I live by the ocean
And during the night
I dive into it
Down to the bottom
Underneath all currents
And drop my anchor
As this is where I’m staying
This is my home
Bjork – The Anchor Song
The sea, lakes, rivers, as long as people have been writing, they’ve been writing about the romanticism and mystery of the great expanses of water. From Ernest Hemmingway to Terry Pratchett, Monet to Turner, Bobby Darin to Robert Wyatt, art of all forms has always taken inspiration from the movement, reflection and intrigue of water.
It’s perhaps the endless possibilities of the sea that appeal to songwriters, the way you can look out to the horizon and only imagine what is waiting for you in the distance. Some sing from the viewpoint of sailors lost at sea, Nick Cave sang in Cabin Fever, of a sailor who, “tallies up his loneliness, notch by notch. For the sea offers nothing to hold or touch”, while The Grateful Dead recalled, “you’re a lost sailor, you’ve been too long at sea, now the shorelines beckon. Yeah, there’s a price for being free”. Other songwriters just look out at the water and wonder at the endless possibilities, Bill Callahan is always following rolling rivers across the scarred land, while Robert Wyatt seemed to spend a lifetime staring out at, “the foam crested brine”.
Some even turn to actually singing about being Pirates, whether it’s Tom Waits asking us to shiver his timbers, The Decemberists writing an entire album of Mariner’s Revenge Songs or Sea’s Of Mirth actually dressing up like pirates, singing songs about pirates, and quite possibly starting to believe they’re actually pirates. Whatever nautical inspiration takes your fancy, someone’s probably already hoisted that mainsail, but worry not, there’s plenty of inspiring water to go around, even if most of it is salty.
A Grawlix is the spiral shaped graphic used to indicate swearing in a comic book. It’s also name borrowed by Wellington-by-way-of-Dunedin indie-folk duo, Grawlixes (not be confused with the also very good British experimenter Grawlix).
Grawlixes are the duo of Robin Cederman and Penelope Esplin, they released their debut album, Set Free, back in July. They self recorded the album in the spare bedroom of their Dunedin apartment, shortly before breaking up. The resulting album is what Robin descibes as, “a skewed version of our relationship”, and a series of, intelligent, infectious songs about relationships and “not being invited to parties”.
The band sound is built around the pairs sense of self-deprecation, stunning boy-girl-harmonies and gently unfurling guitar lines. Set Free is a brilliantly honest record, an unflinching telling of a relationship in all it’s glory and sometimes agony.
Today Grawlixes have put together a mixtape of songs inspired by bodies of water featuring the likes of Okkervil River, French For Rabbits and even Elgar.
1. Van Morrison – Into The Mystic
Van is my absolute favourite so I had to include him here. Featuring those famous opening lines which defy comprehension ‘We were born before the wind, also younger than the sun, ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic’ this is the best thing on his 1970 album, Moondance. The vocal was recorded live with the band when Van was only 24 and you can hear his youth crackling through every note. I adore it. Such great horn arrangements! And for those who aren’t familiar with his work, this is a perfect place to start.
2. French For Rabbits – Claimed By The Sea
French For Rabbits are friends of ours and this is a highlight from their first EP. A beautiful song which places little domestic details in the great sweep of life, accepting ‘This is no longer my house, it’s been claimed by the sea. It was always going to be, claimed by the sea’. Not to be political, but you can’t help but think of Global Warming here, and Brooke’s resignation is more relatable than ever, sadly.
3. Randy Newman – Sail Away
Randy’s an odd figure in today’s musical landscape, with many people probably knowing only his contributions to the Toy Story franchise. This is a song from his 1972 classic ’Sail Away’, and in true Newman style, takes the from of a pitch from an American slave trader to potential slaves, convincing them of the wonderful lives that await them across the Atlantic. ’Climb aboard little wog, sail away with me’ ‘You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree’ – lines like these could only ever be sung by Newman, who’s one of modern music’s great ‘bad’ singers, even better than Dylan for my money. Randy also conducts here, summoning nostalgia for a time we’re surely glad we were not a part of, despite how cosy he manages to make it sound.
4. Bjork – Oceania
From her largely a cappella album Medulla, this song is awesome for all the ocean sounds she manages to evoke – dolphins, sirens, bitter (Islandic?) winds – simply with her voice and clever sound design. Plus, there are a couple of spine-tingling high notes which prove that no-one can put grain on their voice like she can. Bjork actually performed this at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games, demonstrating yet again that she truly is a force of nature.
5. The Dead C – Scarey Next
Dunedin’s tragically under-known experimental/drone-rock saviours The Dead C were never a derivative band, but ‘Scarey Nest’ is as close to Sonic Youth as they ever came. Featuring such out-there elements as a hooky vocal melody, discernible use of chords and danceable drums, this chirpy wee number kicks-off their second album ‘Eusa Kills’. How so much fury came out of a serene coastal village I’ll never know.
6. Okkervil River – Down Down The Deep River
With its eternally uplifting IV – I – V harmonic underpinning, this tale of childhood angst and romanticism (boiled down to a couplet here ’Tossed in the viper pit, all those feelings and fears / all that difficult shit in all those tender years’) is another of those great celebrations of conflicted youth we get from indie-rock. Recalling bands like Arcade Fire and The New Pornographers with its chorus backing vocals ‘Down, down, down the deep river, down, down, down the deep river’ and with a post-chorus horn line that should make Sufjan’s ‘Illinois’ envious, this is as thrilling and turbulent as rolling down a river should be.
7. Elgar – Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato)
From Elgar’s celebrated ‘Enigma Variations’ this piece was inspired by Lady Mary Lygon, a close friend of Elgar, who was a sponsor of local music festivals – something aspiring musicians can get behind! She’s thought to have been on a sea voyage at the time of composition and you can hear the distant throbbing of ocean engines in the drums, and also the tolling of ocean bells in the woodwinds. Really effective mixture of tear-in-the-eye nostalgia and serious foreboding; plus we had to include a classical tune.
8. Mimsy Cable – The Coral Reef
Further nepotism here: we first heard this sultry number back in Dunedin (New Zealand) on the student station Radio1, and then magically happened to run into Mimsy while we were on tour in Barcelona! Flightless birds finding a way eh. She shows such incredible vocal range here, and you’ve got to love those husky low notes in the verses. But perhaps the best thing about it is the haunting guitar line that accompanies her ‘The coral reef’ refrain’, which is exactly the kind of arrangement idea Mac Demacro would take to the headphoned masses in years to come.
Set Free is out now. Click HERE for more information on Grawlixes.