‘I find it interesting to explore new areas – I don’t want to stagnate’

Dot Allison

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 ExposureOrchards 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.”

Q&A

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.

https://dotallison.com/

‘I’m open to alien communication’

Nev Cottee

Manchester singer-songwriter Nev Cottee’s new album, Strange News From The Sun, sounds like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk and also recalls the gorgeous country ballads of ‘60s Scott Walker and the Spaghetti Western themes of Ennio Morricone. 

I spoke to him about retro synths, otherworldly vibes and capturing the sound of sweet sadness…

How are you? It’s been a while since we last chatted

Nev Cottee: I’m good. Cold, but good. Just waiting for the Manchester Ice Age to pass and to feel the sun on my face again.

And talking about sun, you’re gearing up for the release of your new album Strange News From The Sun. Have you heard any strange news recently?

NC: It’s all strange, isn’t it? Doublespeak has won the day – truth is portrayed as fiction and vice versa. What’s strange is how people don’t seem to be that bothered.  Sorry, were you after something light-hearted?

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It’s a great album title. Can you explain it?

NC: The title is a reference to JG Ballard and his ability to find wonder in even the most banal circumstances. There’s no need to look anywhere else for inspiration – there’s all you need in your head. Although I am open to alien communication…

On my first album Stations, the lyrics were preoccupied with other things, but with this album they’re more earth bound and more about us lot down here.

You say that, but, musically, the new album does have an otherworldly quality to it. The first track I heard from it – the epic, psychedelic single If I Could Tell You – sounds like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk…. Is that a fair description?

NC: I’ll use that one on the poster if that’s ok with you? So the lyrics are more earthbound, but the music is bigger this time around. More cinematic and more synths. I think anytime you use a synth it’s always going to sound like the future isn’t it? Even retro synth sounds – Moogs and the like… That’s why Kraftwerk still sound ‘modern’, no?

I think some of your songs have a Scott Walker feel to them. Annie reminds me of one of Scott’s ’60s country ballads, like Duchess, from Scott  4. Is he a big influence on you?

NC: Without a doubt – and that’s a good reading of that particular track. I wanted to write a song that had that classic Walker vibe – without it being a complete rip off, just a partial one…  If I can get anywhere near those classic Scott albums, I’d be a very happy man indeed.

There’s more of a country feel to this album than its predecessor. What was your intention with this record? What sounds were you after? At times, it has a more expansive sound than the first one, doesn’t it?

NC: I didn’t particularly want a country sound. I think a few of the tracks go that way because of the pedal steel – it’s the opposite of a synth, no? Put a pedal steel on a track and it instantly becomes a country song… The guy playing those wonderful parts by the way is Chris Hillman – not the Chris Hillman [from The Byrds], but a great musician coming out of Manchester. I’ve got him in the band as well, which I’m very happy about. They’re a rare breed – the ones who can actually play as well as he does.

Me and Mason Neely, who produced the album, decided pretty early on that this album was going to have a more expansive sound and have a lot more instrumentation going on. He’s done a great job on the album…

 

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Last year, you went to San Francisco for a while. Did that rub off on the new album? Did you write any songs while you were there?

NC: I wrote some of the lyrics out there, but, if anything, I wanted them to be more English than American – it can all get a bit clichéd if you’re looking to California for inspiration. Before you know it, you’re singing about highways and the like. Maybe it gave me a good contrast – writing about ‘cold English lanes’ [on the song Follow The Sun] while wandering around Big Sur. I love it out there, so maybe the freeway album is one for the future…

Musically it’s kind of inevitable that it seeps into the record, because I love all those classic west coast bands – The Byrds, Neil Young, Love etc.

Can you talk me through the recording & writing process for the new album?

NC: I had about five songs ready by the time Stations was released [in 2013], so I knuckled down to get five more finished. Just me at home with my acoustic guitar. Then last July I went to Cardiff where Mason has a small recording space. We got the main structures down to tape with Carwyn Ellis popping in to do some keyboard parts here and there. Then we had a period where Mason sat with the songs for a while and we started a back and forth process of adding and fine-tuning what we had.  It’s a collaborative way of working that I like – you just have to be open about something and not rush to a judgement. Sometimes it can take a while, but it’s worth it.

Who did you work with on this record – musicians, engineers,  producer?

NC: So, Mason is all of those things… As I’ve said Carwyn Ellis on keyboards, Chris on the pedal steel, plus Rod Smith, who is my right hand man in the band, on guitars and backing vocals.

Follow The Sun is my favourite track on the record – a gorgeous country-pop song that reminds me of Lee Hazlewood, The Velvet Underground and Glen Campbell. I love the twangy guitar solo, the gospel-tinged backing vocals and the pedal steel. Can you tell me more about this song?

NC: I guess it is the most traditional, straightforward song on the album – just a simple chord sequence – and I definitely had the likes of Glen Campbell in mind. Rod really brings a lot with his backing vocals. He’s way up there, which is the perfect counterpoint to my low tones…

Lyrically it’s got quite an uplifting sentiment. The girl is going but I’m just saying ok, good luck, go follow the sun. There are loads of Neil Young songs I like which have the same sentiment. Have you seen the film  Inherent Vice? There are lots of Neil Young on the soundtrack and I read that the director Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to make a film that felt like a Neil Young song – so it had that sweet sadness to it. That’s the vibe on Follow The Sun – sweet sadness.

Opening track When I Was Young is very dramatic and cinematic, with a nod to film soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone. What was the inspiration for this song?

NC: Rod wrote this song and we used to play it with his band – completely differently. I had an idea to make it more cinematic, dramatic and, yes, Morricone it up. Morricone conducted at the O2 recently and I missed it. You can’t go wrong taking inspiration from all those wonderful compositions. I’m just trying to convince Rod to really go for it live with those shrieking vocals Morricone had on his records…

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

NC: We’re going to do an album launch – one in Manchester and one in London. Then there’s a few festivals later in the year. All to be confirmed…

What music – new and old – are you digging at the moment?

NC: Ryley Walker’s Tim Buckley vibe is good. I also like Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album. I saw him live and it was even better – JJ Cale southern rock and roll.  To be honest, though, I’ve been going through Tom Waits’ career, album by album – about a week on each one. It’s just unbelievable how good he is and how he always keeps moving forward.

Have you started thinking about your next record already? Any ideas?

NC: I’m stuck into it already. As soon as the last one is recorded, you have to move on and start writing again. I’ve actually got two on the go. One is acoustic, looking towards John Martyn, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, just with a guitar and double bass, and the other is more electronic with long repetitive loops. Maybe the two will come together. It’s early days…

Nev Cottee’s new album, Strange News From The Sun, is out on June 1, on Wonderfulsound. 

http://wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com/album/strange-news-from-the-sun

http://www.nevcottee.com/