Red earth rising
By Bronwen Dyke
IT’S funny how the most unlikely of meetings can produce the most interesting results. Red Earth and Rust is the result of just such a coupling. Jacques Coetzee is a lapsed academic and classically trained singer in his late 30s. He is also blind. Barbara Fairhead is a good few decades older but certainly doesn’t look it. The two met at a poetry evening when Jacques heard Barbara recite the line “Forever I have lain with you in red earth…” The rest, as they say, is both romantic and musical history.
Now the pair are preparing to launch their second album, an ambitious 27-track opus featuring the talents of Jonny Blundell (guitar), Brydon Bolton (double bass and electric guitar), Ross Campbell (percussions and drums), Dave Ferguson (harmonica) and Aron Turest-Swartz (piano). This eclectic mix was handpicked by the duo, who basically went to gigs, liked what they saw and afterwards approached individual musicians to collaborate.
The result is an interesting blend of lyricism with folk, blues and adult contemporary rock fusing into something that is at its core very elemental and almost primal. Jacques explains the process: “Barbara sends the lyrics to my computer, I then transfer it onto my Braille machine, after that I kind of walk around with it in my head. I live with it for a while. Because the lyrics come first, my job is to find a space for the lyrics to live in”. Aron Turest-Swartz (ex-Freshly Ground) seemed like a natural choice for the album’s production, but Barbara and Jacques became worried when the 14-song single album that they had planned grew into 27 songs. Fortunately Aron was on board with their vision and the result is Dark Mercy and Wrestling the Angel.
The recording process was also slightly different because usually everyone’s focus is on the vocalist for his or her cues, but because Jacques is blind they could not rely on eye contact. “Everybody has to be able to see Jacques’ hands because they can’t look into his eyes,” says Barbara. But even this is underplayed, with both of them being quick to point out that Jacques’ blindness has very little impact on their music. And, although Jacques hopes that anyone living with a disability might be inspired by his tenacity, he certainly doesn’t paint himself as a hero of any kind.
Of course there’s the question of their romantic relationship, which could be considered unusual by some. Barbara good-humouredly relates the story of a woman approaching Jacques and commenting on “how sweet” his “dear little mother” was. Jacques laughs when asked what his big issues are and initially replies: “sex and death”. After giving it more thought though he says somewhat more seriously: “There’s an inner life in everyone and it’s in the every day things that we all have to do, mostly buried. Music and poetry can help you get in touch with that. My concern is how we as individuals can find ways to become more intimate with ourselves”. Barbara is, as ever, in tune with Jacques. “Everyone has pain and suffering and we’re all reaching for something transcendent but how do you tell the man with nothing not to be a victim of circumstance? I put that into my lyrics but try not to be moralistic or preachy.”
Their musical influences make themselves obvious over the course of the two albums; Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits are all there lurking in the shadows, but there’s an accessibility and optimism that belies it all. And of course there’s the live performance aspect, which promises to be unique. Far from being strange or undesirable in any way, Red Earth and Rust shows the distance that can be traversed when it comes to the meeting of two minds.