Adventures in Reading
by James Paton
For me, The Anchoress (AKA Catherine Anne Davies) appeared to have arrived out of nowhere to take her place firmly on my radar for this year’s big releases after David Bowie with her upcoming debut, Confessions of a Romance Novelist, which arrives in stores just now. She has released previous material before and toured the world with Simple Minds under the name Catherine A.D., but this is the time when she is likely to become a household name thanks to her playing, song writing, production skills and sheer wit. She is a master wordsmith with a PhD to prove it, and yes, she is coming for your soul with her own brand of revenge pop (as the critics like to call it), though personally I just think its music, and bloody good music at that. I caught up with the fiery haired Welsh pop starlet to discuss her influences, her producer and yes, her album too.
Co-produced by Davies with ex-Mansun legend Paul Draper, Confessions is an album that takes a more literary look at song writing with its core driving concept (which I will come to shortly), but perhaps more specifically, from Catherine’s own approach to the process of developing the material; the characters that she develops as the protagonists of her compositions and the themes she explores with them. The album, as one can probably derive from the title, has an overriding concept that binds it all together, though this was not an idea that she had set out with. “It became pretty obvious as the recording process went on which tracks were the strongest but alongside that factor was also a sense of the album needing a narrative arc,” she told me. “I started out knowing that I wanted it to be "frontloaded" with singles - with a similar structure to Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, with a suite of music on the second side, which forms the romance novelist's interior monologue.”
In terms of the influences that have helped to sculpt the material listeners will soon grow to know and love, they are of course as varied as they are plentiful, with Davies’ vocal performances and dense arrangements more often than not recalling the brilliant Tori Amos in my mind. Yet over and above this, Davies described to me those that have had a direct and fundamental impact upon the soon to be released album project:“I'm hugely influenced by literature as much as music and I think that's reflected in the album's concept and artwork - although I've never actually read a romance novel, I do have a PhD in American Poetics. Musically speaking, The Dreaming by Kate Bush loomed large in the production influences on the album, as well as my long-term fascination with Prince, Low-era Bowie, Brian Wilson, and Fiona Apple. A huge influence on the way I work is also the methodologies and discipline I've taken from studying both ballet and poetics - the rigorous practice and pruning of technique, alongside the years of hard work to get to that illusion of the "effortless" end product as at the core of the way I put tracks together. I don’t believe in “jamming” or improvisation; it's 100% hard graft.”And hard it has most certainly been, with the entire project being fraught with an array of difficulties that would have otherwise derailed probably any other venture, taking in arrests, car crashes, injuries and a whole lot more. “It's a huge relief to put it behind me in some ways,” Davies understandably laments. “The process of making the record coincided with a lot of horrific things in my life and it feels fitting to leave that and the album behind now and look forward to the future. I remember one of the last vocal sessions on the closing track of the album coinciding with the Christmas just before my Dad was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. There was a definite feeling in the air of it marking the end of some kind of innocence... the end of childhood perhaps. There were so many times during the making (and not making) of the album that it felt like the only sane thing to do would be to walk away from the whole thing. It was verging on farcical at some points where you had to wonder if someone or something was trying to tell you something! It feels miraculous that it's actually in a finished state when I look back at what I had to wade and fight through to get there. The song "Doesn't Kill You" probably most succinctly sums up that feeling. But overall, there’s nothing I like more than the process of putting tracks together and making a record. I don’t really enjoy doing anything else.”
Unusually, the album project wasn’t initially instigated by Catherine herself, but rather her co-producer Paul Draper, whom Catherine says “actually kind of roped me into making the album rather than the other way round.” “Initially,” she continues, “he’d contacted me via email and we did a few demos together before eventually starting work on what was to become the album a few years after that initial meeting. I would say the biggest impact that he's had on the album is the autonomy that he's given me. Not many young female artists would have been given free reign to co-produce their debut album but he had enough respect and belief in those initial recordings that he'd heard that I'd produced in my home studio to give me equal footing. It was always very much my final decision in the production process - for instance Paul was adamant I should lose the segues that I wanted on the record, although there were a few occasions where he turned out to be right about trimming back a bridge here and there... It's funny that those aspects of the album that seem most Mansun-esque were things that I fought to retain as he's in a very different sound space now to what people probably think of as his signature style.”
Given that both Catherine and Paul Draper both perform on a rather robust list of instruments, and pack songs with multi-tracked vocals possessing up to twenty-five different harmonies, not to mention string arrangements, it’s easy to imagine that over the course of its creation, the album as a whole – not to mention its individual compositions – will have changed inordinately as they evolved over time. Reportedly, the single “You and Only You” (which features a vocal performance from Draper for Mansun fans to savour) for instance, went through as many as six different variations before the final version was settled upon and eventually released. However, as Davies tells us, the songs have never strayed too far away from her original vision:“A few of the tracks are fairly close to my original demo recordings - ‘Bury Me’ for instance and ‘Waiting To Breathe’ didn’t evolve much beyond the addition of the string arrangement on the latter to what I’d originally recorded on my home demos. ‘Long Year’ evolved quite naturally from the looped guitar and slide on the original demo - we just layered up the vocals and added some interesting textures with percussion and a few more guitar parts. I’ve always demoed my songs with a huge number of vocal overdubs and harmonies, so a lot of the arrangement work on the album was more about subtracting rather than adding parts. Everything is based around the foundations of the lie recordings with me on piano or guitar and Jon and Stax on drums and bass. All the overdubbing came later with me messing around on synths or adding in omnichord, glockenspiel - anything that came through the studio doors. There’s a lot of additional instrumentation that got cut out before the final mix and that was a huge part of the decision making process before mix stage - just what got to stay and made the cut. I think the track that evolved the most was probably ‘Confessions…’ which ended up with a pretty complex staggered vocal arrangement in the coda section and me press-ganging Paul into recording a last minute guitar solo when it felt like it needed just one more element before going to be mixed.”As a final note to those, like me, interested in Davies’ use of the moniker “The Anchoress” and where it stems from, Catherine explained to me its origin, adding that it “kind of announced itself to me after I was watching a documentary about the history of the church and the life of the anchoress seemed very much on a par with the hermetic life I was leading in the studio at the time,” she professes. “As with many things on the album, it’s a bit of an in-joke that probably only I find funny!”
Confessions of a Romance Novelist was released on January 15th via Kscope, available on both CD and download.
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