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Escape Velocity

Pop & Art: Sylver Tongue's Charlotte Hatherley Interviewed
Jeremy Allen , November 27th, 2012 05:02

Charlotte Hatherley returned this month as Sylver Tongue, with a new EP entitled Something Big. She speaks to Jeremy Allen about not looking back, and why a strong relationship between pop and modern art is crucial

"I can't listen to music in the background," says Charlotte Hatherley. "I get too involved in it. There's definitely too much music around and I'd prefer to sit in silence." She laughs at how this might make her sound. "You know, you can't get in a fucking lift for 20 seconds without hearing muzak... or even make a phone call. It crowds my brain too much".

It's noisy in this pub. It's my fault, or rather it's Transport for London's fault. An eleven minute journey with no changes turns into an hour and a half expedition across North London via tube, train, bus, and some running thanks to the Victoria Line capitulating. Charlotte was expecting me at a quaint Islington boulanger across the road but had to decamp to this boozer once it shut. She seems stoical enough about having to wait, and is really damn nice about it actually. No stroppiness at all (the penalty for my tardiness will kick in later, when the tape I'm forced to decipher is all rowdy chatter, background music and Charlotte's voice fading in and out; it feels less like transcription and more like restoration).

This patience has also come in useful in career terms. To call Hatherley a veteran feels faintly ridiculous, though she's been a recording artist since 1996, firstly with Nightnurse and then shortly after with indie titans Ash. Eight years later, give or take some overlap, and she pursued a solo career that has been lauded and moderately successful (some might say her albums should have been more successful given their accomplishment).

And when she's not songwriting and recording she's touring, playing guitar with the likes of Bat For Lashes, KT Tunstall and Client. It's quite a resumé, and yet for Hatherley it's merely preparation for Sylver Tongue, and 2012 may as well be Year Zero. With her recent Something Big EP eschewing guitar-based pop for something altogether slicker and deliberately more sensual, Hatherley says it's taken all this time to "work out what I'm doing". This is only the beginning.

So Charlotte, you've just been on tour with Bat For Lashes?

Charlotte Hatherley: Yeah, on UK tour. It's only been two and a half weeks but it's the first proper tour I've done as Sylver Tongue, so it's quite a big deal.

So were you playing with Bat For Lashes as well?

CH: No. When Natasha [Khan] was putting this together I had to say 'no'. I get asked to do a lot of session work, it's part of my career really, playing in other bands; I love touring and I'm always tempted to say 'yes' to everything but this time I wanted to concentrate on what I was doing.

You're obviously an in-demand guitarist, so why have you decided to pursue something more electronic?

CH: I guess I've been playing the guitar for 15 years really, including three solo albums which were guitar records - especially the last one New Worlds, which was almost a live record with a three piece: guitar, bass and drums. And then I went on tour with Bat For Lashes and it just so happened that when I started writing songs again I was doing it on the keyboard rather the guitar because I was just feeling a bit bored with the guitar, playing the same stuff and relying on the same chords, the same sounds. It was actually more like writing drumbeats on the piano, a lot of rhythms. Keyboards with big massive guitar solos, that was what I wanted from the outset. I guess the tracks that have been released so far sound fairly electronic but there are tracks on the album where there are some massive guitar sounds. It's just a different approach to writing I think.

Didn't PJ Harvey write Let England Shake on the lute?

CH: Yeah, I think you can just fall into the same creative routines with an instrument you're comfortable with. I was really uncomfortable playing live to start with, not having a guitar, it was quite a challenge. I think you need that otherwise you can get quite bored.

Out of the tracks you've released, 'Faraway Sun' could be a Charlotte Hatherley song, whereas the others sound quite different.

CH: Yeah, well that's not actually on the album, and I think you're right - it was probably one of the really early ones and ended up as an EP track. Some of these songs are two years old - they've been written over quite a long period - and I think as I've recorded I've sort of sharpened the focus of what it is I'm doing. Perhaps to start with I was trying to get somewhere but now I'm really clear about what it is.

New Worlds was a kind of concept album. Is Sylver Tongue taking that a step further, into some kind of incarnation?

CH: The difference between this and New Worlds and Deep Blue [Hatherley's 2nd solo album] is that those were more a reaction to leaving Ash and trying to figure out where I was and what I was doing really and looking around for inspiration. One of the reasons why I wanted to do this under a different name is that I feel like I've come quite a way since then as a songwriter. I'm proud of those records but I don't think they're perfect. They're quite flawed. Thematically and lyrically they're not very professional records. I think this new record is much more honest and much more me. Maybe the new [persona] has helped me come out of myself a bit more. I was really young when I joined Ash, and this feels like an arrival in a way, becoming the artist I've wanted to be over the last ten years.

I've got to say I loved New Worlds on pretty much every level.

CH: Yeah? Yeah. Thanks. I can't really listen to that record anymore. It's like a bit of a strange child. With Bat For Lashes I really felt I turned a corner being a front person. It's a very different psychology, a different mindset being a singer or a guitarist or whatever and playing your own songs.

I find it interesting that you say Sylver Tongue is more you because your look is quite severe and ostentatious and maybe more a facade... Does it release an inner you?

CH: Yeah, I mean, it's an aspect of me that I've never really embraced. I look back at pictures on me in Ash in jeans and t-shirt and I think when I did my solo records I couldn't really feel I could be ostentatious. It would have been too much, and I didn't want to draw attention to myself in that way. But I don't know, something's changed, I'm just a bit more relaxed about what I want to do on stage - which is part of that emotional honesty - to project things. And maybe conversely it's a kind of armour when I'm going to go on stage and sing songs that are putting stuff out there, maybe I feel like I need to dress it up a bit. There's a part of me that's a massive show off, but I'm also really happy to be insular and sit in the back of the van and listen to everyone else talk and slip into a fantasy world. They're two different sides of me really.

There are probably people who don't really know who you are who think they know who Charlotte Hatherley is. Is any of this a reaction to that?

CH: Um yeah. I've always liked alternative rock with an artful approach like David Bowie, but I guess being in a band like Ash, a pop band... I wasn't really involved with the songwriting or anything like that. I mean I did contribute... I don't really know what I'm talking about [laughs]. I don't really know how I'm perceived, to be honest. Some people might think guitarist, some might say songwriter or just "that girl from Ash". I think it's at the stage now where I'm past that but it was eight years of my life.

On the subject of pop, you've always made pop music. I mean when you emerged with your Grey Will Fade album eight years ago you were clearly already adept at writing a catchy pop song, and now this is pop, but in a different way...

CH: I mean the whole 80s things, you know, people saying it sounds really 80s; I think sometimes I'm most worried they mean Duran Duran or something (who are brilliant by the way). My main references are people like Prince, Talking Heads, Japan... who made pop music but went all over the place, [who] were really interesting and visual and combined elements of the avant garde and sold it in a really sexy way. My music is pop but I like to think there's a hell of a lot going on. On songs of three or four minutes there's a lot going on. Sometimes maybe too much. On New Worlds I think I definitely packed in too much. I've made a conscious effort this time not to overcomplicate it.

I think the biggest similarity with your music and 80s chart music is that there's a healthy marriage of pop to art. Whereas pop now seems more like a corporate venture...

CH: I went to the Postmodernist exhibition at the V&A and you look at Grace Jones and the artwork on the records and the outfits. It was the whole package. If I could go to university and study anything it would be Modern Art, I absolutely love it. It's why I've always loved David Bowie as well. With Bowie you don't just get into the music, he creates characters and worlds and he opens your mind to other stuff. You know, you should never be afraid to don tights and roll around with some muppets or be scared of getting a bad review. Bowie has made some bad records but you love him all the more for it. And it's a massive ambition of mine to not always be compared to the same female artists - that goes beyond, "it sounds a bit like her" or whatever...

A lot of male journalists have a Venn Diagram they refer to featuring Kate Bush, Bjork and PJ Harvey. Do you think the way music is consumed now (ie. digitally) has played a part in eroding visual flamboyance in pop?

CH: Yeah, but a lot of bands now don't have... well they don't have the money for a start. I would have loved to have done everything in such a grand way but I've always had constraints. If it was up to me I'd have ten people on stage and it would be a big production but I've never had the budget for that. But sometimes it's good to have those restraints.

You have to be more creative?

CH: There's probably a bit of a sexual, heavily bearded man in me, it's probably good that I haven't been able to indulge that.

When I saw Sylver Tongue  live, the drumming was amazing. I mean this as a compliment, but he was hammering out some fly Phil Collins fills...

CH: Yeah, exactly. I work with Rob Ellis, PJ Harvey's drummer, and he'd play me a lot of early Genesis stuff. It's why I always loved XTC as well, amazing lyrics and great pop songs, but some of the musicianship is really... odd. And a lot of Prince is very strange. And Scritti Politti, who I absolutely love. It's impossible to listen to it and follow everything as it moves around, which makes it more engaging. Sometimes music moves around and it astounds me, and then it becomes rewarding. Sometimes one of my challenges when writing music is to try and make it simple, but I'll play a song to a friend and say "I"ve written a great pop song" and they'll say, "it's really fucking weird". Shit! But there's something amazing about pop music that works in that way where a melody is strange but it works. It's hard to define what it is.

Is it a fear of the generic?

CH: Yeah, I definitely sabotage choruses because in my head I'm thinking, "I'd never get away with that". But I think sometimes that's not a good thing, to dismiss something because it's simple, and I've really tried not to do that.

Do you see yourself making more records as Charlotte Hatherley?

CH: Not really. I mean I don't have any desire to play any of those songs. I don't know, not really, no.

Most artists don't want to play their old songs. So maybe you've circumnavigated this problem in a clever way.

CH: I feel like this is the best thing I've done. I'm not sure what it is. It's an honesty and a confidence, and while part of me will always be a guitar person I think there's an art to being a front person. It's something I don't feel I've managed before and I'm just really proud of it. When I think of those other solo records they were necessary to get to where I am now.

Were you not fiercely proud of those records at the time though?

CH: Yeah... Yeah. Let's just say it was the most enjoyable record I've been involved with then. It's just been really enjoyable and I've been relaxed about it - I don't really know why that is. Usually there are many stages and it's just really up and down. You write songs and you think "amazing, you're a genius". And then you write other songs and it never results in the thing you intended it to be, and then it's out there with your name on it and you're think: "oh, if only I'd changed that or that". I have a feeling I'm a bit of a nightmare to work with.