The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Escape Velocity

No Labels: CURRENTMOODGIRL Interviewed
Fergal Kinney , November 2nd, 2021 09:31

Fergal Kinney speaks to Greta Carroll about the difficult intersection of mental illness and creativity, and the joy to be found in DIY


Two years ago, the Manchester-born artist and producer Greta Carroll was picking over the exhausting dregs of a long-term creative partnership.

“I wasn’t able to express what I wanted to do” explains Carroll over a Zoom call from Brighton, where she moved this summer to study sound design, “my creative partner was very much in charge of the whole thing. Men don’t trust women to make music a lot of the time, they think we're able to produce. That meant that I felt like I didn’t trust myself, and I needed time to be alone, to learn how to trust myself.”

Messing about on GarageBand, Carroll began to do what she felt she had always really wanted to do with no pressure to make it, no record deals and certainly no men this time. By using a combination of traditional and found instruments, Carroll began producing new material (though it took her some time to begin referring to herself as a producer). This music sounded unlike any of the previous projects that she had spent a decade in the music industry working on. More than this, she was beginning to think about how sound might reflect her experiences of living with long-term mental health problems. “That’s what CURRENTMOODGIRL is about for me” explains Carroll, “millions of different moods or possibilities.” Found objects would become particularly important to the project with Carroll regularly scavenging for anything that might make an interesting sound in South Manchester’s skips, bins and roadsides.

Last month, CURRENTMOODGIRL self-released the Side Split EP. Across four tracks, it marks an atlas of depression, anxiety, insomnia, manic peaks and very solitary lows – each track has a direct link with Carroll’s mental health. Following on from two well-received singles – one of which, the avant-gurn dancefloor track 'Love Like Lasers', came 34 in tQ’s tracks of 2020 list – Side Split is one of the most interesting releases to come out of Manchester and Salford’s current thriving underground. [In the interests of full disclosure, I know Carroll socially and helped her write the press release for Side Split.]

Debut single, the cracked dancehall lullaby 'The Letter L', released early in 2020, represented something of a lightbulb for Carroll in terms of process.

“That’s one of the favourite things I’ve done. I can listen back to it and still quite like it” she explains. “It’s repetitive, like a nursery rhyme, but the song is actually about my reading disorder. I didn’t do well in school because I’ve got very bad dyslexia. I was in the lowest sets, and the song is about how I’ve had to teach myself how to do everything. Because I’m so anxious, I’ll often have these repetitive things in my head, and that’s kind of what 'The Letter L' sounds like.” In the music industry, dyslexia remains little understood – dyslexic artists can find themselves filtered out and ignored if their written communication is non-standard. This problem becomes even more stark if that artist is operating independently, booking their own shows and doing their own press.

When we speak, it’s the day after BBC 6Music broadcast of a Freakier Zone mix from Carroll, celebrating female identifying electronic musicians in Manchester and Salford such as Aya, KYŌGEN, I Am Fya and Inland Taipan. “I want to be there for other women, especially in the North, who were a bit like me a few years ago really” says Carroll, “I was really angry before. Very much in pain and upset. Full of anger towards men and how they had treated me in the music industry. All this fucking shit happened to me! I was remembering things that I’d forgotten. I was looking, as a 30-year-old woman, at things that happened when I was 25, things which were totally wrong. I remember a sound engineer speaking to me through the monitor whilst I was performing and callin me a bitch. But I’ve come out of that angry stage and I feel softer about everything. I understand what I need to do now. I can’t keep looking at men for them to help me.”

Though Carroll has been an active participant in the underground scene around Salford and Manchester – the first time I saw her was in the city centre’s Aatma venue, doing what appeared to be a trip-hop cover of Iggy Pop’s 'China Girl' – her feelings about the city are tied up with an unsatisfying decade of seemingly draining collaborations.

“I love Manchester, but there’s a lot of things that weren’t nice there for me” explains Carroll, “I know all artists say this, but I felt like an outsider and didn’t really fit in. People thought I was too much because I’m quite hyperactive. I’m currently getting an ADHD diagnosis, which is quite obvious really. People don’t seem to talk about mental health in Manchester either. It’s very masculine, men are very traditionally masculine in Manchester still, so there are barriers up. If you’re doing well, Manchester must be great, but if you aren’t then it’s not.” She pauses. “There are smaller good venues where people act less like arsehole, egotistical, self-obsessed men such as the Partisan. The Peer Hat is pretty good for playing, I love the Eagle Inn too.”

'Sleepless 111', the first track of the EP, is the strongest CURRENTMOODGIRL work to date – drawing on an avant-pop sensibility that includes Massive Attack, Bjork, Kate Bush and These New Puritans, whilst simultaneously raging at the repetitive, ambient exhaustion that proper sleeplessness brings. “That track I’d been thinking of since before starting CURRENTMOODGIRL” explains Carroll, “every few years I’d just add a new bit to it! It’s got a double bass on it, bamboo, but I needed to step away from it for a year so it could get there. And from that, the song is now lots of different stages of me. I wasn’t producing when I first started making it.”

'My Own', the “hit” on the EP, is a straight-up ballad and fairly structurally traditional break-up song. “It’s maybe a bit more like how I used to make music” agrees Carroll, “I was doing electronic pop songs before, a little bit dirty at points, and I’d like to make amazing pop songs in a unique way, like Massive Attack; venture more into that element. It always has to take me by surprise. 'My Own' was recorded in one take, all of the words just came out how they are. I thought at first that song was me talking to my partner after breaking up with them, but it was actually me speaking to myself. 'You’re still living on your own! You’re still here!' It’s a conversation between myself, the really scared part of myself and the part of me who was like, 'Look at what you’re doing.' I was recording it crying with my cat running all over the place around me.”

From here, the EP takes a left-turn into the industrial with 'Red (In Bed)', which is a pummelling mantra of anger and hatred; followed by 'I Feel Happy', the EP’s most ambitious work and centrepiece. Originally conceived as a twenty-minute soundtrack piece, Carroll found that speeding up the track made it feel like the manic 'up' phases that are a feature of her mental health problems. “What I wanted to do was explain how I feel through this EP” she explains, “and 'I Feel Happy' is my favourite track on the EP.”

“When I’m happy, it’s so uncomfortable that I can’t really feel genuinely happy, meaning sadness is as good as happiness. It can actually be nicer being sad than happy, for me. If I’m in a room with loads of people, and I’m really hyper, I feel like everyone around me is going crazy but I don't actually know how they're acting. [I hear] lots of voices, a noise of voices around my head [as if there are] loads of people talking. That might sound crazy, but I get what it is: it’s part of my symptoms.”

It’s churlish not to accept that conversations around mental health in the music industry have improved in the last half-decade – they clearly have – but we are still far away from an adequate understanding (let alone structural attempt to counter) the practical challenges that are caused by longterm mental health problems, especially when they intersect sharply with class, race or gender. For musicians, things like plentiful free alcohol backstage, generic advice like 'check in on your friends', and 'one-size fits all' NHS therapies aren't really the answer. Carroll agrees: “I’ve been through all the therapies, CBT was good, but there’s no magic button. I’m going to have this for the whole of my life. Yes, I can learn things to help me calm down, but it will always be like this. I have to live with it.”

[Whilst writing this article, I saw a young man suffering what appeared to be a psychotic episode in a Manchester supermarket. Very little about the current discourse around mental health had any relationship to what happened. It had no relation to the man himself primarily, but it also didn't relate to the staff attempting to negotiate a difficult situation, it didn't relate to the police taking so long to arrive, and it didn't relate to the fact that it was the police who were the service to arrive in the first place, as opposed to trained mental health professionals. Between April 2019 and April 2021, there was a 29% increase in referrals for first suspected episode of psychosis. Anxiety and depression around the world are booming, and its women and young people who are being disproportionately affected.]

For Carroll, the future likely means more self-releasing and attempting to get back to live performing, the pandemic having paused her live output. When we speak, she is preparing for a support slot in London as her first live show since late 2019. “I’m trying my best and I’m currently doing better than I have been for years” she says. “The best therapy I’ve found, though, is doing music. Doing this. Every part of it, including doing the art and putting the record out. It gives me a sense of achievement because I want what I do to be proper and real.

"I’m not signed, but I don’t see why I shouldn't work long shifts in a cafe, make money, so I can do it myself. 'Unsigned' can be a bit of a dirty word, like you’re not as good as those who are signed. Why should I have a record deal? That’s what I’m trying to do. I want my release to give the unsigned a good name! [laughs] Some of the best artists are unsigned. I’ve been asked by a few labels, it’s not that I couldn’t sign a deal, but I’m not going to unless it’s a label that I really think would suit me. I’d rather just be doing it myself. Being on a label before didn’t help me.”

Like a lot of artists – particularly during the pandemic – Carroll’s funding is made up of a hotchpotch of casual work shifts and occasional wedges of arts funding. “Once a week, I try to make room to spend about two hours applying for funding. I just sit there, look and apply. I hardly ever get anything, but occasionally I will... occasionally it’s £200 from here, £100 there, so I keep applying.” She smiles, laughing now, “And that’s your label!”