It turns out I used to live just round the corner from the studio where Kathryn Joseph recorded her 2015 Scottish Album of the Year bones you have thrown and blood i’ve spilled.
The 40-year-old Aberdeen-born singer made the album in the place we’re talking today, a beautiful studio in the back garden of a house owned by Claire and Marcus Mackay, the owner of Hits the Fan Records and producer of bones you have thrown me respectively, in Glasgow’s east end. I like the idea that this beautiful record of heartbreak and loss, punctuated with Joseph’s darkly gothic and honest lyrics, was being recorded at the very moments I’d walk by the Mackay house casting admiring glances at its ramshackle Victorian beauty.
Seeing a piano placed in the slightly claustrophobic small recording space, standing out against the exposed brick and wood of the building, gives an idea of how Joseph and Mackay captured the intimate intensity that positively pours from the award-winning album. The surroundings are almost Spartan, matching the naked emotion of the songs.
In person, having met her a number of times in the past weeks, Joseph is as open and honest as she is on record, but also funny and animated, and unafraid to make full use of all the curse words in the English language. Over tea and custard creams we talk of her path to Glasgow and the recording of that wonderful album
But there’s only one place for us to start, and that’s with Joseph’s SAY Award win: “That was a strange night!” she exclaims. “It was just so mental; there wasn’t one moment where I thought that was going to happen at the end of it. I’ve been watching it back but it’s like watching an out of body experience….now it feels like I’m remembering it from watching it. Basically, as soon as Young Fathers came on [the trio and previous winners opened the ceremony] I thought ‘that’s it, I want to go home now’ because that was the most perfect thing. Just give it to them again, you just need to give it to them again.” Yet when I was speaking to people at the ceremony, there was a feeling that Joseph’s win was not entirely unexpected…“People have been saying that to me!” says the singer in reply. “Marcus [Mackay, Joseph’s producer and one-man rhythm section] just went completely still and he said to me ‘I knew this, I knew this, I’ve always known this’”. Joseph explains that this was the first time Mackay had expressed any thoughts or feelings to her about the album, saying “he and I haven’t ever really discussed the record, still. The first time I remember him talking about it was when Nicola Meighan [journalist for The Herald and occasional presenter with BBC Radio Scotland] was interviewing us on the BBC…and now I have a video of my face seeing him talking about it [mimics open-mouth amazement]. I don’t think I ever had a concept of if he even liked it, you know? We didn’t function like that and we still don’t function like that; we don’t discuss stuff to do with it!”
Having now seen Mackay’s studio and understanding the recording setup (Joseph played downstairs while Mackay recorded upstairs, with no way to view the musician) the lack of discussion of bones you have thrown me begins to make sense, even though when listening to the album it feels like a collaboration. Joseph has explained in the past that the album could not have been made without Mackay’s influence – nor his wife Claire’s, the woman who runs Hits the Fan Records and released Joseph’s music – yet it seems to have been done in the most unspoken of ways: “Totally, totally! All that was done without any real discussion,” says Joseph. “He’s very honest and direct and I think I needed that; not to take into account my personality and for him to say ‘right, come on’ when I was downstairs nearly crying because I was so uncomfy! He just completely ignored that and that’s the best way to deal with me.”
Watching Joseph play live is a mesmerising experience; from the way she almost becomes one with the piano to the way she makes eye contact with the audience when singing, it’s hard to draw your eyes towards anything else but it’s worth it to watch how Mackay plays percussion and bass generator at the same time, managing to avoid crowding Joseph’s songs. She explains that she “didn’t think he’d want to [play] first of all, and then the first gig we played together it was just ‘wow’, a beautiful feeling. The first gigs we did were fascinating to me because I’m used to being the one that is making eye contact or whatever, and so many people weren’t watching me anymore because they were totally fascinated by what he’s playing.” It was fascinating to Joseph as well, due to the fact she’d never witnessed what Mackay does: “When we rehearsed I had my back to him,” she begins, “so I hadn’t seen him play…so it was ‘oh my fucking god, look what he’s playing! How is he even playing two instruments at once?’ There are certain parts of songs he doesn’t play the same way twice and it’s beautiful for me to get that feeling of enjoying it rather than being conscious of myself the whole time. The ego of that as well…it would be so easy to cover up piano and girl voice with so much more. He totally gets how to do it, he’s amazing.”
Following talking about the here and now, we cycle back a number of years to Joseph’s upbringing in Aberdeen. Her first interactions with music seem eerily prescient for the slow path to the songs on bones you have thrown me and blood i’ve spilled; Joseph says that she “took piano lessons at primary school and hated it and dreaded every single lesson. I did that for three years and then didn’t play at all. I had gone from a kid who had been so excited and wanted to do it….” Although music was in her family, they weren’t the Von Trapps: “My mum sings in a Gaelic choir, my gran was musical and played by ear. My sister is amazing and picks up and plays everything – she’s in a band with her own name [Amy Sawers, with Sawers being Joseph’s official last name until recently]. We didn’t think of ourselves like that….” But Joseph returned to music and started to write songs in her late teens: “My first song was called ‘Lies’ hahaha! It’s so bad!” she laughs, in her open and addictive full-throated way which punctuates the interview at regular interviews. Was it about a boy, I ask? “Maybe,” she replies, “maybe they all are! [whispers mock-conspiratorially] Yeah it was about a boy, a boy who lied…he deserved to be judged!” Song writing at that age seemed to quench a thirst for Joseph: “I just remember really wanting to write songs and, I dunno, you just try I suppose. I felt like I was really slow at it so the thought of gathering them all up and doing that [making a record]…” Wasn’t one that crossed her mind, or even scared her? Joseph reveals that she “nearly got signed to Sanctuary when I was twenty-three. I worked at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen and it felt weird. They offered me the same money I made waitressing, but also they would own two albums-worth of songs and I was like ‘I know I’m just this little girl who knows nothing but that feels weird…so I went home on my little plane that they paid for and said no thanks.”
Following that brush with a record company, Joseph’s musical journey stalled until the point she moved to Glasgow around five years ago. She explains that her home town didn’t seem to be forthcoming in terms of opportunities: “In Aberdeen I think it’s so difficult; it’s this strange little town that if you don’t play anywhere else no-one’s ever really going to hear about you or write about you.” I mention the Phantom Band as an example of a band whose members had to move down to Glasgow from Aberdeen to further their career, and she tells me that singer Richard Anthony [also known as Redbeard Rick in his solo career] was at the same high school as her: “Rick came back [to Aberdeen] and played a gig that wasn’t even that busy,” says Joseph, “and people were still making a noise through it. This is his home fucking town and you’re still making him feel like this? It upsets me – why is there a strange atmosphere about playing there?” Moving to Glasgow was the key for the Aberdonian, especially the quirk of fate that led her to moving next door to the Mackays: “For me, I moved to Glasgow and immediately felt less paranoid,” she says. “I immediately felt better. Playing gigs was simpler, you got paid immediately, people weren’t arseholes and it was a really lovely feeling of it making sense here.” It also proved an important meeting for Claire Mackay, whose label had lain in dormancy since releasing Frightened Rabbit's debut Sings the Greys seven years ago.
Glasgow was the beginning of the end of this journey for Joseph and the place where bones you have thrown me was finally recorded. I’m interested to know if the songs were written in Glasgow, or do they come from her time in Aberdeen and that close call with Sanctuary? “Two of them were written then,” reveals Joseph. “With one other, I finished writing the words for it the day we recorded it. The others come from all the time that I’ve been writing – basically the ones that I like the most and want to play live the most, and they made sense. We recorded two others at the same time but they didn’t make sense, but that was everything we recorded.” One is “The Worm”, which forms part of Joseph’s new AA-single alongside album opener “The Bird” – and if you’ve heard that song you’ll be left open-mouthed at the thought of such a brilliant song not making the cut. Of the second unreleased song, Joseph explains that it’s “one we’ll probably never release as it’s a bit of a Coldplay ripoff and I don’t want it ever to be heard HAHA!” When she adds that it also has the word “shit” in the lyrics, I point out that there’s a healthy amount of swearing on the album as it is….”They’re quiet swears though,” she protests, “and there’s actually not as many as I think. I had to miss two out when I played them on the radio and it was really weird! I think in my head I swear more on it than I do.” I say that I always go with Will Oldham’s explanation of his use of the word “fuck” in his songs – that it’s a good signifier. Joseph agrees: “For me it’s a descriptive word for something I think is strong or something that I fucking love!”
bones you have thrown me and blood i’ve spilled is a record born out of heartbreak and loss; the former from failed relationships and betrayals, the latter reflecting the loss of her son only a week after birth. The music is appropriately poignant and devastating, but the title of the record also reveals how these things affect us physically as well as emotionally, whether it’s as simple as losing control of your tear-ducts during a song like “The Crow” or making you curl up in a ball, retiring to bed to make the shape of a claw under the sheets, or becoming ill from being unable to process the thoughts and feelings brought on by whatever life throws at you. All this came as something of a surprise to Joseph when people started to tell her what they felt after listening to her music: “What’s so weird now is that I don’t think I thought [at the time of writing or recording] what a lot of people are feeling from it,” she admits. “For me it’s exactly how I felt, it’s the truth. And weird things happen where….it was the truth, but actual words fitted into that. Things rhymed…writing it, I had to wait until I get the right word – my lyrics are covered in scored out bits because it wasn’t right and then you get the words which fit exactly what you mean, but it’s still true. You haven’t made it up and that’s exactly what’s happened.”
As an example of how the album has affected people, Joseph tells me a story: “A friend of mine I hadn’t seen in ten years got in touch to say she had used a song to go with a dance piece, and she said it was ‘The Bird’. She said she had been on the floor a long time, fucking bawling her eyes out listening to it over and over again…. I mean, that’s not even the one that makes people cry! People sometimes cry at ‘The Crow’ but not that one! She sent the video to me…what she had made, made me fucking bawl because the movements she was making were the ones I made after what I was writing about happened to me! I made the shapes she had made when I was bawling my eyes out in the first place.” So that was the emotion she felt at the time of the, for want of a better word, incident – but not the writing of the song? “Yeah, the song didn’t affect me like that,” she explains. “I didn’t think that’s how it would make people feel. It’s been so long without any concept of people listening to it or being affected by it and now it’s just so lovely, and fascinating and weird!” When I say that an album often acts as a snapshot or document of a certain time, and that the artist might not be the same person or feel those feelings anymore and could have difficulty revisiting or reconnecting with that time during shows, Joseph says that she doesn’t think this applies to bones you have thrown me: “I think because they’re written over such a long period of time I don’t think I feel that it doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I don’t think I’ve changed, I think this is how I’ve been for a very long time, or how I’ve felt for a very long time. So although the songs are about things that happened, they are still how I react to stuff and how I feel about stuff. And a lot of them are about things which have never been sorted…so that’s my way of doing it and each time I play I’m like ‘see I don’t even care about this anymore, I’m fiiiiine. Fuck you, thanks for the shit song you bastard!”
Alongside the visceral nature of the album title, there’s a distinct avian theme – and references to nature in general – with song titles such as “The Bird” and “The Crow”. The answer to this is fairly simple: “I like birds,” states Joseph. “The house, where most of the songs were written, had a wee red tin roof and was at the bottom of the garden where my landlord lived. It was beautiful! I felt like I was in Canada; there was this gorgeous little wood and it was the first place I lived where I genuinely had no neighbours, I could play at any time of night. It was perfect.” This setting comes across in the songs, where the ambient background noise acts as the sound of the great outdoors – something Joseph wanted to capture in the music: “A lot of the time when I was recording I would have the door open and I could hear birds,” she says. “I’d record things on a little tape recorder and for ‘The Crow’ when I listened back I could hear planes going overhead, I could hear birds….you could hear the outside. And without Marcus even knowing that he said ‘how do I make the noise of a field?’ That’s ten years later he’s feeling that or wanting that for the song! So that’s why there’s this sort of feedback noise throughout it.” Yet with the beauty of nature comes its unforgiving side: “At one point blue tits kept coming down the chimney and burning in the fire, poor little birds!” It gets more gothic than this, though: “This one’s worse…” says Joseph, preparing me for more horror. “One morning, my sister was going to a hospital appointment because there was a lump in her breast – she’s fine, she’s totally fine – and I was woken that morning by a fucking crow tapping at my window! The bird of death, fucking tapping at my window.” Being outdoors meant a lot to the young Kathryn Joseph; she goes on to say “I was much happier when I was younger, on my own outside. I was obsessed with animals and birds – and I’m not like that now – but I basically felt like I was an animal. Until I was thirteen, fourteen I didn’t want to be a girl, I just liked being outside. I loved the humanness, but I just preferred being on my own in a field watching buzzards – that’s how I was then. Now I’m not in a place where I can do that.”
So what does the future hold for Kathryn Joseph, SAY Award winner? I ask if there are new songs on the way, or does she have trouble finding dark enough material now that she’s entering something of a consistent, even happy, period of her life? “I worry about myself,” she admits, “but I’ve been really happy. I met someone last year and that’s the happiest I’ve been…but there has been other stuff that’s been upsetting. I don’t write happy songs, I’m never going to write ‘oh this is great, life is great!’ At the exact time I met someone else my sister’s daughter was really, really ill and nearly died; for me, life always has really beautiful, unbelievable things happening but at the same time really, really horrific things happen. It turns out I’m always going to have shit to write about!”
bones you have thrown me and blood i've spilled is out now on Hits the Fan Records.
Kathryn Joseph plays a sold-out show at Glasgow's The Hug and Pint on Saturday 1st August to celebrate the launch of "The Bird/The Worm" and also appears at Belladrum Festival on 6 August and is on tour throughout August and September.