MJ Fitz

With Martyn Joseph's new record 1960 just released, I took a chance to ask him a few quick questions about how it came together.


Martyn, when you come to new album time you have to ask what this time? Did a 60th birthday make that decision easy this time?

Lockdown meant that my usual schedule was de railed and I had time to reflect and ponder something of the journey to this point. Crossing the threshold of 60 years on the planet brought mix emotions and it led to me analysing my life to this point. 


So your 60th year was celebrated on social media from the depths of a pandemic. How much of this was written pre-Covid and how much did that influence the mood and content of 1960?

Hardly any of it was written pre Covid. There may have been the odd idea or sketch of a lyric but, no, this was mostly birthed in the months when, for the first time in a very long time, I couldn’t travel and play shows. Id always said I wished I sold enough records to be able to take a break from touring, well, be careful what you wish for! 


You are very honest about your foibles and quirks yet there is a deep sense of contentedness in this song cycle. Is that fair observation?

Yeh I think so. In the verses of Born Too Late there is a longing for more and the questions surrounding what might have been. The chorus urges reflective wisdom and  a re evaluation of of your hearts desire.


There Is A Field is not the first time that you have channeled Rumi. I discovered this idea in  Colum McCann's amazing book Apeirogon? Have you read that? 

I haven’t but I will now. Great thing about Rumi is you don’t have to pay royalties :)


Oh you need to read it. You'll love it.

I so love the utter treat of Witchita Lineman as a hidden track. Tell me you read Dylan Jones's book on that song? 

Oh yeh I did. The first single I bought was Honey Come Back by Glen Campbell and that led me quickly to Witchita Lineman. It's one hell of a song and speaks on many different levels. I’m often surprised by the things it brings to mind as I play it.


Has Jimmy Webb always been an influence or has that been more recent?

No he’s been on my mind a long time. There is a solo album of his called Ten Easy Pieces which someone bought for me in the early nineties. It’s just him playing his great catalogue at the piano. I play it often, it's a stunning record.


I love Ten Easy Pieces.

You are ever reading books, watching movies and listening to records. Any other influences in these songs?

We Are Made Of Stars was heavily influenced by a book called  Searching For Stars On An Island In Maine by Alan Lightman. Its about the authors description of the tension between science and faith


Joni and CSN&Y get name checked in Born Too Late. Are there's the houses in Laurel Canyon that you wish you had been honing your craft in?

Well its a lovely thought but I would have been 11 years old and with nothing to add to the story in that moment. But yeh, it's a thought that I might have missed an era that speaks well to what I do by ten years or so. But you can’t dwell on that too much, you have to get to the chorus!


Almost 30 years since you wrote Carried In Sunlight for your Granda. Now it's Shadow Boxing for your dad. Tough times but a beautifully cathartic song for so many of us going through the same. 

Yeh. Carried In Sunlight was a gentle song whereas Shadow Boxing is tougher, less poetic maybe and more angry. And again I’m recalling my journey within the relationship I had with Dad. He wanted me tougher but I became a guitar player:) It’s a joy though when folk say that the song helps. Thats kind of the job you know, letting folk know they are not alone. 


The album ends with lashings of hope. You've always been a self confessed realist but you have always relieved us from your gloom by dashes of hope. Did you feel that in Covid times it was more important to emphasise that hope?

For all the devastation it has brought Its been interesting to see the goodwill and hope as we try to get on with our lives and bring comfort to those who’s worlds have been shattered. The reality is that this sort of existence has been ‘life’ for folk in developing countries for many years. I do think there is some more compassion floating around and kindness too. I'm an optimist underneath everything, the glass is half full. So the answer is yes!


Read my review of 1960... HERE



With her stunning new album Growing Wild just released I spoke to Yvonne Lyon about her amazing collaborations and what inspired the record. Yvonne had fun sharing stories of the album's making, insightful about the themes within the songs and very honest about her depression and how her art is cathartic. 


STOCKMAN: This seems a work with a mission of cataloguing the maturing process? Did you set out with that in mind?

YVONNE LYON: I didn't set out with that in mind. Life has a habit of 'maturing' you. The challenge is what that looks like. I think this is a manifesto against 'maturing' in the negative sense of growing older, cynical, closed, disappointed, set in your ways, more fearful. 

It's an invitation to expand, not to contract which seems to me, as I look around, how it goes for folk a lot of the time. I could feel myself contracting and I knew it wasn't healthy. I suppose what happens is, most of us have a bit of a mid-life crisis at this stage. SO this is my mid-life crisis album.

I had suffered mild depression (probably have most of my life). About 5 years ago after enjoying the most amazing ride of opening for Eddi Reader for 10 nights I…

Something negative was going on though and I began to experience a lot of performance anxiety (again, I've probably experienced this most of my life but hid it well!) SO I went on a therapy journey...just at the right time because then I experienced a significant trauma AND my Dad had a stroke which has left him needing full time care. 

An amazing counsellor has taken me on a very helpful journey and I knew it would come out in song at some Growing Wild is my way of going through a mid - life crisis, some pretty shitty times and choosing to distill those experiences and hopefully make something beautiful and connecting with them

Sorry for the psycho babble...but it's true! I have also gone on a journey of re connecting with who I actually am as a creative.

So.....why was I finding performing so difficult....because it's not the essence of my creativity. The essence is 6 year old me sitting at a piano making stuff up and getting lost in a world of melody, rhythm and harmony before I even knew what they were. I realised that's what brings me joy and that's what i need to tap into creatively and do more of.....So that is a strong thread running through Growing WIld. Learning how to 'play' again!


Frederick Buechner once wrote that art was opening a vein and letting it bleed over the page... that can be a help... but it must be hard?

Songwriting has always been cathartic for me. I think I am my most vulnerable on this album. Enough was a particularly tough song for me to write, to express true but not just spill all over the page. Again, that's where the distillation comes. I think pain can be transformed into beauty and that is part of the artist's journey


I want to get into the different writing processes with all those amazing co-writers BUT How do you bring various writers into one theme...

Again, not a conscious decision. But my overall feeling was...I get to know these people...I'm just going to write with them and see what happens.

INSTINCT is the big word for instinct was seriously stamped on over a few years. Growing Wild is reclaiming sending an idea to Boo TOTALLY on instinct...or getting in touch with a a complete stranger visual artist to paint ma big bonce….

I LOVED the opportunity to commission Michael Corr to paint the artwork

Again, an instinctual decision. As a frustrated visual artist myself, the artwork for each album has always been important in integrating the concepts and themes.


So, let me start with Stewart. You have been working with him for a little while. Does he ask for a theme and send you a lyric that you put music to?

It's so much fun and I had forgotten that these moments often lead to fascinating things!

Vesper Sky was a complete joy to create with Stewart and I was keen to continue that creative thread into Growing Wild. Normally it's a conversation we have that sparks something, we tend to ignite little fires of ideas in each other. He'll usually send me a broad brushstroke of a lyric and I will set it to music. 

However, I have been contributing my fair share of lyrics to Stewart's lyrics too. Nice when someone can't tell which is a Stewart lyric and which is mine. He has become a wonderful teacher and mentor and inspires me to write poetry. 

The song Growing Wild: I gave him the theme, he came back with a big splurge, we moulded it together music. 

We Accumulate The Years is very much from Stewart and was an idea he just sent to me before Growing Wild was conceived. I LOVED playing with this. This is definitely a continuation of new creative ground for me on Vesper Sky.


I imagine that it is more two in a room bashing out guitars and lyrics with Boo and Beth? Though I am not sure Boo ever bashes!

With Beth Nielson Chapman it was a real pinch me moment. We had met and worked together but I found myself at her front door in Brentwood, in the suburbs of Nashville, with my guitar for our first session about 3 years ago. 

I have been a fan since I saw her at The Fruitmarket in Glasgow when I was 18. I remember thinking - if I could write songs half as beautiful and meaningful as that I'd be happy! 

We chatted for ages and talked ourselves into the subject matter. It was interesting because the hook line came and then Beth realised that she had an album of the same name but not a song for it. We did bash away in her music room for a while and then it sat for a year or so. We came back to it again on my next trip to Nashville and then finally remotely when I started putting Growing Wild together.



Boo and I seem to spark ideas with each other a lot. We click very easily. I sent him the theme and a general splurge about A Bigger Heart. By the end of the night, he had written half the song in his dressing room, played it to his audience in the second half of his gig and emailed to tell me they wanted to buy it!

We worked remotely back and forward so were never in the same room for this one.


And our good friends Julie and Dan in Nashvile?

Julie and I have developed a lovely friendship over the years. I took the melody and chords of Winter Ground to her tiny house and she had had an idea for a migration song, she began to read the lines from her notebook and they just sung out to be matched. We worked away together on it and left it for a couple of years. 

We invited Dan Wheeler in on it when we got stuck of a middle eight. He provided the words and I set it to music. What's nice is that we introduced Dan to Julie and they are now a firm writing partnership

These are actually pretty cool's nice to be able to communicate them!


So, I am hearing Compass Hill and thinking that this is her Eddi Reader moment and then... there she is. How did that come about?

That'll be Eddi! I toured with her for 10 nights back a few years back

Sent her a wee message. At first she said no as she wasn't well but with the pandemic, by the time we got round to recording this one, I asked her again and she said yes! It was all done remotely under lockdown

Her son Sam recorded her vocal for us.


Eilidh Patterson? Another wonderful writer in her own right. Did you meet her through Beth? 

EILIDH!!!!!! We have become firm friends. It was actually an agent JJ. He put us on the same bill. But Julie, Beth and Ruth Trimble had been saying 'You REALLY need to meet Eilidh!

Eilidh and I have toured together and absolutely love singing with each other. I sang on one of her albums and it is hilarious because sometimes we can't tell who is who on backing vocals There's a sibling quality to when we sing. We did a Celtic Connections gig Eilidh/Ruth and I and many folks were blown away by our voices together...complete strangers saying it was their highlight of Celtic Connections......I SO wish we could do more together.


What I love is that you have taken all these different people, added them to your whiskey blend and still made a very Yvonne Lyon record. Was keeping you identity in it all easy?

Well, I suppose the songs are always 'me' so if it's starting from there as 'the grain' then they are the sugar and spice

The biggest departure was the Boo song, stylistically. 

But the spirit of Growing Wild is experimentation anyway, so with songs like Illuminate, Insignificant and We Accumulate the Years, musically I have pushed and pulled myself too


These are great insights. Any other stories about the making of the record you'd like a chance to talk about?

Illuminate was a last minute contender. I had been reading a book by Mirabi Starr called Wild Mercy and the word Illuminate kept coming up. All I knew was that I needed to write a song with that word in the title. AND I wanted a powerful piano motif type song. It made it on by the skin of its teeth. We really experimented on the sound of this one. Sandy Jones was producing with me throughout. He introduced a fantastic sound palette which chimed with me for us to play with with samples and nuances that are heard throughout the album.

I'm hoping to get vinyl made for the first time on this one

The mixing and mastering was done by Graeme Duffin at his house but we only got a few days before lockdown prevented us. SO it was all finished remotely.

The magic and mystery that Pete Harvey on cello and Seonaid Aitken bring always astounds me but particularly on this record.

I began purposely writing towards Growing Wild in May 2019 with a gap between recording in 2019 and 2020 so this has been the longest gestation period for me....and I've loved it! Note to self for the future.


So you send it out there... people do what they will with it... what would you like listeners to get from Growing Wild?

As always its about connection and resonance. I would hope that people will hear an evolution and an expansion. I hope some of the distillation and healing that I have experienced infuses the songs.


Sweet Wild Lily

Just as lock down began I interviewed Glenarm songwriter who now lives and works in Nashville. Now, a few months later, Ben has sent out the second song and title track off his soon to be released EP Sweet Wild Lily. So I thought I'd ask Ben about the song, the EP and how he goes about co-writing songs. 


Last time we spoke was near the start of lockdown. How has life been since?

On a personal level, things are fine, Steve. Family and friends have stayed healthy and everyone seems to be doing as best they can. I think we spoke last back in April and my routine hasn’t changed much, to be honest. The limitations on travelling mean of course that I can’t tour for the foreseeable future so that has been a major adjustment. My work life, like so many others’, has shifted to the virtual space of Zoom. I do all my co-writing via that medium now, something which is fine with writers that I had an ‘in-person’ writing relationship established with, but it’s something I’m reluctant to do with someone I don’t know particularly well. My biggest frustration is not being able to get back home to Ireland since January. That is very difficult and a big challenge. That has been the toughest aspect of this year without a doubt. 


You are obviously in Nashville. Do you sense a difference of experience than your family back in Glenarm?

I think it’s similar on many levels. We’re all doing our very best to stay safe, healthy and responsible. Family on both sides of the Atlantic are doing what they can to stay within their bubble. What does make this experience contrasting is the political climate in the US at the moment. That atmosphere has made the pandemic in the US political and it has intensified it all here. 


And what about the music? Did your Shelter Session in anyway help your creativity?

The Shelter Sessions were vitally important for me in helping me stay creative and active musically. This will be my 34th week of performing them (every Thursday 8.30 pm UK / 2.30 pm US central) and they’ve given something to focus on and I really feel we’ve cultivated a sense of community on there. By “we” I mean all those good people who tune in every week. It’s been a creative anchor for me in these times and has given me purpose and reason to perform once a week, albeit in a virtual space. I’ve also enjoyed re-learning songs, both my own and covers. 


Is the new EP evidence of that? 

I’m sure that the Shelter Sessions have contributed to my being creative in the studio for sure. I’m a believer that for the songs and the inspiration to arrive the writer has to show up and be prepared to do the work. So the Shelter Sessions have been part of me showing up to do the work. 


Shelter Session


Arguing With Ghosts is one of your many many co-writes. Let’s talk about that. First of all, how does a wee boy from Glenarm get to write with Nashville writers of the quality of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters

Haha! Well, it all comes down to community. Gretchen asked me to open her UK and Ireland tours in 2013 and we have become close friends and frequent writing partners since then. Gretchen introduced me to Matraca at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville in March 2014 when the three of us did an ‘in-the-round’ together. That was a very memorable night, especially since my parents were here visiting. A couple of months later we headed over to Matraca’s and wrote Arguing With Ghosts. That’s the beauty of being part of the songwriting community in Nashville.


Can we talk about Arguing With Ghosts in particular. How did that session start? Is it blank sheet or does one of you have something on the table?

It started like most of our collaborations, with a strong cup of coffee and conversation about what was going on in our world. Matraca was chatting about how Nashville was becoming somewhat unrecognisable from the city it was when she moved here due to all the development. That was the jumping-off point. From there we just fell into conjuring up a character who was struggling with the passing of time and how that causes the familiar to change and dissolve. But it was the conversation about the city changing that inspired the song. 

As far as I recall I had the bones of the melody idea and I played for Gretchen and Matraca and they liked it and we just developed that as we went along. 

The process in collaboration is always quite similar in my experience. We all throw out lines, some may be dumb, some might be keepers, and we just follow the flow. That’s the exciting thing about co-writing - you just don’t know where it’s going to end up. And some days the muse is kind to you and some days it’s not. Thankfully that day in Matraca’s house the muse was kind!

It was quite a quick write as I recall as I think the song arrived in a few hours. I listened recently to the work tape we made that day and it was interesting to see how the song has evolved over the six years since it’s arrival.


Is there ever a sense of you bringing an Irishness to the blend?

If I bring myself wholeheartedly to the blend then undoubtedly I bring an Irishness to it. I think the Irish have an inherent sense of poetry and melody in their blood. It’s there if we want to dig into it. I think it may lean more to the melancholy but I feel it’s a sweet melancholy. 


When you record a song that Gretchen has already released is her version in your mind, haunting you or inspiring you to bring another angle?

I love Gretchen’s recording of the song. Interestingly I think the character that she gives voice too in her version is a different one to the one who occupies my version. As a singer, you want to stay true to the character but also stay true to your voice as an artist. It inspired me to bring another angle in that I always felt a male voice would bring a different feel to the song. 

My recording is more stripped back production-wise, but that wasn’t an intentional thing to make it different from the sonics of Gretchen’s original recording. The stripped backed quality came from the sense that the character who was coming through in my voice had a rawness and a different kind intensity that they were wrangling internally with. 

I did change two lines in my version. The original version has the lines “I’ve still got my mother’s eyes” which I changed to “I’ve still got my father’s eyes.” And I also changed “drinking coffee” to “drinking whiskey.” I was inspired to do this as I felt that this is what was more true to the character that was being expressed in my version. Naturally I ran these changes past Gretchen and Matraca and they were very supportive of it.


What would you hope the listener might get from the song?

It’s a contemplative song so I hope the listener might have a contemplative experience while listening to it. I think the song can conjure up some strong emotions and I hope that if it connects with the listener then they will be moved in some way. 


So Arguing With Ghosts is just released BUT is the EP is coming in November. What other delights can we expect on that?

Yeah, it’s funny Steve, I never planned to put any solo material out in 2020, but it’s been a year that blows plans apart so here we are! The EP, which is will be digital for now, is called Sweet Wild Lily and there are four tracks on it, one of which of course is Arguing With Ghosts. There are two brand new songs I wrote this spring/summer called Fireflies Dancing and the title track, Sweet Wild Lily. The other song is called Broke Down, and I’ve been trying to record that since 2013 believe it or not (another co-write with Gretchen), but I always felt we didn’t capture it in the studio. This time though we got it!


Arguing With Ghosts isn't the title track. Tell us about Sweet Wild Lily. Sounds like a sister of Carla Boone to me?

It’s true Steve, I feel that Lily and Carla are indeed sisters, cut from the same song cloth. When I was writing Sweet Wild Lily I felt the kinship between this character and the one in The Ballad Of Carla Boone. Lily and Carla look the same to me in my mind’s eye.  Something is alluring for me in these two - something fragile - they’re both finding their place in the world. 



Where did she come from in your imagination?

Lily is more than likely a composite of a bunch of people I know. Maybe though we all have a bit of Lily in us, I mean, who hasn’t been lost, who hasn’t been entangled by the world, who hasn’t gotten stuck in the story we tell ourselves? She feels real to me personally because I can relate to her. I liked giving some images of spaciousness in the opening lines through the images of the waves and the sky because there is a freedom that she has lost but she wants to find it again. And I do think that I was wanting to drop in again to the character of Carla Boone. I wrote about her in 2006 and she was the title track of an EP that was essentially the start of my career. With Sweet Wild Lily being the title track to this new EP I feel too this is mirroring Carla in 2006 release. It might seem odd to say but when I released Shorebound in 2018 that felt like the end of that chapter and now Sweet Wild Lily in 2020 begins something new for me.


You've self produced this one. How was that? And is that the future?

I’ve loved taking the reigns on production. It felt like I had to step outside my comfort zone and mix up the way I’ve been recording for the past decade or so. I think it’s vital for artists to do that as it prevents getting us too safe and comfortable. And I wanted the responsibility of making the final call on stuff. I’ve been working with the brilliant engineer Dylan Alldredge, who also owns Skinny Elephant Studio where I record,  so between the two of we’ve steered the ship on production. 

I intentionally wanted to take my time with this EP so we've just been working on these songs a few days a month since June. I’ve been inspired by this slower pace of working as right now I’m in space where I want to let the music breathe and let the songs find their way in their own pace, instead of committing hard and fast to the final sound. 

It’s just been Dylan and me in the studio during the sessions. The process was that I laid down the songs with acoustic and vocal and then built everything around that. 

Colm McClean has played all the guitars even though he is in east Belfast and we are in Nashville. I’ve loved sending Colm the tracks and some loose guidance, and then letting him add his magic in his own time at his home studio. He then sends the tracks back and Dylan and I fish through them and put it all together. I have been excited about this way of working. We’ve had a few guest singers, Kim Richey, Gretchen Peters and Megan McCormack come in and also had drummer, Evan Hutchings play. 

As for the future…who knows what the path is for production. But I will say that I’m liking how this approach feels right now.


Any other wee teasers about the rest of the EP?

The EP will be out in early November, but there will be two singles before the release - Sweet Wild Lily and Broke Down. The final song is one that I wrote in Oxford, Mississippi this summer, called Fireflies Dancing. I’m excited about this EP and even though it’s so cliched to say, I genuinely feel it’s a good as anything I’ve done to date. The sound of it just fell into place so easily and seems to be at ease with itself. I guess that’s what we’re aiming for in life too.


Andy T

I have been a fan of Andy Thornton as a human being and musician since the late 80s. I love his new record Ages which I have already reviewed on Soul Surmise. I was delighted that he agreed to a wee interview. It became a big one about art and travel and the cruelty of the British Empire and the deepening of faith.


STOCKI: So, it has been a while. Why an album now?

ANDY: 10 years since I’ve actually finished one!

In 2010 I got promoted to the boss of the charity I was working for. That was a pretty hefty job. I had 42 staff and then the government started cutting our funding. I did six years of what was pretty exhausting work but in the margins I kept writing songs. I started travelling around the world training people for the British Council and was having the most simulating experiences. But there was no time to record anything.

The opening song of this album was actually written on the train on the way home from my last day at that place of work. It’s called “the Restless Horizon” and it’s about moving on from feeling closed in by life’s treadmill. And from that point on I started conceiving the tracks that I’d been writing for a new album.

Four years later here it is! That’s Ages indeed. 


You have an extra CD of your older work. Putting them together how do you think your songwriting has changed over 30 years?

This is something I think a lot about. I often think there’s not much point in putting out any more music. The world is absolutely jammed with it. It’s so easy to put out a new track, and to find new music. I think there is something like 20,000 new songs on Spotify every week. Why bother? Who will listen?

But that is exactly the conundrum of life. Each one of us is both supremely important in our own world and almost insignificant in the big one. You can’t really square that circle, just let it stir up what it will. 

So I started to write songs that I think reflected coming to terms with that and in that sense they had to be more complete, considered and mature songs.  I now spend loads more time on my lyrics. The album has a song called “you’ll find me in the birdsong” I think it took about four years to write. I literally developed the song at around four in the morning night after night. I was very stressed I used to wake up in the night at 3 o’clock with my mind running. I was trying to get back to sleep, feeling wrecked and then the birds would start singing. At that point I’d be even more stressed because it was nearly morning and I hadn’t got back to sleep! 

Then one day I told myself to stop fretting about the birds and go and join them. In my imagination just go and be one of them and relax and enjoy the dawn chorus. And as time went on I just thought, well that’s exactly where you belong, you are a songwriter after all.

So I think I’ve written some of my best songs lyrically. They’re quite intense and I hope there isn’t a spare word in there. They are also more musically varied and they’re definitely not singing about girls not wanting me anymore! That’s how grown up they are!!


Do you think your musical influences have changed at all?

Possibly not as much as they should. I am quite puzzled about that. I think most people actually write fairly similar songs all their lives. It’s not common that someone writes something too different from what they first wrote. We all have quite constant sensibilities as far as I can tell. So the bandwidth of my choices of melodies isn’t huge. Perhaps the arrangements vary. 

There are some writers and bands that I just keep going back to because I never tire of their music. You can hear them in my choices of songs I guess cos they must just resonate with me. Whether it’s Prefab Sprout or Aztec Camera or Bruce Cockburn. I love other things but they don’t endure the same.  I try to write as originally and as freely as possible but still I can tell that I am leaning on some sounds or styles that are pretty similar.


Let’s get to the new record. Were these songs written over a long period?

I think the first was written in 2008 when I first went to Pakistan. That song is called “Lahore Moon” and originates from a rush hour trip through the city centre to a small restaurant that overlooks a 17th century mosque. it was a terrifying journey as I had never experienced the chaotic and treacherous roads you get in overpopulated poorer countries. Life seemed so fragile and transient. Thousands of penniless people just trying to get through each day. The only uncrowded place was the moon above us looking down, I thought, with tender love and mercy on each vulnerable soul.

And the last was written last year. 

I actually worked with Boo Hewerdine who is one of my favourite songwriters and who offered to help me put the album together. I took 21 songs to him and he whittled it down to 10 for me.. Then I wrote a song called “To Be Strong”  which I really wanted to include. I didn’t ask his permission! It’s a song about learning to regroup after life’s struggles and tragedies. Maybe he’ll shun me for it. But I will regroup!!


There seems to be a lot of travel going on? Is this you using your songwriting to unpack what you experienced in your overseas work?

Yes. I’ve written lots. I have loads of lyrics hanging around waiting for the moment that a song creeps up on me. But I have been in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Lebanon, helping to develop a new program that trains and connects social activists around the world.

A lot of the time I’ve been working in post-conflict countries, meeting people who have been through Civil War or where there has been some kind of ongoing strife. I wrote a song called ‘This Time, This Place, This Skin’ in Sri Lanka. I had been working with people from the north and south of the country who had been on opposite sides. 

One thing you realise in settings like that is how people are really similar, fundamentally, yet can spend their lives at war with each other depending on what they’ve been brought up to believe about the others. It’s the same the world over. 

I was tired at the end of the week, and just sat down to let my mind wander and this song came out pretty much in one go. It probably took about half an hour to write and three years to refine. The lyric is quite precise and fierce, which drove me to complete it. 


There also seems to be a little bit of growing up/growing older/falling upwards going on. Is that an overall theme?

I hadn’t really started with the theme. But I think it’s common that you spot the overarching theme that has preoccupied you when you start putting a collection of songs together. It’s one of those moments you look down your own time tunnel and see what kind of things have been bugging you.

I think somewhere in your mid 50s you spot that life is just circular. When you stop striving to prove yourself or to get somewhere in your career or something similar, you realise that we are kind of going round in circles, reinventing the wheel and making the same mistakes and that’s mostly because of the phases of life that we go through. 

Like at around about 30 years old I start getting more ambitious and then I risk my self and learn new skills and start pushing people out of the way because I know it all! Then around 40 I’ve had enough experience to realise it’s more complicated than that but I’m going up the ladder so I keep pushing. Then about 50 I’ve started to get into my stride but meanwhile there is this 30-year-old sneering at me because they know better than me. And the 40-year-old is becoming more skilled… etc etc 

And then I start to ease off the battle and realise that I’m losing my potency. And I’m losing it just at the point when I’ve made enough mistakes to do everything better! And at that point I realise I’m caught up in a bigger pattern of life. And it’s too late to have another go and do it right next time. 

For me, at that point somebody handed me the book “Falling Upwards” by Richard Rohr. It’s a book about learning to deal with life’s transitions and be reconciled to your loss of power because the last phase of your life is about learning to give it all back and to let go of your ambitions. And I guess that’s the theme that’s coming out in these songs. That, tinged by wonderful chances I’ve had to see the world and interact with people of very different life experiences.



Falling Upwards is influenced by Richard Rohr. Why has he in particular caught your attention?

He runs a school of contemplation of action coming out of the Franciscan tradition. They are based in America.

I think what I like about him is that he has a whole different angle on what it means to live as a Christian. When I was younger it seemed that Christianity was about getting on the inside with God and once you’re on the inside you had to then get other people on the inside. And the message was that you had arrived. And you had to get them to arrive.

The snag with that was that you remain very immature and after a while something is knocking on the door of your heart saying isn’t it time you went deeper because this isn’t that satisfying? Maybe, even, that you are a fraud?

That’s where Richard Rohr has another perspective. Contemplation and action is about learning methods of deepening your spirituality alongside your encounter with the world around you. The two are reciprocal and inform each other. We have to learn to stop striving to be important and yet dare to confront the nonsense in the world around us. We can actually only do that when we don’t think we are that important because otherwise we will protect ourselves and our egos in the battle. We will end up subconsciously fighting for ourselves and our status and not really for the greater good.

His framework of spiritual growth is so complete and deep and based in the many traditions of Christian contemplation that it becomes self-evidently ‘right’ as you do it.


You don’t miss and hit the wall in Cruel Britannia. Where did that come from?

Well it actually came from a guy ranting at Theresa May on BBC Question Time! It was around the time of the 2017 election I think. He was talking about how intolerant our country was becoming. Turning away refugees, “sending people back” to some fragile country they had to flee from. He protested that we are turning into cruel Britannia.

I thought that summed it up perfectly. This country has become more and more intolerant, and it can only do that because there are the seeds of the intolerance in our psyche waiting to be awakened by fear. 

I compared that to Bangladesh, where I’d seen how people just cannot be cruel to each other in the main. They are brought up in an egalitarian country and have a little sense of themselves or their own self-importance.

In fact, I once asked some sociologists from a university I was working with in Pakistan what they thought of a commonly held belief in the UK... That was that if we hadn’t colonised India then it would never have become a more developed country. No railways, roads or infrastructure et cetera. He looked at me with the most pitying look. Like I had been fooled from my very birth. He just said “of course we would - and it would have been ours and millions upon millions of us wouldn’t have died young”. He made me feel tiny. He was right to make me feel tiny because that was the size of the idea I had absorbed since childhood. 

So where did that aggrandised idea come from here? It came from outright heartless savagery. We are a country that grew up thinking that we arrived in this place of plenty because it was ours by right, not by theft. But it was ours by savagery in the main. 

The British Empire was originally just a trading empire that became more and more savage to subjugate the natives of countries we had started to buy. We had guns they had spears. We shot them, we beat them, we starved them, we exploited them, we sold them into slavery, and systemic racial superiority was a convenient and delusional myth to kid us we were justified.  

It is vile, and yet our money and our influence in the world has come from it. The City of London is still awash with the money that came from the profits of that time and we are still trading on it and we still protecting ourselves with it. When times get tough we adopt that cruel mindset.

Sorry if was I ranting?


I love the extra Cd. It was great hearing Remastered versions of my old favourites. Any reflections on having to re work with your thoughts and music from, in some cases, a lifetime ago?

Well it was my chance to pick out ones that have gone down well and then try polish them up a bit.

I did a few new vocals and patched up stuff that I thought could’ve sounded better.

To be honest I have so little currency in the world right now, having not played a gig in 10 years. I just thought it be nice to throw in my back catalogue so people knew that I had written good stuff. When you are a bit of a niche writer, you have to accept your place!


What do you hope the listener might get from Ages?

Good question!

I don’t know if I know, except I hope that people recognise themselves in there and their struggles in some of the lyrics. In the past the songs that have most connected with others are the ones I have written from a moment of struggle or awakening. They tend to turn the key in other people’s hearts in a way that I hope is valuable.

I guess that is why I keep writing, in a world of 20,000 songs a week, someone might come across one of mine and it might make a difference. I think I’ve had enough of hearing pop songs that don’t make any difference. I’m hearing the same sentiments regurgitated to different beats an ever-simpler melodies. I’m never going to try compete with that. I’m just going to try doing my own thing and then, well, die. I think that’s all we have got. And that’s plenty for now. 


More than plenty Andy. Thanks for what your songs have meant to me.



A few weeks ago an album sneaked out onto all streaming platforms by a band called The Presleys. You might have missed it. 

It is an album of modern blues, edgy in sound and content. It all has a contemporary urban garage band sounding rock strut. At a time when the streets of America are full of tension and Coronavirus is a shadow across our world the music on Embrace sounds imperfectly perfect. 

If you look closer, the main man on the record is none other than Belfast songwriter Brian Houston. The songs were birthed in North Carolina as part of a charity project. It is nothing like Brian has ever done before, a welcome new iron in his talented fire, the spontaneous work of an artist discovering a fresh and fertile field.

I was so fascinated by its origins, intentions and place in the Brian Houston catalogue that I spent a happy evening going back and forward with Brian on Facebook to find out who the Presleys are and how Embrace came about.


So, who are The Presleys?

The Presleys is a construct. It started life as me and my friend Ned. But he suffered a couple of bereavements back to back in the middle other issues and decided he was better out of it. So now it’s one of my alter egos.


We'll get to your alter ego in a minute. tell me how working with ned gave them direction of the record it's initial impetus. What did he bring?

We had agreed to do some live streaming from a house the Charity was renting to help raise funds for their cause. The charity was called Embrace. Hence the name of the album. 

Ned and I drove there the first day discussing if we should play worship songs or covers of classic tunes. We had no clue what to do. 

We set up the gear. Just Ned on drums and me on electric guitar. I played a couple of chords and Ned jammed along. Next thing we knew I’d written a song called I Can Feel The Rain because the shack we were in had a tin roof and we could hear the rain beating hard on it. We recorded the song on our phones and rehearsed it a few more times then went live on FB. We packed up and went home. 

It took Ned by surprise that it happened so easily and quickly. He asked me if that counted as a co-write and I explained the mechanics of songwriting. 

I wrote another the next day and Ned was shocked by the speed of it. It motivated him to be much more forward with his ideas. 

Soon he was throwing in as many ideas as me. Rhythm ideas, tempo changes, lyric ideas and melody ideas. 

When we had done about eight or ten live Facebook posts we called it a day. 

The songs were recorded on our phones and we didn’t look at them again until Ned came to Belfast and we started recording. 

The song Gun Store was Neds idea. He made it up as a joke but to me it sounded like a hit so we worked at it until it had structure and melody. It was finished we thought then we came up with the idea of adding a rap. Ned has a friend in Raleigh who recorded his rap and sent it to me to put in the song.


So. working with Ned gave you an other avenue to go down. Did he give you the chance to do something you always wanted to or did you find something you'd never thought of doing?

The fact that Ned and I have been friends for 7 years and we’re completely comfortable playing together meant there was no pressure. He is very good at just rolling with what ever I try or wherever I go. 

There was no expectation nor agenda so in someways the place we were in and the stories we were hearing about homeless people first hand were all feeding my imagination. I actually woke up with the whole of Poor in America in my head. That rarely happens. But the creative juices were just flowing with no egos in the way. 

I think the fact that Ned was a relative novice when it came to writing and recording meant that he was enjoying the exploring as much as me. 

When you come from Belfast and you’re in a ghetto in Durham NC and you’re seeing the poverty and the people up close it’s very a powerful stimulus. 

Also I hadn’t used a Gibson SG guitar before and it was definitely influencing the style of music and taking it in a bluesy direction. And probably the fact that we only asked one song of ourselves each day, one performance, one video, meant that we could spend all day writing and rehearsing then broadcast it and forget about it. The next day was a fresh start.


There certainly is an American feel about the sound  and the content of the songs. Was that easier for a Belfast boy to sing about under The Presleys moniker?

The name was the last thing to come. For a long time we called it the “NED” project. It was Ned’s mom who suggested the Presleys. 

It was certainly easier to feel like I could rock out and never feel the need to reign it in because “I’m Brian Houston the folky guy” 

I really felt we could push into blues and rock unselfconsciously because it wasn’t a Brian Houston project. 

To be able to find that childlike freedom to do what I felt like without worrying about what it said about my career, was a tremendous adrenalin shot in the arm.


The Presleys? No risks of Lisa Marie suing?

Wouldn’t that be an amazing piece of publicity.


So, any other projects pending?

Well I’m just mastering an album that’s singer songwriter in nature. The first single Ivory Tower will be released on July 10.


Bob emotions

In the early 90s I discovered a young singer songwriter called Iain Archer. For a few years Iain played at everything that I had anything to do with. He went through a few band members but one remained the same - Robert Sinclair.

Robert is not a talented pianist. He is way beyond talented. He has a natural genius and that was on display night after night as he added grace note flourishes to anything Iain did. There were instrumentals when the two of them achieved musical trickery that was an amazing spectacle as well as sound.

When Iain took off to Novello Awards and Grammy nominations for his work with Snow Patrol, Jake Bugg, James Bay and most recently Sammy Brue, Robert remained at home in Bangor, still dazzling on the piano wherever he got a chance to play.

Now, almost 30 years on and Robert Sinclair has made his every own record. Emotions is a solo piano project that shows all the skills of his genius and adds a sensitivity to the different emotions we humans go through. For those of you who love instrumental music this is a winner.

I got a chance to ask Robert about how the album came about, how you name an instrumental piece of music and what he hoped for the new album.


So it has taken a long time to make an album. Why now?

Recording an album was a problem. I'm used to playing a lot of different styles so it would be very hard to pigeon-hole me to a certain genre. I’m not tied to jazz, blues, pop, classical, reggae, soul, pop, I just play the lot.  When I was a child I just stuck a record on and played along. 
And another problem was the idea of just showing off on an album filled me with dread! It’s not like me to show off - I make mistakes!  I needed a purpose for an album for the benefit of others. That’s when it all came about doing Emotions. Something people can listen to and use to reflect on days or times in their life when they are going through something. Music can do that, sometimes just better than words or anything else.


Tell me about where the record began? Did you set out to make an album or did the songs creep up on you and suddenly you had a record?

It’s honestly a collection of music I’ve came up with in the same way as the album’s purpose. It’s been the music I played on my own journey in life over the years. Or sometimes I’ve just been moved by something – Goodbye for example was the music I thought would be perfect for when Dr. Who had to say goodbye to Rose on the beach. I found that quite emotional. I thought – wouldn’t it be good to have a piece to use when you have to say Goodbye to somebody in some way?

I’ve always wanted to have my music used in film and television too. Maybe some day…?


How do you give instrumentals titles? I mean were you in Paris at midnight?

Midnight in Paris was recorded previously years ago and is a bit out of place but people liked it so I just stuck it on the album. I’ve never been to Paris at midnight so no lol! It’s just a thought as I wrote it in the early nineties - a place where you could still sit at a table in the street and drink coffee at midnight and watch the rest of the world pass by. The other titles were a lot easier and gives a much clearer link to where I was in life when I first played it.


Emotions is the title. When you are writing, is it about putting down the emotions you feel right there at that moment? Would you carry an emotion with you for a while and then eventually write a piece or do you sit down and say “how am I feeling now"?

Definitely the best time to play the piano I found is when I’m feeling emotional about something and, with the exception of Goodbye and Hope, I just press record and start playing. It’s just what comes out.

Hope was written out as I went – that was when my marriage started to fall apart but no matter what would happen, I always had hope. As a Christian, hope is something I hold on to a lot.  All the other tracks are just sit and play. I actually do this a lot but don’t always record it so who knows what I’ve lost! I recorded In Love and When I think of you after being with my girlfriend on different occasions. I listened to When I Think Of You the day after I recorded it in the car and I actually thought, did I play this?? Was that me? I wouldn’t have been able to play it ever again if I didn’t record it…! I actually had to write it all out for the studio to make sure I got it right lol!


Is the music about your own catharsis or joy or whatever emotion or do you think of an audience listening?

This album is a green light for me because it’s for other people. I find that a lot easier and acceptable. My music does comfort me and is a channel for me every day and, unless they are just being very kind, people seem to enjoy my music too. I love playing for people – it’s a very powerful God-given gift. I play at weddings and I remember once at a rehearsal, it was all going well, all great, no problems. They were just about to walk down the aisle and then I started playing the piano and after about 4 steps, the flower girl started crying and started off others. Music is powerful indeed!  (I was very professional by the way and didn't cry too!)   


What are your hopes for the album?

This is quite an ambition – I currently have 2 aims in life – to live long enough to see my boys married and be a grandad and to have my music heard all over the world or most of it anyway. Again, I’d love my music to be used in a film or even a TV series.

The album took about 5 hours to record and 7 months to actually get it on sale! But now it’s finally online, I hope I can sell as many tracks/albums as possible. But for other people to use. To help them. A life tool. It’s purpose.

It’s all a learning curve this album stuff... The second one will be easier… 6 months lol?





Rev Haydon Spenceley is a vicar and serves as Team Rector at The Emmanuel Group of Churches in Northampton, England. Haydon was formerly a recording artist and still does record reviews for The Clash magazine. Haydon lives with Cerebral Palsy and ministers from a wheelchair. Don't call him disabled though because this guy is way more than able!  

I was keen to interview Haydon because I was fascinated by how ministering in a wheelchair might be in these Coronavirus Times and also what insight Haydon would have spiritually on these days. I was also keen to get a few musical recommendations and boy does he deliver... 


When did you realise that Coronavirus would impinge on your life and ministry? 

I can remember in the week leading up to March 15th I did all the things I usually do - school visits, visiting our Church Cafe, the Foodbank we run, going in to Northampton Town where I’m Club Chaplain, swimming and so on. There’d been a home game for Northampton the Saturday before as well, before all games got cancelled on March 14th. 

It was obvious that things were going to change, but looking back on it now I don’t think we’d really understood exactly how much change there was going to be until only a few days before it happened. 


How has it effected what you do on a daily basis?

I last left my property on March 22nd. As I write this it’s May 12th. I’ve been outside (I’m lucky to have a garden) but I’ve not been to shops or anything else since Mothering Sunday, and even going to see my Mum that day was ‘frowned upon’. 

I’m not in the shielding group - I have Cerebral Palsy which was named as a ‘social distancing’ condition, but I took the view that caution was a decent plan early on. 

Now I’ve known a few people who have had the virus and survived it I know that, whatever the consequences might be for me if I did catch it, or for others if I inadvertently passed it on, anything I can do to avoid either happening is more than worth it. 

Whatever those who think it is being over-egged or isn’t more serious than ‘normal’ flu or whatever, it isn’t being over-egged and it is very different to ‘normal’ flu. We need to think of others and not even just our own household or family, but the whole of humanity when we make our choices about whether we follow the stipulations we’ve been given. 

I was really struck by something you said in one of your posts actually Steve about how loving your neighbour in the context of this time means doing all we can to avoid infecting anyone else and that this might come to be a re-placing of the idea of loving others. Are we all about ourselves or do we actually care what happens to other people? In these days where illnesses and deaths are measured in numbers which are rising in the thousands perhaps we need to remember that each person is a person with a story, a person with potential for a better story, a person who has immeasurable value to God. 

If we start thinking of this as a war, where there is collateral and it’s ok as long as it doesn’t come in our direction then I don’t think we can really be loving our neighbour, in which case we can’t really claiming to follow God according to Jesus’s most straightforward and foundational statement of how to do that - love God with everything we have, love self, love neighbour.

I’ve been weighing up how I feel about the idea that Churches might be able to meet together in some form in a relatively short time. I understand how important it is for many people to be able to gather in a building. I miss my own Church building, as well as the schools, cafe’s, community spaces, football club and other places I spend my time, along with gig venues and so on, but I hope we don’t get back to having public gatherings too fast. 

Ultimately, this period of waiting - let’s not call it an exile - might just teach all of us a thing or two about not being able to do what we want when we want, have what we want when we want it and so on. And I’m fortunate that the community I lead seems to be finding its feet and a home in an online gathering space too. I know that hasn’t worked for everyone. I consider myself fortunate.


You are in a wheelchair? That must bring its own hurdles in ministry in general. How has ministry become even more difficult in Coronavirus Times?

Yes, I am in a wheelchair even at this very moment. Sometimes I sit on a sofa or an armchair to mix it up, but the wheels on those don’t go round quickly enough to get me to where I want to go. 

Thankfully there are a growing number of people who use wheelchairs or have other impairing and disabling conditions ministering in Churches. That said there’s still a yawning gap between what is at the moment and what ought to happen if Church communities and by extension their ministry teams (of whatever sort) did what they could and featured a representative sample of the people who lived in their communities. 

Every community has impaired and disabled people in it, but by no means does every Church, and ministers or leaders, even less. 

When I was growing up I never saw someone ‘like me’ ministering and so for a long time I didn’t think it was something I would be able to do. So the first and primary obstacle was actually realising that the fact I’d never seen it wasn’t in itself a reason why I couldn’t, if I was being invited to do it by God then I should go for it. 

Of course, that took a long time, a lot of talking, thinking and reflecting and then I’ve been very fortunate to have my first couple of posts in Churches and communities where I’m able to be me and bring what I bring and learn a whole heap and make some good quality mistakes too all with support and encouragement. 

I’ve been fortunate. Not everyone is, and it saddens me beyond belief that a lot of people might be put off putting themselves forward to play their part because they think the Church has no room or no place for them. If that’s the case, it’s often the Church that needs to change. 

God calls people. It’s for us as the Church family to work out how to be able to hear God’s call and work out how to make it a reality. Disabled people are something of a prophetic instrument to the Church I think. No one with Cerebral Palsy has ever been healed of it, so probably it was deemed by God to be the best way I could live my life and be the kind of person that I’m supposed to be. 

I’ve met some ‘healing’ ministers (inverted commas deliberate - I could have said charlatans) who have begged to differ, sometimes quite forcefully. It’s funny how when the physical healing hasn’t come somehow that’s been to do with me. Especially as over the years a lot of other healing has taken place in my life which was arguably a lot more important and yet often what people most want to change about me is making sure I end up being able to walk. Or do star jumps, oddly. Whether I can walk in this life, in heaven, or if a heavenly wheelchair is one that never gets a puncture, I don’t honestly care. Others care a lot more about it, it seems to me.

That’s all an aside I suppose. Ministry in these times has actually been ok. I’ve got into a pattern. Early on, my job coach asked me what I thought the five most important things in my work were. 

I said,  “Prayer. Prep for sermons, worship and offering material to folks in my Church and community. Communicating and Leading on Pastoral Care with a Team. Keeping in touch with staff and key volunteers. Thinking about what might be new or different and what we might be invited to do after this period of time.

As I’ve been working from home all the time now I’ve been able to prioritise those things a bit more easily and still have some time for the necessarily responsive and reactive part of all this. I’m a million miles from perfect but I do feel like I’ve done this first couple of months pretty well.

Our Church is serving an area which includes 14 housing estates, has 14 schools in it, has lots of beauty and possibility and potential but also has a lot of the tough stuff to it too, with poverty, problems with gangs and serious youth violence and a lot else besides.

Our Church is not too big but we work hard to serve the people around us and we try to show the love of God to people and provide a home for the community. We want to be a family of faith where there’s always room for one more. We’ve been slow on the online ministry side of things, but this pandemic has pushed us into doing new things. I’m glad it has.

I’ve learnt a lot from people who were doing it a long time ago, people like Cole Moreton and the folks at Disability & Jesus who have been at it for years and are justifiably frustrated that everyone is excited to have found this ‘new’ thing that they’ve known about all along. I’ve met some new people through online stuff and have found that some of the people on the fringes of our community feel more comfortable and have more of a voice in this forum. Fortunately we are not a church where the minister does everything, but the online thing has brought that out all the more. It’s great to involve more and more people with each passing week. 

Also I think the fact that I visibly can’t do everything (I’m isolated at home now, but even at the best of times I have obvious limitations) is a good thing for a minister and a good thing for a Church and community to see. Everyone has limitations but a lot of people pretend they don’t or think that if they show ‘weakness’, which isn’t really weakness at all but honest humanity, they’ll be frowned on or deemed a failure. We all need to get over being people-pleasers or institution-pleasers and all that those things bring. God is pleased with our being at least as much if not more so than our doing.


Do you think that the government or even society in general has given enough consideration for those with physical or indeed mental disabilities during these days?

No. If I say much more than that I’ll get in more trouble than I may have already caused myself.


Are there any ways that we can help?

Pray. I am being quite serious. That seems to me to be the thing that we need to be doing. It almost doesn’t matter what you pray, besides praying for the governments of our countries to make wise decisions that serve the needs of all. But for me the biggest thing in prayer is that when we spend time doing it we are drawing close to God who is the source of all being and life, the one for whom we exist. 

He wants to hear from us and speak to us, yes, but I think actually what is best about prayer is when neither party involved in the prayer is saying anything at all, but actually just having the courage to stop and to just ‘be’. 

Sometimes things change when we pray, but it is also about acknowledging that I can’t do life on my own, I wasn’t ever meant to and I don’t want to. I want to acknowledge God and not try and figure it all out myself. So I’d say pray and wait, pray and breathe, pray and be still a while and then if something tells you that God wants you to go, to move, to speak, to act, go for it, but don’t rush. 

One of the beauties of this moment in all of our lives is that if we’re really honest, however busy we are and however much work we have on, we do actually have more time than most of us are used to having. Use it well. Pray before you do whatever you think of doing next. When you do something, do it for the benefit of someone else, or another group of people.


As well as a vicar you are a musician. Has that creativity been a help in days when creativity has been needed to share pastorally and missionally?

Yes. I have albums and used to tour and had a lot of fun for a season learning how to be a Failed Christian Pop Star. That’d make a good book title actually. Don’t nick it anyone. I’ve been writing in this season actually, but in more normal times I find it most useful in schools, where the children particularly in Primary-level education aren’t used to people talking to them one minute and then popping behind a piano the next with a song which illustrates the point I’ve been making. 

Sadly I was once called the most depressing musician in Christian music so a lot of my tunes are not exactly happy-clappy. I’ve been meaning to write some happier ones but it never seems to happen. 


Does your own music help you deal with the strangeness?

That’s a cracking question I could take in all sorts of directions. The strangeness of….life?…..the Church of England?…the way my beard is growing?…I suppose it does yes, I have been reminiscing a little recently and remembering how much I love writing. I’m a pretty crap pianist and an average singer at best but I worked hard at writing songs and I think I’m ok at that. 

I spent yesterday making a demo of a new song just because I wanted to and I owe myself about 4 months of TOIL by now and I got so immersed in it. It came out ok. I would never let others hear it, but the act of writing and creating used a different part of my brain and I loved being in that zone for a while. It was tiring but a good kind of tiring, a different kind. I hope one day to make another album. We’ll see.


Are there are any songs or albums by others that you have used as prayers of companions on the road?

I like Martyn Joseph’s new song. He has such a way of getting to the heart of things.

I’ve been using the music of Hammock to help me focus and concentrate at times recently, it’s instrumental but you can feel the heart to it. Instrumental prayers are a bit like the silence and the waiting I was talking about earlier. 

An act like Portico Quartet or Gogo Penguin can really be an aid to prayer for me, even though they have no intention of being so at all. 

There are times when a great lyric or a crashing riff can help, for instance I’ve liked Verra Cruz’s new single Like a Lion .

Recently, I’ve just discovered Pugwash (for shame, 23 years late or something like that) and so on. 

But right now I’m listening to some gorgeous piano from a French guy called Maxence Cyrin which is helping me ease into the evening. 

I review records for Under the Radar, an indie magazine in America and Clash Magazine over here, so I get to hear all sorts of new stuff. Too much really. Most recently, I wrote about this guy Alex Henry Foster who made an amazing album of really deep rock music which I only found out afterwards came from a faith-based place. That was an album about grief and loss. 

Another great recent discovery was the new Denison Witmer album on Asthmatic Kitty. Really great folk stuff.


Are there any lessons that you have learned during the lock down that you would like to carry on into the post lock down days?

Slow down. Most things can wait longer than you think, so then you’re around for the things that really can’t. Which includes prayerfully taking risks at the right moments. It doesn’t all depend on me, or you. It’ll only work if we really are all in it together. Whatever politics we have or slogans we get excited or annoyed by, the only peace we need is the peace the world can’t give. There’s only one place to go for that. Keep going there.



The Joy Edit

During these Coronavirus Times I have been asking different kinds of people how they are dealing with the lock down. Today, it is Deborah Murray.

Deborah is a small business owner and therefore in the very vulnerable end of lock down. 

Yet, as I asked her about how she can survive this we got much more than survival. Here is a woman thriving in her imagination and compassion for others. 

This interview is perceptive and inspirational. As a follower of Jesus I mostly come to the modern business world with some cynicism. Deborah Murray helps me believe in something better, something deeper and something that is healthy for the common good. 


Deborah, tell us a little bit about your business

I am a beauty therapist, I have a business based in the old railway station in Helen’s Bay, Co. Down called Harper Beauty.  We are a team of 8. Having premises or my name above the door was never part of any plan or ambition but a constant evolution of both opportunity and my drive to do things differently. 


When did you start hearing about Coronavirus?

I am a big fan of the news, I listen to a lot of 5 live and BBC World Service.  So early on I heard of a virus but truly never imagined that this report from Wuhan province would ever impact our small island.  I remember feeling very comforted by the expert saying he wasn’t concerned - it all seems so very casual now, I don’t think we will ever underestimate such news again.


When did you realise that it would impact business?

As a team we were talking a lot about the momentum that seemed to be building towards the realities of a lockdown.  Especially once reports came from Italy, we knew and sensed that this was coming to our door.  There was a lot of fear. It was the only topic that was on our minds and I think in those early days it was very hard not to become consumed by it.  

Looking back, I knew we needed leadership and that the team would look to me for that.  So it was important to make decisions early, with conviction and for the good of the girls and our clients. Government advice seemed vague and lacked clarity for businesses. However, once we made our decision, government announced lockdown.  We haven’t seen any of our clients since 20th March.


How has that impact been?

I massively miss the team, the girls who hold my hand, who have my back and care about me, the business and our clients.  They are special people and it is hard not to share everyday with them.  Initially I knew we could manage for a couple of months but the furlough scheme gave me peace of mind and the certainty that we could survive lockdown. 

I touch base with the clients via email once a month just to check in. Quite a few would be isolated and on their own so it is a way of keeping in touch and reaching out.  I do a weekly grocery and prescription run, so that has included clients who need essentials. 

We have a small gift shop in Harper Beauty and very early on I realised there was an even greater need to reach out to each other.  We wanted to say ‘I’m thinking of you’  so the little things that I could post out became a new chapter for the business called ‘post-a-pressie’.  From eye masks, felt rainbows, notebooks, earrings… anything that could be  can be posted from my local parcel postbox. 

But it was the little notes that would go in with each parcel that confirmed the importance of this new service.  Messages of love, encouragement, invitations to zoom date nights - I was the go between for kindness and connection and this truly has brought me the most joy.


Can you survive it?

I believe so. 

But can I say this?  When those doors reopen- I don’t want it to go back to the way it was.

Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly writes, 

“Everyone wants to know why customer service has gone to hell in a hand basket. I want to know why customer behaviour has gone to hell in a hand basket.”

The last year was the hardest I have faced.  Expectation and demand became something beyond what I could deal with.  So I decided that on all our social media we would only and persistently repeat a message of kindness.  We have lost our compassion and our room for grace in the everyday things - which tells me - the bigger picture doesn’t look so great either.  

I will only reopen after we have had time to be with our families, to go to the beach, to breath in new air.  We will return but we will be cautious and careful. I will prioritise our mental health.  The worst thing we could do would be to ‘hit the ground running’, be hectic busy and ‘back to back’ with clients, as we call it.  Leaving no time to process what we have been through individually and collectively as a team.


Is there anything the public can do to help small business? Yours in particular?

When you choose a service or order from a company, ask - does this business do good, does it think beyond itself and the bottom line? If so, give them your time and money.  

On social media, share, like, repost  - it means the world to all small business owners! 

Lift them up, champion them, be cheerleaders and pray for them.


What have you been doing during the lock down?

I have had the privilege of working with AGENDA (Age North Down and Ards). We do a morning call to check in and make sure they are ok and have everything they need.  I love to chat one to one and this has been the highlight of lockdown.

I have had time to stand back and access what is bringing me joy and what isn't.  I know what needs to change and I am imagining how that can happen.


You have started The Joy Edit. What is that about?

The Joy Edit is the evolution of post-a-pressie.  My husband Andrew is team tech and I will be front of house.  We are an online shop that sends gifts to encourage, to show support and share love.  There will be a monthly newsletter that will focus on this message of joy.  It isn’t all sprinkles and sunshine - I hope to engage people on what brings true deep joy, how to retain that during the dark times and how to share it with one another.  

If we can feel joy, we can share joy. I want to make the next chapter something positive, something that reaches out in love, lifts our spirits and brings hope.


When we get through this will business be simply back to normal? Or have you been re-thinking in this “sabbatical” space?

The ethos of the salon is to provide a space that is calm, safe and peaceful. That will remain the same.  However, it will be adapted practically for these changed times. For example we will wear visors and respect the new rules.  I hope to divide my time between the salon and The Joy Edit and I need to practically consider to how that might look.

But the time away from the daily running of the business has reset my mind to be even more committed to change.  

Change begins here - I must keep refreshing the question 'what does a Deborah Murray shape look like?’ and be true to that. If I can hold on to the lessons I am learning in these Corona Virus times, I will be the better for it. 


Find the Edit Joy here: -

Find Harper Beauty here: - 



MJ Thinking

I was thrilled when Martyn Joseph gave us permission to include the video for his new song When We Get Through This, an anthem for Coronavirus Times, in our Fitzroy Sunday Service. 

It is a powerful song of fortitude. A hopeful look ahead to when we get through it, to breed resilience as we struggle through it… and then that most precious and radical of simple statements “I’m thinking about you”. How much do we need to hear that line just now.

Martyn’s release is a double A-side with Nye, a song he wrote about Nye Bevan, the Welsh architect of the NHS. Written a few years ago for the Sweet Liberties project I think about it every Thursday night at 8pm when I stand outside our gate to applaud our NHS.

I asked Martyn, from a social distance across the Irish Sea, about these two songs and how Coronavirus has impacted him and his work.


What were you working on before the lock down?

I was on the road in North America. I’d played a run of 8 shows in Canada and was then due to carry on into USA but obviously it got cancelled. 


At what stage did you start thinking about how it would impinge on your work?

Well straight away really. I basically travel for a living. I go to where there are people who want to listen. They don’t show up on my doorstep. That would be a bit awkward :)  

I was fortunate in that I had completed my main UK tour before going to North America so there was a little hay in the barn. But we had to think quickly and try to plan how we would progress. 


What are the way that this all impacts on your life as well as work?

On a very personal level it alienates me from loved ones and them from me. My Father has been in hospital since October because of dementia and we are unable to see him. We try to talk on the phone but he doesn't really know who we are most of the time. 

However, I have often said I would love to have a few months off to read and catch up with myself a little more, so no excuses for not doing that right now!


You have been using the lock down time very profitably. When did When We Get Through This begin to percolate?

I thought about writing something but thought how do you do that without sounding too twee. Then a good friend went through some awful hardship and loss, so on April 1 I started to scribble. Twenty seven days later it was number one on I Tunes and Amazon singer songwriter chart. I’m not sure what that actually means but it was quite a journey. 


What do you hope it might achieve?

Well we’re going to raise money for the Cavell Nurses Trust so thats good. I hope the song itself will bring some fortitude to folk who listen.


I love the strings. How did you do that in isolation?

Well I played everything on the track in my home studio. I take a stereo mix of that and send it to Gerry Diver. He then puts that track into his studio and overdubs his violin and sends that back to me. I then mix it back in with what I’ve done. 

Amazing what can be done these days. I remember when being signed to Sony Music in the early nineties and they would send despatch riders to pick up DAT tapes in New York where we were recording to have those sent by plane to London for them to listen to. Took 48 hours! 


And how did the uplifting video come together?

For the video we got fans to send in clips of whatever was bringing them hope and I think its quite uplifting. So folk sent in pictures or just clips of what they were up to. We had a lot of them too. It took a while to go through them all.


It is for a good cause too. Tell us about that and how we can donate.

Download both tracks here:

proceeds to the Cavell Nurses' Trust.  You can also donate direct to Cavell here


You did a new version of Nye too. That song seems to have a new resonance. why a new version?

Well I had never really done my own studio version. I recorded it with the group of musicians that made up the Sweet Liberties Project in 2017 but the only other versions were live ones. 

So I thought why not record it yourself and just add Gerry again on fiddle. It pays tribute to Nye Bevan with his passion for social justice and reform along with his extraordinary oratory. 

It also celebrates with gratitude everyone who works within the great state institution called the NHS. It is not just a facilitator of the basic human right of healthcare but also the cornerstone of our democracy. 

Our notion of these things is amplified right now as we witness the remarkable sacrifice of front line workers risking everything to care for us and our loved ones. So I thought it was the perfect time to give an old song a shove. 


What else are you conjuring while in lockdown?

I’ve done a couple of online shows which went amazingly well. Last Sunday we had 1700 folk tuning in across 10 different countries which was quite staggering to me.


Concert wise? Will it take you a year to catch up on live shows or how will all of that get back to normal?

I have no idea at the moment. Its going to take a while to adjust and I’m not sure that anything will quite the same again. I’m hoping for change across the board. 

There have been plenty of opportunities for big progress out of catastrophe and suffering in the past few decades but we learn so slowly. 

My hope is that this may bring about a huge change in attitudes and social reform. But as for artists?. I’m hoping we will be even more relevant and potent.


In the meantime is it a stretch financially? Can we help with that?

Well of course it’s not easy and i know it’s a struggle for everyone. On my Facebook page right now (you will need to scroll down a few entries) is the full concert I gave last Sunday. If you want to watch feel free but there is a donate pay pal button there if you feel moved to do so. And thank you if you do and absolutely no worries if you don’t :)


What plans have you for when we get out of this? New record?

Yeh, I’m writing and thinking of the next studio album but to be honest it’s been so busy with the Double A side that I haven’t been able to plan that much yet. Going to get right on that! 

All festival dates have been cancelled… and I had a lot in the UK this summer… so will need to plot a course through but we will figure it out. I have so many projects on the side that I’ve been carrying a while so no shortage of ideas. This has been a very busy period until now anyway so maybe folk will enjoy a respite from me putting stuff out there!


Give us three albums that influenced you that we should all investigate as we wait the Coronavirus to pass?

Ooo well..lets see.. how about…

Elvis Presley: Elvis Aloha from Hawaii, 

Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel of Love

Led Zeppelin IV


Kitt 2

Kitt Philippa is one of Northern Irish music's most promising new artists. She has a musical imagination that plucks a plethora of genres out the air and weaves them with grace notes into three minute art forms of pop beauty. The title track of her debut album Human has been all over local radio and TV... check out her version with Daithí and the Belfast Community Gospel Choir... and BUY that record! If they had a t-shirt in XL, I'd buy that too!

I asked Kitt how she was doing in lock down and she is not only insightful about life but points us to some wondrous tunes to listen to as well!


What were you working on before the lock down?

I had a number of live performances approaching: in Dublin with the Dublin Gospel Choir and then in the Ulster Hall with the Ulster Orchestra as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. 


At what stage did you start thinking about how it would impinge on your work?

When it became a possibility that my first show would get postponed, it became clearer. In the early stages, there was hope the virus could be well contained.


What are the ways that this all impacts your life as well as your work?

Absent family, friends and animals; adjustments in various areas.


What ways are you using the down time?

The context (global pandemic happening on top of existing concerns) makes it challenging to stay healthily balanced in the living. It is important to have work and purpose to the day; it’s continually important to try to get rest, to be gentle and honest, even forgiving, with ourselves in between times.

How easy is it for you to create in these unfamiliar, maybe anxious times?

Everyone is different; for me, creativity is a sort of cohabitation. Feelings of unfamiliarity and anxiety are, themselves, not new; it’s just so vital now, as ever, to manage them. At the very least, that takes knowledge and conscious effort.


What can we do to help?

We are all so massively gifted in different areas: encouraging, sensitive, caring, humorous, poetic, leaders, organizers... people need to - and can - still use what they have to help. 

People will be feeling (more) anxious, lonely, fearful - but some of the reasons are collective. When you go through those things alone, it is awful. Collective understanding can help, I have watched that happening, we can learn from that observation.

People are still finding out they have cancer, or losing a loved one for various reasons, or being abused, or struggling to feed themselves or their families. Some of the food bank supplies are running low (The

Trussell Trust, CrossCare are good places to go if you have the means to help and most supermarkets still have their area to donate cans and toiletries etc.,). Remain vigilant to all these things and more - now and after the pandemic itself has passed. 


What plans have you for when we get out of this? New records?

I have shows booked until September so it’s hard to plan exactly what I’ll be doing (none of us know when our communities will be out of immediate danger). This year was supposed to be a year of live shows, since the release of my album, Human, last October.

Of course, all being well, new music is always the aim. At the moment all I can do is write and continue to update with news, on my social media.


Give us three albums that influenced you that we should all investigate as we wait for Coronavirus to pass?

Music and sound continues to be powerful. I appreciate Jeff Buckley's work so much, but I’ll assume you’ve listened already...

Daniel Caesar - Freudian: a debut record with some wonderful tracks (Barack Obama seems to agree, if you need another opinion) and I was fortunate enough to hear him play live when he toured the album early 2018. 

Mr. Jukes - God First: Also of Bombay Bicycle Club, Jack Steadman is incredibly creative and highly enjoyable.

Leif Vollebekk - Twin Solitude: Lovely relaxed sounds from an expressive character who came to Belfast and played a solo show a couple of years ago.