Finding Hope: Charles Hazlewood, Brett Anderson & The Paraorchestra Interviewed

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Finding Hope: Charles Hazlewood, Brett Anderson & The Paraorchestra Interviewed

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A Quietus Interview
Finding Hope: Charles Hazlewood, Brett Anderson & The Paraorchestra Interviewed
Jude Rogers , April 23rd, 2024 08:54
The Paraorchestra is a collaboration between disabled and non-disabled musicians, composer Charles Hazlewood and singers including Brett Anderson and Nadine Shah. Anderson, Hazlewood and Paraorchestra members speak to Jude Rogers about the strange joy in singing songs about death. Photos by Kirsten McTernan

When some of us are young, an interest in mortality hangs around our shoulders like a long coat. Having an interest in gloomy music shows we’re thoughtful, a bit edgy, and aware that we’re moving away from childish things towards the seriousness of adulthood.

But mortality becomes mundane as you get older. The romance about the inevitability of death often becomes unsparing non-fiction. This confrontation with ideas of the end of life also comes earlier for some of us, because of our circumstances, our bodies and what happens to them.

Yet somehow songs about the subject can often remain strangely uplifting, as a new album by the Paraorchestra, Death Songbook, pinpoints very beautifully. It helps that singer-songwriters well-versed at excavating the deeper, stranger sides of life (Brett Anderson, Nadine Shah and Gwenno) perform on this project, but the Paraorchestra is at the heart of it: a brilliantly expansive, experimental group of disabled and non-disabled musicians that stretch the boundaries of the conventional orchestra to include electronics and modified instruments.

They also perform and record adventurous things. They’ve reworked Kraftwerk, Beethoven, Henri Górecki and Terry Riley, and played in accessible, unconventional settings like carnival parades and immersive theatre, dance and installations (where musicians are dispersed through spaces as they play, breaking down the barriers between artist and audience). In 2023, they made The Unfolding with Hannah Peel, a brilliant drone-and-texture-filled album about the evolution of nature, while their new record is the culmination of four years of thought, a few concerts, and two more coming up (one on Wednesday 24th April in London’s Roundhouse, another in Factory International, Manchester on Friday 26th).

The idea started germinating in the mind of conductor and musical director Charles Hazlewood after he attended the 2019 Festival of Death and Dying in Somerset, which explored grief through workshops, music, poetry and art, and only grew during the Covid-19 lockdowns a year later. He’d founded the orchestra in 2011, inspired by his youngest daughter, Eliza, then five, who has mobility issues linked to cerebral palsy. Now eighteen, she can go to any railway station and assemble a team of three to four people to get her on a train spontaneously, he says. “She can basically form an instant team in a way that’s virtuosic – and I see that facility and that creativity over and over again in members of Paraorchestra. Many of them face unimaginable struggles and have very real restrictions on their lives, but they’re the most brave, curious and devil-may-care musicians I’ve ever come across.”

They debuted at Glastonbury Abbey in 2012, played the closing ceremony of the Olympics with Coldplay a few months later, and have since toured the world, navigating many different access issues and other barriers with aplomb (the group has included members with paraplegia, profound deafness, blindness, and many other debilitating or restricting conditions). Doing the project with Paraorchestra, he says, “felt like confronting a final taboo – thinking of how the pandemic forced us all to confront our inner vulnerabilities, to realise that in this alpha male, cocky world, nobody is superhuman.”

In the Covid lockdowns, he turned to music he loved as a young man about death or the death of love, and thought about how “great melancholic music” invites us to a place where we can put our most intense feelings. “Like Echo and The Bunnymen, who I’d seen at Crawley Leisure Centre when I was fourteen and they’d knocked me sideways!” The idea of “delicate re-clothings” of these songs, performed with the Paraorchestra, to provide a powerful, cathartic experience for everyone involved, kept nagging away at him, so he spoke to a fellow parent at his children’s school about it, who had written a fair few songs about death and the death of love himself.

Hazlewood and Brett Anderson are less than a year apart in age, so they shared references and memories of growing up in the 1980s. Anderson quickly became a Paraorchestra enthusiast. “It’s such a genius idea,” he says on Zoom from Belgium, where he might be in the studio with his band starting to work on a new album. “Charles dispensing with the idea that you need to be a certain kind of person to be in an orchestra has led to this fantastic, inspiring group of people coming together, with such talents, and so many ideas.”

As pandemic restrictions eased, the new friends went on long walks in the Mendip hills, then spent time in the studio discussing songs and ideas for arrangements; they even accidentally wrote a new song together, 'Brutal Lover', a “happy accident”, Anderson says, based on a piano riff Hazlewood was playing with in the studio. (“I love how it keeps ratcheting up in a key like a sphincter tightening”, Hazlewood says. “Or a bomb going off!”)

Anderson, unsurprisingly, loved singing songs about death and the death of love, even though some were by other people. “It’s a strangely joyful and life-affirming thing. I hate jolly music, as I’ve said lots before, as I think it’s disingenuous. I only like ironic jolly things like 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep'!” He loved “glorious melancholy” in his teens, but he also loves how his teenage favourites “have a different weight for me now as I plummet” – he laughs at his choice of verb – “towards my sixties”.

The album also includes four of his own songs. “Yes, I know it looks a bit self-obsessed,” he hams (if only Anderson’s dry funniness could ever successfully come across on the screen). “But I’m the only one who really knows what those songs are about. My take on the others is more impressionistic.” 'Unsung', off his 2011 solo album, Black Rainbows, is about the death of a friend, while 'The Next Life' from Suede’s 1993 debut and 'She Still Leads Me On' from 2022’s Autofiction about Brett’s mother, Sandra, who died when he was 21 – songs written about the same person at very different stages of his life.

“I still genuinely don’t know if Suede would have happened without her death,” he says. “It gave me an impetus, I think – although I’m nervous about saying that as I know it’s easy to look back on your life and impose upon it a narrative. But when you meet grief, you sort of have to face a decision: do you crumble or do you try to overcome it, make something out of it, find some life force there, possibly? Who knows how life would have turned out, but it was a very pivotal point in my life.” He shrugs, politely. “My mum died in 1989, and that’s the year that Suede started.”

His compositions gain extra dimensions from juddering drones and the richness of the palette of the orchestra, in new arrangements throughout by Paraorchestra regular, Charltte Harding. Another early Suede song, 'He’s Dead', is changed from a track that sounds to Anderson like “a little band in a rehearsal room”, to a monstrous orchestral epic, bolstered with marimbas, strings and oboes. The covers are great too. Echo & The Bunnymen’s 'The Killing Moon' sounds stratospherically huge, shivering strings electrifying its intro before brass instruments recreate its doomy bass, while Woodwind offers extra layers of empathy to Mercury Rev’s already devastating 'Holes', a duet between Anderson and Nadine Shah. A take on Japan’s 'Nightporter' is also a revelation, with an electronic sound bed retained, plus cello and an incredible bassoon solo adding unexpected extra textures of fear and warmth.

Cellist and drone-loving pipes player Hattie McCall Davies, who has worked with Paraorchestra for seven years, says this is her favourite project to date – but first I ask her what the orchestra has given her as a musician. “Paraorchestra literally gave me my musical voice back, my identity, when I thought that would never happen,” she says. Diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (a condition that leads to regular joint dislocation, extreme fatigue and other symptoms) in her second year of studying at the Royal College of Music, she suddenly found herself highly trained in a world “where there wasn’t a place for me, or a willingness to make any reasonable adjustments to accommodate so many skilled people.”

Alongside the inaccessibility of some venues, which is “still a huge issue”, McCall Davies talks about how extended hours of rehearsal aren’t possible for some disabled performers, plus how she’s shut out of some orchestras because a Haydn concerto is specified for auditions (“it’s one I can’t play as it would lead to me literally dislocating my fingers”). She loves how Paraorchestra mixes disabled and non-disabled musicians, as it fits their motto of being about inclusivity and action. “And that also applies to the instruments we play, how we interact with our audiences, the music we perform, and the places we play – I wouldn’t have played Womad or Bluedot with any other orchestra, I’m sure.”

Death Songbook holds a “special place” in her heart, though, because of the times it emerged from. “It came after such a bleak time for disabled musicians. There was the vulnerability, for some of us, to Covid itself, so many of us were ineligible for funding or furlough. We were left in the dark musically and culturally, losing our livelihoods and the substance of our lives in so many ways.”

So when they met at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff in 2021 to start recording the Death Songbook album, it felt like emerging from hibernation. McCall Davies recalls a dark stage lit by lightbulbs, everyone coming out one by one – she says she get emotional even thinking about it. Also, the subject matter of Death Songbook “had a quality a little like black humour for us”, she explains, with warmth in her voice. “For many of us, daily life can be a struggle, and through music, we can feel such freedom – and these songs really emotionally resonated.”

It helped that Brett was such a joy to collaborate with, she explains, that the songs themselves were "banger after banger after banger", but also "for disabled musicians… you have more empathy with some of the subject matter in those songs. Their subject matter is in your DNA – and the further you dig sometimes into emotional darkness sometimes, you can find hope and light”.

She is especially moved when Paraorchestra play their version of Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’, which often concludes their performances, noting the double meaning in its lyric, pivoting between the depths of despair and the possibilities of living. Its performance on record shimmers, Anderson's voice vibrating with tenderness, the orchestral sounds surrounding him like warm, protective arms. “In this song, it feels like we’re all saying, ‘We’ve come out of the darkness, we’ve made it here, this is what we’ve got,” McCall Davies says.

In these songs about death, what we've got is very special: the transcendent feeling of what life can really feel like at its fullest.

Death Songbook is out now, released by World Circuit. ... MpLtIiPUke
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