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.