Usually I find myself working project by project but this year, for the first time I had several things lined up. Looking back, I find myself reflecting that it has been a year of re-visiting and endings. I was excited to start the year with a studio session with Nick Trepka, a producer who I’ve worked with on several releases now. The song in question was a ‘new’ one I wrote back in 2017, called ‘Mr. Happy’. We were recording backing vocals with the trio of Nathan Taylor, who sang on the Postcards from God Concept Cast Recording, Jonathan Kitching who played drums on my single Spotlight (I mentioned I was looking for a singer for the session and Kitch fit the bill with a lovely vocal style) and Christopher Bartlett, who leads his own a capella group We Are Trackless. I’d tried doing the backing vocals myself but felt like it was worth bringing in other voices, which I always think sounds better. Being your own manager and label on a shoestring means it’s always hard to keep things going (more of this later) and it’s been a bit of a disappointment to me that my music has lost a bit of momentum this year, mainly for financial reasons, but Mr. Happy will definitely see the light of day further down the line as it’s quite a different sound and feel from my other music and I think it’s a really strong song. But despite only releasing one single, I have been busy - and it’s only now looking back at my calendar that I can see I packed in more than I thought I did!
There were also two theatrical highlights for January - first up was Dick Whittington at the London Palladium. The Palladium panto is becoming an annual fixture on my calendar with lavish costumes and sets and an all star cast. I would recommend it to anyone as there’s lots to entertain young audiences (the spectacle of flying buses, boats and carriages which always feature are worth the ticket price alone) and older audience members will always find the scripts innuendo-laden. The comic set pieces always include the long suffering Nigel Havers trying to build up his part and being the butt of Julian Clary’s jokes (puns intended). Tickets aren’t cheap but it’s one of the few shows you can guarantee will be good value for money.
The second theatrical highlight was Constellations by South London Theatre at Stanley Halls, though I must admit I am rather biased about this one as I wrote some original music for it. The play by Nick Payne follows a couple through their romantic life and is based around the idea that every small action creates a parallel universe, where different possibilities create further worlds, so we see many different versions of their story/stories play out. It’s sad and funny and was very well acted by Bex Law and Ben Rathe. The music was a challenge as by it’s nature it had to be repetitive, but as I’ve found with all the music I’ve done for plays at South London Theatre, writing underscoring for dialogue is tricky as if it’s too tuneful or rhythmic it can be distracting (and if it features neither rhythm or tune it can end up being even more distracting). Ben’s character was a beekeeper, so I wrote lots of pieces in the key of B (geddit?) and various variations.
Valentine’s Day saw the release of my single ‘Spotlight’ with Alley Bilodeau and Sean Mullaney. We made a no-budget video shot on my iPhone - have a look here:
March saw more filming, this time with Tom Carradine. Tom and I met some years ago at the London Cabaret Convention and have been friends and collaborators since, with me working on many of his Cockney Sing-a-longs as magic lantern operator, piano pusher and social media guru. We set to work on a YouTube series called ‘Music Hall Mondays’, which featured Tom telling the stories behind the songs from his new album.
In May, I presented a revival of my my poetry and music show SIGHS TEN as part of the Wandsworth Fringe.
I’d performed it previously with a live band at The Glory in 2016, but this time I performed it completely solo for two nights at a pub theatre called The Cat’s Back. It was a challenge for me to work completely ‘unaccompanied’ as I’ve usually had other performers or video to work with. The first show was a test of my nerves and memory but the second night flew and it was great to receive a glowing review from Cabaret Scenes a few weeks later. That month I also helped film a promo for a new musical from Robert S J Lucas ahead of its run at The Other Palace - have a look here and listen to the cast recording on Spotify.
Back in March 2017, myself and my mother were extras in a short film called Three Sacks Full of Hats starring Alison Steadman and Warren Brown. In June we had the pleasure of seeing the film at a private screening at Curzon Bloomsbury. It was a great treat to see the film on the big screen in a rather swanky cinema. Directed by Debbie Anzalone and written by BAFTA winning writer Geoff Thompson, the film has been doing the rounds at UK festivals and tells a sad story about the effects of alcoholism on a family. It’s beautifully shot and well worth a look. June also saw me return to Clapham Common Bandstand for their annual Common People event, which raises funds for Friends of Clapham Common. It’s always nice to play locally and there’s a good vibe to the event, celebrating community with free food and music for local people.
Behind the scenes, I had been working as Musical Director on a production of Nell Gwynn at South London Theatre. This was a challenge as I’d never been on that side of a production. It’s often assumed that if you can write music, you can read music and must have the skills it would take to be a Musical Director, but like any language, people always have different levels of fluency in music. I’m very much a self taught musician and picked up what I do know from working with Arrangers, Musical Directors and Choir Leaders along the way, so I had a lot of homework to do! Nell Gwynn is a fun and fruity play with songs and features an upbeat if sometimes anachronistic score. It was a new experience to be in a show band and the whole process gave me a newfound respect for Musical Directors - sitting through a show repeatedly also gives you an insight into the script and the piece as a whole in a way I hadn’t previously appreciated. The SLT cast worked very hard and it was a particular pleasure to work with Jade Harrison who played Nell and Tom Melly who gave a star turn as Lord Arlington - I always had to make sure I didn’t literally ‘LOL’ at his pronunciation of the word ‘nostril’. The score supplied by the publishers of the show is arranged for piano (which is rather unhelpful as the songs wouldn’t have been played on piano at the time the piece is set - and I don’t play the piano!) so I had to make my own arrangements. After the show finished, a Director from another community theatre group contacted SLT to see if she could use my arrangements and very swiftly I found myself accepting the job of Musical Director on their production, which will be coming to Bob Hope Theatre in March 2019!
September also saw the release of Tom Carradine’s ‘Music Hall Songbook’ album, which we had recorded at my studio in July and made the accompanying ‘Music Hall Mondays’ videos for. It was exciting to see the songs immortalised on CD with my name as Producer. Again, being on the other side of the ‘recording desk’ was a good experience and it was funny turning the tables on Tom and making him do re-takes instead of it being the other way round as it has been in the past!
Releasing music without any marketing spend is always a rather dispiriting affair, you spend months (if not years) working on a track and release it and often nothing really happens. One encouraging thing over the last few years is that I’ve had some airplay on regional / online radio and one DJ who has played my releases several times is Loxley, who presents his own show on Actual Radio in Colchester. Loxley is a songwriter himself and champions songwriters of all levels. In October myself and Adam Green went on his show and did a live session. I was very nervous as although we’d played some gigs this year they were few and far between. I don’t feel I’ve completely lost the impetus to perform, but my feelings toward being onstage have shifted a little, maybe because I’ve been working in different roles that are less about me performing this year.
November saw the fifth anniversary of my debut album Quicksilver - The Masquerade Macabre, which passed without great fanfare. The egotistical part of me hoped that I’d be able to do an anniversary show or be listed in a ‘undiscovered gems’ blog or broadsheet roundup, but to be fair I didn’t do a lot to promote the date. Instead I still have several hundred CDs that now live under my bed, but I can hope to do that anniversary show in 2023 and shift them then I guess! The process of revisiting and re-evaluating my creative work has seen me do a bit of soul searching this year and I think I am beginning to have a different relationship with it. Seeing your art as a commodity is difficult for most artists, but I think in many ways you have to, however ‘icky’ that might feel - and I’m glad that even if it isn’t particularly profitable at present, at least I do have what can be seen as a ‘back catalogue’ of work now.
A major part of that back catalogue is of course my show Postcards from God - The Sister Wendy Musical. I am grateful to Bryon Fear, (who designed the artwork for most of my music releases and directed their production) for encouraging me to submit it to South London Theatre for consideration two years ago. The prospect of seeing it put on again after ten years was exciting and a little frightening - I had been heavily involved in the creative processes of the first few outings which I (and most critics) never felt worked and so it was a new experience for me to be solely the writer and step back, but also a necessary one which I found useful on a personal level. Getting the show ready for a new outing required a huge amount of work from the show’s arranger Michael Roulston. It’s always a pleasure to work with Michael, who is currently composing his own musical and about to tour with Jess Robinson.
Eileen Coan gave a first class performance as Sister Wendy, who had been played by West End performers Myra Sands and Gay Soper in previous productions. It’s been a real pleasure to see the character inhabited by three brilliant actresses in different ways. A special mention should also go to Audrey Lindsay who is a staple of SLT shows and is always excellent in whatever roles she inhabits. This time she played the role of Sister Wendy’s biological sister and duetted with Eileen on ‘Art of Darkness’, which had been cut from previous versions but finally reinstated for this production. There are always things that a writer will want to tinker with in a script and I feel like the first half of Postcards could still do with a bit of attention, which is a task for the new year.
The ‘lost’ song became important in the emotional arc of the show and I was glad to see it add something to the story. From the very first incarnations of the show, I made a conscious decision that although an atheist myself, I would not question Sister Wendy’s faith (or anyone else’s) and it was heartening to me that several company and audience members who were Christians of various denominations said they were thankful that I had treated her and their faith respectfully. As I’ve said all along, making fun of Sister Wendy and / or her beliefs would always have been cheap and not really very interesting for anyone - in this production particularly it also became obvious (to me anyway) that she sees most clearly of all but inhabits a world where people do not see, or at best, their view of the world is distorted.
As a sad postscript to the production, it was announced that Sister Wendy had died on Boxing Day. I was with friends when I heard the news - someone said it in passing after seeing an alert on their mobile phone and probably didn’t realise that for me it was quite a big piece of news and rather a shock. As a side note, a friend who read the most recent script for Postcards remarked that being set in the nineties, it was now a period piece - and the situation reminded me how much life has changed for everyone in that time, particularly how we ‘engage’ with celebrity - the whole life and death of a person reduced to a ping on mobile device.
Although I never met her, Sister Wendy has been part of my creative life in a monumental way for over fifteen years - I have thought about her, read and internalised her work and even jumped out of a plane to raise money to put on the show I wrote about her. Rather like when David Bowie died, I am not quite sure how to react to her death and I think it will take some time for me to completely process it. Despite being very different people, I think a common thread between David Bowie and Sister Wendy for me is that when we admire a personality for their creative or intellectual output, we have a completely unique and personal image of them in our psyche (which may be a very different experience to a real relationship with a real person). Once the real person has gone, especially if we didn’t know them personally, what happens to the vision we had of them? I feel glad to have been touched by Sister Wendy’s positivity, her love of life and her assertion that you don’t have to be formally ‘educated’ to appreciate things, whether that be art, music or any other discipline. It’s rare, particularly in our age, that one person can touch so many lives with joy, positivity and love. May she rest in peace.
My proudest moment this year was co-writing and directing a rehearsed reading of a new project called REPLAY, which myself and my collaborators Owen Chidlaw, Tom Mathias and Jade Harrison have described as ‘a new anthology of contemporary science fiction and horror’. Having not formally studied writing or directing (or anything else for that matter) like many of my creative endeavours, it’s always been a process of trying things out and I felt pleased to have steered the ship. We were all quite surprised at how fully formed and hopefully ‘ready’ for a production the piece felt and we’re hoping to work towards that in 2019.
Alongside REPLAY, I have an EP that I hope to put out and I’ll also be launching a Patreon page where I’ll be releasing a project I put together with Adam Green back in 2016.
‘One to One’ is a collection of songs from my career stripped back for voice and guitar, which we filmed with the aim of putting them on YouTube. My relationship with that platform has changed somewhat since their partner policies changed so drastically earlier this year and so it was put on hold, but I am hoping that Patreon may offer the opportunity to engage directly with fans and provide a new way of supporting my work. I hope you can join me on that next step of my artistic journey and that 2019 brings you many good things and happy times.