Musicians are notorious for it, but finally it happened to me too. Writer's block!
It started just before Christmas, but it was not quite what I expected.
I expected to be starved of ideas ... wracking my brains for some sort of starting point - tortured by a blank sheet of paper and a pen that refused to surrender ink (a somewhat outdated metaphor, I know).
But this is not what happened. I have smartphone full of notes and voice memos brimming with ideas to prove that the creative juices never dried up.
It was the next step that got me. The step where you take those ideas and flesh them out into something with structure and form. Something that sounds coherently like a song - a demo. I just got out of the habit.
I blame Logic Pro - I switched from creative mode to technical mode. The back end of last year saw me completing my second album, Rising Tide Blues. Every last detail fine-tweaked, like a painter agonising over the final brushstroke, not quite sure if the picture is complete. By the time the album was done I was so sick of the minutiae I just published and mentally checked out.
Of course, other things immediately swept in to take the place of music in my daily routine - family, travel, other business interests, tax returns ... all queuing at the door and vying for my attention. This became the new normal and the writing got left behind.
The circuit breaker came a couple of weeks ago in the form of an out-of-the-blue call from the car company Jeep, inviting me to attend the 50th anniversary of the Montreux Jazz Festival.
The brief was simple - come * enjoy * tweet! (something about my40,000+ twitter followers must have caught their attention). It seemed like a win-win to me. I was there with bells on.
Given the short notice, I didn’t have much time to form an expectation of the trip, but even so it far exceeded those that I might have had, and there was one particular highlight that surpassed all others.
This is not to detract from the rest of the trip. For a start Jeep’s hospitality was exceptional. As a major sponsor of the Montreux Jazz Festival every Jeep representative that I met seemed to be entirely on board with ideas that music and musicians are to be respected and valued. They were as excited to be there as I was.
I saw some amazing musicians. Herbie Hancock in concert was a personal standout and the Jazz Guitar Competition was an absolute treat. And, by the way, being invited to test drive a couple of the latest Jeep models through the Swiss alps wasn’t exactly a hardship either. (Jeremy Clarkson eat your heart out!)
But for me the real highlight was a private tour of the festival founder, Claude Nobs’, chalet high in the hills above Monteux. Turns out, being the guest of a major festival sponsor gives you access that others just don’t get, and made this a truly unique experience.
Confession time. I knew very little about Claude Nobs coming into the trip, so crossing the threshold of his house I had no preconceptions about what laid ahead. I didn't really understand that I was entering a hallowed space.
‘Funky Claude’, was, by happy co-incidence, not only friend & host to most of the 20th century's jazz & rock ‘n’ roll royalty, but was also an inveterate collector of music memorabilia. In exchange for his hospitality he was often gifted keepsakes or personal artefacts.
So picture this. Take a quaint, chocolate-box farmers chalet in the swiss alps and fill it to the rafters with some of the most important objects of contemporary music history. Don’t hide them in display boxes or group them rigidly by period or genre - just put them where there is space or where they look best, interspersed with furniture and family photos. Instruments are ready to play - the dogs and guests are free to move around objects freely. This is a home, but not like any other.
It doesn’t stop there. Claude was also an obsessional collector of music video filmed over 50 years of the Montreux Jazz Festival. The media alone represent a priceless timeline of all the various technologies for audio-visual capture developed through the second half of the 20th century. But the real gold is the content, from Miles Davis to Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones to James Brown, Nina Simone to David Bowie - all captured on film as well as sound.
All these media are housed in a special room that Claude called the “bunker”. Thankfully, over 90% has now been converted to digital (should be 100% within a year) and the archive is considered a national and world treasure (UNESCO Memory of the World).
So as I move through Claude’s house taking in the vibe I really start to sense the significance of the music history held within these walls. So many of these great artists have passed on now - even Claude himself, who died in 2013 after a skiing accident.
For me there were two particularly personal moments. Firstly, I come across Freddie Mercury's chestnut brown grand piano, squeezed into a room full of other objects - a Queen picture-book on top, open at a photo of the legend himself. Then I chance upon a ‘Lucille’ custom, cherry-red, Gibson ES-335 guitar, gifted by the great, and sadly late, BB King.
There are many guitars and pianos in the world - they all do essentially the same thing, but these objects, with their physical association to two of my greatest musical heroes… it gives me a frisson to be in their presence. All the more poignant knowing that they will never again emanate music in the hands of their owners.
As for Claude, himself? His spirit is everywhere as you might expect. From his (astoundingly large) model train collection, to his two Bernese mountain dogs that still wait for him in the lift as if expecting him to take them for a walk - even three years on. It was hard not to be moved. Sacred spaces come in many shapes and sizes but for me this has become one.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever have a chance to go back - it is still a private house. This was a once in a lifetime experience that I didn’t know I was having at the time. I went back to my hotel room and started to build out one of my song ideas on my guitar.
Later, Jeep gave me the opportunity to sing a short set in their hospitality lounge, looking out over Lake Geneva with the mountains in the background. It was dusk and the neon Jazz Festival lights were just coming on.
I did my best to be in the moment.
P.S. Check out my Instagram for all my photos at the Montreux Jazz Festival