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I had known Andrew Poppy very well when he was signed to the same label as Propaganda, ZTT. He was an astonishing musician who wrote some great compositions for the label and had them produced in the way most classical music never is. He seemed to be an important part of the label’s sensibility, as much as Frankie or Art of Noise. Two decades after we were on the same label, I met Andrew at a party and we had this conversation about how great it must be to just get up on a stage and perform without the need of setting up a lot of equipment and having to deal with a lot of preparation in regard to the technical side of things. Just to be able to keep things simple, get up on stage and perform on the spot with a piano or a guitar and a singer only. No electronics, no complicated sound systems, just an instrument and a voice. This is something I had always wanted to do but never had the opportunity to… So Andrew and I started to dream up a set list of favorite songs we’d like to perform – this was the beginning of the concept for what became an album of other people’s songs, done in a way neither of us had ever really come near to before – Another Language.
Normally musicians supply me with backing tracks and for a long while I work by myself, thinking up lyrics and melodies. After those are established I meet up with my collaborator and we then put the song into shape. With Andrew the working process was very different. We’d try to meet up regularly – once a week, over a nine month period – and work on several songs at a time that we had chosen to reinterpret. A lot of preparation would be done before we would commit to ‘tape’.
We selected a recording/performing system, and stuck to it. The discipline was to use one instrument only (each song was either played on piano, electric piano or guitar) plus my voice and every time we met up we’d work on the songs, tweak them, change them slightly, rearrange them, take bits out or put them somewhere else in the song. Andrew would make notes and rework the arrangements, take them home, adjust and amend the score until we’d try them out again the following week. This way of working together was very organic, very thorough, and our visions of the song interpretations became clearer and more defined with every session. This way we developed our skills of playing together, and carefully listened to what the other was doing until we sort of ‘clicked’ and synchronized with each other as performers.
After a while we got the feel of each song and would decide that it was the right time to go into the studio. We sensed when a song was finished when we arrived at a point where we did not want to make any more changes – that was the cue for us that they were ready for the next stage. Paul Humphreys recorded and edited all our recording sessions spending endless hours to ‘grab’ the best of our performances.
It took a lot of dedication, perseverance and commitment to get this album off the ground. Another Language is by no means an easy listening album and that’s because it isn’t meant to be one. It’s supposed to draw you into a disorientating world of storytelling. It’s very much an album of stories. Stories that are strange and beautiful, eerie and disturbing, and that are meant to remake the world and reality in the way they remake the original song, in our image.
Even though it only features one of my song lyrics, and is made up of other peoples words and images, I consider it one of the most personal things I have done – probably because it was made the way it was, in a very intimate way, without worrying at all about either the commercial consequences, or where it might fit into the other work I had done. Another debut, another first for me, another project never followed up, and this one very much on the outside of my other music, which in itself was refreshing. Ultimately it became an integral part of my musical development not just as a performer but as a writer. Being such a different way of working it confirmed my interest in self-invention and re-invention, and even the need I have to make changes, to never settle down in a style that might end up becoming clichéd. By doing other peoples songs – getting inside them, studying them so closely, carefully selecting them – it became an important part of my own song writing and helped me further work out the kind of songs I wanted to write.
The fact that each song is represented by only one instrument and my voice intensifies the storytelling aspect of the songs for me. There’s nothing else to distract you from the story that is being told, because it is so bare. That is why this album has become to me an album that engages/insists/demands one’s attention, to listen carefully to every word and every note that is being played.
The ghostly imagery/quality of Julia Bardsley’s pinhole photography suits the timelessness of this album that we wanted to capture. Andrew and I wanted to create an album that you cannot easily put into a time or a place, a category or a frame. Julia’s photography underlines that thought.