Cecil Sharp House. Wednesday, 9pm. Danna Immanuel and the Stolen band are about to go on stage. Before they even start playing, you’ve got the feeling that it’s going to be fun.
An eclectic bunch of musicians hovering all over the place to get ready.
One of them seems to come straight from a Western movie and holds a weird, wooden piece, an instrument called the washboard. It’s Blanche.
I approached Blanche after a colourful and captivating Dana Immanuel and the Stolen band performance at the Folkroom. The first words she said to me:
And you, what’s your story?
This says it all. It says it all about her curiosity and interest in humans. “People are not a subject I could ever tire of.” she wrote to me a few weeks later. After all, she does portrait people on the Tube. And writes songs. And sings. A beautiful voice. Discover Blanche’s story, through her own words.
About drawing and painting
You portray a lot of people on the Tube. How did you get inspired to sketch portraits of people on the train, do you remember the first time you did it?
Yes, really that’s how I started drawing. It was my last year or two at school when I started, I can’t remember why except I wanted to. I think perhaps my favourite art teacher suggested it and ever since the London Underground has been the closest thing to a studio that I have. I don’t remember the first drawing of a stranger on the Tube, but I still have those sketchbooks – so it is somewhere on a shelf, nestled in old pages.
Does it require a “special technique” (drawing people on the Tube) as things are moving pretty fast, and do you colour the paintings at home?
In terms of drawing, yes. Speed is of the essence and short, fast, confident marks are the best way to make the line you want as the carriages jolt and accelerate. It cultivates a certain conviction out of necessity. Years of drawing this way has made my style quite fast and loose. Although off the tube I have many other ways of working, I love working with the movement and chance transport/drawing in public. Like drawing in semi-darkness allows the mind to let go of accuracies and to search for an overall impression, drawing moving things (and on moving things) allows me to not get caught up in inconsequential details but to search quickly and urgently for the essence of a thing, a face or moment. Often I colour afterwards, sometimes on the spot. I’m beginning to work straight into watercolour and add a few lines later… but that is difficult on the Tube when you begin juggling palette, brushes and sketchbook, definitely more noticeable and easy to drop things when you suddenly arrive at your stop without noticing!
Do you actually need to do it secretly (drawing people on the Tube) or do you feel that people are so much into their own world in the morning/evening on the train that they don’t notice?
About getting noticed… Over the years I’ve become quite adept at not being noticed. It’s one of the things I like to be able to do, to sink into the background and become an observer. There’s two ways to avoid being seen – one is to hide your work, glance briefly and use your periphery a lot. The other is the one I’ve settled into more which is just to be so much into your own business, so completely absorbed and un-furtive that people let you get on with it. If I remove the drama, the conspiratorial, explanatory or apologetic looks and just be ‘at work’ in my mind I find most people cease to notice. Some people leap the barrier and start all sorts of conversations, or, depending on my mood I invite people in to the process – opening the book up to a curious eye so they can see the work in progress.
A lot of the time people are so in their own world that they haven’t got a clue. That’s London. And they are easier characters to choose, I have hundreds of drawings of people sleeping, dozing, reading and, in the last few years – on their iphones. But then sometimes there’s someone you desperately want to draw who is quite alert, and you have to make a judgment, give it a go and see if they notice or mind.
I had what I can only describe as a romance with an old gent…
I’ve had some lovely experiences of interacting with people who are watching me draw and drawing people who realize, are not quite sure and then become so and we have a game-of-glances that can become either a silent communication or a lovely conversation. I had what I can only describe as a romance with an old gent whose face was lined in a beautiful way and had an essence I couldn’t understand, like the skin was glowing. He had these tiny comic-book eyes, wispy hair and an expression of openness and warmth. I was caught out almost immediately, startled by his face, I dropped my guard and he looked back, before I even began drawing. We smiled, thereby breaking the barrier of ignorance, real or pretend, that I often rely on.
The other people in the carriage must have wondered what was going on…
But still, I had to draw him. His expression was slightly baffled until he worked out what I was doing, then surprised, kind and humorous. Maybe touched. As often when I draw, the journey felt timeless, a capsule of a moment that stretches. At my stop, probably only minutes later, I got up, gathered my things and hurried to the door. I turned to look back and he leant right forward in his seat and raised his hand in an earnest salutation. I waved back and standing on the platform we smiled openly at each other, almost laughing as he turned right round in to waved from the window and the train pulled away. The other people in the carriage must have wondered what was going on.
Can you recall the moment you got hooked on drawing?
Yes, there’s a sketchbook from my first year living abroad that begins again half way through. I marked it ‘Book II’. I was already past that point in the book, but looking back through it I saw the change like black to white. As always, things happen first, labels come later. That was the time that I began to draw from my mind, I discovered then that art wasn’t limited to copying the things that exist around you, but can be an avenue for expression, discovery, and personal therapy. It became a core part of how I deal with life, think about it, celebrate it, understand it and find paths, epiphanies, resolutions and further questions. It’s the space where all those things that don’t have words go to meet themselves.
It feels like there is a story behind every one of the characters you portray. Have you ever considered illustrating books?
I have. But also wonder if I would ever be able to create characters to the brief of someone else’s imagination. I have a planned attempt; I’m about to begin working on a project with a friend to illustrate his travels around the world. It’s to become a book for his nieces and nephews. But most real character I create, and by real I mean actually very strange and surreal, but with a sense of their own life and existence, come from a wondering pen that I set to the page with only the vaguest sense of a plan, if any. It feels like carving into a block of stone and looking for the shapes already in there. By following the grain, working with and against it. This line suggests that line, that line suggests another, together they suggest a colour and I can follow their suggestion or work away from it into further levels of my unconscious.
Of course I can work to a brief and over time I gain understanding of this process and ways to both get into that secret garden of my imagination and then to carry a piece of its magic back out along a pre-determined path. I am finding ways to marry the method and the task but my truest work, and what I do for myself, is always a voyage of discovery. A preconceived notion most often creates the worst results as something of the excitement of discovery, the marks made by the urgency of grasping at slipping threads, is lost to me when the outcome is somehow already decided.
What draws you to paint a particular person?
Almost always the face, which is to say the expression. Even at rest, each face has an expression, left over from all the other moments. A softness, a harshness, a bareness or bluntness in a posture or feature may attract me. It could be anything. Traditional beauty does not turn me on, it is too hygienic, typical, saturated. I’m most drawn to aspects that are strange or unusual, be it awkward, tense or over-generous.
Sometimes I draw someone because I love them. But then, when I’m drawing someone, anyone, there is something of love in that moment.
You mostly draw people. Have you ever considered painting, like Turner, nature? Do you think it difficult while living in London, which is a city of people, rather than a city of nature? Or is it just that you find drawing people more interesting than nature?
You’re right, people are my focus and I think that may always be the case. People are not a subject I could ever tire of. On the other hand I always want to expand my view, and whatever I draw I learn to love, especially when it comes to anything organic in its formation. I have just returned from traveling and working in India and, covering so much land mass (I lived for 2 weeks on a train) I found myself looking for ways to describe the landscape, the cities, the sheer sense of distance in graphite and watercolour. So the desire is there. And yes the pull for it is stronger outside the city.
I also have a strong desire to find environments for my people to exist in. They have always been so much the focus of my work that they live in a world made up entirely of themselves. Each entity ends at the boundary of their skin, or dissolves into nothingness at the edges. This speaks something about what they express. But my desire to have them live and grow, to deepen their lives, drives me towards what might be scenery of some kind, landscape, furniture, mundane realities, or abstract atmospheres… I’m on a long search for the kinds of worlds they live in. They are not yet rooted in a world that shares their matter.
I’m beginning a project soon to put artwork to music for my band Various Guises. I think the strength, feeling and sensory quality of the music might help me find some of the spaces I’m looking for.
You play washboard in the Stolen band and you sing on some of the songs, how did Dana steal you to be part of the band?
We’re all part of the same musical community in Camden that has grown up in the last 5 years or so and we’ve gradually played in many different combinations. I’ve been jamming with Dana for years and most of us used to play in another friends band under the ‘two dollar hookers’. Dana’s band nicked a lot of the same people (including herself) with the addition of a couple more friends who she poached from other set ups. It just fell together between a group of friends really, completely natural. It’s a privilege to play Dana’s music and with such an ace bunch of musicians, and wonderful women.
How and when did you start playing the washboard? In addition to singing, do you also play other instruments?
Singing is my musical centre. In Various Guises, the band I co-created with Maya McCourt, many of the songs are acapella. I began playing instruments as things to sing with. But over the years I’ve become fonder of, and more involved with, instrumentation. I play guitar and a year or so ago picked up the banjo, to which I am now fully addicted with no hope of rehabilitation. I play five string, open back banjo, mostly clawhammer and write songs both for guitar and banjo as well as acapella.
The washboard? You may well ask. Well, I saw someone play one at the Saturday market in Portland, Oregon when I lived there years ago. It sounded like nothing else and looked like fun, so I went to the hardware shop and bought one. I found some thimbles in a knitting shop on the coast and began to bash it in time to things. I didn’t start playing properly until I was back in England though, involved in this musical community in Camden and playing at pub jams with my friends Yan Yates and Whiskey Mick. I just listened in, picked up most of the old folk tunes I now know, discovered how some harmonies can carry even over a crowded stomping pub, and tapped along until something sounded right. People ask how on earth you learn the washboard, I don’t really know except the closest thing it feels like is dancing with your fingers – so I do that.
Mick also taught me to play the bodhran, gave me one and gave me the golden lesson that what makes a good musician is not just knowing when to play, but when not to play.
When did you start writing your own music?
I began writing my own music at probably nineteen, shortly after picking up the guitar and discovering that I could, after all, keep my voice in tune when no-one was listening. I remember listening to Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsome at the time and realizing that the shape of a word, how you wrap your mouth around it and the way those words nestle against, tumble between and push against each other gives a phrase just as much meaning as the signified sense of the words. A whole new landscape to play on.
Your solo creations are very inspired by blues & roots. They’re back to basics, with just acoustic guitar and vocals. Do you write a lot of songs and would you like to record a solo album? Would you consider adding other instruments to your songs, and would you steal Dana Immanuel and the Stolen band to help you play these instruments on your songs?
Yes, I think of myself as a folk musician, but my favourite songs are old tunes that fall along the lines between folk, jazz and blues, before record companies came in, ran around with new-fangled recording devices and divided the naturally integrated plethora of music up into ‘genres’ for sale along racial lines. Jazz in the voice, blues in the timing and folk in the chords is a lovely combination. Simplicity is the most beautiful thing to me, and it’s not always as easy as it seems, perhaps it’s just the way I understand things, but the simplest most stripped back works of art, songs, sketches, feel to me the most raw, the most human.
I write a lot of songs. And I used to be against the idea of recording, I love the idea of folk music traveling from mouth to mouth and that music is something connected to and stored in the body. But my view is always changing and so are people and culture, I am now recording an album, very, very slowly. The first finished track with a music video and artwork by my friend James John Jolly is about to come out in the next day or so – ‘Stormy Siesta’. I am keeping the album very, very simple, and, where possible, live. But yes, some friends are playing on tracks, Mikey Cooper who is a phenomenal musician and is producing the album for me plays on it and there’ll definitely be some appearances from the Stolen Band.
Julian Casablanca from the Strokes said to his producer, while recording Is This It that he wanted his voice to sound “like your favourite blue jeans – not totally destroyed, but worn-in, comfortable”.
How important do you think production is to the music?
I have very little understanding of production and my general feeling is the more raw, the better. But I have learned a little bit about the wizardry that goes into production from making recordings of my own stuff, with The Stolen Band and Various Guises in the last year, and there are qualities I am attracted to over others. It depends on the music and varies from song to song but for my own stuff, I like intimacy, the warmth of a breath, and a sense that the instrument is ringing on your own belly. I guess I like it to sound the way it feels to sing. And then the poor producer has to turn those vague poetics into sound waves. (Thank you Mikey!)
What song would you include in all your playlists?
Something, anything, by Gillian Welch. Her voice is the shadow side of a stone that’s been baked in the sun all day. Her lyrics are the road you’ve walked down a thousand times, but never quite found the way.
General artist related questions
Is it even possible to be a musician or an artist in London today? Do you also have a full time or a part-time job?
It is possible, but not easy. I know working musicians who solely practice their trade and they work very hard, and like artists, tend to teach their trade as well, either out of desire or necessity, which I think is actually a great thing. Most people have other jobs. I’ve had many and multiple part-time jobs over the last few years. Music pays sometimes, but also swallows its own profits though expenses of travel and the musician lifestyle which is different to my own hermetic tendency. Sometimes I sell my personal artwork, but currently my regular, or very irregular, freelance job is creating murals at events and conferences. I’ve been lucky to find a place in graphic facilitation which is very different from my own work but that has a niche in the market and that I enjoy.
What is a good day for you and a bad day?
A good day is I create something. Or I reflect and understand, often through creation. That can turn a bad day into a good one. A bad day is sitting at the computer and looking up to find it is dark. I may have done many useful things, but I won’t feel so good.
Which artist has had the biggest influence on you? (Whether it’s in music, writing or painting).
I would say Joni Mitchell. The singer and song-writing-poetess who I listened to the most growing up. I’ve loved many musicians since, and there are visual artists who have affected me greatly, but Joni’s songs were written into my bones at a young age and I think that a lot of the way that I understand music and the movement of words comes from her.
Do you also write stories or poetry?
The line between songwriting and stories and poetry is quite fluid. Some songs are closer to poems, some poems becomes songs. I suppose if I love a phrase I will find a way to sing it so songs are more natural for me, and easier to communicate. I used to write short stories but haven’t for years now, as I think I have found a medium for narrative that suits me better.
What wouldn’t you be able to survive without: Painting, Writing or Music?
I have tried at times to quit art for music, and other times to quite music for art. Neither would let me. Writing? it never occurred to me to either pursue writing professionally or stop. Writing is integrated with both music and artwork and couldn’t be separated from either. I have tried to pick one thing and be dedicated as I know that either art or music can take a lifetime of learning, that creating a career from one alone would take all your energy, concentration and free time just to have a chance. I would like to find focus, to live a little slower and build steadily in one direction. But, as I cannot quit art or music, I have decided that my main business is to ‘make’, whatever the method, as long as I am creating I am happy. To force myself to answer the question somehow. If I had to quit a profession – I would quit music. If I had to cease the activity altogether – I would quit artwork. So I suppose I could not survive without singing.
Thank you Blanche for answering all these questions so thoughtfully. Not many people would do it with such care. And thank you, dear reader, for reading. Follow Blanche Ellis here @Blancheellisart for more extraordinary creations and the LondonY here @theLondonY for more insights into the creative lives of our generation.