Friday, 28 November 2014

Imagined Conversations

Most of the things I love in life - conversation, books, friends, clothes, art, adventures, walks, coffee – form subjects I’ve written about at one point or another. It’s easy to draw observations and ideas from those areas I’m interested in or relish evaluating. Yet then there are all the other things I enjoy hugely that barely get a mention: such as music. Beyond the odd post or two fan-girling over Kate Bush (and a tweet every few months re-stating my adoration of Nick Drake), it’s not a subject I often hold up to the light of a 700 (or so) word article.

I think this may be partly because I know my own areas of strength, and writing about chords and key-changes isn’t one of them. I function on a gut-response level - or maybe ear-response - gravitating towards those musicians whose work just, well, works. I don’t know a better way to describe it. A combination of melody, beat, lyrics and whatever alchemy of voices and instruments really does something. Could be 60s pop or folky singer-songwriters or prog rock (hi King Crimson) or Motown or Electro-swing or chart hits (hello Beyonce) or Electronica (apparently that’s what Bonobo and Morcheeba are?) or Indie Rock or Jazz or... Ok, now I’m just quoting the genres you can find on iTunes, and that’s not exactly known for nuance – especially as it seems to have given up on me and lumped most of my music together under the vague banner of ‘Alternative’.

Yet, recently I was thinking about the divide between those whose music I listen to, knowing relatively little about the individuals themselves (beyond their names), and those for whom I have an extra layer of appreciation because I admire their intelligence/ ethos/ outlook/ aesthetic. Indeed, often enough I’ve probably sought out interviews and reviews, and of this latter group, there are a fair few.

In fact, enough to play the game of ‘which musicians do you think you might have a great conversation with over a coffee, and why?’ I began by excluding all the ‘greats’ who would cause much trembling simply by being in the same room as them – such as Kate Bush, David Bowie and Joni Mitchell. (And in any case it would just become a love-in of decades past). So – it’s a very enjoyable displacement activity when I really ought to be doing something else – this is the initial list I came up with; musicians who come across as being really interesting people as well as creators, who I could imagine being very good company in a cafe…

Hozier – I spent lots of this summer past listening to ‘Take me to Church’ to get me into a writing frame of mind. Not sure how or why a critique of institutional dogma achieved this, but something clicked. Really though it’s the combination of salient political observations in both music videos and interviews, a range of influences from Oscar Wilde to Joyce, an obviously smart and enquiring mind, and a lot of really gorgeous, charged songs. Plus a seeming lack of ego given his rather zippy rise to success. Can’t wait to see him perform in December.

Lorde – Mainly for all the reasons I articulated here when I dressed up as her. To summarise: her common sense comments on feminism, her position as a smart, outspoken young woman willing to challenge others (see this Guardian interview), her intellectual and creative curiosity, and the small fact that she only just turned 18 and put together the Hunger Games: Mockingjay soundtrack, plus I might be ever so slightly jealous – in a good sense, as seeing that kind of achievement is always a good spur.

Sam Lee – I’ve seen him live twice, and really love/ respect/ am slightly awed by his interest in re-working, performing, and preserving traditional songs from gypsy/Romany/traveller communities (there's a wonderful piece discussing the process here). These words and melodies, handed down from one generation to another as aural heirlooms, are collated and discussed for hours before being given another life by Lee. The results are by turns rousing, bittersweet and moving. Oh and he began working on his music whilst working as a Burlesque dancer.

Moko – I met her briefly once after a fantastic panel discussion last year in Oxford on women in the media. She was captivating to listen to - talking about everything from her gospel choir background to her position as a young woman of colour in the music industry. Plus, the hair, the hair, the hair. See her interview with Rookie here

Bat for Lashes – Natasha Khan’s multiple visual personas, wide-ranging artistic influences and interests, and strong awareness of image are all pretty fascinating. Plus, there’s the penchant for gardening, various honest observations on the sometimes challenging process of getting an album together, and an impressive number of strands to her output from video-making to clothes designs.  

Kate Tempest – I mulled over including her, but hell, she was shortlisted for a Mercury, so why not? Besides, a few Fridays ago she was responsible for one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. It was a jubilant mixture of lyricism, sharp-witted observations and music that had us dancing (and sweating) very energetically. Added kudos to anyone whose central message for the audience to take away was “cultivate some radical fucking empathy, and check your greed.” After the gig, I spoke to a lovely English teacher who mentioned how he’d used some of her videos to get his year 9 class enthusiastic about Shakespeare – how wonderful is that?

St Vincent – I’m not quite sure how to summarize Annie Clark, because it’s tough to tell what I think is cooler – the innovation in her music, the fact she’s obviously both intellectually and creatively imposing (in the best way), her absolutely ace guitar playing, her attention to design detail (see her description here of the thought that went into the cover of her last album) or the quality of her writing, be it song lyrics or music commentary. Also, extra points for her cameos in Portlandia. 

Kate Nash – A distinctive aesthetic and playful, rather joyous outfit choices, and various very cool things done or said about women’s rights (think the Rock n Roll for Girls After School Club, her recently launched Girl Gang initiative and her partnership with Plan USA in 2013 to talk about ‘the transformative power of investing in girls’). What’s not to like?

Over to you. Who'd be on your idly dreamt up list? 

Posed with my ancient iPod classic here (sadly deceased) as it just happened to look better than anything else. Had lots of fun pretending to dance around this field near our house. I'm wearing a sixties dress my mum gave me and vintage Bally men's brogues. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Second Hand First


My current room is bedecked with dresses – five of them strung across one wall, doing an excellent job of simultaneously providing decoration and hiding chipped paint marks. All but one are second hand, bought from an array of vintage stalls, charity shops and other clothes troves I’ve visited in the last few years. My wardrobe is also packed tight with skirts, shirts and jumpers that possibly had previous owners (and other stories) before I plucked them up from some pile or rail. This term the colours are all darkly jeweled - jades, deep blues, reds, pinks – with lots of black and grey thrown into the mix. There are velvets, silks, leather jackets, thick wools and the odd fancy hat. 

This little assembly of items is typical of my wider wardrobe. A small selection of it was bought new (think People Tree, ASOS Africa and the occasional foray into an independent designer or sustainable brand), but the rest has passed through other hands, other houses, other heritages first. I’d say about 80% of my clothing is second hand, whether it’s been bought by me, sneaked away from my mum, passed down from previous generations or received as gifts. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last few days, as the textiles charity TRAID have deemed this week to be one of going ‘Second Hand First’. They’re trying to encourage more people to think about the environmental impact of what they buy - and to source a percentage of their wardrobe second hand (you can even sign a pledge if you’re feeling ambitious). Obviously this is no challenge for me, as charity shops and vintage stalls are my natural hunting ground. But it’s good to be reminded of the thrill every now and then – the pleasure of sifting through fifties tea-dresses, the satisfaction of finding something you know you’ll wear time and time again. You can read more about the aims and actions of TRAID here

To commemorate the occasion, I’ve put together a little bunch of images from the last five and a half years, charting some of the many, many outfits comprised of nearly all second hand clothes (although I realised in the process of choosing photos that I could have used just about any past post to illustrate the ethos). I also still own every item re-shown  - including the floor length, red satin evening coat that belonged originally to one of my great grandmothers, given to me in 2009 by my Babi (Grandma). I won’t elaborate any more here, as my main thoughts on the subject were expressed in this recent piece ‘Some Words on Second Hand.’ Which I ended thus:

“It’s more about a slow-burn pleasure, having the privilege to keep on building a little emporium of second hand delights. Some pieces will come and go, while others – hopefully – will remain stashed away until I’m old. Who knows what clothes there are left to discover… Slightly superficial? Well, yes. But a joy to consider? Absolutely.”

TRAID are making this week all about that joy. I’ll be joining them as I stomp around Oxford in various outfits cobbled together from items owned by others first - hopefully adding in my own tales to the ones created when they were worn before.

In other news, I recently did an interview with Fashiola, which you can read here

Sunday, 16 November 2014

My Grandmother - Violet Book Issue 2

My grandma is something of a marvel - a whirl of tales and anecdotes and curiosity and unwavering  affection. I've chronicled some of her various escapades and fabulous clothes on this blog over the years, ranging from her coat bought at the winter Olympics to her re-purposed wedding dress to her Balenciaga cocktail dress bought in an NY thrift store for $20 (apologies for the layout of photos in this early one - my strong point is not blog design) to paying homage to her in her modelling days

Her life is one of incredible experiences and devastating events. There are lines I can roll out when talking to others, like: "her family escaped Czechoslovakia in 1948 disguised as ski tourists" or "yeah, she appeared in Doctor Who as Empress of the Earth" or "she found love again in her later years and moved to Alaska." They are huge stories condensed down, giving the bare bones outline of times so much more complicated and sprawling than one could summarise in a single sentence. I enjoy that heritage though - the rich seam of words and episodes to draw on. 

So imagine my delight when I was asked if I would interview her for the second issue of Violet magazine - out at the moment. Finally I had the chance to thread together all these instances, filling out narratives I already knew and adding in others I hadn't heard before. Several conversations and 6000 words later, I had our dialogue - a document not only of her memories, but also her outlook, her way of approaching a life that has been filled with love and loss in equal measure. You can read about everything from her parents' courtship to how she secured a place at RADA to Hollywood's warped view of body size to the Open University degrees she completed in her fifties. There are also some fabulous photos from her large archive of snaps and newspaper articles (this one is my absolute favourite - I can empathise somewhat). It was a privilege beyond description to be involved with producing this, and the interview now rests among the pieces of work of which I'm most proud.

The accompanying portraits were shot by wonderful photographer Susannah Baker-Smith - they absolutely capture my Babi's (Grandma's) animation and I treasure the image of us together. Styling was by the lovely Kristina Golightly. Apologies for slightly awful photo resolution. Snaps from my phone are practical, but not necessarily the most pretty. Guess it means you'll have the buy the mag to see everything in its full glory... The rest of it is amazing too, ranging from in-depth interviews with Alexa Chung to Zoe Kazan's stage diary to a feature on the (lack of) ethics when it comes to fur. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

A Performance: Oscar Wilde

Some days, I really, really wish Oscar Wilde had been around to see Twitter. I think he would have loved it. All those slick bon mots, those 140 character slices of wit, the pithy commentary on news and popular culture. Sounds like just his kind of medium.

I think he would have enjoyed it for reasons beyond his sharp observational humour too. Wilde was among the first in the 1890s to fully popularize the idea of commodifying the self – of turning one’s own identity or appearance into a brand that could be sold or used to promote something. His personality (or rather, I should say, various personas) proved integral to audience reception of his plays. He was, in a sense, a performance himself.

One of the things I’ve occasionally struggled with whilst studying English Literature is my desire to interject with comments like: “Oh, but that’s so relevant to social media today!” or, “wow, so basically this writer kick-started the idea of people as brands – he’d have adored taking selfies!” My desire to yank people and themes from the past into contemporary culture is fine for general conversation, but it’s not quite what’s expected in a tutorial.

Yet the concept of offering yourself – your lifestyle, your aesthetic, your opinions, your image – up for public consumption is what the internet’s all about. Ok, no, that’s a gross generalisation. Let’s rephrase. It’s a phenomenon found in various corners online, with public platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and blogs allowing the individual to present a polished, publishable version of themselves. And it doesn’t just ‘allow’ it – but encourage. We’re expected to repackage certain aspects of our life online. Our meals. Our faces. Our response to TV shows or breaking news. For some this repackaging can be commercially successful. To many it’s just a bit of fun – albeit a fun that requires you to be continually updating another identity online. 

To a certain degree, for all of us who engage with social media, it does remain a bit of a performance. Like Wilde’s multifaceted presentation of himself and his works, what we put up online isn’t untruthful or non-genuine – but it is just a version, a single perception, a small window into an individual’s existence where we don’t know just what’s being concealed or revealed or fabricated or elaborated. And that’s fine. It would be weird to have an online representation that completely matched the messy, sprawling, complex personality of each person. More than that – it would be impossible.

What fascinates me though, is how little we acknowledge this continual process of selection and construction. We may nod every now and then to the fact that we’re assembling ourselves online in every self-portrait snap in the mirror or snappy tweet. But we rarely extend that awareness to others. Although we can recognise which bits of our life we’re amplifying or highlighting, and which bits we’re leaving in the shadows, we tend to take what others put online as some kind of whole.

I wonder what Wilde would have made of it all. Alongside embracing it, would he have passed comment on it? Might he have become something of a performance artist on Instagram? Amassed thousands of followers to promote new works? Let the world know about his new clothing purchases? Played with the medium, showed up its artifice, indulged in instability and ambiguity, written essays and dialogues about social media? Who knows. It’s fun to imagine it though…

So here I'm kind of performing a part, as I always do on this blog, my outfit, landscape and props suggesting a particular character, aesthetic or scene. Obviously this is something of a homage to the man himself, my emulation of Wilde achieved with plenty of second hand velvet, a shirt and some loafers from a charity shop, vintage accessories, a stack of books and heaps of kirby grips to tuck and pin my hair up in place. 
(PS Thus what might look like a hair cut is not. Just another assembled element of visual image).
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