Nick Bollinger digests a solitary song cycle from Southland singer-songwriter Jay Clarkson.
Jay Clarkson isn’t part of the recent rash of guitar-wielding singer-songwriters, though there are moments when she could be mistaken for one of them. She has been making music since before most of the current crop were born, and will likely be making music after many of them have put their guitars up on Trade Me.
Her performing roots go back to Christchurch in the early 80s, where she fronted a succession of bands – The Playthings, They Were Expendable, Breathing Cage – reaching her highest profile in 1989 when the latter group won the coveted Rheineck Rock Award, a brewery-sponsored prize that gave the winner the budget to make an international-sized studio album. The result was Misericord, the biggest, most rhythm-driven treatment of any set of Clarkson songs so far. Perhaps it was timing, or perhaps the essentially inward nature of the material, but despite the big build-up the album never became more than a cult favourite, and after a tour or two the band split.
It would be nearly a decade before Clarkson released another album, 1999’s Kindle, released solely under her own name, and she’s maintained a low-key solo career ever since, with new collections arriving at regular if rather protracted intervals.
Spur is the latest of these, and it follows what seems to be a pattern, by being even more solo than the one that preceded it. It has been a constant process of stripping away; as though she’s testing the strength of her material by seeing how little reinforcement her performances need. And this time they require less than ever.
Solitude is, in a way, the theme of these songs. Listen to them in the order and they form a kind of narrative - if not quite a novel in musical form then a set of interlinked vignettes. The sequence begins with the protagonist (Clarkson refers to her only as ‘she’) behind the wheel of a car, heading for a destination as yet unknown. She has some history, she’s made some ‘bad calls’ in the past, but that was long ago. Anything could happen, good or bad.
Mostly Clarkson’s performances here are solo, or augmented by just one additional colour – a harmonica, a slide guitar or, in one case, a lovely unexpected string arrangement. But what is her travelling, disappearing protagonist looking for?
In ‘Everything’s Blue’ Clarkson introduces a second character – ‘he’, to match the ‘she’ of the first three tunes - and the song reveals a little of his blue frame of mind. What Clarkson does next is to cleverly engineer a meeting between the two characters.
There’s something not just very New Zealand but specifically Southland about these songs. Just listening to them, you can feel the frost in the air and on the ground under your feet. The lay of the land seems to speak to the mood of the characters, and yet Clarkson never tips over into gothic caricature; there’s warmth here too - veges cooking on the stove, a feeling of hopefulness, of possibility.
Does Clarkson’s song cycle have a happy ending? That’s for the listener to figure out. Clarkson concludes this mature, understated, beautifully controlled album not with a lyric but a beautiful instrumental - the album’s title track - that seems to have its own story to tell.
Songs featured: Luckies, She Disappears, Big Old House, Everything’s Blue, Walking Boots, Stay, Spur.
Spur is available on Zelle Records & from www.jayclarkson.com