Inspired and inspiring.
This is how I would describe the recent showcasing of Emma Ballantine’s EP “Somebody’s Story.”
Arriving at Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road, it occurred to me that under most circumstances, a bookstore may not be the most obvious venue for a concert.
But then again, since both “Somebody’s Story” and “books in general” are all about stories, perhaps it’s not so strange after all. Catching up with the songstress after the show, I ask what initially inspired her to embark upon the project.
“I’ve always loved telling stories through my songs, and I had been thinking that I wanted my next project to involve my fans – so it’s not just me talking about myself all the time! That’s where the idea came from to take other people’s experiences and write about them. It was scary at first, as I had no idea if people would respond!
A few days after thinking up the concept, I was passing Waterstones and decided to sneak up to the top floor to record a short video message inviting people to send me their stories. I never imagined I’d be back there within the year to perform the record!”
So, the seed of the idea got its first public watering upstairs in a Waterstones Bookstore a year ago. Fitting then, that the resulting fruit of that seed should be shared and enjoyed in one.
It kind of brings things neatly full circle.
I arrive wet (cats and dogs in July, naturally) but excited and pleasantly intrigued. I love new experiences. This is not only to be my first concert in a bookstore and my first time seeing Emma perform live, but my first experience of a project of this kind. I am willing to bet this is the first musical story-telling experience for most other folk in the room too.
Descending the steps I find the basement already abuzz. Lots of relaxed looking folk milling around, mingling or sitting and chatting.
A few people (like myself) wander about, perusing the contents of the wooden bookshelves lining every wall, and the little wooden tables dotted around, displaying yet more literary goodies.
Glasses (proper glasses, no plastic festival imitations here, thank you very much!) of fizz and red wine are being gently emptied, and a healthy queue at the bar keeps the girls busy with orders for wine, coffee, cake and codes for locked lavatories.
“What a great turn out!” I say to myself. Having no companion to say it to. Being, as usual, alone. I raise a glass and smile inwardly, pleased as punch for Emma.
Draping my soaked jacket on a chair I stand in the centre, absorbing the activity all around. In the alcove, a drum-kit is already set up and a double bass lies like a reclining Buddha. Besides these, a keyboard on a stand, a microphone and a guitar wait patiently.
No sign yet of the story telling star. Last minute vocal warm ups backstage no doubt.
Little else to do, I settle into to my rather punishing pew and allow my eyes to rove.
The Industrial pipes and overhead lighting contrast oddly but not unpleasantly with the wooden bookshelves, tables and rows of chairs facing a little “U” shaped alcove, created by bookshelves on three sides.
Before I know it, a hush has fallen and Emma is suddenly there, larger than life, launching into a rousing rendition of the passion filled song, “The Love I Seek.” This song is one of my favourites and has all the elements for which it’s creator is becoming so widely acclaimed.
The sometimes surprising, soaring melodies which so beautifully showcase her unique voice, laced with fearlessly poignant lyrics, firmly but gently command ones full attention. Emma’s vocal acrobatics in the high parts resemble a flute. It’s really incredible to hear.
(A brief aside; when it comes to lyrics, 99% of the time I don’t hear them at all the first time around. If the melody, rhythm or something else grabs me about a song, I will listen again, and only then notice the words. On this occasion, I hear every syllable of every song on the first listen. That’s how great Emma’s songwriting is.)
When the thunderous applause dies down, Emma, as politely spoken as the queen and blushing prettily, thanks us all for being present and enjoying ourselves. Believe me, I think to myself, the pleasure is all ours!
The evening continues to captivate.
Before each of the songs from “Somebody’s Story”, Emma reads aloud the story which inspired it. Tales of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of real human beings. Let me tell you this; fiction fades in comparison.
You couldn’t make some of this stuff up.
One tale recounts a romantic connection so intense it inspires a young woman to throw all caution to the wind, leave behind everything safe and familiar, travel 7000 miles to Kenya, marry a man she’s known for only a few months and explore life in a distant desert. “Astronaut” is a metaphorical homage to the courage required to face the unknown and truly embrace the incredible journey of life. Back in the 1950’s when this story unfolds, travelling halfway across the globe must indeed have been akin to launching oneself towards the moon in a rocket.
Using a bow instead of a wand, the double bassist produces sonic wizardry resembling plaintive whale-song, which fuses with atmospheric synths and the softly insistent rhythm of drums, creating a wonderful soundscape. Emma’s lovely vocal melodies rise and fall across the canvas, creating a perfect picture. As I listen, eyes closed, I am faintly reminded of Tubular Bells and even sometimes imagine a hint of Enya whispering through.
Then there’s the heart rending story of a brief but beautiful friendship taking root in a Chicago music bar with a “live jukebox” house band who’ll play any song you like and invite you to perform with them. Finding himself alone and bored in a strange country, Dom is delighted to find “The Pink Flamingo” and a host of new musical friends. Among them is Brian, a “once regular, newly returned to the scene”, shady looking fellow, who transpires to be a diamond in the rough. Dom’s story, told beautifully in the song “Harmonise” relates a frighteningly swift journey from stranger, to friend and confidant, to memory. Brian died only a year after they first met, yet left Dom with a mind and heart full of rich memories of stories swapped, secrets shared and the harmonies made on a beer-sticky stage. The song itself is less than 3 minutes long. I wonder if Emma made it brief deliberately, to emphasise the point that quality over quantity is what counts most in life.
Next we hear the heart warming tale of James, now 14, and his mom Nancy. Two friends, together riding the emotional rollercoaster of life touched by autism. Incredibly, James (himself an accomplished musical creator), co-wrote his own story-song with Emma. “Through Your Eyes” won acclaim for both artists and is an uplifting reminder to appreciate and really live in the moment; to see the miracle of life around us and actually enjoy what we find. To emulate James, who despite autism (or perhaps even because of it) often feels like the luckiest spirit alive, because he finds joy in so many things.
On one occasion, he catches Nancy off-guard, announcing that, al, things carefully considered, he is very “content” with his life.
Through Nancy’s words and James & Emma’s song, certain messages shine.
Life’s miracles are always visible to eyes wide open in the moment.
Life’s lessons come to open minds and open hearts from unexpected places.
And contentment comes from somewhere mysterious within.
“Secret Tunnel” is perhaps the most harrowing of the songs, recounting the experiences of Lisa; a young girl, forced to run away from home and testify against an abusive father. How she, with the love, support & protection of friends, stood up for the truth, despite the terror of family disapproval and threats.
The three minute walk through the underground tunnel between the safe house and the court room, where Lisa had to re-live private horrors in public, is like a metaphor for the dark tunnels most of us encounter at some point in life. But the bright beacons of hope, truth and real friendship always shine brightly, if we have the courage to keep walking. Emma’s musical interpretation is both thought provoking and uplifting.
During the concert, I am repeatedly struck, not just by the quality of Emma’s writing, but by her intuition and ability to really feel the experiences of the people in the stories. To stand so completely in another persons shoes, to see the world through another persons eyes, are rare gifts. To skilfully communicate these messages by weaving them into songs which are both listenable and meaningful, rarer still.
At half time, amid the chaotic scramble for the lavatories and the bar, I manage to muscle my way through jostling elbows to say a brief hello to Emma. All aglow with a successful first set, she modestly thanks me for my compliments. On stage, she chats easily and conversationally between songs, bantering with her band, obviously in her element. She’s down to earth, naturally building rapport with her audience. One gets the impression that she takes her music very seriously but herself, not. The opposite of a Diva.
Listening to brief snatches of her own story, in between the songs, I find inspiration. It was only three years ago that she really started seriously pursuing her musical career. Look how far a unique talent and complete dedication can bring someone in so short a time.
Perhaps there is hope for me yet. The second half of the show is as good as the first and as I tap my foot, enjoying myself, I wonder if there will be more volumes of sonic stories from Emma?
“Yes, I’m still being sent stories, and I’m still writing. I haven’t decided exactly how the new ones will be shared with the world, but it’s definitely a project that I want to continue – not only because it has been well-received, but because it’s been a fascinating process for me as an artist.”
So, the lust for learning means the projects rolls on. Which is very good news for fans who missed out on the live launch of Volume One.
Go to the live performance. It’s a profound experience.
As I splash my way to the tube station, I wonder how long it will be before a few more mainstream artists catch onto the idea and invite fans to send in their stories. Recent times have seen greater and growing collaboration between the creators and followers of music. Look at all the Crowdfunding Platforms and direct band to fan contact on Social Media.
Just Imagine; a new era in which the music being made is actually a true reflection of the feelings of the people. Perhaps this evening I witnessed the beginning of a new trend.
Now there’s an exciting thought!
To keep up with Emma’s latest news and download “Somebody’s Story” and the first album “Tourist”, visit the website: https://www.emmaballantine.com