“You’d be surprised how controversial putting a record on in your family living room can be. According to some more musically conservative minds, politically speaking, a young girl like me should have never chosen to play Dolly Parton. For reasons I would later come to understand, my voice would most easily do the kind of melodies and trills that existed in both country and gospel music due to their singular southern working class root. No matter what I sang, these apparently strange (if normal to me) ad-libs would issue from me without any awareness of the statement I was making. A black girl-child singing country and gospel? It would demand of people something that anyone would think easy enough, to listen with their ears.
“I grew up in Portishead, second daughter of two of a single parent family, twelve miles outside of Bristol, UK. At that time, before its grotesque consumption of any and every scrap of real-estate not fenced and groomed, it was a stagnant suburban village. A soulless developing grid of Ford Focuses, lemon yellow convertible Renault Meganes and living rooms with dado rails. It had the essence of a never-ending series of Keeping Up Appearances, but with a 1940s Austrian attitude. Indeed, closet racism and shark-eyed smiles would be the backdrop for my artistic development as a child, writing lyrics and concepts in my diary at home. It was this disappointment of a village turned town and my complete inability to fit in or express myself to anyone who would understand, that led me to the love of songwriters, song writing and band life.
“In fact, I decided age four, that I would sing and that would be my job. But we were poor, and being so, doing just average wasn’t an option if I was to sell the idea to my mother. She was dead against it, so I’d sing at home in the living room to my mother’s records hoping to convince her. I’d plan out songs in the garage, just mumbling to myself over work, whittling animals for toys out of off-cuts of pine. I can’t say it was a lengthy debate – I was a kid, so instead I spent the next 15 years pretending that I would get a ‘proper job’.
“Throughout secondary school I was experimenting with what I could do in music and hiding out at friends’ houses to gig with jazz bands age 14. If it wasn’t right I’d quit and try something else, I just kept searching. I figured that if I did everything for free whilst I had no rent to pay, I could at least get enough hours under my belt before I left school. I joined a band in school with some older kids. We’d play songs like Hey Jude and sentimental songs by Cheryl Crow in special gigs called House Concerts that the school houses would put on for school bands. It would be up to six gigs a year in school, and they were special occasions, especially for the more arty kids. We’d get rip-roaringly drunk beyond all recognition. Really, we could hardly think straight, but somehow we’d get up there and play right the way through the set – no problems. It was the most fun I had as a kid, and I highly recommend it as a means of keeping a young mind oiled.
“The rest of the band left school before me, so I hunted down more things to do. They all gave up music and I was dead serious and nearing school’s end, so I needed something that felt like a job in music. Somewhere in the back of my mind my mother’s voice was calling to me to be practical. I found gigs singing in clubs with DJs, some of them toured the UK and Europe. I quickly got into doing session work, not knowing that that’s what I was doing, but I had never been very far from home before, so flying to Europe, Asia, Australia and the US regularly was good for me at that time.
“When I was out of school I worked for a few years touring the world doing session work. It didn’t feel good, after a while you’d get wise. Editing yourself to fit the sound of the band wasn’t right when you still had so much left unsaid. Plus musically, I had nothing in common with anyone I worked with, but you couldn’t shed a tear in a 5-star hotel room. I do understand that it’s a job most people would love to do, but then again I never was much good at fitting in where I didn’t belong. The truth would out.
“In the meantime, I spent my time plugged into headphones listening to Gillian Welch, Ike and Tina, The Byrds, The Staple Singers, The Band, Etta James and Neil Young amongst other artists, before and after sound-checks and when travelling. I’d opt to go to bed early, to go teetotal, to drift to the periphery. When I heard Soul Folk In Action by The Staple Singers, I became obsessed. And later Time The Revelator by Gillian Welch did what it said on the cover and, with the help of time, slowly pulled me closer and closer to all the things I loved. I was awakening to the reality that I was going to have to quit every job I had, to truly start being a singer, a writer or an artist. Dolly was clawing her way back into the picture dragging Gillian, Mavis and Levon along with her. That’s how it felt for a few years and then one Christmas one of my closest friends Stew Jackson had a great idea.
“He’d been planning to book a day in Rockfield Studios, Monmouthshire to just jam some things out with some mutual musical friends as a Christmas treat to ourselves. After hearing about it, I was chomping at the bit to get started. It was as if someone had given me a carte blanche to vent with no agenda. We got a few skeletal ideas together, took them into the studio and put a few tracks down in the afternoon. We cooked a massive roast after and felt utterly sated. It wasn’t that day, however, that created the band I nurture and love today along with five others, it was the realisation that none of us could ignore it. In time it would polarise every decision, develop me as a writer and it would demand commitment. It was the musical Holy Grail, the band.”
Thanks to Yolanda Quartey for the latest in our series of artist blogs. Phantom Limb‘s new album In The Pines is out this week and you can catch them touring the UK in February and March – see full tour dates below.
No shows booked at the moment.