Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Category: Music (page 2 of 6)

Interview: Kill Alters

The Wire
December 2016

Kill Alters Bonnie Baxter

Bonnie Baxter of Kill Alters

Memory Holes

The cathartic racket of Kill Alters uses home recordings of a dysfunctional childhood as raw material

“I didn’t even know I lived above a porn video store at that time. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve stuffed down and forgotten,” says Kill Alters’ Bonnie Baxter casually, leaning down to plug the phone she’s Skyping from into a charger. Three years ago she discovered a box of cassettes, recorded by her mum between the 1970s and 90s, and memories started resurfacing from her childhood. Baxter’s mum, who has lived with OCD and Tourette’s Syndrome since her own childhood, constantly taped her daily life; singing, family arguments, crying, phone calls, whatever. The tapes filled in blanks for Baxter, a New York artist based in Brooklyn,  who was releasing dark, solo synth pop as Shadowbox at the time, but she decided to work the recordings into a debut LP from Kill Alters, her project with bandmates Hisham Akira Bharoocha and her husband Nico Kennedy.

Released in a limited run of 100 yellow cassettes, their debut was an unsettling, nightmarish blur of whispered malice, little girl chatter, industrial drones and lo-fi noise. It accessed memories from a chaotic phase in Baxter’s life, when she was being sexually abused by a neighbour, and living with her alcohol mum and coke-taking dad.

“I was pretty surprised when I heard people’s reactions, they thought it was pretty fucked up, I guess to me it all just seemed normal. Some of the bits with my mum doing voices, telling jokes, wanting to be a star, I think it’s kind of funny.”

kill-alters-no-self-harmsThis year’s follow-up EP No Self Helps is way lighter in comparison, with each track intro’d by a clip of three year old Baxter and her mum singing, at first cutely, then maniacally, over Casio keyboard sample tracks. A secret track turns out to be a mother-daughter skit recorded on an iPhone, where Baxter pretends to have a genital wart, and her mum, in a gruff voice not unlike her comedy hero, George Carlin, offers hypnosis as therapy for it.  

“Growing up, my mum was very lonely so she talked to me more like a friend,” Baxter explains. “She’d show me how to puff a cigarette, or tell me she was going to some guy’s house to ask him for money, but she definitely wasn’t going to suck his dick, stuff like that.”

Although Baxter describes her childhood as dysfunctional, and her relationship with her mum remains complicated, she speaks sympathetically about her mum’s own traumatic upbringing, where she was labelled as possessed by her family because of her Tourette’s.

“I just couldn’t imagine ever cutting her off. Some of the stuff I’m unravelling now is pretty messed up – but I also think I’m pretty healthy and normal,” she adds with an awkward laugh, as her husband potters about in the background, popping in and out the webcam frame. “I guess making the music is part of my self-healing – expelling those things or something. I also hope some of it sounds fun, or playful.”

The new EP was recorded in Baxter and Kennedy’s apartment, but designed to be played live on “a really big soundsystem”. Kennedy describes it as ‘dark, mutated, heavy, weird shit’, also drawing heavily from their drummer Bharoocha’s past – he’s played with Lightning Bolt, Pixeltan and Black Dice, still tours with Boredoms, and has a solo project called Soft Circle.

The first album had a crackly, lo-fi texture which got them lumped in with the rest of Brooklyn’s noise scene, but they’ve invested in new equipment for a clearer, stripped down sound now, and are trying to shake off the ‘noise’ tag. “Don’t say it was expensive – we’re gonna get robbed!”, Baxter jokes.

“The noise scene here is very healthy, and also very cool,” says Kennedy. “But what we’re doing is actually a lot more melodic than noise, and Bonnie writes song-based music, so that label would probably mislead people now.”

Kill Alters’ visual side is also very strong – Baxter chops up Snapchat images with fuzzy VHS home movies and shaky iPhone footage to create DIY videos – a sickly, moreish blur of Miss Piggy masks, old Polaroids, her mum dancing in her bra and disembodied legs writhing around in red lace tights. The creepy aesthetic and theme of suffering sits them somewhere between Aphex Twin and Gazelle Twin, with some of The Julie Ruin’s twitchy energy or Moor Mother’s troubled and traumatised vibes.

As those names indicate, the couple’s musical influences are extensive. They enjoy listening to everyone from the Beastie Boys, BEAK>, Elliott Smith and Nine Inch Nails to Solange and Illum Sphere, and find it hard to guess who their own music will go down well with.

“What we do is pretty fragmented – there’s not one emotion. Some of it’s us hanging out and cranking out stoner jams, other stuff’s more fun, or dark. I guess if there are kids out there who listen to Kill Alters, and are maybe going through some weird shit of their own, feeling alone or anxious, and this helps them feel empowered, then I’ve done my job,” says Baxter.

Kill Alters’ No Self Helps is released via Bandcamp.

This interview was in the December issue of The Wire.


Review: Counterflows Festival, The Wire

The Wire
June 2016

American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen

American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen

Various venues, Glasgow
7-10 April 2016

Before the fifth Counterflows festival happened in Glasgow, its co-curators Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope presented a preview podcast on Resonance FM, where Hope joked that they were going “a bit trad” this time. There was never any danger of that, not in a beige and safe sense of the word anyway. Counterflows is an annual celebration of “the adventurous and the underground”, where dystopian techno sets and solo harp reveries sit quite comfortably alongside surrealist noise skits and free jazz face-offs. But the string music theme running through this year’s programme made for a weekend as obsessed with subverting the traditional as it was with pursuing the new.

The first night saw Áine O’Dwyer boom her Music for Church Cleaners eerily out of a giant church organ into the shadows of the cavernous Glasgow University Chapel. Two days later, in a discussion with Frances Morgan, she spoke about the pipe organ’s role as ‘manipulative machine’, designed to make people feel in awe of god. O’Dwyer’s daunting exploration of the organ’s low sounds, shrill shrieks and silences was a foreboding, formidable opener, followed by Laura Cannell and Angharad Davies’ Counterflows commission, Mythos of Violins, a haunting meditation for three violins, performed with Aiden O’Rourke.

Graham Lambkin, the solo artist who used to make curious, minimal, commentary-rock in the superbly odd duo The Shadow Ring paired up with Penultimate Press label boss, Mark Harwood, aka Astor, to bring a wonky, menacing set on Friday, using an Audubon bird whistle, bells, beer bottles and tape hiss to act out a dysfunctional male bonding session, with Garnethill Multicultural Centre acting as the garden shed for their performance art pathos. Later, Inga Copeland played with the tensions between soft and hard sounds that she first experimented with as half of Hype Williams, this time morphing melodic, pretty loops into dark, insistent beats from her Live in Paris album, as wobbly Handycam footage of Glasgow blurred with strobes and spoken London street names.

Counterflows’ featured artist, the American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins delivered several equally mind-bending performances across the weekend, including a skronky, cartoony and violent attack on a harp, accompanied by Glasgow’s One Ensemble, and a furious, virtuosic duet with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen, showing off the intoxicating spectrum of noises that her homemade electric harp can make. Small busloads were also driven to a secret location, a sleek Kelvinside home, for intimate and mesmerising performances by Parkins. She confounded her tiny crowd when she passed round champagne and canapés, disarming them, before inviting listeners to stick their heads in the grand piano she’d set up with a few dozen E-Bows.

Alongside Brazilian anarchic, middle-aged disco-metal-noise trio, Chelpa Ferra, and Black Top, a British free jazz duo splicing xylo-synth odysseys with iPad meanderings, Jamaican dub and live drums, there was room in the programme for workshops in ‘Motherese’ from local music therapist Aby Vulliamy for pre-verbal babies and parents, and a last minute gig in a charity shop in Shawlands Arcade, where likeable New York bampot rapper Sensational and Newcastle father/ daughter screamo-pop duo Yeah You (they released their Air Headz tape on Psykick Dancehall Recordings last year) gave Sunday afternoon shoppers something to gawp at.

South India’s Carnatic Music Ensemble sent things off the charts for the Sunday night finale. If all the hedonism and experimentalism of the weekend still hadn’t quite sold the festival as the rare gem that it is, then the trance-inducing drones of their raga and tala-based classical, devotional music in a church hall was the last shove needed to achieve full transcendence. Sublime.

Counterflows review in the June issue of The Wire magazine

June issue of The Wire


Review: Tectonics Festival, day two

The Herald
9 May 2016

Sami Yoiker Tectonics Festival

A Sami Yoiker


Tectonics Festival 2016

City Halls and Fruitmarket, Glasgow

Four stars

Day two of Tectonics ended on a big scale, with loud bangs, a few whimpers and plenty memorable oddities. The largest, in ambition and scale, was Alvin Curran’s world premiere of Musique Sans Frontières, where bagpipers and saxophonists led the audience up the City Halls’ staircase, down to the cavernous Fruitmarket, then into the Grand Hall for a cacophonous riot of foghorns, the Kirkintilloch brass band, BBC SSO musicians and ambient crowd performances from the Glasgow Chamber Choir. In the Ben Frost vein of visceral, foreboding compositions to jolt and batter the senses, Curran’s free jazz-classical-promenade-epic was arresting and fresh, if not always cohesive. But then a blend of Scottish folk fiddle, dropped kitchen utensils, symphony strings and chairs scraped across the floor was never going to be.

Smaller scale thrills were available too, from extraordinary solo violinist John Rose, continuing to hone his radical, playful style, showing off a bottomless curiosity for sounds he can make from string, air, electricity and skin, and the incredible Ánde Somby, looking like a court jester in leather fetish gear, but actually a gatekeeper to the ancient world of Sami shamanistic music. His animal yoiks of salmon, mosquitoes and a wolf were an otherworldly wonder, and captured the attention of wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson a couple of years ago.

Labyrinthine was an evocative experiment in operatics meets aerobics, where former Conquering Animal Sound member Anneke Kampman explored breath, body and female identity with singer Lucy Duncombe, and Annea Lockwood’s Sound Map of the Housatonic River was a blissful bath of water noise. A satisfying weekend of cerebral fun came to a close with Nate Young of Wolf Eyes’ dread-drenched work for orchestra and DIY electronics, sounding like a VHS video nasty, soundtracked by Morricone at his most sinister. With it, the seismic plates between the underground and overground closed up again for another year.

Read online at The Herald here


Review: Tectonics Festival, day one

The Herald
8 May 2016


Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC SSO in the premiere of Fruitmarket. Photo: Alex Woodward

Tectonics festival 2016
Sat 7 May, City Halls and Fruitmarket, Glasgow
Four stars

‘Make some noise’, read the acid yellow tote bags spotted around the Merchant City this weekend. It’s the mission statement for the fourth Tectonics Glasgow, an unstuffy and audacious, multipolar festival of experimental music, bringing together the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and sound artists, for avant-garde adventures in noise.
Saturday’s opening concert, Jitterbug, originally written for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company by Annea Lockwood, dripped, chimed and bubbled through the auditorium, as field recordings played through suspended microphones and speakers. Lockwood’s ‘interpretation of geological time’, with its digitised cicadas and jungle exhales, saw musicians take cues from images of patterned rocks, rather than sheet music. It was a less dystopian wander around Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 wasteland in Stalker; a meditative, pindrop piece introducing a big festival theme, the soft melting of musical boundaries, and an invitation for composers, artists and the audience to play around with conventions.

Elsewhere audiences were immersed in noise, with in-the-round performances and surround sound acoustics in the Fruitmarket and City Hall, both balconies spilling out celestial choir song, booming orchestral bass drums and thunderclap percussion. Catherine Kontz’s multi-textured, surprise-loaded Fruitmarket mimicked market vendors’ calls while Laurence Crane’s Cobbled Section After Section was deceptively sparse, a beautifully ebbing ambient work, before Concealed Unity, climaxing with the astonishing, experimental vocal of Jessika Kenney, drifting down from somewhere near the Grand Hall’s ceiling.
Ethereal reveries conjured upstairs were then expertly smashed downstairs by underground guitar hero, Andy Moor of the Ex, building a muscular wall of squall behind Anne-Marie Chaton’s mesmerising monotone, reading aloud in deadpan French. Finally, the wild, joyful polyrhythms of Ollie and Laurie Pitt of Golden Teacher induced a multi-coloured high for the Saturday-night closer, using congos, deconstructed clarinets, loops and morphing beats to batter the crowd into a euphoric pulp.

Read online at The Herald here.

Review: Counterflows Festival, The Times

The Times
11 April 2016

Carnatic Music Ensemble performing at Counterflows Festival

South India’s Carnatic Music Ensemble

Weekend review

Thu 7 – Sun 9 Apr, various venues, Glasgow

There’s a busker outside Tesco on Sauchiehall Street doing his plaintive guitar cover of The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’, while one block up at the CCA, queues are snaking around the building, waiting to see Zeena Parkins, a Detroit-born harpist. She’s the featured artist in this year’s Counterflows, a festival dedicated to ‘adventurous underground music’. For dedicated, read obsessed. That is, with all that is new, experimental, improvised, weird and marginal – and the balance they hit, year on year, between mind-bendingly good and straight-up fun sounds makes it one of Glasgow’s annual music highlights.

For the festival’s fifth year, curators  Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope joke that they’ve “gone a bit trad”; bookending their four-day programme with string music. The opening concert is an incredible, haunting night of low light and stained glass in the grandiose Glasgow University Chapel, where Laura Cannell and Angharad Davies present their Counterflows commission, Mythos of Violins, a meditative, melodic improvisation that sits beautifully beside Áine O’Dwyer’s Music for Church Cleaners, booming eerily out of the giant church organ.

London based O’Dwyer also featured in the closing concert, duetting with Zanzibar-based multi-instrumentalist Mohamed Issa Haji Matona, before a finale by South India’s Carnatic Music Ensemble, discovered by Campbell on a British Council trip to discover new artists and build international links, something the festival has always enjoyed doing. Elsewhere there is Chelpa Ferro, an anarchic, middle-aged disco-metal-noise trio from Brazil, channelling Larry David going postal with electric guitar and shrill bleeps; Black Top, a British free jazz duo splicing together xylo-synth odysseys with iPad meanderings, Jamaican dub and live drums; and Inga Copeland, also known as Lolina, who presented a darkly magical club set under strobe lights, with spoken word, muscular beats and morphing techno. There’s room in the festival’s wide scope for them to comfortably fit in morning workshops with local music therapist Aby Vulliamy for pre-verbal babies and parents too.

The festival takes delight in picking its locations thoughtfully. Saturday saw audiences scooped up one small busload at a time and driven to a secret location, a well heeled home in the West End for an intimate concert by the immensely talented Zeena Parkins, who has worked in the past with Björk, Yoko Ono and Merce Cunningham, and teamed up this weekend with Glasgow’s One Ensemble. After serving her guests champagne and canapés, she invited them to stick their heads inside a grand piano she was creating mesmerising drones and buzzes from, then led them to the kitchen for a solo harp concert, played in a uniquely subversive, sometimes violent and gorgeous style. The Glasgow School of Art’s Vic Bar took over the night shift with pummelling, sweaty, playful sets from Hungarian DJs Evol and the mysterious snare drum and laptop duo, N.M.O. The day after, Twitter directed anyone who was interested to a free busking session between New York rapper Sensational and Newcastle father/ daughter screamo-pop duo on Sunday afternoon in the middle of the busy shopping centre, Shawlands Arcade.

A satisfying counterpoint to bland, white, twenty something, male-dominated or nostalgic music, Counterflows is more interested in drilling deeper to find non-generic, new sub-genres and shine torches on the obscure and sublime. Colourful, intelligent and hedonistic all at once, their devotion pays off every time.


Review: Piaf! The Show

The Times

29 January 2016

Edith Piaf

Piaf! The Show

Four Stars

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Wednesday 27 January, part of Celtic Connections

There’s a growing back catalogue of tributes to the pocket-sized chanteuse, Edith Piaf. The combination of her school of hard knocks childhood, followed by a string of turbulent love affairs, then a substance abuse problem – it’s the stuff that Hollywood biopic dreams are made of. Tragedy seemed to trail after the French cabaret singer, but like fellow divas Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and Etta James, whose personal lives were also hamstrung by addiction and heartache, Piaf wouldn’t have enduring appeal if she didn’t have the voice to back up the tabloid-pleasing headlines.

Piaf’s voice could be many things – gravelly and defiant, creamy and suave, featherlight and vulnerable – she could sound like an angry barfly on a three-day hangover, or a jilted and unhinged lover about to do herself a mischief.

Various homages have been paid to the artist formerly known as “The Sparrow”, including Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Piaf in La Vie En Rose in 2007, or Pam Gem’s regularly revisited seventies stage play, Piaf. They chose, as did various biographies, Edinburgh Fringe shows and TV documentaries, to zoom in on the grittier side of Piaf’s private life, but this French production wants to keep the focus pretty firmly on her songs.

Piaf! The Show is performed almost entirely in the singer’s native French. Besides the odd “thank you”, and a verse of Autumn Leaves in English, the jazz standard written by Johnny Mercer and based on Jacques Prévert’s original song Les Feuilles Mortes, it’s the only break from Piaf’s mother tongue. Even the interval here is the ‘entracte’, and when an audience karaoke moment is slotted in for La Vie En Rose near the end, it quickly becomes obvious who was paying attention in French lessons at school.

The audience watch various black and white film reels unfolding in the background, showing Rue Pigalle and Montmartre’s fabled cobbled streets, then a montage of Piaf’s various love interests and front page splashes as she exploded in popularity during the 1940s and fifties.  

Besides the visuals, there is no narrative per se, and for the most part, non French speakers in the crowd have to rely on the same clues as silent movie or old fashioned opera fans to follow the meaning of the songs, reading the overwrought facial expressions and stage props to get the gist. Piaf’s are some very big tiny shoes to fill, but singer Anne Carrere rises to the challenge, coming very close to nailing pretty much every aspect of the singer’s voice and mannerisms, besides maybe her trademark overly-pruned eyebrows.

If Carrere and her four-piece band (double bass, xylophone, accordion and piano) have performed this show over a hundred times in 23 countries before giving it its UK premiere in Glasgow tonight, they show no signs of wearying. Carrere’s arms slice through the air in indignation, her legs drape flirtatiously over male props in the front row, and her ballerina slip-ons pirouette her through lilting numbers about merry-go-rounds and circus acts. No r goes unrolled, no ‘bof’ is left unpouted, and every shrug, grimace and furrowed brow comes on cue, helping to tell the stories of all of Piaf’s embittered barmaids, pining lovers and doomed legionnaires (Piaf’s hit Mon Legionnaire went on to be a gay disco anthem in the eighties, after Serge Gainsbourg recorded it and added new connotations.)

Je M’En Fous Pas Mal and Mon Manège A Moi are gutsy highlights, but the show is not over until the tiny lady sings Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, and sing it Carrere does. Belting it out, tears can be seen springing involuntarily from eyes all over the crowd, and Carrere can’t resist camply hamming it up with some pained sobs of her own, before wiping her eyes on the hem of the piano player’s jacket.

Read the review online at The Times here (subscription needed).


Review: The Wainwright Sisters

The Times

27 January 2016

Night-time melodies for soothing hobos, drunks and cowboys from The Wainwright Sisters

The Wainwright Sisters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Roche

The Wainwright Sisters
Four Stars
City Halls, Glasgow, Monday 25 January, part of Celtic Connections

Side by side onstage in matching striped pinafores over skinny jeans, the sisters Martha and Lucy sheepishly introduce themselves. Martha apologises for their dorky “uniforms”, explaining that their brother, the baroque pop singer turned opera composer, Rufus Wainwright delights in finding them the ugliest stage outfits to wear. Taking their acoustic guitars as they start tuning for the first song, Martha mumbled another disclaimer, “We don’t know any of these songs.”

“We don’t know each other,” chimed in Lucy, barely raising her head, or her voice.

The stream of self-effacing caveats continues through the show, drily lowering the audience’s expectations with a mix of faux mortification and ham-amateurism. In reality, their sorry shtick not only works well as a deft crowd-warmer, it turns out to be completely unnecessary too.

Lucy Wainwright Roche’s appearance ends up seeming like a bonus, after Celtic Connections festival had announced the day before that she would have to cancel, after snowstorms in New York meant she couldn’t leave the city.

Like a twisted and dark update on 1950s sister act Patience and Prudence, or a gently demented variation on the Swedish singers First Aid Kit, the Wainwright Sisters’ double act chews up country, blues, folk and lounge references, sweetly spitting them out as glorious harmonies. The pair are a product of a sort of musical super-family; both sharing the same father, folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. Like him, the half sisters prefer the warts-and-all, gallows humour end of the folky singer-songwriter spectrum, and have produced what they call their collection of “terribly morbid lullabies”.

Lucy Wainwright Roche has obviously inherited her mum’s knack for a girl group harmony – Suzzy Roche has performed with her sisters as The Roches since the seventies, and recently toured the UK, singing with her daughter. Martha Wainwright’s mother Kate McGarrigle, the Canadian folk singer, also performed with her sister, Anna McGarrigle, so for Martha and Lucy, although they hadn’t performed together until a couple of years ago, it’s as if the songwriting was always on the wall.

Tonight’s set is made up of tracks from last year’s duet album Songs in the Dark, as well as solo slots of original songs from each singer. The theme for the album was the lullaby, although in their version, the night-time melodies are for soothing hobos, drunks and cowboys, as well as one they describe as “a hostile baby rocking song”, for when a child won’t stop howling in the night and “you want to punch the baby in the mouth.”

Martha’s vocal is a gymnastic, theatrical thing; keening and warbling with wonderful reedy, raspy flourishes, while Lucy’s stays straighter and truer; a warm and crystalline counter to her sister’s, dovetailing in and around Martha’s Kate Bush wails or Dolly Parton quirks.

Flitting from the campfire to the cabaret bar, the double act have been told that tonight is Robert Burn’s Night, so Martha turned to the work of traditional Scots singer and folk archivist, Ewan MacColl for inspiration and found his 1959 version of Burns’ Ay Waukin O’ for them to cover. Their a cappella tribute is an eerie, haunting highlight, as is their unexpected cover of pan pipe favourite, El Condor Pasa, and their father’s Lullaby, a gentle, folky exercise in acerbic self-loathing.

Martha, who gave a few spoilers to her true feelings about her dad in her 2004 EP, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, seems to have mellowed since then, but can’t resist some snark when she points out nonchalantly that his lullaby was all about himself.

A bit like Martha’s own scene-stealing cameo alongside Frances McDormand in HBO’s miniseries Olive Kitteridge, where Wainwright played an ageing barroom piano player, the Wainwright Sisters are full of surprises. Comforting and creepy ones. Despite their gauche protests about being uncomfortable and unprepared up onstage, they are clearly neither, and the Glasgow crowd lets them know it.

Read the review online at The Times here (subscription needed).


Review: The Songs of Ivor Cutler

The Times
25 January 2016

Black and white portrait of Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler

The Songs of Ivor Cutler

with Duglas T. Stewart, Aidan Moffat and The Glad Community Choir
Four Stars
The Glad Café, Glasgow, Friday 22 January, part of Celtic Connections

Appropriately, tonight’s tribute to the outsider poet and surreal songwriter, Ivor Cutler, ends with a greeting. A jaunty version of “Good morning! How are you? Shut up!”, accompanied by a brusquely perky piano closes the show. With it, the ghost of Mr Cutler seems to usher his fans out the Glad Café with an affectionate shove, before there is time for anything resembling fawning or gushing.

The nonsense-peddling sprite was born in Glasgow, close to Ibrox stadium, ninety years ago. After dabbling in the RAF, primary school teaching and studying at Glasgow School of Art, Cutler began recording his own ‘never knowingly understood’ stories in the 1950s, which led to regular performances on BBC Radio. He went on to release 12 albums and scores of books of weird poetry, absurd prose and Lear-like fiction for children. He also caught the attention of Paul McCartney, John Peel and Robert Wyatt, and worked with them all.  

This year marks the tenth anniversary of his death, and loyal fan Duglas T. Stewart, frontman of jangly guitar pop band BMX Bandits, assembles friends for an homage evening as part of Celtic Connections folk and world music festival, stitching Cutler’s eccentric songs around poetry readings and projections. Among the visuals is a sign for the Noise Abatement Society, encouraging the audience to show moderation in their appreciation; a nod to Cutler who was a lifelong member of the NAS. While playfully stubborn in many ways, he was genuinely sensitive to loud noise, and asked his crowds to applaud at half volume. Possibly less genuinely, when he toured as a musician, his rider reputedly insisted on a two-bar electric fire to heat him up backstage.

Warm compère Stewart and fellow fan Aidan Moffat choose to focus on very different trademarks of Cutler’s work. Stewart, who has performed in tribute shows to his musical heroes in the past, including Serge Gainsbourg, Ennio Morricone and Brian Wilson, picks cover versions that hold a candle up to Cutler’s romantic side. While Cutler’s underplayed poignancy is one of his most devastating skills – generally managing to convey his heartfelt tenderness in the most brutish and insulting ways – Stewart’s delivery seems perhaps too earnest, too tuneful, even on songs about insects and death. He admits he’s hesitant about imitating Cutler’s recognisable thick, plaintive Glaswegian brogue though, sticking to his own melodic singing voice on the likes of the excellent ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What I Mean’, reserving a couple of very competent impersonations for the storytelling bits in between songs. In one he recalls meeting Cutler in Virgin Megastore on Glasgow’s Argyle Street, and showing him a poetry zine he’d written with Norman Blake.

By contrast, spoken word artist Moffat, and former member of Arab Strap, homes in expertly on “the racy bits”, treating the crowd to choice readings of stories from 1990’s Glasgow Dreamer, where Cutler tells tales of a “fifty-foot cock” and run-ins with an ex. “You say predictable, I prefer ‘reliable’,” deadpans Moffat, himself no stranger to a puerile or daft confessional. Following on from Moffat’s readings of Cutler’s mutated lullabies and botched suicide attempts, a 20-strong team from the Glad Community Choir huddle on the stage for their grandiose, yet poker-faced reimaginings of ‘There’s a Turtle in My Soup’ and ‘Muscular Tree’.

The magnificent, casually urgent rally cry, ‘Women of The World’ from Cutler’s 1983 album Privilege gets an outing, with an apology to the great man, who apparently hated Jim O’Rourke’s subsequent cover version of it, which the choir have taken inspiration from tonight. ‘Beautiful Cosmos’, the inspiration for the title of National Theatre of Scotland’s 2014 play about the cult songwriter comes as a late highlight to the evening, before ‘I Worn My Elbows’, another dazzling example of Cutler’s ridiculous take on the love paean.

Celtic Connections runs until January 31.

Read online at The Times here (subscription needed).

Review: Sufjan Steven’s Round-Up

The Herald
31 August 2015

Round Up
Sat 29 Aug
The Hub, Edinburgh
4 stars

In Sufjan Steven’s Round-Up, we’re taken to the rodeo, where cheerleaders strut in John Deere bodywarmers, Marlboro Men swagger in Stetsons and audiences roar in a sea of denim and check shirts. His soundtracked documentary premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this year, and is given an Edinburgh outing, performed by the excellent New York piano and percussion quartet Yarn/Wire in front of a huge video screen.

The footage of calves being lassooed, men and women being bucked off their broncos, hula hoopers twirling in sparkly wigs, and Native American children parading proudly in glitter and beads takes on a chilling beauty when slowed down, making the 80-minute film a glacial-paced orgy of strange pageantry.

Stevens’ score is mesmerising, but the visuals (filmed in Pendleton, Oregon by brothers Aaron and Alex Craig) can’t help but draw audible winces from the crowd; at the second the neck of a young cow snaps back against a rope, or watching the panicked back legs of a horse struggling to throw off their rider. The music seems somehow sympathetic, pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu come close to a straight-backed trot as they slow from the frenzied fairground gallop of the opening section, then sit silently as the film takes a couple of minutes to watch clumsy and carefree cow muscles running through a field.

Composer Stevens has proved his versatility, not to mention curiosity, in the past – with twee folk-pop, Christmas boxsets, electronic song cycles about the Chinese zodiac and his “Fifty States Project” about the American states. By turning his wonder now to the rituals of the all-American rodeo, he’s created something reverent, nightmarish and glorious, all at once.


Read the original review in the Herald here.

Interview: Apphia Campbell on playing Nina Simone

Celebrating Nina Simone

Apphia Campbell playing Nina Simone in Black is the Colour of My Voice

Apphia Campbell playing Nina Simone in Black is the Colour of My Voice

The Herald
10 Aug 2015

What if Nina Simone hadn’t died when she did? The jazz singer would have been 83 years old this year, and chances are, if she was paying attention to the news, she’d be mad as hell and ready, as she once said, to ‘burn buildings’.

“I try and imagine if she was around now,” muses Apphia Campbell, a Florida born, now Edinburgh-based singer who has written a play about the blues legend turned black rights activist, who died in 2003.

“Would she be right back up there, singing those protest songs? Maybe she’d change the words of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and be singing ‘Texas Goddam’ for 2015 instead!

“To hear her singing those civil rights songs back in the 60s, then seeing that forty or so years later we’ve not really moved on, there’s something incredibly sad about that.”

Campbell’s one-woman play, Black is the Color Of My Voice will return to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, alongside a new sister show, Nina Simone: Soul Sessions, where Campbell sings songs from Simone’s broad back catalogue, including ‘Sinner Man’, ‘Feeling Good’ and ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’.

Campbell’s not the only one sensing a fresh thirst for the story and songs of Nina Simone. Ruth Rogers-Wright will be starring in another Fringe play, Nina Simone Black Diva Power over at the New Town Theatre, barely a month after Netflix released the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, a collection of rare footage and interviews with her family.

“Nina Simone’s brilliance would forever change the musical landscape and yet she never fully got her due,” explains documentary director, Liz Garbus, chatting to The Herald from Pasadena, Los Angeles. “She had been a very popular singer during the 50s, but she never compromised. After songs like ‘Backlash Blues’ and ‘Mississippi Goddam’, she was essentially blacklisted. They were considered too radical, and seen as commercial suicide. Some people gave their life for the black rights struggle, but it’s important not to overlook the price others paid too.”

Garbus’ documentary required a ‘worldwide scavenger hunt’ to find audio tapes, interviews, family confessions and diaries that would help trace Simone’s life. Originally a classically trained pianist, she became a jazz bar diva and latterly, an icon for black power. She became friends with American activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, as well as African activists including South African singer Miriam Makeba, who encouraged Simone to relocate to Liberia, where she lived in self-imposed exile for two years.

“She struggled against demons from both within and without,” says Garbus. “Her life was both a reflection of the legacy of racism in America as well as an extraordinary example of the power a righteous voice can bring to bear against even the most wicked historical legacies,” says Garbus.

For Campbell, a singer who keeps getting mistaken for Simone on her publicity posters for Black is the Color of My Voice, it was Simone’s struggle as a woman, and a musician, that seemed particularly fascinating.

“She was a dark character, someone who went through tumultuous times, with bouts of violence and depression, but through them she was always trying to find her voice – was it educated enough? Was it African enough? Was it real enough? Watching YouTube videos of her, I noticed how much her speaking voice, as well as her singing voice could change.”

Simone described her own voice as having the ability to change from ‘gravel’ to ‘coffee and cream’, but for Rogers-Wright, what was always consistent was the emotion she poured in.

‘Most singers don’t take that chance when they perform, but she dared to experiment, to say what she thought, to take you on an adventure of the senses, to show real depth and beauty, and the results were often incredible.”

In Black Diva Power, the story focuses on Simone’s friendship with Lorraine Hansberry – the playwright and black activist who encouraged Simone to become involved in the civil rights movement. Hansberry, who died from cancer, aged 34, urged Simone to carry on her legacy after her death, and Simone’s top ten hit ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ was inspired by Hansberry’s writing, which had been turned into a Broadway play of the same name the year before.

Both Campbell and Rogers-Wright admit they find Simone an intimidating figure to portray on stage. For Campbell, she has created a fictional character, Mena Bordeaux, inspired by the real-life spiritual cleansing that Simone embarked on following her father’s death, where she isolated herself for three days without cigarettes, alcohol, or access to the outside world.

Rogers-Wright saw Simone perform several times in London and was mesmerised, although scared off approaching her outside the venues because she was arguing or agitated each time.

“Nina believed she was the reincarnation of Queen Nefertiti, and sometimes, when you hear her sing in that emphatic way of hers, or even telling her crowd to shut up, you think, maybe she was on to something!

“Her music had a transformative power, it took her to a higher place, somewhere beyond even her shittiest behaviour. This show is a reminder to new and old fans that you can be a strong spirit, fight for what means the world to you, and that’s when unique things happen.”

Black is the Color of My Voice, Gilded Balloon, Wed 5–Mon 31 Aug, 1.15pm, £9.50-£10.50 (£6–£9.50); Nina Simone: Soul Sessions, Assembly Checkpoint, Thu 6–Sun 30 Aug, 8.50pm, £10–£13.50; Nina Simone Black Diva Power, New Town Theatre, Thu 6–Sun 30 Aug, 7.45pm, £7-£14 (£8–£12).

Read the article at The Herald here.

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