Interview: The Anchoress

Photo by Isabella Charlesworth

The 21 June date originally suggested by the UK Government as signalling the light at the end of the tunnel for those who work in the entertainment sphere has now sadly been pushed back to 19 July. But The Indiependent caught up with The Anchoress (aka Catherine Anne Davies) prior to the news that the return of live music would be delayed. 

We spoke to the Welsh multi-instrumentalist about her latest album, The Art of Losing, as well as her forthcoming tour with Manic Street Preachers. From how being autistic affects her creative process, to her collaborations with James Dean Bradfield, and Bowie drummer Sterling Campbell, no stone was left unturned… 

The Indiependent: Are you sharing in this weird optimism we’re all starting to feel now the weather’s got better and people are getting vaccinated?

The Anchoress: I’m not having seen the news this morning, to be honest. I was feeling slightly optimistic and now I’m kind of feeling concerned. Because of my pre-existing health conditions I  haven’t been to a supermarket for a year and now I’m thinking I’m definitely not going to the supermarket. So I kind of think we’re all in this weird place, especially those of us that obviously work with live music, as well as like, you want to be optimistic. Obviously, you want to get back to doing your job. But equally, you want everyone to be safe. 

The Indiependent: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that bands and artists starting to announce tour dates has been a huge boost to people, not just the artists but for everyone. 

The Anchoress: I mean, we announced a tour a couple of weeks ago supporting the Manics. We’ve been announcing little dribs and drabs of dates as well for The Anchoress and we’re about to announce some more, but I am just sort of starting to feel like are we giving false hope here? You know, is it going to be? I don’t know. I hate talking about it in a way, because it feels like anything that you say there’s always a group of people that just feel really offended if you’re being too cautious or not cautious enough. And all I know is I don’t want anyone to get sick or die coming to a show of mine. 

The Indiependent: That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? So, it’s been five years since your last album but you haven’t stopped. You’ve toured with Simple Minds. You’ve toured with the Manics obviously and collaborated with them, and also you released an album with Bernard Butler that came out last year. Do you feel you have to be writing music? Or do you just have to be working in general? Because you’ve said before that you came into music  accidentally, it just sort of happened.

The Anchoress: Yeah, I mean, I finished The Art of Losing in the beginning of 2019. So it was due to come out the year before. And then it came out in 2021 so obviously, it was really exciting, even though for me obviously there wasn’t hardly any gap. I know I wasn’t sitting around twiddling my thumbs at any point but it feels like a really long time since the first record. It’s so strange, and then releasing a record when you’re not really engaging with the outside world is also very bizarre so obviously had like all these amazing reviews and pride but I’m not gonna go to a record shop and see it in a record shop, which is just weird. I think I do like to be busy, I like to be occupied. I’ve got quite a busy brain. I don’t like holidays, either. I’m not a fan of going on holiday. And I enjoy work, whatever that may be. And I’ve always been a bit like that. When I was at university I did two degrees at the same time because I didn’t feel occupied, and I did my PhD when I was making the first record as well. I think I like to be busy. And that’s been quite challenging, actually, during lockdown. Obviously, I’m super lucky that I’ve got the studio here to work in. But it is one kind of work only and obviously then you’re limited in terms of not being able to have people working here with. I’ve been forced to take a little bit of time out, which I think has been good for me.

The Indiependent: The thing that really struck me is that not only is it such a different sound from your debut, but even within the album itself, there are completely different sounds—’Moon Rise’, ‘Show Your Face’—is that a conscious decision? Is that deliberate? Or is it just what feels right at the time for you?

The Anchoress: That’s just how music comes out of me. I do think this and Confessions of a Romance Novelist are similar in a way to that because obviously you’ve got tracks with slow piano, atmospheric kind of pieces, then ‘One for Sorrow’, which is almost like a pop-funk track. I think I’ve always wanted to make sure that I only do the kind of music that I enjoy, and because I love everything from Prince to Max Richter that’s going to come out in the music that I make. 

I’m very lucky because I licence my albums to a label. So I’ve got no one breathing down my neck saying we want 10 radio friendly tracks, but we want 10 you know progressive rock tracks, I can just do precisely what I want. So the album’s just sound that various because I have that many different interests in music. I think I would be really bored to make an album of 10 songs that sounded very similar. So I’m just indulging my own musical tastes really. It’s not conscious. I just  think of each track as an individual world. So like with ‘Moon Rise’, for instance, it was just like, I really want to do this, and I’m just gonna do this, I don’t think about the other track at the same time. And then when I was doing ‘Show Your Face’, I was really obsessed with the OB six synthesiser that I just bought, so I just became super focused on the single track. I’m autistic so I think that that’s partly to do with the way that my brain works — I have this just hyperfocus. I’m unable to shut everything out and maybe that is why I don’t consider whether one track relates to another. Somehow it does hang together as a finished piece. 

The Indiependent: You’ve mentioned before that this album draws on a lot of the recent trauma that you’ve had in the last few years. So did you find this a cathartic experience or an escape from that? Or was it both?

The Anchoress: It was a little bit of both, maybe, but I think ultimately it wasn’t cathartic. I think therapy is for that. As usual, work is a distraction for me, and it just was the only answer in the moment of experiencing all these really difficult things. But it also became a working through of past trauma as well. Interestingly, and I don’t think I had consciously realised that until I was kind of up to the point where I’m thinking about putting ‘5am’ on the record. So it became more than just a record of what I’ve been going through in those couple of years. I really shy away from the idea of songwriting as cathartic, because I think I’m always trying to serve the listener, it’s not about me serving myself — as I say, therapy is the space for your catharsis and not a public arena. I guess I was still very conscious of only wanting to share as much as I wanted to within the songs and still having those boundaries. They’re safe boundaries for yourself, you know, not wanting everybody to know every detail about your life. It’s a really strange dance, I think, between catharsis and distraction.

The Indiependent: One thing this album does is that whilst of course, no one can relate directly to your experiences and what it is you’re singing about, the album conveys those emotions and those raw feelings so brilliantly. I’m just wondering, where do you tend to draw your inspiration from? Is it entirely personal? 

The Anchoress: I’m a bit like a sponge and I really do believe that you’ve got to inhale enough stuff to have things of interest to then exhale. You know, it’s literature, it’s music, it’s films, it’s conversations that I overhear, or documentaries or podcasts. It’s everything, but not in a kind of conscious magpie sense. It’s just they’ll all inform how I’m processing a particular theme or concept or idea. But I think this album obviously was much more personally inspired than anything that I’ve done before. It’s interesting, having started out my career as The Anchoress with quite a conscious intention to avoid the confessional, hence the title of the first album [Confessions of a Romance Novelist], I really didn’t want to write confessional, autobiographical work and obviously, I couldn’t have foreseen that I would end up writing this record. I had actually started a completely different album beforehand but you’ve got to follow where the muse takes you. You’ve got to be led by where the art takes you and also to do something that’s uncomfortable. I think it was always super uncomfortable for me to talk about myself and so that feels enormously satisfying to have to have done that over a whole album’s worth of work, and for it to have been so well received. I think it’s especially difficult for women to do that in a songwriting arena, because often diaristic autobiographically-led work can tend to be  evaluated in a more pejorative way than perhaps men. We look at the difference between the way that we talk about Bob Dylan’s lyricism versus Tori Amos or Alanis Morissett. There’s such a lot of subtle misogyny that goes on there and I think that really informed me when I was starting out in not wanting to be autobiographical. So it’s nice to get to that point where I’ve recognised that there’s a lot of skill, and there was a lot of difficulty in creating good autobiographical work and throwing off those shackles of “Oh god, what if people say that it’s diaristic? Or like, Tori Amos or something like that?”. So I’ve been on a kind of journey with myself with that. Maybe I got rid of a little bit of my own internalised misogyny about what women can write about and be respected for. 

The Indiependent: You’ve been quite open about this in previous interviews and you mentioned in the podcast What is Music? that you used to think when you were younger could women do what you were doing? Do you think those attitudes are eroding and changing?

The Anchoress: I think they are, definitely. Not quickly enough, but it’s super different now. I know probably more female producers personally than I do male producers and all of the women that I know who make music also produce their own work, too. I think that’s massively different. So when I was growing up, we just might occasionally see women fronting a band and as I think I said on that podcast, I never wanted to do that. I wanted to make records. So I’m still in that place. I’d rather make someone else’s record than my own. So I think it is changing but I think it’s still only 2% of producers that are women. I think it’s 13% of the membership of The Performing Rights Society that are women. So female songwriters are massively underrepresented. Until we get to 52%, I don’t think it’s good enough really

The Indiependent: You mentioned that you’ve not had the chance to go out and see your album actually in a record store. Do you think COVID has changed, or sped up a change, in our listening habits and what does that mean for artists like yourself? You released your latest album, with a variety of album bundles and we’re seeing that a lot more with bands now trying to encourage the purchasing of physical music.

The Anchoress: It’s a really good question. I think it’s sped up direct-to-fan sales. I think that the record company is seeing the importance of that much more now. It used to be about retail, so all about the record shops, but I think because retail was shut your artist’s door wasn’t shut — your online store wasn’t shut. I did really well, selling direct-to-fan and that’s obviously much better financially for the artist or band too. So I think that has definitely sped up that process of fans being much more comfortable buying direct instead of buying from HMV or wherever, but also it’s developed their trust in those platforms too and their understanding that more of the money goes to the artists and band if they do that. I think there’s just a lot more awareness amongst people that buy music now about how little of it goes to the person that’s making it. I get a lot of messages saying “Where’s the best place for me to buy the record from so that you can get the biggest cut?” and I love that level of awareness. I mean, obviously, not everybody is thinking about that, but it’s definitely sped up the awareness in the people that consume music which is quite an interesting side effect. As for the multiple formats, I don’t necessarily have control over that because I do licence to a label. I think that there is a line where it can become somewhat exploitative of the fanbase, I think you have to be really careful of that. I know that there were conversations that I had with my label where I said no to certain things, such as multiple colours of vinyl and things like that, because I knew that there would be people that would feel compelled to buy everything. It’s a difficult balance to have, you offering choice and offering specialist and limited editions versus taking the piss basically. I’ve seen some people do that and like, that’s just not for me. 

The Indiependent: You see that with a lot of artists who have passed; with their estate basically in control, you see so many different variations and pressings, with different colours and picture discs coming out, which some people will always buy because they care and they are passionate. But it’s interesting that you’re trying to draw the line between encouraging a return to actually physically buying music and supporting the artists but also not wanting to take the piss with your fans.

The Anchoress: But be aware that the band or artist often doesn’t have that choice. I know a lot of people have issues around Amazon exclusives, for instance, but that’s a choice that’s made by a label distributor. We had an Amazon exclusive on the album that I did feel a little uncomfortable about but you know I don’t have the power, and I’m not sure any band or artist does to say ‘We’re not doing that’. So we did an indie store special as well with a nice 7” to kind of offset the damage, but you have to equally be aware that for the majority of people, they feel really comfortable clicking that basket on Amazon Prime unfortunately. It’s the record label looking to recoup their investment, obviously they’re gonna want to do that. And then equally, you also got considerations of chart position as well. So I know a lot of people play that game of multiple formats. Maybe they have six or seven formats of an album so that they can get a better chance of charting — that’s six or seven times what you would actually be selling if you just had one edition. It’s really tricky. It’s such a minefield, especially obviously when we’re all struggling with no touring. But I think you’ve always got to be able to look at yourself in the mirror.

Photo by Roberto Foddai

The Indiependent: You mentioned touring and we touched on this at the start. Let’s suspend reality and say all goes ahead. How do you feel about getting back out on tour and playing to live audiences again because you’ve not had the chance to yet with this album.

The Anchoress: Now I’m so excited about touring with the Manics. We’re going to be doing that in the autumn, all being well. They’re such lovely people to spend time with. I’ve never done a full tour with them before so it’s going to be incredible. That really is a childhood dream come true but I don’t know how I feel about playing the songs on the record. I’d always resigned myself to not doing it. Some of them are quite difficult, so I think I’ll cherry pick. I’m not gonna be playing ‘5am’ every night. Maybe the more upbeat ones. I can’t wait to get back to touring when it’s safe. That’s the only way I can look at it: when it’s safe. I’m thrilled to be doing it, but yeah. 

The Indiependent: Over the last few years, especially to the Manics fanbase, you’ve become synonymous with the band — having toured with them, having recorded with them, having James Dean Bradfield on your latest album, and now touring with them again. A lot of people always mention how you started out as a fan, but on the flip side, how does it feel to have a band that means so much to you as fans and supporters of your music?

The Anchoress: It’s really lovely. It’s weird, actually, I was listening to a podcast about the psychology of fandom talking about the power of social relationships between fans and bands and what it kind of does for us when we’re adolescence. Interestingly this idea of the band or the artist embodies values which we would like to have or develop in ourselves. So it’s almost like a kind of aspirational dynamic. That really made a lot of sense to me, because I think growing up, they kind of embodied this sense of intelligence and glamour, but also good ethics, if that makes sense? So to have been given the stamp of approval by them but also to be working with them, I guess, feels as if  I’ve made that journey to reach what it was that I aspired to. I’m still a fan but it’s transformed my life. I’m still a fan of those people. There’s less of a distance, but it’s really nice to be in a position where they’re everything equally I hoped that they would be. I find it quite difficult to talk about them because I am still a fan and I purposely keep my distance a little bit. 

The Indiependent: It is such an interesting position that you’re in. We’ve mentioned collaborations, with you appearing on Resistance is Futile and then obviously James is on your latest album. When I saw the Manics on the Resistance is Futile tour I saw you do ‘Little Baby Nothing’ with them, which must have been absolutely huge to you. 

The Anchoress: It was, I think the first time I did it with them was in in 2016 at The Eden Project. I think I’ve done it a couple of times, odd shows, and then the Q awards with them. Then obviously on that arena tour, I was coming on and doing like three songs with them, which was just so surreal. But I think there was a real sense as well that they knew that I was going through a really difficult time they kind of took me under their wing a little bit. And it was exactly what I needed. I will say Nicky Wire must have a little bit of a spy cam on my life because whenever things are going really wrong I always get a call. It’s like he just knows, like he’s got some kind of spidey sense where he’s just like ‘This calls for some Manics action’. 

The Indiependent: Things are up in the air. We can’t say that enough. But can we expect any live collaborations on the tour?

The Anchoress: I honestly don’t know yet. We haven’t had the conversation, is the honest truth. We’re not close enough to the time yet. I know if I am doing anything that James will have me rehearsing it, don’t worry. We love a little rehearsal. So yeah, who knows? Potentially, it’d be lovely to drag him on stage for ‘The Exchange’ but I can’t see that happening every night. Poor guy has got enough work to do without me adding to his work.

The Indiependent: That would be really special. It also isn’t the only collaboration on the album, either, Sterling Campbell plays drums on some of the songs. How does it feel for you to have these people that are established in their own right and that you respect and you are a fan of putting their stamp, their mark on your work?

The Anchoress: I don’t think that I would think about it or fret about it so much. It’s just sort of a natural thing that happens. So with Sterling, I’d met him one time during Simple Minds; we shared a tour together in Australia. So I spent quite a bit of time with him because he was the only other teetotal person. So we often would be hanging out drinking juice and we just became friends. We just formed this little buddy bubble, I guess, on tour. Then when I needed somebody to play drums on these tracks on the record, he was just the natural person that I emailed and asked. I guess it happens slowly, like being in hot water for so long that you kind of forget that it’s hot. So I don’t have that kind of trepidation about asking people, like, I’ll text James with the expectation that people can always say no.  You don’t get if you don’t ask, do you?

The Indiependent: You haven’t had a chance to properly showcase this album to audiences yet but are you somebody who thinks in terms of their career with one eye on the future? Do you have plans for the next X amount of months or years? 

The Anchoress: I’ve got loads of remixes coming out from the album over the next few months. It’s just really hard to plan at the moment, I think, because as you say normally we’d be out in a touring cycle; promoting the album has been a bit difficult, there’s not really much you can do. I’m just sort of taking it as it comes really, and not putting too much pressure on myself to start the next one, because it feels like it’ll come in time. I’ve already got four tracks on the go so I was thinking maybe I’ll do an EP instead rather than doing album three, I’m not sure. I really don’t know. I’ve been doing some acoustic versions of The Art of Losing tracks as well because people have been asking about that, so potentially I might do some more with those, might do a new edition of the record. I’m not sure. I always try to have a few irons in the fire at once and then you’re prepared for anything, aren’t you? So if we go into another lockdown, then I’ll have another record. Just to be optimistic.

The Art of Losing is available to order here, and tickets for the tour are available here.

Interview conducted by Harry Taylor


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