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

Duncan Heining By

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"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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