Monday, 20 March 2017

Independent Soul - The Songs and Poetry of Gail Warning

Since discovering her music in 2011, I have been enchanted by the songs of American recording artist Gail Warning, who has produced a significant body of musical work which I feel deserves more exposure, and who, as Gail Sherman Johnson, has also written some fine and perceptive poetry and prose. 

I would like to focus here on two of Gail's recordings and on several of her poems in order to alert readers to the quality of her music and her poetry.

Come along with me now, and you'll never be blue , urges Gail on the opening track of her magnificent album Season of the Soul (2008).  In a resplendent exaltation of Universal beauty, Gail shines her lyrical candlelight upon the spectrum of the seasons - from the crystalline chill of a cold winter freeze, to the breath-taking palette of autumn's display, Gail invokes the colours and contours of our planet's mysteries and majesties, inviting us to explore, to tender the Earth and nourish the seed, and assuring us that we will witness purples and greens, and persimmons and sharp truths, that we will.  The human soul is the song of a soul full of possibilities, and we are drawn into its shimmering sounds of enchanted melodies with a heartfelt exhortation to Wear your heart on your sleeve, like its Valentine's Day - If you can't make believe then get on your knees and pray.

Gail's music and poetry is a bewitching tapestry of timeless meditations, of international influences and of lyrics of pure poetry.  Fusing the sacred and the esoteric, and demonstrating international influences, it takes me to a place where the beauty of life is gloriously envisioned, and where the hardships and pains might be faced from a new, enlightened level of understanding.  Gail's poetry combines these Yin and Yang perspectives, these twin orbits of the painful and the beautiful, and depicts, in deft, economical but vividly colourful images, the restless energy of existence:


These flames never dance

They swagger in burning up

The floor between us

while also illuminating the hope and redemptive sense of peace that seems to underpin the worldview apparent in so much of her material, as in these lines inspired by my re-laid tales of visits to the grave of Sylvia Plath:

For Simon

Dreams of blackened rain
How does one find forgiveness
In the well of pain

Strew blood red petals
On the cold grey stone in the rain
Remind her that her life was not in vain

Undoubtedly, the oft-present warm colours evident in Gail's work - Glistening ruby / Liquid crimson promises (Fake Jewel) - stem in no small way from her Californian background and current life amid the sunlit glow of Miami Beach, but Gail's musical career could be said to have begun amid the New Wave scene of New York, which is where many of the songs on her album Independent were recorded or first written and performed.

Independent, a retrospective of songs from the 1980's, is a brilliant record, full of unexpected twists and turns and swinging evocatively between reggae, punk and Blondie-esque melodic influences, with Cheers to the Nightlife sounding like a nostalgic Cyndi Lauper song, and the deliciously dark Welcome to LA, has a Princey electro feel - yet it is hard to compare the album overall to anything, its so original. If you like uplifting soft pop-rock, tracks like Talk to Me, with its elegantly imploring vocal and its slightly New Orderish lead guitar, and the thumping, stomping, chugging Love Protection are a must, while the wise, tongue-twisting humour of songs such as Expectations, Maybe, and Who'll Be The Next One? is irresistible. It is an album of songs that sound raw, well crafted and intelligent, with a cast of eclectic musicians,and Gail's voice is wonderful; sometimes sharp and energetic, sometimes gloriously deep-edged. A truly independent record with a genuinely independent sound!

Season of the Soul is a lush dream, beginning with its author beckoning the listener to join her on a journey of escape and sing the season of the soul. There follow songs of lunar meditation, goddesses, and bittersweet love. The style and tempo are full of ornate fluctuations, such as in the haunting Echo, whose trippy drumbeats and melancholy vocals are backed by mournful strings and a lyrical piano, and in Words, with its tribal sounding instrumentation, and with its haunting question, posed to the listener like a philosophical quid-pro-quo:

Words like a kiss can comfort and soothe 
Words like a fist can batter and bruise;
What's it gonna be, kindness or cruelty?

The contributions of David K Salih add another layer of spiritual searching (listen for the revolution / the galaxies within) as he urges us to hear the consciousness in every molecule sing, and as the two vocals overlap we are greeted to a Pantheistic, Eliatic vision of the essence of all that is and will always be.
At other times Gail marries together the otherwordly and the recognisable, lambasting the "demands" of calendars and clocks, and rejoicing in the pastoral naivety of the silken caress of a soft summer breeze, and a mystic mountain, evergreen.

Gail Warning's music is diversely styled, highly original, and hard to compare, though if you like Sade, Sigur Ros, Enya, the more atmospheric elements of Erasure, and music that is poetic and internationally flavoured, then you will adore Seasons of the Soul.

Gail Warning is song writer of artistry, integrity and verve, and as I say, her music is greatly deserving of wider recognition. Some of her recent recordings include the Mediterranean-themed Gypsy Sunset, the elegiac Lagrimas, and the inspirational Look For That Rainbow.  I am a huge fan of almost every kind of music imaginable, but whenever I am asked who is my favourite singer, songwriter or musician, I answer without hesitation: "Gail Warning!"

Correspondence with Gail Warning has revealed her own musical influences and favourites to span a rich panorama from the traditional greats of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, to contemporary international music, and especially jazz.  But I would like to finish with a closer look at another area of Gail's artistic talents: poetry. 

One of the poems on display at Morley Library as part of our marking of UNESCO World Poetry Day 2017 is Gail's Picking Blackberries, a poem she wrote after spending time on an organic farm in Oregon, where blackberries grow wild and plentiful, but where one of her more daunting tasks  was having to remove a blackberry bush at the root.  I have published this poem on Caterpillar Poetry before - on a page devoted to Gail's poems:
and for me it is a piece that is oozing with symbolism, and also a very straightforward story of getting closer to the earth.  And it is this journey from the spirit to the soul, and into the embrace of the glorious, all-providing earth which encapsulates the enduring philosophical raison d'etre of Gail's diverse, eclectic, emotionally enriching body of work.  She is a poet of the cosmos and of the earth, a bard of stars and mountains, moons and holistic self-awakening, a songwriter of perception and compassion, and a poet whose delicately balanced metaphor and memories acutely conjure the sensations of life in the great outdoors, with a spiritual sensibility and an ethos and tenacity deeply rooted in the planet.

 Picking Blackberries

She's a purple kind of girl

she's got violets in her hair

she lilac's ambition

she's black & blue berry aware

she's grown tired of the red game

dodging flags and ground to halt

always madder than a hatter

building shelters on the fault

she's been wary of the verdant

forest stripped of all its trees

and the blinding green awareness

of her petty jealousies

whiter than the avalanches

blacker than the ashen soot

grayer than all the confusion

covering her head to foot

sweet and succulent and tempting

glistening blackberry fruit

gnarled and twisted, deep and stubborn

that same thorned blackberry root.

© Gail Sherman Johnson

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