Tony Cummings reports on nu folk songstress RACHEL TAYLOR-BEALES and the controversy surrounding her "Pass Me By" song
The release in May of the 'Red Tree' album brought a singer/songwriter who's already become a Greenbelt Festival favourite, Rachel Taylor-Beales, back into the spotlight. Her debut album 'Brilliant Blue', championed by singer/songwriter Martyn Joseph, was widely acclaimed with BBC Radio 2's Bob Harris calling it "lovely." Rachel's mix of folk, jazz and Americana is distinctively her own while her winning way with lyrics has made her a favourite on the nu folk scene.
Before Rachel had hit 12 she'd lived in 13 different houses and had relocated five times between Australia and the UK. As one of many artists in her family, there was always a spare guitar to hand and this encouraged Rachel to begin writing songs by the age of 14. A few years later she began performing regularly on the Nottingham scene during which time she met Bill Taylor-Beales, a British-born visual artist. The couple married and spent the next four years travelling around Australia on a variety of modes of transport from push bikes to station wagons held together with string, and after playing and painting in all kinds of places they formed a performing arts company. Along the way they picked up other singer/songwriters, dancers and a rainmaker and decided firmly never to get "proper" jobs. Since then they have composed and performed their way through theatres, schools, prisons, pubs, clubs, festivals and even an audio book and played an extensive tour of the UK and America.
Recently Rachel spoke to Mike Rimmer on his Rimmerama programme. She told Mike how Martyn Joseph came to release 'Brilliant Blue' on his Pipe Records. "He heard 'Brilliant Blue' and loved it and wanted to help me out so he put it on his label, though it had already been released by myself, as a licence deal. We decided the best thing for us to do was to self-release this next one although he produced it for me and has worked really closely with me. You can buy it from his shop as well but we have set up our own little label, my husband and I, called Hushland. My husband's in a band called The Silent And The Hushed, and it's very folky. If you like the whole kind of folky thing he's your man. Part of what we do is we have a charitable trust that uses all sorts of different art - music, visual art (cos my husband's an artist) in places where they need it. So Bill may find himself in a hospice doing art projects or in community centres. He's worked with children with behavioural problems, old people's homes - all sorts of things. The charity is called People Round Here and we decided if we had a label a percentage of sales could go back into the charity."
Rachel told Mike about her church affiliation in Cardiff: "I'm part of a church that meets in a pub. It's great, I really love it. It's tiny. The pub is the normal size, the church is - there's probably about 30 odd fringe people but I'd say on a regular night anything between eight and 15 people. We sit around and have a good chat, look at the Bible and discuss things. Discussion is one of the key things it's all about. I know that personally I learn more if I'm able to question things and work through things on the spot. I don't retain information that I'm told very well but if I've actually wrestled or questioned or even played devil's advocate with it to look at it from another side I've learned it a bit more, so that was part of the thought. And also just creating a place and a space where people who wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable within your mainstream traditional organisation would feel really comfortable to come and chat about faith and ask questions as well."
A close friend to Rachel was British author Rob Lacey, the man behind the best selling Street Bible (published in the US as The Word On The Street). Rachel spoke about Rob: "We first met him at a festival in '97. We saw him doing one of his shows and it was fantastic. We discovered that he liked real coffee and as we had our cafetieres with us he clung to us. That was when we were living in Australia; we were just over for a little while. We went back to Australia, had his brochure, kept it on the fridge and thought I wonder if there'll be a connection there someday. And then in '99 when we moved back to the UK, he and his wife were looking for people to help with his theatre show Great Days so Bill and I ended up going on tour with them. So that's how we knew each other and then ended up working on several different projects over the years.
"We're very involved with his health story really and done trips to support him in lots of different ways. He had cancer three times - first over here about 10 years ago. He had sort of TB treatment and it cleared up then it came back. He'd had lots of different health things, was very tired and in spite of that, instead of starting chemo straight away he liked to try a sort of alternative treatment. The pharmaceutical companies have bought up the patents for this particular treatment so you couldn't get it over here or in America. You had to go to Mexico. His wife's uncle had had this treatment called Carnivora and it's made from the Venus Fly Trap plant and instead of attacking every single cell, it attacks only the cancer cells. It's a little different from chemotherapy and Sandra's uncle had got better and was still better.
"It's not 100 per cent successful but it has a 65-70 per cent success rate with certain people so Rob was very keen to try this before diving into chemotherapy straight away. But unfortunately, when he got out there the cancer had already spread to the bone so it was very much like putting a Band-Aid on it. But he took this treatment and he took other immune boosting treatments and got worse and worse and worse. Then he went to a healing conference in Canada and got worse and worse and came back and was rushed straight to hospital and was told that he had weeks. And then for no reason, we don't know exactly what it was - I expect it was God intervening - whether it was the treatment working as well, all sorts of different things, he got better. Got really better and ended up writing and living another four years. When the cancer came back it wasn't bone cancer, it was a different sort of cancer and he died in 2006. He had some extra time anyway."
Rachel admitted that Rob's death from cancer had a huge emotional affect on her. "The experience of anyone close to you dying shakes you up. I think that it's just hard - life is hard. It's a mystery but I certainly don't have any theories this is why or that's why and would negate anyone who would give them. It's just life but the fact is he did have that extra four years and he got to see his little boy and also he had a little girl as well in that time and all sorts of things. It was a very busy four years. Talk about eking everything you can out of life; I think in some ways he did. It is very painful when someone close to you dies."
Rachel recorded a song on 'Red Tree', "Pass Me By", which dealt in part with the painful emotions felt during Rob's final struggle with cancer. "It's actually about several different times of my life. When I wrote it we had another very dear friend who died and it was just at the time Rob got better. They'd had cancer parallel. There were other things that had happened to me in my life before that had really disturbed me and I didn't sing for a year because I was very broken at the time. So it's wonderful now to think just how much - to have a song back and everything. As I recorded the song of course it became about grieving for Rob as well, very much, because he died in 2006, just prior to being in the studio, on tour. It's kind of about lots of different things but definitely Rob's story is part of that song."
One of the controversial aspects of "Pass Me By" is that it uses the "f" word. What is Rachel's response to those Christians who feel that such language is inappropriate in a recording? "I just think that in songwriting you chose your words very carefully and for me every word that's in a song should be there for a reason. I did think about this and I thought I needed a word that wasn't about something being just bad or really bad, it had to be extreme. It had to express an extremity to people - not just myself - but some people will live through absolute extremities. When I think about the poor victims of rape and torture in countries in Africa, I can't find a word in English that isn't an extremity to explain how awful that is. And I guess I wanted to get that sense of - in the lowest place that you can go, what do you do? You say Lord, don't pass me by. And so that's why that word is there. It had to be the lowest of the low, it had to be down. When Jeremiah was having his lamenting period and he actually cursed the day he was born, what does that mean to curse the day you were born? To curse it? Because the curse is the extremity - it's the same sort of situation. And I know Paul says I count all of this - the translation is dung - but we all know what that is. So there are things within the New Testament and stuff but this idea of saying God, where are you and being able to do that. So I guess it was bringing hope in the lowest of the low but you had to have that as the foundation. For me the important thing in all of this is that people feel they are being valued. There are thousands and thousands of people dying in poverty every day. Let's not get pedantic or legalistic about things like a certain word we use and get caught up in self-righteous loops."
Rachel is as busy as ever. As well as plenty of live concerts, she is now planning the release of a live album, recorded at The Point in Cardiff. One thing is certain, her faith continues to be extremely important to her. As she said, "I hope my faith is expressed in everything I do; that could be knowing my neighbours; that could be playing my songs; that could be just by the way I live. I just hope my faith comes across in a very holistic way."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.