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CAUGHT UP IN A SPHERE: AN INTERVIEW WITH POLLY SCATTERGOOD

interview by Michael McCarthy

On May 1st, Polly Scattergood of solo and onDeadWaves fame will release her breath-taking new solo album, In This Moment. It features 12 tracks that each tell their own story, which one might breathe in like unique snapshots. These scenes portray everything from hospital waiting rooms to Viking sea burials to simpler things like the flowers that bloomed where she grew up. Polly is a new mother and there are tender songs, such as “Pearl” and “Bloom,” inspired by that as well. Whereas her last solo album, Arrows, was in the electronic vein, In This Moment is a rather organic-sounding record, produced largely with live instruments, and even features some assorted field recordings like the sound of crackling flames on “Fires.” In that respect, it’s almost the antithesis of Arrows, but Polly never makes the same record twice so it should come as no surprise to her longtime fans that she’s turned things upside down this time around. The album opens with one of its boldest and most powerful tracks, “Red,” which happens to be the longest song on the record, clocking in at 7:15. Many artists would bury a track this long at the end of an album, but Polly very much takes a head on approach with In This Moment.

Lyrically, Polly remains as brutally honest as ever on the new album, never pulling any punches, even when singing about deeply personal things like the death of a dear friend on “After You.” (“Tell me why do you insist on dying every time I close my eyes,” she sings about the painful experience.) One of my favorite tracks, “Clouds,” is about accepting whatever is happening in your life and that life goes on. (“The sea stays blue and the sun keeps on rising again and the waves they roll.”) The album is full of similarly vivid images to paint your imagination more colors than a 64 pack of Crayola Crayons. Suffice to say, it is not to be missed. On the contrary, it’s one of the lushest and emotive records you’ll hear all year.

I know you’ve since moved to the Kent coast, but a few years ago you had moved from London to the desert of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. What prompted you to choose Fuerteventura? Had you visited there before?

I loved the warmth, Fuerteventura has such an expansive and magical landscape, you can drive and feel like you are on the edge of the earth. We quickly made friends, I found the spirit of the people living there to be really great, lots of inspiring interesting and creative people, lots of outdoor living.

Was this your first time residing on an island? 

I’m from the UK so actually everywhere I’ve ever lived has been an island.

When we did our January 2014 e-mail interview, I asked if you preferred the city or the country and you said you were “a city girl at heart.” Did that change?

Not really, London will always hold a special place in my heart, but I think in life it’s important to keep moving, trying new things, experiencing new places, I had been living in London since I was 16, the move out was long overdue. Now, 6 years on from that 2014 interview, I am not sure if I would go back. I love the space I have now, at the time of that interview I think I thought to get good art and culture you had to live in a city, but now I realize that’s not the case at all, you just have to seek it out harder.

You’ve said that one of the things you wanted to do when you moved to Fuerteventura was “disappear.” What was causing you to feel that way?

A mixture of personal things had happened, London life had taken its toll a little, I felt pressure and stresses like every artist does when living in a city trying to be creative but with rising costs. We left at a time the country seemed to be very divided and there was quite a hostile political atmosphere. So it was a real combination of things, but it was the right time to go, while the memories were still happy.

In what ways was life on the island what you expected and in what ways was it different?

It was a much simpler way of life, to get a coffee I would ride my bike 5k to Lajares, it was very different to Kentish Town, the C2 bus was replaced by the sound of the sea, I was talking to Glenn about what keeps drawing us to the island, and one thing (amongst many) is the expansive space and the lack of advertising, in the UK we are constantly bombarded with adverts, and posters, TV, Magazines, but over there, it was just so much less intense, it allowed my mind to just be a bit calmer. I think I was more in tune with my surroundings, I’d hear the bells from the goats, enjoy the warmth of the sand it was completely different to my entire London existence, it was a healthier lifestyle, family focussed and calmer. No partying or late nights, no stresses, I would sleep early and wake early. 

Did you go through a period of London withdrawal at all or were you so burned out on London that you never really missed it?

I think there are always parts of London I miss, but when I lived in London I missed my hometown, I think it’s natural to miss parts of many places…but places don’t go away, it’s us that leave. 

I once read a quote that said a writer is a person who has to leave a place to see where they’ve been. Would you agree or disagree?

I would agree with this statement, I think as a writer you are constantly taking things in hyper-aware, very sensitive to surroundings, but sometimes you need space and time to interpret those things with clarity.

Where and when were the songs on In This Moment written?

I wrote parts of it in London, in my studio in Camden, I wrote small parts of it in Fuerteventura, but the bulk of the album was written after we moved back to the UK.

Did you and Glenn Kerrigan produce the album yourselves? 

Yes, I wouldn’t have been able to make this record without Glenn producing it, he literally sat for weeks and months creating this sound which lives and breathes like the words, he is as much a part of this record as I am, and without his time and energy and sleep deprived love we wouldn’t have got it finished.

Did you and Glenn start writing songs right after the onDeadWaves album cycle finished or did you take a break before you began writing for the new solo album? Were any of the songs on In This Moment originally intended for onDeadWaves?

I am constantly writing, lyrics and melodies come and go every day, but no none of the material for this album was intended for ODW when I was writing with James we had a very specific way of writing, we would sit down together in his studio, so no In This Momentwas very much a separate project. 

You had a baby during your time away from the spotlight – I believe after you moved to Kent. Is her name Pearl like your song? How old is she now?

Wow, you do your research! Her middle name is Pearl, she is 2.

I know you’ve stated that “Pearl” and “Bloom” in particular were inspired by motherhood. In what ways did being a new parent inform them?

It’s a cliche, but I guess perspective, seeing things through slightly different eyes. Bloom was born from the wonder of new life and how as humans we exist in our own little ecosystems.

Were many of the songs on In This Moment written while you were pregnant? 

A real mixture, some were before, some during but the majority were written in the first 6 months of her life. I spent many hours with the baby monitor propped up on the mixing desk.

Aside from motherhood’s influence, in what other ways did your approach to writing In This Moment differ from the writing of your previous work?

I had no time to mess around. I had to take full advantage of the moments when she was asleep so I just was super focussed. I would go into the studio sit down to write, if it wasn’t happening, I didn’t waste time waiting for the magic to happen, I would just leave, move on, do something else, then go back in when I felt more inspired. Production-wise, Glenn and I made a conscious decision to keep a stronger organic feel for the drums and percussion on this album and keep most of the electronics within the instrumentation. We wanted the heartbeat of the record to be more ‘alive’ to reflect the moments being portrayed.

Each of the songs on In This Moment tells a story and some of these stories would seem to be about people other than yourself. Were those songs drawn from moments you observed people having or purely from your imagination?

As a writer I tend to draw on moments and experiences that I understand and make me feel something, but in doing that I also find being too literal often kills the magic so I let the song go where it wants to go, I start from a place of realness then keep the door to my mind open and don’t shut anything off… then the good ones write themselves! 

You reimagine a hospital waiting room on the title track, the music to which reminds me of score from suspense-thriller. Was that the vibe you were going for?

Well that began as a poem, I recorded the vocal in a friend’s kitchen late one night, it was a kind of a stream of consciousness….vibe wise I wasn’t afraid of it being uncomfortable to listen, I just wanted it to be somewhat unsettling so the movie reference is great to hear. 

You refer to spheres on the new album and the cover shows one around your head and another in your hands. What is it about spheres that you find so intriguing?

I like the idea that everything goes round in a circle, comes back around again, nature, seasons, the planets, the moon. I also like the mythology associated with spheres, the oracle, the fortune teller the idea that you can see into moments and other worlds. I was also inspired by Kent Rogowski’s future perfect in which he made snow globes with snapshots of real-life inside, “private intimate moments encapsulated within each snow globe, like a photograph the moment is static and can be contemplated and preserved, the narrative is only suggested leaving its conclusion up to the viewer”. I then delved further into this spherical world and discovered the work of Melvin Sokolsky, in 1963 he produced a wonderful series of photographs for Harpers Bazaar which had a woman suspended in a plexiglass bubble in various locations all over Paris to represent the idea that the female beauty and the spirit of the model were just as important as the clothes she wore. Those were just a few things that drew me towards the Spheres.

Did you imagine the scenes you portray on the album taking place within spheres like you were peering into a crystal ball?

Yes, each song was its own tiny world. 12 songs, 12 worlds, 12 moments. 12 ripples

Who designed the album cover for In This Moment? Whose idea was the concept?

The album cover concept was my own, but I worked closely with Artist and Graphic Designer Rachel Bungey and Photographer Holly Triggs to make it happen. 

Holly is a wonderful photographer she didn’t bat an eyelid when I turned up to her house one morning with an assortment of glass spheres, I have known Holly for a while and always admired her work, I felt like as a friend she was able to capture a really honest photo rather than a stranger who comes into my world with a lens for a day.

The art is something that I took a long time working out, no part of it is accidental, it took hours of mood boards to make it happen. Rachel Bungey was central to the whole thing, she designed all the art and graphics and was the person who helped me hone everything in to make a series of artwork that works as a whole. When we began working together she listened very intently to the record and picked up that I had many references to nature and surroundings, she then sent me some very beautiful almost science-inspired graphics, with planets and the moons. I knew then she was the person I wanted to work with, she lives in Tokyo and London and I think you can really see some of the Japanese inspiration in her work, I love how she manages to continue the idea of worlds within worlds whilst keeping a calmness and peace with the lines and shapes she creates.

In This Moment opens with “Red,” a song that spans seven minutes and fifteen seconds. Were you at all hesitant about opening the record with such a long song?

Not really I figured it might shake some of the haters off early on! I think I have a much more “fuck it” attitude these days, I knew red wouldn’t be a “mainstream” choice, but I’m not making it for the masses so that’s fine. 

The video for “Red” is part of a 5 part short film you’re making or have completed already. What’s the status of the project?

The first 2 parts are on up online and the remaining 3 parts will be released in the coming months.

Are you the director of this film? Did you write it? 

It was written and directed by James Ayling of Cape Films. 

What’s the name of the actress who stars in the film?

Katie Clarkson Hill- she is brilliant. 

When the film is completed, will you be releasing it as one longer film that plays seamlessly or will people have to watch the five parts individually?

There will be a seamless edit released after all the individual videos.

How long did it take to make all five parts? Did you make them individually or did you shoot all five at the same time? 

We shot all 5 over a week.

“Fires” is a song inspired by Viking sea burials, co-written with James Sclavunos of The Bad Seeds. How did the two of you come to collaborate?

I have known James for many years now, I’ve always really admired his writing, he has a grasp on language which I am ever in awe of, he is also very wise, I felt grateful to have worked with him so early on into the record as some of his words of wisdom really set the tone for what was to come.

Have you ever witnessed a Viking sea type of burial in real life?

I think that’s a story for another time.

Would you like to be similarly buried at sea when you die?

I love being by the sea but, no, burn me and put me in the ground by a tree that flowers in summer. Thanks.

“Fires” also sounds like it was recorded live either outside or in a spacious room. Where did you record those vocals? Was it all done live from the same take?

Yes, on the whole, I tried very hard to keep the takes as honest as possible, not too many edits and cuts, I favoured one takes that captured something, often imperfection! I used an Aston Origin Mic which gives me the ability to get incredibly close and delicate recordings.

“The End Was Glorious” is about travelling to Paris via train. Is it about taking the Eurostar from London to Paris or a different trek? What about this particular voyage that inspired you to write the song?

I took the trip with my friend Tom when I was in my early twenties, we walked for hours taking photographs and exploring the city. It’s a song about not worrying about the little things and celebrating small moments that come and go from nothing. 

“Avalanche” is about long night drives you take with Glenn. What is it about driving at night that you find particularly inspiring?

I think being inside a cocoon, no distractions, being able to watch, observe take things in, always moving, I just love it.

What type of drives do you usually take? For example, do you drive along a coast or on a highway or on country roads or…? 

Usually, a coast road if there is that option we did the pacific highway a few years ago, that was great, I also love the desert and dune roads in Fuerteventura.

Does your daughter seem to like long drives?

Yes, we have always done them with her, she is very good in the car, she is like me, she likes looking out the window and sleeping! 

A necessary evil nowadays with albums not selling particularly well is touring. Do you have plans to tour behind the new album or would that be impossible with such a young child?

If you’re going to tour, where do you think you’ll do so?

Nothing’s impossible, she just comes with me… I will be doing a series of screenings of the film at record stores throughout the UK around the album release in May.

Have you ever performed in the United States? Do you think you’ll come here on your tour for this album?

I haven’t ruled out playing anywhere, if there is a gig in the states that feels right and wants to have me, I’d love to come! 

When we did our first e-mail interview in 2014, you said you were working on a book of poetry. Did you ever end up finishing that? If so, was it published or will it be in the future?

I did a limited run which I sold on my store and I’m actually working on another one at the moment.

The In This Moment album cover, minus the text.

Will there be another onDeadWaves album at some point?

 It is a project I hold very close to my heart, it changed a lot of things for me in terms of creativity and enjoyment… I’d never say never, but James has also just released his own solo record so we are both focusing on our current projects at the moment.

Are you still DJing at all? 

Yes, I am, I love discovering new music its something that brings me a lot of happiness.

Do you DJ from a laptop or CDs or vinyl or a mix?

Laptop.

What are some tracks you’ve been playing recently?

I’m really enjoying Valentina – “You know where my happiness went” at the moment.

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this! I am wishing you lots of luck with the new album and hope to see you perform here in Boston someday. 🙂 Cheers!

Thanks for your support Mike, sending love to you and your readers. 

Pre-order In This Moment: https://smarturl.it/In-This-Moment (out on May 1st).

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Written by

Paris365

An entertainment journalist for 20 years, Michael McCarthy was a columnist and contributing editor for the magazines Lollipop and LiveWire. He co-created and wrote for Cinezine, one of the '90's most popular movie E-zines. The only time he's not listening to music is when he's watching television shows and movies or reading, usually music magazines.

3 Comments to “CAUGHT UP IN A SPHERE: AN INTERVIEW WITH POLLY SCATTERGOOD”

  1. Fieldture says:

    Can we please fast forward to the album’s release date already?

  2. Ennis says:

    I’m of the mind that Polly Scattergood pens the world’s best lyrics. I’m looking forward to her new album even more now. Do you know if she’s done any other detailed interviews like this recently?

  3. Onoko says:

    Good job.

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