This is a story is about a new arrival on the pop scene named Galen Ayers, a singer-songwriter who’s just released her debut album, Monument, an accessably sweet-but-dig-a-bit set of deeply, to say the least, personal songs. More about her in a sec.
This story necessarily also involves a bit of talk about lineage, or call it artistic DNA. Once upon a time, back in the ’60s-’70s, there was a band in England called Soft Machine. They were a rather warped vision of modern jazz/rock smashing into pop choonery, laced with whimsy and good-humored intelligence. Part of what’s referred to as the Canterbury Scene –– which included artful pop-rock combos such as Khan, Egg, Caravan and Hatfield and the North –– Soft's members included the relatively well-known singer-drummer Robert Wyatt and, in their early days, the perhaps slightly lesser known singer Kevin Ayers (who we spoke to in 1998).
Right, Galen Ayers is the late Kevin Ayers’ daughter. And if, listening to her album, one finds oneself seeing her dad’s legend looming large, that’s partly because Galen did write some of the songs as a means of dealing with her dad’s ghost, which to this day has shown no intention of going away. Galen’s songs on Monument are ruminative, speculative; they ponder a lot about ways we and she might cope with the task of finding ourselves, of finding a shape and context for herself on these misty mornings where it’s ever more difficult to see the, y’know, the why of things, the meaning of things; and how does the past colorize our futures?
Galen doesn’t sing or play about this sort of stuff in a draggy woe-is-me way, saints be praised. Songs like “You Choose,” “Run Baby Run,” “Into the Sea (Calm Down)” and the monumental title song are graced with an intriguing and, with repeat listens, persuasive palette of smallish musical tricks such as non-standard song forms, unexpected chord changes and subtly, unfussily artful arrangements. Her music, overall, is comforting and challenging both. Mesmerizing, too.
Galen’s dad, Kevin, did a lot of the above sort of thing as well; in fact, he was the reigning master of it at one time: very literate pop songs that hit you with humor and pathos and aching nostalgia and always a keen sense for smearing the lines between toe-tapping pop and something more, well, substantial, musically and lyrically. Kevin did not get rich this way, though, partly because he hated the pop-star life, preferred snorkeling in the warm blue sea and reading books.
Galen spent much of her life in her dad’s company, living the communal life in France with him and some of the Canterbury bands and, later, taking care of him in his last years, in France, Spain and islands in the Mediterranean. He was a lot of work, eventually, she says. He’d never been the most responsible dad, his head was basically in other places –– but he loved Galen dearly, and while eventually she came to realize that, she also held some resentment about his complete disavowal of fatherly duty to his daughter, or to himself.
But he taught her so much.
“My dad was an avid reader, and he taught me to read everything,” she says. “Whatever he was going through, he would read to me, and I was surrounded by all his writing, so I was constantly around hundreds of half-finished pieces of literature. So, I learned by osmosis. My father just loved cooking, and we were just surrounded by cookbooks. Every morning, our joy was to get up at 6 in the morning in France, and go to all the outdoor markets and pick out the best. You know, he taught me how to look in the eyes of a fish to tell if it’s just died, or if it’s been there two days. All this stuff, you know?”
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Could be that Kevin taught Galen a thing or two about self-acceptance, if at least trying to learn to love yourself and at the very, very least live a life free of guilt, recrimination and cold weather. Lessons like this surface in a track like Monument’s opener “You Choose”: “[I]f you’re running out of loving and you’re looking for clues/look at what you choose/look at what you lose when you choose…”
“That’s kind of the essence of what I’m talking about,” Galen says. “It’s an empowering song, which I think is sexy. I used to think that being in power came from being ambiguous, in a kind of not-knowing-who-you-are way. Now I think it’s cool to be ambiguous and be exactly who you are.”
Galen still has a relationship with her father, every day, except it’s changed.
“The album, I was hoping, shows the different aspects, shows angry, shows tender, shows little girl, shows ‘Now I’m a woman, I can do it, don’t worry about me,’ shows ‘Why are you fucking up my head?’ It’s my response to the things I wish I’d said, or wish I hadn’t said. I think erecting a monument around a relationship is an appropriate thing to do.”