SITTING IN THE DUST, COINS TURNING TO RUST,
WHAT YOU’RE WAITING FOR, IS ALREADY YOURS...
GET UP NOW GET OUT AND FLY,
TAKE YOUR DREAMS AND FLY AWAY,
GET OUT OF HERE BEFORE I CHASE YOU,
DO MY THING TO BEND AND MAKE YOU MINE.
HOLDING UP THE SKY, EYES ARE WONDERING WHY,
YOU WANTED TO BE SURE, SO GOLD IS NEVER YOURS.
LEAD TURNED IN TO GOLD, FIRE BLOOD NO ONE KNOWS,
THE SECRET IS IN YOUR HAND,
WHY TRAVEL THE SEA AND THE LAND.
THE ALCHEMIST IS ME,
WITH FIRE MY BREATH YOU SEE,
TO CHASE YOUR DREAMS AWAY,
YOU’LL FIND THEM RIGHT HERE, ONE DAY
GET OUT OF HERE, BEFORE I FIND YOU,
WASTING DREAMS AND MAKING LIES TRUE,
SITTING THERE IN THE DUST,
COINS AND BIRTHRIGHT TURNED TO RUST
GET UP NOW, GET OUT AND FLY,
TAKE YOUR DREAMS AND FLY AWAY,
GET OUT OF HERE BEFORE I FIND YOU
DO MY THING TO BEND AND MAKE YOU MINE
Social commentary as well as conveying emotions eloquently in her lyrics and poems: Elaine’s weapon
of choice is the word! An activist with a heart on fire for music, art and the community.
Today I travelled to Woking to meet Elaine, lead singer of Phoenix Chroi, poet, social activist and feminist, to be interviewed on her radio show ‘Fiery Bird, Radio’.
The radio station is housed in the Winston Churchill School Studios in Woking where the Station Manager Justin is opening it’s doors for external radio shows run by the community in the college downtime.
‘Woking is dead now’, Elaine tells me, ‘they’ve shut all the venues and youth clubs to build new property’.
Ah yes, the desperate need for luxury flats seems to have crept out of London and into Woking, your typical suburban town, where form follows function and the functions are staying alive (barely), go to work and then consume. But not necessarily culture.
Elaine is running the Fiery Bird, a temporary venue given to her community music/grassroots arts project the Phoenix Cultural Centre CIC as a home. The lease runs out next year and they are lobbying the council to make a space in the
newly regenerated town so they can continue.
I’ve noticed the Fiery Bird, the Phoenix is a reoccurring theme in your life, your band is called Phoenix Chroi, your radio show and venue are called the Fiery Bird and you are chief executive at the Phoenix Cultural Centre,what’s the story behind that symbol for you?
I suppose it is a bit of a cliché but it resonates in so many ways for me, Joe my partner, cofounder of the band and Phoenix Cultural Centre too. We are both from immigrant families, both had to deal with different life issues that meant we had to reevaluate where we were and make something good happen out of bad circumstances. It was only after this that I started a new job and my new boss, a massive Aldershot football fan, handed me a key ring that had the phoenix on it that I got a jolt. My Uncle and Godfather had been the chairman of the club and died the year before all of it, he was into music and passionate about his project. I hadn’t known there was a family connection to the imagery before. I have noticed since that there is a growing number of projects, initiatives, businesses etc reflecting that. As I said a cliché or the energy of positive change I hope is starting to emerge from what feel like very ashen and barren times.
The Fiery Bird is a fantastic venue. The former ASDA supermarket has a 1000 people capacity, proper stage and several levels for the audience to take it all in. Being a Community development advisor and engaged in various community projects in Woking, Elaine was given permission by the local council to use the premises until demolition and she invested a grant from the County Council into a brilliant sound system.
She wanted to provide the community with a much needed space for creative and personal expression and give bands like her own an adequate frame to perform in, yet the venue is hard to fill and the engagement of younger generations in particular is somewhat lacking.
Do you think the people in Woking are in general not interested in music and culture or do you see the problem elsewhere?
I think it is probably true that people are less interested in live music here but with those who are very interested in music our proximity to London is both our saviour and a problem. If people can afford it arts and culture in the Capital is easy to reach, this leaves behind those who cannot and causes a space where people aren’t able to come together in common, which is where music normally works its magic. It doesn’t foster good community cohesion to have the opportunities to discover and enjoy grassroots culture away from the community. It also means those who cannot afford to develop their music/ art/creativity by paying to travel are left behind and the marginalised become more so. Culturally, Woking has the most ethnic diversity in Surrey, something that it embraces and celebrates. What we are trying to achieve is a building that reflects this too. I think the issue with satellite towns like Woking is having the courage to get behind what they see as new initiatives and looking outwards. People wait to see if it is worth getting behind before getting behind it when they could make it succeed much quicker if they did. What we are trying to do is being very successfully done elsewhere in the country, it isn’t new. Here there is some suspicion about community led projects, it is as if people equate voluntary with amateur and therefore not credible. However with 35% of the population working in the creative industries we hope that will change.
How do people get involved?
They can contact us on email@example.com, we have so many different needs for volunteers - we don’t just put gigs on, we train people to use the sound and lighting equipment, event management, promotion, workshops for those who can’t afford lessons and mentor new musicians and promoters, supervise adults with special needs from colleges who are trying to give them work and life skills and strongly promote equality in music.
Why have you made Woking your hometown of choice and why are you so adamant to save it from its cultural death?
My parents moved here from Ireland, I was born and brought up here, I taught English to people who didn’t speak it coming here to live and my children grew up with theirs. It would be easy to open another venue or cultural project in a place that was awash with them, it would be easy to just sit in another coffee shop that was intentionally designed with the shabby chic look that projects like ours have from necessity and it would always have something missing. Because once you know something you can’t un - know it. Someone once said that social enterprise is born out of great sadness. I think that is true to a certain extent - I didn’t set out to do this, but the gap was there and we knew it could/should be filled, there are initiatives, grants and support set up for what we are doing and we are connected with others doing the same, so we know we are not mad. There is nothing wrong with regeneration, if it brings the community with it, if it is anchored by them and they have been allowed to put a stake in the ground and say this is us. We want to do this here because it desperately needs it, strong communities are kind communities. Not every one here has a lot of money, but they haven’t ever had the chance to consistently have one place that is non affiliated and for everyone regardless of wealth, health, age, ethnicity or sexuality. As we move forward, it is time they did, whilst we have the chance to change this. From that, people who are kind in their community are kind in how they respond to other communities next door or over the world.
Talking to Elaine about what drives us to lead the lives we do, it soon transpired that we share the same values and we both have a zero tolerance for bullshit. This doesn’t only make friends of course and especially in the entertainment industry it might just shut some doors if you are not willing to put up with it. We both share the experience of so many of learning the hard way and being confronted with sexism to the point it was hard not to throw punches, literally. Like the anecdote where Elaine rushed out to help a band carrying in their gear only to be told ‘we’ve got it covered, love, unless you wanna go iron my shirt before we go on stage...’ I mean, who doesn’t want to answer that with a fist full of executive stage manager blight. Or the female technician who only gets referred to as the ‘little sound girl’.
To be honest this is where my resting bitch face (usually a daydreaming phase) comes to the fore and a look is enough to quell them. I am glad my girls have grown up in a society that is more aware of sexism. They were raised complete feminists, they don’t know any different. Though my background is the typical patriarchal one of my generation and background so they see that too and how their mother’s generation - aunties etc have moved away from that.
What are the lessons you taught your girls, how did you go about opening up that conversation?
I think my girls have had the examples of all the women in my family, I have a very large Irish family who have suffered (as many families did to arrive in another country) a great deal of hardship and prejudice. The women, Mum, aunts, cousins, sisters have been amazing through the generations and are an incredible laugh too, it is empowering to see them - my Aunty Kathleen is 92 and had three jobs into her late 70’s is a powerful singer and great comedian. I asked my girls this question and they said it was that they felt they were told that they could do anything they wanted and shouldn’t feel limited. I don’t think we had a conversation just the way it is. There was one point in my life I had to confront something really difficult that I knew was necessary to change the narrative on how girls should view what is normal. I hope they will understand that. I looked at myself as if I were my own daughter and then the choice was clear. It has been the most painful thing but undertaken because to live with integrity for them to see what they don’t have to put up with was more important than a quiet life for me. I hope they never have to go through that.
Do you think parents in general do a good job of informing their kids about sexism and respect or is it still a bit taboo to acknowledge that there is a problem?
I think it is getting better and is heartening to see that the message is getting through to men who are championing their daughters and by seeing how they feel about that translating into more understanding towards their own contemporaries. I think though some think that it has been done now, all solved and are sometimes puzzled and annoyed when we still say that the undercurrent remains and needs to be phased out. It’s our femininity, our more developed ‘soft skills’, that make us more helpful and maybe more compliant, we shy away from confrontation to maintain harmonytraits that are easily taken for granted and advantage of. We both came to the conclusion that we’d rather step away from toxic environments nowadays - even to the detriment of a halfway successful project. It’s just not worth the sleepless nights you spend plotting murder and revenge. I’m not very good at revenge... If someone is unethical I tend to withdraw from them, but I am honest about what I believe is right. If anything my worst trait is overthinking what I have done wrong even in scenarios where they’ve been a total arsehole - I’m learning not to be like that anymore.
When I first read your poems they seemed like a glimpse into your personal inner world, trying to make sense of grief. Are your poems a form of therapy?
Yes and no. The words come out sometimes (99% of the time) as one long stream of consciousness and sometimes so quickly I barely know what I have written until I finish and read back, so obviously there must be something going on. Other times they can be about an idea that keeps popping up and be built around one phrase but again it’s usually all in one go. Once it is out then it feels a bit cathartic.
What is the difference between writing a song and writing poems?
Most of our songs are my poems put to music. Other times the band may jam a song and I will make up words as we go along to what the music inspires and then fine tune it after. Songs like Humanity Lands, Mighty, Destruction were all poems I sent to Joe and he sensed the rhythm of the words whereas Beaches, Crossroads, The Alchemist were sent to me as pieces of music that I wrote words for according to the themes the music reminded me of. Common Good & Politics were songs we jammed that came of themselves.
As an influence poets like Blake are stronger for me than songs or genres to be honest.