Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Laura Cannell

Laura Cannell | 21st December 2016

…In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;

Laura Cannell End of Year thoughts and events…2016. Written on various trains and near a Suffolk lighthouse in December.

I started writing this on my way to Kirkcaldy just north of Edinburgh to play in James Yorkston’s Tae Sup Wi’ a Fifer Series in early December. A fantastic night to a sold out crowd in a town where people say “Nothing like this ever happens here, so we had to come, and we’re glad we did”. I am travelling by train through Thetford Forest listening to the Richard Thompson song Beeswing, a song I haven’t thought of for years but one of my favourites. About the price you pay for ‘the chains you refuse’, about freedom and not being shackled. I am a big believer in possibility and making things happen and not restricting yourself because you think you are supposed to.

When I was younger I spent a lot of time traveling in vans with my dad, going to the big antiques fairs, buying and selling treasure in the form of furniture and decorative or repurposed objects. We would open the back doors of the van at 4am to other antique dealers with torches who had traveled from across the UK and Europe, coming together in wax jackets, thick cords and funny hats. A big white van community bursting with the remnants of country houses, Corinthian columns, the occasional rarities from distant worlds like a Sudan chair, rare Persian metalwork or ‘plain old’ 17th century oak coffers and a million other things that were made by hand a long time ago that have survived the generations.

I feel connected to the idea of people making a living by finding and trading in things that evoke emotions. Some things are practical and functional, but there is excitement in knowing that if you love it, someone else will love it too. With music I can’t fool myself into making something that I don’t believe in. I can make something that sounds like music, but if doesn’t feel right then it is rejected as it’s set free into the air, lost forever. When I was working on ideas for my latest solo album Simultaneous Flight Movement, I had to make a decision, pick a date, make the recording, and then offer it up for people to experience. There comes a point where you have to take action and stop trying to control everything, and stop attempting to have all of the answers before it has happened. Just play and record, and then you’ll know if it has worked, if you captured those feelings. If you allowed for spontaneity then something will have happened.

Music is transient, conversations are improvisations between people, music is your body converting movements into tones and rhythms. Untouchable shapes and objects reflect or translate a recent experience. Note clusters sparking new thoughts turning into patterns, turning into movements traveling through a performer to be experienced by a listener. Be in the giving and receiving mode, but don’t presume to know what it will make people feel or think.

Recording an album in a lighthouse, I had two hours to capture all of the thoughts, feelings and ideas I have been gathering throughout the year, throughout my life. There’s a time when you know you have to let go, just play. Listen. Question. Respond to your own musical ideas: there is no reason that it needs to be a single-sided conversation. I stood at the bottom of the tower, in the centre of the circle and let the sounds escalate in shapes through the air. Every breath or bow a different shape, length and meaning.

2016 has been full of travelling and performances; arriving in different cities and countries and meeting promoters and fellow musicians who are also leading this nomadic and ever-changing life. I have met and listened to people who inhabit similar and distant worlds to me. I have performed at over 45 concerts and festivals this year, and at nearly all of them I have shared the bill with incredible individuals who are committed and united in this art form. People expressing ideas to other people who take their feelings and invest them into their work or music or life, everyone contributing something unique…and so it goes on. Every event new, every venue an adventure, every hotel with its quirks and minibar that must not be touched, for fear of racking up a mortgage for a £3 bar of emergency chocolate at midnight.

The first of January 2016 was spent at my parents’ beach hut on the Suffolk coast. Not one of the seventy grand ones – more of a bicycle shed, but my mum’s pride and joy nonetheless. My dad breaking walnuts with a rubber hammer on the promenade wall. There has also been the Leukaemia that my then seven, now eight year old nephew was diagnosed with in the first week of January. He has been through the horror of hospitals and chemotherapy treatment and is now on a good path. He is very brave and strong and it has made our family tighter, but this has been a profoundly unsettling thing to observe in a small person. The emotions, words and thoughts have been instinct this year. I’m not sure I can say it fuelled my performances – going on tour was hard on occasions – but there were some new energy sources I hadn’t accessed before. There were emotions which unburdened themselves through hysterical laughter between my sister and I, grey moments and places we can never forget and ones which my brain refuses to remember.

Moving between festivals and concerts can feel crazy. You make intense friendships for a few hours, have massively open conversations (at least I normally do), then you possibly never see those people ever again! It is exciting and inspiring but always good to get home. Performing is integral: if I don’t perform, play and communicate through music I can’t function. I’ve tried it and it’s horrible. I make sure I am really present. If I am on stage I am in the room with you, not passing through.

This has been one of the most full on years for my music. There’ve been some great opportunities, adventures, people, inspirations and extreme highs and exhausted lows, but I’m feeling very optimistic and pro-active. I am a big believer in: What do you want to do? What do you need to make that happen? What can you do right now to make it happen? There is always something you can do right now. Today. Now.

Office Christmas Party… I have a music room/office, and generally I work in there alone, or I drive off to some remote place or church in the East Anglian countryside and sneak in for a practice. Most recently I’ve found a nice underused convent in the Waveney Valley and gained permission to practice in there. My friends and colleagues, a lot of whom are also self-employed or freelancers, live sprinkled over the UK which means there is no easy end of year Xmas party. There were a few invites but I was away gigging, so missed them. Such is the life of a performer.

When I was invited to play in the BBC 6Music Freak Zone Office Party Show with Stuart Maconie and a great line up of other FZ friends, it seemed to be the most perfectly fitting end to a perfectly strange year. No weird office party stories I’m afraid, but it was a really fun night. We recorded the whole show with live music at BBC Manchester Media City and then went for an actual Freak Zone Xmas Office Party dinner and to a beer bar (pub!) with the FZ team and friends. Stuart plays an awesome ‘air’ double bass and ‘air’ piano – I mean seriously competent! I complimented him on this. (listen to the show on the BBC iPlayer).

I’m back in Suffolk now. I am vowing to see more of the outside world by being in it rather than viewing it through train windows. There are still Brawl label office type things to do, pieces to record, CDs to post, projects to finalise, but tomorrow we will be hunting for the perfect Christmas tree from our friendly farm shop, and I’ll go and gather branches off a massive bay tree to turn into a slightly ramshackle door wreath.

Then I can look forward to the unknown possibilities, ideas, challenges and experiences which will no doubt unfold in 2017. See you there.


Visit Laura’s website here.

Laura Cannell on Caught by the River/on Twitter