Exclusive interview with Skin from Skunk Anansie

It is both suitable and exciting that on International Women’s Day and on the eve of an extensive tour I post my interview with one of the best British front women on the scene.  

Talking with Skin from Skunk Anansie was everything I hoped it would be. Being familiar with their music, I expected anger and emotion in equal measure – as they explore in their music all facets of human energy and experience that exist in our daily lives – and I was NOT disappointed. Skin is as high-octane in conversation as the band is on stage. She is as inspirational as her aggressively beautiful persona and always open and brutally honest. Whether talking about her personal life or the financial crisis, she had plenty of opinions to hit me with, and I never tired of listening. Ultimately my fifteen minute ‘chat’ with Skin left me ready to take on the world as Skunk Anansie’s musical legacy continues to inspire people to do.

Here I ask her about their current album ‘Black Traffic’ and their forthcoming tour:

You released Black Traffic just last September and have received a lot of praise from your fans about it. Are you pleased with the response you’ve received?
Yeah, everyone’s been really lovely, apart from one review in the NME! [Pete Cashmore of NME rated the album 1/10 with the summary “The people who made this album have an average age of 46. They need to retire. NOW.” A bollocks and completely uninsightful review]  It’s been really good because we really tried something quite different in the way we recorded it. Every other album we’ve done has been like, you walk into a studio press play and 1.2.3. Go! It’s always been about trying to capture that sparkling take.


We dissected everything, tore it to pieces, and basically, launched ourselves right off the cliff and hoped we weren’t going to land on our arses and break our spines


But at this level in our game, we do that every night live. We felt we’re not little kids anymore, we don’t have to have a sporadic thing that sometimes we can capture in the studio and sometimes we can’t. So basically did some rough takes, then we dissected everything, tore it to pieces, and basically, launched ourselves right off the cliff and hoped we weren’t going to land on our arses and break our spines and ultimately it all came through. It gave us a real opportunity to dissect the music, analyse it and experiment and just have fun recording.

We love recording but it’s always a hard thing to do. I like being in the studio but it’s always been a pain in the arse and this time it was really different and we all really enjoyed it. In the end we ended up with a big fat rock album, which is what everyone loves and what we love and what we do well. But it has a modern context. We’re not just a bunch of old school rockers doing the same old same old. We try to bring new elements into it.

So overall that gamble paid off?
Yeah yeah, I mean it was a real gamble; we’ve not done it like this before and studio time is expensive. But ultimately sometimes, to quote Young Guns, “What’s the point in glory without the pain”.


To quote Young Guns, “What’s the point in glory without the pain”.


I can imagine people expecting a band who are successful for something to keep on making the same thing again and again, so to take that plunge and do something different that pays off must be satisfying?
Yes exactly, I mean we really felt at this stage in our careers, there’s no point trying to do things for press and radio. I mean the radio in England is not going to play us. There’s no point in focusing on radio and press friendly concepts. You know English radio just doesn’t play rock. Muse will just about get on there and they’re softer and more electronic and even they felt they had to go in a different direction to get the plays.

The trouble is when you start to follow what you think people want you to be you can really trip up because you stop being the essence of yourself. That’s the thing we did with this album. We just though fuck everybody, fuck it all, we’re going to do what we like, and our friends are going to follow it because they’re the same as us. That’s the way we’ve always done it and it really works. The fans love the album they come to see us live and we have rave, rave, rave reviews apart from that NME review!

The  point of that review was that we’re too old to be in a rock band!!! You know, they’ve hated Skunk Anansie from like the minute we sold 100,000 records. And because this is a good album, they don’t want to admit it’s a good album so they literally had to scratch around and try to find a way to slag us off instead of being honest and saying, “You know I’ve never liked this band but this is a really good album”.  A good journalist would have done that. But they landed on our age as the only thing they could slag off about us.


The fans love the album they come to see us live and we have rave, rave, rave reviews apart from that NME review!


You know Life doesn’t end at 40. If you love to do something, say you want to be a writer for the rest of your life, what’s to stop you doing that as long as you’re good and as long as you put out stuff that people want to read. It should be the same in any profession. You know if you’re a dancer, keep dancing until your body says no. If you’re a good dancer, then dance.

Ultimately it was very ageist. If you were to apply that level of ageism to racism or homophobia everybody would have gone crazy. If you don’t like the band and you don’t like the album and all you can say is that we’re old then just don’t fucking review us. I mean everybody gets old, but this is a fucking good album!


 If you don’t like the band and you don’t like the album and all you can say is that we’re old then just don’t fucking review us. I mean everybody gets old, but this is a fucking good album!


In Black Traffic, you are just as comfortable talking about your distrust in the government and the financial crisis as you about your personal life; your aspirations and disappointments. Is it important for you to cover such a broad range of themes?
The thing is we really do write a massive range of different types of songs, you know? We always write more than we use. For this album we wrote about 55 songs over the space of about a year, a year and a half and in lots of different places; some in America, some in Europe. So we really were a part of it. On tour we really saw the difference with regards to economics and racism and homophobia and the mortgage scandal and occupy movements. All these things are going on around us and are right in our faces. In Portugal, for example, which used to be one of our biggest markets, you only have to sell 200 records to get a number one now. They’ve just got no money so nobody buys music.

I think that’s why the topics are so broad because you see lots of different things. For a while we might write political songs because we’re so angry about what’s going on. Then something will happen to us and we’ll write a more personal song. So, you know, you take the best pick of those songs over the space of a year and you’re going to get a broad range.


On tour we really saw the difference with regards to economics and racism and homophobia and the mortgage scandal and occupy movements. All these things are going on around us and are right in our faces.


For us it’s like we always go for the best songs. On ‘Wanderlust’ the best songs were more emotional and more personal. There were a couple of political songs but they weren’t that obvious. So in that sense the songs kind of come from so many different parts of ourselves. The challenge is to pick the songs for the right reasons and in the right way.

Really, separating external and internal subjects is unrealistic. Nine times out of ten you can spend your day wound up because of the things going on and that can have a knock on effectReally these things are all part of daily life for everybody anyway aren’t they?
Yeah, I think we have a personal perspective on stuff that’s happening right in front of our faces and to our friends. This is not a game, for instance a friend of mine was knocked of her bicycle in America where insurance is really, really expensive. She couldn’t pay her mortgage for two months and was in hospital recovering. All the time the mortgage company were doing everything they could to get that house of her. It was like they have a thing that says: Anyone gets behind by a month and we want that house”. It was really sick. They were doing all these tricks – sending her the wrong forms, making her miss certain dates – just to make things difficult.

She nearly lost the house. She had to get a lawyer to help her, to sift through things because they had made it so difficult. In the end she came up with a plan to keep the house and we all helped her with it and it’s all good, but you know these guys! They sit there at their computer with a big fat line of cocaine, drunk as anything, playing on the stock market, it’s all greed, greed, greed, like it’s a PlayStation game. But this is people’s lives! For normal people their house is like their honey pot. You know, that’s the type of thing a song will come out of.


They sit there at their computer with a big fat line of cocaine, drunk as anything, playing on the stock market, it’s all greed, greed, greed, like it’s a PlayStation game. But this is people’s lives!!!


The album is called Black Traffic; can you explain what that is?
Black traffic sums up what a lot of the songs tended to be about. You know this dark underbelly trafficking that seems to really be running things. There are so many examples of it; again the mortgage scandal, the HSBC scandal. I mean oh my god HSBC have just been fined hundreds of millions of pounds – the highest fine in history – for drugs trafficking with our money. I mean I’m a HSBC customer! But nobody goes to jail; they just lose a bit of money that doesn’t affect them because it doesn’t come out of their pockets. Nobody goes to jail and nobody is held responsible for it. I mean that is dark isn’t it.


I mean oh my god HSBC have just been fined hundreds of millions of pounds – the highest fine in history – for drugs trafficking with our money… Nobody goes to jail and nobody is held responsible for it. I mean that is dark isn’t it.


And so much of that stuff goes on. You know someone in that bank had to have confirmed those transactions. It had to be the managing director. Why wasn’t he sacked and put into jail. He’s responsible for letting drug traffickers launder billions and billions of pounds worth of money. But the bank just gets a fine. It’s such a fucking con. And that’s what I mean by ‘Black Traffic’.

You know you’re living your life, you’re paying your mortgage, like I was paying my mortgage that was twice as expensive as it should have been because people are hiking up the mortgage rates. All this stuff is happening underneath your feet. It’s absolutely insane. Like people who live in London can’t afford to live in London anymore. Greedy landlords hike up the rent because they know people are desperate to live there. Rents have gone up so all the Londoners are getting squeezed out of London. I’m born and bread in London I can’t fucking live in London. It’s just really expensive.

When it comes to your tour, you’re just as well known and loved for your high-octane tracks as you are for your slow emotive ballads. How do you find it performing songs with such completely different energies and tempos?
I think that’s one of the things we’ve always been able to do. We’ve always been able to switch our energies. We’ve never been a band that’s done an album that’s full force song after song; twelve songs the same. We’ve always been a band that’s experimented and tried to have different energies and different things going on.

I think when it comes to a concert it’s really important to have light and shade. It’s important to have down time and down moments and not just full-on craziness. That’s something that we’ve always managed to be able to do. It’s part of the sound of the band.

What have you got planned for the tour? What can fans expect?
We’re at the best we’ve ever been. We’ve always been a brilliant live band and since the new Skunk Anansie, since 2008, we’re really on top of our game. We’ve got the biggest production we’ve ever had and it’s just a really amazing show and I’ve a couple of tricks! There are a couple of things I do that I bet I’m the only person in the country who would dare do coz everyone’s such a chicken shit. We’ve got all our new stuff that people love, our new songs are going down really well and then some classics as well. So you know it’s a full on show!


We’ve got the biggest production we’ve ever had and it’s just a really amazing show and I’ve a couple of tricks! There are a couple of things I do that I bet I’m the only person in the country who would dare do coz everyone’s such a chicken shit.


Skunk Anansie are playing Manchester Academy 1 on 22nd March 2013. You can book tickets here. Keep up to date with the band via their websiteFacebook and Twitter. You can follow Skin on Twitter here.

Interview by Anne Louise Kershaw
Find me on twitter here. 

This interview first appeared on Manchester’s Finest


Today I listened to: Skunk Anansie
Today I read: Independent, Guardian, Telegraph, Manchester Evening News
Today I watched: Jan Svankmajer’s Alice



 Another completely unrelated image. I took this recently in Blackpool, it’s part of a set that I intend to make into a film along with a poem i’ve written. I love Blackpool and it’s grainy beautiful grittiness, rain or shin, I love taking images there.

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Twitter: Procrastination, productivity and pain

Like your best bitched about local bus service, having written one piece about twitter, another follows quickly after. Of course I would have written it a damned site quicker had I been able to stay off the bleeding thing. But then I am fully aware of twitter’s ability to tempt me away from productivity. My procrastination self-awareness levels are at such a height that I daily have Belouis Some’s classic ‘80s hit ‘Imagination’ looping around in my mind. I just replace ‘imagination’ with ‘procrastination’ and jobs a good’un! Yep, I’m productive and highly inventive.

The annoying thing is that Twitter is unbelievably useful. My need-top-know-the-news head is satisfied by following all the papers and journalists I like to read. And even those I don’t – just to keep me both balanced and angry. The culture-freak in me follows the drama queens of the theatre and way-out-theres of the arts world, while my inner muso follows all the blogger, giggers and gass-baggers on the scene. Collectively this provides a feed of info that fuels my life. Granted, you have to sift through the #tweetwhatieat and #babydoesgangnamstyle threads, but once through, you’ve a spread of ideas that could lead absolutely anywhere.

But there’s the crux. Will they lead you anywhere? It couldn’t be more fitting that whilst writing this, I am simultaneously keeping an eye on the twitter window open next to word that is providing live updates of this morning’s bomb scare in Manchester city center. I am sat at home, freezing but safe, writing away, fully aware of what is happening at the cities core. People on my Manchester network are tweeting events, yet apart form the reliable Manchester Evening News, not a single national rag is covering the topic. I am reading about bombs in Mali, but have to rely on people in the street for updates in Manchester.

Through selective following (like breeding for the twittersphere), twitter is providing me with info that is relevant to me while the nationals remain London-centric! Now I know that not only news that is relevant to me, is relevant to me (say that with a gobstopper in), but at time like this Twitter excels. It also excels at distraction. Jesus, I’m trapped in a cyber-loop of confusion and all I can see is hashtags and @ symbols. This is certainly trending. The fact that twitter’s appeal has steered me away from the crux I was referring to two paras ago makes my: Case. In. Point. (As one would type on twitter!)

So will it lead me anywhere? So far today it has lead me astray. I was intending to write about the annoying musical band-waggoning trend twitter has revealed to me lately, but have been sidetracked by another thread in my brain or is that a vain in the machine. I can see the lines between twitter and life, timeline and memory are fast dissolving, as my fingers become keyboard shortcuts to my life! One thing is clear; it is time for a screen break and a brain reboot. I’ll go make a coffee and check in on my iPad!

Today I read: Twitter, Manchester Evening News
Today I listened to: Daughter 


View from Eiffel Tower


I know that I visited Paris over three months ago but i’m still yet to sort my way through the thousands of pics I took there. This is the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Needless to say I was VERY happy when taking this picture so when I look at it it makes me feel all tiggly in the tum and nice. Aah. 






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The drawbacks of Twitter bitching

At a recent social gathering there was a consensus of horror when I revealed my phone. It is a complete brick, a rubber one at that, for no matter how many times I have gone at its life, it has bounced back. The complete shockwave of horror that swept over the pub, like a sub-woofing nuclear wave, was not due to the phone’s hideousness, but because people had presumed me to be an iPhone owner!

I would like to think this is because I am cutting edge with technology, because of my complete hipster status or due to the slick and geeky way I dress (i’m more Frank Butcher meets Cyndi Lauper). In fact, the ONLY reason people thought I was iEndowed was because of my high twitter mileage. Yep, I like to tweet!

I believe there is a little twitter star of glory within us all. I believe following the ‘right’ people (a heady blend of indy creative and journos who will NEVER return the favour) and ‘right’ sites can enhance your life and career no end. You just have to direct the glow. It’s not all comedic cats and food-headed dogs. If worked properly (like one works the room at a cocktail party of important people; still on my to-do list) productivity can increase and procrastination can be avoided (looking at pics of shaved cats is procrastination, unless you are picture editor for Shaved Cats FM).

My twitter smugness was shocked into drama pose – back of hand on forehead – and a seriously pixelated reality check just over a fortnight ago. Encouraged by the Suzanne Moore/Julie Birchill/Transabuse saga I found myself spending what equated to full-time hours (I, who doesn’t have time to wash the pots/wash my hair/wash) darting back and forth between response articles and open letters. Hateful things had been said and I’m not fond of that! I added my rant and was not alone. Every person and their electronic dog was dibbing in. Fortunately some fantastic writers were responding excellently on the subject (see this brilliant Paris Lee piece here) but while thick in the broils of a bitter battle I saw looming real-life deadlines and actual paid work piling up. I promptly dibbed out!

I, so cocksure and on-the-ball (what a combo), had had my reins steered by passion and protest. To get all drama-queen on your ass, in truth, passion and protest is the stuff of life. But whose life? At that moment in time, not mine. I realised that I was adding nothing to the cannon of debate by tweeting like the hybrid lovechild of Stonewall and an ‘80s typing-pool superstar. I was losing money and time. Yet I’d been fuelled with energy that was a shame to waste.

So I did what any self-respecting writer would do, I made notes, proper useful, balanced notes and a plan. Then I tweeted about them. Then I saw a link to some hyper-neon running shoes. Forty minutes later I received confirmation that the trainers were on their way and that I was not, in fact, half as twiterplined as I thought. So I swiftly tweeted “You know when you realize you must try harder. That”. Follow by “You now that ‘that’ thing. I hate that”.

Today I listened to: Public Service Broadcast
Today I read: Paris Lees, Roz Kaveney and Laurie Penny as a reminder of how to write very passionate arguments about things you feel strongly about, but in a beautifully well-balanced and objective way.
Today I watched: The new video by Screaming Maldini


IMG_8033smallQuite a nice site to look at after a glass or two of wine, working our way back from the Eiffel Tower to the Marais where we stayed on the ace boat bus!




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The Accrington Pals, Royal Exchange Manchester. Bitter, brutal and beautiful!

It is fitting that Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre begin the New Year by closing its winter season with ‘The Accrington Pals’ as themes of opportunity and finality, new horizons and brutal endings rifle through it. Inspired in part by a Salfordian clan of aunts and uncles from his maternal side, and in part by a vision he had of an Edwardian woman edging her way down the trenches, it isn’t surprising that Peter Whelan’s play is both earthily real and beautifully surreal.

It wasn’t until Whelan began thoroughly researching World War I, and stumbled upon the tragic story of ‘The Accrington Pals’, that his mumble of ideas really took form. And as the WWI centennial preparations begin it seems suitable that Whelan’s 1981 play should be brought back to life in the fantastic space of the Royal Exchange.

Under direction of James Dacre, ‘The Accrington Pals’ is portrayed in all its glory as a brilliant example of theatre that covers a supposedly well-known topic, while steering clear of the usual clichés. Yes there are scenes of woe, marching soldiers and all the gloom that the realities of war bring, but there is so, so much more.

The play is based around a typical survey sample of Accrington locals; the town (and surrounding area) saw 700 of its fit and enthusiastic men respond to Lord Kitchener’s call-to-arms. Many enlisted through a sense of duty, “How can I take up arms – how can I not?” many as a way out of the working-class monotony they daily endured, “Sick of office, sick of stall”, and many as a means to see new horizons in the company of pals. Most, by far, did not return.

Seen largely through the eyes of those left behind – mothers, wives, lovers, and those who frustratingly never managed to be any of the above – ‘The Accrington Pals’ explores the incongruity of life lived during such changeable and anticipatory times. Fortunately the Royal Exchange has brought in an exceptional cast to explore such intricate personal and social dynamics.

Lead by market stall owner May, we see how issues of war are woven around a tight-knit community deconstructed by it. Played both chillingly sharp and tenderly warm by Emma Lowndes, May is all quiet affection and resentment. She pleads with CSM Rivers to release her artistic and passionately sensitive younger cousin Tom – played delicately by Robin Morrissey – from his army commitment, yet cannot bring herself to face up to the deeper desires she has for him.  Rivers poignantly quips wile shaving “I must finish these whiskers, leaving them only stiffens their resistance” and proceeds to take Tom off to war under his wing.

In contrast to the achingly distant relationship of May and Tom, is the delightfully natural pairing of Ralph and Eva. Gerard Kearns‘ humour “My little pocket Venus” and Sarah Ridgeway’s sensuality and steadiness, “Let me feel that hollow in your back. That’s mine that is”, offer an opposing sexual dynamic to that of May and Tom.

Contrast thematically threads throughout the play. As well as relationships, there are contrasting gender roles each with deeply opposing shades. The men, both carefree and cautious, go off to fight, reporting back about “That free spirit of comradeship you see out here, but not at home” that Tom tries to capture in his sketches; yet we know ultimately of their tortuous and doomed fate. The women, on the other hand, are left to pick up the pieces and end up faced with opportunity unknown to them before. As May enthuses, “While I was out I looked at a shop…the ones i’ve fancied taking on. And suddenly it all seems more possible.” In a similar vein Bertha, previously the butt of everyone’s jokes, takes on a role of responsibility on the trams, even attracting attention from the men. Self-proclaiming that “Even my dad says i’m better followed than faced” Bertha attracts desires from an asthmatic electrician – May practically points out that they are hard to come by – yet cannot even consider responding to his advances due to the ‘shameful’ fact that he isn’t well enough to fight. Performed with a naïve and self-depreciating humour by Laura Elsworthy, such scenes perfectly sum up the social complexities daily occurred. With every benefit, there are a thousand mind-twisting drawbacks.

Although it may seem odd to speak of benefits when talking of war, ‘The Accrington Pals’ strength is in steering completely away from war clichés. For a play about WWI is it richly feminine at its core and highlights perfectly the areas of beauty and benefit within such a terrifying landscape. The men are bold and bond over a believed sense of breaking free from their working-class shackles, whilst heading straight into the line of fire. The women demonstrate a newfound independence and strength in presented opportunity, whilst harbouring a deep-rooted and well-grounded fear of the unknown.

Such is the community strength of the women that despite all anxiety, and the brutality they live in, you find yourself actually belly-laughing at their humorous natterings. There is Annie, played by Sarah Belcher, who repeatedly runs on stage just to beat her son yelling, “Stand still while I hit you”. At one point she does so with the buckle end of a belt, leaving him cruelly damaged and bloody. Her friend Sarah, who is suspicious and sharp, played by the very funny Rebecca Callard, talks of her other half “He’s like a steam hammer. If he missed me we’d have the wall down”.

Other comic occasions were provided accidentally courtesy of the extremely wet cobbled staging which saw Ralph slip once or twice and Eva land flat on her bum (jokingly playing it off by saying “oops, think i’ve had too much”). Despite this the set was very well done. There was a minimalist mix of domestic trappings that would turn into trenches at the flip of a kitchen table; perfectly knitting the notion of distance and yearning between the men and women. Sound and voice play was very effective, although on a couple of occasions the music seemed to end a little too abruptly, with the effect of shaking you out of the fantasy for a spilt second.

The fantasy however cannot last for long. Culminating in a brilliantly surreal scene, that was the initial impetus for Whelan, you are left feeling quite torn open and left bare. The Royal Exchange has put on a production that is as relevant now as it ever was, with regards to warfare, and the dynamics of people and the lives they lead. Bitter, brutal and beautiful. ‘The Accrington Pals’ will haunt you for weeks to come.

Today I listened to: Last Harbour and Screaming Maldini
Today I read: The Times online
Today I watched: Too many youtube videos of new bands

Sunrise over the Seine on the morning of my birthday.

Sunrise over the Seine on the morning of my birthday.

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Rats’ Tales at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre

December is upon us which means, for those festive resistors out there, that you can now happily get into the tinsley swing of things without feeling you are robbing November of its identity.

One event to begin festivities is the premier of Carol Ann Duffy’s Rats’ Tales at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. After that, Christmas markets, fairy lights and endless reindeer-illustrated-cups of mulled wine can ensue with full-on glee.

So as theatres across the land prepare for panto season, the Exchange has gone decidedly darker with its Christmas Offering. Rats’ Tales is the most recent Grimms’ fairy tale-esque collaboration between Poet Laureate and Adapter/Director Melly Still who began working together almost 20 years ago.

Their most current production sees the telling of eight traditional, adapted and newly written fairy tales from the darkest corners of Europe; each as sinister as the next. We have child abduction, a wickedly jealous mother, a violent stepfather, a changeling and a touch of potential incest. In a storybook world awash with saccharine royal-iced glossing, Rats’ Tales taps into every child’s fear and every adult’s nightmare.

Proceedings are pleasantly balanced with lively and humorous performances from a mainly debut cast to the Exchange stage. This unfamiliarity aids an air of the unknown which certainly has you checking over your shoulder a few times when the stories reach their darkest. We have a Pied Piper who looks like Nick Cave as the devil incarnate, a teacher turned wooden doll turned back-end of a horse and a woodcutter who flits as both Prince Charming and troll child.

Cast versatility is mirrored by a dynamic and creative use of staging and sound; barn fires, cliff edges and fast flowing rivers are presented at a fearsome pace leaving viewers slightly breathless from all the action. Inventive sound effects and music are preformed live by multi-instrumentalist duo Rosemary Toll and Tom Thorp and are far from minimal. They play everything from guitars and sax to clarinet, glockenspiel and cello not to mention percussion and keys, used in a variety of ways ranging from the traditional, to the positively inventively unusual. Additional to this is some sharp and quite chilling video work my Manchester based Soup Collective, which cleverly places the fairy tales in the present day; reinforcing the fact that such fears and threats are as justified now as they ever were.

As tale after tale unfolds you feel like the child who, having asked for just one more story, actually gets another, then another; each creepier than the last. You are left feeling that you would rather have another scary story, than be left alone. But fear not, there are some happy endings, though even those do not come easily.

Rats’ Tales is at best when it is at its darkest and it successfully drags you through a full-range of emotions, as is typical of the average child’s day. If you allow yourself, you can step into the sinister, safe in the knowledge that you will be singing and dancing by the end – the production team have worked hard to maintain that balance that allows the play to be enjoyed by everyone “from age 8 to 108” as it is claimed. And I could see by the faces of the audience that that is certainly true.

Rats’ Tales is both light and dark, scary and sentimental, sinister, and overall jubilantly so. For a much-anticipated Christmas production, the Royal Exchange have reached deep into the shadows and pulled out a real gem of a show.

Today I listened to: Public Service Broadcast and Herdwhite
Today I watched The Hour

Today I read David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon


IMG_7800sThis picture is far from perfect but I really like it. I watched this little sparrow underneath the Eiffel Tower for a while. He was very Parisienne :O)

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The Country Wife at the Royal Exchange

Find a review of The Country Wife that doesn’t include the word romp and i’ll eat my hat (disclaimer: I totally wont). Don’t get me wrong, this restoration comedy is certainly full of frolics, fun and feistiness (and the implication of plenty of other things that begin with F), but it has a lot more than just humour to make it as culturally relevant today as it ever was.

The Country Wife was one of only a few plays that made William Wycherley a respected wit about the court of Charles II (with whom he shared a mistress). The play was first performed in 1675; a time of relative creative and cultural freedom following the instability and turmoil of The English Civil War and the puritanical peace of The Commonwealth. In true libertine spirit Charles II allowed theatres to re-open and even women were allowed on stage to play…women!

It is highlighted in an interesting essay by Viv Gardner in the production programme that the play enjoyed a revival in both the 1920s and 1960s; two more post war periods.  Maybe this is why The Country Wife is again of interest now, when the purpose of Satire – the laughs it provides alongside the ridicule of authority – is truly appreciated. Despite its time-specific success, reflecting our ebb and flow with censorship, the play was then considered distasteful and so went unperformed between the mid-seventeen hundreds till its revival in the 1920s.

Watching it afresh at the Royal Exchange Manchester, in 2012, there is certainly no disguising The Country Wife’s sensuousness. It is in how we allow these senses to direct our cultural and moral codes that fortunately, and unfortunately, maintain the play’s relevance. The opening scene immediately takes you straight into the play’s licentious nature as we see Horner (played bad-boyishly by Felix Scott), one of the main characters, being groinally inspected by his boiley and bawdy doctor. Horner conspires with his doctor to spread the lie that he is indeed impotent, so that London’s men-folk might relax while he is around their wives, and the wives themselves might relax while their ‘honour’ remains, at least publically, in tact.

What quickly unfolds is an interconnected line of lust that pretty much links every single character in the play. As a precursor to the fantastically descriptive character naming of Dickens and later Dahl, Whycherley’s characters are perfectly summed up by their titles. The anti-hero Horner literally has the horn for anything that moves; indeed it is men like him that provoke such primal fear in men like Mr Pinchwife. Insecure Pinchwife has pinched himself a country wife – the simple natured Margery – “because she’s ugly, she’s more likely to become my own”. Then there is Mr Sparkish, who, like a bolt of lightning, flicks his ‘wit’ about stage in a manner and a wig that could out-dandy the best of them. And not forgetting Lady Fidget, whose name depicts her sexual frustration.

Horner’s deceit results in successfully bringing every woman he wishes writhing to his bedroom door while Pinchwife’s plan – for a wife so innocent of the wants of London living that she is less likely to stray – sends her duly into the arms of Horner. While Horner gets all he wants from women, under the premise that they keep his lie a secret, Pinchwife makes no secret of his desire to mentally and physically keep his wife under lock and key.

Amidst the Carry On-esque antics that include false-identities, cross dressing, sexual deceit and a doctor locked in a chest, runs two parallel love triangles. On the one hand there is Pinchwife, his country spouse and Horner. His wife being more innocent than Pinchwife had hoped sees nothing atall wrong with asking her husband to take her to a play because she likes ogle the actors, and strongly implores him to tell her all about Horner who fancies her. On the other hand there is Pinchwife’s sister Alithea, her betrothed Sparkish and Mr Harcourt who desires her. While Harcourt openly ‘makes love’ to Alithea, Sparkish bafoons his way through events believing it all to be a sign of friendship. His total lack of jealousy makes Alithea all the more needy of his attention.

Central of course to all of this tomfoolery is the country wife herself. Played buoyantly with full Welsh swagger by the brilliant Amy Morgan, Margery’s role holds a mirror to the society the play is ridiculing. Innocent as she is of the sexual politics that embroils the rest of the characters, she initially hides nothing from her husband, even when it involves her desire of other men (indeed she does nothing to disguise her sexual excitement). At the plays culminating scene when everything is revealed, it is she who humorously asks “What’s the matter with them all?” highlighting the ridiculousness of such double standards and the deceit it brings. It is also she who, as wife of a controlling and highly jealous husband, is literally locked indoors while he goes about his business, and who is faced with the threat of “i’ll write whore in your face with this pen knife” should she not do as she is told.

This mirror that she holds reflects issues such as sexist double standards and domestic violence which add depth and relevance to the play that, if it were absent, would leave nothing but a comedic romp. In a media month that has seen the vastly contrasting responses to the comparable issues of Prince Harry naked and the Duchess of Cambridge topless, it is clear that the gender issues exposed with full gay abandon in the sixteen hundreds, are as ripe and raw in 2012.

While this is the case, many will enjoy The Country Wife for its full on technicoloured rompery. It is fast-paced, raunchy and, under the directorship of Polly Findley, brilliantly performed. The costumes and set designed by Helen Goddard brilliantly reflect the yin yan of glamour and grime that surround the play. It is all cod-piece and heaving bosom, silk and satin, boils and blisters. This in tern reflects the duel-standards explored and the incongruous contrast between honour and all out sexual adventure. During one set change the music was identifiably Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ played with full-on classical raunch. This is another stylistic and topical nod to the fact that this restoration comedy is still applicable. It is also, full-on risqué rock n’roll!

The Country Wife runs from 12th September – 20th October. You can find more information and buy tickets here.

This article first appeared in Manchester’s Finest.

Today I listened to: The Very Best of Sam Cooke (on eternal loop)
Today I watched: The return of Sherlock Holmes
Today I read ‘How to be a woman’ by Caitlin Moran

We have been making stencils to spray on our garden walls. We started with the ban the bomb (easy) then made these cool lil bees (easy-ish) now we have made 3 foot high stencils of Prince and Bruce Springsteen which still need cutting out (really, really, not at all easy) I’m sure they will look the epitome of aceness once done. We just need to do them :O)

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I interview Shell Zenner – The godmother of new music

When I ask Shell Zenner to explain a bit about what she does, the first thing she replies with is “Well, I’m a bit of a new music obsessive”. Anyone who knows Shell Zenner and the work she does will know that this is about as much of an understatement as is saying that Queen were quite a popular in their day!

If Shell Zenner doesn’t know a new band, they either aren’t worth knowing, or haven’t yet played to anyone other than their mum! She DJs for Amazing RadioBeatwolf and Salford City FM, she also runs her own blog, writes for numerous other online music magazines and appears at numerous talks and festivals. It’s safe to say she basically the font of all new musical knowledge!

It is no surprise therefore that the Association of Independent Music (AIM) has nominated her for the Indie Champion Award! She certainly feels right at home with new bands and artists: “When a band has just arrived from say Brooklyn,” says Zenner, “they’re a bit out of sorts and they’ve been on the road and pushed from pillar to post, it’s good for them to have someone to say ‘Hey, we think you’re great’. It’s not us and them on the radio, this is us all sitting around together, passing about cds and talking about music.”

Within five minute of talking to Zenner, my note pad is so rammed with band recommendations she has thrown my way that it looks as though a mad man has scribed it. It is clear that that if Shell weren’t occupying every spare waking minute broadcasting/writing/attending events about music, she would still be obsessively listening and talking about it to someone, somewhere.

Fortunately she is thoroughly entwined into the new music scene and so none of her musical enthusiasm goes to waste. Her innate energy makes her blogs and shows a real beacon amidst an online sea of broadcasting. Listening and reading is a pleasure, as you find yourself getting as enthused as she does about the music she likes and you never quite know what totally unheard of band she is going to spring on you.

Equally, for the bands and artists she interviews (I was once in a band, and trust me, we knew Shell was the person to get interested), she goes that extra mile to make the most of what they have to offer. “There are some bands you know absolutely everything about”, Says Zenner, as if knowing absolutely everything about an unheard of band were the most natural thing on earth, “and that’s brilliant, because when you interview them live on the radio, you’re never going to get boxed into a corner. But there are some times when you’re racing over to an interview and you’ve got like two minutes, you’ve heard their songs and you love their music but you don’t know any facts about them. You’re doing a bit of hasty research on the back of your hand and it’s not really great. But, you know, each interview is different.”

Despite this behind-the-scenes info, there is never a second when you listen to Zenner on the radio that she doesn’t sound completely in the know and at ease; this is reflected in the bands she showcases. “People can be having a bad day, or having a bad tour and you’ve got to react to that,” says Zenner. It is clear where her priorities lie when she says, “ you’ve always got to make it a good interview!”

You could think this focus was self-orientated. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be good at their job? With Zenner however, you really get the sense that such acute perfectionism – whether to conduct the most interesting interview or to add just another band to her list of weekly write-ups – is through her desire to get the most for the bands. Once she likes an artist, there is literally no stopping her: “I just love sharing the music and I love chatting to bands and i’ve tried to bring those two things together.” This is certainly the case with her radio shows. Respected as she is for properly decent new band sourcing, she is given free rein over all of her broadcasting. Once she’s aired a band, “I then social network about it, post it up for Listen Again and write about it.” Indie Champion? You can see why a striving artist would want her on their side.

Being nominated for the AIM Indie Champion award is not only clearly well deserved, but something she is pretty pleased about. “It’s really, really thrilling actually,” she explains, “i’ve been saying for a long time the musicians like me, the labels like me, the PRs like me but the radio people either don’t understand me or get me maybe or don’t have a clue what i’m doing.” Yet this nomination shows she has more than a clue about what she is doing, “this is from the musicians and the labels saying ‘you’re championing independent music and we respect you for it’.”

They certainly should. Shell is ceaseless in her pursuit of new finds, “Most people go to gigs because they want to see the main band; I generally go because I want to see the first band.” There is nothing wrong with the main act as such, but by the time they’re at that level “I’ll have seen them at a far earlier stage. That is generally what I do.” Way before an act gets to headlines even a small venue, Shell will have picked them up via blogs, word-of-mouth, zines and random mix tapes, ensuring as soon as they hit the stage she is there. By the time they headline, she knows them inside out.

Part of Shell’s appeal is not only her reliably good music taste, but also her accessibility. “I’m always on social networks, email and on my website.” And when she’s not she can usually be found live on air. Because of that, “People are more likely to send you music. Having the time to listen to it all, when you work full-time as well, is another question.” Yes, you read that right. As well as spending the equivalent of two full-time jobs worth of hours hell-bent on sharing the best that the music world has to offer, Zenner actually works full-time hours at another job.

Despite everything on her creative plate, She does not allow herself to settle for a minute and even searches far outside the city to find new sounds. “There’s Sounds From The Other City, Constellations Festival, Live at Leeds, Great Escape, I’ve been to SXSW this year, Evo Emerging, Beacons.” I realise at this point that if I nattered to Zenner for a full two weeks she would not run out of musical facts, band and festivals with which to fill my mind, my note pad and my eternal list of albums to buy. As she says, “You know there are so many festivals you can go to and there are just so many new bands!”

When I ask why new bands in particular are her passion, she replies, “They just always have been. You know, I watched the Olympic opening ceremony and I saw Arctic Monkeys play and I thought, ‘I watched them play to a crowd of 50 people at Jabez Clegg!’” It is clear that having known the band for so long is exciting to her “At that Jabez Clegg gig I recorded them on an old Ericson phone and kept playing it back to my friends; that was Mardy Bum.”

Shell clearly gets satisfaction in seeing a band she loves work their way from dodgy bedroom demos and half empty gigs to playing sell out stadium shows. In a sense she is very much the mentoring godmother of new music. “I’m still proud to be the first person to play Patterns on the radio back in 2010. Mary Anne Hobbs has been playing them recently and then they were Steve Lemacq’s Rebel Playlist winners on BBC6 music. I am so proud that I played them back then that I played them again on my show now.”

While she keeps an eye on where a band ends up, she remains at all times right on the pulse of what is just emerging. Enthusing about the Manchester scene alone she says “There are so many people doing stuff here, so many promoters I can’t even remember of the top of my head; Grey Lantern, Drowned in Sound, High Voltage…” And when she starts to talk about bands she likes right now her energy reaches another level, “Ah there are too many. Pins are an absolutely astounding female four-piece; Money and Great Waves are so talented it blows my mind; Weird Era are really understated. Not many people have heard of them and they probably have one of the biggest musical legacies in Manchester.  There’s Young British Artists, I can’t wait to hear their album it’s been so long coming. Milk Maid have a brand new second album out and Nine Black Alps are coming back with new materiel.” As I am moving onto a different topic Zenner cannot move away from the eternal lists of artists she adores “I haven’t even mentioned Temple Song yet. This is why I try to write about at least ten new bands in Louder Than War each month. Without turning to a pen, you just cannot do it justice. There is just a wealth of new talent in Manchester at the moment, it’s amazing.”

With so much music to explore, I ask Zenner where she sees her career going. Not for the first time in our meeting, she makes a huge understatement with regards to self-explanation, “I’m taking little steps at the moment.” Presenting numerous radio shows, writing for numerous sites and attending pretty much every new music night and festival that is hosted, are not, to most people, little steps. But Zenner is not most people. To repeat a description I have already used about her, she is completely ceaseless. This in itself is entirely contagious. To demonstrate this, if a demonstration were needed, one thing she would like to do is “Give up the day job” so she could further involve herself in new music!

The results of the AIM Indie Champion Award will be announced on 29th October. As Zenner herself says, “I’m overwhelmed to be nominated, it’s like a pat on the back saying ‘well done, you’re doing the right thing.’” This is deserving praise for the godmother of new music.

Hear more from Shell here

This article first appeared in Manchester’s Finest

Today I listened to Into The Diamond Sun by Stealing Sheep
Today I watched The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Today I read The Independent Online & Guardian Northerner

Another image that is unrelated to my post :O) I am still drooling over my hol pics as I layer up for autumn. This looks like a cheesy postcard but was the view from our campervan in Jura. We sat quite happily watching this sunset drinking Whiskey (just to keep in with the locals…honest!)

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