My next album is going to be a bit… different. Let me explain…

Renaissance plotting with Cambridge storyteller Marion Leeper

Hello world! It’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve been keeping myself busy. Along with gigs in forests, my improvised comedy debut, and being an extra in a popular period drama, I’ve also got an exciting new project in the offing… a CONCEPT ALBUM based on the Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso!

But what is Orlando Furioso, I hear you say? Well, apart from every Italian person I’ve ever spoken to, who learned it at school, it’s surprisingly little-known – despite having inspired a huge amount of modern literature, including Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. It was written by Ludovico Ariosto in the 16th century, but is set in the medieval era, covering the battle between king Charlemagne’s paladins and the invading Saracen army. It’s about knights, love, chivalry, battles and all the other things you might expect from an epic poem.

So far, so highbrow, right? Well, not quite. When Cambridge storyteller Marion Leeper contacted me last summer, inviting me to collaborate on a show based on the poem, I had no idea how hilarious, ridiculous and oddly modern it is. It turns out the poem was basically joke fan-ficiton for an earlier epic poem, Orlando Innamorato, written by a different author who died before he could finish it. Ludovico Ariosto took it upon himself to complete the tale and, just as Fifty Shades of Grey originally started out as fanfiction for Twilight, it became just as popular in its own right. Highlights of the madness include:

A hippogriff
A trip to the moon (the place where all the lost things go)
An evil necromancer with a steel castle
A magic ring that makes you invisible (sounds familiar?)
A talking myrtle bush

The Hippogriff Song!

It’s also surprising how progressive and feminist the story is in places. Probably because he wanted to attract the patronage of noblewoman Isabella d’Este, Ariosto put in loads of amazing female characters including:

Bradamante, a badass female knight who is constantly rescuing her boyfriend from peril

Alcina, a sorceress who turns irksome men into garden shrubbery

Marfisa, the formidable warrior woman who wears a belt made out of the foreskins of eight lecherous kings

For the past year, Marion and I have been performing a live storytelling show around the UK based on these excellent and ridiculous characters, focusing on the star-crossed romance between paladin knight Bradamante and saracen warrior Ruggiero. Marion’s silver-tongued story-spinning brings out the humanity and humour of the story, interspersed with songs which are in turn hilarious, tragic, melodramatic, romantic, and all incredibly fun to perform.

Orlando 2
Me and Marion in action (in a medieval cellar!)

The next step was, naturally, an album – but we agreed that we didn’t want to do a straight-up recording of the full show, because we’ve often found that recordings of storytelling shows don’t seem to capture the magic of the live experience. Instead, we’ve distilled the show into a tight 40-minute concept album. The songs are interspersed with very short sections of narrative, backed by music throughout – sort of like a calmer version of War of the Worlds, or the kind of thing I did with my Steampunk space pirate storytelling band, The Mechanisms.

Like my previous albums, it will have the full-band sound that can only be provided by my amazing producer Nick Siepmann, who has been tirelessly recording us over the past couple of weeks.

The recording sessions were challenging, exhausting and incredibly fun. We’re all really proud of the result, and we think you’ll enjoy it too. So watch this space!

(And it you’d like to book us for the live show, just drop me a line!)

Marion and Nick in the studio


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:




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!

It was Hygge all along!


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.

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.

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.

Brilliant Song Lyrics

In my last blog post, I mentioned that one of the main things that attracted me to Folk music was the fact that the lyrics are actually about something. So it astonishes me the number of people who simply don’t listen to the lyrics at all. An erstwhile gentleman caller once doomed himself by dismissing my entire musical output as follows: “I did try to listen to it, yes, but it was a bit distracting.” I understand now that different people use music for different purposes, and I’m definitely not still bitter about it (honest!), but it does explain why some artists manage to reach stratospheric levels of fame while still sickeningly young, before they’ve gained even half enough life experience to write anything wise or meaningful. After all, nobody writes a bestselling novel at the age of 16, do they? (Or do they? As always, willing to be corrected!) To quote one of my first ever songs,”The Innocents”:

“I’ll need to live a little more / Before I write a song worth crying for”.

(That would be three years later, when my voice disappeared just as we were about to record “Narcissus Under the Knife”, and it took three separate recording sessions to perfect it.)

(And I promise this whole article isn’t just going to be quotes from my own songs!)

But I digress.

In any case, I’m one of those people who think lyrics are important – what’s more, they can have a huge and lasting effect, just as much as poetry. So I’d like to share with you some of the lyrics that have stayed with me over the years, be it because they’re funny, clever, comforting, or just seem to explain the human condition perfectly. I tend to keep my cards very close to my chest, as a general rule – in fact, my own songs are often the closest you’ll get to my real thoughts and feelings, and even then they’re veiled in about 7 layers of metaphor, transferred onto literary characters and then set in a Dystopian future, or something. So hopefully, showing you these lyrics will help me to be a bit less of an aloof ninny:

“Try not to look at you in the shoe, but the eyes – find the eyes…”

Franz Ferdinand – The Dark of the Matinee

This is a wonderfully atmospheric song about how the lead bloke used to bunk off school to go to the cinema (the girl he meets there may or may not be fabricated). I’d really recommend looking up the lyrics, because the whole thing is just poetry. In fact, one of my friends wanted to quote Franz Ferdinand in a General Studies exam about how pop bands were becoming the modern poets, but the only lyrics of theirs she could think of were “I love your friends, they’re all so arty.” (That’s an A level that’s never done either of us a jot of good).

But most of all, this song marks that moment at the start of the 2004 indie revolution when I realized there was hope for modern music after all (and all my classmates started buying scooters and those bags with targets on them).

“And our prayers were answered / When we wrote these songs and we lost our minds”

Slow Club – All Our Most Brilliant Friends

Something a lot of musicians can sympathise with, I think!

“Stop taking chances with the ammunition in your pants.”

Beth Jeans Houghton – Franklin Benedict

Another universally relatable statement…

“All roads lead back to you / Like some flesh-coated Rome.”

Trembling Bells – Torn Between Loves

I just love the sheer audacity of such surprising and unsettling lyrics. A fellow musician, Matt Bradshaw, talks about “bucket words”, words used over and over again in pop songs (arms, charms, love, above, broken heart, apart) that you can just pick out of a bucket to instantly write a plausible-sounding song. And I think both he and I agree that strange, unconventional lyrics are often very effective in jarring an indolent audience out of their reverie and making them sit up and properly pay attention to a song. Also, if you like prog folk, Trembling Bells are AMAZING – think Sandy Denny accompanied by a psychedelic mushroom-fuelled rock band, and you’re only halfway there…

“I’ve got this lingering feeling / Like I’ve slipped between the fingers of the century / I know you know what I mean.”

Anais Mitchell – Of a Friday Night

This song is the only thing that’s managed to adequately describe this feeling – not so much imagining what a place would have been like in the past, but seeing the layers and layers of eras and different people who came and went over this spot, all superimposed on top of each other, and somehow being both there and in the past at the same time – just go and listen to it. She also wrote a Dystopian bluegrass version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, “Hadestown”, so, you know, you probably ought to go and listen to that, too.

“If you’re falling apart, well, that’s only entropy, like the death of a star.”

Borderville – The Anchor (From the album “Metamorphosis”)

That’s just some lovely phrasing. Also, anyone who’s going to write a theatrical rock opera version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is going to earn my grudging respect.

“Time will rub out the pencil lines, and you’ll be remembered.”

Laura Hocking – Pencil Lines

This song sketches a lovely vignette about a couple whose slightly ungainly first encounter will be idealised by the passage of time. In the final verse, what first appeared to be a romantic encounter is revealed to be a portrait sitting, a nice twist that renders the metaphor literal – as clever, wry and cerebral as all her songs. In a way, it was Laura Hocking that inspired me to start writing my own music. I used to have a handmade cuddly toy stall in the corner of Sunday Roast in Oxford, an alternative live music night on Sunday evenings, part of the indie-twee movement of 2007 that I’ve always found inexplicably comforting. I didn’t really pay attention to her set at the time (I was, presumably, too busy selling cuddly lobsters and nautiluses), but something must have got me, because the next day I looked up her music and realised what was possible. She seemed to be pretty successful for a while, too, but then suddenly disappeared. Two years ago I sent a long, embarrassing fan message to her personal Facebook page on what happened to be Valentine’s Day, telling her all this and asking what she was doing now. I hope she never saw it, but if you’re out there, Laura – sorry, I’m not really mad, honest!

“That plate’s in the same place I left it before, when the world seemed so sure.”

Faceometer – OK, So That Happened

Faceometer (AKA Will), fellow Midlands bizarrington and the only musician capable of fitting more words into a line than me, has managed to do the impossible with this song, and make my eyes leak. “A song about sitting in an identical place when something’s changed”, as Will puts it, is full of hopeful happiness for the future and all the possibilities it presents. And, as someone who has, in the past, experienced life as a series of slamming doors and missed opportunities, that hope used to make me very sad. But now it makes my eyes leak for more positive reasons. Silly eyes.

Right, now I’ve told you all of mine, what are your favourite song lyrics, and why? I’d love to hear them!

Why folk music is objectively* the best kind of music

*Warning: contains copious subjectivity

I’ve always loved anything related to folk: I remember being introduced to 1970s prog folk (Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Jethro Tull and the like) as a child, and having my young mind blown by the mystery and delicious poignancy of the songs. And it’s struck me recently that my love of folk might not just be down to childhood indoctrination or a vague personal perversion: there might be some specific reasons why it captures the imaginations of so many people, and these could be put to good use in modern songwriting. I’ve catalogued these reasons in a handy list, as follows:

1. Melody

Folk 008
Well, I don’t know who this man is, but I sure like his style!

One of the first things that struck me when I started listening to “normal” bands was the lack of complex and unusual vocal melodies. I get the idea that most bands come up with the chord structure first, then lay the vocal melody over the top (band people, is this right?) which often tends to flatten and restrict the melody from doing anything really “out there”. But traditional folk, by its very definition, was written by ordinary people, not trained musicians. So the people composing the songs probably didn’t have any formal schooling in the rules of musical theory, and if they played an instrument, it was just as likely to be a melodic one, like a violin or tin whistle, as a chorded instrument like the guitar. This has helped to form much more unusual, interesting melodies, unrestricted by backing instruments or any prior knowledge of the “rules” of music. (My producer informs me that folk melodies are also very good at indicating what key the whole song is meant to be in, probably as a result of them being sung a capella).

2. Repetition

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking a simple, bland melody is more catchy, but complex melodies are more distinctive and often contain more musical “hooks” – they just need to be repeated in order to drill them sufficiently deeply into brain of the victim (listener! I mean listener). One thing I hate is getting “lost” in a song – hearing all these wonderful musical turns of phrase, but only once before they move onto something else, and before you know it you’ve lost track and can’t work out whether it’s the same song or has gone onto another one (Laura Marling is very guilty of this). Folk music, with its narrative nature, is repetitive by necessity. And since most people composing folk songs couldn’t write them down, the melody would have to be strong and distinctive in order to be remembered – an opinion shared by Paul McCartney, who bemoans in this article the fact that “dozens” of early Beatles songs were simply forgotten the morning after due to the absence of portable music recording devices.

3. Lyrics

The Beatles can’t help me on this one. Lines about holding hands and love are absolutely no substitute to songs that are actually ABOUT something. From piracy and highwaymen to hangings and lost polar explorers, folk songs were used as much to carry news or spread a cause as they were for entertainment. Of course, like every genre, they have their clichés. I once developed a game of “folk bingo” to be played at folk gigs, where points to be crossed off included:

The events of the song taking place “in the merry month of May”

Awkwardly attempting to get the phrase “press-ganged into the Royal Navy” to scan

Visual rhymes like “the wind” and “to find”

“Milk white steed”

Singing in a strong yet completely unrecognisable regional accent

Folk 004
Who are these people and what on earth are they doing? Ah well, at least they’re having fun!

But despite all folk’s faults, nobody could say the lyrics were an afterthought. That’s a relatively modern phenomenon. West End producer Richard Andrews puts it perfectly I his book “Writing a Musical”, and it’s just as true in folk as it is in musical theatre:

“People don’t appreciate the difference between pop songs and show songs. Once upon a time they were the same thing, but since the 1950s they have each moved in different directions. My definition is that the most important thing about a pop song is the sound, while the most important thing about a show song is the meaning. Lyrics are often the last thing to be added to a pop song, after the music track is finished, and their importance is certainly less than it once was.”

4. Instrumentation

Once I’d got over thinking all popular music was rubbish (which it couldn’t possibly be, right?) I just assumed that people must be listening out for completely different things in songs than I did. Being raised on an ungodly combination of folk and musical theatre, it was no surprise that I’d automatically go straight for the lyrics and vocal melody. But what else is there if the rest is just a load of guitars?

I will never for the life of me understand how, out of an entire world full of instruments, modern music has been built almost exclusively on guitars. It’s like deciding to make all bands for the rest of history play nothing but different kinds of xither or bassoon, and obsess over the tiny differences offered within this niche.

Michale Chabon, editor of McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (an anthology of “proper” short stories with a beginning, middle and end), bemoans the prevalence of the “plotless, self-revealatory” short story, stating all modern short stories have been forced into this single, narrow format. He puts it this way:

“Imagine that, sometime about 1950, it had been decided, collectively, informally, a little at a time, but with finality, to proscribe every kind of novel from the canon of the future but the nurse romance.”

Well, guitar bands are the musical equivalent of the nurse romance. (Gosh, that’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d say!)

Folk music, on the other hand, offers a diverse range of musical instrumentation so refreshing that I even like this song (composed by scientists using the most commonly hated aspects of music).


Obviously there are hundreds of exceptions to every one of these rules, many of which reside happily in my music collection. But I’ve had a good rant, and hopefully this will be helpful, or at least interesting, to some of you. Of course, everybody has different tastes and different songwriting methods, and I’d be really interested to hear some of yours – feel free to prove me wrong!

Things That Only Made Sense at the Time

Ever since a gig I did this summer at the Phoenix Picturehouse, where local musicians teamed up to perform iconic songs from films, I’ve been thinking a lot about lyrics that must have made perfect sense at the time they were written, but whose meaning has since descended into baffling obscurity. Old films are a great source of these oddities, and there are some good examples among the songs I performed that night.

One of my favourites is the jazz standard “Paper Moon”, originally written in 1933 for the catastrophically unsuccessful musical “The Great Magoo”. In the same year it appeared in a slightly more successful film version of the catastrophically unsuccessful musical “Take a Chance”. It was popularised by Ella Fitzgerald in the 1940s, and finally gave the title to the 1973 Oscar-winning film “Paper Moon”, about a father and daughter conman duo.


It’s a good song, proven by the fact that it managed to withstand such an inauspicious start, and the clever lyrics centre around the idea of the old-fashioned photo studio where customers would pose sitting on a giant crescent moon – something that everyone seemed to be completely obsessed with in the 20s and 30s, to the extent that it’s it seems to have entered into the cultural catalogue of iconic images from the era, and has even become the Dreamworks logo. But there’s one lyric that people always ask me about:

“It’s a Barnum and Bailey world

Just as phony as it could be

But it wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me.”

What’s “Barnum and Bailey”?

Barnum and Bailey

Well, it turns out that the elusive Barnum and Bailey were actually 19th century circus owners, who ran the modestly titled “Greatest Show on Earth”, an iconic institution at the time. So to the 1930s listener, this would have been a universally recognizable reference to all that was showy and fantastical. It’s just one that’s got lost in the mists of time.

But when it comes to songwriting, it’s not a simple task to make your lyrics futureproof. After all, how can we know for sure which turns of phrase will last and which are simply lexical fads? Modern-sounding phrases like to “hang out” or to have “beef” with a wrongdoer have actually been in use since the 1920s (unfortunately for me, “old bean” appears to have stood the test of time rather less well).

Although I’m sure current chart hit “Hotline Bling” isn’t going to become a timeless classic any time soon.

But I digress.

Another example that I’ve (infuriatingly) never been able to get to the bottom of comes from the iconic 1954 film “White Christmas”. Quite apart from a completely baffling (and, for all I know, deeply racist) sequence in which they reminisce about the nebulous ins and outs of a “good old minstrel show”, a subject that was already nostalgic at the time, there’s this lyric in the third-act-dilemma torch song “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me”:

“Love, you didn’t do right by me

As they say in the song

You done me wrong.”

As they say in what song? Why are they even referring to another song within their own song? I can’t even find record of any songs called “You Done Me Wrong” that predate 1954! To use an oft-worn catchphrase, what does it all mean????

mock turtle

There must be countless lyrics like these whose meanings are lost forever, and still more that are simply passed off as nonsense or surrealist through lack of context. I only recently learned that the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland isn’t just a whimsical flight of fancy, or a psychedelic product of Lewis Carroll’s opium-addled mind – well, it is, but it’s also a clever and topical play on words. In the book, the mock turtle is a creature with the body of a turtle, and the head, hooves and tail of a calf. And that’s no coincidence. While the super-rich of the Victorian era dined on real turtle soup, a much more common starter was mock turtle soup, made from – you guessed it – the head, hooves and tail of a calf. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to picture this as an actual creature called the mock turtle. How many other insightful references have since been dismissed as nonsense verse?

(As an aside, I strongly suspect that a lot of David Bowie lyrics from the 1970s fall into this category. Although, he was taking a lot of drugs at the time, so I don’t think even he could tell us for sure.)

clara bow
Here she is posing on a crescent moon. Told you, didn’t I?

It also gets me thinking – what is it that gets some things remembered as icons, and other things that were equally popular at the time, if not more so, relegated to the cultural oubliette? The present day seems to have, magpie-like, selected almost at random a selection of films/ artists/ songs that they have decided are emblematic of the era, and ignored everything else, regardless of actual popularity at the time. I recently saw a documentary about the silent film actress Clara Bow, who was indisputably the Marilyn Monroe of her era: the inspiration for Betty Boop and the original “It” girl – but who has been retrospectively eclipsed by contemporaries like Greta Garbo.

So what is it that gets some songs remembered, and some forgotten? It’s not like they’re all incredibly specific 1970 – 80s novelty one-hit wonders like The Brat’s “Chalk Dust” (which is, in actual fact, still unaccountably entertaining). That’d be a good topic for a future post, actually – “Things That Were Really Popular At The Time But Have Since Been Completely Forgotten” – at least, it would be if anyone could remember them! Any suggestions, folks?

But there are always some lyrics that make perfect sense regardless of the era. I’ll leave you with a verse from the scandalously ribald “Willow’s Song” from The Wicker Man, pieced together by Paul Giovanni from ancient medieval verse:

“Fair maid, white and red

Comb you smooth and stroke your head.

How a maid can milk a bull

Mmmm-mmmm, and every stroke a bucketful.”