The Swan Song Project: The charity leaving legacies, celebrating lives and making memories

Closely connected to the intense processes of human emotion, both positive and negative, music is considered a powerful tool the world over. In a recent interview, Nieve O'Donnell spoke with Ben Slack to discover how his Leeds-based charitable project, The Swan Song, harnesses this connection to help members of the community through some of their most challenging times.

It is an indisputable fact that music is powerful in creating memories with those you love and connecting to others be it through sharing a song, playing instruments together, or attending a live show. The Swan Song Project, by allowing people facing the end of their lives or dealing with a bereavement to write and record an original song, is proof that music holds a sonic legacy of human connection that is able to transcend illness, death, and hardship, and is working to quell the stigmas associated with loss and grief. In an interview with Ben Slack, the project’s affable founder explores the charity’s success, how it has been shaped by his local music scene, the adaptations taken during the pandemic, as well as the importance of musicianship and songwriting.

From its humble beginnings in Leeds only three years ago, the whirlwind success of The Swan Song Project is, undeniably, the result of an inspirational person who has brought an incredible idea to life. In a short amount of time, Ben Slack and the beloved charity have amassed a huge amount of support; including funding from the National Lottery, nominations for awards such as the Heart of the Community, being shortlisted for the People’s Choice Awards, as well as a finalist for the Virgin Media Local Legends Award. After only meeting him the night before, Radio DJ Chris Evans even generously donated twenty-five thousand pounds to the cause, as well as inviting Slack to appear on his Virgin Radio show stating that he “didn’t know how anyone hadn’t thought of it before.” Now looking to expand nationally, it seems as though the timing could not have been more perfect to be “celebrating lives, making memories and leaving legacies,” as Slack so deftly puts it.

“Inclusivity of music was the way we were brought up everyone has a song in them, and it’s joyful giving people those songs even at the end of life.”

In the initial stages of the project, Slack described how he knew almost instinctively that people would connect with the idea. Sharing music with his grandmother as she neared the end of her life, the soon-to-be founder realised how special that moment was, and how treasured a recording of it would have been a token of the joyous times spent with someone they now deeply miss. Learning how to operate the charity as a business almost single-handedly, followers were accrued through their newly-marketed social media platforms. However, Slack describes the remarkable reality of a project that required very little concentration on publicity as the public resonated immediately with the idea, instilled a sense of personal belief in the project, and allowed it to flourish at the fast-paced rate it has.

Without the emotional connection and the personal inspiration behind his work however, Slack recognises how difficult it would have been to promote the charity’s work, as well as deal with the challenging process of losing those who had participated. Though he explains that the difficulties of loss are aided by the fact that “the whole project is a positive thing,” and ultimately, “music has the ability to lift anyone’s mood.” In nurturing relationships with those who partake in the project, “songwriting acts as a fast-track to friendship,” and also help Slack to deal with the loss that follows. In completing what he set out to do, helping those dealing with grief, as well as those approaching the end of life, his selfless actions emphasise the importance of his work in dealing with bereavement.

Reflecting on the project's humble beginnings, Slack speaks of the pivotal role of the local Leeds music scene in the shaping of the Swan Song Project. Growing up in the city, and into a vivaciously musical Irish family, he began playing the guitar before making music with family members, and eventually starting a band of his own. The Blind Dead McJones Band have since gone on to capture thousands with their playful stage presence and upbeat ditties; even creating a stage gag centred around the idea that their front man, Blind Dead McJones, has consistently failed to show up to gigs since some time in the 1900’s.

In a similar vein, the band’s records are both innovative, insightful, and hilarious, and make for a live atmosphere unrivalled for miles around. The band’s Yog-Rock album, for instance, explores the almost contradictory, but surprisingly interconnected themes of zen and rock ‘n’ roll. Some of their songs are instead accompanied by equally amusing ritualistic, percussion-driven dances. Both dramatic and awe-inspiring, Slack’s playful approach to song-writing, which has always centred around music and it’s wider impact, has clearly imprinted on the Swan Song Project as he hopes to make the lyrical and generic possibilities endless for those that participate.

Despite the trials and tribulations posed by the pandemic, Slack’s hard work is testament to the power of one inspiring individual, the creative industries, and the importance of their preservation.’

The anniversary of the Swan Song Project was held at local Leeds venue, Northern Guitars Bar, where the band have held previous residencies, and believe perfectly celebrates the importance of the local. “Inclusivity of music was the way we were brought up”, he explains jovially, “everyone has a song in them, and it’s joyful giving people those songs even at the end of life.” It was uncertain, at the beginning of the pandemic, whether the work of the Swan Song Project would continue, even at a time when their work could be most crucial. But not only has the charity adapted brilliantly by offering one-to-one virtual Swan Song sessions, Slack has also began to offer organise sessions with affiliate artists.

Hopefully, through such expansion, the Swan Song Project will be able to create more opportunities for artists and musicians in both the Leeds area and beyond. In a newly precarious world where an unlikely pandemic has seen jobs in the arts become challenged and insecure, this is a major accomplishment for a small locally-based charity. In the future and as the charity expands, Slack hopes to host more, both virtual and in-person sessions, with the main goal of making songwriting a more accessible and less daunting prospect for everyone.

England’s first national lockdown also allowed Slack to put into force a shiny new Swan Song Project podcast. Revealing once again how remarkably resonant the project is, its mighty leader reached out to both local and international musicians to discuss their experiences with grief or loss. As well as asking guests to discuss their own songs and how they were written, he encourages them to share a songwriting tip that could be useful to both new and aspiring songwriters, along with a song that is meaningful to them in a way relating to bereavement. From the enigmatic folk/punk heavyweight Frank Turner to the frontman of Marsicans, Slack has covered a whole host of musicians from multiple genres, and highlighted the far-reaching and impactful work of the Swan Song Project.

When asked whether the project had changed or affected his personal approach to songwriting, Slack explains that it has given him a far fuller understanding of the process; even the silly songs that he enjoys writing and performing so much. In affording him the opportunity to collaborate with other musicians, the project has also exemplified the importance of sharing ideas with others, no matter their level of experience. The most crucial component though, he explains, is that everyone seems to connect with music on some level; whether it be a movie soundtrack that particularly resonated, or an old folk song that one might remember from their youth.

Despite the trials and tribulations posed by the pandemic, Slack’s hard work is a testament to the power of one inspiring individual, the creative industries, and the importance of their preservation. The Swan Song Project is a local and national beacon at this time, wholly deserving of a spotlight, and shaping the experiences of individuals daily through the power of music. How truly lucky we are to live in a world where we can all be offered the gift of a song to celebrate the lives of those we love.

Written by: Nieve O'Donnell

Edited by: Louise Dugan

Article images courtesy of The Swan Song Project via Facebook.