Some songs quicken the pulse and motivate, some songs sit with you and share your sadness and there are others, such as ‘I Didn’t Know You Were Leaving Today’, that simply stop time. Dust motes hang frozen in the air, water drops are suspended halfway between tap and sink, and the clocks hold their breath. This is a song that does not rush to get its point across. It could not be faster or slower, it is not trying to grab your attention and, if you were in a hurry, you might only see it in the corner of your eye for a split second. But I was lucky enough to stop and revel in this perfect moment as if I were an animal that had found a patch of sunlight and settled down to soak up the warmth.
Clare Mann’s voice is lightly tremulous but strong like resonating flint and her harmonies and the violin (provided by Marika Tyler-Clark) add garnish to an already perfect meal. At first listen there’s an apparent simplicity which actually belies a gently complex chord structure, and a keen love of language radiates from the lyrics which feel both revelatory and elusory in equal measure. Clara was kind enough to answer some questions for Joyzine to celebrate the single’s release.
Q: Can you tell us the inspiration behind ‘I Didn’t Know You Were Leaving Today’?
I recently moved out of a place I’d been living in for about 8 months- it was the most beautiful room in a friends’ house, with high ceilings and big windows, and it was always full of light. I always felt guilty about feeling anything other than happiness in there, because it was so lovely that feeling low felt wrong. This song is sort of inspired by that room- it’s about feeling trapped, and how loneliness creeps in even in the most beautiful places if the person you want to be there, can’t be. The woman in the song is waiting for someone to come home, and desperately trying to keep her hands busy in order to distract herself from missing them.
Q: How’s your lockdown been? Are you in Bristol?
I left the city when COVID hit, because it felt unsafe, and moved back home for a few months. Over the summer, I realised it would be a while before I felt okay being back in a city (being part of a shielding household), and a friend offered to lend me her cabin on Dartmoor. It’s just one room on farmland at the foot of the moor, but it’s beautiful. I’ve been here since September and leave next week- it’s been strange but magical.
Q: You were classically trained (on the piano). Do you find a classical background helps or hinders writing folk songs?
I love playing the piano, and always will, but I find it really hard to write anything other than cheesy ballads on keys. I think maybe my hands know the shape of the chords too well and move in predictable patterns, so my melodies tend to fall into cliches, and sound much less like folk. I came at writing on guitar from quite a naive place, and felt I was learning about the instrument as I wrote- it felt like a much more exploratory and exciting process for me, and fell in much more naturally with the simplicity and openness of folk music. I think if I’d come at writing from a classical perspective, I would have found my songs were much more rigid and would have struggled to free myself up!
Q: Can you speak a little about your upbringing in a small religious village in the South of France. There’s a sense of calm in ‘I Didn’t Know You Were Leaving Today’ and I wondered if that drew from the peace of the countryside (French or English) or somewhere more spiritual?
We moved to France when I was 6, and quickly found that unless you were a part of the Catholic church community, you found yourself very isolated. My family aren’t very religious, but are quite in touch with their spiritual side (in a non hippy way) and often, a way for us to access that was through music. We occasionally went to church, and sang in the choir, and prayed when everyone else did- I loved the words in the prayers, even if I didn’t connect with what they meant, but they were beautiful and full of poetry. The same went for hymns and choral pieces- though I don’t go to Church anymore, those melodies, words, and harmonies stayed with me.
I don’t know if it’s specific to this track, but I do think that generally that experience of stillness in religious places really affected me, and I hope it comes through in my music! The landscape left its mark, but particularly the tranquillity of our life there. One particular image stuck with me that I had in my head writing this song, though it’s not explicit: in the room my sister and I shared, there were long white gauze curtains, and they moved in the wind all through the summer. In I Didn’t Know You Were Leaving Today, she waits and waits for a sign that her loved one is coming back- I saw her at the window, amongst the white curtains, watching the road.
Q: What music has influenced you and which artists are you currently listening to?
I love a lot of older folk-based music- Joan Baez, Molly Drake, Joni Mitchell- but also a lot of French songs, so people like Barbara or Charles Aznavour. They all share a passion for storytelling, which is hugely important to me, and all an emphasis on the beauty of the language they’re using, particularly in the case of those French artists. It’s like every line is full of poetry.
At the moment I have the new Adrienne Lenker record on repeat (I have the CD in my car and just play it over and over whenever I go to the supermarket), but also Waxahatchee’s record “St Cloud”. It took me a while to get into it but now I’m obsessed- there’s something so raw and powerful about her voice. Damien Jurado has also featured heavily in my lockdown listening.
There is an EP coming in early 2021 and you can sign up for notifications at https://claraa.bandcamp.com/
Review by Paul F Cook
I didn’t know you were leaving today
Time runs from me like a girl
I ruined the calendar counting down days
On the front porch your rocking chair waits
I’m writing songs like the breaking of day
Forced from my bed by your crying
And maybe I call more than I can afford
But there’s no one here left I can pay
I’ll stand at the corner, all ready to wave
I’ll hang up your clothes if you come back this way
And when the road gets too much for you, drop me a line
I’ll welcome you in arms wide
I’ve had things to rearrange
I moved all the lights to our room
And that white dress you liked, I turned it blue overnight
I hope you can love me this way
I’ll stand at the door if you’re coming back late
Leave out your coat and I’ll wash out the stains
And when the road gets too much for you, drop me a line
I’ll welcome you in, arms wide
Come apart on the last train
I’ll be the bag in your arms
I’m patient but quiet, the waiting wife
If I’m driving I’ll drive you away