Blog 1: when Shobhita met Donna

Welcome to our very first Ensemble blog post.

Shobhita and Donna during interview

We recently appointed one of our young people, Shobhita, as Ensemble’s first ‘young music reporter’. She will be helping to oversee the upkeep of this blog in the coming months, creating Ensemble-related blog posts with the guidance of a professional mentor, journalist and musician Craig Angus (Savage Mansion).

We first met Shobhita last year when she wrote a beautifully moving song called ‘Cloud In The Sky’ with professional songwriter and musician Jill Lorean at an Ensemble songwriting workshop. It is great to have her reporting on Ensemble because she knows firsthand what it’s like to go through the Ensemble songwriting process.

Below is Shobhita’s first article for the blog, centred around an interview she conducted over Zoom with Ensemble Coordinator, Donna Maciocia.

"As summer draws to a close and the autumnal ochres start to set in, we start to wind down next to our pumpkin spice scented candles and soothing cups of hot chocolate and look back at times gone by. And although it’s inevitable the exploits and memories of last summer get locked away behind the ethereal gates of time, it’s sometimes not a bad idea to look back and pay homage to those memories before they drift away like the bright red leaves in the crisp autumn wind. This is exactly what I did when I sat down with Donna Maciocia, creative lead of Ensemble, to rewind and reminisce about the voyage of Ensemble over the last few years.

To the uninitiated, Ensemble might appear on the surface to be simply a songwriting project that brings professional musicians and young people together, setting them on a path to writing a song, but to its regular attendees, it has grown to mean that and so much more.

Although it might be a bit strange to begin a blog series by reminiscing about the past and not looking towards the future, Ensemble’s humble beginnings are what have given it windows looking out to such spectacular views. And, as Donna pointed out in the interview, what a journey it’s been too!

Coming into the project as lead musician and in a few years becoming coordinator and creative lead of the project, she has had front row seats to witness all the changes Ensemble has been through. From outreach songwriting workshops to creating an album and a sell-out live concert, Ensemble – like the young people that have walked through its doors - has grown so much and flourished.

Shobhita: Many young people have said things like ‘I feel like I belong’ and that Ensemble feels like a ‘home’ to them. Is this something you set out to achieve at the very beginning?

Donna: Creating something inclusive was at the forefront of our minds from the start, as in all the work we do at Wheatley Care. But I don’t think we realised at the beginning just how powerful the sense of belonging and community was going to be or the profound positive difference Ensemble was going to make to people’s lives.

S:  Why do you think they feel this way?

D: I think the main driving force for this at the beginning was probably the amazing team of people we got involved – a group of friendly, fun, non-judgmental and easy-going musicians and volunteers – chosen not just for their musical talents, but for their people skills, genuinely caring and empathic personalities too. They are such generous practitioners, always going the extra mile, unafraid to share their own flaws and imperfections which I think put our young people at ease from the offset, giving them courage to give of themselves and be vulnerable too. Kindness and courage are infectious! The act of mutual giving and receiving is what builds trust, strong connections and relationships too. When songs and stories are shared in a safe and supportive space like we have managed to create, it is incredibly powerful. People feel heard, often for the first time, and that they finally belong somewhere.

S: I know you’ve worked with lots of different groups of people to do songwriting workshops before. What was different about having songwriting workshops that cater to young people? Or were there far more similarities?

D: There is definitely a difference. It really is a privilege to get to know and work with young people. I am always in awe of their courage and vitality, something I think we often lose as we grow older. It is so inspiring to watch them transform in such short spaces of time, by repeatedly stepping outside their comfort zones and facing their fears. Many of our young people have gone from being very isolated with low confidence in their abilities and social skills, to making loads of new friends, writing songs, sharing them with others and sometimes even public speaking or performing onstage to 500 people! And this often happens all in the space of a few months. It’s just wonderful and inspiring to witness. If you provide young people with a safe space, support and encouragement, they seem so much more courageous and enthusiastic than your average adult. Plus they often have such a refreshing perspective – I love the way they often see things.

S: You also found quite an eclectic range of musicians to work with the young people, some of them with very different styles from one another. Was there a reason for this?

D: There can sometimes be a stereotype with community music groups just having a musician walking around strumming a guitar and we didn’t want that. In order to appeal to a diverse group of young people with different tastes in music, we wanted to build a musical team that could work in a variety of styles. On our debut album ‘No Place Like It’ (coming out next spring), we’ve got grime hip-hop, folk, pop, acoustic, 50s rock, dance, 80s synth electronic music and Billie Eilish-inspired production. In a typical Ensemble songwriting workshop you will find everything from 80s synths to laptops, drum machines, guitars, basses, omnichords, kalimbas, percussion, samplers, pianos and glockenspiels lying around! Anything goes really. Since lockdown, our music making is now happening online and so far we’ve got songs underway inspired by ska, reggae, industrial, folk, pop and hip-hop. Our musicians seem to enjoy the challenge of fulfilling our young people’s creative visions the best they can. We’ve not had any heavy metal yet. I’d love for someone to give that a go.

S: What’s in the works for Ensemble’s future?

D: Our debut album is coming out in spring 2021 and we will be releasing four singles with homemade music videos to help promote its release. Our young people are involved in decision making at every step of the way. Hopefully we will get some more radio play in the process too! Our young people, musicians and volunteers are also meeting regularly online to collaborate, write and home-record brand new songs. And, of course, we have our new blog and a podcast in the pipeline.

S: What’s your word of advice for someone who might be thinking of doing songwriting for the first time?

D: If you’re a young person aged 16-25 in central Scotland who doesn’t have access to music making, please do get in touch with us. Otherwise, I guess the first thing I’d suggest is to listen to your favourite songs, study them and ask yourself what makes them so great? Use these songs as templates for writing your own, but add your own twist. Also, as my friend says, ‘kill the blank page’ as much as possible. Just get into a habit of putting pen to paper, carrying a notebook with you everywhere, or recording little memos or keeping notes on your phone, even if you doubt the ideas. The more you make it a habit, and ignore the voice in your head that tells you that your ideas are rubbish, the easier it will become.

S: I wondered if you could make some song recommendations before you go? What song do you listen to when you’re happy?

D: My go to for quite a while has been ‘Loving is Easy’ by Rex Orange County. Although very recently it’s been ‘Want You To Know’ by Ensemble musician Martha Ffion, off her amazing new record.

S: I wondered if you could make some song recommendations before you go? What song do you listen to when you’re feeling sad?

D: Almost anything off Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Carrie and Lowell’ album. Achingly beautiful.

S: Finally, what song do you listen to when you’re in need of motivation?

D: Ubu by Methyl Ethyl, without a doubt!

And I’d just like to reiterate once again what Donna said, “Come join Ensemble!” It’s certain to be one of the best experiences of your life and once you start. I can guarantee you will not want to leave. In the coming blogs and podcasts I will tell you exactly why. Stay tuned!"