Love Letter To A Record: Howlite’s Ben & Alison On Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged In New York’

Many of us can link a certain album to pivotal moments in our lives. Whether it’s the first record you bought with your own money, the chord you first learnt to play on guitar, the song that soundtracked your first kiss, the album that got you those awkward and painful pubescent years or the one that set off light bulbs in your brain and inspired you to take a big leap of faith into the unknown – music is often the catalyst for change in our lives and can even help shape who we become.

In this series, Music Feeds asks artists to reflect on their relationship with music and share with us stories about the effect music has had on their lives.

Here are their love letters to records that forever changed their lives.

Howlite’s Ben & Alison – Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York

Dear Nirvana Unplugged in New York,

It seems a little strange writing to you, for two reasons. The first being that I was only two years old when you were released. The second reason is that, as albums go, you are a strange beast. You were released as a compromise from Krist and Dave shortly after Kurt’s passing – a memorialised setlist of B-sides, covers and acoustic arrangements in lieu of a “best of” for devastated fans. For me, listening to your songs now is like hearing a ghost; it’s as close as I will ever get to experiencing the grunge phenomenon in its heyday, like an echo that will never quite match its original source. I wasn’t there, I don’t know you in the way that people who were there did. I can only imagine.

So I guess I’m also writing to you on behalf of my guitarist, Ben, who was there, and suggested this album to get to know you. He’s a little older than me, and was a teen in the 90’s – that bizarre world of MTV, Smash Hits magazines, chain wallets, leggings and Beavis and Butthead …stuff that seems very familiar to me yet very distant at the same time. I was there, but, I wasn’t there. It wasn’t my world in the way it was his. And I know the album meant a lot to him as a kid growing up in a new country, that Nirvana were a symbol of the misfit kids and the outsiders, finally getting their chance to be heard.

He has often told me that seeing your songs played on that MTV stage – adorned in lilies, candles and chandeliers like a church funeral – was a moment he would never forget. The hitherto cool, nonchalant exterior of the band was stripped down to expose a true inner self, demons and all. You were raw, naked, vulnerable. It was in that moment that Ben was able to truly understand the essence of your sound, your influences, your fears and your loves. There, he discovered the modest heart of Nirvana, a band of kids who were simply doing what they loved, and somehow defined a generation.

An accidental masterpiece, you remain a time capsule – a glimpse into Kurt’s state of mind so close to the end of his journey. Lines from cover songs become autobiographical in their delivery, Kurt’s voice cracks with emotion, or fear, or fatigue. Unplugged was a humble offering to audiences, a small fragment of light that exposed the softly spoken, sometimes frail and shy Kurt – through the commercial irony of MTV of all places. An artist who chose to hide behind a persona of “rock n’ roll”, protected by his erratic on-stage behaviour, amplifier and effects pedals (which he used even with his acoustic guitar, like an aural safety blanket), Unplugged was Kurt finally letting his guard down.  There was nowhere to hide on this album.

You were recorded in one take. Listening to the set in its entirety, the magnitude of this feat becomes apparent. As someone who has grown up recording digitally, the idea of committing anything directly onto something physical is terrifying and overwhelming. To do so in front of a live audience, recorded and documented for the world to hold forever, is a concept that would launch me into a spiral of anxiety, and I know Kurt felt much the same way in the lead up to the recording. “I guarantee I will screw this song up”, he drawls in his laconic north-western accent before launching into a flawless rendition of Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. The song ends to rapturous applause. Kurt acknowledges how well the song went – “but here’s another one I can screw up!” he quips, before ‘Pennyroyal Tea’.

This is your realness. your ability to be frail and vulnerable in front of your audience. I knew the bones of Kurt’s backstory, in the way that all musicians are vaguely aware of the tragic deaths of their peers and idols; this is an industry fraught with drugs, alcohol, depression, isolation and the oppressive threat of failure that looms like an impending guillotine. It’s not surprising so many of us die young, or by our own hand, though this knowledge doesn’t make the loss any less difficult to process. Discovering Nirvana’s music much later than the Kurt legend makes his torment and passing all the more saddening, and on this album particularly, I can see why his fans and the larger music community mourned him so resolutely.

Unplugged in New York felt like a true turning point for Nirvana. The strength of their writing and talent became apparent in the absence of the extra noise. We were granted brief access into Kurt’s head, and audiences en masse suddenly realised the magnitude of talent he possessed. Through you, I realise the value in tenderness, in connecting with your emotions and honouring your instincts and your ideals. You defied people’s opinions, you played by your own rules and you remained dignified and refined throughout. Nirvana’s appearance on Unplugged laid bare Kurt’s biggest fears and perceived failings, and the wider world was finally able to fall in love with Nirvana, and with Kurt, in the way that Ben and countless other kids had. It’s a tragic story with an amazing soundtrack. Thank you for staying behind with us.

Ben and Alison, Howlite.

Howlite’s stunning new single ‘Orchestra’ is out now. Give it a spin below.

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