Behind The Music – The Anchoress

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2016 was a roller coaster for many of us, and for Welsh artist Catherine Anne Davies Aka The Anchoress it was a pivotal year which saw her release her long awaited debut album ‘Confessions Of A Romance Novelist’.  It’s also a year in which she achieved a teenage dream when she supported the Manic Street Preachers (and performed a duet on stage) , the album was named HMV’s Welsh Album of the year, she’s been name-checked on many critics album of the year lists,  co-written a number 1 with Paul Draper and …  the list goes on … In 2017 she’ll be working on the follow-up but will still be finding time to tour with the Simple Minds. We chatted to her about life as a modern day musician, sexism, streaming and the glamour of touring.

VP: You’ve previously performed as Catherine AD, and for your debut, Album ‘Confessions of a Romance Novelist you have became The Anchoress… how come it’s taken so long to get out a debut album?

The Anchoress: A lot happened in my life, my Dad was diagnosed with a brain tumour and then he died. I injured my hand really badly. I was working three different jobs just to stay afloat. It wasn’t the writing process itself that took a long time, but getting it out there and completing it took time because “life” happened. There were various points at which I could have said,  “yeah, that’ll do, we’ll get it out” but really I didn’t want to put out anything that was sub-standard. So perhaps it seemed like a long time to other people, I guess I was doing other things like finishing university, so it doesn’t feel like that to me.

VP: And playing live, how do you cope with the unrelenting glamour of life on the road?

The Anchoress:  It can be “glamorous”, but perhaps not in the way people may think, not in the practical sense – you may be wearing yesterday’s clothes but you’re still covered in glitter. But then I’m spoilt for life after touring with the Simple Minds, which is a huge set-up and an amazing experience.  You won’t find bigger music fans than Charlie[Burchill] and Jim[Kerr] they are so enthusiastic about new music as well as the stuff that they’ve always loved such as Bowie and Joy Division. For me, as a musician learning my stage craft from them was amazing and Jim really knows how to command an audience.  It felt a little like learning how to do my job from incredible musicians who have been doing it a lot longer than me.

VP: Was it nerve-wracking playing huge arenas?

The Anchoress: It actually wasn’t.  It’s scarier playing to a few hundred people rather than a huge arena show. You know that there’s a huge team there who are at the top of their game, and their job is to make you sound and look as good as possible, so the nerves kind of subside because you have this whole team of people behind you. It’s more nerve wracking doing smaller venues. It’s just you and your band and the pressure is on you.

VP:  On another subject, music critique or the lack of it these days, do you bother reading reviews yourself. I’ve seen some which are basically 143 words, does that sort of thing annoy artists, given that something they may have took so long to create is given so little space?

The  Anchoress:  I get round that by not reading reviews. You could drive yourself insane if you read reviews and took them personally. If you start down that path you have to accept the good and the bad, which would probably do your head in!  I prefer making records and you really have to concentrate on that, and whilst you’re creating you can’t afford to give much attention to what people might think.  I mean you can’t totally ignore their existence and you do get a sense of the good and bad ones, but I’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding them. Chrissie Hynde gave me some advice once which was basically ‘don’t read the reviews’ so ,y’know I trust her – The psychological disposition of most musicians is such that you’re probably best not exposing yourself to those extremes dissections of your personality which is what reviews can feel like at times.  I think maybe that’s why I shifted my name from Catherine A.D. to The Anchoress because it was a little bit of a buffer in the sense that it gives you a little bit of distance. I suppose I knew I wasn’t quite cut out to be dissected and hated [laughs]

 VP: And on to the album ‘Confessions of a Romantic Novelist’ – would you say it’s an honest album?  In the sense that people who don’t know you personally might find it difficult to separate the fact and fiction in the narrative?

The Anchoress: Well that’s very deliberate, it’s an incredibly honest album but the honesty is very fragmented throughout the songs. It’s a bit of an exercise in misdirection slipping between the fictive and the autobiographical and I guess part of the fun is deciding which is which.  But I never really over think the writing, it s the production and the way everything’s recorded that I can agonise over, but the songwriting side seem to come naturally… otherwise, why bother… putting up with the agony? [laughs]

VP:  Sexism, the music industry, preconceptions, women are quirky men are innovators – have things changed?  I still hear stories of bands turning up at gigs and there’s an assumption by sound men etc that a female member has to be the singer, whereas they reality is the may well be the guitarist or the drummer.

The Anchoress: I guess I’ve avoided a lot of that in a way by working in a studio and learning my craft.  All I can do is carry doing what I do, producing, working in the studio and putting out records rather than just being regarded as “just a singer”. Not that there’s anything wrong with “just singing”, that’s the point of equality, that women have the choice of being the kind of artist they want to be.  If they want to be the singer, the bassist, write and produce the whole project, people really shouldn’t bat an eyelid at those choices.   

I didn’t want to co-write initially because I didn’t want people to think I couldn’t do it all on my own but you can learn a lot from the likes of Prince and Bowie. They were very good at knowing when to bring in other people. Just because Bowie could play everything doesn’t mean he did play everything on his recordings, he would bring in the best players. And he didn’t stop and think for one second “oh you know David, maybe you shouldn’t do that because people might think you’re just a singer”. That to me highlights the crux of what sexism is in the music industry because a female artist doing that is viewed very differently.  And that’s kind of how I try to think, what would Prince do, what would Bowie do.

When Paul Draper’s solo album is released – he co-wrote six songs on my album and I co-wrote six on his – I’ll be very interested to see to see how our two projects are presented relatively speaking in the media. That may speak volumes about whether or not there is true equality. I mean guys co-write and we say they are in a band. When women do it it’s as if they are viewed as being incapable of doing it themselves.  It’s something I have to negotiate all the time, and I hope I’m doing it in a positive way because silence never solved anything. Saying that I’d rather not spend my time being negative about things, I’d rather spend time getting really good at my craft and shoving that up their arse…

VP: You mentioned working with Paul Draper (Mansun), how did you meet and how did he become involved in the Anchoress project?

The Anchoress:  He contacted me, to be honest. I think I’d posted some stuff on my website and he got on in touch asked me if I’d produced it all myself and he was like ‘Wow, you remind me of me – a control freak! And I was like yes! He said he ‘d really like to work with me, and I knew ‘Six’ (Mansun’s second album) which was my now ex’s favourite album and obviously it’s phenomenal, and it just sort of evolved. We didn’t work together until he moved his studio to west London and he asked if I fancied coming in and recording. And of course I’m never one to turn down free studio time and we just started to spend more time in the studio together. And then I ended up making this record with him.  It’s weird, it’s like being in a band but not being in a band. For example, when his recent song got playlisted I was jumping around excited because we’d been working on it for nine months, it’s all very intertwined. It doesn’t matter who’s name is on it, the joy for me is putting together a record from scratch.

VP: What did you make of streaming services?  Are they the future, are they providing any sustainability for the musician

The Anchoress:   Hmm, well I think you should be on something like Spotify…I know some artists choose not to be, I suppose it depends on your vantage point really .. I mean if you’re Radiohead or Taylor Swift you can afford not to be on it for a week or two, and you’ll probably sell more records. If you’re a new artist it’s very difficult not to expose yourself to that potential audience. For me, it’s been really good as Spotify have featured me on a couple of their new music playlists and I’ve got a lot of plays off them. You have to get with the program, you can fight it as much as you want, but the fact is that’s how people consume their music these days. I mean I’ve always played music through my computer, so I guess for me it’s just not that weird. But you just have to adapt or die, unless you are Radiohead who are so big they can make the system work for them. But as a new artist, you basically have to make friends with the system and try as best you can to make it work for you!

If you’re from a working-class background, then you have to look at the economics of making a record.  If you want to make an ambitious record, one that’s not just recorded on your laptop you’re going to need a job to fund it.  I think if everything shifts to the likes of Spotify and the way the royalties are at the moment, it will change the type of music being made. People just will not be able to produce sonically ambitious music quite simply because they can’t afford it. I think the aesthetic of the music will be all about laptop based music, plug-ins, no analogue gear. There will be some who can still afford it – but maybe that’s culture, and music should reflect what’s happening, and if it’s reflecting the abject poverty of all musicians, then so be it!  

VP: It’s certainly not an easy business to achieve a level of success or sustainability .. when was the moment that you decided that music was what you really wanted to do

The Anchoress: I’m still waiting for that to happen [laughs].  When I’m on my deathbed I’ll probably think ‘Hmm. maybe I’ll make a go of that music thing!”  –  No never had a plan, though, when I was growing up it was more, have we got enough money to pay the mortgage.  I’m always juggling several things at once. I mean going back to what we were saying before, I do think it’s a real shame that the music business is becoming so dominated by people with money. I don’t really think these days, coming from a working class background you can say ‘I want to do music’  ( as a career) as you don’t dare to hope! It’ so much easier to dream when you have a trust fund or parents to back you up. And yeah I do have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about that, because I do think life should be a meritocracy – If you’re good at something you should get to do it, if you’re smart you should get the chance to go to grammar school and uni, because you’re smart, not because you can afford the tuition fees.  The same with music. When I was 16 I worked shitty mind-numbing jobs because I knew I wanted to buy a guitar, so sometimes when you see things handed on a plate to people it can irritate.  And in London, it’s almost impossible to afford to live there these days, which is why I moved out… in order to finish the record.

Confessions of A Romance Novelist: The Kitchen Sessions EP is released on December 16th, featuring 5 new acoustic versions of songs from the debut album.

The debut album, Confessions of a Romance Novelist, is out now on double vinyl and expanded 2CD.

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Tour dates

21st January: Celtic Connections, Glasgow
17th May, DUNDEE, Caird Hall
18th May, GLASGOW, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
19th May, GATESHEAD, Sage Gateshead
21st May, BIRMINGHAM, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
22nd May, LIVERPOOL, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
23rd May, MANCHESTER, Bridgewater Hall
25th May, BRIDLINGTON, The Spa
26th May, NOTTINGHAM, Royal Concert Hall
27th May, LONDON, Palladium
28th May, BRISTOL, Colston Hall
29th May, CARDIFF, St Davids Hall
1st June, SOUTHAMPTON, The Mayflower
2nd June, POOLE, The Lighthouse
3rd June Brighton, Dome
4th June London, Drury Lane Theatre

Andy Von Pip

ANDY VON PIP - Founder, editor, writer, reviewer, photographer and all-round good guy at the VPME.com. House photographer for The Academy Music Group, Zuma Press, Event Magazine and Rex Features worldwide. You can check out his photography at Andy Von Pip Photography Has been new music tipster on BBC6 Music, Amazing Radio, and DJ on Strangeways Radio (USA.) Can currently be heard on IWFM Radio. His radio work has been described as sounding like Ian McCulloch on ketamine fused with Ringo Starr. New music tipster on Amazing Radio, moderator for BBC 6 Music DJ Tom Robinson's Fresh on the Net, former member of "BBC's Sound Of" panel. Written and photographic work has appeared in The Quietus, Music Week, Record Of The Day, The Guardian, GIITV, The Sabotage Times, Bido Lito, The Skinny, Louder Than War. Media partner and curator for Liverpool Sound City.

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