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Saturday, 25 January 2014

Is Llewyn Davis a loser?

* Contains spoilers. Sorry.

The Coen brothers' latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is about a lush-bearded folk singer, played by Oscar Isaac - who looks a lot like British actor and folky Stephen Mangan - in Greenwich Village, New York, in the early 60s. The tale is reputedly based on the life of Dave Van Ronkwho released a similarly named album, Inside Dave Van Ronk, at around this time. And the movie is a beautiful thing: majestically shot, well told and provoking. In particular it invites the question of whether Davis is a loser, and thus also, slightly uncomfortably, whether we are ourselves losers?

I read this review, which takes a very clear line on the question, before seeing the movie at the Genesis in Mile End and thought about it again as I left the cinema because it wasn't as clear cut as the Indy had led me to expect. In the Guardian Peter Bradshaw took a slightly more forgiving approach and while picking up on telling details - the different meanings that a box of unsold records (or books) have to their originator and everyone else - Bradshaw's take on the central question seems to me to be the wrong one. Bradshaw thinks the central question is "Is Davis any good?" when we all know that completely depends on your musical taste.

So, while encouraging you to go and see the film, because it's terrific and has been overlooked by the Oscars and its attending publicity (probably because it's unusually downbeat), I'm going to do a list of pros and cons. Sometimes a list helps.

If the answer to the question "Is Llewyn Davis a loser" is yes, then it would be because

* He, self-defeatingly, turns down a clear opportunity to try out for a new band when a Chicago agent, played by F Murray Abraham - whom he has gone on a desperate road trip to meet in exactly the hope that an opportunity would present itself - offers it to him.
* He plays an underwhelming, rather twee song to the aforementioned agent, when the final couple of scenes demonstrate that he's capable of better.
* He has a sourness about him that is unattractive unless you respond to the urge to fix people.
* He clearly - judging by his ongoing relationship with an abortionist - struggles with using a condom.
* He signs away his royalty rights to an upbeat song that turns out to be a hit.
* He is rude about an elderly female folk singer, which leads her husband to beat him up in the opening and closing scenes of the film.

However, the great thing about this film - one of them, anyway - is that all of the above happen for perfectly understandable reasons that force you to ask: would I have behaved any differently? So

* He turns down the audition because he's had a musical partner already, a friend who committed suicide, and this leads him to want to avoid partnering up again.
* The best music in the film comes from the period of Davis's life when he was with his dead friend, so he plays newer, more downbeat material at the audition instead.
* His "sourness" is completely understandable in the context of this bereavement. He is depressed. That's all: a small thing and a big one.
* It materialises that of the two girlfriends who have required the attention of an abortionist, one of them kept his child after all, while the most recent - Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, the real-life wife of Marcus Mumford - turns out to have slept with at least one other man behind the back of her boyfriend Jim - played by Justin Timberlake. While this does not nullify Davis's responsibility in the matter - it could still be his baby - it does undermine her stated reason for hating him (which helps us form a view of him early on), which is that if he hadn't been a loser who slept with other people's girlfriends, her baby would definitely have been Timberlake's. Hmm.
* He signs away the royalty rights because he needs cash in hand to pay for the abortion.
* And finally, while being rude to another, less successful musician is reprehensible, the context is that he has just discovered that the guy who runs the folk club has slept with Jean. His outburst is a direct result of this and begins with a pointed heckle, asking how the elderly lady got the gig (since the folk club guy has just said if people want to play at his club this is what it takes).

Other things that mitigate Davis's loser status include

* This is about one week in his life and we've all had bad weeks
* We can't all be Bob Dylan, whose character appears in the background to one of the final scenes. In fact, to set the bar that high denotes a childish, black-and-white view of the world: Dylan is possibly the most successful musician who has ever lived.
* People clearly like Davis. Women sleep with him and he has friends, enough to support his couch-surfing lifestyle.
* When we see Davis working in a studio he cooperates beautifully, does exactly what he's asked and is involved in producing a successful record.
* He takes his responsibilities - to his girlfriends, his friends and their cats (I'm not going to explain that, you have to go see it) - seriously.

But most of all, the reason why Llewyn Davis is a hero of sorts is because he is giving it a go. A lot of people would have allowed themselves to be dragged under by the suicide of their musical partner. Yet Davis, despite being seriously depressed, has got back in the saddle and perseveres: even when it looks as if he may have to leave the music industry he immediately sets about finding another job.

Defining someone as a loser when most of the bad stuff that happens to them is not of their own making is to ignore that success is mostly about turning up.

The losers are those who never try. Llewyn Davis is a survivor - which, in the grand scheme of things, is right at the top of the tree.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Daylight Music and Ben Eshmade, podcaster

Going to Daylight Music at Union Chapel in Islington for the first time was a where have you been all my life? experience for me. It's a free Saturday lunchtime concert, midday to 2pm, of three mainly contemporary, often folky music acts, where you can get a bacon butty and a cup of tea... allowing your Saturday to fade in gently, in exquisite surroundings. It's a perfect start to the weekend, the best imaginable reason to get out of bed on a Saturday morning and handy for anyone planning a weekend in London as it's right next to Highbury & Islington tube.

For five years this April Daylight Music has been run by Ben Eshmade, 37, (below, right) who it seems to me is remarkable for this reason alone. But also because he might be the only person in the UK who makes a whole living as a music podcaster. The awkward term "content provider"could have been invented for him and Daylight Music is, wonderfully for the rest of us, what he does for fun.

He started out traditionally enough. "I did English and music at the University of Essex and then took a temping job at Thames Water in Colchester," he explained on a leather sofa at the cafe in at Kings Place, one of the music venues where he now works.

"I spent a lot of time getting the Guardian every Monday, applying for every media job I could see and not getting replies. Then I sent off a demo tape to five or six radio stations and got a reply from Essex FM, which I'd only added to the list at the last minute, as an emergency thing. I went back to living with my mum and dad while I did one day a week's work experience there.

"I eventually landed a job in the 'traffic department', which schedules adverts, and ended up doing that for about nine radio stations in the group. It was a very stressful job. But the thing was that when I joined I realised that the email system linked me up with everyone who worked for the same company, which was quite a lot of different stations, including Classic FM.

"I had a bit of luck when someone I know who plays the trombone - I'm a French horn player - went to work at Classic FM and I got a late Friday shift, which involved keeping things ticking over at a time when there was hardly anyone around. There were quite a few months of rushing backwards and forwards between Southend and Colchester in the middle of the night but I ended up getting a full-time job there."

He worked on a late-night show on Classic FM called The Chiller Cabinet, which sounds like a kind of post-club come-down, featuring Balearic beats and involving no talking on his part whatsoever. But it was also a first shot at curating a music show.

"When the Chiller Cabinet ended on Classic FM I was desperate for it to continue," he explained. "So I set up Arctic Circle, with the name referencing the same idea, and started putting on some shows around London. The first one I did was at the Hayward Gallery on the Southbank. There was also one at the Tate called The Lovers, The Dreamers and Me featuring Emily Barker that didn't sell out exactly because there weren't any tickets. But I couldn't get into the room where it was going on."

These days he works for Kings Place and the Barbican as a podcaster, recording interviews with the acts that are scheduled to appear, which are made available through iTunes and Soundcloud, and then using the resulting material for guide articles and programme notes.

"No, I don't know anyone else who does this," he admitted, responding to a question about what he would do when the technology moves on, as it's bound to eventually. "But it's really just audio in a particular format: there'll always be another format. What a podcast is now, among other things, is a way of instantaneously selling a live performance to someone by telling them about it.

'The thing is that I left radio as it was shrinking and shrinking. It seemed as if creativity was frowned upon because it was regarded as expensive. But the beauty of Mixcloud and Soundcloud is that you don't have to tune in at a certain time to hear what you're searching for. You can listen whenever you want."

These days Ben's output includes the spoken word and he admits that he'd love a traditional job as a radio DJ. But what kind of music would he play? When I asked him this question he began to talk about The Sherman Brothers, who wrote much of Disney's early musical material, and Saving Mr Banks, the recent film starring Emma Thompson about the making of Mary Poppins, in which their characters appear.

In fact, although his musical predilections appear strongly to feature things associated with childhood - he also loves Totoro, the fantastical Japanese Ghibli character (above) - I think the variety in his work is as much about necessity and circumstance as anything else: when you're freelance you have to be flexible.

This much is true though. First, he recently produced a charming CD called The Age of Not Believing, whose title references Bedknobs and Broomsticks. "It includes some of everything that's happened in my life up until now," he says, and Emily Barker is on it, singing Hushabye Mountain.

And second, he chooses three bands every week for Daylight Music. So what do they have in common? "There are submissions and recommendations. Occasionally I'll hear about a band and contact them myself but these days a lot of bands contact me online via the Daylight Music site. What I look for when I'm putting together a show is diversity. Oh god. That makes me sound like a bad politician, doesn't it?

"What I mean is that I like choirs and tuba quintets, and once there was a band called Transept who hooked a tree up to a microphone and found a way of playing it. The Transiberian Marching Band and the London Bulgarian Choir both went down a storm, as did those female morris dancers The Belles of London City. Singer songwriters with guitars, on the other hand, find it quite hard to make an impact in Union Chapel, as do guys with laptops, sitting at their laptops. And I tend to avoid acts with agents and managers, though a lot of people who've played at Daylight Music have gone on to do very well. The Leisure Society, for instance. And then there's Nils Frahm, who's playing at the Barbican this year, and Francois and the Atlas Mountains."

Singer songwriters need not despair, though: I've seen some at Daylight and I think what Ben means is that they just have to be extremely good. He also says that he often invites musicians who are subdivisions of other acts he's put on.

"I'm particularly fascinated by the emails that bands send along and how they present themselves. I don't know what anyone else likes, but personally if I'm getting an unsolicited email from a band that wants to play, I'm looking for a short, polite note and a direct link to their music. You wouldn't believe how many people will send a link to their website that has no actual music on it as far as one can see. I particularly like a link to a live performance on YouTube as it's impossible to fake a good live performance. I'm not interested in long rambling histories and mentions of famous people who've said something nice about them. The music is all that matters."

So what's in it for the bands? Do they get paid? "Hmm. I'd be grateful if you could play that down in the article as the emphasis is really on the day as a special event. But we try and make sure that expenses, at least, are covered from the voluntary take on the door." (There is a recommended donation of £3.50 per person and Daylight has been known to pack in as many as 600.) "But over the years what we have been able to offer has evolved into a kind of Daylight Music care package. I try and make sure everyone gets a cup of tea on the way in, we have a team of ten now, including photographers, and we do everything extremely quickly and efficiently.

"There is a professional sound engineer who has two assistants, so what we offer is the opportunity to play what Time Out has described as 'the best venue in London' where we will make you sound as good as you've ever sounded. We have volunteers who will sell your CDs and merchandise for you at the back of the venue and if your performance captures people and you have a reasonably priced CD, you may sell up to 20."

I suppose one of the things about it being in Islington is that you never really know who's going to be in the audience? "Yes. I should say, though, that we've recently had to add a kind of buggy park area because so many people with young families have taken to coming along. And what that means is that we are the first gig that a lot of children ever come to - which is kind of amazing really. But it can also mean that especially quiet, soulful performances can sometimes get a little bit disrupted."

The thing I needed most urgently to ask, though, is why it is so often impossible to get a bacon butty if you arrive after 1pm? The food tables at the back are run by the Margins cafe project, which does a lot of work with the homeless at Union Chapel, including feeding around 200 every Sunday. Some of them return and volunteer, so it's obviously good for getting structure back into people's lives. But, if I get there after all the bacon has run out - which seems to happen quite often - it feels like a barometer of how the rest of my weekend is going to turn out.

Ben laughed, not unkindly.

"Yes. I have on occasion got one of our volunteers to go to the supermarket over the road and buy stuff for Margins. They're characters and they run it in their own unique way: with a lot of enthusiasm but not always getting the quantities right."

There's nothing like bacon as an incentive for getting out of bed earlier.

* If you enjoyed this post and thought it may be useful professionally to you or someone you know, you may also like this, about how Seth Lakeman's music ended up being played on Coast

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley

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