Name: Alison Cotton
Current Release: Reissues of All Is Quiet At The Ancient Theatre & Only Darkness Now are out now on Friendly Records
Recommendation: Waillee Waillee by Dorothy Carter /Nico, Songs They Never Play on the Radio by James Young
If you enjoyed this interview Alison Cotton, find out more about her music and live shows on her bandcamp or check in on Facebook and Twitter
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I remember distinctly the first time I connected with and heard music differently, as a very young child. My dad was listening to Radio 3 one day when I remember “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite coming on the radio. As a little child, I was overwhelmed by it, something clicked with me. My whole body, everything about me connected with the sound in such an emotional way. Perhaps it was the rhythm and dynamic of the piece, but I instantly started dancing around the house to it, there was some real connection which I still continue to feel about some music. It’s one of my earliest memories and I still remember so much detail about that scene. It was that moment when what had probably been more like just sounds to me, sounds which I had always just ‘heard’ up until that point in my life had now become music, something that I would connect with emotionally, and continue to connect with. That was also the first record I owned, as a toddler, as my parents bought me it the following week!Music was, and still is, always going around in my head.
Whatever I was doing, I’d hear music in my head and I’d make up songs and sing them whenever the opportunity arose. I was a very shy child so perhaps it was a way of expressing myself. There was chair in the local butchers I’d stand on and sing to the queue of customers (the chair was left there for me!), on bus journeys I’d sit on the back seat and sing to the rest of the bus (whether they liked it or not!), I’d organise concerts in our back garden, making concert tickets to give to the neighbours. I learnt recorder first at school followed by the viola, when I was about 7. I had no idea what a viola was. I’d really wanted to play the violin as I knew a bit about that but I was at the back of the queue (as usual!) and the viola was all that was left. I’ve always been grateful about how that worked out though, I just can’t imagine it being any other way now. I learnt viola classically until I was about 19, playing in orchestras and sometimes chamber groups. I wrote music while learning the viola, and did residential music summer schools where there would be writing involved. I joined my first band at 19, while at university and was in several bands until I started writing my own songs, for the band I have with my husband, The Left Outsides. So, that would have been 2005 when I wrote the first songs which would go onto be recorded.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
When I was learning viola, in the first few years, I was copying my teachers’ style of playing, as you’re taught to do. I do remember one teacher telling me that I had a distinctive style when I’d developed a bit with my playing though. Since I no longer play classically and my playing is completely all by ear and has been now for many years, that transition provided me with a completely new sense of freedom. I then played in bands and I suppose I was playing the type of parts that were more suited to that style of music.
Perhaps emulating the style of guitar parts I’d heard before in guitar bands, I’m not sure.Now, with my solo music, I feel that my viola is like an extension of my own personality, as it’s just me, it’s all very personal when I play now and I’m interpreting my own feelings I suppose you could say. I’m playing what naturally comes into my head and improvising. As it’s just me, there’s so much space to do this. I love having that space and freedom. Again, it’s another way of communicating for me.I do listen to a lot of music. Music is with me all the time, in the house and on journeys. Of course, certain moments of music I hear will stay with me. It’s inevitable that I must be inspired by some of what I hear and parts of it must come through in my music but I’ve never set out to intentionally sound like anyone else, far from it. I’ve heard of bands while making an album who would have specific songs by other musicians in mind that they’d want each track of their album will sound like. That kind of approach just could never work for me or inspire or excite me in any way.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Before my son was born, I’d play and write music when I felt like it, when I was feeling creative. My husband Mark is in The Left Outsides with me and also produces my solo music so, suddenly, after the birth of our son, I realised that recording just couldn’t happen on a whim anymore, it always had to be planned ahead, and as we both had day jobs too, it would always have to be an evening when we’d record / rehearse. This felt like a challenge at first but of course, it’s how so many people just have to work, not just musicians.
Back then, I think it made me more productive as we’d have a couple of hours to write or record music on an evening together, so I’d focus more and probably work much harder than I did previously. I’d use that time and not waste any of it.A challenge for me has also been to adapt my solo music into a live setting. I’d never used effects much before, for instance, I’d always played my viola straight through the PA. But as my solo recording sound has a lot of reverb, and I’m accompanying myself, I’ve needed to use effects pedals to help extend drones, to make a bigger live sound and I have much more reverb than I would when playing in bands.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
As I played in bands for a long time, collaboration in some form had always taken place. I released a collaborative cassette with Micheal Tanner in 2016 and we often played gigs together at that time. Michael and I had collaborated on music previous to that by file sharing, but that cassette was improvisations recorded together in person and I think that the improvised nature of it, and the fact that we were in the same room playing at the same time, really comes across in those recordings.
Usually with my band (Mark & I), we write our own songs separately but occasionally come together for writing sessions, or to work together on a middle 8 or chorus. I enjoy those sessions where we’ll often jam together and work on things to find a melody.As mentioned previously, Mark also produces my solo work. It’s a perfect collaboration because he often instinctively knows how I want something to sound. I had a clear idea from the start of how I wanted my sound to be and we’ve stuck with that idea and built on it to enhance it in very subtle ways.
There’s so much trust there too, so never any huge surprises for me with weird effects suddenly being thrown into my music or whatever, ha! I’m usually improvising in my recordings and about 90% of the time, I use the first take of each track so it’s important for me to have a calm and peaceful environment. As a person, Mark has both of those characteristics too, so it’s a perfect collaboration.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I work part time as a musician, have a part time office job and I also have a young son. On my non-office work days, I’ll often spend the afternoons practicing for gigs, or sometimes improvising and writing before collecting my son from school. Any of my music “admin” I usually do in evenings. Recording is always on evenings too, when our son is in bed, usually at weekends. I prefer to separate these aspects.