Newly releasing without a bandmate under the Litany moniker, 2019’s Single Player Mode EP was a bold step in a fresh direction for Beth Cornell. A year later, single “My Dude” has over 9 million streams on Spotify alone – a clear indicator of audience approval for the now year-old solo incarnation.
“I found myself again with that EP, and proved that I can do this by myself,” Cornell says firmly. “The reaction was really great, and it’s given me a massive confidence boost and a kick up the arse!”
Following said kick, Cornell has had her nose to the grindstone figuring out Litany’s next steps: “I’ve been working really hard sonically, vocally, lyrically,” she says of the past few months. Whilst initial plans were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, September finally saw the release of Single Player Mode’s first follow-up single: “Starsign”. The track was accompanied by retro visuals from Sasha Benjamin, and features Charlie Hugall (Halsey, Florence + The Machine) on production – one of several collaborators who also worked on Cornell's previous Litany EP.
“‘Starsign’ was meant to come out a lot quicker,” she admits, “but I found it really, really hard to focus on new music, film, anything when corona happened. I wasn’t consuming content; I was revisiting things from the past for comfort. I guessed that if I felt like that, maybe other people were too. I wanted ‘Starsign’ to have its own little moment when things had calmed down a little bit. It’s a really happy song for a really sad time.”
“Starsign” shows a previously uncharted side to Litany: sassy and irreverent, with attitude in spades. Whilst it leans even further into pure, unabashed pop territory, there’s a measured maturity to Litany’s sound flourishing with Cornell’s embrace of Hugall’s tight, polished production style. Where “My Dude” looked back, taking inspiration from Cornell’s teenage diary, “Starsign” tells a story that’s much more current. Its lyrics reflect on several ill-fated forays into online dating. Cornell explains how these doomed attempts were motivated by the occasional pang of loneliness she couldn’t quite stave off:
“I wrote ‘Starsign’ a year-and-a-bit ago, when I was still a single woman. It was a very, very long dry spell for me,” she laughs. “I was so focussed on my career – trying to get my ducks in a row for my EP – that I didn’t have time for anything. I’d have these fleeting periods of loneliness when I would relapse and download Hinge – scrolling for what felt like hours, crying into my wineglass! I met a couple of great guys, but ultimately I wasn’t ready for it because I was trying to focus on myself. The song says: I don’t need to know if you’re my perfect match astrologically, it’s not the right time for me.”
For those wondering, Cornell herself is a Capricorn – “Capri-Cornell!” – the official workaholic sign of the Zodiac. “We’re married to our jobs,” she chuckles, agreeing that it’s a profoundly accurate fit. Despite this, 2020 has seen her redress that work-life balance a little, giving a very different vantage point from the time at which “Starsign” was written. She notes an irony to the recent release’s stoic singleton message, on which successor “Uh-huh” serves to shed some light:
“My now-boyfriend hears me doing these interviews and is like, ‘what are you on about?’” she laughs. “He’s great, and he’s broken the dry spell like no other. That’s what ‘Uh-huh’ is about!”
Though similarly slick pop, “Uh-huh” is dramatically different from “Starsign”. It’s a track that’s less preoccupied with finding (or not finding) a partner, and more with the intricacies of what one gets up to once everything has fallen into place. Not even attempting to be coy about it, Cornell explains the inspiration behind the track – as if it needs demystifying: “It’s quite simply about sex so good that you forget who you are! You’re basically possessed by lust, and letting go of all your inhibitions.”
Whilst Cornell is clearly thrilled by all she’s accomplished in her career to date, until now there’s been an air of disbelief to the way she talks about her achievements. It’s almost as though somebody else has racked up those millions of listens, and she’s somehow found herself taking credit. “Uh-huh” is different though: there’s a real note of pride in her voice as she discusses her newest single.
“It’s the first song I’ve been so confident in,” she agrees, when this attitude shift is pointed out. “I love everything I put out, but every release night I’m shitting bricks – ‘is this actually any good? Have I deluded myself?’ With ‘Uh-huh’ I’m gassed! I’m so excited to get it out, because I confidently believe that this is the best song I’ve ever written. It’s quite a weird feeling, to be cocky about something – but when is a better time to be cocky about something than when the world has gone to shit?”
Cornell continues: “My friends have said that ‘Uh-huh’ is the pick-me-up people need right now. We’re sick and tired of hearing about how people can’t leave the house, they’re isolated, they feel sad… tell me a new one! Yeah, we’re locked in our houses, but what are you gonna do when you’re there? Shag! I’m really hoping that this resonates with other people – that they’re just ready for that bit of hope and happiness. Getting a bit of raunch back in their lives, man! It’s been really difficult, and I think we all need that pick-me-up.
“It’s probably the happiest subject matter I’ve ever had, which reflects how I feel in my personal life. A lot of artists will agree with me that it’s easier to talk about the things that are ailing you emotionally and mentally – it’s therapeutic. I haven’t been this happy for a long, long time, but suddenly I was overwhelmed by this incredible lust and joy and I thought, ‘you know what? It’s about time the tables turned!’”
Whilst the lyrics to “Uh-huh” are self-explanatory at the very least, a lot of thought went into ensuring the song’s arrangement and production contributed to its messaging: “This song has a real twang and a groove to it – I wanted it to feel quite tight and sexually rhythmic!” Cornell laughs. “I wanted it to be assertive – that’s my most confident vocal to date.”
Since Single Player Mode, Cornell’s vocal has been the core element underpinning every Litany track. It’s a progression that’s obvious when listening through the Litany back catalogue; the shadowy bedroom pop of half a decade ago giving way to today’s assured solo delivery. In the making of her EP, Cornell explained that much of this shift was due to her then brand-new status as a solo artist: suddenly, she was making music that centred on her voice by necessity, rather than using her vocals as a complementary element to a bigger picture.
Cornell would be the first to admit that stepping into the spotlight has been a steep learning curve: “I love singing, I love experimenting, but I’ve always been too shy in recording my tracks. I’ll get red light syndrome – although I sing like Whitney in the shower, behind the microphone I’m like–“ she burbles incoherently for a second to demonstrate before continuing. “I felt liberated after the release of that EP, like I could do anything. When ‘Uh-huh’ came into my mind, my producer Fyfe told me to ‘fuck with it a bit!’ I was like, ‘okay, erm, should I have an orgasm?’ It seemed to work really well! I love how sassy it is.”
She cites Caroline Polachek as a strong sonic influence on “Uh-huh”, naming the American musician’s recent solo album as a particular musical touchstone. “I was listening to Pang a lot when I wrote ‘Uh-huh’. I think, naturally, it’s rubbed off a little bit,” she explains, before expanding: “Using vocals to create sound is something I did back in the early days of Litany – I didn’t forget about it, but left it for a while – and I got really back into it in this song. There are so many elements of it rhythmically and percussion-wise that are actually my voice, rather than instruments. Using my body as a tool. That was fun.”
Whilst “Uh-huh” stands alone as a single outside of any larger body of work, there was another exciting aspect to the release that Cornell couldn’t wait to share with fans. She’s almost breathlessly thrilled to discuss the track’s video, starring none other than Brummie comedian and household name Joe Lycett. The visual – also Lycett’s directorial debut – came about after the comedian reached out to Cornell via social media. Cornell admits she’s “still totally spinning” from the interaction:
“I posted on Instagram about ‘Bedroom’ surpassing 20 million streams – a happy day! – and at about half past ten at night, Joe Lycett messaged me! I nearly died, ‘cause I think he’s amazing. I was in bed reading his book Parsnips, Buttered at the exact moment he messaged me. It was serendipitous! We had a chat, and he was like, ‘I’m a huge fan! If you ever want a bisexual comedian from Birmingham to star in one of your music videos just hit me up!’ I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. I’m a massive fan of Joe’s, so to have that happen from someone that you idolise is huge and really knocks you for six.
“I got the mix back for ‘Uh-huh’ a couple of weeks later, and thought it would be the perfect song to send him – it’s just so fun and camp and wonderful,” Cornell continues, still seemingly slightly overwhelmed by the whole thing. “Within 24 hours of sending Joe the song, he’d sent through a treatment and an example of how he wants the chorus to look in the video. He said he’d really like the opportunity to direct it – it was a no-brainer, obviously. It went super quick as soon as he knew what he wanted to do with it – he hand drew all the story board, hand-picked the production team. We were completely on the same page. He’s taken the meaning behind the song and interpreted it in a way that’s really fun and colourful. It’s a perfect antidote to what we’re all going through right now.”
Whilst Cornell managed to keep a lid on the collaboration until release day, she admits a key member of team Litany was definitely struggling:
“I’ve had to tell my grandma she’s not allowed to tell any of her friends, and she’s found that really hard,” Cornell laughs. “She’s a little Geordie woman – anyone who’s been to my shows knows that she mans the merch stall – and she’s like ‘ee, I just cannit wait to tell people, pet!’ She’s probably found it harder than I have, but we’ve all been sworn to secrecy, because it is such a massive deal. Joe’s probably the most highly regarded, well-respected comedian in our country.”
Of course, whilst Cornell is thrilled to share her new song with the world, this is a far cry from all that she initially had planned for 2020. Off the back of Single Player Mode’s success, her first solo tour was due to take place at the beginning of the year. Unsurprisingly, these plans were nixed as the first wave of lockdowns hit the UK. Given the personal and professional significance of heading out on tour alone after several years of Litany as a duo, Cornell couldn’t help but feel the loss especially keenly.
“It sucked more than anything,” she admits. “I was buzzing and everyone was super excited. Two days before we were due to start the tour in Edinburgh everything got cancelled. I found that really difficult. I was grieving – it was the first time I’d ever been able to say I was going on tour. I was sad for a while and wasn’t really in the mood to do anything that couldn’t live up to what I’d had planned.”
"Sounds in the track inspire what I’m going to write about – I don’t tend to be one of those musicians who takes in a fully-formed song. I like to be part of crafting it."
Initially optimistic that she’d be able to play some rescheduled dates in November, Cornell reluctantly accepts that live music is unlikely to be returning to our routines any time soon. Given her meticulous vision for any Litany performance, she acknowledges that she’s having difficulty finding a safe, innovative way of reaching out to her fanbase. Whilst social media has been the platform of choice for many musicians at every point on their career trajectory, it’s not something Cornell feels is compatible with her fastidious eye for detail.“I’ve got a really clear aesthetic, and I wouldn’t want to do anything that didn’t fit the authentic Litany experience. Streaming on Instagram, if you are that kind of act, works really well – get your acoustic guitar our, play some sad songs for people – I completely get the appeal, but for me it’s never really felt right.
“I really, really want to do a livestreamed show from a venue in London somewhere – not just something from my room,” Cornell continues. It’s a difficult situation, however, with independent musicians left in the lurch by the government’s lack of support and recognition for artists across the board. Premiums have gone up as venues recognise recorded events as their only current avenue for revenue, pulling the rug out from under the feet of smaller scale artists looking for tour-adjacent solutions.“Money limits you massively as an independent artist in the process of hiring venues, getting a team together, hiring cameras…” she laments. “It starts to turn into this massive deal. During this time we’ve all lost money on touring anyway, so that is a huge financial burden. If I do it, I want to do it right, and I want to have all my new songs there for everyone too.”
Speaking of new songs, Cornell is sitting on a handful of “raw” demos that fans can expect to hear once they reach their final forms. Unsurprisingly, this process looks set to be delayed until Cornell and her collaborators are able to make it back into the studio. Right now, she describes the new tracks as “not where I want them to sound,” but is definitely excited about the directions in which they’re headed.
“Unfortunately, I’m really struggling to get time in with Charlie [Hugall] and Fyfe, who I work with a lot production-wise,” she laments. “I’ve found that really challenging, as I’m very much a person who is inspired by a soundscape. Sounds in the track inspire what I’m going to write about – I don’t tend to be one of those musicians who takes in a fully-formed song. I like to be part of crafting it.”
Whilst many artists say the coronavirus pandemic has forced them to embrace new ways of working, Cornell’s precise visions and tendency towards perfectionism sit at odds with the ongoing restrictions and limitations.
“I’ve tried so hard to change my process, because you have to adapt – I’d be daft if I didn’t,” she says, smiling ruefully before continuing: “That said, I cannot wait to get into a studio with another writer, another producer, and just form something together. I’m really obsessed at the moment with creating these sonic universes, and I can’t lie, I’m no producer. I can write songs and I can play piano, but I really miss being immersed in the experience.”
Given her current lack of studio time, Cornell’s universe is as small as anyone else’s in the current climate. She currently finds herself looking to her lockdown companions for songwriting assistance, and while new puppy Lemmy – “after the MarioKart character!” – is admittedly more of a distraction than a helping hand, her aforementioned boyfriend has a couple of tricks up his sleeve (and not just those alluded to in “Uh-huh”).
“My boyfriend’s actually a producer – we wrote ‘Go Out’ and ‘My Dude’ together,” Cornell says. “We were forced to go crazily fast-paced and move in together as well – it was either that, or spend the entire lockdown apart. It’s quite handy, actually! We write a little bit together, but obviously we want to keep that work/love balance separate sometimes. I’ve found it really valuable to write with him with just a synth in the background. Many more happy songs are in the making!”
In the broadest sense, Cornell’s situation is reflective of how so many of us have experienced 2020: grief and frustration at what we’re missing out on, coupled with an appreciation more intense than ever for the things most important to us. The honest, relatable reflection of life’s highs and lows is a large facet of Litany’s appeal, and the state of the world today has only seemed to intensify this response. There’s something to be said for a rising pop star who – despite being phenomenally talented – seems so utterly normal. Besides a functioning vaccine, is there anything the world needs more than a handful of sparkly pop songs telling stories in which we can all see facets of ourselves, pandemic or no pandemic?
Cornell’s closing thought on the ways in which the pandemic has affected her are pragmatic and compassionate, reflective of the patience she’s had to grant herself in order to deal with the near-constant curveballs 2020 has dealt us all:
“Where were the guidelines for what to do in this situation?” she asks, letting the rhetorical question hang before continuing: “I think a lot of creative people have really, really struggled. It’s unprecedented. I’ve tried to get back in touch with myself. The career-driven side of me maybe took over a little bit too much, so I’ve taken a step back. I’ve got a puppy, I’ve been learning how to cook things, I’ve just moved house, and I’ve been focusing on me. Now I’ve done that, I’m over it and I want to start releasing music again!” she laughs, concluding: “I, for one, can’t wait to get back to work! I’ve got ideas coming out of my eyeballs! I want to get them somewhere.”