Sex, Shame and Stand by Me: Behind the Lyrics of ‘Jessica’
My new single ‘Jessica’ came out in October. I wrote it (co-written with my friend Will Gardner) in the summer of 2020. To read more about the process of writing the song, you can read my blog post here.
The post below is specifically about the lyrics of the song.
Jessica, do you remember
Staying up late at the weekend watching Stand by Me?
Tastes like coal, the red wine you stole
From your father mixed with water makes the movie funny
Do you think we would have been in love
If we had been allowed?
Jesus hates that kind of thing
And no one’s like that in this town
Except Father Hayes who sleeps alone
Feels it heavy, feels it tight
Creeping through his lonely bones in the night…
Some songs are wrought; you start with an idea, a feeling, a story, something that you very clearly want to communicate, and you craft a way of doing that until you’re happy. Others are unconscious; they come to you unbidden and all you have to do is create an open channel for them to travel through and out of into the world.
These lyrics weren’t wrought; they came unbidden. When I started to singing to the music Will and I had made in a session together, I didn’t plan to say anything about River Phoenix, the fear and confusion of growing up in a small town, the homophobia of the Catholic Church, or the sex-shame that I felt so strongly as a teenager (not to mention the paralysing fear of going to Hell). But adolescence is a formative time, and whatever burrows inside you then lives there forever. Specifically, if you’re brought up Catholic, then the sex-shame, the homophobia, the misogyny: it’s all very hard to claw out of yourself, even if you no longer accept or believe in any of it. In my rational, conscious, grown-up life, none of that has any hold over me. But when I started singing to those piano chords it all rushed out, mixed up with memories of intense teenage friendship and the first boy I ever loved: River Phoenix.
total eclipse of the heart
How we cried when we learned he’d died
How the boy inside the movie didn’t live to 24
I ran like his name into shards of rain
I was frightened of the feeling, ran til I reached my front door
Didn’t know what was allowed
Thought that we would go to Hell
Slip and slide beneath the earth
Was it a dream? I couldn’t tell
Woke up next to Father Hayes
Who prayed to God to save his skin
Throwing rain back at your window
Let me in…
I wonder if the memory of my feelings for my first ever boyfriend River Phoenix is so intense because it’s tied up with the first time that I ever really thought about death.
I was lucky enough to grow up with two parents and three grandparents. My paternal grandad died when I was small and so I don’t have many memories of him. Even our dog (the greatest dog ever) lived until I was 21. So, it was River Phoenix who introduced me to mortality.
My friends and I would watch Stand by Me at every sleepover for about a year when we were fourteen. We were obsessed with River and covered our homework diaries in whatever photographs of him we could find online. Only we didn’t actually read his biography until we we’d seen the film half a dozen times. That’s when we saw that he died of an overdose in 1993, when he was only 23. It was a very strange feeling; falling in love with someone my own age on screen and then discovering that he’d died when I was a toddler. Fantasising about snogging a dead teenager, basically. I can see now that it allowed me to practise grief as well as lust. I remember spending whole evenings on tumblrs devoted to his memory, singing along to Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ while watching a slide show of his publicity shots and trying desperately to squeeze a real tear from me eye. It wasn’t too far from what we were encouraged to do during Mass: look upon the dying figure of Jesus hanging from the cross until we felt true, deep devotion.
slip and slide beneath the earth
If I’d wrought this song rather than received it, I might have shied away from writing these lyrics. I might have balked, especially, at writing about sexuality and Catholicism. One of the side effects of being brought up Catholic is that it feels like a betrayal, blasphemy even, to criticise the Church. The Church is God. The Church is Faith. The Church is Right.
And once the song was recorded, mixed and mastered, I thought I might at least feel anxious to release it, because, being a woman and Catholic-raised, the need to not upset people is a particularly stubborn stone in my shoe. But I’m glad to say that I didn’t feel anxious about it at all. I’m really proud of the song, of the instrumentation, of what Will and I made together. It’s joyous and fun and honest and I’m grateful that those lyrics came to me as they did, and that I was able to let them out. I don’t think I’d have been able to do so even a year earlier, because…
Just before the pandemic, I was experiencing a lot of vocal anxiety. I would convince myself that my voice was going to disappear from underneath me, like a carpet pulled from under my feet, and, in a strange kind of psycho-somatic self-fulfilling prophecy, sometimes it did. It was a horrible, panicky feeling, usually brought on by a microphone and a lot of pressure. I used to get particularly worked up about live radio performances, probably because it was the double whammy of being recorded and performing live (usually kept separate, they’re much less intimidating one at a time). I’m still sad that I ruined the experience of a live session on Radio 2 for myself with this anxious spiralling.
Thanks to Help Musicians, I had some sessions with a brilliant woman named Miranda who helped me with all of this. Interestingly, we didn’t talk much about vocals at all. It turns out that the voice is quite simple. All the body needs to do is relax. The problem is the mind and its constant thrum of questions. Why do I think I have to be perfect? Why am I not having fun? Why am I not being myself?
What Miranda and I talked about, quite a lot actually, was Catholicism. I realised that, thanks to the construct of The Virgin Mary, I’d been brainwashed by all these ‘feminine ideals’ of purity, spotlessness and perfection (in 2020, I know…) That tightness, that tension, it was all gathering up in my throat and my chest, it was pulling on my vocal cords and making them snap. It was in my mind, too, getting in the way of me being able to write truthful lyrics. Telling me that if I did, I’d slip and slide beneath the earth and wake up in Hell next to a gay priest. Or something like that.
Shame works by making you believe that being your true self will cause pain to yourself and to others around you. The actual truth is that not being yourself is the more painful option in the long run. For everyone.
That I wrote and released ‘Jessica’ without a huge panic attack is a massive achievement. An achievement I owe at least in part to therapy and Help Musicians.
i can feel everything
I believe that one of the things artists are here to do is go on journeys that other people aren’t able to, because other people have responsibilities, and pressures on their time, and ‘a real job’. Like the old shamans, we go down to the emotional depths, roll around in the mud, then crawl our way back out and up to you, ready to share the experience. When we write and perform our art we are taking you on that journey, helping you to travel to the depths of yourself, to roll around in it all, and, ultimately, to find release.
I know it’s just a song, but, for me, ‘Jessica’ was a journey I needed to take, and one that I hope helps you, too, to release whatever shame has burrowed inside you. Maybe then, finally, we can feel everything, together.
Jessica, won’t you take me down to the beach?
In your old car, one more time we’re seventeen
And I can do anything (I can do anything)
I can do anything
When I’m with you
I can feel everything (I can feel everything)
I can feel everything