Find the groove

When it comes to songwriting, residents of a Hull homelessness hostel know the score

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In and out of the makeshift music room they stream, laughing and joking, helping themselves to drinks and sandwiches from the table. It’s a hot day and everyone’s in high spirits. No one stays still for long.

I’m wondering how this is going to work. But Brian Irvine (picture) doesn’t seem fazed. He’s been running these songwriting workshops at the Crossings, a homeless hostel in central Hull, for a couple of months now. He’s a composer; he knows the score. When he dishes out blank paper and pens, those who’ve just come for the snacks head for the door. “So, what do you want to write about today?” he asks those who are left.

Someone suggests the weather, someone else her dog. But it soon becomes clear that what they’d really like to write about, what’s been on everyone’s mind all week, is the terror attack at the Manchester Arena.

There’s a brief discussion and then it’s heads down for some serious writing. Apart from the odd word of encouragement from Irvine, the room is quiet. After 10 minutes or so, the pages of lyrics are stacked together and reassembled on the whiteboard. It’s already starting to look like a song. They discuss mood and tempo: something sad and mellow obviously.

Darren, nearest the board, has a go at singing. He hesitates a bit at first but then finds his voice. “The crowd cheers. She sings, now the heartache…’” Brian matches him with minor chords on his keyboard. And we’re off.

“I want to show them how easy it is to make music,” Irvine tells me later. “It’s just listening to the sounds of words. As soon as they say it or sing it, I try to capture it. Then that becomes a thing you can move on from.”

“People come up with very beautiful things, very personal things – things you couldn’t invent.”

His three-month residency at the Crossings is part of the much wider New Music Biennial initiative by the Performing Rights Society Foundation and Hull City of Culture. One of five composers bringing music to different community settings in the city, Irvine has also been working with primary schoolchildren and elderly residents at a housing association. But the sessions at the Crossings, he says, have been particularly rich.

“When it comes to songs, these people can write really interesting stuff because of their experience. People come up with very beautiful things, very personal things – things you couldn’t invent.”

In other circumstances, he says, writing about the Manchester bombing so soon after the event might not be “a road you want to go down”. But here it makes sense. The residents know something about pain and loss.

After we’ve tweaked the song a bit – I’ve been co-opted onto guitar – I get talking to Darren, whose bluesy melody had started it all off. He used to play music a lot when he was younger, including in a Jimi Hendrix tribute band.

“That was in my twenties,” he says. “Then you get married, settle down, wife moves out. I’d not touched a guitar for years until I came here.”

Earlier this year, a recurring illness cost him his zero-hours contract job. With no way of paying the rent, he was forced to sofa surf until the Crossings found him a place. Now he’s slowly rebuilding his confidence.

“The staff are very helpful,” he says. “It’s a good safe zone to be in. There’s always someone on reception. You don’t feel vulnerable. I’m working with my key worker, looking into properties with other agencies. It’s a foundation for me.”

Music is bringing normality back to his life. “At my lowest point, I joined the music group, picked a guitar up and, I don’t know, it’s done something for me. It’s inspired me, made me feel good about myself. Some people go in the gym. I like listening to music.”

As with almost everywhere in Britain, homelessness in Hull is on the rise. Precarious employment and insecure private tenancies mean that many, like Darren, are only a missed pay packet away from losing their homes. Sleeping bags in shop doorways – sometimes within a stone’s throw of public spaces expensively refurbished for City of Culture – have never seemed so prevalent.

Yet, claims Alan Marples, area manager at Riverside Housing, which runs the hostel, Hull is doing better than most, because of good provision in places like the Crossings. The centre, he says, was rebuilt in 2011 as part of Places for Change, an initiative by the former Labour government to help rough sleepers make the transition into a settled home, training or employment.

“[The service is] person centred,” he says. “We work with someone for three months, stabilise them, get them used to staff, build up confidence. From three to six months, we start working on lots of issues and then see if they’re ready to move on.”

Preparing residents for life outside involves looking at range of bread-and-butter issues, from housing to health. But the shelter also aims to bring people who have been disenfranchised and devalued back into society again. It runs voter registration sessions as well as social events like quizzes.

“You get a sense of community here,” says Danielle, who provides staff support in the music workshops. “They all have different problems but they all have one thing in common: they live here and they’re homeless. They can build on that to help each other.”

As a former Crossings resident herself, Danielle knows just what that mutual support can do. When she first came here, she was a he.

“I moved in as a bloke and I transitioned,” she says. “Being in the hostel gave me the base to do it. I didn’t have to worry about where I was sleeping. I didn’t have to worry about how to pay the rent, how I was going to eat. My support worker was fantastic. She got me in touch with a decent GP. From that point on, I was able to get the support I needed.”

Fully accepted by the residents, Danielle is taking part in Riverside’s GROW programme, a paid apprenticeship scheme to enable former service users to learn vital work skills and put their experience back into the hostel. In her spare time, she runs a global support network for homeless trans people.

So what has all this got to do with songwriting? Marples thinks it’s about resilience.

“If you’re feeling happy about yourself, if you’re enjoying singing or being in a group, you’ve got a positive mind set,” he says. “That by itself won’t change anyone’s life but it can boost self-worth when you’re in difficult circumstances.”

Irvine, whose career has taken him from thrash metal bands in Belfast bedrooms to writing orchestral settings for Seamus Heaney poems, puts it even more succinctly. “Being in a band is the best sense of togetherness you can have.”

By the end of the session, the Crossings crew is starting to find the groove. Running through the song one last time, Maureen lays down a solid beat on the conga, Darren, Danielle and Rae are doing a grand job on vocals, I’ve almost mastered the barre chords and Irvine’s piano is holding it all together. People start milling around the room again. But they’re not shouting or joking around now, just listening.

At the end, someone says: “That was ace. Really moving.” Maybe he’ll be back next time to join in.

PRS Foundation’s New Music Biennial culminates in a series of specially commissioned performances between 30 June and 2 July. For further details, visit Photo: Thomas Arran

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