If Brother and Sister sounds familiar, that is because it is the only song on the new album that we’ve recorded before. Since The Wednesday Night Island, however, it has fittingly metamorphosed into a gig-closing rapture of flugel and darkness, so we have decided to give it another outing. The rough idea for the track, first written about five years ago, was winding and feral, with a snake-charming riff that was played on saxophone (by none other than Su Robinson – and so the circle continues). The vocal melody, too, was as long and twisted as Rapunzel’s hair, which may be why in the end I simplified it into a fairy tale: there is no point languishing in a cursèd tower waiting for lyrical inspiration.
When looking to fairy tales for a muse, what better source than the Brothers Grimm? The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, translated by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell and illustrated with unsettling beauty by Maurice Sendak, was published in 1973, the year after I was born. The 27 tales embrace birth, sex, Death, cannabalism, talking hedgehogs, reincarnation, and infanticide. They fascinated and disturbed me in equal measure when I was a child. As an adult, reading the title story still raises the hairs on the back of my neck: “‘My mother she butchered me,/My father he ate me,/My sister, little Ann Marie,/She gathered up the bones of me/And tied them in a silken cloth/To lay under the juniper…‘”.
No matter which story you whisper, the imagery and rhythm of the translation lend themselves perfectly to being stolen for a song. Brother and Sister is the tale of a wicked stepmother (natch) whose tyrannical ways drive her stepchildren into the woods. She “sneaked after them, secretly, the way witches sneak“, and puts a spell on the forest springs so that anyone who drinks from them will turn into a wild beast. Though his sister begs him to resist, the thirsty brother can’t stop himself from kneeling at the water, and is transformed into a fawn who is chased by the king and his huntsmen. Eventually his faithful sister becomes queen, but is then killed by her stepmother and stepsister, who stifle her to death in a burning bathhouse. Unfazed, she returns to tend to her cervine sibling and her newborn son as a ghost. “How is my child?” she asks. “How is my fawn? Now I am here and never again.” And then the flugel soars, and the bass, drums, and beasts cease their relentless pursuit and tear the murderers to pieces.
Jon’s musical highlight: “The contrast between the space in the verses and the big choruses.”
My lyrical highlight: “God and our hearts are weeping together“. Pure poetry – why didn’t I think of it?