Monday, 17 January 2022

Day Seventeen - Done


“leaving dirt on my hands 

like only the truth can”

You can hear an audio version of this post here.

Today’s song is Done written by Josienne Clarke. I have seen Josienne perform live once and that was at Montrose Folk Club in June 2016 when she was still in a duo with Ben Walker (since 2018 she has been a solo artist). The day I saw them was Brexit referendum day so we were all a bit distracted and yet … her performance on that summer night totally took me to a better place (also I won the raffle – a vinyl copy of their 2013 album Fire and Fortune*). I’m sure they did a lot of traditional songs that night in 2016 (and I’m sure they were all marvellous) but what really grabbed me was Josienne’s stellar performances of two more modern songs. The first was a version of Gillian Welch’s Dark Turn of Mind (writing credit to Welch-Rawlings, from 2011’s The Harrow and the Harvest). I love Gillian Welch and really, who doesn’t? The second was today’s song Done, written by Josienne. Done quickly entered my list of ‘favourite songs ever’ and it’s still there. It also has a particularly striking video – one I’ve watched many times*. See it here

As often was the case, I didn’t know much about the Clarke/Walker duo before I saw them at the club. They were part of the English folk scene and that always seemed pretty distant to us in North East Scotland. Plus the English scene is a pretty huge affair on its own (and lots of duos!) so I just went along because it was club night, rather than to see them especially. I suppose I might have seen the name when they won Best Duo at the Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2015 but in all honesty I think I’d only paid much attention to the awards when I started going to folk club in the mid noughties (when I was in the early ‘looking everywhere for information’ phase of getting to know folk music). By the mid 2010s I already had more folk-related CDs than I knew what to do with, a must-listen-to list a mile long, and lots of favourite artists that I’d picked up from the folk club and other events and radio shows. In a way the last thing I needed was another favourite artist.

And then I heard that song. Josienne has a haunting voice and is a multi-instrumentalist but it’s her songwriting that excites me the most. As you’ll see in the interview, I think her songs are in something like the same place as songs by, say, Leonard Cohen (and I’m not really mentioning him to compare their work, more to show that I think she is on a par with someone who has had that kind of critical, and commercial, success). There is a depth, a darkness, a special kind of furrow to her work. I’ve never quite ‘got’ the Leonard Cohen appeal (and I have tried) but I think I feel about Josienne’s songs the way others do about his. It’s the honesty, the humorous gloom, the plucking of poetry from prose … I could go on.

Now living in Scotland (where she has family connections), Josienne’s new solo album (A Small Unknowable Thing) is several steps further down the road of musical exploration (and it’s been great to hear some of the tracks from that album and her other recent release getting wider exposure on the radio recently). The album and other new music (the I Promised You Light EP) is all well worth looking out  – get thee anon to Bandcamp.

Like Boo Hewerdine earlier in the month, Josienne’s preference was to answer questions about Done over the phone so the following is an edited transcription of our conversation from back in October 2021.

JC: Thanks for asking me to do this. My only reservation is that that’s a song I wrote quite a long time ago and my recollection of it might not be quite as sharp as it could be.

RF: I heard this song on Brexit referendum day at the folk club in Montrose. Do you have any memory of that?

JC: I do. For everyone it’s sort of etched in our memory. I remember the morning of that referendum waking up … something akin to grief. I absolutely do remember, yes.

(Next I tell her a story about when I was at a family gathering and we were playing a sort of game where we went round and played everyone one of our favourite songs from YouTube. I chose ‘Done’, which was maybe not the mood everyone else was after, they had mostly picked bouncier tracks by Neil Diamond, Oasis, Billy Ocean … but I just thought it was so beautiful, how could it not add to the night? Cue awkward pauses).

JC: It’s funny, isn’t it, that’s always a reaction, a really common thing for me, being the person that’s made it, when people say “what do you do? Play us one of your songs” and I’m always like “Oh god, no, don’t, don’t make me”. I used to do silver service waitressing and they were like “play us one of your things” and so I did and everyone was just like ... they clearly felt sad and a bit sort of shocked and “that’s good” but also “we feel awful and we don’t ever want you to create this atmosphere and why would anyone pay for this?”

RF: Did they ask if you know any Beatles songs?

JC: “Can you do Ed Sheeran?” 

Done was one of those songs that I didn’t know what exactly I was saying until I’d finished writing it. And then I listened back to it and I realised “oh yes, that is totally what I mean and that’s my entire life, constantly trying to squish myself into a box that I don’t fit in”. I can’t be like everyone else and that’s great and I feel that was like a learning curve in writing it for me, that I’d never been able to quite pinpoint what it was about me that didn’t quite fit. People seem to like me but also ... don’t want me around.

RF: When did you write Done?

JC: Dates, I can’t quite remember. I can remember sitting on the edge of my very low futon bed in a house share in Finchley and because it was on One Light Is Gone, which came out in 2010, and it was warm, it was probably the summer of 2008 or 2009. 

RF: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the song?

JC: I had that first line which is a common way for me to start a song, often the first line, like a hook line, and I had that and I didn’t really know where I was going. It was like a great image, because it was like a thing that isn’t the thing that you think that it is. 

What often happens is that I work from the imagery outwards so I have an image and a metaphor for a more complicated emotional narrative and in the process of writing it, because you have to refine and you have to focus and distil and kind of pull in focus on the thing, that makes you be clearer about what you’re saying and in trying to be clearer about it you have to be clearer about what it is that you’re trying to say. So I feel like all of it is contained within that first few lines but perhaps I haven’t had the clarity to verbalise it properly, until I actually went through the process of doing it.

RF: Was it written for you to perform? 

JC: Yes.

RF: When was it first recorded?

JC: 2009. I will have done it live a couple of times but it was pretty new when it went on my debut album (One Light Is Gone). We redid it for an EP for Rough Trade called Through the Clouds (2016). We revisited quickly and lightly, and for free, a few things as a sort of teaser for the first record that we did on Rough Trade so there are two versions of the song. My intention is to revisit it again, on my own, ten plus years hence, and come at it from an entirely different angle.

RF: Super Recogniser (the first song on the new album A Small Unknowable Thing), is it about songwriting?

JC: Yes, sort of. It’s that and, because all of my life is songwriting, that’s also being now as well, so the two are sort of inextricably linked. But yes, because that was redefining myself.

RF: Has anyone covered Done?

JC: I think I’ve seen a couple of people doing it, just on acoustic guitar, on YouTube but I’m not aware of any official covering of it, no. My songs don’t seem to get covered. People like them but they don’t want to record them (laughs). Maybe someone is covering it and I just don’t know.

RF: Is Done a song you particularly like or have good feelings about?

JC: Yes, it was one that once I’d written it I thought, “This is the best song that I’ve written” and it might be forever the best song that I’ve written. And I don’t know that it isn’t, I think that it might still be. I feel like it’s one of the ones that I’m most proud of. It’s one of the ones that people have always gravitated towards and that’s always a good barometer. So, yes, it’s a pretty important one to me.

There was a time I would have struggled to talk about that without feeling like somehow I was doing myself a disservice but what I’ve come to realise is that my songwriting has always been my songwriting and that I can just relax. That is my career, my career is my career and I can stop fighting for it now, it’s there, I did it, I wrote that, we can talk about it. It’s sort of irrelevant who played guitar on it ten years ago. 

RF: What is the song you’ve written that you are most proud of?

JC: There’s probably about five of them and it depends what mood I’m in. But Done is definitely, solidly, always in that category. 

RF: And the others? 

JC: I guess Walls and Hallways, a newer one, that’s on In All Weather, I feel that’s another one where I manage to sort of capture a thing. And then A Letter on a Page on the new record is one of those songs, you know how some of them, you think they’ll outlive you, and maybe that’s madly arrogant of me to say … but I feel like if any of them could … those are the ones that will. 

(I give her my Leonard Cohen theory.)

JC: There are people where their turn of phrase and the context that they write in, the things that they write about and the way that they write about it, click with you and Leonard Cohen does that for some people and I don’t. That’s to do with emotional vernacular, like what are the important things to me as a person, and there’s a really particular type of person that identifies with my emotional vernacular and people who really don’t and I feel like that’s just part of being a very specific type of writer, writing about really specific things in a really specific way.

He’s a lot more successful than me. I’m only ever doing ‘one person hears it and recommends it to someone else’, that’s just how my career goes. It’s a slow burn.

RF: Who are the songwriters who click with you?

JC: Obviously Sandy Denny’s up there, that’s a reference that always has to be included for me, but Don McLean was a record that my parents had and a massive part of why I write songs in the way that I write them and that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious. Also it’s a very lyrical way, very melancholic.

RF: Is there a song you wish you’d written?

JC: There’s probably several but I guess Who Knows Where The Time Goes (written by Sandy Denny). Who doesn’t wish they wrote that? That sentiment, that way of looking, I feel is close-ish, in terms of emotional vernacular. But that’s probably one that lots of people would say.

RF: I read an interview in the Financial Times in 2019 where you said “Most of my songwriting deals with my own existential despair”. Do you still feel like that?

JC: Yes, I think existential despair stays the same but the context in which I’m experiencing it changes. Because of course how I felt about that when I was twenty something is different to how I feel now that I’ve just turned 39, that’s a different perspective on it. I’m looking at it from a sort of dwindling youth. 

RF: And now you live in Scotland?

JC: Yes, a great vantage point. 

My Mum has lived up here for 20 years (Rothesay) so we used to come here for holidays as a kid and then I used to come all the time to visit her. So the idea of being slightly cut off on an island isn’t a shock to me because I did that and I enjoyed doing that, I enjoyed running away. And then a couple of years ago I rented a flat down the road (that’s when I was making In All Weather) and I ran away from London and my record label and my duo and I wrote an album here. It was obvious that I was going to come back round and settle back here. 

Things just make a bit more sense here, people are a bit more grounded and there’s a little bit more space per person. 

(I tell her that in this project I’m trying to write about the songs and not artists.)

JC: For the artist songs and lives are inexplicably linked so you’ve got your editing work cut out for you there! 

I look forward to reading it all. I know a lot of the other songwriters’ work but I don’t know that I’ve heard them talk about songwriting very specifically. It’s sort of luck isn’t it, which of your songs catch for people. 

Talking about songwriting, it’s like a tap, once you open it … you’re going to have to turn it off again!

Huge thanks to Josienne for taking time to talk to me. Her new album A Small Unknowable Thing and her EP I Promised You Light (both on her own label Corduroy Punk) are available here. There has been an increasing amount of radio play for her solo music recently so maybe that slow burn is going to speed up this year!

*Fire and Fortune has some lovely songs written by Josienne too. I like Another Perfect Love and, suitably enough, A Pauper and a Poet.

This post is part of my Songs That Stick project for 2022’s Fun A Day Dundee (a community arts project that takes place every January). Anyone can take part (you don’t even have to be local to Dundee) and much of the work can be found on Instagram during January (use #FADD2022). There is usually a real-life exhibition later in the year (though this has been online for the past 2 years). The full list of songs I am writing about this year is here. My first post about why I picked this project this time is here.

If you are interested in my Fun A Day Dundee projects for 2020 and 2021 you can start here and here. They are quite different to this one (a short poem and drawings in 2020 and lots of poems and writing in 2021).

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