Art in the Time of COVID-19: Charlie Cawood

As we move towards the end of 2021, we (and by we, I mean, all of us) are collectively processing the effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic. So many facets of our lives have been altered. As an artist myself, and a friend to many artists, I’ve been in constant contemplation about the role of art and the state of the arts, given our current situation. What does it mean to be an artist during a global pandemic? How has it changed the artistic landscape? How have artists learned to adapt? How has the music industry changed, and how will it continue to change?

Given the volatile state of live music, many artists and musicians have found themselves in challenging situations that have forced them to adapt. Some artists have changed their artistic focus (for example, from live music to studio work). Some have found new technological avenues to share their talents (such as streaming). Some have left the arts as a vocation and sought careers outside of music. To help collectively process these feelings, and to honor the struggle and choices that they have made, I wanted to profile different artists as they told their stories about how the pandemic has affected them personally. So, here’s the first edition of Art in the Time of COVID-19.

For the first article, I featured Charlie Cawood, who is no stranger to the blog. He is a member of several different groups, such as Knifeworld, Tonochrome, Mediaeval Baebes, and many others, and is an incredible composer and solo musician as well (please check out his website and his Bandcamp page). He also was Anathema’s tour bassist, until the pandemic forced a changed of plans. Charlie talks about processing his feelings of loss and working to preserve his mental health during these unprecedented times.

Charlie: The first months of 2020 were a period of sudden professional upheaval for me. In January, I’d received a phone call from Anathema’s Daniel Cavanagh, asking whether I’d be interested in joining the band on bass for their upcoming tour – a 10th anniversary celebration of their album We’re Here Because We’re Here. The tour would be one month of dates across Europe, including a show at the prestigious London Palladium.

After reshuffling some existing recording dates, I set about learning the two-hour set, as well as mentally preparing myself for what would be the highest profile engagement so far in my career. Even before rehearsals began, I was being asked for my availability for Summer festivals, as well as tentatively invited to perform on their upcoming studio album – their first for new label Mascot Recordings.

This led to me having to consider the potential implications for the other aspects of my working life. Would I have to step back from my other projects? Could my guitar students retain me as a teacher when I’d be absent on tour for months on end? I was making plans to dep out my longtime instrumentalist position in Mediaeval Baebes, given the new commitments Anathema were presenting me. An impending change loomed on the horizon.

The first week of the tour went by relatively smoothly. The Palladium show was a triumph – described by many as one of the band’s best London shows to date – and there seemed to be a pleasant dynamic between the band and crew. What’s more, my work on bass was apparently well appreciated by the band and fans alike.

By the time we reached Spain, the Coronavirus situation in Europe was worsening, and we were preparing to take extra safety precautions for the remainder of the tour, cautiously optimistic that it might still go ahead. By the time we reached Lisbon, Portugal, the remaining shows had already started to fall through, and it became clear that we would have to fly back to England the following day.

The atmosphere at the Lisbon show was undoubtedly strange. Many of the attendees had chosen to stay at home – understandably concerned for their safety, given the surge of virus cases – and we knew onstage that it could well be the last performance any of us would do for some time. The next day, we said our premature goodbyes at the airport, splitting off into groups bound for London, Glasgow, and elsewhere.

The UK entered its first national lockdown a week later, and the next few months descended into a timeless fog. The tour dates were optimistically rescheduled for September, which later became January, as any chance of an imminent return to live performance gradually faded. When September came, Anathema announced they were entering an indefinite hiatus, and all future tour dates were cancelled.

During the initial lockdown, recurring behaviours seemed to arise among those coping with this sudden period of isolation. Many felt the pressure to use this time wisely and productively – to explore new creative projects; to cultivate new skills; to finish writing that novel or album; to read books and to grow as a person. As if a time of unprecedented collective trauma could be a fitting catalyst for any of this.

When I received the call from Anathema in January, I was already in a state of burnout. A decade or more of constant musical activity was starting to take its toll, and I was being forced to confront the detriment this was having on my physical and mental health. It turned out that being spread thin over multiple bands and projects, being in near-constant demand for my skills, and trying to accommodate as much of that as humanly possible for a period of years, was somehow unsustainable – no matter how I tried to convince myself otherwise.

So even in January 2020, I’d already decided to scale back my commitments and enjoy a time of relative quiet. Some might suggest retrospectively that I be careful what I wish for.

As the months of 2020 wore on, I allowed new creative projects to grow in their own time: scoring new music when I felt able, accepting new recording work when it seemed interesting, or at least paid well enough. We even managed to record a new Mediaeval Baebes album in between lockdowns, released as ‘Prayers Of The Rosary’ in December. However, I found that many attempts to foster creativity under lockdown only worsened my already tenuous mental health.

Although I was lucky enough to be able to work from home, the line between home and workplace suddenly dissolved under quarantine. This, coupled with a pervading assumption from others that free time equated to availability, forced me to erect more clearly defined boundaries between myself and my vocation. Years of trying to accommodate all demand had left me with a propensity for hard work, but the constant compartmentalisation had become exhausting, and it was clear that this was no longer sustainable.

I soon learned that the lockdowns of 2020 presented an opportunity, not for creative activity, but for an extended pause. After all, inspiration doesn’t arise from busyness, but from the spaces in between. Taking the time to rest allowed me to cultivate healthier working practices, and come to the understanding that any amount of progress – let alone in the middle of a worldwide crisis – is enough.

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