January 2, 2013
STRANGER: Lorraine Bowen
LOCATION: Searcys St. Pancras Grand, Euston Road, London, England
THEME: Dinner with an English singer, songwriter and musician
Everybody’s good at doing something, and Lorraine Bowen’s good at entertaining.
The English singer and songwriter has for the last few decades made a career out of songs that are funny, quirky, jolly and plenty of other words ending in -y. Her hits range from an innuendo-laden tribute to cooking dessert to an upbeat warning about the mysteries of burger meat.
I first learned of Lorraine through her YouTube videos accompanying her songs, and one click over to her videography will easily lead to a half hour or more watching the ebullient self-titled Mistress of Melody swinging her hips on a beach front, riding a fast food van, enjoying at day in the small seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea, waiting in a long post office queue, and more.
The cheerful persona projected in the videos is exactly the same in person — from the moment Lorraine and I met at the entrance to Searcys, a restaurant in St. Pancras train station in London, I was won over by her easygoing charm, friendliness to strangers, and refreshing lack of cynicism.
It was my last night in my home country before a flight back to Washington, D.C. I’d reached out to Lorraine for an interview, and happily the timing worked out perfectly. She was heading through London on her way home to the coastal town of Brighton, after visiting her mother who still lives in the the town of Chelmsford in Essex where Lorraine grew up.
We’d settled on the restaurant Searcys given its location within St. Pancras — a bustling train station that recently had a massive overhaul and is now a beautiful place with plenty of high-end shops and restaurants.
It was the first time either of us had tried the restaurant, and we were both impressed. Dark walls and soft yellow lighting gave the place a classy feel, and the design was almost Art Deco, as if the restaurant could have existed in the heyday of steam train travel.
Lorraine is familiar with the station because she doesn’t drive and uses trains to get to gigs in London or elsewhere, before returning home to Brighton. She’s lived in Brighton for seven years, but before that lived in London for 20 years. The change in location came about because the city “was suffocating me, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything new. I was going to the same old haunts, doing the same old thing.”
Her East London neighborhood was also changing as investment poured in and gentrification took over — and not necessarily for the better. “When I first moved there I had a much more bohemian lifestyle. That’s the thing about places regenerating, you lose a lot of the character. Many of the performance spaces I was used to were shutting down and becoming flats. Then a couple of friends died, and I thought, ‘Life’s too short to be in a place you’re irritated by.”
Hence the move to the seaside. Lorraine, who is 51 but has the looks and energy of someone many years younger, settled on Brighton. The town is packed with budding artists and musicians, with plenty of performance spaces. “It’s probably the most creative seven years I’ve had.”
That creativity focuses on entertaining audiences with her offbeat songs and a stage show called the Polyester Fiesta, mixing a fashion show of swinging sixties clothing with her numbers and clips of other tunes.
Lorraine’s happy making others happy. “I never wanted to write tawdry love songs,” she said. “My songs are really a celebration of life other than love.”
Lorraine doesn’t cook — she leaves that to her partner — but she loves to sing about cooking crumble, and the song has been translated into more than five languages. She put a challenge on her fourth album for people to translate and perform the song and promised to feature those efforts on her fifth album. Lorraine kept her promise, and so that’s why there are now songs about making Dutch pancakes, an Indian cover, and an upcoming version sung in Japanese about making sushi.
The first video of Lorraine’s that I ever saw was “The Burger Song,” which tells of the questionable components of burger meat in a way that is rather prescient given the recent revelation that English supermarket Tesco was selling burger patties with bits of horse thrown in them. In typical Mistress of Melody fashion, Lorraine manages to make a song with a message that might sound preachy by someone else but in her hands is amusing and slightly off-kilter.
I thought perhaps I might be sitting down with a vegetarian given the song, but Lorraine said she’s a meat eater and has had a few burgers in her time. The song came about more from a gig in Orlando, where she was gobsmacked by the amount of burgers Americans were wolfing down.
“Post Office Blues” is another song that has a serious message delivered in a jokey manner. A lament about shutting down local post offices could be a sad, if unusual, song. Lorraine said writing a song like that at one point in her life would have reduced her to tears. But instead she couples it with a video of her playing around in a post office queue, and it’s suddenly a quirky number.
As with most of her videos the post office scenes weren’t planned, and Lorraine had worried that security would throw her and her cameraman out in seconds. Not so, and instead they captured some funny scenes of an older woman waiting in the queue whose baffled reactions to Lorraine help make the video a gem. “I’m a magnet for crazy things happening,” Lorraine said. “I love the randomness of life. There’s so much comedy out on the street, you’ve just got look for it.”
Making amusing music videos is all well and good, but Lorraine is planning to use 2013 to get an agent and start promoting her work, after realizing many people online will watch the video but not click through to buy the iTunes version. In an ideal world more people would do just that, or her songs would get picked up for a film soundtrack, she said.
To date, Lorraine has had one song featured in film. “Julie Christie” is a softly-sung love song of sorts to the “Billy Liar” actress, a celebration of the woman and the swinging sixties that Lorraine adores. “I used to watch ‘Billy Liar’ a lot when I was younger and I was drawn in by Julie Christie’s beauty. I think it’s beyond anything you see nowadays. She was absolutely gorgeous.”
Lorraine says that the song is also a celebration for lesbians, and it’s been featured in a lesbian film called “Better Than Chocolate,” a production she described gently as “not a film I’d show my dad.”
The song has done well for Lorraine, with royalties still coming in when “Better Than Chocolate” is screened in cinemas. It was picked up for the film after someone involved in the production heard Lorraine perform it on Canadian radio when she was in Winnipeg for a fringe festival.
It’s also led many people to assume Lorraine’s a lesbian (she’s not), but that doesn’t faze her. Most of her fans are gay, she said, and her philosophy to sexual attraction is live and let live. “Everyone’s got tendencies, so why can’t you have a crush on anyone?”
There are plenty other songs of Lorraine’s to discover — including her recent number “Faffing Around On Facebook,” a lament of all the time-wasting she does on the social network when she should be doing other things.
Lorraine’s definitely carved out a niche for her music, but years ago her original intent was to focus on folk music.
Our appetizers arrived before she could tell me the trajectory of her life, and there was a momentary silence as the waiter delivered her starter of shellfish soup finished with brandy.
Forgive the poor picture quality but that’s the best shot that could be had after several attempts. The picture might not make it look like the tastiest dish in the world, but Lorraine said it was “gorgeous.” I didn’t try it as I had my own hefty bowl of soup to deal with.
The restaurant offered a butternut squash soup, which sounded appealing on the cold January night. While the portion was generous, the soup was rather bland. I was starting to regret not going along with Lorraine’s soup choice, but refrained from stealing her bowl.
As she worked on her soup, Lorraine sketched out her history, starting with her childhood in Gloucestershire where she developed a thick local accent. The family then moved to Essex, which has a very different type of accent, and young Lorraine stuck out. She was made fun of by other children for the way she talked, So her parents sent her to elocution lessons.
“My teacher stood me up on a table and said, ‘You mustn’t bully Lorraine Bowen anymore.’ That was one of the worst points of my life. I was terribly shy as an individual, with grotesque craters of spots that eventually went away when I was 25. I think a lot of people you meet as performers were all shy and nervous as teenagers,” she said.
Lorraine went to university in Surrey to earn an honors degree in music. It was a free course, but not well organized. The teacher would just turn up and talk about his favorite topic of the day, there was no fixed curriculum.
While the course itself didn’t win Lorraine over, she was inspired by the creativity of her classmates. And her studies helped her develop her abilities on the piano and double bass. It was also at university that she took up singing. She’d gotten bored with playing clarinet in an orchestra and wanted to switch to singing. “I didn’t like being in that team of ants playing music. I think you’ve either got that group orientation as a performer or you just want to be more individual. University was a big learning curve of individuality,” she said.
So she ditched the clarinet classes and took up singing lessons, instantly falling in love with it. She started to perform at a few folk clubs and found that people enjoyed listening to her voice. “I still love folk music, I think it’s beautiful.”
Still, a musical degree wasn’t doing much for her immediate job prospects and so she took her mum’s advice and learned typing back home in Chelmsford. It turned out to be a useful skill, but after a year of typing classes Lorraine was eager to leave town. It was nothing against her parents, but university had broadened her horizons.
She applied for jobs in the music industry and finally got a position as a personal assistant. She started to meet other musicians and eventually was asked to play bass for a “groovy hip band” in London called See You In Vegas. She wasn’t an expert at bass but gave it a go anyway, and had a great time. “People would come up to me and say I was such a great bass player. But I wasn’t, it was just because I’m a girl” and it was unusual to see woman playing bass, she said.
After See You In Vegas the next big band Lorraine joined was The Dinner Ladies, performing piano, recorder, and harmonium, and providing backing vocals.
Then came her big break.
The Dinner Ladies were the support act for Billy Bragg when he played the Hackney Empire. Bragg liked what he heard from Lorraine and asked her in for an audition for his band. His piano player was pregnant and couldn’t do a planned tour. Lorraine went in for the audition and won the slot, and so at 28 her music career had truly started.
“My degree course was so rubbish I hadn’t even learned to play chords. Billy taught me how to be a proper pop star,” Lorraine said.
On the tour she saw some amazing sights, including passing through Germany’s Checkpoint Charlie in 1980s Berlin and entertaining communist soldiers. She played with Bragg for a couple of years, and then came a “breathtaking” moment. He suggested that Lorraine go solo, and asked her to write him six demo songs. She took a few months to write them and then sent him a tape. He liked three of them in particular and helped develop them for her first solo gig.
“I was quite serious about it, but when I started playing my songs people started laughing,” Lorraine said, before breaking into her own chuckle at the memory. “I thought my songs were quite serious, but they had a quirky side to them that I didn’t know. So I moved into comedy slowly.”
At this point, we had to take a brief pause in the interview so I could get my camera back out and clumsily try to photograph the entrees that had just arrived.
Lorraine had nothing but praise for her main course of whole south coast plaice with brown shrimps and new potatoes, served with a side of carrots. It looked like a generous portion.
From the large number of main courses on offer, I chose the Angus steak with garlic butter, served with half a roasted tomato and skinny fries.
A vast improvement over the starter. The steak was outstanding, perfectly cooked and well worth the rather high price tag.
As I washed down the steak with a glass of Chilean merlot — one of many wines that the restaurant has on offer — Lorraine told me how she’s developed the quirky, comic songs into a full-time focus.
“Now I’ve got five albums of stuff,” she said, including a greatest hits album she put out after just one album. “I thought it was funny to do that, as if I’d never make another album.”
To help pay the bills Lorraine also teaches piano and has about a dozen students. “It’s nice to teach people and pass on what I’ve learned,” she said. Her goal is to teach students bits of classical, jazz, rock and other music, rather than focusing on learning classical tunes by rote. “I give my students a great, rounded education, which I didn’t get.”
Her philosophy for that approach is simple: when her students are adults they will make money playing “Auld Lang Syne” or Christmas carols around the holidays. “They won’t get money for playing ‘Für Elise’ badly,” she said.
Lorraine clearly keeps herself busy between the intermittent gigs, staging her Polyester Fiesta (she’s got two performances of that lined up this year already) and teaching piano. It’s a packed schedule, but she takes it all in her stride. Her easygoing nature is instantly disarming, and she revels in practically everything she sets her eyes on.
I usually don’t pay attention to the background music at restaurants, but Lorraine smiled broadly as she noticed the bossa nova beat being played.
Similarly she spoke well of the restaurant, and we both enjoyed our dessert of treacle tart — like a crumble, it’s a typical English dessert, but this time it’s a pastry base filled with golden syrup, known as a light treacle.
Both fairly full from the large appetizers and main courses, we split the tart. It was warm, sugary and irresistible — just as a treacle tart should be. It could have used some custard (my parents’ go-to for serving with treacle tarts), but instead we got ice cream that was fine as an accompaniment.
While I wielded my spoon and ate more than my fair share of the tart, Lorraine said she’s enjoying her life and just wants to keep doing what she’s doing.
“I spend my life looking around, observing, thinking about the next song, the next video and how to make it all work this year. It’s not as if I want world domination, but I would love to be a little more well known,” she said.
Lorraine’s outgoing personality will probably help tremendously in that goal, as evidenced by what happened after we wrapped up dinner and left the restaurant.
Walking toward the train platforms and to go our separate ways, we spotted a couple of pianos in the train station with “Play me!” written on them. Without hesitation, Lorraine sat down and performed “The Crumble Song” for a couple of passersby.
Lorraine emailed me a day later to say that before boarding her train she passed by another “Play me!” piano and got talking to some strangers. She sat down to play a few tunes with them. Perfectly fitting for her love of music and celebrating the randomness of life through song.
As she summed it up during dinner, “I love writing songs and I never want to stop.”