A Small Unknowable Thing by Josienne Clarke comes out on her own label, Corduroy Punk Records on August 13th. Having released In All Weather on Rough Trade, this one is arguably her first solo solo record. Josienne set aside her avid dislike of Zoom to speak to Jon Kean about the record, where it’s come from and where she’s going with it.
LTW: So – solo album number two! How are you feeling about solo album number two?
Much better than before the first single came out, because you decide to do it all yourself, right down to decisions about ‘which hi-hat goes here’ and then you think, “Oh, God! What if it’s just a total bag of shite?” and “I was wrong. I can’t do it!” Then the single came out and people seemed to understand what I had been trying to do and I had been largely successful in that endeavour, which bodes well for the rest of it, I think.
I was wondering whether solo album number two felt radically different from solo album number one.
I guess it’s the next step on from it. On the last album, with a producer, a co-producer and the label, I was on the edge of the diving board, but this one was me leaping out into the abyss on my own.
The DIY experience has to be different by nature, but with such talk of ‘diving boards’ and ‘abysses’, was it very much harder or scarier?
I think that it would be, if I hadn’t been so done with the other way of doing it. That risk was a necessity for me. I probably am better being in control of everything. I’ve got an idea of how everything should be, and I found that everyone else’s expertise got in the way of me doing that. So, in a way, it feels risky, but timely. I’m just ready now to do this myself.
Were there any moments when you thought, “Why am I doing this?”
There were a couple of moments. When you make a label, there’s a load of shit to do that I didn’t realise that you have to do. So there were a couple of moments where I thought that I’d probably forgotten something massive and it would come out with the wrong title, or a picture that’s only half there – a small product template or meta-data thing that I hadn’t considered. But they’re just a learning process: you do one release and you learn all the things you have to do for the next release.
The small, gradually knowable things?
The small, unbearable things.
Corduroy Punk is carrying you forward. Your label. Your ethos.
Yeah. ‘Corduroy Punk’ is a name I came up with for a really effete music, the kind of music that I’ve always made. Wordy, sad and slow. The tagline was always that I was so punk that I’d come back round to a point where I could make music that was soft and sad. In choosing a label name, you’ve got to go with something and that was already there. Underneath the umbrella term of those two oxymoronic words, it gives you a lot of scope, so you can basically release anything with those two meaningless words that cancel each other out. You can pop a bit of death metal in there. No one can say you can’t do that.
You’ve said there were a few fiddly moments in being DIY, but there are clearly benefits, so what are the benefits?
If I decide I want to release a single on a Tuesday, ten years before the album comes out, I can just do that. And if I want to release the EP ten minutes after the album comes out, I can do that. Or I could leave it twenty years. That’s all up to me. No-one gets to decide when an album comes out, what’s on it, who plays on it, how we talk about it. That’s all my decision. And I feel like I’ve always known what was the best way to sell me. I’m just in the process of proving that.
Was there anything you especially wanted to do on the new album that was new and different?
I’ve never wanted to be constrained by what genre I am. I’d always felt like I was a songwriter, rather than have a specific genre. I’ve always wanted the songs to define what they are, musically. A lot of these songs needed guitar with overdrive and distortion. Not tonnes, obviously, because it’s not actually death metal, but a bit was needed, because they were a bit angrier. And I don’t want to hold back from using those effects because ‘that’s not the sound I make.’ Let the songs define themselves.
Talking of constraint, was the ‘folk’ tag constraining?
If you put yourself too squarely in any ‘scene’ as a songwriter, you’re going to become, to some extent, constrained. The folk scene itself has some expectations of what that aesthetic is going to be. For a lot of my career, I was allowed to confound those expectations, but when I went to Rough Trade, it was more of a constraint with them than it had been in the folk scene itself. It was more in a ‘folk box’ and I didn’t want to be in any kind of box. So, I wouldn’t lay any responsibility at the folk scene’s door. To edge away from any expected aesthetic has to be positive.
I recall seeing you at a festival in Boscombe where you brought the drum machine out and you made a joke about having to hand back your ‘folk scene membership cards’.
I did joke about that, but in reality, Jim Moray has been taking a laptop to folk clubs for years. The idea that taking a drum machine is progressive? It’s not what 80% of the folk scene is doing, but it wasn’t brand-new to us then either. I’m not trying to leave folk music as such, but I’m not trying to stay there either. I’ll just lay down where my song takes me.
Was there anything on your playlist, on your turntable, in your headphones when you were making the album that was feeding into the creative process?
I was sort of magpie-picking from various things that I liked, because I was untethered from any kind of expectations and genre. So I could take my inspiration from anything. One thing was my Sunn O))) Life Pedal. Some of the heavier guitar sound was made by that pedal. The Collector starts with that sort of sound that I was trying to reference, a wall of guitar sound. Whether I have done that or not is not for me to say. There were things like IDLES, who were a point of reference for Sit Out – that might not be so obvious. It’s all slightly heavier, slightly angrier music.
There’s definitely a ‘take it or leave it’ feeling I get from the new album, as exemplified in the message of Sit Out.
The changes that I’d gone through, I could take that risk. I was so close to not having a career left, I could take the risk of half my audience saying, “What is this noise?”
“A wonky, petulant racket, from a hellish, big-mouthed girl who doesn’t know her place in things”? [Josienne’s own words]
If I positioned it correctly, I thought I might be able to get away with it.
Tell us about getting your anger out. Others reacted to Sit Out and said things like it felt like twatting a punch bag, or like self-therapy. How much of it is good catharsis?
I’ve always used my albums as some sort of catharsis. There are a lot of negative things that we experience and it’s good to have somewhere to put that. I’ve always been afraid, perhaps, of anger. It’s been something I’ve talked a lot about, in terms of female anger, where it’s a thing that’s sort of unacceptable, so I’ve been reluctant to express it. Now I’m accepting that it’s a natural part of myself and it doesn’t mean that I’m a psycho, a cow, a crazy bitch.
I’m just a normal person with things to get angry about, and the idea that you can channel that into art, rather than wistful, melancholic pondering. That has a place too. It’s helped me come to terms with the fact that I can be angry and anger can be a positive emotion as much as anything else.
Is that a society thing that you’re talking about there, or is it an industry thing?
It’s a society thing, and therefore it’s an industry thing. People have referenced my temper before. And I haven’t got a reputation for beating people up or anything – it’s just the idea of a woman’s anger being a problem, whereas men can have great, passionate, assertive anger all the time, and that’s somehow acceptable. There was a great Guardian article recently on the subject by Laura Barton.
Was that the ‘we need to stop apologising’ one?
She put it much more eloquently that I just did.
I have hope that what you’re addressing is more the way the world is going and that my little boy will grow up not to be ‘that guy’ who can’t tolerate strong views from men or women.
Maybe we will live in a world where women are allowed to lose their shit occasionally and it’s alright.
Surely the music industry has been full of people losing their shit for decades?
Yes, but in the same way as society, that’s OK for men, and women get a reputation for being unreasonable, or worse – acerbic, aggressive.
‘Acerbic’ is good, right?
Well, I certainly intended to be that one. In the industry, you could easily get tarred by the ‘unreasonable’ brush with stuff that people would tolerate from male counterparts.
Sit Out was such a bold first song. What are all the things that make you want to move aside, or that ought to sit out in their own right?
The idea that I can’t be angry is one of them. Also the idea that there is a group of people in life who will never be prepared to take responsibility for what they’ve done, or apologise for their behaviour, and I mean that personally or from a wider perspective, because we’re seeing that all the time right now, aren’t we? A set of people who can behave unforgivably and never have to look at it, or apologise or change. The only thing you can say is “I don’t want any part of that,” in terms of the lack of personal responsibility and the lack of accountability. A total absence of moral compass.
You’re walking away and doing your own thing?
In all the possible ways that can mean, yes.
You talked about distortion earlier. Did you have to put any distortion on that angry saxophone on Sit Out?
It is slightly overdriven. I was over-blowing too, deliberately playing it badly, which is where you get that octave drop. The saxophone has an octave key, but you can also control that with the amount of breath you use. There’s somewhere I was not using any keys and I was just trying to control the pitch using air pressure. You don’t get one note or another – it’s just pitchy and flat. It still has a pitch, just one that doesn’t correlate to an actual note.
Grunge sax! You didn’t get an urge to flip it and go all Gerry Rafferty/ Baker Street on us?
No! I think what I was trying to there was a kind of anti-solo, because the thing you’d most obviously do there would be a big rocking guitar solo, but for obvious reasons, I didn’t want to do that. I could do the equivalent on the saxophone, but that would be horrible. So, I had the idea of a noise solo. I tried to make the most horrible sound I could make from it, and afterwards we pushed the gain to distort it a tiny bit.
Super Recogniser next. This one’s slightly different.
Yes. I think this one is the most euphoric sounding track. That’s what I was aiming for, but I don’t think that’s my area of expertise. All of the sounds on that are a lot sweeter. There’s nothing hugely challenging on it. It’s a little happy dance tune.
Is it the equivalent of Slender, Sad and Sentimental from the first album?
Yeah, and in a way, it’s more like a thing that Pica Pica would have done. It’s the opening track of the album, and I wanted it to open in a colourful, joyous, bright and happy kind of tune, to set the tone that we’re doing a completely different kind of thing – bolder, braver and happier, although the album falls off that as it goes through. But I wanted to signal a sea change.
And the follow-up EP is done and dusted?
Yeah. It’s being mixed now.
Ready for release ten minutes after midnight on August 14th?
I don’t know exactly when! There is a big gap, though, between the album coming out and the LPs being ready. There’s a huge delay on all vinyl at pressing plants, so they’re due to be delivered on December 10th. For an album released in August…
Just in time for Christmas!
So I thought that by then, people will have listened to the album on their digital downloads and their streaming platforms, but it might be an idea to jog people’s memory with something else, remind them that I exist. The EP ought to do that.
I massively defy anyone to write the words ‘Sandy’ or ‘Denny’ in a review of the forthcoming album, at least without getting some sort of thump for it. The initial reaction seems to have been good.
More people have reacted positively to it than I had expected. When I talked to Ellie [Ball] on the PR side about what would be the first single, she said that a lot of people would play it safe and bring Super Recogniser out first and hang onto the louder, rowdier one, but she didn’t want to do that and neither did I. Sit Out is one of the edges of the album, and it was a really bold, petulant statement that seemed totally in keeping with what I’m doing at the moment – to come out with the punchiest thing first.
Coming out fighting! You’ve had some good, supportive radio play so far and the vinyls sold out on Bandcamp on day one, didn’t they?
Yes. I know that may sound like platinum disc territory, but it isn’t really. I didn’t make tonnes of copies. I have the same distributor that I had when I was on Rough Trade and they were surprised at how few copies I had manufactured, but I have spent the last four years being told that I don’t sell enough copies. I’m on my own too.
But it turned out that it wasn’t enough and we have had to put in for a second pressing in straightaway. I kept a small amount for the core fanbase for Bandcamp, then with the distribution company, we spread them around the stores in the UK. But then Europe wanted some. We had to be really careful so that everyone could have some, hence why there weren’t that many for Bandcamp and why they sold out immediately.
A good, pleasant surprise still, surely?
It’s certainly a good news story and a decent position to be in. I’m not living under a pile of them.
Or lining your walls with them. Which makes me think slightly about your new-ish surroundings. You’ve taken yourself off to Scotland. Why there, and has it made a difference?
I went to the Isle of Bute from London in 2019. My mum has been living on the Isle of Bute for twenty years, so it’s not a new place for me. I was in Nottingham briefly because that’s where Alec [Bowman-Clarke] was, but he’s always preferred Scotland. He lived in Glasgow for a bit. So, we moved to Cardross, which is just outside Glasgow. So the move is both new and not new.
Has it made a difference to the creative process?
Beiing here and not in London is massively good for how I feel. We’ve got more space as well.
Definitely. I probably won’t go back. I prefer it here.
Except on August 30th.
I’m still going to visit, obviously! I’ll be in London for my first show back. Oh, Jesus…
First since when?
God knows if I’ll remember how to do anything. I might have to issue refunds because of how bad I am at it. I did my last show on March 8th 2020, so it’ll be well over a year.
Have you done any practice shows yet, even to a couple of cats and a dog?
I don’t know how you really practise doing a gig without a proper audience. That gig will be my practice for if I ever do any other gigs ever again after that. That show will be the decider, I think.
Green Note in London will be full of guinea pigs, basically.
They don’t know what they’ve paid for. And neither do I…
You quite conspicuously avoided any streaming versions of shows during lockdown. Was that just the cringe factor?
I did one a few years ago and it feels so weird. It’s got none of the bits that I like about gigs. It feels both too relaxed and too pressured. You feel relaxed because it feels like no-one is there, but you know that they are and you can’t get any sense of whether it’s working. I don’t know that I can control the quality enough to make it worth putting myself through that, so I decided that I would take a gamble and build up a desire to see me play a gig because I hadn’t played a live gig for a while.
And it’s worked. Green Note’s sold out. You’re probably going to play it down now and tell me that it’s just a small venue…
And it is just a small venue, but it was two months in advance that it sold out, so I am pretty smug about that.
Good! Rightly so. You’re just going to have to prepare yourself now for that moment between songs where you say something sardonic and somebody laughs, or that proper appreciative roar when a song finishes.
I’m hoping that it’s going to be the whole ‘riding a bike’ phrase and it’ll just feel back to normal. I haven’t ever had that long of a gap between gigs.
You say it’s like the ‘riding a bike’ analogy, but I’m a liability on two wheels and my bike currently has a flat front tyre and the front wheel isn’t attached…
I’m genuinely expecting that to be how things are going to go. That could be part of the review of my gig.
“Josienne Clarke is back on the bike. But, sadly the bike is not in functional order…” I genuinely hope and expect that the show goes considerably better than that.
There’ll be plenty of acerbic, sarcastic, sardonic, petulant, wonky angriness. A bit of rocking the boat.
It’s what the world needs. There are enough people doing meek, quiet, complacent, ‘CBA’.
There are a lot of people doing that, and they’re a lot better at it than me. What I’m doing now is not as surprising to other people as I thought it was going to be. I thought people would be saying, “She used to be like Sandy Denny, and now she’s gone mental,” but a couple of people have said to me, “This was the sound you were always going to make.” I was thinking the other day that Sandy Denny wasn’t a wispy, directionless folk imp anyway. She was an incredibly forthright and insightful person. I’d like to think that if she were around now, she would be at the forefront of strange, electronic wonk.
You’re just this person who’s been held hostage in a Sandy Denny comparison for too long and you’ve finally battered the door down and yelled, “I’m here!”
I’m emerging from the folk cellar. Dazed by the light, in the glow of a midsummer afternoon.
Featured Image by Alec Bowman-Clarke