There used to be a joint in the East Village of New York called the C-Note, where you could get a gig if nobody had heard of you. During your set, the bartender would pass a tip jar, and on a good night you could recoup the cost of your cab home. An ice machine would fire up at timed intervals with a hum, then burst like a firecracker, dumping ice into a metal bin. It flanked the stage and could be heard at all five tables and out the front door, serving as a finger-wag to your art-dues still-owing.
I played early and then packed up to get to another gig, while the next songwriter slid behind an electric piano and started to line-check the keys. She was small, ginger-haired and wearing a cardigan, her eyelashes curled out like spiders perched on a pair of glossy rain puddles. Someone handed me her disc at the exit. At home later, listening to the recording, out streamed a tenderhearted confessional — a bit blue — over an earnest and bent, halftime melody. I sent her an email, and fell asleep with the feeling that I was not alone.
In the morning, a reply from Louise Cairns said she was from London and didn’t know anyone in New York and would be playing an open mic that evening at The Sidewalk, an historic tooth-cutting spot for future greats. I sat at the back and listened to another ice machine rumble, this time under the efforts of Louise’s borrowed 61-key Casio, her hands falling off the ends as her octaves climbed, her eye-spiders spreading with each refrain.
Afterwards, we took a corner and conspired together to play in each other’s places. In the following years, we played Liverpool, the Midlands, the pubs of Camden Town, Shepherd’s Bush and Oxford Street. I slept on the floor of her Southeast London flat and she came to play in New York’s curated rooms — The Knitting Factory, Rockwood Music Hall, The Living Room — climbing the stairs of my 6th-floor Village walk-up, sharing my futon and practicing my piano there. We took our bands to bigger gigs at the Edinburgh Fringe and London’s Bush Hall, as Louise’s melodies and grit tethered what seemed impossible to the possible.
Near the beginning of an early adventure, Louise mentioned a place called Ullapool. She had a song in her set about the gathering of artists there. I listened, imagining a windswept, pale-skied outstation at the edge of the world. “One day, we’ll go,” she said, “and play.”
PS: “Joy prompts courage.” (Hans Christian Andersen)
Esoterica: A creative buddy system can turn a worthy pursuit into a peak experience. “Without him I would have given up,” said Renoir of Monet. Partnering for mutual encouragement, logistics and joy curbs the loneliness of climbing and reveals the hidden, sparkling Ullapools. In the same way, these letters and your responses build a remarkable and intimate friendship. Your messages regarding our new format have been overwhelmingly positive, and we thank you. As for Ullapool, next week Louise and I will play there, as well as Skye, Ballater and Glasgow. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we’d love to see you.