Musician Jon Gomm and the Leeds charity giving people at end of their lives the chance to write and record a 'swan song'

Musician Jon Gomm has become an ambassador for Leeds-based charity The Swan Song Project. Laura Reid speaks to him about the impact of its work.

“It’s hard sometimes to go up to somebody and say ‘i love you’,” muses musician Jon Gomm. “And yet there’s millions of songs saying exactly that in the most heartfelt outpouring ways you could possibly imagine.

“They’re saying things you would never probably actually sit down with somebody and say in words because it would come across really strange. But what a song does is give you the freedom to say the things you would really want to say if only it wouldn’t feel awkward or difficult.”

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The Saltaire-based musician is speaking in his new role as the first ambassador for Leeds-based charity The Swan Song Project.

Ben Buddy Slack, founder of The Swan Song Project, with the charity's first ambassador Jon Gomm.

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As its name suggests (a swan song is a person’s last piece of work, performance or achievement), the charity gives people facing the end of their lives - and the loved ones surrounding them - the opportunity and support to write and record their own original song.

It’s an idea so simple, but one that makes a powerful impact on not only the individuals writing the songs but those who can listen to them for years to come. “It means that a person can leave a legacy, a memory, that loved ones can then visit, and listen to,” Gomm says.

“The other side is for the person who has written the song. They can say things that are there forever, things that sum up how they feel about life almost…It’s a really amazing legacy to have.”

The Swan Song Project grew from an idea by founder and musician Ben Buddy Slack. His community work has seen him run songwriting workshops in settings including mental health facilities and prisons.

But he started the charity in 2017 by working with people at the Marie Curie Hospice in Bradford. It was prompted by a feeling of regret after losing his grandma, that he did not record the two of them singing together.

The charity’s early days involved working with people in hospices across Leeds and Bradford. It has since made its service available virtually and has written songs with people all over the country and in a wide range of circumstances surrounding end of life and bereavement.

The Swan Song Project has worked with people in the early stages of a terminal diagnosis and those facing their final days, as well as with loved ones processing and immediate bereavement, or the loss of a loved one several years down the line.

“What music can do is offer a way to talk about things through a third party and that third party is song,” Gomm says. “It feels like you can say things that you otherwise might not say and that’s why people write songs.”

Feedback from those who the charity has worked with suggests exactly that. Many report how the process has helped them to articulate and communicate their feelings in a way they may not otherwise have done and how it has helped them come to terms with their situation, whilst having fun in the process.

“We are a very small charity at the moment, but we have big ambitions,” Slack says. “We believe everyone should have the chance to leave a song for their loved ones, and we want to be able to support as many people as possible to do this.”

This is where Gomm’s ambassador role comes in. Music has been in his bones from being a tot. Gomm “demanded” a guitar for Christmas at the age of just two and whilst growing up in Blackpool, his father, a journalist and music critic for a local newspaper, would take him to a number of gigs. He went on to attend The Guitar Institute in London, then Leeds Conservatoire and from there began self-releasing music.

Gomm’s acoustic solo performances and virtuoso guitar style has seen him sell thousands of copies of his albums and tour across the world. But, of course, those live performances ground to a halt during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Not having that actual real time reaction to what I was doing made me feel completely empty and like what I was doing was worthless and it was very hard,” he says. “I felt at one point I’d never play again. The pandemic was affecting my mental health so badly as well that I thought if it ends, I won’t be fit to play.”

Thankfully, it was not the case. He was back on the road again at the end of last year and was approached about becoming the first The Swan Song Project ambassador earlier this year. Gomm has made a promotional video for the charity and is talking about it “as much as I can”.

He plans to tie in a song release in with raising money and awareness and also hopes to get stuck in to help people with the songwriting process. “I’m quite scared of doing it, I get so emotionally involved with people, but I really want to,” he says. “It’s just such an honour for writers who work with The Swan Song Project to be able to help somebody and the process they go through with somebody is so personal.”

Gomm, who performs at Holmfirth Arts Festival on May 28, appeared as a guest on an episode of the charity’s podcast in 2020. He was asked to share a song that was meaningful to him and in some way related to bereavement. He chose Tempest by White Moth, Black Butterfly, which he says helped him to cope with the death of his stepfather from cancer.

Gomm covered the song on his most recent album The Faintest Idea and earlier this year filmed an exclusive world-first performance of the track at The Swan Song Project studio.

Music also proved to be a particularly powerful tool for Gomm after the death of his songwriter friend, Jonny Walker.

“He left a legacy of songs. And one of those in particular took on a completely different significance for me after he died and I actually play that now at my gigs. That helps me deal with things and I feel like he’s communicating something really important through that song.”

He adds: “It was hard after he died to listen to his music. But it was also necessary and there were times when I felt if I was able to watch a video of him singing and playing, it would be hard whilst I was doing it but afterwards I would feel huge relief and a huge re-connection with him.

“Not relief where you give something up and forget about it, it’s the opposite, a relief from the pain because you feel like you’ve got a bit of that person back.”

On this level, Gomm can empathise with many of the families that The Swan Song Project supports. “One aspect of grief is that as a lot of time passes, feelings can change and instead of the intensity of the loss, it can start to get less and that can feel bad,” he says. “You don’t want memories to fade.

“To have something to go back and listen to, to really remember a person and their personality is really special. The feedback the charity gets is not only about people having a really joyful experience (writing and recording a song) in a difficult time but also about having something that can last for years and years.”

Visit www.swansongproject.co.uk