Sunday, December 10, 2017

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Season's greetings and all that mother jazz.  It's your Uncle Stef here with another musical recommendation.

I like to think that my tastes are pretty diverse.  Look back on this blog and you'll see that I'm equally happy listening to Phil Collins, Miles Davis and Alice Cooper as I am PIL and Motorhead.  I just love music.

At the moment, I am working on a short horror story (keen readers of this blog will know that, while my chosen profession is that of singer, I am actually a frustrated author) and, for inspiration, I went looking for some dark ambient music.  The last time I did this my search was very fruitful, turning up such musical pioneers as Suicide, Coil and Throbbing Gristle.  My latest discovery has been no less revelatory.  

Godspeed You!  Black Emperor are a collective of experimental musicians from Canada.  Their compositions are often quite lengthy affairs, averaging around the twenty minute mark, split into movements of varying dynamics.  There's no singing; any vocals are courtesy of spoken word monologues, samples and field recordings - such as the street preacher whose lachrymose sermon features at the start of East Hastings on the band's debut album.

Of course, music of this length runs the risk of whimsical indulgence.  But Godspeed are not Yes and they use their time to construct pieces of rare terror and beauty, often within the same track.  This is not depressing stuff, though; there is hope amongst the horror and the effect of sitting through one of their albums - as I often do on long car journeys to and from work - is frequently transcendental.

Finding their music has been a rare treat for me.  I love coming across stuff that happily sits outside the mainstream.  That said, Godspeed You!  Black Emperor deserve to be embraced by the masses.  So, I urge you to go and check them out.  

Go on.  Improve your life.  You'll thank me for it.    


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

I'd Just Like To Thank The Academy

Well, folk, it's that time of year again when I take time out to make public my thanks and appreciation for the support, love and loyalty I've had from family, friends and clients throughout 2017.

Firstly, of course, I have to thank my wife and our two beautiful children.  Without you, life is a hollow imitation.  I love you.

My parents did not live to see me reach forty and were denied any pride that they might have had in seeing me make something of myself.  Because of this, I value my family more than I ever did in my youth.  So, to my cousins up North and down South I say thank you and bless you for the time that we spend together.  I love and cherish you dearly.

I value loyalty above all other traits and I am lucky to be able to name three men as the most loyal and trustworthy friends that any man could have.  Over the years, we have drifted apart and drifted back together again as circumstances have conspired against us but our bond has never been in doubt.  You three are as precious to me as my own kin and I love you truly.

Professional thanks, now, to the people of the North West and North Wales who have given me so much work this year.  To the clients, both corporate and private, of Warrington, Manchester, Liverpool, Chester, Wrexham, Stockport, Preston, Bury, Derbyshire, Winsford and Middlewich thank you for having the good taste to book me to sing for you.  I am in forever in your debt.

And that's it for another year.  Thank you everybody for supporting me in this "dangerous but irresistible pastime".  

It's a life. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

Greetings and salutations.

It's been a while, I know, but I've been a busy boy.

In truth, I hadn't planned on writing a new post but watching the documentary Jim And Andy: The Great Beyond (the recently released film about Jim Carey's performance as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's biopic Man On The Moon) was sufficiently inspiring.  

Let me first say that I'm not a fan of either Andy Kaufman (I put him in the same bag as Tiny Tim, another curiously successful entertainer with no discernible talent) or Jim Carey, of whom I first became aware when someone brought around a copy of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to my flat, clearly under the impression that Carey represented the second coming.  I don't recall even cracking a smile during the viewing and Carey's performances since then have done nothing to add to that impression.

The documentary seemed interesting enough, though, as it detailed Carey's absolute immersion into the character of the person he was playing, with frequently devastating results.  It provides a fascinating insight into the actor and his subject and is refreshingly unfurnished in its approach.

What resonated with me, though, was a comment Carey makes about his dad and how he sacrificed the artistic life for a mundane existence as an accountant in order to provide a more stable lifestyle for his family.  

Shit, that's what I did.

Carey's dad subsequently lost his job.

Happened to me, too.

The point that Carey makes is that we can only achieve satisfaction and success by doing the things that make us happy.  His father gave up a life in entertainment because he feared that he might fail.  He ended up doing a job that provided financial stability but fulfilled none of his ambitions.  And then he lost that job and the stability that came with it.

"You can fail at doing something you don't want to do, so you might as well take a chance on doing something you love."

When I was in my last year at secondary school, the art teacher, Mr Bell, asked me what I wanted to do for a living.  I told him I wanted to be a writer.  He told me I'd starve.

I was shattered.  Not only was I being told that the artistic, creative life was off-limits to me but I was being told this by an art teacher.  

When I left school, I struggled.  I went to sixth form college, simply to pass the time.  When I left there, everyone I knew was either in full-employment or university.  So what did I do?  I signed on.

Well, that was a long time ago and since then my life has twisted and turned beyond all expectations.  I've taken roads that have led to greater places and I've taken paths that have turned out to be no more than dead ends.  Not everyone has stayed the course of my journey; I have left many people behind and some people have left me behind.  

As I write this now, I am exactly where I should be, precisely where I want to be.  I have good people around me.  There is trust, love, support and respect in abundance.  

Am I happy?  No, not fully.  But I'm getting there.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

We're Going Where The Sun Shines Brightly


When I was a boy, we holidayed in Newquay, Cornwall.  Same holiday site, same two weeks of the year.  Every year.

I'm not complaining.  It's a beautiful part of the country and when the sun is shining there's no need to be anywhere else.  And who can resist the lure of a pasty?  Not I, that's for sure.

The ubiquitous Cornish pasty.  A banquet in a single course.

It's been some time since I was a boy and it's been some time since I've been to Cornwall but this year we took a holiday down south and it was like visiting an old friend.  It made me regret staying away for so long.

As a rule, I don't take holidays.  I enjoy my work too much and when I'm away I'm all too aware of how many gigs I could be playing.  When I'm forced to take a break, though, it makes me realise how vital it is to rest and recuperate.  

That said, I did break my big toe whilst rushing to the hot tub one night so I suppose there's always a price to pay for taking a sabbatical.  

Once the holiday was over, it was back up North for more shows.  If you've been paying attention, you'll know that this is my tenth year as a professional singer.  I like to think that I've come quite a way since then (which is not to say that I still don't have a long way to go.  The road is long, as the saying goes.).  I have more songs to sing than when I started out and more places in which to sing them.

Until then, here are some of my favourite photos from the past ten years of my career.

Here I am at The Village Hotel, Bromborough.
Pictured with some of the audience after a show at the British Legion, Wallasey.
Singing in the bar at The Holiday Inn, Preston.
After a show at The James Monro, Liverpool.
I look forward to adding to this gallery as the years continue.  There are many more ahead for this singer.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

You Never Forget Your First Love

The year was 1986.  I was fourteen years old, approaching the end of my time at Ridgeway Secondary School (back then the building was totally grey and very austere-looking.  I drove past it recently and somebody has decided to paint it pink.  That's progress for you.).

That year two albums were released which seemed to capture the attention of a lot of my friends: Queen's A Kind Of Magic and Invisible Touch by Genesis.  I knew a couple of Queen songs, probably from Top of The Pops, but while I was pretty familiar with Phil Collins's records (it was the eighties; you couldn't have avoided him even if you wanted to) I knew nothing about Genesis.

Phil Collins.  Inescapable in the eighties.

We weren't really big on music in our house.  My mum listened to the radio quite a bit - Radio Merseyside provided the soundtrack to my childhood, from Roger Phillips at lunchtime (my school was close enough for me to go home for dinner so I'd often listen to him with my dad over a steaming Pot Noodle or a bowl of ravioli) to Hold Your Plums and Jakestown on a Sunday afternoon - but that was as far as it went.  In the early eighties, we got our first record player.  It was a battered old thing that had belonged to my nan.  You had to balance 2p pieces on top of the needle to stop it jumping.  When that didn't work, we'd put a 10p piece on it.  At one point nearly half of my pocket money was on top of that bloody thing.

The first record we bought was a single.  It was The Birdie Song.  I have no idea whose idea it was to get it but I will swear to my grave that it wasn't me.  The first album we got was Raiders Of The Pop Charts, a compilation album that pre-dated Now That's What I Call Music by about a year.  I remember it jumped all over the place and my dad was forever taking it back to HMV in Liverpool until they refused to replace it.  The fault wasn't with the record; it was that dodgy needle on our old record player that was the problem.

Raiders Of The Pop Charts.  Every song a classic.

So when I first started buying records for my own enjoyment, I vowed that I wasn't going to listen to them on that knackered old player downstairs.  I got myself a stereo system.  And I never looked back.

I bought both A Kind Of Magic and Invisible Touch.  I liked them both but there was something about that Genesis album that made it stand out for me.  Pop songs like the title track and Anything She Does sat aside instrumentally-sprawling numbers such as Do The Neurotic and The Brazilian.  There was lyrical diversity, too.  Domino dealt with the the threat of nuclear war (a big deal in 1986) while Tonight, Tonight, Tonight addressed the issue of substance addiction.  Then there were the songs of unrequited love - In Too Deep and Throwing It All Away - and an anthem about the terrible state of the world with Land Of Confusion.

Genesis.  Unassuming legends of rock and roll.

The music was tight, the vocals were bright and I was hooked.

Over the next couple of years, I bought every one of their albums, working my way back through their more accessible work of the eighties and towards the more progressive noodlings of the seventies.  I was in headphone heaven.

Of course, I was to discover that listening to Genesis was deeply unfashionable at the time.  You couldn't get laid to Genesis and you certainly couldn't dance to them.  Even amongst progressive rock bands, they were pretty unhip.  They didn't have the druggy allure of Pink Floyd or the aggression of King Crimson and they weren't virtuosos like Yes. 

They were Genesis.  There was nobody like them then and there's nobody like them now.

It is said by music fans that the first band you get into will remain your favourite, that the passing of time and the changing of trends will not diminish that first giddy love.  It's definitely true in my case.

I'm in my forties now.  It's been thirty-one years since I put my first Genesis record on a turntable (without the need for extra weight on the arm of the needle) and I'm still digging their music with the same enthusiasm.  I think that says a lot for them and their rich musical legacy.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

D Is For Depression

Well, it's been quite a week hasn't it?  The woman who is currently doing Prime Minister impressions has called for a General Election (I have to confess to only finding this out when someone made a booking with me for June 8th and, during the conversation, made mention of it) and an even less convincing impressionist, currently residing in The White House (when he's not playing golf or swanning about in Palm Beach - he has a residency there that boasts 126 rooms; I find it hard to believe he has that many friends) wants to go to war with North Korea.  Fun times for all.

More importantly, though, is the announcement from Prince Harry about how the death of his mother had such a profound effect on his mental health.  While the annoucement in itself should not be such a revelation - who hasn't lost a loved one and felt despair and depression? - for someone in his position to break their long-held silence over such an issue (and was there ever a greater example of the stiff-upper-lip approach to life than our own monarchy?) is a most laudable act.  And, it seems, that his speaking out on this matter has prompted an open and unprejudiced discussion on this, the most taboo of all disabilities.  Finally, it looks as though mental illness will now be taken seriously.

And not before time.

I speak as someone who was diagnosed with reactive depression almost ten years ago.  Who knows how long I had been suffering with the illness but a chain of events at work (this was when I worked for the civil service) saw me sat in front of our family doctor, my wife's hand in mine, as the deadly word "depression" was pronounced.  Now, I say "deadly" because I had my own preconceptions of the condition and what it meant for me.  Many of my own heroes were depressives - Spike Milligan, Ernest Hemingway, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Hicks and Frank Sinatra were all plagued by what Winston Churchill called "the black dog" - so I knew that the illness was no barrier to the success I craved beyond the confines of my day job; my worry was how I was going to deal with the condition now that it had been diagnosed.  And, of course, what effect would medication have on me?  

Reactive depression.  Over the next few days, I rolled the words around my head.  I thought of how long I might have had this bloody thing.  Was I born with it?  Certainly my childhood years were blighted by fits of anger and impatience.  And how many times as a young adult did I lose my temper at situations and circumstances that were out of my control?  Time without number.

"You're an angry young man."  My mum once said those very words to me, back when I was too young to really understand the depth of her prognosis.

I understand now, though.

Life is uncertain and the world can be unfair.  Not all of us are so well equipped to deal with this.  We need support just as the man in the wheelchair needs a ramp to enter a building or the blind woman needs a guide dog to get around.  Support and understanding.  Not too much to ask for is it?

Well, so far it seems that it has been too much to ask, certainly when it comes to the vast of majority of employers in both the public and private sector.  We don't even live in world that sufficiently accommodates the physically disabled, let along the mentally ill, so it remains to be seen what will happen as a result of Prince Harry's openess about his own struggles.

Personally, I'm hopeful.  Already I find that I am much more comfortable in talking about my own condition without fear of discrimination and judgement.  And that alone has got to be a good thing. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

An Ex-Girlfriend Died. How About That?

At the end of this month, I will be forty-five years old.  Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday Dear Stefan and so on and so forth*. 

Forty-five.  No age really (although, if the mortality rate in my family is anything to go by, I'm over halfway there now).  Last week I got a text telling me that someone had died.  The name of the deceased was unfamiliar to me so I had to ask further.  Turned out it was an ex-girlfriend of some twenty-five years ago. 

Now, I'm not some stud-muffin who's had so many girlfriends he can't remember them all - the family dog got more action than I did growing up (but then, if you're familiar with my hometown of Birkenhead you'll know that a boy has to be choosey about who he sleeps with) - but just a name alone is often not enough to spark a memory...unless it's a fairly uncommon one like Tallulah or Moon Unit.  And the name of this person was neither.

The news gave me pause for thought about the lives we lead, the people we meet, the places where we spend time, and how those people and places influence the paths we subsequently take. 

I met this particular person in 1994.  I was living at home then, working for the Wirral News.  While the relationship would last three years and the job even less, both were to have seismic effects on my life in ways I could not have predicted.

We moved in together and jumped from place to place before settling in a flat in Oxton.  By this point, I was editing the events guide in the newspaper - a pretty tedious role at the time because it entailed listing such thrill-a-minute occasions as country walks in Thurstaston and poetry readings in Hoylake.  I went against the grain by highlighting gigs by local bands and, while this seemed to ruffle the feathers of one particular sub-editor (a dull little woman whose name escapes me - see, it's not just the girlfriends whose names I forget), it resulted in a fateful meeting with a band by the name of Mixie's Men.

I'd seen Mixie's Men a few times and wasn't especially impressed.  I was deep into prog rock and jazz at the time and their blend of rockabilly, punk and lyrics about Cilla Black, werewolves in Birkenhead Park and holidays in Bangor were not my thing at all.  In addition, the singer would regularly strip down to a thong and simulate sex with a rubber chicken.  This was too far removed from what I was digging at the time and it was a distance I was not prepared to cross.

Somewhere along the way, I got the joke and I started checking them out of a weekend, usually en route to Stairways or The Krazy House.  So, by the time I came to interview them I suppose you could say I was something of a fan (I still have a signed single of Rock Ferry - one of their most popular songs - somewhere around the house).  Just as well, really, because that very interview resulted in me performing as their support act that weekend.

I wasn't singing back then.  I'd been told by the music teacher at school that I couldn't sing and, having made the mistake of believing she knew what she was talking about (ah, Mrs Randles, where are you now?  Happily living under a stone, I imagine.), I sought entry into the giddy world of entertainment by other means: comedy.

Back then, I had long, flowing hair and a pointy beard and was able to pull off the finest Billy Connolly impersonation you will ever hear, then or now.  In fact, short of the Big Yin himself, you will not hear a more convincing take on his infectious Glaswegian brogue.  

And so it was, that Saturday night at Prenton's Halfway House, that I took to the stage during the band's interval and launched into a ten minute routine based around some of Connolly's finest gags and anecdotes.  And promptly died on my arse.

Undeterred, I carried on, going from gig to gig with the band.  Over the next twelve months, I honed the act, had some successes and many failures until one night the drummer kindly suggested I "Go West, young man" and find my own audience.

And for the next three years, that's what I did.

However much I enjoyed it, though, it always felt like an act.  Even when I eventually dropped the Connolly impression and started doing my own material, I wasn't really me when I was up there.  But I knew I liked the stage; I felt comfortable up there.  I just needed to find out what I should be doing while I was up there.

High fiddly dee, an actor's life for me!  In 1997, my relationship with the girl of whose name I had to be reminded now over, I enlisted in an acting course.  My comedy had brought me into contact with some actors over the past three years and I thought I should check it out.  

Over the next two years, I had a lot of good times, a few short-but-memorable relationships, a lot of drinks and many a fall down.  I performed in plays, short films, feature films and open air festivals.  Happy times.  But, again, I knew it wasn't for me.

During this period, I had discovered that I possessed a pretty decent singing voice.  I'd started listening to Frank Sinatra and, by singing along to his stuff, a natural timbre for that kind of music had revealed itself.  Who knew?  

It was one singular moment in 1998 that determined what I was to do for the rest of my life.  I'd accepted a booking for a charity event and chose that opportunity to sing a few tunes: I've Got You Under My Skin, One For My Baby and The Lady Is A Tramp.  It was probably not the greatest performance, I'm sure; I'd not yet had any formal vocal training beyond the standard teaching that they give you in acting classes and if I heard it now, I'm sure there'd be bum notes aplenty.  It didn't matter.  I knew in that moment what I should be doing with my life.  And, to be fair, the applause (which was much louder and longer than any I had received as an actor or comedian) didn't hurt either.  

I was still living in the flat I had once shared with the girlfriend who is now an ex in more ways than one.  Flatmates continued to come and go and one night, during a party, the friend of a friend of a friend mentioned that the place in which they worked was taking on new staff.  I'd been looking for a new job, something more permanent than what I'd been used to, in the hope that I could put together some money to buy a PA system and make in-roads into getting some singing gigs.

In my mind I had it all mapped out: get a full-time job, buy a PA, get gigs, reduce my hours at work, get more gigs, give up the job and become a full-time singer.  Easy.

Well, I got the job.  In February 1999 I became a civil servant, finally making good on the advice that my mum gave me when I left school.  First, I started looking for a new pad.  A new home to go with the new job seemed to make a great deal of sense.  I found a flat in town, five minutes' walk from where I now worked. 

The sound of massive jigsaw pieces slotting securely into place provided a soothing soundtrack to my new life.  

My weekends were spent buying Frank Sinatra albums and learning the songs that would be the backbone of the shows I would one day perform.  

During the week, I worked solidly and conscientuously.  I enjoyed the job and I liked the people with whom I worked.  I found new friends and left my old life - and the people with whom I shared it - behind, tidying them away like relics stored in the attic.

New purpose, new job, new friends.  And it was through one such friend that I met a girl.  And I fell in love.

It is now 2017.  I am nearly forty-five.  The girl with whom I fell in love - who I would never have met were it not for the friendship made at my old place of work - is now my wife.  We have two beautiful children who amaze us everyday and who will grow up to be so much more than a sum of their parts.

There is no such thing as fate.  This is my belief.  If it were not so then there would be no need to get out of bed in the morning; we could just lie there and let fate take its course.  We make our own fate.  

There is no such thing as being blessed; no person is luckier than the next.  There are blessings all around us, just waiting to be found.        


*If you want to give me a card or a present then you may do so on April 28th when I'll be performing at The James Monro, Tithebarn Street, Liverpool.  The staff will give you a hand carrying it if it's too big.