I was always good at music, having been taught piano by my uncle. But I only aspired to learning by ear to play the full score of “My heart will go on” from TITANIC. Something about that dark blue sapphire at the bottom of the ocean haunted my childhood and the celtic music from this film would influence the rest of my life. .
Water would be a recurrant theme in my music…rivers, seas, water as a purification of the spirit and a return to equilibrium. Braving the cold waters of the Northern Lochs as a child and jumping into rivers from great heights were some of my greatest thrills growing up
I never really shone as a singer when I was in high school, it was always someone who was more confident and who looked more polished and prim. I was always recognised for my voice, picked for choirs, even to my surprise. Eventually I was one of the few who were granted free tuition from our high school coach , Miss Hemple. She chose gloomy, lamentable songs for me like “Send in The Clowns”. She both empathised and yet was critical of my graveness and my changing temperament – for sometimes I could be withdrawn, depressive and clearly overly self-aware. Other times I could be goofy, eccentric and bouncy. But mostly it was the former.
I at one point, singing in one of the top choirs in Scotland and passed my higher level in music, but I never had much interest in theory, I was interested in composition. But like my skills in English literature, the grammar came to me quite naturally without too much focus on the technical language. It came intuitively, without reference.
I remember asking Miss Hemple one day when she was singing to me demonstratively… “what is that thing you do with your voice.” She seemed a little vulnerable and somewhat dumbfounded. “What thing?” she asked, curiously.
I said, struggling to describe it in any graceful way… “the wobbly thing.”
She seemed dismissive about it, like she hadn’t even considered it as being anything distinctive.
That vibrato would become one of my defining techniques as a singer.
And you know, recently, someone for the first time asked me “does that vibrato effect come naturally? or do you consciously do it?” I was dumbfounded, like Miss Hemple. I couldn’t make up my mind, so I tried singing without it and I could hardly manage not to. It just made the sound of the voice sound much greater, more sophisticated and seemed to come naturally as a way of expressing sounds. These little effects are what can define a singer. But I never wanted a melismatic effect like Christina Aguilara or many powerful Black Jazz singers, mine were subtle and decorative, almost Baroque… these details are attributes of FOLK singing… and also Celtic music.
In my teenage years, I found liberation in spending my money on C.Ds. Starting a music collection and discovering what “cool” and “different” sounded like. Artists like MGMT, The Killers, My Chemical Romance, MIA, Noah & the Whale, The Libertines, Kate Nash, Lilly Allen… but there was one artist. She had a small feature in a song by Noah & The Whale. Her name was Laura Marling and I bought her album just out of fascination for the album sleeve… I serendipitously stumbled upon my Greatest Influence. I could recite many albums sleeve to sleeve, but with Marling, I could also sing every note, I could follow her tone and every sound she uttered. I never planned on being a singer, so it didn’t matter just being a vocal theft.
I recited her songs right up to my university years, where the stories in her C.Ds seemed to manifest into my own life, or rather that through my life experiences, I grew to understand the context of the songs. Marling is the same age as me and people have often told me that we look similar.
I studied English Literature at Aberdeen University where I lived an on-the-edge existence as a party girl. I wanted to investigate life as thoroughly as I could and experimented with amphetamines, hallucinogenics and other recreational drugs. I held down numerous jobs and even experimented with working as an exotic dancer. I had numerous intense relationships and scraped by each year of my studies. From the beginning of my university days, leading on from my mood changes in high school, I was somewhat unwell, and yet somewhat able to function on a high level despite this fact.
I tried mood stabilisers and was close to defining myself by the doctor’s pen as “bipolar”, but this was never formally confirmed as a diagnosis. Somehow I knew it wouldn’t help to have a diagnosis by which to identify with, and that medical jargon was somewhat limited and generalised.
I eventually admitted myself to a psychiatric ward and this is where my life began anew.
I found the place fascinating and empathised with the people there, a few of them are still friends of mine. Someone taught me how to play some chords on the guitar and one night when I was at the peak of my unwellness, I started playing and singing and felt a connection I had never quite felt before.
I began singing daily to the patients, who would listen intently and smile and praise me on my voice. I sang Laura Marling songs and some popular simple songs but in my own style.
I only spent a week or two in the ward and when I got out, I began busking on the street.
I remember at this point in my life, I no longer felt as lost as I had done. I no longer felt dependant on other people, on anyone as I had found something that fulfilled me more than any love relationship or drug.
I played nearly every day and performed at open stage nights in Aberdeen and around Scotland. I could be lost for hours composing, and it didn’t feel like work, it was a process that developed naturally.
After I had graduated, I walked a pilgrimage: El Santiago de Compostella. 800 miles from France to Santiago, Spain. This prepared me for life as a traveller, as a minstrel. A musician on the move. I made money and friends where ever I went, sometimes got gigs and other opportunities.
My writing technique improved after living with a great poet in London who wrote revolutionary poems and was revered as being a “Godfather to the London poetry scene”. This scene was thriving with talent, people with all sorts of styles – they were incisive, witty and able to not only put words together, but perform them in a way that excited audiences.
Some years on, I began to feel frustrated with my lack of guitar skill.I meditated on finding someone who could help, in the same way I had found the revolutionary poet who had influenced my writing, I sought someone who could inform my playing. I met a Classical Guitarist who was a great eccentric, but devout towards music.
At some point, my song-writing clicked into place, and everything I wrote after that, suddenly sounded like a song that could be appreciated by many. It resonated with a Universal Absolute-ness. Even if the topic was deeply personal or written obscurely, it still seemed to be complete in its message and its delivery.
After years of travelling, and walking the pilgrimage a second time, I had a long repertoire of songs I had composed on the proverbial “open road”. Busking had given my voice not only more volume and strength, but a certain authority to be heard. Raising my voice above the hustle and bustle of streets was no easy task, but something I had to relearn every day. It was also an exercise in confidence, which enhanced my performing skills. The guts to get up on stage and have the audacity to imply that the audience should listen to me, for that moment, and nothing else.
In my first days of songwriting, I wrote about relationships, insights I had about people in my life, why they behaved as they did, and how I was to overcome. One song that I remember well is “Stockholme Syndrome”, something I grew out of as my independence grew from music. I then started writing songs about Utopia (“Rio Dragonfly”), or ways of living freely and independently, some of them being critical of mainstream views and modern living (“The Tramp & The Vagabond”). I had an urge to live in a more “Bohemian” way. I never had a set plan for what I wrote, so any sort of song could randomly appear and bear no resemblance to the one before or after. I wrote slightly more nihilistic songs “What’s the Point”. Themes of addiction and homelessness, through people I’d met, began to recur. But also, through some mild experiences of my own. (“Dark Medicine”) (“The Sound of Shattering”) (“Davies Jeans”) This is when I started to think I had a sound that could only be described from my own personal thesaurus, as being “Gothic”. Downcast, low-key, dark, gloomy, mysterious, haunting… I described myself to people as “Somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Irvine Welsh.” For, in songs such as “Blunt”, “”Dirty Goddess” “Date with the Knife”, “The Fugitive” etc, the storytelling was delightful in re-telling somewhat explicit tales of sex, drugs, crime, suicide in a way that was graceful yet did not spare the less family-friendly details. Like Irvine Welsh, I was telling stories in a very raw and unnerving way. But like Joni Mitchell, whom I discovered, was Laura Marling’s influence, I had an urge to write a song in a way that it hadn’t quite been written before. metaphors and using the material for my life to weave an auto-biographical element into most songs, to find a deeper meaning in situations and the Truth, which can be quite blunt, in fact.