annabel

overcoming the voices in you that tell you you aren’t good enough. that you are terrible. where do these voices come from? childhood wounds. something someone said once. can i learn to harmonise? i asked, age 8ish. no, you can’t even sing. what did she say? you need to be able to at least sing before you harmonise. all i wanted was for the song to come out of me. to sing. to harmonise. to feel those vibrations. to give out from my gut into the universe. you can’t sing, she said.

fast forward 30 years. this lingers. i can’t sing. i weep in front of an open guitar case. annabel, my blue, thin body ibanez acoustic has been with me since 1997.

in 1988, all i wanted to listen to, sing, be, was amy grant. i know, i know. but, at 7, my exposure was limited to what was allowed by my very conservative mother. amy grant was acceptable, and god did amy make me feel. she sang about real things, some of them were acceptable within the church environment i was surrounded by at school and on sundays.

but there was a spark to amy. she was also full of things to say and learn and feel. she…wasn’t going to be limited, and it turned out later she wasn’t when she publicly left the label of ‘christian music’ and ended up having a public affair and being shunned and generally following her heart. woman after my own tiny heart. saved by love, alright.

in 1997, i’d finished high school in the oddest of ways (pulled out after 3 years and had to take the test for kids who are dropouts, except a year younger than my graduating class), and was living with my grandparents, caring for my ailing grandmother and watching, but not understanding, as my grandfather tried to run from all of that. my grandmother was an alcoholic, or so they said, who knows.

years earlier, i was there, too. i was 7. she stayed home all day. watched soaps in her robe. to me, she was elegant. she had a tray of perfumes with vintage hand-squeeze bubble spray bottles. i wanted to use them all, preferably while wearing her costume jewellery and holding her purses and wearing furs.

it was part of our family lore that she’d played violin, but i never saw her pick up a violin and have no idea about the truth in any of that.

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there was a steinway baby grand piano in my grandparents’ living room. i spent all my summers there. every afternoon, too. my mom worked. dad worked. they both ran their own businesses. i was always at mamalea and papa’s house, as we called them. the baby grand was there only as a piece of decor, but i started playing it. who cared? i couldn’t play, but i just bashed away. my grandmother endured this as long as she could and finally decided i needed lessons (enough with the vintage silent night sheet music that i had no idea how to interpret).

for two years i went to the house of a lady on canyon road in santa fe. how funny i can’t even remember her name now? two years! i learned treble clef, then tried base clef. i was terrible at reading music. mom and dad bought an upright electric piano for me. this was the height of 90s sophistication, and they were about to divorce, so everything was doable to keep us happy at that time.

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i still listened to amy. at some point later, i put her away and left her forever. then we went to live in texas, and high school happened, and my crush played guitar and suddenly i had to learn guitar. that’s when i started.

my dad, the sort of musical hero you could never even hope to be incarnated as the offspring of, got me nicholas. a black gibson everly brothers flattop with stars inlaid down the fretboard. i learned all the things i should learn about guitar on him. the chords of D and G and E Minor. all the important chords. though none of the amy songs.

in the summer of 1997, my mom had moved us back from texas to new mexico and i hadn’t been given the chance to graduate with my year, i had to ‘graduate early’ which meant taking that weird test, waving goodbye to my friends in lubbock, and going to live with my grandparents back in new mexico while my mom lived across the street with my stepdad. god, when i think about it now, wasn’t it all super fucked up?

mamalea, for all her faults or whatever anyone else said about her, seemed to understand this was a fucked up time for me, as a grandmother should. the only thing i really loved was singing and guitar and even back then i wasn’t confident or very objectively good at it, but it was something that always came out of me, just like it had on the baby grand 10 years earlier and like it did in my flat on carlingford road in dublin in 2008 and like it does tonight in SE23 london in 2019.

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i saw annabel in a guitar shop on cerrillos road in santa fe in 1997 and frankly wanted her because she was blue, like my heart was at 16 and still is at nearing-38. mamalea said get her, and gave me the money, so i drove in and bought her and didn’t even care what kind of look i got from the dude in the shop or anything else, about my choice of an ibanez thin-body acoustic guitar because she was, in my mind, perfect and she still is.

It was many and many a year ago,
   In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
   By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
   Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
   I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
   Coveted her and me.

she’s been with me longer than anybody. literally. we wrote teenage songs that should never see the light of day, the first of which was about the scarlet letter for my sophomore english class, and even played 20-something gigs in austin and houston. and i stood on stage with her in zhejiang and she dutifully accompanied me while i belted out ‘my heart will go on’ badly for hundreds of chinese students.

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and she was there, when i left her to lie dormant. when my heart loved and was broken by a man and another man, and really broken by myself. i put her away and stopped thinking about things of the heart, because they seemed like too much, too hard, too complicated, too many shadows and wounds to face and all i wanted was simple and married and life solved and to be done with all that. i wanted emotions gone.

in the end, emotions aren’t gone, they are just shoved away until they aren’t and then they come bursting out and you have to weep over the guitar you’ve let sit in her case for years because you were too afraid to face yourself and all the shadows lurking.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
   Of those who were older than we—
   Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
   Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee
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music, now and then

1996. i am in my bedroom. fifteen years old, and i have lit a gardenia-scented candle. loose-leaf notebook paper, some of it scrawled on in my semi-illegible handwriting, is spread out on the floor. i’m curled cross-legged on the floor too, a black epiphone everly brothers acoustic guitar resting over one thigh. it was a gift from my dad, who didn’t say much when i expressed what he must have assumed was a fleeting teenage interest in ‘learning the guitar’, though looking back he must have been thrilled i’d taken an interest in one of his passions. i loved that guitar mainly because it had stars inlaid down the fretboard.

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i wanted to learn guitar because i had a crush on josh jones, and he played guitar in the school worship band. i wanted to be the sort of cool, mysterious girl that played guitar and wrote angsty songs. the main problem was that i didn’t play guitar. or write songs. but i knew what angst was and music at least seemed to be in my blood – the child of musicians, from a family of musicians, i grew up surrounded by a host of americana instruments. i pushed back against the musical rapids that flowed through my young life. torturous saturdays as a kid were wanting a lift to the mall, but having to wait till my dad was done with his living room jam session.

when we are small, we resist the seeds our parents plant next to us in the hopes they will take root. but they do, and then later you are asking your dad for a guitar and he is buying you a chord book and telling you the four chords you need to learn to play any song in the world. this must have been one of the best days of my dad’s life so far, if i had to guess. seeing your kid embrace a passion and knowing ‘that’s me, that’s my contribution to human existence and it is perfect.’

you start by learning a D chord. it’s the easiest. your fingers don’t have to stretch that far. it hurts. next comes G and your fingers do have to stretch. the tips of your fingers sting. you keep pushing down in a vain effort to keep the strings from buzzing. they still buzz. surely the fingers are bleeding now. no? really? no blood at all? fuck this hurts.

you, if you are me, have to keep going because you have to be good at everything and you want josh jones to notice you and you want to be the cool, mysterious chick with the guitar. but it fucking hurts, and you throw the guitar down and it makes a noise like it might have broken and you are scared you broke it because really you love it and your dad spent money on it and it’s making you into something that you’re not sure what yet.

then magic starts to happen. you can play a song. badly, but you can. suddenly from pain, music is coming out of you, and you start to sing and even though your voice sounds like shit at first, you don’t care, because you are playing a D chord and then a G and then an A and it is giving you life and it is spiritual. the most spiritual you get aged 15. (or 36, spoiler).

i am the least talented of the musical people in my family. but what i lack in talent, i like to think i make up for in verve. my voice isn’t the best. it’s pitchy and i hit bad notes and i absolutely cannot harmonise to save my life. i was in the choir in high school for one day when i realised i would have to sight-read sheet music and learn to use my diaphragm, i  quit and went straight back to speech & debate. i have always gravitated toward ‘bad’ singers and people with quirky voices. don’t get me wrong, i wanted to sing with the angelic clarity of alison krauss and sarah mclachlan and sinead o’connor. but julie miller and tom waits gave me hope that it was ok for me not to sing classically. i still can’t.

the first song i ever learned to play and sing at the same time was ‘april showers’ by caedmon’s call, a band whose music and its members, particularly derek webb, have had an unquantifiable impact on the person i have become, and there has been some synchronicity with me and that band and this year and the release of derek’s latest album, ‘fingers crossed’ last week. i have not yet wrapped my head around what any of it means.

2017. i am in my apartment. thirty-six years old and i have lit an orchid and sweet coconut-scented candle. annabel, my teal-green ibanez thin-body acoustic guitar (bought aged 16 and named for my favourite-at-the-time edgar allan poe poem) slung over one thigh, and the loose-leaf notebook paper has been replaced by the steady glow of a macbook screen. my fingers fucking hurt because i don’t play enough and my voice wavers and cracks and falls flat and i feel that teenage wish to throw the guitar again. julie miller and tom waits have been replaced by lawrence from felt, whose bizarre voice has basically soundtracked the last two years of my life. clumsily, i strum out a few chords from ‘she lives by the castle’ and try to play it cool for no one, because i feel spectacularly uncool and wonder if i will ever be good at music.

it turns out in my case that if you were a nerd, you’ll always be a nerd, and a cool air of mystery is not something you can curate. plus 2017 me would like to let 1996 me know that nerdy is hot in your 30s.

isn’t music about how you feel when no one else is looking. the freedom of emotional outpouring when you are doing it or listening to it, whether guitar-throwing rage or unadulterated joy or life-altering love from another universe.

isn’t it about that very ultra-rare connection with another human that you, if lucky, experience through it?

and isn’t it about holding up the thing that your dad gave you, because he gave it to you. that is the beautiful thing.

guitars

post-script: i never did use my guitar to impress josh jones into dating me, but we got to be friends going to gigs and have remained friends to this day, and he (unlike me) has made a real career out of playing music. that is beautiful.

 

 

caedmon’s call and the start of 2017

14.35pm
new year’s day 2017
south of york station, virgin east coast service to london’s king’s cross
not listening to caedmon’s call, but felt’s ‘forever breathes the lonely word’

i didn’t go to whitby in search of caedmon. in fact, i had no idea there was a connection between the little english north sea-side town and the band that i followed super-religiously throughout my most formative years. a quickly-planned twixtmas trip to york somehow escalated to the inclusion of whitby – not exactly nearby, but also not that far away – on the itinerary for reasons i genuinely cannot remember or even fathom now. this detail passed me by but became relevant.

caedmon’s call was a band for and of christian people but they weren’t a christian band. or they were, and by that i mean they wrote songs that dived into christian philosophy in a way that my church high school would’ve called heretical. maybe not that extreme, but they made me ask questions and they created wonder where previously i only felt judgement and the push to conform.

after some time, me and the band became ‘friends’ because i went to far too many concerts – sometimes driving upwards of 14 hours across moonbeam-strewn texas plains to catch them in just one more bible-belt town’s church sanctuary or college auditorium. i pushed up the gumption on a snowy night around 1995 in wondrously named glorieta, new mexico and exchanged addresses with derek webb after the show. we wrote letters and chatted on IRC at musicians’ hours and i went to more shows. later i would even cover one of their songs on a long-lost fanclub rarity album (yes i just linked that there and it is from a bygone age and that’s all i have to say).


this is not really meant to be a post about all that, but it is about that, because the sun was setting over whitby a couple of days ago when i realised there was a trajectory of my life that had just come full-circle.

it was a big, yellowish orangish pinkish orb and it was shattering the blue winter sky into a million fragments of pastel when we walked up the 199 steps to whitby’s anglo-saxon hillside retreat where the very oddly shaped church of st mary and, behind it, the foreboding crumbles of benedictine whitby abbey, live, windbattered and muddy. the churchyard has a very atmospheric graveyard where the headstones look out over the north sea in a bleak and perfect fashion. they are all small and old worn stone, like you expect headstones in a graveyard like that to be, but then there’s this one 20ft-high spire of a cross at the very corner of the cemetery.

i credit bill, who looked more closely at it and spotted the name ‘caedmon’ on it, and i knew immediately it was not a coincidence, for how many caedmons were there, ever? at the bottom of the cross, inscribed:

“To the glory of God, and in memory of Caedmon, Father of English sacred song. Fell asleep hard by AD 680.”

caedmon was basically a stable boy at whitby abbey in the 600s. but hilda – at that time abbess of the then-mixed abbey – saw something in him and his verse and voice and encouraged him to keep singing and writing, and caedmon wrote what are possibly some of the very first songs and poems in the english language (a northumbrian dialect of old english), though he is all but forgotten today.


it called me to wonder about caedmon and hilda’s friendship. what did the powerful abbess see in a stable boy? he must have had a very special aura around him, and perhaps she was lonely despite the many monks and nuns around her. if being a career woman in the 21st century is hard, i can only imagine running a sizeable abbey in such a time must have been a gargantuan task with few real friends to call upon. it is said kings came to hilda for advice. who did she go to, i wonder?

sometimes friends arrive in guises that are inexplicable and not really that sensical – inconvenient or troublesome even – and we just have to go with it. i like to think about caedmon and hilda’s secret friendship, hanging out in the stables at odd hours maybe, the puffing of horses in torchlight while they exchanged music and verse in damp, hay-heavy air. hilda probably worried with each footfall she might be discovered in such a tryst, and caedmon just wondering what he did to attract such an important woman’s attention.


2016 was a hard year for many and a year of loss and passing away and foreboding the end of many things. i was sort of hoping that this full-circle life-loop-closing would have some symmetry to it, but actually i first heard caedmon’s call in 1994 and that marks a hardly-round 22-year anniversary. still, much happened in 2016 that felt like the poetic end to some things and the mysterious beginning to others, and i can’t help but feel this strange meeting of caedmon in his final resting place, just a few thousand minutes before the end of 2016, and so many thousands of miles and lives lived since i first heard his story, simply cannot be chance.

When I’m cold and alone all I want
Is my freedom, a sudden gust of gravity
I stop wailing and kicking just to let
This water cover me, cover me

some old photos:

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with derek and my mate becky at trees in dallas (appx 1998?)
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with garrett buell (caedmon’s call percussionist) at the guild 2 weekend (1999)
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myself and my dad, john egenes on mandolin, performing ‘too tender’ at guild 1 weekend (1998) – surely the worst best kept digitised photo of all time
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art lawry, myself and i can’t remember the guy on the right, guild 3 weekend in columbus, ga (2001)

a bit o’ bluegrass

giant mountains band, prague
giant mountains band

it seems no matter where i go in this world, i always need some good americana music to keep my soul in shape. perhaps it has something to do with being lugged around to bars as a baby, falling asleep on the floor while my mom and dad were sound checking with their various bands or maybe it was my mother playing the mandolin over her tummy when i was still in the womb. whichever combination of these things it is, i don’t know, but i need bluegrass.

interestingly, the czechs are really into bluegrass. in fact, they are into all sorts of americana, and there is even a subculture of czechs who actually go out into the woods with cowboy hats and boots and spurs and pretend to be in the wild west. i am not kidding.

Continue reading “a bit o’ bluegrass”

5 great albums for travel writing

as a traveler, music is an integral part of the experience of a journey. having the right song playing on your ipod can completely enhance your surroundings, make a terrible train ride just a little bit better, drown out those awful chinese lorry horns and get you through long, long airplane hours. but as a travel writer, i am picky about my musical selections.

i believe that a good travel writing album must be a complex coupling of driven music that is also not terribly distracting. you need to be inspired by the melodies while still able to ignore the words as you write. so, i’ve compiled what i think are five great albums to listen to while writing about my travels. Continue reading “5 great albums for travel writing”