Interview: Kathryn Joseph

Kathryn Joseph

Kathryn Joseph

This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland). Photo credit: Dylan Nolte.

You could easily get the wrong idea about Kathryn Joseph.

You could see her poised at her vintage piano and envisage a fragile balladeer. You could pore over her earthy song titles – The Good, The Mouth, The Bird – and expect a romantic singer-songwriter. You could read about her beating the likes of Paolo Nutini, Belle and Sebastian and Young Fathers to scoop this year’s Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award, and imagine the win was a bit of a shock. But the only one truly surprised was Joseph. Some of us weren’t surprised at all.

At the start of this year, Glasgow label Hits The Fan quietly issued Joseph’s debut album, Bones You Have Thrown Me And Blood I’ve Spilled. The imprint, run by Claire and Marcus Mackay, released Frightened Rabbit’s debut album, Sing The Greys, back in 2006, and then went into hibernation – until they heard Kathryn Joseph, an Aberdeen musician who had, by chance, moved in next door.

Her album arrived in without fuss or fanfare: a record wrapped in brown paper, which looked, and felt, and sounded, timeless – from its sepia imagery and organic idiom, to Joseph’s crackling voice and down-home piano. Its titles scanned like gothic literature chapters – The Blood, The Bone, The Crow – and its bruised, biting lyrics followed suit. And as for the songs? They were exquisite.

Joseph herself appeared, at that point, to be nigh-on hermitic: no photos of her were in existence, no interviews had been conducted. Little was known about the woman behind these visceral, striking, resilient songs. And so we supposed that she might be shy and retiring. A quiet soul. But we were wrong.

Which is why, on a Friday night in Glasgow, what begins as an interview over wine ends up as one of the most expletive-ridden, cackling exchanges I’ve ever had the pleasure of transcribing. Joseph is immensely good company – self-deprecating, honest, barbed, and clearly absolutely thrilled by the widespread loved-up response to her album.

She’s been performing for the best part of two decades, but never thought she’d make this record. “People always came to my gigs,” Joseph says of her early days playing live in Aberdeen. “But I never thought I could deal with the stuff that comes with putting out an album – the interviews, the thought of speaking on-stage, let alone having my photograph taken. That all just filled me with absolute dread.”

Joseph doesn’t speak of this lightly. Early press photos depicted a woman with her face scored out in biro. “I’ve always hated what I look like,” she offers. “For me, the point of playing live was because that’s the only time I don’t think about it.’” For a time, Joseph even believed that the awestruck silence she commands when performing was invoked by her appearance. “I always wondered if it was because I gave everyone the creeps,” she recalls, rolling her eyes at herself.

This telling sense (misplaced or otherwise) of not living up to the archetype – or expectation – of a female artist was also a contributing factor in Joseph’s rejection of a record deal with Sanctuary 17 years ago. “They offered the same amount as I was making waitressing, and they were like, ‘You don’t need a manager – here’s your manager!’, and I recorded some sessions and they were like, ‘Here’s your album!’, and there was this total awareness of me being a little girl with no-one around me who knew anything about it. It was all very weird,” she recalls. She turned them down.

She continued to work and perform in Aberdeen until around five years ago, when she moved to Glasgow and met Claire and Marcus Mackay. Marcus, a musician and producer who runs Glasgow recording studio The Diving Bell Lounge, heard Joseph support John Knox Sex Club and fell for her songs. He persuaded her to record with him on production duties and stealth percussion.

His wife, meanwhile, was instrumental in convincing Joseph that she should release – and, more pertinently, promote – the album. “Claire goaded me into it,” says Joseph with a laugh. “I told her I didn’t want to do interviews and photos, and she said, ‘Well, you’ll just have to get on with it.’ That was me told.” (It bears noting that Joseph’s entire team – her label boss / manager, her PR, her pluggers, her photographer – are female.)

Since then, her face has been all over the papers, all over the telly. Has it been liberating to learn to let it go, to stop hiding away? “It totally has,” she nods. “And the weird thing is now, when I look at the SAY Award photos, I don’t actually mind what I look like. All I can see is how f***ing happy I was. I don’t care any more. Liberating really is the word. You get perspective as you get older. And having kids makes you realise it doesn’t matter. Plus, it makes you realise how little time you’ve got.”

Joseph has a four-year-old daughter, Eve. Five years ago, she had a son, Joseph, who was born three months prematurely. He lived for a week, and his life is at the heart of the album. “He was completely fine for the first week, but then he had a ruptured bowel,” she recalls. “We got phoned by the hospital that night telling us it was bad news, and on our way I said to my partner, ‘If he doesn’t make it, if he doesn’t live, I have to do music.’

“I know it was a weird rationale,” she says of her coping mechanism. “But that’s how I felt. And the luckiest thing was, two months later I was pregnant with Eve. She’s f***king amazing. She said to me the other day, ‘Mummy, you’re complicated.’ And I was like – ‘Oh! What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘Because you’re beautiful and lovely,’” she laughs. (Eve is spot-on.) “To be honest, I think she got that line from My Little Pony, but I loved it.”

Joseph is at pains to point out that this album is not about the loss of a child, save for its devastating swansong, The Weary. “The songs are all over the place,” she offers. “They were written over the last ten years, and I think they show how much we think we change, and how little we really do. I know that in a lot of interviews people think the songs are all to do with my baby or whatever, but to be honest, most of them are about boys. They’re about boys that f***ed me over.” A glint in her eye. “And now I want to destroy them.” She throws her head back laughing.

This time last week, after toying with the idea for years, she officially changed her name from Kathryn Sawers to Kathryn Joseph by deed poll. Her daughter’s middle name is Joseph and her boy, of course, was Joseph too.

What’s the symbolism of the name? Is it a biblical reference? A Haydn homage? A nod to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? “I’ve just always liked the name Joseph,” shrugs the woman who won the SAY Award then danced until the sun came up. “I remember it was written on a lamp in my house,” she says smiling. “I don’t know why”. Where there is darkness, there is light.

Kathryn Joseph’s new single The Bird / The Worm is out on 27 July. Live at Wickerman Festival July 24-25, Glasgow Hug and Pint August 1, Belladrum Festival August 6-8. Full tour dates here

Related Articles:

Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award longlist announcement / feature, The Herald

Kathryn Joseph live review, The Herald

Kathryn Joseph filmed live session / interview, BBC Radio Scotland

 

 

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Profile: Taylor Swift

photo (6)This article originally ran as the cover feature in The Herald Arts Magazine on June 20, 2015.

*

There was this TV advert for stockings when I was young. It depicted a beautiful woman undressing after a cocktail party, all 1980s sophistication, nylon thighs and subdued lighting. It was sound-tracked by Roxy Music’s Avalon, and the inference was that Bryan Ferry might be reclining – tuxedo loosened, Martini ice clinking, come-hither eyes smouldering – out of shot.

The romanticised sense of adulthood that this advert, and 80s-era Roxy Music, instilled in me as a child remains vivid, if absurd. Hearing Dance Away, or More Than This, or Avalon, makes me profoundly nostalgic for a grown-up life I’ve only ever imagined: for being wealthy and demure; for being surrounded by black ash furniture; for whiling away every waking hour in a low-lit dance of seduction (stockings optional).

None of this has come to pass.

My children have recently banned me from watching the video for Taylor Swift’s Style. Apparently, this is how real-life adulthood plays out. Said pop prohibition kicked off as a joke when I started mainlining Style on repeat – “You love Taylor Swift even more than we do!”, the kids would laugh (the subtext being, of course, that it is their music; not mine).

But a serious intervention was staged when my obsession resulted in said offspring missing vital TV clips from Charli XCX, Rita Ora, Haim and Rihanna (all of which are glorious, don’t get me wrong). So now I listen to Style furtively, 20, 30 times daily, as I did Shake It Off last summer, and I Knew You Were Trouble the summer before – fixated on half-memories of a younger life I’ll never know.

Style is the third single to be taken from Taylor Swift’s fifth album, 1989. The LP, which was released in October last year, shot to Number One in 12 countries, including the UK and the US, and has gone on to shift nigh-on 10 million copies around the world. That’s not counting the 25 million album sales from her back-catalogue. She’s bagged seven Grammy Awards, 11 Country Music Awards, 16 American Music Awards, 21 Teen Choice Awards, eight Academy of Country Music Awards, five MTV Awards, a BRIT Award and 34 Billboard Awards.

Taylor Swift is 25.

She’s been writing songs for half her life. And if her eponymous 2006 debut album heralded a major new country music talent, then so too did its opening words lay bare her modus operandi: relatability, conversational lyrics, romanticism, quiet wisdom, and the epic (and poetic) potential of a fleeting moment or memory: “He said the way my blue eyes shined put those Georgia stars to shame that night / I said, ‘That’s a lie‘”, she sings at the start of Tim McGraw, the first song on her first album, which was also her debut single.

Swift was 16 when her calling card was released, but she’d been eyeing up the music industry for years before that. Her family moved from Reading, Pennsylvania to Nashville, Tennessee, in a bid to support Swift’s burgeoning musical ambitions, and she signed a development deal with RCA when she was 14. It’s testament to her songwriting talent that every track on her debut was either written or co-written by Swift, and that pattern has followed through her albums since – 2008’s Fearless, 2012’s Red, 2014’s 1989 – with the exception of 2010’s Speak Now, which was entirely self-penned.

Her songwriting collaborations are always judicious, and they’ve played a key role in her evolution from teenage country music prodigy to twenty-something global pop phenomenon, as early co-writes with country firebrand Liz Rose (Tim McGraw, Teardrops On My Guitar, White Horse) have given way to intergalactic pop domination in cahoots with Swedish powerhouse Max Martin (We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, I Knew You Were Trouble, Shake It Off, Blank Space, Style).

Swift trades on a glamorous every-girl persona, but there’s a fierce defiance too. It’s in her business clout (she made international headline news for withdrawing her music from Spotify in protest at their free streaming service, which she – rightly – claimed undermines our value of recorded music); it’s in her image and ambition; and it’s all over her wholesale embrace of pop music.

Her journey from country and acoustic (that is to say, what’s historically accepted as “real”) music, to pop, is at odds with a tradition which sees pop acts move towards unplugged music in a bid (perhaps) to signify, or reinforce, authenticity – from Madonna’s Music album to Rihanna’s recruitment of Paul McCartney to play acoustic guitar on FourFiveSeconds (which is an excellent single, granted, but that’s despite – not because of – the rock patriarchy’s stamp having been foisted upon it).

Swift is having none of that. She launched 1989 by introducing it as her “very first, documented, official pop album”, and the album draws influence from the 1980s – from Blank Space’s epic synth-pop balladry to the angular, Chvrches-invoking electro of Out Of The Woods. And then there’s the album’s brilliant, ebullient lead single, Shake It Off – all Toni Basil party beats and Cyndi Lauper-esque lyrical shrugs.

But all the best pop songs are about longing, and the promise – or at least the vaguest possibility – of sex, and these constituents are never more apparent, nor evocative, than on Style. It’s a 21st century power ballad that conjures an illicit rendezvous (“Midnight, you come and pick me up, no headlights”), all nagging basslines, low-lit seduction and blazing eyes, and its unhurried build-ups to minor-chord climaxes that coincide with “crashing down” lyrics – not to mention the video’s simultaneous cresting waves … Well, it’s hardly subtle code for carnal gratification.

The video’s female gaze bears noting, too: in Style, the man is objectified, stripped-bare and in-focus – traditionally, we’d see the woman in that role – and Swift amped up her feminist viewpoint for its follow-up video, Bad Blood, which blew a high-octane (high-budget) hole through gender conventions and superhero cliches, hurling us headlong into a to a kick-ass, woman-dominated world populated by the likes of Swift, Cindy Crawford and Lena Dunham. It’s ludicrous and fun – and it’s also a lot less controversial than the clip that accompanied Shake It Off.

Swift’s rise and rise has not been without criticism, and the Shake It Off video drew more than most, thanks to widespread accusations of cultural appropriation (Earl Sweatshirt accused her of “perpetuating black stereotypes” in the clip). The song, too, which flicks the vs at “haters”, had its detractors, who felt it was at odds with Swift’s trademark messages of optimism and self-empowerment. And she constantly comes under fire for writing about her ex-partners. (It’s fine for a man to do this, of course: the artist needs his muse).

One of the most persistent criticisms is that Swift peddles fairy tales to youngsters. But won’t somebody think of the grown-ups? She’s stirring all manner of yearning for times past (real or imagined) in men and women the world over, as proven by recent Spotify research which suggested that when people hit 42, they rediscover the pop joys of Swift et al, which prompted countless articles claiming that – among her countless other achievements – Taylor Swift has usurped motorbikes as the universal symbol of mid-life crisis.

One thing though. Any criticism that she flogs unattainable daydreams to young girls across the world, and / or crippling nostalgia to ageing mothers in the central belt, overlooks her self-defined fallibility; her knack for revelling in tales without a happy ending; in admitting and celebrating her failings. Take her 2010 break-through hit, I Knew You Were Trouble: “Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago,” she begins, suggesting that her fairy stories have a knowing, ongoing, sting in their tales.

And they have humour, too. Her laughter is an instrument in itself – from the carefree, uplifting what’s-a-girl-gonna-do giggle that follows “I go on too many dates” in Shake It Off, to the abashed half-laugh that ends this line in Style: “He said, ‘What you’ve heard is true but I, can’t stop thinking ’bout you and I’ / I said, ‘I’ve been there too, a few times,’” as if she’s been caught out by her own honesty, or her own heart, and I love her for that alone.

Stephen Hawking offered solace to a One Direction fan last month. Appearing in holograph form in Australia, he proffered theoretical physics as a remedy for the burning heartbreak sparked by Zayn Malik’s departure from the fab five. “One day there may well be proof of multiple universes,” consoled the cosmologist. “And in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction.”

If it’s good enough for Hawking, it’s good enough for me. Stick Avalon on the turntable and, in a parallel world, you won’t see my sophisticated alter-ego for a black cocktail dress, an oil baron and (gold) dust. In another of Hawking’s conjectural realms, Style blares out in perpetuity, all the better to soundtrack my illicit existence of late-night seduction. Meanwhile, in this one, I’m still being laughed at by my own children for how much I love 1989.

But we all need our fairy-tales and our daydreams; we all need our (false) hopes and our half-memories. We need Taylor Swift, and Roxy Music, and the infinite magic of pop music, to galvanise our hearts and minds; to make us feel young, and old, and alive; to make the most of our (not so) simple lives. More than this, there’s nothing.

*

Taylor Swift plays Glasgow Hydro on June 20

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Interview: Ela Orleans

IMG_3533

This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on April 9, 2015.

Ela Orleans is swirling coffee, deliberating on the themes of her new electro-noir album, Upper Hell. “Oh, you know, it’s about that whole apocalypse-slash-depression idea. Cheerful stuff like that,” she deadpans. “No hope. Misery and trauma. My favourite things.” It also touches on Glasgow indie, Warsaw opera, bootleg jungle tapes, and Bono.

Orleans’ sixth album is a heavenly record about hell. It sees the Poland-raised, Glasgow-based musician and composer team up with producer Howie B, whose credits include Tricky, Bjork, U2 and Everything But The Girl, and never has her modus operandi, “haunted dancehall”, seemed so apt.

Loosely based on Dante’s Inferno, Upper Hell voyages through fear, regret and despair, and all to a groovy dark-pop beat – from the River Acheron’s ghostly chamber-electro, through the industrial disco of City of Dis, to the “abandon all hope, ye who enter” refrains of exquisite swansong, Through Me, which features harmonies from The Pastels.

“Even though it’s about a horrible time, I didn’t want this to be a very grim and sad record,” offers Orleans. “The thing that always saves me from being on a downer is humour. Always. And there’s something perverse in joking about your unhappiness. I find that quite attractive. So I basically made a big party out of all the s**t I was going through.”

Orleans’ prior mercurial albums have cited Aleister Crowley, Arthur Rimbaud, Emily Dickinson and WB Yeats, and while Upper Hell also alludes to the bible and outsider art, its overall arc is mapped by Dante’s journey through the netherworld. What was the attraction? “I find it really comforting,” she says. “It takes you away. It makes you almost fly over everything, and lets you see the whole misery of life, you know?” She skips a beat and smiles. “That’s a cheerful thing to say. But who said you have to be happy, anyway? Who said you have to believe in fairy-tales? Especially girls. Just don’t. Be tough. You have to be tough.”

It is testament to Orleans’ extraordinary art that her songs operate on myriad levels, and in circles within circles. They are universal, literary, abstract, vivid, intimate, empowering and strangely comforting. Her re-appropriation of classic texts and her original lyrical visions tell us very little about Orleans, yet much about ourselves – and that is by meticulous design. “Art without the mystery – art with all that autobiographical stuff – why would I make that? Why would I do that to people?” She says, wryly. “I love music. I love how it sounds, when it sounds good. But I would never go into autobiography. I find that very pompous and sad. And lacking humour, actually. There’s something very self-indulgent about it.”

Her music’s sense of timelessness, and otherworldliness, is echoed in Orleans’ preoccupations with space (2011’s Ray Bradbury-inspired Mars Is Heaven) and the skies (2012’s Tumult In Clouds) – and her personal geography is similarly untethered. “People always try to put me somewhere,” says the artist, who grew up in Poland, studied in Glasgow and spent time in London and New York’s sonic underground. “But I don’t feel roots anywhere. Home is wherever I have my friends.

“Of course, it all somehow impacts,” she continues. “I was brought up on Austrian music – Strauss, Mozart, things like that – and then I listened to a lot of Polish chanson. And I always loved reggae too. I always loved dub. I always loved bass, and relentless rhythms and repetition. When I went to London, in 1995, that was the biggest hit of my life. I heard jungle music, and I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ I’d get all these tapes from market stalls, of jungle music, and I thought, ‘Do I hate it, or do I love it?’ That was the only time in my life that music surprised me.”

You can hear it resonating in the fathomless bass and off-beat electronica of her new record. “Yeah, and that’s partly because of Howie – he brings that aesthetic to this album,” she says. “And actually, there is a link with him, through that time in London, because his were the records I was listening to back then – the records he produced, like Tricky and Massive Attack.”

Orleans met Howie B through a close friend who transpired to be his sister. “He came to see me play in the Glad Cafe in Glasgow, and we had this geeky exchange,” Orleans recalls. “He said to call him if I ever needed help with technical stuff. Then a few weeks later, he called me. He might have been a bit drunk actually, it was about 3am, and I think he was in China. Anyway, he was like, ‘Ela, how many new tracks do you have ready? Can you send me three?’ So I sent him demos of River Acheron, Secret Hands and Upon The Abysses. And the next day, I had this love letter to my music. I still read that email.”

They started working together soon thereafter. He encouraged Orleans to continue recording in her “intimate” way – on equipment at home in Glasgow, and then in Warsaw where she was working on an opera – and then they re-built the songs together in his studio in London. “That was terrifying,” says Orleans. “But Howie was just so great at stretching things, and bringing much more space and dynamic. He hears a lot of jazz in my music and he tried to work with that. He’d move rhythms around, and break things up a bit – just so it’s a little bit off – and add things in really odd places. Like stardust. We talked a lot about the idea of having just bass, with glitter over it.”

Theirs is a celestial union, but it was not without its heavy moments, which came to a head while the duo worked on the LP’s utterly beautiful tech-dirge, We Are One. “That was the time when I pissed off Howie,” Orleans recalls. “I was just so annoying. I was really, really particular about this synthesiser part, I wanted to hear it all the time, and I was just like – buzz, buzz, buzz, in his ear about it, all the time – you know, just constantly, ‘Howie, Howie, you can’t forget that, you can’t forget that’. And eventually he was like – ‘F*** off!’”

She stops to laugh at the memory. The tale is testament to her persistent, fastidious ethos – and indeed her singularity. “Howie called me later that night to apologise,” she continues, smiling. He said, ‘Ela, I’ve only ever said F*** off to one other person before. And that was Bono.’”

*

Related articles: Ela Orleans, Upper Hell album review (The List)

 

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Interview: Errors

errors

This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on April 3, 2015.

If you’re ogling the cover of Errors’ ace new album, Lease of Life, look sharp. At first glance, the sleeve appears to be a photo of lush potted ivy or some-such, but closer inspection reveals it as an entirely computer-generated image. Such uncanny ambiguity defines the Glasgow electro-prog trio’s fourth long-player.

Its capricious (yet cohesive) sonic palette is at once familiar and unsettling, as it journeys from the ghosts of pipe bands and ancient folk through Vangelis, Caribou, 808 State, Tangerine Dream and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. The album’s themes are similarly vivid yet uncertain: its dreamy kosmische-disco songs insinuate post-apocalyptic alien rule, information overload and cannibalism. But they might just be about human contact.

“The idea of not quite knowing what something is – if it’s real or synthetic – has always interested us,” says the band’s co-founder and co-songwriter Steev Livingstone. “We wanted the Lease of Life artwork to be hyper-real, so you can’t tell the difference, unless you really study it. And we think about that a lot with our music too. We used a lot of synthesised organic sounds – string sounds, choir sounds – and we wanted to play around with the idea of what’s real, and what isn’t, while also trying to come across as more organic.”

True to this, Lease of Life is created by technology and preoccupied by cyber-anxiety, yet rooted in a rural utopia: much of the album was written and recorded on the Isle of Jura. And the record contains, amid myriad surprises, synthesisers that elicit bagpipes (or vice versa) on the title track. “Oh yeah, I know the sound you mean,” says Livingstone with a laugh. “We’ve actually been accused of the bagpipe thing before. The last track on our last album [2012’s Scottish Album of the Year Award-nominated Have Some Faith In Magic] has got a bit of that going on.

“I think it’s partly because we use a pentatonic scale, which can sound kind of Scottish,” he continues. (It’s also a favoured musical mode of their Rock Action label bosses, Mogwai). “We use it because it’s a really easy scale to write with – you can play anything and it sounds good, basically – but I’d also been thinking about bagpipes in terms of world music instruments. I think other tracks like New Winged Fire were tapping into that kind of world music thing too, and ideas of Indian music,” he says. You can even discern some far-flung disco panpipes on the latter track. But it might just be a tech-illusion.

There are some entities on the new album which are, however, undoubtedly real – namely, voices, choirs, and saxophones. Livingstone’s own voice has increasingly come to light since the band formed in 2004, and the album also features Oliva Bek (Magic Eye, who also starred on their Relics mini-LP) and Cecilia Stamp, whom Livingstone asked to contribute after hearing her sing on karaoke.

The saxophone and choir meanwhile, give the album a sense of celebration. Livingstone nods. “I think we felt like it was make or break time a bit with this record. We’ve been doing this long enough, and the only people who can make these things happen are me and Simon [Ward; they’re joined in the band by James Hamilton]. So we did what we really wanted this time. And we wanted a saxophone.”

The saxophone wields an extraordinary power in electronic music – it’s loud, and brash, and alien – but it can work wonders, as it does on ecstatic electro-pop aria Genuflection. “Yeah, but there’s a really fine line with that sort of thing,” Livingsone offers. “For a lot of people, the saxophone comes with cheesy Kenny G references. When it enters into our record for first time, it comes as a shock or a surprise to people, which obviously I didn’t consider because it was always in my head as a saxophone part.”

Did he always envisage a choir for the album’s epic techno-gospel swansong, Through The Knowledge Of Those Who Observe Us? “Oh yeah, that was never just going to be 20 versions of my voice,” he says. “The Glad Community choir was amazing. There’s such a range of ages and voices, male and female. I was deliberately referencing religious music with the choir, and the euphoria that comes with that. I’m not a religious person, but I’m definitely interested in a group of people singing together. I think there’s something pretty powerful about that.”

The gospel and religious allusions echo the notion of rave culture as secular spiritualism – of ecstasy, worship and communion on the dance-floor – too. “Actually, I hadn’t even considered that, but absolutely – that’s what I’m going to say it means from now on,” Livingstone laughs.

“I suppose the thing is, in the past we’ve held back on doing things, like the choir and the saxophone. This time, we decided we’d actually make the record we wanted to make,” he says. It sounds like the real thing.

Related articles:
Errors interview (The Herald, 2012)
Errors interview (The List, 2010)

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Live Review: Sleater-Kinney

Sleeater_Kinney_NEW_small

This review originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on Friday March 27 2015.

Sleater-Kinney

02ABC, Glasgow

March 25

(Five stars)

You wait ten years for a punk-rock revolutionary, and then three come along at once.

A decade since Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss called time on Washington’s Sleater-Kinney, the alt-rock insurgents bounced back with a vengeance – first with a brilliant new album, No Cities To Love, and then with a world tour, which struck Glasgow like lightning on Wednesday night.

It’s 21 years since Brownstein (guitars, vocals) and Tucker (guitars, vocals) formed Sleater-Kinney. Their roots were in the femme-punk uprising of riot grrrl, whose DIY activism still makes waves, as evidenced by local feminista-pop collective TYCI: they threw the gig’s official after-party, collected donations for Women’s Aid, and bagged a righteous on-stage shout-out from Sleater-Kinney for their excellent endeavours.

The band’s incendiary set was enlivened by leaping, axe-duelling and rock theatrics, and loaded with fired-up favourites including 1997’s barbed grunge lullaby Little Babies (which they dedicated to Zayn Malik on the day of his fleeing One Direction), the snarling, sublime guitar-pop of 1999’s Start Together (camaraderie is their modus operandi), and a show-stopping rendition of 2005’s browbeaten and down (but not out) Modern Girl.

Their new tracks – each with words to live by – were particularly powerful live, and offered a vivid visual and physical manifestation of the trio’s unique dynamic: Brownstein and Tucker’s guitar and vocal interplay was thrilling on Price Tag (“I’ll choose sin till I leave”), powerhouse drummer Weiss’ fearless beats raised the roof on Bury Our Friends (“We’re wild and weary but we won’t give in”), and the trio unleashed A New Wave to adoration as they hollered, “Let’s destroy a room with this love”.

Let’s take on the world with it.

*

Related articles:

Sleater-Kinney interview: The Herald, February 2015

On Sleater-Kinney, Sacred Paws and Riot Grrrl: The List, January 2015

Posted in Journalism, Reviews (Live) | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Album Review: Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat

bill wells and aidan moffat

This review originally ran in The List Magazine

Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat

The Most Important Place In The World

Chemikal Underground

(Four Stars)

There’s a lot to be said for the joys of winking. But it can also result in one veering off the rails – or road, of course – as the winking beat of the car indicator that opens this glorious album reminds us.

The second long-player from Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat starts with ‘On The Motorway’ – an in-car ode to being stifled, restless and bored, and to broaching crossroads (that way, temptation lies). It’s a fitting route into a record that navigates life, love and sex; that maps the body and heart (and other organs); that charts an insatiable yearning for the city (as temptress, guardian, grand passion and confidante). ‘The city wants to take me back … her legs are spread,’ sings Moffat in the opening track, atop the indicator’s rampant winking. Does our protagonist take the right turn? That’s for the rest of the record to intimate.

One thing is evident: if ‘On The Motorway’ signals a turning point, perhaps even a boundary crossing, then rest assured it doesn’t imply a change in musical direction for Wells and Moffat. The avant-jazz torch-songs and poetic cocktail-pop that defined 2012’s SAY Award-winning Everything’s Getting Older return with a vengeance (‘This Dark Desire’, ‘Far From You’, ‘Any Other Mirror’) – but there are myriad deviations too, including cloven-hooved Caledonian gospel (‘Street Pastor Colloquy, 3am’), pragmatic, euphoric electro-pop (‘The Eleven Year Glitch’), and a clanging, Tom Waits-ian jazz-skronk dirge (‘Lock Up Your Lambs’) – not to mention the shadowy vestiges of a guilt-averse power ballad on ‘The Unseen Man’ (‘They still won’t wink and they still won’t smile…‘).

Moffat duly rules the roles of noir-pop eroticist (‘Nothing sounds sweeter than a stolen sigh‘); raving, roving werewolf librettist (‘I howled a poem at the first moon I saw‘); and murmuring urban natur(al)ist eyeing up the city’s wild life (‘This is the soul of the city, her glory stripped, her passions laid bare‘) – while Wells’ exquisite piano melodies and jazz-by-stealth chorales are as fascinating and seductive as ever.

They’re brilliantly embellished by saxophones, trumpets and strings – and, of course, that winking indicator, whose monotonous rhythm reappears in the album’s swansong, ‘We’re Still Here’. It’s a heartening salute to moving on from crossroads and cross words, to roads to nowhere and resilience, to defying the odds, to staying power – to quietly celebrating the precarious art of getting by.

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Related articles: I spoke to Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat about The Most Important Place In The World for The Herald.

Footnote: I sat in for Vic Galloway on BBC Radio Scotland a few weeks back and closed the show with ‘Street Pastor Colloquy, 3am’ – you can listen again here.

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Interview: Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat

Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat 2015-1

This interview originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on March 12, 2015, under the heading PRIZE-WINNING DUO BACK TO TAKE THEIR IMPORTANT PLACE.

There is something of the night about the new album from Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat. It’s in the nocturnal torch-songs and after-hours pop. It’s in the shadowy titles of its songs (This Dark Desire, The Unseen Man). It defines its time-zone and landscape (the moon-lit city). And it’s in the record’s very inception: the music, on more than one occasion, came to jazz alchemist Wells in a dream.

“I dreamt about seeing this choir on the television, and that became Street Pastor Colloquy, 3am” recalls Wells, about a joyous urban gospel anthem on the new LP. “They were singing the melody that you hear on the record, and singing all of the words in the chorus. So I sent Aidan a demo and said, ‘That seems a good tune, if you fancy doing something with it?’”

Moffat worked his cunning linguistic wonder, as Moffat does. That demo became an album highlight – a saxophone-fuelled, Satan-toting, sing-a-long ode to the city-as-saviour, starring the Glad Cafe Community Choir. It’s one of countless surprises on the second LP from the Falkirk-born, Glasgow-based artists, which maps the city and its secrets, which explores temptation and what lies beyond, which (sometimes) finds its way back home. It’s called The Most Important Place In The World.

Moffat and Wells’ debut, Everything’s Getting Older, won 2012’s inaugural Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award. When did they decide to record a follow-up? “I can really remember, but it wouldn’t have been long after the SAY Award,” says Moffat on a rainy night in a Glasgow cafe. “We did a mini-tour after that, and which was the end of the lifespan of the first record, so I think it started pretty much after that. I don’t think Bill thought we were going to do another album though. You were quite surprised, weren’t you, Bill? ”

Wells nods and stirs his coffee. “Aidan had once said this thing about never working with the same person twice,” he explains. “So I thought that was that.”

“Aye, I think Bill was a wee bit confused,” adds Moffat. “But now he realises that I change my mind at least once every day.”

The first new track they worked on opens the album. Entitled On The Motorway, it embarks on an album-long voyage that crosses boundaries and eyes up alternative routes. Its title and quest for new horizons echoes Car Song, Moffat’s 2012 collaboration with RM Hubbert. “I’d never really thought about that,” says Moffat. “Of course, Car Song’s not really about cars – that’s about being miserable,” he says with a laugh. “And On The Motorway is more about shagging – or desire, rather, let’s be posh – and things getting in the way of desire.”

That theme recurs throughout the album, as do notions of love, guilt, (lack of) excitement, and the universal truth that we never really change – not at heart, anyway (“we didn’t evolve, we just grew in all the wrong directions”). There are wandering eyes, minds and hands; obstinate dishes, high chairs and chores; and there’s the occasional monster lurking – notably on industrial jazz-skronk entreaty, Lock Up Your Lambs, which re-casts Moffat as a wolfish Tom Waits.

“Lock Up Your Lambs was originally a loop from the [Bill Wells] Octet,” Wells recalls. “I gave Aidan a whole lot of melodies to work from – we usually start with the music and then he’ll write lyrics around it – but I think I gave you about ten loops too?”

Moffat nods. “Lock Up Your Lambs was one of those loops, and it inspired this idea about when you go out for a pint, or go to a party, and everyone’s waiting for something to happen. It’s hardly an original thought – that you’re invoking a demon when you drink or take drugs – but I wanted to do this literal incantation about waiting to get pissed.”

Lock Up Your Lambs also features free-sax that’s wild and yet contained, underscoring the song’s latent potential for total mayhem. “Yeah, that saxophone’s one of my highlights on the record,” says Moffat. “John Burgess [sax] understood exactly what we wanted right away.”

Wells smiles. “I must admit, when Aidan first said he wanted a saxophone, I thought, ‘Oh God’ – because I’m always trying to keep the jazz off our records,” he says with a laugh. The saxophone also has excellent 1980s power ballad connotations of course. “Yes, and again, that’s not something I would necessarily want,” he jokes. “But you know, it works.”

Wells and Moffat are no strangers to pop balladry. They reconfigured the smouldering dejection of Bananarama’s Cruel Summer into a sultry avant-jazz lament, and they created the greatest 80s avant-pop medley of all-time with The Powers and the Glory of Love, a brilliant homage to the best “Power” ballads (Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Huey Lewis and the News, Jennifer Rush).

The new album’s most euphoric pop moment comes in the guise of The Eleven Year Glitch, an electro anthem that variously conjures The Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time.

“I’m not even sure where that song came from,” muses Moffat. “Did that start with a drum beat?”

“I think so, yeah” nods Wells. “Actually, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you, Aidan, but at the time we were doing that song, I was actually in Japan. I went to Japan without telling anybody. And I didn’t have keyboards or anything with me – all I had was my computer. So I had to use this piano on the computer for that song – that’s why the chords are so simple,” he chuckles. “That’s why there were these four bars that only had one note. I was sat in Japan, congratulating myself that I managed to get that far with such limited means.”

And Moffat was none the wiser? “No but I’m glad I know now though,” he says with a hint of faux-menace. “Slacker. Still, to be fair, you made up for it with the strings, I’ll give you that. Bill actually wrote two entirely different string parts for the Eleven Year Glitch. I see now though that was probably through a sense of guilt,” he quips.

The strings on the Eleven Year Glitch, courtesy of the Cairn Quartet, are glorious, and they’re equally uplifting on We’re Still Here, the album’s exquisite, heartening, swansong – a kitchen-sink salute to the labour of love and defying the odds.

“The album’s about lots of things” offers Moffat. “Mainly temptation, and secrets, and life – and aye, it’s about love being hard work. Or it is for me certainly. I’m sure there are plenty of people who’re very happy but I don’t trust them,” says the sage raconteur with a laugh. “I don’t trust people who say they’re happily attached and they have been for 10 years. That’s nonsense. If it’s true, you’re not living life.

“And it’s a record about the city,” he continues. “But it’s abstract, not geographical. It’s about the city as an idea, as a temptress, and even as a God in one of the songs. It’s something to be worshipped.”

It sounds like the most important place in the world.

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The Most Important Place In The World is out via Chemikal Underground on March 16.

Related articles: Album Review, Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat – The Most Important Place In The World – The List

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