INTERVIEW: Alabaster de Plume | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Alabaster de Plume is a multi-instrumental musician, poet, sublime saxophonist and performer. I caught up with him ahead of his gig at Cobalt Studios, Newcastle, set for next Thursday 2nd November.

Intimately interested in other people, he began the interview with the first question, asking me how I want to make people feel with my own writing. Warm and fuzzy, I tell him, before firing the question back. His answer?

“I want to make people feel strong. I think there’s a lot of effort and a lot of resources, money and time put into making us feel divided and weak. Something like Brexit happens, and I see that there is a failure on our part as artists – it is our responsibility to bring people together and to empower them.”

This sets the tone of the conversation: Alabaster is indeed a performer with a keen sense of his responsibility as an artist – an extension of the responsibility he feels we all have – to connect with other people and each other.

This outlook informs his choices. Driven by an acute awareness of class divides in the arts, he hopes to reach people different to himself, people who would not always necessarily engage with something labelled ‘poetry’.

“I’m not seeking a theatrical or literary audience. I seek a music audience. People who would not have gone to see poetry or theatre otherwise. My audience is people who when asked ‘do you wanna go see some poetry?’ would probably say ‘do you wanna f**k off?’ I want to bring this thing to them, and not call it theatre or poetry.”

Nevertheless, he says, “everyone speaks in poetry. Words and behaviour is something that we all think about and have to cope with.”

This desire is also imbued within his writing. His lyrics seem to embody the best of both poetry and music – jumping from broad and accessible emotions to specific and personal imagery, talking about everyone before opening the door onto himself.

“I hope to avoid exclusive language. I’ve done it in the past, putting things in a certain tone of voice or vocabulary, and you can exclude people without knowing it. People will hear a certain kind of word, and think, ‘well this isn’t for me, it’s for someone more middle class.’ I want to work every day to make sure I don’t exclude people. Most exclusion of groups of people is done unconsciously, I think. I have a responsibility, certainly if I’m going to draw attention to myself, to work against excluding people.”

One very literal way in which Alabaster brings people together is via his role as founder, curator and frontman of Peach – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwfS_wv5lZo&feature=youtu.be , a monthly night at the Total Refreshment Centre, Stoke Newington – http://totalrefreshment.net/ . Originally devised as a launch event for his third album of the same name, and now an event at which Alabaster plays with a different line up of musicians each month.

“It’s different each show, and the trick is keeping it diverse. Unless I’m very careful, I end up with a show entirely made up of white men, and I’m a white middle class male myself, and I’m on the top of the bill. So I have to work against that. It means I’m constantly thinking about it, which is a good thing. It’s quite labour intensive but the best ones come through chatting to people. I love it. I love doing it.”

It seems to appeal to his strong work ethic too; “It means I’ve always got to be making these tunes, and they’ve got somewhere to go.”

When I ask Alabaster how he goes about his aim of empowering people, he replies, “It must be personal to each case. To start talking about ways to do it, as if you can say ‘oh just do such a thing, and you’ll empower people’, I think that would be quite cheeky, and foolish. I don’t know anything. I’m definitely learning.”

However, cheekiness and a little deliberate foolishness seem to be part of what makes Alabaster so appealing as a performer. His writing and his music are imbued with a wry, left-field, and yet very grounded wit, and a certain British eccentricity. Aside from his songs, a great example is his recent podcast episode for Home Cooking, taking a sideways look at various views on Brexit.

“I choose to present foolishness to make people at ease, but also to make us comfortable with our own foolishness. One thing you can do to immediate make everyone feel more comfortable is to put your hand up in the air and say ‘I am the dickhead in the room!’ I love doing that. You don’t feel like doing it before you do it, but after you’ve done it, if you can do it successfully, everyone is a little bit more comfortable in themselves.”

Having moved to London from Manchester where he grew up, Alabaster talks about the wealth of communities he’s found in the capital. Engaging with these groups has been one of the huge advantages in the move.

One such community has been Lost Map Records, of whom he speaks highly, and who will be putting out his next album early next year;

The Corner Of A Sphere will be “about greed, division and unity”. The first single, Be Nice To Peoplewas released last week and is a great introduction, if you’ve not encountered Alabaster already, to his delectable melding of clever, heartfelt, funny, loving lyrics and sensuous soundscapes.

He’s excited for the Cobalt show too, and about the musicians he’ll be bringing up with him. Ursula Russell on drums and James Howard, from a band called Blue House and Hannah Miller on Cello, who plays in the Moullettes.

“Ursula does spikey, fiery vibes and Hannah brings sort of velvety cosmic vibes.”

Sounds like it should be an excellent show.

Perhaps, as I was, you’re wondering where the name came from. A derivative a nom de plume? No. Instead what we have is a wonderful origin story which speaks to the core of Alabaster’s mission to find strength through vulnerability:

“I was walking up a rough street in Manchester late one night. I was dressed quite funny. Someone was driving past me and they were feeling very generous with their perspective and feelings about how I looked. They leaned out of the window to shout their personal ideas, but there were so many things that they had something to say about me, and they had so little to time to say them, because the car was driving quite fast, that they didn’t have time to make the sentence. They could only make a sort of sound. And the sound that they made sounded to me like ‘Alabaster de Plume’. And by that time they’d disappeared, so I couldn’t argue with them anymore.”

The overall sense that I come away with after chatting to Alabaster is that he is someone who leaves and breathes what he does. His ideas, his ethics and his manner seem to be informed by, and central to, himself as a person and an artist. His sense of purpose and belief feels stunningly true, his worth ethic seems monumental. Beyond this however, he comes across as a person imbued with warmth, generosity and a keen interest in other people’s experiences.

Alabaster de Plume is at Cobalt Studios, Newcastle on Thursday 2nd November.

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