Interview: Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell

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(Photo credit: Elaine Livingston)

This interview originally ran as the cover feature of the Herald Magazine on November 1st, 2014.

Helmsdale is not a place you can forget. The old fishing port on Sutherland’s east coast is welcoming and bright and calm: a quiet locale with a colourful past. Its castle ruins are long destroyed, but you can still trace its memories, presence and ghosts, while the river’s gilded tributaries hint at residual treasure from a past gold-rush. Row upon row of permanent cormorants gleam along the harbour wall, and the clatter of fishing boats echoes a time when Helmsdale spearheaded the herring boom, as chronicled in Neil Gunn’s Silver Darlings – a neighbouring tale of uprooted people, and lives hard won.

Edwyn Collins forgot about Helmsdale. He forgot about everything. His memory was wiped as a result of two catastrophic strokes in 2005 that also left him unable to walk, talk, read or write. Collins had no recollection of his legacy as a Scottish pop iconoclast – as Postcard Records’ beautiful poster-boy; Orange Juice’s bookish arch-frontman; the dapper, quiffed harbinger of 1990s classic ‘A Girl Like You’. Nor could he recall his home in London, his Dundee upbringing, his days as a young musician in Glasgow, or indeed his childhood summers (and adult retreats) on his clan’s Helmsdale croft. He had no idea who he was.

Collins’ remarkable, gradual recovery, and rediscovery of his beloved Helmsdale, is now the subject of an exquisite film by Edward Lovelace and James Hall, entitled The Possibilities Are Endless, which is one of only two phrases that Collins could utter in the wake of his illness. And the other phrase? Well, that suggests that although Collins came back from the brink as a man without moorings, bearings, a map – a man at sea, and in the dark – he never completely lost sight of his north star. At first, he could only say, “Grace Maxwell” – the name of his wife, manager and mother of their son. “Maybe she is my life,” he ponders in the film.

What’s most incredible is not that Collins recovered his memory, rebuilt the ruins of his mind, reanimated the ghosts of his past, or even returned to create some of his career’s most precious work. Rather, it is the fact that he is still with us at all. In Maxwell’s remarkable book, Falling and Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins, she writes that she feared Collins had died, and was advised to prepare for such an outcome. His uprooted life, too, has been hard won.

With all of this in mind, it is joyous, and unexpectedly moving, to climb the winding hill to their Helmsdale croft; to see them both standing there waving and smiling, calling and laughing, on top of the world.

Maxwell never left Collins’ side as he recovered, and among countless rehabilitative feats (“she set me free,” Collins says in the film), she encouraged him to finish her sentences, as a way of easing his ongoing aphasia – a stroke-related wrestle with language. As we settle round their farmhouse kitchen table, it quickly becomes evident that while Collins’ speech is much improved these days – his responses are characteristically flamboyant, archaic and whip-smart – the pair still operate as a double-act. Their tales of a life shared are told as such, with sentences passed like baton relays, and their conversations are directed at each other as much as they are toward us.

They’re a hugely welcoming, amiable couple, and it is a rare treat to spend time in their company, as they settle into home and working life in Helmsdale (they’re building an incredible-looking recording studio in their garden), after three decades together in London.

“Ah, London,” Collins muses, tucking into gingerbread, clad in plaid and vintage denim, ever the indie-pop rodeo Elvis. “I like London a lot. But Grace is bored with it.”

“It’s not so much that I’m bored of London, Edwyn,” interjects Maxwell, passing the sugar. “It’s just that I really love being here. And for me, that feeling of really, really wanting to be completely in Helmsdale meant I felt my life slipping away with every year that I wasn’t here,” she explains. “I was resenting it.”

“Oh yes, she really was,” Collins nods. “In London, Grace is – let me say – she’s cross,” he offers with a laugh. (He laughs a lot.) “But in Helmsdale? She’s not cross.”

“Aye, I’m not so bad-tempered here,” Maxwell concedes. “But what I did understand is that for Edwyn, work is everything. Especially since he’s come back from illness. He never likes to be away from work for very long, do you? It’s been so much a part of your recovery. Your continued improving. And you’re still getting better. So, as long as Edwyn has his work, and we can be in Helmsdale, then we’re all happy.”

Edwyn smiles and shrugs. “Yeah – why not? And I love Helmsdale too.”

The Helmsdale croft has been in Collins’ family for generations. A picture of his great-grandmother hangs in one room; a portrait of his grandfather, painted by his father, overlooks another (Collins’ parents were both artists). And you can’t help but notice a windowsill cluster of dodgy-looking ornaments that call to mind the tartan-kitsch aesthetic of Postcard Records. “Oh yeah, they’re Edwyn’s,” Maxwell groans. “They’re fairings – you used to get them free at the shows. That one, Burns and His Mary, that’s the worst.”

“I am an artiste, Grace, and that is to my taste, even if it is a load of shit,” Collins pipes up.

“Aye, you’re the interior decorator alright, Edwyn,” she fires back. “You do the fancy-dancy stuff. I deal with the septic tank.”

You wonder how much of the couple’s sparky dialogue is a result of Collins’ illness: there is a sense from their humour, and mutual warmth, that they’d be like that anyway. And they have lived and worked together for decades. In her book, Maxwell recalls the first time they met, in 1980, after a friend asked her to put Collins and fellow Postcard mastermind Alan Horne up for a few days in London.

“They looked great, particularly Edwyn, dressed in an old-fashioned and out-of-step-with-the-times tweedy style,” she writes. “They had brilliant manners and a brilliant way with an anecdote … a deadly eye for the absurd in every human sketch.”

We have no such account of what Collins made of Maxwell back then, however. What does he recall of their nascent encounters?

Collins is atypically sheepish. “Well, maybe I fancied Grace,” he says with a conspirational chuckle.

Maxwell is incredulous. “Early on? I don’t think you did. Did you?”

“No. Well, I don’t know, Grace.” More sheepish laughter.

“Certainly, Edwyn fancied me before I fancied him,” Maxwell offers.

Did Collins have to indulge in some romancing to win Maxwell over?

“It was more like wheeling and dealing,” he quips.

Maxwell: “Aye, he had to give me a job. He asked me to be his manager.”

Collins realised she was a practical woman and he had to woo her in a practical way?

“Yes, exactly!” Collins says with a laugh. “That’s what I had to do.”

“And before we knew it, we were here, decades on. Decades!” Maxwell proclaims. “What’s amazing to me, when I think back on now, is that you were 24 when I started working for you, in 1984 – and you were about to complete your fourth album. You’d already had your own independent label, a major record deal, the band was about to split up, and you were ready to start your solo career. You were a seasoned cynic by that stage.”

“Yes, I was,” Collins nods. “I managed to alienate, in the Orange Juice days, many people. Many people. And Polydor Records,” he adds with a laugh.

Maxwell: “There were loads of folk you managed to alienate, Edwyn, with your smart-alecky patter and mockery.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact that Postcard Records, Orange Juice, and Edwyn Collins, had on pop. They challenged stereotypes of punk, rock, masculinity and Glasgow; upset and undermined the London-centric music industry; paved the way for The Smiths, Franz Ferdinand and almost every independent record label since – and all from the erudite confines of a tropical pop hook, a knowing wink and an impeccable quiff.

“I was terribly arrogant, back in Orange Juice days,” muses Collins. “But also quite shy. It’s a dilemma, being shy and arrogant at the same time. And maybe I had ambition.”

“Quite a lot of ambition,” Maxwell agrees. “But you worked hard at it. You still do. You need to be so tenacious to have a 30 year career like Edwyn’s. You have to completely fight for your art. It’s not for the faint-hearted. I do see how hard you’ve worked Edwyn, and how determined you’ve been.”

Collins feigns surprise; emits an arch and deadpan drawl. “Really, Grace? Go on…”

“And there are times when I’ve been lazy…” sighs Maxwell.

“Yes…” Collins sniggers.

“And off the boil…” she continues.

“Yes…” He is in hysterics under his breath.

“And Edwyn would have to really kick me into action and spur me on, because I’d feel a bit defeated at times,” she recalls. (It is impossible to conceive of Maxwell being remotely defeatist, it must be said.)

“I like hard work,” shrugs Collins. “Try, try again. If that doesn’t work – oh well. Next move. I like pushing barriers. I like writing songs. That’s driving me forward.”

Since his illness, Collins has lost the use of his (dominant) right hand – not that you’d know it from the beautiful, intricate pictures of birds he now draws with his left one – so he records song ideas onto cassette, or hammers out chords with an amped-up guitar. “The songs, the notes, are easy, but the lyrics are hard,” he says. “It’s not like back then, before I had a stroke. Losing Sleep, the [2010] album, let me say, it’s direct. Some people say it’s simple. But Understated, the album – I’m happy with the lyrics,” he says of his 2013 long-player, which was shortlisted for the Scottish Album of the Year Award.

“Take for instance the title track,” he suggests, and then he sings: “As the years go by / and I’m feeling my age / as the story unfolds / I’m a singer of sorts.” His voice resonates throughout their farmhouse. “I’m happy with those lyrics,” he nods. “It’s twisting the lyrics. Wordplay.”

His latest record is the soundtrack to The Possibilities Are Endless, which is out now via Collins’ AED imprint. From glimmering psalm ‘Quite Like Silver’ to an instrumental of ‘Leviathan’ (originally from 2007’s Home Again), it is a wonderful album – evocative of landscape, nature, the sea, home: Helmsdale.

What could Collins remember of Helmsdale when he was ill?

“I don’t know,” he says. “My memory was destroyed. Back in the hospital, I couldn’t even remember where I lived. But it was weird, I could remember my studio.”

Maxwell chastens him in mock offence. “Yes, Edwyn. You could remember the recording studio but not your own family home. There you go. It’s funny the things you could remember. It was fragmentary,” she says. “If you thought about Helmsdale, it wasn’t a whole picture, but if I zoomed in on something, you’d remember that. So I just told stories, which is what we’d do anyway – we’d relive all our life together – and you’d pipe up with the bits you remembered. Like when I talked about you and [Collins’ sister] Petra being up here in Helmsdale, in this house, making a comic as kids, you could remember that.

“That’s what’s been weird over the years of your recovery,” Maxwell continues. “Edwyn will have a door open every now and again, and a rush of memory will come back…”

“It’s like a eureka moment,” Collins adds. “It’s quite a good feeling. There used to be a lot of tears. But not so much now. It would sometimes … overwhelm me. It was like a huge part of me coming back, in a flood. And sometimes that was hard. Sometimes even with Helmsdale.”

“I think your experience of Helmsdale before the stroke was a really freeing thing,” Maxwell says quietly. “And maybe one of the sadnesses now – and you really don’t dwell on very much sadness – was remembering this place, or coming here and realising that you maybe can’t run up that hill the way you did before. That put it into sharp focus, what had happened to you, a wee bit to begin with. But we get around, don’t we?”

Collins smiles. “Oh yeah! I walk. Or I just about walk.”

Maxwell’s sense of home is clearly embedded in Helmsdale too. “Absolutely,” she nods. “I got the bug for this place when I first came with Edwyn in 1985. I fell completely under its spell. A lot of that was because of Edwyn and his stories of being here, and being taken to his childhood haunts by him and his grandfather. It was bewitching. We didn’t have anything like that growing up in working class Lanarkshire. And it was amazing to see you bounding up the hills Edwyn, because you’re not a fitness fanatic – at all.”

Collins looks outraged. “Pardon me! After my stroke it is of course an impossibility – but oh, how I was,” he wryly drawls. “My grandfather, I’d be eight or nine years old, and I’d be puffing away on the steep hill, and grandpa would tell me, ‘Och, you’re an awfy wee nuisance man! Come on! Be a man!’ So I puffed away. And I got stronger day by day.

“And then there was granny – she was, shall we say posh,” continues Collins, his voice raising an octave. As we wind down to the harbour to take photographs, he tells a childhood tale about his grandmother running him ragged in a scullery, coaxing him to find a mouse that didn’t exist. “Granny was a wee monkey,” he smiles.

“And you are her grandson,” Maxwell adds gently. “Of all the members of Edwyn’s family, I’d say there’s no-one he took after more in terms of his sense of humour, and his mischief, and his turn of phrase, than his granny.”

Maxwell turns him toward her at the harbour. “Now look at me Edwyn,” she orders. “Smile for the camera. Try and make it look as if we actually like each other.”

Collins doesn’t miss a beat. “No.”

There’s a scene in The Possibilities Are Endless, in which Maxwell recalls the grave days with Collins. “I was standing beside him, frozen to the spot, he’s deep in a coma and it was clear that his life was ebbing away,” she says in the film. “And I would go up close to his ear and say, ‘this will pass, love. This will end. And we’ll go to Helmsdale.’”

We leave them walking on a beach dappled with fossils and memories and treasure; admiring the airborne cormorants and robins, marvelling at their birdsong chorus, and they never seemed so free. They never sounded brighter.

Monorail Film Club presents The Possibilities are Endless at Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) – with acoustic set and Q&A – on November 2. The film is on general release from November 7.

Related article: Harry Papadopolous: What Presence! (The Herald, December 2011)

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Interview: Honeyblood

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This article originally ran as the Herald Arts magazine cover feature on August 23, 2014.

You might suggest that the essence of Honeyblood is equal parts garage, punk and pop. You might reduce the Glasgow duo’s composite parts to The Breeders, PJ Harvey and The Bangles; or surmise that their vivid narratives draw from the feminist writings of Angela Carter; or contend that the blinding dynamic of guitarist-vocalist Stina Tweeddale and drummer Shona McVicar puts the White Stripes in the shade.

But Honeyblood’s provenance, it transpires, is somewhat more prosaic than that. “Honeyblood is actually a mixture of water, honey, cornflour and red food dye,” offers Tweeddale, stirring her coffee and nursing a cold. “It comes from a lazy Hallowe’en costume I once made for a gig. I swirled it round in my mouth on-stage. And then I spat it over the audience.”

This live prank echoes the corporeal feminist-punk antics of L7, and Lady Gaga’s penchant for vomit-pop rainbows, and there are other visceral elements in Honeyblood’s moniker – and modus operandi – too. Their name, and art, conjures the saccharine / barbed dissonance of the 90s riot grrrl movement, and “I want to drink the honey blood” is a lyric from Gutless, by femme-grunge icons Hole.

We speak about Hole’s Melissa Auf Der Maur, with whom Honeyblood were photographed (and rumoured to be working) last month, as we sit near Glasgow’s Old Hairdressers, where the duo launched a DIY cassette to 30 people in 2012, and returned to launch their brilliant debut album at a hugely oversubscribed gig last month. We chat about a remarkable year that’s seen the duo record their eponymous calling card with alt-rock legend Peter Katis (Interpol, Frightened Rabbit, The National), and release it to widespread acclaim from the likes of BBC Radio 1, Mojo and NME.

And we talk about how we almost lost Honeyblood’s (bitter)sweet charms to modern dentistry.

The tale of Honeyblood, so far, is wrapped up in their debut album, hence its eponymous title. Tweeddale, originally from Edinburgh, and McVicar, who hails from Cumbernauld, first met in Glasgow venue Bar Bloc (also the headquarters of feminista-pop collective TYCI) while playing in other local bands. McVicar was in PartWindPartWolf; Tweeddale in Boycotts. “I didn’t play guitar or write the songs in Boycotts, I just did the singing,” Tweeddale recalls.

“So I wanted to do something where I wrote all the songs, and played all the guitar. I’d actually been stalking Shona online before we properly met,” she admits with a laugh. “And I’d watched her play drums. So when I saw her in Bloc one night, I just went over and said, ‘Hi, do you want to maybe jam some songs that I’ve written?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah!’, and that was it really.

Much is rightly made about the duo’s incendiary chemistry – they are a joy to witness live, all shared smiles and glorious noise – but they always intended to recruit more band members, says McVicar. “We thought we’d be getting more people in to join the band – you know, so that we could progress and make the songs sound better,” she offers. “But we kept meeting and jamming and playing, and I guess we worked out how to fill the songs, to make them sound good – and loud – ourselves. Just the two of us.”

Tweeddale smiles over. “And the funny thing is, sort of by accident, this has ended up being the band I wished I was in when I was 14.”

In their early days, in 2012, the duo worked up four original songs – No Spare Key, Biro, Super Rat and Bud – all of which would go on to appear on their debut album, suggesting they had their no-messing, nature-entangled, harmonic-punk ethos nailed from the off. Then they started playing live, and bagged a record deal, of sorts, at their second-ever show.

“It was at Wide Days in Edinburgh,” Tweeddale says of the annual music industry showcase. Their clamorous garage-pop caught the attention of Alex Knight from Brighton indie empire Fat Cat (also home to Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks and PAWS), who kept in touch, and eventually released their debut album. What did Knight make of the band back then? “I remember he said, ‘That was really good. But you have to gig, gig, gig,’” says Tweeddale. “So that’s what we did.”

But just as Honeyblood found their swagger, they were floored by modern dental practices, as McVicar recalls. “We’d been together six months or so, and we’d been gigging, we’d been getting record label interest. At the time though, I was graduating from university, and I studied dentistry, and basically, if I didn’t work as a dentist for a year, I’d have lost my whole degree,” she explains. “I had to leave the band.”

Tweeddale nods. “She had to do it. And at that point, things had started to happen for us – people were like, ‘Come down to London, do this, do that’, so Shona made this really adult decision for me – she said, ‘Go on, you can do it without me – I don’t want to hinder you at all.’ It was a really nice thing, but we were both heartbroken.” Tweeddale continued to write songs – including the album’s raucous Killer Bangs, for McVicar (“I need this with you / I made this with you”), and Choker (inspired by Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber) – and recruited a replacement drummer in New Zealand’s Rah Morriss, who sustained Honeyblood’s gathering momentum in McVicar’s absence. Then Morriss’ Visa expired.

Was there an implicit understanding that McVicar would, or even might, re-join Honeyblood after her year of being a dentist? “Not at all,” says Tweeddale. “I remember going round to Shona’s house, and saying, ‘Rah’s leaving, she’s going back to New Zealand. Your year [of practising dentistry] is nearly up – do you want to come back in the band?’ Shona was like, ‘I need to think about it’. And then: ‘Okay, I’ve thought about it, it’s fine.’ And I was like, ‘Cool! Well, we’ve got a gig in Estonia, so pack your bags.”

That was just over a year ago. Within months, the women were in the US, recording their debut album with legendary alt-rock producer Peter Katis. Was it difficult working with someone else in the studio, having always had such an intimate set-up?

“I was really nervous,” Tweeddale confesses. “On the first day I acted like an absolute fool. I’m so socially awkward that I literally didn’t know what to say to Peter because I was just overwhelmed by the fact that we were in America recording our debut album with such an amazing producer. It felt unreal. I felt like I wasn’t worthy to be there. So I just freaked out. Shona took me aside and said, ‘Look, you have to act cool!’”

Did Katis actualise the aesthetic the women had in mind, or did he surprise them with what he brought out in their songs? “He’s a bit of a genius,” McVicar offers. “We wanted the record to sound true to the band, and we wanted it to have a live feel, but we also wanted to make it sound bigger, and fuller. We wanted to make the best versions of these songs that we could. And somehow Peter did all that.”

The album was released to Transatlantic acclaim last month, at which point another US music legend popped up on Honeyblood’s Twitter feed, thanks to a photo they posted of themselves with Melissa Auf Der Maur (Hole, Smashing Pumpkins). Tweeddale is wide-eyed at the memory. “Oh my god I know! That was a massive, massive deal,” she says. Were they working with Auf Der Maur, or just hanging out? “Well, let’s just say she had an input into a song we were recording,” Tweeddale enthuses. “She was one of the most amazing people I have ever met. She said she loved us.”

If there’s a sense of coming full circle in Honeyblood working with a musician who inspired their music and name, then it’s a recurring pattern for the duo. From the tale of a drummer who left and returned, through their repeated homecomings at the Old Hairdressers, to the life cycles – of nature, people and relationships – that define their debut album’s songs. They’re as sweet as you like, with a sting in their tales. All hail the new queen bees of rock.

Honeyblood play Stirling Tolbooth on Sept 11, Dunfermline PJ Molloys on Sept 12 and Glasgow CCA on Sept 13.

Related articles: Honeyblood live review (The Herald, July 2014)

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Interview: Ricky Ross, Deacon Blue

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This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on September 4, 2014. There are links to a couple of previous Herald interviews below…

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If you’re seeking clues as to the premise of Deacon Blue’s new album, A New House, then English metaphysical poet and cleric John Donne is your man.

A line from his poem Love’s Growth – “No Winter shall abate the Spring’s increase” – entwines itself around the Glasgow pop chroniclers’ seventh studio LP, which beautifully explores ideas of nature, renewal, resilience and memory. Well, that and singer-songwriter Ricky Ross’s hitherto untapped desire to be a woman.

The follow-up to 2012’s Top 20 album The Hipsters, A New House finds Deacon Blue recharged and revitalised, looking forward and upward, as demonstrated by galloping opener Bethlehem Begins (“to begin again”), offbeat-pop anthem March (“this miracle of Spring is all that matters”), and pastoral-rock serenade For John Muir, inspired by the Scottish-American conservationist (“long live the wilderness way, the high clouds, the long days”).

“I’ve been thinking a lot about nature – its pervasiveness, relentlessness and energy,” says Ross over coffee in his adopted hometown of Glasgow. “My dad always used to say, ‘Aye, Spring again’, and I think in some ways that idea helped shape the album.” Indeed, the LP was originally called Bloom – now the title of an accompanying demos collection whose track-notes acknowledge the significance of Donne’s words.

That’s not to say that A New House revokes the past, or obliterates what has come before, and you’ll discern echoes of tracks like Dignity, Your Town and Closing Time throughout. The swooning drive-pop of the title track (and current single) sees Ross gear up for “a new start, a new way, a new day,” but, as with much of the record, it is rooted in memory.

“I remember being five and moving out to a housing estate in [Dundee’s] West Ferry,” he says. “We went to see it – my mum and dad said, ‘This is going to be your new house’ – but it was still a building site, so there was a farm here, and fields there, and there was a sense of stamping your authority over nature, but also of being aware that if you left it alone, the nature would claw back. Nature always does. There was a real excitement about that. I suppose it’s the excitement of possibility.”

As the independence referendum approaches, it’s tempting to hear words like “possibility”, and songs like March (whose seasonal title also, of course, evokes protest, and striding forward), and invest them with political resonance, especially given that Ross is a vocal advocate of the Yes campaign.

But as with other Scottish pop landmarks this year – notably King Creosote’s From Scotland With Love, and Aidan Moffat and Paul Fegan’s Where You’re Meant To Be – A New House is not about the referendum; it is not tied to, or defined by, this moment in time. “It’s the backdrop to everything just now, of course,” says Ross. “It’s always there. But that’s not what the record is about.”

Ross’s lyrics have always been instilled with poetic ambiguity – they variously operate as love songs, folk songs, protest songs – which is perhaps one reason why his older works chime with us now more than ever (Dignity, Loaded, This Changing Light), and why newer tracks from The Hipsters and A New House have been welcomed with such open arms.

Also key to Deacon Blue’s renaissance almost three decades into their existence is the band’s ongoing relationship with Glasgow producer Paul Savage (Delgados / Chemikal Underground), who expertly helmed The Hipsters and pulls a similar blinder on A New House. He traces the charms of their previous albums – the piano-pop longing of 1987’s Raintown, the melodic-rock bombast of 1989’s When The World Knows Your Name, the picturesque chorales of 1991’s Fellow Hoodlums, the up-tempo raptures of 1993’s Whatever You Say, Say Nothing – while propelling their sound (and possibilities) forward.

“I can’t speak highly enough of Paul,” says Ross. “Chem19 is a great studio to go into, it’s a really nice atmosphere, and he’s great with everyone in the band,” Ross says of his Deacon Blue cohorts Lorraine McIntosh, Dougie Vipond, Jim Prime, Gregor Philp and Lewis Gordon. “In terms of recording my voice, I think he’s the best producer I’ve ever worked with. And as for what he’s done with I Remember Every Single Kiss, it’s just brilliant.”

I Remember Every Single Kiss is the album’s glorious swansong – a reeling career-high that’s testament to the band’s resilience, their sense of renewal, and their welcome return from a pop wilderness that saw them disband for five years (1994-1999). Its study of memory – of the things we remember; the things we forget – parallels the sublime and yearning Sometimes I Wish I Was A Girl Like You, which closes Side A on the album.

“That was the very last song to be written before we started recording,” offers Ross. “I had the music – I’d actually been writing with Dan and Rich from The Feeling. I didn’t have any lyrics, but I kept going back to this idea which was, Sometimes I Wish I Was A Girl Like You.” Well, you can’t blame him.

A New House is a brilliant, evocative long-player with its roots in our past and a spring in its step. “I remember every single garden, and springtime, and bright sun,” Ross sings on I Remember Every Single Kiss, and he leaves us thinking how good it could be. It feels like coming home.

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A New House is released on September 8. Deacon Blue play Kilmarnock Grand Hall Nov 29, Aberdeen Music Hall Nov 30, Glasgow Clyde Auditorium Dec 1 and 2, Dundee Caird Hall Dec 4, Inverness Eden Court Dec 5 and Edinburgh Usher Hall Dec 20.

(Nicola Meighan)

Related Articles:
Deacon Blue interview (Herald Arts cover feature, December 2013)
Deacon Blue interview (The Herald, September 2013)

 

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Live review: St Vincent

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This review originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on August 28, 2014.

02ABC, Glasgow

(Four stars)

As befits a woman who canonised herself in her nom de plume, Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, draws worshippers wherever she roams. And as befits avant-pop’s reigning monarch, the centre-piece for her jaw-dropping stage show (as with her latest album) was a huge, stark throne.

Clark’s meticulously executed live show was an exhilarating high-wire act, packing an inordinate level of theatricality, choreography and fierce musicianship into each song, while simultaneously operating as a master-class in economy.

The evening’s funk-metal riffage, electro-rock carnage and cerebral-pop delirium was amplified via vogueing, robotic dancing, axe-duelling and blinding lights, yet every movement, strobe, and note, was absolutely necessary, and used to maximum effect.

Her curious, soothing, soothsaying monologues – you couldn’t really call them “banter” – were equally measured and disorientating, as St Vincent accused us of being pyromaniacs and hominid catastrophes.

In a set largely drawing from her current eponymous album – it is one of this year’s finest – Clark proved her incendiary guitar chops, and then some, on scorching opener Rattlesnakes, colossal art-pop wig-out Digital Witness, and the monochrome glare of Birth in Reverse (as with much of the gig, its stage show resembled a stunning music video).

There’s no doubt she can out-rock, and out-shred, the best of them, but Clark’s role as languorous chanteuse on the sublime I Prefer Your Love almost stole the show, as she draped across her outsize throne.

Another downtempo rock-aria, Prince Johnny, culminated in Clark enacting a fall from grace, or perhaps her own death – a move that had the devoted audience holding its collective breath.

Then she cast us back to Your Lips Are Red, from her debut, Marry Me. If only.

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Related Articles: St Vincent interview (The Herald, August 2014)

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Interview: King Creosote

kingcreosote_fromscotlandI spoke to King Creosote about the wonderful From Scotland With Love for The Quietus. You can read the feature here.

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Live review: Dolly Parton

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This review originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on June 18, 2014.

Glasgow SSE Hydro

(Five stars)

A supreme being with ivory tresses; a subject of global faith and devotion; a paragon of divine simplicity: wise and heavenly and righteous. But enough about Dolly Parton, let’s talk about God.

The rhinestone cowgirl did so, and then some, in Glasgow’s star-spangled charm offensive – bigging up the ways of the lord (“I think he understands me; I certainly hope he does”), amid tales of her country-folks back home, and her childhood in the Smoky Mountains.

But we’d do well to remember that this is a woman who has created herself in her own image, irrespective of him upstairs, and she lives by her own rules, too.

“Let me hear you say Amen!” she commanded, hammering a glittering church organ beneath a stained-glass backdrop – the only country-soul evangelist that some of us will ever need – before launching into a raucous-gospel rendition of Bon Jovi’s Lay Your Hands On Me.

There were many such kitsch yet strangely revelatory moments in Dolly’s hyper sequinned show: the sense of disbelief at seeing her in front of us; the communal rapture for rodeo-pop hymns like Islands in the Stream and Jolene; the audience ringing out like a choir for a candle-lit I Will Always Love You.

Dolly’s spirit of female empowerment coursed through the set, which celebrated her new album, Blue Smoke, among old favourites and greatest hits, from the matriarchy-championing Coat of Many Colors, to the sisterhood call-to-arms of 9 to 5 – an anthem for the unsung woman, and one of many crowning moments in a career that’s spanned
nigh-on five decades and 100 million record sales, and all from the confines of a silver fringed catsuit.

What a way to make a living.

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Interview: St Vincent

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This interview originally ran in The Herald newspaper, Scotland, in August 2014.

To paraphrase from chaos theory, when St Vincent kicks a ball in New York, it knocks kids in Bridge of Allan for six. The avant-pop star and David Byrne collaborator – also known as Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Annie Clark – proved this Transatlantic soccer-pop hypothesis earlier this year, when she made a short film for US feminist teen magazine Rookie, displaying her impeccable knack for a rainbow kick. I watched it online with my daughter and her friends, and soon there was a gaggle of six-year-old girls out the back, attempting St Vincent’s football tricks.

“Really? That’s wonderful,” says Clark – who recently fronted Nirvana in their first public appearance since Kurt Cobain’s death – down the line from San Diego. “That’s really cute, but it’s also wild. I just didn’t know what to expect when Rookie asked me to do it.” The online magazine runs a regular feature called Sunday Video, in which women in music are filmed doing unlikely and / or inspiring things. Neko Case made borscht. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna gave tips on public speaking. “They came to me and said, ‘Everybody knows you play guitar, but do you have another skill you could maybe show us?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m pretty good at ordering room service,’” she quips. “I know how to get a good coffee. That’s about it. And then I remembered that before I started playing guitar, I used to play soccer all the time.”

Clark’s formidable kicking technique suggests that her commitment to art, be it playing football or fierce guitar, was always fastidious, and relentless. The viral success of her Rookie video also neatly captures the scope of the digital age – a fundamental theme on St Vincent’s sublime and remarkable eponymous fourth solo album, which was released earlier this year. The record is, in many ways, her most emotionally and musically direct to date, but Clark remains an avidly private artist. Is it hard to balance such a private nature with interacting on social media (she is lively on Twitter), or writing from the heart?

“A lot of this album was simply writing my life, and I feel very free in music to do or say anything,” she offers. “I always think that songs have to come from some emotional truth and real place of human empathy, although do I balk a little bit at the idea of quote-unquote confessional songwriting. I feel like it implies, especially in terms of female writers, this idea that you lack the imagination to write about other things,” she says. And so it is that the current LP explores love, obsession and sense of place, via experimental groove-pop odes to naked desert-walking, severed integers, religious imagery and snorting the Berlin Wall.

The album’s most overt nod to the internet era, Digital Witness, is also perhaps its clearest musical nod to Clark’s kindred art-pop spirit, David Byrne, with whom she collaborated on 2012’s excellent Love This Giant. You can hear shards of Byrne’s Talking Heads in its awkward grooves and angular vocals. Did working with Byrne consciously influence Clark’s aesthetic, or outlook? “It was tremendously inspiring being around David,” she recalls. “That whole experience was just wonderful. I think we both just felt so positive about the shows, knowing that fans were walking away having had a real experience, and that whole idea has become hugely important to me.”

Has it impacted on St Vincent’s live shows? “Yeah, it’s made me think much more about how you communicate in every single thing that you do when you’re on-stage, from the movement to the outfits to the staging – and obviously the music, that’s the most important thing,” she says. “So I’ve really dug in on the performance aspect of this tour, and I think that was really inspired by everything that we did on Love This Giant. Everything was very intentional. That show was maybe a bit more joyful and silly than what I’m doing on my own, but the dedication to detail and performance remains the same.”

Clark even recruited a choreographer for her current tour. “Yeah, it’s not 100 per cent choreographed, but I worked with [Byrne / Eno collaborator] Annie-B Parson,” she says. “I’m not a dancer, but that means I’m not coming at it with any baggage – I’m not worried about being really expressive or whatever. I’m just like, ‘Okay, this is interesting, how do I make this movement? How do I embody it and make it be right for my body, and for what I want to say?’ And that’s a challenge.”

Has Clark’s relationship with her songs changed since she started to physically inhabit and interpret them? “Well, my relationship to the songs gets deeper every night, because you keep finding these nooks and crannies and crevices and places to stretch out and breathe,” she says.

When we last spoke, around five years ago, Clark enthused about economy in music; about trying to make (and find) more, from less, in her art. Is that something that still drives her? “Yeah, I’d say especially on this record, there’s nothing superfluous in there – it’s kind of succinct songwriting – just get in, communicate your message, and get out,” she says. “But I also wanted this to be a very open-armed record. I wanted to connect with people. That’s the whole goal of life.”

St Vincent plays Glasgow 02ABC on Tuesday August 26.

Related articles: St Vincent interview (The List), July 2009.

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