A Singer of Songs
Portraits: Box of Songs & Stories
words by maria sledmere
Recently I had a conversation with a friend about the question of autobiography in writing. What it means to write about someone you love in an explicit way and have them find out. What are we allowed to reveal, what nature of character deserves concealment? We came to a kind of conclusion: when you write about yourself, you are really writing about others; when you write about others, really you are writing yourself. There are all kinds of refractions. No clean ethical lines or distinctions of origin — a whole lot of beautiful mess. Even in fiction, we couldn’t smudge out the residues of ourselves. We thought maybe it was wrong to even try to erase our voice altogether, to pretend there was some objective position we could assume in writing.
All the way from Barcelona arrives a little box of sanded wood, satisfyingly tactile, whose cover slides off with the slide of a touch. I think of boxes of pencils, of scented candy, of postcards or letters. By sliding open the lid, I was already responsible for ‘releasing’ something. I was part of the text; I was curious. The press insert reads NO MORE SELFIES! and insists this ‘could be the slogan hanging behind a Singer of Songs on each stage of the next tour’. It tells a tale of Belgian-born singer Lieven Scheerlinck, aka A Singer of Songs, becoming tired of his ‘ultra-personal’, ‘naval-gazing’ style of writing and moving towards ‘portraits of the people around him’. This collected box of songs, stories and love is the result of this turn. It is not a book of faces, easily scrolled by and missed, but something like a trove of intimacies.
Comprising a download code for a nine-track album, postcards designed by Galician designer Celia Arcos (one for each song) and a book of short stories explaining the people behind the songs, Portraits is a genuine, tender labour shared. Even the boxes are handmade, by Catalan craftsman Marçel Ventura; every song lyric is printed on the back of the postcards. What does it mean to open a box of songs, to take their stories as a gift? Who will I send these postcards to, and what of their names? I began by reading the stories. Scheerlinck has a knack for narrative. I remember this from a gig he played at Glasgow’s Hug and Pint back in 2017 alongside Withered Hand, the way they would weave all these tales and jokes around their tunes. You can imagine them lifted from notebooks assembled on trains and moments of quiet reflection, nursing drinks and time out from the flow of it all.
Portraits hinges on the ‘I’: its excess, its desired erasure, its inevitability. ‘I don’t need to revisit all my lyrics’, Scheerlink writes, ‘to know that it’s by far the most recurrent word in my discography’. This new project is the reflexive outcome of a songwriter taking stock. How much of the ‘I’ is plugged into the industry, where record sales are gleaned in the trade of further tales? ‘So you step into the spotlight and you sing and talk about yourself. More I, I and I’. This ‘I’ of his, the expressive, lyric ‘I’, is tinged with shame: shame at the ersatz flattery of the selfie, the confessional, the mining of everyday affect for more and more songs. The spread of an echo you can’t peel away. Essentially, Scheerlinck relates the narcissism of social media to the historical genre of the confessional lyric, its demands of a subject, a stable ego, a constant well of expression, a life that ‘gives’ as endless material.
It is no wonder sometimes we experience inertia, stasis, block. Portraits is an exercise is turning this around or opening it out. Each of its nine stories focuses on a person from Scheerlinck’s life: from his mother Alida to his lover Rosa; an anonymous man at the bar and a man, Yehia, who relays him a tale of love and loss; Alain who gave him his first mixtape; Mabel his partner-in-crime. There is generosity in the stories, as well as humour. When writing of Laura, a dear friend who eventually lost her life to cancer, the focus is as much on her ‘endless belly laugh’, her various successes and failures in dating, her singing as much as her pain. Scheerlinck catches the light that bounces from person to person. He tells stories of his father playing football with him in the garden, until his knee gave out. Lifetimes go by in these tales, whose pages are illustrated with semi-transparent impressions of footprints, cassette tapes, roses. Symbols of varying endurance and fade. Scheerlinck shows how songwriting is a collaborative effort, how words and influences generate from commonality and exchange. He writes of how memories, lost diary entries and shared impressions find their way into his songs, with lovely epiphanies like ‘My father’s deep sea is also mine’.
The songs themselves are much more than condensed, musical versions of the stories. The box is all about opening something. And inside is the ragged rose garden of a single life, run wild with other roses, other lines and points in time. For you cannot prune yourself entirely from the garden. The songs are on the surface simple, acoustic ditties, pleasant of melody and soft harmony, soft strums and warmth. So easy to sing along; they become living memories in their own right. They take me back to the seamless internet, where I find them. Yet there’s a medial quality to the production, its subtle effects of echo and scratch that owe themselves to Scheerlinck’s self-confessed heroes, Sparklehorse. Nostalgia, inevitably, runs through these stories: ‘Now we don’t even listen to CDs / It’s all streaming and mp3s / There’s no cracks it’s all so clear / But it’s pretty flaws you want to hear’. The little box of stories and songs asks us to think about what ‘lives on’ as our cultural lives, our personal archives, grow ever more ethereal. An emotional toolkit for surviving the material scarcity of our post-digital existence.
But for all the indulgence in looking back, the box doesn’t feel frozen in time. These songs and stories contain a chorus of voices, held in dynamic relation, side by side. Mysteries remain: who is the man at the table? Will Yehia ever return home to be with Marie again? Given the twenty-first century context of global crisis, migration, flux and existential unmooring, it’s important that Portraits ends with Yehia’s story. Fleeing the turmoil in Syria for Barcelona, it means something very different for Yehia to say, as Scheerlinck writes, ‘every day he dreams of going back’. For going back he would not meet an idealised past: he would go back ‘To his mother. To his siblings. To Marie’, but also ‘To the ruins. The ruins that are his home’. A different kind of dust from the dust of a mixtape; but everyone’s pain is relevant. Writing the losses of others around his own in this careful way, giving voice to many narratives, Scheerlinck captures something and keeps the dream of it going on: ‘we’ll open the car windows and make our music sound for the entire city’.
Not selfies, then, but portraits. Not held lossy compressed as jpegs on the Cloud but able to sprawl in writing and song. Songs of family, love, friendship and chance encounter. The enduring and the fugitive. When I slot all the materials back in the box, after an evening of comforting listening, I have a far stronger sense of A Singer of Songs as a person, a related soul in a sea of others. His humble moniker — A singer of songs, not The singer of songs — suggests that any one of these incredible people could be speaking when he takes his voice to the mic. In lyric and song we speak others and they speak us. Portraits is a way of making space in the fraught echo chambers of the internet, the obsession on face/self/surface, the egoistic tendencies of the ‘singer-songwriter’ genre. Although the press release claims Scheerlinck had to delve into some of these stories ‘like a reporter to mould them into 9 intimate indie-folk songs’, his reportage is one of empathy and reflection over hook or impression. Portraits asks what possible lives, feelings and relations can song and writing hold. Its covering face may be smudged, but the voice continues.