Caught by the River

Woodnotes: Hidden Cows, Damson Jam and Performance Anxiety

Laura Cannell | 12th September 2019

In this month’s column, Laura Cannell shares thoughts on music and nature, anxiety breakthroughs, food from the trees and accepting her Marshland Heritage.

“There is no win and no fail, there is only make” – John Cage

I often think that as a country girl I have a very healthy respect for the native animals and creatures. We all know that young cows get easily overexcited and once, in a drunken celebration of completing an album with my old band Horses Brawl, we ventured into the field at the end of some farm buildings near my house. It was pitch black and I don’t remember climbing over a gate, but halfway through the field something stirred in the blackness and big, fast and heavily-breathing shapes began lunging and gallumping through the lush grass. One of the band gained a bloody toe injury on a near-invisible metal trough as we raced back through the field. We were so fast (or careless) that our shoes flew off in all directions, but there was no turning back; there was only drunk sober panic to run in the approximate direction we had come from.

Another time, while I was still living in Norwich, and again after recording in a rural church, the only place to park was on the wrong side of a cattle grid. I parked my car – which had become sticky with sap in the city from parking under lime trees. When we had finished the session I came out to find both wing mirrors had been licked clean off and were dangling from their electric wires. There was a huddle of cows surrounding the car, and once they had moved away all I could see were enormous lick marks covering the whole car. Three-inch-wide squashy tongue markings created a bizarre pattern on the metallic green paint.

My point is, however well-meaning or interested-looking the creature, it may be slightly too inquisitive and bundle towards you in a playful manner, or lick you or your property with too much vigour.

My life seems to be made up of a very peculiar selection of activities at the moment, and I’m embracing it. I decided not to tour as much this year because it has been my main job for the past fifteen years (only the last four-five have been solo), and I wanted to see if I could feel ‘normal’ i.e. not be constantly packing and unpacking, preparing and travelling, booking trains and flights. I have needed some time to embark on some major new projects which will come out in 2020 onwards. What I have found is that firstly, I am less stressed. I didn’t realise how much performance anxiety I was experiencing, and because I wasn’t stressed about the actual music – that’s the bit I know and love – I didn’t think it was performance anxiety. I thought it was normal to feel on high alert in anticipation of travel and preparations for weeks on end, but that no one talks about it. It made me feel very isolated because other people seem to cope with it, or not notice it, which is infuriating! But I realise that I was beginning not to enjoy everything and that my brain and body were saying “this is not good for you”. It’s so confusing when you are so conflicted. I have come to the conclusion that it is not okay to feel ill from stress even if you are doing the thing you love. 

I do miss meeting all of the new people and places, but it got into a bit of a whirlwind where I couldn’t quite remember who is who and from where, and being less stressed about travel arrangements has freed up more time to create and think. We need thinking time, though having said that I will have been working on five albums this year, along with other projects including a writing commission for a Berlin exhibition with the Wapping Project which I’ll say something about next time. Some of these albums are for film, some are trying new things such as the vocal album which came out at the beginning of August, one is a very special collaboration which was recorded in Liverpool two years ago and comes out in October 2019. I feel like I am doing more music without travelling, but I love being on stage and sharing the time and space with people, connecting and letting my fiddle and recorders do the talking, that’s my happiest place.

Why am I talking about this? I think it’s because it’s taken me a really long time to make my performing life and my marsh-dwelling life merge. I’m from a rural place and after living in cities (London and Norwich), however much I like the idea of being in them, I am my truest self when I allow myself to look at the cows, pick the damsons, admire the harvest furrows, sneeze from the harvest dust and keep far enough behind a trailer full of bales in case one accidentally rolls off. 

I found it hard to talk about how much I love the rural-ness of marshy landscapes of north Suffolk and south Norfolk. Around the river Waveney and the river Yare, I didn’t want to come across as twee and whimsical, or living in the past. But just because the landscape hasn’t changed too much doesn’t mean that the people living in it haven’t got a lot to say. I think there’s sometimes a perception about ‘simple’ country folk, that they don’t have the pressures or needs that city folk have. It’s true that some families stay in the same village for a long time, and may regard the small river town of Beccles as ‘going up the city’. But you never know what’s going on unseen…the widow who runs the dairy farm in the tiny cul-de-sac village on the edge of marshes and her son who works in New York, my friend and his brother who come from the most remote village who both have married and live in Bulgaria and Sweden. The Folklorist who studied and travelled Europe to research and study, to make internationally best-selling publications and return to the village she was born in to continue her work, or the antique dealers (yes my family) who travel the length of the UK and Europe in their van, starting in South Norfolk and searching out the like-minded ramshackle dealers in France and beyond for handmade country and city treasures to bring back home. There is always more going on, and the warmth of this is what keeps me going. I don’t need to be in the local pub to be part of the community. By existing we are by default a member of the community, it’s just how much you engage with it.

I was talking to a neighbour in my old village recently and although she can no longer drive she won’t move from her rented farm cottage that she now lives in alone. People keep saying to her, “Why don’t you move to Beccles? Everything is nearby”. But her response “Why would I spend 63 years living in the same house with this incredible view of the sunrises, sunsets and nature if I didn’t love it…I love the animals, and the sky, it’s all bricks in Beccles, why would I want to look at that?”. I think it’s fair enough, I wouldn’t want anyone to tell me where to live. 63 years in that house without the internet and enjoying the animals – why should she suddenly be hemmed in? Some people are born into the landscape, and some move to it, but whether it’s cityscape, town, village, river or marsh, only we know which one makes us feel at home.

I’ve always been quite adamant about the bleak and barren moments too, about the time I fell out with the sea, about how I never planned for my music to be landscape inspired. It had never occurred to me that other people would see my landscape in my sound when I didn’t. I didn’t want to create something countrysidey for the sake of it, I always wanted the music to speak for itself, and now it has. I didn’t want pages of programme notes or explanations, and I needed to get rid of the need to justify it (but I think this comes from my classical training). I also had to escape the feeling that the marshes aren’t a good or interesting enough source material. The landscape may seem simple but the people living and working in it are still complex. 

I think for a long time I felt that the marshes were a place in my memory, a place where we made bows and arrows and picked and ate puff balls, and learned to ride a bike, hid in the hollow tree,  and played in the recorder group in the village hall or methodist chapel. I forgot to ask what this landscape means to me now. What does it mean to you? 

I think it’s good to take some time every so often to make sure that you are updating your feelings and updating your memory bank. It feels like I still carry some of the ‘need to escape the countryside for London’ baggage that I had at eighteen, even though I don’t feel like that at all. There are certain places and villages that I still have a twinge that it hasn’t moved on, but in reality it’s my memory and thought patterns that haven’t, so it’s my ‘turn of the season’ resolution to see things in a fresh way. I think that this is only possible because I have the fifteen years of concerts (so far) under my belt, and allowed myself to open the door to new projects.

There are lots of things upcoming I can’t quite announce, but I can reveal that jam making is a very satisfying evening off! Pictured here is some produce of the jam collaboration that I recently made with my friend Rebecca (who runs the Two Magpies bakery and baking school in Suffolk, very handy for Dunwich if anyone is going in search of the lost city).