The first in a very occasional series of posts about the songs on our new album Jagged Land. First up – An Audience That Cares
An Audience That Cares was written quite a long time ago now, several years before we even recorded it for Jagged Land. I can pinpoint the date exactly, because it was while I was working as a musician in a panto at the Dundee Rep Theatre in 2007.
If you are not British the term “panto” may mean nothing to you – I certainly had no idea what I was getting into when I took the job. They occur all over the UK each winter, generally starting at the beginning of December, and are rollicking and somewhat bawdy versions of children’s stories, often featuring washed-up soap opera stars or stand-up comedians. Aimed primarily at the 4-12 year old crowd and their parents, they will invariably feature a man dressed as a woman, sometimes a woman dressed as a man, and a ‘baddie’. The crowd is encouraged to shout at the performers, including the classic “He’s behind you!” and there will often be a fair amount of improv and general chaos. To a foreigner like me it all seems fascinatingly medieval.
In any case, I was hired to play guitar, piano, trumpet, and bass in Jack and the Beanstalk. I should point out that as one of the best theatres in the country this production did not have all of hallmarks of a traditional panto (no washed-up stars, sadly), but was an extremely good gig – particularly for a broke musician desperate for work. I was so desperate, in fact, that I took this job despite knowing that it would prevent me from heading back to Maryland for Christmas for the first time, and would instead send me to Dundee every day for 60 odd shows, often two a day.
As anyone who has worked in theatre knows, being involved in a production of this scale means a lot of sitting around waiting for things to happen. You sit in a dark auditorium for ten hours a day (or more) in the leadup to the opening, but you’re probably only playing for two hours total – the rest of the time you are watching and waiting and, in my case, writing songs.
I had the somewhat dubious honor of starting the play every night – the first thing the audience would see was myself and the other musician sneaking onstage to play a little song before being chased away by the ‘baddie’. I took my role as the goofy musician very seriously (at one point the director told me to calm down a bit, because I was looking like a ‘crazed evangelical preacher’), and I quite enjoyed waiting in the wings with the other actors, listening to the crowd file in and get ready for the show.
And thus begins the song – I’m hanging out backstage joking with the cast and crew about the people who are here to watch our show. The audiences were often schoolgroups, who were rowdy and crazy but loads of fun. Less fun were the evening shows, where the kids would be reigned in by their parents and you could smell the tension created by extended families being cooped up together over the holidays. Waiting in the wings and they’re saying some things about the people out there who barely even care, they’re only here because they can’t think of anything better.
The next line refers to the song that I would start in the darkness to begin the play. While in some ways this time period was a little difficult for me, in terms of being away from my family and spending most of my time in an unfamiliar city, amazing things were developing in other aspects of my life, most notably with my girlfriend who will very soon be my wife. When I had told her about this job, she (after laughing about my panto ignorance) immediately saw both the opportunity and the challenges I would face. She told me to take it and was amazingly understanding. Indeed, whilst I could not have asked for a more professional and comfortable working atmosphere than the Dundee Rep, I couldn’t help starting each performance by telling myself that in 90 minutes I would be one step closer to being back with my darling. And in the dark dawn there’s a solitary song I’m listening for my cue, I’m about to go on. One more song and then I’ll go and get her.
It is, of course, a love song. I imagine that much is obvious and I’ll spare you the inner workings and references, but clearly it was written with one person in mind. But it is also a song about the concept of audience in general, which I find fascinating. If something is observed, in some ways it instantly becomes a performance and the viewer becomes an audience. How does a performer or creator deal with this dynamic, is there value in the audience’s attitude and engagement? In the song I tried to imagine the whole world as a series of performances, from the birds to the frogs to the trees to the sunrise. Ultimately, this was a time period in my life where I realized that my life was becoming better with each day, because I had found someone with whom I could share the beautiful daily theatre of life.
The recording that is on Jagged Land is the third version I made, and by far the best. It is the first with Cory, and his banjo line adds a beautiful layer to the arrangement. I particularly love the shift in the second verse to a delicate syncopated arpeggio. We recorded the banjo, guitar, and voice all at once, facing each other in the living room in Ervy where we spent a week in May 2011. It was not recording studio conditions by any means, but we decided to take advantage of that to create a wholesome and living sound. This led to some idiosyncrasies…you can hear the crackling fire in the fireplace, particularly at the end, and there’s a strange little sound just as I sing the “what” in “what do you think, chirped one to the other bird” . I never worked out what that sound was, but I preferred that take over all the others and decided to leave it in. La perfection n’appartient qu’à Dieu.
The bass and the calabash was added later on, in the studio. It’s the shortest song on the album, and while in some ways it could have been developed into something more epic, I like to think of it as a small moment that represents something much bigger, but doesn’t need to be explained. It’s a little gesture, or a look, or a single word that expresses an entire world of meaning to the one you love, and contains a moment of beauty that may pass quickly but whose effect will not only remain but will develop and continue to blossom.