Disclaimer: this is my disclaimer

I’ve been determined to write something to accompany each of the songs I’ve released this year. Disclaimer, being the oldest of all the songs, is the one I’ve found the hardest to contextualise, and I’ve been procrastinating terribly. I mentioned this to a friend, who helpfully pointed out that that was a kind of disclaimer in itself…….Touché.

I’m an ideas plagiarist. What I’m thinking about (and writing music about) often has a lot to do with what I’m reading, and around about the time I wrote Disclaimer I read a couple of books by the author Brene Brown. Brown’s quotes have been popping up frequently during the pandemic, within the context of mental resilience, so I’ve been reminded of her unique work.

A recurring theme throughout her books, podcasts and TED talks, is that vulnerability is both necessary and uncomfortable. The way we often distance ourselves from our own work, and from what we really mean, is to protect ourselves from judgement and the terrifying prospect of being ‘wrong’. But in doing so, we fail to express ourselves fully, or express anything that is unique about ourselves. I don’t pretend to have solved or overcome these issues through writing a song (far from it).

I’ve learned though, that being wholehearted leads to one of two outcomes. 1. Embarrassment, shame. 2. Joy and true-connection with others. The gamble is utterly exhausting in itself, so usually we choose a fairly ‘beige’ path. There’s nothing wrong with this and in some ways it’s necessary. But I find it fascinating, the way we chose our engagement level as a sort of ‘hedging of bets’. I’m guilty of this myself so I understand it. I’ve nothing against beige either, by the way. Gosh, check out all my disclaimers!?

I experience both the ‘cringe’ and the joy factor when I write a song, record it – and put it out there for people to actually hear! My collaborators and I faced the recording challenges of lockdown without hesitation, and particularly on Disclaimer, the remotely recorded drums and and separately layered harmonies sound completely unified, committed and brave! No disclaimers are really necessary.

Music is something I seem to ‘lean in’ to the discomfort of, although it still scares the bejeepers out of me. Most of us have something we want to be braver at and learning about other people’s true colours (even beige) is always a joy to me. Although it’s not always easy to jump in with both feet, a little heart-on-sleeve wearing once in a while, goes a very long way.

You can’t spell wholehearted without A-R-T

Brene Brown

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Disclaimer is the 5th release from the album Softly Loudly, which releases in full on 19th Feb.

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Or…We Could Just Stay Here

I’d love to say I wrote the song ‘We Could Just Stay Here’ as an ode to the times we’re living in. But I didn’t. It was written and recorded before lockdown, so the title is just one hell of a coincidence! It’s proof of something I’ve long suspected: that songs live in a kind of parallel universe, their meaning constantly reformed and pressed into the new shape of whatever is relevant to the listener or songwriter at the time.

It’s the third escapee from my slow releasing album ‘Softly Loudly’, falling on the third Friday of national lockdown in the UK.

Writing it was an exercise in remaining focussed: setting a very calm, heartbeat-like piano accompaniment and continually pulling myself back to a very specific sensation, wandering around the subject a little and then pulling myself back. I wasn’t calling it mindfulness at the time, but I came to realise afterwards that’s exactly it was. The exception is in the middle-eight where I give-up and start thinking about the bigger picture. But hey, isn’t that what middle-eights are for? The problematic section. The ‘what if…’ moment of the song.

As if to defy social-distancing, physical proximity is strong in the lyrics. So, I’m beyond thrilled that listeners seem to connect with the song in that way, describing it as “a hug in a song”, “enveloping and impenetrable from the outside” and “a warm embrace”. Several people have even said they’ve meditated to it! I can think of no lovelier compliment at a time like this. Alas, we can’t spend all our time cultivating mindful thoughts on our “gluten-free cushion” (thanks for that one Ruby Wax!), but it does feel that the song, and this lockdown, were somehow meant-to-be.

The craziest piece of synchronicity happened when I first performed it live though. A dear friend hugged me after the gig: “I have to catch the train but remind me to tell you a story tomorrow. You wont believe it!”. She was happy for me to share this very personal story here, though it’s heartbreaking.

Two years earlier, sitting at the bedside of her partner who was in the final stages of terminal cancer, she had found a way to calm him when he became intermittently agitated, wanting to get out of bed and leave the hospital. Rather than say, “you can’t leave”, she would calmly repeat: “Yes, we could. Or…..we could just stay here.” It became a mantra for an impossibly difficult time for them both. A skilful way of reframing the situation as a choice, rather than something tragically enforced upon them, with the comforting solidarity of “we” rather than “you”.

How lucky we are to have such an infinite array of choices, even at the moment when we see our lives as unusually restricted. Far too many have lost loved ones this year, and though it’s at immeasurable cost, this surely deepens our experience of what it is to be alive.

Breathe in. And breathe out…..

‘We Could Just Stay Here’ is on all streaming platforms and you can pre-order the full album here:

https://emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com/album/softly-loudly

Can we live in this new way?

Saturday has always been the song people mention after gigs. They seem to relate to the lyrics, though when asked directly “what’s it about?” I had to have a think! It’s the latest instalment of my slow releasing album ‘Softly Loudly’.

I used to perform it under the dubious working title A Wee Song, on guitar, with more of a folky feel. The connection to Scotland (alluded to in the lyrics) inspired the folky pentatonic melody (think Auld Lang Syne!) But today’s bluesy piano incarnation is a good reflection of where I’m at these days. I don’t believe songs stand still. You take them with you and as life alters – their meaning is altered. And life has certainly altered, though the lyrics definitely still resonate.

Saturday was written when my children were much younger, and years before lockdown, when travel was an everyday thing, if you had the freedom to do so. A trip to Scotland (although not my own) captured my imagination because of the crossing of a border that is essentially imaginary – i.e. dictated by humans rather than the sea! It’s about the ebb and flow of staying connected and drifting apart, both geographically and mentally, which is incredibly poignant right now.

We’ve never been so physically disconnected from the rest of the world, and politically from our European neighbours. On both counts I hope the separation is followed by a renewed passion and willingness to connect. If we trust the philosophy of Belgian psychologist Esther Perell: “Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness”, there is hope at least.

It’s difficult to maintain relationships at a distance and it’s difficult to record too! Most of the album was recorded in a fiddly but necessarily socially-distanced way. So we were overjoyed to finally get together for a day in the summer, to record the drums on this track. But when I fell ill immediately afterwards and I had to isolate for two weeks, it really hit home how important it was to be patient.

Sadly those days are not yet behind us, but releasing music is giving me the steady focus I need to get through this month. I’m not taking anything for granted and because we’re so geographically disconnected at the moment, I’m tuning-in carefully to what the songs mean to everybody. I’m thrilled to have listeners all over the world – and those who I see on local rambles: “Oh hi, just been listening to your new track!” I’m very grateful for all the positivity.

Follow me on Spotify or your streaming platform for more songs over the coming weeks. And if you’d like to support the album directly, buy at https://emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com/album/softly-loudly and I’ll keep in touch with you as each song releases. Before we know it, it’ll be spring and we’ll all be together again! xx