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Lydia ainsworth jan17
Nine Songs
Lydia Ainsworth

The composer and songwriter talks about the pivotal songs in her life.

23 June 2017, 10:00 | Words by Ed Nash

Growing up as the daughter of a composer and becoming smitten with a combination of Disney musicals, film and classical music scores and the art of songwriting had a profound impact on the artist that Lydia Ainsworth is today.

As a child she watched The Wizard of Oz on repeat and the scene where Dorothy falls into Oz, as the Munchkins sing ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are and meet the young lady who fell from a star’ became her signature piece at school. “I had it memorised, everyone would be ‘do The Wizard of Oz for us!’ That was one of the first things that I learned to sing and perform, I loved it so much.”

When Ainsworth hears a piece of music she loves, she describes it as “a combination of pleasure and amazement, it makes me want to make something and that’s what I find in these pieces of music.”

As well as providing inspiration for her writing, the songs she’s chosen celebrate the excitement of hearing a pivotal piece of music for the first time. “It’s the feeling they created when I first listened to them, that’s something I want to recreate. The feeling of time standing still, sounds that you’ve never heard before and melodies that you didn’t know that could ever exist, that create a sense of euphoria.”

“Why” by Annie Lennox

“Annie Lennox is one of my favourite singers of all time, she’s an amazing singer and artist. I heard her solo stuff before I ever heard Eurythmics, Diva is one of my favourite albums and has been since I was a kid and ‘Why’ was one of the first songs I’d heard of hers, this song is really inspiring to me.

“I love the production, the directness of her lyrics, her message is so honest, and I love the journey that the chord progression takes you on. It’s so unusual, you have the verse that kind of steps up and then it meanders in such an interesting way.

“It came out in the early 90s, so I must have been a really little kid when I first heard it. My Dad loved Annie Lennox too, he had the album so I probably first heard it in my living room on a CD. ‘Walking on Broken Glass’ is one of my favourites on Diva, but ‘Why’ is just such a timeless song, even listening to it today, the production just sounds so lush, rich, vibrant and so multi-layered. I just think it’s a perfect blueprint for how songwriting and producing should be.”

“Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles

"I feel like every album that comes out from a big band nowadays almost has to adhere to this branding of their sound. It’s kind of sad that albums today are so homogenous and that there’s very few artists that have really different sounds from one song to the next. The Beatles and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ are a great example of that, the arrangement, the storytelling and the characterisation.

“First and foremost I love the string arrangement, it’s incredible. George Martin, the fifth Beatle, arranged it and it’s amazing. I just love the lyrics and the arrangement together, the painting of all these lonely, disparate people. It’s such an original song, there’s really nothing like it, you can’t compare it with anything that came before or after, it’s just a great piece of art.

“The only Beatles album we had at home when I was growing up was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and I loved that album, I listened to it all the time. Then in university a friend of mine gave me a bunch of CDs, one of them was Revolver and that record really blew my mind, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t listened to it before. I love how every song on that album is its own world almost and it’s great that there’s this string arrangement that comes in out of nowhere on ‘Eleanor Rigby.’”

“Elgar Cello Concerto” played by Jacqueline du Pré

“I went to a high-school that was an arts based school, where you focussed on a specific art and I got to study cello. I was never the best cellist and I was pretty lucky to get to go this school, you had to audition and somehow, I don’t know how, I got in for cello playing. I learned so much there, I had such a wonderful teacher and I think she really took notice of me. She knew that I was musical, but I think she wanted to focus on inspiring me to practice, probably because I needed to practice!

“So one day she sent me home with a documentary of Jacqueline du Pré playing the ‘Elgar Cello Concerto’. It was the most inspiring thing I’d ever seen at that point in time, I was just like ‘Wow, I can’t believe I get to play to play this instrument, this woman who’s playing it is so inspiring’.

“I think Jacqueline was quite young at the time she played that, with Daniel Barenboim conducting, that piece of music is so incredible in itself, but the way she plays it is just highly emotional and her rendering of it is so original.”

“We’re Going Wrong” by Cream

“I had a roommate in college who introduced me to Cream and I immediately fell in love with Disraeli Gears. I loved the fact that they were a three-piece band but they were able to create such a huge sound and such a psychedelic, surreal world.

“I think this song is a pure representation and an honest portrayal of someone’s emotions in a relationship. I love Ginger Baker’s drums especially, that have a kind of jazz background but are played in such an original way. This song really stuck with me, it’s a very simple arrangement but very direct, with these incredibly piercing vocals and a haunting drum part.

“I love the other ones on Disraeli Gears and their surreal lyrics, but with this one the lyrics are very direct and very haunting and I don’t think any of the other songs really represent that kind of universal message that everyone can relate to. Whereas the other ones are like “Mermaids in the water!” this one is "We’re going wrong" and you’re like ‘Wow’, you can really feel the pain in Eric Clapton’s voice and the drum line is like a heartbeat.

“I think the ultimate goal for any artist is to express themselves as honestly as possible, so when I hear a song like ’We’re Going Wrong’, it inspires me to try and search within myself for something and to express myself in an honest way. I think it’s a really hard thing to do, but that’s always the goal and when you hear something like this song it’s like a blueprint for ‘I have to get to that place.’”

“Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder

“I first heard this when I was fourteen, I got Songs in the Key of Life for my Bar Mitzvah. I could pick any song from this album, from the get go the first song you’re hit with is ‘Love's in Need of Love Today’ and you’re thinking ‘What is this? It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before, this is amazing.’ But the hook in ‘Sir Duke’, the trumpet line, is one of the best of all time and the arrangement of the song is incredible.

“Actually, I was just thinking that many of the songs I’ve chosen here are instinctive, but I didn’t actually listen to the lyrics as a kid. I read them when I was making this list and looking through the lyrics to “Sir Duke’, it’s a song about how music can transcend any kind of inequality and everyone can enjoy a good song and I think it’s definitely one of the best songs that so many people can enjoy no matter what.

“The competition for choosing one song from Songs in the Key of Life was extremely tough, ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ is on there and ‘Village Ghetto Land’, they’re all incredible, but as I say it’s the hook of the trumpet line on Sir Duke’, the joyfulness of music and his message about that, it’s so astounding and beautiful.”

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin

“This album was given to me by one of my best friends when I was I think fifteen or sixteen years old, it was a ‘Best Of’ compilation of Aretha Franklin’s songs. I’m a fan of women with big voices, I was always listening to Whitney Houston, Annie Lennox and Mariah Carey, but Aretha Franklin is just the queen diva of all of them, her voice is magnificent and so inspiring, I would listen to that record over and over.

“Her interpretation of '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman', which was a Carole King’s song, I think goes beyond anything Carole King would have even imagined for it, it’s a magical cover, I think it’s amazing with her big voice.

“I saw a performance of this by Aretha maybe three years ago, for a tribute to Carole King. Aretha’s singing the song and Carole King is mouthing the words and she looks like she’s in heaven listening to Aretha singing it, it’s amazing.”

“Requiem - Dies Irae and Lacrimosa” by Verdi

“I first heard this when I was around twenty-two. I performed it when I was at university, I was in the choir and we performed it in this amazing church in Montreal, it was incredible. Basically you’re learning the parts weekly with just your group of singers and then we were brought together with the other choirs and the orchestra. When all of the parts came together and we were in the church singing it, it just took on a whole new meaning for me. It was a really powerful experience.

“‘Requiem’ has movements and it’s an incredibly dramatic and theatrical requiem. I love requiems, but Verdi’s in particular. It requires a huge choir and a huge orchestra, and to be singing it onstage with a hundred plus musicians was just transcendent, it was amazing.

“The ‘Dies Irae’ is an incredibly powerful opening to the requiem. You have ten enormous bass drums hammering away and it’s frightening, it brings terror and beauty at the same time, which is incredible. The ‘Lacrimosa’ is kind of a calmer movement and it has the most beautiful melody, those two are my favourite movements from ‘Requiem.’”

“American Beauty Soundtrack” by Thomas Newman

“I have a classical background but I learned how to programme through the film scores I was writing. That’s a part of my background and it feeds into my process in the way that I programme and arrange.

“This was the first score that I really took note of when I was watching a film, I think my Dad said ‘listen to the music from Thomas Newman, it’s a great score’. It led me to find my way to minimalist composers like Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and Meredith Monk.

“It made me want to write film scores actually. All of Newman’s sounds were so new at the time, it’s so iconic and his minimalistic soundtrack to a lot of the scenes has been copied in film scores so many times. His use of all these different types of sounds, in this tapestry that’s woven together that represent this family in suburbia, was just such a great compliment to the story and it really stuck with me. It was very subtle, but it was a really interesting and original score that’s gone on to influence so much that’s followed it.

“So when I’m writing a song I want the production to reflect the lyrics and the emotional content that I’m trying to convey in the most truthful way I can. It’s not a literal reproduction of the lyrics but I definitely want to conjure up the emotional scope of the song with the production.”

“Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel

“This is from So, which is one of my all-time favourite albums. It has ‘Sledgehammer’, ‘Red Rain’ and ‘Don’t Give Up’, his duet with Kate Bush on it, but ‘Mercy Street’ introduced me to lyrics in a way that I hadn’t listened to them before.

“They’re drawn from the poet Anne Sexton and the imagery of the lyrics, the hauntedness of this woman’s perspective of being lonely, are amazing. The line “Looking down on empty streets, all she can see/Are the dreams all made solid/Are the dreams all made real” gives me tingles down my spine every time I hear it or read it.

“As a kid I didn’t really listen to lyrics but this was one of the first songs that I really took note of and I was like ‘Wow, this a great example of music and lyrics coming together in such a cohesive way’, that combination was eye-opening.

“When I listened to ‘Mercy Street’ for the first time, it was like the road that I was standing on was expanding before me. I was walking around in the neighbourhood where I grew up in Toronto, just listening to my iPod. I’d just downloaded So and when that song came on, as I say, it was like the street just expanded and was coming in and out of focus, it was just an amazing moment to hear that for the first time.”

Darling of the Afterglow is out now on Bella Union
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