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A Quietus Interview

My Music Is My Religion: Heather Leigh Interviewed
Eden Tizard , November 6th, 2018 08:48

Eden Tizard talks to experimental musician Heather Leigh about her latest solo album Throne and her debut studio-based collaboration with Peter Brötzmann as a duo, Sparrow Nights

Portraits by Eleni Avraam

The history of Heather Leigh places her at the beating heart of an ever-shifting international underground. From collaborations with the likes of Jandek, Keiji Haino, and Peter Brötzmann, to co-running the inimitable - and dearly missed - record shop/label Volcanic Tongue, she has found a welcome home on the margins.

Throne is one latest achievement, an album of punch-drunk desire clouded by peripheral danger. “The way you dance makes me cream”, she sings on opener ‘Prelude To The Goddess’, while following track ‘Lena’ warns of “what your daddy did”. These are ballads lit by neon light and moonbeams alone. They speak to the allure but also menace of night time sensuality.

It’s a meticulously constructed record that still sounds free and open-ended, bound by Leigh’s phenomenal work on the pedal steel guitar. Throne ranks amongst the very boldest of guitar music this year; with playing that alternates between the melodic, psychedelic warbles, and colossal scorch-the-earth soloing.

In tandem comes Sparrow Nights, the latest in a long line of collaborations with legendary rule-breaker Peter Brötzmann. It’s their first studio recording as a duo, and one that takes full advantage of this new setting. Each sound here is given ample room, the serpentine players able to create a conjoined, wordless song-craft, severed from ties to even the most free of jazz.

Based in Glasgow for over a decade, the song form has become steadily more foregrounded in Leigh’s work. 2015’s I Abused Animal was a turning point, the album a stripped-bare, psychotropic triumph that marked her first venture into professional studio recording. Both Throne and Sparrow Nights see her further explore the parameters of what this new set up offers, one an exercise in ‘distilled’ songwriting, the other more in line with ‘spontaneous composition’, but both in their own way albums of song.

In the conversation below, we discuss these new records, Glasgow’s vital DIY scene, as well as the tragic loss of Volcanic Tongue.

Throne is your second studio album, but you have a long history of recordings outside of that, many of which are more improvised affairs. Was it at all counter intuitive when you started to create more composed pieces?

Heather Leigh: No, it didn’t feel counter intuitive though it felt like a different way of approaching the work and the switch was almost a hurdle I had to get over in my mind. Prior to I Abused Animal, most of my solo work was recorded live to tape. I was already easing into more identifiable song structures, though if you listen to my solo work as far back as my Cuatro, you can hear songs. Even if they seem nascent, there is a natural structure. I’ve never been an improviser that flails about, just chasing energy, my style is more along the lines of spontaneous composition, which isn’t just a term, it's a deliberate approach. I think something interesting happened with I Abused Animal in that I was no longer teasing out compositions in the improvisations, I was distilling the work into actual songs. Yet, even in those songs, improvisation is key.

Looking back I think I had a somewhat naive view that if I did write songs that it was somehow betraying my natural drive to improvise, that songwriting was somehow less pure. I now realise that’s bullshit and at times it could have been like Lou Reed’s line in one of my favourite songs of all time, ‘Work’ on Songs For Drella: “You think too much that's 'cause there's work that you don't want to do."

You’ve talked about how on I Abused Animal, you went into the studio with with a desire to experiment with overdubs and all sorts of studio trickery, but in the end found reduction to be the most helpful process. The sound on Throne feels more lavish, do you now feel more comfortable experimenting with the studio as an instrument? 

HL: Yes, I feel much for comfortable and John Hannon was a completely different type of recording engineer to work with than Joe Gubay, who engineered I Abused Animal. Joe was a genius with little things like microphone placement or pieces of advice like, “You don’t have to scream into the microphone, this isn’t a gig”, and he was using unbelievable top of the range equipment across the board that meant even though the songs were so stripped back they didn’t feel sonically naked like they needed more.

With Throne, I took a full week in the studio so I wouldn’t feel rushed, whereas I Abused Animal was essentially recorded in a day. I have no musical training so don’t describe my goals in terms of notes or musical terms at all really, it’s much more nebulous than that. John was incredibly intuitive to the point where I didn’t really need to direct the details, he just understood.

I’m a very detail-oriented, quite obsessive person at times, and John was patient as we traded mixes back and forth and I asked him to make very fine adjustments to get the pieces as close to perfection as I wanted them to be (knowing that when I perform them, they’ll take on a new life again). I learned so much from John that has already contributed to new songs I’m writing. I’m able to write with the studio in my mind as an asset and an instrument in and of itself rather than this scary beast I have to fight to make what I want.

In many ways Throne seems like the polar opposite to I Abused Animal. Was it conceived as such?

HL: It’s funny, it doesn’t quite feel the polar opposite to me but perhaps that’s further proof that you can never be entirely objective about yourself or your work. I think every artist who works alone gets struck with the feeling, “Does it all sound the same?” and there can be an argument that yes, maybe it does in the sense that it’s all part of a longer life work and besides most of the art that moves me to the core, generally has the signature of its maker.

In terms of songwriting and production, yes, Throne is without a doubt a radically different approach to I Abused Animal, yet many of the same themes are there: sex, intimacy, vulnerability, sensitivity, anxiety, introspection, reflection, femininity and so forth. But this time I knew that even if the songs sounded great stripped back and minimal, that it was time to challenge myself to incorporate more instruments and make the songs more epic. And I knew it was time for beats, not a drum kit, but these songs required explicit rhythm.

Also, the songs on Throne are really all connected as a larger story, not an autobiography (I think it’s important to state this, especially when women’s work deals with uncomfortable themes, people can assume it’s all about you and inevitably the word catharsis creeps up, this album is not about catharsis). I believe my compositions on the album connect in a way that creates a bigger picture, and I use the word picture deliberately, these songs are very visual to me.

Jennifer Lucy Allan is listed as the records ‘spiritual adviser’. I was wondering what exactly you mean by this term, and how exactly they both fulfil this role?

HL: The recording of Throne at John Hannon’s studio once again, came about quite naturally. I knew John’s work already and many mutual friends kept recommending him. Jennifer lives a short bus ride from John’s studio in Rayleigh so it made sense to stay with her during that week of recording. I hadn’t intended for her to be so involved in the process but it’s simply how it happened. She guided me during periods of extreme self doubt while recording.

I started questioning every little detail, but Jennifer is a workhorse, a classic Aries, she’s tough and she doesn’t give up. I wasn’t about to give up either but I needed someone not as emotionally bound to the music to help keep my perspective clear and not concentrate with the result up ahead, but instead, just get down to work, very hard work, and think about the result later.

So I’d bring home the rough mixes, Jen would tell me what she thought was working and what wasn’t. She cooked for me, made me hot tea and her general positive disposition ushered the process to completion. I had one night in particular during that week of recording where I just broke down in tears (crying is always part of my process in a project at some point) and Jen wasn’t having it. Her consolation was, get back to work, it’s what I needed to be told. She was a key collaborator. I don’t create my solo work in a vacuum. I enjoy bouncing off ideas with those closest to me, whether my husband or close friends.

I’ve heard Allan has her own space in your cupboard?

HL: I live in a Victorian tenement and in earlier times these flats were always home to large families so often one cupboard or more was used as a bedroom. I love that old-fashioned style so the cupboard in my living room was once an office and then we converted it into a proper bed and it’s officially Jen’s room, a womb like space that always inspires very strange and vivid dreams (so Jen tells me). Jen has also been involved with my garden space, helping build additions to my huts. Jen is a builder in every sense and I love strong, loud, feisty, opinionated women. I trust Jen and I trust her taste and she’s been involved with sonic and design decisions for Throne every step of the way. I use the term spiritual (adviser) not in a light sense either. I’m very serious about the work, my music is my religion.

Americana and pop are two of the cited genres, did you feel at all like an interloper when you were moving into these new styles? 

HL: I don’t think many artists like genres or think in that kind of conceived way, they bristle when one is mentioned feeling like they’re being shoehorned into a term that’s too limited to encapsulate what they do. I of course share these feelings, I’d like to think that my work defies easy terminology and can’t be pigeonholed or classified so easily. This all being said, I also recognise that we need a framework to discuss music. You always hope that if someone writes about your work that they with have a synaesthetic style where their words truly evoke the sounds in the music.

I believe you have to take risks, safety is death to me. So no style or perceived genre is off limits. I go where the music leads me and let it flow through me. When working on the songs for Throne, I was even surprised by some of the melodies that sprung forth, the song forms that were taking place, and I encouraged myself to go deeper especially during those times when I questioned, “where is this going, is this really me?”

I think Jennifer’s choice to describe this album using the terms Americana and pop are quite apt and no, I don’t feel like an interloper. Americana might stir up visions of bearded dudes playing acoustic guitars, but when I think Americana the first person that crosses my mind is someone like Henry Flynt whose sound has always been deeply American to me. I can’t judge how American my music sounds to listeners but I’m playing an instrument that is perhaps more tied to an American genre than any other even if my style of playing doesn’t follow that tradition. Americana is nothing new for me, titles of my previous albums like Give The Ashes To The Indians (a nod to my Native American Cherokee heritage), There’s A Girl Up In Tulsa That Cries For Me and Jailhouse Rock reflect the American influence of my work.

While I’ve lived in Glasgow for 15 years, I don’t turn my back on my American heritage from my Appalachian birth in West Virginia to my upbringing in Texas, my roots are American and are inevitably part of what I do. As far as pop goes, I’ve always loved pop music, old and new. My first yearning when I was a young girl was to be a pop star, and while I didn’t conceive of Throne as a pop record, now that I’m unpacking what the record is about, it feels obvious to me that it is pop, complete with hooks and earworm melodies, all filtered through my strange bent of course. I hope that listeners can connect with the seriousness of the work on one level while shaking their ass to a total fucking banger at the same time.

On ‘Soft Seasons’ there are these very modern sounding electronics. When you use electronics does it exist in a separate space to your use of the pedal steel or are there any useful comparisons to be made between them? 

HL: It’s interesting you mention the electronics on this particular track because there was an earlier mix John and I did where the electronic beats were much more dark and doomy. I went back to John and said, no, we need the electronics to be modern. To my ears, this is a modern record and the electronics need to fit that. I think the pedal steel fits very well with electronics sonically, and often people have even mistaken my sound for a synth. So if I’m using electronics, I think of them in the same sonic space as the steel.

Over the past few years you’ve developed a fierce creative relationship with Peter Brötzmann. What's he like as a collaborator?

HL: Neither Peter or I could have imagined that we’d have such a close connection musically - we come from completely different backgrounds and generations yet it’s by far the most intuitive, enriching and rewarding collaboration of my life thus far. Peter often refers to the interaction on stage as a fight, he doesn’t like things to get too friendly. Tension is important, so while on one hand we really lock into each other’s playing, we also don’t like to follow what’s expected so will constantly push each other on stage while still keeping movements/compositions in our bodies, I say bodies because what we play is not mind music.

I learn so much from Peter travelling together: endless stories of jazz history and juicy gossip about so many key players coupled with a seriousness about his life’s work that often attracts me to older generation players, men & women who have committed their life to their work and sacrificed everything for it. Peter is a road warrior and when we travel together, every little part of our days & nights go into the music, it’s all inseparable, and while that’s a lesson I’ve carried with me for many years, when you spend time with someone who has dedicated over fifty years to this mindset, well, it encourages you not to whine or be lazy.

We’re both Pisces and prone to moods so quiet activities together feed into our work when we travel - long walks through botanic gardens, photographing city streets, browsing bookstores, visiting museums, sharing a coffee and staring into silence, pondering landscapes through train windows. He’s very humble in one sense, so doesn’t shout about his innovative involvement in the music and art worlds from Fluxus to noise and so on.

I find out new things all the time, like recently we were viewing a Gunter Brus exhibition in Vienna. It turns out that when Brus fled to Berlin and faced deportation after being forced to leave Vienna for his work, that Peter was responsible for collecting signatures and writing letters that enabled him to stay in Germany. I later found an artist book that Brus gave to Peter with a long letter inside thanking him for his help. And there are many more such stories.

Another important thing about Peter that might not be fully recognised is his gift for putting together collaborators. Over the years working together we’ve expanded the duo with many other musicians: Keiji Haino, Sabu Toyozumi, Toshinori Kondo, Joe McPhee, Han Bennink, Otomo Yoshihide, William Parker and many more. In every instance I leave the collaboration decisions to Peter, he has an intuitive understanding of what will work and what won’t that I deeply trust. Hamid Drake has even remarked that there should be a book specifically dedicated to the collaborative genius of Brötzmann and the relationships he’s fostered, case in point, it was Peter that introduced Drake to William Parker. To play with a musician of the calibre and rich history of Brötzmann is an incredible honour and endlessly fulfilling. Despite his hard man image, he’s very kind, very generous, very encouraging and he always reminds me that the most important thing is work.

Can you tell us a bit about your new record Sparrow Nights?

HL: We recorded over two days with Martin Siewert in Vienna. In the studio, we were able to further distil our music together into shorter pieces and Peter played a much wider variety of instruments than he typically plays live, including alto and bass saxophone, and bass clarinet, which expanded our sound palette and pushed the music in new directions.

We’ve had a lot of discussions about the duo and we certainly agree that we don’t think of this as free jazz but something else entirely. Our sound incorporates space, blues, emotion, tonality and simplicity where neither one of us is the anchor. I think we’re both a bit tired of the full-on, blowout style associated with horns and guitars. It can be the easiest thing in the world to attack an audience with energy and virtuosity. I find that quite boring. What can be more of a challenge is to keep things simple, to follow a melody and stay with it, to not be afraid to even just play one note forever because there is a lot of power and feeling in one note.

So Sparrow Nights is about sustain. Finding that magic between notes, exploring what can be drawn out of simplicity. This is a combined sound and neither of us would be playing in the space we create without each other. Sparrow Nights is ultimately a record of ballads that encompasses the sensitivities in both of our playing.

Obviously the closure of Volcanic Tongue was a colossal loss for underground music. How has it impacted your view of independent labels? Is it still feasible?

HL: Volcanic Tongue was always much more than just a record store to us and our customers. To this day, I still meet people who tell me the impact the shop had on their lives and how much they miss it. I know that some of our most hardcore customers even lost their enthusiasm for buying music when we closed.

For everyone involved with VT, we knew it was time to close the doors after ten years. Not only did I want to focus more exclusively on my own music but the financial difficulties most certainly factored into the decision. Anyone who runs a small business of any persuasion will tell you that it’s always a precarious balance to make ends meet. Especially with a physical space and the business taxes in the UK, there were so many costs involved that were insurmountable.

Then, as now, I have the utmost respect for independent labels that continue. It truly is, and has to be, a labour of love. People aren’t really aware of the behind the scenes stresses of running your own show until you actually do it. I think a key to success is making sure your heart is really in it and working as hard as you can, maintaining a focus and not letting yourself be led astray from what you’re really about. I still think there are so many great independent labels out there going strong. It helps if the label has at least one hit on their hands to keep the rest of their roster afloat, but most important is that belief in what they’re putting out. I still think that independent labels give their artists more freedom and control over every aspect of production and have a personal relationship with their artists, they want them to succeed.

Finally, from an outside perspective Glasgow appears to be a really exciting place musically at the moment. Have you noticed an increase in DIY activity?

HL: Glasgow is simply the best. I love this city and the more I tour and see the rest of the world, the stronger my bond with the city becomes. I think Glasgow has always felt like a hotbed of DIY activity whether the music scene or art scene and of course Glasgow is well known as a place where scenes intersect. There’s a strong support network, multiple record stores, venues, galleries, recording studios, record labels, music festivals… and I think the quality of the work you see coming from the city really is top notch. It’s endlessly inspiring, the quality here pushes you to do better yourself. You know in the past few years I’ve noticed quite a lot of people moving from London to Glasgow - the city offers more affordable rents and a plethora of spaces that can be used as studios, not to mention a kind of mental space I think is hard to get in London, it’s much quieter up here which is a perhaps a factor in people getting work done. I always feel like Glasgow is a place where there is so much happening you can take part in yet there’s the time and space to focus on your own projects. So perhaps there is a increase in activity but I imagine Glasgow will continue to thrive culturally no matter what.

Throne is out now on Editions Mego and Sparrow Nights is out now via Trost