The Long Read: A Lockdown Survival Story – The Musical

Ed Dyer

The Long Read by Swindon promoter Ed Dyer

This year has certainly been an unusual one so far. I do not think if any of our 2019 selves had predicted the following year panning out quite like this anyone would have believed them. Of course, it is still only September, it could get weirder still.

I am sure there is not a single person reading this who has not been affected in some way, personally or professionally, it is a great leveller: nobody is immune, even the over eager golden retriever we have running the country succumbed. Unless you are one of those conspiracy theorists who pegged this as a publicity stunt, a concept that by 2020’s standard is actually a long way from far-fetched.

A lot of my own personal travails ended up featured on The Link’s website or over the airwaves via BBC Wiltshire but for those not ardently following my story (why on earth not?), professionally it involved a four month furlough from my day job at West Berkshire Brewery as well as closing The Tuppenny, the bar I co-own in Old Town, for that period of time and pivoting it quickly into an online retail business doing home delivery.  On a more personal level, due to a shielding ex-wife I did not get to see my three youngest children in person for that time either, other than through a window.

But the world has turned, and over the last couple of months we have started to undo the restrictions of lockdown. Happily, in the interim, the children seem to have survived without my input, and appear to have grown up and taken on a broader view of the world.

On the surface professionally things are also back to some sort of new normal too. But, scratch that surface and it soon becomes clear that things are not normal at all. Far from it. I have written broadly elsewhere about the short-term effect of lockdown and the current restrictions on the businesses I am involved in and of course it remains to be seen what the longer-term effects are. My own personal theory is not a particularly positive one, barring the sudden discovery of a vaccine, so I wanted to use this column to put my music promoter hat on and attempt to understand what happened to the local grassroots music scene and the musicians involved through lockdown and beyond.

The musicians I am talking about are those amazing hardy souls who are to be found in the darker corners of our pubs and on the cramped stages of our local venues gamely entertaining what crowds have grasped the motivation to show up and appreciate the musicians songs. These resilient characters have been there week in and week out for those of us who appreciate them and look for the next new thing, not pandering to their bank balances and taking the inflated fees of a popular covers band, despite many of them scratching a living solely from their music. Overnight, their pipeline of gigs disappeared, those who are part of a band could not rehearse together and studios closed, preventing the recording of their music. All of this was indefinite and with no end in sight as gigs were cancelled, rearranged, and cancelled again. What did they get up to during lockdown and how did it affect them?

I had what I thought was a fairly solid theory that a global pandemic, lockdown and the tumultuous politics of the time would be fertile and inspirational ground for song writers. We would get a glut of songs full of political and social commentary and could maybe end up with a vital new musical movement much as we did in the late 70’s on the back of the unrest of that decade. I have, however, been positing this theory for some time, through austerity, Brexit and the recent popularising of right-wing ideologies, and largely been disappointed. Surely locking musicians up for months hooked into the internet and all its extremes, real or fake, would herald a new dawn of productivity?

To find out I spoke to several Swindon and Wiltshire musicians and the answer is a clear yes and no, with as many musicians finding lockdown isolation and its surrounding issues negatively impacting on their motivation and mental health as those who found it liberating and inspirational. Cirencester musician Steve Skinley utilised the extra time he found he had available to finish an album he had been working on for his solo project Moleville, and to make a video to promote one of these new songs. But he was unable to get together with his band Familiars due to a cramped rehearsal space not allowing any kind of safe distancing, something he describes as being “the greatest difficulty, going without that weekly rehearsal time, where the four of us can be together enjoying the thrill of making music as a band.”

Musician Richard Wileman also found lockdown time fruitful as it afforded him more time than he would normally have to complete work on his latest album “Arcana”, which he expects to be released this month. But, on the flipside of this, fellow Swindon songwriter Steve Cox of the band Mr Love & Justice found things a lot harder, frankly stating: “I’ve not often been in the mood, certainly in terms of writing. Just not in a place mentally and emotionally and energy wise where I’ve felt able or wanting to do that”.

Former Raze*Rebuild frontman Simon Hall noted: “Lyrics have been a problem because writing about lockdown got old quickly and lockdown songs have a short shelf life” elaborating then that “lockdown and Covid has felt so all-consuming that it’s been difficult to find different or “normal” things to write about as normal feels like it’s limbo right now.” 

Harry Leigh, of Swindon band Stay Lunar admitted that he has “really struggled during this period. My mental health suffered quite badly throughout June and July, and I believe the same went for a couple of the guys who also slipped into bad habits - we struggled to communicate properly and despite booking in a weekly Zoom call, we probably only had around 3. Not knowing when we can gig properly again has been very deflating.”

One of the most productive musicians I observed during lockdown was Malmesbury’s Will Lawton, who usually finds his creativity sandwiched between a hectic schedule trying to meet the demands of raising and providing for a family and juggling various jobs.  Suddenly finding he had little to do for other people he was able to fully turn his attention to music, waking in the early hours and working in his own studio in the even more peaceful than usual Wiltshire countryside on a very special project inspired by the posting on social media of a 1950s poem called ‘Keeping Quiet’ by Pablo Neruda. 

This piece of verse resonated with him to the point he asked the friend who had posted it to record herself speaking the poem.  Will then wrote a piece of piano music to accompany this poem.  Expanding on this idea, he began thinking about the poetry being created throughout the land by talented but underappreciated wordsmiths and he put out an appeal for poets to record themselves speaking poems and to send the resulting recordings to him.

Overwhelmed by submissions he picked through the ones that really jumped out and spent several weeks composing piano music around these sound files. The resulting work, an album called ‘Salt of the Earth, Vol. 1 (Lockdown)’ received lots of local BBC radio play and was even picked up by the national radio station, Scala Radio. Will was also floored to find out that “one of my musical inspirations, Nitin Sawhney, heard it and tweeted that the music was ‘beautiful’ – I was pretty damn chuffed.” He goes on to describe this work as his “finest achievement during lockdown”, feeling that he “managed to capture the mood of the nation through these poets, the anxiety and the fears, yet also the amazing level of peacefulness and stillness that wrapped arms around our nation during a time when we couldn’t hug.” I cannot dispute his feelings; it is an extraordinarily powerful yet delicate piece of work.

Additionally, Will was sitting on the 2019 recordings of a new album ‘Abbey House Session’ for his band, Will Lawton and the Alchemists.  Whilst they were unable to meet and rehearse, they were still able to work on the release of this album, trickling teasers out throughout the summer and tentatively planning a live album release show.

For every story of a super productive time like Lawton experienced, there is a tale of the opposite. Originally, Stay Lunar’s Harry Leigh saw the lockdown as a great opportunity to write as much as possible and focus on keeping his band active; with several of them working from home he felt they could be very productive. However, without the rest of the guys in a room to bounce off, Harry lost a lot of inspiration and the writing dried after just one demo in early April. Harry admits he struggled for months; sat on a pile of unfinished ideas that he just could not wrestle into anything without direct input from the rest of the band. “I found this really frustrating on a personal level” he told me, “I found it tough to find the motivation to create. It would come in tiny flickers of inspiration but quickly disperse and I would waste another day doing mostly nothing.”

It has not all been doom and gloom for him however, he did find that the lockdown period enabled him to work on some collaborations, including one with Zoe Mead from Wyldest who mixed a bedroom recording of Leighs, created initially as a side project, that was then released as part of a compilation album called ‘The Big Plan’ to raise money for the Music Venue Trust and Help Musicians UK.

Another musician who managed to turn adversity to his advantage is Phil Cooper. His new band The Lost Trades had spent months pulling together their inaugural tour, played the opening date then had to scrap the rest, something that must have been very hard to take, especially the buzz that was rightly happening around the band.  “But”, he thought, “we can use this time to work on our album instead…”. to then find out they could not even be in the same room, completely knocking the wind out of their sails.

But Cooper soon realised he could use this time to be a bit adventurous, and write and record some solo material that was different from what he had done before,  scratching some musical itches and letting a few different influences shine through. Collaborating with a session drummer based in Toronto, who was willing to record his parts and send them over, Cooper found a freedom in not really caring if no-one else liked the songs, and not worrying about whether he would ever play them live. This, after all, was just him killing time. So, the process was really liberating and produced as a result an entire solo album ready for an impending release. It is something that was never part of the plan, but something of which he is proud.

Steve Cox also found positivity in collaboration, working with local filmmaker, film historian and archivist Martin Parry to create a video for a song that was already recorded and just needed mastering. This track, Hammerman, was inspired by Swindon poet and collector of folk songs Alfred Williams and is a fascinating exploration of the subject’s story.

One of the most visible by-products of lockdown for musicians has been the proliferation of live streamed gigs, something that meets a mixed response from the local musical crowd. Steve Skinley found that having no live gigs to be frustrating, as “it’s the most rewarding means of connecting with people through music and performance. Sadly, online performances just lack that shared energy” whilst Phil Cooper initially put all his efforts in to live streaming, doing so as much and as often as possible for several weeks, which he felt helped for a time, but “the novelty wore off for the audience so I now only do them every now and then.”

For Harry Leigh however, live streams were a great outlet, with him feeling that “ I had been in a bit of a slump working at home and falling into bad habits, and they gave me a chance to try out some new/weird material and experiment a little more without too much fear.” He did find it all a bit unusual, saying that “it was strange how much the nerves affected me for the live streams, I didn’t really consider it but not having an audience to bounce off and converse with in real-time was strange, especially when I didn’t have the guys behind me for support. I very much enjoyed them though, and it’s given me the confidence to do more like that as we grow as a band.”

Will Lawton agrees with Leigh, saying that it was “weird, but strangely positive.  Friends and fans from across the world were able to tune in and virtual reunions took place whilst I sang a collection of my old and new songs.” However, there was a negative side to all this, with Lawton finding that across his five or so streamed shows that whilst he picked up around twenty-five thousand views it translated to only about 3 CD sales. Philosophically he states “there is a strange satisfaction when you learn that thousands of people have watched you play and many click on the ‘like’ button, but these figures stay on the internet.  The likes and views are little thought bubbles but do nothing to really support my music.”

Some musicians seemed to thrive through streaming. Phil Cooper and his comrades in The Lost Trades cottoned on quite early to the fact that they could record their parts live separately and edit them together, producing “live” streams of the whole band performing “simultaneously” from different places, something that they had not seen anyone else doing, although it did become quite widespread. Phil was quick to point out that “we’re certainly not claiming credit, we were just early adopters!”  

Taking a more pessimistic view of live performance, Simon Hall accepts that live gigs are unlikely this year in any real context, but has found this freedom has pushed him and his brother Matt towards upgrading their technology to get more into home recording and sharing ideas online rather than getting physically together. It has also prompted him to talk to his former band members from A Golden Rule, now scattered around the country, about collaborating on new tracks - despite not expecting them to ever see the light of day live. Simon does admit that “none of it is a substitute for playing live, but it’s a way to still be creative and it has me trying things I probably wouldn’t have.”

So very much a mixed bag of experiences for musicians during lockdown. But what are prospects like as we move out of that situation and adapt to ongoing distancing? Typically for creatives, there are plenty of plans afoot. Steve Skinley has been working on what describes as a “collaboration between an artist and a dancer, to create a soundscape for their dance film. The three of us have been able to meet in the artist’s studio to work in situ.” He also plans to start writing music for another album, finding living in these current testing times has given him plenty to draw inspiration from. He finishes his conversation with me stating “art has always been a means of turning whatever it is rattling around inside my head, into something tangible, to be shared in order to find a connection with fellow human beings.”

Also moving things forward is Steve Cox, who has picked back up on an in progress work, slowly moving ahead and collaborating with his band on recordings for the next Mr Love & Justice album, although he does admit that it “has been slow and patchy if I’m honest as each of us has done bits and pieces very sporadically when the mood takes us.” He also is yet to feel comfortable getting out and gigging, even though as an acoustic artist he is able to carefully do so.

On the flip side, Phil Cooper has been itching to get out. As soon as they could The Lost Trades started al-fresco band practices, and now they are actually gigging again because as he found “being an acoustic/folk band has helped get us back on the horse sooner than most.”

Harry and Stay Lunar are also looking ahead with positivity. Their last single release in late March, ‘Dreaming That I’m Not in Love’ had a big response, resulting in weeks initially spent riding the wave of numerous email exchanges and calls with managers and labels who were interested in them. A lot of those conversations quickly dried up through lockdown due to the strange circumstances, but the band are hoping that those discussions continue when the music industry gets back on its feet. This break did allow them to properly reflect on what went well that time around, and craft their newer songs into something to fit the mood and atmosphere of that song to ensure that  they are one of the bands that can come out of this period with some real momentum and promise.

I will leave last word to Will Lawton, who ultimately has mixed feelings about the past six months:

“Lockdown has been a strange, yet, for me, uplifting experience that is making me question many of the things I do and way that I do them.  Each time I think about deleting my Facebook account and chucking my iPhone out the car window and into a ditch, something stops me.  A text of encouragement, a tag on a post to say my music has been played by a random internet radio station in Bangladesh.  A little nudge to say, ‘keep going’.  And the phone stays in my pocket and that night I share news of a positive musical development on social media.  It is weird.  But ok.  For now.  I think.”