Josie Moon

Writer, Musician and Community Artist

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Iris DeMent: My Life

My Life is the second album released by singer-songwriter Iris DeMent. Released in 1994 on Warner Bros, the album was dedicated to her father, Patric Shaw DeMent, who died in 1992.

Sometimes life interrupts your plans and so I have been spending longer with Iris DeMent than I’d planned and I’m not sorry. My Life is an extraordinary, tender and evocative album that is definitely worth a fortnight. In fact, several of the albums and artists I have visited thus far have remained in my head and I am looking forward to compiling a lengthy playlist featuring all of these exceptional women.

Iris DeMent came to prominence in the early nineties with her song Our Town which was used to close the final episode of the run away television hit Northern Exposure. By a strange coincidence, serendipity or just a fortuitous moment, we are currently watching Northern Exposure, a show we have chosen as an antidote to the rotten times in which we live. I wonder how many people shipped out to Alaska after watching the show in the nineties, and if Alaska is currently open to disenfranchised Europeans in search of a seemingly gentler place to live.

More recently, the title track of My Life was used in another hit TV show, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that took on extraordinary resonance during the Trump years and which stands as a terrifying imagining of the horrors of authoritarianism combined with extreme misogyny. The song was used for the opening sequence of Season Two Episode Seven, when the handmaids attend the funeral of other handmaids, killed during a failed attempt to overthrow the regime. The sight of a trembling and tearful Aunt Lydia wishing for a ‘peaceful world’ when she herself is a weapon of state-sanctioned violence against women brings bile to to the throat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrzYwYGt-p0 Iris DeMent’s beautiful, haunting music juxtaposes the horror of the moment, a sweet, life-affirming and poignant song against a backdrop of blood-soaked horror.

Iris DeMent’s voice is pure country, dripping in sorrows and heartaches, simple living, family, home and of course love. It is unsentimental, cracked and honest, reminding me of Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. She has worked with Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and John Prine and is an artist who seems intent on her own authentic path, pursuing her truth and telling stories in her songs with profound resonance; stories of the reality of being, of love and death.

Here’s something special to finish, Iris and Emmylou. I defy you not to cry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FikZwgj89HI

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Oumou Sangare: Moussolou

Oulou Sangaré recorded her first album, Moussoulou (“Women”), with Amadou Ba Guindo, a renowned maestro of Malian music. The album was very successful in Africa, with more than 200,000 copies sold initially on tape. The album was released in 1990 when Sangare was twenty-one years old.

In the midst of a bleak week, Oulou Sangare’s voice brought shafts of sunshine and warmth. Listening to her debut album, its rich rhythms and feisty vocals, I was lifted out of the challenges of the days for some bright and beautiful moments. Prior to listening to this album I knew nothing of Oumou Sangare. Part of the point of this year is to listen to more diverse women’s voices and to educate myself about the cultures these artists come from.

Moussolou means women and in the album’s title song Oumou Sangare speaks to the women of Mali about their lives and their positions. She has written extensively since her first album about women and the low status that women endure in society. She is an advocate for women’s rights, and is critical of child marriage and polygamy, having experienced the effect the latter had on her mother when Sangare was a child.

Sangaré has worked as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, but when asked about politics says: “While you’re an artist, you’re free to say what you think; when you’re a politician, you follow instructions from higher up.”

Oumou Sangare has performed all over the world since her success with Moussolou and has worked with numerous artists including Herbie Hancock and Bela Fleck. She is a vibrant and inspiring artist with a captivating voice and commanding musicality.

If you want to get a flavour of Oumou as she is now, then watch her here, live in London in 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQtibyqDyZE

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Ms Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the debut solo album by American singer and rapper Lauryn Hill. It was released on August 25, 1998, by Ruffhouse Records and Columbia Records.

In 1998 Ms Hill exploded as an artist in her own right after extraordinary success with The Fugees. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is an opus, a personal and political album that combines soul, hip-hop, reggae and R&B. The album is rich, complex and full of detail referencing Ms Hill’s religious sensibility, her struggle as a woman to assert herself in a musical culture towered over by men, her influences and her personal experience of young motherhood.

Ms Hill’s struggles and scandals have been well documented, including her battle with New Ark (her band for the Miseducation sessions), her notorious lateness to performances and considerable diva-ish traits. In truth, I knew little about her and haven’t followed her career or paid much attention to her work. Coming to such a lauded album twenty- three years after its multiple award winning success, reading about her life and career and considering the culture in which she was working I have found considerable respect and admiration for Ms Hill. She was so young in 1998 and made an enormous impact with her work which was described as genre bending. She left a lasting mark on the scene she was so much a part of with her soulful voice, clever rhymes and spiky content.

The album launches with the excoriating Lost Ones and then weaves through changes in mood and style for one hour and seventeen minutes. The album has a huge cast of musicians, singers and producers including Mary J Blige and D’Angelo but is universally acknowledged as Ms Hill’s vision in action. Stand out tracks for me include the cautionary tale Doo Wop (That Thing) which mixes doo wop with R&B creating a clever groove fusing past and present. The video is illustrative of the theme. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6QKqFPRZSA The song is hypnotic with its sample piano chords, layered vocals and brass.

The whole album is worth a proper listen, and if you’re a listener who wants a truly deep dive, check out Dissect, a podcast that takes apart great albums track by track: https://castbox.fm/vb/99609373

In 2019 Ms Hill contributed the track Guarding the Gates to the Queen and Slim film soundtrack. The film is exceptional and the track gives us a mature, confident Ms Hill full of soul. You can listen to the track here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yG_JfVAOifA

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Madonna: Ray of Light

Ray of Light is the seventh studio album by American singer-songwriter Madonna, released on February 22, 1998 by Maverick Records.

I was looking forward to revisiting this album, the only work by Madonna that I ever liked. Back in 1998, I played it to death (bar the track Candy Perfume Girl which I never liked) and I particularly loved the William Orbit production. The album won four Grammys and universal critical acclaim.

Did it stand up? Did I dive back in and find it as exciting and engaging as I did all those years ago? The short answer is no. The more interesting answer is that I have spent time this week thinking about the album, about Madonna and why I find her problematic.

The album deserves the accolades it received on its release. It marked a sea change in Madonna’s career and changes in the pop world, particularly the advent of electronica. William Orbit’s production is sublime in places. My ‘deep listen’ happened, lying in bed in the dark, listening to it on a good quality speaker. I heard all the nuances and tricks of Orbit’s style, the subtle segues between songs and the unifying motifs of minor keys and melancholic tones. The album does have beautiful moments, no doubt, and Ray of Light, the title track is still a corker of a high octane dance number.

The album provoked nostalgia. I found myself reminded of a different time in my life when I was a different person, living a different life. I was able to sit with that difference, with some of those memories and rather than pushing them away, I stayed with them a while and then released them back to where they belong.

Madonna is problematic for me. She burst onto the music scene in the early 80s. Her presentation was provocative and sexual. She was unafraid to use sex and to be a highly sexualised performer. My feminist sensibility was burgeoning at the time and I simply did not like her or what she was doing with her image. I didn’t find watching her or listening to her empowering. I still don’t. I admire her for having had a stellar career, in which she has clearly been in charge of her creative destiny, transforming with the times, controlling her image and her business. That has to be a positive achievement for a woman in an industry that chews up and discards artists, especially women, on a daily basis. Madonna made it in a man’s world but used tactics that left many feminists uncomfortable. Madonna said of her ‘regressive’ image in Cosmopolitan that ‘they didn’t get the joke’ and told Newsweek in 1985, ‘when someone like Prince, Elvis or Jagger does the same thing they are being honest, sensual human beings,’ failing to acknowledge the persistent and pernicious objectification of women in patriarchy and the uphill fight women have to be both taken seriously and not degraded through sexual objectification.

Ray of Light marked a departure, a more interesting Madonna, at least to me, but watching the accompanying music videos again, there is a lot of preening and posing and focus simply on her. The most interesting video is for Frozen where she seems to be channeling a version of The Morrigan, goddess of death. Other videos feature erotic chess, moping, running away from the paparazzo press or vaguely Sado-erotic imagery that doesn’t really cohere and is uncomfortable to watch.

I am pleased to have revisited the album, but I won’t be going back for more or exploring any of Madonna’s other work. She is a great entertainer, a woman who has earnt her place in the canon of iconic pop artists, but she doesn’t speak to me.

Check out Frozen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XS088Opj9o0&list=OLAK5uy_mLiMT3gmghnluUT76rtTZ_QMGzlPmjXJ4&index=9

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Pearl: Janis Joplin

Pearl is the second and final solo studio album by Janis Joplin, released posthumously on January 11, 1971, three months after her death on October 4, 1970.

A Woman Left Lonely, track three, is the song that says it all. It’s the one I was least familiar with when I returned to this album, and it’s the one I’ve played most.

A woman left lonely will soon grow tired of waiting,
She’ll do crazy things, yeah, on lonely occasions.

Janis was certainly lonely and she certainly did her fair share of crazy things, in a culture that was hostile to women in general but dangerous for women like Janis. Her hedonism, unconventional behaviour and appearance along with her desire to be accepted as a woman and an artist meant she was trapped in the age-old virgin/whore dichotomy for women; or good girl/bad girl if we take the religiosity out of the notion. Janis did not want to be just one of the boys and had some hateful experiences that must have hurt her deeply- being voted ‘ugliest man on campus’ at her college and being mobbed by misogyny and stupidity. She chose the ‘bad girl’ paradigm, but it didn’t make her happy. Fellow musician, one time boyfriend, admirer and friend Country Joe McDonald said of Janis:

Sexism killed her. Everybody wanted this sexy chick who sang really sexy and had lots of energy. People kept saying she was just ‘one of the guys’: that’s a real sexist bullshit trap, cos that was fuckin’ her head around. She was one of the women. She was a strong, groovy woman. Smart, you know? But she got fucked around.”

Her nearest contemporary was Grace Slick, a woman who played down her own talent and played up her allure and femininity, as was expected of women at that time. Grace, conventionally sexy and more acceptable to the male-dominated rock world survived the excesses of the counter culture years and re-emerged into middle of the road mainstream success in the 80s. Janis died alone in a hotel room from a heroin overdose, aged 27. She was waiting for her friends to show up and truly was a woman left lonely.

So many of the tracks on Pearl deserve the plaudit of iconic and many of them endure in popular culture; perhaps especially Mercedes Benz and Me and Bobby McGee. Listening anew this week, every song felt fresh, raw and exciting. The Full Tilt Boogie Band matched Janis, giving her the quality musicianship she deserved. Watching grainy YouTube clips of Janis performing, I witnessed her talent and vulnerability. That cracked, brilliant and unique voice, brought forth Euterpe herself, a muse making herself heard to a generation and beyond of strong women in an industry that has been so dominated by men.

Janis Joplin’s star burned bright and fell too early. Her legacy endures. She laid a path for other women to tread and deserves her status as a legend. She opened up a space for women to enter and be more fully realised as artists. She was a sister too, raising half the funds required to purchase a tombstone for her idol Bessie Smith.

Here is Janis with her sublime version of Gershwin’s Summertime. Totally unique, totally Janis.

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Hollowbone: Kathryn Tickell and the Darkening

https://www.kathryntickell.com/shop/items/albums/hollowbone Hollowbone is the 2015 album from Kathryn Tickell and the Darkening.

My original choice of album this week was Strange but True but it didn’t grab hold of me and so I went in search of more Kathryn Tickell and found Hollowbone which I’ve been listening to since the middle of the week and which has weaved its magical way into my psyche. It blends the contemporary and the traditional with vibrant arrangements and has a potent, stirring energy. I particularly love Hushabye Birdie/Hexham Lasses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbYMYGEkyvc&list=RDK3epYlJChcQ&index=5

I’ve long admired Kathryn Tickell and her impressive career as musician, teacher, musicologist and curator of valuable tradition. I enjoy listening to her shows on Radio 3 where she displays an abundance of warmth and knowledge and sheer love of music. She is central to the cultural life of the North East both in her work at Newcastle University – she was one of the founders of the Folk and Traditional Music BA course and where she still teaches – and through her foundation for young musicians. https://www.kathryntickell.com/biography She also works with The Sage in Gateshead.

Over a long and luminous career, Kathryn Tickell has worked with many musical collaborators including Linda Thompson, Andy Shepherd and The Penguin Café Orchestra to name a few. She has an extensive discography and continues to innovate and explore the music of the North East and Borders, bringing new and subtle layers in her arrangements and performances of traditional songs and tunes.

I am five days older than Kathryn Tickell. We are Summer of Love children, born under the sign of Gemini in 1967. I was destined to pass through Newcastle and the North East between 1985-89, my university years, which I reflect on as truly golden and formative. I lived in Gateshead, Fenham and Heaton and enjoyed making music in the pubs and folk clubs of that time- particularly upstairs at The Broken Doll on Wednesday nights It was a marvelous pub, famous for the blues but hospitable to enthusiastic students running a small folk club. Sadly it was destroyed in the interests of town planning and progress. It was a wonderful place.

It broke my heart to leave Newcastle and for some years I vowed to return. However, life takes us on our own paths and it was not to be. I have a wistful and happy remembrance of those years and I have visited a couple of times since; occasions imbued with the bitter/sweet emotions of retracing steps.

The vibrant presence of Kathryn Tickell, igniting passion for music, playing so magnificently and being a true Queen of the North lifts my spirits. The North East is an enriched and fortunate place for having her in it.

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Horses: Patti Smith

Horses is the debut studio album by American musician Patti Smith. It was released on November 10, 1975 by Arista Records

Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.

The opening line of this seminal album still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. This week I have immersed myself in the life and work of Patti Smith, rediscovering Horses, watching astonishing videos of performances and interviews and reading not only her work, The Coral Sea and Just Kids but other writing about her and her extraordinary life and work.

One morning this week, feeling unusually energised in this strange time in our collective lives, I danced to the whole of Gloria, in my pyjamas, shaking my whitening locks and soaking in the raw, energetic brilliance of it.

There is so much written about Patti, her life and her work, and so much critical appraisal of Horses that it is hard to know what to add. There are two personal moments of intersection with Patti Smith’s life and work that have returned to me as I’ve been listening and reading. One was my recollection of seeing her 1976 performance of Horses on the Old Grey Whistle test. I didn’t see it in 1976 because I was nine years and it was on late at night. I saw it in the early eighties, probably 84/85 during a repeats season. I was emerging as a young woman, curious about the world, about art, intent on discovery. I was encountering feminism for the first time and beginning to question the paradigms of femininity in my own life and culture. There was Patti, snarling out of the screen, androgynous, raw, powered with an energy unlike anything I’d seen. I found her a bit scary. I was used to seeing a very different presentation of women in music, often doll-like, obscured by hair and make-up. As a little girl I had cavorted around the living room every Thursday evening, imitating the dance moves of Pans People/Legs and Co on Top of the Pops, believing this was a zenith of female achievement and artistic expression. Patti was not that.

My second intersection with Patti’s world was an unexpected surprise. In 2012, on holiday in Scotland, myself and friends discovered that Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs were on display in the arts centre in Dunoon. It was a cold March day in a small town where we spent a thoughtful couple of hours with these provocative and moving works.

The Romantic, Bohemian sensibility of Patti Smith, and Robert Mapplethorpe imbued their life and work from the moment of their chance meeting in New York. Rimbaud and Blake were their guides and watching Patti now, singing In My Blakean Year, with her band, masked for our times, bringing in 2021, her words joy will conquer all despair take on a whole new depth and resonance.

Patti now has all the grace and power of a magus, a shamanic crone, shimmering with gravitas. Her generosity and compassion radiate from her. After all her losses, her tragedies she could have so easily succumbed to bitterness and corrosive sorrow; instead she stands in the light and offers her hand to all and invites us to dance with her and to embrace hope and responsibility for a better future.

If you’ve not seen it yet – watch this.

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Listening to Women

Over the course of the past year me and my best human have listened to music compiled from lists of the top jazz, reggae and folk-rock albums. It has been a year of discovery, re-discovery, deep listening and learning; and mostly great enjoyment. A few albums were binned after one listen (not many) because in spite of an open mind, some work was unlistenable, at least to our ears.

Through the course of the year, it became apparent to us both that there was something missing, something unbalanced in our lists. Women. There were just too few women represented in the compilations. We decided that in 2021 we would have a dedicated list of 52 albums by women to listen to over the course of the year, one per week. And I decided that I would write a blog post each week to accompany the listening.

I have chosen the list. Much of the music I have chosen I do not know very well or at all. I want to expand my range of listening and to hear women’s voices from across the world. A few of the albums are revisits, works I have admired in the past but have not encountered for a while.

It would have been easy to compile a list of my personal favourite albums by women but that is not the point of this exercise. I know what I already admire, I want to expand and explore. The list I have compiled is not in order. There is no hierarchy, no subjective ‘best album by a woman ever’ for week 52. Those kinds of lists are a helpful starting point but not a useful end. Each album on my list is to be approached as a world of its own, a place to explore and enjoy without an artificial ranking, decided by a music critic.

Each week, my blog post will explore the album and some of the context around it. I am sure there will be albums I don’t much like- that is inevitable because taste is subjective. But I know I will discover treasures along the way. I imagine that some of my revisits will be disappointing because I am not the person now that I was when I first encountered those works.

Of course there are thousands of great albums in the world by women and I am exploring just 52 of them. There are works I have decided not to include for a number of reasons, in spite of some of them being considered iconic. I have a feeling that this process is a starting point and that I will be wandering into wonderful musical realms of discovery and finding more to explore along the way.

I will publish a new post each week to accompany this musical odyssey and I hope readers will enjoy the posts and the music.

I wish everyone a good year and I hope 2021 will be better for all the beings of the earth and the planet herself.

Peace.

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Join the Sun and Moon Festival for Advent

It is the season of Advent in this strangest of years and I am very pleased that East Marsh United and the Sun and Moon Festival team have been able to undertake some beautiful work in the run-up to Midwinter.

We have been working with our families on art and craft activity and have been delighted with the response to our Christmas Lantern Project. Many families have been able to join in and make the lanterns at home. It’s always lovely to receive a message and a photograph from our participants and to see how much they have enjoyed taking part.

Lantern

Our Online Advent Calendar launches on December 1st and it will feature lanterns, artwork from our families, writing from the East Marsh Writers and more. In these unique times it has been impossible to offer live events at our base on Freeman Street Market and so we have done our best to find alternative ways of working. In addition to our calendar we also have a bumper edition of our online magazine, The Proud East Marshian launching this week. You can find all of our editions for 2020 here: https://www.sunandmoonfestival.org/proudeastmarshian

We are lucky at the Sun and moon festival to have a great team of artists and participants and we prize everybody for their contributions. It is exciting to watch the flourishing and growth that happens in our project. Through Advent we are delighted to share with you a project from two wonderful young artists, Lisa February and Matt Gray. We asked them to create a new piece of drama, suitable for families. Given all the constraints around Covid 19, this was a challenge.

Lisa and Matt have written, recorded and produced a beautiful four-part audio drama The Girl and the Gull especially for this time of year. Episode One aired yesterday, on Advent Sunday at 4.00 pm and the remaining episodes will air each Sunday throughout Advent. You can hear Episode One here: https://www.facebook.com/sunmoonfestgy/videos/1086737588429593

The episodes, with subtitles will soon be available on our Sun and Moon Festival YouTube channel.

Please visit our page on Facebook for up-to-date information about what we’re doing, and do have a peaceful Advent.

https://www.facebook.com/sunmoonfestgy

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For Sale: The Magic Garden; A Covid Christmas: a beautiful and reassuring brand new picture book for children.

What if Santa Claus has to self -isolate? What if Christmas is in peril? Never fear, Carrie, Cosmo, Monster the cat and all the creatures in the garden have a plan.

Featuring beautiful illustrations by Vivienne May and an original story by Josie Moon, The Magic Garden; A Covid Christmas tackles worries about Covid 19 from children’s point of view and offers a reassuring and magical tale about solving problems and adjusting to challenging times.

Order a limited edition softback copy of this reassuring book for just £7 inc P&P from Josie Moon by emailing: msjosiemoon@gmail.com

Also available. Let’s Go To Space and Sail Away, two epic adventures ideal for children aged 5 -10. £7 each or buy both for £10 inc P&P.

Buy all three books for £15 inc P&P.