On Thursday last week, Emily Hall – with whom I’ve been co-writing songs for quite a few years – won a Paul Hamlyn Award.
Emily had been nominated on five previous occasions, so it was starting to look dangerously like what book-world-people would know as Beryl Bainbridge Booker Syndrome.
Paul Hamlyn have put a few examples of her work up on their website. (Emily wrote the music for all the songs; I wrote the lyrics for the first, third and last of them: ‘Passing by’, ‘I do – do not’ and ‘Sonnet’.)
Although we’ve been working together quite seriously all this time, I don’t think I’ve ever done a very good job of explaining (not least to Emily) quite how important and fulfilling it’s been to me. I wrote an article for the New Statesman, in which I tried to put together some thoughts about lyric writing. But that didn’t really get to the emotional point –
– which is, I’ve always longed, more than almost anything, to do something to do with music. If I could have given it a go as a singer-songwriter, I would have done. Round about the age of twenty, I realised that I’d never be as good as Leonard Cohen at writing songs, but that I might be better than him at writing novels. So, I gave up on the songs.
I didn’t really come back to them until a chance phonecall from a friend. He suggested there might be a chance I could write lyrics for Elizabeth Fraser, formerly the singer in Cocteau Twins.
The collaborating with Elizabeth Fraser came to nothing (so far, that is – I still have hopes: it’s my dream job), but it got me started again.
If I write a song lyric, it can have a complex form, or amusing rhymes, but the most important thing is that it gets the listener emotionally. I aspire to writing something as plainly heartbreaking as ‘Waltzing Matilda’ or ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ or ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Hurt’.
Because of this, the lyrics I’ve given Emily are often the simplest, most honest expressions I can find of how I feel.
I met Emily Hall in October 2006, a few months after that chance phonecall. She contacted me through Myspace, because she was looking for an librettist. The first lyrics I sent her included stuff I’d written as far back as university but also a few very recent things that I’d imagined might work for Elizabeth Fraser. Together, in the seven years since, we’ve co-written around a hundred songs.
The earliest were love songs, and we gathered them together in a song cycle called Love Songs. Emily’s website notes that quite a few of these were on the unrequited end of things, and that’s embarrassingly true.
Seven of these songs were premiered by Robert Murray (tenor) and Martin Martineau (piano) in Aldeburgh Church, June 2007. This was quite a big occasion. My mother loved classical music, especially vocal music, and here I was making something that was far less problematic (for her and my father) than a novel like deadkidsongs.
Emily and I were lucky to be included in the NMC Songbook project with one of our first collaborations, ‘A Simple Neo-Georgian Summer‘. This was the first time anything I’d written had made it onto a CD. A major ambition fulfilled.
Fairly soon, though, we got together with Mara Carlyle – and she has recorded and released a number of these love songs as the Befalling e.p. (Accompanied by Oliver Coates and John Reid and the London Contemporary Orchestra.)
The next song cycle was written from scratch. It was called Life Cycle, and told the story of a couple who have had a stillborn child but have conceived again – and who, over the course of the cycle, become parents. It’s sung from the point of view of the woman as she tries to deal with failing to become, and then becoming, a mother.
The lyrics were published online by flexipress, if you’d like to read them.
Most recently, with support from the PRS Foundation, Emily and I have written Rest, a secular requiem. That is, a requiem that doesn’t depend on the consolation of immortality. Because this was for multiple voices, we began collaborating with the folk trio Lady Maisery.
They premiered Rest earlier this year at the Spitalfields Music Festival. They also sang one song, ‘At the edge of the field’, on Radio 3’s In Tune.
Hopefully, Lady Maisery will record a couple of songs from Rest. At the moment, though, we are concentrating on putting together a version for choir. That’s what’s known as an SATB version (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass).
My big hope now – thanks to Paul Hamlyn – is that Emily and I will be able to complete a musical, including some existing songs and some new ones. The working title is sometimes The Dead Tree and the Kissing Tree and sometimes just The Kissing Tree. At the moment, Emily is collaborating with Icelandic writer Sjon on a chamber opera.
Truly, working with Emily has been one of the best things ever to happen to me. Her settings are treacherously simple – as the musicians who play them will all attest, they can catch you at any moment with hidden subtleties. They sound as inevitable as ‘Happy Birthday’ and as far-travelled as ‘The Water is Wide’. And they have a depth of lyricism and melancholy that is (dare I say it) a little bit Schubert. I’m very lucky to have my words wrapped up in such music, and to have found such a strong but open collaborator.
One song we’ve written is in both Rest and, at the moment, The Kissing Tree. It has the lyrics of which I’m. Here they are:
The Edge of the Field
In the last of the light
at the edge of the field
when the crows are in flight
where the fox is concealed
in a hedgerow grown wild;
where the rose is revealed
in the cheek of a child
who is memory-made
and so memory-mild;
where the boughs shower shade
on the waves of the wheat;
where the dark is displayed
where the young lovers meet
where their kisses all taste
of the vast incomplete;
where the grasses are graced
by the haste of the hare,
and where death is displaced;
in the ache of the air
at the edge of the light –
I will wait for you there.
I will wait for you there.
But we should end with a full song. Here is Mara Carlyle, stopping time, with ‘Field of Snow’ from Life Cycle.