In this installment of “One Song” I talked to Simon van Gend about his song “Blinking and Breathing,” the title track of the most recent album from Simon and the Bande À Part. Simon is an indie/folk artist from Cape Town, South Africa, who will embark on his first visit to the United States this fall, with a house concert tour of the Mid-Atlantic region. We talked via Skype about the background of the song, his songwriting process and musical influences.
“Blinking and Breathing” takes a raw, unflinching look at a traumatic childhood incident.
I can remember a scene from when I
was only four, I was walking with my
brother and his friends along down the road
I was only looking for
a way to feel safe once more
everybody was safe one time
before the blinking and breathing and crying
and then my brother and his friends began
pelting me with stones, I cried and I ran
back to the house, there was no one at home
I ran through the gate and I ran through the door
I called up my mom where she worked at the store
she said don’t call here, I’ve told you before
I ran to my bed and howled at the wall
I screamed and I cried till my body was sore
and then I decided to hide in my core
I decided that I wouldn’t cry any more
The story, laid out in the song with straightforward, literal language, is a true one.
Simon says, “I was actually in psychotherapy at the time and that memory had become unearthed while I was in therapy. I might never have actually recalled that incident if those deeper feelings hadn’t been uncovered in therapy. So for me it was a very significant memory because I think that it kind of summed up something about my childhood in terms of how my emotional needs were dealt with in the environment I was growing up with. So it was a very important thing for me to remember.”
I ask him if it’s scary to write about such a personal, painful event.
“Yeah, it’s also tricky because it doesn’t make my mother look very good and it doesn’t make my brother look very good. And it was a little difficult because, I’ve tried to explain to my brother and my mother that this is not a song about them. It’s a song about what happens to children. You know, this is a kind of universal thing and my mum was obviously stressed with her job and my brother was only two years older than me and behaving the way all children behave. But it’s tricky…I’m very sensitive to how my brother and my mother respond to songs like that.”
I suggest that the song isn’t really about what his mother and brother did, but, rather, Simon’s response to it.
“It’s not an angry song,” he says. “It’s not a song that’s trying to blame anyone. It’s just the human condition. This is what happens to people. This is what we experience and we’re all just, everything we do, we try to find a way to feel safe, and a way to feel calm. And it’s all we ever try to do. And still to this day it’s what I’m trying to do, to find peace.”
The song didn’t take a long time to write.
“It’s not often that I write songs that tell a story as clearly as that one,” Simon says. “And it was kind of like a gift because the story was completely laid out in my mind. I didn’t sit down and spend hours trying to piece together the story so I could write the song. It was literally a case of picking up the guitar one evening and thinking ‘OK, let’s try to write a song. What shall I sing about? Oh, how about that memory?’ And I actually just started singing and just told the story over the chords. It was a really, really quick song to write because that memory was so clearly formed in my mind.”
The British writer William Nicholson put these words in the mouth of C.S. Lewis in the play and film “Shadowlands”: “We read to know that we are not alone.” I think of this line, and how it can apply to writing and listening to music as well, as Simon talks about the reaction of listeners to “Blinking and Breathing.”
“We all have stuff that’s sort of buried, because we’ve been brought up to believe for whatever reason that it’s not cool to feel a certain thing or to think a certain thing. And that’s kind of how we end up being at war with ourselves. And for me the process of digging in and expressing that stuff in music and then having an audience respond to it in such a positive way makes me realize that actually it’s ok. It’s fine to be this way; it’s fine to have these experiences buried in my mind. And basically we’re all the same underneath. The fact that so many people I’ve found relate to that song says to me that everybody’s got that feeling deep inside, that they just want to be safe. And their whole life they’re looking for a place to be safe.”
Simon talks about the creative process, the push and pull between working systematically and letting emotions flow. There are times when a song is the product of hard, focused work, and other times when it seems to arrive of its own free will.
“It’s a bit of a dilemma that I have as a songwriter at the moment. How deliberate do you want to be when you’re creating, and how much do you need to just kind of let it happen? And I guess maybe it’s my superego telling me ‘Come on, work harder. If you really try you can write a great song.’ And so I do that. I sit and I try and I try but then again, that song, for example, didn’t happen by trying. You have to give yourself a little push to get going. You have to sit down with the guitar and start singing, which is not as easy as drinking a cup of coffee in the garden, for example. You’ve got to put yourself in that space.
“But sometimes when the best songs happen, you just kind of get blown along by the energy that’s inside you, as opposed to having to kick yourself along. So when I write I often try to almost not think about what I’m doing and let my subconscious say what it’s got to say. And it’s a tricky business because there’s all sorts of rubbish in my subconscious. So you’ve got to let it up but also shape it.”
The first chord of the song seems to set a wistful tone. I ask Simon what that chord is and why it makes me feel that way.
“That’s a major 7th chord. I have always loved the major 7th chord. I actually have to discipline myself a bit to not use it too much. It’s just such a wonderful chord to me. It’s just got this incredibly dreamy quality and I think I discovered it through learning to play Neil Young songs when I was learning to play guitar.”
Simon points specifically to Neil Young’s Lotta Love as an example of a song that makes use of major 7th chords to set a mood.
There’s a contrast in “Blinking and Breathing” between the melody, which is cheerful and relaxed, and the lyrics, which tell such a harsh story. In the second verse, the happy sound is ratcheted up with the entrance of a harmonica and bandoneon, which is an instrument from Argentina similar to an accordion.
“Well, you know, the interesting thing is that my band, and the feeling they bring, is quite a big part of the music. They bring a lot of playfulness into the whole thing. And I don’t know how much of what you’re hearing in the feeling of the song is coming from the band.”
I ask Simon about South African influences in his music.
“That’s a difficult question,” he says. “Because it might be there subconsciously. I don’t consciously seek to sound South African. I’m not interested in sounding like anything. I want to sound like what I feel like sounding like. So the sound of my songs comes from what I feel and I don’t try to manipulate that at all because that’s how I believe the best music is going to happen.
“But I wouldn’t be surprised if there are influences. I’ve been surrounded by South African music my whole life. British and American music is probably the biggest influence on my songwriting, but there are rhythms in the African music that I love. Paul Simon’s Graceland, I loved that album when it came out. I played it non-stop. That music that’s on Graceland would have been playing on the radio when I was an infant, because basically growing up in Apartheid South Africa every white family had a black woman who looked after the kids. And I would have spent probably as much time strapped to the back of a black woman as I was in contact with my actual mother. And the woman cleaning the house, I would have been around her a lot of the time and she would have been listening to the African radio station playing mbaqanga music.”
Simon explains that mbaqanga music came from Zulu culture but was also popular in Xhosa culture. The Xhosa, the tribe of Nelson Mandela’s origin, settled in an area of South Africa called the Transkei, which borders on the town that Simon grew up in, East London.
“If you look up a group called Mahlatini and the Mohatella Queens, it’s the most amazing mbaqanga music, and that’s the kind of song that I guess I would have been hearing as an infant. So when I was in my late 20s, I remember coming across a CD of Mahlatini and the Mohatella Queens, and hearing that music just triggered something very deep in me. It’s like there’s a part of me that just loves that sound. So to answer your question, I guess that feeling must be in me some way, you know. But not consciously.”
I ask him to recommend a song for me to listen to. Suddenly I hear this, as he plays this video for me over our Skype session.
“This one song I love is called ‘In Love With a Rasta Man.’ So you hear those guitars? That’s maskanda, which is a particular style of guitar playing. It’s a Zulu style, which is amazing. It’s a unique style of guitar playing. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else in the world.”
Simon is working on a project in which he’s writing and recording a song a week for a year. Before we finish I want to ask him about writing songs quickly. Although he wrote Blinking and Breathing quickly it wasn’t part of this project. He wrote it about five years ago.
“This wasn’t to a deadline,” he says.
“Right. That was just the way it happened.”
“I think I wrote four songs in that week,” he says. “I’d just gone through a breakup and what often happens is you get all intense. Your feelings are just really alive and intense, and music is the thing that calms me down when I’m in that state. If you want to talk about the feeling of that song, it’s like rocking a baby. It’s comforting, gently rocking. That is what my music is often for, it’s to comfort me, ultimately. Primarily why I do it is I’m feeling unsettled or in some kind of turmoil. I pick up the guitar and it soothes me.”