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The Anchoress: Interview

The Anchoress has released The Art Of Losing. The album is a brilliant record that is packed full of fearless emotion and is a visceral and affecting album. You can read our review of the album here.

We caught up with The Anchoress in the run up to the album to talk about the themes of the record, the songs, touring, Bandcamp, podcasting and Prince.

Trigger warning: some of the discussions around grief and trauma could be triggers for certain people.

Watch The Anchoress' powerful video for new single 'Show Your Face'
The Anchoress

Congratulations on the album. It’s a deeply personal and hugely fearless piece. How does it feel revealing your heart and soul to the world in your music?

I actually think it’s a lot easier. There’s been a delay with the album coming out as it was finished in 2019. The pandemic pushed the release date back. With the extra time and distance between the brunt of what happened,  although you don’t get over things like that, it helps to have time and space and I’ve had a lot of therapy! God bless the NHS.

Ghosteen (2CD): Amazon.co.uk: Music
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

It would be wrong of me to cast it as an autobiographical record because I was intending to do so much more than that with it. I was more interested in exploring the ideas around death, loss and grief and how we think of them in modern society. How we talk about them. How we deal with them. How we rationalise them. My personal narrative is interwoven within that of course, but I want it to resonate much further than my own experience. I wasn’t interested in just writing an emotional explosion.

Nick Cave released Ghosteen just after I had finished the record and they couldn’t be more different in how they treat similar subject matter. I hadn’t wanted to write a genereal, sombre, downtempo record that expressed my emotions. That didn’t interest me as an artist. He does it very well and it’s a beautiful record. I was more interested in doing something like what the Manic Street Preachers did with The Holy Bible and explore the ideas of loss, grief and death. While there are personal moments on the record, I don’t think of it as being that raw in terms of autobiography. I don’t feel uncomfortable about it. 5AM was the only song where I was unsure as to whether I was going t put it on the record.

5AM is very personal. It almost feels like intrusion when you listen to it.

It’s both personal and universal. I’m really glad you asked about that. What I wanted to express was that all of my female friends have encountered one of these three incredibly traumatic, but very common experiences in terms of female trauma. The song looks at domestic abuse, baby loss and sexual assault. Everybody I know has experienced one of those things. It is not an uncommon, unlucky, rare thing. I think that’s why it doesn’t feel personal writing about it because it feels like I’m writing for women, about women.

I wanted to try and destigmatise that by putting it into a song. Its about putting to the forefront of those experiences, the visceral and physical really of that; hence the chorus ‘red, red blood, is dripping on the carpet.’ I don’t like talking about these things in terms of the emotional impact; we’re all very comfortable talking about emotions now, but I feel we are less comfortable with talking about the physical realities of things. This was the only song that I was trepidatious about including it, but it made itself known that it wanted to be on the record.

For me, it’s hard to fully understand the situations as I haven’t experienced any of these things first hand.

It should serve as a conversation starter. That should be its purpose. If it opens the door to conversations where people feel like they shouldn’t talk about the topic or experience because I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. We did an amazing video t go with the track which hasn’t been released yet. It features real people holding up statistics around all of these things and really bravely, owning the statistics and saying ‘I am one of the many.’ That was really powerful to do that. I wanted it to speak to other peoples experiences too. I wouldn’t say I’m looking forward to that video coming out, but I am in a way. Its hard to express that in a way that feels apt! It feels purposeful though.

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JJ Eringa

The video for Show Your Face is quite stark and distressing. I can’t imagine how it feels to go through an event that is seemingly described in the song. Do you have any more videos planned for the album? It feels like you could create short films for each song.

Its interesting you say that. JJ Eringa, who directed Show Your Face and has done the video for The Exchange, is a short film maker. He’d never made a commercial music video before so having someone whose career is in short film worked out. We both love David Lynch as well! We have shared interests. Lockdown has meant that we have had to be super creative about making videos. Luckily we shot a lot of because the album was delayed. The visual aspect of the album is just as important as the music. Equally, the packaging for the album has had a huge amount of attention put into it. There are different formats and they all have different artwork. One of them comes with pages from my studio notebooks too which walks you through the process from start to finish. There is a continuation of some themes from my previous record too. It riffed on the Penguin Classics; this album moves onto the Pelican Classics with the blue spines. The visual aspect of the whole thing is super important to tell the whole story.

There are an array of different formats too, aren’t there? I think that the immersion that you get from a good physical product really heightens the connection with an album.

Yes. We tried to do something different with each format. There’s different artwork with different formats. We took so many different photographs and there were so many that I wanted to include. I grew up with going through the immersion with an album and reading the lyrics and such. It’s only on the dreamscape type tracks on the album that no lyrics are included; that was a deliberate choice. The lyrics are integral to the artwork though, even thought it might be uncomfortable to read at times.

I think challenging people with uncomfortable content is one of the ways to try and break stigmas. How uncomfortable are you willing to feel?

Exactly. It’s interesting. As a culture, we haven’t tended to talk about grief because we don’t ant to talk about the wrong thing. As soon as I stepped into this world, at such a young age, I found myself thinking that the worst thing as already happened. There is no wrong thing that anyone can say to you, and avoiding the subject makes things worse. It’s better to say anything; there is no right thing to say. No words can mend a loss that great. Not being made to feel like a social pariah; like you’re contaminated because bad things have happened to you is a big gift. That is something that I found doing the podcast too, talking to women and men who have experienced extreme loss. (Catherine hosts The Art Of Losing podcast). I found a connection and a sense of camaraderie. I know there is no hierarchy of pain, but other people have been through worse things than you.

the anchoress

Every case is unique. When thinking about mental health and depression, an event that might affect one person badly doesn’t affect another.

I’d never experienced any mental health condition until a series of losses. I was diagnosed with PTSD complex because this cataclysm of different events. The physical symptoms of that I was not prepared for. To not be able to get out of bed. The physical pain of the mental trauma is something I didn’t understand. I have a whole new understanding and luckily I’ve been able to recover from the most acute pain…huge thanks to the NHS again…but it’s been a long road to get there. I’ve had a lot of specialist trauma therapy and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to process some of the more traumatic things that the brain doesn’t process them in the way that it should. That can cause acute distress; panic attacks and things like that. Writing and recording the record has enabled me to revisit and analyse what has happened from a slight distance. It’s been interesting to see the parallels between the therapeutic part of therapy and the therapeutic level of music.

I guess there is a level of catharsis in going through that again?

It was less cathartic for me. It was more a tool for me to process what had happened. I kind of reject the idea of catharsis. That’s why the album cover is what it is. It is me holding up a book and vomiting up the pages of a book. It was playing on that idea that people think that the confessional mode is something where you have this big exhalation or catharsis or vomit of feeling and emotion about what has happened to you. There is so much skill involved; and much more of a process. For me it wasn’t cathartic at all. The record hasn’t helped with healing. It was just a kind of survival mechanism at the time. I wrote a piece for The Quietus about this, refusing this narrative that suffering makes you create great art or that music heals you because that was not my personal experience. I can’t speak for other people; I needed proper therapy. Songwriting is not a substitute for that. That was my experience and obviously that doesn’t apply to every one.

I find that listening to loud, heavy music can help me get over a bad day though.

Oh absolutely. That is my experience of listening to other peoples music. When I think about it, as a teenager I would listen to loud, visceral and aggressive music to affect certain feelings. But when it is your own music, there is a different kind of relationship there.

The Anchoress shares video for 'The Exchange' featuring Manics' James Dean  Bradfield | NME
The Anchoress and James Dean Bradfield.

How was is working with James Dean Bradfield on The Art Of Losing? I know you have worked with them before.

I guess I’m half co-opted into the Manics family! I sang a duet on their last record; Resistance Is Futile. I’ve toured with them a fair bit on their arena tours and supported them. I asked if they would return the favour on this record. So James sings on The Exchange. He also played guitar on Show Your Face. You get two for the price of one!

It’s a dream come true to write something with him in mind. He’s an incredible musician, singer, producer…everything he does. It really made me up my game knowing that he was going to be on the record. The video we have made for the song is fantastic. It was put together in-between lockdowns and my bit before all this started. JJ Aringa as director put it together very cleverly, shooting without anyone else in the room.

It’s always incredible working with the Manics. I wouldn’t say it’s a dream come true as it’s one of those things I would never dare to dream to happen, if that makes sense? I don’t put my ambitions that high! It’s one of those pinch yourself moments. I remember getting the vocal back into the track and I was in a hotel in Italy, on tour. A lot of this record was made on the road and I had this mobile recording rig with me. I was blown away by how it all came together in that moment, having my childhood here singing together with me.

He has such a distinctive voice and such a distinctive style.

He does. When you’re in a room with him, he’s like a hurricane. He’s so loud. Incredibly loud! It’s something to behold.

But, I was making it whilst I was going back and forth in-between Europe on tour with Simple Minds. There was a little bit done in Conk Studios and pieces done in my home studio on my own. It’s a very intimate record, and very personal and that felt apt to me. I wanted to take the reigns on all aspects of the album; proving to myself that I could do it. It’s really important to me at this stage in my career. Women are often thought of as just the singer or just the front person. I wanted to make it really clear that what I’m interested in is making records. I produce and write with other people. That’s a big part of what I do with my day job which people aren’t always aware of. Maybe I’m not being vocal enough about what goes on behind the scenes. I don’t think I could have worked with anyone else on this as it is such a personal record. It would probably would have just depressed anyone to be in the room at the same time as me to be honest!

So having that control meant you could really take the time to get the emotions that you wanted in there; and not having anyone moving you on faster than you wanted to gave you more time.

Yeah. I definitely needed time to sift through and decide how I wanted to present it to the world. Also, on a practical level…I was on a plane or on a tour bus for a lot of the time. The work gave me something that I could cling on to through all the darkness. It was a bit of a guide rope. I’m a workaholic, and work is a constant when everything around you is falling apart.

In terms of the production, one of the standout tracks for me is My Confessor. It’s the heaviest track on the record musically.

It’s the heaviest thing I have ever done. It harks back to the records I loved as a teenager. The Deftones, Jeff Buckley…that heavier side of what I love.

That track had an interesting genesis. It’s one of the earliest that I started recording. My dad died literally whilst I was recording that guitar for the track so I left it for a while as I couldn’t bear listening to it. So interwoven into that track is the moment that my dad departs this earth. It’s really hard to listen back to.

That is really something. That will never go away.

Absolutely. It’s captured on record. It’s such a strange thing. You can understand why I put that to one side for a while. I like to think that the heaviest part of the middle eight is a true expression of what I was feeling. My dad was 59; so young. He had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour but we were expecting a lot longer than the 14 weeks we had between diagnosis to his death. That’s why I had gone to the studio. My dad said to me, ‘go and do some work…I’m not going anywhere.’ He had a pulmonary embolism as a result of radiotherapy, which I now know is a really common side of effect, but we weren’t told that. It was very shocking and traumatic. My mum called me up in the studio; she was hysterical. It really takes me back to that moment. It’s hard to listen to. The moment of screaming and despair is a reflection of that.

How has Bandcamp and streaming helped during the pandemic? You have been very active on Bandcamp.

I’m in an interesting position as I have a license deal with my label that anything I do outside of that deal, I am free to do what I like with. So the second album isn’t on Bandcamp but as soon as it was clear that touring wasn’t going to be happening and there was going to be a financial chasm opened in everyone’s life in the creative industries, I was supremely lucky that I had my home studio and could make some new songs to share with the fans. I’m so lucky to have the fans that I have as they have helped me immensely. Emotionally speaking, it’s good to know that there is that interest, support and generosity out there; when you’re facing down uncertainty with not knowing when you can do your job again, it’s an incredible thing.

An interesting point to note though; Bandcamp don’t pay for streams so if you go to Bandcamp, you need to buy or download from there for the artist to get paid. As for streaming; I don’t involve my headspace with that…I just see it as promotion. I’m lucky enough that my fanbase is one that enjoys physical products and that is where the market is for me. I don’t think of streaming as revenue. If I did, I would be working another job! While I am rightly angered at the current unfairness of the system, I focus my energy where I can to make it work with the beautiful physical products.

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Tom Gray of Gomez

Tom Gray of Gomez has been a leading light against the battle for more fair pay on streaming with his #BrokenRecord campaign.

I’m actually interviewing him for my podcast.

Oh right!

That will be a part of season two which will hopefully be out over the summer. I’m going to be starting that when the record is out. I was supposed to be recording it last year but with lockdown, I much prefer face to face interaction. And with the subject matter, it’s much more ideal to do it face to face with socially distanced recording.

Season two is much more focused on the art of losing rather than the loss itself. It shifts more to look at the form itself. So with Tom, he is coming on to talk about the lost idea of a working musician. We’re exploding the definition of loss a little more widely than we did for season one. It’s going to be a good season.

We did a little bit of it in the first season with Mario McNulty on the lost David Bowie album and lost Harry Nilsson album. It helped to go off the beaten track with the definition. It offers a change in tone for season two.

Having the change helps the show evolve to some extent and keeps it fresh in a world of so much content?

I just follow where my interest lies and that is where I’m headed at the moment. I’m interested in the stylistics of how people write about loss. I’m talking to a couple of authors; one who has written a memoir and how she wanted to overturn the idea of this is how you talk about trauma. I’m also talking to some quite famous songwriters about how they have written songs inspired by their own personal experiences and the technical process of how that works and how you negotiate that.

How will you be feeling on release day for the album having had the album ready for so long?

To be brutally honest, it’s a mix of emotions. I’m going on how it felt this summer when I released the Bernard Butler collaboration and the first album. You are excited and nervous and there is a tiny tinge of sadness as you are letting something go that you have nursed and raised to let it go free in the world. It’s quite a collision of emotions! I’m not sure which one I will be going with on release day, but we’ll find out! There is an element of relief too as it has already been well received and it hasn’t all gone horribly wrong.

Prince Brussels 1986.jpg
Prince. Live in Belgium, 1986. Picture: Yves Lorson

Finally, with taking the reigns, are you going to have written, played and produced on the back of the record like Prince? Hopefully that will make the point on the huge amount of talent you have!

Too fucking right! Prince was my idol, as a musician. I’ve always wanted my name in a record like that. It was bloody hard work and hopefully it was worth it.

It’s seven years since I saw him in a tiny venue in Manchester…it was so loud and so good.

I’m gonna do one-upmanship here and you’re gonna hate me…I saw him at a club show. I got a call like ninety minutes before he went on stage asking if I wanted to go. I think I cried all the way through…it was like celebsville. I remember Bryan Ferry being there.

Off the bat…top 5 Prince songs?

Pink Cashmere. 17 Days.

Is 17 Days the best B-side ever?

Yes.

The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker. Probably one of my favourite songs ever.

This is so difficult! Two more…Sign O The Times. It’s phenomenal Probably one of the greatest songs ever written.

And probably the first Prince song I ever heard…Sexy MF.

The first CD I ever bought was the symbol album. It cost me £16.99. So expensive! My mum was not best pleased with what I was buying. Gett Off is one of my favourite’s too. When Prince was in his weird sex phase, he was so funny. I don’t find it offensive in any way; it’s performative and it’s hilarious in the best way. He was a genius.

If I had to pick his greatest song, it would be Dorothy Parker or Sign O The Times…which shows you what my favourite album is! I love the side of him that explores his inner Joni Mitchell.

For the record..his greatest in my opinion is Sometimes It Snows In April. I guess you can distinguish between the best and your favourites.

I almost included that! It’s a beautiful song.

It’s been a pleasure chatting to you.

A massive thank you to The Anchoress for taking the time to speak us. You can read our review of The Art Of Losing here. Check out the video for The Exchange below, and you can access The Anchoress’ podcast here.

The Anchoress: Website / Bandcamp / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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