It’s been almost exactly five years (July, 2001) since we last sat down with Caroline Ross and Jim Version in their Ladyboy Studios to discuss their delicate AWOL project and their appearance at Terrastock IV in Seattle.
The interim years witnessed their second release (‘Heart Drops From The Great Space,’ Fire, 2003) and a collaboration and tour with Mark Beazley, aka Rothko: ‘A Continual Search for Origins,’ (Too Pure, 2002). Caroline also collaborated with Beazley on a side project, originally called Listening Silence, before AWOL drifted apart and Caroline and Jim relocated north to the highlands of Aberdeenshire in Scotland. They also started a new project, Tells, whose debut album has just been released on Fire Records.
Jeff Penczak begins our chat with Caroline with a question about the Listening Silence release.
JP: ‘A Place Between’ (Lo Recordings, 2005) is just credited to you and Rothko. Is this actually your Listening Silence project or did that just fizzle out?
CR: Yes, this was what became of Listening Silence. It's just me and Mark Beazley, except for harmonica on one track. Mark wrote the music to most of the songs and I wrote the words and melodies, though I also play guitar and flute, and wrote a couple of the tunes, so we just shared everything. It was a wonderful working experience actually.
Can you explain how the album came about and why only you were involved in the recording? Had AWOL disbanded at this point?
AWOL were in the process of disbanding at that time; it was very emotional, as we all lived together, except for Phil, bass and sax, as he lives in Aberdeen. Mike Donnelly had already left a little earlier. I asked Mark if he'd like to do the LP, he sent stuff, then it just snowballed, so he came up to record here.
On first listen, this album is a big change of pace from your AWOL material – more hesitant, delicate and ambient, with a smoky, jazzy, almost chanteuse-y vibe. Was it a challenge for you to get into the Rothko mindset for this recording and did you ever find yourself drifting back into the old AWOL headspace? How did you deal with that dichotomy of keeping the projects distinct?
I never think of my various projects as 'the same' or as 'different', it's all just music. In the last two years I have been singing or playing live or recorded with Alastair Roberts, Scatter, Mountain Men Anonymous, the composer John Kenny, delicate AWOL, Tells, Rothko, Mark Raudva (from Shriekback), Susumu Yokota, The Great Depression, and Hooker's Green! I guess I try to fit in with whatever project I am on, get into the mindset of it and then just go free. I’ve also recorded two tracks for Yokota’s LP, ‘Distant Sounds of Summer’ [released last year as a collaboration with Rothko on Lo Recordings].
Were you uncomfortable out front recording without the old familiar friends in AWOL around you – was it a different recording atmosphere?
The recording of the Rothko Ross LP was just me and Mark, the old AWOL guys are not on it. They play it out live, it sounds great and we all did The Big Chill together, but that was after the release of it. Now we all get along. It's water under the bridge; in the end, we are all making music and living different lives, perhaps we needed some space…?
Although you briefly returned to bass after relocating to Aberdeen, you’re back on guitar here, but the album still has a very low, bottom-end sound, particularly on tracks like ‘Divided Lines’ and ‘An Open Breath.’ At times, it almost sounds like you are accompanying what amounts to Mark’s bass solos. Did you prepare differently for this album than on your AWOL sessions?
With Mark, I had a CD of instrumentals for a month before the session and I wrote as I listened on headphones. The scratchy sound on ‘Divided Lines’ is the sound of the dip ink pen writing the actual words as I thought of them…I had a minidisc running for some reason. I like that one a lot. When Mark got here we recorded flute, guitar, and vocals, then the mixes went to and fro for a few weeks and new bits and whole songs emerged. Then we got Denis Blackham to master it, as I always do, and it came alive.
How much input did you have into your vocal performances? Did Mark give you free rein or did he set out a general blueprint that he wanted you to follow or did you arrange all the vocals yourself? For example, the decision to recite rather than sing the lyrics to ‘Light In A Dark Place’ and the album closer, ‘Elements of Traces.’
Most of the vocal ideas and arrangements were left to me… Mark is great like that. As we worked and had to make decisions, he made great suggestions. Also, the layered chords of vocals are all put together after the event by him, more as musical notes on a wind instrument.
Having said all that, I think some of your finest, most romantic, and sexiest performances are on here, such as ‘Even The Blank Leaf’ and ‘The Only Way Out Is Through.’ Is that a result of the recording sessions or, perhaps, a decision to make this project distinct from your previous work? Or just a natural progression of your singing styles?
As for the style of singing in this project, I think it varies in there. It's very raw and emotional for me, though to the outsider it may sound restrained. I was letting my own feelings into the lyrics explicitly for the first time. Usually I find this way too self indulgent, and would criticise it as 'therapy' in visual art or other music. However, I have mellowed a bit now, and am finding a place for the currency of my own inner life in my songs without it being confessional or twee, (I hope!). Weirdly, as I have a naturally split voice, a very deep one, and then also a high but slightly choiry top voice, I never did integrate it, so people often think there are men singing backing when it's just me, or other girls on backing vocals, and it's me wailing
What’s been happening with the recording studio you built? Have you had an opportunity to get other acts in, or is it all your own stuff?
Most recently, Jim has been recording The Great Depression for Fire Records. That was a blast and they will be back for their next LP in October. Tanakh (i.e., Jesse Poe), Kitchen Cynics (i.e., Alan Davidson), Alasdair Roberts (with Will Oldham producing), Scatter, Eric Euan, Donal Brown, John Kenny (composer, jazz and classical trombonist, and world's only carnyx player!) and a few others I have forgotten have all recorded since we finished the studio a year ago. Very exciting! Kenny is recording here this summer and me and Jim will be playing as well as producing. It will be an ensemble of contemporary classical, folk and jazz musicians (and us, whatever we are!) and will go out on a French label next year. I do not know the name of the project yet, but I can't wait. I am a bit nervous, though, as I have never sung with “professional,” i.e., orchestra musicians before, but it's improvised singing, and I like nothing more than that!
Wow, you really have been busy! And now I understand you and Jim have a new project?
We are now Tells. We will be working with all sorts of different people, but the constant will be us. Right now. we have done two gigs as Tells and it was heavenly. Two of the band members are 17 years old, and one is 61! Jim is doing about 5 hours a day on the piano composing and improving his playing, so our music is really unfolding.
What is the background of these other members? Who plays what and how did you hook up with them?
Tells is just me and Jim (photographed on the right); anyone else playing are friends, people passing through the house, and local musicians with whom we swap studio time for sessions. This works well right now, as we need to just focus on sound, and not on group dynamics. We have a shared house, too, rather than the usual marital set up! Lots of artists, bands, visitors, all my t'ai chi students passing through... so two in the band is just great.
Tells seems to continue in the jazzier musical direction that you explored on the final AWOL album and more recently on your collaboration with Mark Beazley. What prompted this musical about-face?
The 'jazz' feel is kind of a red herring, out of the many songs in the session these felt best together. Another selection could have been more spiky and abstract. As usual, we (gladly) miss the mainstream as we never have a master plan. Jim writes so many songs, I have a job to keep up! I just get on the bass and put a mic up, who knows what makes it to the final CD?
I thought I detected a little Vini Reilly influence on some of Jim’s arpeggioed guitar lines on the title track. Is this my imagination, or does this reflect some of Jim’s recent listening habits?
Our current bunch of songs are more pop/multi-layered vocal, though I haven't written lyrics yet. Jim is listening to lots of glam stuff from his teens, also Talking Heads, Talk Talk, and lots of classical, such as Symonowski and jazz, such as Fred Frith, Wes Montgomery and Lenny Bream. He is also learning classical piano, so we have been working on a vocal part for a Ravel piece, as well as Jim's piano compositions… this is yet another project though, and needs more time. We played one piece out recently in Aberdeen with a friend (Marion Nagahiro) on piano. It was very exciting to hear it all pared down. Jim is into Durrutti Column, and Vini is playing Aberdeen soon, so we may go. I am listening to a great US band, Ida, as well as [David] Sylvian, Eno, Dead Can Dance, Terry Riley, Stina Nordenstam [Swedish vocalist with half a dozen LPs over past 15 years], Will Oldham, Alice Coltrane, Ravel, Steve Reich….
I’d be remiss if I didn’t enquire about the Japanese vocalist on ‘Their Chimes Are Our Undoing’ – in some ways it reminds me of what you did on ‘Body of Pain,’ the final track on ‘Heart Drops from The Great Space.’ By song’s end, I feel like I may have been misled (perhaps intentionally?) and it appears to be your own voice recorded backwards? Help me out on this?
The Japanese girl on the LP is Ryoko, a volunteer in the garden here who stayed for 6 months. She had such an unusual voice we had to ask her to speak, so she translated the spirit of the words into Japanese, which is what she says on the song. At the end, it is my voice reversed and timestretched – Jim was having some fun, but it worked. I'm not sure how I'll sing that live yet!
Your voice here seems to spend most of the time at the upper regions of your range and at times, I even heard some elements of Joni Mitchell, or perhaps even some of Poly Styrene’s solo work (her ‘Translucence’ album was frequently on my mind while listening to this album.) The final track, ‘Both The Eyes Open’ is one of several examples of this. Were they influences on your recent vocal performances and is there any one or two specific singers that you relistened to, perhaps in preparation for these new recordings?
As for the vocal influences I have at the front of my mind, yes, I've loved Joni Mitchell for many years, though mainly her ‘Blue,’ ‘Hejira’ and ‘Hissing of Summer Lawns’ LPs. I also adore Liz Fraser [Cocteau Twins], probably always will. Sandy Denny and Indian, Scottish, traditional English and Bulgarian vocal music featured highly in my teens and twenties, and after doing a workshop with three of the original 'Voix Bulgares' singers last year, I was ready to get back into harmony again in a big way. Apart from singles I never heard much Poly Styrene. I grew up with Siouxsie, Blondie [i.e., Debbie Harry], Eurythmics [i.e., Annie Lennox], etc. on the radio, so it must have gone in there.
What else keeps you occupied? Have you been listening to any new music or discovered any exciting acts we should look out for?
We have been buying vinyl like there's no tomorrow and getting into more John Cage, Ravel, Jazz Actuel label stuff as well as great English folk from the 60s…. Ahh, music! I also went in a Bulgarian singing workshop with a great trio from the central region of Bulgaria. I have been into that stuff since I was 14, so it was long overdue. I may get them here at our local venue, an amazing old church that would be awesome for more gigs.
Tells pictured on the second date of their album release tour, at the Spitz in London during May 2006 (photograph: Phil McMullen)
So what can your fans, old and new look forward to next from Tells? A tour perhaps?
As for the
future, we start another Tells LP at the end of the month, though I still
have to finish the cover for the current one, as the label have asked me to
do it. Then there's the Yokota LP, the Rothko/Yokota remix of the ‘A Place
Between’ LP, which I recorded new stuff for. There's an LP of poetry by a US
poet with John Kenny as musical director which Jim recorded and features an
ensemble of awesome musicians from jazz, folk and classical realms, but I
don't know when that's due out. I'm recording stuff, more free form and less
lyric based with Mark Raudva of Shriekback, that's ongoing. Then me and Jim
plan to do a piano and vocal LP, which isn't really 'popular' music at all!
How about 'unpopular music?’ Anyway, more ‘contemporary’ music, I guess.
Jim's recording lots of bands at the moment, and we are always looking for
interesting projects to record here at the studio.
We’re also considering a download-only 4-track EP. We will play The Big Chill festival this summer, so that will be ace. Me, Mark (Beazley) and Susumu Yakota are also working on an LP, and also I think I will be recording for Yakota's next solo LP, too, if I can get my arse in gear! I also recorded for the last Mountain Men Anonymous LP, ‘Krknose’ and did a session for BBC Radio One with them. Sadly they have now split up, but we will work together on other projects soon. We are just totally open to working with whoever whenever! Now for the first time in years, Jim and I are really settled in the music and ourselves. Call me an old hippy, but I need outer peace and quiet to make inner jumps and leaps of inspiration. We are teaching lots (art, music, tai chi) and building organic gardens from scratch.
Caroline says that anyone who wants to record, jam, stay, or just get in touch, check out their MySpace at www.myspace.com/tellsband
Written by Jeff Penczak, directed and produced by Phil McMullen© terrascope online, June 2006