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Interview: Dot Allison

30 July 2021

Photo by Essy Syed

Time. Time has a funny way of speeding up while you barely notice. One day, you’re starting your career in 1993 fronting a critically-acclaimed Scottish electronic music group called One Dove; the next, you’re embarking on a solo career that is consistently reinventing itself, from the trip-hop sounds of Afterglow (1999) to the synth-pop of We Are Science (2002) to the pastoral pop of Exaltation of Larks (2007) to the folk stylings of Room 7 1⁄2 (2009). And then, time slows down, way down. Dot Allison is well aware that people may have forgotten about her as she seemingly disappeared, outside of a few guest appearances on songs by Pete Doherty, Paul Weller and Scott Walker, for the better part of a decade. As Dot tells me, music was put on hold as she became a mother and started raising children.

It came as a great surprise earlier this year to learn that – with her kids at the age where they could start to show their independence – Dot fell back into songwriting and had a new album ready to share. Heart-Shaped Scars, yet again, finds Dot exploring new sounds. Starting with a base of folk artists that Dot has long been a fan of (Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Neil Young), and incorporating the laidback, rural feel of the Hebridean Islands, where Dot has a cottage, the new album is sprinkled with sounds of nature – birdsongs, running water, the wind – while, at the same time, having a very cinematic feel, the richness of sounds giving way to the space in which they are created.

While touring is not in the plans, Dot intends to continue to hone her songwriting skills, something she focused on in the last decade by participating in songwriting sessions with other lyricists, and seeing where that takes her. Whether it be writing for other artists or putting out new music herself, Dot’s excited about returning to her first passion of creating music that gives back to listeners what music has given to her.

Dot recently joined me on a Zoom call from her home in Edinburgh, the sounds of children calling out a few times throughout as mom was at “work”. Throughout the last year, as we’ve all dealt with lockdowns and quarantine, this is extremely relatable and part of the world we currently live in.

It’s been 12 years since you released Room 7 1⁄2. What caused the down time between albums?

DOT: You know what it was? Just becoming a mom, I just kind of stopped making music. When my youngest was about 3, I started to do like a day a week, on the odd week, not even every week, but even that, I wasn’t enjoying so I stopped doing that and took another 5 years away. It ended up being about a decade off for that reason, to direct my energy to my mom duties. They are a bit older now, a bit more independent, and then suddenly I’ve got a space to do stuff. I’m glad I kept a toe in it, I’ve done little bits and pieces over that period of time but not very much. Funny enough, I sang on a Scott Walker album with Sunn O))) on a song called “Bull”. He just got me to sing this really high note and then they looped it. That was amazing to be asked to do that. The ideas don’t stop coming so you still end up writing. I’ve got voice notes but then kind of forget about them. I suppose, in a weird way, I didn’t stop but in some ways I did ostensibly stop because I wasn’t actually physically in studios doing it.

Being a parent is so much work! You have to be a parent to understand what your parents went through in raising you.

DOT: Oh yeah, I kind of go, “Oh yes, I get it now.” And thinking that you’ll do it in a certain way but then you get forced to set boundaries with your kids even if you sort of think, “I’m going to be quite relaxed.” It’s funny how kids will force you to set the borders. I’ve learned stuff about myself that I didn’t know. It’s been so lovely, but it’s so tiring. My brother’s girlfriend likened it to that game Wipeout where you have to get from A to B and you’ve got this goal but there’s this massive foam hammer that’s trying to batter you off the beam.

It’s good that you were able to get back to music. A lot of people, once they have kids, lose the passion in what they were doing before. It’s quite a sacrifice, you’re devoting almost two decades to raising your kids.

DOT: It is a lifetime, isn’t it? It’s your child’s lifetime so far. It’s an ongoing chapter in your life, one of many. You want them to be healthily and securely attached but then what goes with that is being present. If you want to be there for your child, you have to be there for your child so it is selfless. I actually couldn’t do it any other way. I was doing writing in a publishing house, which was a really good experience. It was okay doing the odd day but at the end of the day, I was really pining for my kids. I was meant to go on a nice retreat, once they were a bit older. I paid the deposit and then I had to cancel because it just felt like every cell in my being was like, “Don’t get on a plane and fly to another country.” I was almost having panic attacks about it. I thought I could do it but I just couldn’t.

How does it go from that to saying, “Okay, now I’m ready to start making music”?

DOT: I think it was just that I wasn’t being needed by them as much. You’re sort of thinking, “Oh, I’ve got space now to do stuff. I’ll pick up this ukulele or whatever.” It was gradual. You know that saying, “Nature abhors a vacuum”? Suddenly, there’s this space created by my kids being more independent of me and then having space to think about other things, which makes you think, “What is it that I do?”

Was the plan to make an album or did you just want to get back into writing music?

DOT: Before the first song was completed for this project, “The Haunted,” which I co-wrote with Amy Bowman, I wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to do the first song of an album.” We just wrote a song. I loved it so much I was like, “We should do more.” And then it became apparent to me that I was writing a collection of songs. And then it’s like, “Oh, am I writing an album?”

I was joking with my husband and said, “I think I’ve accidentally retired.” I didn’t plan to retire but I also didn’t have some great plan beyond the kids, which you probably should have. Once I knew I was making an album, I started to think back to “What have I banked idea wise?” or, it wasn’t even that conscious, it’s just that some ideas never leave you. “Heart-Shaped Scars” was my idea for a song title when I was going down to that publishing place but I didn’t end up wanting to present it to any of the sessions. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with it as a song and I thought that I would hold on to it because I liked it. I wanted to think about it and get it right. I’ve written about 3 or 4 songs called “Heart-Shaped Scars,” none of which made it onto this album; well, just incarnations of something and then one actual song that was recorded, which is a lovely song. It’s a slow waltz with stacked country harmonies in the chorus. But, something about it, for me, didn’t nail it enough to make it onto the album. So, the title track didn’t make it on the album. But, even that song title had come from a long time ago.

The song “Ghost Orchid,” there’s the chorus of “church of snow,” that was a really old poem from 2003. “The Haunted” was a sister poem idea to a song from Room 7 1⁄2, which was from the perspective of a ghost, called “Buzzing Round the Honeypots.” I see it as a partner poem, in a way, the lyric was written almost as a poem before I had that session with Amy.

Once I knew I was making an album, I cherry picked what I thought were my best ideas from the last while. It just coalesces. My experience is I’ll have a plan for my album and the album will take shape while I’m making the other plan. I’ll have these songs on a short list and then suddenly I write 4 songs and I go, “That knocks all of those off this plan.” It’s a tangential process and you end up with this thing that’s come together and you intuitively feel what works and what doesn’t and what nearly works and what could be a B-side. It might be that you thought that was going to be a single. You plan it and then it tells you what it’s doing.

Do you know when you’re done?

DOT: I think so. I have a sense of not wanting to infinitely write and also having seeds of ideas that you think, “That doesn’t really belong in this collection of songs but I like it” so that’s where I’ve got a wee bit of a plan for the next one. I had about 17 songs and was like, “I’m going to make an album with 10.” And then I thought that I wanted to do one more track, “Entanglement.” It’s sort of having some discipline around how many songs you’re prepared to write for it and then feeling if they work together. It’s so subjective. I know my drummer loved another song, she was like, “That’s my favorite song” but it hasn’t made it on so I feel like that’s purely my opinion. Somebody else might love that song. I hopefully will do something with those songs.

I think the writing that I did as a part-time writer, it was not for me, it was purely about learning about the craft of songwriting and working with different writers in that period where it was a super quiet time. I think that was a really important formative time. Just analyzing songs in a way that I hadn’t looked at them before because they weren’t for me, it was trying to craft something that’s beautifully sculpted. That process of looking at the song, it made me much more analytical as to what passes as a good enough section or a good enough lyric or is there any deadweight in the song that’s going to slightly ruin the song. Being younger, I would say, “There’s a song, it’s finished.” But now it’s getting to where I can mine a lot deeper. You don’t know what you don’t know but as you go along the process of learning the craft, and working out the process to get your best work, and then going, “Ahhhh, that’s what I should have been doing when I was younger.”

Though the writing wasn’t for me necessarily, it was useful because it made me think about it more critically, which I had to because I was in a room with other writers. We were just writing to possibly get the song to someone else. I was with writers, a couple of them had Grammys, they had successfully written songs. For me, it’s trying to write a song that people love. I think about how much music has carried me emotionally throughout my life. Any knocks or bumps or wounds, emotionally speaking, that have come at me in life, I’ve always gone to music as my solace. I think there’s a bit of me that’s always trying to put that out there. It’s trying to learn to do that as best you can. On this album, I took that experience and mined a bit deeper than before.

With the songs that you were working on with the other writers, are those songs intended to be given to somebody to record?

DOT: I just like the idea of being a writer. My manager manages a gentleman that runs a publishing company in Surrey that gets writers in. They co-wrote James Bay’s “Let it Go” and stuff like that. I love sitting in that room, it’s sort of old school, there’s just pianos and sofas and a candle and you’re just sitting around writing a song. It was for me to explore looking at the bones of a song and how to make a beautiful song that just exists on a piano. You get the vital organs right and then you get the skeleton and flesh but if you haven’t got the innards, that’s a horrible image actually, the beating heart of the song, if it’s not quite as good as it can be, it doesn’t matter what you do with the rest of it. It’s learning how to get those fundamental components of it right. You just work out what moves you and then hopefully it’ll move someone else. Somebody, in one of the sessions, said, “Let’s try to write this kind of song” and this gentleman said, “Let’s just write something we like and then hopefully somebody else will like it.” I’ve always written like that. It’s always been quite personal.

In your career, you’ve often changed up your sounds – from trip-hop to folk music. Do you do that consciously?

DOT: An analogy is that in nature, things don’t stagnate. Things change, things are in flux, things are self-organizing in nature. There’s a living element to music as well. I don’t think I would feel as inspired if I kept churning out songs from the same palate. I quite like trying to be creative on every record so that it doesn’t quite do what I’ve done before.

The first word I thought of to describe Heart-Shaped Scars was “haunting” but it’s not really haunting in the way that a scary movie is. Then I thought it could be described as “beautiful”. I think I’ve settled on “dramatic” which is sort of a mix of haunting and beautiful.

DOT: Yeah, I know what you mean. It feels quite visual. I’ve called it “cinematic folk”. I guess because of the string arrangements, there’s an element of classic – not classical – but like a classic score or something because it is literally scored. So, it does feel a bit cinematic, a bit dramatic with that sort of eerie, bittersweet feeling.

Do you believe in ghosts?

DOT: I don’t believe in ghosts, per se. The more I read about quantum physics, and the science of consciousness, which I’m really interested in, it appears that the mind is not entirely in the brain. I love that thought. It seems like a lot of near-death experiences are very common and very similar in that there is a sense of a universal, infinite consciousness and that the brain is more of a filter for something that’s much bigger and it’s a total expansion. So, in that sense, I believe that there’s other stuff. I’m very open minded. I believe in an energy being trapped, perhaps, but I don’t believe somebody in a white sheet. I don’t believe in ghosts in that sense but I do believe in a consciousness that is beyond the human brain.

You recorded at Castlesound Studios in Edinburgh. True to it’s name, from the outside it looks like a castle. Did the studio inform the sound of the record?

DOT: In terms of the recordings being so rich, I think the quality of recording in that studio is brilliant. In that sense, it really does inform that depth of field. I did say to Fiona Cruickshank, who engineered and who co-produced, when we were auditioning mixes, I was like, “I really want it to feel like you dive into the mix and really feel the space between the parts, not compressed like sausage-made radio sounds.” I remember when I first heard, No More Shall We Part by Nick Cave on vinyl, I think that’s the first time I really consciously thought about sound because I’d be so lost in a song. I thought, “Wow, that’s just beautifully recorded.” I wanted that very real, I keep saying depth of field because that’s the only way I can describe it, when you’re in a room and it has that sense of space and dynamic and it’s not too crunchy. There’s a lot of records that cut through very well on the radio but I’d quite like it to still have that so that it’s not too rounded. It’s quite lovely if you can get that balance right. You don’t want to do too much to the recording.

Have you determined the best way to listen to the album? Is it through headphones? Stereo speakers? In a car?

DOT: I quite like listening on headphones because it’s sort of immersive. I have a Devialet Phantom which is a Bluetooth-speaker thing that kind of looks like a hair dryer. I was listening to the mixes in that quite a lot because it’s got such a rich sound. So what we do is listen on earpods, and listen on headphones, and listen in the car, listen on the Devialet, I Bluetoothed it through a little Roberts Radio and listened on there. I prefer headphones or the Devialet.

You’ve talked about how there’s a nature theme to the record and I’m guessing it’s partly because of where you live and where you’re at in life. With past recordings, were where you lived and the situation you were in work their way into the music? Could your first album, Afterglow, have been recorded had you lived where you currently live?

DOT: I think that’s a really, really good question. I’ve thought about this, I think because I was doing something for a Scottish mag, I was thinking “I couldn’t have made this album in London.” So, you’re absolutely right. I think the feeling of headspace, the pace of life, has allowed for a certain sound or space within the songwriting. Your environment does inform and sometimes you have vibes with rooms. I don’t mean spooky vibes, but a feeling or a sense, whether it brings the right kind of mood out of you. If you’re in a really clinical modern studio, it just might not resonate with you in the way you write a certain type of song.

I envision listening to Heart-Shaped Scars in the evening while sitting outside and breathing in nature. But, because of the haunting sound, I can also envision listening to the album when the skies turn grey and I’m enjoying a cup of coffee while reading a book on a cool fall afternoon.

DOT: It’s funny because my label suggested it might be an autumn release because there’s an autumnal feel to some of the lyrics. But, because of Covid and a bit of delay in the middle, I felt like I wanted to get it out sooner than that because, otherwise, it felt like it would be never ending. “One Love” talks of the Juliette Rose, Fire Lilies, Blood Camellia and there’s quite summery metaphors in there. In a way, it’s got seasons in the album. Maybe “Love Died In Our Arms” is a bit more winter in a sense, but it’s not trying to be. It feels like there is a cycle to the album in a weird way.

Do you think the events of 2020 will work their way into lyrics you may write for the next album?

DOT: I think it’ll be the antidote to that that I’ll want to write about rather than the source of any grief or political unrest. I always like to make the music the tonic, the healing, the embrace, the compress. I’ve written a few songs that are a bit more uplifting in that sense so, yeah, it might be that’s what will come out of that.

To wrap this up, wondering if you could go through your albums and pick out a song from each that you’d use to introduce somebody to your music?

DOT: On Morning Dove White, from One Dove, it would be “Fallen”. On Afterglow, I’d say “Tomorrow Never Comes”. On We Are Science, it would be “Performance”. And then “Buzzing Round the Honeypots” on Room 7 1⁄2. And then, perhaps, “One Love” on Heart-Shaped Scars.

 

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