“You got me singing even though the world is gone.” You Got me Singing, Leonard Cohen
I wonder if there’s a particular word for the kind of love you feel for people with whom you sing. It’s a kind of love that enfolds you in the singing space but then also dissipates up and out, beyond those who listen. It’s a breathy heady love, innocent as milk, even when the songs are of broken hearts, child murders and things that go on all night long.
“You got me singing even though it all looks grim.”
This year (a terrible year) has been bookended by the deaths of two songwriters I’ve always loved, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. And it’s got me singing, and collecting songs. I loved these two, and many other singers and songwriters, because of how they make me feel when I sing and when they sing, and when we sing together.
I know now, having written some songs and performed them, how there is almost nothing else in the creative realm that exposes you so much. When your voice lifts into song, people look and listen, and you feel vulnerable, but you can also feel powerful. Words expressed well in song are like beams of light coming out of the singer that can open holes somewhere deep in the listener. Now I don’t sing dark songs lightly because I’ve made people cry.
“In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Brecht
These are darkening times. This week is leading up to Remembrance Day for Lost Species, on Wednesday 30th November, and there is recent news that by 2020 we may have lost two-thirds of our wildlife. It’s also a week in which shocking heat and low ice growth in the Arctic, a significant UN climate meeting – COP22 in Marrakech, protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline and Trump’s plan to scrap climate research by NASA have all been very poorly represented in mainstream media.
So why am I writing about singing when I could be giving some publicity to these things? In my defence, I’ve been trying to write about Trump’s election and how it links to all the other bad stuff, for the past two weeks, but I just keep abandoning my efforts and instead pick up the guitar. I’m in a state of low-level pre-emptive shock, a head-shaking state of confusion, where singing is one of the few things that clears my head, heart and lungs in a way that isn’t being like hung upside down on a butcher’s hook to drain.
“News guy wept and told us, Earth was really dying” Five Years, David Bowie
Second best to singing is listening to songs. Whenever the ghost-thought runs through me, as it often does, ‘oh my god, we are on the brink of a mass extinction which threatens our civilisation’, the very second thought is ‘but we will lose all the songs and the singers?’ And, it’s when I listen to songs that I think ‘I love this, I don’t want to lose all this’.
On Saturday I was at Sam Lee’s Unamplifire Festival in Dalston, for a few hours inside music that made my skin flush and prickle with goosebumps. One of the bands that had this effect, The Nightjar, sang a couple of songs about ‘the apocalypse’. One I think called Black Waters, the other called Wardrobe.
I realised that there is definitely a growing tendency to include themes of ecocide and climate change in songs. Songs of love and loss are increasingly touching on themes of love and loss for particular places, species or peace on this planet. When I realised this, references to this phenomenon just kept sprouting like mushrooms, and almost as much as this weirdly abundant mushroom crop on The Nightjar’s blogpost. Maybe it’s like that thing that you notice pregnant women everywhere when you’re pregnant yourself. Maybe I’m attuned to it because of my state, seeking out connection with people in a similar way. But I definitely think more people are in this similar way, and songwriters are articulating it.
Abi Nielson writes today about Lost Species Day on the Dark Mountain blog, about the need to mourn. She talks about how singer Nancy Kerr “speaks of our collective need to sometimes just take the time to ‘have a good wallow’. Steeped in the folk tradition, she talks of how folk songs put a name and a human experience to the vast, complex and seemingly uncontrollable forces of war, death and loss.” You might want to listen to her Hard Songs, which is about disconnection from nature and the strangers who grow our food and make our clothes.
Another ‘mushroom’ cropped up when Norwegian singer Ane Brun posted this: “Watching the news today about the Arctic being 20 degrees higher than normal. This just freaks me out, and it should freak us all out. My urge to look the other way is powerful, because it´s too hard to grasp what the consequences are of this dramatic change. I´m not sure what we can do as individuals, it´s paralysing…I guess one thing we can do is to elect environmentalist politicians and parties.” And she shared the video of her song Better Than This. Here’s a taste of the lyrics: Moving in fast paths towards a tipping point. You must be better than this, better than this. The signs are around us, solutions already there. We’re all part of this same line up. There’s no one else here. We must be better than this.
Then, again today, there was this rare interview with Kate Bush. The headline was that she’s a fan of Theresa May – which is disappointing news – and hints at how privileged and cocooned your life can be as a successful musician. But she did also say this: “I suppose my biggest concern would be if the planet is going to be in good enough shape for the next generation to have the privileges that we’ve had.” I’m not sure which of her songs are good examples of her concern about this, but many do express a profound awe at the natural world, including Endless Sky of Honey. Also I interpret her Coral Room, which probably refers most to the death of her mother, to the way the sea can drown whole cities.
And also, here’s the song or symphony of 150 years of climate change. (Temperature data turned into music).
I may add to this post with some more examples, but for now, here is a playlist of some songs relating to the Dark Mountain project and its call for new stories about our relationship to the planet and the need to face the uncertainties of what is unfolding. Back to my listening…