Sometimes a great voice is not enough to be heard
A record I bought when it came out - and I still have it!
Mary Margaret O'Hara
Stephen Yerkey has an astounding voice. Sometimes it soars like Scott Walker's, other times it growls like John Lee Hooker's, at times it preaches like Johnny Cash's. He is an amazing songwriter, too. "Maker's Mark" alone, the track that opened his first solo album "Confidence, Man", should, by rights, guarantee immortality status. And that's not to
mention "Stinson Beach Road", the grandiose finale to his latest work, "Metaneonatureboy". Yerkey is not without friends. The new album, like parts of its predecessor, was produced by Eric Drew Feldman, who has worked with Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu and P J Harvey; the list of credits includes Tom Waits's old cohorts Joe Gore (on guitar) and Ralph Carney (on a variety of woodwinds and brass), plus drummer Scott Amendola and various other Bay Area luminaries; while the final page of The Rough Guide to Country Music is entirely devoted to Yerkey. "Stephen Yerkey is one of the greatest, little-known songwriters and singers west of the Mississippi," states the entry. "He can moan a gritty blues, growl hard-bitten country from a place deep inside his gut, or whisper the warmth of hope." And yet Yerkey remains pretty much unheard of.
I first came across Stephen Yerkey a decade ago. Chatting away with a mate who runs an independent record label, as we went through a binliner full of demo CDs, he put on Stephen Yerkey's "Confidence, Man". We chatted for precisely eight seconds longer. That's when the voice came in. "I got my Maker's Mark upon me, but I move under my own power!?" it sang. Expressing in equal parts desperation, elation and sheer bloody-minded determination, it's the most powerful opening imaginable. The rest of "Confidence, Man" isn't bad either. "Confidence, Man" had already been out for a while in America and had also been released in Germany. My friend, alas, turned it down for Britain - too risky, he reckoned, for a small company at a time of rampant Britpop euphoria. But the album became a firm favourite in my household. Later, at my friend Veit's "Rec Rec" record shop in Zurich (about which more later), I found a vinyl copy of another Yerkey album, recorded with the group Nonfiction and released in 1986 by the British label Demon (co-owned by Elvis Costello, another seal of quality, one would think). The album was a little more twangy, a little more country-rocky, and still clearly the work of a superior songwriter. Fast forward to spring 2006. I play "Confidence, Man" to a friend. The next day he sends me a link to a website proclaiming the release of "Metaneonatureboy" on London-based Echo Records. Their press office explains that the release is the pet project of Jeremy Lascelles, a man close to the top of the company hierarchy. A fan since "Confidence, Man", Lascelles had located the singer in rural California and eased him out of involuntary retirement by promising to finance the recording of a new album.
A few months later I catch up with Yerkey by telephone. He is in the middle of a "tour" of the East Coast - five concerts in all, four supporting other musicians such as Alejandro Escovedo, the other a solo café performance. Why haven't we had more records from you, I ask. "Because usually there hasn't been any interest," Yerkey responds in a voice just like the quieter parts of his albums. "I was in a band for ten years, from 1977 to 1987, and we did a record on an English label. Then there was a label in San Francisco that wanted to do a record in 1994. Later there was a solo record some friends helped me to do. And now this." What do you do in between? I ask. Suddenly, the conversation takes a depressing turn. "Sometimes I'm a receptionist and sometimes I'm a security guard," he replies. "I'm actually gonna go back to California next month and look for work because the new record has kinda flopped here. I'm always very pessimistic about the record thing. I thought we might sell 1,000 copies, but the record company says it has only sold 42 copies in the whole of the US in the three months since its release. It's as though the record never came out." Suffice to say that "Metaneonatureboy" is another corker. "Cadillacs of That Color" is an outstanding track - a gloriously witty song about a boy so "urban" that when he's taken to Golden Gate Park on a school trip he can only compare the colours of the flowers to the colours of the cars he has admired; while "My Baby Love the Western Violence" is a wonderful satire on modern California. "There's an old song by the Olympics called "Western Movies"," says Yerkey. "I always liked that song. And then in California we elect this new governor who's kind of a famous actor,
this proto-fascist guy named Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's humiliating to live in a State where he's the governor. And to live in a country where George Bush is president is doubly humiliating. So the song is a send-up of a guy who has a very right-wing girlfriend." "Metaneonatureboy" is so good, in fact, that most people I play it to instantly order it. That includes the above-mentioned Veit who ordered in a few copies and casually played it every time a Tom Waits, Tim Rose or Tim Buckley fan entered his shop. At the end of the year he had sold 98 - making it his bestselling CD of the year. While 98 copies might not look like much to a major record company, the example of Stephen Yerkey does show how thin the line between recognition and obscurity can be, and how little the "discovery" - or not - has to do with the quality of the music. What if there were just a few more record shops like Veit's in a few more cities around the globe? What if someone suddenly found the money for a tour or two? What if Robbie Williams became a Yerkey fan and hired him to be his next songwriting partner - just as he did with the not-quite-as-badly-but-still-neglected Stephen Duffy?
Zeitgeist undoubtedly plays a major role. At the turn of the millennium, when electronica was at its peak, it was well-nigh impossible to interest a British audience in guitar music. Guitar bands like Bloc Party were condemned to play in front of minuscule audiences - if they found venues that would let them perform at all. As it happened, guitars became fashionable again, and Bloc Party, now two years ahead of the rest, were in prime position to reap the rewards of their stubborn refusal to bend to trends. Innumerable, too, are artists who are said to be ahead of their time. Velvet Underground belong in this category; the rich creative seam of their fusion of rock'n'roll minimalism, art-school concept and songwriting craft was only properly mined from the 1980s onwards. Similarly, the influence of Can, although considerable in their native Germany from the early 1970s, began to be reflected abroad much later on - their experimentation with unusual dynamics coming to the fore only with the arrival of electronic music. Also ahead of their time, though in a very different way, were Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan. Drake, who barely sold 5,000 copies each of the three albums released during his lifetime, has become an icon of musical introspection, a hero to millions of melancholics around the world and an inspiration to aspiring songwriters everywhere. When the albums were released, however, they were completely out of step with the Zeitgeist. (I know - I bought them all, and my friends just laughed.) The luxurious string arrangements, the softly swinging melodies and the quietly adolescent lyrics of Drake's first album, Five Leaves Left, found no resonance in a time that craved brash musical exhibitionism or sophisticated tall-dark-stranger-type poetry à la Leonard Cohen. Drake's second album, Bryter Layter, was too jazzy for the folk crowd but not jazzy enough for jazz fans. While his third, Pink Moon, (the title song, bizarrely, used for a Volkswagen ad on American television 20 years later), was musically and lyrically too bleak for generations not yet bleaked-out by Kurt Cobain's Nirvana.Like Drake, London-born but Edinburgh-based Vashti Bunyan has experienced a similar reversal of fortunes. Her songs, too, are currently featured in television ads. Yet when Just Another Diamond Day, the one and only album of the first part of her musical career, came out in 1970, it was an instant collectors' item, only bought by a few fans of English folk rock who probably spotted the names of a couple of the leading lights of that scene on the sleeve. Ironically, Bunyan later complained that producer Joe Boyd's addition of these guest musicians was against her wishes, aligning her with a folk movement she didn't want to be part of. However, so fragile yet bell-like is her voice, so simple are the songs and so nebulously pretty the arrangements, that it is difficult to see what other context might have suited her muse. It was a full thirty years, however, before the charms of Just Another Diamond Day reached an audience beyond the few hundred who bought the original item. The CD re-release of the album initially caused few ripples. "Twee" was the description in one UK review. Since then, though, Just Another Diamond Day has become a genuine bestseller and is listed by many of the pioneers of the present acid folk movement as a formative influence. The effect of the retrospective success has been an invigorating one for Bunyan. She has since recorded a new album, Lookaftering - and is again performing live. She only ever gave up on music, she says, because of the total lack of
response and support following the release of her debut album. Today, a casual listen to Just Another Diamond Day delivers a sharp culture shock. Music so utterly without guile, irony or calculation was already rare in 1970 and it is rarer still today. No wonder so many neo-folkies regard it as the Holy Grail in their pursuit of post-ironic post-pop utopia.
Mary Margaret O'Hara can sing like a bird. The last time she appeared on a stage in Britain was in May 2004 in The Black Rider, the musical fable conceived by Tom Waits, William S. Burroughs and Robert Wilson. Her vocal contributions would begin in fairly conventional style, only for her voice to drift off and dissolve in a series of sounds so birdlike that it was difficult to believe they came from a human throat. Frequently the audience audibly gasped in wonder. Yet apart from a film soundtrack in 2001, Apartment Hunting, O'Hara, from Toronto, has only released one complete album of songs, Miss America, which appeared in 1988 after a difficult gestation period of four years. After that there was nothing apart from an EP of Christmas songs and the occasional one-off contribution to albums by Morrissey, Holly Cole, Neko Case, The Henrys and others. More recently she has been involved in Rogue's Gallery, Hal Willner's and Johnny Depp's collection of pirate songs and sea shanties. Miss America is a strange, wonderful and influential album. According to Canadian Chart magazine it is the 14th best Canadian album of all time. It also featured in Mojo's top 100 albums of the 20th century. The fact that O'Hara hasn't recorded another album isn't, it seems, due to lack of recognition but to the artist's difficult ways. O'Hara is by all accounts not easy to work with. Legend has it that XTC's Andy Partridge lasted one day in his job as her producer before deciding he couldn't take it any longer. New ork guitarist Gary Lucas (once of Captain Beefheart's band and early supporter of Jeff Buckley) did work with her. "We worked on a tribute album to the Canadian poet Paul Haines that Kip Hanrahan put together so she came to New York. We met up and hit it off. I thought she was fabulous. I would do albums with her, but she's so elusive, she's one of^those butterflies, those reclusive performers that the more you try to pursue and capture the more they run away. She doesn't answer her phone, doesn't ring you back. Who needs that! Life's too short." Interviewing O´Hara around the time of Miss America was a unique experience utterly in keeping with her singular voice. The request for a thumbnail sketch of her life prompted a giggling fit, followed by the pouring out of the contents of her handbag on the table - let´s see, medals, rosaries" - and a description of the activities of her six brothers and sisters ("Maureen, Maureen OHara, that's a good name, she´s great, she has four boys and lives out in Western Canada"). The 45 minutes were over in a flash. When I read the transcript afterwards, very little of what was said made literal sense, but the essence of what was said seemed to have been left behind in the interview room. In light of this experience it seems miraculous that producer Michael Brook managed to capture her muse on Miss America. Equally miraculous is the fact that O´Hara continues to follow her own path without compromising, away from the music business which, as she confessed in our interview, "is perhaps not for me".The list, of course, could be endless. Marc Anthony Thompson, aka Chocolate Genius, responsible for Black Music (1998) and GodMusic (2001), two albums on the cusp of New York avant-garde jazz and soul, last seen strumming the guitar and singing in Bruce Springsteen´s Seeger Sessions Band. Natasha Lea Jones and Sharon Lewis, aka Pooka, two British songwriters whose otherworldly vocal harmonies came too early for the present acid-folk renaissance. Wreckless Eric, aka Eric Goulden, master of the wry three-minute pop song and, lately, of DIY electronica. Annette Peacock, free-flow jazz composer/singer, synth pioneer and, with X-Dreams, creator of one of the all-time great rock albums by a woman. Tim Buckley, father of Jeff, whose astonishingly adventurous music has been overshadowed by his son´s no less breathtaking, but very different music (not to mention tragic life story)... Pierre Akendengué, the Gabonese singer songwriter who in 1983, with Mando, made one of the most gloriously subtle African/European crossover albums ever.
There is often a perfectly simple explanation for the disappearance of a voice: sometimes an artist's muse simply dries up. Or the voice goes - as happened, temporarily, to the great British folk voices of Linda Thompson and Shirley Collins. More typical, however, is the example of Cathal Coughlan. Coughlan came to London from Cork, Ireland, in the early 1980s and formed the group Microdisney with Sean O'Hagan. Strongly supported by radio DJ John Peel, they played - unusually for those New Wave times - beautiful Beach Boys-influenced songs laced with the often political ire and satirical edge of Coughlan's literate, acidic lyrics, and served up with a voice that has, like Yerkey's, been compared to Scott Walker's. After Microdisney, in 1988, Coughlan - as much influenced by Richard Thompson and June Tabor as by The Birthday Party and John Zorn - formed Fatima Mansions, pursuing a much more abrasive rock style which could go from languid to volcanic in the space of one song. Fatima Mansions signed toAmerican label Radioactive who, in the light of the the Pixies' success, saw commercial potential in their quiet/loud/quiet dynamic. Albums such as Viva Dead Ponies and Valhalla Avenue cemented Coughlan's reputation as a songwriter of exceptional eloquence and melodic power. Invited by Bono and The Edge, Fatima Mansions toured Europe with U2. Unfortunately, sales figures did not match the expectations of the record company Radioactive who, swayed by Nirvana's success, demanded that Coughlan forget his quiet side and "rock". For a while, Radioactive continued to pay for recordings, but declined to release them. Eventually, the label stopped paying the band any money at all - yet refused to free Coughlan from their contract. Unable to record for anyone else, he recorded two albums under the name Bubonique using a speeded-up Mickey Mouse-style voice. Several years passed - with Coughlan supporting himself by working in the computer industry - before British Musicians' Union lawyers at last found a loophole that freed the singer. Since then Coughlan has continued to release albums, the last two on his own label, supported by a captivating new band, The Grand Necropolitan Sextet. His latest album, Foburg, is an adaptation of a multimedia piece, "Flannery's Mounted Head", commissioned for Cork's year as the European Capital of Culture in 2005., Taking as its starting point the writings of Walter Benjamin, it's a hard-hitting exploration of the possibilities of refusal in a world without morals and is his most striking solo work to date. Yet even an internet-savvy artist like Coughlan has found it difficult get his album noticed outside the small circle of fans who regularly visit his website. His voice no longer fits the trend profile of major record companies, or, indeed, the media. Furthermore, many people who once appreciated his music will have been lost, largely thanks to a silence enforced by a record company whose priorities were no longer shaped by the artists it pretended to represent. In theory, the internet has vastly increased the possibilities of outsiders to reach an audience. In practice, few voices are heard above the din.