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Discomfort Zone: An Interview With Mary Epworth
John Freeman , September 12th, 2017 13:57

Mary Epworth tells John Freeman why the sonic reboot of second album, Elytral, was inspired by a desire to be “out of her depth” and resulted in a musical epiphany and an unique new sound

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The last time I met Mary Epworth for tQ, we sat in the café at the Wellcome Collection on London’s Euston Road. We were discussing hares – Mary is a fan and an expert of the shy, floppy-eared mammal – amidst a babble of tourists and schoolchildren.

This time, for our chat about Mary’s new album, Elytral, we are ensconced on deckchairs in Manchester’s Albert Square. The city’s International Festival is in full swing and Mary has come north to check out a performance by one of her former protégés, Kiran Leonard. Ahead of the show, we are again talking about wildlife. I tell her that I had to google the word ‘elytral’ and was still little the wiser. She explains that elytra are the protective wing-casings on certain species of insects and to be ‘elytral’ is to be both “beautiful and tough”.

‘Beautiful and tough’ is a neat way of describing Elytral, Epworth’s second album after her 2012 debut, Dream Life. Elytral is a pretty astonishing set of songs – born out of Mary’s love of rhythm, hardcore noise bands and jagged electronica. It’s a far cry from the swooping folk-pop of Dream Life and a deliberate attempt to detonate any previously perceived pigeon-holes.

The combination of the deckchairs, frothing beer (Mary only drinks the darkest of ale) and a splash of summer sun has us in reflective mood. We talk neural networks, attitudes to mortality, working on projects with Tony Visconti (“it was terrifying sending him my demos, but he was a lovely, easy-going man”) and her collaboration on the Welcome To Night Vale/Within The Wires podcasts.

However, all conversational roads lead back to Elytral. Its genesis was based in a desire to explore, and in intuition and first impressions. Recorded with producer Thom Monahan in Los Angeles over a two-week period, < i>Elytral is the result of Epworth pushing herself far out of her comfort zone and being “thoroughly out of my depth.”

Be it the twisted synth pop of lead single ‘Me Swimming’ or the chaotic noise-drone of ‘Bring Me The Fever’, < i>Elytral feels seismically different to Mary’s previous body of work. Whereas one of her best known songs, ‘Black Doe’, took months to complete and the recording process included three different drummers, the Elytral sessions bashed out two songs a day in a fortnight. Mary concedes the approach was risky and the results could have been “shit”. They aren’t; Elytral is the sound of an artist flourishing outside her comfort zone.

Before we talk about Elytral, can we go back a touch? How did you become involved in the recent Welcome To Night Vale and Within The Wires podcast projects?

Mary Epworth: I started the way many things start for me, via Twitter. So many amazing things have come to me via Twitter. I thought the Welcome To Night Vale account was really funny and weird. I followed them and they followed me back. At some point they asked if they could use one of my songs. I let them have a song and didn’t think much more of it. However, it coincided with the few months in which Welcome To Night Vale went from a few hundred listeners to over a million and I was on the edge of it, inheriting fans. I kept in touch and kept saying ‘thank you’ and then they asked me to do their UK and European tour. We had so much fun on that, they asked me to do the US tour. I am part of that little world now, which is really sweet.

Then, [creator] Jeffrey [Cranor] approached me about scoring Within The Wires and I was thrilled. It was the first thing I had ever scored and the first thing I had ever produced myself. Typically, I would work with someone else – Will [Twynham] produced Dream Life - but because this had to be done so fast and they needed so much music so quickly, there was no time to add an extra critic to the process. That forced me to just record it and send it. And then move on. I had never done that before and it was completely liberating for me. We’ve had a meeting recently about Season Two, so I am at that point of learning about each new episode.

Did that feeling of liberation feed into the making of Elytral?

ME: No, as the album actually came before the podcast stuff. I made Elytral and then ended up having a year out from it, due to a few family health-related issues. So, it’s almost like I am revisiting something I had done before. However, the original process for making Elytral and the work for Within The Wires were both steps to where I am currently and how I feel about making music now. Creatively, I am the most positive I have ever felt. Being out of my depth is key. The whole process of making Elytral was about me forcing myself to be uncomfortable and out of my depth. I wanted to leap into the unknown. I knew I could have been making something terrible and that would have been okay.

Why did you want to force yourself to be uncomfortable?

ME: It was a side effect of having a bit of writer’s block, post Dream Life. That record took a long time to make and a long time to get out. I had never been particularly prolific or had a ton of songs. So, after Dream Life, I had all this self-imposed, imaginary pressure of what kind of album I should make. That it had to be great and important and show people what I was capable of doing – and I ended up being totally stuck.

How did you become unstuck?

ME: After a while, I began to get these weird, annoying melodies and they weren’t the music I make, so I wanted to ignore them. Eventually, however, I decided to follow them and see what would happen. I started mucking around and all of the framework for these songs was done using Garage Band on an iPad. After I’d put together the drum parts I realised I actually had some demos. I was then thinking about how to approach recording them. Will, who had produced Dream Life, suggested seeing what Thom [Monahan] thought of doing the whole record. Thom had mixed some of Dream Life and we’d had quite a big dialogue during that process. Dream Life took so long. It was such a laboured process. I think we had three different drummers playing on ‘Black Doe’ and endless versions of things. I didn’t want to do that again. I wanted to be bold and decisive. I knew these songs would be ‘emptier’ and wouldn’t require as much of a team effort or endless fiddling. So, I sent Tom the stuff and he was into it and he suggested coming over to Los Angeles. We did it in two weeks – two songs per day.

How easy was it to flip from taking so much time on a song on Dream Life, to ‘bashing out’ songs so quickly for Elytral?

ME: So, I’m laughing like this is a joke, but it’s also a true. As an artist, you are constantly being exposed to other people’s work. You are constantly being told “this person is a genius” and that “this album is a classic.” And then you hear the album and you think it’s only okay. Or worse. And you don’t get what everyone is on about. There are so many people who are lauded as geniuses and it’s taken as read that everything they do is genius and I don’t get it. So, in a way, what that made me realise is that you have to make the thing and it is up to someone else to decide whether it’s good or not. So, I got into the mindset that I just needed to make a record and it didn’t need to be the greatest record ever, it just needed to be a record. And then, I could just make another record. I had never felt like that before. I realised that I make records and not a record. That was my epiphany.

How did having that epiphany make you feel?

ME: I felt freed and I have never felt like that before. I realised I needed to care a bit less. I am huge Devo fan and a huge Iggy fan, and there is lots of US punk and other stuff that I love, where you can feel that it has been spontaneous and not over-thought. You can tell that some of Iggy’s lyrics must have been written in about five seconds. They are sort of terrible but still absolutely brilliant. I wanted to try to be more like that. I love loads of stuff that is really complex and has taken the artist years to complete, but I just couldn’t do it again. I didn’t want to take that long to make album. However, ironically, even though we made it in about two weeks, it has still take almost two years to release. I can’t win.

The resulting set of songs are stunning and they are quite, for want of a better word, noisy and very different from your previous sound. Did this surprise you?

ME: The album is quite disruptive and noisy. I have always listened to noisy music. Since I was a teenager I was into hardcore and I don’t think people realised that. I came quite late to melody and pop music. I have always liked the energy of hardcore and there is a little bit of me that wants to show people that I am not just a “nice girl with the voice of an angel, who writes nice songs” – I have a bit of a hang up about that. It’s okay for me not to do that. So, I was excited about the possibilities and prospect of doing something that was the opposite of what I had done before. It was a leap of faith but it felt fun to be provocative. I am a contrarian. I’m Mary, Mary, quite contrary. So, I am always going to do precisely the opposite of what everyone else thinks I should do.

My favourite track is ‘Bring Me The Fever’, which seems to be very primal in its source of energy.

ME: Yes, we have a winner. That’s my favourite too. That song is the album for me. It’s one of the two songs that were scratch demos with just a vocal sample and the ‘Bring me the fever’ lyric. That’s all I had. Tom and I decided to just explore. It almost led itself and I was quite happy for it to almost be not a song. I don’t want it to have to always be poetry or have to write a second verse. Sometimes I feel like I have said it all in the first verse. On that track, it is about the energy.

What was is about the new way of working that produced such successful results?

ME: It’s about confidence. Doing the Within The Wires stuff was great for my confidence. Working with Thom on Elytral was fantastic as he trusted me to find the right sounds. It taught me that if I can hear a sound in my head, that is probably the sound that should go in the song. That might sound ridiculous, but I had become used to thinking that I had to filter my music through another person’s opinion. I can now trust myself. I wanted to try to feel free about my music. I feel like this record is about emotional stamina. It was a risk that I might have hated what I had done, but I wanted songs that didn’t feel like a genre exercise. I don’t know what these songs are and someone else is going to have to tell me.

Finally, is this it then? Will future songs will be written and recorded in a similar manner to that on Elytral?

ME: Well, I think so. I think I have album three already written. I have never had work in hand before, but now I have the next album demoed. I just feel that I now know how to make records. You make a record and then you make another one. And another one. That’s it. I can move on and have a career and a portfolio of work.

The album Elytral is out now on Sunday Best

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