THE BEAUTIFUL LOSERS AND NIKKI JONES Losing themselves in Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was a nineteenth century poet that gained cult status across the world with people drawn to and intrigued by her eccentric, unique and groundbreaking literary work. Local Perth band The Beautiful Losers, accompanied by acclaimed vocalist Nikki Jones, have taken on a unique project of their own, reviving the poetry of Dickinson in musical form with the album Songs for Emily, set to be launched this Saturday, August 17 at Duke of George in East Fremantle. BRAYDEN EDWARDS caught up with The Beautiful Losers’ Greg Dear to learn about the legacy of Dickinson’s poetry, how it translates into song and what we can look forward to on the night.

This is a pretty unique idea for an album, how did it come about?

It was an idea that I had been toying with for a few years. I wasn’t sure how the band would react to it, but they embraced the idea and when Nikki came on board it was all systems go.

What was it about Emily Dickinson in particular that made her such a good subject of a project like this?

I’ve loved her poetry for many years. She was one of the poets I focused on when I studied the American poets at uni in the late 70s and early 80s. But also, her poems have a clear structure and rhythm to them that aligns perfectly with standard songwriting structures.

Dickinson was known for being eccentric and reclusive but also very ahead of her time in poetry, especially for women. What else have you learnt about her in the process of turning her works into music?

I rediscovered Emily’s wonderful, but weird, use of language. Also, among all the themes of death and destructive tempests, she has a brilliant sense of humour. It’s quirky, dark, and caustic at times, but funny. Some of her verses that on the surface appear to be reverential and deeply religious, are in fact poking fun at religiosity, or at the simplistic, easy-embrace of the trappings and conventions of religion. I get the impression that she wore the attire of faith while inwardly smirking. One of the poems we do in this show, for example, includes the lines “safe in their alabaster chambers…sleep the meek members of the resurrection, rafter of satin and roof of stone.” Those rich enough to be buried in alabaster and satin are not the “meek who shall inherit the earth,” although they died thinking that they were, and Emily is having a good old chuckle at their expense. At least, that is how I read it.

And the Beautiful Losers have teamed up with singer and composer Nikki Jones who will be reciting Dickinson’s literature? How important was her skill and background in performance when it came to bringing the poems to life in musical form?

Nikki is the star of the show. She has centre stage, while we sit behind. Having someone like Nikki, with the background in theatre and musical theatre, was critical, not only to the eventual performances, but to the creation of the pieces. Nikki was able to embody the poetry, not simply remember the words. She performs the poems, in the true sense of the word “perform”; she doesn’t simply recite or sing them.

And how about writing the music? It must be hard to know where to start when evidently you have quite a blank canvas to work with sonically?

My original vision was to have some of the poems set to pretty much the sort of music that Beautiful Losers play when performing my songs, and for other poems to sit on top of ambient or experimental soundscapes that are very different from what we normally do. More than anything though, I wanted each poem to tell us what the music should be. I selected some poems that I thought are essential to do in a work like this, but I also brought a bunch more to the table for Nikki to consider.

Nikki composed melodies and harmonies for the singing and the rest of us re-shaped the music to fit with that. In short, we co-wrote most of the music and did that in the rehearsal studio. After our two performances in the 2016 Fringe Festival, we added a few more poems to the set and re-worked a couple of the musical pieces, and we then recorded the revised version of the show. We are essentially performing the poems as we recorded them, with one exception for which we have re-written the music again. It will make for very messy APRA forms next year with three different versions of some pieces featuring.

You’ll be joined on the night by Skin Horse and Damon Hurst. Why were they a good fit for such a unique show like this and what kind of night we can look forward to overall?

They are two local poets and spoken-word artists and both Freo identities. What could possibly be a better way to open the show?

What’s next for The Beautiful Losers and Nikki Jones in 2019 and beyond? Any more music or live shows we can look forward to?

The Beautiful Losers were supposed to go into the studio earlier this year to record our next standard album of my songs. It was going to be a 14-song album, but it is now a 17-song album, so if we don’t figure out our schedules soon, it will end up being a double-album. I’ve been fairly busy on the song-writing front since we finished our last album (OWL, released in 2017). I also have another recording project planned, but I’m keeping the details of that under wraps for the moment.

Finally, I have mixed some of the songs that were recorded at the Lou Reed show that I put together and performed at Badlands with a truly all-star band on the 5th anniversary of Lou’s death. We did three sets with the middle set being the entire Berlin album and most of it was recorded. I’m not sure if I will release that in physical form or just sell it as downloads.

And if you were to take on another poet or writer as the subject of a musical project, who would it be and why?

I’ve already decided to take on Sylvia Plath, but that would need a very different musical approach to what we did for Emily. I think Nikki and the Beautiful Losers have that capacity, but we shall have to see if and how we can fit that into our busy schedules. T.S. Elliot is another I would love to do. I’m not sure who I would collaborate with for that one because I think it would need to be almost orchestral. Someone has already done Under Milk Wood  by Dylan Thomas, but I think an Eno-like take on that poem would be more appropriate.

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