Heart-Shaped Scars, the new album by Scottish singer-songwriter, Dot Allison, just might be the most beautiful record you hear this year.
On her fifth solo outing, the former vocalist in ‘90s Scottish electronic act One Dove, who, throughout her career, has collaborated with the likes of Massive Attack, Scott Walker, Paul Weller and Pete Doherty, has gone back to nature.
Several of the gorgeous, stripped-down, pastoral folk songs feature field recordings of birdsong, rivers, and the ambience of the Hebrides, where she has a cottage.
Musically, she cites Karen Dalton, Gene Clark, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Nick Drake and Brian Wilson as influences. There’s also a nod to the soundtrack of ‘70s cult folk-horror film The Wicker Man, which is set on a remote Scottish island.
“I love that soundtrack and film,” she tells Say It With Garage Flowers, speaking to us from her home in Edinburgh. “I got asked to sing a song from it, Gently Johnnny, with The Memory Band, at Glastonbury. I’ve bought the soundtrack on CD and vinyl – it’s featured in my world.”
Heart-Shaped Scars has been a long time coming – her last record, Room 7 1/2, was released 12 years ago. Since then, she’s taken time out to start a family.
Recorded at Castlesound Studios, in Edinburgh, with orchestral arranger, Hannah Peel, who worked on the last three Paul Weller albums, it’s a haunting record, musically and lyrically – quite literally, as one of the album’s prettiest moments is called The Haunting and opens with the lines “Slip inside this haunted house – tip toe silent, not a sound.”
There’s also a track called Ghost Orchid – a stately piano ballad with mournful cello. “That song started off as a poem called Church of Snow – I wrote it when I was working with Massive Attack,” she says.
“I showed it to 3D from Massive Attack and he said he loved it. He got me to post it on their forum – that was in 2004. The song is quite different from the poem.”
In the past, Allison has dabbled with genres including pop, trip-hop, psychedelia, electronica and folk, but Heart-Shaped Scars is her most rootsy sounding album so far. “I like to try and explore new sounds and styles, so as not to stagnate. I love the evolution of The Beatles – that’s a good model. I find it interesting to explore new areas,” she says.
Four of the songs feature a string quintet, and other instruments on the record include ukulele, keyboards / synth, piano, guitar, bass, drums, harmonium and Mellotron. The vocals and the ukulele were recorded together on a Neumann U 67 microphone – the album sounds hushed and intimate.
Allison usually writes songs on piano and guitar, but the first single from the album, the fragile, cinematic and dreamy ballad, Long Exposure – “Orchards of cherries lie bruised on the ground” – was one of the tracks she composed on ukulele, after picking up the instrument during lockdown.
‘I wanted it to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat – a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature’
Lyrically, Heart-Shaped Scars references several of Allison’s interests, including literature, science and nature. “I wanted it to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat – a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature,” she says.
In fact, one of the songs is called Can You Hear Nature Sing? It’s autumnal folk and co-written with Zoë Bestel, who provides guest vocals.
The record’s most brooding and dark moment is Love Died In Our Arms, with dramatic strings and moody synth – a flashback to her trip-hop and electronica roots.
“I wanted to write a song that was like a mantra, with blocks of vocals and more primary colours – a slab of melody, ” she explains. “I wanted the vocals to be like paintbrush strokes.
“The song has a Juno-106 [synth] on it. There’s a company called BrandNewNoise that makes these interesting little, experimental wooden bits and bobs, like a weird, mutated version of a glockenspiel, which has an internal mic to record what you’re doing, but also a modulation button, so you can loop what you’ve done and then fuck about with it.
“I used that on it. It’s like a marriage between a synth and a wooden glockenspiel. It’s mental the noises you can get out of it, like a moment that sounds like a weird, distorted star. I think I’ve hopefully brought the slightly left-field dance mentality to the sounds – even though they’re quite human.”
Heart-Shaped Scars is a beautiful record. I can’t stop playing it…
Dot Allison: Thank you so much – I really appreciate it.
It’s been 12 years since your last album. Why did the time feel right to put out a new record?
DA: The time was right because my kids are older – I had more space to work on music and I also changed my manager in early 2018, which meant I started writing again, and then the album started coming together.
How did Covid-19 affect the album?
DA: Covid altered my plans, but, thankfully, I’d started the recording process – the bass and the drum, and the bones of the songs that were going to have a fuller band sound were laid down before lockdown. When it came to further recording and production and mixing, that all got delayed.
During lockdown, I started writing on a ukulele and ended up writing four extra songs [Long Exposure, Forever’s Not Much Time, Goodbye and One Love] which changed the plan for the record, because they were strong enough to bump other songs off. In a weird way, lockdown benefited the album.
The ukulele songs began on my phone – I record everything that I play and then I listen back to it on my headphones at night and make notes of little moments. It’s like catching butterflies in a net. I get it all down, so I don’t miss anything.
Once I captured some bits and lovely moments, slowly, through repetition and playing them, the songs started to take shape and knit together in my head. I then laid them down in a studio at home – just rough recordings, with a ukulele and some harmonies on my voice. I sent voice notes on my phone to Hannah Peel and Fiona Cruickshank, who co-produced the album with me.
‘I record everything that I play and then I listen back to it on my headphones at night and make notes of little moments. It’s like catching butterflies in a net’
You’ve worked with orchestral arranger, Hannah Peel, on the record – she’s collaborated with Paul Weller on his last three albums, True Meanings, On Sunset and Fat Pop (Volume 1). How did you and her get together?
DA: I worked with Paul Weller years ago – we didn’t stay closely in touch, but I reconnected with him in 2018. I met up with him – I went to his Black Barn studio for a cup of tea, he played me some songs and he mentioned Hannah Peel. I’d been listening to his album, True Meanings, which I absolutely love. Hannah and I agreed to do something, which I was really pleased about – I love her work. Fiona Cruickshank is a really good engineer and she’d come very highly recommended as someone who could mix the album. She agreed to get involved.
You made some field recordings in the Hebrides, which found their way onto the album…
DA: I had a little handheld recorder – I went up there for the weekend, got up early one morning and went for a walk. I recorded the stream, the sea, birdsong and a rattling gate – I turned a corner around a cliff and there was a Force 7 gale! Suddenly, I couldn’t record anything. I also recorded some birds in Edinburgh – I collected a lot of sounds and created some loops in the studio.
The whole album sounds to me like it was written and recorded in a remote cottage in the Hebrides…
DA: Some of it was written there – Constellations was written on the island.
Throughout your career, you’ve collaborated with so many great artists – sadly, some of them, like Andy Weatherall and Scott Walker, are no longer with us. Did their deaths have a big effect on you?
DA:I was devastated to hear about Andy – I loved him to bits. I was very shocked. It was weird because I’m met him only a few months before it happened, for the first time in ages. He was in Edinburgh, and he was with [singer] Denise Johnson…
Who, like Andy, also died last year…
DA: I know… He asked me if I was doing any music, and I said, ‘funnily enough – I am.’ He wanted to hear some of it, but I told him it was unplayable at that time, because it was all on my phone. He said, ‘what do you mean? It’s unlistenable!’ I was like, ‘probably…’
I was planning on sending him something… It was totally shocking and so premature. I also couldn’t believe that Denise had gone too – what the hell is going on? You’ve just reminded me that I’d asked her if she’d wanted to be on this record…
Scott Walker has been a big influence on you and you worked with him…
DA: He was a creative lawbreaker – he totally did his own thing. I ended up recording with him on a song he did with Sunn O))) called Bull. Scott talked to my managers about my voice – we had the same management – and he said that I had ‘great pipes’. I’m having that!
What have been some of your favourite collaborations?
DA: I’m really proud that I worked with Hal David – that was just insane. He got temporarily stuck on the chorus of Did I Imagine You? He asked me to write him a dummy chorus, but he kept one of my lines! That was amazing. I loved working with Paul Weller too – he’s so lovely and he really put me at ease. I get so shy, it’s awful – such a burden.
‘Scott Walker said that I had ‘great pipes’. I’m having that!’
Anyone you’d like to collaborate with?
DA: I’d like to work with Linda Perhacs [American psychedelic folk singer], who made the album Parallelograms – it’s a cult classic. She’s so talented, but she was written off and she became a dental assistant. I’d love to work with Brian Wilson too.
Finally, what music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently?
DA: I’ve been listening to Parallelograms and The Wicker Man soundtrack. I also got an album by My Solid Ground – I’m quite obsessed by a song called The Executioner. It’s quite prog. I’ve also been going back to The Beatles. I decided to listen to all their albums chronologically – it’s the craftmanship of the songs. I started at the beginning and then went, ‘fuck – that’s insane!’
Heart-Shaped Scars by Dot Allison is out now on SA Recordings. It’s available digitally and as a double gatefold vinyl (limited edition pressing of 500) – pre-order it here.