Influenced by Radio 4’s ‘Chain Reaction’ concept, The Lunecy Review brings you a series of interviews of prominent local artists. Moll Baxter the interviewee shall soon become the interviewer so keep an eye out for that.
Moll Baxter interviewed 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.
Moll becomes the interviewer…
Holographic on Headphones
Chain Reaction Interview of Dan Haywood.
Questions by Mollie Baxter
How goes the epic undertaking of recording the 3LP/2CD New Hawks songs?
It’s been about three years so far. Horrible.
So it’s moving slowly, but we’re in the final approaches.
It really shouldn’t be that hard. How long’s a rock album on average– forty or fifty minutes? New Hawks will only be a two-hour rock album.
This year we’re lucky to have found a room that suits – a medium-large church.
The drums, lap steel and celtic harp sound best in the choirs, the cello in the middle of the nave, the double bass by the lychgate… and so on…we’ve experimented with the space and microphone techniques in that way instead of relying on FX.
Lovely golden, transparent sound that couldn’t be better. Holographic on headphones… It means that the earlier recordings sound gruesome by comparison. I’ve been tempted to re-record them…….we might re-amp some tracks in the church, but beyond that it’s too late. New Hawks has been given some pretty genre-busting tags and reviews. ‘Hebridean country-tinged folk,’ ‘Anglo-Caithnesian Folk’, and ‘Post-Americana…island folk…’ You yourself have been described as ‘clinging to the event-horizon of a black hole by your fingernails.’ What has been the most outlandish/accurate/baffling… When I was in The Puma-Sutras, we had a lot of press. Usually wide of the mark. I was a “sexy stick insect” to young Ingrid Kent, which warm-blooded me liked nonetheless. The same piece was described by two writers as “Swedish death metal” and (most insultingly) “Ocean Colour Scene tribute.” The truth was clearly somewhere between the two. The Melody Maker printed “ …and the singer sounds as if he’s been sucking helium from kids’ balloons.” That was very close. But I had my own supply. Given that the ‘New Hawks,’ are the 31 songs you wrote during a ‘shocker’ of a one-month burst, if each band member was a hawk, which would they be and why? I’m glad that you mentioned that the songs themselves are New Hawks. I came up with the group of songs and put a name to them… a little later, showcasing the songs was way better with a band, which never got a name… And the question is pleasantly Blind Date. There’re actually too many fellow players– and not enough Accipiter species for a full comparison. But Jeff (percussion, keyboards) is a female Northern Goshawk– just for adaptability, agility and brute strength. If I have a niggle with a take it’s a case of ”Jeff– can you fly through that thicket at seventy kph, flip upside down and decapitate that giant rat for me?” Consider it done. Music-wise, he can do whatever’s needed. Richard Turner (gtr) strikes me as Pale Chanting Goshawk- different tactics for the Pale Chanting. Sat on top of a telegraph pole, looking down and around in the belting sun. He’s a sentinel with impeccable balance and timing. Mikey Kenney (fiddle) is a juv. Levant Sparrowhawk. They too veer to the East on S-bound migration. He covers a lot of ground, gets big air! First he’s one Levant, and then there’s two hundred. He’s become two hundred wheeling over the Bosphorous. Spanning Europe and Asia. (Europe being the ballad, and Asia being a jam). Gary (pedal steel) is a Red-tailed Hawk (the falconer’s friend)– only because he likes America, likes to sit on leather-gloved fists… To drift off-topic into other raptor families makes this game easier, Mollie….. so Paddy Steer’s a Merlin, Theresa’s a Black-eared Kite, Mia’s Elanus Caeruleus……Simon’s a Windhover cos he flickers incessantly. I’m most like a big, lazy Griffon Vulture… Bill’s not with us at the moment – he’s sub-Saharan – a wintering Osprey perfecting grasps…..I dunno……… I read two reviews, one of which said you don’t take yourself seriously, the other that you took yourself very seriously. Do you think you’re a bit of a mystery to people? Does ‘mystery’ mean that people desperately want to know? In that case, no! But it’s true that I’m misread by most harmless bystanders… I often can’t make my intentions (or anything else) clear. Even my girlfriend doesn’t understand what I’m on about for the most part. I hate it. I’m unintelligible on most levels.
In diary form, take us through a typical day in Caledonia when you were observing bird colonisation and writing 31 songs. How did it all happen?
Headache….involuntary ablutions… bait the hooks…
I lived and worked in the very far North of Scotland for about eighteen months, and New Hawks was inspired by that part of my life in that part of the world, which was mind-bending and life-changing. Indescribable except by means of song.
I wish I’d have taken more photographs….I came up with some of the music out there… modelled on the contours of the North coastline in one case. Strathy Point was an E-minor, D seemed right for Melvich, the riptide was in waltz-time and so on. That song’s called Middle Nowhere.
But the vast majority of the songs were written on English turf, a few months after I had fled Scotland. I had fallen into some evil species of depression and the songs looked North while I was trapped inside that. A gruesome time, but ultra-focussed as a result…it was tightly written. Almost overloaded in parts.
So I cannot really answer your question in diary-style, because the songs came after. Soz. One of the New Hawks is an expedition song written in diary-form tho. It’s called New Hawks of the Great Interior,
verse 2 goes like this:
The dust-clouds lose their wonderment
A native bearer drowns
Losing Steller’s eiderdown
But the comet shone all nite—It soldiered on past morning’s light.
Lou Reed and Neil Young are having an argument.
a. Who started it and how?
b. Who swings the last punch?
c. Who gets the last word?
I’m not too familiar with Lou Reed or Neil Young I’m afraid. Let me listen to some best-of cassettes and I’ll get back to you.
If you hadn’t been a musician, what other artistic (or otherwise) discipline do you think you might have followed?
It’s flattering to be described as a musician. Say it again!
I’m a low-down bum….I can draw a bit, but– a Gibson SG or a 4B pencil? No competition.
Music isn’t a competition. Watercolour Challenge was.
Poetry wasn’t an option for me.
Is it a good thing for Lancaster to have an HMV in the High Street?
It’s a good thing for the bassist in Uncle Jeff, and that’s a good enough reason for me.
He used to have a lovely red Rickenbacker bass, and now I think he has a Fender Precision in white. All paid for by working there.
It’s OK. There are superior record shops elsewhere. Mail-order. But if you want to touch the produce before you decide to buy – HMV’s your local option.
Share with us a moment in your life you have truly savoured.
Savouring this one right now. I’m in Golspie, Sutherland. The work’s been rained-off and I’m in a nice B and B, with Wi-Fi.
I’m enjoying responding to these e-questions, so thank you.
And finally, what would you like on your gravestone?