CHRIS CONNELLY & JESSICA GALLO “PRAYER”
FOR BILL RIEFLIN’S BIRTHDAY
On Wednesday September 30th 2020, my beloved friend Bill Rieflin would have turned 60 years old. The journey for his loved ones after his passing has been a predictably hard and solitary one, but not exclusively so — despite the ugly cloud of COVID that prevented us from being with each other before and after his death, there have been glimmers of brilliant light that have helped all of us move forward and live with what has happened.
A short while ago, after his passing, a mutual friend introduced me to JESSICA GALLO, a harpist, and a certified music practitioner who became close with Bill, played for him during his long, painful struggle , and ended up collaborating with him, notably on “21ST CENTURY SCHIZOID MAN” by Toyah & The Humans, which was to be Bill’s last recording, and what a recording it is!
In an early conversation, Jessica told me that part of her grieving process was working on an arrangement for harp of the song “PRAYER” that Bill wrote for our 1996 collaboration “LARGO”. The piece is instrumental and I have some hazy memories of trying to come up with lyrics and deciding mutually that it should remain an instrumental for the album. The idea struck me that I should try and write lyrics now, and record them with Jessica and do something that would have absolutely delighted Bill (if only because of our valiant struggle through his labyrinthian chord changes!!!). And of course, what better way to celebrate his life than to issue it with all proceeds going to the clinic that treated and helped Bill during his illness.
So with very special thanks to the incredible engineer DON GUNN, we have two recordings: “PRAYER” – an instrumental for Harp , and “PRAYER” – with new lyrics and vocals by myself.
If you wish to make your own tax-deductible donation, please visit the Virginia Mason Foundation Donate Page and select “Floyd & Delores Jones Cancer Institute” from the Designation drop-down. After clicking the button, complete your personal and payment details, and indicate that the gift is in memory of Bill Rieflin in the Tribute section. Thank you.
The Sun Is A Maze (M-Descent Remix by Dan Milligan)
Also soon to be available is Chris’s book of lyrics and poems, The Heart Has to Ache Before It Learns to Beat, in paperback and digital download formats from Shipwrecked Industries. The book will include lyrics including those for Sleeping Partner, and other collaborative works of 2019.
“Five tracks inspired by artists or artwork I have seen in the last year,” is how Chris explains his latest digital and limited-edition cassette release. “There are a lot of sounds recorded on location in Scotland, including a piano I recorded at the Museum of Transport in Glasgow.”
Out today, 4 July 2019, is a special project to benefit Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), which works to ensure that unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in the United States have legal representation in their deportation proceedings.
Chris has contributed an original song called “Waiting for Clouds” to this album, on which Chris Bruce also performs.
For the second year in a row, Chris celebrates his birthday by releasing a new album! BLOODHOUNDS is available today, November 11, 2018, through Armalyte Industries. The double album is being released on CD, limited to 200 copies with a fold-out poster and lyrics sheet, as well via digital download formats.
A video for the track “Ascension”, created by Gabriel Edvy, premiered yesterday on the ReGen Magazine website, along with an interview by Ilker Yücel. Check it out!
In addition, Chris has again been interviewed by Megan Walters about his latest release. Let us know what you think of Chris’s latest release, the video, and the interviews in the comments section below.
By Megan Walters
Double album, double fun? Chris and I once again sat down to talk about his new album—this one, his first ever double album BLOODHOUNDS—and all of the emotions, surprises and learning experiences captured within…
Megan Walters: So the album is named BLOODHOUNDS and there are multiple references to the name in several songs. What does the bloodhound represent to you? Did you deliberately include the term several times in the lyrics or did it just happen to be on your mind?
Chris Connelly: The title track, “Bloodhounds”, was actually the last song written for the album, and it was one of these strange afterthoughts that sometimes I suppose artists get when they think they might be done and then something else happens: something gets created and it changes the entire shape of the album or work — like if you are done with a painting and you are about to leave it to dry and you turn back and paint a black stripe or something on it, almost instinctively, and it changes everything. I wrote the song after experiencing a huge panic attack, it came pouring out of me, and it connected to other pieces on the album — it connected a paranoia, a fear of being found out, a fear of being pursued relentlessly and exposed. The bloodhounds are also around in “The Encyclopedia of Haunted Lovers” and “Ascension” to varying degrees. Although to look at, bloodhounds are adorable! One thing that sticks in my mind as a sort of reference is Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs, in that I am just referencing them in those songs, so as to suggest, along with all of the other things going on in these verses, the bloodhounds are lurking and sniffing.
MW: Do your lyrics ever surprise you—as they are being written or afterwards? Do you find your meaning or intent changes with lyrics as you go?
CC: Yes, emphatically. First and foremost because when I am writing, that state of mind is so far removed from any other state of mind I have that I find it very hard to recall actually writing anything. It’s usually a fragmented blur — I honestly can’t explain the process, which I am sure is tiresome for an interviewer! I can say that it’s usually frenzied, then still, then frenzied, then still, then sometimes I might have to come back to it if life interferes.
I think that a creative process certainly exists out of the norm of other processes — or at least it can exist, it’s not necessarily exclusive — but the best stuff, in my opinion, defies any normal trajectory. It exists in its own time relative to the universe, and I also think it can involve some kind of intuitive, empathetic telepathy – and I use that word hesitantly – but I have certainly written lyrics that have in time revealed themselves, almost like a manifest destiny. So, you ask, can the meaning change? I think not so much as they reveal themselves in time, and I think it’s personal to a great extent — or it perhaps casts its light on the people I am very close to, but I might not realize that in my conscious mind at the time.
MW: There are two songs on BLOODHOUNDS that are covers of your own songs—”AAISW” and “F-birds” were originally on Pentland Firth Howl. I noticed that the emotions in these songs are very different from the original, for instance, “AAISW” on Pentland sounds almost apologetic, whereas the new version sounds almost defiant. Did you think about this difference as you were recording? Do you feel differently about songs you wrote many years ago?
CC: I actually rerecorded all of Pentland [Firth Howl] as an exercise. I have been doing that recently for the sole purpose of perhaps — as you suggest — viewing the song, or let’s say the object, from a different perspective. “AAISW” is “An Accident in Scottish Wilderness” and the inspiration, the idea of a car accident in a remote moor, on a winding road, something so incredibly violent happening in this void where no one will be aware of it, it is surrounded by layers and layers of stillness and silence. I remember when I was young, spending much of my time in the Scottish wilderness, I would play this game in my mind where I would look at whatever huge hill was in front of me, and see a thing of amazing beauty and peace, then I could flip it to become something so forbidding and terrifying. (You may remember one of the pivotal scenes in Ed Royal suggests this, and also in the poetry of my beloved STANLEY ROGER GREEN.)
So, in “Accident” (the one that’s on Pentland), you have the stillness, the suggestion of a threat — it’s daytime, and the space in the music suggests the openness. On the BLOODHOUNDS version, it becomes a lot more tribal, a lot more angry. Some of the perspective is from maybe a person close to the accident victim — “I could kill you for driving, but you thought of that first” — anger that they may have been warned not to drive, but did it anyway. I also wanted to reverse the openness and bring a frenzied anxiety to the song. I deliberately tried to use sounds that were almost shrill and dissonant to suggest what the tires might sound like, etc. at the point of impact.
The other song I chose was “The Fidra Birds”, which originally opened Pentland. The song was inspired originally by the traditional “Sinner Man” (Nina Simone version) where the protagonist might “run to the rocks, the rocks won’t hide you”, etc. So, being the party guy I am, I wrote a narrative about the double suicide of a particularly dour (fictitious) Scottish couple, around the time of Ed Royal, when I wanted to start writing narrative songs (which I did not continue with, I am too cryptic). The new version has the same lyric of course, but the music (informed slightly by “Bau Dachong” by the VIRGIN PRUNES) has a similar tribalism to it, like it’s partner “AAISW”. I also wanted to introduce the sound of mourning which is in the backing vocals. In my mind, I was thinking about these images of Scottish widows on the shore mourning a lost fishing boat — all half-remembered images, but I do find I have this amazing glossary up there and I love trying to match sounds to images, or my voice to images, or to feelings or textures. Again, I know I have talked before about my musicianship being the result of being a crap painter!
MW: How has your writing process changed over the years?
CC: I think there are certain things I do that I learned early on that I still use. I have a box of tricks, a box of tools, but the canvas always changes because I am more interested in trying something kind of preposterous rather than writing another song. I am very much inside myself now: there is a lot more spontaneity to my work these days because I trust myself and I don’t go to anyone to ask if what I am doing is good — it’s unimportant. There is a song on the album called “Farewell to Athens”, which is almost completely written spontaneously, and then it was done — I could not go back and change it, it would have been wrong. It is so much instinct these days, I have made so many fucking records at this point, and it’s always an adventure. Things also really changed for me when I started recording in my own studio, total autonomy.
MW: What do you think sets BLOODHOUNDS apart from other albums you have written?
CC: First of all, BLOODHOUNDS is a very deliberate double album. I had 80 minutes of material and it made sense, I was not going to prune it down and save 40 minutes for next year. This album is sequenced to be listened to in that order as well — I didn’t agonize over the order, but it was a eureka moment when I had “Bloodhounds” at the beginning and “Brush Stroke Blues” at the tail end, everything made sense to me. I also think that it’s the zenith of my lyric writing, I felt extremely motivated and inspired. I also found myself in this absolute treasure trove of imagery up in my own mind, I kept hearing things, and seeing things and feeling things and my pen kept moving. I think maybe it’s the end of an era for me that started with NEW TOWN NOCTURNES. When I say end, I can only hope that things will change and go in another strange direction.
MW: Tell me about the really cool, dark cover art. I think you look like a demonic Bond villain! Does the image have a meaning to you?
CC: That was DERICK SMITH and makeup by KAREN BRODY. We were doing a shoot and I wanted to have a cigarette in the shot — as an ex-smoker, I miss them so much, they were such a huge part of my make up! When Derick showed me the shots, we were not planning an album, but I said, “That’s my next album cover, BAM!!!!” I think it’s strong, I LIKE being a 54 year-old man who wears make up because I think it looks cool, it looks sexy and I think cigarettes are really fucking sexy and I miss them and know that’s not a great thing to say, but I love the charade. Derick is very good at capturing what we all LOVE about rock ‘n roll that just isn’t there anymore for the most part. I think the cover is defiantly rock ‘n roll and I love it.
MW: One of the persistent themes in your work over the years seems to be that of being a stranger in a strange land, a sense of not belonging or searching for a “home” that maybe doesn’t exist. How do you feel about this and how strongly do these feelings affect your writing? Does your writing give you a sense of “home”?
CC: Writing does give me a sense of home because it is my home. Unfortunately I don’t feel at home anywhere else. This is simply an observation — I am a very lucky man, I have not been booted out of Syria or run for asylum from a dictatorship. It’s just that I feel like I left Scotland and should have probably gone back and now it’s too late, I feel like I betrayed it, and I just don’t feel at home in America at all. I think that has a lot to do with why I am a bit introverted and hermetic, I have a very small circle I feel very comfortable with, but that’s just fine. I think this keeps coming up in the writing though, a yearning. The song “A Farewell to Athens” exemplifies this perfectly. (Edinburgh is sometimes referred to as the “Athens of the north”.) It was written spontaneously during a particularly bad bout of homesickness (I get it a lot) and it kind of explores the dilemma: do you miss EDINBURGH or do you miss being a YOUNG MAN in Edinburgh? Are you really homesick or just nostalgic? It’s a conversation I should have with my friends who stayed there. Sometimes I’ll drink a few whiskys and blurt out, “I SHOULD HAVE NEVER FUCKING LEFT THE FINI TRIBE!!!” and I MEAN it, I really should have stayed, and I know it’s ridiculous to say, but it was a perfect storm of ideas, experience, sex, hedonism, and learning that I never really got again — I suppose like someone who misses college or something. However, if the six original Finis could find some common ground, I would do it in a heartbeat — I love them all and cherish what we learned together.
MW: I pick up on a sense of passion and/or urgency on a lot of these songs. Although it’s not as stripped down as some of your other work, there is a real feeling of emotion in these songs. How do you balance letting these emotions show without covering them up with the power of the music?
CC: Well, like I said earlier, part of the FUN of what I do is trying to find sounds and notes and chords that reflect what I am saying. I have used this before in an interview but years ago, someone gave me a cassette of the album “AGUAS DE MARCO” by Antonio Carlos Jobim and — I think it was right when I was doing SHIPWRECK — I felt such an amazing emotion from a song that was being sung in a language I did not understand. Actually BOWIE pointed out the emotion expressed in music YEARS before voices and words were being used in classical composition.
BLOODHOUNDS is an emotional album, and it explores, I think, emotions that are on the level of a person my age as well, using a body of experience to contextualize the feelings, which because of that experience are more subtle and maybe more urgent. I am so much more aware of mortality, because of my age, priorities are different, I cling to youth, try to stay healthy — stuff many people my age do — but at the same time, I keep getting these inexplicable waves of vitality. I live in the moment, or at least I try to.
MW: What is your favourite song on the album and why?
CC: That’s hard: I will say “Bloodhounds” because it was born out of a bad, bad situation. I created something very positive out of something very negative, and realizing I COULD do that made me feel that all was not lost.
As Chris prepared for the release of his new album, I grilled him on all the details I could get for “The Tide Stripped Bare”, his first release of 2018, his 20th solo album, and our third interview together.
Megan Walters: First of all, congratulations on your newest album! The name of the album itself — The Tide Stripped Bare — happens to sound a lot like the name of a Bryan Ferry album, “The Bride Stripped Bare”, which in itself is a reference to an artwork by Marcel Duchamp. Was this a deliberate nod to either artist?
Chris Connelly: Absolutely: I adore Bryan Ferry and, of course, Duchamp, and I see some definite lineage between the two… so, in a fit of absolute egomania, I added myself to that lineage! But seriously, the sculpture alludes to masculine and feminine relationships, as does Ferry’s album (which he made after breaking up with Jerry Hall) and I have always dealt with these relationships in my lyrics. Although the substitution of the word TIDE for BRIDE which opens up the more allegorical side of the album and my own romantic relationships with the unattainable, it hearkens back to something I mentioned before in that I create backdrops for my songs, like the background in a painting, I spend as much time fixated on the use of words and sound to create the context of the song.
MW: Speaking of Bryan Ferry, the first song “Another Song About A Painting” has a definite glam rock feel to it. Does this mean you were influenced by glam rock while you were making this? Do you have an idea of what you want your songs to sound like before they are finished, like “I am going to do a glam rock song”?
CC: No, I never have a vision, maybe a melody and the traces of words, but that song went through a lot of changes before it became what it is. When I finally delivered it, it happened really fast and in a sense it was the comedy of the words and the references AGAINST a very glam rock backdrop that appealed- if you listen to the words, it’s sort of referencing all these centuries old paintings by people like Constable of farm labourers and pastoral scenes all colliding with each other. At the end I start yelling out artist names off the top of my head and it’s a direct reference to the outro of “Elected” by Alice Cooper- so you are bang on the money about glam, which has been one of the backdrops of my life for ages.
MW: Why did you decide on this name for your album? Do you have a list of cool album names in your head or do you choose the name based on the material you’ve written?
CC: These days the titles come to me, and usually I can’t start writing or don’t start writing until I have a title, and it has to really grab my attention. Both works of art The Tide Stripped Bare have been woven into the fabric of my life for decades and it’s just something my brain threw up when I was playing word games in my head, and it seemed like such a perfect “Chris Connelly” album and song title. It was then that I started writing the title track, the tide going out is like water stripping water stripping water, the ocean undressing itself. It’s both sexy and in a metaphorical way revealing of truths, stripping away of artifice, and when the tide is out we ourselves can wander further out into an expanse.
The song itself looks at this, and it also deals with two souls who maybe friends or lovers being able to confront certain truths both good and bad in an arena without distraction (the empty beach). The fact that the water is shallow the further out they walk (the “ankle deep affair” written about in the chorus) suggests that perhaps a commitment is elusive for both, but like many things I write, I leave it open ended for those listeners who may need a happy ending.
MW: “Tide Stripped Bare” is yet another reference to water — you have done Ultimate Seaside Companion, Shipwreck, Pentland Firth Howl, Stowaway… do you intend to have these recurring themes or does it just make for good lyrics?
CC: Yes, I come back to it. I grew up near water and spent a lot of time there, actually. Reading this question makes me think it’s an easy cheap shot, any dipshit poet can wax lyrical about the fucking ocean, but all of the titles above explore different aspects. The sea is just the canvas and the backdrop really.
“Shipwreck” was suggested to me by Bill Rieflin as the title for the album and I really grabbed the ball and ran with it. Of course, he suggested it to me as my life was a bit of a shipwreck at the time — it’s funny that something as beautiful came out of what was a very ugly and self destructive time in my life. But if there is no tangible beauty in my life at any given moment, if there is nothing good, my mind will create these incredible vistas for me to dwell in, and out of this will come some kind of creative outburst inevitably. It’s all checks and balances, really, isn’t it?
MW: This marks the second time you have covered a song by Scottish post-punk band Visitors— what is it about Visitors that brings you back again?
CC: Third, if you count “Drug a Bug” by Cocksure — which basically samples a Visitors song and loops it. Visitors were my mentors, their music, their approach and creativity still resonate with me strongly to this day and I feel like I have so much to thank them for. I love their music and know it well and I wish it were more widely available. In a sense, I am on one hand recording these songs for my own indulgence and on the other hand, I want others to hear them and explore.
In their short existence they never made an album, but they went through so many incredible creative changes and became more and more obtuse as that short time went by, it was kind of overwhelming for me. They were the ones who played a different set each time, who played different instruments each time and were a huge influence on the way the Fini Tribe worked.
MW: What was this album like to make? Are some songs or albums more difficult to make than others and why?
CC: I made it at home, as I do all of my records now. It was a wonderful, if protracted, experience. Some of the songs I worked and reworked, and some were very quick, the writing took no time. It was really the expression of the music I had the most questions about, but it was a lot of fun, and I was by myself. When I first started making records, when I was a kid, and many of my peers will attest to this, going into the studio was a big deal. It meant planning, it often meant saving money (or any other illicit means), rehearsing, endless discussions because it was your “shot” — if you blew it, the meter is running and you still have to pay. So I grew up in that environment. Now we are seeing the opposite of that and I think it is a lot more zen. I don’t build up any kind of importance — the work happens when it happens, if something wasn’t happening, if a song felt wrong, I could leave it and come back to it — any kind of self-importance is diminished and it becomes all about the work, and never really about the finished product. I write and record when I feel like it, and eventually there is an album, ta dah!
What’s interesting to me is that these methods are changing the way I write, not necessarily on “The Tide Stripped Bare” but perhaps a little on the track “Ophelia Moment”. I can see part of me focusing on a real structure — and never a traditional structure, a unique structure for that song — and also a very loose “non” structure as well. I have been writing these pieces for the next album that contain both these elements, structure along with a lot of almost improvisational lyrics, and whereas I may have worked them a little more in the past, I am now inclined to leave them. I feel like there is this automatic writing coming out of my own method.
MW: So now that you no longer have that sense of urgency or as much worry about money spent on pro studio time or making your “shot”; does having more time or being more comfortable create different songs than it used to? Do you think there might be something great about restrictions or parameters in a creative process that you won’t get from how you are currently working?
CC: I have always worked better with restrictions. For years and years I shunned any kind of home recording in favour of my beloved handheld cassette recorder. I was always afraid that anything else would detract from my writing process. I found out at a very young age — and absolutely no disrespect to Al or Paul (who I worked with in Ministry) but when I first joined (and this was not just them, it was a trait of recording in the 80s) they took forever to do anything, and I thought, “Well, that’s the way it is.” But it was ridiculous, and that’s the reason I finally left: because I was bored. Ultimately I realized I needed to A: do what pleased me, and what I thought sounded good and B: having these tools at my fingertips actually augment the songwriting process, or present another dimension after the basic melody is written, and the sketch of the lyrics are written. (I did not make this realization until I was around 50.)
I still have restrictions, I have a lot going on in a very full life and I do not have dead time at all really, so I do not have endless hours to kill looking for the perfect guitar sound or whatever, so I really go with my gut on everything, and I am usually right. If something seems to be not right, I can go back and change it, and I have done this quite a few times — if something is nagging at me, I don’t have to call the studio and book time to fix it, I can do it when I get a spare minute. My creative process is and has always been fairly spontaneous, it’s almost the only area of my life where I do not second guess myself, and it’s a huge and very solitary part and that’s the way it’s got to be, I suppose.
MW: Tell me about the cover art—does it have a particular meaning to you and do you think it’s important to make the art for your own albums sometimes? Is there a difference to you whether you make your album art vs anyone else?
CC: No, it seemed right for me to do it. I have this creative game I like to play where I have a huge bag of old magazines, a glue stick and some paper: the game is that you have to use your fingers (no scissors) to tear magazine pages and create a collage, but you only have 2 minutes to do it (these are my parameters, you can make up your own). For TIDE, another prerequisite was that all the pictures I tore from had to be bodies of water or beaches. It’s an exercise in creative flow and it can really change your perspective in real time. For a while there, I would do 4 or 5 in the morning after recording and before waking the kids up.
MW: You have various characters that appear in some of your songs, some real like the folk singer Jackie Leven in “Jackietown” and some fictitious — presumably the Ophelia in “Ophelia Moment” was taken from Shakespeare. Are most of the characters in your songs based on real people in your life or are they mostly fictitious? What are some good examples of real vs made up characters in your work?
CC: “Jackietown” is an example of something I do fairly infrequently: a song about a real person. But Jackie’s music and words are so precious to me, I needed to write it, and it’s not the first time — the song “To Swing From the Air” on Decibels From Heart is for him, as well as the song “The Ultimate Seaside Companion”, which is not necessarily about him, rather a nod to his style. “Diamonds Eat Diamonds” from the album Blonde Exodus is written for Billy Mackenzie, and then there’s “Julie Delpy”, of course…
Most of the characters in my songs are hybrids of both real and fictitious people, kind of like the characters that populate my novel Ed Royal. Some of the peripheral characters are real, because they are so peripheral it doesn’t matter, but the principal characters are made up, in songs they are basically hired guns, actors I have hired to carry things from one end of a song to the other, to walk around the buildings I built and walk the beaches I make, or to create dynamic with other characters.
You mentioned “Ophelia Moment” — this was inspired by the idea of gaslighting: telling someone or orchestrating situations to suggest to someone they are mad (in this case a female) when they are not, which kind of refers to the idea that (in my opinion) Hamlet was subconsciously trying to make her go mad deliberately. I have seen this kind of (male) behaviour, or at least heard about it first-hand and it’s something to be aware of, a predatory weakening of the female by wearing them down.
MW: How easy is it to “switch” creative personas? Could you be writing your own songs while in the midst of Bowie season?
CC: I do. The inhabiting of David Bowie requires a very different intellectual strategy than songwriting. It requires researching and playing a part, which takes an enormous amount of energy, but not the type of creative energy I use for songwriting. It requires stepping into my idea of what the character of Bowie may be, and it may be my romantic notion, so it’s quite personal.
MW: You played your first solo show in a decade last year — any interest in doing more solo performances?
CC: It’s always possible… It was fun and, if nothing else, I have amassed a staggering amount of songs over the past 28 years I have been making solo records…
Hot on the heels of Chris’s last release, Art & Gender, and coinciding with his 53rd birthday, comes a new release of some familiar music: Further Days is a total rerecording and reimagining of Chris’s 2002 album, Private Education. Buy it today direct from Jnana Records and learn more in Chris’s interview with Megan Walters below…
Rerecorded, reworked, redone: I got to talk with Chris Connelly (our second interview together!) about Further Days and why he decided to “do over” his almost two decades old minimalist album Private Education. Find out how transitional times affected the original work, how things have changed since then, and what’s coming next.
Megan Walters: Why did you decide to redo Private Education?
Chris Connelly:Private Education was written in 1999-2000. I started writing right as the band Damage Manual was collapsing; a lot of effort was put into the band and I remember working especially hard on those lyrics, but, alas, it was not sustainable and it died very suddenly, leaving me without an apartment or a means of income, and kind of pondering what to do next, and I started writing. It took a while but eventually, over time I generated enough songs that I was passionate about to start recording — my instinct, because of the bombastic (in a good way) sound of the Damage Manual, was to do something a lot more minimal. I was listening to a lot of minimalist music at the time, folk music like Anne Briggs and Bert Jansch, along with free jazz like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, as well as Richard Youngs and Simon Finn. Unfortunately what happened on tape was not what I had envisioned at all, and I still can’t put my finger on it: probably my approach to songwriting did not jive with the production style I was aiming for. I let it go and moved on, but over the years it just started making me think more and more and I could not let it go, so I decided, as a project between other projects, to have another go at it, and this time it worked.
MW: Did you completely start over with everything or are there any original elements you wanted to keep in these reworked songs?
CC: As far as the sounds go: yes, I started from scratch, everything is rerecorded. As far as arrangements go: some songs are the same, but just with a far broader pallet of textures, melody and instrumentation. The funny thing is, having released it as it was in 2002, I started hearing more in the songs, other melodies and other vocals, other layers, and I kind of began to stockpile these in my head until it started to drive me nuts, then it was time.
MW: Is this the start of something new? Will you redo any other songs now?
CC: I don’t know. Perhaps. It’s an interesting question and an interesting proposition. It has happened a few times in pop music history; The Associates, one of my favourite bands, completely rerecorded their first album (to lesser effect in my opinion) but both are out there. And that’s the thing, I think it’s good to retry things, maybe come at things from a different perspective, especially if you are not pleased with the first results. That said, it’s something that I would only consider if I were not creating something new.
MW: Does the beautiful cover art have any special significance to you?
CC: The cover photo and the back photo of the arch are by Paul Elledge, who took the original photo for Private Education. He is a close friend, and also the man who officiated my wedding. He has done a lot of work for me and I love his work. The two pictures to me look the way the album sounds: great old buildings, staircases and streets deserted, but for perhaps some lurking shadows. The album is full of characters, layers, relationships and these stages and vistas where the songs play out.
MW: Did it feel at all strange to rework a whole albums’ worth of songs you have already written and recorded years ago? Were there any aspects of the originals you felt any fondness toward? It is easy to ”sweep away” your past work or were you free from any emotions towards Private Education?
CC: As I said, Private Education, no matter what I think of the original, is still out there for those who maybe like it, prefer it, or have not heard it, I definitely did not do this to be in any way revisionist towards an audience, certainly, I revised everything for me. I just hope the results are pleasing to the listener.
The time between writing Private Education and rerecording it as Further Days has been enough — 17 year — that I am certainly at peace with whatever was going on at the time, and a few of the songs were written specifically for the woman I married, and who I am still married to!
The exciting thing for me was not necessarily emotional, it was having the possibility of expanding the sound, adding harmony, and, well, basically indulging myself. I think the result is pretty preposterous in many ways, ridiculous and fun, which kind of sums me up!
For more than three decades, singer/songwriter Chris Connelly has had a prolific output of work with many notable bands and projects, stretching from The Fini Tribe in his early days in Edinburgh, to legendary Chicago industrial groups Ministry and RevCo, to his career-spanning and highly personal solo albums. It was my absolute pleasure to interview Chris in the honour of his sixteenth solo album Art & Gender; we got in-depth about what it was like to write this album, women as artists, song meanings, literature, and some Tom Verlaine…
What does “Art and Gender” mean to you?
It is a complex discussion, and a complex relationship — but to maybe simplify, there are a few factors at play. At the most obvious level, I am questioning the acceptance (or un-acceptance) of much art based upon the gender of its creator, and how — like many things — it can be a very male-dominated area, troublesome to me in that the art cannot be accepted simply on its own merits, that it is generated by a female somehow adds a novelty value to something. I am not saying that art is genderless — of course, there is much art that absolutely is a product of the gender that produced it, but it all needs to be recognized for the work, not the artist.
I consider my own work to be of both genders, and it certainly does not confuse me; rather I find it to have broadened my palette and allowed more empathy perhaps to inform my work. The cover of the new album is a drawing from a very androgynous photograph of myself. It’s also a photograph that was taken a long time ago — maybe 25 years ago — so it’s very much a statement, what was perhaps an easier visual statement to make when I was a lot younger is now kept within the corridors, rooms and panoramas of song.
What is your songwriting process like? Did it differ for this album compared to any previous ones? How/why?
The songwriting process is always different to greater and lesser degrees. For Art & Gender, it started as a sort of visceral exercise in writing. I know how my guitar feels cradled in my arms, and I can feel the fingers moving towards and upon the fretboard, and without thinking about it, I allowed myself to compose these asymmetrical melodies. The trick was to not think about it — which is not hard for me, as I never analyze my work whilst I am doing the work — so in many ways what I did was more of a physical process than a thought process. Then the words followed suit, an outpouring which I then loosely corralled into a vague verse form. By not thinking about the words, they become more of a collection of physical shapes than a narrative, but that’s not to say they are without meaning: the meaning is already there by virtue of the fact that I am a living, breathing, functional human with relationships, joys, and hardships like anybody else. The words’ relationship with the music creates the abstract landscapes, still lifes, and tableaus that a huge part of me exists within and travels through.
There are many different consciousnesses alive within Art & Gender. I liken them to the supporting cast you might see in a Dali or a Bacon painting. One of the things I love in paintings is not necessarily the object but the environment it exists in, and it’s important for me that this exists in my songs. I don’t go out of my way to create such environments, but if it is not there, I feel it, and the song is not finished yet.
Was there an intentional theme for this album? I can hear many references to paintings, art and books in this new body of work. Are there any books, films, pieces of art in particular influencing you for Art & Gender?
I think something of major impetus at the genesis of my writing was the extreme political landscape. All of a sudden, we are facing a situation where our identities are threatened, where our creativity has gone beyond being marginalized, and we can finally see sexuality and expression becoming illegal: Art & Gender! I came of age in an environment where being gay, transgender, deviant, or just different was accepted and celebrated, and I was able to relax. That’s no longer there, or at least it is slipping away, and I can see much negative energy coming forth from people who have decided it’s time to say what they really mean. It’s everywhere and it’s horrifying and it’s breaking my heart. After the initial shock of the political earthquake, I became resolute to celebrate and encourage what I love and admire, what I feel defines me. I think Art & Gender is not an easy album. I think it’s uncompromising in the way that I feel art should be, it does not want to be anything but what it is: art. So, it is without message in a way, rather it is the message, it is the abstract painting, the sculpture, the experimental film, and I think that through this, it has the beauty of its own defiance. At least, that is the intention. There are too many real cases through history of artists being imprisoned, and I think there will be an increase: more prison camps for homosexuals like in Chechnya, witch burning, witch hunts.
Apart from this unavoidable political stance on this record, I find the references (not necessarily direct influences, I don’t know, that’s for the listener to decide) are all things I have referenced before in my work — old favourites! James Lasdun, the writer, has his work name-checked twice, but he is an important one. Also Harold Pinter, but I may as well have put Mike Leigh in there instead — the reference is a little interchangeable in a way. “A Distant Black Spring” has quite a few layers, the first being the reference to Hermes (“Hermes couldn’t put it better”) and his siring of Hermaphroditus with Aphrodite, so the first line on the album addresses the transgender question in the form of a positive. The “Distant Black Spring” is an image in the distance — possibly in the background of a landscape painting — an object that could be a coiled spring or a snake, coiled suggesting potential energy rather than it being latent or idling. There is definitely a phallic suggestion in that, and as the serpent moves underground later in the song, it suggests a hidden shame. The last line has a picture slammed into a book. This refers to the writer (me): I have several scribblings, drawings. and writings that are kept in books — hidden, yet not quite — and they go back decades. I have always kept pictures and writing this way, since I was a child. It keeps them flat and undisturbed, but I have forgotten about most of them; on the occasion of perhaps pulling out a book to look at, something from 20 years ago might fall out.
Your writing process seems very personal but your lyrics could be interpreted in many ways. Do you get anything out of learning how other people interpret your work, or do you think “that was NOT what I meant”? Is the meaning behind your song lyrics or poetry something you are interested in sharing with your listeners or do you like to keep it to yourself and let people determine their own understanding?
Well, I can’t be on hand (except now!) to discuss or explain, and I think many lyricists will back off explaining, and that isn’t a cop out. That conduit between the soul and the outside world is often fickle and difficult to translate, with me (and many others) it is always going to be impressionistic. The writing is almost always immediate, so you have perhaps the subject, the initial inspiration, which immediately gets flanked by the peripheral, and sometimes you get the peripheral view first, and the subject is generated by that. This might appear to you as convoluted, but one has to learn to kind of lie back and let the song write itself, to not question what is appearing in front of you, which is the way I approach, although I think it has taken a lot of songs to get to that point.
I have never really said “that’s not what I meant”. People can take what they will from what I write. I think the word impressionism needs to apply to the beholder as well as the artist. People keep listening to me for their own reasons; if they don’t, then they stop listening. Of course, hearing what other people think is always enlightening and really quite wonderful, otherwise I would not make my art public. If it becomes a conversation, then I believe I have achieved something good.
The lyrics on Art & Gender appeared very quickly, and it is very rare that I will labour over songs — not unheard of though, but mostly this has to do with chord structure and not lyric — and most of the time what comes out first is what will remain. I can’t scrape the paint off the canvas! I think a good example of this is perhaps “Stampede Weather”, which started when I heard distant thunder one day, and it sounded like it could have been a stampede. So immediately there is this duality stampede/weather, and the idea of a colloquialism sprang to mind (like “good fishing weather” or something), and from that I immediately went back to this fake prairie from another time, maybe the merest spectre of Tennessee Williams, and a definite bow to Gershwin in there. So these are the lenses I am looking through as I watch a fictitious ghost-herd of buffalo from a forgotten time, but it’s almost conversational to me, the lyric is a polite soliloquy from one to another.
“Slim Volume” is inspired in a very abstract way by two writers I love: James Lasdun and Hugo Wilcken. Hugo is actually a friend of mine and we have admired each other’s work for some years. When I wrote “Slim Volume” I had just finished his novel, “The Reflection”, and the last section — basically the finale — was in a style of writing that I found incredibly breathtaking. It was like looking at a vast number of black and white street scenes from an old New York, all super-imposed on top of each other. In one way it reminded me of what I sometimes arrive at: images on top of each other rather than side by side — in another way, it reminded be of the lyrics to Television’s Marquee Moon which is one of the towering monoliths of lyrical beauty rarely challenged — which is what you get in “Slim Volume”. (The title refers to a “slim volume of poetry”.) Loosely speaking, the song is about a character frozen in fear but exposed to a light of knowledge that, in melting him, erodes his shape and ultimately vaporizes him. The song is a collection of memories, good and bad, evaporating one after the other until there is nothing, a wire worn to try and record is lost as well, at the end of the song we are left with nothing but an animal howl as the protagonist disappears. It is kind of set up as a noir fiction; Hugo and I have shared many noir book recommendations, and many of them are slim volumes, as existential as they come.
“Art & Gender” — This is kind of the M.C. Escher lyric in a sense. It starts with the painting of a torrential downpour being left out in a torrential downpour, which of course ultimately destroys the painting. (In Johnathan Lethem’s magnificent “Motherless Brooklyn”, the protagonist is a detective with Tourette syndrome. At various points in the book he describes aspects of it and at one point tries to illustrate what may be an act of futility or just a mental process by talking about “calling someone on the phone to talk about phones”. This appealed to my sense of humour, drawing a picture of a pencil with a pencil, etc.) This is me reflecting on how, perhaps, in my career, I have made some bad decisions and shot myself in the foot. It is certainly the most personal song on the album — “I never was a painter, but I could always draw my blood” and “I never was a writer, but I could always write you off” — which is me talking to me, the frustrated novelist/painter settling for music. But I often cannot believe how dissatisfied with my gift I can get. I think it has mostly to do with my poor associations in the past through the music business. “Art & Gender” is both about me shifting gender in song and melody, and also a statement about women being accepted for their art as artists and not women. (Although I have said this before, no harm in saying it twice.) “The life model stance” is me again: before I moved to the States, my last job was that of a life model at Edinburgh College of Art, which was pure torture but it taught me a discipline and it was when I think I started to allow myself (or rather I was forced) to actually become the art.
Your work seems to differ greatly from one release to the next. Some of your songs and albums have a very traditional pop or folk sound to them whereas some others like Art & Gender feel much more asymmetrical, like an abstract “impressionist” kind of feeling. Is there a deliberate shift in your process or intent from one album to the next? What do you personally get out or writing one kind of song versus another?
No, I cannot predict what will happen next. I remember when Bill Rieflin and I started work on “Largo”, we had talked about making something that was really “poppy”, and about half way through we were laughing because, as you know, it could not have strayed farther from that (ridiculous) intention. Then again, with material that was happening around about the same time, there was definitely a lean towards a pop sound: songs like “Candyman Collapse” or “Julie Delpy”. I love writing a good melody and I will go wherever it takes me. In a sense, the writer (me) is at his most vulnerable when in this creative moment. The end result will always be a mystery until it is done, but it is still a product of what is going on in my mind, maybe consciously but usually subconsciously; none more so than on Art & Gender songs like “A Distant Black Spring”, which came out spontaneously. Same goes for “Seven Lies…” — they have no symmetry except for their own symmetry, if that makes any sense. But I am not about to go back in and shape the songs into a predictable pattern. Maybe on the next record.
Impressionism still has the impression of the person or object it is depicting very clearly, however seen through the artist’s particular filter, and that’s what makes impressionism so important to me. Often it is not the actual painting — a lot of it is not necessarily to my aesthetic — but, the fact that it happened that way, to me, is the essence of the creative spirit, and that should give us all faith to move forward.
The song “Union Canal Blues” has a connection to your novel Ed Royal in it. Do you like to reference your own work and does that ever lead to revisiting older works? Would you ever read your own book or listen to a past album for reference, inspiration or nostalgia?
The Union Canal, which travels through Edinburgh, is one of the most important places in my life. It is something that has been there since day one and has had differing levels of importance to me, both good and bad, but I spent a lot of time there and it keeps coming back. Funnily enough, I sent the song to the Scottish film director David MacKenzie, who made the film Young Adam, which is based around the canal — he loved it. He is also a fan of Ed Royal.
I do not often listen to my own records, but sometimes, for nostalgia. I listened to Shipwreck recently because I was re-learning the songs and it was strange — it was very emotional. I really love that record but it can be hard to listen to. But, as you mentioned earlier, my work is kind of all over the place, so generally listening to older stuff is a bit baffling and I wonder how I ended up at that point. For me, it’s like alien abduction — it is kind of erased from your memory as soon as they are done prodding you and putting you back in your bed. I don’t think listening to my old records is particularly inspiring — no, that’s not where inspiration comes from. Inspiration definitely has a sell-by date and it has to be fairly fresh to work. I usually will only listen to my oldies when I have had a couple of drinks, and I never work when I drink!
I have heard you mention once before that you started making your own music because no one else was making the kind of music you wanted to hear. Is this still true? Is there anyone else making music you like to hear lately?
I am sure there are great things out there. Most of the stuff that turns me on is the work of my friends, whether written word, film, or music. I am very lucky to have a lot of friends who are far more talented than I am, and I am continually excited by their work.
Yes, I make the records I want to hear, moreso nowadays. When I was done with Art & Gender, I realized that I had made not only an album, but an album that I wanted to hear, and I was very proud of that moment. I had not intended to make an album and I was so, so deep in the writing process — it was like waking up with a souvenir from a dream. (If you will allow the Tom Verlaine reference!)
Megan Walters is 34, lives in western Canada and loves whisky, cats, and A;Grumh.