Alex Garden: A Musician's Life in Pandemic
Friday 11th December 2020
It seems very strange to look back to a time, not that long ago, when travelling around in a van packed with PA equipment and encouraging strangers to dance together at gigs and ceilidhs not only felt normal but one could get paid to do it! Having recently completed an album inspired by unusual words like Sonder (the realisation that each passerby is living a life as rich and complex as your own) and Vellichor (the strange wistfulness of used bookstores) I feel as though there should be a word for mourning the loss of social contact - a yearning for a pre-pandemic society in which one could stroll into a packed bar full of music and cheer without a face mask or a care in the world.
It was a promising start to the year, I travelled to Denmark for the first time and when I got back I was invited to The University of Southampton, from which I graduated in music three years ago, to deliver a performance and Q&A with The Drystones at the beautiful Turner Sims Concert Hall. While I was there, I discovered, to my surprise, that there was a big picture of me on a wall outside!
Alex Garden at University of Southampton, Photo Credit: Chris Lucas
Burns Night is always one of the busiest nights in a folk musician’s calendar and this year was no different. Ford Collier, Kate Griffin and I put on a ceilidh at the Old Market Assembly, Bristol which sold out. People were dancing shoulder to shoulder in sets on two levels in front of us as well as all the way up the stairs, with barely enough room to squeeze through to the bar. Due to the sheer number of dancers in the space it was necessary for me to assist the groups in learning the moves by climbing down off the stage and getting involved in the squeeze myself. It was the closest I’ve ever come to crowd surfing…
As the first signs of spring arrived, unfortunately so did the Covid-19 pandemic. It felt as if all of our work as live musicians disappeared over night including a UK tour with The Drystones, a tour of schools around Bournemouth with Live Music Now and, of course, all of the ceilidhs and gigs in between.
In some ways, it was a time for rest. A forced but not unwelcome opportunity to spend endless days cycling in the sun, playing music with my housemates and refurbishing parts of the house, plus I got really into slacklining in the park. In the back of my mind though I was bothered by the fact that I wasn’t making music for anyone except myself and I realised how much I appreciate the regular creative outlet of performance and new connections that come with life on the road.
As it turns out, this year would provide the perfect opportunity to launch a new collaboration project which started two years earlier...
Harriet Riley with the author, Alex Garden, Photo credit: Archie Thomas
Harriet Riley and I started playing together in 2018 after meeting at a Live Music Now training day, and we’d been gradually working on new material as a bit of an experiment ever since. We were trying to infuse folk tune composition with a mutual enthusiasm for minimalism and extended harmony, incorporating improvisation and unusual playing techniques along the way.
On what would have been the weekend of Glastonbury 2020, Harriet and I had a sunny socially-distanced picnic to distract from the fact that the festival wasn’t going ahead. During our catch up, we realised that we’ve actually been given loads of spare time this year and that now was the perfect opportunity to make our debut album. We also had the advantage of being able to self-record and produce the record as well as Harriet’s newly refurbished house with suprisingly lovely acoustics to make it in. We began tracking the first takes for Sonder on 16th July and spent one or two days a week on it for the following month. I must give a big shout out to Harriet’s housemate Jemima who was so patient with us taking over the kitchen for all that time and having to be super quiet when we were recording!
We since been blessed to use the mighty main space at St Ambrose Church in Bristol for many of our rehearsals. The lush natural reverb and lack of troublesome reflections, I think, contributed to our dynamic style and the way we played early on.
Here's a film we made in the church with fellow Live Music Now musician Dan Inzani, on sound and Archie Thomas on visuals.
We decided to crowd-fund the project whilst working on it, allowing people to pre-order the finished product while it’s being made so that we can afford the costs of mastering, duplication and distribution. As we progressed through the recording process, Bristol-based portrait artist Flo Lee got involved creating a brush-stroke likeness of us and wood textured backdrops for the album artwork. The moment you see the finished artwork is a powerful turning point in a project like this, you get a feeling that everything has been wrapped together into a whole and you can fully visualise the final product - Flo’s input was magical and she’s a dream to work with.
Sonder album cover artwork by Flo Lee
We finished recording all the duo work in mid August shortly before I spent two weeks away with my family in the highlands of Scotland. This is something of an annual family tradition and has played a role in my personal musical development as a folk musician, each year witnessing the sounds and landscapes that have inspired some of the great traditional Celtic tune writers.
Alex Garden at Stac Pollaidh, Photo Credit: Tim Salvidge
When I got back, we booked in a day to finish the whole recording process, working with Stevie Toddler on double bass. Recording in the same room as before and having never played together as a trio, Stevie’s contributions quickly and seamlessly glued the arrangements together in ways I had never imagined. The sound worked so well and completely brought the next level of energy to every piece we worked on. We were only going to record bass on a couple of tracks initially but we ended up with Stevie playing on almost half the album! Of course, after a day of musical revelation and to mark the wrap of the recording process, celebratory pizza was ordered…
Travel guidance at the time allowed me to travel up to Sheffield and embark on recording The Drystones album Vulpus with Ford Collier, at his new house. This will be our fourth studio album and we’re hoping to release it in 2021.
I spent a few weeks mixing Sonder myself at home and felt very lucky to receive feedback from some of my favourite mix engineers throughout the process. This would be the first commercially available album I had mixed and especially as I was so ‘close’ to the music it was important for me to get some extra pairs of ears on it before it was finished. Mastering was completed in October by Martin Nichols at White House Studios and we took delivery of the CDs the same month. It’s difficult to explain the feeling of having 300 albums plopped on your doorstep one morning, all shiny and fresh, waiting to meet their new owners.
Unfortunately, it was around this time that I, myself, contracted coronavirus and therefore had to self isolate at home for two weeks. This meant postponing all of my work including our album launch gig at St George’s Bristol which was gutting. Luckily for me, the virus passed uneventfully and I was able to continue practice and some remote recording work in the meantime.
As it turns out, the rescheduled date had to be rescheduled again due to tightening restrictions and we ended up with the (not-at-all superstitious) date Friday 13th November for our album to be released.
Before that, we signed and sent CDs off all round the world to our wonderful crowd-funder patrons who responded enthusiastically. A message from someone you’ve never met, displaying love and gratitude for our music has taken on a new currency during this period of relative isolation and I found myself increasingly humbled by the time people had taken out of their lives to share with us. Critical feedback was great too. Within a week we had secured several radio plays including BBC Radio 3’s Freeness show and trad magazine Bright Young Folk described it as ‘A stunning mix of dreamlike atmospheres and mesmerising energy, a bridge between different genres and one of the most adventurous albums in recent years.’
As the release date approached, we had to make lots of quick decisions about the format of our launch show due to the sudden announcement of another national lockdown. We would not be able to deliver the concert in-person so instead the wonderful people at St George’s facilitated our use of their stunning main hall to record and film the entire show in a morning.
St George's Hall, Bristol
We were lucky that day to have an absolute dream team. Stevie joined us again on double bass and Daniel Inzani set up his rig of gorgeous vintage microphones to capture a three-dimensional audible image of the space. Nirvana Hue captured everything exquisitely on camera and used subtle techniques to bring slick movement and texture to the film. The show aired the following Friday with a Q&A after in which Harriet and Stevie and I were able to talk about the music in depth.
Since then, we’ve continued to get more radio play and reviews while we embark on a new project…
As a duo, we’ve just begun the Inspire Level 2 project through Live Music Now working with pupils at an SEN school in Bridgwater. We were assigned to put together a series of weekly music making sessions for young people with special needs, guided by Sadie Fleming who is an inspiration. This is a tricky time to be working in a school as social-distancing measures are in place presenting us with a whole variety of challenges. But having done two sessions already it’s been a lot of fun overcoming the hurdles and I’m learning loads. I believe it’s some of the most rewarding work musicians can do and I’m very lucky to have this opportunity to develop my skills at the same time.
Despite having had two lockdowns and virtually all of my work as a live musician lost this year it’s been such a privilege to continue to be booked by Live Music Now, performing in care homes over summer with accordion player Archie Churchill-Moss and now working on a new project with Harriet. It serves as a strong reminder that, whilst I’m gutted for now about not being able to see my favourite artists perform live on a bustling Saturday night in Bristol, there are a lot of people who never have access to live music due to their own circumstances and who would benefit from that experience all the same.
You can purchase the album Sonder in various formats here! https://harrietrileyalexgarden.bandcamp.com/album/sonder