Gracing us with a massively honest interview which teaches us so much about true love, Normandy’s Malcolm Duff kindly opened up the door and let us all inside his career, heartbreaking loss and new music to help ease the pain, For You.
Where exactly in the world do you live and what constitutes a healthy meal in your home?
Malcolm: I am lucky to live in Normandy, in a house surrounded only by fields and forests, so it’s quiet enough for me to write. And France has turned food into a fine art, so whatever we eat, it’s fresh.
Do you recall the first time you played the guitar?
Malcolm: I started playing the piano at age four (it was the only instrument the family had), moved on to guitar and harmonica at around seventeen, and have always played something or sung whenever I can.
Please tell us more about your new album For You.
Malcolm: When my wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I retired early to take care of her at home, but continued to write songs over the ten years her illness lasted.
The songs on “For You” were recorded during the last three years of her life. It took me that long because I could only go to the recording studio for a few hours on a Friday afternoon (such is the life of a carer), and I played all the instruments on all the tracks, laying one down each week.
At home I nonetheless managed to write a novel, entitled “The Escorts”, based on my experience as a carer and singer-songwriter (it is to be published this year in English, French and Spanish). I was lucky enough to have two love affairs, and while one was tragic (my wife), the other was magic. And each song reflected how I felt, as I explain in the book.
“I wanted to thank my father for everything he had done for me; to tell him that I loved him and that I would always remember him. But I could not say that to him, so I wrote a song instead, and for the first time, I mentioned the woman and love I had found as he had suggested, when I told him of [my wife’s] illness. I showed the lyrics of the song to my father just before he died. We both knew his end was close. To my surprise and great pleasure, he said he liked it, understanding everything.”
The First Time
“I hear the tap of high heels approaching. Maria opens the door to her apartment. Long flowing brown hair, emerald eyes, ruby lips. She scents the bunch of red roses I hold out to her.
“You make me feel like a princess,” she says, and gently laughs. And to my parched throat, her laughter was like water bubbling up from a spring in the desert sand.”
“She had her own life to live and would leave; sometimes for a few days on a photo shoot, sometimes for a week or two on a modelling job, or sometimes for longer to go and see her family. And each time she left, I thought it would be the last. I would be left high and dry, lost and forlorn, surviving from one day to the next, eking out the days and weeks until she came back.”
“My wife gave me a reason for being; Maria gave me a reason to live. Thus she became synonymous with music. Every time I thought of her, a melody would come to mind. The vision of her smiling, emerald-green eyes conjured up tunes out of nowhere and nothing.”
Goodbye for Now
“She would blow me a kiss before closing her door as I walked down the creaking staircase to the lift. […] The dream would continue until I got home and mentally prepared myself to carry on my own road to Calvary. I would send her a message letting her know I had arrived safely; she thanked me for the time we had together, and I thanked her. So, our love affair slowly grew more painful for both of us.”
“She smiled, despite the pain. I had taken my small portable recorder and played the latest take of the last song we had written. I showed her the hand percussion I wanted to add and sang stupid harmonies to the soundtrack until she laughed and hugged me. Then she fell back exhausted onto the pillows, already half asleep.”
“As [Maria] began to recover and could walk again, on occasion she went to mass. Putting on a scarf which she knotted below her chin, lighting a candle or two, she prayed. The tiny yellow flames danced in the dark of the cathedral, reflecting brief glints of light in the eyes of those on their knees beside her. And like I, some stared with astonishment at the candlelit face of the beautiful girl by the altar, whispering and crossing themselves as if they had seen the Madonna herself.”
“I would think of her and a tune would come to me, a haunting melody. I would hear it, and then listen to it, and then hum it out loud, and in doing so, it would take physical shape. […] Do not pray to the gods. Pray to those you once loved who are no more. […] Sometimes those guardian angels hear us, watching over us as they fly by, and let a little gold dust from their wings fall upon our own ears.”
“My brothers did not ask questions. If they were curious, they did not say so. If I needed to talk, they listened. If I needed money and they had any spare, they sent it, and sent it immediately. Generosity was another trait our respective families did not share. And that of courage in the face of adversity; when the going gets tough, the tough get going. I found out that brothers in arms are brothers in deed.”
“Each time I had to leave Maria, my heart ached, beating as hard as when I was on my way to see her. I knew I would meet her again, however, and it made our parting the sweetest of sorrows. But there is no greater pain than to lose someone close to you, and know it is forever. […] I could think of nothing better than to go home and start to write a song for her, in the hope that somewhere she might hear it.”
Singing The Blues
“It was nice to cross paths again with someone at the low end of the music business, playing parties, bar mitzvahs, old-age homes, trying to make ends meet, pay the rent at the end of the month, but still play music. Perhaps it was all the singer could do, but it was all she wanted to do, and so she did it with heart and soul. That was what made her beautiful and happy.”
In the Meantime
“Acceptance became understanding one afternoon a few weeks after I had placed my wife in the nursing home. […] I talked a little to her as she ate little pieces of cake, and she looked at me in surprise each time, not remembering I was there or knowing who I was. I was just someone kind by her side, and as I held her skeletal hand in mine to keep it warm, I saw the small smile stay on my wife’s face as she fell asleep, and dreamt on.”
“A few weeks after she died, to comfort our dog Idaho, who was as lost and lonely as I had been since her disappearance, I took in a little Cocker Spaniel, a refugee, to serve as his escort. I stopped drinking and smoking. I no longer needed either. For Maria, who, out of respect, had refused to come to the house as long as my wife was alive, my lovely, beloved Maria finally came to visit.”
How did you connect with and what is the relationship like with Maristela Da Silva?
Shortly after I retired, a friend who ran a small record company came for lunch one day and told me he wanted to make a record with me. I had considered taking up music professionally, and seized the chance, because it meant I could also join SACEM, the French Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music. I saw an ad on their website from someone looking for a composer, replied, and it was Maristela. We met a few months later. I fell in love with her at first sight – it wasn’t difficult – and we’ve been together ever since, even when we’re apart. She is the muse in music, and continues to inspire every melody I write.
What do you miss most about not living in the UK?
Malcolm: My family.
How has music kept you sane during these tragic times?
Malcolm: In my case, whenever I am sad, I sing. My mother once told me that she had a nurse to help her when I and my twin brother were born (she already had two young boys), a woman who could not have children of her own, and she sang me to sleep. Singing soothes me the same way even now. And the studio where I recorded the album became a second home for me because my sound engineer believed in the songs as much as I did.
Last, what is your hope for humanity and the future?
Malcolm: For humanity, some sanity. For me, making enough money from music to continue making music.
Follow the music on Bandcamp.
Interview by Llewelyn Screen