Georgia Lewis – The Bird Who Sings Freedom. Or, How inexpert axe-wielding makes for a better record…
Like most writing-about-music, this is probably best enjoyed whilst listening to said music, so here it is on Spotify.
I’ve always wanted to make a record in a house on a hill. Some of my favourite albums were made in big old houses; Liege and Lief, August and Everything After (and Recovering the Satellites for that matter) and a whole lot of other peoples’ favourites as well, from Kitty Jay to the Basement Tapes. Luckily for me, about this time last year, that chance came along.
Georgia Lewis is my new boss/friend/client/bandmate, depending roughly on the time of day and professional/social setting. She’s also one of the most determined, dedicated students of folk music I’ve met. She lives, along with her parents and, when they’re not at university, two siblings, in a house on a hill. A mansion, really, albeit one that’s been divided up into many smaller dwellings to suit an age where people neither need nor can afford the whole thing.
Sometimes you meet a new singer and have to slam on the brakes, telling them that they’re really not ready to make the record they want to make. Other times, you have to shove them out of the proverbial plane, assuring them that their parachute will open and everything will be fine. Georgia is a perfectionist, so a gentle but decisive push was required to stop her simply waiting forever.
I think it was my idea. At least, I’m going to take credit for it. Sat in the kitchen one day, guitar on knee, I suggested that rather than spend money we didn’t have going to a studio we didn’t know, why not stay here? We’d always rehearsed in the kitchen, it’s a high-ceilinged room. It sounds great. With the help of another friend I consider myself very lucky to have, producer Josh Clark, we draped Georgia’s parents’ house in microphones, acoustic panels and miles of cable. I’d done a quick trial recording and I sent it off to Josh a few weeks earlier, and he agreed that it would take very little to get it sounding great. He was right. He usually is. Over the next three weeks or so, Georgia pretty much single-handedly produced her own first album; Josh was on the phone, but we didn’t have the budget to have him in for three weeks, and he had other sessions in. So Georgia did all the engineering, coaxing performances out of each of us, tracking her own parts, learning how best to build this thing she had in her head.The sound of the house is in the music. In a couple of places (certainly the start of track 5, Georgia’s setting of A.E. Housman’s True Lover) you can hear the crackle of logs in the wood stove that kept us warm during February sessions. If you were too cold or needed a leg stretch, it was your turn to go out and chop more wood, never mind if you’d never swung an axe in your life. Suffice to say some of us were better than others. We’d load the split logs into a wheelbarrow, haul them back to the house and peer through the window to see if someone was mid-take or not before opening the door. We fed the stove, helping it along with something called a Looftlighter, an electric contraption something like a hairdryer if hairdryers were designed by aspiring arsonists. I might be more scared of it than I am of the axe. If you’re already wondering how we made it through this process with all our fingers, you should probably look away before I tell you about the compulsory archery breaks…
Afterwards, we’d cook dinner, or retire to the nearest pub to unwind.
This is a band full of musicians who deserve,and will probably receive, more acclaim than they’ve had to date. Evan Carson is a ridiculously hard-working man, and very tasty drummer you may have seen with Sam Kelly or The Willows. He reminds me a little of my brother, in that he’s rather talented, somewhat too generous with his time for his own good, and I worry about him driving long distances in the middle of the night. He’s making a solo album that is guaranteed to be full of polyrhythmic weirdness I don’t begin to understand. One Sunday, my contribution not needed, I went out; it was my brother’s birthday and I drove north into Gloucestershire to meet him, his girlfriend and my parents for a celebratory pub lunch. By the time I got back, Evan had done all sorts of magical things. Part of me regrets going, because I will never know precisely how he made all those noises. Some of them are made with a thing called a pandero (not a pandorica, apparently), which is a bit like a tambourine and might originate from the Basque region. Others with a set of tiny (Indian?) bells that Georgia’s mother had. Most with one of three bodhrans, variously aluminium/synthetic and wood/goatskin.
It’s really useful when your fiddle player is also a pianist. I’d never heard of Rowan Piggott when I first carried a double bass through Georgia’s door, but by the end of this year I think a lot of people will know his name. There’s his EFDSS-supported project about bees, Songhive, and his solo debut Mountscribe, both of which will be lauded if there’s any justice in the world. It’s on Must I Be Bound where you realise he’s actually a pianist by training. It’s so simple, but so effective. A real piano, again accompanied by the sound of the room it’s in; you can hear pedal noise as well as the wood burner if you listen hard enough.
I won’t put words in her mouth, but I think Georgia is grasping at some kind of dichotomy or dilemma. It’s a tug-of-war going on between the part of her that wants to dance and the part gripped by the emotional resonance, the real anger that these songs of women’s struggle, of abuse. We’re all in the game of finding something new in the old. Georgia is folding in all sorts of influences most of us didn’t consider. It can’t be overstated how great, how refreshing it is to meet someone whose goals are musical. I routinely meet aspiring professionals whose goals are mostly to do with their social media numbers. Georgia aspires to know more songs, to be a better singer. Rowan collects, publishes. Felix is sonic glue. Me? I’m mostly trying to keep up.
I’m immensely proud of this album for all sorts of reasons. Personally, because I learned a new instrument, a hard instrument, and played a few notes I’m happy with and a lot more that are perfectly adequate. Because I have a new group of talented friends who are growing and bonding and becoming a really great band. Because I’ve met a genuinely brilliant, terrifying, wild and untameable talent who loves folk music more than anyone I’ve ever met and is driven by an unquenchable thirst for more music, better music, for playing with her band.
It’s a privilege to be surrounded by people whose playing you enjoy. This is basically me gushing about how nice it is to be appreciated, and to be surrounded by people whose skill and instinct lines up in just the right way with yours that something ineffable happens. It’s a bit magic, and I’ve missed it.
You can buy Georgia’s album from all the usual places, but if you’d like to support independent music as best you can, here’s a link to my record label.
It’s been a little quiet around here, I know. I should be grateful that I’ve got plenty of work happening at the moment, which leaves little time for writing for fun. Still, I found time to put down some thoughts on the Ruth Moody gig I saw last month, and they’ve just surfaced over at theRSL.com.
Go, read, and then have a look around. Ryan and co are doing something rather special over there, and it remains an undiluted pleasure to count myself a small part of it.
I reviewed the eponymous Tender Mercies album at Ryan’s Smashing Life. It’s a great record, and an honour to write my first piece for RSL. Go and read it, then have a browse of everything else Ryan and co are doing. If you subscribe now, you’ll get his near-legendary end-of-year best of list, which never fails to unearth something that I’ve missed during the year.