Notes on a disappearance
In the weeks and months after I lost my parents, my young son raised the subject of their deaths constantly, often out of the blue. ‘Your dad is dead,’ he was fond of saying, while I was in the middle of getting him dressed or pouring him some cereal. ‘When I’m a grown-up you will be dead,’ he would occasionally add. He didn’t seem troubled by this; he just seemed to be trying out the idea for size, testing my reaction. Sometimes he would experiment with different ways of saying it. ‘After all of the days we will disappear,’ he announced one day. Now that’s a good title for something, I thought.
Medicine, the opening song on After All Of The Days We Will Disappear, came as a bit of a surprise, since I hadn’t managed to finish any new music since early 2014. This creative block didn’t trouble me, exactly, but it was a long enough gap to make me wonder whether I wasn’t a songwriter anymore. And then, in September 2017, Medicine suddenly appeared in my head, fully formed, a few days after my mum died.
Clearly these two things were connected. For a start, the song is about my mum’s funeral, as well as about songwriting itself, and the strange, complex way that songs can help us process painful experiences while also opening more wounds, often at the same time. But it was only a couple of months later, while discussing ideas for a Medicine video with my filmmaker friend Daniel Warren, that a bigger picture began to emerge.
When I was younger I wrote songs obsessively. I still have almost 40 hours of home recordings that I made between the ages of 15 and 21, between 500 and 600 songs in all, and even those only amount to a fraction of what I actually wrote during that time, finished or half finished, scrawled in dozens of messy notebooks. As a chronically shy teenager, living with (not yet diagnosed) depression and anxiety, songs were how I tried to make sense of the world. Songwriting was how I processed everything I was experiencing while, much of the time, hiding away from it all in the bedroom of my parents’ house in Cumbria. If you were to listen to those 40 hours of recordings in chronological order, you’d hear a raw, sometimes excruciating record of the emotional, sexual and political awakening I went through during that time. By the end you’d probably want to strangle me though, so please don’t.
I wrote much less once I was in my twenties. I still loved making music, and recorded and released two albums with the band Swimmer One and then three more as Seafieldroad. Some of this music got played on the radio and was featured in films and theatre shows. But in hindsight it was probably never destined to be a full-time thing, partly because of a chronic stage fright that limited my enthusiasm for playing live, and partly because by then I had ventured out of my bedroom and found other ways to process what I was going through – conversations and closer relationships with other human beings, and different forms of writing like journalism. As a teenager, compulsive songwriting had been my substitute for all that. It was my safe space, just as much as my childhood home was, and these two things were inextricably linked. What I realised, in talking to Daniel, was that in losing both of my parents (my dad died not long before my mum, at the beginning of 2014) I had lost one of those places of safety. Of course I would try to process this by returning to the other one.
What I don’t know yet is whether Medicine is just a blip, part of the grieving process, a farewell to songwriting as well as a last goodbye to the people who raised me, or the start of a new musical phase in my life. I suspect it’s the former, given that I haven’t written any more new songs since. Also, Medicine feels more like the end of something old than the beginning of something new. But we’ll see. In the meantime, the rest of this new album – the first one I have released under my own name – is a kind of long goodbye to all of the music I have made until now, on which I and Hamish Brown, my Swimmer One bandmate and long-time producer / creative sounding board, have revisited various old songs (unfinished and previously unreleased in some cases) to try and make new sense of them, and perhaps wrap up a few thematic loose ends. The result is an odd combination of solo debut and ‘best of’ collection, a beginning and an end. This website is a companion piece to that project, a chance to look back as well as forward.
Now feels like a good time to be taking stock. In early 2018 my wife Laura and I moved from a tenement flat in one of the busiest streets in Edinburgh to a croft off a one-track road in Uig on the Isle of Lewis, which we share with 21 sheep, a sheep dog, and eight chickens (in addition to our three children and two cats). For our first few months here we were living in an off the grid static caravan with no running water or electricity. At night it is so dark that you can barely see your hand in front of your face, and the only sound you can hear is the sea. Some of our city friends think we’ve gone completely mad; others think we’ve found a kind of paradise. The truth is somewhere in the middle, probably, but it’s certainly made me reflect on what things are most important to me.
I love Uig, and the plan is to settle here permanently, but music – or at least my own music – isn’t really part of my Hebridean life, and I’m not sure I want it to be. Part of this album, though, is a kind of document of our long journey to this place. The path, the beach, the sea is a song cycle blending three songs from two different Seafieldroad albums, originally titled The coastal path, A port in the storm and Islands of the north Atlantic, all of which have been reworked to different degrees. The sounds in between the songs are field recordings made in the places the lyrics describe – Portobello beach (the subject of the first two songs), and the ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway (the subject of the third song) – and a recording of two of my children singing. There’s also a short, newly recorded a cappella piece that bridges the Portobello song and the Lewis song. I’ve always wanted to do a themed song cycle, mainly because of my love of The Ninth Wave and A Sky of Honey by Kate Bush. One day I’d like to try a more ambitious one; in the meantime this is a first attempt.
I thought a lot about the running order of this album. Thematically, the first half consists of me reflecting in various ways on my relationship with my two safe places – songwriting, and my childhood home – and the second half (the bulk of which is taken up by The path, the beach, the sea) is about emerging from those places to explore somewhere new, my life as a parent to my own children, a very different kind of home, and, in the album’s closing song, what I will leave behind for my children when I disappear.
Four of the songs from the album’s first half, Medicine, Don’t let the winter freeze your heart, I run a music store and Hanging, are all, in part, about the limitations of art and the inadequacy of artists, a recurring theme in my writing, probably due to a lack of confidence in my own talents. The oldest of these songs, I run a music store, was recorded way back in 2007. It didn’t sound enough like Swimmer One to make it on to a Swimmer One album, and later it didn’t sound enough like Seafieldroad to go on a Seafieldroad album either, so instead it sat in a metaphorical cupboard gathering metaphorical dust for ten years. But I’m fond of it and I’m glad it’s finally found a home. Hamish gave it a fresh coat of paint before sending it out into the world. Don’t let the winter freeze your heart and Hanging – originally Seafieldroad songs – now have extra instrumentation too, including live drums by Stu Brown of Herschel 36, recorded at a studio in Glasgow that (I was thrilled to discover) used to belong to the Blue Nile. I think both are much better as a result – the original version of Hanging wasn’t much more than a sketch – but if you disagree you can always revisit the originals.
Another previously unreleased song, The white noise, is a remnant of an abandoned experiment from 2015. At the time I was looking after a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son, often on my own, and it was proving virtually impossible to spend any time with a musical instrument. But I still had some half-formed melodies buzzing around my head, so I decided I should try and record an album of a cappella songs – songs I could theoretically work on while carrying a baby. However it turned out I wasn’t interested enough in making a cappella songs to actually finish any of them. The white noise is the only one we attempted to record, and Hamish’s scepticism throughout the whole process was conspicuous. You’ll notice we’ve now added instruments to it. In case you were wondering, it’s a song about anxiety and privilege, and the sense of guilt associated with feeling mentally unwell when you know your life is pretty good compared to a lot of people’s. (I can’t remember, but I suspect it was written in the middle of the night with a baby in my arms, both of us exhausted but unable to sleep).
The two remaining tracks are completely new recordings of old songs. Enchanted / Alright is a cover of two classics that meant a lot to my parents. Some Enchanted Evening (by Rodgers and Hammerstein, from the musical South Pacific) is how my dad remembered the first time he met my mum. It’s Alright With Me (by Cole Porter) is how my mum remembered the same meeting. He was falling in love for the first time. She was recovering from a traumatic loss, of an ex-boyfriend who had taken his own life shortly after breaking off their engagement. To Dad, Mum was the beautiful stranger glimpsed across a crowded room, whose “laughter will sing in your dreams”. He took the advice in the song (“When you find your true love…. Fly to her side and make her your own”) very much to heart; he wrote to her every day the first Christmas they were apart, soon after they met. To Mum, by contrast, Dad was the wrong face, the wrong time, the wrong place, but he was so charming that my mum decided that, as the song concludes, “it’s alright with me”. The loss of her first fiancé haunted my mum for the rest of her life, but it was Dad’s love for her, in the end, that helped her get over it, and they were married for over 50 years. Enchanted / Alright – another idea that came to me shortly after my mum’s funeral – is a farewell to them both, a juxtaposition of two very different love songs, one naïve and idealistic, one borne of experience of heartbreak. (Another reading of it is as a conversation about love between someone’s older and younger selves, which also makes it a good fit on an album of songs written over the course of more than a decade.)
I put Enchanted / Alright in the middle of the running order deliberately, so that a song about the beginning of my parents’ life-long love for each other is followed by a series of songs from my own marriage – a love story one generation on, in which a third generation, my own children, gradually makes its presence felt. As the second half of the album progresses, six decades pass. By the end I’m on my deathbed, singing Dead orchestras. This song is also a cover version, in a way – a very different and completely new recording of a Swimmer One song from 2010. I always had a nagging feeling that the music, which was written pretty much entirely by Hamish, didn’t quite gel with the lyrics I wrote for it, which are about the memories and mementos (songs, in particular) that our children inherit when we die. Dead Orchestras is, in other words, about songs like Some Enchanted Evening and It’s Alright with Me, so it felt as if this and Enchanted / Alright would fit neatly together in the same place. If you want to hear the original version, you’ll find it on Swimmer One’s second album, also called Dead orchestras.
In some ways this album feels like a companion piece to The Winter of 88, my last album as Seafieldroad, which was very much shaped by my dad’s death in January 2014. Something they don’t tell you about grief is that it can start long before someone dies. I was already grieving for my dad when he became ill, as his body began to fail him and his memory began to disappear, and we could no longer go walking together or have the kinds of conversations we used to have, about politics, philosophy, language, the state of the world. If The Winter of 88 was shaped by the first stage of grief, I think this album was shaped by the final stage, the process of acceptance and moving forward (hence the title, a child’s remarkably clear-sighted acknowledgement of death). It feels fitting that much of the second half of the album is about journeys to new homes – first to Portobello in Edinburgh, where I lived for several years, and then on to the Hebrides.
My parents’ deaths were very different. Although my dad was clearly not well, his death was still a shock, just two weeks after a stroke; I was preparing for him to come home again, not for him to die, and I wished I’d had more time with him. My mum, by contrast, had dementia and had been confined to a bed in a nursing home for a whole year before she died, gradually fading away. For the whole of that year it was unclear whether she even knew who I was or, by the end, whether I was in the room with her or not. I said goodbye many times, always preparing myself for the possibility that she would have quietly passed away before I was able to visit again. I had, in some ways, grieved already – not that I have stopped exactly, or will ever completely stop, but when she was gone I felt not shock but a kind of relief. It was a peaceful death, and wouldn’t have been at all frightening for her. When dad died she was heartbroken, but by the time she drifted into her final sleep she seemed to have forgotten him, and the rest of us, completely.
The loss of my parents is one of the main reasons why this album is being released under the name Andrew Eaton-Lewis – the first time I have released anything using my own name. I have, in a sense, ‘gone solo’, and wanted to help keep the Eaton name alive – both of my sisters took their husbands’ names when they got married. But it feels right that Lewis is in there too. It’s not because I’m living on Lewis – Eaton-Lewis is my married name, and was long before we even thought about moving here – but it made sense at this point in my life to release an album under a name that is partly my legacy, partly my own choice, a name emblematic of both my past and my present, of childhood and adulthood. It’s a neat little coincidence that it also includes the name of the place where I now live.
When I met Daniel to discuss making that film for Medicine, the only idea I had was that it should be something very simple, with me singing straight to camera, because I’d never made a video like that before and it seemed to suit the directness of the song.
Daniel came up with a more developed version of that idea, which was for me to film myself singing the song in various different places over the course of a few months, and for him to edit the footage. He’d noticed that I had a lot going on in my life – a new baby on the way, a move from Edinburgh to the Hebrides – and perhaps thought it would be interesting to document this. Medicine the film doesn’t quite do that; I was too self-conscious to film myself singing the song on the school run, or at work, or on social occasions, so it’s all me on my own. However it does capture a particular moment in my life, in the process of moving between two places, not quite settled in either. Two of the sequences I filmed were of me feeding our chickens – in our back garden in Edinburgh in the winter snow, and on our croft in the spring sunshine. It feels like a good introduction to this album, which is also about transitioning from one place to another, in all sorts of ways. It’s also emboldened me to make some more films for the other songs on this album. I make no claim to be a filmmaker but it seemed like a good way of sharing these songs that doesn’t involve having to sing them on a stage.
The artwork for the album is a screen grab from one of the sequences I filmed for Dan – shot from a laptop that was sitting inside my camper van as I walked down the hill to the shore of a loch a few miles from where I live in Uig. I like how small the figure is in the landscape, and that he is facing away from the camera. I like that it’s an ambiguous image, like an old, unlabelled family photo that could be of anyone, anywhere; I deliberately chose a place in Uig that even a local might struggle to identify from the image, unless they happened to know that particular jetty very well. I like that it looks as if he’s about to make a decision but that there’s no way of telling what that decision is. What’s going on in his mind? Is he just enjoying the view of the mountain above them? Is he thinking about throwing himself into the water? Does he even know he’s being photographed? Come to think of it, is this person a he at all? If you didn’t know it was me you wouldn’t be able to tell. Neither would you be able to tell when it was taken or how old the person is.
It is, in other words, a portrait of me in which I have more or less disappeared. It feels appropriate. As pleased as I am with this album, I already feel slightly detached from it. These songs document a part of my life from which I have already moved on. Unless there is a sudden, irresistible demand for it I won’t be playing them live. It’s quite possible I’ll never release any music again.
If you’re new to this music, and are disappointed by this news, I’m sorry. You’ll just need to listen to the back catalogue instead – The Regional Variations and Dead Orchestras by Swimmer One, my three albums as Seafieldroad and, if you’re really interested, those teenage demos. I’m proud of all this music, but right now I have children to raise, animals to look after, and other work to do.
Andrew Eaton-Lewis, October 2018