Interview: LoneLady on Former Things and Scrub Transmissions

Julie Campbell is LoneLady, a very solo artist based in Manchester who has just released her new album, Former Things.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to LoneLady about making Former Things after transplanting herself to London. Now  back in Manchester, Julie talks about her unexpected encounter with Brian Eno, recording at The Rifle Range and her surreptitious “Scrub Transmissions”.

Click here to listen to the interview:

Or, read a transcription here:

MD: So, congratulations on the new album. It was just out this past Friday, right?

LL: Yeah.

MD: Did you do anything to celebrate there in Manchester?

LL: … drank a bottle of champagne…. Have you heard of the Twitter listening parties?

MD: Yes. I’ve never taken part….

LL: Yeah, well, I did one of those, so that was like a kind of virtual launch, which was really nice to be able to mark… the album on its release day, so that was great. So yeah, it was a really exhausting, exhilarating day, but it was a big moment for me, obviously.

MD: This is your first album in a while…

LL: Yeah.

MD :..and in the interim, you’ve moved from Manchester to London, and now you’re back again, but you recorded it in London, right?

LL: Yeah. I took up this opportunity to become a member of an artists’ studio in Somerset House, so I just kind of hung on and stayed there as long as I possibly could before coming back home.

MD: Did they force you out, or did you leave willingly?

LL: I was kind of clinging on with my nails, but I had to… the residency had to come to an end at some point.

MD: Is that where you recorded the album?

LL: … Yeah, about two thirds of the music and lyrics, I recorded during that residency, and then… part of the reason it took so long was, when I came back to Manchester, it was a real struggle to find somewhere to finish the album, but I ended up on a friend’s farm, which was a real contrast to being in the city central of London, so, you know, it was quite a rocky path. Finishing the last third of the album was a real rocky path, but I got it over the finish line eventually. I did the last third of it: some bits on the farm, and then some bits back here in my tower block in Manchester, but the vast majority of it was done in Somerset House.

MD: Because listening to it: it doesn’t bring pastoral feelings…. It’s not really what you’re thinking of when you’re listening to the music. Was it difficult for you to get in the right frame of mind when you’re not in the right place?

LL: No, because, by then, the album was very much written, and I was, essentially, doing the finishing off processes. I think, obviously, being in London, it was great, because it just, I think, really energised me. I think that went into the music.

MD: From what I understand, you wrote and performed and recorded it all, pretty much, on your own.

LL: Oh, entirely on my own. I mean, it’s a solo project, so that’s how I’ve always worked, really. It just kind of comes naturally, to me, to work that way.

MD: Because, I mean, there are solo albums where there are just like tons of guests and people who are in and out, and you go, “Aargh! That’s not a solo album.” You prefer to work like that?

LL: Well, I always have worked like that. I literally don’t know how else to work, and I just like creating my own worlds. I often liken making music to a painting – that’s my background: is a fine arts student – and it’s like you wouldn’t really get someone else to do a bit of the painting…

MD: That’s true! When you put it that way, it makes perfect sense.

LL: My brain just doesn’t work that way. You know? My emotions and my brain and my creative impulses…. I love working like that.

MD: Do you get influenced from outside, from other people, or is it all kind of internal?

LL: Not people around me…obviously, music, of course. But when I was in London, I would frequently go to art galleries, and I think I get as much inspiration from something like that. Seeing a great exhibition in a great gallery would give me the impulse to come back into the studio, and make music…. I need other things: I can’t just listen to music constantly.

MD: Now, from what I read, there was a person kind of lurking around where you were working: Brian Eno kind of showed up. I mean, if you’re going to have somebody show up while you’re working, he’s kind of the guy you want, right?

LL: Yeah, he did show up a couple of times. It was really strange, because the room I worked in is called the Rifle Range, and it’s a really long, narrow, concrete room – it’s a very odd room – and so, one day, the director, Marie, came into the room with a man, and because the room is so long, I could make out who it was, and it was only until he was right in my face, that I could see that it was Brian. It was great! Suddenly, he was in my studio, and having a bit of a nosey around, and we had a bit of a chat. It was great!

MD: Was it intimidating at all?

LL: No, well, I didn’t have time to be intimidated, because he was just suddenly there. You know?

MD: So, what did you talk about with him…? My understanding, on Time, Time, Time, you’re kind of using a Korg that he donated to the cause.

LL: Yeah! We just sort of chatted about [how] the acoustics in the Rifle Range are terrible for making music in, so we were chatting about that a little bit, and he had a little nosey at my gear, and he said that he needed to offload some of his gear – he had too much stuff in his studio.

MD: Too much stuff!

LL: And I just kind of jokingly said, “Well, as you can see, there’s lots of space in here, if you need to store anything here,” and one week later, he had delivered – he’d sent me – a synth in the post… so it features on Time, Time, Time.

MD: Very cool! Was the album recorded during lock down or before?

LL: No, well, before, the whole period in Somerset House was sort of late 2016…

MD: Oh, so it’s way back.

LL: To late 2018, so it’s definitely a pre-lock down album, but it’s strange, because I think a lot of the lyrics – and, even, the album title – seemed very sort of prescient for what happened, even though the album title was locked in before the pandemic ever happened.

MD: It sounds like you kind of worked ‘locked down’, anyway, and isolated, so it couldn’t have made that much difference.

LL: No. When lock down happened, it made, virtually, no difference to my day-to-day life. I thought it was really interesting, actually, to sort of watch how huge amounts of people had to sort of live more like how I live, and I found that interesting to see how people dealt with that, and it kind of reminded me how hard it is to actually be an artist, be a freelancer, work from home – all those things – and so it was really interesting for me to sort of see other people’s reactions to that, because that’s kind of what my ‘normal’ is.

MD: Maybe you can give me little insight on how you work. The opening track is a thing called The Catcher, and it starts out with this heavy beat, and then goes into a jittery percussion. Do you know, in your head, the final outcome before you start, or are you building it from scratch, and then kind of going where it takes you?

LL: Yeah! I mean, I pretty much always start with the beat – so I’m sort of writing a beat – and… when I made the move into the Rifle Range, I changed the studio setup as well: so, I bought an analogue sequencer – so, this is like a big, chunky beast… with lots of dials on it, and very tactile – and that was the heart of the new setup, so, anything that I could connect to this sequencer – synths, drum machines, samplers – I did, so that was the main writing tool. There was a heck of a lot of rhythm and percussion in this album, and that’s the kind of scaffolding I started off with. And I had these two synths, a Korg and an ARP, and the Korg sounds really mean and techno-ey and frightening, and the ARP is a bit softer, and so, it started off, really, with lots of really jagged beats, and quite harsh sounding synths. It actually sounded a lot more techno at first, this album, but over time, I just layered it up and up and up: again, very much like a painting, for me: working into it, building it up and up and up, until it, finally, is finished. I mean, the initial coming up with riffs [is] really quick for me. A lot of riffs and beats are… done quite spontaneously, and I think that I’ve managed to retain that kind of urgency in the music, even though it took quite a long time to write.

MD: How do you know when you’re finished?

LL: Because my brain doesn’t get annoyed by something in the song (laughs).

MD: You’ve done a couple of videos: one for Former Things and one for Fear Colours. What do you like to bring, visually, to the music? Do you have much input…?

LL: Yeah! I mean, I love a guy that’s, I guess, a sort of former arts school student and very sort of visual person…. I kinda wish we had an endless budget, because I would love to just go off on one making videos for all my songs, really, but there isn’t, of course, an endless budget. The first two singles, (There Is) No Logic, and Fear Colours had very sort of lo-fi, cool videos – like, the first one had some animation in it, and then Fear Colours was just the whole ‘camera on the dashboard, driving around the menacing back streets of Manchester’, so that was cool – and then, the third one for Former Things was like the feature video, where, you know, we put a bit more budget into it, and that was really wonderful, because I got to film this girl called Darcy, who kind of represents me as a child, and she was…

MD: I was going to ask you that! I figured that was the case.

LL: … She’s not a kind of actor or anything – she’s like a friend of the film maker – and she and her mum were on set, and they were just really brilliant to work with. And there was no script: we just went to some of the childhood places that I grew up in, and started playing on a rope swing, and messing around, and it was all spontaneous. It was a really moving experience for me, because she just really brought that natural, carefree vibe, which is what the song is all about. I thought she was fantastic.

MD: That’s cool! What did you do with the flag, Former Things flag?

LL: I’ve still got it. It’s in my bedroom. It’s in the other room. My flat is tiny, and so, I’ve got a six-foot, medieval banner in my flat!

MD: Of course you do! Why not?

LL: It’s brilliant.

MD: I see that you have a tour booked, right?

LL: Yeah.

MD: How are you feeling about getting out on the road in these uncertain times that we’re in?

LL: Yeah, I’ve kind of just started rehearsals. I’ve spent all this time putting the record together, and now I’ve got to pull it all apart again to figure out how to play it live. I think there’s good chance for September to be happening….

MD: And do you have a band playing with you, or are you still ‘lone’?

LL: No, well, I’ve got two new personnel, and lots and lots of drum pads, and electronic drum pads – everywhere, so, it’s going to be cool.

MD: What kind of folks come out to see you?

LL: Sorry. Say again?

MD: What kind of folks come out to see you? Do you have much interaction with them?

LL: Er, what? Fans, you mean?

MD: Yeah.

LL: Yeah… it’s really nice to kind of chat with fans online – and I do do that quite a lot on Twitter – and I don’t know who they are. I just hope they turn up!

MD: I’m not saying they need to be desperate to go see you, but people have got to be itching for live music right now. A lot of places haven’t had any in a long time…. [It’s] probably prime time to be out there.

LL: Yeah, and I think this’ll sound great live, you know?

MD: Do [you expect] people… to be dancing? Do you expect them to be listening, or what?

LL: Well, it’s funny, because the of last album: it became a bit of a sort of festival hit, really. People were dancing… and now people know Hinterland even better, and, of course, I’ll be playing some Hinterland songs, and some of those favourites, so it’s going to be an up-tempo hour, you know?

MD: Now I see, for some reason, I’ve jotted a note down to ask you about – and I can’t remember why – I’ve written ‘scrub transmissions’. Does that mean anything to you?

LL: It does!

MD: Oh, thank God!

LL: Well, it’s just this weird thing that I do occasionally. Again, it’s like a sort of art project or street art or like sound installation – it started a few years back now – where I put a song onto an MP3 player, and, basically, cemented it into a kind of crack in the wall beneath the motorway – because I live next to a motorway – and I’ve done that a few times since, and I sort of choose a place in Manchester that has some kind of resonance… for me, and then install a piece of music into the fabric of the city itself, and then I make a little map, and put that online, and people can go and find where ‘X marks the spot’, and then I leave the input socket exposed, otherwise you can’t tell anything’s there, other than… ‘X marks the spot’: like a little arrow that I might graffiti onto the wall, or something, and people just turn up to this strange, kind of derelict space in the outskirts of the city, and plug their headphone socket in, and just have this very intense experience. It draws out just really cool, odd-ball people from all corners…. Weirdos, like me, who are into this stuff. I don’t know who they are, but they post pictures of themselves plugged into a wall, and they tweet the pictures, and it’s really cool!

MD: It sounds great! When you install it, do you have to get permission, or are you kind of surreptitiously doing it?

LL: No, it’s totally guerrilla action…

MD: Even better!

LL: And my heart is racing, and I become a bit of an expert on how to mix mortar, and how it behaves, and when it’ll dry or go to hard, and how quick you’ve got to be to mortar it into the wall, and then run away, and hope that the police van doesn’t come past you at six o’clock in the morning to say, “What the hell are you doing?” on this weird industrial site. So, the whole thing looks dodgy as hell. I look like I’m installing a bomb or something.

MD: You haven’t been caught yet?

LL: Er, no.

MD: I do need to ask you, though: what does make you want to do something like that? Because that’s not what people do at six in the morning, usually.

LL: The first one was a sort of reaction against where I lived, really – the tower block, the motorway and all this concrete around me – and, in some ways, I felt like I was being swallowed up by it, and so I thought, “Okay, let’s take this to its natural conclusion, and I will burrow it into the wall.” And then, later on, it just became more of a way to sort of celebrate the places of my life, in a weird way. All these places that I spend a lot of time as an artist working in these crumbling mills on the outskirts of the city, and I think it was just a way to sort of – I don’t know – almost commemorate that, or something.

MD: It seems, to me, that you have a very strong relationship with cities – Manchester in particular; you went to London. Are there other cities that are favourites of yours, or you’re interested in visiting or working with?

LL: I had a great time in Michigan. I went out there to Fenton Harbor, in Michigan, to finish Hinterland. I’ve been to the States a few times, and I absolutely adore the States, and I love this [sense] of enthusiasm of the American people that I’ve met. It’s a real contrast to where I’m from, to be honest.

MD: Yeah, well, same here. I mean, believe it or not, I was born in England, raised in the States, and then I moved to New Zealand, so I’ve kind of been around the block a bit, but yeah, I know what you mean. It’s a… contrasting vibe.

LL: Yeah. I really enjoy the vast amount of space that there is there, and I feel quite hemmed-in where I live. So, I would love to get back to the States sometime, and just – I don’t know – drive to the desert; something. The desert: I want to go out to the desert, weirdly….

MD: That is strange…

LL: I know.

MD: You’re not going to find anything to hammer or drill out in the desert; maybe a cactus

LL: Yeah! Maybe I was just having a craving for wide, open space, or craving to go to the last place anyone would expect me to go, so, I’m thinking the desert.

MD: Yep! Head to Death Valley. So, are you thinking about what you’re going to do next, musically?

LL: Yeah! I mean, it’s funny: I feel like it’s not an intellectual thing, but it’s more like some weird thing inside you [that] guides you towards the next thing, and, to be honest, I’m kind of really itching to pick up my guitar again, and write really simple, three-minute, stark guitar pop-songs. You know?

MD: Do you listen to pop-music and pop-radio…?

LL: I really switch around a lot with radio. It’s like with this album: there’s just sort of memory of going back to childhood, musically, with things like Neneh Cherry or like Sushi or Janet Jackson, and things like that, that I absolutely loved as a kid, and I love now.

MD: Yeah. That’s the way it works. The stuff you grew up with is stuff you’re stuck with, I’m afraid.

LL: It really is! It totally is!

MD: It’s alright, though. Well, that’s fantastic! I can’t wait to hear what you come up with next. Come down to New Zealand, and visit. We have wide, open spaces down here, too, you know.

LL: I’d love to. I really like the writer, Janet Frame.

MD: Oh yeah!

LL: From Dunedin, is it?

MD: She was from down there, yeah. She’s no longer with us. I sat a bus stop with her once, though.

LL: Really? Yeah so, I like doing little pilgrimages like that, so I’d love to get to New Zealand.

MD: Very good. Well, let’s hope it happens. Hope things open up, and people can interact again, like they sued to. Very good! Well, thank you very much for talking to me. I appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure.

LL: Yeah. Lovely to chat.

MD: Have a good day.

LL: Cheers! Bye.

MD: Bye.

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