As 2013 gently drifts towards its close and Christmas looms ever more large, the distant jingling of bells that the high street has been desperate for us to hear since August is beginning to get louder and louder. Children’s eyes are widening as tales of watchful little elves fill them with wonder, excitement and (momentarily at least) a willingness to behave. Lists are being made, money is being counted and left over wrapping paper is being fished out from the back of a cupboard. But thanks to London’s electro-pop-stars in waiting, Strangers, it’s been a little bit like Christmas for the last few months or at least since July, when they started giving away a free download on the first of every month.
Their latest is “London Lights” (which you can stream below) a melodious love letter to our capitol city brimming with pulsing synthy string sounds, an emotive 90’s piano and scalpel sharp electronic beats. The vocals rise up like the ever-increasing number of sky-scrapers, like watching a symphony of people and cars unfold through rain covered windows. Less urgent than previous offerings, it is no less vibrant and infectious; the hook catches you from atop the Shard and reels you into a vast boardroom of R&B and dance infused synth-pop.
They are clearly on a roll and hours before they will play a storming set at the Norwich Sound and Vision Festival for us, we take a seat outside the Arts Centre with two-thirds of the trio, David Maddox-Jones and Piers Sherwood-Roberts, with questions to ask. The pair is in good spirits, despite the almost rain that threatens above and will soon begin to fall, and with beer in hand they laugh as they explain the concept, finishing each other’s sentences and talking over one another like a married couple.
The plan had been, they explain, to use their not insubstantial library of unreleased tracks, re-work and re-tool a few of them and then release them one at a time each month. Four old songs and two new ones in six months they thought; it shouldn’t be too onerous a task to complete. That’s not what actually happened of course; “every month there’s been a new one”, explains David. They’ve got in the zone, used it as an exercise in good discipline and ”it’s making [them] a lot more creative”. They’ve not yet had any writers block and even if they did, they explain, with three of them in the band there is always one who can spark the others if the process were to slow down.
The creativity and order they have instilled has been a by-product of what was a very simple thought process suggests Piers, ”we just wanted to get our music out there, instead of just having it sitting around…” as his sentence runs into David’s ”keep the momentum going… Keep people talking about us”, and back again ”it keeps us inspired well, when we get good feedback, obviously it keeps us happy, and we have had good feedback off the singles”.
And it has been good, each and every month. We’ve featured each of the singles and been positive in our usual hyperbolic manner, but we’re not the only ones. Each month a small army of sites have been posting and eulogising about their latest offering and radio plays have been on the increase as well. Not bad when you consider, as they explain, they’ve had no press or radio team. Their success thus far has been built on the back of quality tracks and their own hard work.
It’s helped in other ways David says when talking about the likelihood of an album release in 2014. ”We all felt like we were ready six months ago, now we have done these songs and it’s like actually, we weren’t ready”. It’s helped them learn more about themselves and their own capabilities, ”there’s better stuff to come”, he says enthusiastically.
While an album may still be some time away, videos are not and their latest offering, for “No Longer Lost” had some heavyweight directorial/cinematography and production talent behind it. Leo Neelands, Jim Parsons and Mark Curl have collectively worked on mega-movies including 28 Days Later, Harry Potter and Zero Dark Thirty and on hearing the song, decided they wanted to make their first ever music video. ”That’s the best video we’ve got”, smiles Piers, and it came about completely by chance. “We met them at the pub,” laughs David. ”We realised we lived opposite them and they are really talented and that was an amazing experience just to work with them, you know they are huge”. “And now we really want to do another video!” exclaims Piers. Though the next one will be very different, DIY they say.
But with Christmas just around the corner there is only one more track to go, so what’s next? Another bright idea while they work on an album? “Let’s put three out a week!” they both laugh. We’re pretty sure they’re joking, but with Strangers you can never be completely sure.
It’s odd to think that almost a year ago MS MR was as mysterious to us as Stonehenge. When they burst onto the scene with the amazing “Hurricane”, everyone was talking about them, but no-one knew anything. No names, no faces, just a sound and a video that could induce seizures. Now though that is all different and the naturally charming Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow have been happy to talk about their beginnings, their influences, well pretty much anything that gets asked really.
When we sit down with them in a side room at the Norwich Waterfront, just hours before their utterly fantastic set and while others soundcheck on the stage nearby, it is clear that these are two people as gregarious, warm and relaxed as you could hope to meet. Despite having arrived at the venue just moments before and still in their coats (a wise move as the sleet falls outside and the heating appears largely absent inside) they are in great spirits. They are even enthusiastic about recent experiences with motorway service station food which just goes to show how positive they are.
Their origin is no longer a secret, instead it is a well trodden story of a guy who wanted some input on his music from an acquaintance who had set up a record label, and a record label running girl who took the plunge and shared her lyrics with him. Without really knowing each other that well and without wanting the record label connection to prejudice anything they might produce, they wrote and recorded in secret, not even telling their friends, and released their music anonymously.
While they were both living almost superhero-esque double lives, they found that with great anonymity came great creative freedom. ”There was no sort of outside pressure on any of it”, explains Lizzy. ”It was really just sort of free, creative space for the both of us. It meant that you sort of went to work in your day clothes, and secretly shrugged them off for a night writing session or in the morning before work”. Work for Lizzy at the time was setting up Neon Gold Records and for Max it was a job in a restaurant while also attending dance school.
This arrangement worked particularly well because it helped focus them, ”we would get together and we would have a purpose and we ended up working really efficiently” says Lizzy. That wasn’t all, the secrecy in particular gave them time, to get to know one another and to find out what they were actually about. Max explains, ”It gave us time to establish our musical identity in the, sort of, womb of my spare bedroom before allowing it to be influenced by any outside pressure. Even playing it for friends and getting feedback, that didn’t happen for a long time. I think that was a really important part of the process of creating a unique sound”.
That this MR and MS didn’t really know each other before they agreed to start working together is hard to believe now. They are so at ease with one another and so relaxed, finishing each other’s sentences, laughing and joking, it’s like they have been best friends forever. That rings especially true when it comes to the story of how they came to write “Hurricane”. ”It was a really special song for both of us”, says Lizzy. ”It was the fastest we ever wrote something and came out of really emotional, and just real experiences for the two of us separately and then became a sort of, I don’t know… shared experience through writing a song, so we loved it”.
They are not the only ones, to this day our post on “Hurricane” remains comfortably our most read on the site and proves, as Lizzy notes, that it still has legs. Even now, every week people are still searching and finding it. “That’s really awesome to hear”, smiles Lizzy. ”I think that song has a lot of accessibility I think. It really touches people…” Max agrees, ”It’s really great that people respond to it. I think a lot of our songs are maybe a little less literal in creating their message, “Hurricane” has a very clear theme, I guess it’s instantly readable”.
The plan is, they say, to re-release it as the lead single from their debut album, Second Hand Rapture (to be released in May), and there will soon be a new video as well, a fact that you feel excites and slightly saddens them both. The ‘popilepsy’ video for “Hurricane” was synonymous with the band for so long as it was all we had to go on, it was MS MR.
” It’s funny,” laughs Lizzy, ”that that became the video because it came out of the label having a need to show something in a meeting room, and they wanted to do something cheesy with it and we were like “no no no!” We are precious over this project and we have control over everything, so we had this idea for the video and we were like “we can get this to you like, really fast”. We put that video together in two days or something. It was all our idea, we already had the footage collected, it took no time to put together and then it’s sort of taken on this other role in life because people were so drawn to it”.
“We assumed that we could never play it out because of copyright”, adds Max. “There’s no way we could ever get clearance for that so, it can never be the official official video but it was great that we could put it out”.
Now though they are producing much more polished and grander videos, like the one for their latest single, “Fantasy”, which sounds like it was a blast to make, what with glitter vomiting cheerleaders and Golden Girls lookalikes. ”They were amazing”, says Lizzy, laughing at the memory. ”They were so funny, on set being just typical grandmothers talking about getting iPhones and kids these days” The video itself is more cinematic than one might expect, depicting, as Lizzy notes, ”fantasies gone wrong, that’s what we think of it”. Max expands the idea, ”There is this, like, sheen over the top and there is this really, really, sort of, dirty mess underneath”. Kind of exactly like their music then; beautifully produced with this dark, almost macabre, undercurrent to it. It’s not for nothing we’ve called them the Addams Family of glitch-pop before.
The laughter is coming easily to both Max and Lizzy and this sense of ease they have with each other is clear on stage as well. They grin and boogie together throughout the set, Max behind the keys, Lizzy the mic. The undeniable quality of their live performance, as with their dedication to living double lives and keeping secrets while starting out is due in no small part to their strong work ethic and desire to be as good as they can. When they first revealed themselves to the world they looked shy, nervous and unsure. Since then they have worked and sacrificed to become the confident and amazing performers they are now. It still exists in their writing now, the pair of them working separately in Max’s apartment or studio but convening every 45 minutes or so to share ideas and discuss them. In such an arrangement, explains Max, complete honesty with one another is crucial.
”It’s been a really fluid back and forth at all stages of every song and we really do share the rawest version with each other at the very, very beginning and build it together from there. We started off being brutally honest with each other and just being like ‘I don’t really like that’, ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that, is there something we could do differently?’ and sort of building from there. I think there is not really an ego involved from either of our parts and I think we have both interest in what will service the song and we will write the best song possible”
Lizzy nods in agreement and expands on how this fluid process can have unexpected effects on where they end up, compared with where they began. ”I think honestly, “Ash Tree Lane” is the best example of that. “Ash Tree Lane” started as a completely other song called “Wondering” which I had a tiny scrap of a vocal demo for. We started the track [and] it sort of started taking on sudden life; we had such a fun time on the production of that song. We got really carried away and then eventually when we tried to put the vocal melody on top of it, it didn’t work with the song anymore and I think at that point we had fallen in love with the track so much that it was okay; but that song sort of fell by the wayside because it had informed the process of creating this other new thing and then actually became an experiment in itself. Because it had started from nothing and became this whole other entity and it was a chance to sort of break free and I think, for us, it was a really experimental song and still has that sort of sound on the album. I like the idea that we are not withholding, we are always pushing through, if something gets too tough that’s okay because it can take on another life and just, that is what it is supposed to be”
It’s about choices notes Max, ”you can push through or you give it up” he says. ”Decide it is not right and scrap it, or re-work it, and either of those choices is hard. But I think that we are constantly learning which of those choices to make, when it is worth pushing through, when it is worth scrapping or when it is worth just sort of taking a step back and approaching it with a different eye. Those are the fullest moments and that’s when you get the weirdest combinations of things and the most interesting songs”.
“Ash Tree Lane”
With all these weird combinations, dark undercurrents to their lyrics, videos and visual aesthetic; gothic and often ghoulish sensibilities emanating from them and their online interactions with fans; you’d be forgiven for thinking that growing up they were actually like Wednesday and Pugsley. Were they the kids all dressed in black that the other kids shied away from? Is this why they have cheerleaders vomiting glitter in the “Fantasy” video?
“No” they respond together, completely deadpan before bursting into laughter and Lizzy explains further.
”I don’t think we were those kids. Max and I first came to this process not knowing each other very well and Max and I are quite different people. On a very personal, deep down level we are very similar people and I think we are both really bubbly and empathetic and excitable people but I think we both carry a very deep darkness with us. I think everyone probably does but I think we are worse at showing it to people on a regular basis. The music in some way became this, this space to just, break free, and have sort of conversations with that”.
It’s not all doom and gloom she says and we agree. They make pop music, yes there is indeed shadowiness to it, but it is still pop music and there is also brightness and polish. ”I think it is the marriage of this upbeat pop identity with the weight of what we are really feeling. Sort of an embodiment of our characters and personalities as well, and we are always interested in how light and dark combine forces and sort of create opposite identities and oxymoron’s. We always work in extremes, that is sort of our identity”.
It’s honesty again, it’s authenticity and sincerity; ”it is not about putting on a face” says Lizzy, ”other than what we are and what we are about, and that is both musical style and genre but also lyrical content”. Is this an insight to what the album holds then?
“It’s hard to talk about themes throughout the album”, she continues. “Specifically lyrically because for so long we were writing just on a song by song basis, it took a while for us to see it as a whole body of work. Ultimately the way we picked the songs for the album was much more about the production and the sonic environment. It’s not just a break up album all about me and one boy or whatever, it’s not as simple as that, and I think it pulls from everything into, you know, self introspection. There are breakup songs but also finding new love and questioning our situation and self and… I don’t know, I think people will be hard pressed to find one thing in a theme. I think in general we find one or two things having a greater force on us which is one, our environment.
“I mean most of the material we have written, we have written during a storm or some environmental uprising or the weekend that the rapture was supposed to happen and I think that we really get off and thrive on a certain level of uneasiness and suspense and in between moments where something feels really not right and that just becomes our most fertile moment, that is definitely reflected in the music”.
A fragile state of both mind and situation then is key for their productivity, ”like when you are hung over” laughs Max.
That is not all though, explains Lizzy. ”I think the other half of that is media. Obviously we are kids of the Internet age, we chose to release our music in interesting ways”; each track on the Candy Bar Creep Show EP was released on consecutive weeks via their Tumblr, ”and that is the social media aspect, it really is a piece of who we are but on a greater level than that, we like to theorise and philosophise about what that means and how mediated relationships are and the music transcends all those barriers like that. [The] media and environment in general have shaped our identity and relationship to the music and definitely [our] relationship to each other.
“It’s a very long winded answer! It’s not a political album, it’s neither religious either!”
Long winded is fine by us, such depth and detail is extremely welcome, especially as it was only 10 months ago that we were scrambling around just trying to find out their bloody names! A lot has changed in that time but the music they are producing just keeps getting better and better. There must have been a lot of storms in New York recently for them to be creating such consistently high quality tracks. Either that or the hangovers have been legendary.
“Fantasy” is out now and available digitally. Their debut album, Second Hand Rapture, will be released on 13 May.
It is fair to say that the music we are surrounded by as children, that we are exposed to growing up, will have a profound influence on our tastes in adult life. For artists, it will likely have a significant bearing on the kind of music they want to make or that can be heard within their own sound. Valerie June describes her sound as ‘organic moonshine roots music’, so it should be no surprise to learn that she grew up in Tennessee, just one hour from Memphis and two hours from Nashville. She was surrounded by blues, soul, roots and gospel and as she performs, it is clear that each one is in her soul.
She is currently on tour supporting Jake Bugg (not for the first time, he’s a big fan) and will play a sold out headline show at London’s 100 Club on 5 March. This follows an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland last year and time spent in the studio with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys to work on her album.
Her rise to prominence has been gradual though and the result of some damn hard work on her part. Her soon to be released ‘debut’ album Pushin’ Against The Stone (out in May on Rob da Bank’s Sunday Best label) is preceded by three bootleg recordings she self-released and a number of grinding jobs. Jobs which she has said gave her a real sense of how the old blues artists she loved must have felt, coming home after a long and arduous day’s work, to sit out on the porch and play until bed.
She began performing at age 19 with her now ex-husband as the duo Bella Sun. When the band (and her marriage) ended she was left with an aching to write and sing but she didn’t know how to play an instrument. ”I didn’t ever want to experience not being able to perform cause I didn’t know how to play an instrument” she laughs as we speak in the cold backstage area after her fantastic set at Norwich’s UEA, ”and I didn’t feel like going about finding another band, because that wasn’t going to solve the problem. So I just started to teach myself how to play”.
She is a captivating character, both to look at and to listen to. Her fabled dreadlocks don’t look as wild as they do on stage as she sits opposite, it’s been a long day (that began in Belgium) but she is still charming, funny and happy to talk. She speaks candidly and thoughtfully and tells tales of her past, present and future that we’d happily listen to for hours on end as they are recounted in that beautiful southern-belle accent. She even manages to make the various intricacies and philosophies of yoga sound like something magical.
She tells us about growing up and that, while she may have started performing at 19, she had been singing ever since she was a little girl. As a regular church-goer with her family, not singing wasn’t really an option. ”Everybody had to sing in church!” She smiles as she remembers, ”It’s like 500 people and you are commanded by the law of God to lift your voice in praise, so everybody had to sing together. It was a lot of fun to go to church just for the songs, you know? There were the messages too, but the songs were the best part, hearing all those voices. Everybody singing”.
That background and sense of fun has served her well so far. Valerie is blessed with a unique voice, she calls it unusual, and with the gospel of her church and the Memphis blues inside her, she soon found people falling in love with it and having a good time as she sang. Out on the road as a solo performer, she was teaching herself how to play as she went and found her audiences to be extremely supportive.
”The Memphis crowd is really nurturing, they are awesome,” she explains. ”So that was a good birthplace, not just for my music, it’s the birthplace of rock and roll and blues, you know? It’s the birthplace of a lot of music that we listen to in this world so I think it’s in the water to be nurturing if you are a Memphis music lover”.
Memphis music seeps from the pores of The Black Keys music so hooking up with Dan Auerbach to work on the album seems like a natural fit, and his (well Memphis) influence can be heard. Especially so in her latest single, “You Can’t Be Told”, which is a fantastic, earthy piece of blues rock.
Surprisingly, this was the first time Valerie had worked with producers and while the experience was fun, she admits it was hard work and was quite a learning curve for her. There was one element mind you that she did particularly enjoy about the experience; her smile grows and her eyes widen as she tells us. ”Dan’s studio is pimped out. It is awesome. He has got like a candy store of instruments, it’s better than a music shop. So it was neat to be around all those instruments, you are like ‘can I play this one? Can I play this one?’”
At the moment she is all about the strings, ukulele, banjo, guitar etc, but there is the faint possibility that her range will be expanded upon. ”My husband bought me a keyboard for when I signed my publishing deal with BMG Because he was like “you’re official now, you been writing songs for ever but now you got this stamp, like the certificate of a songwriter” So he bought me a keyboard, because every songwriter needs a keyboard!” Not that she has touched it yet of course, being out on tour all over Europe to promote her record plays havoc with that sort of thing.
As we compare finger length to see who would make the best piano player should either of us ever take time to learn (it would be Valerie, no question, her fingers are long and elegant, ours, not so much), we talk about how it feels now that, after seven long years and a lot of hard work, she stands on the cusp of her debut release on a label. Does she feel official now?
”I have played music my whole life in one way or the other”, she says. ”It’s something that I have done whilst I was doing other things, now it just so happens to be that this is all I do, but there is a lot to it”. Her strong work ethic is standing her in good stead she explains as it is not as simple as many people presume it to be. ”Everybody thinks that being on stage and being the centre of attention for the night or whatever is like easy or something. [But] you think of it as a job and you’ve got to be on your game and you have got to be like, about your business. I’m just really mindful of what kind of energy I am trying to put out into the world”.
It’s an energy that she says can be a shock to some. She tells a story about buying a belt in London (and a rather lovely belt it is too) and how the woman selling it was taken aback when Valerie spoke, her southern twang was not the accent she anticipated hearing. It happens with her music as well. Looking the way she does, people expect her to play reggae rather than blues, but they soon come around.
It is also an energy that was present in her previous recordings and while Pushin’ Against The Stone may be billed as her debut, she is not about to forget or dismiss her past. Those bootleg recordings are part of her, they are like her children she explains and they will always be with her and always be something she is proud of.
But what of the future? She has worked so hard to get to this point that surely there must be a part of her that is ready to relax, or is this just the beginning? She has spoken in the past of how she expected to be doing this long into her dotage, noting that is how it is for people who make roots music, nothing happens for them until they get really old. So is that the likely scenario then? An older Valerie out on her porch late at night, mosquitos and fireflies buzzing above while an audience of friends, family and grandkids listen to the songs from her latest album? Her answer is remarkably honest and draws parallels to an unlikely source.
”A person that I recently read about, Beatrix Potter, what she did was when she was a child, she started writing and painting and she carried it over into her adult life and she began to just share it with the world. [She shared] her world with the world and people fell in love with the rabbits. And one day she married her second husband and at that time she stopped writing. Everybody was like ‘what’s going on you’ve stopped writing’. And she was like ‘I had to stop, the stories weren’t coming any more’.
“So I think music will be like that for me. When the songs and the stories stop coming, then I will stop playing music but until then, this is my life. She was, in the meantime, performing with her husband and doing a lot of other things and I kind of see my lifestyle like that. Where I have all of these other interests and I play music. I happen to be very gifted and I want to share that gift with the world, and I invite people to have a little piece of my world. Not too much! So that is kind of how I look at it. All the records are important, all of it matters, it is a journey for me”.
It is a journey that has taken her across the globe and back again; a journey that is about to see her release her highly anticipated debut studio album. It is a journey on which she has taken a bit of her world, a bit of her past, a bit of Memphis and she has shared it all with us. It is a journey that we hope will continue for some time and that the songs keep coming.
“You Can’t Be Told” will be released on 4 March and will be available on download and 7” heavyweight vinyl. Valerie June’s debut album, Pushin’ Against The Stone, is out on 6 May. She is playing the 100 Club on 5 March and has just announced some new UK and European tour dates for May.
Over the years, Lisa Redford has gained quite the reputation as “one of our finest singer/songwriters”, an opinion expressed by the legendary Whispering Bob Harris no less. With a fervent and devoted fanbase, she has experienced success and critical acclaim for her warm and honest folk music, on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Yet as an independent artist for Lisa, the music is just one of many different aspects of her life as a performer. We met up with Lisa before Christmas, as she was preparing to relax and make use of the quiet time to write, and talked to her about the amount of work required behind the scenes and the way technology has both helped and hindered artists.
We first met Lisa at the Norwich Sound and Vision festival and, as well as how friendly and engaging she was, we were struck by the fact that she wasn’t just there to perform, but to learn as well. Each day Lisa was there at the various delegate sessions, listening to speakers discuss various aspects of the music business and ways for artists to promote themselves. It was surprising to us, given the success that she had already achieved but there is no sense from her that a level has been reached; she wants to keep going and achieve more. What’s the point in writing all this wonderful music, if no-one ever gets to hear it?
“It’s about getting that balance”, she tells us as we sip our drinks in the pub, shielded from the wind and rain outside. “Because you might have that great release, EP, album, but if you’re not promoting it as well it’s just going to sit there”. Which immediately brings us to a problem faced by so many independent artists, just how to do you get and maintain a profile and get your music heard? Social media has become a massive part of our everyday life; we use it as individuals as do businesses and brands that have quickly realised just how important it is to engage with existing and potential customers. It’s no different for musicians, Lisa agrees.
“I try to do something in the mornings; Twitter, Facebook. I’ve also got my main website in WordPress, and also there are so many other ones as well”. Indeed there are and Lisa uses a few, she was even keeping her MySpace page reasonably well maintained before Justin Timberlake started bringing it back, sexily or not. With this legion of digital platforms available, promotion has theoretically never been simpler, pretty much all the people you need are just a tweet away. Well yes, but it is a double-edged sword she explains. It’s one thing to be able to ping a link or something to Bob Harris on twitter but so can anyone else. You have to compete for airtime with the DJ’s, the labels, the bloggers, that aspect hasn’t changed, it’s just that now, even more people have a route in than ever before.
That open line of communication also works both ways; she too is contactable by anyone and via a number of different avenues. At least when you had just the one site, all your correspondence came in one door, now you have to keep up with them all just in case something gets missed. Not just from industry types either, fans are in regular contact and Lisa is determined to ensure anything she puts out, be it on twitter or her blog, is interesting for them.
”You have to be creative, not just musically creative, but generally creative, coming up with interesting posts and things like that. You can’t just have the same thing you want to have like new songs, or videos, or photos. It can be difficult because if you want to get people to know about certain things, you do [have to] repeat sometimes. It’s about keeping it interesting”.
Keeping it interesting is a challenge all of us who seek to engage others online are faced with, and one that many have taken on with pictures or posts about anything and everything to do with their lives. It’s an approach that Lisa doesn’t favour, so don’t expect to see any instagram shots of the Redford breakfast anytime soon. ”I try to mostly keep it music related”, she explains. ”I’m not one of these people who are into every detail; I quite like to keep some mystery, if we can these days. Sort of [like] Kate Bush, I can’t really see her tweeting about her cat”. Mind you, Lisa notes, if Kate Bush was just starting out today, ”then it would be a different ballgame”.
While the idea of Kate Bush taking pictures of her pets, meals, the snow or whatever and posting them up to be shared thousands of times over round the world is entertaining, it is a valid point. Engaging through social media is now very much part of an artist’s day job and getting the balance that Lisa mentioned is key. Too much and you risk turning people off, too little and you risk people forgetting about you completely. You have to post regularly she agrees, to keep in people’s consciousness and to maintain momentum. Also, as was discussed at Norwich Sound and Vision, to show people you are worth investing time and effort in. An artist with a reasonable online profile and fanbase is going to be much more appealing to radio pluggers, for example, than one without.
As an artist who spends a reasonable amount of time in America, it is doubly important to Lisa as it helps raise her profile there as well. It used to be that you would aim to be in a music magazine and that would be what you could point to, the NME profile or the review in Q or MoJo, Melody Maker or Select, to name a few. Now though many have shut down the presses and those that remain have digital editions as well. Print can’t keep up anymore (even The Dandy has closed down) and the onus is very much on digital media and how artists make use of it. It’s something Lisa is acutely aware of and a challenge she seems to be enjoying as she looks to head back over to the States.
“I’d like to sort of be back and forth type thing, like I have been doing. Do like a tour [in the UK] in the spring, summer to promote the EP and then maybe record back there”.
As well as all the social media stuff to think about, there is a copious amount of admin to get done, especially if you want to get out and perform, and then of course there is the actual process of writing and recording the music you want to promote. With so much to do it must be hard to prioritise. ”It’s making sure the time you use is useful”, she points out. “I’m quite organised, but even if you have a list in the morning, the time just sort of flies by as well!”
Factor in the additional difficulties of trying to arrange an itinerary from thousands of miles away, and even Lisa’s organisational ability will be stretched. You always have to think so far ahead though don’t you? Like I say, I am a one man band, so it’s having to plan everything, you know? Before you know it, it will be spring… And I will be like “oh, I should have booked those festivals”. It’s very difficult and again, like with anything here, you need to build up even more press”.
With all this to deal with, finding the time to actually write and be creative can be difficult, especially as, by her own admission, writing can sometimes be a slog. “You can’t just do it in five minutes; you’ve got to really get into that head space. You can’t just churn [them] out. You know what I mean?”
We do, for all its myriad benefits for promotion and establishing a local and global fanbase; social media can’t actually write the songs for you. That remains entirely in the gift of the artist and luckily for Lisa; it is a gift she has been blessed with.
While it may not have been too widely heard, Professor Penguin’s debut album, Planes was an understated masterpiece about which we said; ”Melody is King of this soundscape and the horns, strings, keys, drums, vocals etc merely subjects sworn to its allegiance. With each listen more and more of the depth and beauty is revealed, the subtly and emotion of the lyrics unfold before you, drawing you still deeper into its warm and inviting embrace”.
It also presented us with the most unusual track-listing of the year with all 10 tracks, as well as the album title and indeed the band name, starting with the letter ‘P’. Clearly this was a band after our Alphabet hearts though we could find no explanation for this apparent obsession with the letter. Despite the brain fuddling nature of the ‘P’ enigma, Planes deservedly placed on our end of year albums list and we were keen to meet the men responsible, all seven of them.
We say seven; it was seven when we met with them (though we spoke only with three, Jonny, John and Toby) though the number is usually ten and even reached 13 at one point. The guys are all in good spirits when we meet just before a sold out show in support of Public Service Broadcasting, but it must be hard to keep them all happy. ”Camaraderie is essential”, laughs Jonny, and it is in evidence throughout our chat with the three of them laughing and joking. Such is the scale of the band that when they joke a nearby Henry vacuum cleaner is also a member, it doesn’t sound that far-fetched.
They are playing XOYO that night and the stage there is not the largest but at least they can all fit on it with some room to move, it hasn’t always been the case. At their own album launch gig at the Social they had to have the keyboard player practically in the crowd on a concrete bench and it wasn’t just the band who was mildly inconvenienced, ”we blocked off the only route to the toilet, no-one could go to the toilet, they laugh. “We had to order them all to go before”.
Band members have not always been legion though, in the beginning it was pretty much just Jonny and, unusually it was the album that came before the band. “The first day of Professor Penguin was an album”, says Toby, ”so like that’s quite strange isn’t it?” As a result they have been on an interesting journey since Planes was recorded as the music has evolved with the growth of the band.” We put the band together afterwards” Jonny explains, ”It was quite strange to put it (Planes) out then, what people were listening to wasn’t really what we had become as a band”. John agrees and explains that the effect has been positive, ”A lot of people were surprised by how different it sounds live to how it is on the CD, which I think is a good thing”. Certainly there have been no complaints and their set that evening goes down well with the crowd.
The reaction to Planes was very positive and while we may have loved it more than most, it was unquestionably loved by those who heard it. The expansion of the band and the way in which their sound has developed recently has led the Professor Penguin boys to forgo any laurels and just crack on with the next album, one they will actually write and record as one. Jonny is still the driving force behind the writing but the process has become much more democratic and it’s starting to feel more cohesive for the others, like it is the group’s music. ”I demo them” Jonny explains ”and then we record something afterwards or we play something afterwards. We’ve all got our own thing with the song”.
Is it really like that though? It must be hard for someone who was used to writing and recording without the input of others to open up like that, but the others agree with Jonny when we ask, and their laughter isn’t nervous when it is suggested they pretend he isn’t in the room. The process, as John explains, is quite simple with Jonny providing more of an outline of a tune which the guys take away to listen to and work with. ”It’s just the skeleton on the demos”, he tell us. ”We can mess around with it, play around with it, we can do our own little bits to it”.
It’s not just Jonny getting used to working this way though, its new to them all and they have been experimenting and finding a way to make it work. With seven of them all having a creative input it has seen songs change a fair bit, which can occasionally be problematic. ”Everyone changes stuff”, says Jonny. ”I still change stuff, and when you come out the other side, if you’ve changed something and someone else hasn’t? That doesn’t work with what they do any more. And if they change something, and someone else has as well, then those things can clash…””That’s the fun part”, smiles John. Thankfully that camaraderie is there and no-one has come to blows over any changes.
It’s clear that the guys are having fun and genuinely like working with one another. Conversation comes easily to them as they happily talk, reminisce and joke. With everyone in such a good mood we decide to chance it and ask the big question. Why do all the songs start with the letter ‘P’?
Jonny smiles as he explains, “It just kept all of the songs in the same place on my computer. That was why”. Unsurprisingly we don’t believe him and his grin grows as he elucidates further. ”They were in a nice bundle”.
Now we know he is joking and he soon confesses, ”there is a different answer every time someone asks me so…” So we’ll never know. Still, ‘P’ or no ‘P’, it is a bloody good album.