Barbara and I are moving house in April, changing our Marina home for another in Constantia. I used to think of this move as an inconvenient interruption of our songwriting work, but it has started to dawn on me that the move itself is having an impact on the new songs we are writing. The fact is that our songs are far more rooted in a particular place and landscape than they appear to be on the surface.
Many people have commented that the material on Dark Mercy and Wrestling the Angel seems to them to be rooted in an American landscape. Certainly Tattoo Jesus is set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, A Blue Pig from Mexico is meant to have at least a hint of mariachi about it, and the Bandoneon on the two tangos hints at something exotic, even if possibly from the same hemisphere as our own.
But for the most part the songs on those albums were written with a South (or at least Southern) African landscape in mind: the evening light turning blue in Dark Mercy comes from the view onto the water here, and the goats and thorn trees after which another song is named were inspired by Barbara’s memories of Namibian desert places.
We have recorded both our albums in this house, and on at least one song from Dark Mercy the house itself became a musical instrument. We were recording The Other Side of the Wind, another song inspired by the west coast of South Africa, when a strong wind came up. Aron Turest-Swartz our imperturbable producer, had the presence of mind to turn up the volume of the recording equipment, and now the sound of it blows eerily through the speakers every time we listen to the song, reminding us of where it was written and committed to disc.
I would say that this kind of connection to a place is one of the strongest motivations for our songs, particularly their lyrics. I would like to be proven wrong, but I think Barbara and I both feel that there is a dearth of truly South African songs. There is no shortage of songs by local musicians, but somehow they either seem to imitate familiar fare from overseas or draw on a fusion of local cultures in a way that seldom coheres. By trying to suggest the widest possible cultural diversity, they end up falling through the musical cracks. Now and then there is a song (Gert Vlok Nel’s Hillside Lullaby, for instance, or Johannes Kerkorrel’s Hillbrow, or Syd Kitchen’s Africa’s Not for Sissies) that explores a local reality and expresses it in a way that is singular and feels rooted in this place in all its ambiguity, but such experiences are rare.
We liked the latter with its PVC pipe (hosepipe flute) accompaniment so much when we heard Kitchen perform it that we had Jonny Blundell, usually our guitarist, improvise a pipe solo on A Man Who Longs to Dance, another song from Dark Mercy with an African feel. The song is about a blind man who is entranced by a blues singer late at night. The song he listens to is both sad and sweet, and it makes the world with its “million blazing lights” disappear. In my mind as we were recording it I was thinking about the singers of different styles I had encountered at the Waterfront, and leaning into the wind when I in turn struggled to make myself heard above it.
No doubt for a song to stand out it has to be strong enough to mean different things to people independent of time and place. Still, I hope that glimpses of sound and musical texture from our songs will continue to speak about where we have been.