Heart-Shaped Scars – Dot Allison talks to Bella Caledonia
JOIN THE DOTS: ONE DOVE DIVA, ELECTRO-VAMP, FAERIE QUEEN? DOT ALLISON’S FIRST ALBUM IN A DECADE IS THE PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST
From comedowns to comebacks, the best connected woman in Scottish pop Dot Allison talks to Bella Caledonia about her welcome return with new album Heart-Shaped Scars
It’s instructive that Dot Allison’s new album Heart-Shaped Scars is the most natural expression of the hushed intimacy of her voice and knack for melody to date, yet boasts none of the big name collaborators of her London music scene past. Rather it’s in her native Scotland with one of her oldest school friends and other local female artists she’s found freedom to follow her muse. The record’s deceptive simplicity gives her voice room to breathe and foregrounds her songwriting without any distractions. Heart-Shaped Scars is an assured statement from an artist approaching the height of her powers.
From the run of dubby chart hits with the Andrew Weatherall-produced One Dove in the early-nineties to hotly tipped 1999 solo debut Afterglow to Keith Tenniswood-produced trip hop electro of 2002’s We Are Science to Scott Walker’s 2008 show at the Barbican with Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn to 2009’s Sheepskin Tearaway Pete Doherty collaboration to Massive Attack to Kevin Shields to Death in Vegas and so on, Allison’s stellar career has mapped aspects of the zeitgeist so precisely, in the company of some quasi-archetypal musicians, the sheer candlepower of all that starlight has sometimes threatened to obscure her own fascinating journey under the moving red dot of UK subculture.
Dues … To bitch at Allison for Zelig-like reinventions or having starry mates smells like misogyny. Not many people slagging Bowie off for hanging out with Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and the Blitz Kids. And who wouldn’t defer to Scott Walker in the recording studio if it came to it? Or Hal David? Or Paul Weller? Or sometimes feel the weight of Junior Boy’s Own, Heavenly, Sub Pop or whichever gravity-distortingly influential label’s expectations? A vanishingly small number of people you’d wager. Whatever the odds, she’s back to set the record straight.
It’s a joy to hear Dot Allison cut loose in a world she alone inhabits. After taking time out to have a family back in her hometown of Edinburgh, she’s on sparkling form. The new album is witchy and fey and sad and reveals more pain than we are comfortable with. Three singles in and we are getting a feel for the album’s taut, sepulchral beauty. Delicate string arrangements by Hannah Peel. Hebridean folk jams, poetry and heartbreak. Lead single Long Exposure is luminous with melancholy charm, a eulogy for something long gone. She’s got them to throw away. Fleet Foxes would be happy with the hook on second single Can You Hear Nature Sing. Out earlier this week, the chiming harmonies of single number three One Love are transcendent. Album track Constellations in particular, has a queer otherworldly atmosphere, that is hard to describe other than Faerie. More than pianos are being plucked here as Allison, Sarah Campbell and Amy Bowman harmonise their beguiling coda. Heartstrings too. The whole album sings. Hear for yourself, it’s out at the end of the month.
Bella Caledonia asked Allison about motherhood, moving back to Scotland and her new music:
BC: It’s been a while since your last record. Please tell us about the genesis of your new album?
DA: “My motivation was just to create I guess and to process feelings and to explore my potential having shed shackles in a way as I felt I could approach my creativity in a less avoidant way.. I feel in the past I have kind of looked at it with one eye shut in a way, perhaps a fear of success was partly to blame for that. I also think when I became a mum, I just didn’t have any space or inclination left to create too much, after my mum duties were fulfilled and I quite liked having thought I had actually accidentally retired for a while… But in reality being an artist is not actually a choice. You hink you can leave it but actually you’re a lifer whether you like it or not.
The album was joy to make and not too much of a slog. I worked with a wonderful group of people on it. The interruption to the process that Covid resulted in actually benefited the songs in that I picked up a ukulele and composed on it as I couldn’t go anywhere and I think the four songs I composed on the uke are my best compositions arguably.
So after I wrote The Haunted I just started sculpting away at a bunch of ideas. I probably wrote about 18 songs and let go of nearly half of them. Several song titles were ones I had written years ago and never forgot about and I think the next song I wrote with Amy didn’t make it onto the album and after that I wrote ‘Constellations’ in The Hebrides. I brought the song title to the session and my friend Sarah started playing glistening single notes on the piano like stars and I picked up a guitar and started strumming the chords under the ‘Constellation’ of piano notes and that song began to take shape.
Then the album just coalesced while I had other plans for other songs. So as I planned the songs I thought all the way would be on the album the actual album was taking shape alongside my plans and half the songs I planned to include it were elbowed off eventually by my solo compositions on ukulele and others and it began to fall into place.”
BC: You’ve been working with different people?
DA: “I met Amy though my old friend Sarah [Campbell] Amy [Bowman] is a folk singer and songwriter with a stunningly beautiful voice, in the session with Amy she suggested I contact Zoë Bestel and after a year or so of chatting about co-writing at some point. Zoë and I got together. The song Can You Hear Nature Sing came from me pulling a poem out in the session that I had written called Emblems I’d wrote after I read some of Esther Morgan’s poetry and loved how she incorporated the horizon and what she apparently could see around her into the poetry. In the session we plundered the poem heavily and both came up with the melody as Zoe worked on the chords. I asked Hannah Peel to arrange the strings as she is utterly brilliant and came recommended to me by a mutual musician friend, Hannah who is not only hugely talented is just lovely. She conducted a Scottish folk quintet at Castlesound Studio. I produced the album with Fiona Cruickshank who engineered.”
BC: You’ve moved back to Scotland. How has that impacted you as an artist as well as a woman?
DA: “Well, I loved London when I was there but it has been great being here and I think the slightly different pace of life has probably allowed me to make a record with a certain kind of stillness that had probably affected the writing positively, although I did write some of it in London at Tileyard studios, so it’s an amalgam of vibes I guess. I think the album would be sounding very different if I hadn’t been here, as the folk ‘family’ I am connected to here wouldn’t have been involved and the spontaneity of folk nights or just hanging out with pals where instruments were picked up and played and things took rough shapes and became the rudiments of certain of the co-written numbers, just wouldn’t have happened obviously.”
BC: You’ve worked with a lot of different people over the years. How has that helped shape you as an artist?
DA: “I think every experience in life generally is an opportunity to learn if you have the capacity for enough humility to learn from that experience. In each collaboration too, you learn possibly even hundreds of things. Even if half of them are, “I don’t want to do it like that’’ … But ultimately I guess everyone has to hone their own process and fall down and climb back out of enough pot holes to have a sense of what you need to do.
There are many facets to what makes someone’s writing process the way it is for example the way someone works can involve their level of perfectionism, the instruments they use or create, their production and engineering skills or the team they use, their work ethic, the environment they choose to be in, to honour their creativity, the way they pursue ideas, the way they structure their time, the work someone has or has not done on themselves can affect the writing process. Just the actual emotional make up of someone you choose to write with can either make or break the songwriting bond, for example writing with someone low on empathy can be almost harrowing as you are potentially turning our your best ideas which are a part of you, to someone who may utterly objectify you and nick them wholesale. So for someone to have empathy to me is crucial to feeling safe enough to share precious ideas and so on. It’s all actually pretty complex I think.”
BC: You’ve been working with Anton Newcombe. What can you tell me about the project and how has that been?
DA: “The director, Philip John, has just posted online about us doing the score, so I can chat about it now. It’s for a new crime drama called Annika starring the brilliant actor Nicola Walker. It’s set in Scotland and Anton had been asked to score it originally. Meanwhile he and I had begun writing some songs for a separate project and since they were sounding cool, he asked me if I would like to compose it together with him, which we have. It’s been amazing, I absolutely love working with Anton, he’s a brilliant human being. genuinely soulful in that he’s authentic and empathic and feeling. I told him when he shares back an idea we’ve both been working on, after he has added his music and magic, I said it’s always like a little Christmas where I get to play what I had last heard sounding now very different in genius ways. I find Anton very respectful and sensitive to work with and he really gives you your place within things – generous spirited. Just generally sound [laughs]. Some guys have kind of plundered and engulfed my ideas and pretty much elbowed me out the way, but with him he is fair, respectful and he genuinely gives me my space and my place in the process so I feel that safety and appreciation of what I am bringing really inspires me to be free and unimpeded creatively.”
BC: What’s next?
DA: “I’ve another single coming out in July near the album called One Love [see above], I’m planning a live stream for soon and I’ve actually began chipping away at some new songs for the next album project.”
Heart-Shaped Scars is out on July 30 you can order or find out more HERE