More Than Just Staying Afloat
Jan 22, 2016
Photography by Isabella Charlesworth Web Exclusive
"There are some stories that aren't mine to tell." Given that The Anchoress—the nom de plume of Wales' Catherine Anne Davies—has chosen to call her debut album Confessions of a Romance Novelist, this might feel a bit of a cop-out. At least until you find out that the intense story behind the three-year making of the album begins with her career on the brink of being killed off and the death of a loved one, before spiralling into further trauma.
"It's difficult to talk about it," Davies tells me in London's swish Maida Vale area. "But there was so much shit you wouldn't believe it. It was incredibly traumatic. At that point I thought 'I'm going to have to walk away, I cannot finish this record.' It definitely felt like it didn't want to be made and I probably should have stopped many, many times.... It feels a little photo album of the last three years of my life. But it's quite difficult to listen to it."
Davies won't talk in detail about some of the events surrounding the album—the press release mentions "one car crash, one death, one broken hand, and a lot of patience on so many parts. Stir in three jobs, four studios, two arrests, three pianos, 40 songs, and one very patient engineer..."—but those stories that are hers to tell would serve as an appetizer for those with even the most morbid of curiosities in tragedy. It all started with her career very nearly being curtailed before it had begun.
"I had a hand injury and that sort of started it. I should have known from that point onwards it was not going to be easy.... When you play for six or seven hours and you're hitting the piano really hard, you can on occasion do bad things to yourself.... It turned out I had done something to the scapholunate ligament in my wrist, which attaches the bone to the wrist or something."
"I played through it," Davies continues, "because Paul [Draper, frontman/producer of '90s indie band Mansun who co-produced and appears on the album] was going 'stop whining, stop whingeing.' He's very single-minded about the recording process. We sort of compete with each other in that regard and I didn't want him to win, so I carried on playing and ended up in a metal cast for six months.... I couldn't pick up a cup of tea or grip anything. It was terrifying because they said I might not play again. That made me shift back to playing guitar.
"So it was weird: all the bad things that happened influenced how the record turned out aesthetically. Had I put it out two years ago, when it was finished to an extent, it would have been a very different record. All the work that's happened in that interim period, through all the fucking awful shit that happened, has made it a better record I think."
Fucking awful shit indeed. Okay, others have suffered from career threatening injuries before. Few have been hit with familial trauma immediately afterwards. "After the hand...my dad was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, which completely took over my whole life.... I just forgot about the record completely and thought, 'You know what? I'm not supposed to do this.'"
From here on in the stories behind the album, a pop record whose warm aesthetic goes some way to obfuscating angry sentiments, take on co-authorship, and Davies is understandably unwilling to elaborate on them. Still, from what she does reveal of them you might expect an Eels-esque treatise on personal malaise. After all, doesn't great suffering beget great art? Isn't that what is suggested by the likes of the Nietzsche-inspired track "Doesn't Kill You"?
"Having been in close proximity to lots of people who are in a great deal of suffering I would say no. I think that when you are really, truly suffering or going through something terrible you're not being creative, you're not making music. It's just some bullshit that people like to perpetuate: the myth that you can be productive and unhappy. Certainly when my Dad was dying I was not making music and writing songs every evening. No, I really, really dislike that myth.
"There are gradations, obviously, of unhappiness and trauma that people go through, but if you look at a record like Hounds of Love, which was made during Kate Bush's happiest time of her life; she talks about it being the most stable time of her life and it's probably her greatest album."
Bush is a clear influence on Confessions of a Romance Novelist, which blends dark pop hooks and a funky, progressive rock sound. "From the outset I said to Paul 'I want to make a dark rock record and I want the structure to be like Hounds of Love,' so front-loaded with the singles and then to move into the instrumental section, like 'The Ninth Wave.' I think I managed to do that! That is the shape of the record and that's very much influenced by that."
Despite her belief that upset is a hindrance to creativity, Davies's record is characterised by anger-one of her songs is somewhat obliquely called "P.S. Fuck You."
"I think there's a big difference between [suffering and] friction—certainly in my creative partnership with Paul I have that, and I think that's what makes us work really well together. It started out with this idea I had of making a 'revenge pop' record. I didn't think there were many records out there that articulated my experience of life. I tend to get pissed off about things rather than get sad about things. I think it's a very productive emotion! 'Anger is an energy' as John Lydon says.... It's this idea that you can build something constructive out of anger; I certainly subscribe to that notion."
What does drive Confessions of a Romance Novelist then? According to its creator, it's something of a concept album. Each track is written from the perspective of a different character, almost as if Davies is the ghost-writer of her own songs.
"There's an element of wanting to distance myself to a certain extent. Because I'd released a few EPs under Catherine AD and I felt quite exposed personally. I wanted to get away from this idea that people think women who...can only write in the confessional mode. That's what the whole album is really: kind of pulling apart that idea, hence the title Confessions of a Romance Novelist. I hate this idea that in the confessional mode there is no craft and...I think that's one that gets slung around quite a lot when it comes to female songwriters. This idea that you're just bleeding on to the page... literally.
"I don't want to get too much into the realm of talking about what female artists are 'allowed to be' in the music industry, but there was an element of being allowed to inhabit certain boxes and those are the tortured confessional singer/songwriter, the loudmouth gobby rock chick—there are certain archetypes. I wanted to play with those and move between those characters to try and, I guess mess with people's expectations."
To those who know her, Davies' interest in subverting what is expected of a female singer/songwriter will be no surprise. Musician, teacher, and academic, she is a genuine polymath. She holds a PhD in literature and queer theory and has published a book entitled Whitman's Queer Children. She was also described by NPR as "explicitly feminist," although she is keen to distinguish between her avowed feminist beliefs and her artistic craft.
"I don't think it was a conscious decision to apply feminist theory to the music. It's just something that naturally seeps in there. I mean, what sane person isn't a feminist? It's not about consciously pushing a feminist agenda, it's just the ideas I have about how women should be treated in society, how we should be talked about, represented etc. are feminist, therefore you might call it feminist pop. But I wouldn't go around banging the feminist drum too much and then alienating the very people I want to be listening to it and provoking their thought processes.... Marion Cotillard was talking about the problems with the idea of film festivals having a feminist agenda. I do agree with that to a certain extent when it comes to art. You don't want to start having quotas when it comes to art.... It comes down to that thing: serve the song, serve the art and stop trying to impose an agenda on it that might perhaps make for something that isn't as good. Do what's right to make the best possible piece of art"
It is difficult to pin down exactly what Davies is singing about on each track. She confesses to wanting to infuse the album with a sense of playfulness and there is a sense of misdirection. The album opens, for example, with "Long Year," a track written long before the three-year process of making the record.
"I think after the fact that song has taken on a lot of meaning! A long three years. But no the song was written before. I guess it's a little bit tongue-in-cheek isn't it? There were a lot of songs on the record that took on that additional resonance subsequent to the writing. One of the things I love about records is that you can impose your own meaning upon them. I would hate to take that away from people by saying 'this song is about this.' I want to leave a bit of room for people to project their own meanings on to them."
The concept of Confessions of a Romance Novelist makes it inherently impersonal: Davies projects her voice through fictional characters who are presented to us devoid of context. One of its great strengths, therefore, is how she conveys empathy with them. Did her literary background enable her to do that? Well, yes, in a sense.
"It influenced the record in so far as it enabled me, financially, to make it. Being 'good at books' is what enabled me to be in London, then I got a full research grant to do my masters and PhD, which paid for me to be here, which is what literally enabled me to do music.... It's so difficult to make music as someone who doesn't come from a monied background or have an external source of funding. Alongside my many jobs I have had at the same time as making the record that's been a huge influence. The whole idea that libraries gave us power—they can literally give you economic power! You can change your life by being good at something."
- Nine Albums Out Today Worth Hearing: Gorillaz, Feist, Mew, Sufjan Stevens, and More (News) — BNQT, Feist, Gorillaz, Juliana Hatfield, Little Cub, Mew, Sufjan Stevens, Sylvan Esso, Thurston Moore
- Speedy Ortiz Covers TV on the Radio’s “Young Liars” for Planned Parenthood Covers Album (News) — Speedy Ortiz, TV on the Radio
- Waxahatchee Shares “Silver (Demo)” for “Our First 100 Days” Anti-Donald Trump Project (News) — Our First 100 Days, Waxahatchee
- Sufjan Stevens Announces Mixtape Featuring “Carrie & Lowell” Outtakes, Remixes, and Demos (News) — Sufjan Stevens
- Tribeca 2017: Brian Shoaf and Zachary Quinto on “Aardvark” (Interview) — Zachary Quinto, Brian Shoaf