Map the lines of desire
“It’s a question of conviction. I don’t just want to be another Instagram personality trying to get likes like clickbait. The way I’m wired, I want there to be substance. I want there to be art attached to everything I do.
Under the shadow of the old Central Bank and what seems to be its eternal facelift and redevelopment, Greg Clifford prepares for a gig. A morning of guitar lessons was followed by an afternoon of rehearsals. He is pragmatic, multi-instrumentalist and videographer, also engaged in artistic performances.
Lines of Desire is his latest release: a hugely ambitious three-part cross-media endeavor comprising a CD, a book and a video documentary. Lush, sophisticated pop is articulated in every song. All sorts of musical interactions engage the ear – with wisdom sampled by Alan Watts to highlight everything on opener Ambiguity. The album’s intricate instrumentation is a platform for deft musicianship, driving melody and gripping words. It’s a rich soundscape: saxophone, flute and cello mingle with his guitar, drums and bass. The result is dramatic and gripping: it sounds like music you may have heard before but forgotten, like songs that have eluded you for years.
“The essence of Lines of Desire is to be uncompromising, pure and authentic, to trust impulse and intuition – that’s the aesthetic of the work. Pop music is so produced and it’s usually a formula. Lines of Desire is me undertaking my own fusion of my own crucible, with audience accessibility and musical integrity and richness, with time changes, diminished chords and orchestration.
Recorded at Sun Studios in Dublin and Musicland in London in late 2019, the album was set to be released in early 2020. “It was horrible to lose gigs due to the pandemic – it was my chance to start touring and move to Europe. The brakes were applied and the carpet removed. I needed something to stay sane.
An act of defiance
Clifford decided to write a small book to accompany the CD. It was “very cathartic” as he had time to reflect on personal issues and channel his thinking into commentary on his own work. “These are the concepts and philosophies behind the songs and it helped me reaffirm my beliefs and my approach to life. There are also studio anecdotes and music theory – I studied classical music and have a great love for it. It was also an opportunity to do what other handymen simply don’t: get started and show off as an artist. It’s quite a provocative act. Crazy business.
Clifford is extremely affable, a friendly and charismatic guy focused on music, books and movies. His conversation is peppered with clear nuggets of philosophical reference – Socrates, Camus, Nietzsche. To stimulate the lyrics of the track Redemption, he pulled three books from his shelf: The Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog, The Age of Absurdity by Irish philosopher Michael Foley and Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus. “I started flipping through passages almost in a Dadaesque cut-out technique and combining them, and the lyrics just started flowing out of me.”
He exudes a confidence that he is aware can be confused with borderline arrogance. But mastery of craftsmanship permeates his work. He deserves space for self-reflection as a member of a coterie of talented artists whose essential purity can criminally lock them to the fringes.
“I’ve always hated the term singer-songwriter. It used to mean Dylan and Cohen, but now we’re in the days of X Factor and Simon Cowell. I don’t fit into that mould. There is a song on the CD, I Will Make This Up to You, which has descending chromatic bass lines, some dissonances, harsh electric guitars and shifting time signatures like seven/four into five/four and four/four . This can be confusing for a member of the public. Unless you find the right audience member.
Clifford’s book of essays illuminates each track by shading mood, anecdote and influence, as well as personal circumstances and musical and production dilemmas and their resolution. It reveals a 34-year-old man who is both fragile and sure of his task.
Enigma and ambiguity
Packaged with the CD, the text elevates the music beyond the bland tunes we’ve let engulf us and clog our radio and internet streams. It reads like a set of insightful instructions and mission statements, both as a menu for each song and as a recipe for its active ingredients. But is there a danger that such exposure of the art will demystify the work? Does it make it too easy to understand when enigma and ambiguity are often the magnetic core of a song?
“People don’t always look beyond the songs to delve into the lyrics to demystify them for themselves. With Radiohead or Beck, I always wanted to know the music and the lyrics and be part of it as best I could. But do people have the time now to devote themselves to music as an activity? It has become a daily accompaniment in the car or at the supermarket. But maybe the fact that there is a book will motivate people to listen on a deeper level – the music can even strangely become an accompaniment to the book.
The third installment of Clifford’s Lines of Desire project is a 40-minute film: further insight into the recording of the album and the thoughts, impulses and goals of its creator.
Shot entirely at Sun Studios, it’s a democratic capture of the effort and often apparent ease of recording music. It presents Clifford as a musical director, his individual vision being passed on to a team of skilled and constructive instrumentalists and backing vocalists who conspire with him to deliver the goods. He straddles the roles of team player and chef, actor and star in his own right, to coax out the talent and idiosyncrasy of all assembled. Engineer and co-producer Ian Flynn is always at his side, advising and suggesting, guiding the whole project forward.
Telepathy of musicians
A 1979 studio video by Gerry Rafferty was once dismissed by an overly literate sneering hack as being of the “real musician” genre, all microphones and swaggering, headphone players bent over instruments. But Clifford’s film avoids any sense of being a behind-the-scenes parade. His motto is the delighted smile, the look in the eye and the intense telepathy of the musicians. A pair of hands move across a keyboard and a click track makes you think it’s effortless if not really easy.
Edited by Greg and shot by his father, Dave Clifford, it documents the sessions of Lines of Desire while being a kind of hymn to the carpentry of acoustic instruments: bow, strings and bridge. It captures the industrial sheen of flute and saxophone and the mackerel skin shimmer of top hat drums on stainless steel grips. A close-up of a coiled guitar cable makes it a vital spring, a centerpiece of the suspension, a shock absorber on which the entire magnificent musical superstructure rests. Transition transitions, last minute musical phrases and chance solutions are imagined and filmed. Tricky moments weave into an overall sense of chord as a dense periodic table of musical elements is shuffled into magical melodic formulas. The film makes you want to listen to the album. And read the book.
Greg Clifford launches Lines of Desire at the Wild Duck on April 7
Clifford Clifford Productions: Passionate about artistic insight
A tight two-man film crew shoots close-ups and cutaways. It’s them there at the recent concerts of The Lee Harveys and TV Smith. They’re the ones downstairs at Thomas House interviewing people for an upcoming movie about Dublin’s punk stalwarts, Paranoid Visions. They are the Cliffords, father and son.
Dave Clifford is an inspirational character whose legacy includes Dublin’s Vox fanzine in the 1980s. A performance artist and graphic designer, he is passionate about artistic insight. He has shot many films and videos, including some featuring Greg. The flying intimacy on the wall of Lines of Desire was offered by their bond.
Greg shot the video for Brontide, turning the camera on his father as they cleared out a relative’s house in Sligo. The video marked Clifford senior’s return to performance, years after A Dark Space at the Project Arts Theater in 1979 in which he was cemented into a wall before breaking free.