Come Let’s be Gentle

Let’s just address the elephant in the room. Let’s let the cat out of the bag, take the bull by the horns and call the dogs off. I come bearing my idiomatic menagerie in the hopes that you will forgive me for not posting on this blog for more than a year. I can only imagine the dwindling legion of readers who anxiously checked ShutTheFolkUp each day for new posts, only to leave, disappointed, as the site gathered dust on some forgotten corner of the Internet.

So why the lull? Well, basically everything happened at once. Have you ever studied organic chemistry? Studying organic chemistry is like studying the rules of some complex foreign sport, where every law is constantly altered and nullified by shifting by-laws, where electrons jump and bounce like over-caffeinated 4th graders, where just when you think you know what’s going on, an aldol condensation reaction or benzoic dehydrogenation occurs and you struggle to remember what aspect of medicine and patient care this knowledge might inform.

Sometime in the summer I studied for and took the MCAT. The name might suggest a purring, serene creature, eager to rub against legs and perch on laptop keyboards, but this feline is better related to the type that might stalk you on the Serengeti. As you lie sedately by the watering hole, the MCAT sneaks up behind you, targeting the weakest of the herd, the oldest, the plumpest, the ones who have not adequately memorized the ideal gas laws for a non-volatile vapor.  I left the building despondent, certain that I had failed and thinking of the plans I would have to cancel so that I could be ready for a retake. I’d left my phone at home and wouldn’t be picked up by my dad for a few hours, so ended up wandering the lot of a nearby business park, feeling sorry for myself and scowling at strangers. When my dad did finally arrive to pick me up, I was too miserable and exhausted from my suburban hike to say much. “Never mind,” he said, in a way that only dads can make sound comforting. “Never mind.”

A few days later, I left for Guatemala with my high school friend Scott, a reward to myself for completing my pre-medical studies. After a few days climbing volcanoes and swinging in hammocks, I forgot the MCAT had ever even happened. We crammed onto camionetas or ‘chicken buses’, old yellow Blue Birds that retire from civilized lives carting children to and from schools in  Des Moines and St. Louis to lives in Central America, crammed with locals who have paid less than a dollar to travel the length and breadth of the country. On one particularly memorable journey, Scott and I boarded an overcrowded bus and stood uncomfortably in the aisles, swaying in part from the awkward camber of the mountainous roads  but mostly from all the dodgy street food we’d had earlier. I was jealous when Scott was offered a seat, until I learned the obligations of this arrangement: a moment later, my taciturn, rugby-playing companion was handed an eight year old boy to sit on his lap for the rest of the journey, while his parents laughed at their reluctant new gringo babysitter. Guatemala is an absolutely incredible country and with some careful planning we were able to cover vast swathes of it in just over two weeks of travel.

Of course, as with all these things, the MCAT score wasn’t nearly as dreadful as I had anticipated, and before long I was interviewing at medical schools, in rooms with other nervous twenty-somethings, each desperately trying to convince admissions committees that we were God’s gift to the anatomy lab. When I received my acceptance phone call I ran out into the backyard of my parents’ home, my mum and dad and sister clinging to the doorframe behind me as I spoke to the dean of admissions. When I turned behind and gave them the thumb’s up, they erupted into cheering hugs. I had to ask the dean to repeat himself because they were screaming so loud.

It’s a wonderful feeling to have a trajectory, to know that the gravity of your future is drawing you into a steadily predictable orbit. I have many, many demanding years ahead of me and exams that will make the MCAT look like a basket of kittens, but the terrible part is over, the part rife with self-doubt and second thoughts, the part where you can never quite drop the feeling that the system is trying to shake you loose, to prove that you aren’t really supposed to be there. But once you’re in, once you pass that vital test and plant your foot firmly in the door, you find yourself surrounded by people determined not to see you leave.

My girlfriend recently celebrated a birthday, and her mum wanted to buy her tickets for a gig. She asked me to research bands playing in the area, and being the dutiful boyfriend that I am I quickly found out Johnny Flynn was touring. I hadn’t seen Johnny Flynn since my first year of university, but I had been blown away by his voice and unique songwriting. I’ve featured him on this blog before. He’s often lumped in with Noah & the Whale, Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons, but for some reason never really achieved the same notoriety as these guys. I think this is slightly unfair, as his lyrics alone set him above the others, and the guy plays like 17 instruments; halfway through their opening act, The Melodic told the audience their next song required a violin player, and Johnny Flynn suddenly emerged from backstage to accompany them. He came out 20 minutes later for his own set, and The Melodic stood near us in the audience and cheered along with the crowd. Everyone was just there to have a good time.

 

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…especially the middle-aged woman standing in front of us who couldn’t stop screaming with excitement every time Johnny Flynn spoke, and then trying to actively engage him in conversation between sets. But, okay, I get it, blonde hair and blue eyes, he’s a handsome guy.

Johnny Flynn had a son recently, and wrote one of my favourite songs from his new album ‘Country Mile‘ as a lullaby that somehow explains the theory of relativity to the boy. That should be reason enough to love the song. You can listen to it below :

Click here to listen to and download Einstein’s Idea by Johnny Flynn 

(wish I could ‘embed’ songs like I used to, but WordPress want me to pay $20 for this privilege and I think it’s a little cheeky)

And so now I prepare for my next big journey. In a couple weeks I will be boarding a plane for Dublin, then another for London and a final one for Frankfurt, where I plan to spend a few months learning German (because, you know, I’ll be working with so many German patients in medical school). I haven’t booked the plane ticket after that, but I know that somehow I will wind my way back to California by late July to start medical school.  In the mean time I just sit back and relax, another piece of flotsam drifting in the current.

 

 

16

Feb 2014

Thirty Dollars Pays Your Rent

I’m writing this 30,000 feet up, somewhere over the American Southwest. I could speak with a little more confidence about the exact coordinates of my location if my entertainment system was working (for now I can just peer at the flight map on the screen belonging to the gentleman all the way down there in 13D) but all you really need to know is that I’m a little bit to the left of New York and a little bit to the right of San Diego.

Now that I’m 75% done with my science classes, it’s time to start thinking about where I’ll be when I drop that prefix in pre-med. After my finals it was a long drive South with Holly’s cat, who, weirdly, drooled the whole way home until I let her out of the box to be my co-pilot. Within a mile of my house it was me drooling, imagining the pies and cakes and curries and taco nights and hamburgers and other various Mama Burns delicacies that are slowly increasing my BMI (spoiler alert: Mama Burns did not disappoint). After reacquainting myself with the snooze button on my alarm for several weeks, it was time to scope out some medical schools in New York.

Fortunately, my brother moved there nine months ago, and even more fortunately, he ended up with a beautiful flat in Greenwich Village. He’s actually on Bleecker Street, which meant I was singing this song every time I came off the subway. Greenwich Village was basically the maternity ward of one major era of folk music, and when Papa Burns visited a few weeks ago it must have been a little like walking through his old 1966 record collection.

Though I wish I could have steeped myself in the history of my surroundings a bit more, I had done most of the touristy stuff on my last visit to New York a couple years ago (when I stayed with my brother’s best friend Rich and was introduced to some American pals who had met my brother a few weeks before; during my whole stay they solemnly and quietly referred to him as ‘The Loose Cannon’, a title whose origins I hesitate to delve into any further) and this time it was purely (well, mostly) business.

New York is just amazing, isn’t it? Okay, I know there are some of you reading this who have their own reasons for hating it, but you can’t deny the fact that New York is never disappointing. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Every street you walk down is like a postcard, every subway and taxi and skyscraper identical to the ones in the movies. Of course, as a just-what-you’d-expect caricature of itself, New York does also come with the stereotypically exorbitant prices, the occasional disgruntled New Yorker and a weird abundance of cockroaches. Still, I’d take it warts and all. After 8 years in the safe but sterile petri dish of Singapore, it’s a welcome change.

Brother Tommy and I also had a chance to see a gig while I was there. While English readers might scoff at my tardiness to the party, I’m only just now hearing about the folk wonder that is Jake Bugg. Citing references like Donovan, Cash but, strangely, not Dylan, you wouldn’t be surprised to find Bugg lean pretty heavy on the old Trad. folk stick with some of his songwriting. But it doesn’t end there, and we spectators were pretty blown away when, mid-set, the solemn little 18 year-old whipped out a Telecaster and start melting faces with some crazy solos. Somehow he manages to keep it all flowing smoothly, from slow acoustic ballads to kickdrum-thumping screamers. He really lays on the folk-hero moodiness between sets (making the occasional smile that much more heart-wrenching for the gaggle of wilting teenage girls standing beside us) but it’s tempered by the honesty and emotion of his lyrics.

 

“Country Song” in particular stood out for me (though apparently not to Bugg; he prefaced it with a description of nothing more than “So, this is an old one”) and I have pasted below. Let me know in the comments what you think, and if you get a chance, catch Jake Bugg (excellent free MP3 “Saffron” also available on his site) while he’s touring his new self-titled album.

In the meantime, I’ve got a bag of peanuts that needs to be opened and seat begging to be returned to its upright position. Have a fantastic 2013, and safe travels.

Listen to  Country Song by Jake Bugg

16

Jan 2013

Try Another City, Baby

When I moved to Oakland, only a short bridge span from San Francisco, I expected to spend most of my days in the City by the Bay, riding trams through Embarcadero, mingling with hippies in Haight Ashbury, and drinking Anchor Steam late into the Mission dusk. In reality I ended up spending most of my days in front of my desk trying to memorize the Krebs cycle. I do still find time to cross the bridge, and once a week or so I’ll drop by to see my sister and work a few shifts as a research assistant at the general hospital. For the most part though, I’ve been confined to the East Bay (I think some of the inmates at Alcatraz had a better view of San Francisco than I’ve had).

This is part of the reason why I was so crazily, utterly, wildly ecstatic to be offered free, front row tickets to see Laura Marling at Grace Cathedral the other night. That’s right. That Grace Cathedral. Not only was I seeing one of the greatest folk artists of our generation, I was ticking one of the city’s greatest landmarks off my Must Visit list at the same time.

My sister very graciously offered me her tickets, after her friend Abby (who is wonderful and funny and very very kind) told her she had two spare seats at a show that just happened to be the same night as Holly’s book club. After informing Abby of her prior engagement through what I imagine were very clenched teeth, Holly, in true, noble, characteristic, folk-loving fashion suggested to Abby that her younger brother might like to see Laura Marling instead. Smart investment, Holly. Today you give me free concert tickets. Tomorrow (by which I mean in several decades time) your presently unborn children will have free reign in my nationally-renowned pediatric practice.

Most of my Marling-loving friends are confined to England and though I know Sam some would cross the pond for her in a heartbeat, the performance was only 24 hours away. I had to find someone fast, and after briefly interviewing my closest friends on their opinions on folk music, settled on the lovely Melanie.

We arrived a bajillion hours too early, but passed the time in the nearby dog park wondering how long it would be till we were cool enough to move to San Francisco proper (people were actually drinking red wine while they walked their dogs. Seriously, is there some sort of hipster handbook I was supposed to receive in the mail?). After contacting Abby and tentatively asking if we might maybe you know possibly be able to watch Laura Marling’s sound check, we were given the enthusiastic go-ahead and allowed to bypass the line that was beginning to emerge from the entrance of Grace Cathedral. We only caught a glimpse of her from one end of the massive building before she went backstage, and Melanie and I were given a dizzying tour of the roof and belltower.

The performance was opened by Willy Mason, an artist who is so incomprehensibly underrated, I would have come just to see him headline alone. He seems to be only known for that one brilliant song, but he played a full set’s worth of cracking tunes. It also helped that his magnificent voice carried so beautifully into the depths of Grace Cathedral vastness. (You could burp in there and it would sound like a masterpiece.) Do me a favour, reader. Go take a look at Willy Mason’s current tour dates and if he winds up in a city near you, pay him a visit. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

And then finally, Laura Marling appeared. The crowd offered a polite cathedral clap as she entered with her band, but all pretenses of chastity and restraint were dropped the second she sat down. She was wearing a long flowery dress, and as she crossed her legs and revealed just a teensy bit of delicate calf to the audience, a collective sigh was uttered by every man in the audience. She really is beautiful. I’ve always received a similar impression from Laura Marling’s music. She sells records with her angelic blondness and beauty, but her songs are crafted from tough, gristly experiences. Those who write about her frequently refer to her humble musical beginnings, how she was nominated for a Mercury Prize at only 18, how she seems to have charming love affairs with all the London folk artists. But she is certainly a grown-up, and her performance made a point of showing it.

I found the most impressive thing about her newest album ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ to be her embrace of traditional folk, even Celtic-ish melodies. Rather than just rely on the dependable, repetitive chord progressions of her present day “nu-folk” peers, she experiments with complex melodies and guitar tunings. Having seen her in concert I now realize what an advanced guitar player she is, and a good guitar-playing girl really is an unfortunate rarity in modern folk music.

After a couple of songs, Laura Marling paused to retune her guitar. The cathedral sat patiently in the quiet darkness as she worked. Suddenly aware of what must have seemed to her to be a gigantic awkward silence, she said quietly into the microphone, “Stage banter isn’t really my strong point.” We all laughed at her generous self-deprecation, but beneath the sweetness there was a sharpness. We were being told by Laura in the most disarmingly charming way that we had to take what she was offering, and that we shouldn’t expect any comforting small-talk from her any time soon. This is part of the duality that defines Laura Marling, an innocence and a cold reality that to me just seems so quintessentially English. I’m not complaining, however. In that dress, with that voice, with those legs, I could sit and watch her tune a guitar all night.

Laura Marling sings Blues Run the Game from Luke Burns on Vimeo.

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Check out the video above to hear that stunning voice in action, and if that’s still not enough, take a listen to her very folky single ‘All My Rage’ from her new album A Creature I Don’t Know.

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28

Jul 2012

You’re So Attractive!

There’s a lyric in a Johnny Flynn song that struck me the very first time I heard it, swaying awkwardly in a sweaty crowd of people at a gig in some Bristol pub a few years ago:

Time rolls the back wheels of my mind/
You helped me put the brakes on because you’re kind

I don’t know why, but it gets me every time.

Lyrics are the key to the contemporary folk song. Sure, any guy with a decent voice can pick up an acoustic guitar, make a record and call it folk, but unless the words coming out of his mouth are saturated with poetry, he runs the risk of becoming just another douchebag with a guitar.

This is why I have such trouble with Mumford & Sons. They’re certainly talented guys, and they make catchy, complex melodies that are appealing to just about everybody. But seriously, their lyrics? It’s like they stole them from the album leaf of a Finnish death metal band. From their song The Cave,

The harvest left no food for you to eat/
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see/
But I have seen the same/
I know the shame in your defeat/

But I will hold on hope/
And I won’t let you choke/
On the noose around your neck

Okay, I know, it’s unfair to judge a band’s lyric-writing capabilities on one single song. But an overarching sense of melodrama pervades all of their music, so much so that I have trouble not wanting to give Marcus Mumford a huge reassuring hug every time I hear him sing about ‘weeping’ and ‘trembling’.

No, no, I’d much rather listen to the beautiful wordcraft of Mumford’s ex-lover, Laura Marling. (Um, did you know there is a tumblr devoted solely to this short-lived relationship? Unfortunately, the site’s owner seems unwilling to acknowledge the fact that many months ago this relationship came to an end, despite tip-offs from various visitors) From Ghosts:

He says “I’m so lost,/
Not at all well”/
Do as though there is nothing left to be/
Turned out I’d been following him and he’d been following me/
Do as though after it was over/
We were just two lovers crying on each others shoulders

I can never read and listen to music at the same time. Songs are stories, and having something playing in the background is like trying to follow two books at once. In particular, Josh Ritter is especially adept at telling tales with his songs, drawing you into magical worlds where mummies fall in love with (and later cast curses on) the unfortunate palaeontologists who discover them, and scientists conduct illicit affairs in nuclear missile silos, threatening to destroy the world in the name of love. Not only does he tell well-crafted stories in his songs, but he knows how to put emphasis in the right places, so here and there you catch whiffs of certain lyrics that draw you away from whatever book you are unsuccessfully trying to concentrate on.

When it comes down to it, everyone has their own opinion on what makes a good lyric and I’ll not act like we’ll always agree. Many of you out there will have a song that’s close to your heart because a certain line spoke to you, or because it told a story that was immediately relevant to you the moment you heard it.

So what do you think? Is there a song that you think has the best lyrics in the world? Well, you’re not doing anybody any favors keeping it to yourself. Share your favorite lyricists below, and let the world know the bands they should be listening more carefully to.

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Now that my first year of studies is over, I’ve been desperately trying to replenish my diminished supplies of folk. This was how I found my newest addition, The Lumineers. With gravelly lead vocals, a moody cello and, a reliable, old-fashioned traditional folky sound, they caught my attention quickly. Then I listened to the lyrics and I realized I had little choice but to share this beautiful band, whose eponymous first album was released just last month.

It was hard to choose a favorite stanza from ‘Flowers in Your Hair’ (which you can download for free from Amazon), but I still can’t help but smile when lead singer Wesley Schultz croons:

So now I think that I could love you back/
And I hope its not too late/
‘Cause you’re so attractive

I only wish they played it a little slower. It seems to end way too quickly.

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29

May 2012

What’s the Worst Thing that Could Possibly Happen to You?

Most Formula One racers spend about four seconds in the pit stop. I’ve been here for a week.

Like a high-performance automobile, my body has been accelerating through my schoolwork all semester, dodging deadlines, careening between classes, whizzing past my competitors as they choke on the dust I leave behind in my wake. Midterms, homework assignments and practical exams disappear in my rearview mirror like so much unfortunate road kill. I spent most of the semester with my wheels barely touching the tarmac, oblivious to anything but the approaching finish line.

About a week ago, though, the engine started to falter.

I spent my first round of exams at around a thousand RPM (Revision-minutes Per Midterm), fuelling up on bottomless cups of tea and racing through the night. My body, ever the practical machine, knew I was too busy to get sick, and so took the liberty of rescheduling any impending sniffles or colds for sometime in mid-August 2014. Nevertheless, it was evident something didn’t feel quite right, but with Spring break approaching I knew I’d be fine if I kept pushing just a little bit longer.

I had interviews and coursework and more midterms, but I continued to ignore the warning lights that came flashing up, even as the ominous spluttering from under the hood grew ever louder. The little dents and scratches that usually managed to heal themselves began to accumulate, until I realized that my body was just too preoccupied to waste resources healing itself. Just a little further, I told it. Drag me past that chequered flag and we’ll be fine.

Eventually I was forced to see a doctor, whose advice I half-heard as I was flipping through textbooks in her examination room. Blood tests were taken just to be sure, but we all knew the oil was fine. All the engine really needed was a rest.

It came down to the final week. One last barrage of midterms and practicals, and I could put this disintegrating technology to rest. The balding tires, the unwashed grills, the rusting transmission, and at the very heart, a hiccuping engine held together by bubble-gum and the caffeine coursing through its valves.

And then, suddenly, I had finished.

I don’t remember much about packing my suitcase. I don’t remember my girlfriend driving me to the airport in the morning or checking in or taking my shoes off at security (was I even wearing shoes?). I don’t know if I had the aisle or was crammed into the window, or if I asked for extra peanuts.

I do, remember, however, seeing my mother try to sneak behind me at the carousel in an effort to surprise me, and then upon seeing my pale unwashed skin, wrap me up in a bear hug and half carry my luggage and me to the car outside. I do remember her plying me with sandwiches and drinks as my dad drove us home, and I do remember landing on the couch after walking through the door and waking up hours later with a blanket covertly wrapped around my body.

Through the course of my life, I have moved houses innumerable times across Asia, Europe and North America and after a few months at each new location my mum will ask me without fail, does it feel like home yet? And the answer is always yes, because wherever my mother is, be it Singapore, Southern California or Saturn’s rings, I will always feel like I’ve lived there my entire life.

And now, wrapped up each night in fat slabs of indulgent endless sleep, I can feel my body slowly putting itself together again. Each morning, I wake up with the sun streaming in my window, and for a split second I forget where I am. Then I catch the smell of scrambled eggs or porridge or lemon meringue pie wafting up from the kitchen downstairs, the door opens and my mum brings in a cup of tea and tells me what she has planned for the day, and there is no doubt in my mind about where I could possibly be. I am, of course, home.

So, I find myself now, firmly entrenched in a pit stop, changing my tires and cooling my pistons. I know that soon I will have to fly up north again, to return to the tarmac and the distant finish line, and in truth, I can’t wait to get back to burning rubber. But for the moment, you can keep your four seconds. I could easily stay here forever.

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In the spirit of home comforts, I turn back now to possibly my favorite folk artist of all time. Josh Ritter, as some of you may know, has always been very dear to my heart, and when I received the official Josh Ritter Fan Club newsletter recently and learned that he was releasing his new EP ‘Bringing Home the Darlings’, I knew I had no choice but to indulge.

While I’m a little sad to say that most of the songs did not quite stand out for me, one in particular has been constantly repeating itself on my iPod. ‘Why’ has just the right combination of beautiful harmonies and heart-rending lyricism to lodge itself inside your head for weeks. Ritter excels when he is at his most simple, with nothing but an acoustic guitar and his faux-country vocals. Presumably this EP will lead on to a full-fledged album, and I’ll be counting the days.

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The Sorest Thumb in the Room

I think we all like to have a collection of stock stories that we can fall back on at interviews and cocktail parties. These are the old reliable anecdotes that serve as stopgaps between awkward pauses, or warm-ups to more important conversations. Perhaps it seems a little phony for me to say it, but in truth there is something comforting about turning a unpredictable encounter into a quasi-formulaic exchange you’ve had thousands of times before.

Considering that I’ve spent the majority of my life with somewhat of a minority background, it’s easy for me to steer an uneasy conversation into a more familiar arena. “You know you can’t chew gum in Singapore? I know that because I lived there for 8 years. Oh, what I haven’t mentioned that? Well…” There. Easy.

Many friends and acquaintances reading this may be familiar with some of my old favourites. Others may never have met me but may do one day in the future, and at the risk of giving away or spoiling any of the ammunition I might one day use to segue myself into our burgeoning friendship, I won’t spoil any surprises. There is one particular story, however, that has been so heavily used that it may soon need to be retired, and to give it a proper sending-off, allow me to employ it one final time.

When I was 11, my family and I moved to hot, tropical Singapore from temperate, waspy Connecticut. I’d spent most of my important growing-up years at a public elementary school and when I left in the winter of 2001, I didn’t bring any chewing gum or other contraband (except maybe about a million Pokemon cards) but I did manage to import a very strong, very nasal American accent.

There are videos of me when we were still in America alighting from a big yellow school bus, complaining about something my principle at my elementary school had said that afternoon. “Mr Rechi,” I complain to the camera, curling my vowels and tapdancing across consonants. “Mr Rechi didn’t tell the students to have a good weekend.” My siblings find endless joy in this clip. Not in the red, wire-framed glasses. Not in the vibrant bowl haircut, billowing in the wind. Rather, my brother and sisters laugh and laugh and do imitations and generally don’t let me forget, the very strong, very nasal American accent.

I wouldn’t strictly say I was bullied for the way I spoke when I arrived at my new international school in Singapore, not least because my ‘tormentors’ eventually became my best friends (in fact, the same best friends I Skype with now every week). Instead, it was perhaps a form of very influential teasing, that eventually convinced me things would have to change. Carefully, I studied the accents I heard around me. The cafeteria at my school was probably fairly similar to the one at the United Nations, with hundreds of different flavours of English bouncing around ever corner. Anyone who has ever spent time in an ‘expat’ community will know that the effect of all these translated mother tongues, these human filters transmitting Australian and Korean and British and Indian and Kiwi and German intonations and pronunciations, is an amalgamated, universal Overseas Accent.

To the layman ear, it sounds pretty British. But linguistic connoisseurs will detect rhotic consonants and stunted vowels, lazy “t’s” and curvy “er’s”. When I moved to England I was told I was Australian, when I travelled through Melbourne I was told I was South African. At the age of 11, teased for having a voice reminiscent of Spongebob Squarepants, none of this mattered as long as I didn’t sound American.

This is the part of the story where, depending on how much you seem to be enjoying our conversation, I would add that interestingly enough, my twin sister still has an American accent. As long as you didn’t laugh politely and search around the room for somebody more exciting to talk to, I would tell you how my twin, unpressured by spotty adolescents to drop her American pronunciations, talks now like she spent most of her life growing up with a Beverly Hills postcode. Her accent has remained, a relic of her New England childhood, so that when my mother introduces us to her friends at parties she has to quickly chime in to explain that we are in fact twins, though we don’t necessarily sound like we are.

This is usually a good point for me to start telling my story.

Keen readers will notice that for the past year or so, this blog has been written the same way it would have been spoken aloud: Englishly. My “favours” and “neighbours” are stuffed with redundant vowels, I avoid filling my “recognise”s with exciting z’s, I fly “aeroplanes” and put suitcases in the “boot”. However, once again, it seems, the time has come for me to change. Like my 11 year-old self did so many years ago, I am feeling the pressures to amalgamate, to homogenise, to blend in. Now, however, rather than coming from a troupe of boys in a humid South East Asian locker room, the pressure comes from within.

Everyday, I begin my lecture by putting the date in the top right-hand corner of the page. And everyday, a crisis strikes. Today is February 17th, I think to myself. What comes first? The month or the day? In my sociology classes back at university, we would learn about hybridised and multiple identities, British-Asians, for instance, who oscillate between cultural personas, British one minute, Asian the next. When I am deciding whether or not I should put write a 2 or 17 first, a little mini argument erupts in brain. But it always ends the same way.

I travelled 5,000 miles from family, friends and a first-class degree to start all over again in city where nobody, except maybe my sister, knows me. I remind myself of this, and then I then I pick up my pen and majestically write 2/17/12 at the top of my paper. Of course the problem with this particular method of cultural identification is that by the time my internal conflict has been resolved, the class is already three slides deep into the Powerpoint presentation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I haven’t sold my soul and my British heritage for a slice of the American dream. I’m far from becoming an anonymous member of the Greatest Nation on Earth, and in fact I still stick out like a sore thumb at parties. Despite my attempts to blend in, I still ask for the temperature in Celsius and am always momentarily stunned when people tell me they like my ‘pants’. It is more for consistency and convenience that I have decided to slowly Americanize (did you see that?) how I write and type. In the end I’ll never be happy unless I’m just a little bit strange.

And in case you were wondering, I won’t be losing the accent any time soon. It’s way too popular with the ladies.

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So it’s been a while since I’ve posted, and you know what? I’m not gonna apologise! That’s right. I’m not.

Well, okay. Maybe I will. A little.

Okay, okay, I’m really really really sorry. It’s just I’ve had midterms, and coursework, and medicine stuff, and… and to say sorry properly, I’ll provide you with something gorgeous today.

A couple years ago, Deer Tick’s John J. McCauley III, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez got together and informally formed Middle Brother. Their 2011 self-titled album took a fat chunk of all three members, resulting in a crunchy folky album that drifts along and does what it likes. The album is a whole mix of different stuff, but Million Dollar Bill stuck out for me for a number of reasons, not least because each member gets his own verse, before harmonising together in a swooning trio at each chorus. I think you’re going to like it too.

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Oh, the Weather Outside is Inconsistent

I’ve always thought it would be cool to write a book about all the different ways people do Christmas. Not a particularly profitable book, I suppose, because now that I think about it, it would probably be kind of boring, and the demographic would more or less basically just be me. Maybe just a magazine article then, or a Powerpoint presentation.

I’d still find it really interesting. I’m fascinated by the protocol of Christmas. Every family who celebrates the holiday has their own special way of doing it. Stockings on the bed or over the fireplace? Christmas Eve in with the family or out on the town? Presents all at once or spread throughout the day? For some, I understand, this protocol is relaxed and malleable. Your formula for the ideal family Christmas may be altered by varying circumstances, and family traditions may be subject to drastic change from year to year. This is not, however, the case for my family.

You see, we’re somewhat of a mobile bunch. In a few weeks’ time when we’ve all returned to our respective homes-away-from-home, my brother will be in Singapore, my sister will be in San Francisco, my twin will be in Scotland, my parents will stay in San Diego and I’ll be dodging bullets back up in Oakland. It’s always been this way, all of us spread out across the globe like a bunch of family diplomats each responsible for keeping up appearances in one corner of the Earth. Consequently, Christmas has become not just a time of celebration, but a time of reunion, when we get to eat homecooked food and wait with anticipation for each other to arrive from the airport. The location of that airport has changed many times over the years too. With each new move, we find a new place to call home, and a new quandary over which room in the new house we should put the Christmas tree in.

Among this swirling maelstrom of change, December 25th remains an island of unwavering consistency. Apart from the ever diminishing role that Santa Claus has taken as the years have passed, for the most part Christmas has remained more or less unchanged in the Burns family since around 1986.

Maintaining such ruthless regularity has not been difficult. You see, Papa Burns contributed a lot of German DNA to the family gene pool, and the clockwork precision and efficiency of our Teutonic heritage becomes apparent at this time of year. My sisters, who appear to have inherited the majority of this DNA, adopt the unofficial titles of Christmas Coordinators. Some years I forget portions of the Christmas protocol, but they are like the village elders, the keepers of ancient Burns family lore, always at hand with knowledge of old customs set by precedence of previous Christmases. Not sure which way the dessert spoons should face? Susie will tell you that since 1997 we have been facing them to the left, except between 2001 and 2003 when we broke tradition and used forks. Not sure if our mother will like the lavender hand soap you’re giving her? Consult with Holly and learn that over the years Mama Burns has received fourteen lavender-related items, and shown Medium to Medium-High recipient satisfaction for all of them. Should you have any doubts or queries, kindly direct them to the Christmas Coordinators (but please, if you wish to avoid any arguments you will be unable to win, keep all comments and suggestions to yourselves).

And so, keeping with the tradition of all past Christmases, this one was excellent. The food was overwhelming, the presents were fantastic and my family were as fun, gregarious and highly-efficient as ever. Now that my parents are happily settled in their current house (or at least, for now, their current state) and their children are gradually feeling the gravitational pull of America (Tom moves to New York in April), it seems like the restlessness of our past is finally starting to fade. I’m really looking forward to us maybe one day all being in the same country, to the day when we won’t have to worry so much about the effects that snowstorms or lost passports may have on us being reunited with each other every year. As much as I love the pomp and tradition of Christmas, I’m also kind of looking forward to the day when it won’t be such a big deal, when it’ll just be another day in December that I get to spend eating food and cracking jokes with my family.

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You know what I really really don’t get? Maybe I’m missing something here and one of you can correct me, but I just can’t understand why artists insist on covering Christmas songs. I’m still waiting for the day when a band covers Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas better than Sinatra or Fairytale of New York better than The Pogues. For me, each Christmas song is so wrapped up in the symbolism and meaning that hearing someone else cover it just sends me into uncontrollable convulsions of cringe.

However, there is one song in particular that kind of breaks this mould. Lisa Hannigan (she of Damien Rice duo fame) once released this amazing version of Silent Night, where she took the melody and some of the familiar lyrics of the song, but totally rewrote its meaning and delivery.

It’s a beautiful song, and is available for you to stream or download below. I really think that is the secret to a good cover; totally revolutionising the song, making it your own, but keeping enough of the original that people can still realise what an improvement you’ve made on the original.

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The Birth of a Nerd

Internet,

It’s been roughly 1,512½ hours since we last spoke. I’d like to say a lot of things have happened since then and now. I’d like to describe the exotic locales and hair-raising adventures that have kept me from you for so long, the tales of mystery, fun and excitement, the hilarious anecdotes and witticisms that I’ll be writing about for months to come. I’d like to sweep you off your feet with charming stories so that you soon forget the chasm that has developed between us, the unforgivable dereliction of my duty to provide you with a constant stream of beautiful folk day in and day out. I’d like to, but I can’t.

You see, unless you find stories about the hydrophobic interactions of non-soluble molecules particularly riveting, anything I tell you about the past two-and-a-half months probably isn’t going to have you on the edge of your seat. I found out pretty quickly on my eight-hour journey back from Oakland to San Diego with my Dad that the colligative properties of solutions do not make especially interesting road trip conversation topics. The same goes for quantum mechanics, DNA replication models and the intricacies of molecular photophosphorylation.

The problem is, suddenly these things have become incredibly interesting to me.

I spent so much of my life negotiating around the stickier, more troublesome elements of maths and science (kind of like how a triacylglycerol molecule would avoid the hydroxyl groups of water molecules, am I right?). I felt safe amongst grammar and vocabulary, secure within the pages of a novel and coddled by the familiarity of a language I needed to use every day. Maths stumped me. It wasn’t that I was bad at it (though I was also pretty bad at it). It just seemed so mean. There is nothing forgiving about mathematics. English would invite me over to its house with a nice broad question, ask me to elaborate, give me some wiggle room in response and a chance to express my own opinions, before sending me home in the afternoon with a good grade and some friendly constructive criticism. Maths and science would steal my lunch money and give me a wedgie. And a B-.

I began to change my opinion about science when I was introduced to biology. It wasn’t long before I was in love, describing the alimentary canal and mitotic cell cycle not only with the beauty of a writer, but the precision of a scientist. (Biology, you see, allows room for both.) After maths and chemistry were done holding my head in a toilet, biology would be waiting outside the bathroom with a towel and a hug. And so, I accidentally fell in love with science. It wasn’t enough to stop me from reverting back to the familiarity of the humanities when it came time for university, however, but through those long three years biology waited for me patiently, snubbed, but knowing that one day I would return.

And so when it came time to get my prerequisite subjects for medical school, I was a little nervous. Would biology still remember me? Would we still have fun together? Could we restore the As of the good old days? Even more importantly, how would chemistry and maths treat me now that I was all grown up?

It turns out I had nothing to fear. Biology and I are back in love. It’s as though we never left one another’s side. As for chemistry and maths, well let’s just say things have changed a little. We’re all a bit older now and those silly days of our adolescence have been mostly forgotten.

Of course, my writing has taken the biggest hit of all, now that, you know, I’m a scientist and everything. It’s been hard to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard midst all the formulas and equations I’ve had to learn, but now that I’m back home for Christmas I’ll be able to catch you up on the little bits and pieces that have occurred in between lectures. I suppose a couple cool things may have happened to me since last October, and I’m sure I can squeeze out a good story here and there. Whether or not you’ll need to start memorizing portions of the periodic table in order to read my blog, well, I can’t make any promises.

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While I stay busy searching for the perfect folk song based on the quadratic formula, I’ll have to make do with donations from elsewhere. Wonderful, beautiful Lacey emailed me out of the blue last month with a fantastic suggestion that has been keeping me very happy. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are The Milk Carton Kids, a couple of wise LA fellas with a penchant for making beautiful folky noise. Midst the cornucopia of nu-folk offerings and Mumford-imitators, I really respect a couple of guys who can cling on to their Americana roots, and still make something that sounds so original. While their lyrics can sometimes seem a little contrived, and sometimes even cringey, for the most part they echo something deep and meaningful, and have me hooked throughout.

everybody loves something new/ ’cause you can open it and plug it in/ and it feels like a good night’s sleep/ like the girl you like paid you a compliment/

Holly has three basic principles when it comes to finding music that she likes: anything with jangly guitars, vocal harmonies and a catchy melody will eventually wiggle its way into her heart and onto her iPod. I’m pretty sure The Milk Carton Kids, who tick all of Holly’s boxes will be there soon too.

Check out Queen Jane below, but also know that they have TWO FREE ALBUMS available on their website, should you, you know, want free music or something.

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18

Dec 2011

Custard

Things have gotten dark lately. I don’t mean in any sort of emotional or metaphorical sense. Literally, it’s been getting dark lately, as tends to happen during winter months, I suppose, you know, what with the tilt of the Earth and its journey around the sun and everything. Still, it came as quite a shock to me, having grown accustomed to such ceaseless unrelenting sunshine everyday, to open my window shades expecting a barrage of energising photons, and instead having to spend the rest of the morning trying to remember where I’d packed my umbrella.

At the age of 13 or 14 I suddenly became obsessed with the concept of consistency. I think it was something to do with never having had a single country to call my home, or living in a place like Singapore, where there was always just enough time to become somebody’s best friend before their dad’s boss made a casual decision during a Friday morning board meeting that sent the family spiralling off to a new life in China or Dubai or Hong Kong.

Change is definitely good. It’s what launches you outside of your comfort zone, forcing you to learn new skills for new situations and most importantly grinding you up against people whose customs you’re unaccustomed to. I would always advocate throwing all you’ve got at a single goal, turning your life so that it points in the opposite direction and soldiering through the curveballs and sliders of a new world where every person seems to drive on the wrong side of the road. This is, after all, exactly what I did when I set off to become a doctor in America with nothing but a degree in Politics & Sociology and a rough understanding of the Krebs cycle. (Doesn’t this make me sound like a Polish immigrant coming to New York in the 1890s? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…and those among you with first-class degrees from top British universities that have minimal scholastic value in America.)

I met a girl here a few days ago who has this whole academic thing completely nailed down. With straight As and a great shot at any medical school in the country, she is nearly ready to start that long, hard march to clinical residency. But she’s putting aside her applications for a year to travel. When I asked her where she wanted to go, she reeled off the names of most of the countries in Europe, and then added that she wouldn’t mind doing Africa, oh, and Asia too. She just wants to be anywhere but where she’s been for the last twenty years. Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, or so claimed Oscar Wilde, and even the consistency so exquisitely crafted by my friend’s steady 4.0 GPA and her reliable circle of lifelong friends could do with a little disruption.

For all its merits, though, change can be a little trying sometimes. Spontaneity can get tiresome and unpredictability is not always welcome. There’s something mundanely beautiful about routine, something comforting in its familiarity, something beans-on-toast boring that you know is never going to let you down. And so, despite my claims of being a crazy maverick who moves five-thousand miles to complete anonymity, in truth I’m still surrounded by tiny islands of consistency that remind me of how mundane and unadventurous I really am. I call up Mama Burns for a chat nearly every day, or visit Holly and Sean and recant the same inside jokes we’ve had for the last decade. I go to the supermarket and buy butternut squash by the truckload, like I did without fail every week in Bristol, or jars of the same apple sauce I was eating back when I lived in Connecticut in 1995 (granted I was 6 then; the impressions I get from American friends now is that perhaps apple sauce is not something that twenty-two year olds are supposed to continue indulging in). For all the change we impose on ourselves and for all reports of clean slates and new leaves, there’s something comforting about doing the same old things, just in a brand new post code.

And so when I finally found my umbrella the other morning and ventured out into the grey wasteland outside my window, I didn’t get grumpy or mad about the change in weather. In fact, if anything, I felt a little homesick. The clouds in the sky and puddles on the street were just a little reminder of the last place I called home.

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Luckily for you, my taste in music is as bland and boring as it’s always been. An acoustic guitar and a clever lyric will catch my attention no matter what hemisphere I find myself in. I was catsitting again the other day, and in between textbooks, spent some time stumbling across the songs that passed me by while I wasn’t looking. One that slipped through the net way back in 2008 was something from Neil Halstead, who is, according to Wikipedia, “one of Britain’s most respected songwriters”. Though I haven’t had a chance to get to know his music super well yet, I’m happy for this title to stand while I listen to the excellent tune below again and again and again (and again and again and again).

Neil Halstead seems to get his words tangled up as he sings, and as a lifelong mumbler myself (I just got shivers at the thought of trying to articulate the phrase ‘lifelong mumbler myself’ out loud), there’s a nice familiarity there. He does, however, use the F-word perfectly.

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Settle Down

I’m writing this alone, in a big empty house, on a dark cold night, in a city I don’t know. Every couple of minutes or so I hear a thump from behind the door I’ve closed in anticipation of creeping, knife-wielding burglars, and while, granted, the thumps could just be coming from one of the two noisy cats that I’m supposed to be looking after in my sister’s big empty house, on a dark cold night in San Francisco, they could just as likely be the footsteps of a murderer. I’m not taking any chances, so this means maintaining a constant loud one-way conversation in a dramatically masculine voice with the two cats, just so the knife-wielding burglars downstairs know that I have backup.

It’s nice to walk around this beautiful home and act like it won’t be another 15 years of student loan debt before I can actually afford one myself. Holly and Sean and their noisy cats are so close now, it’s almost unbelievable. While seeing them still means forty minutes of traversing a bridge, a freeway and the mountain range hills of San Francisco, it’s a helluva lot easier than the numerous time zones I had to traverse just to visit them in the past. Sometimes when I feel I’ve had enough of graduate life and its endless parade of periodic tables and hydrogen bonds, I pack up my little car and cross the bridge and the freeway and the hills, and ring a doorbell and suddenly my older sister is standing right there in front of me. For most of you, a sibling you can access without first buying a plane ticket may be the norm, but for me its a novelty I still haven’t quite become accustomed to. Holly and I sit in her kitchen and eat fruity salads and retell inside jokes we’ve been had since the mid-90s. Then I start work at the dining table, and she goes back to work in her office, but she keeps the door open so that we can crack each other up every fifteen minutes. It’s the kind of working environment that makes you forget you’re in a working environment.

When Sean comes home a few hours later, we eat together at the dining table, trying to carry on a conversation while fending off the noisy cats with our deftly placed thighs and elbows. By the end of the meal we’ve given in and the cats are licking our plates clean while we watch something trashy on TV. Then it starts getting late, and I get back in my little car and drive over the hills and the freeway and the bridge, where I catch glimpses in my rear-view mirror of the receding fog-blurred lights of San Francisco. Soon I am back on campus with my nose in a book, my stomach full of home-made spaghetti bolognese and my mind still anchored to that pretty little house in Sunset.

Moving to Northern California and starting a pre-med course here has been one of the Greatest Decisions of My Life. Coming from a sociology degree to a degree that requires me to learn the equation for determining the energy of a photo emitted during electron transfer* has its hiccups. I am by no means disparaging sociology; in fact if anything, I struggled more with the endless questioning and philosophising and theorising required to properly engage with the social sciences than I do now with the cold hard maths and logic of the natural sciences. My maladjustment is more to do with the fact that I’ve had to spend the last few weeks fumbling around for a lightswitch in that dark, cobweb-infested attic of my brain where fractions and quadratic formulas have been left untouched for the past decade. Turns out, though, that the bulb still works, and its actually getting brighter by the day.

The first week spent painstakingly converting the transmission of my brain was hellish. I was overwhelmed and undernourished, I was confused and tired and forcing myself to accustom not only to a new discipline, but a new college, a new city, a new country. I was up at 7 and in the library at 11, with an intervening day of lectures to attend and forms to fill and friends to make. Then suddenly, like these things tend to do, I woke up and everything had sorted itself out. All the knots became untangled, the square peg found the square hole and like the complementary wavelengths of two photons of light with equal constructive frequencies (that’s right), I found my own momentum propelling me forward. This is where I find myself now, careening through a frenetic world of concepts that mean nothing to me on Monday morning but by Wednesday afternoon have totally transformed the way I view the universe. It’s fast-paced, it’s tough and it’s scary, but I’m loving every second of it.

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Now step away for just a second from that part of my life that’s still moving at light-speed**, and head back with me to the rainbow-drenched streets of San Francisco. Sure, right now I may be surrounded by textbooks and unfinished homework, but there’s a purring cat on my lap and I’ll be in bed in a few minutes. In between dashing to lectures and somehow finding the time to clothe, bathe and feed myself, I’ve had brief moments of beautiful folk. Little songs have crept in here and there without me realising, so that I’ve suddenly got a fleshy list of tunes to show you over the next few weeks. Late at night in this dark house in the city, I stumbled upon something else that’s going to keep me up for a few minutes longer. My experience with Rachael Yamagata doesn’t go much further than a bit of Wikipedia research, and all I know of Ray Lamontagne is that his song ‘Lesson Learned’ accompanied me as overplayed soundtrack fodder through a teary breakup a few years ago. Pairing them together initially didn’t quite serve to excite me very much.

These quick judgements, though, suddenly faded when I actually listened to their heart-achingly complementary voices on the track below, titled, suitably enough, ‘Duet’. There’s just something about male/female covers that drives me crazy. You know I’m always looking for good folk, and if you like this Yamagata-Lamontagne partnership as much as I do, you’ll share your favourite duets (folk or otherwise) in the comments below. I’m in this house by myself for a few more days yet, and I need a little bit more noise to stifle those mysterious thumps coming from downstairs.

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*E = (-RH/nf²) – (-RH/ni²)

** 3.00 x 10⁸ m/s

10

Sep 2011