So a busy, and in many ways, tough year. Let’s see what 2017 has to offer.
It’s almost over. The turkey’s been stuffed, and stuffed again. The three wise men are still treadmilling their way across the mantlepiece, in the hopes of reaching the Advent Candle by New Year’s Eve. In short, it’s really time I’d done one of these end of year round up posts already and bunged it up online. You know how it gets. The presents. The relatives. The discovery of new species of hybrid plastic animals in your crackers. So here’s the summary of a year that’s been deceptively busy under it all.
This year was quiet in terms of new stories. Just the one, in fact – ‘Good Boy’, which appeared in the January issue of Far Horizons magazine. This was my first foray into horror, of sorts, and I’m actually pretty proud of the way it turned If you’d like to read it, click here to do that for free
That’s not all that’s happened. In 2015, I’ve also been able to indulge what’s becoming one of my favourite things about writing fiction – doing public readings. I read at Eastercon, and Fantasycon, and the Speculative Bookshop‘s July event. Here’s hoping here’s more on the way. On a writing-related note, music has taken a back seat since the mighty Thrash Hits decided to go out on their own terms, although I wrote a piece for The Independent on the sad passing of Lemmy from Motörhead (here). And though it’s not writing-related at all, really, I ran a half-marathon (the Great Scottish Run) and raised over £700 for Macmillan Cancer Support, in memory of my friend Carol, who passed away last year (if you’d like to make a donation, here’s my Just-Giving page).
Of course, I can’t talk about 2015 without mentioning the BSFA awards. I mean, you smarten yourself up a bit and prepare a bunch of words, because it’s only sensible, right? But winning the award for Best Short Fiction wasn’t something I’d actually expected to happen. I doubt I’ve even realised it has yet – every so often I’ll remember it, and then I have to get it down and poke it a bit, so I can reassure myself it’s real. And then point it at Millie-cat and mke pew-pew noises, much to her utter disgust. Once again, thank so, so much to all the lovely folks who nominated and voted for ‘The Honey Trap’ in the BSFAs. It made my lifetime.
A lot of what’s happened this year went on under the surface. Writing fiction has been difficult this year, and it’s led me in directions I wouldn’t normally have gone in. Interesting ones, I hope, and ones likewise I hope you’ll see in print at some point. Tricky as it’s been, I’m hoping it’s all part of the process of becoming a better writer.
Talking of becoming a better writer, being invited to join the Glasgow SF Writers Circle was one of the highlights of 2015 for me. Come the new year, there’ll be 30 years of critique workshops behind the group (Amal El-Mohtar, Gary Gibson, Hal Duncan, Michael Cobley and Neil Williamson rank amongst its alumni), and I’m honoured to be part of it. Talking of which, there’ll be an anthology coming out in late 2016 to celebrate. Stay tuned to the website for more information.
2016, by contrast, is shaping up to be quite noisy. By my reckoning, there’s maybe half a dozen things in the pipeline due at some point next year. Of the ones I can talk about now, NewCon Press will be releasing a new ebook Best of called Digital Dreams, as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations – you’ll find a reprint of ‘The Honey Trap’ in that (click here to pre-order). And I’ll finally be able to call myself a published poet too. Both Winter Tales (Fox Spirit Books) and The Speculative Book (Speculative Bookshop) will be include a pair of my poems between them – my first to appear in print. Exciting stuff!
In the meantime, I’d better get back to it. 2015 was a year of the unexpected, and often giddying highs. 2016? Well… Let’s see what you’ve got, eh?
If you’ve been following my photography posts (search “photo” in the box at the top), you’ll know I’ve been a fairly industrious sort of a bee in 2015. I’ve shot a number of bands for Drowned In Sound‘s In Photos section, as well as for ma ainsel. With the year rushing to a close, here’s a recap of some of the shows I’ve shot this year with a slideshow of highlights.
Below you’ll find some of my favourite shots of *deep breath*… Maximo Park, Mark Lanegan, Twilight Sad, Richard Dawson, Sean & Zander, Polyphonic Spree, Nadine Shah, The Lake Poets, Kingsley Chapman and the Murder, By Toutatis, Brilliant Mind, Glass Caves, Samantha Durnan and Kylver.
While tidying up my desktop before New Year, I found some notes from a little experiment I did over the Summer. Over a week, I tried a bunch of records I hadn’t got round to yet, for one reason or another — from artists as diverse as Björk, Nadine Shah, Jenny Hval — as well as Shilpa Ray’s latest album. The choice of artists was deliberate — I’ll admit I don’t own as many records by women as men, and it’s led me to wonder whether this has affected my perception of music, and art in general, in insidious ways, especially coming from a rock-oriented scene. Maybe it stretches as far as my own creative work. Regardless, I think it’s worth doing these experiments every so often, just to nudge you out of old habits and maybe allow you to re-examine them from another perspective.
I’ve tidied up my thoughts a little. So, here’s what I made of albums by four of 2015’s most forward-thinking artists, and what I picked up from listening to them. If you’ve got a few quid burning in your pocket after the holiday break, you could do worse than give these a go.
Bjork – ‘Biophilia’ (One Little Indian)
First up was Björk‘s 2011 release Biophilia, her last-but-one album. I’d actually been avoiding this — clips I’d heard from TV hadn’t quite excited me as much as I’d hoped. Having listened to the album a fair few times now, I’m honestly not sure why. Biophilia is Bjork’s concept album about the Earth and Near-Earth ecosystem — and she takes that theme and runs with it. Viruses, Earth movements, Geodes, the Sun-Moon cycle, all covered with a mix of more organic and electronic sound. There is something wonderful about the sense that a musician is genuinely having fun with what they’re working on — it suffuses every moment of a record, as much as a relished performance can be felt from the work of the actor onstage. Biophilia is an utter joy to listen to.
‘Mutual Core’ is my jam.
Jenny Hval – ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ (Sacred Bones)
Jenny Hval‘s new album, Apocalypse, Girl, just came out this week [These notes were orignally written back in June – REJB]. Hval is a new artist to me, albeit one that a friend of mine raves about. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to listen to this as much as I’d like. It’s not really one for working to — this isn’t the backing track to your day-to-day. Hval is a wayforger. Her music requires attention, lest you stray from the path and get clipped by a sharp swoop of sound you never know was coming. To clarify, Apocalypse, Girl not one for the easy ride, or lulling you into unearned comfort. It’s not tricksy, as such. Hval is playful with her art, but there is an intensity to her music, that of muscles stretching needfully. This album does not insist or make demands, it simply is.
‘That Battle is Over’ is an easy entry to this. But you should listen to this album in order.
Shilpa Ray – ‘Last Year’s Savage’ (Northern Spy Records)
Leapfrogging a day, Shilpa Ray‘s Last Year’s Savage was kind of a cheat, as I’d had it on rotation since its strangely quiet release in January. This album’s in no hurry, it has no need to be. Instead, it starts with a spell — ‘Burning Bride’, the mogadon dream of Nancy Sinatra spinning endlessly in a burning music box — and lets things take their innevitable course. Ray’s calling card is *that voice*, a rough diamond scraped to sharp facets, refracting society into a technicolour spectrum. Last Year’s Savage shows Ray satirist and storyteller (take ‘Moksha’, for example), and versatile genre tripper (‘Oh My Northern Soul’ and ‘Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp’ are exactly as they sound), and utterly By-Herself — she’s a one-off. There really is noone like Shilpa Ray on this whole goddamn planet, for which we should be thankful. Last Year’s Savage is the sound of a 60 ft woman toothpicking her teeth clean and opening wide, in anticipation of swallowing a city whole.
Try ‘Burning Bride’ on for size – you’ll hear few album openers chosen so well in 2015.
Nadine Shah – ‘Fast Food’ (Apollo)
Finally, Nadine Shah‘s Fast Food, a record I’ve been looking forward to the most out of any this year (see my photo set from earlier in the year). And God, I wish it hadn’t been third, because it left little room for anything else this week. I could pick any song out of the air here: ‘Fool’, with its discordant guitar, and Shah’s bone-dry delivery of unrecoverable put-downs; ‘Washed Up’, with its tension-laiden warning for those who never surrender to love; and ‘Living’, to those who surrendered too much. ‘Nothing Else To Do’ is Delibes’ Flower Duet reborn in a dusty, half-lit, smoke-filled room on a Summer day. I’m by no means done with this album yet, but think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s heard this who won’t agree Shah is one of the best songwriters the North-East has ever produced.
I imagine that words like smouldering, sultry, other sexually-charged words have been thrown around about Shah’s voice, but I’d prefer we drop the lazy pretence that all artists are the cliche of the eternally sex-starved teenager — writing songs purely to get a shag. Yes, there are songs about love in here. But Shah’s bow-string vowels are not purely an expression of aching loins. This is the artful use of one’s range and vocal texture, in combination with an instinctual feel for word shape and tone, to create a powerful avatar of self: an expression that ultimately comes from something within one’s core, something far deeper than projected lust. My favourite vocalists have always been ones who’ve known their voices inside and out – Bjork, Mike Patton, Nat King Cole. Artists who chose songs or words not just for their meaning, but for their shape, their nuance; the way they roll around in the mouth and the ear, how their texture affects the shape of a sentence, and in turn the emotion we feel. Shah is most definitely in this school – one only needs to listen to the way she shapes the title word in ‘Divided’ to know this.
In other words, this is a masterful album by an incredible artist in the fields both songwriting and musicianship. ‘Fast Food’ is magnificent. I wish I could post the entire album here, but that wouldn’t be fair, and you should really find it for yourself. Instead, here’s ‘Stealing Cars’ to be getting on with.
When I originally made notes on these four records, it was with another purpose in mind. As I said at the beginning, the choice of artists was deliberate. Nevertheless, though I wasn’t looking for inspiration, four things struck me about those records that I’d never really taken the time to properly digest before.
1) Each artist had their own voice — and by that, I don’t just mean vocals. We hear about this idea of voice a lot, of finding our own voice, but when it comes to how you actually fnd that voice, there always seems to be a lot of handwaving, culminating in “just sit down and do it.” Which may be essentially what it is, but when you put it like that, sounds pretty unhelpful.
On each of these four records, whether consciously or unconsciously, it was as if each artist knew where they were coming from — not just geographically, but what their influences were, what their influences weren’t (what were simply things they like or disliked), what went into who they were, what made them themselves — let that sit and stew for a while… took a ladleful out, and tried what came of that. So maybe finding your own voice is just that — being aware of those things that go into you, doing the Work, and seeing what the results are. Maybe you just need a little more something something in there next time. Maybe you got that something somethng already. Maybe you should get out into the world to find what it is.
2) They’d all found the honesty in that voice too. This may sound like repetition — it’s more auxiliary to the last point. To take it from another angle, say you find someone else’s work beautiful and heartfelt, and try on their style for size. It can be remarkably easy to love that style so much, you get stuck in their groove, rather than your own. Maybe that groove makes lines that are beautiful, or seem an easy route to that beauty, but unless they’re yours, something will always feel a little off about what you’re doing. That’s not to say these four artists didn’t learn from others — you can hear it in moments of their tracks — just that they didn’t allow themselves to get stuck in someone else’s groove. If you are honest in yourself, other people will know. If you’re not, they’ll know that too.
3) None of them were afraid of their creative impulses — they just went out and did it anyway, whatever the result. This is the hard lesson, I think, to take away from these records. Sometimes the most seemingly embarrassing or uncomfortable work for a creator is work that’s getting to the heart of a truth, something personal you’re afraid to get out. But who’s to say what other people think? Maybe getting vulnerable, personal, almost foolish can open you up to making something special. So perhaps it’s worth following those creative impulses, anyway. Whether you make use of the results is a decision to be made later
4) Most importantly of all, they enjoyed what they did. Here I’m thinking particularly of Björk’s record, that album rang with joy. Someone wise once said to me, art is intellect having fun. I think it should be. Some people make art to explore or make real pain, but the goal isn’t to relive it. It’s to get it out, to find some kind of release from it. There is no fun in the cliche of a tortured artist. Enjoy your work. Do things that you enjoy. Your art will be better for it.
Though these are lessons from music, I think they can apply to other arts, other sides of the creative life. Having left the thought to settle for six months, I’m even more convinced of that. I’m going to try to give them a little more space in my head in 2016, and see what results.
So that was 2014, almost. Very nearly all of it, though I can’t help but feeling that there’s still something lingering behind the curtain, waiting for us to declare our said-and-dones, so it can finally leap out and catch us unawares.
That in itself would hardly be a surprise, in such a strange and cacophonous year. With story edits, choir rehearsals, and half-marathon training, I figuratively and literally hit the ground running in January. Yet it would be Easter before any of these things began to resolve themselves into the strains that would come to define the year.
Eastercon: Satellite 4 was a con of firsts [Blog]. I made my first ever convention panel appearances, alongside folks such as Jacey Bedford, Tony Ballentyne and Gillian Redfearn. I had my first ever book launch for La Femme, the NewCon Press anthology, where I was delighted to find my story ‘The Honeytrap’ in the esteemed company of tales by Frances Hardinge, Maura McHugh, Storm Constantine, Jonathan Oliver and many more.
Then a late night chat with Hal Duncan about The Scruffians’ “aktchual original lyrics” for ‘An Unfortunate Rake’ led to me singing in public for the first time in fifteen years [Blog], as part of his own Eastercon reading. This set the pattern for 2014, a year where opportunities would suddenly emerge from chance conversations and unexpected coincidences, there to be leapt upon or chased, and damn my anxieties.
So when Worldcon hit London this year for Loncon 3 [Blog], I took a chance on last minute opening, and found myself on panels with the likes of Melinda Snodgrass, Jeremy Zerfoss, Bill Sutton and Nicholle Lamerichs. Once again, I gave a reading for the splendid folks at the Pirate Program fringe (for whom I’d given my debut reading at World Fantasycon the previous November). By the end of the year, I’d even given my first poetry reading, a medium I’ve rarely worked in – at least, before now.
In terms of the published fiction, more random chances: with La Femme I managed to cross appearing in an Ian Whates anthology off the Bucket List. I was chuffed to return to Fox Spirit, with ‘Blueprint for Red Wings’ appearing in the Girl At The End of the World anthology. Aside from that, this was a year of experimentation with both genre and form – not just poetry, but micro-fiction, pure fantasy, historical fiction, overtly experimental fiction, and so on. The greater part of the writing I did in 2014 won’t be appearing for a while yet (although, keep your eye on the January issue of Far Horizons), but there’s a giddy thrill in pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, out into areas where you’ve fuck all clue what you’re doing, and waking up to find you’re still there in the morning.
On the photography front, same melody – though a different key: Another chance exchange led to my first ever promo shoot. My shots of baroque folk band By Toutatis [Blog] would end up in the Evening Chronicle and being used as far away as the Middle East [More Blog]. I shot a bunch of local and not-so local bands [Many Blogs], and started working for Drowned In Sound too, shooting bands from RM Hubbert to Mastodon.
Elsewhere in rock journalism, while I continued to review for Thrash Hits, my Swedish Agent (Benny Bols, Death Folk pioneer) also wrote his first columns for Mass Movement Magazine.
There was more. At Fantasycon, I volunteered as a Redcloak [Blog], an experience that gave me a fresh insight into the reality of running a convention. In a personal triumph for someone who spent their teenage years suffering for their weight, I ran my first half-marathon [Blog] – and, thanks to the generosity of you lovely people, raised £340 for Mind. I started learning the ukulele (God help us all), and I started this blog, of course.
Most exhilarating has been rediscovering my love of musical performance. In April, I’d find myself performing in Durham Cathedral, as part of Durham County Youth Choir‘s 50th anniversary celebrations [Blog]. But this year was mostly about a capella song. After Eastercon, I sang folk tunes at parties and pubs, in hallways and late nights on bridges. While not everytime was a success, it felt good to be returning to something I hadn’t done in so long, and find my love for it was still as deep as ever.
As it stands, 2014 has opened up some unexpected opportunities. Some new and experimental, others as old and familiar as childhood ditties. There have been some successes, some failures – as they stand right now – and Lord knows all my anxieties are still firmly in place, but… Now I know they’re there. Some of these opportunities may find me in a very different place to where I am now, by the time I’ve wised where they’re leading me, pied piper-like. That could be six months from now; it could be six years. For now, 2015 will find me in the wings, waiting for the overture to finish, and just the right moment to step out onto the stage.
Really. Write. A Blog.
See, it’s not that I don’t want to, but this is the Hinterland of the year, that magical in-between time, when all the dutiful joy of Christmas is over and done with, and equally as dutiful, but somewhat more desperate celebrations of New Year begin. The time when we tick off the last days of this year’s timesheet, and are just starting to tear it away, tear it to shreds, burn the damn thing, before we face the clean white tyranny of a fresh, crisp, blank New Year. Watch your fingers for papercuts.
I like this time of year. No matter how many wonderful things I have planned for the next twelve months – how many terrifying and scary upheavals that could mean the start of a new and much more rewarding phase of my life… I like that sense of a project completed. I enjoy revelling in that satisfaction, before a new year begins. I like a breather. So understandably, I want to prolong it as much as possible.
I suppose that means I don’t want to write a blog after all.
So in spite of myself, here’s two.
Talking of my personal Top Ten, here’s the Thrash Hits Staff Albums of 2014. No spoilers… except I am pretty well chuffed I got St Vincent on there this year.
You’ll also notice (okay, *some* spoilers, then) that it’s not been a particularly metal year for me, in terms of personal favourites. Frankly, folk-influenced and acoustic music has been doing it more for me, generally. Discovering RM Hubbert, Blue Rose Code (Honestly, The Ballads of Peckham Rye is no. 11 on my Top Records of 2014. Making this year’s list on two days notice killed me.), The Lake Poets, Sarah Jarosz, Trev Gibb (‘Old Wounds‘, trust me.), Hannah D’Arcy, MG Boulter, Nadine Shah, has been like finding precious lost items in cobwebbed attics, brushing the dust off, setting them down and watching them sparkle. Yes, I know I should really check out Richard Dawson. He’s next on my list. Honest.
Meanwhile, Les Claypool‘s Duo De Twang, and Devin Townsend and Ché Aimee Dorval‘s Casualties of Cool were both projects that elevated sides of these artists we’d long expected, but perhaps had never imagined would sound so sweet. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of sweets, that Primus cover of ‘The Candyman’ (from their Charlie and the Chocolate Factory album) is a fucking belter.
The other big influence on 2014 has been the theatrical. Or rather, the storytellers, I should say. Aidan Moffat‘s solo stuff, Shilpa Ray, St Vincent (still kicking myself for having flu the night she breezed through the North-East), Fair To Midland, General Sherman, By Toutatis and associated projects… When researching for a panel at Loncon 3, I also came across Darren Korb’s excellent soundtrack for Bastion – one hell of a case of first time lucky for the composer. New …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, and the follow-up to Devin Townsend‘s Ziltoid The Omniscient, Z2, scratched the same itch nicely. John Grant made a late grand entrance, courtesy of the livestream of his Sage Gateshead show with the Royal Northern Sinfonia; the night a friend and I confessed to each other that we were both, just a teensy bit, in love with him.
There are doubtless other names I’ve missed, but here are a few of my favourite discoveries of 2014.
Tissue Culture – Bleak Northern Beaches
One of my favourite discoveries through the Tiny Lights gig nights. Click here for some photos of them I took earlier this year.
John Grant – Where Dreams Go To Die
I had such trouble picking one of John Grant’s tracks for this. ‘Queen of Denmark’, or ‘Sigourney Weaver’ could have easier been here instead. You should look those out too. Or ‘That’s The Good News’. Really, just go, before I start naming more tracks.
Blue Rose Code (w/ Samantha Whates and MG Boulter) – True Ways of Knowing
Killing three birds with one stone, this also features the amazing double basswork of John Parker of Nizlopi, and Rachel Newton, whose sterling harp playing is also on the recent BRC album. I shot Ross and co. at The Cluny in Newcastle earlier this year. He’s touring in April.
Nadine Shah – Stealing Cars
Another late contender this year, I’m barely done with first listens to this.
Shilpa Ray (w/ Warren Ellis & Nick Cave) – Pirate Jenny
Now striking out from her Shilpa Ray and her Happy Hookers outfit, Shilpa Ray is a trailblazer. Pick up the EP ‘It’s All Self Fellatio…‘, it’s a blinder.
RM Hubbert w/ Aidan Moffat & Alex Kapranos – Car Song
An older track, but one I was so glad to finally hear live when Hubby hooked up with Aidan Moffat at the Sage in May (click here for my DiS photo gallery).
Shrine Black Peaks – Say You Will
One of the things that keeps me writing for Thrash Hits is the radar those boys have. This blindsided us all. Thankfully, their quiet since is largely down to their name change since they released their debut EP, Closer To The Sun.
Sarah Jarosz – I Can’t Love You Now
There’s something about Sarah Jarosz’s writing that suggests someone ten years older writing about how they feel in their early twenties. Here’s one example.
Casualties of Cool – Flight
Not so much a new discovery, but wonderful to hear a project with Ché Aimee Dorval front and centre.
The Lake Poets – Husks
To close, this track taken from the debut EP Honest Hearts. Martin’s show at the Mining Institute in Newcastle was a privilege to witness.