Self-Love and Ladybird Books

If you happen to be spending the 14th of February in South Korea, you might be inclined to give a man the gift of chocolate. And if you are Finnish, you won’t be doing Valentine’s Day but Ystävänpäivä – ‘friends day’! We grow-up with so many customs surrounding love and I started thinking about the myths and fairytales we peddle, one rainy afternoon several years ago, in my lovely village library.

There’s a shelf of ladybird books, satisfyingly neat and uniform, in a choice of blue or pink. Without getting into the politics of colour and gender stereotyping, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that the tales told within the pink volumes invariably feature the dramatic rescue of a floundering damsel, and conclude in a wedding or ‘happily ever after’! There are few such ‘romantic’ endings in their blue counterparts.

The idea of salvation through romantic love in these deliberately categorised ‘girls books’ got me thinking about my own girls and their fast-developing minds. The seed of a song was planted!

I think it’s ok to be honest about the less sparkly side of love, not through cynicism but pragmatism. In song, Joni is the queen of it:

I’ve looked at love from both sides now

From give and take and still somehow

It’s love’s illusions that I recall

I really don’t know love at all.

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now, 1967

But here’s a wise and experienced woman, whose ladybird-book reading days are presumably long gone. (Disclaimer: I have no idea if Joni Mitchell reads ladybird books!).

Love has endless manifestations, and the type at the root of health and happiness, is surely the love we show to ourselves. I know I would have dodged a bullet or two if I’d learnt that sooner. Self-care is high on the agenda right now, while our interactions are reduced, we turn increasingly to our own reserves to sustain ourselves physically and mentally. If we manage to do this, we’re happier, kinder humans and we influence those around us, including our home-schooled kids, to care for themselves as much as they do for others. So from a fleeting thought in a village library several years ago, comes something I believe in today more than ever. (Cue twinkly Disney music….)

Of course, my daughters are way too cool to listen to ‘Love is Easy’ now. So I’m sharing it with you instead. Happy Valentine’s Day!

It’s been fun to share a song every Friday for the last seven weeks and I’m excited that the album ‘Softly Loudly’ releases in full next Friday (19th Feb). If you’re enjoying the music, you can support it directly here:

http://www.emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com/album/softly-loudly

And don’t forget to follow me in your usual streaming platform to be notified a soon as the album lands. Thanks for listening and reading! xx

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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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