George Meanwell

Maireid Sullivan. I'd like to begin with asking some questions about your lovely song, Words That I Want. This is a song I would love to hear everyone singing. It is so touching and intimate and beautiful.

George Meanwell. That is great!

MS. I had an interesting conversation with Peter de Soto about how he felt when he first learnt the song himself. Are you a poet as well?

GM. Well, I am a songwriter. Its not poetry, per se, but I certainly wrote a lot of songs in the late 70s, when I played in a folk trio. In fact this song dates from that period. I think I wrote it in '79. when my then girlfriend, now wife was across the Atlantic from me.

MS. And she obviously gave you the words you wanted.

GM. Yes.

MS. Then the song should be the 'word that I want' - which is 'yes'. So it has been unrecorded all of this time?

GM. Unrecorded! Unrecorded love.

MS. There you go!

GM. It was great, actually, for me to get a chance to have it recorded. Peter sings it really beautifully and it worked out really well with the instrumentation that is available in Quartetto Gelato - English horn, bass accordion, and guitar. I originally wrote it for voice and piano. The transcription worked pretty well for the instruments we have.

MS. I think this is a much more contemporary sound too. You say you are not a poet but a songwriter. I find poet and songwriter to be an almost indistinguishable role. Do you actually write with a view to putting the song into song phrasing with a melody already in mind?

GM. Some aspect of the melody comes first, but then writing the words takes over. I guess I would have to say it is pretty simultaneous. If the beginning, if a melody gets my interest then I'll start thinking of words and that will effect how the melody works.

MS. I wanted to ask you about the role of the cello. Have you been playing the cello a long time?

GM. I started playing guitar and cello about the same time, when I was about eleven.

MS. The reason I ask is this song sounds so right with the cello mood - with those sweeping sounds. Do you think you are using the cello phrasing when you are creating songs, which are more than the rhythmic, percussive style of the guitar sounds?

GM. No. I think that is true of this song, but I've written other songs that are extremely up-tempo and raucous, and that sound much more like folk or country songs.

MS. I like that word, 'raucous'. What are some of your favourite words for expressing the way you like to write -- you know the 'key' words that express your style of music. Someone else I know would use the word 'visceral', for example. You have used the word raucous there, but I feel sure that is not the word that describes everything you write.

GM. What a good question that is. If I'm writing lyrics, I guess I consciously try to use the simplest language that I can. Although someone who knew me would probably say I have a big vocabulary. So, in conversation I might sometimes use words that were pointlessly complicated. One of my favourite sayings is, "Never use a big word when a minuscule word will do." Particularly in that song, but generally in the songs that I write, I try to write as expressively as I can using a very plain vocabulary. In terms of people who inspire me as songwriters, Leonard Cohen is amazing at creating a really rich environment of images without the use of big words.

MS. Even just linking image phrases - images magnified. Would you say he is one of your favourite mentors?

GM. Oh! Absolutely. Not only because of the stuff that he did in the 60s, but I recently found a compilation of his songs in a shop about three years ago. I was just amazed at how clever his songs were.

MS. He is also one of my heroes. I heard recently that he has left the Zen monastery that he had been in for about five years and is working on a new recording now. Can you imagine how exciting that will be?

GM That is something to look forward to.

MS. Are there any other songwriters that you feel so strongly for?

GM. I have a tremendous respect for Paul Simon, from the past to the present, although I don't write songs like his. He is really amazing at putting spoken idiom into songs. He is a very thoughtful lyric writer and writes beautiful tunes as well. He is just very clever.

MS. I also talked to Peter de Soto about the quality of the spoken song as opposed to the operatic song. He talked about the stillness your song engenders, the intimacy and the introverted expression that it has. You have obviously thought about that too. What are your thoughts about that quality in spoken word style songs? We unfortunately class it as the folk idiom but it is really like singing poetry.

GM. I spent a lot of time singing folk and country music. I played in a folk trio in the late 70s, and all the stuff that I sang in high school through university and afterwards was America folk music, not so much English folk music. That was partly because of the contact I had with English Folk music, apart from people like Bert Jansch and Pentangle. By the time I got to it, the traditional folk music had been published in books and was mostly songs like, "Flow gently Sweet Afton" and "Early One Morning," etc., songs that didn't sound so much like folk.

American folk musicians where also essentially singing re-worked English folk songs. I've heard people like Doc Watson singing songs that had been filtered through the Appalachian tradition - in a much rougher or more direct expression.

Where I am coming from, with the conception of a song, is much more that folk tradition. And so for me what has been so exciting playing with the quartet is to get a sense of how some of the more operatic songs work and function. It comes down so much to text. You want a song to have a single idea that coherently communicates. In my song writing, and my music writing, I've used the simplest of means. I mean, sometimes I've written songs that span a diminished 5th - a very narrow melodic movement. In the song, Words That I Want I was deliberately playing with a narrow melodic movement, but changing the harmonies underneath to make it more complex than it is, while still preserving that static feel that the song has.

MS. That is very interesting that you should put it like that. Peter describe it as stillness. I'd really like to draw that out a bit more. I'm sure you audience would love to know more about the 'science' in your thinking there. What brought you to that? Why do you like that static feeling?

GM. It was appropriate for the song. How do you write a song about being unable to communicate? It can't be flashy. It can't be wildly exaggerated. I made a conscious effort to use absolutely the simplest language. Like "The sun going down in the sky - gold and more gold in that blue."

MS. I was surprised at that.

GM. I mean there are obviously better ways of describing it, but here I am having to describe something, but still convey that I am not describing things the way I would or the way the woman I am writing about would describe them.

MS. That really captured the understated feel of the song. One of the most powerful images in the song are the words "Like Clay on my eyelids, your mouth on my mouth." How did you come up with those words?

GM. It is an image from the Bible, actually ...I spent a number of years as a boy singing in my church choir. There is a miracle that Jesus performs in which he takes clay, moistens it, and uses it to cure a woman of her blindness. It has always seemed a very powerful image to me, and I guess I was trying to suggest the parallel of a kiss restoring the ability to speak.

I think the thing that would link all the songs that I have written would be my conscious desire to use the simplest language that I can about real issues. I wrote a song back in the 70's about the changing role of the fiddle player in bands. The song originated when I heard a band in rural Ontario, where the fiddle player came off the stage and said, "The fiddle player never gets the girls." That was because with the introduction of the electric guitar the fiddle tended to be forgotten. In a sense the song described a situation that wasn't really true at the time I wrote it, but that was about the change from the fiddle as the folk instrument that was the most important thing at a dance to the tradition of more rock or swing music where the fiddle was subsumed or lost in the mix. With that song, I was just trying to write about real issues in the simplest language.

MS. I'd like to discuss your experience with the operatic song form. Did Quartetto Gelato give you your first opportunity to explore the 'reason for being' of opera?

GM. In a sense, yes. What has been exciting for me about this group is that we all come from quite different backgrounds and we meet in this space, where much of the repertoire for each of us is repertoire that we have not been familiar with previously. So, we have this combination of people, like Peter, who knows the operatic repertoire and has a strong ideas about how it should go. With me, for example, I have a much more popular music approach to singing. I think one of the strengths of the group is we reach a space where, because of the instrumentation we use, and the style in which it is presented, that operatic singing, which for some people is less familiar, is presented in a way in which it can be seen as a kind of pop music, as, indeed it is in Italy. These are glorious tunes that everybody knows and everybody sings in Italy. Part of it comes from the fact that most opera is sung in a foreign language. Opera is really about beautiful melodies sung by as beautiful and pure a voice as possible.

I'm really inspired because, where I come from, country or folk music is not necessarily about the most beautiful voices. Dylan was the first to make that quite plain. Folk songs are text based. There are some very beautiful tunes, but essentially, in terms of it being an oral tradition, it is about people singing words. Where opera is about the beautiful voice and the beautiful melody. The words, in fact, can have a secondary importance, especially for people who don't understand them.

MS. If you look at people like Verdi, his themes had a powerful political impact. In his time opera was a tremendously influential political vehicle with a real grass roots power.

GM. Yes, in Italy, but today in North America, everybody loves 'O Solo Mio' without understanding what the words are about. That is the difference. So, for me what is so exciting, in terms of writing songs, is this idea of trying to move more in that direction. I wrote a lot of songs between 1972 and 1980 and then I stopped because I was playing cello in symphony orchestras and I just wasn't in that environment anymore. But now I am thinking I can get back into this and think about how I can take what I know about writing the lyrics for a song and add them to maybe a slightly more complicated approach to melody. I have just been listening to the Three Penny Opera, by Kurt Weil and Bertol Brecht -- the 1954 Broadway production. It is a real ear opener, you might say. It is a very plain text, and very clever. I don't mean to put those qualities on opposite sides of the fence. I'm just saying that it is not full of verbal tricks, it's just really plain and expressive - talking style. But then it goes into really sophisticated harmonic and melodic devices, that almost fight against the text sometimes.

MS. I love this almost bubbling excitement you are experiencing for this transition you are making here. As they say, "follow your bliss." When you know you have got that, then you know you are going in that direction. I'd like to hear more about this feeling you have for this path of discovery you have embarked on -- and time doesn't matter to your obviously, because some of the things you were interested in years ago are still intact today and are still firing up your enthusiasm for the new directions you wish to explore.

GM. Well, not all of them are intact (peels of laughter).

MS. Sometime we have to wait a long time for the peripheral stuff to fall away so that we can lift up our beautiful chalice in true fascination. (more laughter)

GM. Absolutely.

MS. I'd like to talk more about that. Where is the pulse at the moment, for you?

GM. For me, my approach to music has always been sort of scattered. I took a completely non-traditional approach as a musician. Specifically, I took cello lessons when I was at public school, in high school, and I also played guitar by ear. They were completely discrete ways of absorbing music. With the cello I played what was on the page and with the guitar I played what people showed me how to play, or I learned songs off records.

MS. How lucky you were to develop both paths.

GM. I really was lucky to develop both paths, and at the end of high school I actually stopped taking cello lessons and went to university for a couple of years, taking Chinese language and history. While I was at university I spent all of my spare time playing guitar and someone pointed this out to me. They said, "You're studying music, of course." And I went, "No I'm in Chinese language and history." They said, "But you spend all your time playing music." From this insight, I thought this observation was something I should consider.

So, I dropped out of university, moved to Toronto and started taking piano lessons at the Conservatory. I worked really hard for about three years playing piano six hours a day. I had a realization that this was what I wanted to spend my life doing. And I thought if this is what I am going to do, I should be sensible about this and play cello, because I had some grounding in cello. And at that point I started studying cello really hard. I did that for another three years.

Then I met a guy who was putting together a folk trio and I did that for another three years. In a way, the trio was like Quartetto Gelato because there was a girl who sang and played guitar and piano and both the violinist and myself sang, so we played a lot of instruments amongst the three of us. We did three part harmonies and sang a wide rang of song styles, as well as songs that we wrote. It was really fun. That was the only time before joining Quartetto Gelato where I could do everything that I could do, such as playing cello and playing guitar in one place. Through the eighties, I just played cello. I played in the Winnipeg Symphony, in the orchestra of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and then I got a job playing in the production of Phantom in Toronto and I also played with the National Ballet Orchestra for a couple of years. But it was all cello.

MS. I love the cello.

GM. It is a great instrument. One of the things that was great for me, because my education was so backwards and incoherent, I'm still at a point now, playing the cello, where I'm discovering what it means to play the cello and how to play it as beautifully as I can. And one of the great things about the quartet is that, for both my guitar playing and my cello playing, it has been a tremendous opportunity to work hard, and to be coached by people whom I respect. One of the things about working in the quartet is that we are all trying to inspire each other to play as well and as beautifully as we can, and so it is a voyage of discovery.

MS. You've answered both questions I had in mind there. But I still feel I'd like to draw you out a bit more - to see if you can articulate some of the feelings you have about the way you are pursuing the music. I see you being a bit like a sheep dog herding a flock of sheep here, with all of your interests, instrumentally and with the music styles you have been into in the past.

GM. Well, what I would have to say, and this has been a strength and a weakness, because I did realize, while I was spending that time playing piano, that I really did need to be involved in music. That no matter what else I was doing or how I was living, if I didn't have a musical instrument I would be unhappy.

MS. I want to know if you can tell us about those feelings, because they obviously loomed very large for you. They've guided you and they're still guiding your passion and analysis of the music as you progress. This is the difficult part - this is the part that poets work on, you know? Trying to describe this insight, this feeling, this power that can't be denied.

GM. What's funny about this particular 'power that can't be denied' is that some people very early on become very beautiful instrumentalists or they have a glorious voice or an obvious facility with an instrument and that is what leads them on. So, their approach to music is reinforced by that. But for me it was sort of like being grabbed by the scruff of the neck in my early twenties, at a time when I had been playing guitar, but without any formal connection to music, when I just said to myself, "This is what you want to do - now how are you going to put yourself in a position where you can do it." I had to go back to decide what instrument it is that I wanted to do this on. That is different from a lot of people's experience because they have the instrument and that instrument comes first. I just knew what I wanted to do. I always say, when someone asked me to come and play, I'd say yes first and then I would find out which instrument they wanted me to play and what kind of music they were playing.

MS. Do you have a particular philosophy you pursue or a particular kind of literature you read, besides history? Do you like poetry?

GM. Recently I have been reading Dickens. The Dickens came because I was required to read Oliver Twist at school and I really didn't like it. In fact I just reread it to find out why I didn't like it.

MS. I have never heard of anyone reading a book twice to find out why they didn't like it.

GM. Its because its one of these peculiar things that happen to me, -- that I will have an experience with a composer or an author and it will colour all future experiences with the author. Dickens is phenomenal. I've read four or five novels of his in the last two years. I am just astonished at what he can do. So I go, "what is the problem with Oliver Twist?" I think the problem is that it is not a very complicated story. Dickens can be incredibly sophisticated in his insight into the way peoples' minds work and the way they justify their existence. But Oliver Twist is really just a framework to hang Dicken's political attitude about the workhouse and poverty. There are not many complicated characters in Twist. They are put in there to act-through a point of view, rather than seeming to be coherent characters. So I read that stuff, and I just finished reading Harry Potter.

MS. I haven't read that. I'm told that I must read it.

GM. It's very impressive. In terms of poetry, Shakespeare's sonnets are great. I don't read a lot of poetry, but Yeats is great. We played in Galway two years ago, in the summer festival there. I was really pleased to be able to walk in Yeats' foot-steps, so to speak, because we were able to stop off at the estate of Lady Gregory, where he wrote much of his poetry.

MS. That is interesting -- that you would like Yeats, given you interest in the use of plain language, because, I think, while Yeats is most famous for his efforts to capture unconscious perception through the metaphors of the mythology, the mythology is only there as a vehicle for simple language use to describe or conjure up what the unconscious can perceive and bring to consciousness. I think it is really interesting that you like that, in relation to your own interest in writing simple lyrics.

GM. I have thought about trying to set one of his poems to music, but it is like approaching a tiger, because I don't want to screw it up. You've got to approach his ideas with nervousness.

MS. It is good to keep ourselves on that edge. If you are touring all the time, playing all the time, you can blunt that edge, I think, when you get over your nervousness too easily.

GM. One of the things about the quartet is that we rehearse so hard that we are always trying to push ourselves, and in a sense, there is a certain kind of nervousness you lose but in another sense, because you know what you are trying to do, there is always that edge.

MS. I like that. That is a nice insight. I think your audience will appreciate that. While you get rid of the distraction of nervousness, you're able focus your energy even more on that cutting edge, as it were.

GM. It's really important. Woody Allen cleverly compared relationships to a shark. He is reputed to have said, "If a shark is not swimming forward, it is dead." A shark doesn't sleep, it is always swimming, apparently. But I think of that. Any project that you are in has got to be moving forward.

MS. That is a very interesting little metaphor, because we know that the brain never sleeps. We talk about not using our brain fully. This work that you are doing, in keeping your skills and your focus honed, is very good for the brain, in terms of pushing into creative territory that you would never reach without a foundation that comes from almost a 24 hour focus. So that even when you are asleep the residue of the work you did while awake would keep the brain on target. That is very exciting.

GM. That can really be true.

MS. That is why I think it is important to talk to musicians and write down exactly what they have to say, because they have so much to teach us about escalating a heightened experience of life. The celebrity status and the PR presentation create a facade which becomes a block. It is like the barker at the entrance to the carnival calling everyone in to hear you. The promoter's words are planted firmly in the people's minds when they come to hear you play, often preventing access to understanding who you are from your own point of view. I think it is important for musicians to teach and lead by finding a way to explain or share insight into how they live.

GM. It is true that people can look at anyone in this kind of endeavour and think that it's a coherent whole that is presented, when, in fact, it is always dynamic and whatever you see on any particular night is a stage and a direction that people are moving in.

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Interviewer's Credits:

Mairéid Sullivan is a singer, poet, writer. She was born near Bantry, in County Cork, Ireland. She has lived in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia and currently resides in California. Her work is dedicated to researching and interpreting the gifts of Celtic culture and to blending the evocative feeling and beauty of ancient Celtic melodies with new expressions of poetry and music.

Mairéid's first album, "Dancer", produced by Donal Lunny, and her second recording, "For Love's Caress - a Celtic journey", are available on-line and in mainstream and alternative music stores, under Celtic/Irish, in World Music, New Age or International recording sections. Her book, "Celtic Women in Music" was published by Quarry Music Press in 1999. Mairéid is also a featured artist on Clarity Sound & Light's live concert recording "A Celtic Evening", with The Chieftain's Harper, Derek Bell. Her songs are featured on compilations by Narada Records, "Celtic Voices - Women of Song"; and Hearts O'Space Record, "Celtic Twilight 3 Lullabies". For further information see Mairéid's website at or contact Lyrebird Music at PO Box 11373, Marina Del Rey, CA. 90295.

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