I once stayed in a place called the Ojai Valley Inn, Ventura County, an hour and a half or so north of Los Angeles. I was on a 'beekeeping experience', get me, attending pastry classes and being cooked-for by award-winning chefs. A glossy magazine was picking up the tab. I swam in several different pools, gazing out through oaks at hacienda-style magnificence. California as it once was, bohemian and cool. The little town below was a honeyed huddle of artists, artisans and musicians. Nordhoff Ridge loomed large over the settlement's north edge. To the south, the wonder and mystery of Sulphur Mountain. I could easily imagine it as it used to be. I knew why people came here.
The Ojai Valley was once the home of the Chumash Indians. Remains of Amerindian colonies there date back ten thousand years. They rooted there because they believed that they had found a place of mystical powers and eternal energy. To them, the valley was sacred. To many, it still is.
Ojai, they'll tell you, is a vortex. Some unknown force concentrates energy there. It's a kind of Bermuda Triangle in reverse, if you will. It gives rather than takes, and it gives in abundance. The mountain range runs east to west instead of north to south, for one thing, offering protection from geological tremors. The mountain rock glistens with quartz, itself believed to exude unearthly vibrations. The 'Pink Moment', attracting thousands of sightseers every year, occurs when the sunset slashes the sky with sparkling brilliance over the Topatopa bluffs, six thousand feet above sea level. It's hard to conjure the beauty of that image in simple words. Go, see.
'Ojai' means 'The Nest', or 'The Valley of the Moon'. Michael Armstrong found himself cocooned there in 2018, on a songwriting retreat. He returned home to England, explains the seasoned singer-songwriter, a 'different person'. Inspired by the landscape, that settlement and its unusual people, and electrified by a magic that all who trek there struggle to define, he sat down to write a collection of songs unlike anything he had attempted before.
The result is called, what else, 'Ojai'. I have been driving around listening to it for several weeks. Michael, in his domestic nest, reached for and made it to the valley of the moon. If I had categorised him sometimes as 'right artist, right song, wrong time and place', I willingly retract. Here are a dozen compositions from a rejuvenated heart. These are my favourites: 'Each Other's Eyes', 'Facebook Fame', 'Ordinary Woman', 'The Lockdown' and the title track. Armstrong shies not away from the pointy, itchy subjects, but goes hell for leather and beyond, firing on four. All those timeless childhood influences infuse and inform as they have always done, but. This is different. Leaning away from the music embedded in his gums, and listening to the echoes in his head, he has found his courage. His voice. His Pink Moment.
OJAI, the new album by Michael Armstrong, released 25th June 2021