Rose Elinor Dougall on “A New Illusion”

Becoming the Sole Director

Apr 05, 2019 Photography by James Loveday (For Under the Radar) Web Exclusive
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"I didn't really think this whole plan through. I feel the most exposed out of any record I've made so far."

The plan to which Rose Elinor Dougall refers is the one that formed the basis of her third album, A New Illusion. Where her excellent 2017 release Stellular was a highly polished and synth-heavy production, the new record is a return to a more intimate and intricately fingerprinted persona for the London-based musician.

"It's more personal, this record, compared to the last one," Dougall says. "In the past, I had a tendency to over-decorate things, so this time I wanted to try to get to the essential qualities that the song needs. Lyrically, I did make a conscious decision to try to find as much succinct directness as I could, to not overcook it. That goes for the melodies and arrangements too, to get something a little bit simpler."

Indeed it is a bold move. Stellular drew a level of acclaim that Dougall hadn't reached since the height of her success with the post-modern girl group The Pipettes in the 2000s. The shift is an indication of the personal growth that Dougall herself acknowledges has taken place, and the payoff is significant. A New Illusion is her most affecting and cohesive album to date.

"I've made a lot of music now," Dougall explains. "I've been doing it for over half of my life. One consolation of getting older is you know where you stand on things a bit more. It's not that I'm over confident, I'm still constantly learning. It's kind of an experiment in trusting my own instincts."

The shift arose in part due to the delay in getting Stellular released. A series of financial obstacles meant that in fact the bulk of A New Illusion had already been written by the time its predecessor hit the streaming services just over two years ago. The unforeseen stretch of free time allowed Dougall to explore different directions, and perhaps it was during this period that she took the decision to take even greater control over her recording process.

"As I'm getting older, I'm feeling increasingly in charge of my faculties. Maybe I'm a little more grounded. I hope that doesn't come across as boring," is the typically self-effacing explanation that Dougall offers. Far from it.

"It is a shift in a few different ways," she continues. "Sonically, I'm using a different palette of sounds. That was intentional, I was keen to return to a slightly more organic palette. There are a few synthesisers and stuff, but there's much more live drums, real piano, strings, saxophones. I felt that I wanted to represent the origins of my songs a little bit more. I wanted it to be more tactile."

As she develops, her songwriting evolves too. "I was less interested in conforming to traditional pop structures. Even though I hope melody is still a driving force of this record, maybe there is more space and time for the songs to breathe," she admits. The pop radio-driven strictures of her earliest releases have been relaxed, in favour of a more natural, mature pattern to emerge.

There are major changes in the studio, too. For the first time, Dougall has taken on co-production duties, alongside her long-time friend Matthew Twaites. "I wanted to set myself that challenge. In the past, I've deferred slightly morenot to say that I regret any of the collaborations I've done, because I don'tbut this time I just felt a little bit more in charge and able to articulate myself a little more coherently."

She met Twaites when she was 16 and the two have played together for a lot of the intervening years. His experience producing, amongst others, recent albums by Mystery Jets made him an obvious choice, and she speaks highly of his input on A New Illusion. There is the sense, however, that Dougall may just decide that this is another aspect of her music that she could assume full control of in the future.

"I got involved in arranging the strings and horns, it was a new space opening up to me," she says. "In the past, I wouldn't even have dared to attempt it, and once you start thinking about these things, you realize they're not completely unachievable. It's something I'd definitely like to pursue."

It's certainly a departure from the production that Oli Bayston (aka Boxed In) provided for Stellular. Dougall is keen to stress that she was very happy with the way that album worked out, and Bayston collaborated with her on the writing of two of the songs on this album, but Bayston's authorial touch on that album is loud and clear. This time around, there is only one auteur.

That's not to underplay the contribution of the London music glitterati that she has enlisted to play on the album: Tom White from Electric Soft Parade, Euan Hinshelwood and Joe Chilton from Younghusband and Maxim "Panda" Barron and Tom Dougall (Rose's younger brother) from TOY.

"I love collaborating with people, that's one of the things I love about making music. At one point I did consider making the record in LA, but I've been working for so long in England and I have this really amazing network of musicians that I'm so lucky want to invest time and energy in me. I just think that's something to celebrate and take care of. Why would I not work with these people?"

Like most of her compatriots, the last three years have been a turbulent period for Dougall. "The bulk of the record was written pre-, during and post- the [Brexit] referendum," she explains. "This isn't a political album, but there is a background of a very unstable world. That series of events that followed from [Brexit], the world is a very unrecognizable one to the world when I wrote my last album.

"It's impossible not to think about it, it's such an omnipresent thing. I'm just so weary of the whole thing. My hope stems from the fact that the whole thing is such a fucking shit-show that it might not happen. It's driven a huge, huge divide in this country that has been there forever and that probably needed to be confronted. I don't think that's going away any time soon, whatever the outcome of [Brexit]. But it has galvanized and politicized people, and that can't be a bad thing."

The anger comes easily, but Dougall is conscious that it isn't entirely an external factor, making the point that her disillusionment ties in with her coming into her early 30s and gaining a different perspective on the future and the past. At one point, she admits that she felt that the very process of making music felt like a futile endeavour, before reaching a realization that in fact it's at these times that music can help the most.

"There's a little bit of rationalizing in the record of how not to be oppressed by this really heavy shared energy that everyone is experiencing, and trying to make some hopeful gestures within it, whether it's pursuing a love affair or saying, 'Fuck it, we're all going to hell in a hand-basket, let's go there with a song in our hearts.'"

If the record arose from troubling times, then it is remarkable how brightly it shines, a doors-open-in-the-summer aesthetic that Dougall worked hard to achieve. "I do worry that I can be a bit dour," she says. "It's a really difficult thing to reconcile: I enjoy having a laugh and that doesn't always come through in my music, I don't think. It's always important to me to balance out that overriding sense of melancholy with a sense of levity. I want to be uplifted by music. I wanted there to be something expansive about this album."

She name-checks Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Bridget St John, and The Durutti Column as other artists that have struck the same balance, referring with fondness to her process of sitting at a piano, her primary instrument, trying to evoke the comforting warmth that she continues to enjoy from the records she grew up with.

One of the standout tracks on A New Illusion is "That's Where the Trouble Started," a lilting, guitar-led low-roller that depicts a real life conversation from Dougall's life. "It's really about me talking to my girlfriends and sharing an experience that hopefully a lot of people can relate to. When you're young, there's no sense of permanence about what happens to you. And that becomes an ever-decreasing circle. It's about thinking about how you ended up in the position you're in."

A New Illusion is released on Dougall's own Vermillion Records label, an experience she has enjoyed in the past, although she is aware of the difficulties that could arise for her if she were to seek alternative methods of releasing. "I'm not a new, fresh artist, there's a reticence for labels..." she says, before interrupting herself mid-sentence, catching the next thought before it escaped.

After a pause, she continues: "There's always an energy to find the new. I'm very aware that that's not me. Because of that, I require an environment where I'm allowed to get on with it." When pushed on what she was going to say, she expands that she believes she is not perceived to fit into any scene and the somewhat unconventional nature of her career path has made it more difficult for the industry to know how to package her. "It's a little bit more work on my side [to self-release my albums], but there's a freedom there and a trust that I can do whatever I like. It felt stupid not to carry on with it."

As thoughts now turn to touring, she talks openly about her desire to play as many dates in the U.S. as possible. "I'm desperate to do that. I love America, I've always had a really romantic relationship with it. The way people approach making music out there, it's an amazing creative attitude that is really infectious. It's really energizing. In England, it's more about not getting above your station, a natural cynicism, which I love, but there's more of an openheartedness towards musicians in America."

There is no doubt that Dougall is in full control of her destiny at this point. For the first time, this album offers what appears to be an unfiltered glimpse into her true self. "I'm the sole director of the whole thing," she says. "I've not been babysat throughout the process at all, which maybe can feel a bit vulnerable-making, but I know how to get this stuff done now in the way that I want it, and it has taken a while to get to this point."

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