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June 26, 2020
Since mid-March of this year, we’ve all slowed down. The pandemic has demanded that we abandon our usual blinding pace of life and shelter in place. We’ve all had more time than we ever expected to examine our lives during these days of pause and seclusion. Most of my friends have been excavating forgotten corners of their homes and offices and sharing their discoveries. In that spirit, I sat down today and listened to an album of mine, Butterfly for the first time since completing it three years ago. Two time worn (but painfully true) phrases are ringing in my ears now: “lost in the din” and “fallen between the cracks”. Butterfly was released, to very little fanfare, in late June of 2017 as part of a ten-solo album retrospective box set. I had a funny notion that its inclusion would create incentive for people to invest in the archaic format of a box of compact discs. I also created a bonus disc of curated obscure tracks and called it Rarities. After weeks of combing my archive, I put together a collection including: collaborations with David Byrne, Billy Bragg, Amy Helm, The Chieftains and Cowboy Junkies, live performances, studio outtakes, and unreleased covers by songwriters, Katell Keineg, Randy Newman, Ray Davies, Buddy Holly, and Joel Zoss. We held back the digital release of both these discs for a year to ensure that the box was unique. What a brilliant scheme!
Then I bought a derelict house, demolished and rebuilt it, my daughter dislocated her knee and needed surgery, we moved and settled her into her new school, my assistant quit, I changed management companies, toured the States, toured the UK, toured the States again, did a string of benefits, started a high school scholarship program, sat on a couple non-profit boards, helped get a progressive congressman elected, piloted a multi-year music and poetry program for underserved urban preschoolers, sewed 250 costumes for several children’s plays, had a physical collapse, then spine surgery followed by recovery, and completely forgot about the master plan for my string quintet album and treasure box of rare tracks.
So, Butterfly, this lovely and delicate piece of work has waited patiently for three years to be noticed, even by the woman who made it. The album is made up of 10 songs, both new and previously released, all arranged for string quintet. Since 2010 I’ve performed mainly as soloist with string ensembles and chamber orchestras and developed a repertoire of thirty-five songs. I love the subtle emotional quality strings give to my songs and it’s such a pleasure to reinterpret them in this way. In 2015, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of my first solo album, Tigerlily with an album featuring quintet versions of that material and with Butterfly, I was able to give “My Skin”, “Frozen Charlotte”, “Ophelia” and “The Worst Thing” the same attention. I’ve carried these songs a great distance with me and it’s interesting to hear how they have changed over the years.
There are four songs included in this album that I think represent some of the best songwriting of my career, the title track, “Butterfly”, “She Devil”, “Baby Mine” and “Andalucía”. Written over a period of 20 years, these songs represent such different phases of my life and career. What they all share in common is that none of them fit into previous recording projects or I was unable to capture a performance that did them justice. Listening to them today, I hear how they truly belong together. We have all found ourselves living through a very frightening period of history. Our rare and exceedingly beautiful planet is in peril and all the creatures (our species included) feel on the brink of chaos. The systems that we invented and that have formed the foundations of our cultures for centuries are now proving to be lethal to our survival.
We moved too far and too fast. Contrary to natural law, we had the audacity to expect nature to adapt to us, rather than the opposite. In the face of crisis, we still search for meaning and reach out for beauty. I hope that Butterfly is received as my offering of beauty and meaning for these times and that it gives solace to anyone willing to listen.
These are certainly difficult times. Mankind’s arrogant and dismissive attitude towards nature and the environment was bound to have consequences, as you say. One of the things that many of us are missing is live music, but at least we have beautiful recorded music by artists such as yourself to keep us going.
I have been listening to your music since 1989 when I heard Bob Harris play ‘Trouble Me’ on his late night show and was struck by the wonderful voice. I stayed awake as I just had to know who the artist was and I went out to buy ‘Blind Man’s Zoo’, ‘In My Tribe’ and ‘Wishing Chair’ later in the week! I have bought everything you have released since and your music has been a big part of the soundtrack to my life since my early 20s (along with others, such as my favourite band Free, Jethro Tull and the wonderful, and sadly missed Sandy Denny). All voices are unique, of course, but I often think that your voice is a combination of the bluesy, soulfulness of Free’s Paul Rodgers with the breathtaking, feminine beauty of Sandy Denny. I can’t really pay a higher compliment than that!
For various reason (including, for many years, my aversion to big cities), I didn’t get to see you play live until May 2014, when (having failed to acquire tickets for your 2 Barbican gigs), I travelled down from York to London to see you sing a couple of traditional songs with the Kronos Quartet at the Nonesuch 50th anniversary gig. That was also the day that I ‘discovered’ Rhiannon Giddens, so a great day all round. My wife and I travelled to see you at The Royal Albert Hall in March 2016, and I also saw you in Manchester a week or so later. Both gigs were fabulous, even though I generally prefer small venues.
I am so pleased that I got to see you on your tour of small UK venues in 2018. I combined it with a short family holiday and saw you at Hebden Bridge, Ilkley, Buxton and Cambridge (making up for all the tours I had missed in the past)! The highlight was seeing you play in that tiny club in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire (I got the very last ticket!) on a very warm July evening. Not only one of the best gigs, but also one of the best nights of my life, and I even got to talk to you (and Erik) briefly after the show. I was nervous and I felt guilty about bothering you after such a great, (but no doubt exhausting) gig, but I just wanted to say thank you and I thought it would probably be my one and only chance to meet you and say so. You seemed genuinely pleased when I told you that my (then 19 year old) daughter enjoyed your music and was going to see you in Ilkley and Buxton. You may remember that you wrote your name on my (25 year old) copy of ‘Tigerlily’!
To hear live versions of older songs like ‘Verdi Cries’ and an impromptu version of ‘Matty Groves’ was just wonderful. Buxton (Derbyshire) was another memorable night, as you played a few beautiful, surprise songs such as ‘Gold Rush Brides’ and ‘Don’t Talk’. l was thrilled to hear a part of one of my favourite songs ‘Thick As Thieves’ at Ilkley and Cambridge, and also the poignant, but beautiful ‘Dustbowl’. What I am trying to say, is a massive thank you for coming to the UK (and my home county of Yorkshire) to play those small venues. I hope you enjoyed the tour as much as the fans did.
Apart from the wonderful songs, I would also like to say thank you and well done for having so much integrity, doing your own thing and never selling out to the corporate monsters. I really admire the way that you have supported worthy causes and stood up for the underdog and for the environment. That is every bit as important as the music. I tried to write a card when we were in Cambridge in 2018 to say thanks for the UK tour, but at the time, the words just would not flow.
I am really sorry to hear that both you and your daughter have needed surgery and I hope that you are both fully recovered now. Perhaps when this crazy situation has calmed down, live music can happen again and we may get to see you play live in the UK again. I certainly hope so.
Take care. 🙂
Wish the CD boxed set of Collection was still available in your store.