‘Gathering Shadows’ By Sarah Nixey.
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Sarah Nixey looks the very epitome of stylish, sensual English sophistication and her music is very much in the same vein. She is arguably best known for her work with the elegant, sinister musical trio Black Box Recorder, which saw her cast as the arch, coquettish ice maiden alongside John Moore (ex Jesus & Mary Chain) and Luke Haines (former Auteurs front man.) Her femme fatale image, crystal cut vocals and perfect diction may have reduced her male fans to a mass of quivering jelly but they were also the perfect medium to express the often bleak, sarcastic, nihilist world view shared by Haines and Moore.
She has just released her second solo album ‘Brave Tin Soldiers’ which is an 11 track masterclass in subtle, intelligent literate English pop music. After being somewhat confined in her role with Black Box Recorder Sarah has taken full creative control on ‘Brave Tin Soldiers’ and the hard work has certainly paid off. From the opening track ‘Silk Threads’ the listener is drawn into Nixey’s darkly seductive world. Sarah deal’s with an ambitious and varied range of subject matter from the Bridgend teenage suicides to the haunting tale of Betty Corrigall on ‘Black Rose’ inspired by a visit to her grave,said to be the loneliest in Britain. Her story is indeed a tragic one, after falling pregnant by a visiting sailor, alone and consumed with shame Betty attempted suicide by walking into the sea but was saved by the intervention of a passer- by. However, she later successfully ended her life, hanging herself in a nearby barn and was buried according to parish laws far from hallowed ground on the boundary of Hoy and Walls.
You’d think given the subject matter this could be a somewhat morbid listening experience, but it is quite the opposite. Nixey treats her subject matter with intelligence, warmth and empathy. Lush arrangements and gorgeous melodies make ‘Brave Tin Soldiers’ a compelling and rewarding listen for pop fans who crave something more cerebral than jaunty but rather empty sing-a-longs. All in all this is an eloquent, seductive and at times moving journey that reveals Nixey to be hugely talented songwriter.
Album Rating 8/10.
We had a chat with Sarah about the album and what draws her toward the dark side….
VP: Hello Sarah, your second solo album ‘Brave Tin Soldiers’ is due out on May 9th and you’ve not only written, arranged and produced it, but are also releasing it on your own label. I imagine it’s extremely liberating taking full creative control, especially after being something of a muse in the early days of BBR for Mr Haines and Mr Moore’s songs.
SARAH : Hello Andy. Well, I have to confess that it does feel strangely liberating. I was quite content for a while with my role in BBR but I always knew it wouldn’t last forever and that I would leave one day and find my own way. Having said that, I didn’t anticipate taking on so much with this album – it just gathered momentum as one thing lead gently to another. What I love is that by releasing it myself, I do what I want with my songs, plus I have the backing of a great distributor – Cargo Records.
VP: Behind some of cinematic sweeping arrangements on the album there are some extremely dark tales such as ‘Silent Hour’ regarding teen suicides , and ‘Black Rose’ inspired by Betty Corrigall’s tragic tale. As a songwriter is it fair to say you find the darker side of life far more interesting to construct narratives around rather than the more traditional boy meets girl la-la-la style pop songs.
SARAH : That is very true. Although I do enjoy a good love song, mine nearly always turn out to be quite erotic! Silk Threads and Love Gets Dangerous are the closest to a girl meets boy narrative on this album. I’m drawn to dark tales, for whatever reason, and they are infinitely more interesting to write about. I think tragedy can be very cathartic. I was extremely moved by the stories that have inspired some of these songs and felt compelled to retell them in my own style. Betty Corrigall’s tale is a particularly heart wrenching one and I spent a lot of time getting the lyrics right.
VP: How long did it take write the album, it’s four years since your debut solo album, do you kind of collect/compose songs as you go along, or do you set time aside to purposefully write.
SARAH : It took just over two years to put all the songs together. Four years has practically flown by as I lead a very full life and find writing a desirable interlude. If I read or hear something that interests me I’ll make some notes for a later date, when I can concentrate fully. I have maybe one or two days a week to spend in my studio and the rest of the time I look after my family. Setting aside time for myself is a real luxury and I relish it, constantly crave it and really make the most of it.
VP: In terms of song writing you obviously take Inspiration from a wide range of subjects, as you said on the intro to your debut ‘“Some of these songs are true and some tell lies” but in terms of musicians whom would you say have most inspired and informed you?
SARAH : I’ve been lucky in that both of my parents listened to great music when I was growing up, and it was a real mixed bag too. The Walkers Brothers, The Kinks, The Carpenters, Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and many others – no doubt all of them have informed me in some way. My father’s best friend owned a shop in High Wycombe called Scorpion Records and I would get lots of music from there too. I loved going in and browsing, although I’m not sure they loved me. I blew the electrics once whilst helping behind the till. My aunt was a punk and used to play The Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex and Blondie to me when I was very young. Then during my teenage years I went through the inevitable Velvet Underground stage, reading up on Nico and Warhol. The New York scene around that time and into the era depicted by Nan Goldin‘s photography fascinates me. I guess out of all of the artists I love, Kate Bush and Debbie Harry are my idols.
VP: Do you think there’s a public misconception about you, you’re often described (musically) as cool and aloof, which possibly may be due to how you were presented by BBR. So who is the real Sarah Nixey? For example If you appeared on ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ would we find you are related to royalty?
SARAH : BBR was all about detachment and that was how I presented myself – cool and aloof. I can be that person at times but mostly I think my friends would describe me as warm and compassionate. I really can’t complain about a misconception when I’m the one who created the role. The BBR persona came with me when I started out on my own and it doesn’t bother me. Although I have been referred to as the Ice Queen, I don’t think there are any links to royalty. I come from a farming family originally based in Oxfordshire and many of my relatives still own farms around there. My grandfather grew up on the family farm in Chinnor, a far cry from the city life I live. I think the only famous ancestor I have is WG Nixey who was the inventor of Black Lead in the 1800s, which is what inspired the name for my label.
VP: I once heard you described as sounding like ‘Sophie Ellis- Bextors evil twin’ What’s been the most amusing description of yourself you’ve happened across?
SARAH : There have been some very inventive descriptions in the past. I remember reading that there should be some kind of law preventing a little minx like me from putting out hypnotic sex and death themed records. Someone else also warned that one of my songs might make your nose bleed.
VP: There was a brief Black Box Recorder reunion which John described thus ‘BBR dipped their gangrenous old toes back into the water, but then lay frozen in the bath tub for four days until the meals on wheels lady knocked the door down.’ Then last year a final statement and single issued. Is that it definitely the end for Black Box Recorder now?
SARAH : There is no one quite like John! What a way with words! It is the end for BBR. I think we all came to that conclusion at the same time and I’m relieved we did. It would have been awful if one of us wanted to carry on. John’s right – and even the meals on wheels lady couldn’t revive us.
VP: Will you be playing any live shows in the wake of the album release, if so who will feature in your band?
SARAH : I have London shows planned on 24 May at The Enterprise in Camden and 8 July at AAA in Kensington with more gigs to follow. The band are Mark Lodge, my right hand man who played on the album, Tim Weller who also played on the record and has been drumming for me since early BBR days, Melpomeni who is an amazing artist in her own right and Kevin Cormack from the brilliant band Half Cousin. The gorgeous Clare McCaldin will also join us for the Kensington gig and beyond. They are all brilliant musicians and wonderful people to have around.
VP: since you started out in the murky world of popular music there have been many changes, the Internet being possibly the biggest. In terms of being an independent artist do you think the advantages of the net far outweigh the negatives?
SARAH : A few years ago I was quite negative about the internet and especially illegal downloading. Now when I think about what has happened over the past one hundred years or so, at how someone managed to capture music and record it onto a disc to sell to the public, it was an exceptional time but that era has passed. It was a very short period in the grand scheme of things. More recently people started sharing music and moved the industry into a whole new direction, whilst the big record labels were hoping it would all go away. Now music exists on laptops, phones, iPods etc. and artists like me are able to create music at home and set up shop ourselves. It’s not necessarily better as you have to sift through a lot more mediocre music to get to something good but it’s much more of a level playing field. New artists don’t have the financial backing that labels offered when I first started out, which is unfortunate for them as touring can be very expensive. I think the internet in general is a blessing and a curse.
VP: And finally, five words to describe ‘Brave Tin Soldiers’ would be…..
SARAH : Warrior, ever brave, drifting onward…