On 14 January 2017, I was very kindly invited by the Institute for Philosophical Progress in Würzburg, Germany, to give a talk about how we might make music in response to the current political climate. The text of my talk, “Optimism is your greatest weapon”, is below; I hope that you find it of interest. If so, please share; and thank you for reading.
It is the job of musicians and other artists to create, but there are times when this task seems more difficult than others. Times like now, for example. I find that the world is in such a troubling place that making music can sometimes feel like a futile act. I am a journalist, and so a part of my job is to keep aware of whatever is happening in the news — this also means that my music has a political dimension. And there are often times when I am not sure what sort of art I should make in response. Every morning, the headlines hit you with the fury of a January snowstorm. You read that refugees are freezing to death on their way through Europe, and that in Germany last year there were 900 attacks on refugees and their shelters. You read that Syria is suffering even more than you thought possible, that the Pentagon has just successfully tested an army of drones, and that each year for the last few years has been the hottest one yet. And that’s before you read that several species are going extinct every month, and that America’s next president seems likely to start a new round of international tension by using Twitter. Put simply, I think that we are in a mess, and heading for a larger one. The only thing that I can control is how I react. In the style of a referendum, I have given myself two choices: I can either be immobilised by despair, or I can create more and better work than ever before. I have chosen the latter. The only question I must now answer is how.
The first thing I have done is to decide upon a philosophy behind my music. When, at the end of this year, I listen back to all the lyrics that I have written, I want them to have a common theme. I always try to have some kind of thread running through my music – I think that’s because, at heart, I will always be a storyteller. I did this with my last release, an EP called “The Nomadic” – you can find a stream of it on the Okayafrica website, it was produced by Greg Surmacz. The four-track EP dealt with the subject of migration, and was written at a time when I was caught between four cities. I had just returned from Rio, where I had been covering the World Cup as a journalist for the BBC; I was living in London, and planning to move to Berlin; and I was recording the music at Greg’s house in Leeds. It was a time of so much change for me – it was my own period of flux, which the world is experiencing now. In that moment, I felt the need to do two things – to capture the moment, and to have a positive attitude about my circumstances.
It was during this period that I came up with my favourite, and probably my best, lyric to date: “optimism is your greatest weapon”. The only thing that we can hope to influence at any point are the seconds which still lie before us. As long as we have the future, we have hope. It is with this philosophy that I am making all of my music this year.
It’s hard to describe what kind of music I make. I don’t make beats, and I don’t rap; I very occasionally sing, but most of the time I talk over electronic music. I guess the closest artists, in terms of what I do, are people like Tricky, Roots Manuva, Scroobius Pip and The Streets. This means that I have to work with a very particular type of producer – someone who listens to every type of music, and who makes tunes that are a little unconventional. I love plenty of bass in my music – maybe that’s because I spent many years as a Londoner – and so whoever I work with has to love that too. Looking for the right collaborator is hard, but exciting – it’s almost like dating before the days of Tinder.
These days, it is thankfully easier for me to find people to work with. A few months ago, I had a piece of very good news – I was offered a publishing deal by Bosworth Music, a publishing house based in Berlin, who have signed a series of excellent producers. After ten years of putting out my own music, I am now working on four new projects, which I hope to share with you soon enough. Each of the artists I am collaborating with are very different, but the one thing I will try to do with each of them is to make sure that each song is a journey – beginning at a place of negativity, and ending on a path towards happiness.
For a long time as an artist, I was afraid of writing happy endings. I found them cheesy. The world was a big serious place and so I thought that it needed big serious work in response. The problem with that, though, is that people already know how frightening life can be. More often than not, they need hope. This, I think, explains why gospel music has re-emerged as such an explicit influence of hip-hop in the USA. I can safely say that my own writing has changed over the years. I no longer write songs of doom, describing the growing threat of climate change. Instead, I try to craft songs which have broad appeal, which are accessible and upbeat.
To give an example of what I mean, we can look at possibly the best piece of music I have written so far, a tune called “Ring The Bells”. It’s from that EP I mentioned, The Nomadic, and it’s the last song I wrote for that project. The reason I think these lyrics are effective is that I didn’t overthink them – I wrote them pretty much as a single draft, during a two-hour train journey to my producer’s studio. The best thing about working to a deadline, as I was in this case, is that it forces you to be direct in your language, to use only the images which are the most vivid in your mind. I also find that it stops me from being too forceful with a particular political message. I’m so busy trying to get the thing finished that I don’t have time to elaborate. In fact, writing lyrics is a little like my mother would cook for us when I was young. She would come home from work and cook a meal with whatever she found in the fridge, throwing everything together with a mix of experience, creativity and urgency. And she got it right, every time.
So I guess what I’m saying is that “Ring The Bells” is the closest I have ever got to cooking like my mother. I drew upon all the ingredients that were lying around in my life at the time. My fear as I sat at the train platform, preparing for my new life in Berlin – but also my growing anticipation at the new adventure. The sound of the bell in the thirty-second beat I’d been sent, which was so subtle and insistent that it had to be the song’s chorus. My memories of my trip to the World Cup in Brazil, and of the film Interstellar, whose trailers were some of the most inspiring art I had seen in years. As I put pen to paper, I began to realise something important about songwriting – that most of the songs that had moved me most, like Radiohead’s “Idioteque”, didn’t point their figures at me. Instead, they painted scenarios – they showed, they didn’t tell. And so when I wrote that simple chorus, “Ring The Bells”, I made sure that it was the most gentle of commands. Very few people will respond well if a complete stranger scolds them, telling them to shape up and fix their life. They tend to prefer it if that person seems to care about them, to want to go on that journey with them. And that’s the music I want to make now – music which accompanies people. Those tunes you listen to at the weekend when you’re travelling to see your partner in another city. That track that seeks you out when you’re feeling isolated. I want to make music that feels like that tiny light on the hillside when you’re driving up through the darkness.
I don’t normally publish lyrics from songs that aren’t yet recorded, but it feels right to do so. Late last year, I noticed that several of my female friends were going through some particularly hard times – they are the kindest, gentlest people, who the world always seems to hit the hardest. And so I wrote a track called “Glaciers”, to describe how they still somehow manage to find a way forward. They are my heroes, and so this song is for them. This is the opening verse:
The greyest skies and coldest seas
Remember the sun, eventually:
She will find her way upright
Though life has her on bended knee
Is this how it’s meant to be? –
Ever so, the cycle goes;
This world serves her a defeat,
She counterattacks, then repeat:
She seizes happiness and flees;
She knows well that life is brief
So woe can kindly take a seat
It proceeds evermore,
Each time the ice before her thaws,
And so the glacier retreats,
Her will, her heart, provides the heat.
This is how each of my songs will be this year – an attempt to join the listener in whichever bleak place they may be, and hopefully to leave them feeling warmer by the end. I will keep the work coming, and I hope that it resonates with you.