Two more friends of Rick's showed up, plus Becky and Suzanne, and after we'd all eaten we went outside and sat on the grass. Rick and I took guitars and played a bit just to set the atmosphere, which was fairly mellow in any case, with red wine and some fat joints going round. It was still hot. We'd brought out a couple of hurricane lamps and some candles and you could see the moths zooming about crazily.
I remember so well how Rick laid down his guitar and stood up, smirking from ear to ear, like a kid who knows some stupendous news.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, bowing, his red cigarette-end arcing back in the flourish of his hand, "may I present to you something the like of which you have never heard before in your life, the unique . . . Anya King."
Anya, cross-legged and unsmiling, took up her own guitar and began to finger a few notes, stopping to tune the strings. She had a delicate picking touch with the right hand, and the sound of the instrument was ethereal. It wasn't the metal six-string tone we were all used to. I wondered whether it was the guitar itself or the tuning.
"Okay," she said. "I'll sing four songs. This first one's called 'Genevieve.' "
For a long half minute, the fingers picked with fussy precision, seeming to use the top three strings only. At last the thumb flushed an arpeggio, bringing the lower notes in for the first time, then it was back to the home chords, minor, frosty. And then came the voice. It was high and clear, much higher than her speaking voice. She went through the middle of each note like someone bursting soap bubbles with a pin. There was this terrible purity. The song was about a girl lost in the city, trying to make her way, and it was set in the dead of winter. And out there on the hot summer grass, all you could feel was the ice in your fingertips. You could feel the bone-freezing cold of the back alleys, hear the trash-can lids roll and the rattle of old fire escapes where the homeless sleep. In her song she built this fragile world, but hard, cold, made real by the force of her imaginative belief in it. She ended with a minor chord struck slowly down through all the strings, and lightly smacked down with her palm to stop the ring.
I had heard nothing like it in my life. Most of our group, sitting on the grass, were looking at their laps, fumbling, as though they didn't want to be the first to offer an opinion.
Anya coughed and plucked the A string, twisting the tuning peg, perhaps for something to do. "Okay," she said. "The second song is called 'You Next Time.' "
Where "Genevieve" had been sideways-on, like a short story about someone else, this song was so direct, so confessional it made you flinch. It was in the first person and it sounded as though it had been channeled that morning direct from her own experience. She'd loved a man she couldn't have, had given way to a cruel separation, but vowed to meet him in another life. "No mistake the second time around, / I will die and rise, the shadow on your wall, / My name will be the only one you call, / Oh, my darling, you next time." The emotional openness, the lack of self-protection, was a little frightening.
In the break between songs, Anya smiled her thanks for the friendly clapping, but didn't really seem interested in our response. I didn't like the third song so much. It was called "Reservation Town" and had a social edge. There was folk and protest music, a tinge of bluegrass, and it was less purely original. It had ancestry. What I did hear in this song, though, was the range of her voice. It wasn't just the three-octave span, it was the variety of tone when she went into the lower register. Here, the cold purity was touched by something warmer and more womanly. It was a beautiful sound. I'd always felt the best soul and pop singers, women more than men, had a few notes they needed to hit as often as possible. Anya had two or three of those notes where her mid-range met her lower that you just wanted to hear again and again. The word she sang could have been "toothpaste," it wouldn't have mattered; the sound was so exquisite it sent shivers through your skull.
Copyright © 2012 by Sebastian Faulks
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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