Supernatural Photography

I took my camera on our short government-approved exercise today. Rest assured, all social distancing guidelines were adhered to in the taking of these photographs. Here’s what the outside looks like here & now, which is mainly a fallen tree.

Josienne Clarke Live at Bush Hall, London 19.11.19

Last night, Josienne Clarke assembled a dream cast of accomplished musicians & performed to a packed house at Bush Hall in London. It’s a lovely venue, beautifully faded but with attention to detail in all the right places. It has a wonderful sound system. Roland, the guy who comes & sets up tables & runs the bar is there to make it as good a night as it can be. The owner was there early to make sure everyone had what they needed & genuinely cared that it went well. The security bloke was just the right amount of friendly & terrifying. The sardonic girl on the door wouldn’t have let in anyone not on the list. It was a textbook load in & setup.

The band were total professionals & (according to someone who shall remain nameless..) total babes, so really, what’s not to like? Mary Ann Kennedy, who was going to play the harp, couldn’t make it as she wasn’t well. I am hoping her & Josienne will plan another show for sometime in the future… anyone else think thats a good idea?

Immy from Green Note, who was promoting the event, was gleeful to be involved from the start and her excitement shot the whole thing through with an infectious vein of delight. Thanks for everything, Immy!

It was beautiful to see so many friendly faces & loads to meet so many folks I know but had not met face to face before – I’m sorry that I didn’t get time to have an actual conversation with anyone, but I know you could all see that I was headless chickening 🙂

I spent the evening tweeting, instagram living, ferreting around, loading in, carrying things, making sure there was someone manning the merch desk – though, usually there wasn’t – I thought everyone would want to buy things at the end, but no, you wanted to buy things all night! Thanks to the folks who helped out selling & thanks to everyone who grabbed a CD, record or book. You are appreciated. I also tuned guitars, took photos, held microphones, retuned guitars, and generally looked encouraging. Josienne played two sets, so there were lots of low-level things to do.

The first set was some old classics of hers and a few new ones, then, in the second set, the band played the whole album. The encore was a Sandy Denny cover, ‘The Sea’ and then she finished solo with a new original called ‘Unbound’.

It was a beautiful evening. I’ve lived inside of Josienne planning & executing this, and I have to say, even writing about it now is kind of hard. I tweeted this from the side of the stage last night:

“can you see, it was always her, there never was anything else, she just can’t tell you that, but I can. last time i saw her sing Chicago in front of an audience, she was broken & now she is not, I am sat at the side of the stage shaking with pride…”

I don’t think I can say it better than that without being more explicit than I can be. You saw her. You know. It was perfect.

Thanks for coming, everyone. I’m humbled by it & I know just how deeply grateful Josienne is for you all, too.

Here’s my night in roughly chronological order…

My video for ‘Slender, Sad and Sentimental’

My latest video production was released into the world yesterday.

This one is for the new Josienne Clarke single, ‘Slender, Sad & Sentimental’ on Rough Trade Records. It’s a lurid & fun play on the self-referentiality in Josienne’s song. We see her in a series of strange scenarios, in each one, she’s watching herself in the others, reacting to what she sees. It was great fun to plan, film & edit. We still have the clouds, hanging up in our little house.

Those are the two pictures that the record company used to trail the video. The first was a shot of Josienne I took with the lightning tree and the second is a still from one of the scenarios. The song sort of explains why she’s sat in a crows nest that we made out of a builders rubble tub, cardboard & cotton wool.

Did you realise that the tree scene was a reference to a previous video of Josienne’s? Things go pretty wrong in the Fire & Fortune video. Thankfully, this time, all these years later, she has a fire extinguisher & a nice can of fizzy pop to cool her down! Things are looking up!

Here’s a gallery of the other stills from the video that I suggested could be used for the thumbnail. In the end, Rough Trade went with the crows nest. I think that was the right decision. Which one is your favourite?

We planned this for a couple of months, sketching out scenarios in pencil & paper, fleshing out the various scenarios and how they would relate to each other. My original concept was for us to see through Josi’s eye down the telescope, looking at herself from one place to another. I painted in a psychedelic kaleidoscope inside a toilet roll, and it’s the same telescope, but I couldn’t get it to look right under all the lighting conditions we would face, so in the end, you’ll just have to imagine what that would have looked like.

Interestingly, and this has been the subject of a furore of discussion on social media, it isn’t a toilet roll at all, despite my vast collection of those. I had been collecting them for this purpose, and now have hundreds, but it turned out that a standard Andrex size one was too short & a kitchen roll size one was too long to do the trick of the light I was aiming for. So, I purchased a card tube from hobbycraft that was just the right length. It was also slightly narrower & slightly heavier card. I know, you’re going to say, I could have cut one down. I tried that, but it messes with the integrity of the tube and anything that did that meant the paint didn’t look right. I had to cut it open to paint inside, and the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed the join, fixed with duct tape. That was all part of why I could never get that shot to work. So, that’s the fascinating backstory of the card tube telescope.

Here’s the speech bubble from the ‘poet’ scene. Josi wrote it in sharpie & we still have it. It has all the lyrics to the song on. It’s still here, but I tore it a bit, taking it down at the end of the day.

It took a week of making the props & getting the right colour backdrops, cakes, balloons, etc, then we shot it in a day & a half in a village hall. We had two days planned, but thanks to careful planning & slick execution, it went almost perfectly & we finished early.

Here’s the video! This is the part of the article where you have read enough of my words that you get to watch it!

Here’s a couple more stills from the ‘Slender, Sad & Sentimental’ set, I love that sky & her beaming smile. She’s not acting, this was a hilarious shoot on a scorchingly hot day. Good times.

For all you technical folks, let me answer the FAQs…

I shot most of this video on a Canon 5D mkiii at 1080p / 24fps. I used a 24mm 1.4ii L lens for most of it. I think. I had my 85mm 1.2 L but I don’t think any footage from that made it in. The close ups from the dancing scene and the DJ footage is all iPhone XS matched at 1080p / 24fps. That garish pink light was what happened when a spinning disco light hit the lens just so. The iPhone is great at things like that, but the outdoor shot of the tree, for example, is pure Canon.

And here’s a still from the edit, putting things together in Premiere Pro.

Now, the song & video have been out for a day and folks seem to like it, which is very gratifying.

Visit http://www.josienneclarke.com for more of this, and don’t forget, preorder the album here.

Also, do get yourself a ticket to the Bush Hall London album launch party on November 19th. Josienne will be playing with a full band and believe me, you do not want to miss this rare show. It’ll be beautiful. Come say hello, tickets are here: https://www.ticketweb.uk/event/josienne-clarke-album-bush-hall-tickets/9714885

Thanks for reading, I hope you like what we made, tell your friends!

Making The Cover Art for ‘In All Weather’

On April 22nd 2019, celebrated music photographer Cat Stevens visited the Isle of Bute & spent the best part of two days shooting Josienne for the cover of her new Rough Trade LP ‘In All Weather’, out on November 8th 2019.

This is the end result…

Here’s a small gallery of other shots Cat took that are being used in press or on the inner sleeve of the album or singles.

There’s plenty of other stunning shots that Cat took. I hope they make it out into the world on a future release or poster or something because they are truly brilliant, but I can’t share them yet, because they’re not mine to do that with. Do make sure you visit Cat’s website & instagram. She is one of the truly great music photographers, she wrote the rulebook, defined a look for a generation.

Something that IS mine to share, though, is the results of the location scouting that Josienne & I did ahead of the shoot with Cat. JC had a really clear idea of what she wanted. That blue of the album sleeve? You can see how that’s the colour of the skies over the island, which is where the album was written & kind of what it was written about. She knew that from day one, we looked in B&Q for a card of that colour, but really the answer was just copy it from the sky.

She imagined herself partially submerged by the ocean, at once inside it and on top of it. Neither triumphantly emerging nor being drowned, just, existing alongside it, both her & it simply being what they are.

She described a hazy, clean, blue-grey horizon. She talked about a wooden structure, and early on, described it made in the sand in driftwood, perhaps a boat, ruined then discovered.

Eventually, she realised that the world had done the work for her and that the ruined pier at Port Bannatyne could be an ideal location.

They say Bute used to be a popular holiday resort for the well-heeled travelling nobility of Scotland and accordingly, the island is littered with the tattered relics of a faded past, once a glorious seaside holiday destination to brag about, now ‘just’ a quiet, low-key island getting on with being itself. Nothing sad about it, though; Bute changed and carried on existing, grew, adapted and seems to be thriving nowadays. If that isn’t a perfect image to backdrop Josienne’s inscrutable expression on the cover, then I don’t know what is.

She bought that red coat knowing exactly the shade that would set her against the sky, stand out from the landscape whilst standing right inside it.

And we explored that coastline for days, looking for the right place to make this image. We shot some tests & sat with Cat and a tumeric latte on the morning of the first day of the shoot. Here’s a gallery from our early excursions, exploring the shore & finding out how the sky would look. She didn’t have the red coat yet and we hadn’t realised how perfect the pier would be. We just tried a few different things.

Then we decided to try the pier out and this is what we found.

There’s a bloke who lives in Port Bannatyne called John Williams, he’s one of those perfect photographers, everything he does is beautiful & he shoots this pier a lot. I felt kind of cowed even going near it with a camera, in his backyard, but he’s a solid artist (you can buy a book of some of his best work from his twitter profile and I strongly suggest you do) and he did not seem to mind, so that was inspiring & empowering. Thankyou, John!

And you can see how close I came; no cigars for me but no shame either. A few different colour treatments & some better framing and technique & I’d be good to go.

Here’s one from the same day, Josienne found me in front of a perfect pantone 2717 sky in my christmas socks with Barney the ratcatcher sniffing for a different kind of treasure on the beautiful beaches of Bute.

And here’s the finished product. You can pre-order ‘In All Weather’ from Rough Trade Records & on Friday 8th November, it will be live, streaming on all platforms. So much hard love went into this piece of art. My own part was infinitesimally small but I’m so proud that I got to see it happen & I hope you enjoy listening to & looking at it as much as I do.

Shooting Bennerley Viaduct

I spent a long wet Sunday exploring the Iron Giant, Bennerley Viaduct, a spectacular, 1/4 mile long, 60 feet high disused wrought-iron railway viaduct in Ilkston, Nottinghamshire.

I was there with Kingsley Ravenscroft & Josienne Clarke, sort of location scouting and sort of shooting a music video I’m making for him. He’s a magician, you see. An actual one. He does magic, I mean. He thinks it’s stupid & hilarious but also real & will explain to you why & how it works. Kingsley is an enigma wrapped in a riddle hiding in plain sight behind a fallacy that even he doesn’t really believe & does not need to. Meet him, and it all makes more sense. He’s one of those people who it’s just good to have around. He asks little & gives a great deal & it’s a pleasure to make things with him. I believe him. Here’s a few random stills from the day.

There’s my new RoninM gimbal with the Canon 5d mkiii in it. First time I’ve used it on a shoot, and it was beautiful to use. I use it with a 4K monitor which means I can control so much more easily what I’m shooting. It was an exciting thing to use for the first time. It felt very creative, it suited my workflow well. The footage is something else. I’m very happy with what we shot, and we just need one more shoot to get this story told.

Here’s a couple of snazzy & garish iPhone snaps I grabbed.

And here’s a reflection of the star of the show:

We’re showing Kingsley as a disruptor of the strange topographies in which he finds himself, somehow fighting to affect change on his surroundings.

Our aesthetics have long been in a strange kind of sync, meeting perfectly at points every so often on a wild pulsating curve that stretches over the timeline of our lives, yawing off & on like a crashing helicopter. Having seen the raw footage I shot yesterday, that was one of the times when it all works, if a crashing helicopter could be said to be working, in any meaningful sense? Here he is, anyway, the assassin, the conjuror.

And here’s Josienne; she was on second unit/umbrella duties, see her carrying her rucksack & mine. She’s so inspiring to have around, too – there’s never anything that can’t be done, just a series of tiny surmountable things to figure out. I love working that way. Anything’s possible, if only we can think of it, which we can & usually do. Or not, and then we just stop and leave and thats fine, too. I shot this picture of her as she was waiting for one of the smoke bombs to clear. She’s so easy to do this to, but that doesn’t make it less satisfying.

Here’s a couple more stills from the day, this is the bridge that takes you over the railway tracks near the viaduct and that’s the evening canal that you walk alongside to get there.

I’ll leave you with this shot of me that Kingsley took of me. I can’t wait to show you what we made.

Making ‘In All Weather’…

I spent a week in January 2019 exploring the hypnotic topography that surrounds Watercolour Music, an exceptional recording studio nestled in a perfect location among the valleys & rivers near Fort William at the foot of the majestic Ben Nevis.

Rough Trade Records artist Josienne Clarke had assembled a band of musicians to hone her latest solo LP ‘In All Weather’ and I tagged along, documenting proceedings through my lens.

Since I wasn’t performing on the record, I had plenty of time to wander the breath-taking landscape surrounding the facility. I took these long, wide, colourful & sweeping photographs of the mountains, lakes & hills alongside close-up shots of the objects I found inside the studio. The connection between these sharply contrasting viewpoints seemed an integral part of the way the music was made.

I felt privileged to witness an artist of Josienne’s calibre create her craft and a strange, unexpected sense of isolation, of being apart from things in a way I could not really understand. I had a powerful compulsion to express that in the only way I knew how, and this set of photographs is my attempt to justify my own presence in such a heady, inspiring & intimidating atmosphere. I left better than arrived, having discovered that everyone was a part of this, in their own way. I learned how to be kinder to myself, how to give myself credit for what I was rather than punish myself for what I might never be. This is a still from the video diary I shot that week, that became the video for the first single from Josienne’s LP, ‘If I Didn’t Mind’. You can read her discussion about the meaning of that song here and I recommend you do so. It’s a harrowing but incredibly important read.

Josienne had a direct line of sight to the summit as she performed the vocal, guitar, recorder & saxophone parts on the record, isolated in a sound-proofed room, alone yet connected to the landscape in ways I could never explain. To see her wrestle with her incisive, emotional lyrics as she stared out of the window at the mountain was a powerful thing that my video for her song tried to capture. Or maybe, she was looking at me, all weather clad against the cold. Or perhaps she had seen one of the many wild animals that roam the sparse landscape around the studio. I felt, at the time, that it made little difference – I was all of those things, too. It’s funny how quickly one becomes nothing but a wild roaming animal or a part of the scenery.

These foam spikes, attached all over the walls & hallways of Watercolour Music, are part of keeping the sound on the inside in, and perhaps some of the outside out. They worked well for Sonny Johns, the bass player & co-producer; he can hear all the better what notes he should play, how hard & for how long. I also feel they also work the other way around, too – they protect the pristine forest & lakes from the intensity of the music. Absorb some of it, lessen it, soften it. If you hear the album, you might need some of that for yourself.

Elliot Galvin, famed jazz pianist, struck chords on the copper strings of the baby grand with those same mountains right in his eye-line. Listen carefully and I think you’ll hear the distant majesty of the ice, snow & altitude in the notes he conjured with his hands. You can see the hammered brass of one of Dave Hamblett’s cymbals and the torn cloth & rusted screws inside a harmonium. Mary Ann Kennedy played the harp on the record but I didn’t take any photographs of that. I was too busy listening.

The sense of scale felt all out of kilter with reality that week. I felt both incredibly grounded, examining every life decision I had made up until the point that led me to that room at that time, and untethered, free to roam this wild & vast land, miles from anywhere, just another wild white hare. Either too close or too far away. It was beautiful & it was sickening & I wasn’t expecting that dissonance. I’m not sure I always coped well, but in retrospect, I think that anyone would be the same, with the microscope of sound & self-examination that such an environment fosters. It’s hard not to disappear, seasick, down a hole, and everyone but the properly grownup kids do it. This is an underpass at Fort William that leads from the wild to that strange distant town. The lights a landing strip on some island of lonely familiarity.

This next photograph was a favourite vantage point of mine, that week. Away from the proximity to lifetimes devoted to being the very best musician a human being could ever be, close but no cigar to every dream of mine. I just have to have different dreams, or work harder. And I knew the folks the other side of the wall feel the same; it’s really not a grand prize. Being a professional musician is, in many ways, a total shit sandwich. It’s a human way to be, never satisfied, always filled with regret, greener grasses behind unscalable fences. Maybe the most important lesson I learned that week was not to take that out on others & to show the resolve to change it rather than wallow. That hurt was mine. Nobody did this to me but me. I can change it, if I want to. I can be anything I want and so can you. Just make you’re a maker. I wasn’t, then, but I am now. And I’d like to thank Josienne for helping me find that strength. This is the view at the place that I started to realise that she was right.

Here’s the video I made that week. I shot it on an iPhone, an old Canon DSLR & an old military rangefinder. If you look, in some scenes, you can see the scale in the glass of the viewer. It’s not mine, it belonged to Nick, the engineer on the record & he left it lying around so I played around with it. I hope it gives a flavour of what it was like to be there, in that room & outside of it, with those musicians. A rare thing that I will never be grateful enough for & I just hope what I made goes someway towards letting other people peek in, too.

The album comes out on the 8th November 2019. You can pre-order it here.

I hope you enjoy the album, the video, my photographs & this piece of writing about all of it. Thanks for reading. Here’s the last photograph I took at Watercolour Music in January 2019. Look carefully and you’ll see a tiny seabird, all part of the same landscape as the rest of us.