On the 7th January our Brighton based ‘sex and song-writing’ group met up after the Christmas break. We chatted for about half an hour, catching up on Christmas, new years eve parties and the new wave of pressures at school and college as mock exams and coursework deadlines loomed. The group felt relaxed and lively – free from any ‘January blues’ or the tense awkwardness of the early weeks last Autumn.
Towards the end of last term we seemed to have found a rhythm for the sessions, divided into four uneven chunks of time.
Chunk 1: The musician set up the equipment as the researcher and youth worker get out the food and drinks and chat to the girls about their weeks. The late comers arrive and youth worker Jo has the chance to have a 1-2-1 with any of the girls who might need one.
Chunk 2: We stand reluctantly in a circle, with several of the girls complaining of being too tired to stand and the musicians reminding us all of how important it is to use all of our bodies when we sing. We warm up, making strange sounds with our voices and shapes with our mouths. We shake out our bodies and then we start to sing. Usually a round. By now we can divide into 2, 3 or 4 groups and as long as the strong singers are evenly distributed we can hold 4 parts. Everyone always sings together – including the researchers, youth worker and musicians. Often a few of the girls drift away, staring at their phones, their lips barely moving. Sometimes they join in again after a while, other weeks they remain quiet.
Chunk 3: We divide into two groups. Musician Marina works with those in the group who are learning instruments and with one of the young women who is particularly interested in song-writing. We practice and rehearse our new song ‘Wild but Tamed’ each week until one D. brings a new song that she wrote on the way home from the group, noting down lyrics on her iphone and staying up late playing her guitar. This is a song about bad sex. ‘I was really getting down to it / whilst you were slowing down / and the last thing you should say is / is how your girlfriend’s out of town.’ In the other group, Musician Zoe works with those young women interested in singing. They take turns to choose a song that they like and they learn to sing it together, with some feeling more or less confident about singing solo in front of the others. Researcher Rachel Thomson described this process in her last blog, written last December.
Chunk 4: The two groups come back together and, if there is still time, each group performs for each other.
On the first week back after Christmas, we reminded the young women that we have 6 weeks to go until we perform at the Roundhouse, alongside the five other research/song-writing hubs from around the UK. When we went round and asked the girls individually if they wanted to perform, they all, confidently said yes. We turned then to the question of which songs we were going to perform and to the question we had continually wrestled with as to whether or not the young women would be able to perform covers of existing songs. One young woman in particular remained resistant to the idea of writing new material or to performing new material written by others.
Originally, the group was set up as a researching-song-writing-performing girls group. Before we started I imagined that the young women would do research about sex and relationships, use this experience to write their own songs and then perform these songs at the Roundhouse as original contributions to music and knowledge. As we have worked with the young women however, our research and performance aims and objects have been tempered by our desire to create a relaxed and supportive environment within which everyone can engage and explore their own interests and strengthens. These more participatory aims have meant there has been much less research and much less song-writing than I originally imagined and a lot more time spent being together as group, talking, bonding and singing together.
On the first week back after Christmas we agreed to continue working in parallel groups. In one we would continue writing and developing original material based on research about ‘good sex’ and in the other we would experiment with re-working, sampling and adapting existing songs. In the latter group we chose Ella Henderson’s Yours, a favourite of one group member that we had sung in previous weeks. As we learnt the song and wrote down the lyrics, we noted a parallel between the process of described in the song and the journey that the group was going through – a process of going from feeling uncertain and ‘afraid of the words’ to feeling confident enough to ‘un-tame my mouth’ and let the words ‘burst’ out. In Henderson’s version it is love that makes her feel strong and powerful, in our version it is ourselves – the group and the process we are engaged in.
We brainstormed words that described how the young women had felt in the early weeks (anxious, nervous, awkward) and compared this to how they felt now (relaxed, confident). We used these emotions to adapt Henderson’s lyrics and start to write a song about us and the journey we were half way through.
The following week we continued to work on this song as a whole group, working out the chords and picking out new harmonies led by musician Zoe. The girls joined in, developing new ideas parts they could sing and making suggestions for how to end the song. This was a new format for us, developing new material as a whole group and singing different parts together. It sounded beautiful and as I watched the group sing, one girl with her head back, I felt moved. This week the group seemed heavy. Several of the girls had been having a tough time and were tired, down or preoccupied. When I congratulated one of them for coming to the group – considering everything else that was going on – she said that coming to the group was time out – a relaxing space to forget about all the stress and everything else that was going on. Watching, listening and being there that week – I agreed.
Towards the end of the session, one of the group asked if we could do some last minute song-writing. Out came the box of ‘data’ and we looked at excerpts from interview transcripts about first sex. Words from the extract jumped out for song-writer D. ‘I did, I did, I did’. A 16 year old young women’s exclamation as she tried to make sense of whether or not she enjoyed her first sexual experience or not. Unable to find an empty room in the youth centre, we huddled in the hallway, musician Zoe, young song-writer D and me the researcher, scribbling phrases on to flip-chart paper. Then Zoe and D started to sing and the phrases became lyrics to be worked into a new song. More next time.