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Kathryn Joseph 2022 02 press shot

Empathy, Always

19 April 2022, 09:00

Kathryn Joseph puts the weight and pain of abuse under scrutiny on her quietly fearsome new record. She tells Alan Pedder how she turned her rage into a source of comfort.

Once a discouraged, subterranean thing, women’s anger has finally gone mainstream after centuries of censorship. It’s been a beautiful, painful, and inspiring thing to witness. ​

With her third album, for you who are the wronged, Kathryn Joseph lets the rage she carries flow through the heart of its coded and uncommonly compassionate songs. Though she never set out to make an angry record (her starting point is empathy, always), Joseph found she couldn’t stop thinking about the nature of abuse – hard to see, yet somehow everywhere you look – and it left her fuming.

The first thing to know about for you who are the wronged is that it’s intended in some way as a gift, an offering of comfort to those who might not even know they need it. “I feel like that’s the whole point of me,” she says. “This weird thing of taking something awful and making it into a noise that makes me feel better, and maybe makes other people feel better.” Her outrage is a pilot light to guide them; a signal from a lighthouse urging to change course.

Speaking over Zoom from her home in Glasgow, Joseph is wearing bright red lipstick and in a typically chatty mood. Her greyhound, Theo, lies sleeping by her feet, seemingly oblivious to the frequent loud cackling from both ends of the call. “I am the worst person in the world at being interviewed,” she says. “I speak too fast and I say too many weird things.”

On stage, Joseph is well known for making funny, sweary, often self-deprecating quips – completely at odds with the moods set by her music – so it’s no surprise that she’s just as humble and hilarious off-duty. She’s also incredibly kind; in 45 minutes I get more compliments from Joseph than I’d usually get in a month. “You’re obviously brilliant at your job,” she says. “It’s me, I’m the problem.”

The second thing to know about for you who are the wronged is that the stories here are, for the most part, not Joseph’s own. Assuming the role of observer, Joseph catalogues the hard, unspoken truths of abuse in its myriad forms, trying to make sense of the violations she sees being imposed on those she loves, and how she might, with care, give them something to latch onto, a hook on which to tug themselves free. These are songs for survivors – not only women and children, but men too – written in a way that acknowledges not only the complexities of power but also of powerlessness.

“It’s not always the people who are telling the truth that have the power, and that terrifies me,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky and escaped pretty much any abusive situation I could have been in, but the imbalance of power is definitely something I recognise. We see it happen out there in the broader world and never think it could be anyone we know, but abusers are so good at hiding what they do. Sometimes even from themselves. And it’s always the nicest people who are fooled.” She pauses for a second, then laughs. “I’m not sure what that says about me!”

Where Joseph’s past work has bristled, for you who are the wronged burns, bruise-blue hot. That’s not to say that it’s loud or aggressive. Joseph’s modus operandi is as minimal as ever, her voice as shivering and cracked, but a one-bar fire can still ignite a blaze. First single “what is keeping you alive makes me want to kill them for” is a perfect example of her ability to be at the same time hushed and howling. Though Joseph’s words are few, the purposeful repetition with which they are used gives the track an emotional heft that brings her message into focus.

Moments on the album when you can feel her anger go from simmering to boil are few, but that’s a strength rather than a weakness. Joseph moves like a vengeful ghost between tenderness and ragged pain on “of all the broken”, while “the burning of us all” is a seething, sinister highlight. Singing barely above a whisper, she goes hard on the ugliness of coercive control (“The way they make you eat the shit out of their hands / as if this is all you know and understand”), softening her warning with the hope of eventual exit.

“Do normal people have favourite songs?” asks Joseph, “because I think “the burning of us all” may be mine. It was actually the first song I wrote in about three years, since the last record. I had almost resigned myself to the fact that I just might not write another song, and I was sort of okay with that. Then this one came along.”

It was during the first lockdown of spring 2020 that Joseph started work. Her daughter Eve was away at her dad’s and, in the absence of anything more pressing to do, Joseph cleared the blockage with long bike rides to the sea, and the songs began to flow. “I’m usually really, really slow at writing, but this time it was strange because the songs all happened so quickly,” she says. “I cried a lot while writing “the burning of us all” but it’s so comforting to me now, the sound of it. I don’t think I have ever written on a keyboard before, so it was sort of weird but there was something nice about it being this new noise.”

Joseph has a lot of stories about crying, just as often with joy as with sorrow. Crying into her clothing at concerts. Crying at a Mother’s Day gift of loo roll. Crying so much at a friend’s book reading that she almost had to leave. She tells me how, when writing “how well you are” for the new album, she cried continually through every attempt. “Nothing like that has ever happened before. It’s a really simple piano part but it took me such a long time to make it make sense.”

Listen very carefully to “until the truth of you” and you might even be able to catch one of Joseph’s sniffles. “At one point we were recording and the studio’s beautiful collie came and put her head on my knee. You can hear me on the track just trying to get to the end of the take because I really wanted it to be the one she’d given her blessing to. Life doesn’t get better than that, if an actual animal is going, ‘It’s okay, you’re not a total dick’. She was raging for me about narcissistic abusers. She’s a very wise collie.”

For you who are the wronged was recorded over a week at The Lengths studio, a converted old primary school in the Scottish Highlands belonging to musician and producer Lomond ‘Ziggy’ Campbell and his partner Susie. “They are just the kindest, funniest, loveliest humans and the studio is just perfect. It’s ridiculous, actually. There were, like, forty herons nesting in the trees behind us. It was such a beautiful week that I felt I didn’t deserve.”

Recording the album as a duo, Joseph and Campbell stuck closely to the blueprints of her intimate home demos, adding washes of modular synths and sympathetic guitar textures to colour in some of the spaces. Whereas for her previous records with Marcus McKay, her bandmate in Out Lines, Joseph had been happy to be in and out of the studio within a few days, this time she wanted to put the same care into her performance as she had into the writing.

“Marcus is a total genius, and really the reason why I’m even doing this job at all,” she says. “But with him I was always like, ‘I don’t want to do any more than two takes, I just don’t want to listen to myself’, so I would go in and do my parts and then he would do everything else. This time I wanted to just enjoy each day and be involved more in the production side. Ziggy has a very different style, and I think I expected him to do more than he did. His own music is so brilliant and has a lot of beats, and I had sort of envisaged the songs that way, but we made a different decision and I’m really proud of what we’ve made.”

"I’ve been thinking of this album as a really small, quiet thing for so long that it’s strange to have to think about other people hearing it after all this time."

It’s one thing to write a record about other people’s trauma, and another to then have to talk about it. I ask Joseph if she was worried how it might be perceived. “I definitely don’t want to upset anyone,” she says. “But I think a lot of the people that I’m writing about would never recognise themselves. And that’s part of the huge problem, in one way, because people get away with being abusive for so long because no one feels they can say the quiet part out loud. I’ve always written songs in a strange, coded form – I don’t ever want things to be too obvious – and I wanted this side of these stories to exist in that way. Then at least they are there for the future.”

Given Joseph’s veiled way of writing, it’s not always clear who is the ‘you’ in these songs. On “for all the broken”, she seems to switch between speaking to the abused and the abuser, while “the harmed” stands on the outside, its message of ‘silence is complicity’ well recognisable to anyone who has spent any of the last five years online. Elsewhere, “until the truth of you” and “bring to me your open wounds” convincingly explore the psychological tricks used by abusers to get under the skin of their victims. “It’s such a fascinating, and obviously disturbing, thing to see how these people get their hooks in,” says Joseph. “It’s not like there’s a place they go to, to learn these techniques. It’s more sinister than that.”

I confess I found the premise of the album quite daunting at first, perhaps a little too near to the bone. As a child I suffered through years of physical and emotional abuse from my stepfather, a textbook narcissist who would beat or otherwise hurt me for the slightest mistake or defiance. I lived in fear and smallness for so long, until the day I decided I wouldn’t. Joseph looks slightly alarmed. “God, I’m so sorry! You know, I probably haven’t put enough thought into that side of it. I’ve been thinking of this album as a really small, quiet thing for so long that it’s strange to have to think about other people hearing it after all this time.”

What Joseph says about people not recognising themselves in these songs is something that only fully lands in the weeks after our conversation. I’m reminded of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” and how as a child I’d sing happily along, knowing what the song was about but never seeing that the boy and I were not so unalike. Child abuse was something that happened to other people, by other people, or so I believed at the time. Men like my stepdad lurk between the lines in Joseph’s songs – in denial of their cruelty and violence – but the ones she centers are survivors like me: “those who saved themselves from who made the locks / from who turned the ship towards the rocks.”

Getting back to our conversation, we talk about the psychological impact of the pandemic and the multiple lockdowns that thrust some people further into hell. The idea of being trapped for months indoors with an abuser filled me with absolute dread, I say, and Joseph agrees. “My first thought was, honestly, what the fuck are those people going to do now?,” she says. “I got a bit panicky about it, and I know that I am so, so lucky. But for those people in society who were already in hell and couldn’t now escape it, it was a really terrifying thought.”

Joseph understands that abusers are often people who have survived abuse themselves, but her tears are not for them. The ones she’s celebrating are those who find the strength to break the cycle of abuse and the generational trauma that goes with it: “They’re out there surviving it, putting an end to it, and being the most beautiful mothers and fathers. And yet some of them are being told that they’re the opposite. It horrifies me to see that.”

The quietly powerful artwork for for you who are the wronged features a young girl hidden behind a noticeboard, her lower half visible beneath the words “Please observe the rules for public safety. Thank You.” Joseph explains that the photo was taken in a park in Dundee by her friend Clare Brennan, the partner of Scottish musician Andrew Wasylyk, and the girl is Brennan’s niece. Joseph had seen the image on Brennan’s Instagram and asked if she could use it. “It was just one of those immediate things,” she says. “The photo made sense for all the feelings of the record.”

Others in her circle disagreed and tried to change her mind, but Joseph insisted. “I just think it’s beautiful. And because the title of the album is so personal, if I’d chosen a picture or myself or my own daughter I felt like it would just cross a line and suddenly become too personal.”

That idea of crossing a line crops up again in the videos that Joseph has commissioned for the first two singles, in partnership with director Harry Clark and dancers Luigi Nardone (“what is keeping you alive makes me want to kill them for”) and Jessie Roberts-Smith (“the burning of us all”). In both clips, the background is divided by a thick line, the dancers moving unpredictably from one side to the other, as if from truth to lie, until the line itself almost ceases to matter. While Nardone’s piece is filmed in sharp detail, Roberts-Smith’s is filmed almost as if underwater, drowning in deceit.

“Dance is one of those things that I am most in awe of and wish I could do,” says Joseph. “I feel like we should all be taught from birth that this is what we can do with our bodies. In my head, my music doesn’t really lend itself to dance, because a lot of it is in 3/4 time. But people do use it, and I don’t think there’s a better compliment really.”

Joseph still harbours the ambition to make a dance film for the whole record, but budget is an issue. I ask if she’s tempted to do another collaboration along the lines of the work she did with Glasgow’s Cryptic Theatre, staging a run of theatrical performances of from when i wake the want is. “Definitely!” she says. “But I would love it to be something where I wasn’t the main focus, because that was the furthest out of my comfort zone I’ve ever been. It was beautifully done, but having mirrors all around me was kind of my worst nightmare. I just played the record the whole way through and didn’t say a word.”

For you who are the wronged is actually Joseph’s second release of the year, following a collaboration with alternative orchestra Tinderbox, an Edinburgh-based collective of young musicians and grass-roots community activist. Working with Tinderbox to transform three songs from her earlier albums, Joseph steps out of her shadow world into a thicket of sound, herself transformed from gathering storm into a zoned tempest.

“I was really worried about playing these songs live,” she says, “because every time we tried to rehearse I would just start crying. But it was a real treat, and I am so, so lucky to have got to play with such unbelievably brilliant musicians. I feel a bit bad that the EP has kind of got a bit lost among all the album preparations, because the Tinderbox people deserve all the love. They’re doing so much good work. They’re really good humans and I’m just like this creepy old witch hanging off the back of them.”

‘Witch’ and ‘creepy’ are words that Joseph uses a lot in conversation – most often describing herself – and there’s no denying that her music has a spine-tingling strangeness to it. But where from when i wake the want is was the sound of a shapeshifting crone casting around in her grief, for you who are the wronged finds Joseph picking up the mantle of the Furies. It may be too late to keep the people in her songs from getting hurt, but Joseph offers justice by laying cryptic paths to freedom.

“I really hope this record in some way makes people realise they are not alone in their situation, or makes them realise that they are even in a situation,” she says. “It’s so difficult, getting through to someone who doesn’t see that they are being abused, especially if you’re a relative or a friend. I would love it if someone, somewhere hears this record and makes the connection. That’s my main hope. To give people back the feeling that maybe everything is going to be okay.”

For you who are the wronged is released on 22 April via Rock Action
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