catching up with daily song generator jessica griffin from the would-be-goods

Jessica Griffin from the Would-Be-Goods in London, 2001. Taken by Gail O’Hara

chickfactor 13 (2000) published an interview with Jessica Griffin from the Would-Be-Goods 21 years ago conducted by Peter Momtchiloff, who ended up joining her band, which also features Deborah Greensmith and Andy Warren. I took a lot of photographs of them while I lived in London (2001 and 2004) that have ended up on their album covers, and the WBGs have played at many chickfactor parties. While some of us haven’t been able to focus or achieve our creative potential during COVIDtime, Jessica has become rather prolific. We checked in with her about how it’s going. Interview by Gail O’Hara

chickfactor: how are you holding up? 
jessica griffin: Fairly well, although my dreams are much more vivid than usual which must mean I’m more stressed out than I think. 

How different is your life under lockdown than it was before?
In some ways, very different. Peter (my partner and fellow Would-be-good) has been staying with me since it all began, and I’ve got into a different routine, cooking twice a day (except at weekends) and writing and recording songs daily.

What has been getting you through this time? Books, food, etc. 
Peter’s company, Zoom chats with friends and songwriting. I’m too restless to read much these days, although when I’m feeling anxious I devour 20th-century detective fiction. We’ve been watching the short Cocktails with a Curator talks from the Frick Collection and old black-and-white British films, e.g. Spring In Park Lane, Cast A Dark Shadow. I’ve always cooked regularly but food seems much more important now. We have a proper lunch every day which is quite old-fashioned (and French!) and I’ve expanded my repertoire quite a bit.
I find cooking very calming.

Jessica performing at the Luminaire; photo courtesy of Jessica

What do you miss most about beforetimes? 
Friends and family. I haven’t seen my (grown-up) daughter for over a year as she lives in another city. She’s very Victorian and doesn’t do FaceTime/Zoom. And I really miss my almost-daily lunches at a wonderful local cookery bookshop/café run by an eccentric Frenchman. 

How has London changed since this happened? For better or worse.
I haven’t been further than a mile from home since March 2020 so I can only talk about my own part of west London. In the first lockdown, with almost no traffic and very few people around, you could smell the grass and flowers in the gardens and parks. 

Seeing so many local shops, restaurants and cafés go out of business is heartbreaking, though. 

Can Brexit be reversed? 
Probably not in our generation. I think it’s a huge mistake.

Let’s talk about your new songs! When did you start writing one song per day? And how many are you up to now?
2 October 2020. I thought it would be good to have a creative project as I was slowly turning into my grandmother. I’ve written 157 songs so far. 

How has Peter been involved in the process if at all? 
My idea was to treat songwriting like a game or challenge, so I asked Peter to give me a title every evening. I would write and record the song the following day and play him the result. It’s worked for me in the way nothing else has. Sitting around waiting for the muse never got me anywhere. I should say that Peter doesn’t have any preconception of what the song should be about, or how it should sound. He just gives me a title and that’s it. Sometimes I will change the title retrospectively if I think it suits the song better.

Otherwise it’s a solo project — I do all the singing, play all the instruments (apart from bass on a few songs) and recording.  

What have you learned about yourself as a songwriter, a musician and a home-recorder since you started doing this? 
I’ve learned not to be so precious about songwriting and to treat it like a job that I have to get on with every day, whether I feel like it or not. It’s helped me to override my perfectionist tendencies as I have to finish the song by the end of the day and play it to Peter even if I’m not happy with it. And I’ve learned that I can’t trust my own judgement, at least my first impressions. Sometimes I’ll think a song I’ve just written is rubbish but when I listen to it again a few days later I like it. And vice versa. My singing, guitar and keyboard playing were quite rusty at the beginning but they’re improving. And being in charge of the recording process means I can do as many retakes as I want, which has helped me to sort out some things I didn’t like about my singing. 

Jessica and Peter in London, 2001. Photo by Gail O’Hara

Can you give us some details about some of the songs? Titles/subject/etc. 
“Ouija Board Romance” is set in a provincial English town in the 1920s and is about a housemaid being invited to join a séance hosted by her employer, and the unexpected result. “The Magic Hour” is about a suicide pact between a spoiled young man and an older courtesan in a hotel in Khartoum in the siege of 1884. “The Wind Will Change” is about a drifter in 1940s America, written from the perspective of a woman or girl who loves him but knows he’s not going to be around for very long. “Demon Lover” is the story of the ‘damsel with the dulcimer’ in Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” who is outraged that she’s been spirited away from her loom in rural Devon and abandoned in the dark cavern of the poet’s imagination. And finally, “Cavanagh, Cody and Byrne” is about a mysterious vaudeville act that might actually be something much bigger.

I don’t know where these ideas and characters come from. I always wanted to be a writer or film director so maybe these are the novels I would have written or the films I’d have made, compressed into song form. I can picture the characters and their settings in detail and I know who would play the couple in “The Magic Hour” – Omar Sharif and Jeanne Moreau. I’ve also written some songs about universal experiences and situations with quite simple lyrics which aren’t like anything I’ve written before. 

And some songs in recognisable styles but from a female perspective, like “In The Mirror” which sounds like an angsty early Who song but is about being a young woman, having to be what other people want you to be and being able to be yourself only when you’re alone.

Do you have any rituals or unusual holidays that you celebrate? 
My daughter said at age six that she thought it was unfair that we had Mother’s Day and Father’s Day but no Daughter’s Day so we instituted it and I send her a hand-made card and a little present every year.

What are you reading? 
I started reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Rachel Cusk’s Transit but am finding I can’t concentrate for long.

What is in your fridge? What is your specialty to make?
The usual stuff, plus Thai green curry paste, tahini, fresh ginger, kefir. We’re eating very healthily—everything cooked from scratch, lots of vegetables, etc., but possibly a little too much of everything. Irish soda bread (Darina Allen’s recipe) is my lockdown speciality. I make it with spelt flour which gives it a kind of soft sweetness like English scones.   

If you were running the country (or the world), what would you do first?
I would absolutely hate to be in a position of power and can’t even imagine it. Being the mother of a small child was challenging enough.

What is your sign? 
Cancer.

What is your spirit animal?
A rather small and motheaten bear. 

When we’re allowed total freedom, what will you do first?
Meet up with my sister and take her for the birthday lunch we had to cancel last year because of lockdown.

Any other future plans? Where and when will you release some tunes? 
I’ve just set up a page on Bandcamp where I’ll release some of my new songs very soon. Beyond that, I hope to finish the Would-be-goods album we were working on before lockdown and to start doing live shows again (if there are any venues left).

Thank you, Jessica

chatting with tufthunter leader peter momtchiloff

PETER

you guys know guitar player and indie legend peter momtchiloff (we call him “momtch”) from his former bands talulah gosh, heavenly, marine research (and many others) and his current bands the would-be-goods, les clochards, etc. for his new project, deep hits by tufthunter, he has assembled a cast of musicians and assigned songs to a bunch of singers. the album is available for free (there are a handful of CDs out there he’s made for friends) and, despite demand for vinyl, he has no interest in capitalizing on it. the record is a true gem that features some of our favorite singers ever: (chickfactor co-founder) pam berry (black tambourine, withered hand, the pines, etc.); lupe núñez-fernández, (pipas, amor de días); claudia gonson (the magnetic fields, future bible heroes); jessica griffin (would-be-goods); amelia fletcher (talulah gosh, heavenly, tender trap, the catenary wires, etc.); lois, bid and loads of others. we asked momtch a few questions but be sure to read ben’s interview with him also. interview by gail

chickfactor: what made you want to do this record?
peter: I have always written a lot of songs, and a few of them have been played and recorded by bands I’ve been in (talulah gosh and the would-be-goods in particular). but I think there is something a bit uncomfortable about a singer being fed songs by another member of the band: fine now and then, but not as the basis for a band. ¶ with my midlife manpunk band hot hooves, I decided to try something I hadn’t done before: singing (some of the) songs myself. I enjoyed this, but was not surprised to discover that I don’t really have the voice to be a good lead vocalist. ¶ so what to do with my songs? asking a different person to sing each one seemed a good way to try to make the most of them. I’m surprised that more people haven’t done this.

cf: how did you go about selecting the people involved?
for most of the bass and drums, I turned to my clochards colleagues ian and gary—I knew they would do a great job. the singers are all friends, so that made it hard for them to say no (no one did). I know plenty of other singers, but these are the people I felt most comfortable asking. ¶ I regret that the music industry seems increasingly to favour the working model of a controlling auteur (artist, producer, or artist/producer combo). I knew I didn’t want to go down that path. for me, personal interaction is the essence of pop music. so I used a collaborative model, starting by working out the basic tracks with my crack oxford rhythm section. and I didn’t try to tell anyone what to play or how to sing their parts.

cf: how long have you been working on / writing the songs?
one is from the 1980s, one from the 1990s, and most of the rest from the last few years.  In late 2013 I went through all the songs I could remember and picked the best ones.

cf: do you want me to ask debsey if she’ll sing on the next one?
sure! though I’d have to work hard to try to come up with something good enough. I’ve been a fan since I heard “been teen” on the radio in 1981.

cf: what guitarists inspired you growing up?
in the order in which I came to them: rock’n’rollers like scotty moore; then george harrison; steve cropper; wilko johnson; dave edmunds; tom verlaine and richard lloyd of television; leo nocentelli of the meters; and various people who played with howlin’ wolf and james brown. I apologize for failing to live up to this list. my favourite guitar players to listen to are steve cropper and django reinhardt.

cf: who are some of the best bands in oxford right now?
apart from my own, I like a couple of punk/metal bands called agness pike and girl power, and a lady/gentleman duo called the other dramas. my clochards colleague karen cleave is developing a very interesting act which I think she is calling mermaid noises. I imagine all these acts will remain local attractions, and I think that’s just fine.

cf: if you had to put tufthunter in a record store “genre” what would you choose?
it was nice when we could all think of ourselves as “alternative”—is that still legitimate, or would we be deceiving ourselves? I am certainly “independent,” given I don’t even have a record label.

cf: why did you not want to charge anyone for this record/package it and sell as vinyl or CD?
it was partly pragmatic: what I would like is for people to hear the music, and I don’t need a financial return. for a little-known band, putting a record on sale can be self-defeating in terms of dissemination, especially if you don’t work hard on selling it at live shows. many people who like music are now fairly unused to mechanisms for buying records, so those mechanisms tend to represent a barrier to dissemination. ¶ in addition, observing the rituals of the record industry and its media, I confess to a certain distaste, and an unwillingness to join in that game. it would be undignified for a gentleman of my years. ¶ so I decided that I would make CDs to give out freely to friends and acquaintances; and that I would make the record free to download, to enable it to reach a wider audience if there is one.

cf: do you have any memorable stories about talulah gosh, heavenly, would-be-goods or your time spent in chickfactor-land?
I’ve generally been content to let my past life slip into oblivion. I remember facts and scenes, but not experiences, on the whole. ¶ looking back I recall what a pleasure it has been to hang around with other bands.  I must have met hundreds over the years and with very few exceptions they have been friendly and comradely. ¶ in place of forgotten stories, let me mention some of the most unusual shows I’ve played. ¶ talulah gosh supporting the blow monkeys at the new theatre in oxford—marooned with our tiny amps in the middle of an enormous stage more accustomed to the tread of quo and cliff. ¶ heavenly doing a tour of japan not only as ourselves but also as bogus BMX, stand-ins for the BMX bandits, backing their singer duglas, who ate only chips for the entire trip, out of fear of surreptitious seafood contamination. ¶ marine research playing with shellac and fugazi in east london—both bands were completely without pretensions and treated us as equals. ¶ would-be-goods on the same bill as an indie fashion show in greenwich village, thanks to chickfactor. ¶ scarlet’s well playing at an art squat commune in berlin, complete with a huge vat of vegan chili, authentically 1980s, but 25 years on. also ostpol, a bar in dresden offering a meticulous exercise in ddr retro chic/naff. ¶ les clochards playing as the only support to tom jones [sic] in the middle of a wood in suffolk.

cf: will there be another tufthunter LP?
the first time someone asked me this I found myself saying that maybe I had drained this particular wound. I report that metaphor in case it seems revealing. ¶ I am going to do a couple more tunes, because there are specific singers I still want to involve. I would certainly enjoy doing another album, but I have used most of my best songs and it might take a very long time to come up with enough again.

cf: thanks!
thank you! I suspect it was you who put pitchfork onto the record—most grateful.

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