Happy International Women’s Day! There are so many areas in which women inspire me – art, science, literature, but today I thought I’d look at some of the women in music who have created a soundtrack to all of our lives.
Starting with my first girl crush, Kate Bush. I remember being curled up on the couch beside the record player, singing (and screeching!) along to Wuthering Heights, Hounds of Love and The Kick Inside. She’s not just a singer, she’s a whole aesthetic! She is an artist who never compromises on her vision and incorporates every facet of her creativity into her work. What an inspiration she has been and continues to be…
Sade’s sound is so unique and authentic, it just invites you in. She seems to hold her power in a place that allows her to be both vulnerable and strong. Creative people especially need to find that balance – and for creative women, it is even more important.
I just loved the album ‘Little Earthquakes’ by Tori Amos. I’m pretty sure every young woman had a copy. There was something about her irreverence; her unapologetic approach and her honesty that really spoke to me as a young woman. And made me regret giving up the piano!
I can’t really talk about female singers who have inspired me without mentioning Madonna. I think all of my generation were besotted with her. I remember watching Desperately Seeking Susan and thinking I wanted to BE Madonna. I tried my best to dress like her (until my older sister kindly stepped in and told me I looked ridiculous!) and have always admired her for breaking boundaries and her ability to defy convention.
Speaking about powerful voices – Beyonce is certainly that. I love that her music is becoming more outspoken and powerful; transitioning from a young woman labelled as a pop princess to a woman with agency. And who hasn’t tried these dance moves at some point?!
So that’s it, a little montage of the women in music who have inspired me over the decades. I think they all share determination and dedication to their craft; there are no half measures, so it’s almost like a battle-cry – don’t just make art, make good art that will touch people. Don’t compromise who you are in order to fit in, as Tori’s lyrics go – ‘You’re just an empty cage girl if you kill the bird.’ What about you? Is there an album you scratched to death, or a CD, or even a cassette that fell apart from overuse? Leave a mention in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂
I saw this quote on Twitter the other day from the movie Dumplin’ and simply had to ‘borrow’ it immediately! We don’t get this message enough – Be More You! This time of year is always associated with being a better you – a better version of yourself. Gyms have made a fortune out of our annual guilt and the rush to become someone else. But where did all of this start?
New Year’s resolutions have been around for quite a long time (according to Wikipedia!). The Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. So for all you book lenders, now’s the time to turn the screws on all those friends/neighbours/relations who haven’t returned them yet. The Romans made promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. And in the Medieval era, the knights took the ‘peacock vow’ at the end of Christmas to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry.
However, the whole idea of self-sacrifice or self-improvement has really jarred with me over the last few years. I’ve hopped on a bandwagon that’s headed in the other direction, the one that asks – ‘What can I do more of this year? What do I love doing? What will make me happier?’ In a world where we are constantly being told to be our best beautiful, or whatever, we are seldom (if ever) taught to value who we really are. Or how to cultivate a life that honours our true self.
One good thing about getting older is that we get a better sense of ourselves and are a little less influenced by others and their opinions of us. Just as in my writing, I’m aiming for the kind of authenticity that comes when you stop trying to be something you’re not and begin to embrace who you are. As David Bowie once said:
I think the knights had it right – New Year is a wonderful opportunity to re-affirm your commitment to be yourself. You don’t need to change, or improve (not unless it’s what you want) and besides, as Arnold Beisser once said in his paradoxical theory of change:
So my wish for you all and for myself in the New Year, is to be more of who we really are. It’s our diversity that makes us interesting, our fallibility that makes us endearing and human. There is enough conformity in the world – so break out and be you with bells on! As Dr. Seuss said, there is no-one alive who is youer than you 🙂
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand
THE STOLEN CHILD
William Butler Yeats
This poem has been knocking on the door of my subconscious for quite a few years now and I’m proud to have it gracing the first page of my book, The Story Collector.
Growing up in Ireland, it’s easy to take things for granted. To me, Yeats was just another poet whose lines I had to learn off by heart at school and coldly analyse for exams. But it was during the 80’s, when my brother bought a record (remember those!) by The Waterboys called Fisherman’s Blues, that it all changed. The band were aiming for a more stripped back sound and spent some time in County Galway, writing and recording the album in an old house in Spiddal. I’ve always loved that record, but one of their greatest triumphs was in marrying the words of WB Yeats to music. Some poems have music in them and Mike Scott reveals the lyrical prose with a haunting recording of the poem. It features Tomás Mac Eoin, a local Sean-nós singer, narrating the verses and as Scott himself remarked, once they ‘had the poem fastened snugly to the music, worlds merged.’ For me, that recording brought the words to life and I’ve been enchanted by the poem ever since.
The idea that the fairies can lure beautiful boys and girls is an old one, and Yeats captures the romantic picture they might paint of life in the wilds of nature. My novel also features an old Irish lullabye, Seoithín seothó. I first heard it on the radio, sung by Roisin Elsafty (another Galway woman!) and I was mesmerised by its beauty. The song tells the story of a mother lulling her baby to sleep with soothing promises to keep them safe from the fairies, who are playing in the moonlight on the rooftop. There is a wonderful fascination with The Good People in Irish ballads, where people are helplessly drawn to their beauty, despite the dangers. I love that sense of push and pull, the lure of the unknown. But again, this song came to me long before the novel, weaving its way in amongst my memories and waiting until the right moment.
Novels are funny creatures, because you realise you’ve been collecting knowledge all through your life without understanding where it may lead. A few years ago, I visited Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ tower home in county Galway. I was with my sister, who is the poet in the family, and so I figured this pilgrimage was more for her than myself. But once there, I experienced such a sense of ease, of playfulness and yes, magic! I could completely understand how he had been inspired to write about The Good People. Maybe the spell was cast even then to write The Story Collector!
The summer home of W. B. Yeats and his wife George, Thoor Ballylee is a 15th century tower house built beside the Streamstown River, it’s idyllic setting is simply mesmerizing. We arrived late on a sunny evening, crossing the little bridge just as the sun began to set. At once, I was under the spell of the place. Surrounded by trees whose leaves whispered in the breeze, I could feel a sense of timelessness and calm in this beautiful place. It wasn’t hard to imagine why he loved to escape to Thoor Ballylee and I’m sure he was never short of inspiration there.
We spent a long time there, exploring the pathways that led through the woods and down by the stream and discovered the sweetest little picnic tables across the road that resembled little toad stools. I’ve never felt such an instant connection with a place and I really cannot wait to return. As Yeats wrote in a letter to a friend about leaving Thoor Ballylee, “Everything is so beautiful that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind.”
The Story Collector is now available in eBook and Paperback
“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” D.W. Winnicott
If you haven’t heard about the Elena Ferrante controversy, then frankly, you’re doing Twitter wrong! Elena Ferrante is the pen-name of a highly successful Italian author who was ‘outed’ last week by a journalist whose motives are questionable at best. The story has ignited a larger debate around an artist’s right to claim anonymity and the public’s sense of ownership when it comes to ‘celebrities’.
We live in the information age, where information is a commodity. We post our personal lives freely online and have gradually lost our value on privacy, or the knowledge that we have a right to keep our private lives private. So when someone claims anonymity, we’re immediately suspicious and being naturally curious beings, we need to find out why. Like Dorothy pulling back the curtain to find the Wizard is just a man, perhaps we should leave our enigmas alone and just enjoy the show.
I can completely understand why people choose to work anonymously and without the pressure of having to present themselves to the world. JK Rowling chose the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, in order to write her detective series without the ‘shackles’ of Harry Potter around her neck. Editor David Shelley, who first read the novel without knowing who its true author was, said, “I never would have thought a woman wrote that.” I rest my case (while rolling my eyes at the stupidity of such a statement!). Sometimes your identity needs to take a back seat in order for the work to flourish and find an audience on its own merits.
Anonymity gives you freedom from expectations, limitations and being pigeon-holed. You don’t have to worry about what your Aunt Louise will think of that sex scene, or the fact that you based the psychopathic villain on your cousin twice removed. But it’s not just that; really successful writers/artists have to live with the unwanted side-effects of fame, which can be completely overwhelming. The media has created an entire industry out of destroying peoples’ image and reputation. We just assume success is brilliant; the holy grail and that if you have it, you should be happy. But maybe it’s the work that is the happiness; the creativity. Isn’t it okay to not want fame?
Australian singer Sia has chosen to keep her face out of the limelight. She refers to her decision as one of ‘self care’, by choosing not to partake in the celebrity culture. Daft Punk are another example of musicians who love to make music, but don’t see why they should sacrifice their personal lives or their privacy in order to do what they love. They’re not entirely anonymous of course, a quick search on Google will reveal their true identities if you’re interested, but the fact is that they have chosen, like Sia with her blonde bob, not to reveal their identities publicly. The important word here is CHOICE. Despite a world of opportunities, we are told that in order to be successful and happy, we have to follow a formula. It’s so inspiring to see these artists carve out their own path and find success on their own terms. However, it also utterly despairing to see inferior beings try to take their right to choose away. So the question remains, do we have a right to success without fame?
As a very small and insignificant writer and artist (in the grand scheme of things!) this dichotomy is something I also struggle with. As writers starting out, we are advised to create an author platform, get ourselves ‘out there’. Post photos on Instagram, share your every passing thought on a vlog. Do we really need to offer ourselves on a plate for public consumption? Why can’t we let the art do the talking? I don’t put my author photo on my novels, because I often find that people can have preconceptions about your work based on your appearance. As one journalist in the guardian said, if you want to know Ella Ferrante, read her books. Because at the end of the day, people who chose to express themselves creatively, are actually sharing more through their work than they ever will outside of it.
Banksy, another artist trying to keep his personal life out of the conversation – was geo-tracked (something normally reserved for chasing criminals) by a newspaper a few years ago, in order to find out his identity. A street artist, whose work often engages political themes, satirically critiquing war, capitalism, hypocrisy and greed – he is the embodiment of why it is so important for the artist to be invisible. People are fixated on the fact that he might be an upper class toff, which (they imply) would undermine his street art. And if that was the narrative to his work, the message would indeed be lost.
I think we need to question this insatiable need to know everything, to reduce the beauty of human expression to a face, a stereotype or a headline. Putting people in boxes, telling women they can’t write like men or insisting that someone plays the game by your rules will only serve to stifle creativity. I salute these people who, despite our best efforts to thwart them, are trying to create a little mystery in our lives by producing pockets of space where we don’t need to know everything, we just need to feel.
It’s impossible to quantify the impact an artist/musician has had on your life, but when they’re gone, the strange feeling of loss is equally hard to put a name on. They’ve been a part of your ‘becoming’ and just like your first love, they will always have a special place in your heart. And the fact that we’re talking about Prince… where do you even begin? Expressing complex feelings about a complex man in such a simplistic format is bound to fall short, but I’ll do my best.
I will never forget the first time I heard Prince – I was twelve years old and my brother had just bought his album 1999. This was back in the days when you actually listened to albums and lavished over the artwork; I would go into our living room, put the record on full volume and listen to it over and over, learning the words and dancing my ass off! I had never heard anything so vibrant, raw and passionate in my life. And as for the man himself, he seemed so exotic and just oozed charisma and cool. I mean, who could else could get away with a trench coat and heels?! Then Purple Rain came along, a feature movie loosely based on his life, and this along with the now infamous soundtrack only further cemented my love for the music, the artistry and the man. Yep, I was in love!
I never really ‘got’ guitar solos until I heard Prince. I tried to get on board with Hendrix, but you just couldn’t dance to him! Prince didn’t limit himself to guitar however – teaching himself to play piano and drums as a kid. He effortlessly and ceaselessly explored every genre from rock to jazz, funk to pop and made it unique. And that voice! His crazy falsetto and the deep, sultry tones infiltrated your ears and your mind, shaped by some of the most thoughtful, puzzling and sexually explicit lyrics my young mind had ever tried to misunderstand. And Lord, could he dance… in heels! He refused to be labelled or pigeon-holed and flourished in ambiguity. The one constant in his ever-changing persona was his all out sex appeal. As a young girl growing up in Catholic Ireland, Prince was a fascination and preached lyrically about everything the church tried to prevent! He was so comfortable with his own sexuality and true to his nature that it gave his fans permission to explore theirs, without limits or rules.
It’s a very strange feeling when someone who influenced your formative years passes away. It’s like a break-up: I keep thinking about him, listening to the old songs, reminiscing about the places I took him in my headphones or danced with him on a speaker. Prince was an enigma and I want him to stay that way. I don’t need to know how he died – although I’m sure the media will stop at nothing to bombard us with THE FACTS. I hope not. I hope his ‘people’ can preserve the mystique around Prince and let people discover the man in his music. His tongue in cheek attitude; his singular vision that meant he wrote, performed and produced most of his albums himself; his intelligence, his ingenuity and his random penchant for twins!
I’m sure every generation feels this way about their icons, but I just don’t think there will be anyone like him again. My mother said that this was how she felt when Elvis died… a similar outpouring of emotion that proves how great art impacts our lives and connects us to people we have never even met. Prince has been called many things – a legend, a genius, an icon. To me, he was a visionary – a trailblazer who, right till the end, was all about the music. He gifted us with the most amazing soundtrack to our lives and that’s why I’m writing this – to say thanks.
His catalogue of music is really astounding – just listening to all of the old albums, Around The World In A Day, Parade, Sign O’ The Times, Lovesexy, Diamonds & Pearls, Symbol, Musicology, and Planet Earth (I’ll have to invest in the ones I’ve missed). Obviously I have a great fondness for the albums I listened to all through the 80’s and 90’s, but more recent hits like Chelsea Rogers and Guitar show that his song-writing was as fresh as it was back with The Revolution. So how to end this post? Well, I could put dozens of songs up here, Sometimes It Snows In April, Condition Of The Heart, I Would Die 4 U, Little Red Corvette, If I Was Your Girlfriend, Get Off, but the problem is that Prince removed most of his music from Youtube and other streaming services, all in his fight to reward the artist and not the corporations. So I hope he’ll forgive me for sharing this one. Rather than ending on a sad note, here he is at his irreverent best, with twins! Goodnight, you Sexy Mother Fucker 😉