The Rise of Poetronica

In early 2011, poets began setting their words to the sound of dubstep and electronica. Almost twelve months on, the signs are that poetronica is here to stay

Skream AKA Oliver Jones

It’s hardly surprising the year is ending with news that dubstep heavyweight Skream is set for a musical collaboration with poet Jodi Ann Bickley. After all, 2011 was the year when spoken word and electronica joined forces, and will surely be remembered for poets putting down their notebooks and turning to the MPC.

The trend began back in February, with the late, great Gil Scott Heron and Jamie xx’s We’re New Here. The two forms have since made sweet, electro-infused music together, with poets embracing the jerky and sometimes downright jarring beats of dubstep and electronica.
Drums Between the Bells, Rick Holland’s collaboration with Brian Eno, released on Warp Records back in July, was dubbed “poetronica” by critics and bloggers.

One of the most successful collaborations of the year came courtesy of Josh Idehen and electronica outfit LV, whose album Routes received rave reviews, an album of the month in Mixmag, and bookings at both poetry events and club nights. Idehen’s lyrics were cut and chopped by LV, a fresh and somewhat backwards approach to production. The result is a fun and fast-paced album that Idehen describes as a “true collaboration”: “Spoken word works with electronica. It can be a lot more accessible; there are less of the conventions found in hip-hop.”

Poet Raymond Antrobus, part of post-dubstep outfit Speed Camera Shy – who this year cemented UK dubstep’s crossover to the US by signing to the independent Californian label Gradient Audio – also thinks a poetic narrative works better with electronica. He argues that dubstep beats are preferred as they don’t drown out the poet’s voice: “Dubstep beats are something you can own, something that makes your words flow organically as they’re not trapped within a 4/4 pattern.”

Jodi Ann Bickley describes her Skream collaboration as incorporating a “classic minimal dubstep beat” to aid her narrative. “A beat has to do whatever suits the poet. I aim towards proper storytelling with a beginning, middle and end, so it has to be minimal. Dubstep beats give me a blank canvas; they aren’t too overpowering and can be calm if I need them to be. Dubstep can create a sense of place just like poetry can.”

So is poetronica here to stay? Musa Okwonga, of the spoken word and electronic project The King’s Will, is an ardent supporter of the term and is keen to look forward. “It’s been an amazing year in terms of productivity and quality,” he says. “There’s definitely been a tipping point, and I’m really excited for the year ahead.”

Kieran Yates • 30/12/12

The above article appeared in today’s Guardian. It was of particular interest for me as I know Jodi Ann, have watched her grow and flourish on the Brum scene, and have seen Ray Antrobus perform twice this year too. So, how accurate is this article? Is poetronica really on the rise?

Jodi Ann Bickley

Both Jodi Ann and Ray are undoubtedly very talented performers, and warm to multimedia platforms. Jodi Ann has flirted with music right from the start of her public career, her girlish fresh charm is so “on trend” with the raft of talented young British female singers currently enjoying success that the temptation to cross over must seem irresistible. Her writing is fey, kitchen sink, heartfelt and vulnerable, capturing the angst of young adulthood with a veritas that transcends her immediate peers, and reaches out to those who were young once also.

Ray Antrobus

Ray is a different talent, with photography being another passion of his . That need to capture a moment is so evident in his poetry too. He combines the edginess of a man who was out photographing the Tottenham Riots with a male metrosexual openness.

Poetry’s relationship with music goes back to the origins of the form, through Chaucer and to Homer. As soon as stories came to be told, two tools were immediately available, rhyme to help remember words ,and musical accompaniment, in the form of a drumbeat, and then other instruments as technology evolved, to add rhythm and mood. In England, and English, the Minstrel combined the skills of poet and musician and in Europe, as classical music flourished, you could not stop poets of the day having a crack at a hymn.

So, relationship established, when does a poem stop being a poem and become a song lyric? A poem without music is a poem, a poem with music at some point crosses that boundary. As the 20th century popularised amplified music, the great song writing lyricists and musical theatre lyricists chose to ply their trade with music by choice. Folk music and Country and Western similarly chose music as an essential ingredient to tell their stories.

Two things served to take poetry and the craft of lyric writing apart from popular music. The first was the creation of the Billboard Sheet Music Chart in 1940, and then the first record sales chart compiled by NME in 1952. At those points, as mass media broadened artists from the confines of theatres and clubs, a focus for celebrity was offered to television and radio from which the industry has never looked back. The artist and the sound became as important as the song and the lyric, which previously would not have been possible.

Bob Dylan

The fight-back, arguably came with Bob Dylan whose lyrics were so rich, dense and enigmatic, that whilst falling short of conventional poetic standards boasted a lyrical content which none could deny. The Doors set Jim Morrison’s poetry to music although the result was emphatically music and Jefferson Airplane successfully flirted with a poetic/literary form in “White Rabbit”. Gill Scott Heron though was undoubtedly the person who first tried to reverse the trend and put poetry first in his debut album “Small Talk”, with spoken word vocal delivery and African-style congas, containing his defining, seminal “The Revolution Will Not Be televised”.

Brian Eno

It is ironic that Brian Eno should be seen as being in the vanguard of the poetronica movement due to his work with Rick Holland. Anyone who has heard his early Roxy Music involvement with “Sea Breezes” and “Chance Meeting” on Roxy’s eponymous first album, or “In Every Dreamhome A Heartache” from “For Your Pleasure” will have heard the birth of poetronica. His latter Ambient Quintet of albums, starting with “Music for Airports” and ending with “More Music for Films” were also so minimalistic and sparse musically that they almost begged to have vocal accompaniment- but didn’t. Fellow computer based musicians Kraftwerk flirted with poetronica first with “Autobhan” then with “Computer Love” and “The Model” before becoming consumed by conventional mainstream mores. Yet might David Bowie (who included “Right Line Poem” in his “Hunky Dory” Album and “Future legend” in “Diamond Dogs”) claim a credit for his stylophone composed “Space Oddity” at the start of the decade? Indeed the diversity of experimentation was more than you might imagine in the 70’s with Ian Hunter, a far better songwriter and lyricist than singer recording the spoken word “It Aint easy When You Fall” in his eponymous solo album just before punk broke.

Patti Smith

Punk provided unexpected opportunities for poetry that in retrospect were not fully capitalised upon. Patti Smith was the standard bearer with “Piss factory” and her debut album “Horses”, but for whatever reason, she failed to break out of cult idolatry. When Siouxsie Sue was struggling for early lyrical inspiration she simply provided a musical backing to “The Lords Prayer”, and slightly later, I offer you the first genuine slice of modern poetronica, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”, in 1981.

But one figure cuts a swathe from the sixties to the present day as a lyricist, and on one album outright poet, and that is Lou Reed. Bathing himself in contemporary literature to the present day, he pioneered a spoken style to rock backing from “Waiting for the Man”, “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Street Hassle” through, “Songs for Drella” his album with John Cale dedicated to Andy Warhol.

Lou Reed

He too released his own ambient album, without lyrics in “Hudson River Wind Meditations” in 2007. Previously in May 2000, Reed performed before Pop John Paul 11 at the Great Jubilee Concert in Rome. Also in 2000, a new collaboration with Robert Wilson called “Poe-Try” was staged in Germany. As with the previous collaboration Time Rocker, Poe-Try was also inspired by the works of a 19th-century writer: Edgar Alan Poe. Reed became interested in Poe after producer and long-time friend Hal Wilner had suggested him to read some of Poe’s text at a Halloween benefit he was curating at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn.] For this new collaboration, Reed reworked and even rewrote some of Poe’s text as well as included some new songs based on the theme explored in the texts. I suspect that Reed, now 70 will be concentrating on the spoken word in his silent years.

Kraftwerk Live

So will poetronica gain traction in the second decade of the 21st century? In a multi-media world there is certainly space for it, whatever that “it” is. There are some great new mainstream lyricists out there, Matt Berninger (The National),James Mercer (The Shins), Devendra Banhart to name but three. There is nothing stopping the likes of Jodi Ann and Ray adding their lyrical prowess to the Dubstep scene which has worked through post-Dubstep to American Brostep ,and creating a poetronica hybrid drawing on the likes of Eno, Kraftwerk and even early Human league and Dépêche Mode to create something new. For me one of the faults of the contemporary popular music scene is that so few artists have anything to say, maybe poetronica can alter that?

Historically, as soon as you put poetry and music together the music wins, and the evolution is conventional music and lyrics. Avoiding that requires discipline, skill and a preparedness to eschew mainstream commercial success. For me, one of the attractions of spoken word poetry is the sparseness of it, the words, the voice and the imagery. It can be tough, and it can be demanding. Furthermore some of the best poets are not the best presenters of their own poetry either visually or in their delivery. Perhaps poets might work a little harder on their own image and delivery too, whatever their chosen platform?

Gil Scott Heron

As a poet I want to set my own pace and create my own landscape. Music is an incredibly powerful form and so presents a catch 22. If it is good it has the power to distract, if it is not ,it has the power to detract. At the point at which it becomes complimentary does it not become a song and lyric? In principle I have no problem with that as an outcome, Heron’s “Small talk” and Reed’s “Songs For Drella” show what can be achieved by using music to support words. But the pitfalls are well established.

So there you have it, the history and the context, and the future of Poetronica is unwritten. I would love to see Ray and Jodi Ann picking up the poetronica baton this year and shall be following their progress as they attempt to do so.

Jodi Ann Bickley blogs under:
Ray Antrobus blogs under:

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2 Responses to The Rise of Poetronica

  1. Musa Okwonga says:

    Hi Gary, I hope that all’s well with you. My name’s Musa Okwonga, from The King’s Will, and I was one of the poets quoted in the Guardian article, “The rise of poetronica”. Jodi and Ray, as well as being superb poets, are very good friends of mine: I am sure they will be delighted with this piece, which I have just shared with them on Twitter. I also thought I would write and send you a link to some of my poetry set to music, which you can find at If you would like a free copy of our debut album, “As The Power Fails”, I would be happy to send it to you. I hope you like the link. All the very best for 2012, Musa

  2. fritz says:

    More from Raymond Antrobus

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