Last year, just as summer shaded into autumn, I spoke with James Summerfield, whose latest project is surfacing right now; then it was in the throes of assembly, recording and aligning. Analogue Tales: Sounds From Arden is an extraordinary work, taking the words and ideas of local poet Darren Cannan, and setting it to a lush musical background, supplied by James. It's released on the estimable local label Commercially Inviable. James sings on most of the tracks, but others are voiced by the likes of Paul Murphy, Ranking Roger, Catherine O'Flynn, Mike Gayle, James' nan Marjorie, and myself.
When you listen to it, the obvious, screaming question is – why don't people do this more often? It's amazing.
I guess one of the reasons is that it's a hugely complicated project that must respect the creative talents of two entirely different disciplines. On the one hand, Darren's stock in trade is wordsmithery: words laid out in infinitely varying structures, with subjects that don't always surface in song. On the other, hand, James is a man who produces gorgeous inventive music, with instinct, rhythm and flow, often with structures that could constrict lyrical expression. It's a huge ask for both men.
Sitting in a Sutton boozer with James and Darren, we start with the fact that this project could not be more rooted in the Midlands.
Darren There's a lot of poetry going on locally at the moment. People looking at the Midland landscape, and people thinking about how what it means to be from the Midlands, and how it's different from the North. And it's different from the South too – sometimes it's a little bit elusive.Yes. You say that local sentiment and humour is is understated. I agree, but I find that frustrating. We cast a shadow, but there's a torrent of light blasting at us from London, and the larger than life Manc attitude doesn't accommodate stuff from outside its patch. So we kind of lose out.
Darren Yes, but I went to University in Liverpool, and I lived in Manchester for a bit, so I saw and heard at first hand that kind of bravado and that self-belief. But I think there's a quiet strength about being from the Midlands. Someone said there's a 'modest splendour' about the place. I think people are tapping into that at the moment, maybe always have. I saw Jeff Lynne being interviewed recently. This is a man who's produced the Beatles! He was the most self-effacing, modest, reasonable fellow... And I think reasonableness is a strength.
A song from the album: the recording session at Highbury Studio
On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure we should be that reasonable. Here's all this talent, and it's not being recognised. Because reasonableness can equate to being seen as a pushover when you're fighting to get recognition.
Darren One thing I got from living in the Northwest was that they decided that they had to get on with their own thing, regardless of the rest of the country. And I think there needs to be an element of that. Build on our strengths. A quiet, surreal sense of humour for example.So how did this project start? Who kicked it off?
James I remember going to the Rose Villa Tavern in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham when he was there. I'm not a great poet, I don't know a lot about poetry. But he recited one of his poems... it was surprisingly brilliant. I'd never done covers, just my own stuff, and I fancied a different approach. So I asked him, one day, if I could use one of his poems. And he sent across a lot of stuff. It was quit difficulty, cos I only managed to get one or two out of the seven to work with music. I found it really hard to put poetry to music. And poetry comes in all shapes.It's not in 4/4 time!
James No it's not! But I got the knack of it in the end, and I managed to do about five, as songs. And then we thought why not get some people to narrate? It would make it more interesting, more saleable – not that I'm expecting it to sell... But it would be interesting. Get it out in a book! We're living in an age where people aren't buying CDs anymore, they're downloading stuff.When you sent me the rough mix of Ranking Roger's piece, I thought it was fantastic.
James I've hardly done anything to that since then. The soundscapes behind the narrations have taken me, what, an hour of so each. Get loads of instruments in a room, and just do it. And leave it. The music for the songs – I've taken a lot of time over.But with the soundscapes, you're reacting to another entity, an existing voice, already recorded. And that voice in turn is reacting to Darren's work. Darren, in turn I need to ask you how you feel about having your written work picked up and handed over to a complete stranger. You run the risk of that person completely misinterpreting your ideas...
Darren I think there's a point at which you put your pen down, you stop typing. Other people use it; your ownership goes. And that's fine with me. I'm more than happy to hear my words reinterpreted in a different way. I find it quite exciting.And in that Midlands way, it's also very generous.
Darren I've always liked words. A few years ago, on Twitter, somebody put out that there was a poetry thing, I got involved, I met Jacqui Rowe, started going to classes. There's lots of parts of life you don't know about until you start exploring. I'm not an expert, but there's a real ecosystem with poetry. You've got your ranters, you've got your more thoughtful poets. The ranters can stand on a stage and be quite theatrical. Others take a more reserved approach. And there's a couple of presses in the Midlands - there's Flarestack, Nine Arches, Offa's Press. A real spectrum of stuff. It's really exciting, with Catherine Flynn, and Paul Murphy, and all these people, including yourself, with connections to the city.The older I get, the more I'm thinking good radio is about story-telling. And so is poetry. That's why I jumped at having a stab.
James It was quite nerve-wracking going to Catherine's House (to record 'Beryl Doesn't Give A Toss'), as she's a published writer. But everyone has been so open.There's one more voice on the album that James touched on – his very frail 90-year old grandmother, She delivered a unique, faultless reading on one of her better days.
James As we were readying for the recording, she said 'I've got a couple of poems.' And there they all were. When you scratch the surface, there's lots of people at it, and you just don't know. It's something quite magical. There was a poem about her mum... reading it, her voice was shaking a bit. And it was about a child, talking about her mum. My nan!
And there was more. Still in the boozer, we spiralled off into gossip, talked about capturing the magic of performance while the performer is still there, in his prime, the oral tradition and the meeting points between different worlds, swapping stories.
The end result? A year's effort and invention has been distilled from Darren's writing and James' music. It's emerging in gradually, coming out online now, and shortly in physical form, both in a lovely book and CD package and a book/vinyl combo. This is a unique work, put together with love and dedication by people who really are devoted to the beauty of the creative process. I'm full of admiration.
It was a good night.
Commercially Inviable Records