Feature/Interview

Gwyneth Herbert (‘Christmas Letters Special’, 606 Club, 20 December)

Singer / composer Gwyneth Herbert will be presenting her “Christmas Letters Special” show on Sunday 20 December at the 606 Club. She gave Sebastian the full picture of a year spent in Hastings, “a grubby old town with a ruddy big heart” and looks forward to a special evening with her “favourite teamos”: 

Gwyneth Herbert (photo by Ian Wallman)

LondonJazz News:  How has the time since March been for you, the ups and downs, highs and lows? 

Gwyneth Herbert: Well, like many of us, I’ve been riding the corona-coaster. Having spent the past two years hopping from project to project, with the global pandemic I found myself suddenly still, in one place, for the first time in a long time. I find stillness a challenge. And it’s meant picking through a whole pile of life laundry(*) that I’d been ignoring.

But amongst the days where I’ve just wanted to eat crisps and drink gin under an electric blanket, there’s so much I’ve felt grateful for. I LOVE my hometown of Hastings. It’s a grubby old town with a ruddy big heart, wonky in all the right ways. I spent the first lockdown converting my Honda into a taxi for the NHS. Driving our nurses – from every corner of the globe – these journeys became my daily bookends. They shared their anxieties from the ward, talked of their families back home, and filled me up with the courage they found in meeting the unknown every day.

This town is also made up of the most brilliant friend-family I could wish for, who’ve helped me with the laundry loads. Living by the sea, that’s pretty good too. Feeling so small and yet so alive each time I breathe it in. I try to say hello to it as often as I can.

And, of course, MUSIC. I feel so lucky to have this; throughout these months in my rainbow isolation pod, it’s kept me connected. Streaming from my piano to people dancing in their kitchens; dancing round my kitchen to people jamming in their gardens. I’ve FaceTime-travelled to Nairobi to write an opera with Ogutu Muraya, then onto Deptford for a Friday night house-party with beautiful queers all over the globe. I made a Zoom film with brilliant young artists from the Royal Academy of Music, where Letters I Haven’t Written got transformed into “Letters WE haven’t written” – the songs became entirely theirs. And through working with people with mental health issues in “More than Just a Choir”, I realised that “isolation” for some meant “accessibility” for others – one young lad who loved singing, was able to join for the first time in 7 years, singing from his bed.

It’s been amazing, you know, to pick through all the rubble and the noise and still be able to find the wonder.

LJN:  Mojo Magazine has described you as ‘brilliantly original’. Have you always been this way…is it something you have to cultivate?  How can the rest of us be more like you!

GH : This question made me laugh a little, thanks. The fact is, I guess we can only ever be more of ourselves. Figuring out what that might mean for me… well, that’s a journey I’ve been on my whole “career”. One I’m still on.

What I have known, from when I was small, is that music is my life. There are stories of baby Gwyn mimicking sound patterns, singing before she could walk (something I still struggle with to be fair), writing her first concept album at the age of 8. “Toby and the Sandman”. Harmonically naïve, but the ambition was there.

Some discoveries have been borne out of things I find that I can’t do (see Meatloaf question 4.) And sometimes it’s been hard to have courage in my voice, when so many around me told me I was doing it wrong, that I should follow the tested formulas, focus on one thing. But all of the decisions – the yesses and noes – that have led me to this point… I don’t regret a single one of them.

I’m also constantly learning from every interaction: every story I encounter, every voice that joins mine. That’s the most exciting thing about making for me – these moments of meeting.

So, I guess, to be more like me… just be more like yourself. Ask yourself questions: What can I see, hear, feel right now? What do I want to learn? Who are my creative tribe? And what do we want to change in the world around us? Art is power; empathy is power; community…. is…. power. In a world where the hierarchical systems are violent and unjust, we need these tools of transformation more than ever.

Gwyneth Herbert in Letters I Haven’t Written at the Opus Theatre, Hastings. Photo by Monika S. Jakubowska

LJN:  Tell us about some of your greatest successes, however you define that.

GH: I feel lucky to have experienced what might be viewed as industry “success” early in my life. I thought for so long that having a record deal was the holy grail. But posters on the tube, multiple stylists, haircut meetings… the machinery of the production line felt brutal and so far away from what I wanted music to mean. In leaving that behind, I was confronted with the question – so, what is it then? What could it be?

Now it’s so much a part of my every day life, it seems impossible to separate “work” from “life.” So, to go back to my earlier answer, I guess I feel my greatest success is carving out this wonder-pocket of the world for myself, one that’s full of love and music, where I can increasingly make what I want, on my own terms.

Thinking of specific “career” highlights, they might include singing “Alderney” with a choir of islanders on their Homecoming Day, and then them claiming the song as their own; a young girl in Colchester – who’d thrown chairs in our first workshop – performing an extraordinary poem about her Dad to a standing ovation; our scratch collective “The Claggy Dreggs” singing of their lived experience of homelessness in Bristol Old Vic theatre to a packed auditorium; the lads in Parc prison talking to their community about their words and our project with confidence and pride. These are snapshots I keep in my sunshine memory archive, and flick through whenever the clouds come. We are more than our uniforms. More than our monsters, our boundaries. We are more.

Perhaps the “Letters I Haven’t Written” project is probably the thing of which I’m most proud. I made it at a time when the rug of my imagined future had been pulled from beneath me, when I’d lost a layer of skin. But that month, working with communities all over the country – women in a Suffolk refuge, brilliant young artists in Oxford, inspiring elders in Deptford – who shared their experiences with such generosity… they gave me hope. And on the tour, where audiences offered their own words of pain and regret and gratitude and we sang them out together – this gave me strength. I went into each room and onto each stage not sure if any notes would come out. But through it all I was held by the people, by the stories, in the sound. And I found a kind of power in that shared vulnerability that I will never forget.

LJN:  Is there anything you dread, or simply won’t do?

GH: I was tempted to answer this question through the medium of a rock power ballad, but feared action from Meatloaf’s legal team.

My experiences with the “industry” have made me allergic to anything that reeks too much of that particular stench. I’m also not very good at dealing with money. I know it’s necessary. I know I’m lucky to earn from what I love – to have enough of it in the first place to live. But engaging with it or talking about it makes me queasy.

So you probably won’t hear me on a Barclay’s advert any time soon. I would do anything for love. But I won’t do that.

LJN:  You will be performing at the 606 Club on Sunday 20 December, a special interactive programme that you’ve described at the “Christmas Letters Special”. Tell us about it, how will it work?

GH:  You may have gathered by now that I kind of like people, and music, and especially those things combined. So I’ve really been missing the moments of connection that you feel performing in an actual space.

This gig is in my favourite room to play, with my favourite musical teamos, and I want to find ways of feeling that people are in the room with us. So there are many options to become a part of it – from helping shape the set-list in advance by choosing tracks from the Herbert jukebox, to commissioning a song that has meant something to your life or someone you love, to shout outs and dedications and even a phone-a-friend hotline live from the stage. We also have plans for everyone who live-streams the gig to get involved on the night itself, to feel as if, in all our different kitchens and bedrooms, we are somehow still sharing space.

There’s a page on Indiegogo (LINK HERE) where you can find out more, with funding treats to make all this possible (yeah, money –bleurgh – but I’d love to at least pay the boys properly…):

LJN: Was there something specific that made you want to construct the show in this way, and how would you like people to participate?

GH: Many things. The search for connection in this new, alien landscape. The excitement at the accessibility possibilities that the digital realm invites. The complete love for the 606 club, my home from home, which has supported me through all the twists and turns of my career.

And the fact that music is such an important part of the letter of all of our lives. After the crazy year we’ve had, wanting to find a way to sing it out, together.

LJN:  Looking ahead to 2021 – make a wish (or three just to be sure) for the coming year!

GH:  My biggest wish is for us to take all of the lessons from this last year and spin them into possibilities. So, breaking it down, here are my three:

– Greater accessibility, to everything, for ALL

– A #compassionrevolution that topples down the towers, then dances in the rubble

– And for me – after giving up my rainbow home last week – to find a new one… wherever that may be (**).

If you could sort all that, that’d be great.

(*) also actual laundry. There was a lot of that.
(**) definitely be somewhere in Hastings though.

Gwyneth Herbert’s “Christmas Letters Special” show will be on Sunday 20 December at the 606 Club.

LINKS: The 606 Interactive Christmas Letters Indiegogo 

To buy tickets for the 606 livestream click here

To book to visit the Club click here

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