Toby Litt pays homage to the otherworldly gifts of Elizabeth Fraser.
Of course I made a note of it. Monday 31 July 2006. “X phones up with what he says may be a very interesting proposition for me – to help Elizabeth Fraser out with some lyrics. I said big yes. Her manager should be calling me later this week. Apparently, she’s been having trouble writing, and they are looking for a ‘poet or novelist’.”
X is a behind-the-scenes legend, a man who makes things happen. He’s promoted bands, programmed festivals. X did not wish to be named in this article but thanked me for my courtesy in asking whether he’d prefer a pseudonym or a letter from towards the end of the alphabet. On Monday 31 July, 2006, X appeared to me pretty much in the guise of the Archangel Gabriel. My next diary entry reads: “I don’t believe this conversation took place.” I had been transported, annunciated. Writing lyrics for Elizabeth Fraser was the dream job and couldn’t be anything other than a gift from God.
I noted down my surprise that the dream job hadn’t gone to the Scottish novelist Alan Warner, who wrote some great liner notes to the Cocteau Twins’ compilation Stars and Topsoil: “It was much better than any rave; I would take a little something and get the bus to the zoo, listening to home-taped compilations of the Cocteau Twins on my Walkman . . . The Cocteau’s music was damn good zoo music: exotic, sensual, mischievous, surprisingly unreal, like a toucan’s beak! . . . Of course, central to their sound has always been Elizabeth Fraser’s singular voice, this streamer-like instrument, completely on its own . . . an untethered but lonely thing.”
A lot of writers have attempted to describe Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and have ended up writing what ex-NME editor Steve Sutherland once called “mind’s-eye gibberish”. And a lot of listeners have tried to work out what words Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is singing and have concluded that it’s “mind’s-eye gibberish”.
To give you some idea how important that voice and that gibberish is to me, here are a couple of stats from my iPod. It contains 21.9 hours of music by the Cocteau Twins and/or Elizabeth Fraser – including B-sides, alternative mixes, live bootlegs, a cover of “Frosty the Snowman” and two adverts for Fruitopia. It contains, as far as is downloadably possible, everything Elizabeth Fraser has recorded.
And here are a couple of memories. My 16th birthday, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, having just set up my brand-new stereo record player and choosing to christen it by playing “The Spangle Maker” EP. This February, driving back from visiting my mother in the hospice, starting something, anything, by the Cocteau Twins on my iPod, getting in bed and pulling the covers over my head, going foetal. Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is part of my survival kit.
Back in the excited summer of 2006, when I mentioned to a few friends that I might, just might, be writing lyrics for Elizabeth Fraser – and then, in many cases, had to remind them of who exactly she was (“You know, Cocteau Twins, Eighties, indie band, ‘Song to the Siren’ – come on, you know”) – they usually made a joke along the lines of that being a bit like jamming with My Bloody Valentine on descant recorder. My chances of being (a) heard and (b) understood were about as minimal.
After I finished speaking to X, I didn’t even stand up from my desk. I wrote four or five lyrics straight out. This was the dream job. Fast as I could, I sent these and a few more lyrics to Elizabeth Fraser’s manager – and precisely nothing happened. I copied them out again, with my best ink-pen on my best paper in my best curly handwriting, and posted them to Elizabeth Fraser’s last-known record company – and nothing happened again.
Since the Cocteau Twins split up in 1997, Elizabeth Fraser’s fans have become extremely used to nothing happening. A solo album has been imminent for at least a decade. A Cocteau Twins reunion at the 2005 Coachella Festival crashed and burned. But there have been intermittent releases and some of them have been exquisite. Her Craig Armstrong song “This Love” gave Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions its only moment of true emotion. Her duet with Peter Gabriel, “Downside Up”, was the best thing to come out of the Millennium Dome (not hard, I know). Her little-known songs with the French musician Yann Tiersen, particularly “Mary”, are probably her best post-Cocteaus work.
There have also been moments of real crossover. Millions of people will, without realising it, have heard her singing (in Elvish) on the soundtrack to the first two Lord of the Rings films. She has toured stadiums with Massive Attack. For the most part, though, there’s been a deliberate avoidance of public exposure. She has lived in Bristol, raised her daughters.
And then Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons invited Fraser to take part in the Meltdown festival he was directing for Dream line-up: the Cocteau Twins pictured in 1995 London’s Southbank. She said yes. And over the past month, there have been a calm-sounding interview on the Today programme and adouble-page spread in the Observer. Plus, there have been a lot of mind’s-eye gibberish descriptions of the voice.
In all of this, there’s a tendency to forget the Cocteau Twins were, when not a trio, a particularly intimate duo. Without Robin Guthrie’s encouragement and love, Fraser’s voice might never have been heard outside her hometown of Grangemouth, Falkirk. And, despite all the subsequent collaborations, Fraser’s voice has never sounded so at home as within the vast soundscapes Guthrie created to support it. Aspects of his production that once sounded dated are now beginning to sound period. It is about huge, gorgeous, amorphous emotions – part-heroin, part-grief, part-pop. Fraser has subsequently talked about her “co-dependency” with Guthrie, but that interwovenness was the beginning of their craft. They were twins whose first record was called Garlands.
As far as X’s “very interesting proposition” went, nothing has continued to happen. No call came from Elizabeth Fraser’s manager. No invitation to a basement studio down in Bristol. No scribbled notes to bring back to London and turn into something singable. Instead, I kept going with the wordy half of songs. When I first met the composer Emily Hall, I gave her those four or five lyrics I’d written after getting the call from X. And, pretty soon, one of them will be released on a mini-LP of songs performed by Mara Carlyle, the pianist John Reid and the cellist Oliver Coates.
When the dream job failed to come off, my biggest disappointment was not that Fraser might not sing my words but that I might never get to be in a room with that voice. At first, I didn’t believe the Meltdown announcement. Thinking I might hear her singing live was, for me, roughly equivalent on the Jesus Fuck Scale to being able to catch a set by Billie Holiday. I was on the Southbank Centre hotline for two hours the morning tickets went on sale. When I finally got through, I was told that Fraser’s were the fastest-selling events of the whole festival.
I will be very surprised if the concerts don’t conclude with Elizabeth Fraser duetting with Antony Hegarty on “Half-Gifts”, a song whose lyrics transformed him back in 1996. “She spent her whole career singing in personal, intuitive languages,” he said in an interview with New York magazine. “On the last record, she started singing in English and the words were revelatory. The last line of the last song was ‘I still care about this planet. I still feel connected to nature and to my dreams. I have my friends and my family. I have myself. I still have me.’ I remember thinking, the most radical thing you can do . . . is to project hope.”
Some of us would have found it a whole lot harder to hope without that voice.