Andy Flannagan: A song-by-song rundown of his 'Drowning In The Shallow' album

Sunday 10th June 2012

London's thought-provoking songsmith ANDY FLANNAGAN talks us through the tracks on his latest album

Andy Flannagan
Andy Flannagan

London-based political activist, author and singer/songwriter Andy Flannagan hasn't released an album since 2004's 'Son'. That's all changed with the Elevation release 'Drowning In The Shallow', produced by Grammy award winning Alan Branch. This song-by-song survey are selected chunks from the book Notes From The Shallow End, to be published later in the summer.

"Drowning In The Shallow"
I lived in Luton for seven years. I loved it. Honest. I loved the people (and the excellent transport links!). For quite awhile, however, there was something in my gut telling me that I needed to be in London to get more involved in politics. I really didn't want to leave my Luton life, with a fantastic group of friends, a strong sense of locality and a great cricket team. I knew I had to go, but boy did I procrastinate. I kept dipping my toe in the water, but fear of the unknown and fear of failure kept me running back up the beach. During the same period of my life I was doing a lot of swimming, and I realised that especially when in the sea, I felt like I was doing something I was born to do. The sensation of motion with my hands crisply cutting the surface of the water was glorious, but there were many times that I just couldn't be bothered getting out to the deep water, even though I knew that it was a place where I would feel truly alive. At that point something in me feels connected to the wild sea and the beauty of creation - I realise I am an independent, yet so dependent creature working and breathing. Yet getting to that place of challenge means conquering some fears and being prepared for a level of discomfort that the world trains us to avoid. For too long I settled for the comfortable and the familiar. That's where the last verse of the song springs from really. Resurrection isn't possible without crucifixion. Think of a seed - it needs to be utterly dead before it can explode into life. New life isn't possible without the death of the stuff that stops us truly living. It's also why a baptism can sometimes look like a drowning.

"The Reason"
I meet so many people, young men in particular, who spend much of their 20-something lives asking the questions, "Why am I here?", "What am I meant to be doing with my life?" and, "Who am I meant to be doing it with?" So much angst and energy is spent seeking out the "right" path and the "right" partner. It feels as if folks are staring at a map of the world and desperately trying to work out exactly where they should place a pin. You get the sense that if that pin is as much as a millimetre away from the exact point where it is meant to be, then it could be disastrous. Or at least there is a presumption that you could miss out on what has been "planned". My fear is that we all spend so much of our lives trying to work out the specifics of what we are "destined for" or "called to" that we miss the obvious stuff that we are all called to. There is such emotional investment in finding "the answer" that we miss the importance of fleshing out what we do know to be true - the non-negotiables that come without question marks attached.

"Pieces Of April"
While on holiday in Norfolk a crew of us from Luton watched the movie Pieces Of April. In it, an estranged daughter played by Katie Holmes is desperately trying to piece together a family Thanksgiving dinner with very limited resources. This will probably be their last ever Thanksgiving together, as her mum is dying of cancer. Her relationship with her mum is however totally dysfunctional for various reasons. In scene after scene you observe the heart-wrenching effects of this fragmentation. Afterwards I just went to my bedroom and cried. The broken relationships represented in it were such strong echoes of the tough situations of the young people I knew in Luton. As I sat crying, a scene flashed into my head. It was of a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were scattered all over a floor. That is normally a positive, exciting moment, filled with the anticipation of things coming together. However, this scene was darker. The box in which the pieces resided had been carelessly tossed away. Young people of the 21st century are often left trying to put the pieces together without the photo or picture of how they all fit together. They don't have a big picture or a big story that makes sense of and gives context to their little story. Many haven't been provided with that framework because of physically or emotionally absent parents. For many more, no-one has told them that there is a big story. Surely part of our job is to give back the box.

Andy Flannagan: A song-by-song rundown of his 'Drowning In The Shallow' album

I am slowly realising that my ego inflates when even the slightest gap appears between who I truly am and who I present myself to be. You're only as honest as your last Facebook status update. The online social media phenomenon means that we have all become our own press officers, selecting and spinning what makes it out into the public realm. For "Friends" read "audience." For "Status update" read "Press release." Some of us don't pretend that it's 'real'. We use it to publicise things and scavenge for ideas to a wide clientele that few believe are "real-world-equivalent" friends. We dip in and out, having had the benefit of building relationships normally for years. It is more of a flirtation (but still a potentially dangerous and time-wasting one) than a marriage. However, I do reckon that we are potentially betraying the generations that follow us. The problem is that many young people are growing into this as their main means of interaction, having not known anything different. Throw in the increasingly and disturbingly visual weighting of online media and you have all the ingredients you need for a generation of public image obsessed folks who have lost contact with anything deeper than a screen.

"Seven Storeys"
While we were in Cairo recently Jen and I were invited for dinner to the apartment of an Egyptian family. They spoke at length of the challenges of living as Christians in a majority Muslim nation. One of the ladies recounted many stories of the discrimination she experienced on a daily basis on public transport, at work, or simply in the street. Verbal insults and spitting were commonplace. However nothing prepared us for hearing the story of their friend from the same apartment block. On the seventh floor lived a lady called Nadia who because of their care and kindness had started to ask questions about their faith. She started to secretly attend their church, and became a Christian. However as with so many people like her (an estimated half million people in Egypt) she kept her new faith hidden from her family, as conversion to Christianity from Islam often carries unbearable consequences, especially for women. This carried on for some months until things got to the point where Nadia could not keep the news from her husband, wanting to share with him the reason why her life felt transformed for the better. One evening, she told her husband what had happened, and he threw her to her death from the apartment's seventh floor balcony. After dinner I walked out to our hosts' identical balcony four floors below. I stared up and then down to the ground, churning the reality around in my head and guts. I had heard similar stories before, but I had never been in the neighbourhood.

"This Poet"
Has left me without words....

Whether we like it or not, we are all products of someone else. The modern world can fool us into believing that we are truly independent beings, cast free from the shackles of family and history, but the more I grow up, the more I realise I am the product of my parents. Happily that makes me smile broadly, as even though my bias is pretty huge, I believe them to be the best parents in the world! However, I know many other people for whom that same smile is either forced, or an honest grimace. They have not known an encouraging, supportive context in which to grow up. Even if it has been a generally positive experience, there have been specific words, actions or a lack thereof, that have sowed lies deep into their understanding of who they are. Understanding that our parents were themselves the products of their parents, and so on, back to our furthest ancestors, is, however, key to releasing them from our expectations of perfection. This is especially true when we are faced with the consequences of their questionable actions or inactions in our own lives. I honestly believe that there is a heartbreaking story behind every heartbreaking story; but I also believe that unconditional love can break cycles that have gone on for generations.

Andy Flannagan: A song-by-song rundown of his 'Drowning In The Shallow' album

I love the TV series The West Wing. I mean I really, really love it. I know I am not alone in this passion. The scripts and characters are incredible, and that may be a gloriously good thing. However, this song is my confessional for all the times I have chosen fantasy over reality. For all the times I have chosen easy, controllable, fake relationships over the people next door. My neighbours are less glossy, less witty, and less good looking than anyone in the West Wing, but they're real.

"I Will Not Be Leaving"
On the very last day of a trip to Uganda in 2007 we were brought to an amazing place called Sanyu baby orphanage. I had been to orphanages before, but the 12 months preceding this visit had included much precious time with Hannah, my niece. Through her I had become well aware of how a well-nurtured, well-loved and well-held child interacts with their surroundings and particularly with others in the vicinity. So it was traumatic to be introduced to the children of Sanyu. The contrast could not have been greater. These babies have been left on the streets of Kampala, sometimes in ditches, sometimes in toilets, either because their families have no resource left to care for them, or because they are unwanted. Some of them are left alone for days before they are discovered. The effects of this isolation were all too painfully visible. We were encouraged by the staff to spend some time "up close" with the kids, as any small amount of contact can be helpful. A little guy called Joseph who was 18 months old caught my eye. He was covered in sweat and staring at the wall. I went to sit with him and then hold him. At no point did he make eye contact with me. When I put my finger into his little hand, expecting his tiny fingers to curl around mine, there was just no elasticity or response to my touch. Toys like jack-in-the-boxes that would have brought squeals of delight from my sister's kids brought squeals of fear from Joseph. It was so painful to see the indelible effects of the deprivation of love. You wondered how any of these kids would get by in life with this horrendous reverse headstart. I resolved to stay with Joseph until I saw some sign of him interacting with me.

In November 2004 I had the privilege of visiting a fishing community just south of Chennai, on the south-eastern coast of India. Times were hard because the fish stocks were decreasing and there was no other useful employment in the vicinity. The beach itself was becoming more and more overcrowded with most of the community living in little set-to shacks vulnerable to any strong gust of wind. Our church were working with an amazing church in Chennai that was trying to help this impoverished community. We had a wonderful afternoon playing in the warm Indian Ocean with the kids from the area. They loved surfing in on the incredible waves, but all they had were little rough rectangles of wood and plastic. No surfboards or body boards here. We gave this great little sport the moniker "Extreme Clipboarding". I remember being so happy, feeding off the infectious joy of these beautiful children. They loved looking at the photos of themselves that I had been taking with my camera, and this revved up the competition to catch the next wave in the most artistic way possible. We left excited at the possibility of being involved in this community's future, especially with regard to improving their housing. Fast forward to the 27th December. I get a phone call to say that three quarters of that community have been wiped out by the tsunami that wreaked havoc all over south-east Asia. My first reaction is, "You cannot be serious. We were with those guys just a month ago!" A distant problem was brought very close to home.

Something happened to me last summer. It was a relatively new experience. I was genuinely sad. "Welcome to the real world", I hear you cry. I had become pretty stressed about an event I was working on. Various things had gone wrong, and more importantly for me, some relationships were out of kilter. I lay awake at night thinking incessantly about things. I also woke early in the morning. It was as if the negativity wanted to plant itself in my day before I had a chance to recalibrate to some truth. It neutered me. I retreated to making safe decisions to avoid conflict or excessive challenge. What was happening was no worse than any of the other challenges I have faced during my life. What was different was the creaking state of my soul and spirit. As I sat face-to-face with my none-too-impressive coping mechanisms, I could see more clearly how much of me was broken and how "Work in progress" would be a useful sign for me to wear.

When I was in my 20s I was always in a rush. Subliminally I think I believed I needed to achieve a whole set of things before I was 30 to make an impact on the world. The things that I wanted to achieve were good things. They mostly weren't for my benefit (though the motivations behind them veered from selfless to selfish, like a metronome). Then one day lying in bed, aged 31, I had a revelation. It really didn't matter whether I achieved what I was thinking about by the age of 32 or 37. What was the difference in the big scheme of things? For the first time in my life I was choosing between doing it slowly and well, or doing it fast to inject some sense of completion into my frail psyche. I am not saying that I always choose right now, but at least I am aware there is often that choice to be made. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

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