Kindred Spirits From History

Crystal Grenade

Lo! And Behold

Gonzo

4th November 2013

As is usual with the wonderful world of music one is always predisposed to pick a specific favourite album of the year fairly early on, as I did with Martin Bramah’s Factory Star “Enter Castle Perilous” a couple of years back, and Kill Pretty’s “Dark Heart” last year,  because it sort of hits the right zen point in your head and stays with you throughout the summer months into the autumn. This year, up until now, two releases have zapped the proverbial sweet spot in the noggin here at Aural Delights. Dusty Moonan’s “Our Name On The Door” and The Dames eponymous debut have both chimed with me as the exemplars of modern music. I was pretty much resigned, despite excellent offerings from other artists, that it would be a two horse race between those artists.

And then Carole Hodge dropped me a line.

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I hadn’t seen Carole for a while. We were fleeting nodding acquaintances at Salford City Radio when she and I were both DJs there. Since then she had sent me some tracks, which I had played,  but other than that, and an awareness she was associated with, and indeed had toured with, Steve Ignorant in Crass mode and in later incarnations, her work had got lost in the great pile of music which surrounds me here. However, recently, I was lucky enough to see her band Wrecks at The New Oxford on the last night of Salford Music Festival playing a stunning set. We said our hellos, had a brief chat, she gave me a Wrecks CD and we parted company.

A couple of weeks later she contacted me to say – i’ve got this album under the name Crystal Grenade. I checked on the hard drive, and I found a track from the middle of last year which I had played. I agreed that the album would be sent through from the PR people.

I’m glad I did.

It’s very rare these days, with so much to listen to, that I hear something that makes me immediately press the replay button. “Lo! and Behold” by Crystal Grenade is one of those exceptions to the rule. It is, simply put, a thing of beauty, an aural delight if you would. I took the opportunity to contact Carole and we agreed we would conduct a virtual interview about the release, her work, and what she is up to.

I suppose the first obvious question given the language in the promo for the album – is this a “concept” album or a narrative piece? Have you created a persona to deliver these tunes? The imagery on the CD is that sort of timeless Victorian feel? What’s the thinking behind it?

I’ve always been really drawn to the Victorian era, I think it was a fascinating time in terms of aesthetic and philosophy. When I was at university, I wrote my dissertation about Freak Shows and contemporary disability theatre. This process was very cathartic for me as a I have a congenital hand deformity and it allowed me to investigate the reactions people have had to me all my life. It also allowed me to find kindred spirits from history, the ghosts of the past who have walked in my shoes. Crystal Grenade is one of those ghosts.

The album starts with a Brechtian feel – which soon moves into what I can only describe as very personal piano ballads on “You Could Have Lived” and then back to that “Cabaret” feel on “1892 Man” – Whilst there is a clear central core to the music, there are also a variety of styles which add to the vibrancy of the album.. is there a theme? Or is it a set of songs that just naturally fit well together…….?

I’m really glad you’ve picked up on the Brecht and Weill shadings, that was definitely intentional. Brecht was a big fan of the message being more important than the messenger and their style of delivery. Opera, for example, sounds beautiful and is an incredibly technical and accomplished singing style. The audience can get distracted by impressive and pretty, and miss the raw beating heart of a song. I was definitely aiming for substance over style, the lyrics and the emotion are paramount in my songs.

Mostly just voice and piano – is there a reason for stripping it back so much……? Or is that this is the natural medium for these songs?

I’ve been writing songs at a piano for over a decade, but have always performed with a full rock band behind me. After doing the Last Supper tour (playing Crass songs with Steve Ignorant in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire) I had the confidence to try out some of my songs on an actual audience. I thought that one girl and a piano might get a bit tedious over an entire album. I wanted the listening experience to be an emotional journey: it starts off a bit tentative and shaky, then flows.

What kinds of artists/musical styles would you say influenced you in developing this album?

This is always a difficult question! My writing process basically involves sitting down at a piano, playing around and seeing what flows out of my brain. Afterwards, I sometimes think “oh, that sounds a bit like…” but to be honest, the comparisons people are making about my music are often artists I’ve never listened to, or at least not consciously studied and emulated. I’m sure a lot of songwriters feel the same way!

This material is clearly different from what you do in other musical partnerships?

Yes, my other projects at the moment are Wrecks, which is a rock/punk style 4 piece  http://wrecksmusic.com

I’m also playing piano in a new acoustic project with Steve Ignorant called Slice of Life http://Facebook.com/Steveignorantsliceoflife so yes, three very different bow strings!

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Given the propensity for breathy vocalisations as a current trend with female singers – a lot of the stuff I get in for review tends to copy that approach – it was refreshing to hear the way you attack the songs (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) – are you aware you are bucking a trend or are you indifferent to/unaware of that “mainstream”…..?

As I said earlier, it’s a Brechtian influence, focussing on the lyrical content. Attacking is a fine adverb for my vocal style, I like it. I don’t really listen to mainstream music (I assume you mean chart music?) but the far reaching mass media tentacles ensure over saturation of the same schmaltz, and imitation is the least sincere form of flattery.

Any plans for gigs with this material?

Yes, my album launch is on Friday 6th December at the Richmond Tea Rooms in Manchester. The Victorian themed festivities begin at 8pm and entry is free. Apart from this, I am currently setting up a UK tour for 2014.

Why the name Crystal Grenade?

It is a very cloudy metaphor for the impact created by my music. Or an oxymoronic commentary on the fragile beauty of latent violence. Or the name of a lost magickal relic. Or a character from Penny Dreadful. I can’t quite remember…

Looking at the lyrics they would appear to be in the most part couched in non-specific imagery rather than traditional linear narrative i.e. they evoke an emotional response rather than directly make a point – the exceptions are “Go Round Twice” which appears to be about a suicide……and “1892” which might be about domestic violence?

I wanted to create an atmosphere, build an emotional ambience. I don’t like being too specific in my lyrics, I like the idea that the listener can interpret what is going on through their own lens. I like your interpretations of the themes of those two songs.

The video to “Nothing to do with me” is very powerful and compliments the song perfectly – you seem to baring your soul and exorcising some demons? The words do appear to capture a lot of the frustrations I see in artists who are trying to get their work heard and appreciated in this “Uber-Warhol” age. Very brave of you to put yourself out the world like that. You seem to be tapping that raw emotion that I see in a lot of musicians/artists which is about not quite believing in the potential of their own material/art?

To be honest, I go through phases, as I’m sure a lot of people do. At times I am consumed with doubt and self loathing, and at other points I feel contented and proud of my achievements. The great thing about writing and performing is that, no matter what my mood, I get a thrill and sense of release. I’m happy to share my raw emotions with people and hope that by doing so, it helps someone, somewhere feel they are not alone in the world.

Sally Bowles or PJ Harvey? Or both?

Definitely Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. I’m borderline obsessive about that film.

And so to the album – which is  delightfully packaged and presented by Gonzo Multimedia.

There are eleven songs – the opening “Welcome to the Freak Show” evokes the carnival side-show atmosphere that Carole talks about, and is brief,  but it sets the scene well for what is to follow. What immediately strikes me is melodic invention in the songs. There are familiar tropes – tunes, chords, changes – but somehow it is all couched in something new. At one moment you are listening to what could be Sally Bowles belting out a Kender and Ebb tune, the next moment it’s Brecht/Weill in a smoky night-club  pre-Machtergreifung,  the next it’s a modern day chanteuse attacking the piano with the vim and vigour of a Ari Up or a Poly Styrene; and then it’s the heartfelt simplicity that made “White Chalk” by Polly Jean so memorable, but in that it’s nothing like Ms Harvey – indeed in “Lost for Words” you have the best in modern song-writing coming to the fore. None of it over-stays it’s welcome,  all of the tunes are the right length, and in the most part it’s just the vox and the piano, with the occasional over-dub on the vocals.

Having seen and heard Carole with Wrecks and the passion/effort she puts into a “rock” performance one can appreciate the control that she applies to these vocals. The singing  is both vital and arresting, compelling indeed, but at the same time there is a fragility that underpins the delivery. This is music at its’ primal best, emotionally rich, memorable and thought provoking. Words are not enough to describe the visceral and mental responses that this music delivers. You need to listen. I recognize that I do tend to be particularly effusive and monomaniacal about some of the music I support in these blogs and there can be a degree of hyperbole in my praise – but in this instance it is warranted. This is not music that you get up and leap about to – it is music for quiet reflection. It is truly sensational.

And now I have real dilemma in selecting my album of the year. So wonderful to have such a fantastic selection of music to choose from.

“You can run, you can hide, but you can never change what runs inside”

This album will featured with associated work from Carole in the Aural Delights Podcast on 21st November 2013.

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