Sofar so good

A few weeks ago, I played a gig on The London Eye, which is not a phrase I ever thought I'd type. I’d never been on it, despite living in London for 6 years and seeing it towering over the river I live adjacent to every day. My neurotic control freakery means that a trip in a pod that goes 135 m into the air for 27 minutes is my idea of hell. Don’t get me wrong, I love a panoramic view of my city as much as the next person, but I’d rather experience it from a building, with solid foundations, walls, floors, maybe even a sofa,  you understand. A few years ago I would have let some other braver cellist do this gig, but getting a) sober and b) older has taught me that if I said no to everything that frightened me, I would never leave the house. Also, the gig in question was for James Page, and I love him. 

This is James. You may have heard his single, Better Man than He, under his band name, Sivu (pronounced see-voo, NOT sea-view.) I met James last summer and I’ve been playing in Sivu ever since. I was introduced to him by Kirsty (you know her by now. Fiddle player in Raven, childhood compadre) and her producer husband Charlie Andrew of Alt J fame, who needed strings on the tracks they were working on together.

Our first live performance together was documented in the above "Barn Session" at In the Woods, the festival Charlie runs with his band, the Laurel Collective.  It features the Andrew family donkey, Ha’penny, who is sadly no longer with us. The man that looks like a handsome tattooed Jesus playing the omnichord is film maker Adam Powell, James’ best friend. He is responsible for the video that made Better Man than He trend online. He filmed James singing the song in an MRI scanner, the beautiful results of which delighted musos and tech nerds alike. They filmed it at St Bart’s hospital in their cleft palate research department so Adam could see James’ mouth and throat.  (This is the inside of James’ bonce. Not bad eh? For a while after its release he worried that an off duty brain surgeon might watch the video and call him talking of suspicious masses. Thus far though, his grey matter has proved healthy.)

The opportunity to perform on the London Eye came from Sofar Sounds, a burgeoning online music community famous for putting on secret gigs in people's front rooms all over the world and streaming them live on the internet. The first rule of Sofar is  "NEVER TALK ABOUT SOFAR". Just kidding. There is one rule, which is that the audience must not speak, text or move around during the performance, creating a reverential atmosphere usually reserved for classical performances. A pindrop can be heard in a Sofar performance, which pleases punters and artists alike. Here is our Sofar session we did a few weeks before in a Hackney warehouse. I am inexplicably half naked in it. I can only apologise. 

On the London Eye that fateful night, were 500 single people, attending “The Wheel Date”. They were divided at random into the 32 pods, each of which contained a different activity. One had table football inside it, another had stand up comedy, another was a “rave” pod. There was also a petting zoo pod filled with hay and defenceless animals. Actually, that would have been my pod of choice. Nothing too bad can happen when you’re cuddling a rabbit (if you mentally erase that scene in Fatal Attraction.) The poor bastards in front of us boarded the wheel with a seventies tribute act, dressed in sequins and false moustaches, carrying a retro boom-box. They sang and danced non stop with the unbridled enthusiasm of the cast of Glee. . The vibe in the queue for pods was bizarre, like a social experiment, interspersed with costumed thesps and burlesque girls shouting. Drink had been taken, spirits were high despite the bitter conditions by the river, and before we knew it, we were stepping onto a pod and getting our instruments out, along with 12 or so people, be-name tagged, nervously introducing themselves to one another. Also in the pod were our significant others and one of James’ management team, Jake. 

On the day itself, as the gig drew nearer and my apprehension increased, I asked people on facebook and twitter what it was like on the London Eye. My loved ones, including Mr C, said, “Oh it moves so slowly, you’ll hardly notice you’re going up. It’s just like standing in a tall building. You’ll love it! The views are amazing.” My friend Mark had said, "I followed through the first time, but the second time was alright." Thanks Mark. 

All the positive people talking of panoramic splendour and lack of vertigo were lying. Not about the views, they were indeed beautiful. I was just way too freaked out to properly register them. I felt like I was in a pod, swinging precariously, climbing high, not AT ALL like I was in a stationary building, as my husband had promised, no doubt to shut me up.  After the nightclub feel of the freezing queue, the pod seemed eerily quiet as we inched ever higher over the river. As I was smiling, nodding and getting the cello out of its case, my brain was saying, “Er...I don’t want to alarm you, but this tiny pod is getting further and further from the ground. And you can’t get out. And you can’t scream because you have to perform before all these strangers and appear like a normal person. Did I mention that this will take 27 minutes? Good luck, Panic Pants. Try not to shit yourself.”

My body responded in its usual way, by flinging out buckets of adrenaline that washed uncomfortably in my stomach, quickened my breath and sent tingling feelings to my fingers and toes. Palms sweating, I said to James with a rigor mortis smile, “Let’s get started shall we?” like I was presenting children’s television in the late eighties, in case I began screaming “WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE” and sobbing in the foetal position. Tom Lovett, the lovely man from the Sofar team briefly announced who we were and what we were doing, and off we went. I used every cell of my body to think about what I was playing. I concentrated on my bow hold, my sound, James’ voice, blending with Kirsty, blocking the “YOU ARE NOT OK” thoughts, poised to crowd in any second resulting in a full blown panic attack in front of a dozen total strangers. I tried hard to imagine I was playing in Kirsty’s basement, where we often rehearse.  It was going well, I successfully deluded myself about my geographical whereabouts and we were playing really quite nicely. Then though, there was some kind of malfunction in the pod, and this automated voice barked, unprompted, “Please stand in the designated photo areas....” or something to that effect. We rolled our eyes, had a bit of a laugh with the audience, who were lovely and attentive, like all Sofar audiences, and carried on playing.

The robotic barking occurred again. And again. And again. The disembodied voice of this pod bitch saboteur was starting to put us off.  Between barks, there were a blissful few seconds when we thought, "Ah. She's done." But NO. Up she started, seeming louder and more judgemental each time. (I may have imagined this.)   My shredded nerves were at screaming point. Tripping with adrenaline, she started to sound like the voice of Satan, sent to ruin me. James, ever the professional, smiled through and carried on until the end of the song,  pod bitch getting more and more aggressive. Sensing we were ignoring her, she changed tack, saying innocently, “We are now approaching the exit. The doors will open shortly, Please make your way quickly to the door...” which I think you'll agree is a disconcerting message to hear hundreds of feet above the freezing river Thames. 


The song ended and everyone clapped, looking marginally fear stricken. Tom took control and radioed the pod controllers. “Let’s take a break,” he said, unfazed.  Pod bitch was still barking, Tom was talking through the intercom, there was a slight air of chaos.  My brain, still intent on sabotage, continued its onslaught of unwelcome chemicals. I knew if I stopped playing the freak out would begin in earnest. I took one look at James who sensed my unease and said to him desperately, “human jukebox”. He knew the drill. Wordlessly, he flicked through his mental back catalogue like Number 5 in Short Circuit and started singing, sotto voce, "A little respect" by Eraser (Wheatus version, natch) in order to divert me. Often I yell “Beck” across a rehearsal room and he stops what he’s doing and launches into “Devil’s Haircut”, bobbing his head like Paul McCartney. He’s very obliging, is James.  It was funny, and distracting. Our respective partners sang along in half whispered voices whilst pod bitch was being silenced and the singles.......mingled. Tom the trouper was saying patiently into the intercom, “No, she’s telling us about designated photo areas ALL THE TIME. And the doors are about to open....Yes, that’s right. Could you turn her off?”

Eventually, silence reigned and we resumed our set. Higher we climbed, over the top arc of the wheel, the whole of London glittering beneath us. The Houses of Parliament looked as though they were made of gingerbread, all the bridges over the Thames tiny and perfect in wiggly alignment.

eft and right were the other pods, each their own individual microcosm. On one side was a pod filled with bodies, dancing, writhing with flashing lights, resembling a mini hacienda. In a more sedate pod on the other side the guests appeared to be silently watching a film on a big screen. I dread to think of what was happening in the stand up pod. Getting heckled from a distance of 2ft can’t be much fun. It was no mean feat though, organising mini dates for 500 people in 32 pods, 435ft up. I would love to know if there were any matches made that night. Apparently there was some MAJOR flirting in the table tennis pod. Hugging for an unecessarily long time after winning a point, inappropriate jokes about balls, you can imagine, can't you? Our audience were getting on famously.  Even through my vertigo haze, I noticed how laid back everyone seemed. It's hard to be awkward with one another when you are doing something as extraordinary as looking at London from a big wheel in the sky.


songs from a pod.jpg
As we began the descent, my brain ceased it doom mongering and we played a couple more songs. The audience seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves. Charlie, Kirsty’s husband and James’ producer, said he had a “moment”, you know, when you feel like the stars align and he was looking out over London, watching his wife play tracks he’s worked on with James, and thought with a surge of gratitude, “Well this is pretty awesome.” I had one too, once I was back on the ground, eating nachos and guacamole in Wahaca, legs like jelly and still feeling like I was on a big wheel. Yes, I nearly projectile vomited all over the glass with fear, but I’d done it! Afterwards I looked at the beautiful photographs taken by Kiri Scully and saw myself, performing on the London Eye, looking to all intents and purposes like a normal person. I still feel like a badass. 

follow Sivu on twitter: @sivusignals,  website:  facebook: sivu  soundcloud:

sign up to Sofar Sounds here