Visions Of The Country: Alison Cotton Interviewed

Jennifer Lucy Allan interviews the Sunderland-born viola player about where her music takes her, sharing a history with British Sea Power, and what pushed her to begin making solo music

Alison Cotton tintype portrait by Andy Martin

When people talk of music ‘transporting’ them somewhere, more often than not they are describing a vague escape from an immediate (probably domestic) reality – an experience of music that for a few sacred moments makes them forget about the washing up. What is not usually intended is the feeling one has actually travelled back through time to a specific location, but for Sunderland-born musician Alison Cotton, this is exactly what she means.

While much of the writing on her music grasps at this feeling, when Cotton plays, she says it comes with vivid visions of pastoral landscapes or Victorian street scenes. “I’m often in a place, and also in another time as well,” she explains to me over a video call. On her first album, the track ‘A Tragedy In The Tithe Barn’ she says she pictured “the aftermath of a murder which had taken place in a tithe barn in medieval times”. Someone writing a book on tithe barns later found it, and contacted her enquiring about what the tragedy had been, and in which tithe barn it had taken place. “I had to explain that it was just a place and a scene I’d pictured while I was playing!” she says.

Cotton is primarily a viola player, which she layers with vocals and harmonium, and her music gives the sense that it stands on a magical threshold between the present and a gothic past. She describes the feeling of playing as entering a sort of trance state, and that’s whether she is performing live in front of an audience or recording in her living room in Walthamstow, East London. On her 2020 release, Only Darkness Now harmonium, viola and her voice move like slow mist over moorland. The meditative layers of its centrepiece, the 20-minute-long ‘Behind The Spiderweb Gates’ (initially released as a standalone piece on Longform Editions) come off like a soundtrack to Wuthering Heights made by Theatre Of Eternal Music, and is named for a French mansion she encountered full of portent and with menacing webbed ironwork gates.

The most striking example of her sonic imaginary is the eerie ‘How My Heart Bled In A Bleeding Heart Yard’ which conjures for her, a “vision of a Victorian woman falling to the floor and crying” in the location the track is named after. Bleeding Heart Yard is one of many hidden courtyards of looming warehouses (now offices and restaurants) in the tight cobbled streets of Farringdon that features in Dickens’ Little Dorrit. It’s only after we have this conversation that Cotton discovers that urban myth says it got its name after Lady Elizabeth Hatton’s murdered and limbless body was found, the heart still pumping blood onto the cobbles (she was never murdered, and it is more likely to have been named after a pub). “You can really feel the history when you’re round there, more so than in lots of other places,” she says. “I recorded that track at the start of the very first lockdown, the very first weekend. I just felt so down, as everyone did, but I remember playing the first chord and that place just came into my head.”

2020’s Only Darkness Now was Cotton’s second full length album on Bloxham Tapes, and also included ‘Shirt Of Lace’, a cover of a track by outsider new age folk musician Dorothy Carter, which comes freshly dressed in gothic threads, thanks to Cotton. Carter is a musician she has been compared to, but if Carter’s music feels distant, as if coming to the listener from esoteric realms, Cotton’s feels distant as if from a HG Wells-like spirit world.

Alison Cotton is a shy person who gets nervous in interviews, she says, but is sure and thoughtful when talking about her work, and is impeccably dressed for our call – the large frilled sleeves of her black cotton blouse fill the screen in dramatic silhouette. For some of those who have come across her work in the last few years (myself included) she seems to have come from nowhere, with a music that is possessed of a striking and distinctive aura. However, she has been playing in bands her whole life, touring, playing viola, and more recently, singing.

Cotton grew up in Sunderland, and her first experience of touring and playing music was with the Sunderland Youth Orchestra. She packed it all in the first few weeks at university, and joined her first band – the pre-British Sea Power, British Air Powers – after responding to an advert pinned to a university noticeboard by the band’s guitarist Martin Noble. She says she didn’t have any intention of joining a band, just wanted to meet the people who’d put a list of influences up that included bands she loved at the time: The Velvet Underground, Suede, Verve, Mazzy Star and Spiritualized. Cotton played with them for a year or two in their shifting incarnations, and remains on good terms with them – they’re still one of her favourite bands, she says. She returned to play with them again in 2006 for a star-studded John Betjeman tribute night (where she played Betjeman’s ‘The Liquorice Fields Of Pontefract’ and ended up sharing a song sheet with Joanna Lumley and Nick Cave to belt out the final track of the evening).

After British Air Powers, she joined a group called Saloon, (who she says played three sessions for John Peel and got to number one in his Festive 50) and later played in The Trimdon Grange Explosion and The Eighteenth Day Of May. It was after she left Saloon that her and her partner Mark Nicholas (who was also in these two groups) began writing songs together. This process of collaborative writing led to the formation of an acid folk duo The Left Outsides, which took off in a way neither expected, but which was a premonition of what was to come with her solo work. The duo’s first album was a homemade hand stamped CD-R released in 2007 titled And Colours In Between and it flew out, re-released the following year on Transistor Records. It “just kept on selling, all over the world,” she says, and seems surprised at its success even now.

The Left Outsides’s music is more song-based than Cotton’s solo work, indebted to psychedelic folk-rock bands of the 60s and 70s, as well as Nico. Her and Nicholas both sing, she plays viola as well as harmonium and other bits, and he plays bass, guitar, piano and drums. They have now released six albums and a handful of EPs, and often record and rehearse at home, where she says their routine is to put their son to bed and play in the basement. Because they start rehearsals with the same song each time, Cotton says their son now sings this track back to them any time they mention the band name.

Cotton has played viola since she was a child, after she found herself too far back in the queue to get a violin when the instruments were doled out at school. Despite not really knowing what a viola was when she first picked it up age eight, she says she remembers falling in love with the sound: “it’s more melancholic,” she explains. “I connected with the whole sound of it. It’s like the human voice, and I’ve always been a really shy person, so I’ve spoken through the viola.”

The instrument she plays now is one she’s had since she was 15, which her parents bought her from a workshop in County Durham. It’s made by Christian Benker, the designer of a violin bass better known as the Beatle Bass after Paul McCartney played one. She says she often takes it into instrument shops and “they’re horrified” – it’s been on the road a lot, she explains, and it’s also not a full-size viola, so is technically too small for her, so she’s frequently told, but she has no interest in adjusting to a different sized instrument at this point in time. She’s now found a shop where the owner can “talk about John Cale”, among other things, and much to her relief, doesn’t point out anything she should be changing.

The Left Outsides, tintype portrait by Andy Martin

Cotton’s first solo album All Is Quiet At The Ancient Theatre came out on Bloxham Tapes in 2018, after Simon Berkovitch (who co-runs Bloxham with Luke Drozd) invited her to release something. That was followed by The Girl I Left Behind Me on Clay Pipe Music in 2019, two tracks of drones, gongs and incantations. Prior to this she also performed with and released two collaborative albums with Lewes’ experimental folk musician and composer Michael Tanner (also known as Plinth), one a brown self-titled cassette of blooming atmospheric instrumental music, where the many layers of strings are blown about like autumn leaves, and the sleeve notes to which are doomy pastoral flash-fiction: “Beyond the field that is watered with tears, in the forest where the fog never clears, past the tree that grew like a broken finger, behind the waterfall, to the side of the natural alter, there is a room. In that room, behind the bookcase, on the middle shelf, standing alone, is an unnamed book that contains no words but the key to the door to hell.”

The follow up, The Blackening, is a single 38-minute long piece with overdubs by Italian percussionist Lino Capra Vaccina. It’s these expansive instrumental collaborations with Tanner that are the forerunners to her solo work, not just in their sonic textures but in their folkloric sensibilities. However, they remain rooted in the earthly plain, whereas her solo work has a more spectral, less tangible quality that draws around the listener like a cloak.

It is Cotton’s solo music that has struck a chord though, and releases have often gone through multiple pressings, with each one selling out in days, if not minutes. While only pressed in limited runs, The Bloxham tape sold out in just a couple of days, 25 lathe cuts of ‘Shirt Of Lace’ sold out in less than a minute, and All Is Quiet At The Ancient Theatre was picked up for a vinyl pressing split between US label Feeding Tube and Yorkshire’s Cardinal Fuzz, which is also now sold out. Berkovitch also released a live album by Cotton called Zener_08, on his label Sensory Leakage, which documents her live show in the beer shop at Todmorden’s The Golden Lion in December 2019. This also sold out within the hour.

I wrote to Berkovitch to ask what made him invite Cotton to make an album – what had he heard in her music? “There’s real guts to it,” he replied. “It’s raw. It’s undiluted. For me, there’s always a questing quality to Alison’s contributions to the groups she’s been involved in. I’m reluctant to use the word haunting, as that’s done to death, But there’s something really focusing – transportive – about her playing. She’s very much contributing to the sound but also levitating the sound somewhere else.”

He says the speed at which Cotton’s music has been picked up was no surprise – he knew her from a band she’d been in, and says he loved her work with Michael Tanner, was floored by a show they did at Café Oto in London. He went with her to the 2017 Tate Tanks performance of Tony Conrad’s a dense and immersive drone work ‘Ten Years Alive On The Infinite Plain’ (renamed ’55 Years Alive On The Infinite Plain’ for the night) and says he remembers them talking about Conrad, about long form music, “and well, all the ingredients were there in retrospect, weren’t they?”

For most of her performing life, Cotton played on other people’s records, but in the last two years she has flourished in her solo releases. The first fully instrumental work was a soundtrack her and Nicholas made as The Left Outsides, followed by a solo soundtrack piece, and a track for a Pauline Oliveros tribute record. It wasn’t until she’d made those two tracks and Berkovitch asked her for a full album that she felt the push to move into making solo music. “Given the instrument I play, I was always being asked to play on other people’s records or play live with them, to the point that this started taking up most of my time,” she reflects. “It was mostly really enjoyable and I made a lot of good friends, but occasionally when a record was released, I wouldn’t be credited – I’d just been forgotten about, or something similar. When you’ve put so much time and effort into someone else’s music, you’re making their music sound better, that kind of thing is heart-breaking.”

The final straw, and the move into her current purple patch, came because of something small, a joke, which solidified her feeling on what she needed to do next and led to the point she finds herself now – astral travelling through her own music, not touring somebody else’s: “Someone joked that I was known as the ‘viola player for hire’,” she tells me. “It was from then onwards that I truly realised I had to do something for myself.”

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