Emma Ballantine

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I'll build this all for you: a note on Flying Machine

One for all those who've ever asked what the song is about

Roughly two years ago I recorded a song called Flying Machine, telling the story of a man with a lifelong ambition to be able to fly. It was one of those songs that just wrote itself in a burst of creative energy one afternoon. The moment I imagined a man falling in love with the sky, I knew exactly how the song would go.

However, I'd been stockpiling the ingredients for the song for a while. Undoubtedly the style owes more than a little to one of my songwriting idols, Suzanne Vega, and her beautiful ballad, The Queen and the Soldier. I love the tragedy of that story: the intense way in which the two people share their hidden desires, and the shocking ending that follows.

I often get asked whether Flying Machine is a tragedy too, or whether its hero really does achieve what he sets out to. It's fascinating how differently people interpret the song, so I always ask what they think before giving them my view.

A small minority have said they think the song ends tragically. They see it as a version of the Icarus story: the open window an ominous sign that he may have plunged to his death - or simply despaired of ever being able to fly.

More often people see the song as an allegory about pursuing an ambition - which was certainly my inspiration for writing it. The man is so passionate about his dream that he will sacrifice everything - even love and relationships - to pursue it. And so the triumphant ending is mixed with sadness that the girl cannot follow him or share in his adventure. This is the interpretation that I brought to life in the video I recently made for it.

But there were other theories put forward. One person said she assumed the flying machine was a metaphor for the man passing away. She imagined him as a grandfather-figure who leaves an empty room when he dies and inspires a new generation with his legacy. I was certainly thinking a lot about bereavement when I wrote the song - the idea of death as a curtain we can't see beyond ('we watch them fly but we don't know where to'). One of my Christian friends said saw his journey as a metaphor for the afterlife - the man's reward for making sacrifices and keeping the faith.

As an agnostic, I'd rather not say definitively which interpretation is 'right': It seems that part of the song's appeal is that people read it in their own way. For me the really important bit is the way he inspires the girl to keep his memory alive.

Recently I went through some things that were left behind by my great aunt when she died last year. She was an extraordinary person, driving ambulances in the war, travelling and becoming an artist instead of following the path into high society that was expected of her. She taught me how to draw with endless patience when I was young, and before she died she made me the most incredible set of notes so I can continue to learn.

Reading those notes in her beautiful blue-inked handwriting the other day, I felt incredibly sad to have lost her - but also inspired by how she lived. Flying Machine may not have been written for her, but that's exactly what the song is about: not being afraid to live bravely and creatively, and inspiring others to do the same even when we're gone.

1.42pm 23rd Mar 2014