Photo by Emily Dennison
Interview by Billy Hell
Nancy Elizabeth is Northern England's most beguiling new folk singer. With enchanting vocal harmonies, a delicately plucked harp, and a self-effacing gracious stage presence, she charmed the Leaf label into releasing the debut album that she battled to record over the course of a year.
She's currently assembling a band which will feature regular collaborator cellist Danny Norbury, two girls to sing the vocal harmonies which Nancy double tracked on the album, and hopefully double bass, drums and a guitarist.
When I spoke to her outside a Chorlton cafe near where she now lives, she was enthusiastic about her upcoming performance at the Green Man Festival.
PSF: You're from Wigan originally, so how long have you lived in Chorlton?
I used to (live in) Liverpool until last year when I moved to Whalley Range and then to Chorlton.
PSF: Why did you move to Manchester?
Well, I just liked it! Its really good for music and I've made a lot of friends here. When I lived in Liverpool, I used to spend all my time travelling over here to do gigs and stuff. I made some friends here who I started playing with and I was a bit bored of Liverpool really.
PSF: You're putting together a band aren't you?
Yeah, in small stages. Its quite a tricky process really.
PSF: The more people there are to organise the more difficult it gets!
There's a lot of difference between the tracks so if I had a drummer there'd probably be about nine out of ten songs that he wasn't doing anything on, and there aren't many drummers who'd go all the way to London to play on one song.
PSF: So what instruments have you got in the band?
We've not rehearsed yet, so I've not actually got it together yet, but the main things I want, since I've got my eye on certain people, is Danny's going to play cello and there are two girls called Nula and Rak who are going to come and do vocal harmonies because my album is really based on vocal harmonies and double tracking my vocals.
PSF: You've done all the harmonies on the album yourself?
Yeah but obviously I can't do that live, so they're going to come along. I need a drummer, maybe someone to play double bass and someone to play extra guitar but I'd like someone who can play guitar and mandolin, bouzouki and dulcimer. I'd like to be able to pick and mix, so if one person can't make it they don't feel pressured. So every time people see me its going to be different. It depends on who's available to play.
PSF: I think the Porch Gallery was the first time I've seen you play with someone else (Danny Norbury).
That wasn't wholly my set when I saw you at that barbecue.
PSF: You played "Coriander" off the album though.
Yeah I played "Coriander." We did a bit of improvisation as well. It was just a bit of a mess-around really! Its going to be quite a new thing because in the past, it's been easier just to take myself to gigs. That's been hard not having a car, to try and get all my instruments on a train is really hard!
PSF: How many instruments do you usually take?
Two or three. I usually take my guitar and my harp or my guitar, my harp and my khim, which is that hammer dulcimer thing. I have a lot of other instruments as well but I don't use them in the live set because they're not really going to work. I couldn't take a piano on the road with me!
PSF: You could get the gig promoter to provide a piano which might be possible in some venues.
Yeah, that would be good. As time goes on I'm hoping I'll have more support to take whatever I want on the road. Hopefully it won't take too long, but at the moment I just make do with what I can do really. I'm playing the Green Man Festival in August and I'm going to have those two girls to sing with me and a cellist and bits and bobs like that.
PSF: Are you going for the whole weekend?
Yeah, its brilliant, I love it! I went last year.
PSF: Are there any other bands playing who you're looking forward to seeing?
To be honest, I've not really looked at the line-up. I'm looking forward to seeing Robert Plant. My friends Starless and Bible Black are playing too and I'm looking forward to seeing them. I might be singing with them as well. I saw John Renbourn last year and he made me cry.
PSF: Why was that?
I think it was a mixture of things really, but I used to be really really into John Renbourn and Pentangle when I was young, about fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. It was one of the things that first inspired me to play guitar. Obviously he's been doing it all his life, he's never made a fortune out of it, but he's so good at what he does. He really feels it, you can tell. I just felt a real gratitude towards him. The next month I went to see Davy Graham in Kendal and John Renbourn was in the audience so I went up to him and I just said, "Thanks!" And he looked at me and he was like, "What do you mean? Who are you?" I didn't explain because I couldn't explain! So he's playing again so I'll go and watch him again. I'm really looking forward to it.
PSF: Your MySpace site is quite vague on the list of influences - you've just written "everything." Is that just because you didn't have time to write them all out?
I did write them out but I find it a really hard thing to say.
PSF: Surely it would just be music you like that has inspired you?
Yeah. In that respect, John Renbourn and Mogwai for more post-rocky stuff, they've influenced me a lot. Also Pentangle and Talk Talk. I've never been really just into one kind of music. I can remember listening to Cat Stevens when I was really young, before I'd even thought of playing music.
PSF: Was there any particular record you loved that made you really want to play music?
No actually, because I've made music all my life. It was something that just came naturally. There have been stages in my life where I've wanted to do it even more. When I was fifteen I started learning to play guitar and then I did the school talent show and then I did my first gig. The record "Laughing Stock" by Talk Talk, which I only discovered about nine or ten months ago, was just like a dart going into my heart because when I listened to it I couldn't move, it was so good! It reminded me why I did music because sometimes you forget. It's a struggle and you're thinking about the band and how am I going to get to London and how are we going to afford this, that and the other and then when I heard that record I knew, "That's why I do it!" It reinvigorated me. It made me think, yeah, I really want to do this. It's worth it all. So I definitely recommend that record.
PSF: What was the last record you bought?
Grails Burning Off Impurities.
PSF: I have to buy that! I've got their first three albums. I was wondering if the song "Coriander" was influenced by German folk?
No, it wasn't.
PSF: It sounds a bit like a German beer drinking song to me.
That's good but I didn't mean it to. Hopefully there'll be some Germans drinking beer to it. I wrote that song initially on the harp and if I do it live that's how I do it- on the harp and it's quite gentle and lulling and soft. I just borrowed an Indian harmonium, which is like a little organ you pump air through and as I was listening to the recording back it just became apparent that it was in this 3/4 signature and I put the (sings) do-ching-ching, do-ching-ching on it and out of that came everything else, the trumpets and the double bass and the silliness.
PSF: Coriander is a nice herb. Are you quite into herbs?
I am into herbs! I'd quite like to get on a Schwartz advert (ED NOTE: that's a big-time spice/seasoning company). I think I could make a lot of money! I really like cooking. I don't have any preference towards coriander as such but I do like it.
PSF: You're not a big expert on the properties of herbs then?
No, but I have friends who are who tell me about it.
PSF: The one I always remember working quite effectively is that tea tree repels fleas.
Citronella does that as well. When I've been in hot countries that's what they put in natural fly repellent. Coriander does that as well.
PSF: There's another good tip from Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers who said that a good way to get rid of a sore throat quickly is to chew parsley all day as then, you're getting a constant small flow of vitamin C.
You can get that from oranges.
PSF: It's easier to eat sprigs of parsley all day though.
I find gargling clove water helps. Get some cloves and some hot water.
PSF: Have you had to do any gigs when you've just felt too ill?
I played in London the other week at a thing called Shhh Fest and I was really ill. I went to Glastonbury the weekend before and obviously it was really cold and wet and I didn't sleep much and that week I got so ill I could hardly move. I was quite a lot better by the Saturday but I still felt like my throat and my nose weren't right. I got through it, but I played a shorter set.
PSF: Did you see anyone really good at Glastonbury?
I saw Bjork and that was brilliant. I didn't see many bands at Glastonbury because it was so muddy it was a half-hour trek just to get down the road! I missed Shirley Bassey which I was really annoyed about. She got dropped in by helicopter. I saw Beirut. I saw Toumani Diabaté. I saw my friends Cortina Deluxx from Manchester three times. I was camping with them and helping them carry their instruments around. I saw my friend Liz Green as well. It was good, but it made me ill.
PSF: Are there any other bands from Manchester that you like a lot?
I like to support people, my friends. I really like Danny Norbury's stuff. He's done this little 3" CD on Static Caravan. I like to support them all at the little local nights that go on, like Red Deer and The Hedge.
PSF: There's often more going on in Manchester than most people can keep up with.
I know, its great isn't it? That's one of the reasons I like to live here. I love living here and I never felt like that about a place before.
PSF: On the album, the subject of fear comes up a few times lyrically. The title track "Battle and Victory" seems to me to start out with a section describing fearfulness and then, the rest of the song seems to be a battle with fear.
Yeah! I think so, yeah.
PSF: From that title, I didn't really expect the song to be how it is.
Did you expect it to sound like a jousting match? (laughs)
PSF: I don't know, but something strange is that there's a PJ Harvey song "Victory" and her new album "White Chalk" has the same release date as your album.
PSF: She's also got "Down By the Water" with the "Little Fish Big Fish" refrain and you've got fish on the cover of your album. Who did the album cover?
My friend Daniel Halsall from Appley Bridge.
PSF: Did you tell him what you wanted on the cover?
Yeah, I told him I wanted a waterfall with fish swimming up it and I wanted it to be red.
PSF: Why are they swimming up the waterfall and into the sky?
It's kind of like battle and victory, that, but I don't mean it like a killing battle. The fish really have to try so hard to get up there but they need to because their life depends on it. So that's why.
PSF: So did the idea for the album cover come from the song "Battle and Victory?"
Pretty much, yeah. Not just that song but I think that song is the epitome of the album. It sounds silly that, doesn't it? The rest of the album is leading up to that song which is why it's last really.
PSF: What do you fear?
I'm scared of spiders and I wish I wasn't because I can see that they're not really that scary. I fear not living a full life because it's so easy not to. I fear not being happy because I want to be happy. That's not really fear, because I know that I will be happy, so that's what guides me forward I think. I don't mind heights so much, but if someone pushed me off one, I'd be scared!
PSF: Until you hit the ground...
I'm afraid of someone robbing my bike because I only just got it a month ago and it's not really mine, I'm borrowing it off someone. I'm scared of losing my instruments in a house fire or something like that. It'd be awful.
PSF: What do you hate?
It's a really hard question, that! I don't like tarragon, on the subject of herbs. I hate feeling really alone but you don't get that much in Chorlton. I hate really pink things. I hate the fact that I'm allergic to cats because I really really like cats, I love them to bits, but I feel terrible whenever I'm around them.
PSF: Was "Hey Son" chosen as a single because of the way it builds?
I think it was chosen as a single because we all like it a lot!
PSF: Would I be right in thinking it has the least lyrics of any song on the album?
Yeah it's hardly got any lyrics - just "Hey son, its an odd life."
PSF: Was that inspired by a particular son or is it a general saying?
In Wigan, people call you 'son,' like they call you 'love.' It's like something someone might say in a pub in Wigan.
PSF: The first song on the album "I'm Like the Paper" has quite strange lyrics...
I think it does have quite strange lyrics but its hard for me to judge really - what's normal lyrics?
PSF: Well, I couldn't really work out what that song was about!
I don't really know myself, but I meant it when I wrote it. I feel like I couldn't really explain it better than the lyrics do.
PSF: If you feel like paper, you could get written on so people could write their own meanings into it. Or paper can be burnt.
Paper is something that can just be burnt in an instant but you can write things on it that last forever. What's really precious and what isn't? Does that make sense?
PSF: Could you make a coment on each of the songs? "I Used To Try" is easier to get a handle on.
That's about the way that I used to wear more make up than I do now, and I used to wear more fashionable clothes and things. The next song is "Off With Your Axe" which is all about coal mining. That's how it started off, with coal mining.
PSF: Was that a pun on "Off with her head," which the Red Queen used to shout in "Alice Through the Looking Glass?"
No, it's just about going off with your axe and your old tin hat! It could be an anti-violence protest song about coal mining (laughs).
PSF: Why is the instrumental called "8 Brown Legs?"
"8 Brown Legs" is a spider, because it sounds like a spider, that song. "Electric" is called electric because it's got electric guitar. That's about nice people. "Weakened Bow" is the song that most came from the heart because I really meant that one. I think that's about good friends as well.
PSF: Are there any instruments that you haven't played that you'd like to play?
I'd really love to play a cello.
PSF: Have you never played a cello?
I have a bit, but only on demos and it sounds awful! I can't afford one. Maybe I'll get one in the future.
PSF: What's the strangest place you've ever played a gig?
It's a cave. It was near where I'm from but out in the country. My friend had a massive back garden that led on for miles and at the bottom of it was a cave and we used to regularly have camp fires and fill the cave with candles and play gigs in there.
PSF: So lots of different people would play in the cave?
Yeah, whoever turned up. I played in a stone cottage in the Lake District with no electricity as well but I think the cave is the weirdest one.
PSF: Was that with no electricity as well?
Of course, yeah.
PSF: How did you hook up with the Leaf label?
I met the Leaf label through a guy I know in Bristol who puts on Venn Fest. He gave our record to the Leaf label and they got in touch and we began to talk.
PSF: Was it "The Wheel Turning King" CD-R that Leaf heard?
No, (they heard) unmixed versions of some of the new stuff. We were working on mixing them anyway because I'd have put them out myself.
PSF: So you recorded the album and Leaf just put it out?
Yeah, its a licensing deal. It took a year to make the record without knowing what was going to happen with it, if anyone was going to put it out or not.
PSF: Were the songs all written before you started recording?
No, I wrote some of them as I went along. Because I had to work as well, it was done in scraps of time, a weekend here and a weekend there. I went away to a stone cottage at the beginning of June last year and recorded quite a lot but I had hay fever so I couldn't do any vocals. Time went on and it came to September before I could do some more vocals and we put the brass section in at some other point. That's why its called "Battle and Victory" as well because it's been really hard to make an album with no money whatsoever and no time! So that's why its taken a year. Then, to my great fortune, Leaf came along at the last moment and wanted to put it out. I'm really happy because it would've been hard work to put it out myself. It's hard work anyway! I still retain my creative license and I can do what I want. I don't have to be pushed down any routes I don't want to go. The people from Leaf are really lovely.
PSF: So it seemed like quite a battle to get the album recorded?
Exactly, yeah. And a battle with my confidence as well because it's quite hard being recorded. It's quite challenging.
PSF: Did you always have the same people recording you?
There's one guy who I worked with quite closely, he's the guy who produced the record, Peter Philipson. There were other people who came in and did bits and bobs. Someone came to record me on one session but couldn't make the next session so someone else came.
Battle and Victory is now out on the Leaf Label
Nancy Elizabeth's website
The Leaf Label
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