Siobhán Kane spoke with singer, songwriter and amateur astrologist Scout Niblett who played Whelans last Saturday.
Emma Niblett moved from England to America in the early nineties, mainly inspired by a sense of adventure and also because she naturally gravitated more to the landscape that has fuelled so much of her inspiration; from the guitar sound of Kurt Cobain through to bands like Mudhoney. There seemed to be almost a fulfilling of destiny about her move, and that sense is also present in her subsequent recording career so far, and records like 2001’s Sweet Heart Fever to last year’s Calcination of Scout Niblett, which are both quite different in sound, yet wholly similar in preoccupation, and see her staring down the barrel of life’s meaning, very much in the vein of that lyric from ‘It’s All For You‘, “oh sweet lifer,/I tremble, but my course does not“, and a clue into her desires and beliefs are also neatly contained later in that song, “Give me magic!/ Give me music!/ Give me love!“
She is such a reflective musician, and through more esoteric leanings (her interest in philosophy, astrology) she manages to create worlds that are full of duality; there is her beautiful voice, which wavers from a girlish whisper to a womanly howl, her equally mesmerising drum and guitar playing, and her lyrics that swoop around the subjects of sexuality, love, death, courage, disappointment, and disaster, through interesting imagery and metaphors that take in nature, road trips, and the aligning of the planets.
She is a really interesting artist that sometimes confounds because she doesn’t neatly fit within any of the lines that have been set out by so many before her, and it often feels like she another Brontë sister, transported into the future from the nineteenth century, stomping around the hills and valleys of quite painful subjects, though never steering too far away from that “course” she sings of, which is essentially about her not steering away from herself.
So many of her co-conspirators have worked with her many times over the years, from producer Steve Albini to Will Oldham, and in some ways Niblett shares a certain musical outlook with Oldham; idiosyncratic, frequently humorous and madly inventive, and when he sings with her on the 2007 record This Fool Can Die Now, you really imagine kindred spirits, secretly hoping for an eventual wedding, so that they can “rest their bones side by side” but have to be sated with their creative collaboration instead.
There really aren’t too many people that can chirrup “we’re all gonna die!” and make it seem like something you should be okay with (from the amazing ‘Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death‘) but Emma Louise Niblett manages to do it, and her very unique take on the world made so much sense in the context of the work she did with David Shrigley on the great Worried Noodles project, and particularly the special shows she did with Daniel Johnston, Mark Linkous, James McNew and Norman Blake (among others) some years ago; there was a certain playful warmth, with everyone in thrall to the poetry of making music, but more than that, the poetry of somehow, astonishingly, staying alive in this very strange world. But as the title of her last record suggests, there is a continuous calcination going on within Scout Niblett, a certain purification by fire, which can be a courageous, frightening thing, Siobhán Kane talks to her.
It has been a while since you played here, and when you did it was with so many other wonderful musicians including Daniel Johnston and Mark Linkous, there was something very special about those shows. We don’t often get to go to Ireland for some reason, I don’t know why, so it is really great. Those shows were the last two nights of that tour so it was a bit emotional. It was a really nice thing to be a part of, it felt very special.
You moved to America many years ago now, do you remember quite why you did? It’s a weird one, I can’t pinpoint anything in particular, I just really fell in love with the place the first time I came. I had always loved the idea of travelling, and not necessarily staying in one place for too long. I was really taken with the place and thought ‘why not?’ I initially went to Bloomington, Indiana – which is where the label [Secretly Canadian] I was on at the time was based. It is a tiny town, but it was a really nice place to get my first taste of being in America, because it was a tiny college town in the midwest. It is kind of in the cornfields, but it is like a little oasis there. There is a great music college there [Jacob’s School of Music], one of the best in the U.S. actually, so a lot of great music comes out of that place, lots of young kids go to school there and want to form bands, I guess.
You also enjoyed your course in Music and Performance Art at Nottingham University, did it help you perceive music in a different way? It was a really great foundation for me, when I look back. I met one of the people that taught me there, Shelley Sacks, and she is still a great friend of mine and a real inspiration to me in her work. It was just like an explosion of creative ideas and possibilities, that period in my life, because it was just like being in a bubble. I always think that about college, I really went to college because I didn’t want to get a job [laughs], but at that point you didn’t really have to pay to go to college, I got money to go, and was on the dole before that, so it was great. It’s a really different thing now. It was like a bubble and I think it is an amazing thing to have at that age – no responsibilities from the outside, and you don’t have to worry about working, it was great for me.
Were you already playing lots of instruments before you went to college? You know I didn’t. My first instrument is piano, and I had a piano at home before I went to college. I had a guitar too, but I didn’t really know how to play it, so I picked it up once I went to college. The piano was a really different style and the stuff I was coming up with was more classical sounding.
It is almost like, with you, there are different facets of your personality accommodated by the drums, guitar, piano and voice. It’s interesting to me, because I just bought a piano for the first time since I was about twenty, so I am going back to the piano now, and it is really amazing, it is almost like it brings out another side. I notice that especially when I play the drums, the songs I make up on the drums are a completely different feel, a different part of myself, so all of these things have little strings that draw little characters out [laughs].
It seems to be the same with your records, there is a certain overarching feel to them, something like This Fool Can Die Now had a soft, fleshy sensuality, yet last year’s Calcination record was perhaps more angry-sounding, what are your thoughts? I think that is another thing. You can’t really work it out. It is only when I look back on the work I go ‘oh I remember what I meant then’. They are signposts to me about where I was at, who I was in love with, what was going on [laughs]. They are like little diaries in a way, because you are changing all the time, so they all have their own character because you are changing so much.
Authenticity is so important to you, so is it strange to play live some of those songs that you perhaps wrote eight years ago, revisiting those emotions, those times? It is weird sometimes, but I do enjoy it, because I only usually play songs on the tours that I feel make sense, and it is important for me to really enjoy the set and get emotional about what I am doing. I need to feel connected to each song, and what’s amazing is that you can go right back to those songs and those experiences. Sometimes I get a renewed sense of things, I often feel my songs are little advices; I get guidance or something from a higher self or something. I write the song, then the song is there for me to listen to and think ‘oh, okay’. Even years later I feel that, and as long as I feel a connection it doesn’t matter which album it’s from, it’s just there.
With some of your more painful, angry songs, there always seems to be a sense of healing bound up in that, and your last record deals with dysfunction in a positive way, saying that you have to look to the dark to know about the light. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in general, as I never remember really how I judged what I did before, I was very loose on it, and I don’t know if I am being more judgmental as I am getting older, and I don’t really want to be, but it is important, when you are doing any form of creativity, to let out what needs to be let out instead of thinking ‘ooh that’s a bit angry’, or ‘what does that look like to other people?’. If you interrupt the process too early then you don’t let a lot of true things out, so in a cathartic way it’s good not to judge things too early when you are writing.
The idea of calcination from the title of your last record is rooted in that first stage of alchemy, putting yourself into the fire to see what happens, it is a powerful metaphor but also a sense of something more pure and naked. I love that image of fire, I have noticed I use the word fire a lot in my lyrics; I am fascinated by it, and the metaphor of it. Ultimately it’s been inspiring, and a creative force, it’s very much a part of me.
This links in to some extent with your deep and long interest in astrology, very present on your 2005 record Kidnapped by Neptune, and you recently said that you would really like to start working on astrology more, how are you feeling about it at the moment? I’ve been doing it for a long time, but not professionally, I’ve never charged money for it really. I always say that I will do more of it when I am about to have down time off the tours, and think I could do charts for people, but then I always start to think I should do another record. I’m always studying it, but I feel like I don’t want to do it full time when I am on tour as I wouldn’t write any more records [laughs], I need to find a balance. My interest in it began when I was seven, my Dad got this book on sun signs and I became fascinated by it, and I have been obsessed since then. It is one of those subjects that is so deep, the study of archetypes and energy, and it’s like infinite knowledge, you could go on forever learning about it. There is always more to uncover, that’s why I love it a lot too, it’s a mysterious thing. You can predict a lot of stuff, but can never know exactly what or how it’s going to happen, and I don’t think we’re supposed to, so it’s a thin line between learning how things are and accepting you are not supposed to fully know, otherwise what is the point in us being here?
You are so generous in giving time to other people, are you generous with yourself? Do you need huge amounts of time alone? I keep thinking of that song by John Lee Hooker – ‘You Don’t Move Me No More’ which is really about the power of being able to be alone. It is very important. The funny thing is I can’t play music in a house or a building where other people can hear me, unless I am playing a show [laughs] so I have to be on my own. It’s quite annoying. It’s almost like being disabled as I can’t switch off that thing in my head and think ‘it doesn’t matter’, I seriously have to think that I am on my own. So I do have to spend a huge amount of time on my own, it’s really weird, I have been thinking about it recently, my lifestyle is really odd in some ways, I go on tour and spend twenty-four-seven with the drummer and the person who’s driving, and meet new people every day, but then I go home and I can be on my own for months. Earlier this year I spent three weeks without going out of the house and didn’t speak to anyone [laughs], sometimes it feels weird, it’s unbalanced.
This lends itself to my sense that you are really quite akin to a new generation of Brontë sisters. [Laughs] I am so fascinated by history and ooh I love the Brontës! I have always loved period pieces but now it’s getting ridiculous because I have started to notice that they are the only things I watch. I remember when I was a kid I was always obsessed with that, I learnt it from my Mum, she was always into period dramas, from turn of the century up to the thirties. Did you ever watch Lark Rise to Candleford? [BBC series based on the Fiona Thompson novels from early-mid twentieth century]I just watched the whole thing; and I was crying getting near to the last one thinking ‘what am I going to do now?’ I loved it.
It would be just great if you wrote a whole record and film in that vein with you and Will Oldham as the lead characters, possibly on a tumbledown farm, with tumbledown problems. [Laughs] He has got the chops too, hasn’t he? Those old-fashioned Victorian chops [laughs]. That would be amazing. When I worked with Will, it was a bit different as usually I write a song by myself in solitude, but the ones I did with Will I wrote for him, and imagined what he would sing and then wrote the lyrics of what I would like him to sing, then I just sent him the songs and we didn’t really rehearse or anything, he just came into the studio and we did it in three takes, it was kind of incredible. He was so professional and so natural that he just nailed it straightaway.
People that you have worked with closely, from Will through to Steve Albini seem to have a very unusual, natural, warm sense of humour. Oh yes, it’s true, and Steve is just hilarious, I find him very funny, even just the way he says things, he has these phrases that are hilarious, and he is lovely to work with. He is always so busy with his studio; he is pretty much recording all the time. I think he is very attached to being in the house, as he lives in an apartment within his studio. Someone once had to tell him that he hadn’t been out of his house for three months! Though he’s a bit better than me, at least he’s around people when he is doing that, whereas I’m on my own!
I think sometimes then it means you can get even more anxious about being social, when you have to be. I’m having that more than ever this year, and am thinking that maybe I have a bit of social anxiety or something. When I didn’t go out for three weeks, I felt kind of intimidated going out just to get a cup of coffee [laughs].It’s getting worse as I am getting older. I don’t know whether my lifestyle is more extreme. I used to be more sociable, and wasn’t as anxious when I was younger, but now I feel a bit alien sometimes when I am around people, and for them hanging out is normal, and they must think I am really weird, because I obviously don’t do it very often.
I often find that elderly people (and children) are the best to spend time with, they are so interesting and accepting, and not really shocked by things, there is something very comforting about that. I love that too, and I know what you mean about elderly people, I think that they have gone through things and are not fazed, they think people shouldn’t worry as much, and that is a comforting feeling. I miss that because I don’t have older people around me here, but I am thinking about doing some voluntary work at an old people’s home, just to hang out with them. I feel like I really love people generally, I am fascinated by them, and feel like I am quite good one to one. I am not very good in groups, because I really like to talk talk, and group mentality is about people not really talking about anything and I feel like I am wasting my time, I am left wondering why people aren’t really saying anything. It should be about a more real connection. The whole internet world frightens me. I have noticed that it makes me feel very disconnected when I try and do that. I don’t communicate much on the internet at all, but I do have a Facebook account, and sometimes when I am in my cocoon, my solitary confinement [laughs] – it’s like people watching. I have a friend I went to college with and see the photos of what she is doing, and especially because I live so far away from the people I knew when I was younger, it’s a comfort, but I still can’t interact that way, though I know that they are still there and can see how they are doing.
You have done so many interesting collaborations, but one of my favourites is the work you did for David Shrigley’s Worried Noodles project, how did that come about? He made a list of people he wanted to be involved in the project and then the label contacted us all. I was so honoured to do that project. He’s like a breath of fresh air.
So many people feel the same way about your music; are you working on some new things at the moment? Thank you, that’s really nice to hear. I really love playing, so it’s my pleasure really! I feel so thankful that I am able to do it. I am working on some new things, there are a few tunes knocking around, and when I get back from Ireland I will work on them. This summer is going to be the time where I am solidifying that a bit more, and I am hopefully going to record another album at the end of the year.