turn, turn, turn


almost every formidable musical memory i have involves being in the car. music was the fabric of my family – my parents both played music and met on the music scene in santa fe in the 1970s. music literally made me; without it they would not have met and i would not exist. one of the fonder memories i have of my mother is her story that she used to place her mandolin on her stomach and play it when she was pregnant with me, and i’ve always held that as the reason i so love the sound of the mandolin more than any other instrument. i believe, though, it was my dad’s savant-like mandolin playing that really shaped my ear for it.

the car was where life happened for us in rural new mexico in the 1980s. it was 20 miles ‘to town’ from our house, a little three-room adobe mud rectangle sat squat on the middle of 80 acres of land. the dirt driveway was a mile long and led out to another dirt road, which led to a small paved road, which led to highway 14, the main route into santa fe. sometimes we drove straight up cerrillos road – santa fe’s main drag – to school or my parents’ places of business. other times we veered onto I-25, up the on-ramp that took us past the odd sculpture of a brontosaurus family that some guy had erected there for totally inexplicable reasons. looking this up later, i find out the man’s name was larry wilson and he owned a foam installation business.

for years, the music we listened to came in two types, depending on which parent’s car we were in:

1) dad: a penchant for tom petty and all americana, oldies, the beatles, the kinks and other classic 60s stuff. i first heard the indigo girls in the backseat of my dad’s AMC eagle wagon. we sang at the top of our lungs to ‘won’t back down’ by tom petty and i felt like a real rebel shout-singing the word ‘hell’ out loud.

2) mom: singularly listened to contemporary christian music and fostered my love for amy grant by constantly playing her early ’80s albums straight ahead and unguarded. i’d handle the cassettes with care, gently tugging the sleeve out and unfolding it, making sure not to tear the perforated edges apart, pouring over the lyrics. when lead me on came out in 1988, it soundtracked my young life for years after, and we’d wait in line at tingley coliseum in albuquerque to see her concert. afterwards i went to the merch stand and bought a white t-shirt with the album cover on the front that i wore so much it got holes in it.


at some point, my classmates pushed me into listening to country and western radio, which in the late 80s and early 90s was still tolerable to my dad and therefore he’d allow us to put it on, especially when we picked up friends who also lived out highway 14 and carpooled together. we’d sing at the top of our lungs the lyrics to the judds and george strait songs, alabama, kathy mattea and tanya tucker.

one morning on the way to school, my dad had tuned in to the oldies station and we were cruising up I-25 when the song changed and something happened. the iconic twanging first four bars of the byrds’ ‘turn, turn, turn’ resounded through the speakers and my dad turned the volume up full blast and sang along. we were stunned into silence. though he often drummed on the steering wheel (sometimes so hard we wondered if it might fall right off), he sang rarely, and it was special when this happened.

we listened, rapt. he sang the whole thing, then shoved the dial back down to a normal volume.

one thing you might know, if you’ve ever met my dad, is that john egenes can spin a good yarn. he knows the art of hooking you into a story and then drawing it out for as long as possible in great detail. after the song ended, he started in on a story about how the first time he heard those first four bars of turn, turn, turn, with their telltale rickenbacker jangle, it changed his life. he was hooked on the atmosphere of the song and how it was like nothing he’d ever heard before.

this sunk in. until that point, my life had been so saturated by enforced musical surroundings, i’d never contemplated the idea of music changing something in me, or of being overcome by a sound so new you remembered it your whole life.

on another morning drive, we were flipping through the radio channels and had one of those moments where you tune into a station just as your favourite song (i guess it’s called your jam now) is ending and we all shouted and moaned from the back seat that we’d missed it.

then my dad launched into story, and another thing you will know if you know my dad is that he’s a real sci-fi nut and more than a little bit prescient about technology.

you know, someday, you’re gonna be driving along in your car and you’ll be able to just press a BUTTON on your radio and, bam, you’ll buy any song you want and it’ll shoot straight into your radio from a satellite.

some years later, in the weeks after my parents split up, my dad got a new place up and across highway 14. it was temporary, and definitely weird when me and my sister first got dropped off there. i can only imagine how weird it was for my dad. he’d made a big stew in his crockpot and there were boxes all over the living room filled with vinyl records. i’d never seen any of them before – they’d always been secreted away in his little recording studio, a tiny concrete square that he’d built himself from the ground up (just far away from the main house to provide refuge) and spent most of his time in.

i’d never handled a vinyl record before – it was the end of the tape era and the start of the CD era, and i was aged 13 and lived and died by my walkman. seeing me idly scanning the boxes of records, he pulled a bunch out and showed me how they worked, popping open the scratched up plastic cover of his record player, lifting the needle and gently laying the big disc in.

the record was the 1966 stephen stills single ‘for what it’s worth’, by buffalo springfield. maybe i’d heard it before, but i’d never really heard it and the richness of those first four notes still warms me up from the inside out. bun. bing. bun. bing.

over the years, my mind has conflated the two memories, so that sometimes when i hear ‘turn, turn, turn’ by the byrds, i think of that first night as a divorce-kid, the smell of beef stew and the first feel of a dusty record sleeve in my hands.

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post script: there was one other moment in my life – this time in my 30s – that i heard music so different that it changed things forever for me, and that was the ethereal, spiritual sound of ‘lorelei’ by the cocteau twins, recommended to me by someone that cracked my heart wide open and let my soul out. liz fraser’s breathy, unintelligible vocals and robin guthrie’s sparkly guitars a form of jangle from the beyond, and i would not be the same after that.


amazing how it fades in.

on vinyl, you can’t rewind, and the main point of the listening is not so much even the music, but the journey. there is no backtracking to the nostalgic songs. no skipping the ones you don’t prefer. no pause button.

writing, i want to put a song on repeat, because it gives me feelings that help me put words onto digital paper, and i go to hit the repeat button and remember this is a record. even if i wanted a do-over, all i could do is pick up the needle and rest it gently back down somewhere slightly external of where it was, hoping for the best. this simply does not work.

in life, like on a vinyl record, there is no pause button. no rewind to try to figure out the meaning of the second just gone. no repeat function for the beautiful moments. and when a side is over, it’s time to flip and see what’s coming next.

most enjoyment of anything comes from anticipation, someone told me once. but these days i disagree. i don’t want to think about buying a record. i want to grab it from its basement bin, thrust some money at a dishevelled snob behind the counter, cradle it in my lap inside a tote bag on the bus home. and then i want to hold it round the edges in my fingers gingerly (sans latex gloves), slide it onto the peg and feel a small rush as i lift the needle and the disc starts to spin, then lower it and hope for not much of a scratch.

then i want to sit and listen. all the way through. side A, flip, side B. the songs i dislike, the ones that bore me, and the ones that give me all the butterflies, the buzzing speakers and all the pops and crackles in between. and when it’s over, i’ll reach into the wedge on the shelf for whatever album’s next.



overcoming the voices in you that tell you you aren’t good enough. that you are terrible. where do these voices come from? childhood wounds. something someone said once. can i learn to harmonise? i asked, age 8ish. no, you can’t even sing. what did she say? you need to be able to at least sing before you harmonise. all i wanted was for the song to come out of me. to sing. to harmonise. to feel those vibrations. to give out from my gut into the universe. you can’t sing, she said.

fast forward 30 years. this lingers. i can’t sing. i weep in front of an open guitar case. annabel, my blue, thin body ibanez acoustic has been with me since 1997.

in 1988, all i wanted to listen to, sing, be, was amy grant. i know, i know. but, at 7, my exposure was limited to what was allowed by my very conservative mother. amy grant was acceptable, and god did amy make me feel. she sang about real things, some of them were acceptable within the church environment i was surrounded by at school and on sundays.

but there was a spark to amy. she was also full of things to say and learn and feel. she…wasn’t going to be limited, and it turned out later she wasn’t when she publicly left the label of ‘christian music’ and ended up having a public affair and being shunned and generally following her heart. woman after my own tiny heart. saved by love, alright.

in 1997, i’d finished high school in the oddest of ways (pulled out after 3 years and had to take the test for kids who are dropouts, except a year younger than my graduating class), and was living with my grandparents, caring for my ailing grandmother and watching, but not understanding, as my grandfather tried to run from all of that. my grandmother was an alcoholic, or so they said, who knows.

years earlier, i was there, too. i was 7. she stayed home all day. watched soaps in her robe. to me, she was elegant. she had a tray of perfumes with vintage hand-squeeze bubble spray bottles. i wanted to use them all, preferably while wearing her costume jewellery and holding her purses and wearing furs.

it was part of our family lore that she’d played violin, but i never saw her pick up a violin and have no idea about the truth in any of that.


there was a steinway baby grand piano in my grandparents’ living room. i spent all my summers there. every afternoon, too. my mom worked. dad worked. they both ran their own businesses. i was always at mamalea and papa’s house, as we called them. the baby grand was there only as a piece of decor, but i started playing it. who cared? i couldn’t play, but i just bashed away. my grandmother endured this as long as she could and finally decided i needed lessons (enough with the vintage silent night sheet music that i had no idea how to interpret).

for two years i went to the house of a lady on canyon road in santa fe. how funny i can’t even remember her name now? two years! i learned treble clef, then tried base clef. i was terrible at reading music. mom and dad bought an upright electric piano for me. this was the height of 90s sophistication, and they were about to divorce, so everything was doable to keep us happy at that time.

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i still listened to amy. at some point later, i put her away and left her forever. then we went to live in texas, and high school happened, and my crush played guitar and suddenly i had to learn guitar. that’s when i started.

my dad, the sort of musical hero you could never even hope to be incarnated as the offspring of, got me nicholas. a black gibson everly brothers flattop with stars inlaid down the fretboard. i learned all the things i should learn about guitar on him. the chords of D and G and E Minor. all the important chords. though none of the amy songs.

in the summer of 1997, my mom had moved us back from texas to new mexico and i hadn’t been given the chance to graduate with my year, i had to ‘graduate early’ which meant taking that weird test, waving goodbye to my friends in lubbock, and going to live with my grandparents back in new mexico while my mom lived across the street with my stepdad. god, when i think about it now, wasn’t it all super fucked up?

mamalea, for all her faults or whatever anyone else said about her, seemed to understand this was a fucked up time for me, as a grandmother should. the only thing i really loved was singing and guitar and even back then i wasn’t confident or very objectively good at it, but it was something that always came out of me, just like it had on the baby grand 10 years earlier and like it did in my flat on carlingford road in dublin in 2008 and like it does tonight in SE23 london in 2019.

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i saw annabel in a guitar shop on cerrillos road in santa fe in 1997 and frankly wanted her because she was blue, like my heart was at 16 and still is at nearing-38. mamalea said get her, and gave me the money, so i drove in and bought her and didn’t even care what kind of look i got from the dude in the shop or anything else, about my choice of an ibanez thin-body acoustic guitar because she was, in my mind, perfect and she still is.

It was many and many a year ago,
   In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
   By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
   Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
   I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
   Coveted her and me.

she’s been with me longer than anybody. literally. we wrote teenage songs that should never see the light of day, the first of which was about the scarlet letter for my sophomore english class, and even played 20-something gigs in austin and houston. and i stood on stage with her in zhejiang and she dutifully accompanied me while i belted out ‘my heart will go on’ badly for hundreds of chinese students.

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and she was there, when i left her to lie dormant. when my heart loved and was broken by a man and another man, and really broken by myself. i put her away and stopped thinking about things of the heart, because they seemed like too much, too hard, too complicated, too many shadows and wounds to face and all i wanted was simple and married and life solved and to be done with all that. i wanted emotions gone.

in the end, emotions aren’t gone, they are just shoved away until they aren’t and then they come bursting out and you have to weep over the guitar you’ve let sit in her case for years because you were too afraid to face yourself and all the shadows lurking.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
   Of those who were older than we—
   Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
   Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee

music, now and then

1996. i am in my bedroom. fifteen years old, and i have lit a gardenia-scented candle. loose-leaf notebook paper, some of it scrawled on in my semi-illegible handwriting, is spread out on the floor. i’m curled cross-legged on the floor too, a black epiphone everly brothers acoustic guitar resting over one thigh. it was a gift from my dad, who didn’t say much when i expressed what he must have assumed was a fleeting teenage interest in ‘learning the guitar’, though looking back he must have been thrilled i’d taken an interest in one of his passions. i loved that guitar mainly because it had stars inlaid down the fretboard.


i wanted to learn guitar because i had a crush on josh jones, and he played guitar in the school worship band. i wanted to be the sort of cool, mysterious girl that played guitar and wrote angsty songs. the main problem was that i didn’t play guitar. or write songs. but i knew what angst was and music at least seemed to be in my blood – the child of musicians, from a family of musicians, i grew up surrounded by a host of americana instruments. i pushed back against the musical rapids that flowed through my young life. torturous saturdays as a kid were wanting a lift to the mall, but having to wait till my dad was done with his living room jam session.

when we are small, we resist the seeds our parents plant next to us in the hopes they will take root. but they do, and then later you are asking your dad for a guitar and he is buying you a chord book and telling you the four chords you need to learn to play any song in the world. this must have been one of the best days of my dad’s life so far, if i had to guess. seeing your kid embrace a passion and knowing ‘that’s me, that’s my contribution to human existence and it is perfect.’

you start by learning a D chord. it’s the easiest. your fingers don’t have to stretch that far. it hurts. next comes G and your fingers do have to stretch. the tips of your fingers sting. you keep pushing down in a vain effort to keep the strings from buzzing. they still buzz. surely the fingers are bleeding now. no? really? no blood at all? fuck this hurts.

you, if you are me, have to keep going because you have to be good at everything and you want josh jones to notice you and you want to be the cool, mysterious chick with the guitar. but it fucking hurts, and you throw the guitar down and it makes a noise like it might have broken and you are scared you broke it because really you love it and your dad spent money on it and it’s making you into something that you’re not sure what yet.

then magic starts to happen. you can play a song. badly, but you can. suddenly from pain, music is coming out of you, and you start to sing and even though your voice sounds like shit at first, you don’t care, because you are playing a D chord and then a G and then an A and it is giving you life and it is spiritual. the most spiritual you get aged 15. (or 36, spoiler).

i am the least talented of the musical people in my family. but what i lack in talent, i like to think i make up for in verve. my voice isn’t the best. it’s pitchy and i hit bad notes and i absolutely cannot harmonise to save my life. i was in the choir in high school for one day when i realised i would have to sight-read sheet music and learn to use my diaphragm, i  quit and went straight back to speech & debate. i have always gravitated toward ‘bad’ singers and people with quirky voices. don’t get me wrong, i wanted to sing with the angelic clarity of alison krauss and sarah mclachlan and sinead o’connor. but julie miller and tom waits gave me hope that it was ok for me not to sing classically. i still can’t.

the first song i ever learned to play and sing at the same time was ‘april showers’ by caedmon’s call, a band whose music and its members, particularly derek webb, have had an unquantifiable impact on the person i have become, and there has been some synchronicity with me and that band and this year and the release of derek’s latest album, ‘fingers crossed’ last week. i have not yet wrapped my head around what any of it means.

2017. i am in my apartment. thirty-six years old and i have lit an orchid and sweet coconut-scented candle. annabel, my teal-green ibanez thin-body acoustic guitar (bought aged 16 and named for my favourite-at-the-time edgar allan poe poem) slung over one thigh, and the loose-leaf notebook paper has been replaced by the steady glow of a macbook screen. my fingers fucking hurt because i don’t play enough and my voice wavers and cracks and falls flat and i feel that teenage wish to throw the guitar again. julie miller and tom waits have been replaced by lawrence from felt, whose bizarre voice has basically soundtracked the last two years of my life. clumsily, i strum out a few chords from ‘she lives by the castle’ and try to play it cool for no one, because i feel spectacularly uncool and wonder if i will ever be good at music.

it turns out in my case that if you were a nerd, you’ll always be a nerd, and a cool air of mystery is not something you can curate. plus 2017 me would like to let 1996 me know that nerdy is hot in your 30s.

isn’t music about how you feel when no one else is looking. the freedom of emotional outpouring when you are doing it or listening to it, whether guitar-throwing rage or unadulterated joy or life-altering love from another universe.

isn’t it about that very ultra-rare connection with another human that you, if lucky, experience through it?

and isn’t it about holding up the thing that your dad gave you, because he gave it to you. that is the beautiful thing.


post-script: i never did use my guitar to impress josh jones into dating me, but we got to be friends going to gigs and have remained friends to this day, and he (unlike me) has made a real career out of playing music. that is beautiful.



caedmon’s call and the start of 2017

new year’s day 2017
south of york station, virgin east coast service to london’s king’s cross
not listening to caedmon’s call, but felt’s ‘forever breathes the lonely word’

i didn’t go to whitby in search of caedmon. in fact, i had no idea there was a connection between the little english north sea-side town and the band that i followed super-religiously throughout my most formative years. a quickly-planned twixtmas trip to york somehow escalated to the inclusion of whitby – not exactly nearby, but also not that far away – on the itinerary for reasons i genuinely cannot remember or even fathom now. this detail passed me by but became relevant.

caedmon’s call was a band for and of christian people but they weren’t a christian band. or they were, and by that i mean they wrote songs that dived into christian philosophy in a way that my church high school would’ve called heretical. maybe not that extreme, but they made me ask questions and they created wonder where previously i only felt judgement and the push to conform.

after some time, me and the band became ‘friends’ because i went to far too many concerts – sometimes driving upwards of 14 hours across moonbeam-strewn texas plains to catch them in just one more bible-belt town’s church sanctuary or college auditorium. i pushed up the gumption on a snowy night around 1995 in wondrously named glorieta, new mexico and exchanged addresses with derek webb after the show. we wrote letters and chatted on IRC at musicians’ hours and i went to more shows. later i would even cover one of their songs on a long-lost fanclub rarity album (yes i just linked that there and it is from a bygone age and that’s all i have to say).

this is not really meant to be a post about all that, but it is about that, because the sun was setting over whitby a couple of days ago when i realised there was a trajectory of my life that had just come full-circle.

it was a big, yellowish orangish pinkish orb and it was shattering the blue winter sky into a million fragments of pastel when we walked up the 199 steps to whitby’s anglo-saxon hillside retreat where the very oddly shaped church of st mary and, behind it, the foreboding crumbles of benedictine whitby abbey, live, windbattered and muddy. the churchyard has a very atmospheric graveyard where the headstones look out over the north sea in a bleak and perfect fashion. they are all small and old worn stone, like you expect headstones in a graveyard like that to be, but then there’s this one 20ft-high spire of a cross at the very corner of the cemetery.

i credit bill, who looked more closely at it and spotted the name ‘caedmon’ on it, and i knew immediately it was not a coincidence, for how many caedmons were there, ever? at the bottom of the cross, inscribed:

“To the glory of God, and in memory of Caedmon, Father of English sacred song. Fell asleep hard by AD 680.”

caedmon was basically a stable boy at whitby abbey in the 600s. but hilda – at that time abbess of the then-mixed abbey – saw something in him and his verse and voice and encouraged him to keep singing and writing, and caedmon wrote what are possibly some of the very first songs and poems in the english language (a northumbrian dialect of old english), though he is all but forgotten today.

it called me to wonder about caedmon and hilda’s friendship. what did the powerful abbess see in a stable boy? he must have had a very special aura around him, and perhaps she was lonely despite the many monks and nuns around her. if being a career woman in the 21st century is hard, i can only imagine running a sizeable abbey in such a time must have been a gargantuan task with few real friends to call upon. it is said kings came to hilda for advice. who did she go to, i wonder?

sometimes friends arrive in guises that are inexplicable and not really that sensical – inconvenient or troublesome even – and we just have to go with it. i like to think about caedmon and hilda’s secret friendship, hanging out in the stables at odd hours maybe, the puffing of horses in torchlight while they exchanged music and verse in damp, hay-heavy air. hilda probably worried with each footfall she might be discovered in such a tryst, and caedmon just wondering what he did to attract such an important woman’s attention.

2016 was a hard year for many and a year of loss and passing away and foreboding the end of many things. i was sort of hoping that this full-circle life-loop-closing would have some symmetry to it, but actually i first heard caedmon’s call in 1994 and that marks a hardly-round 22-year anniversary. still, much happened in 2016 that felt like the poetic end to some things and the mysterious beginning to others, and i can’t help but feel this strange meeting of caedmon in his final resting place, just a few thousand minutes before the end of 2016, and so many thousands of miles and lives lived since i first heard his story, simply cannot be chance.

When I’m cold and alone all I want
Is my freedom, a sudden gust of gravity
I stop wailing and kicking just to let
This water cover me, cover me

some old photos:

with derek and my mate becky at trees in dallas (appx 1998?)

with garrett buell (caedmon’s call percussionist) at the guild 2 weekend (1999)

myself and my dad, john egenes on mandolin, performing ‘too tender’ at guild 1 weekend (1998) – surely the worst best kept digitised photo of all time

art lawry, myself and i can’t remember the guy on the right, guild 3 weekend in columbus, ga (2001)

a bit o’ bluegrass

giant mountains band, prague
giant mountains band

it seems no matter where i go in this world, i always need some good americana music to keep my soul in shape. perhaps it has something to do with being lugged around to bars as a baby, falling asleep on the floor while my mom and dad were sound checking with their various bands or maybe it was my mother playing the mandolin over her tummy when i was still in the womb. whichever combination of these things it is, i don’t know, but i need bluegrass.

interestingly, the czechs are really into bluegrass. in fact, they are into all sorts of americana, and there is even a subculture of czechs who actually go out into the woods with cowboy hats and boots and spurs and pretend to be in the wild west. i am not kidding.

Continue reading “a bit o’ bluegrass”