So i wrote recently about how my guitaring got worse over the last ten yrs because i didn’t feel like a ‘guitarist’ anymore for psychological and emotional reasons. In that piece i promised to write this, to elaborate slightly on my personal observations of the connection between technical ability and frame of mind in singing/playing instruments.
It’s a connection I’ve noticed in myself many times, I play the saxophone, I’ve played it on most of my records but for several years in early 2000’s I was convinced i couldn’t get a note out of it. And while i thought that, I couldn’t. The bottom fell out of my belief in myself and it became true and just as suddenly it became untrue and i merrily toot away on it now. It’s that simple and that complicated.
But i want to talk about singing because its my main skill, the thing I’m kind of known for, you all think I’m good at it and you’re not wrong. But there isn’t a world of inherent genetic difference between you and me, I wasn’t “born with a gift” that’s bullshit. You’ve got the basic physical make-up, the vocal chords you have and so there’s some luck in that but it’s not everything. It’s a small percentage of the overall skill.
MOST IMPORTANTLY the main beauty of singing is YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE GOOD AT IT!! You’re allowed to be shit, it’s for everyone. Just open your mouth and something comes out and the act of it is proud and glorious and full of joy. However far from the melody or key you stray you’re still offering something wonderful, the art of participation.
I’m not a singing teacher or vocal coach, this is not practical, technical advice. I’ve considered it but singing and teaching other people to, is not the same skill set. So I don’t say this as a tutor i say it as the personal observation of a professional singer. These are my hot opinions not necessarily fact.
According to ME, the good singing equation is: 90% self belief + 10% technique
Going for that high note is a leap of faith, the more you believe you’ll land the other side the more smoothly you approach the jump. So go for lessons of course, they can give you great technical advice and professional support but you need to work on the other 90% just as hard. Allow yourself to fail, learn to love the sound you make, YOUR voice as it naturally, actually is. Croaky, breathy, pitchy, quiet whatever! I can think of an example of great singing in all those categories.
I know, I know easy for ‘Sweet Pipes Clarke’ to say but honestly the secret to my singing is mainly that I’ve always thought I was shit hot at it and I really wasn’t to begin with, I was average, it’s the only thing I’ve ever thought that about so I go for it…
I want to talk briefly and gushingly about some of the men behind a small unknowable thing first, it’s a very female album and it promoted that heavily BUT here are the men (& women) who helped me make that possible
The drumming on this record is standout. I’ve worked withDave Hamblett for a good few years now and his playing just gets better and better. I was clear in my mind beforehand that I wanted pulse, too many years i have wasted in a previous guise watching my fast thumbed right hand guitaring get replaced by beatless languid over complicated string meandering. So i set Dave with the task of bold, strident nippiness, he’s extremely good at blending into the meld of soft acoustic music so i had to encourage him to play out on tracks like ‘Super Recogniser’ and ‘Sit Out’, but when he gets going it’s really something to see & hear! He’s a real technical master and a perfectionist at his craft, he doesn’t quit till it’s exactly right, every hit of every beat on every drum in his kit. Luckily he’s so good it doesn’t even take long to get it so! He’s also a real collaborative person so he’s equally happy to lay down an electronic drum part and let us pass it through beat repeat and granulator.
Keyboards and Synths were central to this record sounding like it does, I began using them on ‘In All Weather’ and i wanted to continue and develop their part in my sound. Matt Robinson is one of the most laid back musicians I’ve worked with he just plays about until the sound is exactly how you want it, just wobbly enough with just the right amount of grit and fuzz, he’s never phased by anything you ask him and so quick to work out from my inexpert explanation what it is I’m trying to ask for
As someone who has worked in many studio situations with many characters, predominantly male, I was looking for something VERY specific and I had some really firm thoughts about what I didn’t want. The majority of the recording and all the mixing and mastering were done by Mike Hillier. He’s been a reknowned engineer for years and has specialised predominantly in mastering. I’ve had him master many things for me in the past and his work is always superb. I first contacted him because I had a question about mastering, I knew what i wanted but I wasn’t sure how to get it. (this is his absolute sweet spot, he always knows how to make a thing do the thing you want even if the thing you say you want isn’t exactly the thing you want! He always knows!) I was asking about how i need to record and mix the record in order to achieve my intended master. He was able to articulate this perfectly. I then realised if he was a) going to master it in the end anyway and b) knew how it should be recorded and mixed in order for that he would surely be the best person to chaperone & shape it through that process. So i took a deep breath and asked if he would, he said yes and he did. I could not be more pleased with his expertise and effort. He listened so carefully to everything I said and never forgot a note or request I made however small it was. He made great suggestions but never tried to imprint the record with a signature sound. He pushed at the boundaries of my comfort and understanding in certain mixes & subsequently this record is the pinnacle of what i have achieved to date, I learned many things and i grew as an artist in the way that is the hallmark of great collaborative work.
Alec Bowman_Clarke played the bass and equally didn’t play bass when it wasn’t needed, he was all about adding only the notes it required. Focussed entirely on the goals I had and helping me achieve them. Obviously he took the cover images, promo photos and directed the videos (there’s still a couple to come!) He’s been in his own quiet way the MOST important person to this process, his skills are superb and mighty useful but more vital is that his support is unwavering, unselfish & the reason I am here today.
Nick Turner helped with some last minute additional recording at his beautiful Watercolour Studio in Fort William, (which is essentially the local for me now I’m based in Scotland) No-one else knows better than he does how to place a TLM170 in front of my face & recording the guitars with him was fast, furious and an awful lot of fun!
Mary Ann Kennedy is a famous woman of course and she played the harp for me and it absolutely made the track, I love working with her so much and I hope to work more closely with her in the future if she’ll let me!
Other mentions include Aaron Miller who made sure every line of artwork was seamless & straight! Alison Clarke who made all those butterflies, Pias for placing just enough copies in record shops across the globe. Elizabeth Aubrey for writing a stunning bio that framed the record clearly & perfectly. Ellie Ball at SomeoneGreatPR for promoting it sensitively, supportively & superbly. Everyone who’s reviewed, played it on the radio & mentioned it, in print or online.
So it’s done and out there and I hope you like it, cos I do, I thoroughly enjoyed this process with these people, which isn’t a thing i’ve always been able to say. Thank you x
I’ve been having a clear out, literally and generally and I found two old songs i’d completely forgotten about on my computer. I’ve linked to them here. They’re not great songs, one isn’t even finished, the ones that get forgotten usually aren’t for some reason.
They were recorded in 2009 which makes them over a decade old & hearing them was a strange experience, somewhat excruciating as listening to old material can be (I’ve learned a lot since then).
But mainly it’s bittersweet because I realise just how competent the guitaring is, potentially more competent than today. It’s hard to realise that over the last decade my guitar playing got worse, not because I stopped practicing but because I stopped believing it was a thing I could do.
Psychology and emotional frame of mind have so much impact on how well we sing and play technically. (I’ve been thinking to write a whole piece about this concept at some point soon, probably entitled- ‘You’re Not Shit At Singing You’re Just Afraid’)
I stopped being able to hear my own guitar playing as it actually was, a murky fog descended and I heard nothing but incompetence and inability, this changed the way I approached it and made me worse at it. I’m only now emerging out the other side of that and my guitaring is better, I can hear that it is most days, it’s not as good as it will be one day but it’s not an abomination like I once thought!
I’m never gonna teach guitar or hold a fancy masterclass about it but I am able to play my songs on it in public, I can accompany myself, I always could. I just lost my belief in it and my professional structure didn’t encourage me, a woman, to play my guitar.
Encourage your friends, especially women, especially women in male dominated enviroments, they need that, They need you to believe that they can do it, it will help them believe that they can do it.
I lost it but I’ve found it again and my commitment to myself and my own playing is renewed and it will be all the harder to undo in the future.
As with most things right now the pandemic has altered the course and trajectory of my latest album. At the end of 2020 I went up to Watercolour studios in Fort William to put down the first bits of the record, my guitar and vocal tracks. We were then due to go again in January to record Drums, keyboards, bass etc and return with the finished article, however a change of restrictions led to a necessary change of plans.
Instead I zoomed into a session Mike Hillier, (a sound professional in all the senses) hosted, closer to home, in which Dave Hamblett and Matt Robinson (world class jazzers and friends) placed their parts upon my original tracks. All the while I barked orders from a small screen on the mixing desk, which Mike relayed over the talkback into the studio. Strange times require strange solutions and as artists we adapt, as we have always adapted, to our ever-evolving industry.
I return to Watercolour soon to record my saxophone parts and where Mary Ann Kennedy will grace my record with her ever classy harp. ( I may also coax a few free double bass notes out of my Alec Bowman_Clarke, he’s got to use that fancy bass for something!) These will all be dumped on the metaphorical internet doorstep of Mike Hillier. He will then be tasked with piecing it all together and eagerly awaiting a thousand neurotic mix notes from me…
Is this protracted patchwork the way I’d have chosen to undergo the making of this album in an ideal world? Fuck no, but am I a) fortunate enough to get to do it anyway b) dextrous enough to work in whatever way the work requires of me? Fuck yes!! I have a small and extremely carefully selected team of people involved who have also made the process as painless and pleasurable as possible.
Now, I know what you’re thinking and what you want to ask “yes but when is it coming out?” The truth is currently it’s hard to say, there is potential delay at every stage and in every aspect of the album making/releasing process at the moment. The thing I can say is I’m doing it, it’s being done now and as soon as I know, so will you. I won’t be quiet about it and there’s little chance of it passing you by…
2020 has sucked balls big time, globally, politically and personally for me in some ways I haven’t mentioned publicly. However there are a few things I’m extremely thankful for.
This August, in the midsummer lull of the pandemic, I married Alec Bowman, I became Josienne Bowman-Clarke, a double-barrelled shotgun of renewed vigour. It was a seriously weird day with NO MUSIC at all because of a bizarre series of restrictions. Hardly any guests could come and I had to wear a mask down the aisle! But it was still a glorious day, idiot-syncratic and sincere as fuck. Just like we are, he and I, for all the best and worst that that entails.
These last few years we’ve both been through a process of huge change, laying waste to a load of tired old shit and rancid ghosts from the past. We’ve begun to build new things in their place. Good things, strong things, truthful things. I’ve learned some hard lessons about myself, my family, my body, my career and my place in the world as it is for the foreseeable future.
I’m thankful for such hard truths and hard lessons for out of those we make the most growth.
I’m very hopeful for next year not because I believe the massive problems we all face will magically go away but because big change ALWAYS has positives, it shakes the dust and complacency out of us. It draws focus to what’s truly important in life and it makes us count our blessings and I am counting mine.
Next year you’ll be better, get better or you’ll learn to cope better because that’s how it works.
It is exactly 2 years today that I left a Belgian concert hall in the interval of my final gig of the final tour of the duo I’d worked in for almost a decade.
Why would I throw away a successful career? Why would I risk never playing to audiences of that size again? Why would I allow dark myth, rumour and gossip to surround it?
Why would I?
The ONLY reason it could possibly be: The secret hell I was enduring was worse than losing everything I had ever worked for. When I think back to that time and that person, she feels like someone else, someone I can reflect upon objectively. How could I ever feel anything but sympathy for a person so sad and so broken that she would abandon her entire life to be free of something?
But what is that something? A fair question but it’s hard to explain a decade’s worth of toxic, controlling, dysfunctional dynamic exerted silently and insidiously, without violence. A few paragraphs aren’t going to do that.
Let’s just say that I had to dismantle the entire framework of my career to rid my professional life of its malignance. There is not an agent, manager or label left standing.
The music business can be inherently sexist, in some small but fundamental ways. People often struggle with the idea that a woman was the songwriter, the ‘ideas man’, the project manager and the driving force behind everything we did. The myth exists that the male will be the dominant creative force and to dispel that what it requires is that male to speak it aloud, rebalance the message and overcome the perceived emasculation of that truth. I also played the guitar; I always played the guitar. I wasn’t as good as him, not virtuoso, but I was solid and wrote all the songs on it but my belief in my own playing dwindled day by day.
How did that happen?
My therapist has answers but that’s long and complicated and mostly about my relationship with my father, so instead here’s a really tangible case to illustrate what & how this happened:
We’re going to play spot the difference.
This is a recording of me playing ‘The Tangled Tree’ a song I wrote the words melody and guitar part for back in 2005 a full 4 years before I met BW,
Here is a video of us playing it in 2014, it is of course beautifully played, he’s a fantastic guitarist, this is not in question, but you will recognise every note of that guitar part from the previous recording.
We played that song for ten years, people complemented him on its guitar part all the time, not ONCE did he EVER say ‘Josienne wrote that’. Not once, he just took the compliment and the implied credit for its composition.
And there you have it, that’s my guitar composition in his pocket. It’s not criminal, he committed no crime, he’s not a terrible person. But he isn’t brave enough to give me my due and he let me suffer that myth…
It slowly became that I didn’t bring my guitar to gigs anymore. I played it less and less. I felt nervous of how bad I was at it, how I wasn’t really a guitarist, or a real musician and I became as far as many were concerned merely the singer and a lyricist, despite continuing to write all of all of the songs and giving huge input to how they ended up sounding. I was there when all ‘producing’ was happening, no decisions were made without me, I had to make concessions to someone else’s ego but there wasn’t any creative work done without me present. I didn’t have my hands on the buttons though and I didn’t own the equipment it was recorded on.
This happened in many small and subtle ways.
Here are two versions of ‘I Never Learned French’ a song I wrote, the first is the original that I demo’d up at home on my own when I first wrote it. With it’s hummed string parts and mouth trumpet they were used because its all I had to hand, and mouth! The second is the ‘BW arranged’ version from 2015’s duo release ‘Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour’, obviously it’s nicely smoothed and repackaged all shiny but have any new ideas been added? Do I not count as a composer and arranger because my arrangement was hummed in to Garageband rather than scored out on Sibelius?
Certainly not to hurt or professionally damage anyone, but an uncorrected myth allowed me to be hurt and professionally damaged. I am interested only in the truth of things and the truth is complicated and it leaves no one blameless.
I’ve just returned from the studio where I recorded all the guitar for every track of my new album myself. It felt like a thing I might not be able to do but I did it, these are all guitar-led songs, and they are led by my guitar playing which, it turns out, isn’t terrible at all. So, my point is, he took stuff from me and I let him but I’m getting it back, I’m taking it back.
It’s all going to be alright; it already is, and it gets alrighter by the day! Hold on to that thought…
I want to tell you a story, it’s a true one, but it feels like a whole lifetime ago, because it sort of is. It ends with me on the phone to my manager in tears, the kind of tears where you are so upset you can’t catch your breath, saying “please just come and get me, I can’t do it anymore, I can’t get back in the car with him, nothing I ever say or do ever makes this better, he hates me, it’s just too hard, please I can’t do it, I’ll just wait here for however long, but please come and get me, I can’t do it.”
He didn’t come and get me.
I’m sat in a motorway services carpark, we’re on our way up north from London for a festival, ‘Seedlings All’ our last ever record is in the mixing stage. BW always insisted on doing the mixing himself but I’m unhappy with the mix of ‘Ghost Light’.
(That song, the irony, IKR!)
The previous evening, I had spoken with a friend of mine, a good engineer who offered to do a mix in his spare afternoon, the next day, for me, for free, he felt he understood what I was asking for and how BW wasn’t quite on the right track. He didn’t intend for that to be used as the final mix he was simply helping nudge it the direction I wanted it to go. I had emailed BW asking him to send the files and he had sent back a garbled response about being out, or going out, giving the impression he might just not send them. This is a classic way for him to avoid doing a thing that he’s uncomfortable about. I’d been desperately reading extensively about the kind of obstructive behaviour passive aggressive’s use to withhold, so I knew how to structure a reply to make him decide on an outcome. In my email I ask, “are you refusing to send the files?” it was fine for him to refuse; I wasn’t ‘in charge’ I never had been, I never tried to be. But what I didn’t want him to do was just not send them in time and then pretend that it was merely circumstance that prevented him and make it look like me being “paranoid” and “unreasonable” for suggesting that he didn’t want to.
So, we’re discussing this, and he refers to this engineer as “your new best friend…” (anyone new who I liked, respected &/or worked with was met with instant derision behind closed doors)
BW “you’re so clever with words aren’t you, writing it that way…”
JC “I just wanted you to choose, you can refuse to send them you have the power, but you have to own up to using it, you can’t have it both ways, that’s silent obstruction you’re extremely passive aggressive, I’ve been reading about it…”
BW “well you’re a narcissist…” he seethes at me, making that face, the face he only makes to me, the last face I ever saw of him when I left the concert hall in Belgium.
BW “you’re trying to push me out of the duo…”
How could I do that? By its very name and nature, it is a thing that contains two people. It belies the belief, in his head, that I am the one without which none of it exists. If that’s true, why not just take care of me?
But I didn’t push him out, I jumped.
Like one would from a car careering off a cliff, or a building on fire.
All good things must come to an end and all terrible things end too and this was both and it’s definitely over! Enjoy all the records, honestly do, but let me be free of him, the most painful episode in my life and let him have a thing he can own.
Finally to my point: I’m in the process of making a new album now, it comes out next year. I’ve written all the songs, I’ve played all the guitars, I’ve arranged them. There are a few other musicians but I will tell them what to and what not to play. I am the ONLY producer, I am producing it. I have organised the financing of it, it’s coming out on Corduroy Punk Records, a label that I created and run. So please, no more mention of people that weren’t involved. They’re doing their own things that have nothing to do with me. This is the line where it ends please, I just want to be credited with the thing that I did and experience has taught me this is the only way to ensure that.
I can’t wait to share it with you. It’s tense and angry and sad and resigned and resolved and jubilant and full of triumph and love and most of all it is ALL MINE. x
“Bright lights rise out, and over, the fire”*
*Lyrics from ‘The Tangled Tree’ written in its entirety by Josienne Clarke in 2005.