Interview with Simon Mole
Sometimes I think the hardest form of entertainment to create is that which is designed to be family-friendly.
You have to make sure that what you have made resonates with an audience which is…a fair bit younger than you, in most cases. It has to be – for the most part – not too sweary, not too kill-y, not too sex-drugs-and-rocknroll-y, while still not feeling dumbed down or patronising. And it should – if you are worth your salt – be something that doesn’t make parents want to claw their eyes out.
This just makes it all the more impressive when someone comes along and nails it – like poet and rapper Simon Mole. His new show, Friends For All, is on at the Roundhouse this weekend, and we were lucky enough to chat to him this week about why creating work like this is so important.
You started your career on the Brighton hip hop scene – how did you get into hip hop? And what influence would you say the genre (which tends not to be the most PG) has had on the work you do now?
Odd as it sounds, I was a hippy kid with Kurt Cobain curtains and a skateboard who lived off lentils and chickpeas and then discovered I could rap in my teens. Got to shout out Hines, Syntax, HP, Wise and the rest of the massive warriors for allowing an annoying young whippersnapper like me to tag along and learn from them. Looking back the informal mentoring role that those rappers played for me, both creatively and personally, has been a big inspiration for me wanting to work with young people.
And there’s actually a lot of rapping in Friends For All, and it’s really exciting to see how that use of rhythm and rhyme can engage young people, and help them to follow a story.
Why did you start creating work that young people could relate to?
They’re the future! As a parent myself it’s been amazing to have families watch Friends For All and then say that they’ve been going through some of the challenges Lexi faces themselves; peer pressure, having the confidence to be yourself, and the courage to stand up for what you believe in despite what others say or do. These are big things for young people to deal with, so to think that the show on some level might help them work that through is incredible.
Do you think it is important for young people to have access to poetry? And, if so, why? What do you feel it can do for them?
As a professional poet and performer for over a decade now, I have been lucky enough to see and to be part of the emergence and development of countless young writers. Time and again I am moved and inspired by the rapid growth in a young person’s confidence and self-belief when they are supported to creatively express themselves through poetry or rap.
Spoken word, originally at least, used to be primarily performed in small, intimate spaces, surrounded by like-minded people. How was it different the first time you performed in a big venue like the Roundhouse?
Got to be honest here, the show’s on in the studio, not the main space! It will still hold an audience of about 80 (I hope!) but I’m not (yet) on a stadium tour vibe!
That said there is still a difference between spaces like that and much smaller audiences. Regardless of the space I always try to make sure the show feels like a conversation, a genuine two-way exchange – there are some very interactive moments, but even when people are just watching and listening my hope is that they are active watchers and listeners – which is I think part of the beauty of poetry and spoken word, the creative work is left to be done by audiences as they visualise what is being described for them.
How did you come up with the concept for “Friends for All”? And has it been a similar creative process to that of “No More Worries” and “Indiana Jones and the Extra Chair”?
I was originally commissioned to create Friends For All as a show that would accompany the V&A’s exhibition “You Say You Want A Revolution?”, which explored the social and cultural upheaval of the late 1960s through music, performance, fashion and political activism. The show is set in the modern day but draws on this theme. My parents and their friends lived through the era of the 60s, and I believe their world views and personalities were very much shaped by that experience. It’s always been a period of history I’ve heard a lot about and been very inspired by. As a kid of 7 or 8, I just wanted to rebel and protest like they had. My life in middle-class Brighton was pretty good though, so I had to search hard for those opportunities to make my anti-authoritarian values heard...
Two examples come to mind:
1. Me on the balcony with a home-made hand-drawn "Save The Snails!" placard chanting at my dad as he went out to the garden with a bag of salt, ready to commit MURDER!
2. Me on primary school non-uniform day rocking my mum’s culotte trousers, just to prove that boys can wear skirts too! This example is actually, on reflection, a direct link with the show itself!
Our hero is an eight-year-old girl, Lexi, who lives in London. She doesn’t make friends as easily as some. She, like me, longs for a non-school-uniform day so that she can be herself and find others like her. Inspired by her grandad’s hippy stories from the swinging ’60s, she decides to fight the powers that be, namely her class teacher and the school bully.
Sorry, got a bit side-tracked there!
And, speaking of creative process, how do you come up with your own poems? Do they just come to you in bits and pieces, or do you purposefully sit down and ruminate and write them all at once?
It really depends. Very occasionally a whole idea arrives with a splash in my brain almost fully formed, and then I sweat for hours trying to make what I write match up to that original vision. But more usually it’s just the sweating for hours bit without the clarity of what I’m aiming for!
Most of the work that I write for young people, I also write with young people – in the sense that they are either responsible for ‘commissioning’ the poem when I visit their school, or to some degree are directly involved in the writing process, generating ideas or giving feedback and suggestions. I am increasingly certain that I make my best work in collaborative spaces, even if there is then some solo writing time in and around that.
Who have been the biggest influences on your work so far? And what is it exactly that you have taken from them?
I’ve been lucky enough to be mentored at various points by two incredible writers – Aoife Mannix and Roger Robinson. Definitely check them out!
What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to getting kids interested in creating poetry?
Whether I meet young people in a hospital, a rural primary school, a state comprehensive in London, or a young offenders’ institute, a large part of this journey is nurturing the simple but often absent notion that they are interesting people with stories to tell, with valuable ideas and opinions to share. The other element is the encouragement to play with words, the support to ensure those words suggest what is intended, until eventually they can be strung together in a way that makes others sit up and take notice. There is little that is more empowering than the knowledge that you are heard and valued.
What can people expect from “Friends for All”? And what do you have planned next?
I love performing this show - to date this is 39 times and counting. I do enjoy the more light-hearted and funny elements. However, my core motivation is the hope that we can open up space for young people to unlock, imagine, and create for themselves an idea of what they could or may want to change in the world.
People can expect an interactive rap story with incredible video projections, brilliant music and average dancing.
My next full-length show for children and families will be touring spring 2019 – It’s a collaboration with the absolutely awesome musician Gecko, and with that in mind our working title (which may well be our actual title) is “Mole and Gecko: an interactive rap musical spectacular”. But, most likely, with the word “spectacular” removed from the title - once anyone with any sense gets their hands on it. There’s going to be live songs, rap stories, instant poems that the audience make, and a chance to help our unlikely duo (that’s me and Gecko) find a fitting finale for their hilarious and heart-warming tale. A bit like “Flight of the Conchords”, but for kids.
Friends For All is on this Sunday at the Roundhouse, as part of The Last Word Festival - and there are