The quest to find the black squirrels of Cambridge

As soon as I heard that there were black squirrels in Cambridge, I knew that this was something I had to see. The only time I’d ever witnessed one before was in Belgium, of all places, and at the time I thought I was going mad. In fact, I’d spent hours convinced it was some sort of small, squat pine marten until I found out that black squirrels were a thing that actually exists. Then I started questioning all squirrels I saw, which I’d never really paid attention to before. Had grey squirrels, for example, suddenly started having white tummies, or had I only just started noticing them? Needless to say, I was eager to go through this harrowing and existential experience once again.

My informant told me that black squirrels can be spotted at two Cambridge colleges: Churchill and Girton. But how did they get there? Well, as a “melanistic” mutation of the Eastern Grey Squirrel, it made sense to assume that they can be found anywhere that grey squirrels exist.

Grey squirrels, as we all know, were brought over from the Americas as a fancy pet and proceeded to drive out our smaller, cuter reds. Given their reputation as invasive “tree rats” nowadays, it’s hard to believe quite what a highly-prized status symbol they were at first. One of the things that’s always driven it home for me is a fancy oil painting in Wolverhampton art gallery, displaying a family of Georgian nobility decked out in their finest attire. And right at the centre, there’s a grey squirrel on a silver chain:

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The Family of Sir Eldred Lancelot Lee, by Joseph Highmore, 1736 – can you spot the grey squirrel?

Little did we know that Cambridge’s squirrels would turn out to have a rather more intriguing past…

And so, on a sunny Saturday, me and my trusty Executive Squirrel Assistant set out to the first of the squirrel-heavy locations.

1. Churchill College

Named after the stalwart prime minister who shepherded the UK through the blitz, you would think the college would look a little less dystopian and futuristic…

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But it still had its fair share of nature and rustic features, so we kept a beady eye out for any shadows moving among the trees…

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We did hear a few skittering sounds and spotted a couple of grey tails whipping through the branches, but as we made our way past the oddly picturesque compost bins and out to the final line of trees at the end of the college, we still hadn’t seen any of the promised sable beauties. I was fine with this – I didn’t actually expect to spot any, and was just happy to have an excuse for a quest. But then we stumbled through the trees, we found ourselves somewhere entirely different…

2. The Astronomy Department

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Tall, ivy-clad domes loomed over us and we realised we had wandered in among the uncanny observatories of the Astronomy department. And here, there were far more grey squirrels, who were unnervingly tame. We even managed to photograph one…

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And where there are higher numbers of grey squirrels, there must surely be more chance of spotting a black one. Spurred on, we made our way through the towering pines and redwoods, but it wasn’t until we were finally attempting to stop trespassing and exit the site that I saw it – not one, but TWO beautiful black squirrels, streaking up the tree in front of us.

I was absolutely delighted! Especially since I’m NEVER the first to spot things – that’s why I’m not into birdwatching, despite writing for a bird charity. But this time, I’d done it! Sadly, they were too fast to photograph. My Executive Squirrel Assistant left a handful of presciently-purchased cashews on the edge of the table and we waited for a while, but they didn’t return.

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And so we set off towards our next destination, passing through one of the strangest places in Cambridge:

3. A brief detour to Eddington

This is one of the most sinister places I’ve ever been. It’s a brand new village on the outskirts of Cambridge, built specifically as overspill housing for academics. Much of it is still being built, creating a bizarre vista when you look out across cranes and skeleton apartments to the countryside beyond. Much of what has been built is still empty, and even for those poor souls who have already moved in, there must be something very odd about living in a village designed from scratch all in one go, rather than springing up organically over centuries. A strange shrimp kite – or was it a squid? Fluttered from a tree as we approached the village, and I attempted to appear three times in a panoramic vista.

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But soon enough, we shrugged off its sinister atmosphere and set off to our second destination:

4. Girton College

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This is like an adorable version of the Blair Witch Project

-Executive Squirrel Assistant

I really really love this college. It’s so harsh and Victorian! It’s just how I imagine the desolate boarding school in the middle of a moor that Eustace and Jill escaped from at the start of the Silver Chair. It’s also the closest anything has ever come to the building I dreamed about in my song “School for Lost Souls”.  And there are so many ravens! It’s just great.

After a brief detour to their orchards for some scrumping and a packed lunch of peanut butter and crisp sandwiches, we set off through its grounds, seeing nothing at first. But then, suddenly, while my Executive Squirrel Assistant was taking a photo of something completely different…

I mean, you still can’t see any of the squirrels – but at least you can see our reaction to them. And with the lens flare and the shaky camera, you certainly can’t say it isn’t atmospheric!

Oh, all right, fine. We did manage to get a sneaky photo of ONE:

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Can you see it?

And after that, we started seeing absolutely loads of them! About 20 or 30 at least, frolicking alongside their grey fellows. And that’s when we started noticing strange things about them. For example, they seemed bigger than their grey counterparts. Surely this couldn’t be possible if it was just a colour mutation? Maybe the fact that they were black just made them stand out more and their outline look bigger? Not only that, but they were different shades – some were solid black (reminding me of the Black Rabbit from Watership Down – maybe they were there to ferry the souls of the grey squirrels to the afterlife?) – but others seemed more of a brown-black – and I could have sworn one had a tan tummy. This required further exploration…

The true origin of Cambridge’s black squirrels

My research took me to places I never could have imagined. Firstly, I found that black squirrels aren’t just a rare mutation of grey ones – in fact, in some places they used to be the main colour morph. In the deep, dark forests of the Eastern United States, for example, their black fur used to give them an advantage over greys – but now, deforestation is overturning this trend. And not only does the mutation make them have a higher concentration of melanin pigment in their fur – it also makes them bigger, better at defending their territory and more attractive to females. No wonder it had spread so fast at Girton!

In fact, I found that at Girton, three quarters of the squirrels there are black! No wonder they were so easy to spot. I felt a little less proud of my observation skills, but no less intrigued. And then I found out something else – scientists had analysed the genes of Cambridge’s black squirrels, and found that they were actually more similar to modern squirrels living in America than they were to the ones in this country. So they aren’t actually mutant local squirrels. Instead, the story goes that, thanks to novelty of their monochrome fur, some black squirrels were captured from America and displayed a fancy menagerie at a posh manor house, from which they escaped.

And so history repeats itself once again…

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A Tale of Two Apple Days: a Photo Essay

It’s that time of year again, folks – APPLE time!!!! Having been raised by a apple-mad dad who turned our entire suburban garden into an orchard and took us to the amazing all-singing all-dancing Ironbridge Gorge apple day every year, my standards are pretty high. So imagine my delight when I found that there were not one, but TWO apple days going on in Cambridge: the low-key, homegrown Murray Edwards College apple day, and the classy Cambridge Botanical Gardens apple day. Below I review and compare both, because why the ruddy heck not?

Saturday: Murray Edwards College apple day

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Too many young people and too many apples.

-my housemate

She had a point. We arrived to find that the entire place was overrun with hoodlum whippersnappers, or “students”, as they are commonly known. To us, some of the Freshers looked like actual children, and we couldn’t remember (or imagine) ever looking that fresh-faced and idealistic. However, once the existential crisis had worn off, we were able to start exploring and soaking in the “vibe”. I’ll start with the positives:

1. It was free

And when I say free, I mean everything was free – Murray Edwards College has its own orchard, so this knees-up was plainly an excuse for them to get rid of as many of their apples as they possibly could. We even saw a squirrel carrying one on the way in, which we interpreted as a good omen. So it wasn’t just free to get in – there was also free apple juice…

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Free apple pie (which all three of us had to eat out of a single cup, because the bowls ran out the minute they managed to replace the spoons, which had also run out…)

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Free giant marshmallows, which we melted on a lovely fire:

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2. There was a lovely fire

There’s nothing as wonderfully Autumnal as the smell of wood smoke and searing sugar. After I’d melted (well, burned) my marshmallow, I was advised to put biscuits on it to create what is known as a “smore.” But I’m not entirely sure I did it right…

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3. The apples were pulped and pressed on-site

Just like any self-respecting apple day, the apple pulping and pressing was happening right under our very noses, with the bitter scent of crushed pulp fresh in the air and the juice poured by straight from the weird machine thing:

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4. There was a lovely dog

It just added something to the atmosphere, you know?

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4. There were cool crafts

Roll over potatoes, there’s a new plant-based stamp in town…

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But there were also some negative points…

1. The apple bobbing was too character building

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I mean, usually there’s at least a little stalk or something you can bite onto. But in this case, the apples had absolutely no purchase at all, and I ended up feeling like I was being waterboarded…

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In the end, I just gave myself one as a reward for my ordeal. It was delicious!

2. The music was too quiet

The Murray Edwards choir was lovely, but you had to get up pretty darn close to know that…

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Then there was a duo who had made some quite… interesting fashion choices. They both had ginger hair, and had opted to wear matching tops that also matched their auburn locks. Perhaps it was their “unique selling point.” Their guitar-backed vocal harmonies created a  mellow, Simon and Garfunkel-esque soundtrack to our peregrinations, but again, they really were too quiet – even though there was a PA system! They obviously hadn’t turned it up to eleven…

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3. There really were too many young people.

My housemate put it best when she said that the clientele of adorably traditional events like Apple Day usually make her feel younger, whereas here, the opposite was true – and we all started getting rather existential…

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But then again, there were cool straw bales. And we did all have a lovely time!

Score: a solid 7/10

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A little while after this photo was taken, my housemate insisted we go home due to “apple fatigue”. But that wasn’t an option for me! So the next day, I was onto the next one…

Sunday: Cambridge Botanical Gardens apple day

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This had better be worth the £8

-my colleague

As you can imagine, this was an enterprise of a whole different scale. Rather than accidentally gatecrashing a college event (which I fear is what happened on Saturday), this bonanza was the highlight of the Cambridge social calendar, which had both up and down sides. We’ll start with the positives:

1. Cambridge Botanical Gardens are beautiful in Autumn

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2. I mean really, really beautiful

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3. There was an apple identification stall!

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My apple, which I had brought from my garden, caused quite a bit of controversy and intrigue as nobody in the tent seemed to be able to work out what it was. It was passed around the tent from expert to expert as they hummed and hawed and talked about ridges and sepals and other bizarre parts I never knew apples had. Finally, one of them shouted “listen! It squeaks when I rub it!” which somehow apparently meant that it was a Lane’s Prince Albert cooking apple. “Prince Albert” because it was named to commemorate the monarch’s visit to the orchard, and “Lane’s” after the outraged gardener who had actually invented the breed, and added his name on afterwards in disgruntlement at the mustachioed monarch stealing his glory.

4. There was delicious food

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From food vans outside to a whole market inside, there was no limit to the fancy schamcy food on offer. I would particularly recommend the gloriously creamy Cambridge Blue cheese. Perfection!

However, there was one item of food that proved the source of a particularly fervent quest. My American colleague insisted that we find out if there were any “caramel apples” left and, thinking this was just the American way of saying “toffee apple”, I allowed her to lead us on a film noir-style odyssey from stall to stall until we finally arrived, tousled and out of breath, at a van that possessed the last three such items in the entire garden. We had purchased two when, hot on our tails, a small child arrived in pursuit of the third one. As my colleague put it, “I would have felt bad if I’d taken the last one, but I still would have taken it.”

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However, no sooner had she taken a bite than she recoiled in horror. “This isn’t a caramel apple!” She exclaimed. “Caramel apples are soft!” When I suggested our brittle, inedible toffee version was more “character building”, she went into a diatribe about the British habit of “taking a perfectly good food and making it worse”. This didn’t stop both children and adults from running up to us and asking where we’d purchased these much-desired items, and us having to turn them away in disappointment.

5. There were Morris dancers!

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Through the trees, we could see them mustering. They were definitely up to something. But by the time we got there, they’d finished their routine and were making a beeline to the beer tent. I’ve always thought Morris dancers were flighty creatures. They only perform for about three minutes at a time, after which they run off for another half hour break, and I always seem to miss their set. But this time, we stuck around. And after a while, they started doing things again:

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The Morris dancers were a particular source of fascination to my German colleague, who had never seen anything like them and kept asking “Why do the do it? What is it for?”. I couldn’t really think of any way to explain it, really, except that the Spanish have the Flamenco, the Argentinians have the tango, and the English… have Morris dancing.

But apart from the customary flightiness of the Morris dancers, there were a couple more negatives:

1. You had to queue for everything

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Not only did you have to pay for entry (£8!) and food, but the event was a victim of its own success. It’s a good job I went into the apple-tasting tent last year, because this was the queue for it this year. Luckily, I could still remember the experience of sampling slices of hundreds of different apple varieties, and no-one else seemed that enamored of the prospect, so we moved on.

2. Some of the food stalls had some rather bizarre signage…

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But all in all, I would say that the £8 was worth it, and we did have some very jolly and non-existential fun, in stunning surroundings! So I’d give it a shining 8/10.

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Well, I hope you enjoyed this apple-themed romp! And don’t forget to tune in for my next extremely rock n roll adventure, where I’ll try to make soap out or conkers! The fun never ends…

Why I’m Crowdfunding My New Album

Hullo folks!

It’s been a while since I last posted here, and in the intervening time there have been quite a few changes, including a new job, a new home town, and, most relevantly, a veritable smorgasbord of new songs!

Those of you who are familiar with my music will know that I’ve brought out four six-song EPs so far, each one entirely under my own steam. This isn’t because I have anything against crowdfunding – in fact, think it’s a fantastic idea. But the first EP at least was brought out almost entirely on a whim, before most people even knew I made music, and possibly before crowdfunding was even a thing. And from then onwards, I simply reasoned that if I could finance it myself, I might as well – I’m a big fan of the DIY movement, and a few songs every couple of years, burned on my own computer and sold in handmade CD cases, certainly wouldn’t break the bank. Bandcamp is also fantastic for selling digital albums, which of course have no printing costs at all.

However, this time, it’s different – and these are the main reasons why:

1. There are twice as many songs

Since last summer, I’ve written 13 new songs – more than I’ve ever written before in such a short space of time. There are even a couple of other ideas in the pipeline, which may or may not appear on the final album. I think one of the reasons for this influx is that I’ve become more confident (or reckless!) in my songwriting. I used to dismiss a lot of ideas out of hand before I’d even developed them, but recently I’ve been finishing the songs anyway, and then seeing whether they’re any good – and often, these songs have turned out to be some of the best. Last December, I also gained a piano, which has expanded my musical range further. This album is going to be more varied, and take more risks, than any of the previous ones, and I think it’ll be better for it.

Not only that, but despite the dramatically changing music industry, there’s still something nice about having a “proper” full-length LP to flog. It feels professional and real person-y, and more suited to the point I’m at now with my music.

All of this means is that I basically need to pay my excellent producer, Nick, twice his usual rate to arrange, record, mix and work his usual prog-folk magic with the songs. And I just don’t have that kind of money knocking around. Especially not since:

2. My circumstances have changed

A couple of months ago, I relocated to the promised land of Bristol to seek my fortune. And I’ve realised that the only way I’m going to escape the curse of public-facing jobs is if I bite the bullet and do some unpaid work experience behind the scenes. Bristol has some fantastic opportunities for Biologists, and matters of principal aside, I want the best career I can get for myself. So I’ve reduced my current job to two days a week, am spending the rest of the time as a Digital Marketing Volunteer at the Soil Association.

I’ve got a few royalties from the recent success of A Hole in the Bottom of the Sea, and some money saved from my previous job in Wolverhampton, since I wasn’t paying rent while living at home. But none of this will last forever, and I need to prioritise using it to support myself. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve been able to do an unpaid internship before, and I need to take advantage of it.

3. I can’t keep making everything by hand!

I’m sorry! I know a lot of people really like my handmade CD cases, but they’re incredibly time consuming! This wasn’t so much of a problem at the start, but as my audience has increased, so has the time spent making the darn things, and I might not always have time for it – who knows where my life might take me in the future? Not only that, but it’s an undeniable fact that professionally printed albums are – well, more professional! And it’s hard to credit everyone who’s contributed their hard work to the album when trying to hand-write the liner notes onto 15 square centimetres of card!

Luckily, my mom, Jacqueline Law, is an incredible artist, and she’ll be doing the album art – so you’ve go that to look forward to!

4. I trust you folks!

Every other time I’ve considered crowdfunding, there’s always been that nagging little voice saying: “but what if nobody contributes?” This is especially relevant with Kickstarter, where if you don’t reach your goal, you don’t get any money at all. However, I’ve come to realise that this is foolish. The support and encouragement I’ve received over the years from friends, organizers, audiences and fellow artists alike has given me confidence in the fact that this is something people would genuinely like to help bring into existence. So thanks, folks – you’re great!

If you’d like to make a pledge, my Kickstarter campaign is here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1541711332/record-jessica-laws-new-full-length-album-the-sum

 

 

 

Meet the Outlaws #2: Rachel Hughes

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Rachel is the keyboard player in Jessica Law and The Outlaws, as well as an (astro?) physicist and an accomplished jazz singer-songwriter in her own right. We met through the ridiculous comedy theatre group Oxford University Light Entertainment Society, a “gateway” society that then lead to her being conscripted into the Steampunk space pirate storytelling folk band The Mechanisms. Since I was also a band member at the time, it didn’t take long for me to rope her into my solo musical pursuits. Her voice has been described as being “like an angel who smokes 40 a day”, and we are still seriously entertaining the idea of performing a sultry jazz version of the popular harvest festival song “Cauliflowers Fluffy” together (in costume).

The idea that you have to have either a scientific brain or a creative brain, not both, is obviously codswallop. But what’s the link between creativity and science for you? Is there one? Or are they opposites?

I think there is a link, because the human brain naturally picks out patterns from its surroundings and applies them to make new things – which is what we do in science and maths, and also music too, if only on a subconscious level. When you make music, you’re always riffing off the conventions and structures of the music around you, but then trying to push them further and do something new. What I like about music, though, is that there can never be a wrong answer like there can in science or maths – it’s just a playground where you can mess around and be free to do what you like, which takes a lot of the pressure off, and makes it more fun!

Is it true that Brian May was one of your tutors?

Not quite – it is true that he is a guest astrophysicist at Imperial College, which is where I was doing my PhD. So we may have been in the same building at the same time, but I’ve never met him, sadly.

A few years ago, Rachel and I went on a walk to Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, and while we walked, we told each other stories. My story became the song and novel, “Jack the Re-animator”, and Rachel’s story has just been released as the concept album “Lolina: Origins”. Tell us about it!

It’s set in a dystopian future where humans, having destroyed the environment of the earth and colonised the solar system, genetically engineer people for certain roles in society, creating what is essentially a slave class.  The main character, Lolina, is a genetically engineered sex worker living on Mars, who is then kidnapped by a member of a moralistic, eco-warrior cult and taken to the barren wasteland of the ruined Earth… drama ensues! In terms of music, it crosses a lot of genres – as with much of my solo music, it has a jazzy/bluesy/soul feel in many places, but I also experimented with classical music when singing the part of Mariella the cult member, for whom I used the higher, purer register of my voice. I also, with the help of my friend Ben (Drumbot Brian of The Mechanisms), got some awesome funky electronic sounds in there. The last song of the album is a proper electronic pop anthem!

Where did you get the idea? And what messages were you aiming to put across?

I guess some of the ideas are similar to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people are genetically engineered for certain roles in society. But I wanted to take it in a different direction to explore gender roles, sexuality, the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, and how much we are determined by our biology compared to our experiences. These kind of thoughts were floating around in my head a lot anyway, being a bisexual woman in a society that is often still quite judgemental of women’s sexuality, so this is just how it all came out.

We’ve both been in The Mechanisms, but I’ve never written a narrative album on my own. What were the challenges of telling a story through songs?

In a way, having a narrative was a help, rather than a hindrance – I find that if you want to write a song but have no ideas, you get nowhere. But if you have a certain theme and storyline you want to get across, it informs the genre and the feel of the song, giving you a jumping-off point. What is hard is trying to make sure the lyrics include all aspects of the story. I don’t think I could do what Jonny (Jonny D’Ville) of The Mechanisms does, and write long narrative sections, because keeping track of what the audience do and don’t know is confusing when you have full knowledge of the story. That’s why I opted to include short, in-universe clips, such as radio adverts and sermons, to help advance the story without spelling it out exactly. I was really inspired by the way Janelle Monae (check her out – she’s amazing!) tells stories in her music, where the story isn’t essential to the enjoyment of the songs, but if you want to, you can pore through the lyrics and the radio sections and work out what’s going on.

This is your first album release, but you’ve been doing music for far longer than I have, haven’t you?

Yes! I first got into writing songs at the tender age of 11, when I became involved with the Young Women’s Music Project in Oxford. They’re an amazing organisation who support young women and girls with making music and playing gigs, and I don’t think I would still be making music now without the support they gave me over the years. If you’re based in Oxford, you should definitely check them out!

How did you get into jazz?

Being the ultimate hipster as a teenager (a hipster before it was cool) I had to like an obscure music genre! More seriously, I was raised with Steely Dan and rock with Jazz fusion elements, so it was inevitable that I would track back to the source of the delicious river Jazz. I was also quite an unhappy adolescent, so mournful, bittersweet Jazz ballads by people like singer and trumpet player Chet Baker, and pianist Bill Evans, really appealed to me.

What were people’s reactions when you started singing like Louis Armstrong?

I remember my mum being quite surprised when I started singing so low at age 11, but I think she grew to accept it! People always say my speaking voice doesn’t match my singing voice, which is especially true when I’m excited or around people I don’t know well, and start talking really high-pitched!

To most people, jazz and folk seem like polar opposites. But I’m not convinced. Can you see any parallels?

Yes, definitely – both jazz and folk are often based around playing the standard, traditional tunes and putting your own spin on them. Folk lyrics generally have more of a storytelling element, whereas jazz is more about improvisation and how much can you play around with the base material you’re given. I don’t really do proper jazz in my own music, although it has a jazzy feel – I mostly borrow the kind of chords you get in jazz and mix it with loads of other stuff – although at the moment I am having jazz piano lessons to try and improve my improvisation skills.

You can catch Rachel, and the rest of the Outlaws, at our gig in Bristol on the 17th of June, which will also include afternoon tea! Find out more here.

Meet the Outlaws #1: Nick Siepmann

13717434_10208646816040982_5203143013034239604_oNot only is Nick the guitarist of Jessica Law and The Outlaws, he’s also a talented multi-instrumentalist producer, responsible for arranging and recording my past three EPs. I met Nick when advertising for victims (collaborators! I mean collaborators) in “The Adventures of Sticky Harry and Associates”, a madcap radio play I wrote at university. Since then, we’ve developed an almost psychic level of creative communication, to the extent that he’s actually able to understand and execute phrases such as “electronic doomscape” and “BOM bom BOM bom.” Nick lives in London with his fiancee and numerous pets of varying adorability.

Firstly – why did you agree to get embroiled in all this?

After university, I found myself doing a sound engineering course at SSR London, and was in need of recording clients. Fortunately, I had just discovered that you had expanded your array of talents to include songwriting, and so, having heard those first songs, I offered my services. Many mandolin and vocal tracks later (not to mention a string trio recorded in a bedroom, a set of pan pipes improvised from beer bottles, and a joint of ham boiling in a pot), The Littlest Libertine was done, and we were off!

And you’re not just a collaborator – tell me about Phlebas, your “philosophical death metal” solo project!

Aha! In fact, this is also a child of my time at SSR London – I wrote and recorded my first ever death metal song for my first big project there, and I have been writing and demoing metal songs ever since. Last year, I decided – mostly to prove to myself that I could – to properly record a full album of the best of my songs so far. The resulting album, Alkahest, is now fully recorded, will be released at some point this year, with some wonderful album art from Lordanumblue (Nottingham-based artist Ben Lord).

Where does the name come from?

The name comes from the mention of ‘Phlebas the Phoenician’ in the fourth section of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, called ‘Death by Water’. That section always stuck with me – a beautiful bit of simplicity in the midst of a sprawling Modernist poem, looking at time, death, and nature – and I felt it was in-keeping with the attitude and themes embodied in the songs, so I went and nicked it. Unfortunately, it’s almost universally assumed to be a reference to Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas, which I have yet to read… Sorry, fellow nerds.

So, what have you found to be the challenges of being in a band compared to solo projects?

One thing I’ve found both tricky and rewarding after each release is the challenge of how to translate the vibe of our often complex arrangements on the record into something that can be played live. Also challenging: helping move Rachel’s keyboard up and down tube station stairs…

Are there some things only a band can offer?

However much I love sitting at my laptop and indulging myself with Wakeman-like multi-instrumental excess, there’s nothing quite like the feeling during a gig when you all lock together and the song just carries you along. It’s sort of like being a component in some sentient Rube Goldberg machine.

Where do your musical roots lie?

I’ve sort of put down roots as I go – I’m the son of two classical piano teachers, and have sung in Anglican choirs on and off since I was 7, but since then I’ve taken it upon myself to educate myself in bluegrass, extreme metal and trad English folk, which have more or less become my musical home. For now.

When we meet, we often spend every second rambling on about all things musical. So there are probably a lot of things we don’t know about each other. Tell me something about yourself that I didn’t know…

I share a birthday with Niccolò Machiavelli, James Brown, Pete Seeger, email spam, and geocaching.

Do you have any pie-in-the-sky projects you’d love to do if you had infinite time / money?

I’ve had a hankering to put together some kind of impractically theatrical metal band inspired by the Wicked and the Divine series of comics – the lighting alone I’m sure would reduce me to penury, but it’d be a hell of a show right up until the bailiffs arrived…

You can catch Nick and the rest of us at our next live gig in Bristol, Teatre: Jessica Law and the Outlaws, an intimate afternoon of sinister folk ditties with tea and cake included!

Things I Thought I Had to Do (That I Don’t Have to Do)

When you’re growing up, there are lots of things you have to do that you don’t want to do. Going to school might be one of them. Homework is definitely one of them. Brushing your teeth, taking exams, PE, going to your first disco – the point is, you don’t want to do any of these things, but you have to make yourself do them, because you know they’ll benefit you in the long run, and make you a better, more well-rounded person. So it’s no surprise that you enter adulthood in the same mindset.

But the fact of the matter is that, as an adult, you have a control. And I’m not saying you should never leave your comfort zone, but I think that by your late twenties you have a pretty good idea of the things you’ll absolutely hate. So here is a list of the things I was incredibly relieved to discover I didn’t have to do. What were yours?

Having Children

“Oh god, it’s going to be terrible when I have to have children,” I used to think. “It’ll be so stressful, I’ll hate the noise and the rushing about, and it’ll stop me doing so many other things.” It never crossed my mind that I didn’t have to have them.

Before we go any further, I’d just like to reassure you that I don’t hate children. I’m not a Roald Dahl villain – It’s just that I don’t have a maternal bone in my body. I work with children, and I like them in small doses (but I certainly couldn’t eat a whole one!!!) -but even if I didn’t, that shouldn’t make me a terrible person. Everybody’s different.

The fact of the matter is that the world is overpopulated as it is – there’s no urgent need to reproduce. So the people having children should be those who really want them, not those pressured into it by family, society, or the idea that it’s the “next thing to do” after meeting someone and settling down. “But isn’t that a bit selfish?” you might ask. “Having children makes you focus on something other than yourself, and turns you into a more giving and sympathetic person”. Well, my riposte to your imaginary remark is that it’s selfish to have children just to turn yourself into a better person!

Besides, if I suddenly completely change my entire personality and decide I do want children, there’s absolutely nothing stopping me from doing so. But saying I don’t want them takes a huge weight off my mind, and prevents family and potential partners from expecting something that isn’t delivered (pun intended).

Going “Out Out”

God, I hate fun. And by “fun”, I mean society’s conventional definition of “fun” – namely, suffering dreadful music in a club full of drunk strangers. “But you’ll enjoy it when you’re there” – no, I won’t. I’ll want to be in bed reading a book about Victorians and eating biscuits. The moment I realised I didn’t have to be cool, and that no-one was watching anyway, was a great moment indeed.

Becoming a Teacher

“If you can’t do, teach” – I was having trouble getting a job relevant to my degree, so teaching was the natural route to take. You wouldn’t believe the amount of time I wasted feeling guilty for not taking it. Teaching is a worthy occupation, and gives you the power to do a great deal of good in children’s lives, but if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. “But you’d be such a good teacher!” That doesn’t mean I have to do it. I’d probably be quite a good assassin, but if you’re not temperamentally suited to it, you’re just making yourself miserable. The scales fell from my eyes when I couldn’t even cope as a part-time science technician in a secondary school, because it brought back too many bad memories of all the bullying I’d endured in that environment in my formative years. Nobody has to put up with that if they don’t want to.

Going Travelling

“Travel Yourself Interesting” is the tagline of travel agents Expedia. Well, believe me, if you’re not already interesting, going travelling is not going to make you so. In fact, it’s far more likely to have the opposite effect, as people flee from your endless “gap yah” anecdotes (the only funny one I ever heard was when my friend got trench foot). I haven’t yet thought of anything 10,000 miles away that’s more fun than anything I could do here, and that would outweigh the expense, stress, faff, disease, jetlag and language barrier of going, but when I do, I’ll be on the first plane there.

(Sorry, that sounded a bit Scrooge-like. Of course I’m open to travelling if something really special takes me there, but I won’t devalue the experience by doing it just because I feel I have to).

Getting Married

I hate faff, and organizing a wedding is the worst faff I can possibly think of. It was hard enough getting my three closest relations to come to my graduation (which culminated in my dad panic-buying a shirt and tie in Next clearance and getting changed in a photo booth minutes before the ceremony) – let alone spending thousands organizing a large-scale event I have absolutely no interest in taking part in. Of course I’d do it if it meant a lot to my (hypothetical) significant other. But as for any other reason I should get married – I hate to break it to you, but it’s not the Victorian era any more! (As much as my style might fool you otherwise…)

Having a “Real Person” Job

Short of not being a burden on others, there’s absolutely nothing to dictate what kind of job I have. Yet feeling I’ve wasted my degree, or that I’m a disappointment, or that I’m not “giving anything back”, is the main thing that’s plagued me since graduating. I still intend to get a real person job, in which I can hopefully to some good. But I’m past feeling guilty about the years in which I didn’t have one. I realised yesterday that if I’d gone straight from university into a full-time office job, rather than fannying about in a series of part-time lackey jobs like I did, I probably wouldn’t have had the time or head-space to write a novel, or bring out four albums, or countless other bizarre schemes that may, for all I know, have entertained and inspired up to tens of people. And I probably would have felt creatively unfulfilled.

And that’s the thing: I didn’t know what my dad’s job was til I was 12. I still don’t know what my uncle Mick does (none of us can remember, and it’s gone far beyond the point where we can reasonably ask). I can’t remember what half my friends’ degrees were (sorry!). And most people remember me for my octokittens far more than my museum guiding. The point is, when you think about someone you know, your first thought isn’t what they do as a job, it’s what they’re like as a person – cheerful, miserable, nice, annoying – and so I’ve decided that, if at all possible, I’m not going to have a job that turns me into an unpleasant person.

Some of this might sound a bit selfish and close-minded – in fact, the absence children, marriage, travel, and all these conventional rights of passage might make my life sound joyless and empty. But I’ve had some amazing experiences some people might never dream of. I’ve written a novel in a month; another month I performed a space opera every night. I’ve jumped off ruined castles into lagoons. I’ve been in loving and happy relationships. I’ve written a children’s book that’s been reprinted in Welsh. I just don’t believe in making things difficult for myself for no reason – there are enough ways for our lives to be difficult as it is. And as long as I’m not hurting anyone else, I don’t see any harm in that.

It was Hygge all along!

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There’s a concept that’s entered into the public consciousness recently, and it’s called hygge. Hygge is a Danish word (don’t ask me how to pronounce it), and although there’s not a direct translation, the main impression I get is “having a cosy time with close friends and family”, or “creating a nice, warm atmosphere and enjoying the simple things in life”.

My mom introduced me to the idea of hygge in Helen Russel’s book “A Year of Living Danishly“, which tried to uncover the secret behind Denmark’s number one spot in the World Happiness Index. (She has since developed a worryingly expensive obsession with sheepskin rugs, which she is convinced are the key to cosiness). But it wasn’t until I was flicking through the pages of the recently published Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking that I realized that this was a philosophy I’d been subscribing to all my life – I just didn’t know the word for it!

The first clue comes from my song The Littlest Libertine: “eating creme brulee for breakfast doesn’t qualify you for Rosetti’s scene”. The idea for the song came one morning, when I arrived at band practice particularly proud to have eaten dessert for breakfast. I thought this was one of the most decadent and hedonistic things that could ever be done. Jonny (the frontman) responded to my adorably small-scale attempts at debauchery by saying: “Aww, you’re the littlest libertine!” There was no other choice but to turn this into A Song.

But taking pleasure in the small, reassuring elements of life like hot drinks and good food is as hygge as it gets. And, for me, being a connoisseur of small pleasures is actually the definition of true hedonism: I don’t cave in to peer pressure and do crazy, out-there things just because I think I should. I genuinely only do what I really enjoy, even if some of those things might seem little and unimpressive to others.

One of the other points that stood out was that hygge is the perfect way for introverts to socialize. I’m not an introvert – I don’t know what I am. A friend once suggested that, to me, all conversations were just people interrupting my life. They’re not (please converse with me!), and he’s a professional magician, anyway, so what does he know? But I do tend to find loud, hectic environments full of cool strangers (e.g. “clubbing”) incredibly stressful. In fact, one of the most off-putting things to me is feeling pressure to have fun. I like fun to creep up slowly and surprise me – the preconception that everybody has to have fun from the outset is one of the main things that will prevent me from doing so! Whereas hygge allows fun and socializing to be done in a relaxed context.

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Hatstand, the most hygge of open mic nights

As a performer, and an acoustic singer-songwriting one at that, there’s nothing more stressful and soul-destroying than performing to a loud pub full of people having shouted conversations and ignoring you. One of the most hygge open mic nights I’ve ever been to is Hatstand, a completely acoustic open mic held in a beautifully-lit cafe where the audience have to devote their full attention in order to hear the performers. The intimate atmosphere and sense of camaraderie is second to none, and really brings out the full meaning of everyone’s songs. Playing round a bonfire, such as Folk in the Forest, is also incredibly hygge, and one of my favourite activities.

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Fig.1: Frumpcore at its finest

Another clue of my latent hygge tendencies is my mode of dress: a style I like to call “Frumpcore” (see fig.1). This mainly involves seeing how many layers of jumpers and cardigans I can don before actually becoming somebody’s maiden aunt. In fact, I’ve calculated that around 30% of my body mass is comprised of jumpers, and I’m actually really scrawny underneath, like when a lovely fluffy cat gets itself wet and you realize that under the fur it actually resembles nothing but a very tall weasel. One winter I was going through an existential crisis and took to wearing a jumper so bulky and shapeless it made me resemble a giant egg. I sure was comforted, though!

Talking of existential crises, one of the main points of hygge is that surroundings do matter. The Danish devote huge amounts of time and money to perfecting the interiors of their homes (no surprise when faced with the interminable Danish winter), and I’ve come to realize over the years that this actually is incredibly important to one’s happiness. I used to think that my living quarters didn’t matter, and as long as my situation in life was fine, I could live anywhere. And young people just out of university take “slumming it” as default. But it can really grind you down. When I was living in a shared house in Oxford, I spent all my time in a tiny, box-like room, perpetually messy as I had to use it for everything. After a while it made me feel as if my mind was in prison. Having to move back home isn’t ideal, but the feeling of walking around the large, airy rooms of the house after that horrible little shoe box was unbelievably liberating.

So I’m a full hygge convert now! And although I do still enjoy intrepid adventures, if you ever come round to visit, you’re more than likely to find me engaged in my favourite activity: sitting in bed, reading and eating.