Five months after my first phone call to Mark , subject of Song Portrait No.1, I’ve finished the gallery. There should be 8. There have ended up being 9, mainly because I’ve been having such a great time.
Song Portraits is a project I originated at the beginning of the national lockdown. It’s just as it sounds: a picture in song-form of an individual at a certain point in their lives. Although I’ve written many Poem Portraits, I’d never written a portrait of someone in music and lyric. All 9 Song Portraits are of older people in Leeds, volunteers invited through several extremely helpful organisations in the city. And the intention was to work with people who do not access the internet.
In fact, that picture is a lot more complex than it sounds. A couple of the older people I talked to do use smart phones for specific purposes. For one person, Etta, the pandemic has been the catalyst for fast adoption of the internet. Without it, she would not have been able to participate in the prayer meetings that are such a central aspect of her life. ‘Never stop learning’, she says, a line I used in The Learning. But the humble and very analogue phone conversation is the vehicle through which I was able to meet the participants, build trust, and gather the theme and source material for each song.
Though it’s been a meticulous process, I’ve enjoyed every stage: having the conversations; deciding on a style for the music and a narrative or theme for the lyric; writing the lyric, writing the music, recording a demo, cycling the demo CD to the ‘sitter’, waiting for their response, consulting the older person about any changes they wanted to make; re-working the song with the changes, recording a final version with voice and instruments, getting the final version to the portrait’s subject, posting the track on Soundcloud and on social media, doing interviews with Radio Leeds prior to their playing the songs…
Which is why, for me, 9 Song Portraits has felt like 9 symphonies! I’ve quite simply never written so many songs in such a concentrated span of time in which I’ve done almost everything, from research to playing to recording to publicity. And each song had, by definition, to carry a freight of responsibility. ‘What happens if they hate it?’
In fact, working with the corrections and amendments suggested by the older people (they all had suggestions, bar two) was the most satisfying part of the job. Dorothy told me quite firmly, ‘You’ve used the word ‘kids’ around a third the way through the song. I’d never say ‘kids’. I use the word ‘children’’. This attention to detail was, for me, a sign that the person was taking true ownership of the piece.
Thanks so much to Leeds Inspired for providing me with the opportunity to meet these inspiring people; to the organisations who helped me contact them; and to the older people who not only gave me their time, wisdom, and good humour, but who trusted me to honour them in song. If I do this again, I’d like to share the composing and arranging with other musicians around the city. Right now, I’m going to lie down.
Thelma is proud of being a 'sand grown'un', born in Blackpool. This 5th Song Portrait out of 8 funded by Leeds Inspired, is for Thelma. Guest vocal: Maddy Clarke. Wurlitzer: Magnito Spiffosi. Other vocals and piano: Peter Spafford. Image: Betty Lawless.
Switzerland told Brigitte one story about herself. When she came to Leeds, she started teling her own. SONG PORTRAIT 6 is for Brigitte. Lead vocal: Maddy Clarke. Recorder: Brigitte Coles. Other vocals and piano: Peter Spafford.
Dorothy has been a volunteer at Neighbourhood Action in New Farnley. I hope this song captures something of her humane common sense. Vocal and piano: Peter Spafford
Etta says 'I'm no scholar for learning how to download an app'. But doing so changed her lockdown. 'Never stop learning' is a message for all of us at any age. Etta's an inspiration and Song Portrait Number 8 is for her. All instuments and vocals: Peter Spafford.
Lizzie discovered her Irish family when an old envelope was found under some floorboards. Perhaps the best things in life are those that have 'fallen between'. The final Song Portrait, in this series of 9 funded by Leeds Inspired, Fall Between is for Lizzie. Vocals: Peter Spafford and Maddy Clarke. Piano: PS. Strings: Owen Spafford. Image of 'Johnny Joe's' by kind permission of Kenneth O'Halloran