Back in January I went to Camden to photograph something extraordinary.
Songwriter, guitarist and producer Russell Swallow has joined forces with a fellow guitarist and songwriter Adam Wedd for the Spin The Black Circle night of unplugged live music combined with vinyl listening at the Green Note's basement venue.
Russell reflected on his relationship with music during the pandemic: "Through lockdown, I suddenly had more time to connect with myself, my loved ones, and my passion for music. Once a week I sat and played an album in full. I would fall into a natural, almost meditative listening state. It was sometimes emotional, always joyful, and rewarding."
Their vinyl night initiatives are just like this: sitting together in a scarcely lit room, focusing on music, songwriting and lyrics, having put all the distracting electronics aside. For the January night the duo planned to play Billy Joel's The Stranger in its entirety.
Billy Joel, who is one of the most successful artists, having performed around the globe, sold over 160 million records, toured the world, and won awards, released The Stranger in 1977. The album includes complex arrangements on clarinet, flute, organ, soprano and tenor saxophones, guitars, percussions, and piano. You can listen to the title song on his official music channel.
Fun fact: having written the material, Billy Joel met with The Beatles' producer George Martin to discuss the production however the potential work fell through due to the demand of not using Billy's band. After that meeting, Billy chose an engineer, violinist and composer Phil Ramone to produce the album instead.
Adam Webb mentioned: "I came to this album a little late in life, every song evokes some kind of comedy, sadness or romance in my own life. I've also been binge watching Billy Joel interviews. For example, the song "Vienna" always makes me feel a deep sense of gratitude, "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" conjure up many dates I've had in my life, both good and bad! As for the rest, you'll have to wait and see."
The venue room was intimate, with thick, red velvet curtains and a few round tables and chairs scattered around. The set-up was minimal and modest: an old piano, small wooden table with a Pro-Ject 2 record player, PA system, Cambridge Audio phono amplifier, a couple of acoustic guitars.
There were only a few candles burning on the nearby tables, with the host using a small torch for an announcement or changing the record later on.
Having arrived before the public to spot good angles and photograph details I may not have an opportunity for later, I talked to the organisers and staff at Green Note. I noticed beautifully used piano keys, record sleeves spread on the table, and small lamps hanging on long cords from the ceiling, all of which provide a good background story of the event.
I photographed them so the audience could relive the moments, and people who didn't have a chance to come over, could imagine the experience and join in the future.
When the event started with live music part, I photographed really fast and for a few minutes only, so not to interrupt the acoustic experience. Working in this quiet setting is much harder than at the usual concert with electric gear as the shutter button sound feels loud like gunfire, and you can't hide it behind the buzzing of amps or a huge club noise.
Although the camera is set to silent, the mechanics of the equipment could still be heard by the ultra-sensitive members of the public.
The trick that allows me to get the material in high-pressure situations like these is to anticipate the moments when the strings are being hit harder in the melody or the singer is raising the voice, and then take the picture.
It feels like perpetually dancing on a delicate line between being mindful of the audience's experience and having the responsibility of delivering the photos.
Apart from the breaks or announcements, the audience was surrounded by the sound and songs of that one artist, soaking the compositions in in a dimly lit venue. This was an unusual experience for me, as it limited the distractions and allowed to focus the senses on the melody and lyrics of each song.
With the record finished spinning people reflected and exchanged thoughts on the album with the others. One person revealed it reminded them of the time spent in New York, someone else mentioned their associations, and it felt like bonding with travellers by the bonfire.
Although far from my usual metal-heavy choice of songs, the favourite one was "Vienna", the lyrics of which resonated with me.
Additionally, it occurred to me that I had a sudden itch to swipe social media feeds or share the screenshots from my camera during the night, without waiting for the event break. I’ve realised how bad my habit of being online was. This revelation allowed me to reflect upon and later change some of these damaging habits.
The whole experience felt extremely peaceful, open and warm, even with the initial adrenaline of photographing at the chosen moments. It made me happy and grateful for being a part of these communal encounters.