose ways – not having a fate line on my palm, still feeling like it’s the start of a new school term every September and being at my most contemplative in the Spring (see?), the strange marks like witches eyes that appear on my foot in the summer, the suspicion that I somehow taught myself to read. And then I repeatedly tell myself that I’m nice. Have you told yourself that you’re nice lately?

Here’s the original Figureheads video, made by drummer Neil on a trip to the US:

Next time: Neighbour of the Year

Lyric set part three: Roman Radio

On stage on Friday, I explained that when we released The Casket Letters, Monkey Swallows the Universe were doing pretty well. We’d got ourselves a lovely following and we were playing lots of great gigs and festivals like Green Man, End of the Road and so on.  National press and radio and all that. Everyone expected us to go on to even bigger and better things. No one expected us to suddenly break up, probably least of all the rest of the band.

I loved the music we were making, the gigs we were playing, and making loads of people happy, but apart from when I was writing or when we were on stage, I didn’t really feel that happy the rest of the time. The more popular we became, the more time I was spending managing the band, the people, our problems, the finances, all our bookings. We had a nice guy at the label who sorted out the press and radio for us, and our friend Graham who looked after our website, but that felt like the only support I had. The only other thing I wasn’t responsible for was driving, because I couldn’t. Plus I was working a day job to pay the bills (any money we made went straight back into the band, if we were lucky we’d occasionally take away a bit of pocket money – enough for a night out or a new frock). I didn’t have any training in people management or band management or any of that stuff – I’d just always done it before, and it had been fun when we were small, but it became a huge pressure. I felt that however hard I worked, people always wanted more from me and I couldn’t make everyone happy. I was exhausted. I’d started to lose sight of why we were making music in the first place because I’d got lost in the business of it. I felt unappreciated. I just wanted to create. We started bickering about stupid little things. I had to get out and do something else for the sake of my wellbeing.

Band breakups have often been likened to relationship breakdowns because they can be just as heartbreaking. Trying to break up with four people at the same time is hard, especially when you’re in such a bad emotional place that it’s hard to really explain yourself. And no doubt they felt that I was tearing away a potentially bright future from them. Naturally, as the breaker upper, I took all the blame. I lost not just fans, but friends. It affected every part of my life and a lot changed for me. It would take years to get over, as I’ll explain as the Lyric set progresses further.

Like with a relationship breakup where people cut their hair and go and do all the things they think they’ve been missing, I cut my hair and bought an electric guitar. I amassed a bunch of musicians, anyone who was available to come and play on a new record (including Kev of course and initially Rob from MSTU too) and went into the studio a few months after MSTU had played our last gigs.

That album was Roman Radio, named after a driving examiner who failed me when I was 17. It was released by Damaged Goods Records in 2009. There were a number of different musicians on the album, but out of that group would come the core of Nat Johnson and the Figureheads, i.e. me, Kev, Neil (drums) and Chris (bass).

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I’ve always felt that this was the weaker of my albums, but until I put this Lyric set together, I didn’t know why. I used to think that it was because of all the different musicians on it, that perhaps it was because it wasn’t the sound of a ‘settled’ band. But that’s not it. I thought maybe it was because I’d used a different studio than usual to record the majority of it. But that’s not it either. It’s not until I was preparing this set that I realised it’s because of the lyrics on the album and because of all the hurt and anguish that you can hear on it – I still wasn’t over the MSTU break up and it’s written all over this album even though it was unintentional.

The lyrics are spattered with bravado, self-pity, anger, defensiveness, even in the songs where I was trying to be optimistic. Though I thought at the time that many of the songs were about specific people, situations and ideas, hearing them now I can see that they apply to a lot of how I was feeling in general at the time. My favourite parts of the album are where through the anger and bravado, some vulnerability comes through and I can hear a version of me that I can understand, that I almost want to hold my hand out to now, pulling my past self out of the album. I would pull myself out later, but we’ll get to that next time.

Songs played:

January – this song sums up more than any other on the album how I felt at the time and carries for me, the most important lyric on Roman Radio: “I’m trying to regain an ordinary frame of mind, or what love can you find?” Here’s the performance from Friday:

NB the main guitar part for this was written by Figurehead Chris.

Next time: I’m Across, I’m Ashore

 

Lyric set part two: The Casket Letters

By the time I started writing songs for our second album, Monkey Swallows the Universe had expanded into a full-time five-piece. This gave me lots more instrumentation to play with, more musical possibilities. Though I still wrote the songs alone in my room with my acoustic guitar, I could let my imagination go a bit wilder when thinking about how the songs could sound with all the other instruments. I think that enabled me to set better scenes perhaps, and encouraged me to really get into the storytelling aspect of songwriting.

The Casket Letters (a Mary, Queen of Scots reference – also see the song ‘Elizabeth & Mary on this album) is therefore an album heavier on stories than my others. All good stories involve death, so there’s also plenty of blood on this album. It was released by Loose in August 2007.

Songs played:

Gravestones – based on a short ghost story I heard as a child; a ghost appears regularly beside a grave, saying ‘it’s not me’. When exhumed, the coffin is found to be full of stones. This song was written from the ghost’s perspective. Here’s a video of Friday’s performance, thanks to Sort Of…Films:

Science – this was a tongue-in-cheek song about my own fear of flying. Some took it literally and thought it was a genuine attack on science. My perceived ignorance even reached the ears of a certain person of note; I’d mentioned on stage that I’d received an angry email from someone trying to persuade me of the benefits of science and that I hadn’t yet received a reply to my response. Kev had quipped ‘well Richard Dawkins is a busy man.’ Then this happened. Strange times.

Also a little strange, this photo for Science was taken in the labs in Firth Court, which of course was the venue for last Friday:

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And here’s the original video for Science:

 

Next time: Roman Radio

Lyric set part one: The Bright Carvings

On Friday, I played at the historic Firth Court at the University of Sheffield as part of the Lyric Festival 2014; the Arts & Humanities Faculty’s festival of the written and spoken word. I took the opportunity to take a look back at my lyrics over the last ten years and build a set around what I found by doing that.

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It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but I enjoyed it a lot. Perhaps it was made easier for me by the great audience and gorgeous venue and my fantastic accompanying musicians, I don’t know, but it was really special for me to be able to talk about my musical history and how events in my life had affected the lyrics and the way I write them.

I’ve had a few messages from people saying that they’d like to know if I do this again, and I’m considering touring it at some point. If that’s of interest, do let me know if you’d like to see this in your town (leave a comment below, or contact me another way).

In the meantime, I’ll just tell you how it goes. There’s a video on its way too. So, part one, where I have to start with the backstory:

I began on Friday by talking about coming to the University of Sheffield from Nottingham in 2000. It was there, in halls, that I’d meet Kev Gori, who would later become my musical wing man of the best part of the last ten years. In our third year at uni, we started making up daft songs with which to ridicule and torment our housemates and friends. (I’d taught myself guitar when I was 17 and been in a couple of bands in sixth form, but hadn’t come to uni with any musical aspirations whatsoever). I got back into playing guitar whilst writing these offensive songs with Kev and found myself starting to write actual songs instead. I’d play them to Kev, who would add the bells and whistles, or rather second guitar and glockenspiel/recorder/whatever else we got our hands on (I called him the prettymaker) and some friends of ours who were in another band said that we should play these new songs in public. So we did. And we called our little duo Monkey Swallows the Universe after an episode of Monkey, which we’d often stay up late watching.

That was the beginning then, and as time went on we started playing gigs all over the country. Alan Smyth from 2Fly Studios approached us and said we should record. So we did. And before we knew it we had an album and we were going to put it out on super cool local label Thee Sheffield Phonographic Corporation (RIP) in February 2006. During the recording of the album, we got a few other musicians in to add some drums and strings, and by the time the album came out, they would be permanent fixtures: Monkey Swallows the Universe became a five piece with Rob, Cate and Andy.

That album was The Bright Carvings, the title a reference to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. At the time, I didn’t really think the album was ‘about’ anything. I was just enjoying writing music. I’d use all kinds of thoughts that were popping into my head, either about the things around me or about things from my childhood. Listening to it now though, 8 years later, I can hear my younger self figuring out my new place in the world – and in Sheffield – post-University. It’s a reflection of that time between youth and whatever comes next; when you’re not quite sure what to think or do yet, but that’s really ok. It was a good place to be. I think the mixture of childhood-inspired stories with imagined, real and distorted landscapes plus this first attempt to examine how I felt  – not about anything specific, just looking at my own capacity for feeling – shows where my brain was in my mid-20s. Playful, curious, open to the world’s possibilities. And sometimes just plain silly.

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Songs played:

22 – I wrote this shortly before leaving our student/post-student house at 22 Moorgate Avenue. From my attic window I could see across the city to Meersbrook Park.

Sheffield Shanty – I wrote this in a flat I lived in in Broomhill. It was a rainy day and around that time our friends were starting to leave Sheffield for jobs.

Next time: The Casket Letters