One of the reasons I started the blog aspect of The Grizzly Folk website is that I’m fascinated by the stories that sit behind many of my favourite songs. Whether they’re old traditionals or brand new tunes, there’s nearly always a reason for their existence. And so I thought I’d try and dig about a bit and see what I could find.
In late November, I was lazing around on Facebook and up popped a video of a woman sitting in a living room picking at a guitar. The video was titled, intriguingly, “What May You Do For The JAM”. Assuming it wasn’t a mournful lament for the withering careers of Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, I clicked and was amazed to find a Christmas tune protesting Prime Minister Theresa May’s latest political catchphrase: JAM (Just About Managing). Having only just finished writing a song pondering the demise of the protest singer, I was delighted to find their ilk alive and healthy. So I dropped the songwriter a line and we started exchanging notes.
Ange Hardy, for those who, like me, had not heard of her (slap your collective wrists this instant), is an award-winning folk singer based in Somerset. She came to music during her time living on the streets, having been given a guitar as a way to “busk for a living instead of begging”, and released her debut album, Windmills and Wishes, in 2010. She has since recorded a number of very well received follow-ups, and for the last three years has recorded a Christmas track for her fanbase. I caught up with her during what was proving to be a very busy week.
You’ve had quite a 2016, haven’t you? You released your album, Findings, with Lukas Drinkwater, and you’ve just put out your Christmas song, The Quantock Carol/ Mary’s Robin. The latter is a regular thing for you, isn’t it?
Yes, for the last three years I’ve done a Christmas song. Basically I just send it out for free as a thank you to everyone on my mailing list, and I sell it to anyone not on the mailing list. Obviously, if you join the mailing list then you end up getting next year’s.
And then there’s your “surprise hit”, ‘What May You Do For The JAM?’, and I’m really interested in the story behind that. How did that come about?
That was really strange, that song. I wrote it, recorded it and uploaded it to Youtube all within one afternoon. I didn’t really give it a lot of thought. I was listening to Jeremy Vine in the morning, and it was the day before the autumn budget. Theresa May had mentioned “the JAM” – “the just-about-managing” families.
Is that a new phrase that she had come out with? I hadn’t come across that.
Yeah… I don’t know the history of the phrase, but I do know that it didn’t meet with me too well. It felt too sickly and sweet and nice to be what it was describing. Myself and my family would fit within that category. On the show, Vine was talking to various people and he spoke to one young lad whose mum had been born one year out – she wouldn’t be getting her pension and was going to have to work for another five years with a body that was deteriorating and not really capable of that kind of work anymore. And at the same time, she had no disability as such, so she couldn’t claim. She was just going to have to work herself into the ground, and in doing so was making just about enough money to get through. It really struck a chord with me.
“I don’t know the history of the phrase, but I do know that it didn’t meet with me too well”
There was another person saying that they worked incredibly hard, bringing in a decent wage, but it wasn’t enough to plan for a future. They could survive day to day, fine, but to save to buy a house? Absolutely no way. They could barely pay the rent. Every penny that came in had an allocation. And that’s where I am. We rent from our parents at a hugely discounted rate. We couldn’t afford private rent – absolutely no way – let alone buying a house. I would say that merely a generation ago, most adults at my age (I’m 32) would be starting to think about buying a house. It’s just not possible now. So it was clear that “the JAM” weren’t going to come out very well in the budget, and it became a song that pretty much wrote itself.
What was the songwriting process, then?
I had the phrase, “just about managing”, and it was quite a comfortable phrase to sing – it fit nicely as a phrase. So I drove home and I had loads of work to do, and I said to my husband, “either I could do my work or I could work on this song that I’ve got stuck in my head”, and I was reminded that writing songs is my work, so I got on with it.
It’s a funny thing, songwriting, isn’t it? It’s quite hard to explain to other people that once you’ve got the essence of a song in your head you’re not really fully present until you’ve got it out of your system. It’s like an itch that needs scratching.
Yes! And I wanted to capture that feeling that I’d had in the car – that heavy heart. I needed to get that heavy heart out. If I’d left it for a week and then tried to write it, it wouldn’t have been the same thing.
Did the tune and lyrics start coming together during that drive, then?
The concept had arrived by then, but the tune was just about sitting down with a guitar, where it fell into place. I had started scribbling a few words in the car – I quite often get Siri to take notes for me, and she doesn’t always do very well, bless her.
You must end up with a lot of peculiar lyrics that you never actually said.
Maybe it’s just a modern form of collaboration…
Haha! Well, on this journey I got, “what will you do for the JAM? The just about managing, labouring man?” That was the line I found in the car. And then, from getting in through the door to getting the video uploaded, it took about two and a half hours, maybe a bit longer. I do tend to write quite quickly, and then the songs change their shape during future performances. In this case, I really wanted the video to be real, so I didn’t change what I was wearing, I didn’t put any makeup on, I didn’t try and dress the front room. I just sat down where I wrote the song in what I was wearing when I wrote the song.
“I quite often get Siri to take notes for me, and she doesn’t always do very well, bless her”
I’ve done a lot of bells and whistles this year. Lots of ‘five star’, where everything had to be big. I just wanted this to be real. And perhaps that is where the selling point has been.
Absolutely, and it’s one of the things that caught my attention. I was initially astounded by “the JAM”, though. It angered me that Theresa May would be summing up a struggling section of society in such a pithy little soundbite…
Yeah, a nice little catchphrase. That’s been a thing this year, hasn’t it? Brexit, the JAM… and last year we were ‘Hard Working Families’…
…which I suppose is a little bit more manageable than JAM.
But “Just About Managing”… what is that? I really want to open that up.
Well, it’s clearly something that a good number of people have been disturbed by. You said it had reached 50,000 people so far.
It had topped 60,000 yesterday [at the time of writing it had reached 63,000 on Facebook alone, and been shared 1,100 times]. It’s the shares that have made me happy. It’s knowing that people have been moved enough by it to share or comment on it – such an immense response in the comments! And it’s quite nice, in some ways, to share the unity of other people in the same boat.
“The word ‘Christmas’ fills me with horror and fear. I guess you feel like you’re failing when you know you can’t provide what perhaps you feel is expected of you”
Sometimes I think, you know, I shouldn’t complain. I’m not in a third world country, but the fact is, just the word ‘Christmas’ fills me with horror and fear. I guess you feel like you’re failing when you know you can’t provide what perhaps you feel is expected of you. At this stage in my career, I work my arse off. I work long hours, my husband works long hours, and we can’t do any more than what we’re doing. Yet we’re just about managing. I dread to think how people cope who don’t have parents. We completely rely on our parents.
But given your background, you must have experienced what some of that feels like at this time of year.
I’ve done being homeless. I’ve done counting money for toilet rolls and trying to decide whether to eat or wipe my bottom. I’ve done that. I’m really, really blessed to be in a position where I’m not doing that anymore. There’s a certain amount of picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and making life the best that it can be, but when you realise that there’s a ceiling to that – that you’re working that hard, but the government stops you from getting what you’re working for… It’s very hard to take.
And what a subject for a Christmas song!
I love that! Oh, there are too many happy Christmas songs!
Well, one of the biggest selling Christmas songs must be Band Aid…
Yes, that’s true. I’m a little bit gutted that I’ve not been able to record it in time, but if I were to find studio time I’d be looking at late December. I don’t think I could turn it around quick enough. It’ll be out next year.