“All I am is a cipher…”

An interview with Northern Quarter’s Stephanie Sez.

Extract from the novel Look At What You Could Have Won.

“It’s a quarter to two in the afternoon and I’m making my rather leisurely way down the Rochdale Canal on board The Lass O’Gowrie, one of the city’s new hybrid hydrogen narrow boats.  But some things never change.  In the last fifteen minutes we’ve witnessed sunshine, hail, snow and now sleet.  A typical Manchester afternoon in late March, other than the fact that sitting alongside me is Stephanie Sez, the enigmatic keyboardist and controller with hotly tipped local outfit, Northern Quarter.”

Danny tapped the surface of the phone he had held to his mouth and lowered it temporarily, his eyes fixed on Stephanie seated uncomfortably on the deck.  Her long, dark hair thickened as it blew round her face, obscuring her features as her gaze remained wedded to some distant point on the horizon beyond the brown and the grey of the placid waterway.

“Hope you don’t mind doing it this way?” he offered. “It’s for the podcast and it helps to make it feel more organic… I’ll try and record as much as I can, and keep these kind of intrusions to a minimum.”

Danny was smiling, but Stephanie remained silent and motionless, overlooking the bow, a northern figurehead propelling the boat forwards.

Julie lowered her camera for a moment.

“D’you want to do this inside?” she asked, feeling awkward having arranged this as a favour, gesturing at the weather with an open palm.

Steph shook her head.

“It’s fine,” she said before looking away again.

Julie stepped back and took a couple of shotsAs if protecting her from the exposure, Steph’s hair spilled forward again, defending her profile and partly shrouding her face.  Whose idea was this? wondered Julie.  Below her hair there were layers: a scarf, a jacket, an anomalous hood peeking out from under the collar, two different coloured garments of varying length emerging from beneath the hem of the jacket, one of them being the same material as the hood, the belt, the dark blue denim and the boots.  So many layers, it was as though she had used them to lash herself to the prow, to bind the ethereal girl into reality, to stop herself from blowing overboard.  With every passing second spent in her company, Danny wanted to peel back each one of them.  He sidled up next to her, clutching the cold metal rail as he tried to steady himself.  Unexpectedly, his hand slid across the wet surface drawing him closer to her than he’d intended.  She didn’t flinch.  She didn’t seem to notice him at all.  He laughed nervously by way of apology as he steadied his footing, his right hand tightening on the rail close to where her elbow jutted out.  Her dark hair flickered between them; he could smell it.  Danny…

            “Danny?”

He turned, to see Julie sitting on the bench, hood up, hands in pockets staring at him furiously.

“Don’t you have some…” she stopped short of swearing, “…questions to ask?

He turned back to the impassive figure and still brandishing his phone, tapped its surface to activate the mic.  He tried to compose himself and then tried to compose some words.

“We brought you onto the canal here today, because, like The Lass, you’ve had a maiden voyage of your own lately, signing with elevenseventeen… does it feel like you’ve finally arrived now or is it something you can’t really appreciate until the album is done?”

The rough brick buildings surrounding the boat began their ascent to the milky skies above as the sluice gate opened and the blank stares of the triple-glazed windows disappeared above Stephanie’s head, their eyebrow arches raised.  Many of the buildings that flanked the canal had survived two world wars, a sustained terrorist attack and now they seemed to have weathered perhaps their most formidable foe: the regeneration of the city under the apparent consultancy of a man who spent his nights tapping the local artistic talent to make either his name or theirs, a matter on which there was widespread disagreement.  Now they slowly stretched skyward as the barge began to sink deeper into the lock, protracting every syllable and unwinding the silence between them, between the words, between the question and the answer.

“It’s a question of perspective… the deal, whatever that means, felt like everything before we had it… now it feels like a rubber stamp, we’ve been legitimised in some way, we’ve been given a license to go out and do what we were already doing anyway… I guess we’re a bit less under the radar, we’re getting some airplay, but you know, it’s amazing how quickly you adjust to your new surroundings, how quickly you adapt, how something you once dreamt of becomes something you just accept because already the focus has changed and it’s all about the album… otherwise it’s all been for nothing anyway…”

Julie closed in.  She crouched low and took a couple of shots, trying to constrain the looming buildings.

“And how’s the album shaping up?  Is it sounding like the finished article yet?”

“The songs are all there, we’ve been playing them for long enough.  It’s our debut: there’s a lot of stuff in our set that’s been around for a couple of years now, it’s evolved and the music’s become more sophisticated but I think collectively, we feel like we’re very heavily pregnant at the moment…”

Steph smiled and turned to meet Danny’s eyes for the first time.  He swallowed.

“So what have you been listening to?  Who are your musical influences on these songs you’ve been carrying around with you all this time?”

“Well, for me, those are two very different questions… at least consciously.  And I can’t really speak for the others’ influences, but for me, I try not to be guided by the stuff I’m listening to… it’s inevitable, of course, to a certain extent, but my music is more about time and place.”

“You mean where you are in your life right now?”

“No, not where I am, but yes… where I am in the sense that I’m here in this city, this place with no history but with more history than I can comprehend.”

She started looking round, as if gesturing towards the city itself.

“I try and take the same approach to making music.  I want it to be unrecognisable, brave, rich, exciting – I want it to shock you when you listen to it, I want you to be moved by its bravado.  But, you know, I recognise, I admit that that’s because I’m making music here, in this place, in this city.  How could it be any different?  I think I’m escaping that trap, escaping the traditions, the same old influences, the musical ghettos… but in the end all I am is a cipher, hardwired into my time and place like everyone else… In some ways I have nothing to do with it at all.  You cross these particular wires at this point and that point… and this is the sound it makes.”

The lock gates opened and the Lass forged on through the last of the Rochdale Nine.  Julie tightened the focus on the zoom from a soaking wet bench near the stern, straining to see through the rain and the billowing tangle of hair.  She had stopped taking pictures a long time ago.

From the debut novel, Look At What At You Could Have Won by Lee Ashworth

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