Angharad Jenkins: A Musician's Life in Pandemic
Sunday 12th July 2020
By Angharad Jenkins
I ddarllen hwn yn Gymraeg cliciwch yma.
In March, after 10 months of baby fuzz, I received my final Maternity Allowance payment, and was looking forward – albeit slightly apprehensively – to starting back at work. As I looked ahead to an album release and a 23-date UK tour with Calan, I pondered what touring might look and feel like with a young baby. My mind was occupied with the challenges of weaning on the road, child-care and the additional costs of accommodation and travel.
“2020 is going to be a big year for Calan.”
2020 was looking like a promising year for us as a band. It kicked off on 1st of March with one of the most thrilling performances of my career to date; Calan in concert with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at St David’s Hall, Cardiff (photo below). Performing with the orchestra was an electrifying experience and one that I’ll never forget. Little did I know it would be my first and last performance of 2020.
There were rumbles of Coronavirus in the air. Our sound engineer had to drop out last-minute due to testing positive for Covid-19 after returning from northern Italy on a tour with Liam Gallagher. There were signs up in the toilets on how to wash your hands properly, and from the stage I noticed one row of prepared concert-goers wearing face-masks. A bit excessive I thought, and returned to enjoying the immersive experience of playing with the orchestra.
Us musicians can be a tactile bunch, but the Covid warnings didn’t seem to stop even the most distant colleagues hugging and kissing, greeting each other at the start of rehearsals and congratulating each other after a wonderful performance. After all, this is the good stuff. Live music brings us together and provides a glorious uniting energy. It can send adrenaline through a concert hall, making us feel good, and close to each other. It’s warm and welcoming, and the buzz makes us feel alive!
The concert went well – it was broadcast on BBC Radio Wales and Radio Cymru. We were riding a wave. Conductor Grant Llewelyn’s words have resonated in my head ever since, “2020 is going to be a big year for Calan.”
Before lockdown measures had hit the UK, we were already in the red by thousands of pounds.
Two days after the concert Calan headed to the USA for a three-week tour. (For the first time in Calan’s 10-year career, I didn’t join them on this tour, to stay at home with the little one). But as news of the pandemic spread, festivals started cancelling, and Calan had no choice other than to return home a week early.
This had major cost implications for us as a band. Not only had we lost income from cancelled shows, we had to re-book four trans-Atlantic flights home. Before lockdown measures had hit the UK, we were already in the red by thousands of pounds.
Calan on tour in the USA in early March 2020
We had to act quickly, and so we set up a Crowdfunding Campaign to claw back some of our lost earnings by offering online lessons, signed albums and tune commissions. Patrick’s technicoloured jacket from India (coupled with a years-worth of genuine stage sweat) was the top prize at a whopping £400. Our fans jumped on board, and the campaign was a success. We had broken even.
But then, days after returning to the UK more and more people started cancelling tours. It was looking increasingly likely that ours would be up next. And sure enough, after advancing the first week or so of shows, I spoke to our agent, and indeed we had to call the whole thing off.
Nearly two years of research, arranging, composing, rehearsing, recording, planning, grant-applying, marketing and promoting, had gone into our new album Kistvaen – which we felt was our best yet. But in the blink of an eye, all that time and hard work had become worthless.
Suddenly my diary was empty.
23 concerts disappeared over night, and over the next few weeks, large festivals started postponing till next year. The National Eisteddfod, Lorient Interceltic Festival, Shrewsbury Folk Festival… Our agent worked around the clock to re-arrange our April shows to November/December 2020. But in just a few weeks, those shows had to be re-scheduled again, and were now moved to April 2021.
Aside from Calan, I also had a LMN residency cancelled at a care home in Tonyrefail. And a couple of one-off performances with Music in Hospitals. Suddenly my diary was empty. Weeks and months of nothing lay ahead. But this was familiar territory; I had experienced this on maternity leave. No gigs, no socialising, just me and my baby and partner.
Strangely, maternity leave had prepared me for lockdown. I’d been in my own personal baby lockdown for ten months, and in a way, I felt like the rest of the world had joined me. I felt less isolated. As the world around me grounded to a halt, we all started turning to technology to connect. For the first time since the birth of my daughter, I was able to meet with friends and have a drink in the comfort of my own home – safe in the knowledge that if my baby needed me, I’d be upstairs in a shot.
My partner had been furloughed, and so after having limited time to myself, we were able to share childcare duties. We took half a day each to do our own thing, which freed up time for me to play, and to compose - and the tunes came flowing out.
Getting on with the Calan Crowdfunder Tune Commissions gave me something creative to get my teeth stuck into. I emailed the ten people who had commissioned tunes from me, asking if they had any special requests. The subsequent conversations I had with these people over email was amazing. I got to know a little more them, and heard some lovely, moving stories about the people in their lives.
I was tasked to write tunes in memory of lost loved ones, to celebrate lockdown birthdays and wedding anniversaries… Some wanted joyous, upbeat tunes, whilst others wanted something more pensive and relaxing. One man had asked if I could write a piece of music for his sister who’s a nurse and lives in Pathhead in Scotland. He wanted something so she could listen and relax to after a long shift at Border Generals Hospital near Edinburgh. This was the inspiration for the tune Key Worker’s Waltz (which I play in one of my LMN videos).
The musical residents of Pathhead, Scotland play Angharad Jenkins' Key Worker's Waltz
I wrote the tune, sent it off on manuscript paper and in a matter of days I had a message from friend and harpist Corrina Hewat informing me that the people of Pathhead were playing my tune! I was delighted. As a composer, there is no greater thrill than knowing that your music is being played by others. I was even more excited to find out that Pathhead is a very musical community, and some of the UK’s leading folk and jazz musicians are resident there. A few weeks later I started receiving videos of others playing my tune. One came from Michal Poreba on accordion, another from Robbie Jessep on guitar, and then one from Pathhead (above), of a group of residents – including Martin Green from Lau on accordion - playing my tune in the middle of the road after the last 8pm key workers clap. Drenched in the light of the golden hour – it looked and sounded amazing, and I was humbled that my little tune had travelled and reached the ears of so many people.
At a time of isolation, it dawned on me how much music can communicate and connect us.
Even though all my live concerts had been cancelled for the foreseeable future – I felt I had a purpose as a musician. I was able to compose and bring some joy into people’s lives after all.
I hate admitting this, but when the world was faced with such an awful threat, the tunes were flowing. I was commissioned to write ten, but they kept on coming. I kept writing. The fiddle moved around the house with me and my baby – I wouldn’t have long to play, but I’d be writing snippets here and there. Melodies were spinning around in my head as I fed my baby, and as I went to sleep. I’d sing on my daily walks, recording snippets of tunes into my phone, then would come home to write them out.
It was an unusually creative time for me. The weather was glorious, and even though I live in the middle of Swansea – the traffic had stopped and the peace and quiet was noticeable, making way for the most delightful and glorious birdsong.
Our world had reduced to a square mile around the house. I did the same lap of the park every day with my daughter. As she was experiencing Spring in all its virginal glory for the first time, I too was appreciating the delights and beauty of nature with child-like enthusiasm. The park provided more than enough sensory stimulation that my daughter was missing from her baby classes, so we’d stop to stroke the bark on the trees, and get up close to the buds and the blossoming flowers. I was seeing and noticing things for the first time, the magnolias, silver birches, wild roses, and cherry blossom, the daffodils and tulips, the sound of the stream, and the birds. Oh the birds! One of the lasting sounds of lockdown. I miss them already.
Work has picked up, although in a very different way.
Three months later, and we’re just about getting used to the new normal. I’ve accepted that there probably won’t be any live performances for a year, and I’m intrigued about how the shows in April 2021 will work. Who will come? Will we be able to make it work financially?
I feel very lucky to have my health, and those around me are well. Work has picked up, although in a very different way. I’m having to think of myself as a solo artist now, more than a band member, as I can only realistically work on my own.
I’ve been able to move some of my practise online. I teach privately once a week, and I’ve been delivering one-to-one sessions for Live Music Now over Zoom for two families with little girls with cerebral palsy.
I’ve taken on a commission to work with an amazing band from Melbourne called Bush Gothic, a collaboration between The National Eisteddfod and the National Celtic Festival of Australia. And I’m also composing some new music with my mother, the harpist Delyth Jenkins, for a multi-faith chapel in the new Grange University Hospital at Llanfrechfa, Newport as part of a Ty Cerdd initiative. Both these project are giving me so much creative stimulus, and the best thing about it is that I’m able to fit this work around my baby.
There have been times where I’ve felt incredibly vulnerable as a musician.
There have been times where I’ve felt incredibly vulnerable as a musician. As a violinist I crave accompaniment. My partner’s skills are lacking somewhat in that area(!), so I don’t have any one to play with. I can’t offer online concerts or live streams, because who would want to listen to 40 minutes of solo fiddle? At times, whilst composing, I’ve felt like an artist with no canvas. I have the colours – the notes – but other than a piece of manuscript paper, I have nowhere to place them. I want to hear and realise my music with other musicians, and so I’m forced to learn new skills. I’m in the process of developing a basic home studio set-up so that I can make professional quality audio recordings.
There have been times where I’ve also felt utterly helpless. I’ve wanted to get out there and help the more vulnerable people in our society, but I’ve been unable to leave my baby. Other times I’ve questioned what is the point even of being a musician, but then I remember all those lovely exchanges I had with the Calan Crowdfunder commissioners, and the families who I’m working with LMN, and I’m reminded that there is still a very important role for musicians in society. Whilst the NHS are keeping us alive, we need to give people a reason to live. The arts are crucial to our wellbeing, and they should be supported. And hopefully, when we can get back to normal, people will come and support and enjoy the arts again. Together.
You can purchase Calan's new album, Kistvaen, here.
You can enjoy Angharad's concerts for young children in English and Welsh in the LMN Free Concert Video Library for schools and families.
Length: 22 mins / Featured Instruments: Ukulele & fiddle / Suitable for younger children
Join Angharad Jenkins from Welsh folk group Calan for a fun music session with help from her monkey Mickey! She introduces us to the ukulele, performs two pieces on her fiddle and teaches two catchy songs to join in with. Angharad uses some Makaton to create a friendly, inclusive session.