Interview: Shirley Collins

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This interview originally ran as the cover feature of the Herald Arts Magazine on January 28, 2017, under the heading: THE RETURN OF FOLK’S GUIDING LIGHT…

For almost 40 years, it seemed as if Shirley Collins had gone to ground.

Hailed as England’s greatest folk singer, she spearheaded the 1960s and 1970s folk revival, and toured America with folklorist Alan Lomax, collecting songs that would be pivotal to Rolling Stones riffs, Moby hits and the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou. She released several canonic albums, including 1964’s Folk Roots, New Routes (with Davy Graham), and 1969’s Anthems in Eden, in cahoots with her sister Dolly.

But in 1978, she withdrew from performance, so traumatised by a marriage breakup that she suffered a debilitating vocal condition known as dysphonia. For decades, she was unable sing.

During Collins’ enforced absence, she raised a family and ran an Oxfam shop in Brighton. But her vital work as a folk conduit and pioneer carried through her songs: mapping our collective past, shining a light on our lives and our land. Her voice – always bright and beautiful, yet never eclipsing the song – found avid fans including Billy Bragg, Blur’s Graham Coxon and Current 93’s apocalyptic folk diviner David Tibet.

Tibet slowly encouraged Collins to find a way back to her voice, and the stage. In February 2014, almost four decades since she’d last sung in public, she performed at London’s Union Chapel. Now, she’s set to play in Glasgow, armed with a wonderful new album, Lodestar – her first LP for 38 years. It’s released on Domino, which makes Collins label-mates with the Arctic Monkeys, Buzzcocks and Franz Ferdinand. She was always quietly radical.

Shirley Collins was born in Hastings, East Sussex, in 1935. She and Dolly were discovered as teenagers by English folk chronicler Bob Copper, who became a life-long friend and champion. The first time they met him, however, these trailblazers of the English folk tradition regaled Copper not with a paean to Eden, but with a ballad from Scotland. Legend has it they even adopted Scottish accents for the occasion.

“Oh Nicola, that’s absolutely true,” says Collins down the landline, through hearty laughter. “I wrote to the BBC when I was 15, to let them know I wanted to be a folk singer. Luckily, Bob Copper was working there at the time, on field recording trips, and they passed the letter to him. When you think about that, it was a miracle. One day, Bob turned up on our doorstep.

“Dolly and I thought we ought to impress him,” Collins continues. “So instead of singing some of the songs that Mum and Aunt Grace and Granddad used to sing to us, we’d learned a song from the McEwen brothers, off the radio – The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray. We sang it as much like them as we could.” Her voice is full of kindness and mirth. “And yes, we tried to do the Scottish accents.”

What strikes most about this tale is that Collins was so clear-sighted at 15. Does she recall when she decided to be a folk singer? “Well yes,” she nods. “It’s a soppy teenage story. Dolly and I used to go down town in Hastings on Saturdays – we’d go to the pictures. And we saw this B-movie called Night Club Girl. It was the story of a Tennessee mountain girl, who was discovered by a talent scout, singing folk songs in the mountains. They whizzed her off to New York, and there she sang in night clubs in sweet frocks. She fell in love with the owner of the night club, and he was an actor I was rather crazy about. So I thought – ‘Oh, that’ll do for me. I shall be a folk singer.’”

An upcoming film, The Ballad of Shirley Collins, will celebrate how she did just that, and so much more. Collins became England’s best-loved voice – a national treasure – and she also played a cardinal role in upholding American folk traditions. In 1959, she sailed to the US with ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, collecting field recordings, as gloriously documented in her 2004 book, America Over The Water.

Their tape of Trouble So Hard, by Alabama washerwoman Vera Hall, would underpin Moby’s hit Natural Blues. Their work with blues guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell had a formative influence on the Rolling Stones. And James Carter and the Prisoners’ Po’ Lazarus featured on the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Lodestar includes two songs from that journey, including Pretty Polly, from Arkansas. “I recorded that myself, because Alan was in the next room with Ollie Gilbert’s husband, who was a moonshine maker, and they were having a very pleasant afternoon to themselves,” she recalls. “I was sent off to join the womenfolk in another room, and recorded songs from Ollie all afternoon.”

There are also songs collected by Copper, and from Collins’ childhood, on Lodestar. “They’re songs I’ve always wanted to record,” she says. “The Silver Swan goes back to my days as a teenager. We used to sing it at home – Mum and Dolly and me – trying to sing the five-part madrigal, never succeeding, and ending up with lots of laughter.”

Collins’ work resonates with such celebrations of women’s voices, women’s lives. Her first Glasgow concert in what she says is “centuries” (it’s certainly decades) at Celtic Connections will feature, among other thrills, a female Morris Dancing team. And she delights in recalling how she’d wind up patriarchal folk purists like Ewan MacColl back in the day. “He disapproved of me wearing nail varnish,” she tuts. “I had no time for MacColl. He was pompous. He was pretentious.” She chuckles under her breath. “And I didn’t like his singing. Or the rules he laid down for people.”

She defied the male gaze, too. Her frolicsome take on Hares on the Mountain, recorded with Davy Graham, sees her wryly objectify and lampoon the opposite sex. (“Young men are given to frisking and fooling / I’ll leave them alone and attend to my schooling,” she sagely concludes). “It’s sort of cheeky isn’t it?” Collins muses. “There’s a control in there, and [the sense] that actually we’re in charge, really. I sing several songs where women get the upper hand. That’s to sort of counteract the many more where they unfortunately don’t…”

The menfolk don’t come off great either, as is often the way in traditional song. Lodestar’s litany of woebegone fates was a source of amusement while making the record, as Collins attests. “We recorded everything in my cottage here, and one morning Ian Kearey, who’s the album’s major accompanist, producer and musical director, burst through the front door and said – ‘Right, what’s the body count today then?’” She bursts out laughing.

Recording in her Lewes home allowed Collins to rediscover her voice in her own space and time. “We took it as slowly as we needed to,” she says. “I hadn’t sung properly for a while, and I wanted it to be as good as possible. But I had to accept that my voice has got much lower, and it’s not as reliable. I had to learn to live with that.

“Except, I did get really worked up sometimes,” she adds. “I’d get cross with myself if I wasn’t doing things well. And so I’d start to swear rather a lot.” More laughter. “Finally, I decided to get a swear box. I said to Ian and Ossian and Steve, who were recording the album, ‘I’ve got a swear box on the table now. Every time I swear, you have to put in a pound.’”

Shirley Collins, turning the air blue.

There’s a comet in the night-sky on the cover art of Lodestar. It’s part of an eighteenth-century painting, and was brought to Collins’ attention around the time her daughter sent her an idea that became the album title. “There’s a sort of magic in that coincidence, isn’t there?” Collins beams. “When my daughter texted me that word – Lodestar – I looked at the dictionary, to make sure I knew what it really means.

“I read it was the guiding principle, the North Star, and I thought – ‘That’s absolutely right,’” she says. “Because music has been my lodestar for as long as I can remember. This music has meant that much to me, through all the years. Even though I wasn’t able to sing.” She recalls her shock (and tears) when David Tibet first phoned her during that time, to tell her how very well-loved she was. “I just had no idea,” she quietens. “I thought I’d been forgotten.”

Under the comet, Collins is pictured cradling a sextant, as she once did a banjo. It’s an archaic instrument, used for celestial navigation and reflecting on horizons. Collins, too, has long helped us find our place in the world. Almost 70 years since she first sang for Bob Copper, the voice she once lost is more precious than ever: old as time, warm as home and bold as starlight. She leads the way.

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Shirley Collins plays Glasgow City Halls on February 4th as part of Celtic Connections. Lodestar is out now via Domino.

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Interview: Teenage Fanclub

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This article originally ran as a cover feature in the Herald Arts Magazine in December 2016, under the heading AIN’T THAT ENOUGH…

The transatlantic rock star’s life is one of rampant hedonism. Take Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, who recently visited his native Glasgow from his adopted home in Ontario. “I arrived and went straight to the Horseshoe bar, and had a quiet pint,” he reveals. “It was nice.” And after that, did the man behind Nirvana’s favourite band lurch into a night of debauchery? “Actually, my mum phoned and gave me an ear-bashing about half-past six. I stay with my parents when I come over. She was like, ‘Are you coming home? You’re not in the pub are you? Your dinner’s ready’. I’m 50 years old, but that was that. I got on the train and went back to Bellshill.”

Teenage Fanclub have been one of our best-loved bands for over 25 years. Two of the group’s core trio – Gerry Love and Raymond McGinley – hail from Motherwell and Maryhill respectively, but TFC were always aligned with fabled indie scene The Bellshill Beat, thanks to Blake’s connection with the town, and the intertwining musical lives of Blake and local cult-pop trailblazers Duglas Stewart (BMX Bandits) and The Soup Dragons’ Sean Dickson, who’ve made music together since their teens. Among other incarnations, they played as The Boy Hairdressers, whose debut EP was released by Stephen Pastel’s 53rd and 3rd label, and whose number included current drummer Francis Macdonald. (Their fifth member is keyboardist Dave McGowan, who also plays in Belle and Sebastian).

Over quarter of a century since their 1990 debut, A Catholic Education, Teenage Fanclub have bounced back with their tenth album, Here – a UK Top 10 – which was variously recorded in Scotland, Hamburg and Provence. “Yeah, there’s some irony in the fact that it’s called Here, when it was recorded in so many different places,” Blake says with a laugh. “There is no ‘here’”.

Here, perhaps, is a state of mind. The band have long explored our sense of place and direction in their songs, through a cosmic cartography of head and heart that spans their 1990 debut single Everything Flows, 1991’s Guiding Star, 2000’s I Need Direction, and Here’s hazy-pop epiphany It’s A Sign, among others. Their charms are bright and universal; their music as evocative of 1960s American pop (The Byrds, The Beach Boys) as contemporary Scottish indie rock. If you can’t pin them down in location or time, perhaps that is no accident: Teenage Fanclub make their music anywhere but home.

“We always like to go to a location that isn’t Glasgow to make records, because I think the environment that you’re in influences what you’re doing,” says Blake. “And when we record, we like it to be an event. We like to go somewhere that we’ve not been – to a new studio, with different equipment. This time, we went to a place in the south of France because they had a really amazing old EMI desk. And also, it was in Provence. It was beautiful. Lots of cheese and wine. That’ll do,” he laughs. “Same with Hamburg, we liked the equipment they had, and Hamburg’s a city where we’ve always had fun. It feels special when you get out of your regular environment, when you’re not clocking off and going back to your own bed. When we made Thirteen [1993], we did it in Glasgow, and it just took forever. I think we got too comfortable because we were at home. We decided we’d always get out of town after that.”

Here is also borne of several places in time. “We recorded the backing tracks in Provence about three-and-a-half years ago,” Blake recalls. “Then we all went our separate ways. I went back to Canada, everyone had a bit of DIY to do at home, so we all got on with that. Usual domestic stuff. Then maybe seven months later I flew back over, and we recorded the vocals at Raymond’s, and then we had another break before Hamburg. We like to do things and then take a step back, and have a look at what we’ve done. You just want to take your time.”

If Here’s lovely, unhurried songs have the sense of being given room to find themselves, then so too do the album’s themes of contentment, resilience, looking forward, looking back, getting on, darkness, light – and the shadows in-between. Often, it’s a love letter to the unsung pleasures of our day-to-day. As is traditional for TFC, Blake, Love and McGinley wrote four songs each, but the all the tracks on the album reinforce each other, and rekindle their past work – not least their recent balmy power-pop single I’m In Love (“It feels good when you’re next to me, that’s enough”), which echoes 1997’s beatific serenade Ain’t That Enough. (“Here is a sunrise, ain’t that enough?”)

All three compose melodies in advance, but their approach to lyrics is rather more ad-hoc. “We all kind of write our lyrics in the studio,” Blake offers. “We’ve always done it that way, so we probably influence each other as we’re writing. I think that helps consolidate the record and homogenise the themes, to give it a sound that’s us. But also, we’re all of a similar age, and I suppose people of our age have the same concerns. Mortality. How you’re going to pay the mortgage. Classic things like that.”

For all their geographic perambulations, much of Teenage Fanclub’s aesthetic and history is embedded in domesticity. The vocals for the new album were laid down at McGinley’s home, and rumour has it that their 1990 calling card, A Catholic Education, was funded by the proceeds of some white goods left to McGinley from a kindly old neighbour. ”That’s absolutely true,” says Blake. “It was great – although it was a shame the lady had passed away, of course. She left Raymond a cooker and a washing machine. Or a fridge and a washing machine. A couple of large white domestic appliances anyway. That’s how we made the album.”

Their breakthrough LP, meanwhile –1991’s euphoric grunge masterpiece Bandwagonesque – was bankrolled by Creation Records’ Alan McGee, who remortgaged his house to cover the costs. He’s largely aligned with Oasis and The Libertines these days, but it bears recalling that in the 1980s and early 1990s, McGee and Creation offered huge support to myriad seminal Scottish acts, including The Pastels, BMX Bandits, Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Teenage Fanclub.

“Alan was amazing for us,” Blake offers. “Creation invested in their money, and time, and faith, in bands like us and Primal Scream when no-one else was willing to take a risk. While we were making Bandwagonesque, Primal Scream were making Screamadelica, and My Bloody Valentine were making Loveless. Creation remortgaged their houses to fund those records. And they had no idea if they were going to be successful – they could have bombed, and they’d have lost all of their personal money.

“Actually, do you know, I don’t even think we’d signed a contract when we were making Bandwagonesque,” continues Blake. “But Alan was paying the studio time. In theory, we could have made that album and said, ‘Thanks a lot Alan – see you later!’” he laughs. “It was amazing for us, to have his faith and trust like that.”

You wonder if we’d be here now had Raymond McGinley not inherited a washing machine; had Alan McGee not remortgaged his home. You wonder if Teenage Fanclub would have had the time and space and faith to keep making their glorious, heartening songs. You wonder if Blake would be sat on a tour bus, travelling to sold-out venues, trying to find the words for a record that faces up to loss and mortality, that ventures into shadows and darkness, that illuminates older loves and lives, and celebrates new dawns and new days and first lights. Here is a sunrise.

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Related articles: Teenage Fanclub, Here album review, The List magazine, September 2016

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Interview: Pixies

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This interview originally ran as the Herald Arts Magazine cover feature in September 2016…

There is a new photograph of The Pixies, in which they’re flanked by a baying wolf. You wonder whether the creature is fearful, or fiercely protective, of the band. Perhaps it represents their spirit animal: a symbol of feral cravings and instincts. Or maybe it is howling at them, as one might the moon – its cries not unlike those of Black Francis, their wild vocal thaumaturge.

Then again, it might just be a throwaway prop. “I’m afraid that’s all it is,” says Pixies founder member and drummer David Lovering, with an apologetic laugh. “We did those photos in Brooklyn prop house, and they kept wanting to put these things in beside us. Usually we object to having stuff like that, but this time we thought we’d just do it, for the hell of it.”

Whatever the reason, real or imagined, the wolf is not the first beast to rove across the ravaged alt-rock of the Boston, Massachusetts band, whose malevolent pop and surrealist punk has influenced David Bowie, Radiohead and Nirvana. Since they formed in 1986, they’ve been variously plagued by Caribou (on their 1987 debut EP, Come On Pilgrim), Snakes (2014’s Indie Cindy), and praying mantids (their brand new album Head Carrier) – not to mention a Monkey Gone to Heaven (1989’s seminal Doolittle) – over a tumultuous career that has weathered fractures, splits, reported brawls, reunions and the loss of a well-loved linchpin.

For 28 years (break-up notwithstanding), the indie alchemists’ line-up comprised guitarist and vocalist Black Francis (aka Frank Black, born Charles Thompson), guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist and vocalist Kim Deal, and drummer David Lovering (who famously turned down an offer to join Foo Fighters after The Pixies split). New bassist and vocalist Paz Lenchantin joined in 2014, following the sudden departure of Deal, who also made huge alt-rock waves with The Breeders.

Deal was nigh-on synonymous with The Pixies – her bass and vocal swagger at the heart of many of their best-loved songs – and if fans of the band felt lost when she left, then they were not alone. “We were lost as well,” says Lovering, who recalls her announcing she was leaving after a seemingly amicable band dinner. “It was a very hard time. I remember that. But there was no real reason why, or why not, and we all wish her really well.” True to this sentiment, there’s a shimmering girl-group ballad on Head Carrier, All I Think About Now, which the band have called a tribute to Deal.

That said, The Pixies are laughing in their lupine promo shot, and the new album sounds like they’re having a ball. Despite it being their first without Deal, Head Carrier feels like a celebratory affair, as it revels in religious esoterica (Plaster of Paris), Mesopotamian deities (Baal’s Back), and raucous Neil Young invocations (the title track). The drummer nods. “It was a great experience all over,” he says. “We had so much time to work out songs. We had six weeks of rehearsing as a band, and that was a luxury we haven’t had for a long time. Each Pixies album back in the day got quicker and quicker to make, so we were kind of re-living what it was like as a baby band in Boston. That was a joy.

“And working with Paz has been a whole new experience,” he says of The Pixies’ rewired (and ever-cardinal) rhythm section. “Having worked with Kim for so long, I didn’t know anything different. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – that was a wonderful thing, I thought. But having Paz? Well, that’s a new animal. And she’s such a good bass player, she’s making me play better, because I don’t want to get embarrassed,” he laughs.

The band have enjoyed a long and illustrious alliance with producer Gil Norton, who helmed their mid-period triple-header of Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990) and Trompe Le Monde (1991), and with whom they re-joined forces on Indie Cindy. For Head Carrier, however, they wanted to be less defined (or confined) by the band’s history and mythology, and more fired-up by the band itself. In its new incarnation, that required a radical approach – or, as they put it, “a punch in the face.” They hired a new producer, Tom Dalgety (Killing Joke, Royal Blood, Simple Minds).

“I think this has all really just been about change for us,” Lovering says. “It was all around. It was there while we were having fun in the studio, and with a new bassist, and it was there with Tom producing. His name and credentials were perfect when we looked him up. And also, he was able to say, ‘I don’t like that song – throw it away,’” Lovering laughs. “That’s pretty tough. I don’t think The Pixies had ever heard that before.”

The self-proclaimed “dysfunctional band” (Lovering’s words) first assembled in early 1986, after college friends Santiago and Thompson advertised for a bassist who was driven by a musical love of folk revivalists Peter, Paul and Mary and hardcore punk trailblazers Husker Du. They only received one reply – from Deal – who then brought Lovering on board.

“I had worked with Kim’s husband, and he knew I was a drummer, so that was how it originally came about,” Lovering recalls. “I hadn’t played drums in a long time when they asked me – I was going to school by then – so I was surprised that I even went along. It’s interesting looking back on it, now I’m really thinking about it, because I don’t remember that much about going to meet them.

“I remember they had an old square Linn Drum [machine] though, and Charles had this acoustic guitar, and he was just playing stuff, early songs,” he continues. “And I was trying to play along, with my fingers, on the Linn Drum. But that’s about it. Although, when I asked Joe about it later, he was like – ‘man, you were so stoned that day’. And I don’t rule that out. So I can’t tell you that much more about the day we formed. But we left on good terms, as far as I recall.”

And lo, that was the birth of The Pixies. Their initial tenure stretched from 1986 to 1993, they were split from then until 2004, and when they got back together, “through a series of phonecalls that were started by a joke Joey made on the radio”, they re-entered the studio, fired straight into Monkey Gone To Heaven, and never looked back.

It’s one thing to reform and play old favourites, but another thing to reboot your canon with a new album, as The Pixies did with Indie Cindy, their first new LP since Trompe Le Monde. When did the subject of new material first come up? “Well, when we reunited in 2004, and up until 2011, we played reunion shows, we played our old catalogue, we toured Doolittle, and after that, we realised we’d been back on the road for over seven years,” Lovering offers. “Which was surreal, because that was longer than we’d initially been a band, before the split. So that was surprising, and that was also the impetus of what came next. We thought, ‘we can do this, we know what we like to do as a band, we’re still viable, let’s write new songs’. And here we are now, with Head Carrier, another new album…”

But Lovering hadn’t counted on that. He never believed there was a chance The Pixies would get back together. Which is why, when they split, he became a professional magician. He called himself The Scientific Phenomenalist, and toured with Grant-Lee Phillips, The Breeders and Camper Van Beethoven. “If you’d told me I was going to be a magician when I was younger, I’d have rolled on the floor laughing,” he says. “But I went to a magic convention years ago, and I saw magic that I’d never seen, like really cool close-up magic, and I was fascinated. I just didn’t know how they did it. After that, I took classes, I read books, I joined clubs. I woke up many times in bed with packs of cards all strewn around me. I love magic. It has a sense of wonder. It suggests that somehow, the impossible is possible.

“I could have picked a better career choice though,” Lovering quips. I’m not so sure. Whether in magic, or in music, he has long summoned invisible forces, subverted reality, defied nigh-on impossible things.

 

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Interview: Carla Easton (Teen Canteen / ETTE)

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This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper in January 2017.

There’s a state-of-the-art recording studio in an old Leith warehouse. It’s called Tape. The building used to be a brothel, a cork factory and a whisky bond, and in keeping with its colourful past, it’s now a digital / analogue hub whose stash of rock ‘n’ roll equipment has links to Fleetwood Mac, ABC, Abba. Glasgow indie-pop grrrl-gang Teen Canteen recorded their debut album there, and channelling their love of classic girl groups – not to mention Tape’s vintage fetishism – they recorded it in mono.

“We wanted to reference old girl group records and Spector records with the album. We were trying to build a new wall of sound,” says singer, keyboard player and songwriter Carla Easton, who is joined in Teen Canteen by Sita Pieraccini (bass), Chloe Philip (guitar) and Debs Smith (drums). Her Spector-esque references ring true, and Easton’s abiding love of girl groups – The Ronettes, The Cookies, The Shangri-Las – resonates throughout her work.

Teen Canteen trade in epic indie-soul (their debut, Say It All With A Kiss, was released in September), while her solo(ish) psychedelic DIY-disco project, Ette, is a titular nod to the suffix adopted by her favourite troupes (The Chordettes, The Bobbettes, The Marvelettes). Homemade Lemonade, Ette’s debut LP – as aided and abetted by Joe Kane of Dr Cosmo’s Tape Lab – came out via Olive Grove in July.

Releasing two debut LPs within one year is no mean feat. “It’s been great, it’s been a brilliant year, and I’m so happy with the response to both records,” she says. “The Ette one was actually a kind of happy accident – I never intended to record an album’s worth of material, but Joe and I were enjoying ourselves so much we just kept doing it.” Around the same time, Teen Canteen wrapped up their crowd-funded calling card, so both LPs were released within months of each other. “People have been in touch to say that they own both, which is really nice,” she says. “I think they sort of work hand in hand with each other.”

It’s testament to Easton’s songwriting clout and versatile aesthetic that both albums shine in their own right, with neither eclipsing the other. Both play out like fizzy (power) pop-fuelled celebrations of life, love, and cheerleading the sisterhood, but there are stylistic divergences, too – Ette is more experimental and synth-led than Teen Canteen. “Both albums were very different in terms of recording atmospheres,” Easton adds. “The Teen Canteen album was done in this pristine, design-led space in Edinburgh – Tape – whereas the Ette album was done in a wee garage in the West End of Glasgow.”

Teen Canteen’s music has evolved – live and on record – since their formation in 2012; did Easton consciously set out to write a separate, stand-alone batch of tracks for Ette?” It just kind of happened with some songs I wrote last summer,” she offers. “Usually, when I write a song, I’ll do a wee demo of it, and send it to the rest of Teen Canteen, and we’ll all come together with ideas and parts. But I’d been working up the demos a bit more than usual, with vintage drum machines and synths and organs, so they just felt a wee bit too finished, as ideas.” And lo, the Ette songs were born. She worked them up in the studio with Kane. “It was just different,” she says. “Although now, if I write a song, everyone’s like – you know – Is that Ette? Or is it Teen Canteen? And I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing now,” she laughs.

That’s as maybe, but Easton has always seemed quietly assured and determined. Her teenage band with Pieracinni, Futuristic Retro Champions (those lively vintage vibes again), shared bills with The Vaselines and Kate Nash, and explored music’s kinship with visual art – a theme which still abounds in her work. Futuristic Retro Champions’ single, May The Forth (2010), featured artwork from Turner Prize winner Martin Creed (whose own band also played at the single launch), and Easton credits her former Edinburgh College of Art advisor, the late Paul Carter, with encouraging her to make music as well as art. Her postgraduate study at Glasgow School of Art followed a similar path: she sought out tutor Ross Sinclair, also a musician, who would go on to provide the artwork for Teen Canteen’s debut LP.

“I’d always been a fan of Ross – Paul Carter introduced me his work, and I love his music as well as his art,” Easton says. “So when I was at Glasgow School of Art, I had a tutorial with him – I think we ended up just sitting chatting about music, rather than any work I was actually making. So this felt like a nice way tie all that up, to have Ross involved with the album somehow.”

Among other sonic endeavours, Sinclair played drums in Sean Dickson’s Bellshill indie rabble the Soup Dragons – a band whose allies include Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Duglas Stewart of BMX Bandits. Stewart is also a vocal supporter of Easton’s work – so much so, he recorded one of her early songs, Fireworks, for the 2012 LP, BMX Bandits in Space.

“That song kind of kick-started the whole of Teen Canteen,” Easton says. “Duglas has always been really supportive, and I was a fan of BMX Bandits growing up, so it was a real confidence boost.” She recorded her own version of the song for Homemade Lemonade. “I think it’s quite nice to have that to sit alongside the BMX Bandits version,” she says. “And also, it was nice to do it because the cover of Homemade Lemonade is a photo of my eldest niece, Zoe, and Fireworks was written about her, shortly after she was born…”

Much of Easton’s work is similarly embedded in family and friendship. Teen Canteen bassist Debs Smith is a childhood friend, and her brother, Murray, co-runs indie label Last Night In Glasgow, which released Say It All With A Kiss. They’ve just teamed up for another LP, The Christmas Effect: a live recording of an all-star gig Easton and co staged last week to raise money for Scottish Women’s Aid and the Scottish Refugee Council. The Christmas Effect leads on from Easton’s charity nights, The Girl Effect, which also raise money for Scottish Women’s Aid (and which, naturally, sing the joys of the girl group…)

Does Easton feel a responsibility to raise social and political awareness through her art? “I feel that with everything going on at the moment, if you’re in the creative community, you can use a voice to raise awareness,” she says.

Having helmed two debut LPs and a charity album in 2016, you’d think Easton might stop to catch her breath, but 2017 kicks off with an Ette gig at Celtic Connections and a new Teen Canteen EP. “This time,” she says, “we’re recording in stereo.” Sometimes, there’s a lot to be said for coming at things from different angles.

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Essay: Building Memories

This essay was originally published in Score Tae The Toor: a book and CD project inspired by Concrete Antenna, an environmental art installation housed within an Edinburgh tower, conceived by Rob St John, Tommy Perman and Simon Kirby. Contributors included King Creosote, Hanna Tuulikki, Jonnie Common and Stacey Hunter.

*

My grandad was a builder and, perhaps because of that, I’ve always felt a certain sense of propriety over concrete things.

He built the swimming pool in Stirling, my dad helped him, and I knew that for as long as I knew anything. It was always there, with its walls and its water, and it was always ours: a source of belonging, ownership, pride, on account of the hands that put it together. Hands that came home in the afternoon, that were scrubbed in Fairy Liquid and sugar, that spooned up tripe and stewed us apples, picked us bluebells, burled us by the open fire.

In 1980, he built the ice rink. I remember it going up, brick by brick: the building site, the wet cement, in which I was encouraged to leave a trace – my tiny hand-print, set in stone – and when it was finished, one day after nursery, I was the first person to walk on the ice. I knew that building inside out, I recognised its every angle and sigh, and it made me feel like I was part of the landscape. Like I was connected. It made me feel strong.

These recreational landmarks became monuments to my grandfather long after he’d gone; long after it became apparent that concrete things were far more permanent than lungs.

Than life.

I thought.

Those buildings aren’t there any more.

They demolished the ice rink to put up a school. They razed the swimming pool to the ground. Or rather, they hauled it down, brick by brick, and I watched it vanish over days and months –fascinated, disempowered and haunted. Walls became space, loss. Ghosts.

The swimming pool’s a gap-site now, but every time I pass it by, I will the building back into existence. I reconstruct it in my mind, repopulate it with the bodies and water and noises that left a trace, however ephemeral. Close your eyes and they’re all still there – the echoing voices, the wakes, the walls.

Memory, that gap-site says, can be more robust and abiding than concrete. It can withstand the wrecking ball.

*

Imagine there was a concrete tower built out of memory.

Imagine an installation whose foundations were ideas, research and recall; a sky-high repository for our collective and personal myths and narratives; a physical conduit that assembled infinite histories, places and sounds, from the ground right up, and down again.

Imagine that.

*

I guess I was pretty much predisposed to fall for Concrete Antenna’s charms. Look at it, standing there, pulling us in, making the skyline all its own. It’s a landscape, landmark, canvas, environment, instrument, muse and central protagonist – the fourth collaborator alongside its co-creators Tommy Perman, Simon Kirby and Rob St John.

Its physical signposts, urban history / cartography, and songs from the city / songs from the sea are endlessly compelling – its sonic collage of bygone blacksmiths, railways, gas works, church bells, foghorns and fork-lift trucks is glorious (and ever-evolving) – but what strikes most is the tower’s warm and strangely human allure. It’s organic and industrial, abstract and solid, receptive and transmissive, made of memory and concrete. Those old friends. They feel like home.

Perman, Kirby and St John created the Concrete Antenna installation largely from recollections and vague ideas of the space over a six month period in 2014 / 2015, following a five-minute tour of the building site while the tower was still under construction.

It’s a monument to imagination – theirs, and also ours: what’s at the top of the tower? Whatever you like. There’s a window up there, but we’ll never see out of it. What is the building, anyway? It is not an ice rink. It is not a swimming pool. There is barely room to stand. It has no obvious function.

It does not seem concerned by this. Its voices, rhythms, tales and sounds speak volumes about what is there, and what is not, and what has gone before.

Have you heard the tower sing? It sings.

Have you heard its stories? It tells stories.

It told me this one, I suppose.

*

They kept one section of the swimming pool my grandad built. When they knocked it down, they preserved a mural that covered the front wall of the building, because, they explained, that element held significant value; it was, they said, art. The rest was just concrete, and so it is gone. But buildings (and the ghosts they leave) do not require a demonstrable purpose, to remind us what they mean to us; why they mean so much; what they stand for.

*

Related articles: Concrete Antenna feature, The Herald, Feb, 2016

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Interview: Bossy Love

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This interview originally ran as a Herald Arts magazine cover feature in August 2016.

There’s a great 1980s video by The Specials, for their ode to urban discontent, Ghost Town. It sees the ska revivalists crammed in a car, patrolling a city – presumably Coventry – navigating empty streets and socio-political angst, and defining an era in the process.

Their monochrome promo is loosely invoked in a recent clip from R&B livewires Bossy Love, but in their audio-visual rewrite, the car cruises Glasgow, the city is thriving, the subject is physical (the song is called Body), the mood is joyous – and the passengers are not a vintage 2 Tone troupe, but rather the day-glo future of Scottish pop.

Bossy Love are vocalist / MC Amandah Wilkinson and drummer / producer John Baillie Jr. They variously conjure Robyn, The Dream, Beyonce and Neneh Cherry with Rocketnumbernine, and they’re as bold and fun and glorious as their name suggests. Their track titles play out like exclamatory pop demands (Want Some, Sweat It Out, Tell You What, new single Call Me Up), while the music unleashes not so much an invitation to dance as an order.

They’ve only released a handful of singles and mixtapes to date, but have already bagged a heavyweight management deal (they share a roster with PJ Harvey and Radiohead), and had their brilliant recent Glastonbury performance televised by the BBC – and all from their HQ in Dennistoun, Glasgow.

The three of us meet in a Duke Street cafe, and talk about pop, architecture and happenstance over twice-fried chips and cheese, and builder’s tea in china cups. Baillie Jr and Wilkinson constantly spark off each other, sharing tales about playing with Kelis, the wonder of Glasgow, and how burgers and the Megabus saved their band.

The duo first crossed paths in 2008, while Wilkinson, then still based in her native Australia, was in the UK with her Gold Coast indie-punk rabble Operator Please. They ended up sharing a bill with Baillie Jr’s Glasgow fight-pop champions Dananananaykroyd. “We were both supporting The Futureheads at Fat Sam’s in Dundee,” Wilkinson recalls. “We rocked up to the gig, I got to the dressing room, and I saw the name Dananananaykroyd on the wall. I was really scared, because I’d heard so much about them, and I thought they were this scene-y kind of band. But then John, looking half-jaked, knocks on the door, nearly falls down the stairs, and does this: [she takes a deep breath, wavers backwards, closes one eye, drools and slurs] ‘Hey, I’m John, we’re sharing a dressing room…’”

Baillie Jr interjects. “I remember none of this. Obviously.”

“We clicked right away,” Wilkinson continues. “We spent three hours in there, being hyperactive, talking about the same stupid stuff.” They made their first recordings in Baillie Jr’s Glasgow flat shortly thereafter. “Nobody’s ever heard those tracks we did in 2008,” he reminisces. “We might resurrect at least one of them.”

Wilkinson nods earnestly. “We totally should. That track was banging.”

They kept in touch.

Towards the end of 2012, Wilkinson disbanded Operator Please, and moved to London with music in mind. “Bossy Love had been an idea for a while, and I had this bunch of demos, so I sent them to John,” Wilkinson says. Baillie Jr set to work on them that day. “The first thing he sent me back was Call Me Up, and I was amazed. Without having had to say a word, it was everything I’d ever wanted in a song.”

They worked together on a series of demos entitled Me + You through 2013, with Wilkinson travelling up to Scotland every few weekends. “I worked for Crossrail in London,” she recalls. “I’d leave the office on Friday night, get the overnight Megabus up to Glasgow, and John would pick me up in at six in the morning. We’d work on the tracks all weekend, and then I’d travel back down through Sunday night and go straight to work.”

There’s a sense of physical (and emotional) transportation in much of Bossy Love’s work, perhaps because of their origins in transit and motion. They’re propulsive, gleaming, and high-impact, yet they’re also deceptively minimalist, not least on Sweat It Out. It’s a stripped-back, beat-fuelled tropical jam that elicits Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, and the work of that song’s super-producer: the doyen of less-is-more, Quincy Jones.

“I love that,” says Baillie Jr, and aligns such precision pop with modernist architecture. “I have this theory,” he offers. “When you go into an old building, with ornate cornicing and everything, it ticks the ‘nice building’ box. But if you go into somewhere new, where you can see how it’s been built, and you can work out how it’s standing up, it has a certain presence, and power, of its own. I think it’s the same with music. If you can hear it, if everything’s clear to you, if you can pick things out, it can sound heavier. It can have more power. You don’t need much.”

That aesthetic resonates with fellow Glasgow electro trailblazers Hudson Mohawke and Chvrches, and Bossy Love highlight the city’s burgeoning (counter) cultural community in other ways, too: their genre-defying vibes noise up dance clubs, rock dives, indie gatherings and riot grrrl stages (they played an early gig for feminista-pop collective TYCI), and they underscore the city’s knack for nurturing brilliant, singular artists (see also: HQFU, Kathryn Joseph, Ela Orleans, Golden Teacher, Auntie Flo, The Van T’s – and WHITE, with whom they shared a stage at this year’s Scottish Album of the Year Award ceremony at Paisley Town Hall, and with whom they play at Edinburgh’s Summerhall tonight).

“What I love about here is that we’ve got loads of friends that are in way different bands, all amazing at what they do, and there’s no competition,” Wilkinson says. Little wonder, perhaps, she was drawn to the city. She moved to Glasgow in 2014, thanks to a Bossy Love residency at Edinburgh’s Bongo Club, and Baillie Jr’s sideline as a kick-ass barbecue restauranteur.

“The Bongo residency was a real catalyst for me moving,” says Wilkinson of the venue, which was also a critical early space for Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers. “John would DJ, I would MC and sing over other people’s tracks, and then we started dropping our own songs,” she remembers. “The only problem was travelling from London and back to play.”

Baillie Jr had a plan. He opened up a “burger shop” – the delectable Texan hangout Dennistoun BBQ – and offered Wilkinson a job.

The duo’s nascent Bongo Club set-up has since evolved into an incandescent live show. Their gigs are thrilling and action-packed (Wilkinson can bust some moves), and the band always look like they’re having a ball. “We do a lot of pre-production, and put a lot of work in beforehand – and then we try to forget about it all onstage,” Bailllie Jr laughs. “Who in a crowd connects with someone trying to be perfect in front of you, anyway? People connect with vulnerability. It always feels like the wheels are about to come off at any minute when we’re playing live – and we’re not that bothered. A crowd doesn’t owe you anything. Your job is to go up there and try to summon something. Mistakes can free you up. You should be surprised as a performer, too.”

Wilkinson nods. “I love surprises. We supported Kelis in London the other week, and John did a new harmony onstage that he’d never tried before. He totally nailed it. And I was like that, into the microphone – [wide eyed, euphoric, punching the air] – ‘YES!’”

These days, they’re bolstered to a three-piece onstage, thanks to keyboard maharishi Ollie Cox – who, as fate would have it, was looking for a flatmate just as Wilkinson moved to Glasgow. “Everything just fell in line when I moved up here,” she muses. “It’s obviously how it was all supposed to be – this long, travelling idea that came to life when John and I started working together.”

We step out of the cafe; blink into the afternoon as the sun comes out. Baillie Jr squints at Wilkinson. “When I look back at us doing dance tracks in 2008, I knew then,” he says. “I knew we had unfinished business. We always had something. But you lived in Australia. And now here you are in Dennistoun.”

They head for their respective homes, this East End boy and East End girl, who light up the room and the sky and the city. Bossy Love is all you need.

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Interview: King Creosote

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This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on August 25, 2016.

Elton John was bang on, as usual. It really is lonely out in space. Take Major Tom’s solitary tin-can odyssey, or Lou Reed’s forlorn Satellite of Love. Or take the new album from King Creosote, which sees our astral pop swashbuckler, aka Fife’s Kenny Anderson, navigate the vagaries of the cosmos – its isolation, obscurity, absence; its uncertainty and darkness; its light and stars and shadows – and reflect upon the distance between us.

Astronaut Meets Appleman, released next month, is the official follow-up to 2014’s celebrated From Scotland With Love, and may be KC’s most celestial and earthly album to date. If From Scotland With Love was a stunning epistle to (and from) our collective past, and 2011’s Mercury-shortlisted Diamond Mine was a love letter to the East Neuk of Fife, then Astronaut Meets Appleman is a series of postcards from the edges – of emotion, time, the coast, the sky, the underground, patience, silence and hope.

It’s a wilfully disoriented record, but it’s never alienating. Chamber-pop lullaby Betelgeuse locates him all at sea in the universe (“My ship has set course for the space in between Orion’s Belt and Betelgeuse, and I may not back”), bluegrass lament Wake Up To This finds him dealing with a leaky roof and / or biblical penance (“I deserve the flood”), and calypso serenade Love Life calls forth Flashdance and Scarlett Johansson before crashing back to earth (“she’ll have you ground down”).

We usually meet at Anderson’s house, do interviews over Earl Grey tea and macaroni pies at his Crail kitchen table. But Astronaut Meets Appleman sees KC depart his comfort zone – musically, lyrically, geographically – so this time, he journeys to the Central Belt. We meet in a Bridge of Allan pub, put the world and neighbouring planets to rights, surrounded by late-afternoon locals, two dogs, and a handful of men in their sixties who seem disinterested until Anderson makes to leave – at which point they accost him, tell him they love him, sing the praises of Bats in the Attic (from his Diamond Mine collaboration with Jon Hopkins), and continue to rave about his “magical” voice long after he has pulled down his hat, huddled into his jacket, and headed for home.

That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. Anderson has been amassing a DIY trove of intergalactic ballads and squeezebox shanties since the early 90s – not to mention his bluegrass punk peregrinations in the Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra and Khartoum Heroes, his beloved Fence Collective cabal (James Yorkston, KT Tunstall et al), and a mid-2000s major-label deal with Warners – but Diamond Mine and From Scotland With Love are the records that have quietly, slowly captured wider public affection.

Diamond Mine’s excavation and re-honing of songs from Anderson’s prodigious back catalogue (a conservative estimate might put it at 100 albums) shines light on a timeless body of work full of hidden gems, and his recent albums follow a similar trajectory: historic favourites like My Favourite Girl and Pauper’s Dough were revisited on 2014’s hit From Scotland With Love along with original specially written works, and Astronaut Meets Appleman transforms and re-contextualises older recordings alongside new songs. Stunning orchestral-pop hymn Faux Call was a b-side almost 10 years ago; several tracks had a low-key outing on last year’s Smavulgar LP. Anderson’s songs seem to have their own time zones, life-spans and circuitous flight paths. People find him in their own time.

Now that they’ve done so, he seems to be trying to get lost again. He ventured into remote spaces making Astronaut Meets Appleman, which was variously recorded at Analogue Catalogue in Ireland’s County Down, and An Tobar on the Isle of Mull – although his spiritual home, Glasgow’s Chem19 studios, still played a part, as did its stellar foreman, Paul Savage, who co-produced the album. “I love Chem 19, I love Paul, we’ve done loads together, but I have to say, having places with views for a change – that was just stunning,” Anderson offers.

The music, too, evokes picturesque terrain, thanks to Catriona McKay’s exquisite harp, Hannah Fisher’s swoon-inducing fiddle, and the thrilling bagpipes of Mairearad Green, alongside KC’s stunning big band ensemble. “I thought it would be great to make a record that was musically Scottish after From Scotland With Love, which wasn’t really that Scottish at all,” he says, with trademark good-natured contrariness. “But I didn’t want this to be a traditional album. Like that Hendrix thing that Mairearad busts out, it totally grabs you.” He plays air bagpipes in the pub.

Green contributes to an anti-wind turbine song called Melin Wynt, named after a Welsh town called windmill, despite there being no windmills there. This clearly appeals to Anderson’s humour. His lyrical modus operandi has long been brilliant, cryptic wordplay – his protagonists and subject matter disguised in allusion, ambiguity and landscape – as best exemplified, perhaps, by You’ve No Clue Do You, the lead single from 2007’s major-label opus, Bombshell. The song unravels itself like a crossword puzzle (you’ll note the word Cluedo within the title, and the drive-rock whodunnit is populated by Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum, et al). It contains one of KC’s most telling lines: “That’s yet another wrong guess.” We can but try.

But on Astronaut Meets Appleman, his words, on occasion, seem more straightforward than usual. Anderson nods. “There was the dislocation of getting out of the usual city and using other instruments with this record, but I also wanted to push myself songwriting wise,” he says. “I wanted to try and get some naivety back. If I’d done this record three years ago, there are lines that I’d never have left like this. I’d have kept on twisting words, I’d have kept on overthinking it. But here, I’ve let that go a bit. Sometimes you just have to take it on the chin and accept that you say daft sh*t.”

It’s hard not to suspect that this is a double-bluff; that such lyrics are deceptively simple – and therefore twice as complex as usual – but Anderson laughs off the suggestion. “I’m not always being cryptic here. And that’s allowed me to try and assert myself as someone who’s not as good as even I sometimes think I am. I can be banal. Everyone can. To allow yourself to be average, that’s what I’m aiming for.”

To what extent has writing for From Scotland With Love – which was largely composed in response to a brief – impacted on Anderson’s new material? “I think writing to rote for From Scotland With Love, and that whole idea of taking myself out of the equation, has freed me up a bit,” he offers. “I’d never done anything like that before. And I like that now, if I want, I can just go with the first couplet, and move on. The song can work anyway.

“The other thing is that taking the cleverness away from the words makes you concentrate on what’s going on with the music a bit more,” he continues. “The songs are getting longer and longer to accommodate everybody. There’s all these instruments. There’s all these singers.” It’s a beautiful record as a result – the unhurried arrangements of Faux Call and Rules of Engagement in particular are breathtaking, and will delight fans of Diamond Mine and From Scotland With Love. But KC is not one to rest. “I actually almost feel I’ve stretched that big band idea as far as I can now,” he says. “I already hear this as a stepping stone to the next thing, even though I don’t know what that is yet.”

The album title similarly grapples with the unknown. “It’s a reality check,” says our DIY rocket man. “It’s an illustration of what my life’s like. This record wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for emailing WAV files around, and yet it doesn’t matter how much we strive for this digital utopia, there’s always this other thing that bites us in the ass, and it’s real life. It’s people. It’s mistakes. And then there’s the fact that I feel like I’m always reaching for something. I feel like I always have been. And I never get there.”

There’s a song about the moon on Astronaut Meets Appleman. Or rather, there’s a song called Surface, about losing sight of ourselves (and each other); about being eclipsed and taking cover; about seeking light and glimmering hope and finding a way when darkness falls. “It’s a heady descent,” King Creosote sings, and he’s right of course. But the sun also rises.

 

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