More interviews will be coming soon. Stay tuned!
(This was originally published in WE, a weekly Vancouver newspaper, in 2008, and the London-based fanzine Twee as Fuck, in January 2009.)
Rose Melberg is 36. But when she sits down to be interviewed in a Vancouver restaurant, she looks as though she might have just come from one of the city’s college campuses after finishing the first semester of her freshman year. So youthful and unassuming is her appearance, in fact, that nothing betrays her actual history: more than 15 years of music-making that, despite several extended gaps of inactivity, is renowned in indie-pop circles around the world for its bounty of bravery, beauty, and considerable influence.
Yet here Melberg sits, in the neighbourhood she has called home for over two years, in a city where she remains all but anonymous. Not that she seems to mind — after all, this is an artist who has seemingly fashioned an anti-career, intended to defy expectations and short-circuit forward momentum. The truth, of course, is somewhat more complicated.
(This was originally published in the London-based fanzine Twee as Fuck, January 2009.)
Whatever your personal definition of indie-pop, it should accommodate mention of Marine Girls. Alongside the Postcard Records stable of artists and the likes of the Raincoats and Delta 5, the teenage quartet’s music was both an extension of punk and a path beyond it — gentle but assured, alternately humourous and romantic, and unashamedly feminine. Although the band (from Hertfordshire county, near London) lasted little more than two years, from 1981-’83, its influence has spanned the globe and endured for more than 25 years, thanks largely to the songs’ unique charms but also to the ongoing success of Tracey Thorn, who played guitar and shared vocals with Alice Fox. Gina Davidson is perhaps among the most obscure aspects of the Marine Girls biography, despite having co-founded the band with Tracey and sung on their debut cassette, A Day by the Sea, and official debut album, Beach Party. She unceremoniously departed soon after the latter’s release (for reasons finally revealed below), after which a reconfigured trio recorded the album Lazy Ways and landed on the cover of Melody Maker. Happy and healthy and still making music, Gina graciously agreed to this all-too-rare interview.
(This was originally published in WE, a weekly Vancouver newspaper, in December 2010.)
It sold only modestly and generated few headlines, but Tracey Thorn’s Love and Its Opposite is, in its quiet way, among the more distinctive and remarkable albums of 2010 — not only for its sound but for what it says.
Thorn is best known as the voice of Everything But the Girl (EBTG), the duo she formed with partner Ben Watt in 1982. After more than a decade of ebb-and-flow popularity in Europe and Japan, EBTG unexpectedly experienced worldwide chart-topping success with 1995’s “Missing,” both in its original pop-ballad form and as a remix that made it over into one of the saddest dance songs of all time. Thorn stepped away from music at the turn of the millenium to raise her and Watt’s children, reemerging in 2007 with Out of the Woods, a solo album that further justified her reputation as the queen of “bedsit disco” — a self-coined, self-deprecating reference to EBTG’s late-career fusing of personal, melancholy lyrics with euphoric dancefloor melodies and beats.
The Holidaymakers, a 2005 fan documentary about the Clientele, begins with home-video footage from the early ’90s of the nascent London band — probably just out of their teens at the time — rehearsing in a suburban backyard while the light of a stunning summer’s day begins to fade. Thanks to a combination of outdated technology, a worn and possibly oft-copied videotape, and the perfectly imperfect shadows and sunspots that only nature can provide, the footage is unintentionally, unbearably poignant: a surviving materialization of the blurred memory of lost youth, still tangible but beginning to erode, and all the more beautiful for its apparent fragility.
The Clientele, who announced their possibly permanent hiatus last year, evolved gradually but impressively during almost two decades together. Yet virtually everything the band was about — its mood; its sense of place; its tightrope walk between reality and dream state, elation and melancholy — is represented in that minute of video. Singer-guitarist Alasdair MacLean’s songs, supported by the understated but exceptionally intuitive playing of bassist James Hornsey and drummer Mark Keen (and, from 2006 onward, multi-instrumentalist Mel Draisey), consistently projected a poetic and sonic worldview that sought to sustain those rare moments when life achieves a sort of magic, all the while resigned to the knowledge that those moments become nothing more than memories virtually as soon as we recognize them happening.
It seems inconceivable now that there was a time, not very long ago, when a slew of new bands claimed to be influenced by, and sought to match the beauty and ambition of, the likes of Burt Bacharach, the Beach Boys, the Free Design, and other well-known and obscure practitioners of orchestral pop and easy listening from the 1960s and early ’70s.
The movement — often referred to at the time as “orch-pop” — was a fleeting one, and it ultimately produced little of worth. Most of the participating bands had neither the technical skills nor the songwriting talent to be of use to a style of music whose success is exceptionally dependent on both. Their hearts were undoubtedly in the right place: It was the late ’90s, and something needed to be done to redress the increasingly diminished horizons of indie-rock and the dregs of grunge, wherein seeming to not try very hard — and being palpably miserable doing so — was worn as a badge of honour. Here was an opportunity to hark back to a time when popular music had yet to be saturated with irony, when a sincere belief in the transformative power of pretty music was nothing to be ashamed of. That so much of the results sounded like Sebadoh and a seasick woodwind section covering “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” didn’t diminish the value of the bands’ intentions, but neither did it redeem the painful experience of listening to them.
At some point — I don’t know what may have been said to trigger it — I stepped out of myself for a moment and recognized the wonderful strangeness of the situation in which I found myself.
I was sitting having tea with Gregory Webster, who, as one-half of the band Razorcuts, sang and co-wrote some of my favourite music of the 1980s. Gregory had become a semi-regular visitor to my former home of Vancouver from his home in Oxford, England, so the infrequent correspondence we’d been maintaining for several years had suddenly granted me, on two occasions thus far, the opportunity to have lunch with the man. It was strange not because I felt like a fan holding court with his hero; I’m too old, and have met far too many musicians, to be swept up in adulatory awe (although I can still clearly remember listening almost daily to Razorcuts’ Storyteller album as a 19-year-old, which is as good a teenage memory as any I have). It was strange because their music, like the music of so many bands I listened to then, was created in — and received with — what felt like such obscurity that it never occured to me it would still have resonance in my (or anyone else’s) life almost 20 years later. Their gentle, romantic, exceedingly hopeful-sounding music seemedto me to come from another planet, and seemed so unpopular (although I later found that was not the case) that I expected it to disappear as quickly and mysteriously as it had arrived. Perhaps its makers didn’t actually exist.
But, of course, Gregory very much exists, and is still occasionally making great music (in the early 2000s with Sportique, and most recently under his own name), and was very kind to listen to me talk incessantly, like I do whenever I have an indulgent audience. And it was during that largely one-way conversation that I told him I don’t write very much anymore, partly because my job as an editor means I spend too much of my time honing other people’s writing, but more because the nature of the music press nowadays means no one wants to publish features — or even reviews — about the bands I’m most interested in. I plan to start a blog, I told him, because no one else is going to give me a decent forum, and as well as wanting to share my enthusiasm with others, I want the opportunity to actually talk to the people who make the music that excites me. I assume them to be nice, interesting people who know how to give good conversation, and there are few things I love more than good conversation.
Hence, the Music is Love blog. Yes, I’m probably setting myself up for some ridicule with that name, or at least some misunderstanding. Yes, it’s the name of a David Crosby song (a good one), but I didn’t choose it for that reason. More than the song itself, I’ve always loved the sentiment of the title: it’s earnest and baldly romantic and, thus, very unfashionable. But while so many other music journalists (and a good deal of the bands they champion) tie themselves in knots to not seem deeply emotionally invested in the art form from which they strive to make a living, I prefer to project total devotion. I am completely, hopelessly, slavishly in love with music, and if my purpose as a journalist isn’t to communicate the depth and breadth and complexity of that love, I don’t know what reason there is for doing this.
So, yes: Music is Love. And off we go.
(A confession: This was written in 2008, for a blog that never came to fruition. I’ve recycled it here because I still agree with all of it. And because it’s lunchtime.)