Name: The Anchoress / Catherine Anne Davies
Occupation: Multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter
Current release: The Art of Losing by The Anchoress will be released on Kscope on March 12th.
Recommendations: Georges Perec - Life: A User’s Manual (book); Arrival - a film by Denis Villeneuve
If you enjoyed this interview with The Anchoress and would like to find out more about her, visit her website.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
You might say that I started “producing” music when I made the decision to get a multitrack recorder for my 18th birthday (instead of driving lessons). I still can’t drive but I’ve been involved in the writing, engineering, and production of numerous projects, (including The Anchoress) ever since.
My earliest passions were for trailblazers such as Fiona Apple and Björk - the few visible women who seemed in control of their vision and art completely and fiercely focused in pushing sonic boundaries in their respective fields while honouring the traditional craft of songwriting.
I was drawn to the making of music because I love the discipline of building a project from nothing. I’ve always been drawn to immersive, repetitive tasks that require practice and skill, and engineering holds all of that for me, alongside what we might think of as the more traditionally “creative” side of writing music.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I began solely by mimicking and copying. As I was self-taught on the piano and guitar, the only way for me to learn how to write songs, shape chords, and create voicing was to begin by mimicking those I idolised: Fiona Apple, PJ Harvey, Thom Yorke, Nick Cave.
There’s always those initial years where you worry if you can develop your own voice in the midst of your influences but I actually stopped myself from listening to my favourite artists for a long time and began to listen to what people would pinpoint was different or a departure from what I was slowly carving out.
The “anxiety of influence”, as literary critic Harold Bloom put it, is always there in the first years but trusting the process; that your unique cocktail of experiences and likes/dislikes will give birth to a distinctly new incarnation is something I have always been sure of.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The main challenges in the beginning for me were technical: I was not an “accomplished” player, technically speaking. And yet, in terms of my songwriting this proved to be beneficial because in the midst of restriction in terms of voicing and musical language I was forced to find a strong melodic lead that could “hold the song”.
In terms of production I was lucky in that I seemed to chance upon a successful technique quite early on to the extent that male friends in bands would ask me who produced my demos, and the consensus was always that they sounded “professional”. I just trusted my ears and again perhaps my lack of knowledge was in fact a bonus here because I was not consumed by the “correct” process but rather just concentrated on what sounded right.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first “studio” was my student bedroom - a multipack recorder and my stage piano, one microphone and guitar all crammed into a small room in a shared house. I lived right above the Edgware Road in London - one of the busiest and noisiest roads in Central London and on those early demos you can often hear the sound of sirens from emergency vehicles, as well as the steady thrum of the city in the background.
Quite quickly I bought a second hand G5 tower and moved over to Pro Tools so as to be compatible with the studios that I had started working in. Digital DAWs came easily to me so it wasn’t a huge transition technically speaking. Still the most important pieces of gear for me are good microphones and pre-amps - you need to start with the quality of the sound you are capturing which is for me the foundation upon which everything is built. My current go-to is the Chandler Redd 47 pre with my trusty Neumann u87s. Expensive but worth every penny!
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I am still very interested in the human manipulation of technology and in particular in the intervention of the human or analogue touch to what is now such a digital process in the studio.
For instance, a huge part of my production process for album 2 was the re-amping of tracks out through secondary pieces of hardware: the Watkins Copicat echo tape loop that was then physically manipulate day myself with an eraser, a thumb or finger to produce a unique sound interference. An integral part of my production technique is to always maintain that element of human imperfection alongside the polished demands of modern music production.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
There were songs on this new album that were written straight into the DAW - a new way of working for me that I find gives distinct results from sitting down with a guitar or piano and my notebook.
The title track of the album was one such instance where I needed one more song before I was due to go into Konk the next day for a pre-booked drum session. I used my OB-6 to write straight into Pro Tools with a predetermined tempo looped around that I knew filled a gap in the body of the album as it stood so far.
I don’t think of my tools however as having any sense of authorship over the work - they are tools and a conduit through which my message flows. They do not dictate to me, rather they enable the communication more clearly.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Sterling Campbell contributed his drums remotely for the album - an unusual means of collaborating that was necessary due to me touring so much with Simple Minds during the recording process and Sterling being based in the US. I had already worked with a different drummer on the song but the results hadn’t been satisfactory and after fruitlessly reworking the drum session three times I finally gave up salvaging it and asked Sterling to begin again from scratch. He nailed it the first time and that was in no small part due to us having had extensive conversations while I was on tour. I’m not sure it would have worked had we not already established that connection before collaborating remotely.
It was the same process for James Dean Bradfield’s contributions on the two tracks he plays and sings on. I remember him sending over the file for his guitar on Show Your Face while I was in a hotel room somewhere in Italy, waiting for good enough wifi to download the part and then being so excited that I got to working on the mix straight away. It was a huge help having a small mobile recording rig that I was able to take on tour with me. It meant that I was able to maintain a sense of continuity on the album, working and editing on planes, on the tour bus, in airport lounges. I hate just sitting around doing nothing!
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I get up around 8am, check emails and do my physio. Eat breakfast and then usually settle to any creative work at midday. If I am in recording mode I will try to have a fixed schedule where I work 12-7pm only. I find it fruitless to extend the day too much and would rather limit myself to force focus in a few hours. When you are working alone so much there is less time wasted on conversation and social interaction so much more gets done in less time!
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
My creative process is always ongoing. I’m always jotting down lines or phrases that trigger something in me. I’m always noodling on the piano or guitar to “bank” the beginnings of pieces. When it’s time to produce something I therefore have a huge library of ideas to draw on so there’s never that fear factor.
The skeleton of the song will always be there in terms of chords, lyric and topline before I get anywhere near recording or production. I’ve worked on projects for other artists where the songs won’t be finished before the recording has started and seen how much that can not only prolong the process but also loses the focus of the project as a whole. It’s not a technique I enjoy. I like to know what I want to say before I hit “record”.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I don’t subscribe to the idea of a creative state of mind that isn’t just something habitual and purposeful: too many people kid themselves that they will get on with it another day or they need to “feel inspired”. For me, creativity is a habit that you must practice and it is a craft that you just put the time and effort into.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I don’t feel as if there is much connection between playing live and writing music for me at the moment because I am working mostly alone multi-tracking and of course this isn’t possible to replicate live! I also don’t like to trap myself in the conundrum of “how will I play this live” when I’m creating - that’s too limiting.
There is an element of improvisation for me at work when I am layering up synths etc as I will often keep Pro Tools running on loop and capture what first comes to mind before editing down the best ideas. I always have my iPhone to hand as well to sing quick ideas for harmonies etc. I like to work quickly.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
The two are completely and inextricably linked for me but I also feel strongly that a song should stand up alone when played acoustically too. Production is everything for me in terms of how I hear a song in my head - I have always found it less successful and satisfying if I don’t have complete control over that aspect along with the composition.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
For me music is the one thing that can manipulate and stir emotion. As a small child I would sit and listen to sad songs for hours and cry - paradoxically it made me feel happy to be moved this deeply by the musical movements written by others.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
For myself, art must have an underlying message - you should know what you want to say or convey, even if that is just the relaying of your story. The personal is the political, especially as a woman in society.
The new album is deeply involved in questions around how we grieve, how we as a society approach death, as well as political issues surrounding the #MeToo movement, domestic abuse, and baby loss.
I have been told by some that this would put people off listening but I don’t feel concerned by that.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Because music is so deeply connected to the telling of stories and the capturing of emotion I am not surprised that it has not evolved too far beyond its initial concepts. The whole time that the human mind and soul craves these experiences, music will keep doing what it does best!