Songs from the Hearth: Allo Darlin' Interviewed
, March 8th, 2012 06:44
London indie-pop group Allo Darlin' released their new single 'Capricornica' last month, with their second album Europe to follow in May. Robert Barry caught up with the band's Elizabeth Morris to talk about tough touring, food and the lure of home
"We didn't really think that anyone was going to be hearing it," says singer/ukuleleist Elizabeth Morris of her band Allo Darlin's eponymous debut album. That album, released in June 2010 on Fortuna Pop! records, subsequently saw the London-based four-piece touring the world and picking up plaudits from all corners of the press. "We thought it might get played at How Does it Feel," she says. "That was my big ambition."
The word "community" is probably over-used these days. We hear often of the "business community" - referring to a group of people defined almost exclusively by their own rapacious self-interest; the "hacker community" - when, as Bruce Sterling's fine history makes clear, one common feature of computer hackers has been their immediate willingness to shop all their associates to the police immediately upon being questioned. But if the sense of community, as a mass noun, has any meaning beyond mere geographical proximity, then it might describe that almost unmistakable feeling to be found hanging around in the merch tent at the Indie Tracks festival, walking into the Duke of Uke shop, or dancing at Ian Watson's How Does It Feel club.
These are nodes in a network about which there is nothing virtual - united by a love of music defined less by the shock of the new than by such apparently passé notions as a hummable melody, an arresting turn of phrase, a certain sense of fun, a real economic independence from metanational media conglomerates, and a friendly face. Over the past few years, Allo Darlin' have been cradled to the bosom of this community like prodigal children returned to the hearth.
Having one of your songs played at a local indie club may seem like a meagre ambition for a prospective popstar, but then the grandest designs are often easiest to appropriate. As Marge Simpson once remarked to her husband, "Homer, when a man's biggest dreams include seconds on desert, occasional snuggling and sleeping in til noon on weekends, no one may destroy them." Allo Darlin's dreams have proved particularly resilient, no matter what fate hurls at them.
And fate has not always been kind. Last year saw the band take to the road for a five week jaunt around Europe that would be beset, from start to finish, by calamity. In between shows in France, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Italy, Belgium and Germany, the band's van variously broke down, crashed into a gate, needed a battery replaced, broke its wipers, caught fire, and vomited carbon monoxide smoke upon its passengers. With the mounting cost of repairs and unanticipated road taxes, the tour wiped the group out financially and left them physically shattered.
Upon returning to London, Elizabeth wrote on the band's blog, "I think the story shows a little bit that indie pop isn't about what kind of music you make, or how jangly your guitar is, or what you say your influences are. It's about your attitude. We lost all our money on tour, but we had an amazing time and got to play our music to loads of people. We count ourselves among the lucky ones because we have done something so many bands can only dream about."
Somewhere amidst the chaos of that European tour, the songs and ideas for the group's second album crystallised and coalesced. They went into the studio to record almost immediately after returning--first to Analogue Cat, near Manchester, where The Vaselines and Jeffrey Lewis have recently produced albums, and subsequently to Bark, in Walthamstow, a studio which boasts gold discs of both Primal Scream's Loaded and The Firm's Star Trekkin' on its walls. "Two records you don't really expect to see side by side," Elizabeth remarks. Reprising his production duties from the first album was Simon Trought, who used to run the studio under the Duke of Uke.
A more sombre record than its predecessor - the product of that punishing experience on the road and living in a London that now, after a year of riots, protests, and forced austerity, "feels very different" - the new record was also a slower birth. The lyrics were more "considered", the guitar parts "meticulous". Its gestation could hardly have been more different from its precursor, when Sean Price of Fortuna Pop! said to them, "You should make an album for me as soon as possible" --and they did, knocking out "a song a day, and then that was kind of it."
At that time, Allo Darlin' had only been playing together as a band for about two months. Drummer Mike Collins still didn't really consider himself a drummer, and he and guitarist, Paul Rains were still primarily focused on their other band, the winsomely plucked, sweetly harmonised Hexicon. Bassist Bill Botting had only quite recently arrived in London, having left his old indie rock group, the heavy-riffing Polyvinyl, back in Brisbane.
But to find the roots of Allo Darlin' we should probably go back even further, to Elizabeth's century-old great-grandfather singing lullabies to her in a nursing home in Queensland when she was just a toddler. Or to a house where fruit bats feasted on mango trees in the garden, in Rockhampton, off the Capricorn coast, Elizabeth's mum played piano while her dad sang 'Old Man River'.
"My dad's got a really big voice," says Morris. "He loves to sing, but he can't sing in tune." But for her parent's generation in Rockhampton, a certain kind of everyday practical music-making was an intrinsic part of daily life. "I wouldn't say that I come from a "musical family", but we all did music... Like every family, every house where I grew up, had a piano in it." The loss of this kind of domestic musicking is something Morris laments. No-one she knows of her own generation still has a piano in the house upon which to belt out hymns and showtunes as though there were scant difference between the two. "And it's funny how people give them away for free here. Like no-one wants them."
After abandoning a degree in music and performance at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane ("At that time, I just wasn't ready to sit around talking about authenticity all day."), Elizabeth left for London with little idea of what she was going to do there other than that she wanted to form a band. Her first consisted of workmates from the post-production suite she found employment at in Soho. That band, The Darlings, didn't last. But when it dissolved, and Elizabeth started writing and performing on her own, one of her former bandmates, Virginia Thorn, suggested as a joke, "Oh, you should call yourself Allo Darlin' because of all the market traders in Soho. Everyday we'd walk past on the way to work and they'd say that to us."
After around a year of playing solo, it was once again Virginia's intervention that got Mike and Paul involved. Bill, a friend through family connections (his sister is an old friend of Elizabeth's sister), had been sleeping on Elizabeth's sofa since arriving from Australia. At first the point of making Allo Darlin' a band had just been to record a Bruce Springsteen cover for a compilation on WIAIWYA records and play the London Pop Fest, but then the offer of a gig in Berlin came through, and, although the fee wouldn't cover everyone's expenses, "we were just like, ok, let's all pay for our own flights, treat it like a holiday and have a fun weekend in Berlin. . . For that first year, Allo Darlin' was just a fun thing for everyone."
When I spoke to Elizabeth on the phone, she had just recently announced on Twitter that the band had been invited onto a cookery television programme. They're heading off on tour in the States in April with the Wave Pictures, and an email had come through inviting them onto this "music and cookery show. You'll come in, we'll mix a signature drink, then we'll cook something in the studio. And then we'll film your show in Seattle and hopefully it'll go on the Discovery Channel. It sounds like the best music interview show ever." Fortunately, most of Allo Darlin' are keen chefs: Elizabeth, Mike and Bill all love food and love cooking, "but Mike says Paul's signature dish is just to put everything in a pan."
I ask Elizabeth what tastes and smells she misses from Australia. Coming from the "Beef Capital" where you are greeted by two life-size bull statues as you drive into town, it's unsurprising that she first mentions the meat - even if she is "trying to be vegan most of the time" now. Other than that it's the fruit that she most misses - the mangoes from her own backyard, the avocados that grew in her cousin's garden. "Aussie fruit is amazing."
That's the taste of home. And the idea of home - "songs about places, and their meaning" as Elizabeth puts it - is the nucleus around which the new Allo Darlin' record spins. "It's a very personal thing for me, because I've lived in London for five years and obviously London is my home. But the real idea of home is "back home". My dad has lived in two houses his whole life and they were both in Rockhampton. my mum hasn't lived in many more. All of us - the kids - none of us live there anymore, or would ever consider living there. People come to London and never leave."
But home can be as much a feeling as a place: a sense of belonging, as the Television Personalities once sang. It was in that broken down van with the busted wipers, driving around Europe in the rain on a tour that seemed like it would never end, that the new album came together and took its shape, its peculiar flavour - and it’s from Europe that the album takes its name. "It was the moment, sitting in the back of the van, and you're so stressed out that you can't imagine a time when you're not going to be stressed out. And it just occurred to me that where we belonged was together. The fact we didn't kill each other and we didn't argue really the whole time, we just kind of made it happen. That actually being in the band and doing this kind of bizarre thing in 2012, of deciding that you're going to try and be an indie band and not compromise on too many things, and wear your heart on your sleeve, and be broke just about all the time. That that's a meaningful thing. That that's where home is."
Allo Darlin's songs are like the feel of your favourite jumper or the smell of the sofa at your nan's house; they're like the pub you used to go to when you were just 17, before they redecorated it and the old landlord with the rum sense of humour left; they're like hot chocolate when it's freezing outside and cola flavour freezepops in the middle of summer. They are warm and somehow familiar, but still fresh and exciting, like meeting up with an old friend from school, getting a bit drunk and finding yourself, quite unexpectedly, falling in love. You will want to take them back to your flat and make them an intimate part of your memories. They will make you feel at home, anywhere.