The Listening Body

I spent yesterday at a conference on ‘The Listening Body’, at Site Gallery and the Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery. I went along for a couple of reasons; firstly because I really enjoyed and strongly recommend the Listening exhibition currently at both of these sites (a touring exhibition, next stop Norwich). But also because I’m becoming more and more interested in the impact of my immediate environment on my songwriting.


I think I’ve touched on this before (and I’m pretty sure I talked about it for the songwriting course – roll up roll up) but not in detail. I can remember where I was when writing every single one of my songs – the room I was in, which way I was facing, whether it was day or night etc, which tells me that those rooms were perhaps as important in shaping those songs as the original inspiration itself, and I was conscious of how this element affected the songwriting for my Neighbour of the Year album. Whereas songs like Not Now, Horse were written whilst looking out at a vast sky and over treetops, I’ve Been Shot was written in a darkened room with the curtains closed, and I think – I hope – that you the listener can hear that difference. Then there’s DOG of course, in which I tried whilst in the studio to inject as much of the outside as I could, putting the original inspiration directly into the music, as described previously here.

So I’m really aware of this, and yet – I continue to write indoors, in my house, in the same rooms, developing songs in the studio, also indoors. I find inspiration outside but write inside. And it has occurred to me that I’m cutting off one of my own songwriting limbs here. So, whilst I continue to work on some new songs indoors (at the minute every time I pick up my guitar to practice something new comes out, it’s just one of those times) when it comes to writing a whole new set of songs for an album, I’m planning to approach it differently next time. Like George Michael said, though with different activities in mind, Let’s Go Outside.


I’m not starting this process yet, but I’m doing a lot of thinking about it. And that’s why I went to the conference yesterday, to hear more about the role of listening in contemporary art, about the differences between hearing and listening, about how we can listen with our whole bodies and translate what we discover.

The exhibition curator, Sam Belinfante, talked about how, though we rely most heavily on the visual, it’s our hearing that comes first; our ears develop in the womb and we are born already listening. And it’s our hearing that gives us information first, in a fraction of a second, before our eyes confirm what our ears have already told us. I learned a bit more about binaural recording which is something I’d quite like to investigate (if you go to the Listening exhibition, see Cabin Fever). I loved hearing from Ed McKeon about Pauline Oliveros’ ‘tuning meditation’: in a group, the participants sing any note to begin with – all making different notes – but on the next one, they tune to someone else’s note in the group; a kind of “listening out loud”, said Oliveros. There’s an example of this on youtube here. We also heard a rowing song, sung by the subjects of Mikhail Karikis’ Soundwomen – a song where the vocals reflected the motion of the waves, with different groups overlapping each other.

We thought about the difference between an audience watching a musical performance or looking at visual art – how a musical audience is still, almost trapped in the moment, whereas viewers of visual art are more free to roam. There was much, much more, but I won’t go on, suffice to say the exhibition and conference were certainly timely and relevant for me, given my current train of thought. I’m still thinking.

Record Store Day 2015

Thanks to all who came to Walkley Beer Co on Saturday (and especially to those of you who bought up ALL Tonearm‘s stock of my 10″!) It was a really nice afternoon; no queuing for hours for expensive exclusives, just a lot of happy people enjoying live music, buying some great records at their leisure and generally having a good time. That’s my idea of Record Store Day. I even wore a record for the occasion:


More pics of the afternoon over here.


(from Broomhill to) Walkley

This particular corner of Sheffield is having a little Record Store Day party this Saturday, hosted by Walkley’s own independent record shop Tonearm Vinyl and the sit-down off licence across the road, Walkley Beer Co. I’ll be joining in, playing an unplugged set in Walkley Beer Co. accompanied by Katherine & Oliver. See further down for more details!

To help new visitors to Walkley find their way around, here’s a little map showing a few favourite spots (with apologies to Vito’s, Rowsha etc – couldn’t fit all of you on!) Click and zoom for a slightly bigger version:


Saturday 18 April, 12-5
Walkley Beer Co & Tonearm Vinyl
South Road, Walkley, Sheffield S6 (95 and 52 buses)

Live sets:
Robberie – 1pm
John T Angle and the Spirit Levels – 2pm
Me! – 3pm
Neil McSweeney – 4pm

RSD poster web

Vids from the Old Junior School

Last night we played at the Old Sharrow Junior School as part of the For the Common Good festival in a double headliner with The Big Eyes Family Players. Here are a couple of vids (they’re a bit dark mind, but you know what we look like). First is ‘January’, one of my Figureheads songs that we’ve slightly reworked, then there’s our version of the folk song ‘Green, Green Rocky Road’, on which we were joined by Heather and Sharron from Big Eyes.

More gigs coming right up.

In other news, I now have a Folksy shop for my prints – see here!

Springtime Listening

It’s been a good Easter weekend in my world; filled with friends, beer, pizza and warm weather. I’ve been out walking in the Peak District today. Here’s the view of Ladybower Reservoir from up on Bamford Edge:
Bamford Edge

Ladybower Reservoir:

And a toad I met on the reservoir path:

An hour or so before I met the toad, I’d already been thinking how I’m late this year in reading Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, a short essay that George Orwell wrote in 1946 which I like to revisit each year, about how the joys of Spring are untaxable, unpreventable, untouchable by government. “The pleasures of Spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing.” (Speaking of government, I shall quickly plug next Saturday’s gig – tickets available without booking fee from the Green Party shop. Seamless). It’s a wonderful couple of pages anyway.

I returned to guest co-host The Breakdown on Saturday on Sheffield Live, though after spending all of Friday at a beer festival I wasn’t at my best, let’s say. You can listen to the full show here, but here’s what I played:

1. Houndstooth – Amelia
2. Emma Kupa – Punch a Door Through (though I meant to play Consequences!)
3. Idaho – The Sun is All There Is

4. Daniel Knox – White Oaks Mall

5. The Gentle Good – A Man Made of Moss
6. The Gentle Good – Yr Wylan Fry (see him in Sheffield on 9 May)
7. Diane Cluck – Sara (see me support Diane in Manchester on 29 April)

If we’d had another hour, I’d have also included these:
“My eyes are listening to some sounds that I think just might be Springtime” – Painting Box by the Incredible String Band:

Elvis Perkins – While You Were Sleeping

Van Morrison – Madame George

Anniversary Walk

A year ago today, I took a walk which I later wrote about for Storying Sheffield. Today, I revisited some of those same spots.

I didn’t have as much time today, so couldn’t repeat the walk exactly, but I walked the same way into Endcliffe Park to begin with.The Porter Brook was full of the Spring rains and flowing fast and loud.IMG_20150402_143403I’d only been walking for a minute or two when I noticed a plaque I’ve missed on previous visits, which explains that a tree has been planted in memory of a woman called Angela who died in 1985, aged just 28. Except there is no tree on the marked spot. I wonder what happened to it.

Like last year, I stopped for a hot chocolate in the cafe, but this time I drank it at a table outside, half sat on a plastic garden chair from which I couldn’t quite shake all the collected rain. It seemed to be extra busy in the park today; all the kids who had likely been cooped up in the house during the bad weather over the last few days must have needed fresh air and exercise, so there were more kids around than dogs this time. The sun was on my face but not on my fingers. I paid attention to the river of hot chocolate in my throat as I swallowed it, which made me think about all the other rivers running inside us that we can’t be conscious of, like the blood through our veins and tears through canals.

After my drink, I crossed the stepping stones and went up the muddy incline to the clearing amongst the trees, taking my seat on the same stump as I had a year ago. I saw two nuthatches and a robin. I tried to distinguish how many different bird calls I could hear, which is a surprisingly difficult task when the air is full of song. I started noting down the different patterns of their calls before it became too confusing:

aha aha aha aha
peep peep peep peep
pip pip pip lalalalala
chip chip chitterchitterchitter
ladadada do ladadada do

IMG_20150402_143129A soft, white dog appeared, accepting a ruffle on its head and sniffing my notebook. My notebook contains leaves from various walks between some of its pages, as well as a sprig of lavender that was given to me. I wondered if the dog could still smell the lavender, though my human nose can no longer detect it. A tiny spider crawled across the muddy ground, a string of silver trailing behind him.

From my stump, I could see down to the Porter Brook, as well as being able to hear it. I started thinking about a conversation I’d had with my friend Andy last year, probably not that long after the walk I was remembering today, about the Buddhist idea of impermanence, likening life to a river. We’d talked about how a person can be like a river, and when you talk to someone, they aren’t necessarily the same person they were last time you met them and talked to them. Like the Porter Brook, our own rivers are running all the time; meeting with other influences, changing with the weather, overcoming obstacles thrown into the water. I sat on the stump and thought about how much I might have changed since I was sitting on the stump exactly a year before, but I didn’t try to answer the question.

As I left the park, I was thinking again about what could have happened to Angela’s tree.