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Escape Velocity

Side Quest: An Interview With Me Lost Me
Daryl Worthington , July 10th, 2023 07:48

As she releases new album RPG, Jayne Dent, aka Me Lost Me, speaks to Daryl Worthington about folk’s enduring importance, gaming as a lens on reality, and the joy in getting surreal

Photos by Amelia Read

On ‘Mirie It Is While Summer I Last’, the fifth song on Me Lost Me’s new album, RPG, she sings a thirteenth century acapella in Old English. It’s immediately followed with a song rooted in far more contemporary matters, ‘The God of Stuck Time’ stemming from insomnia induced by playing the video game The Forgotten City. Such a jump could seem bizarre, perhaps scattered, but in the world Newcastle-based Jayne Dent constructs on her third record as Me Lost Me, this blurring never comes across as disjointed.

‘Mirie It Is While Summer I Last’ is Dent’s interpretation of one of the oldest documented secular songs written in an English language. She found it by chance while researching Old English place names and etymologies. As she explains over Zoom from her spare room turned home studio: “There’s older songs, but people didn’t document the ones that weren’t about God in those days. As far as I know, a monk wrote it and later, it got discovered on a scrap of paper in a Bible. It’s complaining about the weather, about time passing. The lyrics are saying: ‘It’s nice when it’s summer and the birds are singing and the sun’s shining, but when winter comes all I do is mourn and fast.’ So, basically, ‘I love summer, winter is terrible’. It’s funny, we haven’t changed. I could have written something similar yesterday.”

Recorded by Sam Grant of Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs and featuring her regular collaborators Faye MacCalman and John Pope, Dent’s songs on RPG are richly layered and audaciously produced. They create a space full of surreal structural, textural and lyrical shifts. Throughout the album, stirring vocals are embedded in lush arrangements where clarinets, strings and saxophones joust with vocoder voices and other sounds intricately granularised and proudly synthetic.

Dent’s songs are rooted in her view of folk music as something that evolves with experience instead of being an immutable relic from the past. “For me, folk is very open. It’s an approach about people and their experiences,” she explains. “There are melodic markers and stylistic choices. But I see it as a more expansive thing, like folk art. To me someone making their own website by teaching themselves to code from YouTube tutorials – that’s quite folky. People doing something they want to, because they love it or because they have a story to tell.

“Not everyone stands around the maypole now. That doesn’t mean the old songs are dead. Just because people are writing new songs about new issues doesn’t make the old ones irrelevant. Folk’s about collecting experiences. It charts the passage of time, documenting how things are changing.”

Dent has a long connection to this tradition. Her mum was part of a Morris Dancing team, her dad a concertina player in folk ensembles. From an early age she attended folk festivals. “If one of your parents is in a Morris Dancing team, it’s like having a million aunties and uncles. This big family of people you see at specific points in the year – on May Day, the Harvest, Christmas. Music throughout my life has marked time because of that folk dance connection.

“I like to have an idea of what the year’s going to be. To have markers to fall back on. ‘Last year I was doing this at this time’. It lets you keep track of where you’re at. I don’t have weekends and weeks because of my job – it’s weird and all over the place. Those bigger markers help me to take stock.”

Time, how we mark it and how it marks us, is a recurring theme on the record. Her songs cover subjects ranging from a fight she saw when she was younger (‘Eye Witness’) to an ultra-vivid memory of a deluge at a festival in Denmark (‘Festive Day’). On the lurching ballad ‘Heat!’, she paints a stark contrast of friends enjoying an idyllic summer picnic against references to environmental collapse. A striking line in that song, “the ocean is on fire”, comes directly from a newspaper headline about an oil spill. Speaking about the ‘God Of Stuck Time’, she explains: “I wrote the poem which became the song in an airport hotel at 2am. I couldn’t sleep because I’d been playing the game. That song takes place in a no time-zone for me. It’s a horrible thing to be stuck in that timelessness. There’s nothing worse than feeling like morning will never come and you can’t sleep.”

As suggested by its title, RPG is an album partly shaped by gaming. While the previous Me Lost Me record, The Good Noise, was inspired by walking, RPG was written in the pandemic, when going outside wasn’t an option. That coincided with her getting into video games – the last two Zelda games are particular favourites, and she’s generally a fan of expansive, open-ended RPGs as opposed to linear, task-based games. But the record isn’t as simple as folk songs about video games, or folk songs embellished with video game soundtracks.

Gaming’s presence in her songs comes in explorations of how ideas and ways of thinking from gaming reverberate in the non-game world. Opener ‘Real World’ begins with a spoken word sample, taken from an interview Dent did with the artist Adam Wilson Holmes. It’s chopped and spliced over a rolling mesh of effects laden vocal sounds and acoustic wind instruments. “We were talking about the blurring that happens when you’ve been obsessively playing a game,” Dent explains. “When you’re out and see a castle ruin and think: ‘It looks like there’s baddies in there,’ or you see a bullfinch and think it looks like a Pokémon. There’s strange skills we develop from gaming that have no use in the real world. The Tetris effect for example, when you start looking at buildings and thinking about how they could slot together.” Dent finds useful things in the gamer’s lens: “I like side quests as a concept in life. If you stick to the main thread you’re missing a lot of experiences.”

A sense of going off-piste, of meandering off on a side quest, has been present in her songs since her 2018 debut Arcana. It’s more apparent in the arrangements on RPG, the blast of glitching weirdness on ‘Side Quest’, or ‘Eye Witness’’ slip from mournful acoustic clarinet into a bit crushed symphony. It’s in the lyrics as well. As her productions have become more expansive and detailed, the layered storytelling in her songs has gained greater clarity.

‘In Gardens’ begins with recollections of a garden she visited in her childhood before she digresses through more nuanced ruminations. The song’s twisting structure almost comes across as an internal dialogue played out loud. “I like things to be wild, I don’t want to be constrained by a garden,” she says. “But there’s something comforting about how they’re tended to and looked after. The song is me trying to work out that balance. On the one hand I love this because it’s beautiful, on the other, it’s not real. But then, what does that matter if it’s bringing me joy?

“It’s an emotional response to something, then questioning that. I like to be in a middle ground of joy and cynicism. In a way, the song equates a garden to an open world RPG environment. Both bring me joy, both are not real.”

It’s not surprising that Dent’s drawn to art which contains an element of the unexpected. “It’s a beautiful thing in music, to be surprised. It can be a lyric, or a huge loud noise in something ambient,” she says. “When you listen to Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’, it’s funny but it’s also serious. I love it when artists put together things that don’t quite make sense, but it still feels coherent. Maya Deren had an amazing way of doing that. Her films have an eerie intensity, but they’re also humorous. ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ is set in broad daylight – it’s sinister but it’s also bright. Every time I watch it, I don’t think I know what’s happening. I don’t think I’ll ever know. I’m not sure if Maya Deren knew.”

While Me Lost Me’s songs are carefully, if unpredictably, structured, they begin in musical and vocal improvisations riffing on past experiences, or Dent’s side quests (she reveals she’s currently working on an album about Roman architecture). While RPG might take its name from virtual environments, it’s rooted in how we process the material world. That becomes clear when she talks at length about the story behind ‘Festive Day’.

“It’s about the intensity of the elements, not just being rainy at a festival. It’s about how we process the intensity. Thinking: ‘Wow! There’s so much happening here and it’s so beautiful but also a bit frightening’,” she explains. “It’s an emotional experience I equate to May and summer celebrations. They’re about fertility and desire. Being overwhelmed with intense feelings.”

“Times that feel the most intense, they don’t feel real afterwards, because it’s harder to process them. They’re so outside of ordinary experience they start to seem unreal in your memory. Sitting in your room, it feels more real in your memory because it’s less intense, more ordinary. But it’s those moments that feel unreal that I’m interested in.”

Me Lost Me's new album RPG is out now via Upset The Rhythm