In an intimate, living-room type performance space above Anseo on Dublin’s Camden Street, Ann Scott has cast a spell over a small but attentive group. She’s playing her songs (including a spine-tingling cover of Mark Lanegan’s ‘Resurrection Song’) on guitar and a small keyboard. Shorn of the accoutrements that adorn the recorded versions, here the songs become new versions of themselves, starker but no less captivating. At times, the stripped down versions of a band or singer-songwriter’s carefully produced songs expose their limitations, but here they serve only to enhance Scott’s singular gift for creating off-kilter tunes that insidiously creep under your skin.
It’s these small gigs that can be most nerve-wracking. With the punters watching every move, nuance and mistake, it’s a brave soul who performs at such close quarters to the audience. ‘Most gigs you still get nervous’ admits Scott when we spoke before the gig ‘ I get nervous if I don’t get nervous! I suppose you get used to it but you’re always a bit…tense’ It’s surprising to hear this as Ann is one of those people who always seems calm and composed on stage. She has learned to conceal any performance anxiety. ‘I’m just really laid-back but being nervous means you care about it. Every band is nervous before a gig but they just learn to hide it. My Dad is a retired schoolteacher. He is a brilliant speaker, just really funny and I don’t get that from him at all! That’s the hardest thing: to get comfortable speaking’.
Yet it takes a certain type of confidence to write, record and release two highly accomplished albums that have made Scott one of the more intriguing singer-songwriters on the Irish music scene. The likeable Dubliner came to prominence in 2003 with the release of her debut ‘Poor Horse’. Charmingly understated and slightly disquieting, it was an album that marked her out from her contemporaries in its tales of lost souls and clowns called Wilbur. It was the first time we heard that distinct voice too: pure and unshowy, yet curiously affecting in its vulnerability. Whereas ‘Poor Horse’ was laced with a kind of autumnal melancholy, the follow-up – 2006’s ‘We’re Smiling’ – was the sound of someone brimming with confidence and armed with a surfeit of new ideas. It is one of the great Irish albums of recent years and it put Scott on the map, earning her a quiet respect from critics and music fans alike, not to mention a Meteor Music Award nomination.
‘I spent a lot of time cooking that one!’ she explains ‘It was difficult finishing it. We scrapped a lot of it and carried on with the stuff we liked. There was a great energy when we were recording it. The songs were written for a year or two beforehand but the actual recording took just two weeks. There are a lot of quirks to it. I did the track-listing myself though they say you should let other people do the track-listing! If I was with a record company (Scott releases her music through her own label, Raghouse Records), they would never have let me sequence the songs the way I did’ I tell her that ‘We’re Smiling’ has that ability to reveal something new with each listen, one of those rare albums that stands up to repeated listens. ‘Yeah, but then when you’re working on it you never really know if they’re any good. It’s all subjective, I suppose. Sometimes you’re happy with a song, others you think: no, that’s not very good-that one needs more work’
I enquire about the ideas behind the music, those seeds of inspiration that would ultimately lead to the songs on her two albums to date. ‘I’m fascinated by the kinds of inner conversations that go on in people’s heads – will I, won’t I, he loves me, he loves me not, etc – but particularly by the emotion, paranoia and often loneliness that feeds those conversations and the kind of outward restlessness that goes with them. I think most of us can identify with that a little – or a lot. Many of the songs on ‘We’re Smiling’ were loosely based on dual personality and opposite or parallel ideas. The songs are also stories about characters and snippets of their lives’ Is it a difficult task for her to put these abstract ideas to music, to turn them into something coherent for the listener? ‘It varies. The inspiration behind songs just comes really; the actual hard part is finishing each song. Each idea has a conception, and possibly a birth with a sort of labour, which is the hard part – getting the song out fully formed’
Ann is part of a group of Irish musicians who, as befits a small music scene in a small country, are always willing to help each other out when needs be. One look at the credits for ‘We’re Smiling’ will reveal that some highly talented names have contributed to it: David Kitt, Adrian Crowley, Katell Keineg, Graham Hopkins and co-produced by, naturally, Karl Odlum. Moreover, Ann and Gemma Hayes played prominent roles on Joe Chester’s new album and Ann contributed vocals to Adrian Crowley’s ‘Long Distance Swimmer’. Can this lead to a stifling of originality? Or is it a good thing? ‘It’s great but there is a very small scene here. It’s kind of natural that this group of people stick together. Joe Chester is a great guitarist but he produces other bands as well. You kind of HAVE to help each other out’
On the evening I meet her she’s just arrived back from Waterford where she has been the support act on Gemma Hayes’ recent Irish tour and also playing as part of her live band. Recent months has also seen her performing with Mark Geary and Joe Chester. ‘I’ve really been enjoying it lately, especially with Mark. I was playing keyboards with him. I was playing keyboards also with Gemma and the glockenspiel!’
Can the experience of supporting or helping out other musicians result in a loss of focus in regard to her own work? ‘You know what, it has been brilliant but supporting can be heartbreaking if you are not doing your own gigs as well’ She did her own tour in England in March. How was that experience? ‘It was really good, I was really surprised. People came out to see me in places like Leicester. There was a lovely venue there and the people were great. The more you tour the more you get to know places where it’s going to work. You just skip the bad places the next time round’
Are the bad places the places where not enough people turn up? ‘I’m not good at the maths. I really have to work on my numbers as I always judge a gig not by how many people turned up to it. I’ve had conversations where people ask ‘why do you do it?’ and I suppose it’s about fulfilling a need’. In fact, what concerns her more is the technical aspect of performing live. ‘If you’re enjoying the sound and the songs you are singing, that’s the most important thing. For me the worst thing is if you can’t hear yourself so it’s quite a technical thing really. If the audience are liking it and are enthusiastic those are the nights that make it all worthwhile. Then there are the gigs where something’s too loud or you can’t pitch properly, it can get frustrating’ What about the strange phenomenon of people talking throughout a gig? ‘People can be talking and really enjoying the music or people can be quiet and not enjoying it. But some of them don’t give a shit. It’s weird when people do that and they have paid in’
In these uncertain times for the music industry, Ann seems to have the talent and the wherewithal to survive as a self-sufficient artist but is fully aware that there are choppy waters ahead. ‘It’s kind of on the brink of something, isn’t it?’ she muses ‘Either on the brink of extinction or reinvention. It’s always been very much dominated by the media. Yet (despite this) people are still breaking through. It’s happening somehow, especially in England. It’s changed now in that they’re not making any money from CD sales anymore….they’re making it live now. In the next few years something is going to happen’ Ann cites two other female artists as good examples of being able to survive independently by rejecting the rigid conventions of the music industry ‘Someone like Ani DiFranco I really admire because she has done everything off her own back. It’s never been about power- tripping or to make music for radio or to make loads of money. For her it’s just about the art and being honest. You know Jane Siberry? Radiohead released their last album online but she has been doing that for years!’
Whenever Scott releases her new album, either online or as she says herself as a ‘giant podcast’, it will, nevertheless, be fascinating to see how she follows up ‘We’re Smiling’. Will album number three be ‘different’? ‘Possibly. I want to record it quickly and ‘live’. I’ve got about eight songs already. It’s difficult to say how the next album will sound because so far I’ve just been working on click tracks. Last night I spent four hours doing a tempo map for one song so we may be looking at 2020 as a release date! Having said that, I do want to minimize on the next album somehow and that will be possibly on the instrumentation side. We’ll see how it works out on a song-by-song basis’
This talk of scaling back her approach to song writing could result in a sound that more accurately reflects her live persona, where she reduces the songs to their purest level, dispensing with superfluity and revealing new, hidden depths to an already redoubtable catalogue of music. It bodes well for the next album. I just hope we don’t have to wait until 2020 to hear it.
(Originally published on Irish music website Cluas.com)
Ann Scott plays The Cobblestone in Smithfield, Dublin on the 19th June.