Singer Songwriter SARAH GiLLESPIE will shortly be launching a new book, her debut collection of poetry & lyrics, Queen Ithaca Blues, as part of the London Jazz Festival. She talks here about the background. Email interview by Sebastian:
LondonJazz News: Have you always written poetry?
Sarah Gillespie: Yes since I was very little. I starting making up songs when I was three and writing them properly on a piano at around the age of eight. At the same time I would scribble down countless stories, scenarios and poems. Then, of course, I wrote loads of utterly dreadful adolescent twaddle.
LJN: What tends to be the stimulus for you to write?
SG: Writing its something of a habit for me, its the way I process being on the planet.
LJN: Who are your main influences?
SG: Great wordsmiths – Bob Dylan, Cole Porter, Tom Waits, Ntazaki Shangr, the Beat poets, Simon Armitage, my friend Caroline Bird (who just got shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize), Gerard Manley Hopkins, Anne Carson – great playwrights from Chekov to Jezz Butterworth.
LJN: What’s the method/sequence – do you write loads of poems and then see how some of them work as songs
SG: Songs usually pop out with the melody and lyrics together because, for me, melody and lyric are totally dependent on each other. The sound and rhythm that the words make is as important to me as their dictionary definitions. Occasionally some of my songs start life as poems – Houdini of the Heart, Cinematic Nectar, The Beas and the Seas – but poems essentially live on the page where as songs hit the ear. They are two distinct art forms. I have always had a sense of this but compiling and editing my book recently has made me much more aware that they are very separate crafts.
LJN: Do you write about day to day things or big themes?
SG: Well, I’m pretty allergic to any writing that consciously attempts to be ‘deep’; the ‘life is journey’ fluff that is ubiquitous these days. Many songs I hear sound like a bunch of self-help slogans strung together. I have songs and poems about all manner of themes from extraordinary rendition to romantic jealousy in the age of smart phones (Signal Failure). In my book there are poems that deal with losing my mother and then suddenly finding myself a mother. There’s a poem about a Persian astronomer whose insights are credited to Copernicus. There’s all manner of love poems.
LJN: Are you in a songwriting partnership – how do poems become songs?
SG: I generally write songs alone but my band often help me arrange them. Poems become songs if they have that particular life force in them. When I wrote a song called Glory Days about my mother’s life, it struck me that grief is not a linear process that has ‘stages of acceptance’. It’s the opposite of that. It is an eruption of feelings, wishes and memories that interpret each other at random and then fade and then ambush you again. In the light of that, the lyrics for this song came out in short staccato-like images, almost like a list poem. “You were young then/your lipstick was frantic/your shadows were athletes/your heart was elastic”.
I have other poems that could never work as songs and songs that (I recently realised) simply don’t work on the page at all because their meanings rely so heavily on the groove and melody.
LJN: What gigs are coming up?
SG: Saturday 18 November at the the Albany in Deptford. It’s one of my favourite venues, a beautiful space and amazing sound engineers. I’m very lucky to be there with Frank Harrison on piano, Enzo Zirilli on drums (Enzo also played on my last two records) Ruth Goller on bass and Emma Divine on vocals. We will be exploring the bond between jazz and beat poetry, lots of improvisation, I’m very excited!
I’m playing Belgium in the New Year and new dates will be announced very soon around the UK.
LJN: Which musicians are you currently working with?
SG: My band line up is Kit Downes – piano, Ruth Goller – bass and James Maddren – drums. I’m working closely with Kit on my new material. He and I are going to co-produce my next album.
LJN: Where are you in the album cycle? When’s the next one?
SG: Next album is out in autumn 2018. Right now I’m finishing the songs and we will record them in the spring, probably at Eastcote Studio where I recorded my other three records. I wanted to let this next album incubate a while as it will be a whole new sound for me and some of the issues I’m writing about are complex. For instance there’s a tune nearly 15 minutes long about the North Dakota Pipe Line told from the point of view of an engineer.
LJN: Does a small child give balance to life or throw it into confusion?
SG: If you are an artist who needs solitude to work, looking after a toddler every day can be extremely challenging. However the flip side is that the world is suddenly spring-loaded with joy. For instance I used to sit in bed with my morning coffee reading the international news. Now I am in my garden playing hide and seek behind the trees and blowing bubbles. It’s an endless cycle of tantrums and laughter.
LJN: Or does it make you think – if I only had more time to myself I would… what exactly?!
SG: Yes for sure, I would paint, write, read and tour more. I will again when my daughter is eligible for more nursery time. Meanwhile I’m enjoying her and her dad, and working whenever I can.
Queen Ithaca Blues is published by Oxford-based Albion Beatnik Press.
The book will be launched at the Albany Theatre in Deptford on Saturday 18 November. This gig is part of the EFG London Jazz Festival .