Cillian Murphy and Ronnie Wood are among the participants in a music project based on letters from soldiers in the trenches of WWI, writes.
Chirs Evans is a Welsh scientific entrepreneur. He received a knighthood back in 2001 for his efforts in discovering new medicines for fatal diseases. He needs money to fund the best of his ideas. He’s got cancer is his sights at the moment.
Four years ago — coincidentally around the time of the centenary of the onset of World War I — Evans saw a connection between the bind cancer sufferers find themselves in, and tribulations faced by young men such as his own grandfather, George Albert, going off to fight in the trenches during the Great War.
Whilst looking at letters, diaries and books written by cancer patients around the world — which are highly emotional things to read — what comes across from reading them is that these people are in a constant state of hardship and survival, facing huge challenges
“For them, it’s repeated battles, ups and downs, good days, bad days. They feel pain. They’re always hurting. They may get a reprieve. They may not. Ultimately, they want to survive. All they think about is their family and loved ones whilst they are battling with this disease.”
Evans adds that when he read a lot of their phrases — for example, ‘I’ve got another battle coming up on Tuesday; I hope I can get through it’ — he realised he’d seen the same words and phrases before in World War I documentation.
Evans — although he’s more familiar with science labs than strumming a guitar — is also a keen musician. The novel idea he came up with was to put those young soldiers’ laments to music. He spent long weeks poring over century-old correspondence — more than 33,500 letters and diaries —of young British, Irish and Canadian soldiers and turned their stories into songs.
He then got a troupe together of unknown, proper musicians and a lead singer to perform some tracks before a few hard-nosed music producers he knew for an assessment. It was nerve-racking.
“If people had said to me, ‘Chris, they’re rubbish. They’re a waste of time. You’re completely deluded’ I would have dropped the project, but they didn’t,” says Evans. “Much to my amazement, I got the opposite reaction. When I played the first ever version of One More Yard to this group of very critical music producers, the main lady amongst them started crying. I thought she’s maybe crying because she absolutely hates the song or she got the same emotional impact I did when I wrote it. Thankfully it was the latter.”
The song ‘One More Yard’ is the first track to be released from a scheduled album of tracks that will be complete within the next six months. The single goes out to coincide with the centenary of Armistice Day (Sunday, November 11). The money raised from the album will go towards Evans’ new cancer awareness charity, the Evamore Project.
The lyrics on the track ‘One More Yard’ — the title of which references the weary battle cry: “Battling one more yard across no man’s land” — are sung by Sinead O’Connor, and feature a who’s who of musicians in support. They include Imelda May on backing vocals, Ronnie Wood on guitar and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason on drums. The cult music producer Brian Eno worked producing instrumentation for a spoken word prologue delivered by Cork actor Cillian Murphy.
Evans was struck by the Rolling Stones guitarist’s love of his instrument: “Ronnie Wood has guitars all over his house. He has hundreds of guitars. You can’t go into a toilet without stumbling across a guitar. If he’s not painting, he’s playing a guitar.”
Before the musicians went into the recording studio, Evans despatched background material: the song, with and without the vocals on it; backing music; as well as letters and cuttings to explain the songs’ backstories. Evans gave the artists free reign to shape the music once they got into studio and he recognised in them the same work ethic that has made him a successful medical scientist and millionaire.
“Nick Mason, for example, is a suburb individual,” says Evans. “Nick listened to at least 10 of the songs for weeks. He thought about them. We picked several of the tracks and he did the drumming on them. He spent two days at the studio and actually stayed overnight, sleeping at the studio. He did song after song after song. There was a lot in it — with drum kits, and the beats, and getting it right, having numerous takes on each track.
“It was a real privilege and an honour to see someone of Nick’s status from Pink Floyd showing genuine honesty and commitment to give it the best he could. He could have said, ‘I’ll do one song, Chris, and that’s it’, but he didn’t. I think he would have done all of them if I hadn’t stopped him.
“It was the same with Sinead O’Connor. Sinead didn’t stroll into the studio and do one take and walk out. She stayed focused for many hours and kept going until she got what she wanted — so John Reynolds the producer could ensure we got the track banged down. I’ve seen that with all of them — real professionals, focused and committed. You can see why they’re successful.”
The young soldier that inspired the lyrics for One More Yard was an Irishman — Lieutenant Michael Thomas Wall who fought with the Royal Irish Regiment. He was a smart, thoughtful scholarship student at UCD. His brother preserved the letters — approximately 90 of them — that he wrote back from the front to their mother in Carrick Hill, close to Malahide in Co Dublin. He was killed at Flanders in June 2017.
I got the impression reading a lot of his letters that he really wasn’t a combat soldier,” says Evans. “He was a really nice Irish lad. He smoked a pipe. He loved his newspapers, sitting in his trenches, reading, thinking, and yet he was there to fight. He had to lead a platoon of men, and constantly sit in the trenches with them, and lead them over the top into battles
“He was a very young lieutenant as well. I was interested in what he was writing. As I followed the letters through I saw they got more and more fractured, more and more scary. You could see more fear coming through. There was a hardness appearing in this young boy because of what World War One was doing. Sadly it ended when he got killed going over the top and making his way to the German line.”
For more information about the Evamore project and One More Yard, see: www.evamore.co.uk.