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Monday, 18 May 2009

Kingfishers Catch Fire


l_6526eeadaa82a18d273f41d152b67b24 So I was wrong. I admit it. Twitter may not actually be the work of the devil. I'm still not sure I want to sign up but I think I may not be so quick to open my mouth and let my belly rumble in the future. Let me elucidate. This story begins, at least one strand of it does, with a comment I made on website The Age of Uncertainty. Here's what I wrote:

I'm with you. My wife joined yesterday to see what the fuss is all about and she's been reading me twitterss (Is that the right word?) from Stephen Fry but they're really not up to his usual standard. He says he loves it but I really can't see how someone as loquacious as he is sticking with it. At the moment it's the in thing but I simply don't get it. I can suffer Facebook - just - but I cannot see why sensible people are wasting their time on this.

My wife did a search for me and did find one entry which said something like: "I read a poem by Jim Murdoch called Cinders today," and that was it, no link, no nothing. I mean, what's the point?

Okay, it's not the most derisory thing that I've ever written but I'm still not going to take it back because that's how I felt on the day.

Anyway, maybe we should pause for a moment (yes, I know I've barely started) and have a look at that poem:


When I visited William
he had a tray of buttons.

"I like these," he said.
"They open things -
and you don't need keys."

And he counted
the buttons on my dress
and asked me to tell him a secret.

23 March 1989

It's a charming little poem if I say so myself and although it has been published on its own it actually belongs to a set of poems that I began in 1981 and finished (time will tell) in 2002 all featuring a character called 'Sweet William'.

William first appeared in a poem called 'Common Denominator', a poem I was very pleased with at the time and still am, but I really assumed it was a one off. In my head William was a kind of savant, a childlike character, seemingly innocent, but with a poet's insight into things. He starts out hanging around the streets with the town's prostitutes all of whom he has his special names for, 'Stiletto', 'Hot Stuff', 'Looker' and 'Cinders'. In time he gets picked up and put in a mental health institution for his own good. There they try to cure him. While he is locked up some of the hookers visit him and it's one of these visits that is recounted in 'Cinders'. Finally he is released into a world where everyone has moved on, 'his' girls have all dispersed, hell, even the old wall he used to sit on has been pulled down and he desperately tries to find a place for himself in this new world. One of these days I will see the whole set in print – there are seventeen poems in total – but for now this brief summary will need to suffice.

That tells you a little about William.

A few weeks ago, just after I put my back out, I got an e-mail. The font was so damn small that I only glanced at it. It was from no one I knew and it would have to wait. And wait it did. Once I could stay on my side for more than a few seconds I actually managed to read my way through it. This is what it said:

Dear Jim,

This email is in response to your post on The Age of Uncertainty's blog:

With regard your finding yourself referenced on Twitter, I think it might be one of my posts to which you refer. I thought your poem, 'Cinders', incredibly charming. Not foremost because I myself am called William, nor even for the fact my partner's nickname is Cinders, but more for its beautiful use of language. Your blog directed me, through a number of links, on to several websites, which I spent a great deal of time studying, especially that of Friedrich Schiller's On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry. I learned a great deal and was greatly interested in the subject. For this I thank you and I'm very sorry I didn't link to your site. I thought by merely mentioning your name and poem, I would create a sense of mystery and intrigue that people might choose to investigate. I have since received proof that it worked! I will add a link in due course.

Kind regards,


Now such a polite e-mail I would never have expected to receive in response to such a basically flippant comment. I was frankly a bit embarrassed and so I wrote a similarly polite e-mail (don't worry I'm not going to make you read our entire correspondence), told him where William originated and asked him if he'd like to read the whole set to put the piece in context. He said that he would. He even offered to pay me for my trouble which I thought was sweet.

Anyway, long story short, a couple more e-mails passed between us. I discovered that he was a freelance writer, a recording artist based in London and also had finished the draft of his first novel. And there's more:

I have had a piece of music recorded for several months but have never found the right set of lyrics to accompany it. I wanted to write something on naive and sentimental poetry and found that the words of 'Cinders' fit snugly into the rhythm and, more importantly, the feel of the song and I couldn't help but apply them, so ingrained have they become in my conscious.

I wonder how you feel about my accompanying your words with music? I will, of course, give you a writing credit and, wherever printed, link to your site.

Well, hell, yes, I replied. Well, actually, no. This is what I wrote:

That sounds like something I would like to hear. Please proceed at you leisure and let me know how you get on.

And I didn't have long to wait before an MP3-heavy e-mail dropped into my inbox. And before you start looking for the link, I'm going to make you wait a bit, so hold your horses. I have to say I wondered how the hell he could do anything with a poem as short as mine but I was still curious. What William did was to wrap up my poem in lyrics of his own devising and I'd like you to have a look at these first:


“And I would never understand.
And I would never understand.
Nothing is nothing you can rely on.
Nature as idea in my asylum.
And I would never understand.
And I would never understand.
Nothing is nothing you can rely on.
Fated we stumble into emotion.”

When I visited William
He had a tray of buttons in his hand.

“Oh! I like these,” he said,
“Because they open things –
And you don't need keys.”
And he counted
Them on my dress
And asked me to tell him a secret.

“And I would never understand.
And I would never understand.
Why is there nothing you can rely on?
Nature as idea in my asylum.”

When I visited William
He had a tray of old buttons.

“Oh! I like these,” he said,
“Because they open things –
And you don't need keys.”
And he counted
Them on my dress
And asked me to tell him a secret.

In vernal mourning,
Another year has passed me by.
Shamed, ignored,
My necessity caricaturised.
My innocence, long gone.
My innocence, long gone.
My innocence, long gone.

I think you can all agree that he did a damn good job of complementing my poem. Needless to say he did have to tweak the words a little but I'm fine with that. And that's what I told him. "Damn good job," I said. No, that's what I really said this time.

Damn good job. Damn good. Reduced my wife to tears. In a good way.

And it did too but she's a big softie. Now I needed to find a bit more about this guy. But before all of that why don't you have a wee listen to his song? First of all a quote to prepare you:

Kingfishers Catch Fire's music makes me feel a Victorian picnic by a bubbling brook. A decadent garden party at a manor house. A place where Bright Young Things can congregate in the last hedonistic summer of their youth, where simply looking divine gives you immortality. Somewhere where people love and feel too deeply to survive very long. It's nice to know that when I'm at a loss for words, music can gently coax them back. – Condemned to Rock 'N Roll

Here's a link. Try and contain yourself and just listen to the one track. You can go back later. There are plenty of links at the end.

l_c50904c955388b599a2f08199cdb5a54 William is actually William Robertson. He's twenty-seven and grew up in a small East Anglian village but moved to London when he was nineteen to study Fine Art. It turns out that he's the singer/guitarist and songwriter for the London-based alt-folk band, Kingfishers Catch Fire. Lucinda Godwin is the other member. She also sings.

I've heard the term 'alt folk' before but never really had a clear idea what made it 'alt' so I asked:

Alt-folk (or 'alternative folk'), to me, loosely refers to music that is folk influenced - that is, influenced by the melodies, chord progressions, lyrical content of the more traditional folk genre, often using similar instruments - but has a contemporary feel, which might come in the form of vocal style, additional 'electric' sounds or more mainstream musical or cultural influences. For example, my music is heavily influenced by '90s indie and contemporary female singer-songwriters, and I aim, in some songs, for a big orchestral sound, which is not often associated with the more pared-down acoustic feel of traditional folk.

So, how did you decide on a name like Kingfishers Catch Fire?

Whilst ambling around a library one day, Lucinda catches sight of a novel by Rumer Godden entitled Kingfishers Catch Fire, about the effects on Kashmir of a young English woman's decision to set up home there. She scribbles Small book coverthe name in her notebook, without purpose, thinking it quite charming. Across London, almost simultaneously, I come across a poem of the same name (but with a preceding 'As') by English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Attracted by the strong imagery of the words, and the use of alliteration and sprung rhythm, I, too, make a note of the title.

Some days later, one of us mentions, merely in passing, our discovery. The serendipity was too great to ignore. Thus our band name was born.

Ironically they're not the only band with that name and should not be confused with the Manchester-based outfit. I guess whoever makes it big first gets to keep the name. Not sure how that goes. I was curious about when he began taking an interest in music and his approach to song writing. I've written a few songs myself over the years. Sometimes I've started with a melody, sometimes with a set of lyrics. They were fun at the time but I've never been terribly serious about songs. This is what William told me about how he got started:


The first time I pick up a guitar (I find it in my parents' loft, having been neglected since the '60s; it has five strings and is three semitones out of tune), I am twelve years old.  I mimic Kurt Cobain and thus hold it the wrong way around. I soon discover that I am, in fact, right handed. I teach myself his songs and start writing my own, most of which are quite poor. He kills himself a month later and I feel as though I found him just in time. I start a band with my friends, but I never think they are really into it. I want to rehearse every night. Even from a young age, I recognise the importance of a strong, stirring melody. It is the main element of music to which I attach myself, and has remained so. It is so often not what is sung, but the way it is sung that communicates with the listener more directly; more instinctively. A melodic flourish speaks a thousand words. And seldom less eloquently. I soon decide that music is the most powerful of the arts. I discover that I have the capability to make people cry with my own melodies and I realise that I should really practice singing a bit more.

Some years later, I split the group when I find the one other person at my school whose passion for music touches my own. We start an acoustic duo. He introduces Simon and Garfunkel and Nick Drake to me. We perform around the folk circuit of Colchester for a couple of years. I spend the summer recording an album of original songs on a second hand cassette four-track. These are my first 'proper' recordings.

I play guitar and write songs for a couple of bands after moving to London, but later decide that I want to try singing again. I start writing songs for Kingfishers in the spring of 2008. Our first performance is in July of the same year.

Song writing

A song is borne of a melody. Its starting point, for me, is almost always a vocal line. A songwriter's favourite of his or her compositions tends to be those which take mere minutes to write; those which 'write themselves'. I still consider my voice a great limitation on the communication, through the language of melody and music, of emotion. To make up for this, I therefore decide to put great effort into the lyric writing process. Sometimes a lyric will attach itself in an instant to a melody, but usually I will spend some time in search of the perfect line. I'm still not sure which is better. The former can neglect meaning, the latter, a naturalness of sound. I therefore try to incorporate the two, which often takes days. My vocal delivery means that on the recordings, the lyrics are often indecipherable. I therefore use melody as a kind of lure toward the words being sung. On rare occasions, I find that no word seems right, so I make one up. My lyrics have been described as poetry but I couldn't possibly judge.

I like my songs to be between 2:00 and 2:59 in length. I don't like the number 3. Its shape, the sound as it's spoken, its oddness; all these things repel me. A 2 looks like a swan and is far more elegant.

My lyrics have been described as 'story-telling' and 'pastoral', and I often like to tell tales of modern folklore, legends etc., which have some elements of truth in them. The lyric of my song 'Corridors', for example, is based on an old lady who once lived in my childhood village.


A legend of another order;
A tale borne of many codes;
A wizened heir, ne'er to surrender
Her familial home.

She won't surrender!
The corridors say,
She won't surrender.
But when it's gone, she's gone.

Her body lain; summer's tender.
Indwellers say she took herself.
Her manor, once tumbledowned, freed of
All terrible forms.

She won't surrender!
The corridors say,
She won't surrender.
But when it's gone, she's gone.

Rumours abound
As around the ruins
Runs Thumbelina.

For many years the ruins stood there,
Avoided, feared, until one day,
Conveys a boy of nervous demeanour,
"With hammer in hand..."

She won't surrender!
The corridors say,
She won't surrender.
But when it's gone, she's gone.

Since he said he occasionally made up words to fit I wondered if he had he ever thought of going down the Sigur Rós, Lisa Gerrard route and abandon conventional meaning altogether?

I am a great admirer of the work of Cocteau Twins, whose words (often made up) are for the most part completely indecipherable, concentrating, rather than on story-telling, on the idea of the voice as instrument. I refer indirectly to this idea in my description of melody writing. I have considered writing a song of sound poetry, but it is a bold step, and I usually get caught up in meaning. Some day though, yes. I do like Sigur Rós' sound and I'm a great fan of R.E.M., especially their work for the I.R.S. label in the '80s. Michael Stipe's lyrics throughout the first five albums are also mostly indecipherable; his voice sometimes becoming an animalistic howl or wail. Moreover, R.E.M.'s debut LP is titled Murmur after Stipe's vocal style.

R.E.M. is just one of the influences William cites. Others include Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Neko Case, Jeremy Enigk and Simon and Garfunkel.

Since he mentioned songwriters who had incorporated poems into their songs I asked had he ever done this before:

'Buttons' is the first time I have incorporated a poem in its entirety into my lyrics, and the first instance I have written the rest of the lyrics around the poem, but it is not the first time I have quoted another writer. I do regard the Romantics as an influence (having used a line from Keats' 'Sleep and Poetry' - interested, as I was, in the blurring of the boundaries between the two and in the idea that the images of the former can bear the latter - similarly, my song 'Between Light and Dark' touches on the idea of a world between two frames of a film; a land where dreams and reality merge); not only their poetry, but their painting also.

All I can say is that I'm over the moon that Twitter brought us together. I'd never have believed it but the World Wide Web is a weird and wonderful place so I don't know why anything would surprise me. I'm delighted with the outcome. More than delighted. I've now listened to all the tracks I could find online. 'Buttons' is my favourite (No kidding, Jim!) but the rest are growing on me. I sincerely hope they get a record deal soon although I expect that's every bit as hard as it is to get a book deal these days, maybe even harder.

As promised, some links. You can here the music of Kingfishers Catch Fire on a number of websites, the following being the most user friendly: MySpace, and Facebook.

At the time of writing, Kingfishers Catch Fire are the featured artist on the Metro's music website with their song, 'Buttons'.



Marion McCready said...

Fantastic story but I actually REALLY like the song, the voices, the style (I'm an indie person).
How fantastic to have your poem turned into such an excellent song!
I'm definitely going to keep an eye on them!

William Robertson said...

Hey Jim,

William here. Great post, beautifully written, as always. I'll send out a link to it from our sites.


Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Sorlil, and what gets me the most is the fact that he already had the tune written and was just waiting on the right words to fit. I mean I ask you.

And, William, looks like we've managed to get you one more fan. Shame she's in Glasgow and not London but we take what we can get.

And, yes, while you've letting people know you might think to do one of them tweets while you're at it. I hear they're quite popular these days.

Jena Isle said...

I was intrigued by your story of William the songwriter...(grins). To have someone create a melody for your poem is simply fantastic.

It makes you live

A good write up Jim. Incidentally , I'm into the lay-outing of the book.

If I have missed something kindly inform. Thanks.

William Robertson said...

Haha! One step ahead of you, Jim. I've tweeted already!

So pleased you like the music, Sorlil. Thank you for becoming a fan on Facebook, too. Perhaps we'll come up to Glasgow one of these days. x

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Jena. You're right, it is fantastic and I have to say after repeated listens, I find myself singing the tune as I go about my day-to-day business. Always a good sign.

As for the book, no, I have no changes. I have every faith in you.

And, William, I expected you would have. I did a lot of promoting yesterday and I'm pleased to report 188 visitors yesterday. The biggest bite of the cherry (57) came from Stumbleupon.

Dick said...

What a serendipitous encounter, Jim - and William! And what a great story. As so often with your posts, Jim, a point of departure to other fascinating places.

Ken Armstrong said...

Excellent stuff! I added my stumble - come on people stumble Jim's post.

Am I to understand you are on twitter now? I am Kenarmstrong1, add me up or whatever you do.

I haven't forgotten your book - I am awaiting some spray-fix for signatures before I can post it. Long story...

Jim Murdoch said...

Exactly, Dick. That is the right word for it. A part of me hopes that he latches onto another poem in the future but that's just tempting fate.

And, Ken, thank you for the stumble – I've have a few peaks with them over the past few months – and also for encouraging others to stumble me too. Marketing is so time-consuming and I sometimes wonder why I bother. This post I entered on Yahoo Buzz, LitMixx, Post on Fire, Pline, Reddit, Digg, Stumbleupon and two blog carnivals as well as sending a message to all my 'friends' on Blogcatalog and all of that didn't take five minutes I can tell you. And I pretty much do that for every post, have done for weeks, but I'm not on Twitter … I was going to add 'yet' but I really, really can't see what I'd do with it other than waste time. I know it's the new in thing but I have yet to hear a decent argument for using it. Does it make a difference to your readership?

As for the book, I thought it was a poster or are we talking about different things? Either way, no problem.

Sophie-Ann said...

I'm writing a dissertation on Gerard Manley Hopkins and came across this post by accident having been totally stuck for the last few days with writers block. Listening to Kingfishers Catch Fire finally seems to have got me going again! Thanks!


Jim Murdoch said...

Glad to be of help, Sophie, and my heart goes out to you. Never could quite get my head around Gerard Manley Hopkins.

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