Written late last year as a tonic for her own anger and despair, If We’re Damned rises above its humble beginnings to be an anthem for a world plunged into fear and uncertainty. Released during the lockdown, Jess Silk’s unpretentious song of hope in a time of hopelessness encourages us to keep up the fight and hold onto each other “and we will mend – and we’ll get there in the end”.
“It was all getting a bit too much…”
“It’s one of the few songs that I can actually remember where I was when I wrote it,” says Jess. In December, Jeremy Corbyn’s stewardship of the Labour Party came to a disastrous conclusion with the most comprehensive Conservative Party election victory in more than 30 years. Jess Silk and a group of like-minded friends watched the election exit poll announcement in their local pub, Katie Fitzgerald’s in Stourbridge, before beginning to decisively drown their sorrows with tequila.
The dream of a socialist government in Britain had ended for the foreseeable future with Labour wholly unable to persuade the nation of the virtues of investing in public services in an election decided principally on the issue of how and whether to exit the European Union. Two days later and still suffering a bitter hangover, she struggled on stage for a Saturday night gig in Stoke-on-Trent and, at last, after sleeping it off on a friend’s floor, she woke up the following morning with the first few lyrics of If We’re Damned going round her head.
“I’d not been writing about politics a lot ’cause it was all getting a bit too much,” she recalls, “but I remember thinking rather than making this miserable and angry like I’ve been doing with everything lately I’m gonna make it uplifting and defiant. It made me feel better anyway.”
Nowhere to Go But Up
Whilst it’s not a song inspired by joy, If We’re Damned spurs us on with the notion that when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. The Labour Party lost a devastating 59 seats in the House of Commons in 2019, leaving them with 203, compared to the Tories’ 365 – an overwhelming majority which will give them the mandate to pass any act of parliament essentially unchallenged. Jeremy Corbyn’s party had polled an impressive one-third of votes cast, but crucially lost support in some of the Party’s most steadfast strongholds, such as Bishop Auckland in County Durham, which elected a Conservative MP for the first time in 134 years.
“We got it wrong,” sings Jess in the first verse, “and it seems that they’re getting more Right”.
“Corbyn was definitely too far Left to be leading the Labour Party as it stood,” acknowledges Jess, “but I think – at least, I hope! – that we’ll see more of his ideas and policies creeping back in to the Labour Party in the coming months and years. A lot, if not most, of the members that have joined over the past couple of years joined the party because of the socialist policies, so I’d like to hope that means we can slowly steer the ship back towards the left a bit in time.”
For Jess Silk, the election result was particularly upsetting because Jeremy Corbyn had been an inspirational leader and the reason why she joined the Party.
“It’s been amazing to have someone at the top who I can actually believe in and agree with,” she eulogises. Recalling the defining moment when the Labour leader addressed a crowd of tens of thousands at Glastonbury Festival in 2017, she says it’s hard to imagine Corbyn’s successor having the same impact: “Corbyn got people fired up in a way that I’ve never seen on that scale and unfortunately I don’t think that Keir Starmer inspires that level of enthusiasm. I hope he can prove me wrong.”
“It’s nice to know that we’re not quite as far apart as it seems…”
A few months later, Brexit and the election are far from everyone’s minds as the nation and the world faces the coronavirus crisis. And a song of defiance to make us all feel better is exactly what we all need right now.
“I find it makes me feel so much better having that chorus to belt out,” she admits. “I’m really happy that it’s been resonating with people, perhaps not for the reason I initially intended, but even so…”
Musicians around the world have been unable to ply their trade as a result of the covid-19 outbreak, but it certainly hasn’t put a stop to live music altogether. Webcams have been introducing us to the home lives of musicians and on Saturday April 11th Jess Silk took part in an entire day of live music, all of it broadcast from musicians’ homes via Facebook Live. The We Shall Overcome Isolation Festival, headlined by Billy Bragg and Grace Petrie, raised over £25,000 for homeless people to provide food, cash, warm clothing and toiletries for food banks, homeless outreach, soup kitchens, crisis centres, youth projects and refugee support.
“I first got involved in We Shall Overcome in 2017 when a couple of mates put on a weekend of gigs in Stourbridge to raise money and collect donations for a local organisation called Leslie’s Care Packages for the Homeless,” explains Jess. “Since then I’ve organised and played a load of WSO gigs around the country, including gigs organised by Joe Solo, Matt Hill, and Pete Yen, who were the masterminds behind the WSO isolation festival.”
“I think that gig was a bit of a culture shock to everyone who was involved, not least for Joe, Matt and Pete who had to organise the bloody thing!” she continues. “The whole live streaming thing is new to a lot of us I think, and as a gigging musician you kind of get used to all the sound and lights and technological stuff being done for you, so it’s been something quite different to have to worry about everything yourself. Everyone’s making the best of what they’ve got equipment-wise and, while it can be a little rough around the edges sometimes, I think people have really taken it in their stride. There is a constant fear of your laptop blowing up or your internet failing or any number of things going wrong, but when you’ve finally got the live stream working and you can see that icon in the corner of the screen telling you that people are actually watching you on this weird internet thing, it does bring a smile to your face. It doesn’t compare to a ‘real life’ gig but it’s nice to know that we’re not quite as far apart as it seems.”
NHS State of Mind
Ironically, just months after an election in which the British public failed to support a policy of investing in the health service, the true value of the NHS has never been more evident; its essential, life-saving work is praised far and wide and the government’s failure to provide front-line staff with sufficient resources is roundly condemned. So perhaps there is reason to assume that British people will learn a valuable lesson from this crisis about what is really important to them. Jess concedes that a lot of people will be anxious for life to return to normality as if the crisis never happened, but candidly she hopes that it won’t.
“Obviously I can’t wait to see all my family and friends again and to be able to leave the house for more than an hour a day, but I think the virus and the way it’s been dealt with has thrown certain things into sharp relief,” she explains. “For example, the chronic underfunding of the NHS was something it was easy for most people to ignore before all this, but with the recent PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] shortages and the amount of publicity doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals are currently getting it’s something at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment, and I hope it stays there once the crisis has passed so we might be able to hold the government to account and actually do something about it.”