January has come and gone, and life has been busy. Long days painting, home half of the time, and away with work the other half. And it has been wonderful to settle again to work. Over Christmas I worked with ink on a new book which publishes later this year, and more on that later. Most of January I have been deep in a series of gilded paintings for Spellsongs. What began as a request not to have a cd in a plastic case has grown to be something that we hope will be a magical object of desire, housing the music.
Next week sees the beginning of a short tour by the Spellsingers, beginning at Snape Maltings. All the shows except for Birmingham Town Hall are sold out, and in Birmingham there are only a few tickets remaining. The news came through that Spellsongs would be part of Hay Festival, and tickets for the performance there on 29th May are also selling fast. And there is also a performance at Folk by the Oak, July 14th at Hatfield House.
Folk by the Oak is a one day festival, and Caroline and Adam, the organisers, are the brains behind Spellsongs, their fourth musical project of this nature. Sweet Liberty, The Elizabethan Sessions and Shake the Chains are previous projects run by the team. I asked Caroline what sparked her interest in The Lost Words and led to her approaching our agent with the idea to form a group, and take the spells deeper, through the medium of music. The answer surprised me, and travelled back in time.
Caroline said that she had been Christmas shopping with a friend who had told her she was going to Hay Winter Festival that evening to hear Rob and myself talk about our latest book. It seemed that Caroline knew my work well. Her mother and I had met about fifteen years ago when I had an exhibition in The Cloisters Gallery, St Davids, and she had bought a book for her daughter. After that, Caroline said, she had one of my books every Christmas, and then when she and Adam had children of their own they grew up with my dragons and ice bears and snow leopards. So she went online fast, bought a ticket and came to Hay Winter Festival. Our book was young then. We still had little idea of what was happening, but it had been awarded the honour of being Hay Festival Book of the Year, a fact that still astonishes me now.
At the beginning of our talk we played a piece of music written and sung by Kerry Andrew. Very early on Robert had asked people to speak the spells and record them for us, but Kerry had taken it a step further and woven a beautiful spell of music around the words. The next day Caroline heard Kerry talking on the radio, and fast as a kingfisher the idea to create music around the book was born, and soon the cd/lp will be available to pre-order.
On Sunday, a few weeks ago, Robert was on Six Music, talking to Cerys Matthews about this project and also the wonderful audio book, illustrated with wild sound by Chris Watson, spoken so beautifully by Cerys Matthews, Benjamin Zephania, Edith Bowman and Guy Garvey. It’s a beautiful thing. Cerys reads adder with such serpentine grace. I forgot, but later on listen again heard it while trying to complete this set of paintings which began as an idea to connect the singers to the wild.
I’d been thinking about the work for a while, but working on other things, and my time has been so fractured by having to leave home so much, but I began the work at Monnington House as the music was being made, with Rachel Newton, elegant egret of a woman, and her harp. Such a graceful woman, with a beautiful voice.
Back at home I began work on Kris Drever. In The Lake District, where we all first met, he had read the raven spell, and it seemed that I heard it for the first time, so it seemed natural to me that Kris should be raven, and his guitar is a new one to him, but he talked of how it was made by Collings, and how it sang in a way no other guitar he had played did.
Karine Polwart has long been a wren for me, fierce and feisty with a voice so strong, she’s moved through my working life with her music. And her tenor guitar is an old and beautiful thing.
Then there is Seckou Keita, who, when I asked him about his playing told me that his grandfather had taught him to make his first instrument when he was seven, and taught him to play. When I asked who taught his grandpa he smiled. “There’s the thing,” he said. “I am the 71st generation of my family to play the kora.” 71 generations. So far back in time.
And Seckou is from Senegal and lives between the UK and there, and speaks many languages including music, and has the most wonderful show with Catrin Finch about osprey migration. It seemed so right to link him and the kora to the osprey, But then I used the wrong gold leaf in the image, and the strings became tangled in the feathers of the bird and i almost abandoned the image, but then,
the errors seemed to make it more right, and I stopped worrying about how I had wanted it to look and saw how it did look.
For a while I struggled with Beth Porter. Her cello belonged to her grandma and it has a wonderful presence to it. Then she began to whistle and to sing a goldfinch charm into being, and she became a charm of finches, for she leaves little gifts of light where ever she goes.
Next was Julie Fowlis, and I struggled at first to settle, as she sings of a selkie, but I wanted to keep to birds, and a curlew was too heavy, too autumn coloured, but then the grace and the colour of the lapwing, just seemed so right. And on twitter Julie said “A curracag! Wavers in flight. Defends her young with aggression. Yes and yes.”
A Curracag. I love the way they fly.
I asked Julie about her instruments and this is the answer she sent me:
” My whistles not handed down, no. They have come from various different sources. The blackwood/silver ones come from a man called Chris Abell in North Carolina. My first real whistles from my early twenties – I loved them as they feel like the pipes under my fingers (pipes is what I learned first) and they are perfect for Highland tunes particularly. I was put in touch with Chris by Iain MacDonald from Glenuig, a famous piper and flute player and my inspiration for starting to play.
The ones with the green tips are just (cheap) generation whistles which have been lovingly fine-tuned by a pipes maker in County Kerry, Ireland. His name is Cillian Ó Briain. I love their sound for high soaring lines and Irish tunes as they are very sweet and pure of tone.
The silver ones are made by an Englishman living in Germany, his name is Colin Goldie. They have the richer, breathy-er tone, good for songs.
The wooden ones with the golden coloured joints have a sadder story. I had been desperate for years to get some whistles from a famous flute maker called Micheal Grinter – but he had a waiting list for flutes that went on for several years, and whistles weren’t his focus. Two years ago I got the heads up from a friend that he was going to make a short run of whistles, which would not be advertised. I called him and asked if he would keep two for me, and he did. I have a D and an Eb and they are great. A keen cyclist, at the end of last year he was out on a ride he has done a million times and was knocked down and killed. I never met him, and feel so sorry that I won’t get the chance to say thanks in person.”
And Kerry. She was easy, as she has always seemed like a bright kingfisher to me, but what to do. She’s a composer, an academic, builds sound in a loop box, and plays many instruments but it seemed her voice is her main instrument. And she is the origins of Spellsongs, the source of the spring. I toyed with the idea of a microphone with a kingfisher perched. Kerry had only been at the residency at Monnington briefly, due to ill health, so I didn’t have time to settle with an instrument. Her husband sent me photos of her microphone, and there in the background was the perfect thing! A music stand. I love watching the way Kerry seems to draw music into being.
So Kerry became a kingfisher, rising into flight, fierce bright, setting the stream alight with burn and glitter. But sadly her health has been slow to improve, and she is unable to join us for the beginning of the tour. I painted her as a kingfisher rising. It’s a hope and a prayer.
And finally Jim Molyneux, who I first knew as a percussionist but who plays many instruments. On the second day at Monnington House he and Kris and Seckou worked together on Little Astronaut. He’s quiet in a room, Jim, watchful, and listening, but when he speaks he is worth listening to, and when he sings his voice is beautiful, vulnerable, especially in Little Astronaut, singing his heart out to all dark matter.
They are not spirit animals of these people, rather the people are the spirit people for the animals/birds. The cd/lp is still being shaped. The sleeve notes have expanded, along with the shape of the packaging. Neither Robert nor myself would have wanted the packaging to be plastic and none of the Folk by the Oak cds have been packaged this was. But the Spellsongs has become something more, with sleeve-notes you can read without a magnifying glass. You can pre-order through the Folk by the Oak website. It will feature the lyrics, photographs by Elly taken during the project, new spells from Robert and artwork by me, all printed on beautiful paper and with the cd embedded in the front cover.
The Lost Words features on the longlist for both the Carnegie and the Greenaway awards, and Robert and I are both delighted.
Below is a page from the book/sleeve notes. The photo was taken by Elly Lucas. I’d obviously said something outrageous. (Note to self, brush your hair before you go on stage) If you click on the image you can read the words.
And, if you were a bird, what bird might you be?