Thursday, August 28, 2008

Inventing Chansonica

Without a doubt my favourite and most listened-to album of the moment is kooky French artist Camille's second album, Music Hole. Most middle class 30-somethings will have come across Camille on Nouvelle Vague's first album, on which she totally stole the show with her sexy rendition of 'Too Drunk to Fuck'. Playful and experimental, Camille's latest solo venture strikes a compelling balance between avant-garde electronica and tongue-in-cheek Vaudeville. Catchy numbers like 'Katie's Tea' - an ode to tea-drinking with which I can certainly identify, and 'Cats and Dogs', which cheekily suggests that "cats and dogs are not our friends, they just pretend, they just pretend" are interspersed with sweeping anthems such as the seductively soulful 'Kfir' and passionately secular 'Gospel with No Lord'. Unlike her previous album, Le Fil, Music Hole is sung mostly in English, with just the occasional sprinkling of French.

I was trying to describe Camille to a friend who had never heard her stuff, and came up with a whole new genre - Chansonica - which I'm pretty sure noone else has coined before. This freshly invented portmanteau can be used to refer to those artists who follow the classic French 'Chanson' tradition in terms of lyrics and singing style, but incorporate a more contemporary, electronic approach to their arrangements - Charlotte Gainsbourg, Emilie Simon, and even some later Serge Gainsbourg would all qualify. Thanks to the wonders of Last.fm tagging, I am currently introducing this wondrous musical concept to the wider world, hoping that it will catch on and lead to some more new discoveries for my budding Chansonica collection. Maybe I'll even make a mix-tape!

Camille is currently touring, with two UK dates coming up in October (London - 19th and Glasgow - 20th). I'm planning to catch her in Luxembourg in December during our usual pre-Christmas continental jaunt.


Photograph of Camille by *maya* on Flickr

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Unfinished Sentences

Most of the internet memes doing the rounds at the moment are fairly lame, but this is actually quite an interesting experiment in self-exploration. The idea is simple - you are given the start of a sentence, to complete as you wish - the point being, I suppose, to reveal previously unknown facts and insights about yourself. I enjoyed reading both Anna Pickard's and Jonathan Shipley's versions, so decided to give it a go myself. I'm not going to 'tag' anyone else on this occasion, but please leave me a comment if you decide to do it.


1. My uncle once: found out that he had a sister he never knew - my mother. Attempting to trace his absentee father online, he was discovered by my sister, who was also searching for information about our unknown grandfather (a nefarious actor type - long story). My mum, having presumed herself an only child her whole life, was overwhelmed with joy to discover she had a half-brother - though sadly he lives in New Zealand, so they have yet to meet.

2. Never in my life: have I betrayed someone's confidence.

3. When I was five: all my best friends were boys. Paul Smith, Guy Stewart, Peter Richardson, Toby Denham - where are you now?

4. High school was: full of spiteful idiots who I'd rather not remember.

5. I will never forget: saying goodbye to my friend Paula for the last time.

6. Once I met: Mick Jagger. Still my best name-drop.

7. There’s this girl I know: who went and moved to Australia, and I miss her terribly.

8. Once, at a bar: I asked for a drink. More than once, actually.

9. By noon, I’m usually: on my third or fourth cup of tea.

10. Last night: I met up with some old friends from my Waterstone's days, to go to a gig at the Albert.

11. If only I had: more patience.

12. Next time I go to church: will be the weekend after next, for a family wedding.

13. What worries me most: is unresolved conflict.

14. When I turn my head left I see: a filing cabinet and a door.

15. When I turn my head right I see: a wall covered in pictures of my friends and family, and some bookshelves.

16. You know I’m lying when: i can't keep a straight face - I usually only lie about silly things.

17. What I miss most about the Eighties is: playing Sindy dolls with my sister for hours, sometimes days, at a time. Our favourite scenarios were inspired by Neighbours and Dynasty.

18. If I were a character in Shakespeare I’d be: Katharina, the "shrew".

19. By this time next year: I'll be another year older. To hope for anything more than that would only end in disappointment.

20. A better name for me would be: Fan Dance Fanny the Frowsy Nightclub Queen.

21. I have a hard time understanding: why some people are so dumb.

22. If I ever go back to school, I’ll: do something that might actually lead to me earning a decent salary.

23. You know I like you if: I tell you - life's too short to not tell people how you feel.

24. If I ever won an award, the first person I would thank would be: Marcel, my cat, for his unwavering affection.

25. Take my advice, never: go food shopping when you're hungry.

26. My ideal breakfast is: brought to me in bed by my husband.

27. A song I love but do not have is: Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler, for sentimental reasons - it was on the 'break-up' tape that my mum played endlessly whilst ironing or cooking. I still know all the words by heart.

28. If you visit my hometown, I suggest you: avoid West Street like the plague, have lunch at Bill's, and spend all your pocket money in Rounder Records.

29. Why won’t people: stop interrupting? I come from a garrulous family where people talk over each other all the time, so have consciously tried to train myself out of the habit. When someone starts talking before I've finished, it makes me feel like they are not interested in what I'm saying, and consequently, that I must be boring. I'd hate to give anyone else that impression (unless they actually were boring, in which case I'd feel justified in interrupting to tell them so), so I've developed a little system where if I think of something I want to say, I cross my fingers to help me remember what it was, then wait for the other person to stop before taking my turn.

30. If you spend a night at my house: be sure to close the spare room door, unless you want a fluffy ginger cat for a pillow. Oh, and I recommend (if you haven't already read it) that you dig out 'Holes' from the ever-expanding library of children's books library in there - I guarantee you'll finish it in one sitting.

31. I’d stop my wedding for: the fact that I'm already married.

32. The world could do without: celery.

33. I’d rather lick the belly of a cockroach than: the belly of a slug.

34. My favourite blonde is: my three year old nephew, Isaac.

35. Paper clips are more useful than: staples - particularly when you want to separate the paper again.

36. If I do anything well it’s: sing.

37. I can’t help but: sing.

38. I usually cry: when nobody's looking.

39. My advice to my child/nephew/niece: would be to try and avoid making the same mistakes as your parents.

40. And by the way: if you think that I sound especially sarcastic, I'm probably actually trying to be sincere, so please don't be offended.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

More Mud? Nah, Let's Go to France...

Green Man was expected to be the pinnacle of my epic summer festival circuit, the cherry on the musical exploration cake of 2008. I was really looking forward to it. And then it rained - some would say an unseasonable amount. Reports of flooding in the Brecon Beacons started appearing on festival message boards. My giddy spirits sank. Still jaded by our recent experience in Kendal, neither Ant or I could face another weekend of wading through mud and roughing it under canvas in extreme conditions, however great the musical offerings. And the forecast was getting worse by the day. Our first instinct was to look for alternative accommodation, so that at least we'd have somewhere warm and dry to escape to; but after extensive online investigation and countless disheartening phonecalls, it transpired that all the cottages, B&Bs and apartments within 20 miles of the festival site were fully booked. By this point it was late on Wednesday night, and we were due to leave the next morning. We went to bed feeling frustrated and miserably resigning ourselves to the original plan. It was either that or spend a long weekend in Brighton and waste our precious holiday time mooching about at home.

The next morning the weather was still grim, prompting us to briefly resume our search for somewhere to sleep in Wales other than a tent, but to no avail. A few years ago, we probably would have said "f**k it" and booked a last minute flight to somewhere exotic instead, but in a commitment to a 'greener' travel ethos we recently agreed not to fly anywhere we could get to in a day by rail and/or ferry. We've taken the Eurotunnel a few times now to get across to the continent, but strangely - since we live so close to a cross-channel port - never used the ferry. Doing some speculative research, I was surprised to discover how reasonable a return ticket with the car was from Newhaven to Dieppe (£99). Newly inspired by this knowledge, we set about looking for somewhere to stay in Normandy or Brittany, only to be confronted with a similar "no room at the inn" scenario. Finally, when we had all but given up hope, I tried one last place - a B&B near Saint Lo - and succeeded in booking us in for three nights. To celebrate, and make the most of our day off in Brighton, we treated ourselves to an indulgent lunch at the ever splendid Terre à Terre.

After a smooth crossing the following morning, we were in Rouen by lunchtime. The whole city was practically deserted due to a public holiday, so it was great for strolling about, but not so good for shopping. I'd like to go back some time and check out the nightlife, it felt like a pretty cool city. From Rouen we carried on to Saint Lo, and after a couple of minor palavers (bits of the car falling off, and getting slightly lost), arrived at our B&B by early evening, to be greeted by the landlady and her handsome ginger cat, Raoul (so named because of his distinctive vocalisations). The cottage was stunning and in a very tranquil spot; we both breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed firmly into holiday mode. On Saturday we braved the weather and tourist hoards to check out Mont St Michel before heading over to St Malo for lunch. Whilst dining at Borgnefesse - a rather nice, tastefully pirate-themed restaurant (if you are thinking inflatable parrots and staff in tricorns, stop) - we discussed the possibility of going to La Route du Rock festival (which I'd seen was taking place up the road) for the evening. Ant's always easier to goad when being well-fed, so this was the ideal opportunity for me to secure a little compensation for missing out on Green Man. Anyone would think I planned it this way (I didn't, as it happens).

La Route du Rock Festival, St Malo

The weather still looked touch and go at this point, but it turned into quite a nice evening eventually, with even a bit of blue sky appearing during the first band - the excellent Menomena. The festival itself was small and amazingly tidy, but best of all, despite the weather there was NO MUD. None. We also saw French Cowboy, Girls in Hawaii (both of whom were entertaining enough) and stayed for the first few songs of The Ting Tings' set - enough to persuade us that they are very much a studio band. Sunday's cultural activities were altogether gentler, with a visit to the impressive Bayeaux Tapestry followed by the beautifully presented Caen Memorial - a deeply moving WW2 museum, and finally an abortive tour around a country Chateaux - about which more later. For me, no holiday would be complete without a trip to the seaside - and a sandy beach at sunset was the perfect spot to round off our mini-holiday. Throw in a slap up meal at a chic waterfront restaurant and one could not ask for more. On Monday we just had time to stock up with the obligatory wine, cheese and interestingly-packaged groceries at the hypermarket before catching our ferry home.

Looking at other people's photos of Green Man on Flickr this morning, I am reassured that we made the right decision not to go (though I'm still gutted about all the brilliant bands I missed). I'm only sorry that we hadn't made use of the easy ferry connection from Newhaven to explore Normandy and Brittany sooner. But now that we've had a little taster of the many delights that those regions have to offer, I'm pretty sure we'll be making up for it in future.


Saturday, August 09, 2008

The View from the Train

Last night I travelled by train to Eastbourne after work, to have dinner with my family. My sister's baby is due in two weeks and we may not have the chance to socialise again before life changes forever with the arrival of her first offspring, my second niece or nephew. So I was feeling particularly contemplative as I gazed out of the window at the hypnotic scenery outside. That particular journey is comfortingly familiar to me, having done it as a sixth form student to college in Lewes, and later to work at Waterstone's in Brighton, before I moved here. I must have done the same route hundreds of times, yet I never tire of the view. This photo was snapped on my cameraphone somewhere between Lewes and Berwick, where I was suddenly struck by the magical contrast between the luminescent, amorphous clouds and dense verdant grass. After all these years, the Sussex countryside still manages to surprise and inspire me.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Mud, Mud, Hideous Mud

You'd think that anyone organising an outdoor event in the Lake District in August would make adequate provision to prepare for what is the second rainiest month of England's wettest region. Especially if they grew up in the area and could be under no illusions as to its damp climate. But arriving in an already soggy field on the first day of Kendal Calling last Friday, our hearts sank to discover that preparations for a wet weekend in a field with 4,000 people amounted only to a couple of rugs and a laughable sprinkling of straw. Before the gates had even opened to the public, all the major paths were churned up with mud, and the vain hope of some sunshine to dry things out quickly evaporated. As the weekend went on, the grounds of this fledgling festival (now in its third year) went through all the imaginable stages of muddiness - from slippy to slick to sticky to something resembling the Battle of the Somme by Sunday evening. I've done muddy festivals before (Glastonbury 97/98 and Roskilde 2003 spring to mind as particularly hellish examples), and can put up with it if the musical offerings are sufficiently distracting. Unfortunately for Kendal Calling, two of their headline acts (The Long Blondes and Mystery Jets) pulled out at the last minute, leaving Dizzee Rascal (so not my cup of tea) as the only major crowd-puller, unless you count Cumbrian natives (now based in Brighton) British Sea Power, who were not on until Sunday night, by which point a fair few weary festival-goers (including us) had already bailed.

Ant and I took one look at the bedraggled (and stupidly steep) camping fields on Friday afternoon and got straight on the phone to Auntie Judith, who kindly offered us a bed for the weekend, up the road in Ambleside. This meant that one of us had to drive back each night, but at least we could have a hot shower and a decent night's sleep in between traisping through mud. We caught a few good bands over the course of the weekend - Babyhead, Three Daft Monkeys and The Witch and the Robot stand out - but were underwhelmed by the festival as a whole. Not wanting to go into detail, the toilet situation was worse than at any festival I've been to recently; and little imagination had been put into the site layout or any non-musical activities. With so-called 'boutique' festivals like Latitude and Green Man raising the bar in recent years, festival organisers really need to start thinking outside the box in order to compete. Our trek up North was far from wasted though, as we got to spend quality time with family - including a tranquil afternoon of tea and cakes at Stuart and Lotta's beautiful cottage by Lake Windermere, a couple of excellent meals out (The Jumble Room in Grasmere and Zeffirelli's in Ambleside) and a look around the prestigious annual Lake Artists exhibition. Lunch with Gran and the in-laws in Preston on the way home rounded off a very pleasant, if musically disappointing, few days.

More photos from Kendal Calling at: www.flickr.com/photos/rowstar/sets/72157606562798971