Songs to Break the Spell

Issue 303
July/August 2017
The Pilgrim's Path

The Arts

Songs to Break the Spell
by

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Cover: Painting by Richard Cartwright

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Courtesy of www.ewanmclennan.co.uk

Courtesy of www.ewanmclennan.co.uk

Singer Ewan McLennan tells how he joined activist George Monbiot to highlight the growing epidemic of loneliness.

I’m a folk musician. For years, I’ve been mining the rich seam of traditional song that tells stories from down the centuries – stories of joys, sorrows and struggles. To me this is part of our cultural commons, a beautiful body of work we all stand to inherit that gives us an insight into who we are and provides us with a vital link to generations past.

But I also believe we must add to this tradition, write new songs that speak to our ever-changing times. So when George Monbiot, the journalist, author and activist, approached me with the idea of collaborating on a project of word and song addressing our society’s struggle against loneliness, it immediately appealed.

It all began back in 2014 when George wrote a column for the Guardian on the subject of loneliness. It was a topic that he expected would draw only limited interest, but instead the article went viral, resonating with a great many people and provoking an ongoing discussion.

Citing recent UK studies showing epidemic and unprecedented levels of loneliness in both young and old people, George argued that loneliness is one of the defining features of our age: severe loneliness afflicts the lives of 700,000 men and more than a million women over 50, according to the charity Independent Age (and an even higher proportion of 24- to 30-year-olds are affected); and the health impacts of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. George points towards the bitter irony that all this is taking place in a world more populated and interconnected than ever before in human history.

As part of the response to his article, George received requests from several publishers to write a book on the subject. After contemplating the prospect of spending three years in a room writing about loneliness, he decided another approach might be better!

George had first come across my music back in 2010 when I released my debut album, Rags & Robes; meanwhile I’d read and admired George’s writing for many years. So when I received an email from him out of the blue saying that he was a fan of my music and asking if I wanted to meet for a drink sometime, it was with this mutual appreciation that we did so, striking up a friendship and, subsequently, this collaboration.

We set out by piecing together the many facets of this issue that we wanted to address: the personal experiences and accounts of loneliness; the ideology of rampant individualism that helped create this problem; the inspiring stories of people and communities coming together to overcome loneliness; our relationship with and alienation from Nature; and the story of who we are as human beings – the hyper-social mammal whose survival has in large part depended on cooperation and reciprocity.

We hoped that the emotional power of song, together with the descriptive power of words, would be a good way to convey it all. I would interpret George’s narrative sketches and either set them to music or use them as an inspiration for the lyrics and music I would write. At this point, and with neither of us having had any experience of anything similar, we had no idea quite where this would end up.

It was towards the end of 2015 while I was in Scotland on tour that I received the first sketch from George. As I read over the two pages of loose verse, a narrative of social isolation through the eyes of an elderly woman, I could tell that this project was going to work. I began picking out a melody on the guitar and putting the first words to it that evening, and when I sent George my first draft of the song two weeks later, his reaction was the same.

This initial effort went on to become the song These Four Walls:

I’m stepping out of here, I can’t take it any more
Treading the grooves of a bare old floor
The TV set is turned down low
Familiar faces but none I know
The streets are crowded, but no one meets my eye
Is it me, or has the world gone shy?
The call for company cuts as I walk
An urge to listen, a need to talk
These four walls are standing still
These four walls are standing still

After about six months of working on these sketches I was ready to go into the studio and begin recording the album that we called Breaking the Spell of Loneliness. It was released last autumn and comprises eight original songs, set alongside an essay and notes by George. We also began a tour – a spoken and performed version of the album – that continues to take us across the UK.

The response we’ve received has been fantastic and it’s reinforced to us that this is a topic that resonates with a great many people. We end each concert with a singalong (something quite normal on the folk scene!), before inviting everyone to say hello to someone they don’t know, and then it’s on to the local pub to carry on the conversation and get to know each other a bit. It seems that the often shy and retiring British public need only permission to talk to strangers, and the floodgates open.

We’ve seen many connections made during these end-of-evening get-togethers: strangers exchanging contact details, determined to start a local community group; people newly arrived in a city with few friends, but leaving with a page full of phone numbers and a meet-up planned for the following weekend; the beginnings of a community choir and much more. We’ve also heard many heart-warming stories from people about the projects that are going on to rebuild connections, from community kitchens to street parties, and the successes that some of these are having despite a criminal lack of government support or funding. Wherever possible we’ve been meeting up with these initiatives, hearing about what they do and trying to use each concert as an occasion to shine a light on what is going on locally.

We embarked upon this project with the view that this epidemic of loneliness that we are facing was barely being talked about, let alone acted upon. Whilst the problem has gone nowhere, we have seen along the way that there is in fact a huge amount of inspiring work being done by people up and down the country to begin to repair our torn social fabric. More power to their elbows!

Ewan McLennan is a singer, songwriter and guitarist. To hear some of the songs from Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, visit www.ewanmclennan.co.uk/btsol/

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