Spiced with Variety

One of the most appealing aspects present within songwriting is the freedom it grants the writer in terms of style and structure; any subject can be broached in any way, maybe that’s why it proves to be such a cathartic … Continue reading

A Finely Tuned Wordsmith

"The Police" concern at Madison Squa...

Sting has followed a path steered by his proven affinity with the written word. The course of his musical career traces an evolving relationship with language, as he finds new ways to record and interpret his experiences, thought processes and creativity in a finely tuned, honest approach.

The words of a song can influence, guide, heal, enlighten and move. Sting uses the powerful format of writing to encase new scenes and situations in single songs, covering a breadth of emotion. From flurries of fury and impassioned pleas to carefree meanderings in sunset barley fields; an inherent talent has been cultivated, capturing emotion, setting mood and communicating concepts with chords and lyrical content that when played, pinpoints exactly what it means to be alive.

He always manages to create meaningful pieces, infused with relatable content that are almost engineered to last as classics. Whether personal or abstract; Sting isn’t afraid to experiment with his musical style. His song writing skills seem completely transferable, from orchestral interpretations and soul renditions to the early origins of his pop and rock days together with the later sounds of  jazz and folk influences; Sting manages to incorporate a medley of  genres comfortably across albums and within individual songs, offering an eclectic energy that completely captivates the listener.

Welcome Home, Sting

A view of the Sage Gateshead along with the ty...

Recently I saw Sting perform in Gateshead as he celebrated 25 years as a solo artist, with his Back to Bass tour. What struck me, even before he sang a single note, was his natural way with words. It was clear that his ability to transcribe his thoughtful nature so precisely is what has earned him his right to decades in the spotlight. Slipping into storytelling quite easily he quickly built a rapport with the Newcastle audience from which he originated. Reaffirming the audiences’ affections, with real warmth and humour, Sting shared anecdotes of walking alongside the river with his youngest daughter just days before, as he showcased the gems of his city. Walking beside the Tyne evoked a flood of memories as he reminisced about going to the market as a small boy on a Sunday with his father, who would buy him a token toy. It was almost as though he could sense the  silent attentiveness of the crowd, as we proudly witnessed a homegrown talent leave us in no doubt as to why he is now known the world over.

The local newspaper’s review the next day summed the night up perfectly, proudly concluding, ‘A great night with a band of awesome musicians, and a charismatic singer-songwriter who’s lost none of his powers. Welcome home, Sting.’ 

Read the full article here.

During the gig, Sting told us that when sitting down to write a song he would first write the music and then let the lyrics fall into place, an unconventional method but one that has proved monumentally successful nonetheless. Together he would walk us through his memories, of where he was when he penned the first lines of a song, which then made each of the following performances even more powerful and vivid, as the images he had given us unfolded in what seemed like technicolour, while the music’s beats and chords intensified the messages.

In his eclectic set was a song that I hadn’t heard before, and one that stood out as a tragedy. Distinctly the song depicted the determination and unity that existed between two foxes. The ‘End of the Game’  throws the listener into a fast pace chase as two foxes flee for their lives, inspired he said from living in the countryside and directly, from trying to find new ways to barricade wild foxes out of his chicken enclosure, with comically put, varying degrees of success. The song however is full of sadness and urgency, as the pair try to outrun their inevitable fate. The music depicts the dramatic dash that ensues, conveying the ebb and flow of their energy levels, as well as the thoughts that run parallel through the minds of the foxes, while Sting narrates the story as they draw closer to their deaths.

What makes the song so moving is the ways in which the foxes are portrayed as romantic partners, spurring themselves on by envisioning a fantastical future together, running away side by side through forests, streams, fields and brambles, heading to the shore while being poetically ‘Carried to the great ocean by the drag of the moon ’. Their determination to escape eventually becomes replaced by an acceptance of the reality that dawns and they run instead into their dreams and finally on into the heavens.

In the video below shows Sting perform ‘End of the Game’ accompanied by the might that is the Philharmonic Orchestra. Sting takes the opportunity to incorporate an Oscar Wilde quote into his introduction; his love for words is apparent, his whole view of life is guided my the power and magic they can bestow. He owes his livelihood, his lifestyle to the art of words and his fans their delight, to his poetic perspective.

A Quarter of a Century

In the video below, Sting looks back on a career that spans a staggering 25 years. He is still prone to deep reflection and by his own self admission, at 60, has not yet arrived at a place where he thinks he has it all figured out. Sting is obviously intelligent but an emotional intelligence is what really shines through, especially when he describes and responds to his environment; combining eloquence with a down-to-earth delivery that is part of a formula which allows him to write songs we can appreciate and value. In the opening to this interview Sting becomes entirely engaging as he returns to storytelling mode.

His first musical memory is described as a scene full of movement and feeling, as he watched his mother play the piano; “I’d be on the floor, the pedals were odd, the loud and the soft pedals, they moved kind of a-rhythmically”. Sting went on to talk about the importance of listening, which is often key when finding the inspiration that in needed for creative writing, “It’s a receptive organ, it’s a feminine organ, we get information…… then we use our hands.”

He goes on to talk about spirituality and the death of his father, together with a desire to dedicate a song to him,“I knew I had to write something because that’s always been my therapy, the way of processing emotion”. He constantly finds value in new subject matters, and even admits to the experience of writers block“My whole being that was involved in being creative, suddenly had gone!”, but is comforted when he is able to draw from a past that is already easily accessible. A writer’s block is not a sign of a bad writer, merely that a new source needs to be tapped into; a creative challenge can often result in some of our best work as it stretches our abilities as writers, resulting in better outcomes. He reminisces about the ship building on his street, a subject that he describes wistfully and enigmatically, comparing his own life to their birth and journey out to sea,“so big it would just blot out the sun, and these ships of course would never come back, once they were launched they would leave, and that became very symbolic I suppose, of my own life”.

A Life in Songs

The next video shows a snippet from Sting’s recent 60th birthday concert, where he gathered famous friends together to sing songs from his huge  back catalogue. Here, Wonder joins the stage to sing ‘Fragile’ and immediately and inimitably injects an infectious soulfulness, stamping his own identity onto the classic song to showcase the full potential of masterful lyrics. Sting is clearly in awe of Wonder, and too, seems to take something fresh from the song. The performance is a testament to both Wonder and Sting’s immense talents. What better way to see your song writing ability praised than have the legend that is Stevie Wonder sing it for you; it all comes to life right in front of him as he shares the stage. What a tribute and a well deserved one. Here’s to song writing!

All for Love

Photo of statue titled "The Kiss

A few days ago I stumbled across a video with an interesting title ‘The Brain in Love’, clicking on it, I was then completely drawn into a lecture, given by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher. I felt as though I was sat there in amongst the audience, silent and transfixed in the dimly lit theatre. The topic was love, which is intriguing enough in itself but that steadily grew into sixteen minutes of fascination, time that I would gladly spare all over again. She took advantage of a popular subject laced with deep emotion by partnering fact with feeling. She chose to piece the lecture together with examples of literature that enriched it all. Nearly every quote and tale of romance left you hanging on her every word, sending you into a state of calm contemplation. With her Canadian lilt, the audience were led whimsically into the inner workings of love, humanely dissected, without stripping away too much of its magic.

Kissing couple.

Whether we like to admit it or not, love is a need or at best a want, like a thirst that needs to be quenched we are all driven to seek it out. It’s what we live for. Without it we are spared heartache but experience loneliness, with it we are engulfed in the most intense highs and locked into the deepest lows. One of Fisher’s opening sentences really stood out for me, not just because it’s so poetic but because it is such a truism,

All around the world people love, they sing for love, they dance for love, they compose poems and stories about love, they tell myths and legends about love, they pine for love, they live for love, they kill for love and they die for love.”

This lists the ways that romantic love can impact and shatter lives, from the production of pure happiness and creativity to extreme sacrifice and suffering – it can possess, inspire and alter our state of mind, our entire world. It is obvious Fisher is engrossed by the subject, at first she looks nervous but is then propped up by a confidence in her audience’s ability to relate to her subject so completely, as they warm to her. She believes everyone’s desire for love is inbuilt from birth, as she presents it as a complex contradiction, both a universal affliction and a remedy.

She picks her quotes well to round off a chosen story or poem. The partnership between the written word and love has always been symbiotic, as it allows us to express the depth and breadth of our feelings, comparing it to the deepest oceans and the widest of skies. Her lecture is supported by phrases and rhymes that speak honestly about real, rather than imagined experiences.

Some great quotes include:

“You can’t stop thinking about another human being, somebody is camping in your head’’

Fisher says this, describing how someone lives in your head, staying with you even when they’re not with you, pitching there permanently or until you move on and essentially force them out from your thoughts; a simple analogy that strikes a chord straight away.

The past is not dead, it’s not even the past” – (Faulkner)

– This describes how time can seem to stand still when you’re in love and the past is just as much a part of the present. It shapes the present in so much as it deepens love, the past makes present feelings possible.

“The less is my hope, the hotter my love” – (Roman Poet, Terence)

– This refers to one of the cruel elements of love, where the experience of rejection or unrequited love fuels the flames of passion, as our wants or not met, spurring us on hopelessly which only inflicts further pain. This idea is where the phrase “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” originates.

 “The God of love lives in a state of need” – (Plato)

– an insatiable appetite is key for ongoing passion and for love to thrive, keeping us driven and wanting more.

“Parting is all we need to know of hell” – (Emily Dickinson)

– A quote that Fisher used well to bookend a sad poem stood out as a simple yet powerful statement, full of wisdom. This is all it takes to activate the onset of despair as we are thrown from our own corner of earthly heaven with the one we love, straight into a hell without them. Because love deals in extremes, when we are happy in love we experience an abundance of blissful contentment, so when it is taken away, all that is left is a barren wasteland we have to endure alone. Usually we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone.

Romantic stories remind you why love is so sought after. The Mayan story told by Fisher works as a perfect introductory tale that seems to confirm the existence of everlasting love, something that human nature wants but can’t always deliver, another challenge love presents. The story carves out the shape of an ideal love, transcending the physical realm, where a Sun king and queen still want to return each other’s affections, a fairytale that demonstrates love’s reach, which is seen and interpreted by others today, helping to keep faith in true love alive.

A poem that is obviously close to Fisher’s heart is read out. She introduces it as the most powerful love poem on earth. If you’re not convinced by reading it or even hearing it, try reading it aloud, it seems to take on a new dimension, especially when the final line is spoken:

Fire runs through my body with the pain of loving you,

Pain runs through my body with the fires of my love for you,

Pain like a boil about to burst with my love for you

Consumed by fire with my love for you

I remember what you said to me,

I am thinking of your love for me,

I am torn by your love for me,

Pain and more pain –

Where are you going with my love?

I am told you will go from here,

I am told you will leave me here

My body is numb with grief

Remember what I said my love,

Goodbye my love, Goodbye.

English: a love heart in water

The poem focuses on the pain and suffering that comes with love. It’s certainly not a wine and roses account. The poet’s pain is then replaced with emptiness, and the intensity vanishes along with the loved one, which brings a new level of hurt. It almost documents a case of ‘Cant live with you, can’t live without you.’ Fisher’s voice wavers at the end of this poem and she is visibly moved as the poem is so sad, filled with panic, desperation, fear and dependency, all the things we put aside when in hot pursuit of love, but then it is suddenly replaced by a crippling loneliness, making you wonder which is best. A shameless vulnerability is exposed, as love claims another victim indiscriminately. It highlights just how easily love can come and go.

The character of love seems unchanged over time. It continues to both hurt and heal us; it builds us up and knocks us down. People give up everything and go to great lengths all in the name of love. It can prove to be our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Love can save the day or ruin it. It can make perfect sense and at the same time, no sense at all. It’s hard not to sound too clichéd when talking about love, enough to say, that it can push us to the extremes of our emotional capabilities, test us mercilessly and make us do things that we would never normally consider. It can change us for the better or the worst, but without it wouldn’t we miss out on our earthly right to try and live life to its very fullest?

See Helen Fisher deliver her inspiring lecture, making the faces of her audience smile and nod in agreement. Here’s ‘The Brain in Love’:

Modern Tributes to a Timeless Talent

English: Portrait of Billie Holiday in Down Be...

Billie Holiday was a soul singing sensation who captured real emotion with vocals that make you believe she meant every word. She said in an interview that she wanted her voice to be capable of producing sounds like a musical instrument, and when you listen to her sing, the way her voice varies, ripples and hovers on notes, it’s clear that she mimicked the sounds of a saxophone or trumpet with charismatic clarity; the only major difference was that she could also articulate the sentiment with words to give each song its substance. She was the leading player, laying her melody on top of the backing band’s arrangement of music, while also stepping aside at points to let them play on without her, as a show of appreciation and old-fashioned courtesy that defined the gentle, sophisticated character of jazz music. When she rejoins them they work together in an unfaltering partnership to produce an effortless symphony. A comment left on YouTube underneath the video for ‘Sunny Side of the Street’ sums up the caliber of Holiday’s whole performance and experience, where quality was present in every element, Who is the pianist? Amazing! Billie Holiday always had a fine band” – kukanakamaoli

English: Billie Holiday and her dog Mister, ba...

But behind the gentle sways, elegance and poise; underneath the polished presentation of arched eyebrows, full red lips, glamorous gowns and a signature Gardenia flower, was a woman struggling with drink, drugs and the fear of poverty – a residual anxiety that stemmed from a childhood filled with abandonment and prostitution. On the surface Holiday stood as a living, breathing success story, made even more impressive by the fact that her unquestionable talent shielded her from the immediate threat of racial prejudice; but even though she did fear attacks, audiences flocked and she was still able to take to the stage and perform, as eyes of all colours became captivated.

Holiday helped to define an era, forging a way ahead for black music to thrive, by offering the world a unique, unforgettable voice that lingered with class and timeless appeal. Her voice was a semblance of emotional honesty and what sounded like an ethereal gift. Infusing feeling into every word and note, Holiday was just the person to sing the blues, as she knew only too well what it was like to be trapped in melancholy. Defying her stage name, which seemed to project a carefree, sunny image, used as a tactic to attract, while maintaining the glitzy show business image, she actually became a contradiction, almost becoming enamoured and swallowed up by sorrow.

Without really knowing much about her life and only being familiar with a few of her songs, I didn’t ever take the time to look beyond the glamour or listen properly to the heartfelt lyrics she sang. I just appreciated the snippets of vintage recordings I heard on a basic level, dismissing her as a singer reserved for a past that seemed so far removed from the present. Captured in black and white stills and old scratched film, she seemed unreal in a way, existing as an iconic shimmer of perfection in a place driven by easy, relaxed melodies, refined attitudes and effortless style. So without ever really delving into what made her such an iconic jazz and blues singer, I missed out on the real beauty and messages within her songs, the talent my grandparents were exposed to, and the fact that today’s audiences can still take so much away from her songs because essentially human emotion remains unchanged.

Billie Holiday child, toward 1917 (unknown pho...

From the pinnacle of stardom to a less than dignified demise, Holiday seemed destined for tragedy from the offset. Born to a mother of just 13 and a father of 16, who quickly abandoned them, she was left in the care of a relative numerous times, was raped by a neighbor, to then work with her mother in a brothel at age 14. The fact that she found a way out through the discovery of her singing ability must have come as the escape she dreamt of. Quickly adored and revered globally, Holiday’s income soared which gained her the means and introduced her to the company that led her into the underworld of narcotics. Holiday once tellingly said, “We never know what is enough until we know what’s more than enough.” This quote reveals how far an addict will go. It’s the same for human nature, usually we only realise we’ve gone to far when it’s too late. I was shocked to learn that Holiday died at only 44, with just 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars strapped to her leg. Nevertheless, she achieved so much in such a short amount of time. Like so many others, Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Hendrix to name just a few; Holiday experienced the pitfalls of fortune and fame, rising and then falling, to leave behind a legacy of brilliance that is treasured to this day.

YouTube is a quick and easy way of learning about songs and artists past and present. Music channels are usually devoted to chart music, so the modern tunes tend to take centre stage, without much of a nod to the music that led to their inception. In just an hour I had listened to a whole variety of Holiday’s songs, spanning two decades, all available in one place, without searching them out in a single record store.

As a medium, YouTube also allows you to instantly gage how songs are received by reading the comments posted under every video. Many are written with finesse and passion worthy of publication; and because they are anonymous, with untraceable, fictional names, they are more likely to express true feelings, which creates an accurate representation of Holiday’s effect on people, even to this day. This makes YouTube and other internet music sites reliable measurements of an artist’s impact, despite the passing of time or our ability to look up every detail of a singer’s personal life. YouTube acts as a modern platform that allows contemporary audiences a chance to air their views, which bar a few are all positive. It reveals how inspirational Holiday remains, as she is still able to generate an outpouring of praise. 

The YouTube response to Holiday:

“It is obvious she lived life…or she couldn’t sing songs like that” – joni4749

“Goosebumps every single time with this woman” – SunshineMod

“The Queen of Jazz and Mother of Blues. There will never be another Billie Holiday…she held great courage during the most difficult era and gained respect that continues for centuries beyond us” – Crosswinds22

“Ella could shatter glass, Sarah could sing anything, but Billie was the greatest jazz vocalist to ever walk the face of this earth… true feelings and emotions in every note she sang….” – Genevieve

“Dislike bar is invisible, that’s the way it should be” – 20twinkle

“Billie could sing a shopping list and make it sound great” – 73380401

“She was a natural with improv…a gift of poetry flowing with music” – McDon55

“Billie is my soul sister! Man, do I love her” – Green nostalgic

I particularly like ‘You’ve Changed’, quite a famous song of Holiday’s, which I hadn’t heard, until a few days ago. It addresses the flip side of love, when affection starts to wane and the other partner has to deal with heartbreak alone, while accepting that the end is inevitable, which in a way is made harder due to the absence of outright hostility during a slow process of rejection. This is when the singer turns to music as an outlet for sorrow. The raw emotion is apparent inside every note and word, where imagery of hopelessness is brought to life by the heartfelt inflections and distinct charm produced by Holiday. It’s a situation many find themselves in more than once, and if you’re lucky enough not to have experienced it, you can definitely sympathise:

A YouTube comment  I found epitomises Holiday’s enduring resonance,  “Late Billie is special, that she can still draw so much out of this song. Really hauntingly beautiful, start to finish” – wdbop3

The music of Holiday’s era seems so removed, yet still so relevant to what we hear now. I’m sure Beyoncé and Alicia Keys are influenced by jazz and blues singers like Holiday, releasing what we now know as modern R ‘n’ B songs. Unfortunately most artists also seem to share a fame induced sadness to some degree. Beyoncé is a prime example. Musically she has triumphed, her talent and energy seem limitless sometimes, but behind the smiles and confidence lies a fragility that rarely gets noticed. In a documentary about Beyoncé’s ‘I am…tour’, behind the scenes footage reveals Beyoncé questioning her life in the limelight, which certainly made me review her position, transforming my take on every interview and performance of hers I now see. 

It’s all too easy to fall for the palpable glamour and showgirl performances, without really looking at the needs of the person, who are vulnerable to exploitation and pressure, and at times may perform to avoid the withdrawal of adoration, set on a path they feel they have to pursue. To audiences of thousands, stars put on brave faces to screaming fans and in doing so may mask suffering, without anyone addressing or noticing their pain. This piece of film made me immediately view Beyoncé, the strong, sexy, multi talented superstar with the world at her feet with sympathy. The idea that she had to use the stage persona ‘Sasha Fierce’ to be able to portray confidence and attitude convincingly on stage suddenly all made sense. Maybe it’s not always that fun or that easy. Even in this video she smiles through her tears, reminding herself that she’s blessed, when she is clearly trying to make sense of a life in the glare of a spotlight.

Billie Holiday Chanel Advert

Evidence of Billie Holiday’s enduring impact upon popular culture can be heard and seen in the recent Chanel No. 5 advert, starring the French actress Audrey Tautou, in which one of Holiday’s later songs ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ is played. The song accents every movement in the ad, alongside a couple experiencing the intensity of love at first sight, where the scent of Tautou’s perfume sets up an instant attraction. Every sideways glance, missed opportunity and moment of longing is perfectly accompanied by Holiday’s classic bouquet of song, in keeping with Chanel’s chic image.

This advert was beautifully shot, every element including the song choice fitting together perfectly, which you would expect from such an iconic brand. It is all so appealing and this YouTube comment probably speaks for most women when it says, “I’d buy this perfume just because of how good the song and video is” – helpsavetheanimals. This advert alone inspired me to find out more about the singer and the song. I mistakenly thought the singer was Ella Fitzgerald but when I discovered it was actually Billie Holiday, I was drawn in by her story and enchanted by her music; I soaked up every piece of information I could find, to feel an increasing sadness as I learned more; but in a way I’m so glad I did. Listening to her songs I now have a greater understanding of the words she sang and how she sang them. Writing this blog post has given me an insight into her positive affect on people, as well as a greater appreciation of her music that will always make her so much more than just a lovely voice.

[Portrait of Billie Holiday, Carnegie Hall, Ne...

In part, Holiday seemed to owe her career not just to natural talent but also to her experiences, however dreadful. Her soulful reverberations and ability to infuse passion and pain into her work made strong, lasting impressions. Holiday’s performances were so powerful that she could even move herself to tears. When the recording of ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ was played back to her for the first time, her eyes welled with tears. If that isn’t testament to her musical prowess, I don’t know what is.