I like songs that start in one style and end in another. I like decades to be that way too. As midnight struck at the turn of the millennium I was running down a hill with the girl who, a month later, would break my heart and inspire so many subsequent Bedlam Six songs. At the end of that decade I was the director of a record label, welcoming in the 2010s at Manchester’s Fuel cafe (above which we had our office) – the whole building shaking from overdriven amps and the stamping of feet, the very walls seeming to perspire in sympathy.
The 2010s began ambitiously: the band’s first proper music videos, the pressing of our first album plus a snatch of USA gigs for me. I was even Miss June in the Beards Of Manchester calendar. The following Spring we went on our first European tour, an annual tradition we continued until the band broke up five years later. We played festival stages in the UK and on the continent, I played solo shows in Australia, three more albums, two EPs, a concert film. If anything went wrong on the road we shrugged it off with our favourite saying “one for the memoirs”. The band split amicably in 2016 (and the country split less amicably the same year). I buried myself in writing my tragic musical Jocasta and showcased it at The Lowry theatre the following year with help from Arts Council England. The tour that followed would turn out to be my last. I didn’t realise at the time but I was about to burn out and wouldn’t write another song for over a year.
Feeling that my music career had run its course I applied for a bunch of teaching positions and PR jobs but to no avail. In the end it was the death of my grandfather that turned out to be the unlikely catalyst for my life transforming. My partner and I moved into his house on the Isle Of Skye and got ourselves the most opinionated dog I’ve ever met. I also enrolled in the fire brigade. Joining the crew at Dunvegan fire station was like joining a new band – the same sense of purpose, the same relentless leg-pulling. While I was going through the training I received a call from a prestigious theatre in the North of England asking me to write the music for a big fantasy production they were developing. They put me up in a hotel during the course of a week workshop and I wrote a dozen songs and won the thumbs up from the author’s people, then a few months later I was elevated from commissioned writer to part of the production team. I’m having the time of my life writing songs about magic and monsters, surrounded by mountains and sea, extinguishing fires and hauling cows out of bogs. I now always seem to smell of something – dog or soot or farm, but there’s a new song in every lungful. We feel a long way away from all the troubles of the world and when I don’t tune into the news I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
Is there a lesson in any of this? I don’t know. I certainly couldn’t have done any of it until I was ready, until I’d failed and then failed better. What I will suggest is this: if you’re struggling with a career in the arts, in which the goal is not to do a successful thing but rather to be a successful thing (eg Singer-Songwriter) then try to combine it with something else that feels useful in a measurable sense and is completely unrelated. The great big horrible trapdoor beneath the feet of every self-employed artist becomes visible the moment the fuss dies down, when the applause has quelled, when the houselights go up and the ushers come in to sweep up the debris, when you’re alone with your success or staring at the frayed edges surrounding the space in which that success ought to be, that’s when you need to feel like there’s a point. I’m not saying everyone should go out and join the fire brigade but it definitely worked for me. I feel more together as a person, more valuable, more at ease with myself than I have ever felt in my entire life. And I’m writing more songs than ever. When I stepped onto a stage in Nuremberg in front of 10,000 cheering people back in 2014 I thought I’d get the feeling I have now, but it wasn’t even close. And as we watch our world get more fractured and full of suspicion and hate and lies, it has never been more important to find (or build) some sort of community. Easier said than done, I know. There’s a lot of darkness already visible in the decade ahead, but there’s also hope.
Happy New Year!