Award-winning musician Gwyneth Herbert ends her Letters I Haven’t Written tour at the Opus Theatre, in Hastings, on 18 October 2018. Here A. Vasudevan catches up with the singer–songwriter at Fika in St Leonards on Sea.

Everyone has a letter they haven’t written. In this age of disposable communication, a quick text or an email usually appears to suffice. Yet a letter is different. It requires more thought, more emotional input, more time – and so, quite often, we put off writing it, as we have all the time in the world. Until we don’t. This is the premise behind Gwyneth Herbert’s Letters I Haven’t Written.

Her interest in letter writing was prompted by the suicide of a close friend. Following Sophie’s death, she took pen to paper, writing letters initially as a form of catharsis. Out of the reams of words that flowed out of her, the first letter song was born.

‘Fishing for Squirrels’, the title of the letter song to Sophie, alludes to the game her husband would play with her in the park when the ‘world got too grey’; they would ‘fish’, using acorns attached to strings. ‘I wanted to capture the sadness, the regret, and also the mischief, the laughter and the fact that I would carry that with me in my heart forever,’ Gwyneth says.

‘There’s something about letter writing that gets absolutely right to the emotional core,’ she adds. ‘It’s such an intimate language.’

After that first letter, others quickly followed. Drawing on the personal, social and political, the result is an eclectic collection of heartfelt pieces, some poignant, some whimsical, some simply heartbreaking.

There’s a letter song to Gwyneth’s sixth-form college music teacher, Martin Read. ‘What was really special about him was that he wasn’t proscriptive. He kind of encouraged every musician to be more. In his own compositions, he wrote an aria to a mobile phone, to a piano stool and an opera about Basingstoke,’ she laughs. ‘It was an education about hearing the music in the world … He probably had more impact on my creative life than anyone ever.’

Another celebrates friendship and is a duet written with her great pal American singer–songwriter Krystle Warren. ‘We actually trawled through our emails from the start of our friendship,’ she says. ‘It tells the story of our communication.’

Others are derived from issues important to her. The Windrush generation feature in ‘You’re Welcome [… But Just Not in My House]’, which follows them from their arrival in Britain to the controversies of recent times. Other songs deal with social media and former lovers.

‘Until the Dust Settles’ is particularly poetic. Written in another voice, it’s an imagined letter from a mother to the daughter about to embark on a perilous journey across the globe. It was inspired by Gwyneth’s work in the Calais refugee camp. ‘When the song starts, I wanted it to be almost as if a mother is sending her daughter off for her first day at school so the language is really intimate – and it’s relatable as lots of people have children. Then gradually the camera pans out and you start to see it’s a world of crumbling devastation.

‘It’s been an extraordinary and emotional experience.’


A true collaboration

Letters I Haven’t Written is a truly collaborative project, bringing together a band of talented musicians, many of whom she’s worked with before on her previous six albums, video designer Will Duke and set designer Tom Rogers. It meshes storytelling with film and music, of course, but the latter is improvised as well as composed. While the letters songs have enabled Gwyneth to vocalise issues and celebrate people she’s passionate about, it’s also led to a series of workshops with diverse community groups, some of whose members have subsequently discovered their voice through letter writing.

‘What started as one incredibly, personal scary letter has expanded naturally to take on more and more voices,’ Gwyneth says. ‘I’m working with Hastings Academy, a group of amazing young women in Oxford, a refuge in Suffolk … because the concept of the whole project is how can we, in a really noisy world, in which modes of communication are constantly changing, seem to be encouraging this polarisation of dialogue? How can we move beyond that and form more meaningful connections with ourselves, our communities, our world? And that’s kind of the essence of most things I do.’

Gwyneth has written a different song for each group, inspired by the workshop content and these will be performed by a group choir at the end of each performance. In addition, she has invited the audience of the shows in Snape, Oxford, London, Milton Keynes and Hastings to participate by writing the first line of a letter they never wrote, beginning with either ‘I’m sorry that …’, ‘thank you for …’ or ‘I wish that …’. Some will be incorporated into a song on the night.

The album of Letters I Haven’t Written is released on the 12th. It’s been financed through crowdfunding. I ask her what makes that so appealing. ‘It’s a really amazing way to build a tribe around a project, to make people feel part of the process,’ she responds. Her early albums were recorded with prestigious labels such as Universal and Blue Note, but it wasn’t the right fit.

‘I was still trying to find out what my voice was,’ she explains.

When she walked away, everything changed. She discovered ‘this whole amazing world of making music in dialogue with the world, in dialogue with artists, brass bands, children, choirs, orchestras, community groups.

‘It’s kind of my way of experiencing and learning about the world,’ she comments. And it’s this that shines through in Letters I Haven’t Written.

Letters I Haven’t Written, 18 October, 7.30 p.m (doors 7.00 p.m), Opus Theatre, Hastings TN34 IDJ; tickets £12–15.


A version of this article is published in HOT, 11 October 2018.


Music: ‘Amethysts and flowers on the table, the beauty of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell‘; ‘Dreams of love’, Bert Jansch’

Selected The Literary Lounge Q&As/interviews:Meet Tom Cox: the Literary Shed Q&A‘;  ‘Gunnar Staalesen: The Literary Lounge Q&A’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist; ‘Meet Gina Kirkham: The Literary Lounge Q&A.

See also: ‘Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets‘;‘Chris Whitaker’s mad, mad world – Tall Oaks’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir’; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper – indie publisher Orenda does it again‘; ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’; ‘Mallory an old-style hero – It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell’.

Film: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – a Billy Wilder classic?; Night Mail (1936), changing the face of British film; A Colour Box by Len Lye (1935); Hitchcock (2012); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956).


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