Globular Cluster 47 Tucanae, NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration.
With all this distance, from this new satellite's view, I look back on my life in music very differently now. Now I see how much life there is to be lived. Now I see how much I and virtually everyone I worked with lived. That if it turns out I never perform another concert or write a single song for the rest of my days, I’d be genuinely, properly, content and grateful for everything that I have done.
The realisation hit me when a songwriter at an earlier point in her career had got in touch for mentoring. My thoughts were already tellingly different from what I would have said pre-CFS. She asked for a run down of some of the places and people my music had taken me to and how I'd got there. I'll always see my career as small fry; very modest but valuable in its own particular way. Less than 8 seconds in, her response surprised me, "Wow... If I could get to do any of those things, I'd be really happy”.
There were a few other events in my life that I dismissed as failures. A crazily ambitious animation that missed a deadline and never got finished, some of the teaching I mistakenly saw as treading water. It’s now I see the extent to which any success I did ever achieve almost bounced off me. Even more sadly, how much of what I experiencing bounced off me too. There is a small but important truth in all of it.... there was always something, however tiny, missing. And now I think it was most probably a part of myself. I can see how much there was always another place to get to. Always another stop on the elevator that I hadn’t reached yet. I had heard a lot of ‘I just don’t get why you’re not totally famous yet’. Even when I knew how little of that mattered, something in me must have listened and let it waft around in the background of whatever I was up to. And then there were all of the daily or often far too public bum notes, moments when my voice was a bit flat, shrill, harsh, weak.... I don't even think I saw myself as a 'proper' musician. My effortless piano playing quite naturally and rightly masking the untold hours of practice. Always reaching, always striving. However much I banged on about how much I loved it all, how present to the process I was, I still spent far too much time being overly preoccupied with the fact that I wasn't Imogen Heap yet, or Laura Marling or even Adele. The truth is, there was nothing I ever could have done to have been good enough. It wouldn’t have mattered where I would have got to.
Now I have snapshots. Fucking glorious little snapshots. And I live them even more presently now. Picking the most precious moments out as if I'm choosing the most shimmering of dazzling orbs to pluck out of the night's sky. It's as much a collection of crazy shit as anything else. Ready to come with me? Hold on to your seat....
Locking myself in the school practice rooms with a piano, pretending I'm Elton John, an unusual choice of idol in the era of Take That. Playing the same guitar riff for months on an electric a friend has loaned me at 17 when I am (to use my own words at the time) ‘monged out of my brain’. I'm living off painkillers, depressed and have just permanently lost half my hearing. The first time I sing in front of a microphone at a rehearsal in a bassist's front room.... And the discovery hitting all of us... 'Wow Jess, you can.... sing!'. My first discoveries of recording. Singing in my once bleak primary school classroom that had since become, in my eyes at the time, the coolest smoky jazz club. Performing there means that by 18 my dreams have already come true. I have often described how music saved my life. How funny (you could even say perverse) that this time, accepting that I can barely sing or touch a musical note has been such a crucial part of recovery.
Quietly writing songs while studying in Sydney. Busking, busking, singing and playing until we have no voices left for the Barcelona rent. Lots of Bossa Nova. The sound of the sack of freshly sung for coins hitting the desk of a language school to pay for a Spanish course. Working for a solid year as a Heavenly Music Machine, an all silver and white, glitter-smothered angel Barcelona street statue, improvising my Nina Simone inspired bossa voice and guitar because I’m long passed the end of my repertoire and the crowd aren't going anywhere. Getting home exhausted, but with a pot full of riches and bizarre notes. The time a weirdo ran off with my money pot when I was working far too late. My Spanish good enough by then to tell him where to go when I chased him down the street and grabbed it back. I'd had this crazy idea of working through December (well, I was a singing angel). Days barely scraping pennies together for the last carrots at the market after ‘angeling' in the snow.
Being spotted. Later an album launch and a tour in Canada. A crowded rooftop gig in Montreal, the house with the lilac trees by the lake. More angeling in Brighton. Auditioning and getting a residency at the Henley Festival. The feeling of it unfolding. The tiny concerts, in a lift at the Edinburgh festival, at a Buddhist Tibetan lama's tea party. Exchanging CDs across South and Central America. Regular slots at Havana’s Casa de la Troba. Operatic poets with long flowing robes compering a community music night, while a hundred or so Cubans all join in with my songs, skilfully playing whatever they can lay their hands on that makes a noise.
Walking onto that giant stage, the gentle nod between Jools Holland and I as he walked off and I walked on into the lights and the crowd. Storming the Barcelona cabarets in fishnets and hot pants with an eight woman country band. Walking down a dark country lane, a freshly mixed CD of Demons to Tea in my pocket that Mickey Taylor recorded in exchange for babysitting. Recording in Nick Parker's kitchen. All those hand made CDs in the early years. Burning batches of them, illustrating and signing them, a small family production line running late into the night. The feeling of writing something you love, that you can't wait to get out there. The craft of it. The magic of it.
Every one of the years I played Glastonbury. Signing my first publishing deal. My first royalties. Time with Jean-Rouselle in Versailles, hearing his original organ riff to No Woman No Cry that stopped Bob throwing the song away. Later he tells me about the other songs he's rescued for Marley and the Police, he's watching Dangerous Housewives and a squirrel, one of his many rescue animals, is scampering up the curtains. Singing at weddings, christenings, funerals, the ceremony of it, the alchemy, the human connection. In churches, bars, restaurants, homes, schools, up mountains, on beaches, on a beer crate, on the back of a lorry, a big stage in the street, on stages so big you feel lost in them, a terrifying one with no sound system in an underground Elizabethan style drinking den, under a washing line in a tropical garden. In Barcelonnette with Brazilian drummers at 4 in the morning. Winning over the bored music execs at the Wilderness hot tubs, packing out The Shed in Charlbury and making it overflow even further with stories. The little crowd gathered together for a concert in a thunderstorm in Brazil. The gig in the bar with the Southern-most piano at the end of the world in Argentina.
My heart exploding in my chest so loudly I fluff my first line as Emma and I...in a Grecian white dress… perform to a thousand and more people all hushed, waiting... Pierre Perrone handing out my CDs to everyone and anyone important in music. The excitement of it all coming together in a rehearsal studio. All those London gigs, the Oxford gigs, the difficult gigs, the terrible sound gigs, the talking crowds, the dedication of Emma Butterworth on cello. There are all sorts of things to be grateful for in my collaboration with Emma, Maitreya on guitar who became more than a brother and Neil on drums; droll and totally dedicated, seamlessly pulling me into time. The other singers who joined us, the harmonies. The endless, endless lugging of gear…fitting my Nord piano into a Ford KA. Me alone with a piano, late so many nights. The intensity of composing, improvising and songwriting resulting in so much burnt food and missed trains, I should really stop being surprised every time it happens.
I keep noticing how the people are as present as the music. All the friends, fans and supporters. Many good sound engineers. A few bad ones. The other acts. The person who spots me at WOMAD and still comes to my concerts twelve years later, the man who stumbles across us at a gig and later travels to London from Wales and back, just to catch us play again. The kind, kind people who work in music (I've forgotten the shits but in my experience there are hardly any), all that endless advice and small favours. Working with Sean Hargreaves in a now demolished Highbury studio, doing the vocals to Find Your River at 2am as we're running out of studio time and this is the only way to get this done. Playing my songs with some of the very best musicians in the world. Comping vocals, mixing strings. The live sessions, the joy of hearing your songs hit national radio. The moment I met and started rewriting ’Sanctuary' with the writer-producer who calls me Potato Head (Aretha was his Sausage Head). Knowing that, not only were we now working together, but that we were friends. Making it happen. Falling, rather too publicly, into a large, ornamental lily pond at a Bollywood beach party before being asked, post slime, to perform something. Singing about a sorceress, my voice carrying perfectly through the sound system across the beach as the waves gently crash under an Indian full moon.
Wow... If I could get to do any of those things, I'd be completely happy. And the truth is, I really am.
Moon Tree by John Joannides used with permission
If you're not at least a bit of a hippie as I am, this might make you vom. But it was one of those moments that are like signposts on this road to recovery. I'm in the car, being driven past Hixet Wood and catching glimmers of the moon as it flashes in and out from behind the trees. I get a feeling I've often felt, a familiar and surrendered offering to life. A feeling that speaks for the one in a 400 trillion chance of a lifetime that I’ve been given and says….'Use me’. For the first time ever I receive a clear and simple message back; ‘You don’t have to do anything, Jess’. It sounds so ordinary in its clarity. Your existence is enough. All you have to do is be.
An ME/CFS Thriver