I was doing the washing up listening to ‘North’ on my CD Walkman, when I heard Gem Andrews sing ‘there ain’t no such thing as a straight life!’ “Go there, Sister!” I yelled in solidarity, punching the air with my Brillo pad, soap suds scattered everywhere. Losing my rubber gloves, I picked up the CD cover. It transpired the track is actually called ‘Straight Lines’ – (originally a poem written by Julia Darling) – as in ‘there ain’t no such thing as a straight line’. Gem, I think you’ll find that my Technical Drawing teacher at school, Mr Ravenscroft, would have something to say about that! He’d usually bellow, “Fitzgerald! You blithering idiot! Can’t you even draw a straight line?” Before hurling his metal ruler like a javelin where it would -DOINNGGGG!!! – as it dug deep into the drawing table, all of a quiver.
With a respiratory system like his, Mr. Ravenscroft could silence a classroom in a second. The visceral ‘Lungs’ swings with a beautiful arrangement, Andrews’ backing vocalists provide a stunning example of rapid inhalation, expiration; while Andrews sings of a friend who worked as a miner: ‘16 hour day/until your lungs gave out’. Which awful disease did the damage is left up to the listener’s imagination. Emphysema? Pneumoconiosis? Mesothelioma? Lung Cancer?
Of course, it was breast cancer that claimed the life of Julia Darling, the poet and author who was taken from us at the ridiculously young age of 48. Andrews has transformed two of her favourite Darling poems, the aforementioned, awesome ‘Straight Lines’ and the charming ‘Two Lighthouses’ which conjures up images of the perfect long-distance relationship, which, before you know it, has swept one away with longshore drift and the coastal erosion of personal space.
This Liverpool-born (from Woolton) troubadour now lives in Berlin, and as well as making music, she writes and performs feminist theatre where she “deals with destructive, patriarchal structures,” unlike the personal realm and political subject matter she inhabits with her songwriting. Andrews says that theatre allows her to explore the lives of others “and explore how oppressive mechanisms are protected.”
It can’t be denied that the itchy feet which have taken her to France, Canada and Germany, where she has taken up residence in different metropolitan locations, have provided this jewel of a musician with many instances for her to study intersectionality, those interstices where gender, race, class, sexuality and sometimes wild animals, have provided engrossing material for her songs. Gem has in the past behaved like Michaela Strachan and gone all Autumnwatch on us, when she wrote about watching badgers cavort after enjoying some delightful plant-like material, on the track ‘Your Father’s Diary’ from her last album Vancouver.
Andrews was once locked in a room for an hour with Emmylou Harris, which must be a dream situation for many of us. Emmylou gave her some affirmation and sound advice regarding her songwriting abilities: “Go for it, girl!”
As Gem’s other hero Julia Darling said, “there ain’t no such thing as a straight-line,” because we’ve all got our own beautiful and individual curlicues. Thank goodness for that! If you’re reading this, Mr. Ravenscroft, please take note.