Search The Line of Best Fit
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Gabrielle Aplin Oct 2022 Guy Gooch4

A Country Life

05 January 2023, 09:30
Words by Sophie Walker
Original Photography by Guy Gooch

Gabrielle Aplin tells Sophie Walker how patience, retreat and a personal reset helped her to find a reflective voice for her new era.

Gabrielle Aplin is no longer giving so much of her life away.

While others run away with the circus, she made a concerted effort to run away from it. The harsh, vertical margins of London started to feel suffocating: she couldn’t leave her flat without feeling the scrutiny of the blank, inexpressive gaze of chiselled faces on advertisements that seemed to tell her that she must stay twenty-five forever, or there would be no place for her here. If growing older was a form of erasure, if her career was loaned to her on borrowed time, then she would have to say yes to everything - yes, yes, yes – to bend and accommodate, because women in music, it seemed, had an expiry date.

Now, Aplin has settled with the other extremity. When she was once living in a musical epicentre, now she has carved an alcove of her own at a farmhouse in Somerset which she calls home. The four-legged creatures far outnumber the people in these endless fields: there is herself, her partner and fellow musician Alfie Hudson-Taylor, their dogs and the surrounding farm animals. Life is simple – peaceful, even – not naturally the preserve of an artist who has amassed over one billion streams to date, a gold-certified debut album with English Rain and a voice that earned her reimagining of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “The Power of Love” a UK number one. Just as she is no stranger to touring the world, she is no stranger to sitting behind the wheel of a tractor, either.

The shiny things that once enticed her when she signed to major label Parlophone at the age of twenty don’t hold the same allure now ten years later. “You realise how little you need,” she tells me. “I feel sort of removed from whatever cliquey industry thing there is in the city, and that’s really nice because it means when I do go to London, it’s exciting, it’s fun - but then I can leave. I go for sessions, and then I go and clean up pigs!” she laughs.

Inherent to leaving your twenties behind is learning to be more discerning about what you care about. For her thirtieth birthday, a milestone that usually warrants a fuss, Aplin decided, instead, to do exactly what she liked. She had a small gathering of her closest friends to celebrate, just as she wanted it. Everything was on her own terms, devoid of performance. It’s easy, she tells me, to forget that external pressures exist beyond here: “I stopped caring about things that I used to care so much about. I just don’t give a shit, in a really liberating way,” she’s quick to add, “not a careless way, of course.” That’s why her fourth album proper, Phosphorescent, is so aligned with what she wants – the purest distillation of who Gabrielle Aplin has worked so hard to become.

“In a way, it was like making my first album again but with all the hindsight and experience,” she shares. 2013’s English Rain captured her gift for cotton-soft melodies, homespun folk and heirloom wisdom – and, of course, her voice which, once heard, isn’t easily forgotten. At once fragile and fortified, Aplin draws on a depth of emotion that has commanded not only resonance, but loyalty. “Please Don’t Say You Love Me”, an pop-inflected acoustic ballad which reckoned with the complexity of falling in love and admitting to your vulnerabilities, has since garnered 38 million views; “Salvation”, however, with its inky, elegiac piano and stormy crescendo, proved that she was capable of more than the quaint folk ditties that were expected of her.

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But before making Phosphorescent, Aplin always felt something was amiss, that creating always came with a degree of compromise. Her previous record, 2020’s Dear Happy, was made from a place of sensory overload. “A lot of the things I was doing weren’t comfortable,” she reflects. “I almost forced myself, and I didn’t even realise. Each studio was made in a different studio with a different person – and it was very production-based. The producer would come up with some lines, and then I’d write over it and have to go away and learn how to play my own songs I’d just written. It was weird. It was all very glittery, fucking mad colours, all sorts… and as much as it was really fun, it was kind of exhausting. But I wanted to try it, I wanted to make something that sounded like a dopamine explosion, and I’m happy I did it. It did feel like there was an artist element missing for me, though.”

Written in the third, bleak winter lockdown, Phosphorescent was written in the absence of everything. “Everything I thought made me who I was got stripped away overnight, in a sense,” she says. “It’s a very reflective album, especially being here in the middle of fucking nowhere. You end up running through every anxiety you could possibly have, every arts and crafts project you can possibly make – I’ve baked every version of banana bread I can think of.” Eventually, all that’s left is the self-confrontation you spent your life trying to avoid. Every time she would sit at her piano, idly playing to herself, she would be reminded of something she’d done four years ago: something she didn’t address, an apology she never offered. “There were so many things I wish I’d done, because it was like, ‘Now I’m cooped up in my house and I feel like I didn’t create enough memories to sustain me through this very bleak time.’”

She started to write – because no one was telling her to. No one was tapping their watch, waiting for another record. “I was completely left alone, there was no interference” she says, with relish. “It was the most natural thing. It was like I was writing songs for the first time in the way I did when I used to work in a bar or at a deli: I’d come home and write songs just because it’s what I would do. I always wanted to get back to writing songs like that – I guess I lost it for a bit, and without realising, I’d started to do it again.”

Aplin recalls watching an episode of Blue Planet where they explored the Mariana Trench. “That scared the living shit out of me,” she reflects. “They get all the way down there, where they thought no life could be sustained, and there’s all sorts of things down there – all these glow-in-the-dark creatures that are creating their own light down there in the deepest, darkest place known to man. At that point in the pandemic, it struck me that this is just like real life: we’re in this really deep, dark time, and people are still accomplishing amazing things. It made me think a lot about human resilience.” At the time, she was reading The Comfort Book by Matt Haig, the author of The Midnight Library. Aplin was struck by a particular quote that only underlined her thoughts: “The best thing about rock bottom is the rock part. You discover the solid bit of you. The bit that can’t be broken down further. The thing that you might sentimentally call a soul. At our lowest we find the solid ground for our foundation. And we build ourselves anew.”

Her song, inspired by that train of thought, was built to be a sanctuary for those that listen to it. At the time of writing, the US Capitol Building had been stormed by a mob of Trump supporters, and the turn of 2021 held an apocalyptic air about it before it had even really begun. But rather than dwelling on her fears, she drew strength from those around her. “I don’t know how we get through the shit that we do / But we get through,” she sings on the piano ballad. “People were going out of their way during the pandemic in a dangerous time to help people they didn’t even know, and I realised that if they can do that, I can pull myself up from whatever brain hole I’m in. It was about knowing that there’s life and light in the darkest of places if you go down deep enough to find it.” So Phosphorescent felt like the perfect fit for the album’s title: to glow in the dark.

In a cyclical moment that binds the record to English Rain as if it were its older, wiser sister, the same producer, Michael Spencer, called her at the end of lockdown and asked if she’d like to make an album. Besides being a long-time collaborator of Aplin’s, Spencer has lent his expertise to the likes of Cat Burns, Mabel and Jamiroquai. By the time he reached out to her, the skeleton of Phosphorescent already existed, a closely guarded secret. Not even her manager had heard its eleven songs.

She recalls how, with English Rain, she was so young and uninitiated that she never knew where she stood. “I thought if the label asked to hear stuff, I had to let them, and if they wanted to me change something, I’d have to. I thought it was theirs just as much as mine.”

But this record is completely hers, and hers alone. Going through her earliest experiences with music, learning as she went, has meant that she has been able to confidently assert what she wants. “I wanted to make a modern record that felt traditional in its execution,” she tells me. “It was meticulously planned. We had these pillars: everything had to have a physical space and had to be very human.” Anything that wasn’t an acoustic instrument would have to go through a speaker and be recorded in a tangible space. Everything had physicality; everything had to be passed through heat and air.

Spencer was also determined to uphold these ‘pillars’. He was keen to replicate the spirit of how Aplin recorded her demos: a space, alone, with only her dogs allowed in. “He’d give me his dog – she would have to be there,” smiles Aplin. “He cared so much about these really small details that turned out to be really big things without making me feel ridiculous. It was a way of trying to quantify whatever kind of spiritual thing comes with song writing, where I have an idea, and I can hear it in my head, but I have to work it out. Whatever that thing is – I don’t know where they come from – but they call come from that same space. I think everything we did was all related to reconnecting with it.”

She would go to Spencer’s Buckinghamshire home every Tuesday to spend time with her “musical parents” (his wife, Liz Horsman, is one of Aplin’s favourite song writing collaborators). Their home is so remote that it wasn’t even recognised by a SatNav, mirroring her own solitary environment where the songs were initially written. Every morning she’d walk to the duck pond and feed the them, watching them grow across the seasons. “I’d get to stay over, and I felt like I was part of the family,” she tells me. “They’d invite me to have dinner with them, and I never once felt uncomfortable, or that I’d have to try harder, or that I wasn’t cool enough.”

Connection to nature was fundamental to every element of Phosphorescent. Spencer’s studio was powered by ground source heat pumps, and they’d spent hours talking at length about the state of the earth as the spectre of HS2 loomed over the land. “We talked about ecocide and how sad it is that all these ancient forests have been ripped away - and then be like, ‘Okay, should we record?’” When Aplin returned home, she found a clutch of duck eggs. The nest had been raided and the mother was absent. She salvaged two remaining eggs and decided to incubate them. “Now I have two ducks here,” she beams. “They hatched! That whole process unfolded alongside the songs forming; I turned the eggs, watched them crack - everything.”

"Everything I thought made me who I was got stripped away overnight."

(G.A.)

In more ways than one, the making of this album was bound to natural processes and patience. Even the album artwork itself was brought to life from a renewable energy source. Inspired by a friend's exhibition – the photographer Nat Michele – together, they practised the cyanotype process printing the cover in the sun, producing a cyan-blue print as a result of its sensitivity to near ultraviolet and blue light spectrum. The album’s vinyl format was produced using discarded excess wax meaning no two disks are the same colour or shade – they are utterly unique. “Every element has been powered by nature in some way,” she says, “and that’s important to me even if no one else notices it. I like to be involved in a project completely, not just spit out a song every month because Spotify wants it. I want to engulf myself in a project for a whole year and spend time on those details that are really important to me.”

While it may seem that Aplin has an almost fanatic devotion to her vision, it’s because she was in pursuit of creating something honest and true. Every part of it carries a piece of her. “It didn’t matter if we were being super technical because the spirituality of it, whatever that thing is that we can’t quantify, already existed when I started writing it by myself. We were just building around it,” she says.

The microphone and vocal chain they used was the same model as Karen Carpenter’s. Spencer unearthed a vintage U87 microphone from a skip, brought in Neve preamps and ran it all through a Fairchild compressor. He was uninterested in pursuing trends with Aplin; their mission was “to create something that sounds good forever”. Aplin says, “For me, it was really important because it didn’t feel like I had to crowbar myself into something. Nothing scared me.” But Spencer still found ways to introduce ideas to her that she didn’t realise the music needed. Forerunning single, “Call Me” began as a more classic arrangement of piano and percussion – it was only as Aplin came in one morning that she discovered Spencer had added its metallic, synthesised pulse that you hear today. “If he told me about it before, I would’ve been like, ‘No, absolutely not. That’s terrifying.’ But as soon as I heard it, it felt like genius. I would never have fucking thought to do that.”

“It puts it on rails,” is what Spencer told her. She realised he was absolutely right: “I was like, ‘Yeah! The whole thing’s floating all over the place. Of course we need rails. Like, that’s the most obvious thing!’” He also made her careful of her language. “I’d be, ‘It sounds like I’m making a really traditional album,’ and he would be like, ‘No, you’re not. You’re making a modern record. Be careful of your language.’ And he made me realise it’s very important how you speak about your work, and how that affects what you create.”

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The time of lengthy introspection afforded by the pandemic as she was writing the album also opened up old wounds but granted her the opportunity to let them heal properly. The speed from which Aplin was plucked from her quiet existence in Winchester and propped up for the world to see, performing on Graham Norton in a sequinned jumpsuit and touring the world as far as Japan and South Korea, was whiplash-inducing. “I’m now quite scared of going on stage,” she confesses, “and I don’t know why. I mean, I do it, and once I’m there I have a lovely time. But I think when I was sent all over the place when I was nineteen, looking back, it wasn’t normal.” She’s quick to stress how grateful she was for those opportunities to see the world, to broaden the scope of her limited experience, but the anxiety of travelling has never left her. “I didn’t think I realised at the time that it traumatised me a little bit, so now I’m really strict about normality” she tells me.

Last year was the first time she had ever gone on holiday in her life. “I wouldn’t do anything that involved me leaving unless it was for work. I’d given myself this complex that I wasn’t worthy of going out or leaving my home environment unless I was providing a service,” says Aplin. “I couldn’t just go out and have fun. And when I’m sat at home and I couldn’t leave because there’s a global pandemic, I’m going, ‘Fuck, what did all of that add up to? I’ve been in the house this whole time - and now look, I’m here again, and I can’t do anything about it now.’ “Call Me” was a song about missed opportunity and feeling entirely at fault, but from that came the optimism that as soon as she was able to, she would make a definitive attempt to overcome her anxieties – to accept that the past is irredeemable but the future is entirely hers. “I went to Ibiza in May and it was fucking amazing,” she tells me. “It sounds mad, but it was a really big thing for me to do.”

Conversations around burn-out among artists are only now coming to light, particularly following Arlo Parks, Sam Fender and Wet Leg withdrawing from touring for the sake of their mental and physical health. Aplin knows better than anyone that it’s a difficult line to walk, at the risk of sounding ungrateful. “It’s hard to talk about it in a way that recognises the fun and glamour of it all, but also really emotionally taxing,” she says. For women, particularly, one false move could mean they go to bed with a career and wake up without one: “You say yes to everything from the fear that you will never get this opportunity again, but then you burn yourself out. It’s a catch-22 situation, sometimes.”

I ask her if the soaring commercial success she experienced at the start of her career was everything she wanted it to be: “I really want to say yes – but no. You just have these adrenaline rushes followed by the most intense comedown. I kind of feel like the music industry should have a HR department for artists, something to make sure that they’re protected. I find myself wishing I had a mentor back then, a woman maybe ten years older than me who had done this before who could tell me, ‘Make sure you don’t go out every night. Make sure you look after yourself. Make sure you have a routine’. You know, no one told me that. I had to work that out for myself out when I burned myself out and traumatised myself.”

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The contentment Gabrielle Aplin has finally reached on the other side of Phosphorescent has been hard-earned. Since gravitating towards being an independent artist under her own label, Never Fade Records, she has the distinction of owning her own masters; she curates her own team, many of whom have supported her since the beginning and commands the greatest privilege of all: creative control without compromise. “I wish all artists could have that,” she says. “After working so hard and putting so much of myself into this project – in fact, to even be allowed to immerse myself in a project for a year – is just amazing.” The confidence and the ease with which she holds herself is undeniable, a rare kind of quality that only arrives when your expectations and reality align. “I feel like this is the best album I’ve ever made. I really know who I am, and that was the biggest discovery,” she says, before telling me, with no small amount of serenity: “I am completely fine.”

Phosphorescent is released on 6 January via Never Fade Records

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