Josienne Clarke has made some serious changes. Leaving London – and her duo partnership with Ben Walker – behind, the singer, songwriter and musician relocated to the Isle of Bute to make her first solo album, In All Weather.
A collection of short and (sometimes bitter)sweet songs, the album deals with moving on. Clarke’s lyrics are upfront, personal and poetic, with images crisply drawn. Opener (Learning to Sail) In All Weather deals with “cruel and random love”, while The Drawing of the Line tells us she’s been “holding my joy in a hand behind my back”. If I Didn’t Mind faces head-on the deeply problematic past relationship that informs much of the album. Lines like “I know you’re going to starve me until I waste away” are made more powerful by their straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation.
It’s not all melancholia – the self-aware, joyous pop of Slender, Sad & Sentimental suggests part of moving on is in deciding to embrace happiness. Stylistically Clarke has incorporated new sounds and ideas, too. The folky guitar familiar to fans of her duo work remains, but alongside this feature staccato electronic beats, earthy saxophone and blissful harp. And of course, every track is enlivened by that remarkable voice, with its finely selected, distinctive diction – a beauty both soulful and doleful.
In All Weather is a fascinating listen: a determined departure, thoughtfully constructed, writerly and mature – but laced with magic, heart and, yes, optimism too.
Folk Witness spoke to Josienne Clarke about the album, the creative process, gaslighting, brevity, melancholia, artwork, poetry and fizzy drinks (and her favourite sandwich, obviously). She had plenty of interesting things to say, so we’ve split the interview into two parts – the second of which will be online next week!
Folk Witness: Before making this album, you swapped London for the Isle of Bute – quite the change of pace! What impact did it have on the way you wrote and recorded music?
Josienne Clarke: It had an impact on everything in my life. In London you always feel like you’re competing and running out of time. So it was quite strange to stop thinking that way; I realised I’d gained all this time I didn’t know I had. Creatively, space is always a valuable thing and when you add time to that too… well, these are the conditions under which you do your best work. I traded cultural capital and metropolitan distractions for room to think and I was able to focus in a way I never have before. I was able to work out with clarity what it was I wanted – well, needed – to say and how, so I could say it calmly, succinctly and most importantly honestly. Bute allowed me that chance to refine with precision my words and musical intentions.
How was it writing on your own, without the input from either Ben or your band [PicaPica]? Were there sounds or styles you’d wanted to work in that you hadn’t had the opportunity to before?
I have ALWAYS written alone, that isn’t new, what happened to the music once it was written has historically been the contentious part for me. That’s the part where you have to compromise when you work with other people. As the songwriter you are immensely attached to your creative content, so the freedom a truly solo venture gave me was to serve the song from point A – where I write them – right up to the last over-dubbed note.
I love folk music but I’ve also always loved lots of other things as well. I didn’t have a specific sound in mind, but I wanted the songs to dictate the musical palette and I threw all considerations of genre out the window. I was making this record with no intention other than to say what I needed to say in whatever way it needed saying.
I love the saxophone and brass in Onliness…
Onliness is true to its name in that I played and sang every note of it myself so that saxophone is me. I always played saxophone on my records but no one ever knows it’s me playing it because of course you can’t sing and saxophone simultaneously!
A lot of the songs rarely make it over the three-minute mark. Was that a conscious thing or did it just turn out that way?
I have some very stringent rules as regards my songwriting. I love brevity and aim always for a succinct message: every line has to justify its place, repetition has to be necessary to the narrative or shouldn’t happen (these are rules I only apply to myself mind, this is not some strict manifesto!). I don’t care for the extra chorus and extended vocal breakdown. With only my songwriting and guitar playing to consider, songs didn’t need long intros, only one of them needed a guitar solo and I don’t want an outro unless there’s a bloody good reason for it. I favour the ‘If you don’t have anything new or interesting to say shut up’ approach.
When writing songs I’m always trying to distil the meaning down to only its most vital and concentrated form, burning away any fat that doesn’t need to be there and serves no purpose to the narrative. When working alone I can apply the same logic to the music. It doesn’t contain any lush string sections because it doesn’t need any, it doesn’t serve the song.
‘Host’, for example, includes some uncomfortable cresecendo-ing and distorted white-noise interference because it expresses the feeling I’m describing in the song, of disconcerting cognitive dissonance. Once it has effectively created that atmosphere it can stop and the song can simply end where it has adequately expressed itself. It’s only 1min 50 long because it does what it needs to do in that time – nothing less, nothing more.
You have published some poetry on your website. Is this discrete from songwriting or is there some overlap? Do you know which you’re writing when you sit down to do it?
I’m firmly of the belief that poetry and songwriting are not the same. Songs are not just poems with a melody and poems are not simply tuneless words. Thus I don’t feel fully qualified to call myself a poet in any meaningful sense – I’m still learning how to do it. I’m enjoying that process of learning but my skills in poetry are not refined in the way I feel I’ve mastered in songwriting over the years.
Some poems become songs but it’s usually more of a stealing of imagery or a single line that I can utilise in a song. Sometimes I do that and the poem remains its own standalone piece. Does plagiarism count if it’s all your own work?
The way you construct a line in song is different to the way in which you often use rhythm and metre in a poem, lines that sound great on a melodic line often sound too symmetrical and pedestrian when read without the song setting.
Songwriting has all this great melodic emphasis you can add, whereas poetry is liberated to experiment with rhythm and metre in a way that’s much harder in song form… swings and roundabouts as they say, to use an entirely unpoetic phrase!