Virginia Astley at Sea Change Festival

posted in: Events, News

As part of the forthcoming Sea Change Festival, Virginia Astley will recite poems from her book The English River accompanied by Florence Astley on the harp.

Her first book-length collection, The English River combines both photographs and poems to paint a vivid picture of the river Thames and the community that surrounds it.

Virginia will be performing on Friday 24th May at St Mary’s Church, Totnes, Devon.

Separately, Virginia will also be collaborating with Hannah Peel and Will Burns who are performing material from their Chalk Hill Blue album. This collaboration has been coordinated by Drift Record Shop, the award-winning independent record shop in Totnes who also founded the Sea Change Festival.

Sea Change is an intimate and spirited festival of high times, music, art, culture, food and drinks in Totnes and Dartington that runs from 24th to 26th May 2019.

New ‘English River’ Readings

posted in: News

Virginia has some new readings scheduled for 2019 in which she will recite poems from her book The English River.

Her first book-length collection, The English River combines both photographs and poems to paint a vivid picture of the river Thames and the community that surrounds it.

The readings will feature appearances in Beaminster and East Coker as well as a special performance at Sea Change Festival in Totnes.

Full details of the performances can be found on our Events page.

You can read more about The English River, and order copies, here:

2018 In Review

posted in: Features, News

Exploring a year of writing and performance

2018 proved to be a very busy year for Virginia Astley. It was a year which saw the publication of her book The English River, as well as a select number of performances – and some notable anniversaries. Here, we look over those events in our review of the year…

January is always a special time of the year as it marks the release of two significant records by Virginia: the A Bao A Qu EP in 1982, which marked her first release on the Why-Fi label and ‘Love’s A Lonely Place To Be’ in 1983, which was her first single release for the same label. It was the release of that single, and the subsequent airplay that it received, that helped to establish Virginia’s profile for the UK record-buying audiences.

Meanwhile, February marked the release of the Melt The Snow EP, a special 12″ release on the Rough Trade label originally released in 1985. As well as the title track, which encapsulated Virginia’s talent for pastoral pop (albeit with a suitably wintery theme), the EP also boasted two equally captivating instrumental tracks.

But in more recent years, Virginia has turned her focus to the written word. “I think there’s a deep connection between song-writing and poetry” commented Virginia in an interview for Literature Works, “They feel like hybrid forms of the same thing.” She also touched on the influence of Thomas Hardy and how her extensive musical career dovetailed into her more recent writing endeavours.

Achieving recognition for her poetry in recent times, Virginia had also embarked on a special project that connected with the country’s most well-known river course.

The English River told a story through a series of poems and photographs that told stories both evocative and personal. Its publication in 2018 also marked Virginia’s first dedicated book of poetry (following on from The Curative Harp, a chapbook published in 2015). The book attracted praise, including glowing reviews by Caught by the River and Write Out Loud.

Meanwhile, a series of spoken word appearances were scheduled to tie in with the book’s publication. Some of these appearances, often at select bookshops, also saw Virginia accompanied by daughter Florence on harp.

Virginia also appeared as Gideon Coe’s guest on BBC6 Music in July. She discussed the genesis of The English River, her writing and her extensive song writing career. Virginia also chose some of the music played during the show.

While most of Virginia’s appearances took place in the West Country, she also made a special appearance at Rough Trade in London to give readings from the book. She was also interviewed on stage by poet Will Burns.

In August, the VAW Facebook page dedicated several posts discussing the writing and recording of Virginia’s 1986 album Hope In A Darkened Heart. Our archivist Rob Brown tracked the album’s story, pulling in contributions from some of the people involved in the recording. This included the initial sessions at Wool Hall Studios in Somerset to George Martin’s AIR studios above Oxford Circus in central London (where Duran Duran were busy recording their Notorious album in the adjoining studio).

Perhaps one of the album’s most memorable tracks was the collaborative ‘Some Small Hope’, which featured David Sylvian. Rob Brown spoke to some of the personnel involved in the recording for their recollections. Recording engineer Tony Phillips recalled that the song was one of the last to be recorded. “I remember Ginny scribbling final lyric changes over breakfast at the Wool Hall. I can’t recall how or when Virginia created the initial idea for the tune, but Ryuichi Sakamoto concocted that whole weird groove and atmospheric thing in the studio. As for the vocal, she was way too insecure of her singing ability to have wanted to perform it “Live” in the studio with David Sylvian – therefore each of them recorded their vocal separately.”

“The first time I heard the melody was the day of Virginia’s and David’s vocal session” recalled programmer Masaki Sekijima, “Ryuichi and Virginia rehearsal was started around 10am or 11am. The reason why I remember is that we usually start our sessions in the afternoon. Sessions would usually continue until about 1am or 2am with meal breaks in-between. Ryuichi was playing the piano and Virginia was singing along with his playing. They were checking the matching of the melody and lyric, and Virginia’s harmony parts. David Sylvian came to the studio around noon with his Japanese girlfriend and the session started right away. The session took two to three hours.”

September marked the anniversary of Virginia’s 1985 single ‘Tender’, which was also her first single release for a major label (Elektra). Commenting on the composition at the time, Virginia said it was a song about “…someone hurting someone else but always thinking things are going to get better. It’s about having an affair with someone who is really going out with somebody else, and thinking ‘what’s the point?'”

Virginia’s classic album From Gardens Where We Feel Secure appeared on The 200 Best Albums Of The 1980s via Pitchfork. “…Gardens abandons the normal inclinations of song structure in favor of two side-long suites, an organic recreation of what it feels like to be cradled by a warm British afternoon in the countryside on a slow day. Its feeling is both ancient and eternal—many worlds away from our fast-moving, digital era.”

In October, Virginia and Florence Astley put on a captivating performance as part of the Sevenoaks Literary Festival. The event, which coincided with National Poetry Day, was given an extra flourish by featuring projections of Virginia’s photographs. Meanwhile, Florence’s mesmerising harp accompaniment gave a pleasant ambience to the performance.

In November, Virginia & Florence Astley staged a performance at Thomas Hardy’s former home, Max Gate, on the outskirts of east Dorchester in Dorset.

This month also saw some reminiscing about a rare song that Virginia dating back to 1986. ‘Le Song’ (‘A Day, A Night’) had originally been recorded specifically for use in a Japanese television commercial for instant coffee. The recording was subsequently released as a 7″ single before being added as a bonus track to the Japanese edition of the Hope In A Darkened Heart album.

Remembrance Day is a traditional memorial day observed since the end of the First World War. Taking place on the 11th November each year, the event commemorates members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty. For the 2018 observance, we cast our eyes back to Virginia’s composition ‘Futility’.

One of the earliest songs that Virginia had composed, the song’s lyrics are drawn from the poem of the same name by Wilfred Owen. Considered as one of the most renowned poets of the First World War, Owen wrote ‘Futility’ in May 1918. The words have a simple, haunting quality to them that eschews the horrors of war. Instead, they tell a simple narrative about wishing for the power of the sun to rouse a soldier who has perished.

Virginia’s version of ‘Futility’ appeared on the NME compilation album Mighty Reel in 1982 and later appeared on the Promise Nothing album in 1983.

November also saw the anniversary of the aforementioned Hope In A Darkened Heart album, which was originally released in 1986. In a 2003 interview for the website, Virginia spoke about the album’s genesis and her thoughts on the album nearly two decades on. “I was reasonably happy. I mean, it wasn’t really the way I would do things but then I suppose that’s the thing about working with somebody else. They add something to it. I kind of feel that it was interesting, and he’s [Ryuichi Sakamoto] an excellent musician. And it was nice to have somebody else to make the decisions. It was a good experience.”

December also revealed an interesting story regarding one of Virginia’s early champions of her music on the radio. In the early months of 1982, Virginia had released her debut EP A Bao A Qu and the Ravishing Beauties were supporting the Teardrop Explodes on their UK tour. As well as record buyers discovering Virginia’s music for the first time, several broadcasters were also showing interest.

BBC Radio 1 presenters John Walters and John Peel, for example, were very early supporters of Virginia. But another keen supporter was Nottingham-based Radio Trent presenter John Shaw, who regularly played Virginia’s records on his late Sunday evening show Here Be Dragons. It was on this show in early 1983, that John interviewed Virginia about her then-current release, ‘Love’s A Lonely Place To Be’.

During his time as a music radio presenter, John would ask his guests to sign copies of their records. Amongst the many who did were the Ramones, Bryan Ferry, John Martyn and of course, Virginia Astley. Sadly, John Shaw passed away in 2013 following a short illness. But his huge record collection was made available for sale by his brother Nick Shaw, which enabled us to learn about this lost moment from Virginia’s early days.

December concluded with another performance by Virginia and Florence at Max Gate. Music, stories and poetry from Thomas Hardy’s time helped to bring the writer’s former residence back to life.

Virginia Astley at Rough Trade

posted in: Features, Interviews

Tales From The English River…

With the publication of The English River, Virginia Astley has reached a milestone in a writing career that’s slowly evolved over recent years. It’s also a book that marks a personal journey that touches on stories with a raw, heartfelt element as it winds its way through the Thames.

As part of the promotion for the book’s publication, Virginia embarked on a select number of personal appearances and readings. At Rough Trade East in London, she also took part in a Q&A session with poet and writer Will Burns. This provided an opportunity for Virginia to talk a little about the influences for the book and possible plans for the future.

“This collection came about as a result of attempting to write a prose book about the Thames – and particularly about the lock keepers and the people who worked on the river” commented Virginia at the start of the event. “As I had grown up on the Thames, I wanted to go back and see if they were still there in their lock houses.”

This was back in 2011 and it marked a dark period for the lock keeping community. Under threat from an environment agency who had plans to make one lock keeper cover lots of locks, while also renting out the idyllic cottages for premium rents.

“The first lock keeper I spoke to was a man called John at Buscot Lock, which is the second lock down on the Thames. There’s forty-five locks on the river and the river flows from the source up near… well, the middle of nowhere really in Gloucestershire.”

This location, known as Thames Head, influenced the book’s first poem, ‘Source’, which Virginia read for the first part of the event.

As with the book, Virginia’s readings took the audience on a journey down the river. “So, we go a little bit further from the source and go through places like Cricklade where the river starts to become navigable for small rowing boats and kayaks. And a little further in, at Lechlade, the river is now fully navigable and at one time this was a major centre for barges.”

“This next poem is called ‘Brandy Island’, and it features a man called Robert Tertius Campbell, who came back from Australia having made his money in gold with very, very big plans. He decided that he wanted to have the most highly industrialised farm in the country. As one of his major features, he was going to grow sugar beet and to distil it to spirit alcohol to sell to the French as brandy.”

For the reading of her poem ‘Buscot’, Virginia returns to the conversations she had with the lock keeper there, touching on the poem’s line about voices from the weir. “And that’s true that John does always hears voices in his weir and I think all lock keepers are very attached to their weirs. They always say ‘my weir’. And the weirs are very different too. Each weir has different operatives and it is a dark art. It’s something that people just learn over years and the information and experiences passed on by word of mouth.”

Speaking to the lock keepers allowed aspects of this life to be unveiled, but Virginia had realised something quite crucial: “I started to think ’Well, all my information is second hand’. It’s not really my own experience, apart from the fact that I grew up on the river.” As a result, Virginia searched online and saw that there was a job advertised for a lock keeper’s assistant. Taking on the role back in 2011 allowed her to get a much closer look at river work (and in fact she continued with the job for the next two years) which in turn influenced more of her writing.

“In 2012, I was a lock keepers assistant based at Benson and 2012, you may not remember, was the wettest summer. It was so unbelievably wet. And the water was so high that lots and lots of boats didn’t really travel on the river at all. They were not allowed to travel, it wasn’t safe.”

This experience was a little daunting for Virginia at the time. “I could hardly cross over the weir, let alone think about working there. It was terrifying.” But this experience led to the creation of the poem ‘The Weir at Benson’ with its energetic lines about “the white noise flanged” and “from upriver the water bore/gorging down, almost solid.”

The experiences also awoke things within Virginia that she had forgotten. “So many things I thought I’d left behind in memories kind of resurfaced. And quite a lot of them were quite sad.” These ideas are borne out through the “remembered landscape” detailed in the poem ‘I Breathe As Though I’ve Been Submerged And Am Coming Up For Air’.

The tradition of swan upping is one of the river’s oldest activities. Originally designed to apportion ownership among the Crown, the Vintners and the Dyers, the activity is now more focussed on checking the health of the swans. “But because of the rain and the high river, they couldn’t do it that year“ mused Virginia, “It was the first time it was cancelled in five hundred years.”

But in 2013, Virginia returned for the swan upping session (which takes place between Sunbury-on-Thames to Abingdon-on-Thames). Her experiences resulted in the colourful narrative of her piece ‘Swan-upper’.

Virginia returned to her roots for her next reading, an evocative ‘Moulsford To Cleeve’. “This poem relates to an incident many, many years ago when I did my album, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. This poem is pretty much about me remembering… remembering.” The incident in question was later immortalised in the track ‘When The Fields Were On Fire’, a haunting composition that appears to play with the idea of memory with gauzy indistinct segments and sombre piano melodies.

The readings event was followed by a special Q&A where Virginia was quizzed on the genesis of The English River by poet Will Burns. Will was named as one of the 4 Faber & Faber New Poets for 2014 and is Poet-In-Residence at Caught By The River.

Will Burns: Maybe it would be a good place to start if we talked about how your musical past – or your sense of music – has fed into writing poems or prose. Are they linked in anyway or are they separate?

Virginia Astley: No, I think they are very linked. I think they are kind of hybrid versions of the same things – songs and poems. It certainly feels that I’m using the same bit of me if I’m writing a song or a piece of music or a poem.

There are references in the poems like the first three lines of The Weir At Benson (“The white noise flanged and phased, filtered as the wind…”), do they come out completely naturally or is it something you feel…?

Well, I always think of the weir as being like white noise and then I’m thinking that yes, the effect of the wind or the effect of the white noise or the effects of while you’re walking – or the voices carrying over the river – all of these things sound like they could be in the studio or sitting at home or whatever, just altering a basic sound in some kind of way.

Does the idea of a poem exist as a sound for you before it has a meaning?

I think for me it’s always the feeling that comes first but I’m always taking notes. So even if it’s just a phone or using my phone to take photos, I’m always sort of recording things that I’m thinking “Oh, I can use that or I like that”. So, I’m always storing stuff. And then how it actually ends up coming out is not necessarily the same time or in the way I imagined.

Let’s talk about the photos in the book.

I was primarily taking the photos as a way of remembering the river when I wasn’t there so that I was able to write my prose book about the river. And then I had lots and lots of photos. Then a couple of years ago I thought “Oh, I’m going to try taking out all the prose and all the photos and put them in together”, just selected photos, from my big mass of photos.

It seemed to work. And that’s how the book came about. In a way it was a kind of default thing. The only thing is that it’s all landscape, but it’s so familiar to me and I even hadn’t registered until recently that how it’s the same territory of From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, that particular album. So, it’s as though I’m like a person who only has one song (laughs). It’s the same area, it’s all the same stuff.

Outside the poems, how exactly did the river figure in your life? How did it fit in with other aspects of your life?

Well, I think I’ve very often lived by the river. Like I was saying, my first record company being at Wapping, at Metropolitan wharf and literally the doors opened onto the river. And I was living in Pimlico by the river. I lived in Twickenham, near the river. I grew up in Oxfordshire, near the river. So, it was a reoccurring theme without me kind of realising it. But there’s something about returning to the river and the sense of standing by the river and what that does to many of us. Particularly a place that we feel attached to. I can’t really explain it, but it was something that I realised was always there even though I hadn’t actually fully registered it until I started writing.

They are quite English poems, specific to a place. I wonder what they meant to you?

Well, it’s a funny thing too because when I was young, in reviews and things, people would always say and go on about the Englishness of my music and I used to hate that. But I don’t mind now. Oh well (laughs).

This book has a particular aspect of the personal. There’s this element throughout of somebody you are addressing, love affairs that seem to be in the peripheral view of the speaker of the poems.

I think that’s the way I write really. I think I write to work things out. I walk to work things out and I write to work things out. So, in a way I’m not really thinking necessarily of the end product. And I was the same writing songs. I think actually many of my songs are deeply, deeply personal but I never felt that I was exposing myself because I always thought I’d put masses of echo on and no one would be able to make out the words (laughs). You can’t really do that with poems, it’s all really clear in print. It’s my way of working things out a lot of the time. Sometimes I worry that there’s too much about me.

In a way, what is the landscape without the human in the landscape ?

Also, we all resonate with each other don’t we? You know, a common experience? You write something and it touches somebody else, or their experience as well.

Following the interview with Will Burns, questions were invited from the floor to discuss The English River, future books, influences and potential new music projects…

What did you use to take the photographs in the book?

Just my iPhone, like an early iPhone. Some I did with my camera which isn’t a very particularly flash camera but most were with my iPhone. And I wasn’t really trying to take great photos, I was more – as I was saying before – literally trying to record the landscape and remembering it.

I recall that during an interview you mentioned that when you were traveling down the river it reminded you of From Gardens. I just wonder whether you might have taken some recordings as well?

That’s exactly what I was doing, and I did do some recordings. And I do intend to do that, to go back to that. And I didn’t get anything that was particularly great, but I still have got ideas for the same territory… at night or something. You know, whatever (laughs)…underwater I think – the glops of carp!

Is Thomas Hardy an influence on your poetry?

I think Hardy probably is an influence. I was there last night, at Max Gate, ‘til quite late. There is such a wealth of poetry there. There’s nothing really conscious where I go, “Oh, I’m going to do that”. But I think just by being there, and the amount I’ve read by being there, and being the writer-in-residence at Hardy’s Cottage in the autumn too and walking all the time in that landscape, I’m sure it has some subliminal influence – or more than subliminal influence, yeah.

You were working on The Woodlanders many years ago as a musical project. Have you thought about revisiting that as a book?

As a book? No, I’m thinking more about revisiting it and getting some of the songs sung In Dorchester. There’s the New Hardy Players, who do Hardy productions each year. And I’m thinking about getting some kind of small version of The Woodlanders put on by some of them. Perhaps at Max Gate or Hardy’s Cottage… or out in the woods – better still! (laughs).

Are you still working on your other book, Keeping The River?

Yes, I am definitely. I’m really really hoping that having this poetry book out, I will find a publisher who would be interested in the whole book.

Thanks to Rough Trade East for staging the event and to Will Burns for hosting.
Q&A transcription by Rob Brown.

1 2 3 4 42