Music Features

Kate Jackson (Interview)

For a period in the 2000s, Sheffield’s The Long Blondes were one of the most exciting bands around. Their debut album, Someone To Drive You Home, released nearly ten years ago, collided the resurgent post-punk sound of the times with Britpop, old Hollywood glamour, and kitchen sink dramas worthy of full theatrical productions. A follow-up, “Couples” (the quotation marks a nod to Bowie’s “Heroes”) followed in 2008 but then tragedy struck. Guitarist and songwriter Dorian Cox suffered a stroke, which led to the band splitting.

In the years that have followed, frontwoman Kate Jackson has led a peripatetic existence. As well as continuing to make music, she lived as a painter in Rome for four years, and has also had an artist residency at a gallery in her home town of Bury St. Edmund’s, Suffolk. Eight years after The Long Blondes said their final goodbye, Jackson has released her first solo album, the fantastic British Road Movies. But it isn’t an album with a simple backstory, as she told Joe Rivers.

Joe: How does it compare putting out records as a solo artist to being part of a band?

Kate: It's been a very different process. Putting out The Long Blondes’ records was exciting as we were all in it together and at that time it felt almost continuous. From around the time of our third gig in 2003 we had small labels wanting to put out our 7" singles, then we signed to Rough Trade and they put out our two albums; it felt easy. In comparison, this solo record has been very difficult. I started it in 2008 when The Long Blondes ended, naively thinking it would be out the following year, but for many reasons, mostly financial, that didn't happen. Bernard [Butler] and I wrote a lot of songs together which were recorded as demos but never finished, then we hit a brick wall. It was during a time of great change in the music industry and where it had once been easy to release albums, suddenly there was no money and no one wanted to take a risk on it. It's taken eight years to finally get this record out and in the end I had to borrow money and set up my own label to do it. I've had a lot of help but it really couldn't have been more different. It's been a steep learning curve and one that I'm very proud to have made. Not only did I have to learn how to write songs outside of The Long Blondes, but also how to manage myself as an artist and run an album campaign. It took years to get my head around that but I was lucky enough to get a distribution deal with PIAS last year and they have helped enormously.

J: How did you and Bernard Butler decide to collaborate?

K: I met Bernard a long time ago backstage at an aftershow party in London and we got on really well. When The Long Blondes ended, I went to see Geoff [Travis] and Jeanette [Lee] at Rough Trade and told them I'd like to continue as a solo artist while Dorian was recovering, but that I would need someone to collaborate with as I'm not a musician really; I'm a singer and lyricist. So they suggested a few names but I already had my heart set on Bernard. They managed him at the time so said they would give him a call. To my amazement he said yes.

J: After The Long Blondes split, you dedicated yourself to painting. What made you come back to music?

K: Well, I'd started to make the record with Bernard already but hit too many brick walls with it, so ended up moving to Rome to focus on painting. I spent four years there and really worked on my painting technique, developing my own style. It was a beautiful and important time in my life but I ended up very homesick so moved back to Suffolk. I didn't move back with the intention of going back to music. Six months later I went on a walking holiday in Devon. I had a lot of time to think walking twenty miles a day and couldn't get the idea of returning to the album out of my head. While I was away I also saw the Nick Cave docu-film 20,000 Days on Earth which made me realise I just couldn't leave an album I'd made with Bernard Butler sitting on my laptop unfinished. The next day I returned to Suffolk and spoke to Bernard. He happened to have also just had a week off and had randomly started working on the album mixes again. We chatted about what we needed to do to finish it and it went from there.

J: Your work has always had British transport as a theme. Most of us think of it as bad service stations, late buses and traffic jams – why do you think it holds such a romantic notion for you?

K: When I was little, Mum used to take me on the bus to Torquay whenever we went on holiday to Brixham. We would sit upstairs at the front of the double decker and I would sing old Cockney songs my Grandpa had taught me, probably with rude words, and make everyone on the bus laugh. I think UK transport systems, roads, service stations, buses and flyovers are very evocative of early holidays and childhood memories. It would have been very exciting as a four year old to go on a long car journey and see the different landscapes out of the window. I remember seeing burning fields from the window of my Grandpa’s car in the early 80s; I still remember the colour of the fields afterwards. You don't see that now. When I lived abroad I was so homesick for the colours of the UK. It made me realise that my work is about pointing out the mundane, the everyday, the tiny moments, because they are ultimately the moments you hanker after and crave when you feel vulnerable.

J: The UK art landscape is clearly too London-centric, but Bury St. Edmund’s, where you now reside, isn’t nationally renowned for its thriving scene. How do you find living there and is there something about Bury the rest of us are missing?

K: Yes. I'm from Bury St. Edmund’s and I grew up here, before moving to Sheffield for university in 1999. When I was a teenager it was the small market town I couldn't wait to escape from. Everything is safe and predictable here, which I hated. There was nothing to do except drink in the park. I yearned to be inside a Pulp song and when I moved to Sheffield it certainly didn't disappoint. It was the city I imagined from my bedroom window in Bury St. Edmund’s. Now, eighteen years later, Bury St. Edmund’s has changed a bit. There's so much more going on here than there was: a thriving music scene, lots of creative young people actively engaged in that scene, an amazing independent cinema, a wonderful art gallery, and some great new freehouses, including Oakes Barn where we hold The Hoo Ha Record Club [a regular club night where anyone can go and play 7” singles]. It's unrecognisable from the town I left all those years ago. Sometimes if there is no scene you have to create one and there are some brilliant people in Bury now who have helped to make that happen. 

J: Your song, 16 Years, from the new record, could almost be a thematic companion piece to Pulp’s Disco 2000. Was that intentional and is there a real-life story behind it?

K: That's interesting. I wasn't consciously writing a companion to Disco 2000 at the time but it is a thinly veiled reference to Pulp as you can tell from the delivery and the content. I think it's good to reference those who have inspired you and Pulp are a very important band to me. There is a real life story behind it though. When I was 15 I met my best friend Erica. She and I were obsessed with Suede and Pulp and used to go dancing at the local indie disco every Monday night - it was the height of Britpop, 1995-1996. Disco 2000 was one of the songs we used to dance to - we couldn't imagine the year 2000; it seemed so far away. In 1996, she moved to London for uni. I stayed in Bury finishing my A levels, then also went to uni in Sheffield. We lost touch. She had a very tough time in London - the song lyrics touch on that - and a couple of years later, around the year 2000, she decided to move back to Bury. We met for a drink and I was shocked at how much weight she had lost; she was skeletal, and a different person. Something had broken her in London and I swore to myself that I would never let anything happen to her again. She's been my best friend ever since and always will be.

J: You’ve said that each of these songs is like a stand-alone movie – is it important to you that there’s a story behind each one, and what do you think of the fact a lot of music today doesn’t have that similar level of care and attention?

K: I write visually. Usually I need to hear the music before I can write the lyrics. Most of the songs on British Road Movies were written in the studio with Bernard. He would start to play a guitar riff or a refrain on the piano and then record and loop it over and over again so that I could listen and write to it. A lot of the time the music would dictate the images that came to me and those images would then trigger a memory or a place or a person which would lead to the song. Sometimes this is quite abstract, as with Homeward Bound, which is broadly an homage to driving through the Suffolk countryside. Sometimes it would be direct, as with 16 Years or Velvet Sofa which are both very personal. They’re trigger points, cinematic moments. Bernard has a big production sound too which is also very cinematic and when I listened to the songs as a whole I felt that any one could be part of a broader narrative. Good song lyrics are snapshots that leave you wanting to know more of the story. They let you fill in the blanks yourself and apply your own life to them. I think most good songwriters think in a similar way, with similar depth about their work and the broader context, certainly the ones I admire the most, like John Grant, Nick Cave, Anna Calvi and Laura Marling. Great songwriters, great lyricists. 

J: Some of the songs on this album have been around for five or more years. Why did you feel that now was the right time to put them together and release them?

K: Everything came together this time, there was a momentum towards the release which hadn't been there before. Once Bernard and I had got back into the studio together in 2014 I knew we would finally finish the record. The addition of Last Of The Dreamers gave it more variety and depth and we actually cut a couple of tracks that didn't sit well with the overall mood of the record, as well as re-recording some of the drums, vocals and guitar parts. Then in 2015, I was offered an artist residency at Smiths Row contemporary Art Gallery in Bury St. Edmund’s and used that as an opportunity to produce the album artwork. During the residency I had the album mastered and it culminated in a listening party at the gallery. From that point on everything fell into place. I set up my label, Hoo Ha Records, and secured a distribution deal with PIAS which finally enabled the release to happen.

J: How has the reception to the album been and what’s next for you?

K: It's been amazing; I’m so excited with how well the album has been received. I had no expectations really after all this time beyond just getting the record out there. I wanted people to be able to hear it and hoped they would like it but the response has been way beyond that. People seem genuinely happy that I'm back making music which is lovely. Now it's out I just want to do more! I have a new band The Wrong Moves and we've been out on tour this month playing the album. We're planning to record an EP over the summer of songs I have already written and then go on and write a new album together later in the year. I also have a group exhibition coming up in Cambridge in the Autumn so there's a lot going on.

British Road Movies is available now through Hoo Ha Records.