Interview by Miriam C.
The Anchoress AKA Catherine Anne Davies has charmed her fans and listeners with her debut “Confessions of a Romance Novelist” who was released back in January via KScope. The British author and singer’s musical proposal was described as ‘revenge pop’ and appointed as the next Kate Bush for her visual style and singing. On top of that, “Confessions of a Romance Novelist” was produced and composed hand-in-hand with Mansun‘s Paul Draper. Tho’ she is no stranger to the musical business, besides her solo musical adventure is a active live member with the British superstar Simple Minds and an writer. Let’s read together the countless artistic adventures of this fantastic artist, directly from Catherine’s words!
Before we start to delving into your new album “Confessions Of A Romance Novelist”, would you mind taking a step back and telling us how your musical journey started?
I started playing the flute when I was 7. I took the usual classical route as we were lucky enough to have free music lessons at my school and progressed very quickly so I was playing in youth orchestras by the age of 11. Shortly after that I started to teach myself to play the guitar but it wasn’t until I got to university that I set myself the unenviable task of teaching myself how to play the piano with no lessons or anyone to show me where to begin. I got a multi-track recorder for my 18th birthday instead of driving lessons and worked from there on putting tracks together in my room, teaching myself the rudiments of production, slowly accumulating gear and upgrading to a pro tools system, buying microphones and odd instruments off eBay. I’m most at home in the studio and think of my musical journey as being more about learning how to put records together rather than learning how to play instruments really well.
You used to release your music under the monicker Catherine AD, why undergo such a radical change?
I don’t really think of it as a radical change. I self-released a few limited EPs as Catherine AD – a couple of the songs actually ended up in a different form on the album. I guess by the time I was ready to present the album to the world I felt a little more comfortable distancing myself from the autobiographical assumptions that often come with performing under your own name.
Saying that I was intrigued by the choice of your monicker, it’s really an understatement: The Anchoress means “a woman who is an anchorite – a person who lives in seclusion, esp a religious recluse; hermit; one who has retired from the world”. Why choose this particular word as your new monicker?
I felt like the idea of The Anchoress really reflected my experience of immersing myself in the studio environment over a number of years. I’m quite a reclusive person – I’m happy to lock myself away for 3 or 4 days working on a track and not see or speak to anyone else. I guess the whole concept really resonated with me as a metaphor for the relationship between an artist and their audience.
What can you tell us about the genesis of “Confessions of a Romance Novelist”? I’ve heard it was a troubled one…
I didn’t really realize I was making an album at first. It grew out of recording a bunch of my old songs at Stanley House Studios in West London and seeing how that working relationship was going to pan out. At some point the whole endeavor became more ambitious and we set about recording 20 or so songs. And then that grew again…There were lots of life events that punctuated the process and meant several long hiatuses but we got there in the end.
I quote directly from the press release: you “sum up the album’s overall concept as “deconstructing normative ideas of love and romance”. Would you like to explain more about this by taking your lyrics as cross-reference?
I guess the lyrics are probably very representative of my own sense of humor and state of mind in the way in which I tend to question things that are taken for granted. I’ve always naturally questioned the whole idea that as a women you are defined by your marital status or romantic partners. I’m interested in the institution of marriage as a social stabilizer and how that’s been transformed into a grand narrative built on the myths of love and romance.
“Confessions of a Romance Novelist” was practically written and produced in collaboration with Mansun’s Paul Draper. How did he, during the recordings, help you to mould your sound and how was this collaboration born?
The first half of the album was written and demoed before I started working with Paul and it was only once we’d recorded a fair amount that we naturally began to write together. It’s been odd as we started writing for his solo album as well towards the latter part of the making of my record so there’s been a huge overlap in the genesis of the two records. I think it’s quite a natural thing for collaboration to evolve out of working with someone so closely for so long. You can’t sit in a room with someone for ten hours a day over several years and not feel comfortable enough to turn your head inside out in front of them.
It seems also that you’re already working on the follow-up of “Confessions of a Romance Novelist” with the former guitarist of Suede, Bernard Butler. Do you have any info that you can share about it?
The record I’ve made with Bernard is almost done now, although there’s some more orchestration and re-recording to do. He’s always tinkering while I’m away touring and sending me new versions of things that have transformed the songs. I’m not sure how and when that will be released as yet but hopefully it will see the light of day this year.
Catherine, you’re not only a musician but you’re also a writer and via Bloomsbury Group you have published your first book called “Whitman’s Queer Children”. How about introducing it a little to our readers?
I funded being able to stay in London and make music via research grants for my Masters and PhD. I don’t come from a very well-off background so I’ve always had several jobs on the go whilst pursuing music or studying. The book came out of my PhD after I was approached by Bloomsbury when I was still at university. It was probably madness to try and tackle a book and an album at the same time. I got quite ill towards the end of the book deadline as I’d just burnt myself out taking on too much work but I’ve always been someone that pushes themselves to the limit.
I’ve discovered now that you have a PhD in literature and queer theory from University College London. What I really I wanted, now, is to focus on how your PhD can reflect on some of The Anchoress‘s aspects such as the lyrics. Did they ever happen to be influenced by it?
Absolutely. My whole way of thinking critically about labels and binaries comes out of the deconstructive tendencies of queer theory. Whether my own predisposition to unpack things came before or after immersing myself in this field is up for debate. People often say that you can read a lot into a person’s chosen PhD field… I guess mine is reflection of my interest in power, constructed identity, and outsiderhood. I think all of those themes are present in the album’s lyrical motifs.
Unfortunately, I’m too young to have enjoyed Simple Minds during their heyday in the 80’s, but I’m sincere right now when I’m telling you that I really love Simple Minds. So, I’m wondering how did you end up performing with their live band as an additional guitar and keyboards player during their past tour?
Me too! I didn’t really know anything more than the one song when I was asked to come onboard. My first encounter was when I was asked to be a part of The Dark Flowers project – which is how I was introduced to Jim and he to my music. There was no audition as such. I was approached by management about a year before the Big Music Tour was due to start and asked if I would meet with Jim who was keen to bring me into the fold and incorporate what I do into their live show. It’s been a blast. I’ve learnt a huge amount from performing so many shows and with such a great team of people. It’s a large production so you really get to see people working at the very top of their professional game. I’m looking forward to joining them on the road again next year if my other musical commitments allow.
Back in 2009, you performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra as an artist-in-residence. What can you tell us about that experience?
That was probably the beginning of me feeling that perhaps I could pursue music full time. I was just coming to the tail end of my PhD at the time and thinking about what the hell I was going to do next. Scoring and arranging for the Philharmonic was a hugely ambitious and challenging thing to do as someone that hadn’t played in an orchestra for a few years. I also got to collaborate with Nitin Sawhney who introduced me to a lot of Indian rhythms and musicians working outside of my usual genre.
You also had the opportunity to shoot a video for “You and Only You”, directed by Tom Payne. Could you tell us a bit about the concept behind it and the filming? Also, if I’m not wrong you’ve shot 2 different version of this video, why?
There two different videos – one for the Philip Reach version of the song – which was shot by Tom Payne and another that is for the album version of the song that I edited from footage shot by an abandoned video that was made by a friend of mine- Frances Main. There’s two different videos as each has a distinct character to fit the different versions of the track.
A little birdie told me that in the next days “Doesn’t Kill You” will be your next single taken from “Confessions of a Romance Novelist”. Why did you choose this particular song and how does it relates personally to you?
It’s probably the most personal song in the album in some ways. It’s about the notion that great things are often achieved through hardship – hence the Nietzsche quote that precedes the song on the album. I wanted to give people who had only heard the preceding singles a different sense of the album – for those that were perhaps laboring under the misapprehension that it’s very much a “pop” record. This track was hugely indebted to Low-era Bowie, particularly in the synth work on the song. That’s somewhat reflected in the video too…
As a companion with the new single, you will published a video. Although we haven’t still had the occasion to watch it, would you like to spend some words about the video concept?
The video for the single was directed by Annick Wolfers (who has previously worked with Vivienne Westwood and Vogue Italia) and narrates what you might describe as a metaphorical battle between the super-ego and the id. I managed to persuade my friend Charlie Gilmour to come and play my androgynous alter ego and I wanted the video to present the conflict and struggle that the song speaks about but presented in visual form. I got to push Charlie around a fair bit.. although he’s pretty good at martial arts so I held back a bit ; )
Recently there are quite some few developments about your live activity, would you be so kind to grant us more details about it? Do you have any plans for a full EU tour?
I’ll be playing a one-off show at the Bush Hall in London on 15th June. After having been locked away for so long making the album, I’ve decided on the rather mad plan of bringing the whole thing to life in a live show. While the budget wouldn’t quite stretch to the all-singing, all-dancing “Tour of Life” Kate Bush style theatrical extravaganza that I’d imagined… it’s the only show where I plan to play the album in full and I’ll be joined by a string section as well as the full band to bring the album to life in one epic set. We will also be playing a few festival shows – including headlining Focus Wales in Wrexham in May, The Great Escape in Brighton and opening the main stage at this year’s Liverpool Sound City. I really want to present the album in full, as you hear it on the record so it will likely be a series of one-off events rather than a comprehensive tour. It’s just so expensive to take that many musicians on the road with you but I really want to try and present the album in the way that I see it in my head.
Photos by Isabella Charlesworth