“Enchanting… stellar… charming songwriting and uniquely powerful production. I’ve never heard anything quite like it.”
My new album Maxim is out now on all reputable and irreputable streaming platforms. A collaboration with my long-time friend and co-conspirator No Spinoza, Maxim is a collection of reimagined nursery rhymes, “vividly reimagined as if through a glass darkly.” (Tom Robinson, BBC 6 Music).
This record found its genesis in the small midnight hours of early fatherhood, and its murmured repetitions of ancient songs, writ of legend and fairie. As my children emerged from their infant chrysalides, so nursery rhymes relentlessly flickered across my screens and pierced my consciousness in shrill neon voices, primary colours and mawkish midi song. For years now, every nightly bedtime ritual has concluded in the singing of Hey Diddle Diddle. It was but a small instinctive step to record this sweet fragment of song, accompanied by a simple picked guitar. Which got me to thinking.
Nursery rhymes are an integral part of England’s folk tradition. They are perhaps the best known and least understood of songs, written into the subconscious of near every person born on these British Isles. Confined to the edges of childhood, they nonetheless resonate with powerful half-forgotten truths. Mis-remembered myths abound (no, Ring O’Roses is not about The Great Plague but more likely an old May Day song or perhaps a children’s dance around a literal rose bush), lending sinister shadows to seemingly innocent tales. This reach seam of song seemed much neglected outside of twee children’s rhyme. The germ of an album whispered.
Possessed with these scraps of knowledge and the glimmering of an inspiration, I decided to approach Tom Pearson (aka No Spinoza) to propose a virtual collaboration on a new project. Our creative paths first intertwined a decade ago when we were both residents of London. I had long admired Tom’s second album All and Some, a cryptic collection of digital reworked traditional folk carols. Tom had had also previously written a beautiful companion poem “W” to accompany Angel Wharf from CRUCIBLE. I was delighted when he accepted my odd invitation.
So it followed that over a period of some 18 months (that just so happened to collide with the lockdown months of the Pandemic), Tom and I sculpted away at dozens of reworkings of nursery rhymes. This palimpsest project saw us email variations back and forth from Worthing to York, variously pairing back and reassembling each other’s latest drafts. We ultimately settled upon the 9 variations found on the completed record, as accompanied by one original coda track “Maxim“. Final vocals, drums and strings were recorded in Echo Zoo Studios in Eastbourne as helmed by the ever zen-like Dave Izumi Lynch, along with Phil Wilkinson on drums and Nick Pynn on strings.
The album’s title is inspired by John Newbery’s 1765 bound collection of “Mother Goose’s Melody” thought to be the oldest original collection gathered under that name. These “Sonnets for the Cradle” are embellished with lovely woodcuts and illustrated with “notes and maxims, historical, philosophical and critical.” It is believed that the Anglo-Irish poet and author Oliver Goldsmith was the editor of this collection as well as being the original author of the various cryptic and oft-bizarre maxims (and even Jack & Gill). ‘Maxim’ landed as an apt title for this project, capturing the essence of the simplicity of the short pithy songs whilst lending a heft that echoes the legal maxims of my other professional existence.
Our cover art adapts images from an incredible collection of untitled geometrical figures and perspective drawings found in a C16th watercolor manuscript, preserved at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. It has no author’s note, editor’s preface or commentary; just shapes, colours and totems. Reappropriating these timeless and obscure shapes somewhat mirrored the process of reimagining the 10 nursery rhymes on the record. It has been a strange delight to remould and reshape such curious whimsies into new creative forms, as steered by Tom’s meticulous eye for design. The album title is depicted in the clean and crisp Urlop font that we utilised across our various single releases and images.
The reception of this album has been a pleasant surprise. I recognise that the project is a curious one. These are not ‘kids songs’ but rather esoteric reimaginings of acoustic folk songs, bedecked in avant-garde clothing with an off-centre retro pop sensibility. That is not an easy sell. Nonetheless, we were particularly honoured to receive national radio play on BBC 6 Music and be championed by Jericho Keys of BBC York & North Yorkshire. Jericho gave regular radio play to all our singles and even invited us to play a live in-session set on a Saturday night, commenting, “I think it’s a stunning record, that. Really imaginative – never heard anything like that before. So I’m really looking forward to what they produce next.”
I have also been surprised by the global reach of the album, and been delighted to see it feature on various international playlists and be regularly featured on Australia’s Curved Radio, whose Mr K generously said of Maxim, “Well worth the wait. This is a fantastic concept album…beautifully structured and crafted, it’s really like nothing I’ve heard yet…It’s a stunning thing.”
The album proper was released in March 2022 to minimal fanfare. Tom and I hosted a private launch event at Jacob’s Well in York in April. It marked what will be perhaps the only live rendition of the album, as accompanied by a gorgeous new poem of Tom’s penned especial for the occasion. It was a fitting closure to the years-long project, a deep labour of friendship and love. I’ll be sure to let you know should I ever venture out with the guitar and a spirit of mischievous whimsy again. Until then, I hope that these strange songs might resonate with you in some small still way and allow the ghost of childhood to feather you with her forgotten kiss.