Some people accuse music of dumbing down. We know better: you’ve just gotta look in the right corners, is all.
Case in point is one Catherine A.D., who’s now performing as The Anchoress. Clash first caught Catherine adding some classically tinged drama to Bestival 2011 so we’re now most happy to be finally holding a copy of her debut proper, ‘Confessions of a Romance Novelist’. It’s a textured treat that gives the listener plenty of room to get lost in, just ideal for these winter months. We caught up with Catherine to discuss the album, literature and dinner parties…
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Last time we had a chat was way back in 2012. How have you been since?
The last few years have been very eventful, to say the least. At the start of 2013 my Dad was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and so much of that year was spent caring for him and then grieving, interspersed with a few sporadic bouts of music and two tours that year. 2014 decided to throw a heap more personal loss and trauma at me but I finished tracking the album in the winter before heading off on tour from late 2014 and through most of 2015 with Simple Minds for a marathon of 84 shows across Europe and the UK. During that time I also turned my PhD into a book that was published by Bloomsbury. So… I’ve “been” busy you could say - with everything life could possibly throw at you!
How has your sound evolved from the material recorded as ‘Catherine A.D?’
Not that much to be honest. I think because so much of the material I recorded didn’t get released at the time it was made it might seem as if the sound has evolved massively from the stripped back strings & piano aesthetic you hear on something like the ‘Communion - Live from Church Studios’ EP. The truth is that it’s more a case of my sound being defined by what was able to be completed or released, versus what wasn’t released for various financial, logistical or legal reasons.
For instance, ‘Once Upon A Lie’, which appeared on the One For Sorrow EP and was produced by Duncan Mills, was actually recorded around the same time as ‘Communion’, which obviously has the full-on anthemic rock production that you hear on the album. The whole production aesthetic is very different to what I was playing out live at the time, for purely logistical reasons, but probably fairly close to the finished album sound that wouldn’t be started for another two years.
The bulk of the album was written way before we even began recording it but what changed was access to equipment: to go from recording and producing everything myself in my home studio, to having access to Hugh Padgham’s amazing studio and vintage pre-amps and a full rhythm section. You could say it’s just that I’d been waiting to realise in the recording how it sounded in my head all the while. Some of the tracks that will end up on the next album (recorded with Bernard Butler) were begun before I even started work properly on the first album, so everything is a bit topsy-turvy timeline wise but the songs make themselves known as to how and when they want to be grouped and let out into the world. I think it’s easy to impose these false narratives of growth and development after the fact but sometimes it’s just a case of holding things back until it’s the right time to set them free.
How did your working relationship with producer Paul Draper begin?
We ended up co-producing my album together after Paul contacted me after hearing the demos I’d made myself asking if he could work with me. I knew his production work on ‘Six’ - which my ex had been a big fan of and played repeatedly. That obsessive attention to detail and sonic playfulness really chimed with my own creative approach and Paul was keen to get stuck into recording the huge amount of songs I’d already stock-piled. We had a few false starts working together when I was still at university but eventually found our way back to putting tracks together in the studio again which led, very slowly, to what you hear on ‘Confessions of a Romance Novelist’. During the mixing of the album we also started writing together for his solo album and subsequently we wrote seven new songs together for his forthcoming album ‘Spooky Action’ - that will be coming out sometime in the autumn on Kscope - so it’s a constantly evolving working relationship.
The album has been described as ‘revenge pop’, with titles such as ‘P.S. Fuck You’ is it safe to say that someone has incurred you musical wrath?
There’s a lot of people and things that incur my wrath on a daily basis! I do tend to get angry about things rather than upset - I guess you could say that’s because it feels, erroneously, as if you’re more in control. But I’d like to think that the emotional colour of the album is more varied than just anger and revenge. There’s a lot of dark humour in there if you listen carefully to tracks such as ‘Confessions…’ and ‘Popular’. I think the idea of ‘revenge pop’ fitted neatly with the motivations behind the first song that people heard - ‘What Goes Around’ - but there’s so much more to the narrative of the album than settling old scores. They do say that the best revenge is a life well-lived and I guess in some ways putting this album together was part of that process of living my life as richly and fully as I possibly could.
Can you tell us about the ‘narrator’ of the album, the romance novelist. Was writing from a character’s perspective always a conscious decision?
The whole album is set in the 1980s and is based around this fictional failed romance novelist. I wanted to make a concept album for many different reasons and in order to do so I needed to impose this underlying structure, with there being some element of wanting to distance myself slightly from the emotional process, as well as slightly lampooning the whole “confessional singer-songwriter” tag that so many female artists get lumbered with. The idea of the narrator, who ghost writes romance novels and feels that she has failed in her own artistic endeavours, evolved on many levels. In part, it is some kind of not completely water tight metaphor for what it feels like to be a female auteur in the music industry: never entirely in control or credited for your creative labours. On another level I was taking aim at my own tendency to make a coherent narrative out of every failed relationship or bad romance. As people we love to impose our own coherence on these things that are very much plotless - loss, failure, disappointment. I guess on some level we are all ghostwriting our own lives to try and makes sense of them after the fact.
The journey to complete the album has been a gigantic uphill struggle filled with death, delay and injury. With the album now finished is there a sense of just wanting to move onto what’s next, or are you happy to breathe and look back at what it took to finish it?
I didn’t take a breath at all when finishing it. I was straight back in the studio with Bernard Butler before I’d even started the mixing process. In part I think because the process of making the album had been so disjointed and prolonged it hasn’t felt like I needed to break or even could afford to take that breath. I think it’s so important to keep up momentum creatively because you never know when you might just “dry up”. I’m also a workaholic so there isn’t much option for me but to just keep going...
Album and artists often switch fans onto good literature. You’ve gone so far to include a reading list with the album, are you trying to start a trend?
I feel like the Manics (Street Preachers) may have already beaten me to that... The idea of books and writing was so deeply entwined with the making of the album - right down to the fact that my research funding for my literature PhD paid for me to stay living in London and make the record - that it seemed obvious that the romance novelist would include her own bibliography. Not every title in there is entirely serious of course… I still haven't actually been able to make it through a Mills & Boon...
You’ve been touring with Simple Minds recently, how has the shift to those larger venues been and has it taught you anything about stage craft?
It was less of a shift and more of a gigantic leap up to playing to 20,000 people a night. In all honesty, I think it’s actually easier to play to an arena crowd than it is to 300 of my fans at the Bush Hall, for example. The lighting, staging, even just the physical distancing from the audience make it so much easier to assume the mantle of “The Performer” who can go ‘there’ and forget what they need to buy from the supermarket the next day. There’s a whole team of people working to create that illusion for the audience and make you look and sound as great as possible. It’s so much easier to forget yourself with all that assisting the transformation. It’s a real team sport at that level, which I find hugely eases any anxiety about getting up on stage.
What are your plans for 2016?
I’m hoping that the label will allow me to release the next album as soon as it’s ready. I’d also love to release the album as a double vinyl but that will depend on demand and how costly that would be. There will also be some live shows where I’d like to perform the album in full, exactly as you hear it on the record. Ambitious I know…
To finish with some fun. It is said you’re judged by the company you keep, you’re allowed to invite five guests (alive or dead) to a dinner party. Who’d you invite?
Anais Nin, Tina Fey, Virginia Woolf, Hillary Clinton, and my late grandmother, Morfydd.
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Words: Sam Walker-Smart
'Confessions Of A Romance Novelist' will be released on January 15th.