Second Sight Liner Notes by Kate St. John
It has been very pleasurable to cast my mind back to the days of writing and recording Second Sight. It was an intensely creative time and it’s lovely to think once again about the people who helped me bring the music to life. I’m extremely grateful to Russ Curry and Curious Music for the email that came out of the blue which led to this beautiful special edition, remastered by Tim Story.
I was given the opportunity for my two solo albums by Dominic Norman Taylor of All Saints Records. In 1992, I was introduced to him by Kevin Laffey (A&R at Warner Bros. Records), who suggested that I might be involved in Roger Eno’s next album. Roger was looking for a co-writer and singer to collaborate on a few songs. I thought hard and lined up a few singers to play to Roger at our first meeting. Expecting a rather quiet, introverted chap, I was bowled over by the funny, irreverent, nutter who appeared with a bottle of wine, got me totally pissed, taught me to sing Kurt Weill’s “September” and declared that he wanted me to be the singer. That one afternoon opened a door for me and gave me the confidence to step out from the shadows where instrumental sidemen and women lurk. The Familiar was the resulting album. From this emerged Indescribable Night and Second Sight. Roger, a piano genius, became a lifelong friend and collaborator.
On both my albums it was a joy to finally be the boss on a music project but I did want a co-conspirator. At that time, I was entranced by French Chanson of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s and owned stacks of long forgotten second hand vinyl with songs such as “Parlez Moi D’amour”, “Le Chaland Qui Passe” and “Sous Le Ciel De Paris.” I had also rediscovered the music from the film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, which I had loved as a child. In these recordings there is an innocence of voice and exquisite, clever arrangements using strings and woodwind in a non-classical setting. These were a huge inspiration to me. So when my friend David Coulter suggested I meet Joseph Racaille, based in Paris, I was intrigued. Joseph is a composer, arranger and musician of great originality, intelligence, beauty and humour. He ended up co- producing both my albums and became not only my arranging mentor but, along with his wife Sylvianne and his son Balthazaar, a great friend. Many times I stayed in their Paris apartment, working on one of our projects, being fed delicious food and enriched by their tales and conversations.
The musicians on Second Sight are a combination of English, French and Russian players. Cyril LeFebvre is a slide and lap steel guitarist extraordinaire and it makes me very happy that his big personality is all over the album in various guises. The drums and percussion are provided by Jean-Pierre Arnoux, a kind and lovely man. It saddens me that both Cyril and Jean-Pierre passed away some years ago. For strings we used the brilliant Paris based Quartet Alhambra. My friend Teena Lyle (we were partners in crime in the Van Morrison band for years) delicately knits everything together with the soft sounds of her vibraphone
The arrangements on Second Sight are written by Joseph and myself. Apart from my oboe, cor anglais, saxophone and accordion, there is flute, bass flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, french horn, strings, guitar, Hawaiian and lap steel guitar, vibraphone, harp, bajo sexto, piano, drums and bass. With these instruments we wanted to create a type of world music but not in a folk music sense. It was more about painting imaginary scenarios, a picture postcard kind of travel seen through the lens of imagination as in “Notti Senza Amore,” an homage to Nino Rota where I had a vision of a sleepy Sicilian village.
In “Where The Warm Winds Blow,” which is about how the day-to-dayness of life erodes our dreams of utopia and fantasies of escape, we used Hawaiian guitar to get a South Sea Paradise Island feel. Joseph did the beautiful string arrangement on this.
“Foolish Dance” came from memories of travelling through Texas, living in San Diego, and visiting the border towns of Tecate and Tijuana. I love Mariachi and Tex Mex music and have been trying to master it on my accordion for years. So as not to pastiche it (as if I could with my English voice) we mixed it up with oboe and string quartet.
Boris Grebenshikov and his band Aquarium, are legends in Russia. I had the dizzy experience of working on two albums with them as a producer in the mid 1990s, Navigator and Snow Lion. I really wanted to have their unique sound on Second Sight, so Boris and I wrote “A Flicker of Gold” and we nabbed the band when they were in London doing a show. It is about the exaltation yet often doomed nature of love affairs (very Russian). The wonderful Sergey Schurakov plays the accordion. He too has sadly passed away.
Other songs sprang out in a different way. The words for “Don’t They Know You’ve Gone” came from seeing a friend decimated by the death of his girlfriend. Joseph and I arranged this one together. He wrote the mini saxophone and string overture and I am very fond of the oboe lines that take off about halfway through.
The words for “Fireworks” were written in 1990 on a trip to Nicaragua with a group of musicians and actors to observe the elections. My ex-husband lived and worked there with the Sandanista government. It’s not about jealousy exactly; more about the very deep ties you can have with someone that transcend distance. I wanted to get an eerie feel to it punctuated by moments of passion. Superb, mad piano by Roger Eno in the middle section.
“J’attendrai” is here because of my enduring love for French Chanson and, in Joseph, I had a bona fide Frenchman to sing it with me. I love the interplay between Teena’s vibraphone (a sound so often used on the originals), Joseph’s piano and Cyril LeFebvre‘s slide guitar.
In “Songs and Silhouettes” I wanted to capture the feeling of being enveloped in the dark warmth of another body, a place where you loose your edges and melt into someone else. I picked vibraphone and bass flute to clothe the piano because, to me, their sonorities are so sensual and breathy. Bass flute has a godlike sound, especially when played by Andy Findon.
“My Lonely Love” is about the path of love being checkered by experiences from the past. I love the groove of Chris Laurence’s bass with Jean-Pierre Arnoux’s drums. It is my secret homage to Luther Vandross though I admit I am probably the only person in the world to hear the connection.
“Dark Heavens” came from a vivid dream I had about walking through a WW1 cemetery. Some months after the dream my husband and I, while driving through France, went on a whim to a military cemetery which looked identical to the one in my dream; the huge lawns, the somber grey sky threatening rain and the flock of geese flying overhead. I wanted to musically reflect the powerful sense of place I had in the dream and the loneliness of all the souls buried there.
“Dreaming Spires” is a piece Roger Eno and I composed, just piano and oboe, and it felt right that it should be added to this collection. Pure essence of him and myself.
The words for “Colonel Sinnott’s Song Of Love” are from a love poem written by my grandfather to my grandmother after she died, way too young, in 1920. For me, Joseph’s beautiful, Debussy-esque string arrangement captures something of those times and the heartache in the words.
Being oh so much older now, I have a different slant on some of these subjects. World politics aside, I am more perturbed by hospital visits than the ups and downs of love affairs. However, age brings new paths for the imagination to wander, even as you fight the feeling that there is less of a sense of possibility and potential in your life. I might have even found the beauty in the repetitive rhythm of the day to dayness of things instead of feeling trapped by it. New themes do emerge and with them ideas for new songs. Where’s that notebook?
Kate St. John, March 2017