Her debut album has been three and a half years in the making and has been gathering critical acclaim in the run up to it’s release this week.
Louder Than War editor Sarah Lay talks to The Anchoress (Catherine Anne Davies) about writing and producing her first album, working with Mansun’s Paul Draper, and challenging gender bias in music and beyond.
“I didn’t feel there was anyone speaking from an experience I recognised. I was hearing very traditional love songs. I was hearing a very narrow field of female perspective. One of anger. It would all be songs of heartbreak or ‘why don’t you love me’ or ‘let’s go and get drunk and get laid’ or other things.
“There aren’t a lot of different female voices so what I tried to do with the record is sort of fashion something around the things I wasn’t hearing. That’s sort of where the idea of the voice of the romance novelist comes in, she can inhabit all these different characters.
“I was very much trying to explore identity, ghost writing and writing through other people’s experiences. I wondered what it would be like to have an album that has the multiplicity of female experience rather than just be the archetypes I guess – the home wrecker, the angry woman, the broken hearted housewife, the tropes that you hear in pop music usually.
“It is very much a meta album in a way. I wanted to write songs about pop music and the way experience is written into pop music? And hence the trope of the romance novelist coming as a useful metaphor for that.
“Or you can just listen to it and think ‘I like these tunes’ and sing along to it.”
The debut album from The Anchoress has been a long time in the making; three and a half years of recording and a lifetime of experience. The woman behind the name, Catherine Anne Davies, says she feels she has grown up in the making of her debut, that it came at the point in her life where experiences meant she said goodbye to innocence and fully stepped into the adult world.
That metamorphosis come across on what is a darkly humorous and multi-faceted album. Confessions of a Romance Novelist draws on literature and literary tropes and is playfully intelligent without becoming pretentious. It pulls on Catherine’s own life experiences, but through using a narrator makes this a personal record rather than an introspective or overly intimate one.
“The romance novelist is sort of me in another incarnation. It’s saying this is what’s it’s like to be someone who makes records, who produces music. You do take on these different characters and I’m trying to illuminate the process a little bit for people and draw their attention to the contradiction of making records, which can be a lot about trying on different voices. You have to be careful not to give all of yourself away. Especially when you’re talking about such personal things. You have to leave people room to project their own meanings on to it.
“I know for me, a lot of my favourite records mean something to me and I don’t really want to know what the original story is behind the songs. There’s that great joke isn’t there? ‘What are your songs about? Oh you know, some of them are about two minutes long and some of them are about three minutes’
“You want to leave that space. It’s what I love about reading books as well, you can imagine what the characters look like. Someone has created the world but you want to view it through your own eyes.
“With the Romance Novelist I wanted to underline the idea that this is not an autobiographical record although it is very much a personal record, formed by some of my own experiences. But a lot of my friends experiences too and a lot of the women I know and what they’ve all been through too. It’s a collective drawing together of voices.
“I wanted a way to bring that together and thought ‘what’s a literary trope I can use?’ I know, a literal literary trope; really hammer it home! I know concept records are kind of unfashionable but I’m a very unfashionable person.
Unusually for a first time artist Catherine has had the freedom to fully realise her vision for the album as songwriter, a multi-instrumentalist and producer. Facilitating that vision was Mansun’s Paul Draper, who co-produced the album and co-wrote some tracks.
“I’ve been very lucky to do exactly what I wanted to do and make exactly the record I wanted to make the way it sounded in my head. From the day I sat down with Paul and we talked about doing it I said, ‘I want to make a dark rock record with dark humour in it. I want it to be like Hounds of Love where it’s front-loaded with the singles and then it goes into this suite of music in the middle that is very proggy, and the ninth wave.’
“And that’s what it is, it’s exactly the record I wanted to make and not many people can say that about their debut album; that they got to do exactly what they wanted to do.
“Being a woman in the industry and being taken seriously as a producer is quite difficult and I’ve been incredibly lucky that Paul’s been very generous with his mentoring of me and allowed me to do that to the point where we’ve just recorded the bonus track for the album and he was just like ‘you take all the production credit for that as I haven’t done a thing on it’.
“We’ve gone on a real journey from when I first met him, when I was a kid basically and he was recording my songs, through to collaborating quite a lot to working on his album, me writing for him, through to basically producing the last track on my first album myself. As much as we’ve had our ups and downs with each other personally and creatively he’s really enabled me in a very generous way.
“Hopefully that means that as I go forward there’ll be a distinctive sort of sound to The Anchoress that you’ll hear whoever I am working with and whoever is producing the record.”
We return to the same theme throughout the interview, straying away from the record to talk about personal experiences; of being a woman in music. We both acknowledge that we shouldn’t have to talk about it, but that things won’t change, equality won’t appear if we (and other people) don’t.
“The whole time we don’t say anything and I think a lot of women-who-also-happen-to-be-musicians, let’s use that phrase, they’ve taken the approach of not talking about bad experiences because they don’t want to validate the argument.
“I do see that point but if you don’t talk about it we’re not shifting culture and I don’t want every interview to be about ‘what’s it like to be a woman making music?’. It’s exactly like it is to be a man making music. Maybe a little more difficult but we have to talk about it in order to change things and when people bring it up and make assumptions that are incredibly crass, or apportion the credit to the wrong place. It’s difficult to do that and not come across as a raging Feminazi in doing so. But, you know what? I don’t give a fuck.
“It goes back to that thing that gender should be irrelevant but we haven’t quite got there yet so let’s keep talking about it until it becomes irrelevant.
“Not to say I haven’t met a lot of incredibly generous open-minded brilliant welcoming men, and women, because I do think the issue is as much with women, in how we drag ourselves down. It’s not that men are dragging us down, or that men are labelling us, women do it just as much.
“Even in the way women are pitched against each other and made to feel as if there’s only enough space for one female artist.
“Gender is irrelevant when you’re making music, in the studio, in the creative space. It’s just when you put it into the cultural context that it becomes about what a woman’s natural role would be, or what a woman’s natural tendency is.
“I forget a lot of the time when I’m in the studio like I say because it isn’t an issue. I’m working, I’m creating something, gender doesn’t come into it. It only becomes an issue for me when it goes out into the world unfortunately. To be judged, to be positioned and it’s perceived, those kind of pre-conceived notions about what’s expected of a woman, what sounds are expected to come out of your voice, even what topics you’re talking about- that’s where we run into issues.
“It’s a cultural situation. Endemic misogyny. Can we call it that? Oh, it’s exhausting frankly. But we do have to talk about it because it’s important.”
But with Paul there is an equality and a recognition of kindred creativity. I ask whether Catherine was aware of Paul’s career before they began working on her album?
“A couple of my exes had been big fans of Six so I knew that album and was a big fan of the production but Mansun were a little bit too early on for me to be that into them. But when you spend five years with someone who’s favourite record is Six of course you know it!
“So when Paul messaged me I was like ‘oh I love that production it would be great to work with you’. It was a practical reaction, it was ‘I like what you do’. He’s got a very playful, proggy almost approach to things which would work for me.
“That was seven years ago. We did two demos but it wasn’t a good time. So we aborted it but kept in touch. I was still at uni so wanted to finish that. Then Paul ended up getting his production room and asked me if I wanted to come and do a few tracks, then he said maybe we should just do a whole album and it just evolved from there.
“If you told me we’d still be working together now I would have said no way. But I haven’t found that thing of being on the same page with anyone else creatively, pushing each other as much as we do. I think he would say it’s enabled him to get back to making music again, so that’s a positive thing for both of us.
“I started Confessions with about 100 songs and he went through them and decided which ones he thought were the best. But they were all my songs, some of them quite old as well, and then about half way through the record we started writing together for the first time ever and so about half of it ended up being songs we’d written together.
“And it’s the same with Spooky Action [Paul’s forthcoming solo album]. It started out being the lost Mansun record and all this stuff from years ago. We were writing together on my album and then I wrote, I think, seven songs for him.
“We have facilitated each other. It’s equality. That’s how we work at the moment. I want to pay him back, he believed in me, he messaged me and said he liked what I was doing. He spent a lot of time on my record and I want to pay him back by working with him on his.”
And, finally we talk about how after so long working on the album does it feel to release it to the world, to move on creatively?
“It sounds bad when you say it took three and a half years doesn’t it? It sounds as if I’ve been lazing around on my arse for three and a half years which isn’t the story.
“It’s sort of three years punctuated by a lot of things stopping the recording. It’s been very stop start stop start. I was at university when I first started making the record and so I wasn’t in the studio all that time, sometimes it would just be one day a week in the studio and there’d be other times when we hadn’t done anything for months on end and just so many life events sort of took over.
“The album was mostly made before the bad things happened so it’s a weird hybrid; it’s got that mix of innocence and experience. The foundations were built upon all the angst and experience from my childhood and then topped off with this trauma and all the shit that we went through to get to finishing it.
“It’s an odd record, it’s going to be difficult to see people judge it in 48 minutes when it’s years and years of my life. People don’t realise that when they’re reviewing a record, how much goes into it, this one perhaps more than most. It’ll be cathartic in a way to get it out there as it wraps that portion of my life up, a little bit of closure, it’s time to grow up now basically.
“Life always throws you curve balls whatever, I’m not an optimist but I always try and make something positive out of whatever may be.”
You can read the first part of this interview with The Anchoress – on working with Paul Draper and Bernard Butler, and the importance of literature in her creative journey – in issue 2 of Louder Than War magazine. Pick up a copy in WHSmiths or order online.