Saturday, 25 December 2010

Happy Christmas!

Ah! Christmas morning. Time to tune in my favourite radio to see what's going on in the world...

>>>>>...The new private mode of transport for the Business Secretary of the coalition cabinet was unveiled today. It's called a Cable Car...<<<<<


<<<<<....Heather Mills today denied claims that her new diamond encrusted gold spare leg was an extravagance at odds with her otherwise charitable status. In a statement, she said, 'I don't know...all this fuss about a little stocking filler'...>>>>>


<<<<< a rare interview, a former minder of one of London's most notorious gangsters has revealed more about the ruthless nature of his former employer. 'He was a really uncompromising, unforgiving man. I remember that time when a bird did a poo on his brand new car. He finished with her immediately...'>>>>>


<<<<<'So here it is...!'...>>>>>


>>>>>Yes! It's the Marsh Towers Christmas message! Coming to you live, several hours before the one from HRH. So if she uses the same jokes, you'll know who did them first...<<<<<

This was taken a few years ago.
I've changed since then. And shaved.

So, to all of you sitting at home...what are you doing in my house...!?

Here's a few random thoughts for this most festive of occasions:

Be kind to your neighbours. Why not pop around and check that they are OK during this harsh winter? (Especially if they are holding a parcel for you from a missed delivery).

Feed the birds (if nothing else, it keeps them away from gangsters' cars).

Keep the box. It might have to go back.

Don't go to war unless you really, really have to and/or it makes the trains run on time.

If you must go out today...just get on with it without all the fuss already! It's not THAT bad outside.

Find a space between your trench and the trench of your enemy and have a quick game of football (but don't mention the score).

Always check your spellings carefully. Remember the unfortunate case of the ancient order of monks who, for 400 years, mis-quoted the word 'celebrate' in their ancient scriptures as 'celibate'.

Eat the last chocolate in the box, guilt-free. There's plenty more in the cupboard.

Tune into BBC1 tonight at 6.00 p.m.

So, dear friends old and new, consistent friends, lazy friends, Facebook friends, those-I've-not-even-met-yet-friends, Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, stable boys, unstable boys and anyone else who happens to be reading (how exactly did you find this page...!?) my message is this: enjoy your life! Yes, it's as simple as that.


>>>>...Few sporting fixtures have survived the extreme conditions. There is just one Scottish football result to tell you about: East Fife 4, Forfar 5....<<<<<

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible...

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Sara Dennis Interview: Time & Tide

'Time & Tide' is the debut CD of the multi-talented Sara Dennis. It features 13 songs including some of her own work and a number of covers of her favourites.

I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Sara to find out the full story behind 'Time & Tide'...

Image © Sara Dennis

Let's talk about your CD first - Time and Tide. I thought we could have a quick chat about each and every song and you can perhaps tell me why they are on the CD and what they mean to you, who wrote them and why they are your top choices to be on your first CD. Track number one is 'Martha's Harbour'. What can you tell me about that?

I just think it's a lovely song. I first heard it when I was growing up in the 80s and I thought it was just such a different song. I quite like the eerie, haunting songs and it's very much like that. It's a nice song to sing as well.

Was it always going to be the starter track of your CD?

When we recorded them I didn't really have any sort of order in mind and when I listened back to them it just seemed the natural opening song really.

'Northern Sky' is next...

I adore Nick Drake; really love Nick Drake. I haven't been a fan for very long. I came to his music later on, as a lot of people do, I think. He was ahead of his time. 'Northern Sky' is such a happy song. He did write a lot of melancholy stuff; he was a troubled guy himself - but a genius - and it's just such a fantastic song and I love singing it. We rearranged that one a little bit because it was difficult for me to sing, with my range being different to Nick Drake's.

How about 'Lemuria'?

That's one of Dan's songs. I heard him sing it quite a while ago. In fact, when we first met, I asked him what his favourite song was and he said it was that and I went to have a listen to it. It's a really beautiful song. When I asked him if it was OK to sing some of his songs, he suggested that. We tried it and it worked really well. I like it because it's based on mythology and that type of thing,. It's a nice, dreamy song and I enjoy singing it.

Sara and Dan at the 'Stories and Oceans' launch

One thing which occurred to me on the CD, apart from it bringing your voice to its full potential, is that I think it brings the best out of Dan's playing as well. Stripped down, with mainly just one guitar, it really suits his style.

It does, yes. he's done a really smashing job.

How about 'Next Time Around'?

That's a Sandy Denny song that I came across about six months ago. I first came across Sandy Denny when listening to Fairport Convention and I listened to some of her solo stuff. I listened and just fell in love with it. It's such an unusual song...quite a challenge to sing and quite a challenge for us to work out as well, so it took some practicing, The lyrics are really strange and the chord changes are strange but it's just such a stunning song and one I really wanted to sing.

Image © Sara Dennis

'House Carpenter'.

That's arguably my favourite. That's the one I always turn to when I don't know what else to sing. I first came across that one on Natalie Merchant's 'House Carpenter's Daughter'. I just love it. That was the first song I wanted to sing when I came back to music. It was only in July this year that i started to perform and that was my first choice. I said to Dan, 'I really like this song'; I played it on my piano for him and he said it was really nice, and he went away and figured out some chords. One day he said, 'Let's go to the open mic and give it a go!' So we did, and then started going to the folk clubs. So that was the song that started it all off. It's a traditional song and I love the folk songs with a warning. She runs away to sea with her former lover; she'd settled down with a nice house carpenter and had a baby but she goes off to see with him and the ship sinks and they both drown.

Happy ending then?

Yes - they've all got happy endings, folk songs!

‘Crazy Man Michael’.

That's a Fairport Convention song. It's such a beautiful, haunting song with a really, really interesting story to it. When you listen to the song's story, it's just amazing. It's about a guy who goes for a walk one day and meets a raven - but it's not really a raven; he murders his girlfriend.

Ravens feature quite heavily in songs and stories. In Edgar Allen Poe's works, for example.

In lots of poetry as well.

'The Letter'.

'The Letter' is off Natalie Merchant's 'Tigerlilly' album. I'm a big fan of Natalie Merchant. The song meant a lot to me because when I first heard the lyrics, I could very much identify with the song. I love the structure and it's a lovely song to sing because it's quite powerful in parts. I decided to do that one on my old piano. The piano's got an interesting story to it, actually. It was my Grandfather's piano and I think he bought it in the late 60s...

Is that Grandfather Billy?

Yes, and that was the first piano I played, when I was five. Then I started having lessons and that was what I grew up with, really. It was always in the family and it was always promised to me; 'That's Sara's piano!' When both Grandparents died it was left to me. So I've got that now and it's a very important thing for me. It's a beautiful white, gloss upright piano. It's stunning and I really wanted to capture that on the album. Unfortunately, I recorded it myself and I'm not an expert at recording, so it's slightly muffled but it gives it a nice feel, I think.

I think that really works on this song. It's like the past seeping through to the present.

That was the thing I was trying to do...I asked for the vocals to be crisp and clean to contrast the past with the present, so I'm glad you said that.

I thought it was one of the most effective songs on the CD.

Oh - wow!

'Pretty Polly' is next.

Another one I heard from Sandy Denny. Fairport Convention, anyway. Quite a lot of people have done it. I've been researching into folk tunes recently because I want to know the stories behind them; who sang them, where they came from, what they mean...and quite a lot of people have done 'Pretty Polly'. I really like the Fairport Convention version, so that's the one I did. I love it because it's a bit more upbeat. It's got more rhythm to it and the way Dan plays guitar on that makes it quite a rocking tune. People said to me, everyone always dies in my songs but I quite like the sort of darker folk tune and again it's one of those with a story and a message, where a young girl sillily goes off with her boyfriend and he gets her into trouble and he murders her and throws her in a shallow grave.

There's a lot of it about!

There is in the folk world, isn't there? I adapted that one, I changed the lyrics slightly, because there's a few different versions and in the version I liked - the version Sandy Denny sang - he goes to the jailhouse but he seems to get away with it in the end and I wanted to hang him and send him to Hell, so that's what I did in my version. But in other versions that I've come across, he goes off to sea and is haunted by Pretty Polly and I started to wonder if that's where the sort of parrot on the shoulder Pretty Polly comes from. In one of the versions it's the captain and everybody sees the sailor, who murdered Polly, he comes to haunt him and the baby on the ship. Nobody else sees him so they think he's mad and make him walk the plank. I started to wonder about the idea of animals having a kind of sixth sense. They say dogs know I wondered if that's where the Pretty Polly myths come from. I've tried to research more into it, but I'm sure I'll find the answer one day.

That's connected to what we said about ravens as well.

Yes, about birds and omens. In folk law, birds were messengers and carriers of omens weren't they, so I wonder if there is anything in that?

Nowadays, the parrot has become more of a comedy figure so perhaps its darker past has been hidden. The next track on the CD is one which I thought particularly suited your voice; 'Emily Said'.

Oh, right! That's one I wrote myself. It's about the poet Emily Dickinson, who I'm a big fan of. I find her story fascinating, because she was pretty much a recluse and she wrote all this wonderful poetry and it wasn't discovered until after she died. She had seven pieces published but she was never really taken seriously and when she died they found, underneath her table, a box containing 18,00 poems. She'd written them all by hand and she had really unusual handwriting, a really unusual way of putting things together. She'd used random capitals and dashes instead of commas and all this type of stuff. I think she's a fascinating character and her poetry moves me to tears sometimes. It sounds dramatic, but it does!

It's an interesting an artist, is it best to be virtually unknown during lifetime but then to live forever afterwards, or to be famous while alive and then not especially remembered...?

Well it's kind of like that with two people on the album. Emily Dickinson and Nick Drake were both pretty much unknown in their own lifetime.

Image © Sara Dennis

How about 'Life is Hard'?

That's written by a friend of mine called Kieron. I heard him play it at the folk club when I first started going in May and he played it a few times. I thought it was a famous song and I spoke to him afterwards and he said, 'Oh no, it's my song' and I was really impressed because it's such a simple song but it's so effective; such a lovely song. One day he said, 'Would you mind singing along if I give you the lyrics?' so I sang along one day. Then I said, 'Would you let me record it?' and he said, 'Of course, I'd love you to record it' and he gave me permission to use it on the album. It's such a good song; life is hard, but you can get through with friends; as long as you've got people around you, you'll get through it, but it makes no bones that life is hard. Kieron's beenpoorly recently - he had a heart attack a few weeks ago. He's OK, thankfully.

'Poor Wayfaring Stranger'.

I heard that on Natalie Merchants 'House Carpenter's Daughter'. I was in two minds about this one. I actually recorded two a cappella songs for the album, but one of them I didn't put on in the end; I kept it at 13 songs. A nice number, 13! 'Poor Wayfaring Stranger' is an old spiritual hymn really, but I think it's very folky and I like the lyrical content.

I'd say that's probably the best known song on the CD.

It does get sung quite a lot in the folk clubs, so it is popular.

I have a version by Emmylou Harris which is very nice.

It's nice to sing as well; I enjoy singing that one.

'Undiscovered Country'.

That's another one of Dan's songs. Again, I heard him sing it and I just thought, I really love that song. I asked him, 'Would you mind if I have a go?' and he said, 'By all means!' I think the lyrics are really beautiful. It's a bit like Kieron's song - a simple song but very effective. I think it's quite moving and I think he's done a cracking job with it. He's got so many songs and he lets me sing them, which is great! We've started to do it as a duet, actually. It works well. I'm very pleased that he lets me sing his songs.

The influential Daniel Pettitt

He has a huge body of work.

It's amazing, isn't it?

'Renaissance Wave'.

I was talking to Dan about that recently. It's another one I wrote myself and kind of an important song for me.It's about where I've come from and where I am now. I said to Dan, 'I'll probably never sing that again' because it's about somewhere I was and I had to write this song to get it out of my system and I've moved on now. It represents my past. It's a bit like a poem set to music rather than a song, I think.

Well, that's the 13 songs. How did it all come together? How did you come up with the idea of recording your own CD?

It was Dan's idea, I think. He just said to me one day, 'Why don't we go along to an open mic and give it a go?' I was terrified and I forgot all of the words at one stage! So the next day he said, 'We can go and do it again'. He gave me a real push which motivated me. So we started performing together, with Dan backing me on guitar. It's a bit difficult for me as I don't play guitar and it's tricky dragging a piano around! Then he just said one day, 'Why don't you put a little CD together?'

I started to think about it more seriously and I thought I'd make a few demos and the more we did, the more songs we got together, we thought, 'Why not do it properly?' and it just went from there. We recorded quite a lot of stuff at his place with his recording equipment and then we went into the studio in Stockton and just recorded it all in three hours. So pretty much, they are all first takes. It captures the essence.I think I'll take more time on my next project but for that one it captured what I was trying to get down. I'd love to do this song (which was on the radio in the background) - 'Summertime'. We'd need to find a way to do it with guitar.

I'm sure Dan can find a way to make his guitar sound like a trumpet.

You never know - he's full of surprises!

Sara, post interview

Part two of our interview, scheduled for January 2011, will focus on Sara's life and influences. Meanwhile, for more information on 'Time and Tide', a list of forthcoming gigs and a whole lot more, pop along to the Sara Dennis website.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Carlsen Victorious

Magnus Carlsen completed his recovery from two early losses to capture first place at the 2nd London Chess Classic.

Magnus Carlsen v Nigel Short
Image copyright: John Saunders

I have posted a piece about the final round over at Mongoose Times.

For the full story of the Classic, pop along to the official tournament website.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

London Classic: Penultimate Round

The penultimate round of the London Chess Classic produced four draws.

There's some more information and few photos over at Mongoose Times.

Follow today's final round action at the official site.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

More Mongoose

I've just posted another update on the London Chess Classic over at:

Sunday, 12 December 2010

London Classic Highlights

I've just posted a short summary of the first four rounds of the London Chess Classic over at:

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Bridie Jackson Interview: Part Three

Parts one and two of our interview focused on the Banoffee Pie Tour Collective and Bridie's track by track guide to songs respectively. For the third and final part, we delve deeper into Bride's life and inspirations...

How did it all start? How did you become interested in music?

I think it was the most predictable thing that could ever have happened. The way was paved for me really. My Dad's a composer and I was born with a kind of leaning towards music so it made sense. I tried other things but always came back to music.

So your Father is a that classical music?

Not exclusively, but yes, a lot of classical and orchestral work.

What's his name?

Andy Jackson

Have you ever collaborated?

A little bit; I think we’d both like to do more.

What about the rest of your family? Are any others interested in music?

No, not really. My Mum says she's completely non-musical and my sister claims to hate music! I find that unbelievable, it’s like saying you don't like food or something.

When did you write your first song?

I think probably when I was about three. I wrote a song about being stung by a nettle.

You were already anti-folk...!

Yeah, probably...I'd already started feeling uncomfortable and agitated!

I was going to ask if your first song has survived as a recording, but I suppose at age three it probably hasn't.

I don't know. Maybe my parents have a version of it.

Do you still have the lyrics somewhere?

I don't know if I do. I think it just went something like, 'De-bo, de-bo - - be careful of the nettles...' or something like that! I think that was probably it, really. A blues structure I seem to recall...

When did you get your first guitar?

When I was five. My Dad got both my sister and I guitars and gave us lessons.

When and where was your first performance?

Well, as a soloist, it was in a grotty pub in Newcastle on an open-mic night. I never would have done it but my friend Laura thought that I should so she just put my name on the list and didn't tell me. Then they called me up and I had to get on with it! After that, I caught the bug, big time, and couldn't stop.

So it was a good deed that Laura did for you there.

Very good, yes.

I presume you were very nervous when you first started?

Yes. I still get nervous now, but that’s good, it just shows that you care about it.

How nervous do you get now?

It’s much more manageable now. I just have a little run on the spot, jump around and dance and that seems to do the trick.

Before going on must be a very tense time. Presumably you just want the time to be eaten up before you can get on the stage.

Yes, it's better now though. I used to play on my own and I did that for years and years, but now I have a band it's so much more enjoyable waiting to go on.

When I saw you with your band, they were called 'The Puddleducks' but the name changes every night.

Yes, we do need a permanent name though.

Do you want to be 'Bridie Jackson and the - '?

Yes, and we've had various bizarre suggestions from people but we haven't quite found anything that fits yet, but I do really, really want to come up with something. So if you have any suggestions, let me know!

What are the names of people in the sometimes-Puddleducks?

We have Eleanor Mooney, singer and glockenspiel player extraordinaire; Carol Bowden is a singer; Sophia DeCastro sings but she's also a pianist; then we have Ally Heley, a violinist and singer, and then we have Ed, the only boy in the band, who plays bassoon, piano and sings. So it's quite an eclectic group really.

How does it work? Do they take turns for the various gigs?

No, everyone’s invited to them all but they are very busy, so we rarely have a gig with all of us.

Do you play any other instruments apart from guitar?

Yes - I play the French Horn.

How did that start?

My Dad suggested I learn because he thought it would be good for my sight reading. So he got me one and I liked it. It was never a passion but I liked doing it and I still play a bit.

On stage...?

No! Actually, I did play it once in a children's show I was in, but not in my sets, no. That would be a bit weird I think.

Does music pay the bills?

Yes, actually it does, which is amazing. But not just performing; I also work at The Sage Gateshead as a community musician. I teach early Years, run choirs that sort of thing.

What comes first in your songs? Is it the music or the lyrics?

It used to always be the music but I think that was because I was more unsure of my lyrical skills, but I knew I could do the music, so I would start with that. But now the two things sort of happily form alongside each other. Because I work long hours during the day, I don't have that much time to write songs. So I just have an idea, let it marinade and then I might come back to it, as long as a year later. Then when it comes to writing it, it's usually a case of it just spilling out because I've spent so long piecing it together, almost subconsciously. I think it's a style that has been developed through constraints, because I don't really have much time to write.

Do you ever have the old cliche, where you just sit down and a song appears, fully formed, in your mind? Everyone seems to have at least one of those.

No, never. Everything I write takes a long time.

What percentage of songs do you start and never finish?

Loads! And there’s songs that I give up on or that are no longer relevant so I stop doing them. A lot of songs are relevant only in a certain time in my life I think. Or songs where I go, 'Oh God - that's awful!' Sometimes there'll be one good line so I'll pinch it but the rest goes.

Do you ever have a song hanging around for years but then something happens in your life which makes you think of it and finish it off?

Yes, sometimes, And sometimes people will say, what was that song you used to sing? Why don't you do that any more...? So I bring it back in. That happens a bit.

Heroes and influences...

Oh, wow!

There's a curious list of influences on your MySpace page...


...which I have in front of me. Driving, getting to sleep lots, drinking gin, tales of triumph over excessive adversity - not just adversity -

- excessive adversity!

...and then a whole list of people. Are these all true influences?

Yes, they are.

How is driving an influence then?

Because it gives me time to think

Getting to sleep lots?

Yes, because you have great dreams which can set your mind off in interesting directions.

Have you ever woken in the middle of the night and had to have a pen and paper handy to write down new lyrics?

Yes, I've done that.

Drinking gin...?

I always find it gets the creative juices flowing - I don't know why!

Just gin? That's the only one that works?

Yes, it's the only one that seems to do the trick.

And then tales of triumph over excessive adversity - there must be more to the story than that.

I just always find it really inspiring. So many people give up when things are difficult and I think it's amazing when people don't, when they are actually given energy by their failure. I think that's so admirable.

That's a very healthy attitude to have but not so easy to maintain. Your list of influential people is wide-ranging. Dylan Thomas, Bat for Lashes; they are people from all different genres. If you hear a song on the radio, who really gets to you and makes you emotional?

Have you heard of a band called Sigur Ros?


They're amazing.The first time I heard them - I'm not religious or even particularly spiritual - but it was like a religious experience. I heard them and I remember going, ' this is incredible'. And a lot of classical music because I grew up with that and it holds alot of nostalgia for me. I really love Schubert and Elgar - I like the big, over the top moments.

Can music make you cry?

Oh God, yes! All the time! But good crying; happy crying.

Of your influences in terms of people, how many have you actually seen in concert or otherwise?

Not that many. Melanie I've seen; she was amazing. Ben Otwell, Loudon Wainwright, Bat for Lashes; I don't go to as many gigs as I should though.

Don't you? That's surprising. I thought with you working at The Sage Gateshead you'd have just stayed on.

Yes...I should really.

You've supported a number of big acts, such as Cara Dillon. How are such people towards their support acts?

It depends, I think. A lot of the time there are other factors at play. It's often the case that they are absolutely exhausted and sometimes they can't even distinguish one venue from another because they've been touring so much. I think also they are so used to sycophants and because of that are a bit jaded sometimes. But I've never had any experiences where people have been rude - ever. People are always - at the very least - polite and civil.

Which ones are particularly fun to be with?

I supported John Smith recently and he was really lovely, very supportive of what we were doing. Crooked Still - an Americana band - they were absolutely lovely. They all used to be scientists but were all musicians as well on the side. Then they started playing together and they did well really quickly and suddenly it just happened for them.. They had this lovely sort of 'We can't believe this is happening...'attitude and that's great, when people are still excited by what they are doing.

How was Cara Dillon?

Really nice. I didn't really talk to her very much. We just said hello, knocked on the dressing room and said good luck.

How do you get work as a support act? Do you have to start off by making the venues aware of you?

It does seem that when a venue gets you on their books - as long as you turn up and you are nice and on time - they tend to book you back. When I'm supporting someone like Cara there's less pressure on the venue as they know it will sell out anyway.

How do you feel when you are on the stage and it's apparent that a lot of the audience don't bother coming in for the support acts? I always do, but some don't.

Well you're a better person than me then, because I don't always. Shame on me.

How do you cope with the big gaps in the audience who only come in for the main act?

It is quite distressing but you have to be sensible about it. You’re not the main act after all.

I'd rather have them not in the hall than talking all way through the act. That's becoming quite a problem at gigs.

Yes, that’s upsetting.

It's the same at the cinema. Why do people go to see a film and then talk all the way through it?

They should just watch it at home! I know what you mean. I used to have to put up with that a lot – I’ve played gigs where literally I'll be in the corner of a pub on a Sunday afternoon, playing, and they'll turn the football on the screen behind me and then they won't turn it off. So I'll be playing and the football will be on behind me, with everybody cheering. Not at me though! But that's good because it toughens you up.

Can you still get upset with that sort of thing or are you hardened to it now?

I used to get really upset but I'm also really pleased that it happened. It gave me some humility and if I go to a gig now, I try to never talk. Imagine how they'd feel if I was talking as they are spilling their heart out? But it's good to have that experience. You've got to know that you are fallible and not everyone thinks you're great. You're going to have people that think your music is rubbish and that's fine. So it's good that you get a bit of that.

What future plans do you have?

A new album, which we are recording in February, then another tour collective. Keep playing with the band and developing the sound that we're finding, which is really exciting.

What can you tell us about the new album?

It will have some tracks on that are on the live album - but recorded in a studio instead, with new arrangements - and a few new songs as well. There's quite a few a cappella ones on there actually, which is something I'm getting more into.

How many tracks are you aiming for?

Maybe between 10 and 12.

Will you be ready for another track-by-track interview?

Yes - absolutely.

I'm looking forward to the new CD and the interview too. Meanwhile, if you missed our earlier features on the inimitable Bridie Jackson, here's your chance to catch up:

Interview Part 1

Interview Part 2

Review of the Banoffee Pie Tour Collective