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Julie Tippetts: Didn't You Used To Be Julie Driscoll?

Julie Tippetts: Didn't You Used To Be Julie Driscoll?
Duncan Heining By

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The respect in which Julie Tippetts is held by her fellow musicians and fans is truly heartening—and truly deserved. Back in the late sixties, then Julie Driscoll, she gave up a very different career trajectory in music, one that had begun with Steampacket and continued with Brian Auger & The Trinity, to follow a journey characterised by experimentation and self-discovery.

Though the qualities of Tippetts' voice are often acknowledged, her unique and personal approach to song-writing is less frequently noted. This seems surprising, given the sheer quality of the writing on her first two albums, 1969 and Sunset Glow (1976). Shadow Puppeteer followed in 1999, providing further evidence of her abilities, but still this aspect of her work went largely undocumented.

However, in 2010, with Ghosts of Gold, Tippetts began a partnership with Sheffield-based multi-instrumentalist and auteur Martin Archer. Three other fine records have followed—Tales of Finin, Serpentine and Vestigium -and the duo begin work on a new album in 2017. So, it is high time that this aspect of her story was told.

Back in 1968, Julie Driscoll was riding high in the charts with Bob Dylan's song "Wheels on Fire." She was a member, never the leader, of Julie Driscoll & the Brian Auger Trinity but the media loved her and singled her out from the band. Extremely photogenic, 'Jools' was as much a sixties icon as Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy but she neither sought nor enjoyed the attention.

She had been a professional musician from her teens, singing in nightclubs with her dad's band and recording her first single, "Take Me By The Hand" (Columbia), when she was fifteen. Hearing that maker-shaker Giorgio Gomelsky was looking for a 'girl' singer to record, she approached him at his club in Richmond, The Crawdaddy. While waiting for a suitable song for her, Gomelsky and organist Brian Auger started putting together a soul revue that would be called Steampacket. Julie was the obvious choice for one of the frontline singers and in 1965, aged seventeen, she joined fellow vocalists Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart, Auger, bassist Rick Brown and drummer Mickey Waller. Julie Driscoll & the Brian Auger Trinity emerged out of Steampacket around 1966, when Baldry and Stewart left to pursue solo careers. The new group continued the revue format to considerable live success performing, in the main, cover versions of blues and soul tunes.

Managed by Giorgio Gomelsky, Driscoll and Auger recorded Open for Gomelsky's Marmalade label in 1967. Side one featured a set of instrumentals, while side two featured the Trinity with vocals by Driscoll. "Wheels on Fire" was a huge success and seemed to promise much but the follow-up, an excellent and mature version of David Ackles' "Road to Cairo" failed to chart. Nevertheless, Gomelsky's confidence in the band was undiminished and they recorded the double LP Streetnoise in 1969.

By that point, Driscoll was twenty-one and had been gigging and touring constantly in Britain, Europe and in the States, where the group had opened for Led Zeppelin in California. As she explained, "I was four years solidly on the road with Auge, from Steampacket onwards. We had one week off in all that time. It was totally living out of a suitcase. I was exhausted." She was also sick of the fact, that she couldn't leave her flat without some snapper sticking a camera in her face. "When I left," she tells me, "I was doing a lot of writing and composing but I really didn't like the thing of going out and being recognised. I hated the lack of anonymity."

The first Trinity album, Open, had been an album of cover songs along with a number of instrumentals from Brian Auger. Streetnoise, however, featured three songs by Driscoll alone—"Czechoslovakia" (a protest song about the Soviet invasion), the folky "Vauxhall to the Lambeth Bridge" and "A Word About Colour." Lyrically, "A Word About Colour" is the strongest and most interesting.

"I suppose, I had a lot to get off my chest really," Tippetts explained. "But as we were doing a lot of travelling, I would have my guitar with me. I bought myself a Martin in New York, which I still have and which I love, and I started writing a lot of material."

And she added, "I was always searching for my identity. I think it was almost inevitable that the songs I was writing—because they were based on the guitar —would take on a different life. I suppose with hindsight, I was pulling in another direction. But I have to make this clear, it was not because I didn't love the work I was doing with Brian Auger and the Trinity. I loved it and I would love it to this day. Brian had found what he wanted to do and he perfected that. Whereas, I really needed to find something else."

Still under contract to Gomelsky, that something else came first in the form of a solo LP, 1969, featuring several of the finest of the new British jazz generation—Elton Dean, Karl Jenkins, Nick Evans, Marc Charig, Stan Sulzmann and others -and a set of songs penned by Driscoll herself. Several tracks were arranged by future husband Keith Tippett and this was how the "couple in spirit" first met, as she told me.

"Giorgio played me a demo of Keith's music and it was like listening to something I'd been waiting to hear but didn't know what it was yet. Quite an odd feeling really. He said I should come and hear the group live... I think it was at the 100 Club. I was equally blown away and that's how we first met."

At Driscoll's suggestion, Gomelsky asked Tippett to work with her on 1969. The record is a very assured debut, a lost classic even, mixing jazz-rock tracks with more reflective acoustic numbers. What strikes most, however, is Driscoll's growing confidence in her song-writing and the ease with which she moves between the group setting of numbers like "A New Awakening" and gentler pieces like "Those That We Love" and "The Choice." "Walk Down" is the most interesting cut, both in terms of its structure, its lyric and in the way Driscoll uses her voice to declaim against the dense musical backcloth. There is something about the piece that reminds me of David Ackles, though if so it is entirely unconscious on the writer's part.

I asked how the record sold. "I have no idea," she says. "Absolutely no idea. We were promised the earth but it's not worth dwelling on." But Tippetts remains justly proud of her achievement with 1969. "Oh, I love it," she tells me, "I love all the things I've done. I wouldn't have put it out, if I thought it wouldn't stand the test of time. If I do something that I love and feel happy with, then I know it's not just some fashion thing. 1969 is one of my babies."

There was a seven year gap between 1969 and Tippetts' second solo album, Sunset Glow, not that the singer had been exactly idle in those seven years. She had sung on husband Keith's epic Septober Energy and written its libretto. She had also sung on Carla Bley's Tropic Appetites from 1974 and was working with the improvising quartet Ovary Lodge with Tippett, bassist Harry Miller and percussionist Frank Perry.

"I've never been one for churning records out for the sake of it," Tippetts says, "I hadn't thought about recording anything else until Sunset Glow. I guess I was probably doing a lot of soul-searching. I wasn't doing a lot of gigging and touring. There was the Spontaneous Music Ensemble that I was working with. It was quite difficult really to do that much with Ovary Lodge because of the nature of Frank's kit. It used to take him two hours to set up and the same to pack up after a gig with all these amazing instruments he had made or collected. The mind boggles about how it was carried around."

I wrote elsewhere that Sunset Glow was "both better and more consistent than its predecessor." With hindsight, my opinion of Sunset Glow remains the same but I think I was somewhat unfair to its predecessor. However, in the intervening years Tippetts had grown as a songwriter and her voice had acquired a gorgeous timbre that recalls Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention. Some have compared Sunset Glow to Robert Wyatt's work and, in particular, his album Rock Bottom. They have a similar feel and both albums explore a musical terrain between jazz, folk and rock with equal skill. Yet Tippetts' record is also a remarkable summation of her career to date, as well as a glorious synthesis of all the places that she had been musically in that time. There is the jazz-rock that she had sung with Auger and with husband Keith in "Mind of a Child" and "Oceans and Sky" complete with a horn section of Elton Dean, Nick Evans and Marc Charig, while "Sunset Glow" and the overdubbed "Lilies" echo the quiet intimacy of Ovary Lodge. The album has a strange, somnambulistic quality to it, as if one is hearing it through the drowsiness of a long, warm summer afternoon, which lingers long after it has ended. It is all over far too quickly.

The gap between Sunset Glow and Shadow Puppeteer was some thirteen years, though it had taken three to record and about as long to find a record company to release it, as Tippetts recalls, "I was searching for someone to release it but it was very difficult for people to place. It's not really categorise-able. For a while, I kept an envelope full of rejections. I could never understand it. I thought people would put it on and think, 'Oh, my goodness. That's beautiful.' I said I just wanted to make a really beautiful album and I thought it was. And I still do."

It would find a home more easily within the wider improvising community today than was perhaps the case then. At the same time, I can think of few records like it. It is very unusual but that is its strength. It draws on improvisation but even more on the desire to do something very different within a solo context, using different ways of recording and using voice and unusual approaches to the song form.

Over its nineteen tracks, Tippetts traces a strange narrative—like a dream but one where the mood shifts continually between a sense of security and one of vulnerability. I will not try and tell its story but those themes -and others of loss or fear of loss, of being held, and being in control versus being controlled -seem to me to describe an emotional journey common to us all as we pass through childhood and adolescence. More profound echoes, maybe, of "Mind of a Child" from Sunset Glow. The narrative, however, was not there at the outset, as Tippetts explains,

"That grew out of it. Shadow Puppeteer was extraordinary to make. Our dear friend John Tippet—no relation—gave me unlimited time to record. John had so much patience because most of those things were built up track by track, improvisation on improvisation. It all began to take shape and the story-line came out of it on the spot, though it was a three-year spot (laughs). So, something had to develop. It was extraordinary what he allowed me to do and I've never been able to pay him back."

Shadow Puppeteer derives its musicality not just from Tippetts' voice but from the layering of voices and simple instrumentation—recorders, zither and thumb piano. I suggest to Tippetts that the music would seem to emerge from the process of recording itself, with its emphasis on counterpoint and unusual harmonies.

"Some of it did. Take for instance, "Lament" that was one voice improvising to which I then added another voice and maybe two others. I was responding in the way I felt it should go. The harmonies that come out are not things that anybody would actually sit down and write. They appeared organically. In "Torch Song," that began with just the one voice. I did no looping. It began to develop almost like a big band. It's over six minutes long, I just built it up from this one sung motif."

But it also contains elements of the blues. Is that a case in point of earlier influences persisting over time? Tippetts agrees readily with the suggestion.

"Absolutely. You can't rub out your roots. Things that you loved in your youth, that really hit you, you will always love. Why does something emotionally either make you feel like crying or laughing? It's because something touches you. That is the magic of music. This whole thing of hearing and seeing is a constant source of wonder to me. Even now, one draws on all resources—on all the things that you are and have been. I always see music as a reflection of who and what you are and what your life is."

I ask Tippetts how she and Archer came to work together. "We met when Martin invited Maggie Nicols and me up to Sheffield to perform our duet "Sweet and S'ours." Then several years later, he booked me for some sessions for his two collaborations with Geraldine Monk. Anyway, after a time, I suggested we might do an album together and before I knew it we were working on Ghosts of Gold."

Tippetts tells me that when Archer sent her some music he had recorded with this in mind, she was astonished at how easily it seemed to fit a collection of (as yet unpublished) poems that she had written. It should be noted, however, that Tippetts' role in the duo's work together goes beyond lyricist and vocalist. She also develops the melodies from the soundscapes that Archer provides.

"Ghosts of Gold, every single track on there, the lyrics are taken from a collection of poems I have compiled under the title Mirror Image," she says. "It's extraordinary how it happens. I'll be playing something Martin has sent me and I'll think, 'Oh, that's "The Winging."' I knew immediately that had to be the one. The only one that hadn't been written before, it was last knockings, I was going home and Martin said, 'I've got another track, you might like to hear.' As soon as he played it, I said, 'That's "Rainsong"!' So, we just did it."

This is something that is key to Martin Archer and his approach. On the one hand, he is able to take the contributions of others and shape them to his own musical vision. But on the other, as heard in the duo's collaborations, he is equally adept at thinking himself into the creative world of his collaborators. He seems to know what they need musically. In fact, I had heard about from someone at an independent label, who had been offered and rejected the record. Let's just say that they were not enamoured, describing it as 'poetry set to electronics.' Respecting the guy's ears, I prepared for disappointment. My reaction was completely different. Not only did the music and lyrics combine to fine effect but Ghosts of Gold seemed a natural progression from 1969, Sunset Glow and Shadow Puppeteer.

The lyrics are often oblique but no more so than say those of Bjork or Kate Bush. They have a similar hypnagogic quality to those of, say Robert Wyatt, though more obviously poetic in intent. Some may be encouraged to apply the epithet 'ethereal.' However, there is nothing fey about Tippetts' words. Indeed, they are quite dark and, once one grasps their meaning, have their genesis in real world events.

The music that Martin Archer has composed and largely performs on the CD—Tippetts adds some percussive sounds—knows no musical boundaries. There is free improvisation built from the overdubbing of a woodwinds on "Parchment Dust" and "Daydreams and Candle-Light," something more industrial on "Rainsong" and "The Winging"—New Phonic Art, Popol Vuh, Faust, perhaps—minimalism on "The Ghostly Apparition"—Terry Riley, maybe. Yet, these are my reference points—they may or may not be influences filtered through Archer's eclectic brain. Some might call this bricolage. I would call it the product of a creative mind.

After the long hiatus between 1969 and Sunset Glow (6 years) and even longer gap between that and Shadow Puppeteer (13 years), this spate of activity—four records in five years and another in production—seems almost frenetic. However, despite the absence of recordings (until recently, that is) Tippetts has been constantly engaged on her own artistic journey. This has often been in the company of her partner Keith, whether as one half of their Couple in Spirit duo, as one third of the Dartington Trio with saxophonist Paul Dunmall or as a contributor to Keith Tippett's small and large ensemble projects. As noted, she contributed lyrics to her husband's Septober Energy LP. More recently, Tippetts has written texts for his Octet CDs From Granite to Wind and The Nine Dances of Patrick O'Gonogon and before that, in 2004, she provided the highly evocative libretto for The Monk Watches the Eagle commission.

The contrast between her work with Martin Archer and the way Julie Tippetts and her partner Keith work together is instructive. The choral piece The Monk Watches the Eagle, a commission for the BBC Singers shows this clearly. Keith would compose sections in one room of their cottage in rural Gloucestershire and pass these to Julie working in another room, who would then listen and begin constructing the libretto. Julie came up with the idea of a narrative based on the idea of a monk in the last hours reflecting on his life, using the title that Keith had proposed to use for another work. Essentially, that is how the work evolved—through a creative process that is both evolutionary and independent but built on shared artistic sensitivities.

I ask her how she would describe her work with Keith in Couple in Spirit. She uses the term "total improvisation" and says that the musical form emerges from the interaction and is not predetermined.

"The fixed element is the piano. Keith brings the wood blocks and maracas for placing in the piano to colour the instrument. I take a selection of percussion instruments and my book of poems. Everything that is on the table may be used or, maybe, I'll just sing. It is that whole sense of freedom of improvisation of whatever you can pluck from the air." The differences between this approach and her recordings with Archer will be obvious to readers. However, it is important to stress that those recordings are informed by all the other aspects of Tippetts' work, including that of "total improvisation."

The second album that Tippetts and Archer made together was Tales of Finin. As with Shadow Puppeteer, it is built upon a narrative. The music is again beyond category fusing electronics and dub reggae on "The Battle of Finindene" and "Taunts of the Fallen," rock filtered through heavy compression on "Finibrook Bridge," folk music and jazz on "The View from Finintor," "The Other Side" and "Fininsridge," while "Fininscreek Castle" draws upon free jazz and contemporary classical music. The beautifully melodic "Should I Go Home" would have sat perfectly on Sunset Glow.

The double CD is graced by a series of paintings by Tippetts herself and is a work of art in itself. Indeed, this is sense that one holds a quality product is a feature of all recent releases on Archer's Discus label. I suggest to Tippetts that the Gothic narrative of Tales of Finin is more like, say Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast than Tolkien and Lord of the Rings but, as she explains, it also has its origins very much in real events.

"People have said things like that about it. There was a period when there were a lot of TV programmes with people talking about their experiences of war. That whole thing of wartime that lives with people forever, of facing someone as an enemy but recognising something in their eyes that was akin to you. It's another human being. It was the whole tables turning experience really. The whole of Tales of Finin is completely made up. I loved making up all those names and places. It's almost non-human—it's not supposed to be pixies and fairies—but it's not related to particular wars but drawing on those programmes about survivors."

I ask if the music inspired the narrative.

"Yes, I think so," Tippetts replies. "It began with the "Battle of Finindene." I'd never written a battle song before—it's not in my nature. But it just happened to fit what Martin had sent me. That was the one that kick-started the idea of a narrative about this fantasy place of Finin. I could see these things. Lots of things came from pre-written poems but others were written for the music. "Battle of Finindene," that was prewritten and done with different workshops and it just fitted perfectly and there were other things as well."

I suggest that many of these tracks and those on the next album Serpentine would probably be accessible to fans of, for example, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Bjork or, at her best, Annie Lennox. The problem is more getting such people to hear the music.

"I think they are accessible," Tippetts says. "Being totally inaccessible in our position is a bit daft really. I'm a human being, so I hope that people will hear it and, in their way, find it accessible. So, it doesn't surprise me that you say that. When you compose music, of course, you hope that people will find a connection and be moved and affected by it. Otherwise, there is no point."

Perhaps the problem is that the distance between more avant-garde music and the mainstream seems far greater than it was in the late sixties or seventies. Record companies and the media control and limit what is heard. People have access to so much through the internet but many respond to this surfeit of information by sticking with what is familiar. Tippetts acknowledges the point but adds,

"There's so much to listen to these days on YouTube and other sites. If you want to listen to Balinese music or very 'out' music or whatever, it's easy. But if you switch on the radio, you only hear certain areas of music. That is what is familiar. BBC Radio 3 is the exception. But then I think of the work we did at Dartington—Keith for twenty-five years, me for twenty—taking workshops and doing improvisations. We would do an improvisation concert during the summer school. Over the years, people would get used to the way we worked together. They would come up to us and say, 'It's much easier listening to it now. You're getting more melodic." (laughing) But they said the same thing last year. What is happening is that they are becoming familiar with the language and landscape and realising—perhaps not even consciously—that it isn't just a lot of noise they cannot relate to."

I am tempted to describe Serpentine as 'alternative rock.' No narrative this time but there is a strong lyrical theme or series of themes that run through the songs. Martin Archer's musical eclecticism is illustrated by the use of elements from records by artists as different as Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Sugar Minott and Colin Blunstone. But then Tippetts' career has been nothing if not eclectic.

"River" opens the set with swirling keyboards, electronics, slide guitar and percussion with Tippetts' voice located in the centre of the mix. Peter Fairclough's drums lend a sense of urgency on "Crocodile" behind Tippetts' incantational vocals, which are punctuated by guitar and woodwinds. "Entry of the Scarabs" is another fantastic collage of dub reggae and with Archer's saxophone emphasising this collision of genres. Tippetts' voice again resonates as much from within the mix as over it and this one of her most powerful performances on a very assured record. "Subside" offers another excellent illustration of Archer's abilities as a musical collagist, again using dub and echo to remarkable effect with penetrating interventions from Gary Houghton on guitar. The setting fits both the lyric and Tippetts' vocal perfectly, enhancing the neither waking nor sleeping quality of the piece.

Many of the songs on Serpentine were inspired by the music Archer had sent her, while others made use of pre-existing poems. However, Tippetts' lyrics also continues the record's title as a metaphor on several tracks, for example "Crocodile," "River," the eerie "Squamata Dance" and "Entry of the Scarabs," "Crocodile Tears," "Snake Bite" and "River." However, the snake/reptile metaphor itself extends into several references to skin as a protective layer. What emerges from such considerations is that Tippetts' literary concern on Serpentine is with vulnerability and emotional and physical security. "Snake Bite" is perhaps the most challenging in terms of its lyrical content, as Tippetts notes, "It's very obscure or oblique but it's a revenge thing after a gang rape." Here, Tippetts is confronting both the horror and brutality of this violent act but also how such atrocities breed fresh violence and cruelty.

But the process by which Tippetts realises these concerns is painstaking, as she explains, "Many of the lyrics I put to Martin's work are worked out almost line by line, second by second. It is really worked out—not improvised. It's just an amazing way to compose and I don't know anyone else who works in that way."

Vestigium is the duo's most recent album, once again a double CD. To my ears, it is Tippetts and Archer's strongest release so far and even more musically diverse than its predecessors. From the limpid, uncluttered "Mandolin Song in Orange," through the soulful, bluesy "Shiver Across the Soul" to the claustrophobic "Secret/Lily Pollen," Archer's soundscapes seem to hold Tippetts' voice suspended and express musically the emotion of the lyrics. On CD2, "Shock Waves" builds layer upon layer of brass, Fender Rhodes, guitars, metronomic percussion and electronics. "Too Cool" is a groove-based number, slow-moving that uses the horns to fine effect. "Soliciting Crabs" reminds me of some of Karlheinz Stockhausen's electronic music, while Archer's love of reggae surfaces on the magnificent "Clutching at Dust." That diversity is then reflected back in Tippetts' lyrics, again sometimes drawing on dark, disturbing subject matter.

"With "Shiver Across the Soul," I use a line that came from a documentary on Treblinka," she tells me. "It was heart-wrenching and this person used this phrase, 'wounding a soul is no less criminal than taking a life.' And I brought that into that song. "Like Alice" is a poem inspired by Lewis Carroll but relocated in a weird situation. I think "Ashen" is one of the best poems I have written. I didn't know where it had come from apart from the title. But "Secret/Lily Pollen" is quite a heavy little thing. "Lily Pollen" was a poem or song I had written loosely dedicated to Anne Frank. "Secret" was based on my reaction to several news items at the time, reporting dreadful happenings, like children locked away in a room or cellar somewhere and being found years later. Some had given birth and had had no other life. There were many reports of child abuse and abductions. It's not specifically about any one event, but related to child and human abuse in general. The 'secret' bit is that the abuser almost always threatens that the victim must never speak about it. That is 'their' little secret. It's harrowing!"

It is Tippetts' willingness to address the sometimes darker aspects of human experience, often focusing on individuals caught up in situations beyond their control, expressed with rare poetic skill that gives these songs their power. Perhaps some may find this aspect of her work daunting. Others, however, may welcome the empathy and concern for humanity that her lyrics express.

It may seem a little clumsy now to point out that there is also a rare wit at play on other tracks on Vestigium, as if I am trying to reassure the reader that isn't all 'doom and gloom.' But it genuinely is not. These are intelligent, mature, reflective songs for intelligent, mature, reflective listeners. No-one would ever accuse Julie Tippetts of dumbing down for her audience. But do listen too to "Soliciting Crabs," a Lewis Carroll piece of versifying, if ever I heard it. And enjoy "Mandolin Song in Orange" with its gentle tale of awaiting the return of a lover and "Too Cool" and its teasing story of awkward adolescent flirtation.

With Vestigium, Serpentine, Tales of Finin and Ghosts of Gold, we can now trace Julie Tippetts' musical and lyrical journey back to her first solo album, 1969 and her work with Brian Auger. Her work with husband Keith, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and others is part of that same journey. It all coalesces in the moment of creation and performance.

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