The Rainlore Interview: Sarah Gillespie
Interview concluded: 2010/12/20
Anglo-American singer-songwriter extraordinaire Sarah Gillespie has been causing a sensation ever since the release of her fabulous debut album Stalking Juliet in 2009 and with every one of her high-octane live performances ever since. Her even more sensational new album, In The Current Climate, with Gilad Atzmon, goes on release in January. In this exclusive in-depth interview with Rainlore’s World of Music, a most congenial chat really, she talks frankly about the new album, the collaboration with jazz giant Gilad Atzmon, her outstanding lyrics, her influences, and more.
Rainlore’s World of Music: Sarah Gillespie, we're on the eve of the release of your second, exciting album, In The Current Climate. Again, as with the previous Stalking Juliet, this is a collaboration with Gilad Atzmon, who also produced again. Perhaps, before we go any further, you would like to tell us a little more about how this partnership came about Sarah?
Sarah Gillespie: Gilad and I met few years ago when I was supporting the Blockheads at Ronnie Scott's. At the time I was studying for my MA in politics and philosophy and Gilad suggested books that were far more illuminating than the ones on my reading list. We became great friends. I never imagined we would collaborate musically but one day we booked into a rehearsal studio with my band, and we were really excited by the strange mix of colours - tango, poetry, arabic harmonies, blues, folk. We co-wrote a couple of additional tunes and then recorded our album.
RWOM: It sounds almost like a fairy tale and certainly seems like a musical marriage made in heaven. Yes, there is an incredible mix of colours and flavours, and in some ways this is even more the case on In The Current Climate. In this context, how did that superb Celtic/Irish-sounding chorus in Lucifer's High Chair enter into the picture? It really stands out tremendously and comes as a huge, delightful surprise.
SG: It's pretty spontaneous. I had written a rather beguiling plinky plonky guitar piece and Gilad decided to shatter it with a Celtic outburst. We wrote it together on accordion and guitar.
RWOM: It certainly works like a dream. When you say you and Gilad wrote it together, I presume you mean the arrangement, rather than the song or part of the song?
SG: In the chorus of Lucifer's High Chair, I think Gilad came up with the chords and I came up with the melody line.
RWOM: This brings me to another aspect of your collaboration. Gilad is generally, in my experience, one of the nicest, friendliest people one could hope to meet. But he is also, like yourself, an almost obsessive perfectionist and can be a pretty hard task-master. How do you find your working relationship? With two such perfectionist and, I'm sure, quite head-strong people as yourself and Gilad, are there occasional collisions? And if so, do you think they are productive, that is, in a way enhancing the creativity?
SG: When it comes to aesthetics we are both tyrannical and occasionally conflicts erupt. I am struggling now to recall a single episode in which I was proved right in the end. Unfortunately, for me, I can’t think of one.
RWOM: The results of your collaboration are certainly spectacular. It is a joy to come across such flawless production in this day of the ‘bedroom recording studio’ where everything tends to get dumbed down to the lowest possible common denominator. But at least as amazing are your outstanding lyrics. They seem wonderfully surrealistic - and I mean surrealistic in the original sense, the sense that for example the late great George Melley would have understood. I'm sure he would have been delighted with them. I have seen your lyrics described as ‘Beat poetry,’ but I rather see them as modern surrealist poetry. Not that any such labels really mean too much, just like ‘genres’ in music - for me, just as there are only two kinds of music, good and bad, there are similarly only two kinds of lyrics/poetry, good and bad, ultimately. How do you see your lyrics? They also seem to reflect quite a degree of experience of, if not the darker but shall we say the less pleasant side of human nature.
SG: Yes I am very much into poets dubbed part of the 'neo-surrealist' movement. I am a huge fan of British poet Caroline Bird and she introduced me to James Tate whose writing blows my mind. His prose is bursting with grace and wit, carnage and humanity. As a kid I was knocked out by the romance of Beat poetry; the imagery and rhythms. Their stuff is contagious with a kind of elating romance that is distinctly American and very recognisable to me. Also they were so playful with the sonic impact of language like Gerard Manly Hopkins was - and this is where I'm at. When I write songs I am guided by the musical energy of words, not by what ever it may be that words allege to mean. The philosopher Simone Weil said ‘language is both indispensable and inadequate’. We depend upon language but it is nowhere near capable of doing its own job. In life if we are overwhelmed by something beautiful, sad or shocking we might use the adage ‘words fail me’ because we admit that language can not carry the magnitude or velocity of what we try to express. I'd say the job of the poet or lyricist is to overcome the failure of language. This is the way I approach it anyway.
RWOM: Indeed, you seem to transcend the inadequacies of language beautifully. And although there is something distinctly American about the language, the imagery of your lyrics, they remain remarkably accessible to the non-American listener. There is always something there that speaks to the universal human experience. Often, this seems to be on an intensely personal level, and often the experience is of an unhappy, unpleasant nature here - the hard knocks of life. Yet, we don't get the all too common self-pity and neurotic attention-seeking there, the ‘oh look at me, I've suffered, won't you please feel sorry for me’ that we have encountered more than a fair bit in the lyrics of even some of the great singer-songwriters of the past.
SG: Antagonism, grief, bliss, comedy, yearning are all part of life. It would be unnatural to refer to one without
venturing near the rest. The spectacle of individual suffering has become one of the central motifs of the modern era. It certainly has had a negative impact on art in general and songwriting in particular. There is probably nothing more tedious than people using song to inflict their self-help therapy mantras into the public domain.
RWOM: That's a refreshingly healthy attitude, remarkably so. I would like to turn back now to the musical side of things. Who do you consider your greatest musical influences Sarah, and why? And how did you come to songwriting and singing, what inspired you?
SG: Actually for me music and poetry are not separate at all. I hear a lot of poetry in Tom Waits and a lot of music in T. S. Elliot. However, I started making up songs when I was very little. I wasn't trying to be a songwriter, I was just wandering around singing all the time and making stuff up. Then my parents bought me a piano when I was about 8 and then a guitar and by the time I was 15 I had written hundreds of songs. All my school friends were into 80s pop and I was a lonely geek with my 5 album encyclopaedia of the blues listening to Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Cab Calloway. Also I was intrigued by those beautiful Scottish ballads about murder and evil judges and house carpenters who run off to sea with their true love. Then I got knocked out by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Lou Read. I poured over Cole Porter's lyrics obsessively.
RWOM: I think you're absolutely right about music and poetry not being separate, and this is why I have avoided the old cliché question about which you write first - the lyrics or the melody. It's often a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation really, isn't it? Ultimately, both seem to give rise to each other in most cases, even where lyricist and composer are separate entities.
That was quite an 'encyclopaedia' for a teenager in the 1980s. But it wasn't completely uncommon then - nor since - for teenagers to be ‘un-cool’ and musically look back to previous generations, I think. This also seems to resonate with Gilad's concept of music having gone awry in the late 20th century, so another meeting of minds there between you and Gilad?
SG: Well, as soon as something is commoditised, it is corrupted to a certain degree. The music industry became much more concerned with peddling identity than beauty, which proved very profitable for a while. Now the industry is hit by the double whammy of the digital revolution and the global depression. I think it will have a positive Darwinian impact on the arts.
RWOM: That is something to be hoped most fervently.
Your first album - and also the associated tour - had some remarkable reviews in the mainstream UK press. And nothing less than deservedly so. And now you come along with the new In The Current Climate and present us with something that, as it were, knocks out our remaining teeth even harder. It is an even more polished album, above all, it seems to capture the high energy of your performance as well as any studio recording can I think. It is sensational. To what would you attribute this tremendous live-feel and spontaneity of In The Current Climate?
SG: The live vibe is merely down to the fact that, for the most part, we all played live together in one room. I am a singer songwriter but my band are all jazz artists. We like to simply play music together and we have toured so much in the last year, we are pretty instinctive with one another now. Also I insist on singing while playing guitar at the same time in the studio because without the guitar, singing feels pretty strange to me. I love to have the music physically in my arms. The other thing of course is that Gilad is an absolutely amazing producer. He is very gifted at getting great performances out of us all.
RWOM: Yes, playing live together in one room helps a lot, I am sure. And I'm also sure the much greater familiarity with one another's playing after so much touring makes a huge difference.
What you say about singing without the guitar seeming strange makes perfect sense, the idea seems just totally unnatural and counter-intuitive. The engineers must love you! [Jokingly] They seem to hate having guitar and vocal going on at the same time these days. But then Philip Bagenal at Eastcote Studios is one of the most experienced engineers around and something of a genius in his own right. How would you evaluate his contribution to the recording?
SG: Philip was vital and he was fine with me recording guitar and vocals at once. He is a phenomenal engineer yet he always prioritises the spirit of the music over and above technical perfection, which is what I love so much about him. Also when Philip disagrees with Gilad, Gilad takes it on board so the two of them together are like a very mini democracy, or perhaps more like Raul and Fidel.
RWOM: [Laughs] They certainly seem to get on like a house on fire, and it's a relationship that works extraordinarily well.
As for Gilad's production skills, even though he has had a very long track record in this, I must say I still never cease to be amazed at the sheer perfection he seems to achieve so consistently. Really great production seems to have become something of a rarity these days. But production alone wouldn't justify a co-credit on the album, so what was the deciding factor there?
SG: Gilad's impact on the sound is immense. Obviously he didn't merely produce the album; he also played accordion, clarinet and sax on it, created electronics, arranged the material and co-wrote one of the tracks. Also Gilad has influenced my music composition a lot in the last couple of years. These days I am the one coming out with bizarre time signatures and he is persuading me to add the schmaltz. The music is simply a collaboration.
RWOM: A collaboration of two immensely creative souls that produces extraordinary, even spectacular results I have to say. With regard to Gilad's arrangements and his playing, we've already talked about the ‘Celtic’ chorus of Lucifer's High Chair. Another such especially magical touch, for me, is Gilad's mocking, comical bass clarinet riff on the title track, In The Current Climate. It's so simple really, but often it is precisely the simple things that work supremely well and that take real genius.
SG: Yes it’s a great bass line. It is slightly silly and childish like Gilad. He just has a laser instinct when it comes to beauty and balance and music. What he does may be very simple, or it may be complex - but it is almost always sublime. I feel very lucky to work with him.
RWOM: Gilad often seems to make a mockery of the old adage ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous,’ in that he can make the ridiculous sublime. He has a wicked sense of humour but I think people don't always get this.
Your new album In The Current Climate is going on release on 7th January, and the extensive tour, with Gilad Atzmon and also the rest of your regular crew, bassist Ben Bastin and drummer Enzo Zirilli, starts the same day at the Komedia in Brighton, with the album launch taking place at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho on 20th January. The first two months seem like a very gruelling schedule?
SG: We are busy but we love being on the road and playing music every night. We are siked!*
RWOM: Great to hear! I'm sure everybody is very much looking forward to your album and tour Sarah, and I'd like to wish you every success with both. Also, let me thank you for taking out time to talk to us, especially with the holidays right in front of us and the tour just around the corner. There is so much more I would have liked to go into here, or in more depth, but time was sadly against us. It was a real pleasure talking to you. Sarah Gillespie, thank you and have a Happy Holiday Season and above all a Sensational New Year.
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*siked: mod. Street talk, here = excited
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