Who or what initially inspired you to take up the guitar and who/what inspired you to start composing your own music?
My dad inspired me to start. He won a song-writing competition in the late 1960s and had his piece ‘Indian Scene’ produced by George Martin (you can find it on Spotify). I was always aware that it was something that I might like to try too. I began writing my own music because it felt more natural than performing cover versions. My first proper song ‘Statement of Intent’ is, fittingly, about finding your voice – you can still watch it on YouTube.
As a composer, how do you work? What methods do you use and how do ideas come to you?
I used to write when I had a particular idea or something to say – previous songs of mine have been about dating, loss, and creative expression. But over the second lockdown I found myself with lots of free time, so I started trying to write songs from the perspective of characters. I put a little time aside every evening and eventually I had written a short musical called ‘Dear Mozart’ which I recorded at home and uploaded to YouTube. For my most recent song series, ‘Noah on the Earth’, I took the same approach – spending evenings after work writing and editing character songs.
Who or what have been the most significant influences on your playing and composing?
I write simply constructed story-telling songs for guitar, voice and harmonica, so the most obvious influence is Bob Dylan. There’s something beautifully unexpected and poetic in the way he writes lyrics – every time I listen to one of his songs I hear something new. I also love listening to the radio, particularly those 30-minute comedy shows on BBC Radio 4/BBC Sounds. In a funny way both have influenced my recent song-writing.
Tell us more about ‘Noah on the Earth’. Who/what inspired you to write this piece?
‘Noah on the Earth’ is a 30-minute retelling of the Genesis story through a mix of readings and original songs. It uses the story of Noah’s ark to reflect on themes of climate change, family, and what it is to be human, whilst also making some daft jokes about animals.
I was inspired to write the piece after going to hear ‘Lost in the Cedar Wood’ by singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn and the nature writer Robert Macfarlane which is about another flood story – the Epic of Gilgamesh.
I’ll be performing ‘Noah on the Earth’ at Limmud Festival 2022 – a Jewish cultural festival held in Birmingham over the Christmas break.
What have been the pleasures and challenges of creating and performing it?
So far I’ve performed it to friends at a private showcase and to my community at Kingston Liberal Synagogue. The performance at KLS was fun as I got the Saturday school students involved, joining in with the songs and (admittedly more enthusiastically) making the noise of the storm by clapping and stomping…
It felt special performing it at KLS as it was written with the ideals of Liberal Judaism in mind – using religion to ask questions about the way we live our lives today.
What advice would you give to other young composers?
1) You’ll get better with time. Finding the best way to express yourself is a continuous process so don’t expect to write the perfect song straight away (I’m still working on mine).
2) Learn from others. If you listen to lots of different styles, pick and choose the bits you like, and add your own twist, then before you know it you’ve written something completely new. I find that really exciting.
3) Write your best thing, not the best thing. Everyone is different, so everyone has something different to say – think about what your unique experience is. I felt confident writing my liberal-Jewish-comedy-folk-musical but there are plenty of other things I wouldn’t know how to write about.
What kind of music do you enjoy listening to? And who are your favourite musicians?
I’ve spoken quite a lot about singer-songwriter music that I like, but I’m also a big classical music fan. I was listening to Borodin’s String Quartet No.2 today. I enjoy contemporary classical music too, like Caroline Shaw’s album ‘Orange’. And I remember singing some extraordinary choral music by Roxanna Panufnik when I was at university (who I can see you’ve just interviewed.)
What next? Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I’m proud of ‘Noah on the Earth’ and the response I have been getting for it so far. Next, I’d like to play it with as many communities as would like to hear it, maybe as a mini tour.
10 years feels like a long way away, but I’m a big believer in small improvements over time. I’m further along with lots of things than I was 10 years ago. I’d like to think I’ll still be performing, and still writing from the heart with an audience in mind, so hopefully I’ll have completed something even better in a decade. Speak again in 2032?
‘Noah on the Earth’ will be performed at Limmud Festival 2022. You can watch highlights of the piece on YouTube now. You can book a performance of ‘Noah on the Earth’ with your community by emailing ethanalkelly [at] gmail.com