Three years on from her startling Scottish Album of the Year winning debut Bones You Have Thrown Me And Blood I’ve Spilled, Kathryn Joseph released the exquisite follow-up When I Wake The Want Is, via Rock Action at the start of this month.
Another step up from her first album, its a devastating song cycle that captures the all-consuming, mortality-shaking loss of love, it sounds harsher and more visceral and layered with more of everything than the stripped back introspection of her first long player. It also reflects Joseph’s growth into an incredible artist and lovely human being, painting an intimate, powerful portrait of a period in her life inspired by the all-consuming grief experienced after the split from her partner. “This record mostly came from the year of my feeling the most broken-hearted,” admits Joseph, “My partner and I split up for about a year, and it was very handy for writing songs. But it’s cool all my song curses worked and I got him back so everything’s fine now! It’s a circle really, starting off broken and then better by the end, a wee bit, and I wanted all the titles to make sense when you say them out loud together. The first piece of music has all the titles and me reading them out, I had it in my brain that it would make sense all together.”
From When I Wake The Want Is, like her debut, is produced by Marcus Mackay and there’s an expansive, more muscular quality and depth to the entire record, with experimental flecks, keyboards and samples and harsh landscapes that envelop you, swallow you, surround you. ‘It’s harder and stronger, it’s much more how we sound live now, which is really nice and what makes me love it more than the other one. It’s much more the noise I like.” Joseph tells me, she decided from the outset that the new record would be different from her debut and knew she wanted it to be “more metallic sounding and harder, with electronic details on it.” she explains. “What Marcus has done on it, is just brilliant. With the first record, I kept asking him to do more to it but he said it wasn’t right for that one, the first time that I heard it my hands were sweating and I was like. ‘Oh yeah, that’s great.’ We record the pianos and vocals together and the first time there’s a song called ‘Wait’ that had a vocal thing that I had all the parts for in my head, that was the last thing we recorded and I felt like, ‘Ooh I actually wrote something!'”
Rooted at the heart of it all are Inverness born Joseph’s cyclical pianos and her utterly transfixing voice; at times it sounds pained, haunted and twisted by effects almost difficult to listen to with emotive songs like ‘Tell My Lover’ and quivering magisterial melancholia ‘Mountain’, underscored with a grief so desperate it wants to take it all down with it. Others are rooted in a place of vivid catharsis from the brittle tumbling ‘Safe’ to the tender skin shedding soul of ‘We have been Loved by our Mothers’. Laced with imagery of a nature both harsh and beautiful, she is haunting you with her ghosts, holding you in a moment like a bee trapped in amber, the way Bjork does or the way Kate Bush can, but these songs can also crush you in their emotive hold, tapping into the universal themes of loss and recovery, and it’s utterly captivating throughout.
Kathryn Joseph possesses a voice that hasn’t just experienced pain but been to the bottom of its depths, felt like there was no escape and come up for air, survived to tell the tale. There’s a stark majesty to these songs, a bruised depth of experience, darkness and rebirth, little wonder given some of them date back from over twenty years of her life.
Her songs are meticulously pieced together over months, with how they flow out shaping their character “They’re usually written on the piano first then I have sounds, and maybe I’ll have one or two words that come through and then it’s like a shape that’s fitting words into them then suddenly it’s like oh yeah that’s what it’s about.” she remembers of the powerful moments of catharsis when writing the album “The weirdest one on this record was ‘Tell my Lover’ because I recorded that in between every take of recording the other songs. I’ve never had that before, it just started coming through. I’ve never had one come so fast, and it was done by the end of the day and I wanted to record it too. That part of the process makes me feel quite sick you know when you’ve got it churning around in your head all the time, it’s like I need it to be done to make me feel OK, but sometimes they are very stubborn little bastards, my songs!” She laughs.
The video for the astoundingly visceral rise and fall of title track ‘From When I Wake The Want Is’ is directed by Tim Courtney and shot by Director of Photography Andrew O’Connor, the emotive video explores the idea that even though a relationship might be over, the love may never die. “He’s a friend of mine. He’s totally beautiful, he did the ‘Worm’ for us, that’s another situation where I go ‘I’m imagining some flesh,’ and he comes back with that video. I am very lucky I just know some beautiful humans who make amazing things, I’m very lucky.”
With her new album sitting on top of the Record Store chart you might think her work in music has come easily, but in contrast she explains it took years for her to even feel up to releasing her debut album and feeling comfortable to put herself out there: “We recorded it and my baby was born two days after, and then it was three years after before we did anything with it,” admits the singer, who battled with self-doubt. “It was still in my head is that this is just something to do for me and whether anyone else would care? That’s my main problem with this job, is that I’m constantly thinking that I’m shit but the reason I do it, is because I feel like that, it’s that kind of brain. That’s the weird schizo feeling that I have about it, its half paranoia and half absolutely sure that this matters, it’s so weird it’s such a weird thing.’
“In basically three years I’ve gone from having absolutely no confidence in what I do, too this is what we sound like and I’m really proud of it.” she marvels “I find that really odd when I think about it, it’s not a long time and its changed my outlook on it. Being the age I am and doing the things, I thought I couldn’t do, even speaking to people on the phone, or introducing songs on stage, or being on the radio all of that was extremely stressful even the thought of it, now I enjoy it. I’m still mortified by everything I say in print, I know that I’m the worst enemy when it comes to being quoted. The control I like of playing live, where I know what I am doing and there is there’s none of me just doing too much, whereas in real life I think too much, speaking too much and crying too much all the time.’
Earlier this summer Joseph played for The Cure not once but twice, once with Mogwai at Meltdown festival “It was amazing, Mogwai are my favourites so it’s just one of those, it’s mental to play a gig and realise you are going to play a gig and hear them afterwards. I woke up in the morning and I was really nervous but it was so lovely, the room was lovely, Mogwai fans are so great, they’re just really really kind. They were really kind to us when we did the Outlines shows as well. I had a very strong imposter syndrome that I’m not cool enough for this!” And followed it up by an appearance at The Cure’s Hyde Park show in July “Hyde Park was just amazing, and it was so lovely to be part of it, I thought I wasn’t going to see Twilight Sad I thought the timings were going to clash. I was just watching my friend James (Twilight Sad) and thinking that nobody is as good at playing live as he is and bawling my eyes out. Then running across the field to play my set. But the whole day I had a brilliant feeling.”
Sexism and Racism are rightly highlighted as big issues in music, in terms of representation and more, but ageism might be the next big issue, it’s quite ironic when there are people of all ages involved in music yet youth is often prized with artists, and age is seen as a handicap a taboo, but for Joseph she has found her age to be an advantage “That’s the handiness of being so old and writing songs for so many years, it’s like there are 20 songs I’ve written years ago,” she giggles “In my head, there was no chance that I was going to get to do this and also in my head I was like ‘I don’t want to see someone that’s not attractive’, also I’m the worst for it. That’s why I expected to be treated like that. I know age is bullshit I know that, but I noticed recently there was a writers award for over 40s and they were all like ‘thank God’, in every creative pursuit there’s a feeling that once you get over a certain age you don’t matter.‘ She points out ‘my weird part of it is like the people who were my age now started when they were really young. Whereas I was just like ‘hey here I am. I am an older woman and none of the things I thought mattered have mattered and I love that I’ve felt really lucky.’
In between her debut record and her new one, Joseph released ‘Conflats’ an album under the moniker Out lines, a collaboration with James from Twilight Sad, it turned out to be a rewarding and growing process for both, and was much more successful than either imagined! “It was around about the same time we were writing both. Out Lines was amazing, working with James is absolutely amazing. It’s his connection to Rock Action and all of the Cure stuff as well, that’s him giving Robert Smith my record. It’s just like what are the chances. At the beginning of it I was still paranoid about working with someone else or wanting to, I didn’t really know him very well too, and we just got thrown into it.’ We have come out of that and he’s like my little brother now, being in a band with him was like being an old dog tortured by a little dog. We didn’t expect it to be so well received. For me it was so amazing because James has a really big fan base, I’m totally jammy. ‘I’m just like ‘Hi what else do I get to do? Hi!'”
As an artist, Joseph waits for her muse to arrive and she was worried about working more quickly but it seems her fears were unfounded: “That was another thing that I worried about how it doesn’t happen often but with Out Lines, you have to write and I did. But that’s more because I’m more in competition with James. he was sending me entire perfect songs and I’d written three lines and I was like ‘oh no.’ But all of it was much easier than either of us thought it was going to be.”
Scotland has such a diverse and rich musical landscape, abd she feels right at home now: “I feel so proud to be part of it; I don’t even feel like it’s about being in Scotland it’s just like it’s ‘look at all of these amazing bands!'” she enthuses. “Look at Young Fathers they’re doing amazing things all over the world, and I’m Scottish, everyone involved is so lovely and so kind. Bossy Love and Babe are amazing live, there’s a weird thing in Scotland there’s a lot of amazing acts and they are not on the radar. You see bands and you go these are the most amazing band I’ve ever seen why aren’t they bigger?!”
But who are her favourite artists? “Bonnie Prince Billy has been one of my favourites ever. I love Low I saw them at Meltdown the night before we played an I was bawling my eyes out. I used to listen to P J Harvey a lot but not so much in a long time. I love Talk Talk and Mark Hollis. John Hopkins is my obsessive love.”
Spotify is becoming increasingly important way of distributing music, but it also raises questions as a platform:
“I had this weird thing with Spotify, it was like nobody makes money from it, is it really worth it? Then I got a phone call from Ghostpoet and he said ‘I heard you by chance on Spotify and I really love your record and would love to work with you’ and I was like ‘Holy moly! Spotify’s ace!’ But it’s all about people hearing it.”
“At the very beginning, it was just like I’d love to have my own vinyl out, and now people own my record and choose how it looks and feels. That used to scare me about it but now I love all that, it was like how do you choose what your children will look like? But now I’m like I want it to have this face, and it’s forever.”
With a fast turn over and an industry constantly looking for the next best thing and streaming contributing to the devaluing of music as an art form it feels like there isn’t the time for artists to grow at times anymore. But Joseph arrived fully formed because she had years to grow as an artist, her work was fully formed she just hadn’t worked up the courage yet “At one point some of those songs were going to be on a record when Sanctuary were going to release something for me, and now I’m like, ‘Thank fuck I didn’t do that.'” she remembers. “I would be mortified and now I’m so glad I had enough time and it was exactly what I wanted it to be!
Before conceding that the nature of music means the clock is ticking as soon as you start releasing music or touring in 2018. “It doesn’t feel like you’ve got much time to matter now. But to me it’s like as soon as you feel like you are wanting to make money and you want to be successful, I think you’re fucked.” She points out the difficulties of being an artist in an environment where resources are shrinking. “What’s sad is it feels like there’s just not money support, I am like how does anyone do this? How does anyone actually survive, pay their bills and write music and play music? I am in a middle area of just enough money, and none of the stress of if you are making money then your life is a bit mental. I feel a lot that everyone that’s around you making your record exist is being paid a wage but you are not, you’re the last to get any money from it, how are you supposed to make it in the first place if you can’t afford to eat food? You can’t afford to get to your gig but you aren’t getting money from it. But it’s like a total addiction and it means you will put up with that kind of crap because you love doing it.”