Where do we come from? I mean, where does it all come from, all this? – the books that we read or skim; the computers that we frantically tap; the cultural values that press upon us in every decision we make? Some would posit the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans as the progenitors of our western society. Stories of names like Cleopatra, Socrates and Caesar abound in British accounts of ancient history, at least. However, Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, points to Persia – loosely corresponding today to Iran and the -stan countries – as the bubbling cauldron from which much of the modern world emerged.
Indeed, this book and its particular rewriting of history sits at the heart of a collaborative project here in Oxford with Georgian-born singer-songwriter Katie Melua. In the coming weeks, she will be leading a series of songwriting workshops for students that will culminate in a concert at the Sheldonian in April. We recently had the opportunity to speak to Katie about the project.
When asked about her hopes for the workshops, Melua says that she wants first and foremost to ‘put on a beautiful show in April, with some exquisite pieces and songs; original songs that are written by the students.’ Her longer-term – and more grandiose – aim is to ‘create real deep interest in the art of songwriting from a lyrical point of view, not just a musical point of view.’ How will she know when this lofty goal has been realised? When, ‘in 10 to 15 years’ time,’ she ‘walk[s] into a store, perhaps at Christmas time, and hear[s] really great, uplifting, meaningful pieces of music, that aren’t just repeating the same, you know, over and over.’
If you do not already know who she is, Katie Melua is a musician who has achieved vast commercial success – in 2006 she was the UK’s best-selling female artist. She saw precocious fame when, at just 19, her debut topped UK album charts. Today, she is 37 and has released eight albums. Her songs are characterised by her rich singing voice and easy-listening arrangements that tussle with the sentimental.
‘One of the things that I’d like to focus on is a lyrical duty of care,’ Melua tells Clementine. She cites artists who she believes have this ‘duty of care’ – that she looks to cultivate in her workshops – in their lyrics: Joni Mitchell, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey. Melua remarks that in song – a performed medium – effective lyricism is constituted not just by the choice of words, but by a myriad of other adjacent linguistic considerations: dialect, intonation, pitch, pacing and accent. She is concerned about the neglect of these aspects in songwriting. ‘In the circles I have worked in, there is a much greater emphasis on musical writing than there is on the lyrical writing.’ Melua seeks to balance these two aspects of composition in these workshops, moving towards a lyrical ‘fluidity’ that she believes can sometimes go missing in a song.
It is the book The Silk Roads that has been chosen to inspire lyrical ‘fluidity’ and focus in the sessions. According to TORCH’s website, the book will aid participants ‘to write songs that explore journeys through time, geographies, and cultures.’ It seems a somewhat arbitrary choice of text – a tribute to the ‘humanities’ that the project must, perhaps artificially, incorporate. I have no doubt, though, that its author Peter Frankopan, Worcester College historian, will be pleased.
‘I hadn’t actually heard of the book until I started these talks with TORCH,’ Melua says, though is flexible in adapting to its suggestion. ‘I started reading it, and I thought it was phenomenal,’ she recounts, with adequate emphasis. Melua’s natural flair for displaying enthusiasm shines through in her answer here. She makes links to Georgia, the country in which she lived until she was eight, which lies precisely on the Euro-Asian trading routes that give Frankopan’s book its title. Melua then drifts into childhood reminiscences: ‘music was everywhere in Georgia,’ which meant she was able to move to the UK ‘…with great excitement, because it was the country where The Beatles and Led Zeppelin were from.’ Her story gleams against the backdrop, provided by Silk Roads, of cross-cultural journeying and migration.
We finished by asking Katie what words of wisdom she has to impart to the young creatives on the programme. Melua wants to make them aware of their ‘voices of influence’, by which she means the plethora of accents and vocabularies and vocal pacings that we encounter every day. These could be singers – Melua credits Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell as having influenced her inner ear – or just the talk we overhear. ‘There can be positive voices of influence, and negative ones,’ she says, going on to give an anecdote about a manager of hers from whose mouth perennially comes the word ‘dude’. ‘Since working with him, I always use the word dude, too,’ she admits.
Katie Melua’s project is tangible, whilst maintaining grand vision. Its seeds are promising, and may flower into a thing of rare beauty. Whether in 10- or 15-years’ time we will walk into a store – perhaps around Christmas time – and hear really great, uplifting, meaningful pieces of music, remains to be seen. In the meantime, you can go and hear the songs written by the participants in their final concert on Thursday 28th April, at the Sheldonian Theatre.