Monday, 21 December 2015

The Shrieking Violets on Bandcamp

I recently digitised the first album I ever made, on cassette tape, when I was 16, during the summer holidays after my GCSEs. It was recorded in my parents' attic, in a very rudimentary fashion, on a Sony shoebox recorder. It can now be listened to at https://theshriekingviolets.bandcamp.com/album/first-album. I'm not sure why I felt the need to put it online, except that I guess it's the first thing I ever made, by myself, just got on with, produced, because I had to, needed to. For that reason it's still my most treasured possession.


By way of introduction, here is a piece I wrote about my teenage music-making for Black Dogs' publication Hope From Dead End Town a few years ago.


'A View from (under) the Bridge': a short story about growing up weird

I grew up in a small town called Hythe on the south coast of England, a picturesque and pleasant, yet quiet, town nestled between the English Channel and rolling Kent countryside which is populated predominantly by two groups of people: pensioners and Conservative voters. Hythe is in the south eastern corner of England, not really on the way to anywhere, and it's a place where time passes slowly; when I was a teenager, the social life of one group of old men consisted of sitting in a row on one of the town's bridges for a chat at the same time every day, resting halfway between home and the shops, their walking sticks propped up on the pavement. As a child who was never conventionally pretty, girly or interested in subjects deemed fitting topics for discussion by teenage girls, I didn't really fit in there, or at my all girls' school a twenty minute bus-ride away, and as much as I tried to make friends my overall experience was of overwhelming loneliness, from which I tried doggedly to distract myself by making music and art.

In my early teens I became obsessed with playing the guitar, both as an outlet for my creative frustration and as something to do to pass the time. I asked for an acoustic guitar for my fourteenth birthday, and when my mum and dad took me to a guitar shop in the nearest city, Canterbury, I knew that the black Fender I picked up, so shiny I could see my face in its surface, was the guitar for me; it was love at first sight. Later, I talked them into buying me a hard, black guitar case lined with what looked liked luxurious red velvet, a fitting home for my precious instrument, and was given a hippyish, rainbow-woven guitar strap which contrasted nicely with its stylish, unbroken blackness.

I took to lugging the guitar everywhere with me as if it was my best friend, the awkward, slippery handle of the heavy case wearing red marks into my hands as I wandered around the town from spot to spot, an unlikely, roving busker singing songs no-one else knew the words to. I tried to play songs like Shake Some Action by Californian band Flamin Groovies (with lyrics like "If you don't dig what I say/Then I will go away/And I won't come back this again. No/'Cause I don't need a friend”, Shake Some Action was the rousing, defiant anthem of my teenage disaffection, and it's a song I still play from time to time today), and underage romance 13 by Big Star, little realising that potential listeners wanted something familiar they could hum along to like the Beatles or Oasis. I clung onto the hope, however, that if only someone who shared my love of sixties and seventies American power pop would walk past one day and stop and talk to me, I'd finally meet someone with whom I had something in common, and find a companion.

I used to sit and play on a smooth worn step in front of the town hall, my legs dangling down onto the paving slabs of the High Street, struggling to make my voice heard over the uninterested shoppers, or on the uncomfortable, stony beach and the distinctive, pink-painted promenade which ran alongside it, and sometimes on the gently sloping banks of the historic, tranquil Royal Military Canal which meanders placidly through the town, built centuries ago to defend the Kent coast from the threat of invasion by Napoleon, amid daffodils and swans and under the shade of weeping willow trees.

One day I decided to take this to its logical conclusion and go and sit and play under one of the bridges which takes cars and pedestrians over the canal, to find out how it echoed, and make some recordings on my portable 'shoebox-style' recorder. I was inspired partly by my favourite guitarist at the time, John Fahey, who wrote a piece of music based on a 'singing bridge' in Memphis, Tennessee (as a teenager, I spent a disproportionate amount of time daydreaming about visiting the Southern States of the United States, inspired both by its completely alien landscape and the potential for adventures suggested to me by its literature and music), and in part by the episode of the Simpsons in which Lisa Simpson, another hero of mine, joins saxophonist Bleeding Gums Murphy in a jam on a moonlit bridge, an homage to the famous story of jazz musician Sonny Rollins practising on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York over on the equally remote, exciting and exotic East coast of America. Despite my parents' concern – they teasingly called me 'troll', and warned me of vermin and the dangers of waterborne Weil's disease – I became obsessed with going and sitting, alternating depending on whichever took my fancy that day, under two facing bridges at opposite ends of the town centre. I found the bridges to be perfect practice rooms to experiment with different sounds and try out the metal and glass slides and capo I'd bought from the nearby music shop in the High Street, which was run by one eccentric, opinionated man who would talk your ear off if given half a chance. Eventually, I put voice to my own songs and lyrics.

For me, the bridges were both private and a magical places, giving me space to sit, think and watch the world go by. In sunshine, I watched elusive ripples of light dance above me, reflected on the bridges' low roofs, trying again and again to capture the fleeting dashes of sunlight and recreate the essence of the place as short films on my digital camera. In stormy weather, rain and hail fell onto the surface of the water in small circles and the bridges became my refuge from thunder and lightning, an experience I found more exciting than frightening. I was usually undisturbed, save from occasional hired rowing boats going past bearing noisy families and the occasional sunburnt couple, some of whom appeared to be pleased by my music, which must have broken up the physical monotony of their oar strokes, and some of whom didn't seem sure how to react.

For a couple of years, it felt like I spent all my weekends and summer holidays under bridges – so much so that I even had my sixteenth birthday party down there and convinced some of my classmates to get the bus into Hythe to join me, eating cake and sheltering from the half-hearted rain of a mid-May day.

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