Sex-shame and Stand by Me: behind the lyrics of ‘Jessica’

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…

 

My new single ‘Jessica’ came out a month ago this week. 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.

This post is specifically about the lyrics of ‘Jessica’.

The lyrics surprised me. This can happen. Some songs are wrought; you start with an idea, a feeling, a story, 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.

I didn’t expect to write about River Phoenix, or the fear and confusion of growing up in a small town, or the homophobia of the Catholic Church, or the sex shame that I felt so strongly at that age (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. If you’re brought up Catholic, all of 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, my sub-conscious opened up and it all came out, mixed up with memories of intense teenage friendship and the first boy I ever loved: River Phoenix.

 

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. Although my paternal grandad died when I was little, I have very few memories of him and wouldn’t count it as a bereavement. Even our dog (the greatest dog ever) lived until I was 21. 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. No wonder he found his way into a song of mine; the most intense experiences usually do.

If I’d wrought this song rather than received it, I might have shied away from writing those lyrics. I might have balked, specifically, at writing about sexuality and Catholicism. That’s one of the side effects of being brought up Catholic: it feels like a betrayal, blasphemy even, to criticise the Church. The Church is God. The Church is Faith. The Church is Right.

Once the song was recorded, mixed and mastered, I thought I might at least feel anxious to release it, because, being a woman and a blood-Catholic, 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.

That I wrote and released ‘Jessica’ without a huge panic attack is a massive achievement. An achievement I owe to therapy.

Just before the pandemic, thanks to Help Musicians, I had some sessions with a wonderfully helpful woman, because 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.

Interestingly, my therapist and I 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 in the mind. Why do I think I have to be perfect? Why am I not having fun? Why am I not being myself?

What we talked about, quite a lot actually, was Catholicism. Thanks to the construct of The Virgin Mary, I’d been brainwashed with all these ideas of purity, spotlessness, perfection. And 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 bold, 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 yourself will be painful for you and others around you. Only the truth is that, after a while, not being yourself is the more painful option. For everyone. That’s, I think, what ‘Jessica’ is about.

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’ is 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

With you