Whether it’s driving along Highway 40 between Albuquerque and Flagstaff or walking out of a Twickenham pub, there is nothing better than singing “Desolation Row” at the top of my voice. Although a more objective view might be that there is nothing less tuneful than my singing. How come I have no musical talent?
Yesterday, I received two items that made me think about how musical talent can be passed from parents to children. These were an email from my sister with a picture of a newspaper clipping from The Thirties and this CD which came through the post. Some time in the mid Thirties, my Mum left her home in Horsham (in Victoria, Australia) to go and live in Sydney. A newspaper clipping tells the story of her musical prowess. “Last week she was invited as organist to play at the Sydney Stadium on the occasion of the Welcome reception to Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie, former Governor of Malta, and Lady Dobbie, who arrived in Sydney last week. On Wednesday night, she gave a half-hour recital at the Sydney Town Hall when a youth rally was held in connection with the visit.” Up until we moved to Kent in 1966, there was always a piano in our house and I can remember my Mum playing it flamboyantly and with great skill. I’m not sure why we never took the piano with us to Kent but I don’t think she ever played the piano again. My sister and I were encouraged to play the piano and take lessons but, to my eternal regret, I refused to show an interest.
Research would seem to suggest that the ability to identify or recreate a musical note without reference to a reference tone (“Perfect Pitch” or “Absolute Pitch”) is high when musical training starts within the first four years of life. Another research article, which examined the musical ability of twins, suggests that practice is not as significant as genetics. Even more intriguing are the findings that a motivation to practice may also be down to genetics. This doesn’t help me understand myself any more but I know that there are many families where everyone seems to have musical talent. The greatest of these appears to be The Wainwrights.
Loudon Wainwright III is a musical hero of mine. His songs are funny, sad, witty and literate. However, I’m not sure that his personal life is anything that I would like to have emulated. He married Kate McGarrigle in the early Seventies and they had two children Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright. Both of these have extraordinary musical talents. Loudon Wainwright once wrote a song called “Rufus Is A Tit Man” about watching his son breastfeeding. Martha Wainwright once wrote a song about her father called “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”. I have seen Martha Wainwright twice at The Komedia in Brighton and she was very good. Kate McGarrigle was in a musical duo with her sister, calling themselves Kate and Anna McGarrigle. After Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle divorced, Loudon Wainwright had a relationship with Suzzy Roche and they had a daughter, Lucy. Suzzy Roche was in a group with her two sisters called The Roches. Lucy Wainwright Roche has since developed her own musical career. After Loudon Wainwright and Suzzy Roche separated, he married Ritamarie Kelly and they had a daughter, Lexie Kelly Wainwright who also has her own musical career. After that marriage ended in divorce, Loudon Wainwright has lived with Susan Morrison since 2015. If that’s confusing, try to keep up in this song.
The CD that came bursting through the door yesterday morning is a mother-daughter album of sheer delight. There are eleven songs. One was written by Lucy Wainwright Roche, five were written by Suzzy Roche and one is a joint composition. They are all very gentle, featuring great melodies, sympathetic playing and extraordinary harmonies.
Here is Suzzy Roche, speaking about the backdrop to the creation of this album. “My sister Maggie died on the night that Trump was inaugurated. The next day was the Women’s march in Washington. My mother died four months later. We had the #metoo movement, we watched the world spin crazily into lies and mistrust. Racist remarks became normalized, hate speech run of the mill. I’m a middle-aged white lady artist, so what can I do? Sit in my room and write. I’ve never felt particularly essential, but even less so in the face of all this. After a lifetime of making records, I could make a good argument for laying down my guitar. But the nature of creating something out of nothing is that the process happens no matter what you do, seemingly outside of your control. After I wrote a bunch of songs, I narrowed them down as a general feeling began to emerge, and other songs popped up as possible companions for this collection with Lucy.” The pandemic nearly caused the album to be scrapped. Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche went to Nashville to make the album in the spring but after a week the national lockdown forced them to return to their respective homes in Manhattan (Suzzy) and Brooklyn (Lucy) where the constituent parts of the songs were recorded.
The title track was written by Lucy Wainwright Roche and was inspired by the death of Maggie Roche. She hopes her aunt can still remember her because she can still hear her. It’s stunningly beautiful and the accompanying video sums up both the desolate time of lockdown and the hatred in America during Trump’s last months in office.
Suzzy Roche wrote “I Think I Am A Soul” and the song explores the concept of a soul. Can a soul live on after death? What is a wise old soul? Some souls overflow with love. “The soul that I am begs for mercy. The soul that I am loves the night sky and the moon’s face and the silent singing stars”. As with every song, the instrumentation is understated and exists to highlight the beauty of the two voices, whether singing solo or complementing each other wonderfully well.
Here is what Suzzy Roche says about the sublimely beautiful song “Get The Better”. “This is the first song that Lucy and I have collaborated on. It was left on the studio floor during Lucy’s last recording. We kept the words to the chorus and Lucy’s melody, and I wrote the lyrics. I love collaborating when writing a song, because it’s surprising what comes out. This song and ‘I Can Still Hear You’ were both written during the shutdown in NYC. And for me, they capture the mood of those scary days.”
I saw Lucy Wainwright Roche perform with Loudon Wainwright about ten years ago at the Lewes Folk Festival. She had a good voice but nowhere near as good as it is on this album. “Jane” was written by Maggie Roche and the combination of her wonderful voice and the understated brass at the end is breathtaking.
Every song on this album oozes perfection and the whole album resonates with the love, loss, misery and beauty of these strange times. The melodies on this album are so strong that I find myself singing along.