Her timing could have been better. On the very day that the Eyjafjallajökull volcano spews an ash cloud big enough to close down every British airport for over a week, Icelander Ólöf Arnalds plays her first London concert. Her “sorry about that”, raises a roar of laughter from a packed Cafe Oto crowd on a night that’s heavy on good-natured high jinx and allusions to grounded Boeings.
“Apparently we can’t get home until Saturday… so we’re going to play for four days…”
Anyone expecting the beguiling, intimate Við Og Við debut album (recipient of various Icelandic Album of the Year Awards in 2007, and a favourite of Björk’s) is in for a shock tonight. A concert which commences with fellow Icelander and accompanist, David Thor Johnsson, terrorising the Cafe’s grand piano with randomly lodged pegs (“It’s called ‘prepared piano'” whispers my neighbour to his confused girlfriend) quickly dispenses with pomp. Sigur Rós it ain’t.
Flushed of cheek and resplendent in a folksy frock, Arnalds has something of the forces’ sweetheart about her, particularly when she swaps a plucked violin for a cute, diminutive Spanish guitar. Her repertoire, too, has the boundlessness of a music hall act; Weimar cabaret giving way to cowboy saloon hoedown and covers aplenty. A bout of simple but effective campfire picking (which she sweetly refers to as “omelette”) forms the basis for stuttering, but cracking, versions of Gene Clark’s ‘With Tomorrow’ and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire.’ ‘Crazy Car,’ a plea for a disenchanted pop star friend to leave New York and come back to Iceland (“No, it’s not Björk!” she chirps) has everyone singing along so remarkably well that it’s easy to forget thus is a gig in the notoriously po-faced metropolis.
After an unexpected mid-set “toilet-and-beer break”, during which Arnalds and Johnsson jam along in their own bubble, perfectly contented with a respite in attention (why don’t other bands have such intervals?), the audience members quickly shush each other down to an attentive murmur once again, as if resuming a good book. Johnsson, accompanying on guitar and rather dissonant piano, is the perfect musical foil for Arnalds even if, on occasion, his Tiggeresque enthusiasm threatens to engulf the woman we’ve really come to see. It’s only when he’s withdrawn-into the shadows that Arnalds shines brightest. Underpinned by meandering guitar, her voice positively carousels into the night, most often in her splendidly otherwordly native tongue which ties up the heart in a bow.
‘Klara,’ the most recognised song of the night, sounds like a nursery rhyme, one which might have been passed down from a grandmother while clothes were pegged out. We may not understand a word but its peppy, naive harmony is not only ineffably familiar but oddly touching. Likewise, a song sung in Japanese as a promise to a friend, possesses a ramshackle charm so often absent from run-of-the-mill band concerts.
There are few airs and graces about Arnalds. She is, quite simply, an old school entertainer whose sweetness and gaiety is refreshing and infectious. But it’s that mesmeric, ambrosial voice that really steals the show.
Vancouver, Canada, has a population of just over 600,000, yet residents include more than half-a-dozen artists of global significance. Best known is perhaps Jeff Wall, a ‘photo-conceptualist’. But the reputation of Wall and his generation is a mixed blessing for younger artists, so Ron Terada makes art about making art in Vancouver.
Step into his first European solo show, at Ikon in Birmingham, and you are greeted with a municipal road sign: `Entering City of Vancouver’ (2001). Dwarfing the room, it is almost a barrier to his art. The sign first cropped up in a Terada photo and has since been recreated by the artist. It has been used to advertise exhibitions, dress gallery windows and adorn critical texts. This transplantation to the West Midlands is just the latest twist in an ever-evolving joke.
`Soundtrack For An Exhibition’ (2000) had a previous incarnation as a fly poster, now it’s a walk-in installation where visitors sit on beanbags to watch LPs spinning on a retro turntable. The projected film is synced to the music of college rock bands and vinyl copies are available to take home. It is the most professional and legally questionable mix tape you are likely to come across. And the whole show is coloured by the melancholy strains of Pavement, The Magnetic Fields, The Walkmen, et al.
The other major work here is fresh off the easel. lack’ (2010) is a return to painting, a medium which Terada abandoned in the 1990s. His subject matter is passages of text from the memoir of artist Jack Goldstein, whose life was blighted by drug addiction, poverty and lack of recognition. The clinical white-on-black acrylic lettering jars with the messy highs and lows of Goldstein’s life, as the young Vancouverite inverts the myth of suicidal genius to serve his own conceptual ends.
If you don’t like self-referential art, you will hate this show. It is after all titled Who I think I Am, with the emphasis on ‘think’. But for Terada, this is a starting point in order to reflect and add to the discourses surrounding its creation and display. The pleasure exists not just in looking, but in reading, speaking, listening and writing. By drawing your attention to the institutional workings of the galleries and the city he works in, Terada effectively lifts the veil on the art world. The effect is dizzying and delicious.
It is a little known fact that the crystal-studded sign outside Ikon is another Ron Terada original. The gallery and artist have a relationship going back five years, so there was already history when they invited him to these shores. This was fortunate for the residents of Birmingham, and a good reason to visit for those who were not.
Having been lured out of self-imposed stage retirement at the behest of Joanna Newsom, English folk/rock legend Roy Harper strolls calmly onto the stage, tanned, lean with white hair and beard and incredibly piercing eyes, he opens proceedings with a handful of excuses. He hasn’t played in three years, has only met the soundman at ten past five and only had half a soundcheck. We are treated to a startling and at times almost frightening set of songs, ‘One Man Rock and Roll Band’, sounds like the gates of hell have just inched open as his voice and guitar pour forth from the stage with incredible potency. Finishing with ‘Me and My Woman’ he tells us he will be much better tomorrow as more of his rust falls away and that he is “looking forward to this more; one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, performing some of the best music you’re likely to hear on this planet.”
That woman is, of course, Joanna Newsom, purveyor of ambitious, folk-inspired, harp-led songs that are influenced by Latin American and West African rhythms, Appalachian music and avant-garde modernism, with lyrics that mix archaic and modern language, delivered in one of contemporary music’s most distinctive voices.
The diminutive star makes an enchanting, almost pre-Raphaelite vision as she begins, alone at the harp. She seems to merge with her instrument and there is a magical quality about her playing which seems both effortless and mesmerizing. Her voice, whilst still idiosyncratic seems less harsh since she had problems with nodes on her vocal chords.
She is joined by five musicians, two female violinists and male trombonist, drummer and multi-instrumentalist (who plays banjo, guitar and recorder among other things), all of whom can weave sensitively and ornately around Newsom’s unorthodox songs. However, when they are all playing I am not convinced that they actually enhance the experience and on more than one occasion the ensemble feels more intrusive than complementary.
Switching easily between harp and piano, Newsom is charismatic and very at ease with herself and her surroundings. She gently mocks her piano-playing and instigates a Q&A session between audience and band whilst she is otherwise engaged in the complex business of tuning her harp. All the while, Roy Harper sits attentively on stage. The songs seem to be with us fleetingly even though some last more than 10 minutes. Solo opener ’81’ shows the beauty of simplicity (or at least of voice and harp); the complex ‘Have One On Me’ which follows is equally sensational. ‘Inflammatory Writ’ (from her debut album) is almost completely reinvented, whilst ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’ begins to the accompaniment of applause. By the time they finish with an encore of ‘Baby Birch’ the applause has turned into a standing ovation, having lived up to Harper’s earlier acclamation.
Joanna Newsom is truly a modern artist, she is imaginative, creative, unorthodox, eccentric and unpredictable and timeless in the truest sense of the word.
The Barbican’s Curve gallery is like the Tate’s Art Now programme; a project space for something a bit more risky than you might find in the main gallery. And, under the curatorship of Lydia Yee, the Curve has been the space to watch — the latest hit being a crowd-pleasing installation by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.
Boursier-Mougenot transformed the Curve into an ongoing, live work of performance art comprising amplified electric guitars, cymbal stands and zebra finches. Visitors were asked to queue at the entrance and then allowed into the gallery (25 at a time) which had been turned into a blacked-out tunnel, illuminated only by some naff projections of animated line drawings of guitars being played. At first this area seemed to serve little purpose but it did somehow help to empty your mind before you arrived at the main installation area, (rather than stepping from outside directly into the space). Once through to the far end of the gallery, guitars are dotted around the space, four feet or so off the ground and at a horizontal angle. The finches fly around the space, hop across the decked floor and mounds of sand and settle on the fretboards, plucking and pecking at the guitar strings. Sometimes you’d hear a cacophony of chirping and twanging that almost felt like an intentional piece of music. On other days you might hear very little.
While Boursier-Mougenot comes from a Fluxus tradition, this installation also echoes works like Damien Hirst’s ‘In and Out of Love’ (1991), (in which he filled the Woodstock Street gallery with monochrome gloss canvases and hundreds of live tropical butterflies, some of which hatched during the course of the show). In art terms, the individual elements are wholly uninteresting but when arranged together in a confined space draw into question elements such as time, chance, observation. Also the aesthetics and connotations of how a minimal space, dotted with the colour and texture of the birds against the shiny, brittle surfaces of the guitars, resulted in a harmonious, magical environment rather than a jarring clash of manmade metallic objects against fragile nature. It’s unusual for an exhibition by such a relatively unknown artist to attract such huge attention. BBC2’s The Culture Show, innumerable YouTube blasts and mainstream media publicity, plus a constant queue, proved the widespread appeal and popularity of the work. But does popular equal good? Yes, it takes art beyond the gallery gets people visiting, talking and interacting. It also introduces the viewer into the possibilities of art, and in particular sound art. But ultimately, it’s all about what art can offer that nothing else can. The show is visually exciting, unpredictable and consistently unfolding but also understandable on a very basic level as an experiment with a transient existence – something that for the time it was on, anyone could watch and be part of.
Gemma de Cruz
It’s week eight of Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s first UK solo exhibition, but there’s already a twitchy ‘twitcher’ crowd gathering outside 15 minutes before doors. My companion, three-year-old Ciara, informs me that “we have to wait a bit because they’re sleeping”. They are a flock of zebra finches and if they’re not up by now (11am) it must’ve been a good night. YouTube has done a fair job of preparing me for Boursier-Mougenot’s ingenious spectacle within, although by the time I finally walk through the Curve’s chainmail curtain, I am as excited as Charlie Bucket entering the chocolate factory. So much so that I give short shrift to the huge projection screens on which monotone hands furtively finger guitar fretboards, producing not licks but static drones. It’s curiously underwhelming but no-one ever bought a ticket to see the support band, did they?
Thankfully, the Curve’s oversized videodrome quickly gives way to the main attraction; a pure white room punctuated by petite, stylized isles of sand and tufted grass. Inserted amongst these dunes are skeletal metal stands on which rest horizontal electric guitars and brass cymbals. As a musician, it’s hard not to notice that Gibson and Paiste had donated some fairly top-of-the-range instruments to the exhibit, although that’s obviously somewhat lost on the “players”.
Completely untroubled by the presence of the visitors walking ever so carefully along the prescribed, white decking path, 30 or so zebra finches flutter about their daily business, zipping past the ear in a blur of fluff. They skillfully land on light switches, fire extinguishers and shoes but mostly on the shiny, alien perches, pecking at strings, disentangling twigs or even building nests in them. The cymbals, upturned, have become impromptu seed baths. The guitars, plugged into amps lining the gallery walls, emit grumbling, raw distorted notes with each peck. But these seemingly random growls accompany a perpetual twitter. The birds, quite simply, never shut up. One perches less than a forearm’s length from me, chattering away, obliviously pruning itself; another lands on a woman’s shoe and tugs at her wormy lace. She’s delighted.
High on the walls are tiny nesting boxes in which, I’ve read, more than 40 eggs have been laid during the preceding eight weeks. I’m no ornithologist but it’s evident that these birds are happy enough. They have space, food, water, company and plenty of expensive things to shit on.
Like Ciara, I don’t feel the need to care too much about what it all means. They say that if you leave a monkey alone with a typewriter for long enough it’ll come up with the entire works of Shakespeare. Likewise, 30 zebra finches in a room with a bunch of untuned Gibson SGs should, eventually, do a passable Daydream Nation.
“I’ve heard worse bands”, I tell the woman standing next to me. “I wonder if there’s an album?” she giggles, and although we’re joking, I have heard worse bands and I do wonder if there’s an album.
Bunny Munro, beauty products door-to-door salesman, has a problem or two. The most obvious one seems to be his near-constant sexual urge. Then there is the wife, who is depressed, and a nine-year-old son, Bunny Jr., who presents a problem by just being there. Bunny’s father, who is also called Bunny, is dying of cancer and shares his son’s obsession with sex. To top off the dreary scenario, Bunny also likes his drink far too much.
The story starts with Mrs Munro’s suicide — something that, given the personality of the protagonist, shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. And Bunny is left to take care of Bunny Jr. Having been understandably freaked out by the sight of his dead wife in the flat, Bunny takes to the road with his son. A three-day mini adventure ensues in which the salesman mostly indulges in sex, sex , sex… and if a misogynist man’s depressingly ugly, sleazy, trash porn is your thing, the first 200 pages here are a goldmine. Part 3 of the story is, however, a different book altogether, one in which Bunny’s mental health starts to unravel at high speed. The writing in this latter part is beautifully descriptive, particularly of the father-son relationship. At one point, the two visit grandfather Bunny, who is an ugly piece of work (which goes some way towards explaining the younger Bunny Munro’s character). The climactic denouement has an almost filmic quality; it’s dramatic, described in a highly visual, super-atmospheric manner.I rate Nick Cave as a musician, someone whose music touches me and has done so since my late teens. And here’s the stumbling block. The fact, that he is an excellent, iconic, songwriter doesn’t automatically make him a great novelist (as critics of his literary debut, 1989’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, have previously observed) and I am baffled by the INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER headline emblazoned on the cover. Had I missed something? I started to read it again to see if I had judged too quickly, but I gave up on page 52. I really wanted to like this book, but now, just the thought of it makes me itch. It tries hard to be trashy and sleazy but is sprinkled with eloquent phrases; is this Cave’s way of justifying its meagre existence? It’s a wanky read for a grubby man. My copy’s going spare if anyone wants it.
Part Three of Jamie Holman’s diary on starting a record label; he’s signed the bands , they’re all ready to go but he’s run out of cash. What happens now, he wonders?
The ONE thing no one ever tells you about running a record label (a work in progress, in no particular order): Anyone in music who uses the word “industry” is a twat.
I am out of the promotions game. James keeps going under the moniker Playhappy and I decide to take a step back and regroup. I am starting to think that I can’t do this on my own. I’m struggling; the initial rush of euphoria and planning has passed and the first victories have become old news. Winterbird is stagnating. I’ve run out of money. Suddenly, running the label feels like swimming against the tide; everything takes ages and everyone’s a critic. I’m sick to the back teeth of the hype machine that permeates every aspect of what we laughingly call indie in this country. I am sickened at the thought of Winterbird getting lumped in with whatever new thing is out, but equally sickened when we are ignored by the tastemakers who could get us heard. None of these groups/movements/aesthetics reflect where or who we are. I feel that I am on the outside looking in, punch drunk from rejections or plain old indifference.
I suppose that this meltdown is a mix of naivety and blind stupidity on my part. The drip-drip-drip of money that it takes to run the label can be crippling when balanced with the winter gas bill or just generally being skint. Promos, badges, postage, press and radio support all cost much more than I thought they would (there’s the stupidity part) and without a healthy chequebook, I am struggling to get other agencies on board. Money is always discussed before music; I have to constantly offer a comparison with this week’s big thing, to people who don’t know their arts from their Elbow (there’s the naivety part).
I am knackered and pissed off with the whole thing, and on top of this I’m moving house. This is part of the plan, believe it or not. I’ve found a house for my family in which I can also build a studio and have a rehearsal space, but this is eating up any available money. And although it seems extreme, it’s actually tied to a long-term vision of sustainability — a bit like The Good Life but with Gibson guitars instead of nettle soup and me as Richard Briers.
Midway through the stress of mortgage applications, David Boon requests another grand or so to finish his record… in London… mastering at Abbey Road. I know I don’t have the money and I worry that I’ll lose him. Then, he agrees to match what we have already put in and disappears to London for ten days on his own cash. This causes me sleepless nights; I know that he has a fantastic record in him, but I am concerned that thousands are being spent without anything to show for it. Two weeks later, Boon plays us his completed record. He stands in my living room miming along and dancing with joy. It’s a wonderful thing to see. The record is fantastic; it’s huge, great drums, the vocals are stunning and it reminds me of every record I’ve ever loved. Not much remains from the Blackburn sessions, a lot of the recordings that Winterbird originally paid for have been scrapped — but he has worked around the clock, begging, borrowing and somehow coaxing members of The Duke Spirit and assorted London scenesters to play, while living on Pot Noodles, to pull it off. We play it again and again and for a moment things seem a lot brighter.
Then David asks us to sit on the record while he goes on holiday — for six months.
The last I heard of him he was in Shanghai. This is both sweet and sour (see what I did there?); I want to get his record out but can’t even afford to press it. Six months buys us all a little time at least. David goes off to find himself and I try to find some money.
Fifth House, meanwhile, are growing in confidence and in members. We meet in a pub and talk about the way forward. Despite everything they tell me, new recruits, new records, new ideas, I feel constantly exhausted. I’m trying to run Winterbird in my nonexistent spare time and after this meeting I realize that I’m growing uncomfortable with the boss role. I still have the drive and vision (I tell myself) but I don’t believe that the pyramid method of working, with me on top and the bands beneath, can work. It creates distance when we need close relationships and I need feedback on what I’m doing as much as they do.
I’m struggling with everyone looking to me for decisions and cash. We have a bottleneck forming; I will have great records from three artists completed, but no money to press them, no one to promote them and ultimately no one to buy them, because even if I do press them nobody will ever know unless I spend more money on a press agent than I did on the recording (while knowing full well that these fuckers won’t actually work with me unless I use words like “buzz” and tell them that someone at NME or Uncut is championing the band, while I write the cheque and hand over my precious stock — at which point I have to think if that were true, I wouldn’t need a fucking press agent).
Being in this situation is nothing like being in a band, and I start thinking that I need to apply that dynamic to the label: Us against them — working to your strengths — the gang ethic.I decide to put a team together. As it stands, the Winterbird ‘team’ is made up of people I know and trust but now I need to make it official. The Fence Collective is an inspiration for what I want to try and do. They sell their own stock directly to the fans, as well as through hand picked record shops, and support each other on tour, run their own Homegame festival in Fife and generally exist on their own terms. Somehow, they still look like they enjoy it. The bastards.
I contact everyone involved with Winterbird and get them to the pub armed with 300 CDs and a notebook. I stand, back to the wall, trying to lift everyone and install some passion. I realize very quickly that it is not them that need it, it’s me. I am knackered, jaded and out of steam. But as I speak, I find myself pacing like a boxer, re-believing my own spin and brimstone. It is part therapy, part confessional. I swig lager while spouting on about how no fucker will help us, so we’ll just help ourselves, etc. The mist clears and Fifth House and Stacey agree to take responsibility for selling our releases and spreading the word. Even Chris the designer takes a box of CDs to sell. Playhappy continue to throw shows our way and we all agree that James is better than any agents we have dealt with. I start to feel the financial pressure lifting because money will trickle in from sales and show fees, and the profile of the label should slowly rise.
We still haven’t left Blackburn, of course, but despite the split Playhappy continue an allegiance with Winterbird and get us support slots with King Creosote, The Phantom Band, Django Django, The Shivers… This is great news for the label, as getting shows seems to be the most difficult thing. I am still adamant that we need a good reputation by association as well as by what we produce. These supports are worth ten shows in an empty London boozer. Nevertheless, I worry about money all the time. I just want people to hear what we are doing without having to lower myself to the cock-sucking roulette of PR and hype. Now, Winterbird is officially a Collective, a band, a group, and for a moment I don’t feel like the weight is just on my shoulders.
In the midst of all the chaos, frustration, tears and confusion; there are moments of joy; listening to everyone’s new songs, having a beer or a manic phone conversation with any of the musicians and planning to take on the world, James calling with another support slot, my daughter asking for Stanzas For Sail to be played in the car, a stranger walking up to you after a show and saying it was good. These things matter.
We will take them all on, on our own. Nick Drake with knuckledusters; Dexys on erm, dexies. You get the picture.
And so, caught up in the renewed waves of excitement and activity, I abandon all my best instincts I do what I said I never would. I immediately sign myself to the label.
If only I could afford to record me.