A Place Outside Of Normal Life: An Interview With Keeley Forsyth

The actor and musician is soon to release new material, sounding, in the words of The Eccentronic Research Council, like it came out of "a 17th-century Lancastrian pagan folk cult". Daniel Dylan Wray talks to her before she supports tQ's John Doran on his book tour in Sheffield this Friday

This Friday, May 8, John Doran’s Jolly Lad book tour comes to Sheffield. It’s a city that features in his book, with bands such as Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League lighting up his brain, while the 1984 Sheffield-set BBC docu-drama Threads had an opposite – but no less lingering – effect. He visited Sheffield last year to perform early draft readings for Sensoria festival and returns again with a few musical partners in tow. Alongside Årabrot’s Kjetil Nernes, Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer of the Eccentronic Research Council will be performing a rare hometown appearance, playing music specially created for the evening and never to be repeated again. They are bringing with them a new artist they have been working with: Keeley Forsyth. Forsyth is a longstanding television and film actor, having appeared in everything from the blockbuster hit Guardians Of The Galaxy to the recent BBC/HBO adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Having recently begun singing and making music, she has been working with The ERC on her debut release and this performance will be her first ever in Sheffield.

I caught up with Forsyth to chat with about her new musical adventures and collaborations with the ERC (whose latest album is an absolute stonker by the way). Firstly though, I had a chat with Flanagan from the ERC who gave me an introduction to working with her. "It was Maxine Peake who brought Keeley to my attention as a musician. I knew both Maxine and Keeley had been in Carol Morley’s (The Falling, Dreams Of A Life) film Edge, but I never knew she made music and sang. Maxine suggested getting Keeley as a support for a live ERC 1612 Underture [the band’s debut album] show we did at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge. So I checked out her stuff and I was immediately knocked out by her voice. It sounds like it comes from another age, maybe a 17th-century Lancastrian pagan folk cult; it has a weird effect on you, as it’s just not like anyone else. First it scares you, then you get that uncomfortable nervous feeling that makes you almost laugh, then your ears adapt and you’re then transported to some witches’ folk jazz club and you’re listening to the bastard love child of Peggy Lee and Nico. Immediately after seeing her it was instinctively obvious that Dean and I should work with her," says Flanagan.

"Once we established that we wanted to work with her, we got her over to the studio, got her to play eight or so tracks pretty much live on a old Indian harmonium that Dean has, then he and I played some simple little drones and bleeps and sound effects over the top of them. To flesh out the demo album idea, Dean and I wrote a couple of instrumental interludes to break the songs up a bit too, the results of which will be released later this month on our first and irregular series of collaborations with artists we like, going under the ‘Eccentronic Research Council Presents’ banner and released on our own Desolate Spools label on a super limited edition cassette. I’m really pleased with how it sounds."

And so Adrian should be. The resulting cassette release is as perturbing as it is enticing, both beautiful and unsettling as it weaves between vocals that sound like a thick moorland mist, churning drones and electronic experimentations that often sound like ghostly church bells ringing from a place you’d never want to visit. However, its greatest – and, of course, most fundamental – asset is its uniqueness. It’s an unforgettable listen and one that stays rattling around in your bones long after the closing tape hiss disintegrates.

You started acting from a very young age. What drew you to that world?

Keeley Forsyth: I started going to a thing called Oldham Theatre Workshop and it was done in an empty factory, so that in itself: the repetition, the factory work-esque nature of working class culture. It was full of kids and free to go, ran by this one guy and you could literally come in off the street, you had to have a little passport picture with your name on it and that was it. There was hundreds and hundreds of kids just in this derelict factory. So, it was that process that interested me, the work of it, we obviously weren’t making things but it was done in the same sort of motion. I went there from about age eight and we used to put plays on, so I would do a lot of singing and dancing. I liked Doris Day and people like that, people who had a voice but when you listened to them sing – and I suppose it’s like with acting – you connect with something, a place outside of normal life. I don’t remember anything about my school life but I just remember this factory.

You’ve had a longstanding acting career, when did the music come into play?

KF: When I had my two girls the music sort of started to come back, or from boyleANDshaw, these two performance artists who use me in their pieces and I started to sing again. So it all connected, me as a kid, me as an adult and the music. I don’t even call myself a musician. I know people make music and they pick an instrument up but it was never like that for me. When I’m performing it’s the same in my kitchen as it is anywhere else. It’s a natural thing. Like sometimes if you move into a new house or have children you communicate differently in that space. Sometimes it sounds like music, sometimes it sounds like shouting but the important thing about it is that it’s done in a domestic space. I don’t know whether my music has any tunes, or choruses or anything like that and it doesn’t really matter.

What sort of music have you gravitated towards listening to as you’ve grown up?

KF: I’m always drawn to music – and my perception of what they’re doing is a lot more than just making music, to something that’s more than that. I listened to a lot of musicals, Les Mis for example, as a kid. This way of singing as talking – instead of talking to one another they would sing to one another, which made sense to me. I would always put things on repeat to the extreme. As far as music now, I’m not very good at going to gigs. I think the lead singer from the Fat White Family is very interesting but that’s about as modern as I get these days. He was wonderful; it was like going to an opera.

Being an actor, and being used to memorising lines and dialogue, have you always focused on lyrics?

KF: Yeah, I would always learn songs easier than I would learn scripts. Even when I had scripts I wouldn’t know what I was doing and I would sing it first to find out. I think my voice is better sung than it is spoken so it’s often quite uncomfortable for me being an actor. I write my lyrics with Matthew Boyle who is part of boyleANDshaw and we write a lot of the stuff together.

When did you first pick up a harmonium?

KF: I don’t really even play the thing. I first had this little organ that came from this quite famous band – I don’t know how I got hold of it – I can’t remember what they’re called. It was discarded and that had that old organ sound but I found a thingy first, what are they called? They play the other way.

An accordion?

KF: Accordion! That’s it! Obviously I really take such an interest in what I play. When I was a kid I used to play the cornet, but I would get confused and tell people I played the cornetto but then realise and be like, oh that’s the wrong one, isn’t it? But I found an accordion in a charity shop when I used to live in Highgate. I used it to create more of a piece, to create a beginning and end of something. Then Dean from ERC loaned me this harmonium because when I played the accordion it would sound absolutely horrific, I used to just to play it the way anyone would who doesn’t know how to play it. I like the harmonium though, it sits well. I’d like to get to a stage with it though where I can do two things at once, because, during the few times I’ve played live, I’ve often stopped playing it once I start singing and then realise I’ve stopped playing it because my fingers and head are separate.

How was collaborating with the Eccentronic Research Council?

KF: Great. I’ve never really collaborated before. Even as an actor it’s all done quite singularly, but at the same time I’m not precious about it at all, I’m happy for people to get involved. I want to try and keep away from: ‘This is music, this is really important, you should listen to it’. It’s just the same effort doing the music as it is doing all the other things in your life.

Keeley Forsyth’s cassette will be out soon via Desolate Spools. She plays the Picture House Social in Sheffield on May 8 as part of John Doran’s An English Trip book tour, where the tQ editor will be performing with Årabrot, with support coming from Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer of The Eccentronic Research Council; head to the Facebook event for full details

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today