Joyce Leedham was born in Liverpool and grew up to be my grandmother. I knew her for 21 years, but never well enough to move beyond Christmas dinner conversation topics.
‘What’s your girlfriend's name?’
‘Tell me who you write for again?’
When she died I remember sitting in the funeral chapel unsure of what to do with myself. I wasn’t crying. I should have been crying. I got annoyed with myself for not crying and then the service was over.
It was the first time I’d lost a family member.
Three years have passed since Joyce suffered the fatal stroke that called time on her steadily worsening dementia. If you asked, I wouldn’t be able to tell you where her gravestone is. I can still recall her shrill titter that met with any festive cracker joke, but facial features... those have begun to fade.
Beyond committing an eulogy to paper or compiling a photo album, there are precious few ways to preserve someone’s memory. Permanency is a luxury that’s afforded to Margaret Thatcher and James Gandolfini - not unremarkable souls from parochial suburbs. Unless you’re a band with a second album to write.
Local Natives’ Hummingbird is a 43-minute tribute to Patricia. I have no idea what she looked like, where she was born or how she passed away but she is one of the dearest companions I’ve known for these past 11 months. Her flimsy grasp on styrofoam cups and fleeting cigarettes have proved a sobering force when compared to my own impending deadlines and lamentable hangovers. If circumstances had been different, I doubt we’d have been introduced at all.
Before The National’s ATP festival in frosty Camber Sands, I’d dismissed Local Natives as intimidatingly talented and difficult to warm to. Musicians who could pen a dazzling four-part harmony and come undone when stretched beyond the confines of off-kilter scales. Then came the falsetto-lead swoon of ‘You & I’ and ‘Breakers’’ minor key tumble towards infinity.
Like the finest moments from Boxer or Alligator, these new songs bristled with downtrodden melody and murky allusions to untold grief. This transformation was more than an accomplished pastiche, though. There was something unguarded in the way keyboardist Kelcey Ayer cooed, “When did our love. When did our love grow cold?”
Here was a resurrection strung together from guitar, drums and agonising snippets of recent history. It was happening in a forgotten holiday park in a quiet coastal town, striking a chord beyond indie’s usual confines of break-up melodrama and superficial introspection.
In December 2012, I was far too tired to appreciate this moment’s significance. A weekend's merriment had numbed my appetite for grandiose emotions. It would be several months until Hummingbird's onslaught of unsparing sentiment truly hit home.
Geoffrey Harris was born in Salisbury and grew up to be my grandpa. I knew him for 24 years and rarely a week passed when we didn’t talk.
‘Have you finished that article yet?’
‘There can’t be much money in this music journalism?’
‘I suppose if you’re happy?’
When he died I remember sitting in that wretched funeral chapel again at a complete loss of what to do with myself. I held my Gran’s hand while she sobbed away in silence, read a verse from a book I don’t believe in and then the service was over.
This one wasn’t like before. This one was going to cut deep.
It’s been seven months since Geoffrey succumbed to pneumonia but he has stayed with me, just as Patricia promises she’ll outlive her body in ‘Heavy Feet’. The most immediate way to visualise his face is by travelling through the disinfectant-laced corridors of Royal Bournemouth Hospital. He is laid out in the intensive care ward. His breathing is shallow, his eyes are slumped over an oxygen mask and his fate is certain.
Worse still, is the incessant plea that accompanies this memory.
‘Geoff! Geoff! It’s your beautiful wife, Margaret.’
The bits of Hummingbird that aren’t concerned with Patricia herself deal with the effects of both her passing and the departure of bassist Andy Hamm from Local Natives. These events are muddled together, often being addressed at once in the same track. ‘Three Months’ surmises their aftermath with startling clarity.
“I've got to go on now having thought this wasn’t your last year.”
Now when I speak to my Gran, the man she loved for 61 years is an ever-present figure in our conversation. She wants to know what he’d think of her taking the bus into town or using the Internet for the first time. Considering he once stormed out of a council-run Computing for Beginners course, I struggle to offer anything more than vague platitudes.
While Margaret has fumbled over the remnants of a former life, Local Natives have danced across continents. Their daily routine of talk show guest slots and giant concert halls couldn’t be more different to sitting at home alone with your thoughts in a semi-detached house. Still, whenever the LA-born outfit step on stage, I think Kelcey Ayer must share the same sensations as an elderly lady from the south coast of England.
All my Gran wants to do is relive better days. Her hearts belongs in the past and her present is personified by ‘Ceilings’, “Silver dreams bring me to you.”
Of all the comforts Hummingbird has afforded me, the greatest has been to hear my own fears addressed in trembling song.
‘What if I forget my own grandpa?’
‘How can I commemorate his memory?’
‘Am I giving enough?’
This question is the crux of ‘Columbia’, the devastating ballad that marks Hummingbird’s emotional climax. Opening on the slow churn of piano chords, this astonishing track builds in swells of desperate anguish. Each new verse further underlines Ayer’s inner turmoil until it’s matched with a howl of reverb-laden six-string and distressed vocals.
“Patricia. Every night I'll ask myself, ‘Am I giving enough?’”
I identify with this question because I know who Patricia was: Ayer’s mother. Hummingbird is his attempt to document the grieving process. He is a son, communicating in the most heartfelt way he knows how. By documenting his daily pangs of immense sadness, there’s a chance he might make sense of them.
As Ayer’s mind slips back in time with ‘Colombia’, from the day after Patricia’s final breaths to just beforehand, it’s telling that he can’t answer his own existential query. The only person who could is now gone and he will have to live on in limbo. Having been composed in the aftermath of great trauma, Hummingbird’s purgatory is more sorrowful than most. Too little time has passed to allow for any levity.
Mercifully, that is not the case for me. I can now peer back to the summer holidays when my brother, sister and I were far too much trouble to sit politely in an empty house. Every time we were shipped off to Gran and Pa’s, we fell into line like Edwardian schoolchildren. We’d get gold stars for good table manners, practice our spellings out loud and, if the sky was clear, drive over to Christchurch Castle to play tag.
Christchurch Castle is a castle in the same way that The Killers are collective of psychopaths - it’s a big stone house that happens to sit on a hill. If you’re about 8 years old, the prospect of being ‘caught’ by someone stepping out of its ruins is a complete thrill. If you’re 60 years the prospect of catching three screaming kids must be utterly exhausting.
Yet that’s what Pa did until we got bored with tag and wanted to play penalties instead. Then, when we weren’t on holiday, he would buy our school text books so he could help when we got stuck and wanted to call. Then went we went to university, he’d send Tesco vouchers in the post ‘to pay for your sandwiches’.
Geoffrey Harris did this all for the occasional ‘love you’ and a packet of dark chocolate gingers at Christmas. He gave enough. In some small way, I hope I have too.