“The year is 2019 and after 11 brutal years of Tory austerity the country I love has given up on its social obligation to look after its most vulnerable members. An estimated four million people now live in poverty. Homelessness is up by 168 per cent since 2010. A broken benefit system has resulted in 25 per cent of those claimants being in work.
“The Trussell Trust [is a] food bank charity who at present give out over 1.33 million food parcels a year to those in need across the U.K. It is these organisations, and the kind-hearted individuals who make them up, who act as guiding lights to us all in these dark and troubled times.” – note written by Joff Oddie, late 2019
In the olden days – 18 months ago – Wolf Alice were a big and busy band. In September 2018 the north London-based foursome were still touring their second album, Visions of a Life, a full year after its release. That month they won the Mercury Prize, pipping bookies’ favourites Arctic Monkeys and Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Florence and the Machine’s High as Hope and Who Built the Moon? by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.
“That was a huge shot out of the blue,” remembers Joff Oddie. Having been in the room that night at Hammersmith Apollo, I can confirm that nobody seemed more surprised than Wolf Alice that a brilliant, thrilling but relatively straight-up indie-rock group had triumphed.
Their non-existent entourage were equally poleaxed and had to be quickly scrambled for an impromptu lock-in at old faithful Camden boozer The Hawley Arms.
“All our mates are so used to seeing us lose awards on the telly,” Oddie laughs, referring to previous failures at the 2015 Mercurys (nominated for debut My Love Is Cool), the Brit Awards (British Breakthrough Act 2016 and Brit Group 2018) and the Grammys (Best Rock Performance 2016 for Moaning Lisa Smile). “I told my girlfriend to not even bother coming. So she had her pyjamas on, then had to get changed, get in a taxi and come to the pub.”
Three months later the tour finally ended with two victory-lap shows at London’s Brixton Academy. “I remember crawling on to the stage at Brixton, just absolutely spent. But it was a really great time in our history as a band.”
And then? As 2019 dawned it was off to sunnier climes for the knackered and depleted band members, right? A January at a retreat in Thailand, say, followed by a few months bumming about London, cashing in on newfound fame and riches. That’s what resting rock stars are meant to do, possible with the kicker of developing an addiction or hobby or three.
“I felt like I really needed to get back into real life,” begins Oddie.
We’re talking over Zoom, the musician beaming in from the undisclosed European location where he and the rest of Wolf Alice (Ellie Rowsell, guitars/vocals; Theo Ellis, bass; Joel Amey, drums) are working on their third album.
“When you’re touring you’re living in a bus, in a big bubble with people looking after you. You can read the papers and magazines, but engaging with the reality of most people’s lives isn’t something you can do on the road.
“So I was very, very keen to do something within my local community. Because the other thing with being away all the time is you’re very separated from that. Community is really important for me. I come from a rural background,” adds the 28-year-old from Cornwall who qualified as a primary school teacher just before Wolf Alice took off in 2013. “So I’ve always found London difficult in that way.”
In between canvassing for the Labour Party in the run-up to last year’s general election (“that didn’t work out so well,” he notes drily) and finishing a three-year Open University degree in PPE (politics, philosophy and economics, “a road map for understanding how society works and how we function and how to think”), Oddie rang around food banks located in the vicinity of his home in East Finchley. It wasn’t difficult to find one that needed help.
“There are tonnes of them. I read a statistic the other day – there are more food banks in the UK now than there are McDonalds.”
Abi Odujoko from the Camden outpost of the Trussell Trust – which runs a network of food banks – replied. Oddie went in for a meeting and was swiftly onboard, “lugging food deliveries around, organising food parcels, talking to people, making a lot of tea”.
A year on Oddie – a thoughtful, politically engaged big-thinker – admits he’s finding it hard to “pin down exactly what the experience was. Emotionally it’s a very complicated place, a food bank. It’s a very, very difficult space for someone to enter. It takes a lot of courage for that person to walk in the door and say: ‘I need some help.’ And this is people from all kinds of backgrounds and places and stages in their lives.
“Then you have all the staff who are just heartbreakingly lovely. They do that very British thing of trying to make it OK for people, and not make it a place of judgement, or preaching, or trying to give advice. It’s just: ‘Sit down, do you want a cup of tea, let’s have a chat, what do you need, we’ll try and help you out, then let you be on your way.’
“They are,” he concludes, “incredibly profound places. I wish I could be more articulate. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it; that would be a strange thing to say. But it was a formative experience, for sure.”
And one with a, as it were, performative outcome: the release of Oddie’s first solo album, with 100 per cent of the monies made being donated to the Trussell Trust.
For a year or so prior to his volunteering at Camden Foodbank – in between the gigging, studying and politicking – Oddie had also been doing some musical exploring.
“The noisy stuff is absolutely fantastic, a lot of fun,” he says of the music he makes in his day job. “I’m so lucky to be able to be the guitar player in Wolf Alice. But the electric guitar was never really of any interest to me at all until we decided to go electric,” he admits, referring to the initial, 2010-era, acoustic-duo incarnation of the band comprising him and Rowsell.
“In the classical sense of an instrument, the acoustic guitar and folk music have always been what I’ve been drawn to. So a lot of these tunes really spoke to me, as did the artists. I really wanted to prove to myself that I could play them – and I really wanted to share my own takes and interpretations.”
Cue a deep exploration of folk instrumentals, British and American mainly, dating from approximately the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, as written and performed by renowned, often fabled, musicians including Nick Drake, Davey Graham and Merle Travis. Oddie has distilled them down to a 10-track solo album featuring nine standards and one original, the latter the title track, To Mr Fahey, named in tribute to John Fahey, the great American fingerstyle guitarist.
“I love the traditions of it. I love the idea of taking something you’ve been given by someone, and amending it, and passing it on again and teaching it to someone else. It’s the music of the angels, I think.”
He highlights the story of Elizabeth Cotten (best known for Freight Train), whose composition Vestopol he covers. She was housekeeper for the Seegers, arguably the first family of 20th century American folk. A black lady from the Deep South, she worked for the Seegers from a young age.
“And so the story goes, when the family weren’t looking, she’d pick up their instruments and have a little go. So she learned the guitar [herself], but picked it up upside-down.”
Left-handed but playing a right-handed guitar, “she does this bizarre thing where she plays the melody with her thumb and rhythm with her fingers, which is really counter-intuitive.”
In the end Pete Seeger heard her and thought it was “absolutely incredible. An amazing story of adversity about a woman with the world against her who creates absolutely beautiful music.”
At the other extreme is Guitar Miniature by North Sea Radio Orchestra, a contemporary London-based ensemble. “So that’s the wild card, a very simple tune I heard on a Rob da Bank folk compilation, Folk Off. Very cleverly named, see what he did there…”
The music, then, is timeless, but history is currently moving faster than ever. A couple of years in the making and released this month, the charitable purpose of To Mr Fahey has been overtaken by events at world-changing speed.
When Oddie wrote his note in 2019 about the urgent role played by food banks in society, the situation was dire. Now, in the time of coronavirus, it’s catastrophic, as Abi Odujoko explains in our interview with Camden Foodbank’s Project Manager that follows this story.
Like millions of people around the world, Joff Oddie is doing what he can to help. His is no all-star stay-at-home jam. It’s not even an indie-heroes-and-heroines unite to fight Covid, wooh. It’s a 30-odd minute collection of obscure acoustic guitar instrumentals, slightly – but only slightly – tricked out with “ambient stuff” made with John Victor, guitar player in Gengahr.
But on a deeper, simpler level, these 10 songs are something much more. To Mr Fahey is folk music – that is, people’s music being released to meet people’s needs.
More self-effacing policy wonk than showing-off rock star, Oddie bashfully says, “I hadn’t thought of that but I’ll take it!”, then runs with the thought.
“Music is best when it’s connecting people and has a purpose You know, you have an experience like working in a food bank and you think: ‘What the fuck am I doing with my life? What am I really contributing? The rather narrow set of skills I have at my disposal, how can I use them to change something that I experienced? How can I make something slightly better or raise awareness from just being a guitar player?’
“So this is a very obvious way.
“Music is all about people,” he expands. “It’s about sharing human experience. It’s about telling stories. And I’m very thankful to be able to tell the story of the food bank and share some broad lefty political ideas… while at the same time share with people the story and music of Elizabeth Cotten and some old noodlers!”
As well as letting us know the story of Cotten’s remarkable life, what would Joff Oddie like us to know about food banks?
“That they’re not necessary,” zooms his firm reply from Anytown, Europe. “That they are born out of political choices. That we cannot justify them in any sense whatsoever. That we could decide straight away to get rid of them.
“The big picture stuff is that the government needs to spend money. We need to stop all this austerity nonsense and we need to invest in our communities again.”
Beyond that, the next time we do a food shop, difficult though even that is right now, buy one thing – bag of pasta, tin of beans, pack of noodles – and plonk it in a food bank bin.
“Your 30p or 40p is a meal for someone who is destitute. It’s all about clubbing together.”
And beyond that: “If you really want to see a reduction in poverty, and you really want to see money going to public services, let’s not vote a fucking Tory government in again.”
Readers, you know what to do.
An interview with Abi Odujoko
Abi Odujoko is Project Manager at Camden Foodbank in north London. Located in Pratt Mews, it was founded in 2011 by the RCCG City Church and is part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks. As Odujoko explains, “the Trussell Trust is mainly based on Christian principles and we welcome everyone, all nationalities regardless of race or creed – I’m Nigerian. There’s a community spirit and it’s a very non-judgmental space. It’s all about supporting the community to get back on its feet.”
How does the food bank operate?
We provide emergency food to people in crisis. We don’t think that anyone in our community should have to face going hungry, and that’s why, as part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks, we provide three days’ nutritionally balanced emergency food and support to the local people.
Can people just walk in and sign up for support?
We operate based on a referral system. The food bank works with a wide range of care professionals – frontline professionals such as social workers, doctors’ practices, the NHS and the police – to identify people in crisis. They then issue them with a foodbank voucher. With this voucher people can come to us and they’re able to get support and three days worth of emergency food.
How has the lockdown impacted the food bank’s operation?
It has had a significant impact on the Camden food bank’s operation. Previously what we did was run a cafe-style system, where clients could come in and have a cup of tea, a cup of coffee, some biscuits or something to snack on. They’re able to chat with our volunteers as well – this is very important for a sense of community. People come in, they’re able to feel welcome. We run a very warm service that is focused on helping people. But because of lockdown we can’t allow clients inside anymore. We meet them at the door. We’re wearing protective gear, we’ve got face masks and gloves on, we have lines marked outside so people stay two metres apart. It’s been very, very different.
How challenging has that been?
For a lot of clients and even for people who are working at the foodbank, it’s tough because social distancing has limited the ability to communicate. Some of those clients, that’s really what they want – they live for that time where they come to the food bank and somebody talks to them. The situation in place now, I know it’s for the protection of all our lives, but that’s how it’s impacting people.
And presumably more people in need have been coming to the food bank?
Oh, yes. We have a projection of food for the year which has now been impacted a lot. I would use the word decimated. There’s no way of planning for the long term in any of this. More people have had to turn up because they’re now out of work. Some people don’t even have financial resources any more to be able to buy food. We’re definitely seeing a larger number of people at the door.
Has panic buying had an effect on the level of donations that you receive?
Yes, it has. This is how food banks work: we do collections at specific supermarkets. But people have just taken food from our collection boxes.
What do people who don’t use them get wrong about food banks?
That is a very good question. Right now, a lot of people feel that those who use food banks are lazy, don’t want to work and rely on charity. In a lot of cases, this is far from true. We see people who have worked hard all their lives and pay their taxes regularly who still end up using a food bank. The food bank has also been able to support people to get back on their feet – and we’ve seen those people come back and support us. What people who have never used a food bank don’t get is that life can happen to anyone. People can find themselves in a crisis for a number of reasons, you know?
How did your relationship with Joff Oddie come about?
We have a system whereby, to volunteer at the food bank, you have to send us an email. Joff emailed on 3rd January 2019 saying he wanted to help. He offered a couple of days a week for the next two months, left his number and said he looked forward to hearing back from us, “all the best, Jonathan Oddie”. I didn’t know him from Adam! We sent him back the standard email everybody gets and invited him for a volunteer taster session. He was such a hard worker. The one thing I remember very well is him going, “Abi, I need to pop down for a ciggie.” Those were the only breaks he had.
We were very busy at that time, and he really was a model volunteer. I didn’t know it was him until one day, one of the clients recognised him and said: “Hey, I know you. You’re in that band.” I said to him: “What did that client say to you?” And so we discovered he was part of Wolf Alice. I said to him: “You’ve been doing this undercover! You’ve been hiding in plain sight!”
But what I really remember – and I’m sure I speak for the whole team when I say this – is how hard he worked. He was really helpful, and that stood out for me. He came in, rolled up his sleeves, did all the heavy lifting. I remember one day he said he couldn’t come in because he was having his kitchen redone, and everybody groaned. But we’ve been very fortunate with the great crop of volunteers coming to the food bank.
What do you hope his album will do for your operation?
I’m really excited that he would affiliate the album with the food bank. It just shows a really great heart and will raise awareness to the fact a lot of people in the community need help. It’s so wonderful.