Alison Goldfrapp, photographed in London by Georg Gatsas.
Wyndham Wallace sits down for an intimate conversation with Alison Goldfrapp, one half of the British pop eccentrics—and this Friday’s headliners at the sold out EB Festival Cologne—Goldfrapp. This interview was the cover feature of the Spring issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
In the suitably quiet surroundings of a private London member’s club, Alison Goldfrapp’s gentle demeanour suggests an artist at last at peace with herself. With Tales of Us, her sixth album alongside musical partner Will Gregory, she has concocted arguably the most sophisticated record of her career. It’s a work that reflects the contented life the charismatic singer has found in nature—that is, both her own, and that of the world’s at large.
Alison, how have your fans reacted to your recent change in style? There’s a notable musical difference to the acoustic approach of your new album Tales of Us to your previous work.
I got this tweet from someone the other night who said, “I’m really sorry, but I just don’t like Tales of Us. I like Supernature, Black Cherry and Head First.”
Do you respond to messages like that? I’d be inclined to say, “Just listen to those records, then. No one’s forcing you to listen to the others.”
I did respond to him. I said: “It’s amazing: I’ve done six albums, and you like three of them!”
So I discovered you and I have something in common: we both grew up with a military officer father in the same county of England, Hampshire.
Well, my dad wasn’t an officer after the war. He was only in the army because generations and generations of his family were all officers. He was just shoved into it, and as soon as he was able to get out he did. I never knew him as that person at all.
You spent most of your childhood growing up in an English market town called Alton. Did you find it a little stifling?
I hated it, absolutely hated it! As soon as I turned sixteen I left school and went to London.
What was it about that environment that you found so unpleasant?
Just its small town mentality. Maybe it was something to do with the era as well. It was just horrible. It was quite violent, I found. A lot of people getting beaten up all the time. Bored teenagers, very aggressive.
I know you often travel to Norway and I have to say I find small Norwegian towns significantly more refreshing than those in England. The Scandinvian bluntness is enormously refreshing—this lack of bullshit and self-consciousness. Did you come across that?
Bluntness, yeah. Don’t even get me started talking about it. But everyone I met was extremely friendly, quite open, even though they can be quite blunt. I remember I met this really old guy up there who used to be a vet, and he was talking about the Lyngen horses to us, which apparently nearly went extinct. He managed to breed a few and bring them back into the valley. It was lovely. He took us into his house, so we met his family. They’re certainly not as uptight as us city folk, now are they.
I’d move there if I could afford to.
I nearly had a heart attack when I came back from my trip there and looked at my bank balance. It’s insanely expensive. But those sorts of places have vast spaces I find really appealing.
Why do you think you’re so drawn to the countryside?
I was brought up to love it. My Dad was very, very keen on that. He really instilled in us that it was bigger than us, and therefore we should look after it and respect it. For me, it’s a bit of a religion. It feeds the soul, and it’s a place to think, and a place to create, and to be in awe of, to find peace in. It’s kind of everything, really. I love being in the city as well, because it’s fun culturally, but it doesn’t give me the same sense of fulfilment.
So when you say your Dad instilled this in you, how did he do that?
Basically we’d have to go out at five o’clock in the morning and watch the sunrise, so we used to sit in the woods and we weren’t allowed to talk. He was quite into Zen. We’d just sit in nature, and had to listen and watch.
For how long at a time?
I don’t know. It seemed like fucking hours to me! But I was very young. And whenever there was a full moon we drove to the sea and swam. We lived about an hour and a half away, so it would be like “Full moon! Get in the car!” That was one of the last things I did with my father: swim in the sea under a full moon. And we used to swim in the sea at all times of the year. It didn’t matter what time of year it was: you had to get in the sea! That was probably his army officer bit coming out. I did a lot of walking and hiking with him, too.
I read that you used to sit down as a family to listen to music and then discuss it?
Yeah, yeah. I really appreciate that, because he taught me how to listen to things, and not just music. The feeling of sitting in the countryside: just sitting there and listening to things, watching. This idea that you could learn a huge amount just by being with something and not doing anything. Just observing.
I think people don’t really listen very much like that any more, do they?
It’s hard. I feel like you have to set time aside to do that. And then, quite often when you do, it’s a bit like meditation: it’s very hard sometimes to just get in the zone and not be distracted by all the other crap that you fill your head with.
One of the lovely things about preparing for this interview was that I got to listen very closely to Tales of Us. I realized I don’t do that with music enough anymore, or I get distracted when I even try.
Everyone’s running around like crazy. We’ve all got our gadgets, and I think that’s why I like being in nature so much.
Are you good at leaving your phone behind?
I’m not bad, actually. Although now I take it because I like taking photos and putting them on Instagram.
You’ve spoken in the past about how you have to go away to write.
Fortunately, or unfortunately—I swing either way—we have a studio out in the countryside, and it’s a really great place to work. I like isolating myself, but it’s also a bit of a struggle sometimes because it’s not brilliant for one’s personal social life.
So do you struggle being alone?
No, I just mean I have to leave London, which is where all my friends and family are, and I’m a bit of a hermit for however long it takes to write an album. So it’s a bit antisocial, in a way. I love it, but I’ve been doing that for quite a while now. I’d like to try and write a bit of an album not in isolation, just so I can go and have a drink with some friends of an evening. That would be nice.
I’m intrigued by this idea of taking yourself away with the goal of writing a record. It sounds like you get up in the morning and say, “OK, time to write another song.” Is it that disciplined?
Yeah, but I think being creative is that, really: you have to sit and wait for things to come, but at the same time you have to work at it as well. It’s a constant yo-yoing between the two, and, once you’re in that writing mode, then your brain is looking at everything and seeing everything as a potential sound or story.
Why do you think this record ended up sounding so bucolic?
I think it’s a very strong part of who I am, and our influences musically. Will and I have always loved the romance and drama of strings and melody. I really wanted to do something that was much more stripped back. Life needed to be more spartan, and more bold, and more focused. It felt like that was a good metaphor for everything in my life. We’ve always loved playing with so many different sounds, and most of our albums have been quite intricate in terms of there’s always something filling the space. I wanted to see what happened if we took all that stuff out. There was something quite liberating about just selecting one or two or three instruments and working with that. I like the discipline.
You’ve done similar things on records in the past, but was your spartan approach to Tales of Us a sign that you’re mellowing?
[laughing] I don’t know if it’s that. I feel more confident, that’s how I see it. I’m simply more like that with everything in my life: food, partners, money. I suppose that’s what happens when you get older. You know what you need and what you don’t need, and you know what you want to hear and what you don’t want to hear. I think that’s also interesting when you’re working. It’s like looking at everything through a magnifying glass, because you’ve just got one piano sound. There ain’t anything to hide behind.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether this record was a sign that you’re more comfortable in your personal life. You seem generally to be a pretty private individual, but one thing I’m aware of is that, in terms of your romantic life, you—how shall I put this?—“changed direction” recently after meeting film editor Lisa Gunning…
Haha! I’ve moved over to the dark side!
Yeah, you’re “shopping on the other side of the road!’” So perhaps this album is a sign that you’re much more comfortable with yourself, and you can actually relax at last.
Well, nothing happens in isolation. I’m sure there are lots of contributors to that, but yeah, that’s one of them. I mean, my mother also died. That was quite a big thing. That was three years ago now, but I’ve realized that I had to keep a lot back from her. I loved my mother dearly, but maybe a sense of feeling that I don’t have to…
… suppress things?
So there’s a sense of release?
Yeah. Probably. I don’t want to focus on that too much, but on the last album there was so much stuff going on, in terms of the business side of things as well that was really uncomfortable. We changed management about three or four times. We had a real string of bad luck. Creatively it wasn’t my best moment. And then with Lisa, yeah… There were some bad people around us, and it really makes you address what’s good and not good, and what you need and don’t need. And love, and nurturing, and creativity: it was a bit of an awakening, all that stuff, and I think that makes you go, “What do I want? What do I need, and how do I achieve that? I’ve got another chance to do something I really want to do, so don’t fucking waste it!”
You and Lisa have collaborated on a series of short films for songs from the new album. I’m not really a fan of music videos, but “Annabel” and “Drew” are impressive. There are a few things that struck me about them, the first being that you don’t seem to be trying to make strictly promotional videos. They’re more short stories. They exist on their own.
Well, I didn’t really want to make a video again in the sense that we’ve made videos before. I was really dissatisfied with that, and this album, because of the kinds of books that I was reading, and the films, all this storytelling, it seemed to make sense to do a video that was more like a film, that actually told a story and didn’t have to adhere to all the things that traditionally pop videos are meant to do. Lisa is a film editor, and because we live together it meant that we were talking about ideas, and she was hearing the music a lot, because I’d go home and work more on songs. So it just seemed natural that she should get involved.
I was particularly struck by the depiction of the human body. It’s very sensuous, and we’re more used to seeing such things sexualized. It’s like you were using its form in the same way you were employing images of nature.
The videos have got a sensuality to them, and I think they’re about the idea of discovering who you are, and identity.
I wondered, however, whether you worried that making as many as five videos would restrict the manner in which the songs themselves could be interpreted, because your lyrics are quite enigmatic, and if you make a video it narrows possible interpretations…
That’s why I’ve always struggled with videos. I feel like the music and our songs,—and the way that we write songs—are such a visual experience, for me and for Will, which is maybe why we explore sounds and visual things differently. When I’m writing I’ve obviously got my own little cinema film going on, but this is the nearest I’ve got to expressing it in a way I’ve wanted to.
There’s a great line in “Annabel”: “Why couldn’t they let me be both?”, which refers to the protagonist’s confused gender identity, which obviously comes out in the video.
I thought, if you just listen to the song, maybe you’d think it was just about a little girl, you know? So it felt really important to make that film. He’s a great kid as well, isn’t he?
He is indeed. Taking part in that can’t have been an easy thing for him to do, though.
No. We actually auditioned a lot of boys. Half of them vanished as soon as we said, “We’d like you to wear a dress.” But he had something about his face—his expressions, his stillness. It’s quite interesting seeing boys of that age because they’re quite fidgety, quite hyperactive, and he was the only one who was really quite still in his movements, where he could just look and it felt like there was a real presence there. It’s quite funny, though, because he was at that age where we thought, “Oh my God, in two weeks time he might come back and have a beard! He might suddenly turn into a fully fledged guy!”
Do you remember the moment when you realized you could actually sing?
Yeah, I do. Very, very vividly. I was in a choir at convent school, which I loved. I think I’m the only person I’ve ever spoken to who really loved being at school with nuns. Most people have terrible experiences. I loved it! They were all fabulous, and I thought they looked great as well! I’ve got this memory of looking up at Reverend Sister Marie, or whatever her name was, and thinking, “She looks awesome!”. She had this really stiff, a-line skirt and big cross, and this black polo neck sweater, and a veil thing, standing in a dark corridor… Sorry, I’m kind of deviating.
You got all dreamy there.
I did get all dreamy. I remember this glitter in the floor. You know that paving that used to sort of glint? I get all misty-eyed about that time in my life. I felt like I was in a film all the time. Anyway, they called it “singing lessons”, and because I was really crap at everything else, it was the only place where I felt free. I think we were doing some scales, and we got to the top note, and the top of my head just started buzzing! I just remember thinking, “This is great! This is better than netball!”
And ever since then you’ve been trying to recreate it?
I’ve been trying to get to that top note. ~
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 37 (1, 2014). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.