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Interview ‘It is of extreme importance that artists respond to the times we are living in’

Vocalist and 'oral provocateur' GRASSY NOEL tells Chris Searle what inspires his extraordinary new album

ON GRASSY Noel’s new album TemPestuous Times, cut with supporting group APE, there’s real quality in the unique sonic montage that he achieves.

His editor and sound designer Lu Edmunds put in an enormous amount of work in sound-sculpting the tracks. He says: “For him it’s ‘horspiel,’ a mental movie, an odyssey in space and time.”

Noel Grassy Macken picked up his sobriquet in the byways of Brick Lane in East London but he was born in Ireland, where he was brought up on “stories, myth and poetry.” His grandfather loved reciting poetry and songs and gave him an eclectic taste in music, literature, film and theatre and he was writing songs and poetry from an early age.

His songs, delving into the theatrics of the human voice and its ability to express anxiety, desperation, sensitivity and hope, seek to “conjure up and weave into song the ghostly characters and images of Shakespeare, Coleridge, Blake, Turner, Bosch, Brueghel, Bergman and Kubrick.”

In TemPestuous Times, Bergman’s  film The Seventh Seal is a thematic inspiration, referenced many times as the returning medieval knight plays chess with the personification of death who is “sawing down the tree of life.”

Mike Walter’s haunting flute and Paul Shearsmith’s drums create the soundscape of Cherokee, while Noel evokes Trumpery and “Make America Great Again,” Wounded Knee, the Trail of Tears, genocide, segregation and the theft of indigenous peoples’ land and resources.

But hope is powerful too, as Noel cries out: “The bald-headed eagle will fly again/Buffalo will roam again.”

His true poetic love is Blake who, he says, “is crucial to the heartbeat beneath the streets of London, because he gave voice to the marginalised, the oppressed, the disenfranchised — the child sweep, prostitutes, inmates of Bedlam. But he also saw great beauty in the angels of Peckham.”

In his Blake Re-awake, the poet returns to see “the forests of skyscrapers,” the “dunghill earth” buried beneath the Stock Exchange, the victims of austerity and “Grenfell Towers burning.” It is a new, overwhelming nightmare for the man who felt “the mind-forg’d manacles” more than two centuries before but who “lives on in vision” in 2020.

On the track Labyrinths, Noel evokes the agony of a US soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and creates the implosion of yet another American dream: “Gotta go back to the desert Jack/Another tour of duty Jack!” as Walter’s ironic saxophone lyricism weaves into his pain.

“It is of extreme importance that artists respond to the times we are living in — rainforests disappearing from the Amazon to Ghana to Papua New Guinea, indigenous peoples being decimated,” Noel stresses.

The soul of our age teems out of TemPestuous Times. Is it jazz, poetry, sonic cinema or theatre of the mind? No matter. It is there to listen to and take heed of as a vital commentary on our world, the only one we have.

 

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