FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: TELLING THE STORY
Local lockdowns and concerns about a second wave of coronavirus have scuppered plans to slowly reintroduce live music in front of physical audiences. Last month Live Nation cancelled its innovative drive-in tours planned for the UK and while a few socially-distanced gigs may still be on the summer calendar, each day brings news of such events being struck off. Over in the States, The Chainsmokers hosted what became a stand-in rather than a drive-in event in The Hamptons which drew such criticism for the crowd’s lack of spatial awareness that it is likely to have set the case for live music back even further.
If you are in or close to a big city the problem used to be: which show do I go to? Now wherever you are it’s: which live stream do I watch? These are on pretty much any time of the day, any day of the week. There is a plethora of formats – free, pay-per-view, donate to charity, tips jar, buy an album on vinyl or CD and get access to the live stream, absolutely live or pretend live. And, as always with unfettered marketing, you get way too many choices.
So, it’s refreshing that artistes can still come up with interesting angles on the live recording and broadcast concept. Young Texan singer-songwriter and producer, Chance Peña, had a novel idea. “So, I’ve been writing songs for years and probably 90% of them don’t ever see the light of day” he explained in a YouTube trailer. Noting that it’s time for that to change, he has started a new series on the channel, ‘From the Archive’. Each week he performs a stripped-down, unheard and unreleased song and uploads it to YouTube.
This song, “Talk of the Ball” was written two years ago after he found (by chance?!) an article about Marilyn Monroe 'on Twitter of all places'. The song is inspired by that story, recognising that Monroe never wanted to lead the life she led and probably, at times, looked for a way out. It ably demonstrates Peña’s skill as a writer, blending troubadour storytelling with modern musical inflections, while his lonesome tones perfectly capture the subject’s despair and desire for change. Chance Peña has an EP already in the works which is expected in September. Somehow, I feel that fans will clamour for “Talk of the Ball” to be on the following one.
With a name that sounds like a self-loading pistol though actually comes from a 19th-century typewriter, Granville Automatic, the Nashville duo of Vanessa Olivarez and Elizabeth Elkins, has announced a new EP, Tiny Televisions, out on 11 September. Building on the pair’s considerable reputation as storytellers who delve into the characterful history of their locality, the record is a companion-piece to their first book, Hidden History of Music Row, available from 31 August. The EP features fascinating songs inspired by Nashville’s lost history.
"Ice Cream" tells the story of Sarah Estell, one of Nashville’s first African-American business owners who started an ice cream shop downtown in 1855, catering for the city’s firemen, churches and politicians prior to the onset of the Civil War in 1861. "When we found out about Sarah's story, we were eager to tell it. But it was tough to figure out exactly how" explained Granville Automatic’s Elizabeth Elkins. "Her life is both inspiring - that, as both a woman and a freed African-American, she was able to operate a successful and popular business in the South prior to the Civil War - and heartbreaking”.
The duo’s research left many unanswered questions about whether Estell legally owned her husband to prevent him from being sold into slavery and how she was treated by those she served. “In the end, the song became mostly about how often things are never what they seem at first glance, and how those in power use those without it, even when something as 'happy' as ice cream is involved”, added Elkins.
Turning considerably northwards to Canada, I was delighted to come across The Sun and Her Scorch, the sophomore album from Dizzy, a quartet made up of high school friends Katie Munshaw and drummer/synth player Charlie Spencer plus his two siblings, Alex (guitar) and Mackenzie (bass). In the spirit of getting it together in the country, the band rented a cottage in Northern Ontario to develop ideas into the songs that form the new record. The follow up to 2018’s full length, Baby Teeth, and 2019 EP, Heavy / Twist, duly came out last Friday and this is the third single from the record, “Roman Candles”.
The quietly euphoric chorus lifted by Katie Munshaw’s dulcet tones contrasts nicely with the fears buried in the verses. “Roman Candles” charts a different kind of heartbreak. It channels the disconnects and anxieties that come off a long bout of touring (remember that?!) as Dizzy’s lyricist and singer contemplates how to survive as a young musician while friends around her are settling down to a more stable, suburban life. The storyline to the song essentially charts insecurities and concessions that arise from pursuing music as a career. This is brought into current focus as the band is actually slated to play at London’s Lafayette on 18 November, a gig that currently sits somewhere in the lap of the gods.
Completing this week’s quartet of stories in song is Minneapolis-raised Sarah Walk who has subsequently spent much of her time living between Los Angeles and London. Her new single, “Nobody Knows” trails her second album, Another Me, which sees the light of day at the end of this month on the newly renamed label, One Little Independent. The album directly confronts the challenges of being a queer woman: “A lot of things had been untapped in my writing until now, many of which deal with burdens that I’ve carried or felt responsible for, which I believe has a lot to do with being a woman and being queer” says Walk.
“Nobody Knows” is a story of stalling in solitude, softly hypnotic in its delivery, quite beautiful and raw in its confession: ‘I’ve been waiting for a moment to come my way / And for that I am ashamed’. The repeated line ‘What if it never comes’ then turns into a mantra. Watching the accompanying video, it is easy to picture yourself getting lost in similar distractions so that the day is done before you’ve even approached inspiration. It’s the opposite from being driven. I love the way the percussion echoes these humdrum, repetitive failings. Queer or straight, female or male; they are still totally relatable. The way in which Sarah Walk gives such a compelling voice to her feelings suggests she has learned her way out of this cycle of numbness towards a better, more knowing place.