NAN VERNON: A BIOGRAPHY



by Matthew Tiller


Nancy Claire Vernon was born in Toronto, Canada on October 7th 1967. Her father was Canadian actor John Vernon (1932-2005), who would later star in films such as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Animal House, and in countless episodes of Hawaii Five-O. Her mother was a model and actress called Nancy West. She had three brothers, Chris, Grant and Jim, and a sister Kate, who would also become a successful Hollywood actress, starring in films like Soft Deceit (1994).

Nan's love of music began at the age of five, with an unusual source of inspiration: Downtown by Petula Clark. She put it on the record player, listened awestruck and told her sister, "I wanna be a singer."

When Nan was eight, the family moved to Los Angeles as John's acting career took off. During her teenage years she discovered, according to an interview in Cosmopolitan magazine) magic mushrooms and the guitar. After she left school, Nan spent five years playing in a Kate Bush-inspired band called Babooshka. The band's other members included Romanian singer-songwriter Greta Ionita, songwriter and keyboardist Marc Simmons, ex-Devo drummer Alan Meyer, and bassist and keyboardist Rick May, who went on to work with many famous artists including Depeche Mode and Michael Jackson. Rick says, "The combination of Nan and Greta's voices was amazingly beautiful. We did lots of local gigs at various art galleries and avante garde clubs (mostly the Lhasa Club in Hollywood) and some university and college performances. At one time, we had several major labels interested in signing us, but it was never to be. Nan was one of the sweetest and most lovely women I've ever met. Everyone was enamoured with her, and rightfully so." Nan once told the Bath Chronicle:

"At first we were singing harmonies with a keyboard and a drum machine. Then it grew to two drummers, three bass players, all on stage together. We were kind of coffee-house strange, I guess."

At one point she took a six-month sabbatical from the group to tour with Andy Summers, the former Police guitarist, before joining ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart's backing band, The Spiritual Cowboys. Their two albums from the early 90s, Dave Stewart & the Spiritual Cowboys and Honest, have a lush pop-rock sound that can be seen as a precursor to the feel of Manta Ray. Nan herself is outstanding on backing vocals and guitar.

Dave encouraged Nan to write her own material, which she recorded on a four-track as the band toured in 1990 and 1991. The tour was valuable experience:

"Dave helped me realise it's the best thing in the world to get out there and enjoy falling flat on your face,"
she would later say.

When Nan first moved to London she stayed at the Garden View Hotel, on Shepherd's Hill, Crouch End, North London (the hotel was recently converted into flats). Thereafter Nan stayed with friends until she moved into a modest one room flat on Topsfield Parade, in Crouch End. Nan could regularly be seen walking through Crouch End, with a leopard-print pill-box hat perched precariously on top of her head.

Nan signed to Anxious Music Publishing (the publishing arm of Anxious Records) and, in between touring and recording commitments with the Spiritual Cowboys, began working on demos of her songs, in Anxious Music's 16 Track studio. This studio was a small, dingy room situated at the rear of the Church building, on Crouch Hill, of which Dave Stewart's Church Recording Studios is a part.

Nan began unfolding her songs with the assistance of Nick Hunt, who handled the majority of the engineering duties on these demo sessions. Musicians who worked on these demos included John Reynolds on drums, Matthew Seligman on bass and Nick Pyall on guitar. These three musicians became the members of Nan's first band.

The songs developed during these demo sessions were: Treasure, Fisherman, Big Picture, Dreams of Men, Manta Ray, Ruby Tuesday (a cover of the Rolling Stones song), Motorcycle, Olympia, Tattoo Tears, Lay Down Joe, No More Lullabyes and the unreleased Back to the Rosary. Black on Black, Rice and Weary of the Walls may also have originated from these sessions.

A main source of inspiration for Nan during this formative period, both musically and personally was Jonathan Perkins, a fellow Spiritual Cowboy who also fronted his own band, Miss World. Jonathan co-wrote several of Nan's songs, namely: Manta Ray, Iron John, Black on Black , Alice Don't Leave by the Fire Escape and Back to the Rosary. In addition to this Jonathan played keyboards, piano and Casio on many of Nan's songs.

Another key collaborator on Nan's songs was B. B. Watkins. This mysterious individual co-wrote Tattoo Tears and Dreams of Men, as well as garnering numerous production, engineering and guitar playing credits on her singles and the Manta Ray album. B. B. Watkins was none other than David A. Stewart, working under a pseudonym.

The Anxious Records scene was Crouch End's answer to the Big Pink (the house where the American group, The Band, lived and created their early music): a point of confluence for an array of musicians, who became like an extended family to one another. They would hang out in the record company's offices, in the studios where their label mates were recording and lig at each other's gigs.

Most of the musicians and songwriters signed to Anxious Records and/or Anxious Music sang and played on one another's songs as well as occasionally co-writing songs with each other. Nan co-wrote Lay Down Joe with Chris Sheehan. Chris was the founder and driving force behind the indie-rock band signed to Anxious Records called Starlings (and has since joined Sisters of Mercy).

Prior to recording the aforementioned demos Nan co-wrote a song entitled My Love with Dave Stewart. This song is a beautiful, haunting ballad and, as far as is known, was only released as a single in the Netherlands, through BMG Records. The song apparently charted and audio-visual footage of Nan and Dave performing My Love on Dutch television exists.

Nan provided secondary vocals on the Starlings song The Last One, which appeared on their debut album Valid and was released as a single. Nan may also have contributed some backing vocals on Miss World's album and rapper JC001's debut album, although this could not be confirmed at the time of writing.

The recording of Nan's album Manta Ray was a protracted adventure and fraught with difficulties. The initial problem was finding a producer who could capture the ethereal, atmospheric qualities with which Nan's songs were imbued. Several producers were tried: Steve Nye (who worked with Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry), Clive Martin, Phill Brown and latterly, Ian Stanley.

The result of these experiments in recording, with this diverse group of producers, was that Manta Ray became a tapestry of songs, with each section of the weave being overseen by a different weaver and the sections finally being stitched together under the watchful eye of Dave Stewart.

In 1992 came Nan's first British single, No More Lullabyes, a beautiful, tragic ballad about a relationship breaking up:

"No more lullabyes
He said with his face in his hands
I'm breaking this contract
And I'm moving to France."
The brilliantly atmospheric accompanying video, directed by Dave Stewart, placed Nan in her imaginary, mythologised version of Paris, rising from her bed as if sleepwalking, while fountains played and manta rays floated through the watery sky.

The single's B-sides were equally splendid: Lay Down Joe (which would later appear on Manta Ray), Alice Don't Leave by the Fire Escape (a dark yet hopeful song about leaving a relationship and striking out on one's own) and the oriental Weary of the Walls.

1993 saw another single - a cover of George Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Though Nan's version is definitely superior to the original - she sensibly omits the ridiculous couplet

"I look at the floor/ And I see it needs sweeping"
- it is still not as good as her own material. The excellent, self- penned B-sides made up for this.

In 1994 came two more singles: Motorcycle, a driving rock song evoking the wonder and freedom of life on the road; and Elvis Waits, a dreamy tune from the edge of sleep about, in Nan's own words, "a hero you can never quite reach".

By now, Nan had recorded enough material for two albums! This was whittled down to the final tracklisting for her debut LP Manta Ray. Promotional copies sent to reviewers met with ecstatic reviews. Tony Kenwright of the Liverpool Daily Post was particularly enthusiastic, calling it

"a record of such rare vision, beauty and intelligence it's a front runner for Record of the Year"
Nan herself described it as being about
"unrequited love, marriages breaking up, those times in a relationship when you know you're going to have to move on into the unknown."

Nan's live performances were also well received; she toured Britain and had a month-long residency at the Garage in Islington. I never saw her myself, but judging by bootlegs of her performances (kindly supplied by Alan Norrington) she was excellent. The elaborate studio soundscapes were replaced by simple, impassioned, guitar-based arrangements. Her set included two songs that have not been recorded as far as we know. They were: It's Decided, a melancholy tune which she introduced as "about a bad relationship"; and The Fugue, a brooding grower.

Sadly, record company scheduling meant that the album was not available until months after the excitement had died down, which, along with lack of promotion and being impossible to categorise, may account for Manta Ray's commercial failure.

A great pity, for the album is everything the critics said and more. Tattoo Tears is a universal song of misery and heartbreak. Fisherman is an other-worldly fantasy about old- fashioned life on the sea. Iron John takes its title from the mythopoetic men's movement, and shows what harm the archetypal strong, silent man can do to his family. And the title track not only describes an alternative world, it creates one through sound.

Possibly disillusioned by low sales, or maybe just because she missed her dogs (she used to phone home to speak to them!), Nan returned to Los Angeles in 1995. She signed to Eastwest Records, which duly released Manta Ray in America. This is where my information becomes sketchy. The British B-side Black on Black seems to have been an American single, since the director of its video, Chris Strohter, won Directorial Debut of the Year at the Music Video Production Awards. The US version has a different arrangement from the UK version, judging by a clip of the video. Nan recorded a beautiful version of Moon River for a compilation of Henry Mancini songs, Shots in the Dark.

American sales of Manta Ray were presumably poor, since Elektra Records dropped her afterwards.

Nan's tour band included experimental, jazzy percussionist Danny Frankel. She returns the favour by playing "unplugged electric guitar" on one track, Evening on Jupiter, from Frankel's own album, New Thing on Jupiter (released 1997 on WIN Records). Nan's guitar is quite low down in the mix, so it's only for absolute completists.

In 1999, Del-Fi released another multi-artist compilation, Delphonic Sounds Today, on which current artists cover songs from Del-Fi's back catalogue. Nan's contribution was a version of The Bobby Fuller Four's A New Shade of Blue - a gorgeous, slow, luscious ballad.

In 2004 Nan contributed a track titled Tiger and Dragon to a multi-artist tribute to Bruce Lee. She is reportedly working on another album now, though her perfectionist instincts may mean that we'll have to wait a while for it!


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