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Archives: Sam Genders

2017 25 Jun

From Morrison Planetarium, San Francisco

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Stephen: I’ve always been chanting „Michelle“ with wrong words, never been keen on getting the French and English right. All I needed to know it’s that love song with this floating melody …

(noises on the tape, a kind of xylophone in the background, a hole of six minutes)

Anne: Sam Genders‘ voice is strongly rooted in a long and winding and very English road of delivering vocals – slim, clear, small brush, kind of. Most of the words I got from first hearing, though my Kentucky accent is slightly different.

David: „Dorothy“ is quite an addictive experience. He really put the poems of Dorothy Trogden into motion opening up quite different landscapes, soundwise…

Anne: Ha, yep, I think hearing these poems from a classically trained female soprano voice adding a string quartet with a knack for the Second School of Vienna, oh me, there would be no shivers down the spine …

David: This pair is a perfect match. Allow me to recite this one, called „Everything“ – „Only connect, Forster said, and I remember moments under an umbrella on a wet city sidewalk, my arm locked in another’s, our steps in sync. I lived for that even as I knew its passage. Everything is on its way to being something else, beginning or undoing, brighter than it was, or darker.“

Anne: Beautiful in its simplicity. And now really becoming something else, transported to a kind of folk idiom, neither traditional nor weird. You are literally drawn onto these these „wet city sidewalks“, everyday motives with a twist, seductive in a silent way.

Stephen: From the point of view of one of my current favorite song albums, Sam’s songs have a tiny little bit in common with Grandaddy’s recent album, that „mellow yellow“ vibe, sun-drenched, loving to let the lyrics dissolve in whispered melodies …

Anne: Hush, hush! Is it on „Winter River“ where the musicians move, for a short passage of time, into Ennio’s wide prairie territory? There are small surprises everywhere.

Stephen: There are only 50 seconds I don’t like too much, with that electric guitar at the end of one track. But, ha, even on „Sgt. Pepper’s“ there’s one whole song I don’t like, the one with the chickens in the morning.

Anne: Hopefully it will work on the new stereo mix, Stephen, You really are a Beatles maniac. „Dorothy“ feels, in moments, like stepping its toes in early English folk moods from the late 60’s. More breezy and rolling than rocking. Remember the pilgrimage of Vashti Bunyon.

David: At least that’s what they do have in common, a journey!

Anne: By the way, what are we looking at here? In this old exhibition?

Stephen: I’m not too sure. They have no guide here in the morning. It’s a stunning view, isn’t it? Mrs. Trogdon’s lines come to mind: „So just let me watch the cinema of my perceptions, let me
 catch them and let them go.“

k

– excerpts from a tape recording at Morrison Planetarium, San Francisco. Morrison Planetarium shows are fueled by cutting-edge scientific data, resulting in stunning visualizations of the latest findings, discoveries, and theories about our Universe. Every star or galaxy a viewer encounters in the planetarium precisely mirrors a real-world counterpart, and when this virtual cosmos is projected onto Morrison’s 75-foot-diameter screen, the dome itself seems to disappear, resulting in a uniquely immersive experience. You might have similar sensations listening to Diagrams‘ „Dorothy“.

Hi, Michael, I’m sitting at the kitchen table looking out at the garden as I write this. It’s a beautiful day in late spring/early summer and uncharacteristically hot and sunny for this time of year in the North of England so everything looks and feels especially perfect. The grass in warm underfoot and insects are buzzing gently between the flowers outside. Occasionally a goldfinch comes to the feeder to steal a few sunflower hearts.

I’m enjoying the weather despite being very over-tired from being away a lot with the bands (Diagrams and Throws) and am feeling calm and happy to be answering these questions. I just arrived home from teaching (I teach primary school children how to play guitar 4 days a week – I enjoy it) so I’ve also got that nice ‚just finished work‘ feeling which is probably helping create this general feeling of well being.

Inside it’s fairly cool. Basic kitchen, while floor tiles, old brown 1970’s wall tiles with harvest themed stencils and white walls. No pictures on the walls yet as we’ve been so busy since we moved in 4 years ago. Plus my wife Sofia has been unwell with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the last couple of years so we’ve de-priortised the less important things like decorating and too-much-cleaning. If you walk around to the front of the house you’ll see trees, the road and then in the distance the hills of the Peak District. 

 
 
 

 
 
 

Michael: Lyrics always have a melodic element. But if the verses are not put into simple rhyme structures, you wouldn’t normally try to sing along with them internally. What made it for you, in the very beginning, so attractive to make songs out of these poems by Dorothy Trogdon?

 

Sam: It all began by accident. I was given Dorothy’s book Tall Woman Looking by an artist / architect friend Marion McLaren who pointed out one poem in particular. The poem was called „Mnemosyne“ and dealt with identity and the self in relation to memory and inspiration, both (at least as I saw it) as non-physical entities and as parts of a physical network of neurons inside the brain, nestled inside the human skull. As I read the poem it turned itself into a song in my mind. It wasn’t an intentional attempt to adapt the poem and I did alter some of the lines and structure to fit the song that was forming itself. It was only afterwards when I had a completed song that I rather liked that I realised I’d need to contact Dorothy. I planned to ask if she would allow me to use the adapted words but I quickly became excited about the idea of asking her if she would help me to write some lyrics.

I wrote her a long rambling email explaining why I loved her poems and why I thought we would might work well together. The first part was simple – I loved her words and thought she had a great talent. Some of the poems jumped out at me … MNEMOSYNE „Under the grey thatch, beneath the bone arc of my skull …“ RON „… Seven funerals in the cemetery that day, how many stars blinked out, how many deer sank to tenor knees in the forest.“ DESIRE A HUNGRY LION. “ … Look well at the fur and claw of wildness, your brother …“

Why I thought we might write well together was that we both touched on many of the same subject matter in our words. Nature, science, doubt, the challenges of being human. I think most of all I was excited to write with someone who I felt I could learn from. I’m often invited onto projects as the main lyric writer and I love that but this felt like an opportunity to go back to school.

 

Michael: „The Sheffield-Orcas-Connection“… You travelled a long way to meet the old lady at the end of the world … 

 

Sam: Many of the images on the album come from Orcas Island and Dorothy’s surroundings and there are lots of field recordings on the record that were made on the island … the sounds of the wind in the trees and of the sea and streams. When I wrote the songs and recorded them however I hadn’t visited Orcas so all of that came to me through Dorothy’s poetry. It’s a testament to her skill that when I did finally visit Orcas I felt as if I had been there before.

 

Michael: Being a Britsh songwriter formerly filed under the rather shortminded „freak folk“-label with the first two Tunng records, it seems at least rather eccentric to join forces with a 90+ year old woman who had written her whole life but yet recently published her first collection of poems. Do you see this in a special English tradition of sidewards thinking (the „lateral drift“ once described by Robert Pirsig) and  looking for fresh ideas in areas outside of fashion and zeitgeist? Robert Wyatt has always loved this oblique way of looking at private/political things from a very singular perspective, Ray Davies wrote „The Village Green Preservation Society“ when everybody was thrilled by the summer of love, the „far out“ songs and poems of Ivor Cutler come to mind, too … 

 

Sam: I love the idea that this album could fit in with that tradition and it has inspired me to want to think more like in the future but in truth the book came to me without any intention on my part and naturally led to the first song and then to the idea of contacting Dorothy. I was just lucky. I’ve been reading some of your blogs and interviews with people like Brian Eno, Rick Holland and Karl Hyde and I feel they are good examples of people who create magic through collaboration. I feel I’ve experienced a little of that magic through working with Dorothy.

 

Michael: I heard you have that cover painting hanging in your house. It has this kind of retrofuturistic Jules Verne-like feel about it. And these poems, they have this fine balance between everyday observations and universal themes, always with a low-key tone, never a big message …

 

Sam: There was a little synchronicity here because the image existed long before the album. I found it online a few years ago and it’s by a great collage artist called Jesse Treece. I like all his work but I really loved this. I considered it for the cover of the previous album but for a few reasons it didn’t happen. When I was making the Dorothy album I wrote to Jesse and asked if he might consider letting me use it and he agreed. I was drawn not so much to any particular element but to some kind of overall sense or emotion that I got when looking at it. It was only after visiting Orcas (by which time I’d already decided to use that image) that I realised the colours and light are a great representation of the colours and light on Orcas Island.

 

Michael: „It’s only light“ – can you describe how the melody came into being?

 

Sam: There are three songs on the album that are Dorothy’s poems set to music. „Under The Graphite Sky“, „I Tell Myself“ and „Everything“. Crimson Leaves contains the entirety of Dorothy’s poem „Blue Sheet of Sky“. For the other songs the lyrics were written collaboratively. For „It’s Only Light“ I had written the title, the music, melody and chorus and I had an idea of what I wanted the verses to be about. I sent my ideas and a musical sketch to Dorothy and she responded with a beautiful poem that became the core of the lyrics and brought a real power to the song.

 
 
It’s Only Light (for Sam)
 

Morning and the sun
comes in at the window,
brings us the day
painted yellow and blue.

Shines on your hair
as you sit by the window,
shines on the coffee cups
and pitcher of cream.

everything’s brighter
newer, closer—

It’s only light.

 
 
 

 
 
 

Michael: And Dorothy’s response when she heard the album, apart from, I suppose, a big smile on her face. I imagine she grow up with a different kind of music …

 

Sam: We spoke about our shared love of choral music. Vivalidi’s Gloria. Händel’s Messiah, Arvo Part and others. Later I sent her a copy of Officium by Jan Gabarek which she loved. When I first played her the album I had arrived at her house with a CD clutched nervously in my hand. A wild deer was feeding on her lawn and 9 or so humming birds were swarming by the back door. She made coffee and we sat and listened in her front room. Afterwards she said she loved it and we were both a little emotional. And yes she smiled a lot!

 

Michael: Looking back to my favourite Tunng album Good Arrows I once wrote with deliberte enthusiasm: “ … a peak of contemporary (pop) music full of melodic surprises, laid-back thrills, hypnotic singing. Every corner in these surreal pieces is awesome and filled with weirdness and silence in equal measures. Today it has finally reached the status of one of the best English albums of the last 100 years, and, just think about it and smile, when they recorded in a London cellar room, they constantly dreamed of Californian sundowns.“ The Californian thing was what Mike Lindsay told me about it during a phoner. Fits your memory, Sam? 

 

Sam: To answer this I had to go and find an old copy of the album. It’s been many years since I looked and there are songs on there and lyrics I’d forgotten about. I think there’s an element of my own internal world and what was at the time quite a troubled mind. I wasn’t finding life easy. But it’s the sound of a troubled mind moving towards the light. There’s a sense of possibility and of special things happening when you join together with others – in collaboration, in a band, in any field of life.

There’s a touch of California perhaps – we’d not long previously been on tour in America and I think „Bricks“ might have been written in a hotel room on that tour with the sun shining outside. I’m not sure I’d have remembered that if you hadn’t mentioned it … but the Californian dream certainly fits that sense of things being possible. There are quite a few mentions of death – in „Bullets“ in particular and „Hands“. There is obviously a lot of darkness when dealing with death but I also see it as an integral part of life and part of what gives life most meaning. I think if our culture could embrace death a little more deeply we might all appreciate life and each other more.


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