Monday, 2 May 2016

Nearly a year later...

So a lot has happened since my last post in work and life, as you would expect after several I'm going to update you on all of it.

First off I want to talk about Karine Polwart, who I mentioned briefly at the start of the last post. If you haven't checked out her music yet, please do. She is an exceptionally talented and inspiring woman.

The reason I want to talk about her is because I have just been on a songwriting retreat/course up in the fantastic creative writing centre, Moniack Mhor. It was run by three singer/songwriters - Findlay Napier, Mike Vass and Karine Polwart who spent a week teaching me and thirteen other lovely people as much about songwriting (and everything else it entails) as they could fit into each day. By the end of the week every one of us had the chance to record a song we finished with the help of the amazing Ben Seal and his pop-up recording studio.

I booked this course a few months ago and I was thinking about dropping out quite a few times because I was sure I would be out of my depth. I even had to email the course manager just to make sure that it wasn't just for professional musicians because I've never done any big performances, just music nights and small gigs for friends.

Then in February my granny died. She suffered for a long time with Parkinson's disease and the end stages are heartbreaking. I knew it was happening and had been dealing with the prospect of losing her and how it was going to happen but there's always a little naive part of you that thinks some kind of miracle will happen and suddenly everything will be okay. Obviously that didn't happen and when she died it felt like a part of me died as well.
I couldn't listen to music at all, I couldn't pick up my guitar without crying and I didn't talk to anyone for a while. Work kept me busy, but grief really does wash over you like a storm. It comes in waves of emotion which overwhelm you at times when you really should be concentrating - like working the power hammer for example, or the middle of the night when you know you have a long day of work ahead of you, or when you're walking through town and you think you see the person you know you've just lost.
I think the worst thing for me was that the day before she died I received the final mix of a song I had written and recorded with the help of some musicians who were writing an EP. I had planned to put it onto a disc and play it for my granny but the next day it was too late and I can't ever fix that. My own song haunts me.

So you can imagine that going on a songwriting course was the last thing on my mind.

Thanks to a few words of wisdom and encouragement from my boss and my friends I decided not to drop out of the course and I can honestly say it was the best decision I've made in a long time. I had the chance to travel somewhere I'd never been before and spend a week with people I didn't know and my only goal was to get through one song without crying. I think I achieved that on the first night when we had to perform a cover of a song that we liked so from that moment I felt I'd accomplished something. (I performed a slightly altered version of 'A Place Called Home' by Kim Richey - another amazing and inspiring singer/songwriter who has some excellent musical and lyrical skills. She has an absolutely beautiful voice so I hope I did her song justice!)

Here's where I want to move onto more positive things and tell you about my week away so I'll start back at the beginning ...

I set off with far too much packed into my car with a worry that I wouldn't be able to fit anything else in let alone another person - a stranger no less - who was going on the course and I had offered to pick up in Inverness en route to Moniack. (I had my bike, climbing, hiking, formal and informal gear, two guitars, note books, sketch books and a lot of blankets...)
I had a couple of appointments in the early morning and then made good time up the road (even after falling into the A9 roadworks trap that I should know to avoid by now) and arrived in Inverness an hour earlier than I thought. I went and found Simon who had flown up from London that morning. We set off and got to know each other a bit along the way and it was nice having some company in the car!
We arrived a few hours early at Moniack Mhor (after Simon kindly asked for directions from a passing farmer) and were greeted most graciously by the staff at Moniack.

Moniack Mhor
 Simon got shown to his room and I was informed that I was staying in the cottage at the bottom of the garden...alarm bells immediately started going off because I'd only been there five minutes and couldn't possibly have done anything to warrant being put out in a separate building...then I was informed that was where the poetry library was so I was instantly filled with so much joy I can't even put it into words. To put it simply, I love reading.

Livingroom/Library/Kitchen/what my future house will look like...

Then I was informed that the tutors would be sharing the cottage in the rooms upstairs and under no circumstances was I to bother them.
 My joy instantly turned to a horrible mixture of excitement, awe and outright fear.
Don't misunderstand me. The thought of being that close to so much talent was great for a moment until I realised that I was really nervous about meeting them. I had promised myself to be totally cool and calm because every other time I've had the chance to talk to Findlay and Karine at gigs I end up being far too excited and can't string a sentence together...not exactly the look I wanted to go for if I was spending a week in their presence.
At this point I also remembered the last time I saw both of them together was just after I had been on a short, morning songwriting course with Karine in Inverness last year. I was being far too excited at having just spoken to her and I was driving out of the car park when at that moment Karine and Findlay walked out to cross the exit of the car park in front of the car and I had to stop quite quickly (I wasn't very near them...I am a very observant and safe driver). They saw the car stop and both looked up and I ended up grinning and waving far too enthusiastically and then when they moved off I nearly stalled the car because I was busy being in awe and slightly shocked that I could have potentially run over two of Scotland's finest singer/songwriters of my time...

So anyway, I'm sure you can understand what it feels like to have the chance of a lifetime - meeting someone you look up to and admire - and then realise that you wish you were just a bit more cool and hadn't nearly run them over the previous year.

I unpacked (thankfully there was no one around to see how much I had brought. My roomate for the week - Malina - hadn't arrived so I managed to stuff a lot of things under my bed) perused the library/living room and then went back up to the main building for a cup of tea. Just after making said cup of tea, Findlay, Karine and Mike arrived and I got to meet them before anyone else which I'm quite happy about. Karine actually asked if we'd met before and I did a sort of long held 'Ehhhhhhh...' hoping she didn't recognise me as the crazy girl in the silver freelander that nearly ran her over...and then said I'd been to the short course in Inverness last year and left it at that. Thankfully there was no mention of my driving or manic waving.

More people arrived and I introduced myself and was grateful yet again at how good a conversation starter my job title is. Artist Blacksmith. It always helps to have something to start talking about and I love talking about my job!
I met my roomate, who turned out to be an absolutely lovely woman called Malina who lives quite near Moniack.
After everyone arrived we got a quick intro from the staff at Moniack and then had to go to what is known as the 'Hobbit House' to play a cover of a song that we were supposed to have prepared.

The 'Hobbit House'
 I have had my guitar tuned to DADGAD for a long time now so I was a bit worried the song I picked would sound a bit strange or I'd forget the chords. I ended up playing last because I kept chickening out of going next - and I was shaking from cold and a bit of nerves - nightmare! However, after listening to the group (and can I say now that they are a very talented group of musicians) I thought that as long as my voice didn't shake too much I'd be okay because they were all lovely and had positive things to say after each performance.
As I said earlier, I managed to play and sing without crying or with any major faults that I could hear and to be honest I liked the challenge of playing a song I know very well in an open tuning. It was really fun and although I think I sang very quietly I think everyone enjoyed it. I may record my version and let you hear it at some point...
With that out of the way I did begin to relax a bit and headed off to the cottage to read and try and get some sleep for the next day.

The path heading down to the cottage

Each morning started out the same for me.
I think that every morning I got up slightly earlier than the previous morning which was good in a way because it meant I fitted more into the day, but it also meant I was pretty tired in the evenings.
I'd creep out my room, try not to wake Malina, go up to the main building and have first breakfast, go back to the cottage with some fruit, read a few books, go out a cycle or a run and then have second or third breakfast depending on how hungry I was. I was pretty much hungry the whole week. I'm sure it was because my brain was working so hard to think of lyrics and to try and get songs written and remember everyones name and to be calm and collected and not too obviously in awe...
Actually I want to say that I checked something pretty amazing off my bucket list. So on the first morning, I saw Findlay go out for a run and I thought to myself...I could not bother him, or I could just ask him if he'd mind the company...needless to say I asked him and the next morning I went on my first outdoor run (after breaking my ankle last year) with FINDLAY NAPIER!!! (After having breakfast with Karine Polwart...So really two things checked off the bucket list that day!!!)

The days were packed full of writing tasks, group and singular activities. The group activities were great but it's a bit intimidating when asked to read out something you've been given five minutes to write in front of a group of people you've just met...and I'm going to honest, I did not complete a couple of the tasks! Luckily when I was working with Malina, she felt the same way. I'm not great at working under pressure so the time constraint was really challenging.
In a good way.
I felt bad at the time because for a few of the tasks I had incomplete songs/ideas but now I look back and think it was a good challenge and maybe I just need to push myself a bit more. I think my problem is that I'll come up with a line I like the sound of and then a minute later have another line in my head that has nothing to do with the first line and so I have lots of little ideas but none of them are finished. For example, I had an idea for a song after looking at one of the photographs from an idea generating task, although when I say idea I really mean a line:
'Searching for a stony silence' 

Which came about after looking at an image of a woman sitting on a washed up tree trunk on a stony beach, looking out to sea. I liked the idea of the story of why the woman was there and then the way that the beach wouldn't be quiet and peaceful because of the noise of the waves hitting the pebbles. Then there's the added twist that a 'stony silence' is describing the kind of silence that you create. So by using the word 'stony' for the pebble beach it also describes the type of silence, adding something to the story. You want someone else to feel awkward so you make it like an awkward silence but with more force. (I know a lot of different silences...)
So this kind of task really gets me thinking and in case you can't tell I love words and how you can change them around to create different images and play about with the implied and literal meaning of the word. Words fascinate me. And I had read a lot of poetry the night before so I was feeling particularly inspired.
Anyway, my point is that after writing the initial first line I had another idea:

'There's a silence here and it feels wrong'

It was something I had been thinking about when everyone was quietly scribbling away. There are a lot of silences...some good and some bad. I was thinking of the silence in my granny's house at that point and how it's a different kind of silence when you know it's never going to be filled in the same way because the person is gone.

Then I had another idea because one of the other photographs on the table caught my eye and so on and so forth...needless to say, my problem isn't that I don't have any ideas, it's that I have too many which are small and get cast aside in the wake of the next idea hence why I hardly ever finish a song unless I have a year or two to work on it...


Day 3 was a bit better and I had a lot more fun with the tasks and it was less scary when I had to read out my ideas. I even managed to write about a horseshoe...and actually several people later remarked that they wouldn't look at a horseshoe (or any other metal object) in the same way. I'm quite proud of that. I like saying something that makes people think about seemingly everyday objects in a different way.

I had my one-to-one tutorial with Findlay later in the day and I found it surprisingly easy to talk to him. He's a really nice guy and had a lot of constructive comments and ideas to help me progress with my song idea. I was struggling a bit at this point because my ideas were all over the place and it was good to have someone tell me to concentrate on one idea and work through a proper structure. Like forging a scroll. You have to start at the end and get it right, then move on to the next section.

So after that I started to knuckle down and freak out that I was going to be the only one not to finish and record a song by the end of the week...
I was going to lie and say I just got on with it, but I hit a block that day and was pretty close to driving off somewhere to cry...however I did not.
I had my keys and my notebook in hand and then I saw Emma sitting on a picnic bench outside and decided to not go off in a mood and go and talk to someone instead.
It was really good to bounce some ideas around and she ended up making me feel a lot more calm and ready to face the challenge of finishing a song or at least getting as close to a finished song as possible. At this point I was hoping inspiration would strike like lightning before my tutorial with Karine the next day so that I could show her something worth looking at...
I did not get struck.
I did make a bit of progress which was good but I felt like I was letting myself and the tutors down and I know it showed. 
My physio used to joke that the reason she thought my shoulders were so strong is because I hunch them whenever I'm nervous...I'm beginning to think she was right.

That evening we all set off to Findlay and Karine's gig in Abriachan and it was a really enjoyable event. Findlay has a great sense of humour and fantastic stage presence, as does Karine so it was nice to hear a mix of their songs in such a lovely venue.
The Moon looked incredible that night but unfortunately I did not have a fancy camera to take a photograph so you'll just have to take my word for it. I spent a little time in the library trying to become inspired to finish another verse of my song, but decided it would be better to get some sleep.
I fell asleep to the sound of Findlay, Karine and Mike chatting and singing in the Library.

I woke to the sound of my own panic-stricken heart...
Anyway, with much trepidation the next day I went to my tutorial with Karine. I think it went a lot better than I was expecting. She had a lot of advice and was very helpful, she even made me a worksheet...I'm not kidding. It felt like I was in primary school again. In a good way. Although if I'd done a bit more work I feel I wouldn't have needed such a big worksheet. I had to fold it several times to carry around.

I set off to find a quiet place to work before meeting up with her later to show her my progress and found that in such a secluded place there are surprisingly few places to find a spot to muck about with chords and lyrics. Thirteen other people had the same idea, so there were musicians everywhere!!!
I ended up working in the boot of my car, which sounds silly, but it is very comfy. I've slept in the back quite a few times when I've been on solo hikes and adventures and it was perfect because no one knew I was there and therefore I effectively disappeared for about an hour and a half and managed to get some work done.
Eventually I emerged from the boot of the car and went to find Karine. She ended up sitting on the floor of my room (I did offer her a chair obviously but she didn't want it) and we had a brainstorm for a long time with me constantly remembering what the woman had said when I arrived at Moniack - 'Under no circumstances was I to bother the tutors especially after classes finished ' I kept reminding her that she was free to go off and explore or chat to other people. Looking back I realise that was probably quite rude of me and probably quite annoying. I did apologise later.
So we worked a bit more, then went to the main building for dinner.

I had a bit of an embarrassing moment when I thought I inhaled a bit of rice and kept coughing and then a couple of minutes later got the fish bone out from where it had lodged in my throat...not pleasant for the folk sitting close embarrassing, but now I can tell you about it and laugh. It could have been a lot worse.

After dinner it was back to working on the song and this is the part I'm kind of proud of...
I had written a lot of small ideas the days before, but one of the ideas really inspired me. I wanted to work on it at a later date, but I wanted to see what Karine thought about it.
I read out the couple of lines I had written and the first thing she said was 'Oh no' which felt a bit like being punched in the gut...however she quickly followed with something along the lines of we should work on that song. I can't remember exactly what she said because I was recovering from shock. I can take creative criticism but when someone outright says 'no' it knocks my confidence.

So we switched to working on that song which was a lot more personal and I felt I needed to get it out of my system. I wanted to write something for my granny or rather about what I was feeling. I've not been able to talk about her much with anyone but it was good to talk to Karine. It was the first time I could talk about the things I remember about my granny in a happy way. I feel it was good for my soul. And also that was another thing checked off the bucket list - writing a song with the help of Karine Polwart!

The creative process...

After hours of work we finished the song and then she got me to play it in front of Findlay and Mike!! I am not going to lie, I was very nervous. Seeing them all together was a bit intimidating and I was very aware that my guitar was out of tune and that one of my nails had snapped and wasn't plucking the string very nicely...however I made it through and they were all pretty positive. I felt bad having changed my focus after Findlay helped me to work on the other song idea but as I said I think writing this song was good for me.

I slept a bit better that night although in the morning I woke at 4.08am. I remembered I was recording at 10am that day, so did not get back to sleep. I went out to find a frost covered, beautifully peaceful sunrise filtering through the pines. I read a couple of books, waited to see if Findlay was going a run (he wasn't) then went off mountain biking and worked myself into a worry about my song all over again. I climbed a few trees, nearly fell out of one and then headed back to Moniack after patting Hamish for a while (Hamish being one of the Highland cows in the field just next to the writing centre). Unfortunately I timed my arrival pretty badly and met Karine at the top of the hill. I say badly because after cycling up the hill I probably looked and smelled a bit worse for wear...mud-streaked, scratched and gasping for breath with a slightly panicked look in my eyes...not exactly how you want to greet someone you look up to. Nevertheless she offered to go through my song before I had to record so I was very grateful for that. I only played through it a few times the day before so I was a bit worried about how the whole song flowed and if my guitar part was strong enough to stand on it's own without the help of Mike.

After she returned from her walk I played through the song a few times and we sorted out the guitar part. Then I went off to my doom...
Well, not really. Ben Seal is probably the friendliest person in the World and instantly made me feel at ease. When someone greets you with, 'How are you doing pickle?' it's hard not to smile and feel relaxed!
The recording session went very well. I thought about playing guitar and singing seperately but I quite like a more natural recording so did everything in one take and then played through twice more to make sure it was good enough. Then all I added were some harmonics I started playing when Ben was playing back what he'd recorded and that was that.
We had a cup of tea and I went back to the main building to find out what everyone else was up to.

At 4pm I headed to the kitchen to cook dinner with Heather and Richard and had a lovely time. It reminded me so much of working at Loch Croistean Cafe and it was good talking a bit more to Richard whom I hadn't said much to during the week and I had a good laugh with Heather.

After dinner (which was presented with a bagpiper and all!) we gathered in the Hobbit hut to listen through all of the tracks that had been recorded. I don't like listening to my recordings with other people there. If I've recorded it myself it's fine, because I'll have made sure everything's in tune and the right volume but when I haven't heard the finished piece it's horrible. I knew it couldn't be that bad, but it felt like everyone else had put so much more work into their songs.
When my track came on I couldn't look at anyone and I clenched my stress bracelet so hard I ended up with scrolls imprinted on the palm of my hand. (I made a mild steel bracelet for myself - the first thing I forged for myself actually - and I hardened the material so that no matter how hard I try I can't break it...yet...I might still get stronger...but it's a good way to take my mind of whatever is making me feel nervous. It's a good thing to hold.)
After everyone's tracks had played through I felt a bit better and it was good to hear other people were as nervous as me about hearing their song for the first time. It turned into a good night after I remembered that not only did I have a brand new external hard drive to copy the songs from Karine's laptop, I also had a box of cds I was going to use to make driving cds for the way back down to Kirkhouse.
After finding everything I needed I basically spent the whole evening burning cds for everyone. I felt very useful and talked to a lot of people and had a lot of fun right up until the point where Simon informed me he didn't need a lift back to Inverness because he and Richard had booked a taxi for early the next morning!
I'm not exactly sure why I was so sad, but I felt like maybe I hadn't made it clear I was happy to give him a lift. I also did not like the prospect of driving alone. After such a fantastic week I knew I would be sad and was looking forwards to the company for part of the journey.

So the next morning I woke up early again and went to make breakfast with Simon. We had a very good chat and he ended up making me feel so much better about myself and my work and my music.
I really can't thank you enough Simon. It was the perfect way to end the week. I would have loved to repay the favour and given you a lift to the airport, but that will need to wait for the next songwriting retreat!

So after Richard and Simon got their taxi I went back and quietly replaced all of the books I had taken out and read over the week and packed the car. Then went back to the kitchen for second breakfast...
It was good to chat to folk in the morning and I felt so much more positive I wish everyone had seen that side of me for the whole week instead of just at the end!
I need to mention Emma here and say a special thank you to you because you saw how nervous I was at the start of the week and made the effort to talk to me and seek me out whenever I felt like disappearing. And also for bringing me snacks...I don't know how everyone else managed not to be hungry in the middle of the group tasks but I couldn't not have survived without your help! Even just talking through some of my ideas really helped, so thank you again for that and for the final gift of biscuits just before I set off!

Everything you need for the long drive home...

So after saying goodbye to everyone I could find (I couldn't find you Malina, so you didn't get a farewell blacksmith hug...but don't worry, I can save that for when I see you next) I headed off down the road following Emma and listening to the cd of everyone's songs. By the time we passed through Inverness I started to feel incredibly sad. No one else needed a lift down the road so it was sad not having any company in the car just like I knew it would be.
About two miles from the turn off for Carrbridge I was crying so much I could hardly see, so I made a hasty decision and decided to drop in to see my friend Amylou. Luckily she was in because if not I would have ended up feeling even worse.
My sad departure day ended up turning into my super creative and inspiring day with a lovely Spring walk, a long talk and a chance to have a go at raku firing and more writing. It was a much better way to end my weekend than travelling back alone to Kirkhouse and feeling sorry for myself, so thank you very much Amylou. I hope I brightened your day as much as you brightened mine.

That was my very long, very detailed account of the best week of my life so far. I feel I've made some new friends, met some truly inspiring people and had the privilage to learn from people I admire. I already feel my confidence growing!

And now onto an update on all the blacksmithing work I've not told you about over the past year...or maybe I'll take a break here...
I think that's a good idea.
Although first, just one last bit about music.

Here is the link to the song I wrote and recorded at Moniack Mhor with the combined help of all the other students, tutors and staff there. Thank you for making this possible and for all your support.

Take care and I'll update you soon with some blacksmithing news!

1 comment:

  1. It was lovely to meet you and I thought your music was terrific. "Crook without a master" is very meaningful and very polished too. Really hope you can build on this and do more gigs. Do get in touch if you are ever down this way.