Creative confessions, Florence and the Machine and newfound friendships are reflected on with tender vulnerability in this latest essay from Georgia Denham. Revisiting the pop music of her youth, Georgia shares the personal and practice-based desires that led to the new body of work created through her time on New Voices.
What are your most vulnerable creative desires?
The answer haunted me and ached in my bones. Ultimately whatever path you take, those siren dreams will call you home. Sometimes I thought I was too far away to find them, but given time and resource, the journey becomes possible again.
Good pop music is an elixir with near addictive properties: equal parts pleasure and pain, it pulls apart your lungs, then lets the wind wash through to free its chambers. Unfolding from verses, a hook whispers out into your psyche; the salty sweet stinging of a bridge plants its seal on you; the last chorus finally plunges in the knife. Gasping for more, I’m enraptured and already starting it all over again. And again. And again.
Nestled next to my heart, exactly where I left them, were songs I’d written but set aside. There was always the intention to go back to them when the time was right, but habits of disbelief set in. I suffered in advance of what I thought I’d lost and abandoned. I lived vicariously through the music of others.
As a teenager, I learned every corner of Florence and the Machine with utter devotion. Each note was an absolute truth, and in this harp filled magic I found the first place to channel my emotions without pause. The songs taught me to belt, breathe, dance and love. I still know every word and can sing every harmony. When we revisit music from those formative years, its printed onto our very essence – through lyrics and melodies, they form beautiful tattoos that ink our souls. Like first love, our first albums shape and shift who we become. Over time, it became clichéd to cite such a popular influence as a composer. After one too many eye rolls, I folded Florence away with my childhood teddy bears and Twilight books.
In truth, pop has always been the music I loved the most – everything else seems supplementary by comparison. It was always my dream to be a part of it somehow, but I didn’t find a way into performing. Instead, I listened intently as if it were a religion. I didn’t play an instrument, or understand how the music worked – I just felt it deep in who I was. Where lush strings or muffled brass appeared in the in-betweens of pop music, my ears were tickled towards their sounds. These moments drew me into an intimacy: chest to chest, I slow danced with the music. Somewhere along the way, these moments opened out and offered new delights. Florence and the Machine became Meredith Monk; synthesisers redesigned themselves as sul ponticello strings; Sigur Rós replaced by Hans Abrahamson.
Inherently hands on, the practicalities of pop music are difficult to grasp through spectating alone. Still, in my warped introduction to music, I developed the idea that if I learned to compose “formally”, I could write anything – pop included. There were some feeble, premature attempts at this: a jazz band in my first term of music college; a private graveyard of GarageBand files; even an EDM track that still delivers royalties (but that I still regret). As my twenties ticked on, it didn’t seem to resolve and I settled into an awkward fandom of pop.
Those childhood dreams once held so closely, were fast tipping over into hopes unrealised. Each day I grew further from the music I thought I’d be making. Whenever I heard a beautiful song, or was caught in a driving beat, a part of me wallowed. Eventually I couldn’t bear to listen to pop music at all; it made me too sad to think of what I hadn’t accomplished. These songs clung to me like small children, and I carried them secretly through all my other compositional adventures. When they refused to grow up and face the world, I became tired of endlessly mothering them. Then one day, before I’d had chance to stop it, I was bitter.
I cried often and recurrently – different boyfriends comforting the same woes years apart. I blamed my body, my work ethic, my motivations. The secret languages of producers and recording studios were reserved for pretty girls with pretty songs and pretty pictures. Pop music was not for me. I hid behind scores and programme notes. Still, those early memories never disconnected themselves and I held a candle for the music I used to love. Florence and the Machine remained a hotwire to those deepest creative desires I’d given up on.
When I joined the New Voices 2020 cohort, this heavy baggage came with me. Through coaching, Sound and Music helped me uncover the reasons for my overgrown trepidations. Despite standing on the edge, I couldn’t ever seem to jump into the pool. I was confronted by my young love of harp and Florence and the Machine. I unpacked my obsession with Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols – Christmas music so harp-ilicious that during my undergrad, I wrote my longest musicology essay on it… in June. Slowly, I pieced together a paper trail I’d unknowingly left myself. It was now or never – but it had always been pop, and it had always been the harp.
Gina was a harpist in my year. She scooped up performance prizes one after the other, making light work of anything I ever saw her play. We weren’t close in conservatoire, but as with any university experience, it’s difficult to predict which connections will stand the test of time. Back then, Gina and I hovered somewhere between acquaintance and friend, but I’d always wanted us to know each other better. From our time studying together, Gina’s playing became my internal definition of the harp. When my intentions for New Voices had formed – a contemporary pop album for voice and harp – it should come as no surprise that she was the first and only person I called. There was no one else who could be my harpist.
Gina is the kind of woman I always wanted to be when I grew up; a ‘cool girl’ in the very best sense of the term; collected and poised; kind without performance; effortlessly beautiful; wit dry enough to choke anyone who crossed her. A fairy queen in dungarees, she’d wheel harps down corridors with a kind of fierce but floating magnetism. A day that I ran into Gina was always better for our encounter.
I remember leaving late one night through the college bar. Gina was laughing with friends, fanning a wodge of cash fresh from her latest triumph. She invited me to go clubbing with them to celebrate. Alas, I had a boyfriend waiting for me back at home. In retrospect, those years would have been considerably more fun if I had written more harp music.
Thanks to the New Voices project, now we have many more fun memories together. Arriving at her rural home in Nottinghamshire, there was a gamble in this. We were friends at this point, but we’d certainly never spent three days together to workshop. She eased the way with tea and regular snack breaks, and soon we found a flow. We talked about the pop music we loved. I blushed and told her about Florence and the Machine:
“I know it’s clichéd, I wish I was more original. I’m embarrassed saying this, especially to a harpist”.
“You’re kidding, Florence was everything to me.” Sweet safety, at last.
Rehearsing shifted from conventional and proper daylight to the creative throws of night. It was easy. We ate good food, took late walks and unpacked regrets underneath the stars. On the last day, we bounced every track we’d recorded and danced without limit in the kitchen. The songs no longer clung to my body in fear; they were finally taking their first steps out on their own. At the train station, as Gina and I hugged goodbye, I knew we’d started something special. A beautiful friendship and a creative collaboration that would truly witness each other.
Given the funding New Voices provides, there has been a levelling in our time together. I could pay her properly and didn’t need to ask grand favours of Gina to make the project happen. I’m certainly not suggesting I bought her friendship, but it quelled the potential for disagreements (and softened my guilt) every time scores were late.
When I got married in September at Christ’s College, there was no-one else who could play me down the aisle. Gina arranged Jens Lekman’s Your Arms Around Me especially for us – another harp filled pop song I adored from my teenage years. In the very same chapel two months later, we performed my songs for the first time. Surrounded by friends and strangers alike, I sung with Gina by my side. It was candlelit and everything I’d ever dreamed of – I held back tears through the last chorus.
In creative endeavours, kind moments remind us that we’re on the right path. Most recently by sheer coincidence, when I told Gina the date I planned to release the EP of our songs, we found out it was her birthday – Valentine’s Day. This late-blooming friendship has been full of serendipity and second chances, made possible only through the guidance and support of New Voices. There aren’t enough thank-yous in the world to say how much it’s changed me.