Josienne Clarke Wants You to Reuse, Recycle, and Repair (Your Own Songs)

The singer-songwriter talks the creative and financial benefits she’s found in re-recording her music.

As a songwriter you can only write a song once. You can play it many times, you can write other songs, but once it’s written — that’s it. 

The creative industry suffers from capitalism’s disposable culture. In the Internet Age, where almost every song ever composed is available to you 24/7 for next to nothing, songwriting now falls under the catch-all term for artistic endeavors known as “content.” Artists are required to constantly create new content; this content is then consumed on a short term basis and buried under the newer music news of the day. Industry structure generally necessitates releasing albums about every 18 months, often with EPs in between, so you don’t get forgotten. It’s all about momentum — keep adding more content to the pile, or the little noise you’ve managed to make will be drowned out pretty quickly. In a decade-plus-long career like mine, that’s a lot of songs!

When the pandemic struck, it decimated live performance and thus took out, virtually overnight, an entire revenue stream for artists. When you look at the financial landscape for all but the biggest artists, without live income heavily adding to the revenue from recordings, our careers don’t quite add up to a living. During that period, with much time for rumination on my hands, I — like many others — started looking at whether a career in music makes any sense the way the industry currently works. 

Even as a prolific songwriter, I’ve found that it’s no longer financially viable for me not to revisit material. It’s just not sustainable in the long term. When a big label forever owns the masters of your songs, and considering the structure of those deals in the current industry model, you can earn next-to-nothing from sales of those recordings. It’s not surprising that an artist at my level would have to explore re-recording from a financial standpoint alone.

If your song doesn’t make a big splash in its first few months of release — if it didn’t bring in the big bucks right away — then that’s its one chance blown. However, record contracts contain certain re-record clauses preventing artists from immediately rereleasing, and those last typically five years — then you’re free to give those songs another go.

But there’s also a compelling creative argument for this type of revision. Great songs can wear a variety of interpretations, and perhaps the idea of one definitive recording is rigid and reductive. There are thousands of versions of classic songs by great songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and each interpretation finds new life, and a new angle from which to view the song. New artists revisit these songs all the time, each one finding another sliver of something brand new in them. 

Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) has been revisiting his own songs, reworking and re-presenting them wonderfully over and again throughout his career. On his album Greatest Palace Music, he covers songs from his Palace Music and Palace Brothers projects. The album revisits the tracks with a different production aesthetic, telling you something new about each one. For example, “Ohio River Boat Song” — a deceptively simple, slow and spare, but rousing ballad from Palace Music becomes a jaunty and sweetly uplifting country song. If you were to ask Oldham which is the definitive version of his song “I See A Darkness,” I wonder what he’d say? Many people might know Johnny Cash’s 2000 recording of it, but Oldham had recorded several himself before that. 

Anaïs Mitchell is another artist who revisits her own work — her 2014 XOA is on constant rotation in my house, and I love the reframing of songs I know from her other projects in that stripped back simplified setting. Songs like “Why We Build The Wall” and “If It’s True” from Hadestown, her Grammy award winning folk-opera musical, were originally released in 2010 with guest vocalists and full instrumentation. Yet on XOA, it’s simply Mitchell herself, with her light voice matching the warm bright tone of a single resonator guitar. “Your Fonder Heart” from her 2007 album The Brightness has on XOA all its twinkly string production stripped back, and instead gains gravity and weight, sounding much more assured in, what it is to me, its perfect setting.  

It’s not a new idea, but it is a creative endeavor with more for the listener to gain than repackaged “best of” compilations. My new record, Onliness (songs of solitude & singularity), isn’t that. It’s a celebration of my best songwriting. I’m proud of the songs I’ve written in my career; for reasons of time, place and context they haven’t achieved all I think they could. In re-recording them, I’ve reclaimed, reimagined, and reinvigorated them. It’s been a chance for me to refresh them for my current fanbase and present them to listeners unfamiliar with my previous work. In the process, I’ve found things I didn’t notice the first time around, and I’ve been able to put right the bits that have bugged me over the years in those old recordings. 

“Anyone But Me” is one of those exposing songs I partly wish I’d never written. It’s a three minute study in jealousy and paranoia and how destructive those emotions can be. I originally wrote it in 2008 but didn’t record it for another five years. When I finally did release it, it became hands-down my most requested song from audiences. BBC radio DJ Cerys Matthews even included it in her musical adaptation of Our Country’s Good at The National Theatre in London in 2015. These early renderings were acoustic-country-folk, and when I approached the idea that I must revisit the song, where could I go but more intense, more unhinged, louder and more aggressive? I turned up my guitar, got out my distortion pedal, increased the speed, and requested my band play some dirty garage rock with me.

“Done,” a resigned break-up ballad that, when writing it, I had intended to be a sort of melancholic ode to “My Way” — which is kind of a ridiculous premise. But the whole song is harmonically structured to sound like an ending, descending inevitably towards its close. When i wrote it, it was originally based on a descending finger-picked guitar pattern which gave it a rhythmic meter so you could feel its last moments tick away. In my reworking, I decided that it could definitely take the “last orders at the bar” piano torch song treatment. My references were Tom Waits’ “Closing Time” and Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today.” This arrangement places the words centrally and leaves plenty of space for contemplation. It was one of those songs that never quite found its spotlight, but I always believed it was one of my best — one of those rare times when you manage to say exactly what you mean, just how you feel, no more, no less, in three-and-a-half minutes. Making this retrospective album gives it another chance to shine.  

The songs I have written are all I really have. They are my life’s work and my retirement policy. In an industry that needs to be more profitable for the artist, in a world that needs to be more sustainable, recycle, re-use and repair can also apply to songs.  

Indie-folk singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer Josienne Clarke is often said to draw on traditional British folk inspirations, but is a thoroughly modern, multifaceted artist who follows her own compass. Clarke’s rare authenticity — really the main unifying thread running through her career — is something to admire: She is an artist singularly unafraid to express herself via her art and is naturally armed with all the verve and ability to do so. Her new album Onliness (songs of solitude & singularity) is out April 14 via Corduroy Punk Records.