This is a bit of a ‘whistle-stop’ introduction to who I am, based around my music history. I have more deeper writing about myself (and some of the things I’m interested in) in my personal blog, but the tone is much heavier and emotional.
My name is Siobhán, I’m 48, transgender, Queer, vegan, neuro-divergent, and I’ve been a musician most of my life. I like to consider myself as a performer, I love playing for people, I am interested in creating more immersive, often interactive experiences with my creativity. I love diversity.
Music is a fundamental part of who I am. It keeps me together, it’s constant, it’s stable, and it connects me with the world around me.
I highly value creativity in general. As well as music I am very keen on other forms of artistic expression, including video production, photography, set design, and lighting.
Where I am now
I recently lost my home in Oxford, where I’d lived for 40 years, and I have moved to Brighton & Hove because it’s a safer, more diverse and vibrant place for me to be. Currently I am of no fixed abode, and being new here I’m trying to spend more time socialising, meeting people, and getting to know the place better.
Due to my situation, most of my music equipment is at the moment, in storage elsewhere. I arrived here with my bags, my mandolin, a small keyboard, a small drum, a few other bits of percussion, and my iPad.
Much of the time now, my musical creativity happens through wandering around playing my mandolin, and at open mic sessions. I also spent quite a bit of time lying around in bed programming music on my iPad (which sometimes I use for backing during live performances).
Where I started
I am primarily from a rock background. I grew up going to small gigs in often smokey pubs and clubs. The first instrument I started playing was drums, at about the age of 6 or 7. Then I picked up keyboards, initially a bright orange Bontempi fan powered organ, which I used to make pretend ‘radio shows’ on a reel-to-reel tape machine. Then in the mid 1980s I had a few second hand Yamaha and Casio keyboards, which I connected together via midi. I began using the basic sequencing functions on the keyboards, to programme drums, bass, some chords, which I recorded onto cassette. Later I expanded to a 4 track tape machine. I was also a fairly skilled human beatboxer!
As a teenager I got into heavy rock and metal. I started playing bass guitar, which became my primary instrument for many years.
During the 1990s I was part of Oxford’s music scene, which was mostly centred around Cowley Road, probably the most famous band around initially was Ride, two of the members went to my school. I was around at the time when members of the bands On A Friday and The Jennifers, formed Radiohead and Supergrass respectively.
In 1992 I was briefly a member of a band called Flite 118. This band had been formed by the former lead singer and guitarist of Rubgy band The Darkside, also one time Spacemen 3 drummer, Nick Hayden.
During the 1990s my music tastes expanded significantly, and away from the standard heavy rock stuff (though my love of early Black Sabbath has remained constant). I got very much into what was sometimes called “Trip Hop”. When Portishead’s debut album, “Dummy” came out, a friend gave me a copy on cassette, and I probably played it every day. I used to have a range of rather mismatched speakers for listening to music, including a pair of car stereo speakers placed behind me, to get a kind of pseudo-surround effect. Listening to music was a special moment, where I’d place myself in the centre of the sound, enjoy a cup of tea, smoke and get immersed in the sound. Trip Hop and ambient music, like The Orb, were great for this, but also one of my favourite bands to get absorbed in, was Ozric Tentacles. I hitchhiked to Glastonbury festival, jumped over the wall, and spent days wandering around in the blistering sun just discovering new music. I saw Rage Against The Machine at the height of their fame, wandered right into a crowd of tens of thousands of people, on one of the hottest days of the year, and as they came on, it started to rain.
I was a member of many bands, I put myself out there a lot, collecting numbers from adverts in music shops, calling people up and going for auditions.
I joined a folk band, which became a ‘Celtic rock band’. There was a big Irish (theme) pub scene back then. We played various gigs, some of them more authentic Irish venues, in England. In the mid 1990s I made myself No Fixed Abode to go and play in Norway for a while, then came back and a played a few gigs in Scotland. I slept in a van with a broken window, on the streets of Aberdeen, in February (as I had very little money).
I continued to do some more of the experimental side of music during the 1990s. Using midi keyboards, drum triggers, and an Akai Sampler. Then one day, I found a complete computer, a PC with monitor, keyboard, mouse and about 5GB of storage, lying in a skip in the street. So I took it home, installed some free software, and started making music on a PC (still recording on cassette though).
Siobhán in the 21st Century
For a little while at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, I was quite dormant musically. Then I started looking for bands to join again. I got together with a guitarist who was very ambitious and very much into the bands like The Warlocks and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. This kicked off my being most aligned with, for years, the psych rock, psychedelic rock, and shoegaze music scene. The band I’d formed with the guitarist I met gained some seemingly serious interest with the corporate music industry, including Island, and Fiction Records. None of this came to fruition though, mainly because of internal fighting with the band (almost literally, as guitars were thrown across the room and so on). The bands I was in became the ‘go to’ support act for some venues, including Oxford’s The Zodiac (where Radiohead recorded their video for ‘Creep’). It was an exciting time, but also very stressful, a learning curve that I don’t necessarily regret, but certainly don’t want to repeat.
Finally though, thankfully, out of all of that, a band evolved where (mostly) we all worked really well together but sadly that ended in 2009.
I felt it was essential to continue playing. I had no band, and had mostly been a bass guitarist all those years. So I decided to enter into being a front person. I teamed up with a friend, and formed a psych rock duo with her on drums and me on bass guitar (with 2 amps and a load of effects to fill out the sound) but crucially I moved to being a vocalist. Initially I played on my Spacemen 3 and Loop influences, as well as the many psych rock bands that were popular at the time. We started gigging, getting fairly well known and liked. We played Truck Festival in 2011 and some really great gigs. We started getting some industry interest, but mainly PR companies. Then my friend decided to leave, and I expanded the band to a 3 piece. It became quite a different sound really, but still excellent. The band kept going for a few years. During that time I formed another band, also aligned with the same scene, but this time with a more deliberately 1960s psychedelic rock and ‘Doorsy’ vibe.
From about 2012 onwards I started doing a few solo live shows. At one point mostly with a bluesy acoustic guitar sound, and a cassette backing tape I’d prepared.
Out of the ashes
In 2016 I decided to launch my solo career properly. I had by that time expanded the number of instruments I play greatly, and outside of the bands, mandolin became my primary instrument. My intention was to make myself small but have the ability to make a big sound. I wanted to gain independence from being in bands, to be able to rely more on myself. So I worked hard on creating a set up which was mobile. One in which I could jump on public transport and go anywhere with. I suceeded in this, by using a loop pedal, my mandolin, some hand percussion, and a small keyboard.
I called my new solo project, “Fire Healer”.
The name Fire Healer was taken from the name of a song I had with one of my old bands. It had been, as usual, a jam. At that point, when creating songs, things were improvised, including the vocals, but actually I did what is sometimes called “mouth music” or “speaking in tongues”. So I didn’t neessarily sing real words. When listening back to a jam, I thought I heard the words “Fire Healer” come out of the music, and so I built on that.
Fire Healer is about new growth, out of the ashes. I wrote some pretty basic lyrics about a character called Fire Healer, that was within me. Fire Healer is she, and I am her.
At first, due to my terrible perfectionism (I have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder as well as Borderline Personality Disorder, C-PTSD and being neuro-divergent), I spent days working on a set of songs. I got it working, just about, but I was always on the edge. I was on the edge for the week before a gig, working very hard on getting my set ‘right’. I was on the edge before the gig itself, getting overwhelmed by cables and pedals and so on, worrying about my set. I was on the edge during the gig.
One day I got on stage and my head completely shut down. I was stood in front of the audience who were waiting for me to start. Looking at everyone, and then starting to panic. I was alone on stage, there was no one there to play a riff to remind me of what the next song sounded like. I had to do something though.
At that point, I did the only thing I could. Improvise.
I let go, had faith in my ability to create music, and I just played. The thing is, no-one noticed I had improvised the entire performance. People came up to me afterwards, thanked me, and I think I remember at some point someone asking me about my lyrics, quoting some of my words back at me and asking me what they were. I think I told them “I don’t know, you tell me, I just made it up!”.
From that point onwards, I mostly gave up on rehearsing actual songs for gigs. I worked on my set up, getting the sound I wanted, evolving it, then I’ve just got up on stage, and started playing. It’s become a lot easier, because though I have no songs strictly, I have rhythms and scales and sounds that I know well. I have some words I can sing about. Normally about nature, trees, water, the sea, rivers. Actually, at one gig I sang the menu of the café I was playing in, much to the audience’s amusement.
Another great thing about improvising, is that I feel like the connection between who I am, emotionally, and my art, is more direct. I am not restricted or confined by expectations of structure. There is less ‘in the way’ between how I feel, and my self expression. Though I would like to get back to doing more structured performances, but perhaps a balance in there. It also means every performance is a surprise to me as much as it is to the audience.
2020 came along, and like for many people, put a massive spanner in the works! But, additionally I was struggling with my mental health. I’d spent years trying to get recorded music out, doing the recordings at home, mixing and so on, but utterly failed to complete anything. I felt incredibly bad about it, about myself. One of the main reasons was that I hated hearing my vocals. Everyone but me loved my vocals. I would spend a huge amount of time and effort mixing the instruments, everything sounded amazing, but I avoided the vocals because I didn’t want to listen to myself. When I tried to add in vocals, I imploded and had to stop.
I then, after a very long journey, came out as transgender. This is a whole other long story, but the important thing here is that it changed the way I view myself. Perhaps the biggest realisation was that I had always felt like my voice was fake. I loved the act of singing, it felt powerful, but if I listened to my voice, it felt like it wasn’t really me. So I started to work on changing my singing. I really considered adapting old songs, even the style of the band I was in, even tried singing some differently, and some new ideas. Ultimately though I was going through a very difficult time, I needed to let go, and sadly that meant the end of that band.
With Covid, lockdowns, no chance of gigging anyway, I was pretty much forced to not perform, to not do something fundamental to me, during a time when I probably most needed it for my well being.
What I did instead, was more live streaming. For the most part, I stopped singing though. I made myself a ‘stage’ for the camera, with my music equipment for it, permanently set up. I dressed my stage with Indian mandala wall hangings, garlands, bits of material.
I was incredibly lonely. Living alone all through lockdown and more, with mental health problems. I rarely went out of the house for months on end. My only connection with people was mostly online. Doing the live streaming was difficult, partly because of being trans and struggling with dysphoria and being on camera. It took a lot of effort to do, and really felt unfulfilling. It was really nice to have a small audience, but apart from the odd Zoom gig I started do, I couldn’t see anyone, and there was no-one there with me.
The streaming gigs dropped off. My life got a lot worse for many reasons and kept getting worse for about 3 years.
2020 just kept going
Between 2018 and 2020 I went through very intensive therapy. After the therapy groups ended, I lost my support network. I lost had lost my 22 year long relationship, I had quite a tumultuous time with some other relationships, delved into non monogamy and got hurt (but I think I learnt a lot from that). I came out as trans (and kinda lost myself but found a new me, or perhaps the old me I’d lost a long time ago). I lost my elderly cat, I lost my mum to cancer, I lost my Dad because of his narcissism. I lost my team at work due to redundancies. I then lost my position at work, struggled with work and I lost my job and my income because of my very poor mental health.
I then lost my home. The house I’d been living in for 15 years, and 4 of them on my own, was sold. I lost control of it all before that. I was reduced to practically living on my own in one room in the house, nicely decorated as it was, with all my instruments around, but also literally killing me due to damp and mould.
In December 2022, I started giving away some of my posessions for free, including music equipment, to just get rid of things and make it easier and cheaper to live in my impending new life. The rest, apart from a few basic things I could carry, including my mandolin, was to be placed in storage, where it currently remains.
The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?
On January 23rd 2023, I left my house in Oxford for the final time, with a heavy wheeled suitcase and ruck sack (mostly full of clothes), plus my mandolin in my hand, and I got on a train to Brighton.
I arrived in Brighton on my own, barely knowing anyone, with no home of my own. So here I am. Still I have no home, I’m staying temporarily in places, but what I have begun, is a new life. I have managed to get out and meet lots of new people, I have something of a social life, which I have not had for years. I am still very lonely, but I connect with people.
I connect with people, because I have my music.