Robert Gray: The Bookshop Band (with Pete Townshend)

I am enchanted, such variation and delicacy... such latent power, really great work. It reminded me of my days listening to Sandy Denny and Fairport [Convention] and The Incredible String Band... a great discovery and inspiration.

--The Who's legendary co-founder Pete Townshend, describing the Bookshop Band's new album Emerge, Return 

The Bookshop Band at Winter Institute in 2019.

In 2019, many of us were lucky enough to meet and hear the Bookshop Band (Ben Please and Beth Porter) during Winter Institute 14 in Albuquerque, N.Mex. At the time, they had just completed a U.S. tour that included several indie bookstores. 

Last week, the Bookshop Band released "Sanctuary," inspired by Philip Pullman's novel The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. The song is from their upcoming album Emerge, Return, which will be released June 28. Produced by Pete Townshend--who also features as a musician on every track--the album is described as one of the band's darker releases, "responding to themes surrounding the oppression of bodies, free will and free speech, explored in the books." 

The works were chosen through a number of curations, including events at Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, England; the V&A Museum, written for its season on banned books; and the National Portrait Gallery, responding to its exhibition on the Brontë sisters. 

The songs on Emerge, Return were inspired by the following works:

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
The Seven Ravens, a traditional folk tale
Underland by Robert Macfarlane
Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
The Vanishing Hours by Barney Norris
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

The Bookshop Band describes itself as "the musical offspring of an artistic love-affair" between the musicians and Mr. B’s: "The songs are the musical outpouring of the band’s own response to books they have read, curated by the bookshop." 

During Wi14, Mr. B's co-owner Nic Bottomley introduced the band to enthusiastic applause at a morning author breakfast. He recalled that the genesis for the Bookshop Band came when he spoke with Please about doing something different for shop events, possibly something musical. In response, Please formed the band and said they would write and play songs based on books. Emerge, Return is their 14th album.

In April 2020, as Covid-19 was sweeping across the planet, I tuned into a livestream event from Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo., of the Bookshop Band's international "concert of book-recommendations for lockdown reading."  

Four years later, in a blog post, Porter wrote that the band started making the forthcoming album in 2019 after a fortuitous meeting: "I was asked to do a recording session with songwriter and folk musician Reg Meuross who was working with Pete Townshend on some songs about Woody Guthrie. It was an enjoyable session in a great studio. We went to the local pub for some grub and Pete was very generous and accommodating with us and Molly [their daughter]. We were mid-tour ourselves and also in the middle of writing some songs for our event about censored literature at the V&A a few days later. We were already staying overnight at Pete’s studio so asked if we could stay an extra night to finish writing these songs."

When Please and Porter left the studio, they gave Townshend a box set of their CDs as a thank you gift. "A couple of months later, we had a lovely e-mail from Pete saying he’d listened to our music and loved the concept of the band and the songs," Porter recalled. "This led to a conversation about recording some songs at his studio, namely the ones we had written for the V&A event. We felt like this would be relevant because some of the songs were inspired by the archived Oz magazines, some of which featured Pete Townshend! He willingly agreed but when it got closer to the time of recording, he said 'Why don’t we just make an album together!' "

The Bookshop Band recorded 12 songs in studio sessions with Townshend pre- and post-pandemic. "It was a wonderful experience being in his studio surrounded by amazing microphones, organs and synths, guitars, percussion and harmonicas," Porter noted. "We recorded the songs as they existed with just the two of us playing and then Pete would create sounds around them to make them into something unique and quirky. If he had an idea, he would make it happen."

I think about the Bookshop Band's description of their new album--"responding to themes surrounding the oppression of bodies, free will and free speech, explored in the books."--and recall a question I posed four years ago during the pandemic: Why do we turn to music in times of crisis? Back then, the World Economic Forum had noted that music "is an antidote to the growing sense of alienation and isolation in society in general--even more so now we are being asked to actively practice social distancing and isolation."

But we also listen to the Bookshop Band because, well, they're gifted readers and musicians.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor


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