From Branksome Beach to the world, maybe there’s a parallel reality in which Shelleyan Orphan are as famed as Kate Bush, as cool as the Cocteau Twins and as revered as Portishead; a place where Caroline Crawley and Jemaur Tayle are Britain’s answer to Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein – a creative hothouse that also chimes with the commercial imperative.
Were that the case it would represent an absolute triumph for supernatural justice. All the evidence is on the forthcoming box set that rounds up the first three of Shelleyan Orphan’s four charmingly off-kilter albums of tune-rich baroque folk-pop with a bonus disc of rarities, half a dozen videos, a beautifully designed booklet and a moving handwritten letter from Jem following Caroline’s death from breast cancer last October.
Having met in Bournemouth, become lovers and the closest of close friends Jem and Caroline formed the band in 1983 while out walking one day on Branksome Beach.
“I had my little tape machine that you had to keep the play button pressed down for it to work,’ recalls Jem. “We were listening to The Chi-Lites my favourite soul band and Caroline just started singing along, harmonising in this beautiful voice and it was obvious what we had to do.
“She only had about six singles when we met – Blondie, Joy Division, Madness, Gary Glitter – she’d never even considered doing music, never knew she had a voice, wasn’t really that interested; whereas I was steeped in music, it was everything to me. I was always sneaking into Bournemouth Winter Gardens to bands, I didn’t care which ones.”
From that unlikely beginning the duo started to write songs, but before they moved to London, Jem booked St Stephen’s Church Hall, told everyone he knew and packed the place for a solo show.
“I had to do that for myself. I was never part of the Bournemouth music scene, I didn’t want anything to do with it, I had to find my own sound and do something original. I didn’t know I had it in me until that show – it wasn’t great but it was me.”
For all that it chimes with their home town where the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s heart is buried in his wife’s grave at St Peter’s Church, the name Shelleyan Orphan came after Caroline and Jem had moved to the capital where signed to Rough Trade, then the home of The Smiths, another collection of misfits with a literary bent.
But whereas The Smiths were and are as critically and commercially successful as can be, the bells (or cash tills) never rang for Shelleyan Orphan. With a few honourable exceptions the critics hated them, the right radio shows never played them and the audience couldn’t get their records.
“We had these wonderful people around us that really got what we were doing – Geoff Travis the head of Rough Trade loved us and there were people like Danny Thompson who played bass on Helleborine, our first album, and Stuart Elliot, the drummer from Cockney Rebel who we respected and really liked what we did. We did some sessions with Anne Dudley from Art of Noise who was incredibly successful – some of those are on the box set – and people like that told us not to listen but it’s hard not to take the knocks to heart.
“The hacks slated us for making middle class music because we had strings – I left Seldown School in Poole, a horrible place, at 16 and had absolutely nothing. To do the strings I spent hours sitting with a violinist playing my guitar for him as he painstakingly translated that into the written parts. Nowadays it would be so much quicker and easier with computer programmes, but then it was a real labour of love.”
A landmark TV appearance on The Tube announced the band to the world, but Caroline’s crystalline vocals and Jem’s lushly orchestrated musical scenarios were about as out of step as it was possible to be with the march of music fashions. George Michael and Madonna, this was not. Instead, Helleborine was laced with lyrics about willowy Victorians, Gothic buildings and moody landscapes.
A second album, 1989’s more focussed and personal Century Flower secured them a support slot on tour with The Cure and lead single Shatter, with its video inspired by Millais’ painting Ophelia, enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV, but still no commercial breakthrough. By the time their third album Humroot fell out in 1993 Rough Trade was disintegrating and that was it until 2008’s We Have Everything We Need when at last the duo were roundly acclaimed as being ahead of their time.
The new box set was compiled, edited and mastered at that time.
“That’s us all over though,” says Jem. “It was never actually released and it wasn’t until last year that someone at the label found it, realised all the work had been done and finally decided to put it out. I’d pretty much forgotten about it if I’m honest, just put it down to being yet another one of those things that seem to have conspired over the last 30 years to make sure were never a success.
“I’m not bitter about any of it, I’m incredibly proud of a body of work that charts a very personal journey for Caroline and me. We had loads of great tunes and enough of a taste of that life to be very happy with what we had. We had some amazing experiences, far more than many people who dream about getting into music ever manage and I’m incredibly grateful for that.”
A hit would have been nice though. As it is, man (or woman) cannot live on music alone and Jem and Caroline both looked elsewhere in order to earn a crust. They pursued the healing arts with Caroline travelling through Asia and Australia to learn singing therapy and healing bodywork, while Jem mastered Watsu water therapy and ended up managing a holistic spa in a hotel in Bath where he and Caroline had settled, living next door to one another.
“Caroline was one of those people who are naturally brilliant at whatever they turn their hand to – she was such a good therapist but she never really made a career at it, she only did enough to get by. I never intended to be that serious about it, but it just happened that way.
“Life can be very surreal though. I massaged Johnny Depp three times at the hotel, he was a lovely guy, but the strangest one was Thom Yorke. I was outside the hotel one day and this bloke called out to me and it was our old roadie who was tour manager for Radiohead who were staying at the hotel. I didn’t realise it, but Thom had a Watsu treatment booked with me and he liked it so much he came back a couple of times, including one night when I was floating him round the pool as the rest of Radiohead looked on with REM, who were also at the hotel as both bands were playing Glastonbury.
“Thom Yorke knew Shelleyan Orphan and kept asking me how it was I working at the hotel. I think people just always assumed we were still in the industry even though we weren’t releasing music, but it wasn’t like that, we had to get jobs.”
Today Jem still lives near Bath and works with primary school children with special needs. He loves his job, sees Caroline’s daughter (his god-daughter) regularly and is taking tentative steps to carry on making music, but without his friend he’s finding it tough.
“Caroline had been ill for years and had been successfully treating it alternatively until three or four years ago when she had to give in to chemo, but she was OK. We still saw each other almost every day, played gigs from time to time and we were writing songs for a new album, right up until a couple of months before she died. I was at her bedside when she went.
“We were like brother and sister, we argued, all the usual stuff, but we loved one another and music would always come up, all the things we had to finish. We kept thinking it was going to happen even as we got older and older and her voice was still incredible – how she is not more widely recognised as one of the great British voices of our time is beyond me, it really is.”
And he’s not the only one, which is why the new box set of Shelleyan Orphan’s back catalogue and extras is finally winning them the critical praise that eluded them 30 years ago.
“I hope it’s not a cynical reaction to Caroline’s passing, but there are enough people I trust at the label who assure me it’s not. We’re a strange band, we didn’t ever sound like anyone else and I can’t think of another example of a band that were so well understood and loved by so many people that never translated it into enough to make a living.
“The label wants me to carry on and make the album we were working on, but I’ll have to see. I used to sit with Caroline long into the night and make little notes, personal stuff mainly, but odd words or ideas and some of should make it into songs, but it’s too weird at the moment.”
I wonder if Jem feels Caroline’s presence, or needs to feel it in order to go forward.
“It’s funny, I’ve got this lyric about people that keep telling me they feel her around, so why can’t I? I thought I was too spiritually dense or that I should relax and realise she’s around me all the time, until I went to collect some of her ashes. I went into this teashop we used to go to, but couldn’t face it. So I came out, looked around and there wasn’t a single place that didn’t have some kind of memory of Caroline attached to it, so I went back in and Hot Love came on the radio.
“And that was the Caroline moment. I love Marc Bolan and after we met Caroline really got into him to the extent that years ago she went to a medium and was told that Marc Bolan had a message for her. He told her to do Ride A White Swan not Get It On. This was the night after we’d played in Sheffield and messed around with Get It On as an encore – so unless the medium had been in Sheffield there’s no way he would have know.
“Anyway, that was back then, but hearing T Rex on the radio that day I knew Caroline was with me again and that’s OK… well, it’s not, but it is.”
• Shelleyan Orphan’s box set is released on June 23 by One Little Indian.