Discover more from All The Songs
The middle space between light and nowhere
Let's listen over and over to Ebony Lamb's new album, read about single life through the lens of a Joni Mitchell record, have a boy tell us he wants us to love Antony & The Johnsons (and him?)
Welcome to All The Songs. We use “soundtrack” as a verb here.
Since seeing her play live last weekend in Paekākāriki, I’ve had Ebony Lamb’s self-titled solo debut on repeat.
All The Songs is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This isn’t Ebony Lamb’s first record - she released a few louder alt-country Americana-ish albums with her previous band Eb & Sparrow, which so many people loved - but this is her first solo effort under her own name. It is a singer-songwriter style album, strong folk that blends beautifully into dream pop.
She has distinctive vocals. Her voice is textured, it is honey and whiskey and smoke, a fragile sound that she harnesses with careful intensity.
It is a tight, well-crafted album. The songs feel perfected, and reading about the making of the record that makes sense - you can hear how these songs were honed over and over during the Covid-19 years that temporarily killed touring. She held the songs back and refined them expertly, working with Bic Runga and Kody Nielson to produce the final album. The result is a record where the tracks are all killer: there is no filler.
The album leaves me feeling equal parts haunted and comforted.
Its lyrics are at times mournful, yearning, confessing, reflective. It is swept up in emotions but grounded in the natural elements of the seaside. While working through themes like navigating relationships and taming the seductive pull of nostalgia, the ocean keeps coming up in the lyrics.
I want to know, what happened to our sea - ‘Salt Sand Sea’
I’m talking into an ocean … I can see the waves getting high - ‘Brother Get Me Home’
You can make it to shore, but want to know how to swim - ‘Swim To Me’
From the crest of the wave out to eternity … I ride this way out to sea - ‘Star Confessor’
For such a rich record, it seems surprising that it’s only just over half an hour long. I put it on at 4pm in the office to get through the last bit of a work day then was taken aback I still had half an hour of work to do when it finished. It gives the listener so much in its compact playing time.
I was lucky to see Ebony Lamb play these songs a couple years before they were released, in an intimate show held upstairs at Wellington’s iconic vintage clothing store Hunters & Collectors. Partway through the set, everyone’s phones began to honk: another lockdown was coming. We knew it would be, but we’d come out anyway to greedily soak up the music. The song ‘Midnight Is My Name’ stayed with me that night. I misheard the lyrics “I was right into you the whole time” as “I was writing to you the whole time”. Despite my mistake that line has looped through my mind many times since that show. After living with the song so long, it’s lovely to finally have it recorded on vinyl. The album was released on Nadia Reid’s label Slow Time Records - I got the special edition red version.
I can see myself reaching for this record when I’m in the mood for something like the first Phoebe Bridgers album, for calmer Neko Case or Fiona Apple or Heather Nova songs, the more wistful Fleetwood Mac numbers, the edgier Sharon van Etten tracks, or Gillian Welch.
London poet Amy Key’s memoir Arrangements In Blue (Notes on Love and Making A Life) considers her own experiences against each track of her most-beloved Joni Mitchell album, Blue.
Her attachment to the album is both a structural device for the book and a spiritual kinship. Amy Key sees herself reflected in the songs and feels herself now, as an adult, experiencing the same emotions she did first falling in love with the record in her teens. It has travelled with her through a lot of life.
I feel that way about PJ Harvey’s Stories From The City, Stories From Sea: however much I’m apparently a grown up, I’m always fourteen and flopped on my bed scrapbooking in my journal while playing the album because that’s how the music and I first connected.
Like returning to the city were you grew up to walk through it as an adult, listening to music you got to know intimately in your teens is part memory, part empowerment, part spiritual grounding, part visit with someone/something you trust and can summon up at will for a dose of all you need. That PJ Harvey record gives me the same nourishment as walking through the Three Lamps end of Ponsonby Rd - it’s been with me so long, it has become part of me.
Amy Key reflects mostly in the book on her experience as a single woman. She has been without a longterm relationship for most of her adult life and missed out on becoming a mother. The book describes heartbreakingly how she tried and ultimately failed to conceive artificially on her own, and while wanting a child is not something I relate to at all, she captures her journey and the evolving emotional terrain around it honestly.
She considers how to feel whole as a single person with so few inspirational figures or examples. “I want to fix myself in place. To have a voice that isn’t corrupted…a personal branch of the family tree. And though I’ve never felt that marriage was something I had to do, something that I was absolutely destined for, I realised I’ve been mentally holding space for it.”
The book does talk often about Joni Mitchell, but its heart is Amy Key’s struggle to feel enough alone and not as if she is in waiting for her future with a partner to start, while also acknowledging she does desire romantic love. Her friends are her family. Her cats are her family. Poetry is her family.
If you were to write a memoir linked to each song of an album, a record whose narrative so closely explains your own experience, what would it be? Mine is Jenny Lewis’s On The Line.
Many evenings pass me by without turning on the TV. We put on records, read books, take baths, talk to each other or our friends. I love my life.
A show we recently watched was a charming Argentinian programme called Nada.
It features a cranky, particular food critic and his old American pal, played by Robert De Niro. For most of the show we see the food critic go about his business in Argentina, preparing and eating exceptional food while explaining why it is so perfectly delicious. Not much happens. It’s sweet. There are stunning close-ups of pastry.
It’s almost summer so let’s eat salad. I love a thrown-together salad made from vegetables you prepared earlier, a grain, some herbs, a dressing.
This one is roasted carrots, beetroot and broccoli with cooked cooled brown rice, raw baby spinach, fresh mint, sultanas, a squeeze of lemon, some olive oil and salt, and a drizzle of tahini. That’s not a recipe as such, but you’ll figure it out.
Everyone I’ve Ever Loved & All The Songs That Remind Me Of Them
For this memoir-by-playlist project, I write 500 words on my memories of a song. These vignettes offer a glimpse in to the rich and varied emotions we all experience in our lifetimes through showing a brief slice of my life at a particular time, in how I relate to a certain song. What the music brings up might be shallow or it could be intense. The memory may be joyful or thick with sorrow, a reflection on pleasure or a heavy exploration of fear. Whatever emotions a song dredges up from the spectrum of human feeling, they are true.
I remember snippets alongside songs. This is the soundtrack to my life. Let me be clear: Everyone I’ve Ever Loved & All The Songs That Remind Me Of Them is not a curated selection of the coolest songs I want to associate myself with. Some of them are my jam, others are trashy and catchy - all manner of music has been part of my life.
This project invites the reader to consider, where does this song take you? What does it remind you of? Where were you in your life when you last listened to this track?
‘Hope There’s Someone’ by Antony & The Johnsons
My crush is driving me home after a date. In his Mazda hatchback on Mercury Lane, he fumbles with the stereo in his car, apologising for the trash in the passenger seat footwell.
We were introduced by his friend. I can’t wait for you guys to meet, the friend told me one night as we smoked cigarettes in the courtyard of the Kings Arms, waiting for The Mint Chicks to come on stage. You really have to meet him, he’d repeat, when I mentioned yet another band I loved that happened to be one of his friend’s favourites.
The night of our first date, I wear a vintage mustard coloured dress with a black check pattern that I bought at Fast And Loose in St Kevin’s Arcade. It has a sweetheart neckline and a black belt cinching my waist. I straighten my hair and draw on winged eyeliner, feed my cats and down a glass of cheap supermarket sauvignon blanc before walking to meet him, listening to Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People on my iPod on the way to The Wine Cellar.
Snuggled up in a booth, we tell each other what our all time top five songs are. Two of mine are Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘So Long Marianne’. Three of his are Nick Cave numbers, which he insists is not cheating.
I feel myself getting drunk, slipping down in the booth leaning against this person who somehow feels exciting although I don’t know much about him. Where did you come from, he asks, amused wonder in his eyes.
We dance after that at another bar nearby, switching from red wine to Asahi beer and talking about friends. He asks who my best friend is and I feel caught out, I don’t want him to see that I don’t have many friends at the time. I have my work and whoever I’m dating, but I am isolated. I’ve lost touch with school friends for now. Sex is an easier way of socialising than making actual friends.
At the Turkish place, he insists I eat something before he takes me home.
In his car, he puts on a band he tells me is called Antony & The Johnsons, saying, I just want everyone to fall in love with his voice.
A piano note fills the car then a warm vibrating voice sings tenderly, ‘Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me, when I die’. The voice rises, singing of a ghost on the horizon and confiding how afraid they are of death.
Soon, I’ll be offended when the boy says goodbye at my door, but he’ll text tomorrow.
For four minutes and twenty seconds we sit in the dark like the song is a theme park ride we’re strapped in to - we cannot move until it reaches completion, bound to the piano ballad and its themes of existential yearning, fear, romance. The voice becomes ghost-like in the final moments of the song.
‘Whisper’ by serpentwithfeet
I order a Super Green Goddess salad at a place on North Michigan Avenue on the way to Chicago’s Art Institute - black lentils, chickpeas, roasted sweet potatoes, raw carrots, spicy broccoli, shredded cabbage, raw beets, roasted almonds, baby spinach, shredded kale, green goddess ranch. I feel awkward waiting as the girl who serves me gathers the ingredients for my meal. Making me a nourishing dinner seems like an act of love. This kindness makes me feel uncomfortable in its generosity.
I’m beginning to tire of the crowds at the Pitchfork Midwinter festival but I’ve got two hours until Panda Bear’s set. I walk through the Art Institute gallery and find a section with Chinese, Japanese and Korean art. Ceramic goods of all kinds, made throughout history. Ancient, beautiful trinkets and vessels and objects. I study each piece in detail. I read the little descriptions on each object: jar with figural scenes and poem describing the Osmanthus and moon, Qing Dynasty. Porcelain painted in overglaze enamels. Incense burner in the form of a duck, Song Dynasty.
I’d looked up serpentwithfeet online, his work described with the phrase ‘baroque pop’. My all-time favourite band Broken Social Scene is also described using that term. I make a point of not streaming serpentwithfeet’s songs first, so I can be surprised.
The performance is in a low-ceilinged dark room, named something like the Stock Exchange. He’s already on stage. There are spaces where people could stand towards the back. But up the front, at his feet below the stage, there is a tight throng of devoted people. I navigate my way through the crowd, grateful for the darkness I can disappear in to.
He’s wearing a white turtleneck, several layered gold chains and a huge blue puffer jacket. He has decorated his goatee with glitter.
serpentwithfeet’s voice and bold warm energy fill the room. He strikes me immediately as a sensitive, pained person. The lyrics are deeply revealing and personal. He sings delicately. His voice is heartfelt and swelling, an R&B vocal style with operatic flourishes over a rich background of dark electronic instrumentation. There are large screens behind him displaying moving, pulsing abstract shapes, and a keyboard on one side of the stage. His voice is beautiful.
He is shifting across the stage, teasing the crowd by singing at the edge of the stage then walking a few metres in the other direction.
‘You can place your burden on my chest’, he sings, ‘the best parts of you lie at the bottom of you, I love you from the space beneath my feet. And beneath that. And beneath that.’
The people around me are silenced, watching the rich emotions roll out of this man. It’s impossible to not be affected. I feel like I’ve been given permission to feel.
After the set, I am shaken and completely wrung out. My forearms and calves feel like they’re tingling with little sparks. My breath has quickened. I keep gulping air. Outside, it is still snowing.
A note on Antony & The Johnsons
In this month’s installment of Everyone I’ve Ever Loved & All The Songs That Remind Me Of Them, I talk about a song by Antony & The Johnsons, who are currently known as Anohni & The Johnsons. The lead singer and songwriter Anohni (she/her) was previously known as Antony. When the conversation referred to here took place, in the mid-2000s, the band was known as Antony & The Johnsons. Today it is incorrect and against her wishes to use he/him pronouns for Anohni, but at the time, the person who introduced me to the band referred to Anohni’s vocals as “his voice”. My copy of I Am A Bird Now, the album the song comes from, was released as an Antony & The Johnsons record in 2005. I debated how to refer to Anohni in writing today but decided because the piece is a description of what took place in the past, I used the wording that was used back then. This isn’t the language we would use today, but it is how it was described at the time. I, too, want everyone to fall in love with her voice.
A note on serpentwithfeet
serpentwithfeet is always gonna be from Baltimore: this 2016 profile describes his work as pagan gospel
“I’ve done angst, it was fun” - serpentwithfeet talking in 2021 about celebrating queer Black romance, embracing himself and being mentored by Björk
Pitchfork has published footage of one of the songs from the performance I wrote about in this instalment. It is online here.
Once you’ve recovered from the fact serpentwithfeet once had the word ‘suicide’ tattooed on his forehead, bask in the joyful loved-up sweetness of his song ‘Same Size Shoe’ and the knowledge life continually renews all our hearts.
Previous instalments of Everyone I’ve Ever Loved & All The Songs That Remind Me of Them
All The Songs is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.