You – almost – need not hear a note to understand how wonderfully grandiose and pop-noirish the music of Catherine Anne Davis – aka The Anchoress – is. After all, the Welsh singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist-writer-academic’s debut album, released back in January this year, is called Confessions Of A Romance Novelist. She co-produced it with former Mansun frontman Paul Draper, and she’s touring the songs around the nation this summer, including a support slot at the Eden Project with her heroes the Manic Street Preachers.
But when you do let her music wash into your ears, you will hear a smart, sophisticated pop record. Confessions has plenty of shimmering, radio-friendly moments to counter acerbic and downright angry ones. And, judging by the albums she’s pulled out as shaping her taste in music, it’s easy to see how her bold, lyrical, confrontational style was influenced.
Ahead of her first London headline gig at Bush Hall, we caught up with Catherine for The Anchoress’s This Music Made Me…
Broadcast – The Noise Made By People
Appalling student of alternative music history that I am, I didn’t actually realise that this was the debut album by Broadcast until I started putting together this piece. Where have you gone?! Don’t write me off just yet…
I mean, it just sounds so fully formed in its vision that it’s hard to imagine this being a debut offering, isn’t it? I came to it, as with most of the albums on this list, out of time, out of context, and long after its release. Someone left a CD in the office of the student TV station that I spent way too much of my time in at university. The packaging itself invited you into an unfamiliar and unsettling world: the yellow and red color-blocked design warning you off expecting anything comfortable or familiar. It was an album that soundtracked my growing up in so many ways and I’m almost ashamed to say that I’ve not listened to any other Broadcast record for fear of being disappointed.
The late Trish Keenan’s cut glass vocal tones skating over the textured analogue soundscapes make for an odd collision of the retro and futuristic. It feels like such an emotionally detached record until you take a closer listen to the lyrics… “You said you wrote a page about me in your diary.” It’s such a rich record, both texturally and lyrically, I don’t ever get bored of diving back into it.
Another album I came to out of context and out of time… When I was at university I started listening to Kate Bush “properly”, seriously… and began buying up the back catalogue when I had any spare money. Now, if your idea of Kate Bush is red dress twirling Wuthering Heights era Bush (which was all I knew of her then), this record is going to come as a shock to you. Yes, it has the overly theatrical musical hall piano romps like There Goes A Tenner but this sits alongside the almost classical curiosity that is my favourite song, Houdini (which also features what I like to think of as a kind of proto-death-metal vocal from Kate).
Rolf Harris plays didgeridoo on the title track but we probably don’t want to talk about that… As the first album she produced entirely on her own it’s also an important one for me as someone who was taking their first tentative steps into putting together tracks at the time. The idea that a women could take the reigns creatively in the studio was one that didn’t have precedent in my narrow experience of the world.
Here was a record that was saying yes, you can dive headlong into your imagination and take control of painting that vision at large across an album of songs that pay no heed to rules or genre or what a “pop” song might sound like. I came back again and again to this album while I was making my own. Get Out Of My House was a key sonic reference for the title song for my own debut. I mean, what other album is going to make you dig out the split harmonizer for a lead vocal… ?
The first time I heard this album was in the tiny cupboard-like student halls bedroom of my best friend at university. Before this I’d only really been familiar with the David Bowie of Life On Mars, and Changes; the elegant, dramatic Bowie who was all about songcraft. In the subsequent years, this not only became my favourite Bowie album but also one of my favourite records.
At one point my phone ringtone was the opening bars to Breaking Glass – a weird Pavlovian response remains today as the album plays its first few bars and a small shot of anxiety grips me as I go to reach for my phone… A quick lesson in how to ruin a song…
What’s so amazing about this record is the Janus-faced character of its two sides. The glacial electronic tones of the second movement buffer up against the last gasps of glamour emitted by the angular guitars of Breaking Glass or Be My Wife, signalling a distinct shift in Bowie’s sound. The perfect balance of collaboration between Bowie, Tony Visconti and Brian Eno became a touchstone for me in terms of the lessons of what can be gained from working with others and the creative sparks that can fly from introducing new instruments or unfamiliar methods.
An album I fell in and out of love to. Again, I’ve chosen this as a record that was important to me for championing the idea of a woman taking total control of her creative vision. Listen on headphones and you find yourself tumbling down the rabbit hole only to be caught in an intricate web of erotic longing, spun from glorious music box melodies and beats molded from feet crunching through gravel.
It’s so inventive and imaginative; the benchmark for me for presenting a truthful vision of female sexuality through music and words. There are such beautiful tiny details here and there that I notice each time I come back to it: a vocal panning here and there; a breath sound extended and edited into a rhythmic beat.
Her vocal work is just unsurpassed for me in terms of its technicality that sounds so effortless. She’s like the musical equivalent of a classical ballerina: making the impossible look effortless.
If some albums soundtrack falling in love, this one soundtracked my first break-up.
It also signalled my first serious interest in production and recording as I began scouring the credits and reading everything I could about producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, trying to find out what this mysterious “chamberlain” instrument was, and hunt down every piece of scant information that existed on the internet about the recording of the album.
Most importantly I found that he had also worked on Rufus Wainwright’s debut album (another favourite) as well as with soon to be favourite Aimee Mann.
This is an album that literally “made” me you could say, at least professionally speaking, as I spent nearly four years (on and off) recording my debut (Confessions of a Romance Novelist) with Mansun’s Paul Draper and we are now mid-way through writing and working on his own solo album.
I remember very clearly the day he emailed me after hearing a handful of my recordings, saying how much he admired them and that I reminded him of his younger self. I was familiar with the eccentric production choices of Six as it had been the favourite album of two of my exes. I thought we’d make a good team in that we both shared a love of Prince and spending hours on tiny details in the studio. In some ways it’s hard for me to connect the person I work with and know with this album in some ways. I’m constantly fascinated by the way in which people project their own love of certain records onto artists and expect them to stay creatively still, repeating the same tropes, ideas and sounds.
Working on his forthcoming solo record with him (on which I’ve co-written seven of the tracks) there are certainly aspects of the playfulness and cut-and-paste production approach of Six that I recognise from the way we work together, but the album itself is much more synth-focused and certainly more preconceived than the make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach that was at the heart of Six. I spent a good deal of time listening to this album to acquire some kind of shared vocabulary in the studio. I think it has stood the test of time as a bold artistic statement but I hope people will be just as excited to hear what we’ve come up with for Paul’s solo efforts.
Panic At The Disco – A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out
I was introduced to this album by a boy. There’s probably a thread that runs through all of my picks in this list; a certain theatricality and drama; a love of a segue and instrumental intermission; a sense that a pop record can be something more than ten songs, one after another.
This is an album that pieces together a world; a universe you can inhabit. I love the playfulness of the lyrics – the knowing literary references and in-jokes. I love that it challenges the listener to go and read Chuck Palahniuk. Ok, they’re no Manics in terms of their literary ambitions, but a band that comes with a reading list is never a bad thing, no matter what the authors.
The mix and production is sort of appalling on many levels… but the layers of interest make that forgivable to these ears, even as it has dated quite badly on a sonic level.
I grew up listening to this album on repeat: in the car, at home on Sundays, doing the washing up with my Mum. If I stopped writing my own music I’d probably be quite happy singing in a Carpenters tribute band.
You could never tire of those melodies and harmonies. I do wonder what effect singing such sad love songs had on the developing psyche of an impressionable eight-year-old though… I am, however, thankful for that childhood vocal masterclass in timbre.
The key lesson to learn from Karen’s vocals is that you don’t have to sing loudly to be a great singer: all her emphasis is on tone and character. You don’t have to belt out at full volume to have an impact. She actually sang incredibly quietly… a studio singer par excellence in this regard.
Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible
I’ve written about this album so many times elsewhere but it bears repeating for the immense influence it’s had on the arc of my life as a whole. Beyond music and beyond fandom, somehow this is an album that I hear time and time again has changed the course of people’s lives and been the catalyst for so many PhDs, novels, small town escapes and minds opened to a world of possibility.
And this is what music should do, isn’t it? Faster was the first Manics song I ever clapped my ears on. I can still remember how it just completely stopped me in my tracks with its litany of literary name-dropping.
There was no hope for me after that, and I was straight down to the public library ordering books by the armful and seeking out every old interview I could find of theirs.
This is another record I “inherited” my love for from my Mum.
I think she fell in love to this record when she met my Dad as a teenager. It was never far from the record player in our house and I can’t remember a time I didn’t know all the words to each and every song.
Little did I know what a masterclass in songwriting, arrangement and musicianship I was receiving by osmosis as the album soundtracked every Sunday roast dinner.
The Anchoress’s debut album Confessions Of A Romance Novelist is out now through Kscope. She plays London’s Bush Hall on 15 June 2016, supports Manic Street Preachers at the Eden Project on 9 July and plays at Latitude Festival on 15 July.
Tour dates and further information can be found here.