The Mystical Intonations of Love’s Great Question
As I came to I realised I was stood holding a knife over a black sceptre that I had once called a friend. ‘I must be in Whalley Range’ I thought. And the knife had to mean that the party was over. The people had left and I had become bored.
Whalley Range, a small area of south Manchester is a dead-land. There are no people here. At night the local councillors take it in turns to leave yellow lights on in the empty houses to bring the theatre production to life but no one is really in. A stagehand sweeps the floor of a kitchen the staff have left messy from lunch – an actor come madman jigs down the street pointing frantically at the sky.
‘The Range’ is one large shadow of the already dark city it belongs to – large animate trees drape over you as you walk between one distant street lamp and the next – an angry confederacy of cats patrol the labyrinth of alleys and suburban midnight roads. It is always nighttime.
As I turn down past St Margaret’s Church I can hear faint music coming from the top of one of the houses...The artists are still here.
It was at one of these small parties that I met Bernard and Edith. I was drunk, no knives yet though, everyone was. I recall it was at that stage of drunkenness when you seemed to have blissfully passed into the other world – the one without pain - without the General Election or herpes - where you know that if you managed to not fall asleep it would stay dark forever. The people would just keep talking and talking in the dark, kissing, laughing and drinking, drinking until suddenly a bell would ring and we would all evaporate and float up to heaven like a dull painless smoke. THAT is the drinker’s only obsessive aim - his nirvana - the bliss of a complete emptiness. He drinks until he disappears. Until everything is like air; innocuous and vital. The smoke becomes air. The booze becomes air. The music; air. And after that nothing else could matter.
The whole world was asleep. Only we were up.
I was sat on a sofa against a wall and the party was dying down.
Young men and women were sat on the floor. A lamp on yellow and dim in the corner. Smoke, delicious smoke and booze left.
But then a voice appeared out of the smoke that seemed to cut through – the evening – the drunkenness – the sound of Greta Caroll singing. Husky and thoughtful, moving from moments of breathy delicacy and then to gravelly depths. This was someone who had to be coerced to sing, coerced to relax, and be reassured and loved and yet had a distinct and automatic style of her own.
Two years later I am stood, 4 beers and a rum-something down, just about upright, in a bar far far away from the Range - but happy as I am now watching a completely different woman sing. The nerves and the neurosis are still there she tells me before the show but watching her perform, now, where her delivery is without exaggeration perfect – you would never have known it – I am pleasantly shocked. And I think back to that night I first heard her timidly sing through the smoke at 4am.
Now on stage, she is wearing what looks like to me, a man who wears the same clothes everyday, a pink see-through hood, glittery make-up and intimidatingly tall high-heel shoes. She sings towards the audience, gesturing with her hands like a sorceress, caressing each sound with care and passion. Nick the scientist, obligatory cap adorned, bows his head above an array of flashing equipment, nodding it in time with the entrancing sound.
I watch them. I know this woman fairly well, we are not terribly close, but I have born witness to her volatility and as well her deep and sisterly sense of care for others. A paradoxical person, a chaos seemly propped up at times by her friends but more importantly by the presence of calm and wisdom from Nick Delap her musical partner.
Before the show – we take a seat in the smoking area out the back so i can begin my interrogation – Greta is noticeably conflicted: ‘It’s the best feeling ever in the world performing. Being in your own dimension.’
I respond by reminding her that she suffers from paralysing nerves before their shows.
‘Yes I do.’
‘But when you get on stage you really HAVE nailed it.’ Nick supports her.
‘I really am an up and down person and if I’m not feeling something it really can not work out.’
Perhaps Edith’s concern also comes from the virtuosity of her influences and her debt to female jazz and blues singers and lyricists. And a kind of free-form improvised style influences her whole approach to making art.
‘I like textures of words – I use a lot of names – nearly every single song has a name in it – poppy, iris, rosemary – and I think its because not necessarily that its just the character that I’ve got going on and its not random but it makes sense in my head.’
A sentiment that is synonymous with the music of Simon Raymonde’s Cocteau Twins (the founder of the group’s label – Bella Union) as well as artists like Bjork and The Knife.
Nick proposes that ‘..it’s almost trying to create another world with sound. It is a representation of the music we like but we are trying to create another world. You can get actual feelings from notes and sounds. And using sounds that takes me or Greta to a place that is completely different to the real world.’
‘But that world does exist.’ I say - and humbly take a sip of a little beer that seems to have miraculously materialised in my hand. Oh, Hello. My eyes are starting to blur a tad. Pay attention boy! Don't lose it. Not yet.
‘Yes – in the music.’ Replies Greta.
‘It sort of is a kind of escape.’ Concludes Nick.
I speculate that even though the creation of the music might be a kind of escapism for them it is one with a message of positivity because it is saying ‘this is the way the world should be or a part of it should be.’
‘Or the way you actually see it.’ Greta responds.
This is the first of my main two theses about B and E….It is clear that in their music, whether they know it or not, they are attempting to mimic their complex notion of how nature operates. Their music is a natural phenomenon – as a plant might grow – ivy on a worn old house of Whalley Range – each room filled with a young or old life – dreams hang over the sleeping heads at night, colourful objects adorn each room, proof of existence, music, posters, clothes and books. A house, a natural thing, just like the ivy that grows on it, it is all growing, moving, adapting, without knowing if it will be harmful or not, but hoping that it will not be - the colours and conflict of that adaptation or movement of a chaotic world. Poise, hope amongst madness – a tree trying to stand upright against a storm.
This notion is that nature is sporadic and infinitely inventive – it is the best improviser of all. However, there is nothing hippy-ish or sentimental about what they do. Completely the opposite – this music is artistically advanced - and for a pair so young their sonic maturity and good taste is rather envying.
They must have started early.
Nick, unsurprisingly, has been ‘addicted’ to music since he was 8 or 9 years old. And he has been searching wherever he could – electronic – or his own music for that sonic ecstasy.
I ask if there are any natural sounds that they like.
Greta: ‘We actually recorded a train. We do a lot of field recordings. Me and Nick are constantly making music – I mean every single day. We are completely addicted. We just can’t stop.’
Nick thinks, takes a drag from his cigarette and answers my question earnestly with…‘The sound of howling wind.’ I want to grab him and kiss him on the lips.
I do not. Instead – I suggest that perhaps they are trying to build a sonic order from a sonic chaos of the outside world. To refine it into a 4 minute piece of music. And how does that hang on the shoulders of the human aspect of the group – Greta – her lyrics and performance. Her response is … honest.
‘I know that this might sound a bit deep but I’m going to say it – I’ve got really terrible anxieties – I’ve got what the doctors call 'a personality disorder' and did two years of therapy…which took a lot of my life away. I feel like it took a large part of my life away because it was two years of very intense therapy. But in a way I have got my life back because I now know how to deal with things – and one of my ways of dealing with things was singing. Not just the emotions but the sounds too – it just genuinely calmed me. I think that’s how I got into jazz singing. It just calmed me.’
‘It’s the lyrics as well though. Nina Simone.’ Ads Nick. ‘Singing about hardship.’
‘Yes – Ella Fitzgerald – Juliet Winton – all the greats.’
I have seen Greta in the throws of what I will call an ‘episode’ – a moment of behavioural brutality or even madness. A night where she did things that I commend and others that confused and startled me. Greta’s hardship is one that she momentarily overcomes with her music but it is also the material with which to draw from as she sketches. She and Nick are literally using the material of their own lives as matter in which they create their sculptures. They are something that I might have the misfortune of calling ‘real artists’. And whose philosophy is akin to a style of writing that I love that was also, like jazz, invented or inherited famously in America. In a pseudo-historical way it was lead by a poet called Robert Lowell who’s famous assertion - ‘Why not just say what happened?’ – triggered a confessional movement producing and influencing writers from Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton - a place where the uncompromisingly personal and high-art met in the middle. This applies to Bernard and Edith too. A place explored by Daniel Johnston, Arthur Russell - it is the artful balance between a highly private expression and having the skill and intelligence to communicate that to the world. It is testing the limits of what a person can say within their art but also a universality to their language and style. B and E’s music is esoteric but never self-indulgent, original but not reactionary or avant-garde, otherworldly but unpretentious. Sprung from love but unsentimental.
Perhaps my favourite of her lyrics demonstrates this best; 'cos poppy says she loves me and I'm feeling right' is as naked, unpretentious and brave as I would hope from any lyricist of the poetic school of Nina Cassian. Another brilliant but lesser known poet who emigrated from the Czech Republic to find herself teaching and writing in America.
Remember my fucking theses, big boy? Well this is my second and I promise my last. Art is the communicated message of the artist and style is the way that an artist feels politically about the world, what they would change if they could hold its terrible pen – the cutting motion of the blade with which to operate on it. And my argument is that the way Bernard and Edith feel about the world is essentially the way that they feel about each other. It is through their bond and friendship that they measure the ties and bonds of others which they then give their audience and listeners. Their music is almost an act of humanitarianism aimed at trying to convey a kind of respect that they have experienced through each other as well as through their friends and of course their family.
‘They are such a big important part of my life – I need to live with them – they are not like my parents. They are more than that.’ Greta says.
It will not surprise you to learn that Greta’s parents are both artists. Her mother is a photographer who lectures at Manchester School of Art and who’s photograph of three generations of Caroll women adorns the front of the group’s debut LP. Her father is also an artist, a painter whose life-scale paintings depict a kind of skewed serenity of family life and the home.
I start talking some nonsense about how whales are Truth - and Greta decides she has to get ready for the show.
The interview has come to an end. I go to the bar. Get a drink.
Fackin’ gin and tonic. YES! I almost kiss it.
Sat there I remember being sat with Greta in a bar back in Manchester and talking about how her and Nick come to making their songs. 'Rather than say 'let's go out' or 'let's watch tv' - I say to Nick 'should we make a cheeky song? And he says 'Alright then.'' And that laughter I've come to know erupts from her maniacally, childishly, freely.
It is my belief that whatever art is it is the direct opposite of whatever money is. It is made by the maker to save oneself briefly from the inevitable and in doing so may end up saving other people briefly too. B+E make their music from home and I cannot help but feel predominantly for each other - a kind of covenant to their particular and special bond.
If a relationship is attempting to create some kind of flawed ideal from a chaotic and impossible world then it is no surprise that the music of this pair is not without the mystical intonations of love’s great question.
But rather than reason with us into escape or reflection Bernard and Edith achieve their idyll by injecting us with an intoxicating magic. Taking us to a world of semi-painless fantasy - the landscape is colourful and dizzying, and not without a classy sensation of the erotic – filled with textures of forest and sea - gongs and voices of nymphs. This is the theatrical world of David Lynch and Shakespeare’s 12th Night. Of childhood dream and nightmare.
Lynch too wants to break this code –a zeitgeist of common sense and general understandings – the modern obsession – that everything must mean something, that everything must have a reason and be classifiable namely by quasi-scientific means.
Lynch achieves this by never quite letting us know how to feel. Like Greta – you are uncertain of what she will do next and more importantly how she will fair as time goes on.
My concern erupts from this cold fact. There exists within the art world a kind of social abuse that is carried out by the industry and demonstrated by the audience that exploits real artists whose working material is their own lives.
Fortunately, and almost uniquely, they have found a safe haven at Bella Union – where artists are given the time and respect to develop into their own artistic apotheosis.
But I do worry for these two people as friends.
However, let's be merry and end - I'm doing it - I'm drinking - I'm naked from the top up - doing the splits in the bathtub. Wahhooo! ...It is clear that a kind of balance has been achieved by these two musicians of almost opposing characteristics – Greta this violent force of nature and Nick’s calming, inventive and pragmatic resolve almost demonstrates perfectly the nexus where they meet as people and that place is where their music is created – a kind of eloquated chaos. At once a human phenomenon of these two people who are then able to create something that is humbly beyond human – telling us as much about ourselves as it does the joy of music and the reason why human beings have since their earliest beginnings created art.
The reason? LOVE! LOVE! LOVE! LOVE - in the face of everything! In the vainest hope! In the face of death's apocalyptic fuckery! His cock's TOO BIG! DEATH's COCK IS SO BIG IT WILL KILL YOU! SO LOVE! LOVE! LOVE!
Scream it from the bottom to the top of your raging soul.
You rare, vanishing thing.
Jem by Bernard + Edith is out now via Bella Union