The story behind ... 'Basket'

If you've been to a gig and seen us perform 'basket' then you'll know exactly what it's about.  If you haven't yet heard it, here's the story.  I'm not usually a morning person, so on the rare morning that I got up early and went out and about I saw a strange sight.

From one of the flats near to where I live I saw a woman lowering a wicker basket down to the shop below, which they filled with items, took money, and she reeled back up again.  They were chatting away and it was apparent that this was a regular if not daily occurrence.  I found this charming, interesting and completely alien to the little town of Ipswich where I live.

This is the kind of thing that happens in provincial villages in France, or on some black and white film during a 'meet cute'.  The whole scenario got me thinking about the ways we ask for what we want.  This interaction was so pure and uncomplicated; items were requested, money was exchanged and everybody was happy.  Yet so many interactions I see these days involved unsaid words and hidden meanings.  This is what inspired the song.  I saw a person ask for what they wanted and receive exactly what they had asked for.  But more than that, I felt that I was witnessing something magical and blessed.

Now I know that as a songwriter I look at most things and think; 'there's a song in that'! But usually I'm writing to try to understand a thing, to see the heart of it and to lay it bare.  In this instance I wrote in order to be part of that beautiful interaction.  Here's to the courage and candor to ask for what you want in the hope that you may actually get exactly that!
Here's a video of 'Basket' played live at the Arbor House in March.

The Story behind... 'Women of History'

This song is written for the crafters out there.  The people who take ordinary, run of the mill things and make something beautiful and soul felt.  The inspiration for this piece struck at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket where I visited a patchwork quilt exhibition. Underneath each patchwork was written the name of the town in which it was made.  There were no individual names and no way of finding out who's handiwork had created the beauty in the design. 

I began to think about the reasons we are remembered and the legacy we leave behind us.  Most of us are not written about or published in the history books.  Women even less than men, certainly up until now.  I'm also not sure that I trust the gatekeepers of the written word, to commemorate either honestly or judicially. But I like beautiful things, and I am fascinated by the history embodied within the clothes, trinkets and objects that survive the years and ages.

In 'Women of History' I write about women being 'lost to the pages of time' and how their stories are sewn into the fabrics that they stitched.  I speak of sitting at my mother's feet as she spun wool on an antique spinning wheel. I am one of four children and we were each given a drop spindle to create our own thread.  This is torture for children! The spindle would drop and the thread would break so that mum was forever stopping her spinning to reattach our thread and start us off again.  I remember that mum would tell us stories.  She retold one of these on a family holiday many years later; four teenagers sat around while she relaid 'Billy Goats Gruff' with all of the voices I remember.  Family stories are oral, fallible and priceless.

This is the gold of life.  The soul to life.  It's not likely to find space on the written page or within a bound book.  But it forms the flesh of my song and the joy of everyday existence.  I am aware that the freedoms to choose and to simply 'be' were hard won by people who had few choices and freedoms themselves.  We walk in their footsteps and bask in the sun that they made rise.  Some of these people are recorded, countless more are found in our genealogies and attics and within the things that they have made by hands worn raw.

As much as this song is written to remember women; I have noticed that it is husbands, brothers, fathers who come up at gigs to tell me about the wonderful women in their lives who create beautiful things and leave their mark.  So for those who create: sewing; weaving; whittling; throwing and countless other crafts.  This song is a monument.  It is recorded.  Not in a history book, but if I leave nothing else behind, they can find us in the invisible grooves of the CD and in the sounds echoing through the ages.  These women make history.

Mum doing Raku Pottery - forever crafting!

The Story behind Frida...

Frida is written about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.  When I explain this at gigs some people instantly know who I'm talking about and others go away and look her up. They then realise that her picture has become an iconic image that is instantly recognised without always being named.

When I first saw Kahlo's paintings I was drawn to the ghoulish images of birth and the way she played with gender identity, often painting herself as a man or specifically as her husband Diego Rivero.  Frida was her own muse and her own subject and she describes her work and her image as 'making herself up'.  This was the name of the recent exhibition at the V&A, which I visited having already written my song about the artist.

I don't claim to be an expert on Frida Kahlo and will happily bow to the knowledge of others.  In writing the song I was awe inspired by Frida's strength and creativity and wanted to pay homage to this in my own work.  Let me explain some of the imagery included in my song with the hope that it gives an insight into my love of Kahlo and her impact on my view of female power and creativity.

Firstly, I am well aware that her bones were not actually made of glass.  But the amount of times that her bones were broken they may as well have been.  Frida had Polio as a child and then was involved in a devastating bus crash in her teens.  The result was that she was in great pain much of the time and lived her life in various plaster corsets and frames that literally held her together.  Later in the song, when I talk about Frida's wishes coming true and living in jars, I refer to her deep wish to have a child and her many pregnancies that miscarried early.  Frida painted her foetuses and used painting to express her loss and pain in a way that many women relate to.  Her babies were 'frozen in time', and I can't imagine the hurt of this.

I refer to Frida's marriage to Diego as a cage made of rings.  This is really my own personal experience coming through and I know that its heavily debated about the impact Diego and Frida had on each other and each others' works.  Until Frida's house was unsealed, and her  possessions and secret things were analysed; it was thought that Frida dressed the way she did to please her husband.  We now know that Kahlo paid great attention to what she wore and how she presented herself to the world.  Her large skirts hid a prosthetic leg and the difficulty she had in walking.  The flowers imbued life and vitality.  Photos and narratives suggest that Frida fully dressed up whether she was home alone or out in the world.  She was as much creating her own sense of self as she was an outward presentation.  This is why I write: 'every day a brush paints a picture I long to portray'. 

'Paint away' has a dual meaning.  It's about getting lost in the moment, but also erasing and then creating an image.  There is a sketch by Frida Kahlo in which she covers her bad leg in butterflies underneath her skirts.  I love this image.  To me it says, know your faults and make them beautiful. I believe we create the person we want to be every day and Frida inspires that in me. 

Frida urges me to write more honestly and clearly.  To perform authentically and sing out my truth to all that will listen.  And to be more myself everyday, because that's the only thing I can offer to the people around me.  I can feel that my writing is getting deeper and more personal and I sometimes feel like I have to swim up to the surface and check that this is still a pool people can relate to.

'Hope rests eternal' is the motif that rings out from the chorus of this song.  Hope is at the root of and underlies what we strive to create as humans.  It's what makes our souls sing and fly.  More than any other of my songs, I hope that the overwhelming message in 'Frida' is hope.

My dress choice was inspired by the vibrancy of Kahlo's paintings.

The Story behind the Song... James Watt 1812

I thought I'd begin a new series of blog posts about what inspired the songs I write and giving some insight into the way I write my songs. So here goes... 

For those of you who know me or have chatted to me at gigs or events you will know that I love to write a song with a story.  It can be about a person who has inspired me or caused me to think; or about a situation I've experienced myself or read about from history.  Most of my songs are narrative songs and they cross over quite neatly into storytelling.

This particular song: James Watt 1812 was written in response to a songwriting brief set whilst I was doing a Masters in Music at UWS in Ayrshire.  It was for Glasgow's 'Steam to Green' to celebrate developments in technology that are ECO friendly and ground breaking.  Not being an engineering connoisseur, I hadn't heard of James Watt before this assignment was set.  I duly took myself up to Greenock to walk along the river near where James Watt was born and to seek out inspiration.

My inspiration actually came the more I dug into the history of Watt's revised engine and the different industries it was sold to as part of the Industrial Revolution and streamlining employment in factories.  I discovered that in 1812 a law was passed stating that anybody who sabotages Watt's engine could be hung.  Subsequently 7 textile factory workers were put to death after they lost their jobs and fought back against the machine that they felt was responsible. 

Interestingly the law was passed in the House of Lords by the owners of the businesses being affected, and one of the only people to stand up to the vote was Lord Byron who aside from his poetry gets a mixed press in the history books.

To explain some of the other themes within the song; the flow of the river is so linked to Watt because he was the son of a shipbuilder.  Watt's father appears to be a very understanding man from my research.  He fully supported his son leaving the family business and pursuing his own dreams in London.  And when James Watt returned to Scotland only to be refused work by the guild, he continued to follow his dreams by taking a job at the University. 

Watt's success seems to hinge partly on the partnerships he made.  Watt teamed up with two business men over the course of his life.  This allowed his inventions and discoveries to be patented and sold within a business arena that Watt shied away from.  It makes me think of the music industry and the difference between writing songs or playing gigs, compared with getting booked and navigating all of the non-music aspects of the industry that are now so vital.

Watt was survived by his son, who he had a close relationship to.  In the final verse of the song I sing about how Watt feels about passing his legacy on and looking to the future.  Watt was a thoughtful and moral man.  He had the idea for how to improve the steam engine on a Sunday and waited to work on this idea until Monday because he was respecting the sabbath.  The idea came when he was on one of his long walks beside the river and when I imagine Watt, I always see him on a river bank in deep and methodical thought.

You can watch the video of James Watt 1812 in the video section of this website.  Funnily enough, when I played it to the 'Steam to Green' people, they felt it was too political and not suited to the brief, which may be truth.  But for me, it's a folk song that fits completely with both my style of writing and reason for writing songs.  It also goes down well with the more technical audience members in juxtaposition to a song like 'Women of History' which is loved by crafters and creatives (not that you can't be both of course!).  Whenever I play the song live I learn something new from audience members who relate wholly to James Watt and his way of thinking.  I'm always impressed by the amount of knowledge people keep in their heads ready to share when some upstart songwriter writes about a feat of engineering!

I hope this gives you a bit of an insight into the inspiration behind the song.  Please do comment; I hope to write about my songs in a way that answers your questions and satisfies your curiosity, so let me know which aspects most interest you.  As always I look forward to playing for you at one of my gigs and mostly to meeting you and talking about the stories that make up a life. 
See you there, Hols

Happy New Year!

Photo by Lindsey Saunders

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the wonderful audience who graced us with their singing voices and applause on 21st December at St Peter's on the Waterfront.  I truly felt that there was magic in the air and I rode that cloud for the rest of the Christmas season.

I was honoured to be joined on stage by not only Silbury Hill, but also the melodious Belinda Shave on the Cello.  Much thanks to David, Scott and Belinda.

For those of you that were unable to come along at such a busy time of year, my new years resolution is to do more music! We are in the process of booking gigs, sending the upcoming album 'Stretching the Sky' for reviews and generally filling the air with creativity.

We - meaning the illustrious band of Sarah Wil, Steve Mann and Kev Abbott - very much look forward to seeing you at one of our gigs in the coming months and wish you all the best for the New Year.

I believe that 2019 is going to be a storm of beauty!

Here are some more pics from the evening - with thanks to Lindsey Saunders who once again shared her photography talents.
Silbury Hill
Belinda Shave
Left to right: Belinda Shave; Kev Abbott; Sarah Wil; Holly D Johnston; Steve Mann

Album Launch

On the 21st December we shall be performing the new Album 'Stretching the Sky'at St Peters on the Waterfront (Ipswich). We are so excited about this and will be sharing some holiday cheer with mince pies, mulled wine and some Christmas carols too.

Tickets are available from the St Peters website and cheaper if you get them in advance. The album will be for sale at £10 as well as the much loved previous releases. We are always so overwhelmed by how amazing the audiences are. Please do come and join us for what hopes to be a magical evening on the Winter Solstice.

James Watt 1812

Here is preview song from the upcoming album.  This is about James Watt and how he may have felt when the Frame Breakers Act was passed in 1812.  The river mentioned in the song is in Greenoch where James Watt was born.  I took a walk there when I was writing this.  The stream in the video is at Needham Market and equally as beautiful and somewhat closer for me now.  Hopefully a thought provoking song.