Authenticity and the New Bristol Sound

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James Martin, the recently deceased futurologist and founder of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University, wrote a fascinating book back in 2007 called The Meaning of the 21st Century. It is one that I have recommended to my more curious language students over the years as well as to friends. In it, Martin lays out much of the research that had taken place at the Oxford department he founded concerning wide ranging facets of human life and the natural environment. One he tackled was the future of work and a key statement made is that very few people in the 21st century will have jobs for life, something we are already noting in many developed countries where once it was considered the norm. The outcome of such is that people will likely have a number of jobs throughout their lives but will also work different part-time jobs at the same time. My situation is a little like this and one of my many hats I wear weekly is that of radio DJ.

The consequences of the loss of stable life roles have not been so obvious and this is certainly true of the creative fields such as music. The creative arts have rarely guaranteed jobs for life but the new scenario for musicians has dramatically altered the modern musical landscape. Highly talented musicians seem to be ever greater in number whilst the opportunities to earn money and build a monetarily stable career from music have declined exponentially. This is forcing musicians to be creative in how they sell themselves and market their music and some folks in Bristol are finding reasonable success by combining different creative fields such as art installations and live concerts that throw up interesting and surprising results. Most are doing so whilst holding down a regular job or two.

The element of surprise has a role to play in engaging an increasingly fickle and distracted public with seemingly unlimited choice. Public space is more fragmented and at the same time artists are obsessing over the need to connect; not only to their own musical path but to a sufficient percentage of the public to make their musical efforts worthwhile. In the internet age the question of who is paying attention is a constant concern. Musicians are being forced to become better capitalists even though it must sometimes smack of sell out or feels inauthentic.

The theme of authenticity saturated the Bristol trip during interviews with a number of bands and singers active on the Bristol scene. Oh, did I forget to mention that I recently returned to my home-town of Bristol and whilst there carried out a number of interviews with a radio buddy and colleague?

The cult of the musician is an expression of the cult of the self. Solipsism is ever present in the life of the musical pop genius. Yet such artists are forced to compete these days with the self-absorption that has saturated contemporary cultural spaces ever visible in the dim glow of a smartphone screen.

Shifting dynamics mean that distances between artists and the public are decreasing and even roles are at times confused. The public are ever more likely to dabble in djing and mixing on apps, producing live content, and performance (even if just through a stream of public selfies) whilst musicians are required to be active social media wizards, drawing on all available resources to spread their musical worth in a sea of ever increasing choice in a bloated musical market.

A response by some is one that has always been present though often marginal in the history of music: to break from the crowd and be authentic. What does it mean though to be authentic? In the times we live in and at first glance it seems hard to say.

When the insights of modern philosophy and the sciences add further insight into the lack of a solid, enduring self, the idea of a true authentic inner self is hard to maintain. In fact, we are dealing with the consequences of the erosion of solid and reliable models of being in this post-modern phase of pockets of western cultural evolution and the transparency of forms is clearer than it has ever been.

Whereas the pursuit of authenticity may have been a reaction against prevailing models of self or the desire to merge with alternative models of self, the search for ‘the right model for me’ increasingly appears vacuous and nonsensical. So, what are we left with?

The fragmentation described above also provides us with some space and freedom unavailable to our parents’ generation; the ability to choose, change and shape-shift freely and with seemingly few consequences. Choices may seem emptier than ever, however, as the transparency of modern modalities of being and inter-being become increasingly transactional and increasingly mirror like. Post-modernity may be understood as an excess of emptiness in the Buddhist sense of space infusing form as David Chapman nicely point out over at the Aro Ter site. The search for authenticity therefore may be understood in its healthy manifestation as the search for stability or form within open spaces of cultural fragmentation and multiplicity.

Authenticity could then be conceived of as an attempt to recreate meaning in a climate of widespread meaninglessness and the infamous disillusionment associated with modernity which has been further amplified by technology and globalisation. It could also be another vacuous attempt to search for stability and certainty within a sea of shifting spacious forms. In such cases, it becomes a theatrical farce with the protagonist uttering words that appear deep and profound but that are emptier than ever reflecting a yearning or attempt to model authenticity and depth as yet another commercial artistic commodity.

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Rebecca’s the one in the middle

This third option was apparent in an interview with the highly talented Bristol singer Rebecca Clements. It happened to be the first interview we carried out and it left us both bewildered and in a crisis of sorts regarding the cultural value of musicians.

At the time we were both unsure as to the real lessons to be learnt from this initial encounter but as the weekend proceeded and more encounters occurred, the transparency of forms and the disappointment with the new cultural Bristol landscape became apparent. Bristol somehow represented, for me at least, a hollow sphere in which empty mirrors and actors performed; some conscious of their predicament, others less so. The musician’s fragile role became clearer, the falsity of fame and success blinding. There was a loss of faith for us both and the dismantling of heroes and heroines and Rebecca couldn’t help but be the catalyst for this disillusionment. Though possessing a rich voice and capable of penning great lyrics and majestic choruses, her fake London accent in song mode belies an incomplete and insecure self-image. She spoke of authenticity in our interview and yet her photos transform her from an attractive 20 year old into a ghostly 30 something. Her words appear deep and yet in person she seemed lost for words and not fully formed. This of course is nothing new for musicians but what struck most was her cry for authenticity throughout our discussion. It just didn’t fit with the person in front of us and the clear dichotomy between her musical persona and young Bristol self. She lacked the playfulness and self-awareness that would eventually show up with other interviewees and the brutal honesty from the long-term Bristol based producer Ben Dubuisson, who had unwittingly primed us for her arrival at The Christmas Steps pub.

So what is left? The same questions that govern the existential dilemma roll on. What is life? How do we live? How do we face ourselves and each other? What is real or authentic? How does all this find expression in art and in music in a time where we are ever more exposed to ourselves and each other with privacy increasingly rare? The cultivation of private, nurtured spaces seems ever more difficult and through social media we are somehow thrown into a more visceral entanglement in each other.

It seems that authenticity can and does exist though is not to be found in some true inner core but in the transactional moments of life and in the processes of being, becoming and inter-being. Just as philosophy is attempting to come to terms with the process and relational nature of existence and the inner and outer worlds of the human animal as inseparable, so must all spheres of human activity accept the increasing loss of absolute uniqueness and our utter embeddedness in the world as well as in our shared evolutionary projects at the social, cultural, artistic and political levels. Authenticity is surely a process too and must be relational always expressing itself within finite movements.

When I think of authenticity I think of honesty and truthfulness, of transparency and alignment. Just as empathic connection forms the basis of intimate human relationships, so might musical authenticity be based on these same qualities. You cannot force authenticity or fake it. You can however work on being truthful in word and deed. You can be honest about what is and is not present in a given moment. You can align ever increasingly with the world as it is unfolding and evolving. Anything else is likely a cliché.

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The Jesuits looking suitably band like

Out of the many musicians met, two stand out: the Idles and Arthur Brown of the Jesuits. Their approaches are different but each appears authentic in pleasant ways. Arthur is a new breed of 20 something musician. He lacks musical snobbery and enjoys pop songs that I would have been highly embarrassed to listen to let alone play in my 20s. He is also highly talented and unashamedly experimenting with reworking different musical genres from grunge to psychedelia. Rather than invent yet another musical genre to mark himself and his group out from the crowd, he simply says that he wants to play good music. He is also quite aware of the contradictions in the current musical market place and refuses to play the overly serious authentic identity game, instead being fluid and experimental whilst honing his craft in playful ways. Give their Carpet Floors and Dinner Jazz a play.

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The idles, just in case you can’t read large white letters

The Idles are a different beast. Interviewing Joe Talbot, the band’s articulate lead singer, and later meeting the band members, there was a real sense of humility, groundedness and, in Joe in particular, intensity. The Idles in their latest offering lash out at the vacuous nature of selfies and the distraction of the masses from what is immediate, in this case the music being played. There is an obvious punk ethic at play and aggression runs through their new EP Meat, but it is a playful nude aggression, seemingly powered by a bewildered amazement that people have gone so far up their own arses with their mini computers. Though conscious of this forceful attack on this new seeping status quo, the Idles do not sound cocky or presumptuous. On the contrary, theirs is an all too human war cry for people to be authentic to what is taking place, to put down their phones, lift up their gaze, connect viscerally and participate. Enjoy the moment for f*cks sake.

The Jesuits are doing the same thing, minus the aggression. Arthur in fact seems to exhibit greater faith in the general public and his approach is quietly confident that playing good music, catchy tunes and great lines will continue to be powerful enough and playful enough to sway the general audience over to his side.

It remains to be seen whether either or both will conquer a sufficient percentage of the general distracted public to lead to a leap in their musical exposure and success. One thing that is certain is that neither of these two groups lacks the talent to do so. As for Rebbecca, perhaps she will find a more honest voice sooner rather than later. One thing is for certain, she will have to move out of her parents’ house to find it.

The Idles Meat EP is out in October, 2015. Check them nice fellas here

The Jesuits’ songs are available on their Soundcloud page here

Rebecca Clements on Soundcloud here

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