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> > > Karen Sheader: Planet of the Blind

Karen Sheader interview

A close-up of middle aged woman

Singer Karen Sheader

Joe McConnell talks to musician Karen Sheader about her latest release and discovers some of the history of the disability arts movement in the North East.

Tell us about the making of Planet of the Blind. It has a very different style to that of the Fugertivs' CD.

Before the group split up, we were about to record a second Fugertivs album: more orchestrated and arranged than the rather bold trashy style of the first album. So we had a handful of songs together and then the band split up. The songs got put on hold, as I didn't have any musicians to play with for quite some time. I started jamming with Scotty (Mark Scott) and Del (Derek Mathews). The collaborative relationship between the three of us has been magic, considering it just started on Sunday nights when the three of us met up to get pissed and record cover versions. We just got bored with that and started cooking up proper songs.

They are better musicians with a far gentler style. So the range we were able to include was better. A couple of the songs were already written. Scotty composed the tune for All for the Best, which was our first proper song. The others are collaborations between either me and Del or me and Scotty. I now had more freedom and scope as I didn't have to worry about the range being limited or being stuck to a punky /trashy style. I've grown up as well and believe that you can deliver a message in lots of different ways.

There is a strong element of storytelling in Planet of the Blind - as in All for the Best, for example.

That's what I like doing. I've been writing for years before I started writing songs, mainly children's stories and short stories. I started to write stories like narrative poems, where the meter was so tight that they had more the rhythm of songs than of poems. I didn't think they were esoteric enough to be poems. I gathered anecdotes from different people I met and different groups I worked with. The things that stayed with me were stories like that of Sharon in All for the Best and Tess in Song for Tess. And if something stays with me for a while it tends to find its way into a song.

Some of the songs on Planet of the Blind are very visual. Is there any crossover here with your work as a filmmaker?

I am very involved in making films. I run Shoot Your Mouth Off Del is a filmmaker as well as a musician and we often work together. I've begun to think more visually - like through the lens of a camera I suppose, as well as in a literary sort of way. This has been good for me because I think I would tend to think in more abstract ways. I've also learnt to leave more space for the music.

You have said that Ian Stanton inspired you as an artist and activist.

In 1993, I went to see The Ghetto, a disability arts cabaret at the Buddle Arts Centre. Prior to that, I was always wont to say that I'm a writer who happens to be disabled. I wasn't politicised really. But when I went to see this cabaret - particularly the performance of Ian Stanton I just thought that this was a fabulous way of expressing yourself. I was taken by the song that talks about being a quiet little crip without a chip. It was revolutionary but in a really gentle way. It felt like coming home. That's why it was gratifying to have performed in the same Buddle Arts Centre 11 years later.

Tell us something about your journey as an artist?

The revelation of this is what I'm supposed to do didn't happen all at once. I made mistakes along the way. I organised a cabaret where I got a group of people with learning difficulties up on stage banging tambourines and singing fucking Beatles' songs. It wasn't until I spoke to Colin Cameron who explained to me why that wasn't our brief really. I still couldn't understand and was saying Look these are people who never have a chance to be on stage to which he replied Yeah but you're never going to change anything… you have to do stuff that is going to alter people's opinions and perceptions.

After that conversation, I felt really embarrassed. The penny dropped. And he also said to me that it wouldn't be in our lifetime. And that's where the song Not In Our Lifetime comes from. Unless we all keep chipping away, the change in people's opinions and perceptions is not going to happen.

So I started doing original stuff with Niall Raftery (my then boyfriend). I also started to work for Tyneside Disability Arts and set up a drama and music group in Sunderland. We developed quite a few new songs there - Bollocks was one of them - and worked on subversive sketches with characters with names like Councillor Talk-Tosh.

The material we were producing fell into the hands of the Sunderland Social Services Department. They were absolutely appalled and told the people with learning difficulties in our group that if they continued to be associated with Tyneside Disability Arts then their support in terms of transport to our meetings (etc.) would be withdrawn. So effectively I was working with a group of twelve people and suddenly there was only two of us left. It became part of the folklore, you know - our material was so subversive, we had a project closed down by Social Services. But I felt really crap about it because all those people had lost the opportunity to perform and be involved in something that they really liked.

That's how The Fugertivs got their name. We were fugitives from Sunderland Social Services. We were incredibly successful, in the late nineties, as there wasn't anything else like that happening. Johnny Crescendo had said the Disability Arts scene was sick of one man and his guitar. I think this was true as we eventually sold around 600 Fugertivs CDs and performed in Birmingham and Manchester and beyond.

After the Fugertivs broke up, I kept on working in Disability Arts with a number of drama groups. I set up Shoot Your Mouth Off and so started a new strand to my career - film acting. We made quite a few films and are about to make another if we can get the money together. It is based on the Disability Arts scene and a band called The Renegades. Some of the story is based on my experiences with The Fugertivs, including the band's violent end. There was a bit of me that felt I was on stage singing songs about not letting people oppress you and this kind of stuff and then I go off stage and I've got this guy shouting and screaming at me and calling me a fucking stupid piece of shit and stuff like that. I just thought you're a hypocrite, Karen, and this was the main reason why I packed it in.

Tell us about the film Killer Cure

It was written and directed by Steve Carolan from Carpet Films, and based on that ridiculous assertion made by Glen Hoddle about people being disabled as a result of sins they committed in a former life. The character that I play in the film - Glenda Hobble - believes this crap. And she goes around kidnapping disabled people in order to cure them of their disability with hammers, axes, holy water, chainsaws and leeches. In the end, three disabled people overcome her and escape.

It's only a short film but it's been to festivals all over the world. I sent it to Channel 4 and was told it was a gore fest and that we had far too much blood in it and people would be turned off by it. The gore is clearly cartoon gore. In one scene I saw somebody's head off with a hacksaw and someone pointed out that I had it the wrong way around!

C4's decision sounds ridiculous. How many films are there made by disabled artists within the disability arts framework?

People find the film extraordinarily beautiful. We spent an awful lot of money and effort on it getting the lighting right and making sure we took the time to make it all look as classy as possible. The characters with speech impairments and cerebral palsy were fantastic in these roles. The subtitling is done in synchronization with their speech, so you can't read the subtitle and say oh fucking get on with it. I think it kind of dignifies the whole thing.

I think C4 wasn't brave enough to screen it. It is broadcast quality and I haven't given up hope. It's just that you lose the momentum after 2 years. We are still promoting it through Northern Film and Media. They thought it was brilliant and on the back of that they are hopefully going to part-fund our next production.

You also said that you had conducted a survey about disability arts in Sunderland, and found that there weren't any. Has this changed?

It was a research project for Tyneside Disability Arts a number of years ago. There still isn't any - possibly because of that attitude which allows social service departments to close down projects. That wouldn't have happened in Wallsend, which is where TDA was based, because they actively support the disability arts movement. Hartlepool Council are certainly more open-minded as well. They employ me as an arts and advocacy worker. The stuff we do some times is pretty full on. We did a show a couple of years ago called Idiots Breed Idiots about eugenics, and they were very supportive. But disability arts in Sunderland is another story.

Tell us about the impact of disability on your art?

When I first started, I didn't view myself as a disabled artist but rather an artist with a disability. I was kind of quite strident and very much out to prove I'm just as good as you. I no longer feel the need to keep making that assertion. Since I became a wheelchair user, in a funny way, I've gained more confidence. I feel I've completely joined the mass of disabled people. I think before there was always something holding me back.

That's why the song Planet of the Blind at the beginning of the album is fairly angry. Later on, Planet of the Blind (Reprise) with its beautiful guitar playing is much more accepting. I'm saying you're not going to patronise me with your fake smile, but I'm not screaming and shouting about it. I feel calmer. I had a limp before I broke my leg, but I always had a foot in the non-disabled camp in my head. In spite of my commitment to Disability Arts, there was part of me, which still felt sort of apart from either culture. Now I identify completely as disabled and it feels good.

People are amazed when I say I'm happier now than I ever was and say how can you be - you've lost the use of your leg? I can't explain to them - I just am. Sometimes I wonder whether my attractiveness as a sexual partner has diminished because I use a wheelchair. This is where Mr Drop Dead Gorgeous comes from. Disabled people do battle with this all the time. But this is the only way I might feel at a disadvantage really.

Plans, hopes, dreams …?

I'd love to travel with the guys and perform in the US where I believe - I'm not really sure - there is a strong disability arts scene. I'd like to do another album. When I first started writing I wrote a whole load of children's stories. I've recently found an illustrator. I'd love to become a published children's writer and go into schools and do writing workshops. There's not enough lifetimes for all the things I want to do. I really would love to have a purpose-built arts centre for disabled people in my town. I know this may sound like segregation but a lot of people, especially people with learning difficulties, say they can't find places where they feel welcome. It would be great to have our own territory.

Speaking of this, I hear artists talking about disability arts as a ghetto they want to move out of. What are your feelings about this?

Disability Arts can be a ghetto and we can just end up playing and performing to each other. I think that sometimes this is a really good feeling. I remember performing at a disability arts cabaret once and feeling I never wanted this night to end. I felt so much at home there and so valued. But there is always the question of preaching to the converted and I think we need to do both. I think we should maintain our own culture and hold our own cabarets where we experience that sense of identification with each other. But I also think we need to be less confrontational about the way we present our art .

Paul Darke wrote a piece in DAIL magazine last year about disability arts going down the u-bend. I sort of understand, but really disagree when he says we shouldn't have any notion of a quality bar, because I think it's too easy for people to say Oh yeah but isn't that good for disabled people? I think if people are paying to see or hear your work they deserve to get a decent product.

As disabled artists, we need to be a movement, a collective or whatever it is in order to have a stronger voice. The Disability Arts Forums have done tremendous work in creating opportunities for artists. I feel if they are not supported and the Disability Arts movement dies then this is going to be a backward step because the opportunities wouldn't be there without them.

Where to see Karen

Karen will be playing at The Head of Steam on 3rd December in Liverpool, as part of the upcoming NWDAF festival.