+ HVMAN, Hugo Kensdale & Claire McAuley
It was 1999 and I was madly in love with a woman who was madly in love with someone else. Classic Susie. Still, how else would I find inspiration for my songs about doomed love and endless longing? She was a head f**k, and she didn’t even know it.
To add fuel to the flame, she turned to me one afternoon and asked ‘have you heard Jeff Buckley?’ – and was horrified to discover that I hadn’t. It seemed almost cruel, looking like that, to then play me Everybody Here Wants You (from Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk) – when everybody did want her, including me.
I know everybody here wants you
I know everybody here thinks he needs you
I’ll be waiting right here just to show you
How our love will blow it all away
Jeff Buckley’s voice was a revelation. Smooth, rough, falsetto, baritone, beautiful and ugly; it is one of the most expressive instruments I have ever heard in my life. Moving between registers so effortlessly and expressing such painful longing – well I hadn’t heard a voice like that since KD.
The song floored me with its space and simplicity – its longing expressed with the constant, practically unchanging bass & kick drum. Like a heartbeat. Allowing Jeff’s voice to float languidly over the top – saying so much, by saying so little. It is a compelling, spine-tingling expression of human desire. And the woman I was in love with played it to me. Yep, thanks a lot.
But actually, I am thankful. Because I was introduced to an artist who in his short life, managed to record Grace – one of the greatest albums of all time. The music he left us is beautiful, life enriching and always brilliant. He inspired me to be a better singer, writer and to always remember to sing from the heart – even when it’s ugly and hard to listen to.
His music saw me through some of my darkest moments – following the loss of my dad and the ensuing depression that seemed to last forever. I would lie on my living room floor and listen to Grace from beginning to end and then all over again. It inspired me and coloured my writing. I wrote and recorded my ‘Bliss’ EP during that time. Some people have said since then that the EP is just ‘too sad’ to listen to – but I’m immensely proud of it. In that moment, Jeff Buckley was my inspiration and I made music that was personal, honest and close to the bone.
I eventually came out the other side of the dark time that seemed to stretch on forever – and my music is possibly a little happier these days. But I still devour every limited edition Jeff Buckley re-release that comes my way and listen in awe to every incredible sound that his peculiarly talented vocal cords seemed capable of producing. Not to mention his freakish ability as a guitarist. Damn him! I MUST TRY HARDER.
And what happened to the woman who was never meant to be, who played me Jeff Buckley for the first time in 1999? Well I married her, of course. ‘Everybody Here Wants You’ may’ve taken 12 years to work its magic, but in the end, it was a song that truly changed my life.
Maybe a great magnet pulls
All souls to what’s true
Or maybe it is life itself
That feeds wisdom to its youth
I think KD Lang knew I was gay before I did. Or perhaps it’s just that her music spoke to a part of my brain that knew who I truly was long before I really properly figured it out. I became obsessed with the beautiful, introspective Ingenue in 1993. There was a very particular type of yearning and sadness expressed that struck a chord with me and lodged itself in my musical mind – it has coloured my songwriting ever since.
Musically – the whole record blew (and still blows) my mind. Warm and sort of soupy sounding, with such intricately thought out orchestration, instrumentation, melody and counter-melody, with KD’s effortlessly silky vocals floating over the top – it was almost too beautiful. I remember vividly a friend (who shall remain nameless), drunkenly exclaiming: ‘turn it off! it’s too sexy!!’ – seeming genuinely disturbed that if she listened to the whole record, she’d be a bona fide lady lover by the end of it. KD was a confuser in those days.
From Save Me to Outside Myself – the album aches with slow-burning desire. Then in an instant, the tension dissipates with the perfectly placed tempo of Constant Craving; melancholy expressed in the most joyful way possible – and so outrageously catchy. I’m quite envious really, of how she expresses the joy and pain of loving another woman so artfully – and still manages to wrap it all up into a little over four minutes of pop perfection.
KD created a blueprint for female singer/songwriters like myself who came after her. Realising it’s okay to express sadness and longing and desire without pandering to the male gaze was (and is) liberating. KD did it all with such style – and she wore the best suits and looked like Elvis. Constant Craving is, and will always be, my favourite pop song of all time. It’s faultless.
I grew up in a house filled with music. My parents’ records were the soundtrack to my early years – a crazy eclectic mix of The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, obscure folk, Mozart, Vivaldi & Beethoven, plus a dash of Fela Kuti and Osibisa thrown in for good measure. I remember being scared of The Planets and dancing to The Four Seasons. I was a strange child I suppose.
Till the age of 13 however, above any other artist, The Beatles were the be all and end all for me. Back in the 80s, when plugging a microphone into an amplifier and singing along to a cassette tape was at the forefront of technology, it became my favourite pastime – singing along to The Beatles.
But at the age of 13, everything changed.
The Hong Kong Jazz Club had started putting on shows open to under-18s at venues across town. So mum decided it was high time I saw one of her favourite blues artists – Jimmy Witherspoon – otherwise known to me as a small child as ‘Jimmy with a spoon’ (made perfect sense to a 5 year-old).
13 years of joyful Beatles melodies were blown away in an instant by raw, simple pain and suffering sung over three chords. The blues: the foundation of rock n roll, the form rarely shifting much beyond its standard 12 bars. The story told through dynamics, soulfulness and honesty. Yes, my little mind was blown as Jimmy Witherspoon somehow managed to imbue the words ‘One day we got ham and bacon, the next day people ain’t nothin’ shakin’..’ with such intensity. It’s the first time I remember vividly experiencing the sensation of the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end.
At that gig, I turned to mum and said ‘I want to do that’. Now it may’ve seemed odd at the time, for a slightly chubby, ginger-haired English 13 year-old girl to express such an ambition – but I really meant it. That’s the moment I knew I wanted to chase that tingly hairs standing on the back of the neck feeling. That’s the moment I knew I wanted to make audiences feel that too.
Ever since, as an artist, I’ve been caught in a balancing act: balancing the need to endlessly craft a melody to perfection, with the impulse to stop overthinking. To just keep it simple. The Beatles may have taught me how to write, but Jimmy Witherspoon taught me how to sing.
(Somewhere, tucked away, I have a photograph of myself & my friend Jess – our cheerful little 13 year-old faces grinning alongside the very affable, if a tad gnarly, Jimmy Witherspoon. We are clearly totally unaware of his legendary status. If I find it, I will post it here…)
Sometime towards the end of 1994 I was living life in a daze. My older brother died suddenly aged 23, two weeks after my 17th birthday. I was destroyed. I’m still destroyed to this day – but that’s another story.
My all-consuming school work suddenly lost its meaning and I coasted through classes as worried teachers looked on, unable to help me. In that instant, my focus shifted – I lived life recklessly, and with urgency. I don’t think I’ve ever lived so honestly since.
By this point, I was a minor celebrity in my hometown of Hong Kong, packing out clubs in Lan Kwai Fong – the epicentre of 90s nightlife and live music. Underage drinking and singing the blues became my lifeline. The only thing that kept my head ever so slightly above water was opening my mouth and blowing people away with pipes I hadn’t quite learned to control yet. I had volume and soul, and overnight it was infused with deep sorrow that people couldn’t quite fathom from a 17 year-old.
After a gig, as I was on both a massive post-show high and quite possibly drunk on red wine as usual, a man approached me and said ‘hi, I’m Todd’ (I think it was Todd..?).. And to my surprise, he had made me a mixtape (it was the 90s, people!) after having been to several of my gigs. I was pretty overwhelmed that someone would do something so thoughtful for me and be compelled to do so after hearing me sing.
The next morning, with a cloudy head, I put the tape on. I can’t really remember much else about it other than the moment the pure, unaffected voice of Aimee Mann pierced the stale, sad air in my room with the words:
Today’s the fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town
I just think what a waste of gunpowder and sky
Those LYRICS. Good god. How did she write like that? How did she express so much, with so much simplicity? In that second, I learned that to be a great artist, you don’t need the biggest voice, you just need to be honest. In that moment, I decided I wanted to become a great songwriter. To learn how to observe life around me and to craft words that twist around a melody without it ever sounding laboured. To write a song that could touch people without me singing it as loud as humanly possible.
22 years later, I am a little less drunk, and a little less reckless. But I am still learning from Aimee Mann. I go faithfully to her gigs in London and her gigs in tiny venues in the middle of nowhere. I am in fact, a total fanboy, going to hear her sing 4th of July over and over again in the hope that one day, a little bit of her genius will rub off on me.
To Todd – wherever you are. Sorry I never called you to thank you for the tape. Sorry if your name isn’t even Todd. It took me the longest time to claw my way out of my despair, but throughout that despair, music was always by my side. And the music you shared with me changed my life – for that, I am so very grateful.
‘Zero Gravity’ featured in ‘Bloomsbury Twist’ produced by Drunken Sailor films for 2013 Beefeater Gin MyLondon Film Festival.
BBC 2007 cross channel menu idents.
Original music composed for ‘Merry Go Round’ written & directed by Shan Ng. Screened at Wood Green International Film Festival, nominated for Best Local Short, & Best of the Borough, National Film Theatre, London.
‘Dream Reflection’ composed for KPM/EMI release ‘Chilled Beds’. Heard on BBC TV/ITV/Channel 5/Smooth FM & released commercially on ‘Les Ambassadeurs Vol 2′.
Live @ The Troubadour, Earls Court. Details tbc.