Graham Reid | | 3 min read
Some years ago I was sent a CD for review. It came from a young woman and had been recorded in the South Island. It was spare acoustic folk and pretty grim.
Every song opened with either “I” or “you” and over however many songs – far too many to my ears – she seemed to be either tearful or angry about the relationship.
I pointed this out in a review which I still believe was generously sympathetic – I didn't say she needed to get out of her bedroom which is what I felt – but a short time later I got a message from someone who was obviously her friend. She said I should have been more kind, after all, she'd just broken up with her boyfriend.
I replied perhaps somewhat curtly, yes. I think we all got that.
What I'd said was that a bunch of songs about a single event or issue, all recorded in much the same downbeat manner and revolving around I and You rarely works. It excludes the listener rather than includes.
The friend wrote back and said, “well, she'd done her best”.
Now that's the kind of comment which ignites some anger in me: it's is the lamest of excuses and comes from the world of kindergarten where everyone gets a star for participation.
You can't get a driver's licence if you run two red lights but did your best, they don't let you into medical school if you fail the exam but did your best.
Doing your best means nothing in the real world, succeeding is what its all about.
That may seem harsh but sometimes as a lecturer I would have students question the mark I'd given them on an assignment and their case boiled down to grudgingly conceding they hadn't answered the question or entirely missed the mark . . . but they'd done their best, they'd tried really hard or they spent a long time on it.
None of those reasons wash.
A simple exercise I would do with young songwriters who presented one too many I and You lyrics would be to suggest a simple change: make the I he or she, make the you a she or he (or whatever gender you choose).
Because immediately the writer is outside the story or emotion and now needs to establish something about the he, she or whomever.
Who are these people, what are they like, what are their motivations . . . all questions which would take them in other directions.
Sometimes the break-up of a relationship – perhaps the most common theme for many young songwriters – can actually work, but it takes a keen lyric writer to shift the moods from sadness, anger, revenge or whatever.
Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland-based singer-songwriter Violet Hirst opens her sometimes demanding but frequently absorbing alt.folk debut Donegal with Oh Honey where the first words are “my heart is crying for this song” and the last, “these wounds quiet the room”.
Her aching delivery ensures both are true, and much of what follows are songs about songs, and lyrics weighted with gnawing absence.
There's a relationship gone awry here somehow but Hirst considers it as a poet might – not an aggrieved party – and turns her thoughts through different perspectives.
Recorded in Cromwell with a small group, Hirst lays bare a fragmented relationship on Brave Me (“if I could write you know that I'd write laden with beauty”), the cabaret-like Descending Song with skeletal bass and drums (“please don't leave yet, believe in us”) and the gorgeous doom of Dissolve Like Salt (“I'm holding on to someone who doesn't exist”)
The lyrical simplicity of Please Write Home and others among these emotionally excoriating, frequently first person singular, songs which all come from a similar sentiment.
But she makes it work through variety and variation.
Hirst's keening vocal is unleashed on Alternate Ways to Pray (“I know you don’t care too much, but singing by yourself gets dull”) and the impressive Counting Days.
The intimate nature of Donegal – there's a piano instrumental Merry Christmas For Now with a conversation-cum-argument in the background – invites compassion but can equally be eavesdropping on hurts and the hope of healing.
I never heard any more from that young woman whose misery I endured all those years ago, but I fully expect and hope to hear more from Violet Hirst.
You can hear and buy this album at bandcamp here