Haunting English folkie live & in conversation
by Owen Peters
"It's the first time I've written down all my lyrics and shared them with anyone," Lorraine Wood explains as we sip our respective tea and hot chocolate before her opening set at The Troubadour in London.
Initially, I asked for her lyrics to ease my own confusion. I stumbled across her music when she opened for Robert Chaney at the Servant Jazz Quarters. I heard comments on the night like "Oh that was lovely, or nice or sweet." To my ear, they were edging on an implosion of fucked up emotions. It's all in the telling, a mix of failed relationships, death, lies, loss, deceit.
Within a couple of chords and lines of her opening song at the SJQ, a sense of vulnerability was exposed, caught, fixed in the stage lights. Wood's lyrics are raw, stark and brutally open. She comes across as fragile, isolated as though her life is akin to walking a tightrope.
"I haven't settled into playing live and enjoying the experience. It's always felt a bit like walking the plank. The whole ritual of preparation, sound checks and performance can knock me off balance." I put it to her that audiences don't really get what her songs are about. "I'm not sure, maybe you're right. I don't know." She pauses. "I do get the whole ‘that was lovely' thing quite a lot and I think ‘er... were you listening?' But I kind of know what they mean too."
By her own admission, life has been something of a rollercoaster. At around 21/22 years old, drug induced physical and mental issues turned into ongoing illness. She retreated from her London base, family and friends, dipping in and out of new lifestyles, new cultures, as far afield as India. "I thought I was going to die and had no choice but to radically change things overnight. I gave up drinking, smoking, any kind of drug (I was too afraid to even take a paracetamol for ten years). I tended to be full on with things and burn out, fads came and went. Even now, I don't feel rooted."
The move towards music started to build whilst she was staying in a Buddhist monastery. Considering taking robes made her realize music was something she couldn't give up and had to address in some way. The culmination was a master's degree from Goldsmiths University of London when returning home, where she specialized in experimental and studio composition. However, ongoing depression and a series of bereavements hampered any hopes of Wood fulfilling her hopes to become a composer.
"With songwriting, I'm going back to basics," she says. "It's a complete departure from the kind of music I was making before, but all of that stuff still informs what I'm doing now, even if it doesn't necessarily show in the end result."
Surprisingly, during those turbulent times, she wasn't writing. "I maybe filled one notebook in ten years. I only write songs and notes. That's only been during the past five years or so. There isn't any timescale or plan when I write. Lyrics come slowly in dribs and drabs. Most of my songs are written in the shower." She notes my puzzlement. "When I say write, I mean formulate the ideas in my head." A rare smile breaks out from the pictorial confusion.
When I ask if the process of writing songs is therapeutic, getting them from her head to paper, she says it's just the opposite. "I don't write and get a feeling of being better for the exercise. I'd much prefer to leave some of the details, where they belong, in the past, but they're just a part of the whole thing. Not sure how much control I have over it really."
So where is Lorraine Wood going with her music?
"Well, I will have to change certain aspects about myself that's for sure," she says with purpose. "I find it too easy to say no when people ask me to play. Like I said, I can find performing hard, not enjoyable. Getting myself out there to play more gigs is something I plan on changing. Maybe getting other people involved as well," she explains in her unhurried style.
Wood is clearly not a self-publicist. The songs are written through some sense of personal necessity, occasionally shared with an audience, (though not necessarily for them) from a stage, often misunderstood and misconstrued in meaning. She doesn't have a website, a manager, a label, a list of future gigs or many plans at all. But she does have talent.
Tonight, she has a guitar, describing it as "not friendly," a pulsating headache, feeling a little under the weather. "What a night for you to come along," she says trying ease the headache with another glass of water.
Once on stage, she opens with "Home Run" in which the audience are immediately immersed into her world. The relationship is done. She's soul searching, lamenting the well-worn fact he was never in love with her. Still asking "Why does he send me sad songs?" Her voice trembles, breaks, articulating each painful memory as though it happened yesterday.
Just before Wood closes her first song, a woman asks me why I'm looking at my tablet.. I tell her I'm following the lyrics to each song. "Take a look," I offer. Just in case my new tablet partner doesn't hear every word, she now sees them.
The introduction of "A Watchful Place" is met with audience laughter, "This is a song about a night in a particularly gruesome hotel room with a particularly gruesome man" Wood says, resulting in a few calls of "We've all been there, love." The song covers what is dressed up as a hotel one-nighter (though was actually part of a much longer relationship) The scene is set. He's bought her a new dress and she wears red shoes. He fakes confession, she fakes grace. When the wranglings and misery of narrative are complete and the night is over, Wood's final line epitomizes the emptiness of the morning after: "as the door clicked shut on our lovers' tomb."
Wood doesn't do rhyming ditties which tie up stories with a pretty bow. Instead, she drags you along, conveying her tears, anger and resentment. She takes you to her cliff edge, let's you stare down, then tips you into her abyss.
She keeps her guitar chords to a minimum, used as support to tease the songs along. Some of her compositions are asking for a violin or cello accompaniment. As she agrees, "maybe that's one for the future, though I don't really like conventional instrumentation or arrangement, as a rule."
Whilst her voice is nigh on perfect for her balladeering style, she hits those higher octaves like a hammer on an anvil.
"Clover" is performed close to acapella on the night. The unfriendly guitar offering little accompaniment. It's one of those moments when even the bar staff take a break, fearful of clashing glasses shattering the heavy atmosphere. She told me earlier "Clover" was the only song which she feels happy with. "It's about the many aspects of a friend dying. The impossibility of saying goodbye. Thinking about his widow, his family. Still needing to make a connection and try to make sense of something you can't make sense of."
Wood introduces some songs with self-patronizing humor. "The closest I get to upbeat is bitter." Polite, nervy laughter from her audience. Due to her style and pacing, the audience isn't always sure if songs are completed, with "Clover" being a prime example. Appreciation begins when a brave soul begins a solo clap. It adds even more edginess to the set and her vulnerability on stage.
My tablet had been seconded for the remaining songs, upon its return I ask her comments. "I didn't realize that's what she was singing about," she tells me with genuine surprise. "It's like reading along to someone's world falling apart." Not a bad description...
Although they aren't performed on the night a couple of songs, I did catch her live at SJQ bring out her more playful, humorous side. "Meow" is one for the girls. The lover is defined as "too much of a pussy to eat a little pussy." She makes it clear, if he ain't heading south neither is she. An oral standoff. Good fun when performed live. "Cunt's Prayer" (another one you won't hear on Radio 1) is her description of an ex-lover. She can't work out why but asks God to "Keep him safe make him happy." Why? "‘Cos you love who you love." Probably as uptempo as Wood delves at present.
During the interview, she has a mature calmness, not a fidget, hair re-arranger, face toucher. Topics have been covered with thought and clarity. But oh those quiet moments, she drifts away, off like a seagull in flight searching for a distant shore.
Other than her occasional live gigs, SoundCloud is about the only place you can listen to some of her material. If Wood does play more gigs, get other people involved and "make things happen," I've no idea what's next for her. I'd suggest, neither has she at this time.
If she doesn't make the changes, now that would be a sad song of lost potential. Maybe one for the shower.
Also see Lorraine Wood on Soundcloud
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