Polly Scattergood interview

This piece appeared in Issue 4 of Electronic Sound magazine (September 2013). For more details, or to buy the latest issue, visit electronicsound.co.uk.

polly_scattergood

We are, it has to said, a little worried about Polly Scattergood.

The video for “Cocoon”, taken from her imminent second album “Arrows”, tells an all-is-not-what-it-seems Victoriana tale of two sisters. In one scene, the sister played by Ms Scattergood sneaks up on her sibling – a little too eagerly – clutching a shiny silver letter opener behind her back.

Does she, we wonder, have a real life sister?

“I don’t,” she says, much to our relief. As the news sinks in, the scene’s sinister sheen parks itself in a dark corner of our mind and continues to give us the twitches. It’s fighting for space though, because the rest of her new album seems to like that particular corner too.

You may already know Polly Scattergood from her eponymous Mute Records debut. Released in 2009, it was a curious, fragile collection of essentially pop songs that she’d written in hotches and potches during her teens. Lyrically, it concerned itself with very broken relationships, not just broken, but put through the mincer. Twice.
“I kind of just wrote about anything and everything,” she says when we express our concern about her, erm, mental wellbeing. “I also have a bit of a big, weird imagination, so everybody who knows me knows what I’m like. I don’t think they were too worried.”

As lump-in-the-throat as the subject matter was and as pop fuelled as the tuneage was, it was Scattergood’s voice – a whisper of insecurity, half waif, half psycho – that slayed. You suspect the demos were quite something.
“I had no money so I wrote a lot of the first album on a little keyboard in my flat in the attic of a house,” she explains, “It was before I had a laptop, so I would record demos on MiniDisc and send them to my manager in the post.”
Mute helpfully stepped in and stuck her in the studio with producers Simon Fisher Turner and Gareth Jones for company. It proved to be something of an epiphany.

“I learnt so much from making that album,” she says. “I’m quite a geek at heart so when I went into the studio for the first time and there was this world of gorgeous analogue synthesisers and beautiful keyboards, the kind of things you see in museums, it was right up my street. I like that no rules thing about synthesisers. We used a Minimoog a lot and they’re quite temperamental, you can have a great sound and press a button or twizzle something and all of a sudden that sound’s just gone forever.”

Cor, a proper geek, can quote names and models and numbers and everything?

“I have the worst memory in the world,” she laughs. “I’m not very good with numbers and names and stuff, so not a fully-fledged geek yet… but working on it.”

Fast forward four years and “Arrows”, her second outing for Mute, finally sees the light of day next month. It’s quite an outing. Everything is bigger and brighter and better. Sure, the lyrics are still jamming hearts through the mincer, but the music is no longer peering out of a skylight in a lonely attic room, this is an album lying on a beach at night sucking up the stars. So what changed?

“When Mute said, ‘Where’s the second album?’,” she says, “I was still living in that attic flat, but nothing was coming out how I wanted it. My mum is an artist and swears by a change of scenery so she suggested getting out and writing in different places. I also decided I wanted to co-write rather than just write on my own, so I went on a bit of a journey searching for a co-writer.”

Taking mum’s good advice, when Polly tried out a co-writer she would go write in their house rather than invite them into her attic. Eventually she met Glenn Kerrigan, who was working with Emmy The Great. Kerrigan was not only up for going to different places, but he also had a mobile studio he could set up literally anywhere. So from Norfolk to Berlin with a bit of France and plenty of London thrown in along the way, that’s exactly what they did.
“The place we’ve got to now is the place I wanted it to be,” she says. “It took a while to get there, but the whole album is all about a journey. I struggled to get to that place when I was in that attic flat because my head just wasn’t in the right place.”

The funny things is, “Arrows” started in that very attic with “I’ve Got A Heart”, the very last track on the record, but the very first track to be written. It goes “I’ve got a heart/I think it’s bigger yours/because it lets people in/who constantly disappoint me/and I’ve got a soul and it’s as sad as they come/because it used to feel everything/and now it’s just numb, numb, numb.”

Heck.

“The first album marked the end of a chapter in my life,” she explains choosing her words very carefully. “So I got out of my house and I got out of a relationship and just started afresh. It was the last song I wrote about that chunk of my life. After that I made a conscious decision to move away from that… general sadness. I wanted to move on with my life, keep looking forward and create something that made me happy. A lot of the new album is still quite reflective, but the reason it’s called ‘Arrows’ is because it pointed me in the direction I needed to go.”
First fruit proper was “Disco Damaged Kid” which she put out back in January. It was something of a shot across the bows. It not only showcased the new improved Scattergood sound, but acted as a reminder she was still here and what was to come was really going to be worth the wait.

Musically, “Disco Damaged Kid” was leaps and bounds ahead of anything on the first album, although in a cheeky nod the intro could have fooled a few into thinking not much had changed. Boy had much changed. Give it 30 seconds and a swirling bright twinkle of a keyboard surfaces, another 15 seconds and there’s an insistent kick drum, one minute in and it bursts to life serving up warm glittery deep disco no less.

There’s also something very human about “Arrows”. Even with its delicious undercurrent of electronic blips and beeps, it sounds like it was made by people. Take the swollen strings on “Colours Colliding”, or the low rumble on “Machines”, these days string sections are conjured up with the press of a button, right?

“I’m not a purist in terms of production,” she says. “You can make the most incredible tracks using software, but it’s not the sound of the strings that’s incredible, it’s the atmosphere around it. If you just use a computer you don’t get those little bits of magic, like hearing a bow knock against a cello. I love those little things, those little textures.”

What’s more, for every track packed with kit, there’s a little something stripped to the bone. “Miss You” is a killer, just piano and Polly. Listen carefully and you almost hear tears.
“I think there was a little tear on ‘Miss You’,” she admits. “It breaks my heart every time I sing it. I wrote it on the piano and it just… I couldn’t add anything more to it. It’s never a conscious thing, but there’s a few tracks where my voice is a little bit wavery, but each one of these songs is a little journey, they’re like 10 different worlds. When I’m in the studio I just shut my eyes, I never think people are going to listen once it’s done.”

All part of the charm, we offer.

“That’s how we felt,” she agrees.

Along with everything else there is to love about the new record, you’ve got to enjoy the sequencing, the track order. The penultimate track is a proper life is great moment. It’s fit to bursting with its thrummingly retro ‘Cars’-like growl and a vocal so full of cheer it could be Xmas in disguise.

“I wrote ‘Wanderlust’ when I was in this wonderful euphoric place,” she says. “It was like that feeling when you first fall in love and you think, ‘this is the happiest I am ever going to be’. It’s the most literal track in explaining the album as a whole. It’s about moving on, moving forwards…”

And just when you start to think all is well in Pollyworld, you are taken down at the knees, legs swept from underneath you, with album closer, the aforementioned “I’ve Got A Heart”.

“It was so difficult choosing the track order,” she protests. “Even when I listen to it now I think, ‘Oh shit, should I have put “I’ve Got A Heart” at the beginning?’. But then if I put it at the beginning it gives the wrong impression… it wasn’t where I wanted to begin the story. For me, ‘I’ve Got A Heart’ is like looking back after the story finished to see how far you’ve come.”

You get the feeling this particular story is nowhere near finished. In fact, it’s only just beginning. So what’s next? Third album on the way?

“I write constantly,” she says, “I can’t not, it’s like an addiction. So yes, I’ve already started the third album.”

With the interview wrapping up, we tell her what a fantastic record we think it is. Tell her how it has got right under our skin. Not just lyrically, but musically, and – with the ‘Cocoon’ video and the devilishly clever ‘Wanderlust’ video – visually too. Does it affect her in the same way we wonder?

“It’s been my life for the last three and half years, it’s been a bit all-consuming really,” she says.” It does definitely affect me, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one.”

Neil Mason

“Arrows” is out now on Mute


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