Freddie Stevenson needs our supreme indifference
Freddie Stevenson, the English-born singer-songwriter is a self-taught musical genius. Freddie gives his listeners the kind of musical and lyrical experience usually reserved for the likes of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. When he told us he loved The Gopher we, quite understandably, nearly fainted from jubilation. Following our celebration [which may or may not have included unstoppable underwear-dancing], and several e-mail exchanges analysing Creed’s “My Own Prison” later, we bring you a story written especially for Gopher-fanatics where he gives us Packing-tips, props, and a mysterious term dubbed “duende.” And music. Lots of music.
I’ll tell you a story, and softly blow my own trumpet. I’ve only played one gig in Spain, on a rooftop in Barcelona. Okay, I’ll blow a little louder. Penelope Cruz was there. And her sister, too. Anyway, singing and playing an acoustic guitar, I bellowed and stomped my way through a set, un-amplified in the open air. Afterwards I was milling around trying to think up a witty opener for a potential conversation with Penelope, when a different but equally beautiful Spanish lady came up to me, grabbed my hand, and leaning close into my face and staring deep into my eyes whispered, “Thank you. You have duende.” “What’s duende?” I asked. “Duende, ” she said, letting go of my hand, “is…” and she flung her arms in the air, puffed out her chest, and grimacing like a sad clown, stamped her foot on the ground. “And that’s a compliment,” she said, before walking away.
In his lecture ‘The Secret Life Of The Love Song,’ the great Australian songwriter Nick Cave discusses his lifelong obsession with writing love songs, and mentions the Portuguese term ‘Suadade,’ the universal sense of inexplicable longing, a deep and sorrowful yearning for something lost which was never owned and can never be found. He then goes on to mention duende and quotes Frederico Garcia Lorca: “All that has dark sound has duende, that mysterious power that everyone can feel but no philosopher can explain.” But, Cave goes on: “All in all it would appear that duende is too fragile to survive the brutality of technology and the ever increasing acceleration of the music industry. Perhaps there is just no money in sadness, no dollars in duende.” Nick Cave spoke those words in 1999, and since then the music industry has crashed and burned, largely thanks to the internet. All that remains amongst the rubble is the latest winner of Pop Idol, some impossibly pure teenage ‘country’ singers who were probably built by robots in a top-secret bunker at Disney HQ, and duende.
Duende is by its very nature undefinable, and Garcia Lorca, that great definer of the un-definable, puts it this way in his (pardon the paradox) definitive ‘Theory and Play of The Duende’: “The duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work.”
Since I first started making music, the most common observations people have offered me are, “I like your records but you’re better live,” and “I like the version of that song on the record, but I prefer the demo you made alone.” It seems that duende is extremely difficult to capture on record. Of course it’s been done. Listen to Van Morrison’s magical ‘Astral Weeks’ and duende leaps out of the speakers from the first note. But I was beginning to feel, around the time I met that beautiful Spanish woman on the rooftop in Barcelona, that something was missing. While I was, and still am, extremely proud of my own two studio albums, ‘Body On The Line’ and ‘All My Strange Companions,’ something was missing. This feeling coincided with, and I’m sure in the most part contributed to, an intense period of change in my life, both professionally and personally. Important relationships disintegrated, and I left London where I had lived for the last ten years. Now before you break out the violins, I’ll quote Nick Cave again: “How beautiful the notion that we create our own personal catastrophes and that it is the creative forces within us that are instrumental in doing this.” I found myself entering a period of emotional and actual homelessness, but I only had myself to blame. As I noted to myself at the time somewhere in a song I never wrote, “I have arranged the furniture of my life to lie in nothingness and now I am lonely.” Lonely or not, it was where I was, and I alone had put myself there.
Freddie Stevenson – The City is King
Ever since I started writing songs around the age of fourteen, I’ve been recording them myself, first on a Tascam 4 track tape machine, then a Roland digital 8 track, and eventually on a laptop computer, using the Logic recording software, one of the greatest inventions known to man. Every room I have ever occupied for more than a few days has been turned into a recording studio. I travel light: a guitar, a couple of books, change of underwear, two AKG condenser microphones and an orchestra. For me, recording is the natural culmination of the writing process, and I’m always writing. I’m not a brilliant engineer – I do everything on headphones, and my Mac’s been at death’s door for the last two years, but you make do with what’s available to you. At the beginning of 2009, I gathered up all the recordings I had been working on since completing ‘All My Strange Companions’ – thirty songs in all – and offered them online as free downloads, spreading the word to friends and fans via Myspace and Facebook. Then I went to New York, with my change of underwear and my orchestra, a city I had been visiting and playing in on and off for a while. Broke, I started a busking band with the saxophonist David Luther and the bassist Bennett Miller. We called ourselves The Dirty Urchins (and still do), first playing for tips on the subway platforms and eventually, when the weather improved, making an album, ‘Late As Usual,’ and selling it in Central Park. All the while I continued writing and recording, but now every time I finished a song, I would immediately put it online and offer it for download. Soon this became as much a part of the writing process as recording – a way of clearing the desk and making room for the next song to come along. It also became a lifeline. Things move fast in New York City. The metabolism of the place fuses with your own, and I drenched myself in it, my every waking moment filled with movement and music. As I wrote and recorded and uploaded, I felt as if I were walking along a beach. The immensity and silence of the internet was as comforting as the ocean, and I needed its supreme indifference; its teeming emptiness acted as a salve to the extremes of life in New York, the rollercoaster of joy, fear, desire and boredom. Here’s Garcia Lorca again, speaking of how duende can pierce you like an arrow and want to kill you ‘for having stolen his ultimate secret, the subtle link that joins the five senses to what is core to the living flesh, the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time.’
Summer turned to winter and the busking season ended and I made my way, still with my portable orchestra but missing a few pairs of underpants, back to Scotland where my father is renovating an old house a few miles outside Edinburgh. The uncertain future I had so willingly dived into when I went to New York at the beginning of 2009 was still there in front of me, but being a little older and a little uglier now, I was able to see it as the natural way of things. You endure a period of transition in life only to come out the other side knowing that life itself is a period of transition. Where I live in Scotland, time moves at nature’s pace, There is genuinely nothing going on at 3am that doesn’t involve owls and foxes, and there I have the luxury of time and space; I plant an orchard, watch it grow, and pick the fruit.
By now I had gained a modest following online, and I kept writing, recording and uploading, all the while waiting for that one really juicy piece of fruit to ripen, that one song that would tip me over the edge, when the stars align and I’m wearing the right hat and it’s a sure fire hit, and wondering where the opportunity to make another record would come from.
Freddie Stevenson – Happy Hour
Back in New York I had concocted a plan with my friend, guitarist with the band The Mercury Seed and general music biz impresario John Jackson, to put together a collection of fifty of the downloads I had made packaged with a booklet of the lyrics. With this in mind, I began reviewing everything I had recorded, listening to many of the songs for the first time since I had uploaded them, and I realised that I had in fact been making a record all along, under my own nose – and what’s more, it might even contain a touch of duende! It has no beginning and no end; it’s messy and it’s sad; in the background you can hear telephones ring, trucks beep beeping as they reverse on the street, birds chirping, thunder crashing; but listening back, as if I were listening to someone else, I felt duende. I heard the songs being born, unbidden and covered in blood. I heard myself as I was when I wrote and recorded them, sometimes half numb with despair, at other times struggling to contain my joy, entirely unselfconscious and utterly alone, singing into the internet.
It has no structure, it is un-finishable, but I noticed, by just putting the fifty songs in alphabetical order, the arc of a love story. The first song ‘All The Way Home’ begins with the lines “I suppose it’s a tale you’ve often heard / Against all the odds, boy meets girl,” and the last song is called ‘Wyoming,’ a song about needing to go back to the beginning, to where love began, and the place I went on holiday aged eleven and first fell in love with the guitar. In between is all confusion and contradictions, the heart of any love story.
Freddie Stevenson – All The Way Home
Which brings me to now. When I first came across the Gopher Illustrated, I was immediately struck by how their philosophy of creating a magazine that is a ‘collectible in motion’ that ‘lives on the shelf’ resonated with my ideas about how to describe to people this record I had been making. At a time when the internet has devoured the recording industry and is now turning its hungry eyes on print media (the new Apple iPad surely has the potential of becoming to magazines and books what the iPod was to CDs), how do we survive and harness these new opportunities? How do we not allow ourselves to be swept away in the torrent of information? How can we be heard? Looked at one way, the internet is a dark ocean where a lone voice can so easily be lost. It was the need to confront this void that started me off on these recordings, because it so perfectly mirrored the void I felt in myself, the breeding ground of duende. On the other hand, never before has it been possible to connect with so many people so quickly and so intimately. In that sense, the internet could be seen as Lorca’s ‘living ocean of love, liberated from time.’
Perhaps duende is not, after all, too fragile to survive the brutality of technology like Nick Cave worried back in 1999. Perhaps duende is what lies at the root of our urge to keep developing new ways of communicating with each other to share our experience of living. I can’t put it better than Lorca: “The duende….Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.” What a wonderful metaphor for the rise of technology, the internet, and the opportunities they offer us – ‘the endless baptism of freshly created things.’ I hope you’ll accept my songs with an open heart, in the spirit in which they were created, carved from our shared heritage of duende, tumbling through a strange new world in the midst of change.
Freddie Stevenson – To a Woman in Winter
Freddie Stevenson – Blind Architect
Freddie Stevenson – Love & Hunger
Freddie Stevenson – I Cried When I Was Born
[ With many thanks to Freddie Stevenson. These songs and many more are available for download free of charge HERE ]