Moll Baxter interview

venn diagramConducted by Norman Hadley

1. All writers experience tension between the write-what-you-know autobiographical versus the fear of betraying confidences. How do you handle that balancing act?

I think it begins with where an idea comes from. With prose (because my approach is slightly different with songs) the germ of the idea comes from an image or a scenario that catches my attention: why would a boy nail a cat to a tree, what would it be like to live back in times of yore when you’re sewn into underclothes for the winter, what if a Matryoshka doll was alive… that sort of thing. When it comes to the fleshing out of the story, you carry it round in your head for a few days/weeks, and you’re looking to give the story a context, an authentic depth of experience. It’s here that perhaps the autobiographical elements get drawn into it, because your richest store of experience comes from what you, yourself know – you use the paint you’ve got. I can’t think of an instance where I’ve set out on a short story with the intention of making a testament to a particular experience, but at the same time, I recognise a lot of my own life, or facets of it, in them. Funnily enough, the closer, or at least, more overtly close to my own life a story becomes, the more I become uncomfortable. It’s the ‘why would people be interested?’ situation, but not a kind of false modesty – more that it becomes harder to tell the story too well. If you’re too close to a subject, you lose some of the technical perspective, for instance, the ability to differentiate between something that actually happened and its real value to that story. You get bound up in facts, and in feelings at the expense of the story-telling. This is usually where I start playing around with metaphor. There’s a lot of metaphor in what I write – it’s my key to understanding the story. It can be the act of slicing tomatoes, the pouring of a glass of milk into the grass, a painting inspired from mathematics. I’m a lot more autobiographical in songs, I would say. Music is cathartic for me, sometimes I worry about self-indulgence, so try to push for lyrics and scenarios in the song that are, varied and interesting – if they’re about the same range of subjects, then I try to bring new slants on them. I always remember a lyric in ‘Nothing is Good Enough,’ by Aimee Mann that captures that slight sense of embarrassment when you find you’re banging on about the same old thing in a new song. ‘Once upon a time the story always goes but I’ll make it brief, What was started out with such excitement now I’d gladly end in relief… In what now has become a familiar motif…’ As for betraying confidences, there are some songs I have never played to anyone outside of nearest and dearest, because of the subject matter. I think, ultimately, everyone has an inner barometer for what they feel is ok. And I think that’s the bottom line. I’m a strong believer in the idea that every person owns their experience – it is their’s to do with as they will, but a wise, or considerate person can make good choices too.

2. You’ve said some strange things (many strange things, now I come to think about it) about preferring writing not to be over-worked. That seems a surprising attitude from a Creative Writing tutor. Sell it to me.

A piece of writing should be assiduously worked over until it’s done. Then it should be left, lest it become over-worked. Then, it should be returned to after a period of time when it’s had chance to settle and you’ve had chance to learn something new about writing. You come back, put it before the inner jury and they decide whether it could/should be rewritten up to your new bar. Over-working is not the same as redrafting, it’s a surfeit of attention that usually leads to a noticeable tension in the writing, or a funny kind of disconnection between itself or with the original emotions of the piece.

3. In quiet, lonesome moments, are you a girl, a woman or a lass?

I’m a brick-layer, called Brian. He writes poems on the back of Gregg’s pasty bags.

4. Katherine Mansfield was moved to assert, “I’m a writer first and a woman after.” Which way round are you?

My gut reaction is to say I’m a writer first. Sometimes in class we look at a piece of ‘problematic’ writing that illustrates a certain technique. I usually write these (another cathartic experience!) and I enjoy hearing people refer to the unseen writer as, ‘he,’ or ‘she.’ There’s even one sheet with a series of four supposed ‘extracts.’ I wrote each one, but people attribute gender to each of them – not always the same each time, to be fair. When I was working with Litfest on ‘Before the Rain,’ I was asked if I saw myself as a ‘regional writer,’ in particular i.e. one that identifies and seeks to respond to their home area in their work. At the time I said, no, not particularly. But it niggled with me, so much so that I’m loathe to say I’m not a woman writer. Because I am. Is it part of an agenda? No. It’s the paint I’ve been given.

5. You create very plausible male characters. Not every writer can manoeuvre themselves into a shirt that buttons the other way but you seem to have the knack. Does this come from detailed observation of men (for example, years of hanging on Rob’s every word) or is it the lurking tomboy within?

There’s a lot of it in the tomboy! Unless I am writing about someone who is distinctly like me, it’s as much of a feat of imagination to put myself into the shoes of a female character as a male. I mean, I do observe hard and use my empathy radar all the time – I could have been a psychiatrist at the age of 8 – but, probably like many people, some groups within my own gender are more alien to me than groups from the other one. I’d like to think humanity will evolve to have a third gender (Middlesex?) which will be characterised by a stable and moderate level of hormones. They will be able to cut themselves off emotionally from difficult situations and get the job done, but they will also be able to remember that, for example, in a conversation it never hurts to make some gesture of acknowledgement when the other person speaks, even if you have nothing to add at this time. Or that offering to make a cup of tea is a loving, considerate act that is worth doing for its own sake and not because of the bedroom brownie points.

6. Without being too ungallant, you’re galumphing towards the age traditional for questioning what it’s all about and feeling driven to write the Century’s Great Novel that will Explain Everything. Are you in that phase yet or out the other side into the sunlit uplands of Wisdom and Maturity?

I’ve had a novel in my system for over ten years now. I wrote a full draft of it when I was about 19 – I don’t think I have it any more, or at least not a complete copy. They do say, don’t they, that everyone’s first novel is going to be autobiographical? I’ve just come back to it after a break of a year and seen a way to tackle ‘The Problem,’ with it. I can’t help feeling that my seeing the problem isn’t just to do with the coming back to it with fresh eyes, but because of where I am now in my life. I have a perspective that the novel was feeling for, but couldn’t quite get to before. But it’s not directly about my experience, it’s a metaphor again – the people I would have liked to have known, the places I would have liked to have been. Within that, though, true experiences are rejigged and reimagined.

7. To what extent does a story need to advance an argument? Can it just be a series of inconsequential events or is an implicit moral thrust essential to you?

A piece of writing that is just a series of inconsequential ideas is not a story. That’s not to devalue it, but otherwise it’s like saying a pony is just a small horse. It’s not, they’re different animals. I like stories to have a story behind the story. I have a floating quote from some writer saying that ‘A story is always two stories.’ It’s not just about having something interesting happening on the surface, there needs to be another story running below. That’s when the story gets pinned to an authentic character, not just an Everyman in that situation and when you find it, the story usually falls into place because you can hand things over to that character. But, moral? I’d be wary of that. Most people don’t like to be preached at. I do think, though, a lot of writers, myself included, write to work something out – and in both senses – ‘work out’ as in get out of the system, but also as in to come to a new understanding. I think good writers are generally very good worriers.

8. Lie down on this couch here and draw me a Venn Diagram showing the overlap between the three personae; Jolly Mollie the social creature, Writer Moll and The Real Moll.

Do you have any idea how hard it is not to be glib here? For that very reason I shall settle down and do it properly…

9. Is life the pursuit of happiness or fulfilment?

It’s the pursuit. And happiness is enjoying the pursuit. Only, it’s not a pursuit is it, it’s the being in the now. That’s as Zen as I want to get in public.

10. You’ve said you’re not particularly comfortable writing poetry, yet song-writing is every bit as figurative; what’s going on there? Isn’t there a case for a prose-writer to dabble in poetry, if only as an exercise in concision, sensory observation and metre?

There’s definitely a case for prose-writers to dabble in other forms and likewise for writers of other forms to dabble in prose. A pet peeve of mine is the idea that ‘writing is words in order; poetry is the best words in the best order.’ To me that suggests that writing prose is just a splurge with no ear for rhythm, no eye for pattern and order. Not so. Sometimes we might call ‘poetic prose,’ that writing that is perhaps a little overblown, but surely it is prose that works to get the heft of individual words and phrases and maintain a certain grace. I think I am noticing in people’s responses to my song-writing that the lyrics have weight in relation to the melody and instrumentation – for want of a better term, a literary quality. I don’t think this is unusual for many songwriters though. You need, I think, a different ear for lyric than poem. In a lyric, a word is not just a kind of molecule consisting of stressed and unstressed syllables, it’s the duration of each syllable, the pitch, and the tone altogether. At the same time, there is an added freedom with a lyric. For instance, it’s a lot easier to fix a line that has too few syllables in a lyric than it is in a poem – you just hold it for a bit longer! Although I know many would differ, I don’t find that poems make good lyrics or vice versa. You can usually tell which is which. Think of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’ Beautiful writing, but on the page the rhythm screams ‘Lyric!’ Nowt wrong with that, though.

11. We haven’t talked much about music. Do you see yourself developing as a lovelorn singer-songwriter or band-fronting strumpet? Or both?

Band-fronting strumpet sounds a lot more fun than being a lovelorn singer songwriter. And to be fair, I was even starting to bore myself. I’m very happy to be working with Rob, Si and Harv. It’s thrilling to see songs that I’ve written maybe ten years ago suddenly given their full dimensions. I think I’m also at a time where I can stand behind the songs with the assertion and perspective that they need. I started performing when I was eighteen, I’m thirty-two now – it’s been a while. I probably need to get some things out my system.

12. At the commercial end, the female acts get regressively glitzier and wigglier, inexorably sliding from the Sugababes to Girls Aloud to the Pussycat Dolls and Simon Cowell is probably, even now, working to bring the Clitty Kitties to our exhausted screens. It’s hard to imagine a Janis Joplin (or even an Elvis Costello) making it today. Did video kill the radio star? TLR is providing you with a space to fulminate.

I don’t mind pop music. I just wish it would keep it down – it’s like the loud, drunk one at the party. It doesn’t half clamour for attention. But sooner or later you’ll see people quietly moving away and striking up their own conversations. Same for music, I’d say. There might be some people go home embittered that the popular ones didn’t pay them more attention, but there’re an awful lot of others who are quite happy to live and let live. If some want something different they just need to get louder and only say things that they know the Others will approve of. Sounds like hard work to me. I think it’s interesting to watch the waves move through the local music scene as different generations get the bit between their teeth. It reminds me of when students go to Uni and buy a poster of a childhood T.V. programme. In my day it was Thundercats, these days it’s the Teletubbies. There has been some criticism of the Lancaster-scene being too folky-centric and I can see why that might be felt. My response to that is the music scene is who steps forward. And it’s never permanent. The more new sounds and ideas come in, the better.

(This interview can also be found in the Artist Profile section where it will form part of the ‘Chain reaction’ series).

OUr proper AmeRican Blog and Everything!

the lovely eggs

the lovely eggs

The Lovely Eggs are lovingly blogging their way through their American tour and have kindly let us re-post it right here on TLR. Read Holly and Davids eggy tour diary entries here, as and when they arrive, funtime. We’ll keep this reminder up here until they return all tired and confused. For now though hope you enjoy.

Also click on the ‘special features’ tab up top, or their piccie over there to go straight to the blog.

Uncle Jeff – The Sun Might Shine Bright

Written by Reza Mills

The Sun Might Shine Bright is the new EP from Uncle Jeff following last year’s It’s all about Blood and Thunder. Having now viewed the band twice live previously, I was now excited at the prospect of hearing whether they could translate the excitement of their live sound onto CD.

The EP contains 5 tracks with most of the songs being quite short and only reaching the 2-3 minute mark. The opener Roll on Holy Roller is an exception to the rule reaching six minutes and thus something of an epic number. The track starts by gradually building tension before exploding into a crescendo of sonic bombast. They manage to achieve this in the same way The Pixies did with their Quiet/Loud dynamics. There is also a progressive influence on the track not too dissimilar to Texas noise merchants …And you will know us by the trail of the dead. It is a good start to the EP though somewhat unrepresentative of the jangly indie-pop loveliness contained therein.

Second track Hailstorm Waltz has something of a Spaced-out Psychedelic feel about it, not too dissimilar to The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. It is also more of an instrumental piece with very few vocals. What vocals are present are howled out by Stephen Hudson which remind me of Tom Bramhall from Ponies which is definitely no bad thing.

The title track is definitely one of the stand-outs on the EP and one of my favourite cuts. It is extremely catchy jangly Indie-pop with an optimistic tone and feel about it. I played it on my radio show on Monday and feel that were they to release a single than this should be the one. It is definately the most immediate song on the EP and grabs you by the throat from the off with its’ whimsical lyrics and catchy melody. The closest Uncle Jeff has come to a pure pop song dare I say.  I also detected a Wilco, Americana/Alt-Country undercurrent present as well, especially with the tracks ‘Cruel to be Kind’ (Which on first glance at the track listing I mistakenly took to be a Nick Lowe cover) and closing number Moon Landing. These also happen to be the more sombre numbers on the EP which help to counterbalance it beautifully with the happier poppier songs.

So addressing my earlier concern about the band being able to translate their bombastic live sound onto CD, I would say they’ve managed this and then some. It is an EP of contrasts with melancholy and optimism, noisy bombastic freak outs and catchy power-pop, the kind of which you could easily say hum in the bath. So well done to Stephen and the guys for creating this little gem and if you fancy catching them live again at least locally then you can see them at the Barn box all dayer at The Park Hotel on the 10th of October or if you can’t wait that long then take a trip to the Warton Playground Fundraiser on the 15th of August.

How To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse

Zombies! They seem to be everywhere lately, the much feared zombie Apocalypse is surely not far away. And when it comes panic will ensue, there will be many millions dead, or undead.
Fortunately Dr Dale (of Dr Dale’s Survival School) has the answer. His specially developed seminar How To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse aims to provide you with everything you might need to improve your chances of survival.
Dr Dale and his team of experts, researchers and enthusiasts offer top tips on Zombie recognition, safe places, evasion techniques and why Michael Jackson was wrong to suggest that zombies can dance.
With demonstrations including an innovative use of the Cornation Street Theme music interspersed with frank and fruitful Q & A sessions (Do Zombies have sex? Can animals become zombies? Can you kill a Zombie witha spork?) Dr Dale and his crack team provided both knowledge and advice for any zombie related contingency. Who knows when or indeed, if, the Zombie Apocalypse will come, but I, and the packed crowd at Dr Dale’s latest and highly impressive seminar in Preston will surely sleep soundly with his advice clutched to our bosom.
— Helen Bland writing in The Plungington Mercury

After Dark Theatre Company are about to take HTSAZA to Edinburgh for a month (The Zoo Southside is the venue.) so a well-attended show at The New Continental in Preston was the ideal send-off. Dale’s over-the-top mannerisms and non-stop spiel create a very funny setting but then as the cast improvise wildly around him the laughter increases.
There is a sub-plot too, the doomed romance of two of the team, Malcolm and Judy, conveyed mostly in hints and gestures. This also served to suggest a darker side to the manipiulative ‘Doctor’.

HTSAZA is a fast-paced show packed with sharp wit and hilarious performances from all six cast members.

Reviewed by Kev McVeigh

Dominic Kelly, Storyteller

Guest review by Norman Hadley

Were you read to as a child? Magic, wasn’t it? And on the rare occasion when you have the opportunity to recreate that sublime enchantment, you take it, don’t you? Whether it be an audio book in the car or a sneaky listen as a nephew or niece is escorted off to bed.

Dominic Kelly is a professional. Storyteller, that is. He has a business card that says “Storyteller” to prove it. On a sunny afternoon in August he gave a master class in the art  in the gardens of Samlesbury Hall. Fear not if that is outside your parish as his home port is Yealand Redmayne near Carnforth.

Dominic Kelly

Lavishly sideburned, waistcoated and wielding a pewter tankard, he looked fit to shoulder centuries of bardic tradition, although he confessed the tankard was charged with nothing more exotic than Adam’s ale. Reciting long tales from memory, he soon whisked his audience off into worlds where all princes were noble, all maidens had long tumbling tresses and vengeful giants marauded the midge-infested marshes. But these tales had levels of complexity, recursions and twists that could satisfy the older members of the audience. For two hour-long stints, he held tot and codger alike spellbound with his consummate pacing, phrasing and inflection.

Here was a man utterly in command of his craft. Each tale was preceded by an eccentric call-and-response routine whereby he would shout “socks” and the audience would bellow ” boots”. This was the vital contract between narrator and listener – the granting of access to monkey around in your mind. He could handle deft shifts of mood from humour to pathos to deadly drama. Agile on his feet, pacing from side to side like a weasel bewitching a rabbit, he stopped the clocks and invited us to soar on ravens’ backs over crumpled rugs of hills.

And I say “boots.”

Dominic does festivals, school readings. Check out his site

Uncle Jeff EP Launch at the Yorkshire House

Reviewd by Colin Bertram
Uncle Jeff CD Launch @ The Yorkshire House 31st July 2009

For this CD launch The Yorkshire House had been decorated with table cloths and candles in small cups while there were plates of biscuits for peckish punters to tuck into. On the walls were retro framed pictures of Uncle Jeff band members and fairy lights and a toy cash register on the table selling various Barnbox-related cds.

Quite a crowd had assembled for opening act Ponies, aka Tom Bramhall, with at least two members of Uncle Jeff sitting on the floor to get the best view of the performance. And quite a performance it was too. Tom is a mild-mannered chap but when he straps on his guitar there is an almost visible transformation into the passionate and at times howling presence that is Ponies. Perhaps his harmonica sensed another aggressive assault and forced its way out of its holder and landed with a thud on the floor forcing Tom to stop mid-song, apologise and get the gob iron back under control. Silent Mark’s observation that the now bearded Tom was starting to look like Rolf Harris caused some amusement at the start of the set but once Tom got going, such humorous asides were quickly forgotten as he got into his music.

It’s fair to say that most of the audience were pretty much spellbound throughout Ponies set with Tom refusing to conform with the expected norm of standing on stage. Instead he stood on the floor almost in amongst the audience barely needing to sing into the mic such is the power of his voice. Being the opening act he did play what seemed like quite a long set and the intensity of his songs might have proved a bit much for some but during his final number Tom broke in to the old Elton John number ‘Crocodile Rock’. Suddenly it was as if the Ponies mask had slipped and Tom had a smile on his face as if to say, don’t take it too seriously. Ponies was described on the gig flyer as “visceral folk from Lancaster’s brightest solo performer”. I won’t argue with that.

There then followed a brief interlude with compère Mr Ramsbottom persuading a couple of audience members to join him on stage for a “posh versus working class” game. Ramsbottom specialises in innuendo-laden poetry and later in the evening recited a poem titled something like “Coming In Books”. Having heard the poem a few weeks ago its novelty had worn off and he could do with adding a few more poems to his repertoire.

Next up was Married To The Sea described as “stupendous summery pop from Liverpool” which I didn’t feel was a very accurate description. Their sound made me think more of rain, wind and thunder storms rather than sunny days but then again that’s the sort of weather we’ve had so far this summer. Their sound is much more guitar-driven indie than pop and they certainly threw themselves into their performance with the drummer thrashing away behind his kit. The line-up looked a fairly standard 2 guitars, bass and drums but the drummer had a small keyboard on his floor tom-tom and on one number he strapped on an accordion which he played along with a micro Korg at the front of the stage while one of the guitarists took over on the drums. All in all they made quite a decent noise though the audience had shrunk somewhat during their set most of which I assume was original material apart from a cover of a Wilco song.

And so to the head-liners, Uncle Jeff, who were launching their EP ‘The Sun Might Shine Bright’. The band revolves around singer\songwriter\guitarist Stephen Hudson who has a fair amount of stage presence. He led the band through a lively set, the highlight for me being ‘Roll On Holy Roller’ which starts with chugging guitars mixed with power chords which certainly got the crowd jumping down the front. But even on such a rousing power-pop number there are quiet phases which kept you wondering where the song was going to next. Being a home-town gig there were obviously various friends of the band who encouraged both guitarists to jump down into the crowd and at the end Stephen even managed to slide across the floor on his knees in imitation perhaps of Pete Townshend. The band certainly has plenty of energy and a gifted songwriter in Stephen Hudson and hopefully this new EP will bring them further success.

If you were there please add your own comments as I don’t feel I’ve done justice to Uncle Jeff’s excellent set mainly as I don’t know the names of many of their songs.

Colin Bertram
1 August 2009