When Clay Pipe Music celebrated 10 years of releasing electronica with a distinct connection to place, founder Frances Castle took a wistful ramble through the winding country lanes of a label with a beguilingly calm appeal
The days of the week have separate colours for me,” says Frances Castle, thoughtfully. “Monday is yellow, Tuesday is turquoise, Wednesday is green, Thursday is orange and Friday is a kind of burnt ochre. A dark yellow. Weird, isn’t it?”
What about the weekend?
“Dark blue, perhaps. Or maybe Saturday is red? Weekends are harder because it all comes from being at school. We used to go swimming on a Tuesday, and turquoise is such a swimming pool colour. Then we did sport on a Wednesday, so green was obviously the grass on the field.”
The lingering synaesthesia of Frances’ childhood has arguably set the template for the ethos of Clay Pipe Music, the label she founded in 2010 after establishing her reputation as an illustrator. Over the last decade, she has thrived on exploring the lesser-trodden connections between deceptively disparate elements.
There’s the hinterland between traditional folk and electronica for a start, a balance found with unerring precision by a roster of sympathetic artists. The imprint also blurs the lines between the nostalgic and the contemporary. The anonymous ‘Tyneham House’ is a flute-drenched meander around the remains of an abandoned wartime village, while Jon Brooks’ ‘Shapwick’ creates a radiophonic journey through a crepuscular Somerset hamlet that seems to fizzle backwards and forwards in time.
But, perhaps most affectingly, Clay Pipe effortlessly bridges the gap between the urban and the rural – quite literally in the case of Gilroy Mere’s 2017 album, ‘The Green Line’, a touching homage to the mid-20th century bus service linking central London with the alluringly rustic charms of Sussex and Kent. This dichotomy seems to have its roots in Frances’ own formative days, her metropolitan upbringing in Kew, west London, punctuated by regular forays into the surrounding countryside.
“My grandparents on my dad’s side lived in rural Sussex and my other grandparents lived in Cookham, Berkshire, where the artist Stanley Spencer lived. He painted lots of pictures of the village. They knew him, actually. Spencer had a wife and a lover, and these were all people my grandparents used to discuss. They’d talk about ‘Stanley this’ and ‘Stanley that’.”
While Spencer was vividly transplanting biblical scenes into the Berkshire landscape, Frances’ grandfather Frank Sherwin was following a mellower artistic muse. His postwar railway posters have become iconic symbols of 1950s Britain, depicting a pastoral utopia of steam trains rumbling through bucolic landscapes and sleepy seaside hamlets. Frances’ own distinctive illustrations are remarkably redolent of them, particularly the evocative sleeve art that has become an integral part of the Clay Pipe aesthetic.
“I wasn’t all that aware of his railway prints as a kid,” she says. “He was a watercolour artist who used to sell his work to card manufacturers, but it’s the posters he’s now remembered for. Granny painted as well. They were both extremely creative, and of course they encouraged me. I was very lucky. It’s funny – the comparisons are something I’ve only really noticed in the last 10 years. But when I look at the lines and shapes in my stuff, I can see it.”
It sounds like an idyllic childhood.
“Yeah,” she nods. “I was happy, although I didn’t do terribly well at school. I was good at art but pretty bad at maths and really bad at spelling. I took some music lessons – I played the recorder and the clarinet – and I wasn’t particularly good at those, either. But I was obsessed with fishing out at Odney near Cookham Lock on the Thames. I made a rod out of a bamboo pole and a bit of wire, then saved up for a proper one from Woolworths. Skateboarding as well – I was quite the tomboy.
“Then puberty hit and suddenly I was more interested in Jackie magazine,” she laughs. “I got into indie, and the first gig I ever went to was The Monochrome Set at Kingston Polytechnic when I was about 15. Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn played, too. It was around the same time that ‘Pillows & Prayers’ came out.”
Pillows & Prayers’, the eclectic 1982 Cherry Red compilation album, remains one of the most enduring relics of the post-punk indie scene, juxtaposing the bedsit jazz of Everything But The Girl alongside spikier offerings by Felt and The Nightingales. Its DIY character inspired a new direction for the teenage Frances. In the late 1980s, after eschewing A-Levels for an art foundation course, she then left London and enrolled at Lincoln College of Art.
“I did an HND in illustration and graphics, and I played in an indie band called Maxim Gorky’s Memoirs,” she recalls. “The guitarist had left, so I was brought in, but I was pretty useless. I didn’t even have my own guitar – I had to borrow one. We had three rehearsals and booked a gig, but we never got good enough to play it. And it wasn’t twee indie, it was more punky. I remember a song about Agent Orange.
“Later on, when I moved back to London, I developed a love of fanzines. I used to write short stories, photocopy them and put them into little booklets. They were all about slightly odd young people – characters I related to, a lot of bedsit-land stuff. One was about a peculiar boarding house during a very hot summer. The wallpaper started melting and the glue brought on bizarre hallucinations. I was heavily influenced by Ian McEwan. I’d just read ‘The Cement Garden’ and it had a big impact, that sense of creeping strangeness.”
Frustrated with the lack of employment opportunities for a shy, 21-year-old illustrator – “I was really not very mature,” she sighs – she embarked on a career path that seems inexplicably incongruous to those of us who revel in the calm, often pre-technological stillness of Clay Pipe’s releases. Players of the ‘Die Hard Trilogy’ – the 1996 Playstation take on Bruce Willis’ exhausting cinema blockbusters – will have inadvertently encountered the earliest examples of Frances’ commercial artwork in the animated introduction. Staggeringly, she also designed the children’s faces for the multi-million selling ‘Harry Potter’ Playstation games.
“You had something like 64 by 64 pixels to get the likenesses right!” she laughs, despairingly. “I worked in computer games for 10 years. Then I started to realise I could use computers to make electronic music, too. I had a piece of software called Making Waves, and that’s how I got into it – using samples, recording to a four-track, and mixing in an old Korg Delta synthesiser. I recorded as Transistor Six in the late 1990s but I didn’t know what I was doing. I used to sample weird Hawaiian music and sing over it.”
Debut album ‘Green Vegetable Monster’, complete with photocopied cassette inlay, was released in 1997. Two years later, her ‘Post Office Tower’ EP exhibited many of the elements that have come to define the Clay Pipe spirit. Over Joe Meek-style electronica, she sings wistfully of this iconic landmark and its endearingly analogue technology: “In the restaurant we’ll eat, while London gently spins and turns / Beneath the glass we’ll watch messages / Sent from satellites that never, never, never, never stop…”
In conversation, Frances is quietly eccentric, her self-effacement concealing a life of fascinatingly off-beat adventures. We’ve spoken many times previously, but never before has she mentioned her crucial involvement with the founding of the now internationally renowned artistic movement, Stuckism. Not once. Helmed by the provocative tag team of Billy Childish and Charles Thomson, the group railed against the ubiquity of modern conceptual art and sought to restore the reputation of traditional figurative painting.
“I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, have I?” she beams. “Yes, I was a Stuckist. I was friends with Sexton Ming – he and his wife lived round the corner – and I was doing paintings of monsters! Very different to what I do now. So we were a group of people who got together and held an exhibition in London. But I grew fed up with it. I don’t want to bitch about it, but it was an ‘anti’ movement and I’m not really anti-anything. I just like painting.
“Interestingly though, one of my Stuckist paintings sold to a wealthy woman who lived in Highgate. Last year, I got a phone call from Dalston police station saying they’d found it abandoned on the road. It was a bit strange – a monster, with all kinds of contraptions attached to it. Basically, a monster being milked. They saw my name on the back, googled me, and were laughing because they thought the painting was so funny.”
In 2010, after almost a decade of “making stuff, but not really finishing it”, Frances founded Clay Pipe Music, initially as a home for her own resurgent musical ambitions. A burgeoning interest in the layers of history barely concealed beneath London’s urban landscape was a driving factor behind its inception.
“For a few years before the label started, my partner John and I used to go mudlarking on the River Thames,” she recalls. “We’d just walk along, picking things up, and we found a lot of clay pipes. They’re personal artefacts. The last person to have held one could have lived 200 years ago – a dock worker, a sailor, or just someone walking along the river bank. The oldest pipes are really small because tobacco was much harder to get in the 16th century, but Victorian clay pipes are larger. We picked up absolutely loads.
“So when I was trying to think of a name, Clay Pipe seemed perfect. I was going to include them with my releases – everyone gets a free clay pipe! I had a plastic bag full of them. It’s still in a cupboard somewhere.”
The label’s debut release, ‘The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath’, saw Frances recording under a new pseudonym, The Hardy Tree – a name with origins also buried in the murky strata of London’s social and economic history.
“The Hardy Tree is in the grounds of St Pancras Old Church,” she explains. “When St Pancras railway station was being built in the 1860s, the novelist Thomas Hardy was working for the architect. To accommodate the railway lines, the gravestones had to be moved, and he’s said to have suggested stacking them around the tree. Over the years the roots have grown through them.”
‘The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath’ has been reissued on vinyl to mark Clay Pipe’s 10th anniversary and – a decade on – it remains a charming collection of offbeat chamber pop and wistful, fractured instrumentals. There’s also a debut vinyl pressing for the label’s second release, the folkier ‘Thalassing’ – Kerrie Robinson and Michael Tanner’s alluring, improvised tribute to the melancholy of the British coastline.
In transgressing its origins amid the DIY world of the handmade CD-R, the label has forged its own sense of being, a landscape of reflective stillness now so complex and layered that its roots and historical strata are worthy of gentle investigation.
“It’s definitely about place,” she nods. “But it doesn’t have to be about anywhere in particular. I’m always keeping an eye open for new artists. I don’t want to repeat myself or sit still and bring out the same record over and over again. So, coming after the reissues is a new album by D Rothon. It’s not an obvious one for Clay Pipe as it’s about his memories of space and the cosmos when he was growing up, but I think it’s beautiful.”
Connections, it seems, continue to be created. And Frances Castle’s Clay Pipe label has become a refuge, a perfectly-formed haven of exquisite quietude. A home for lost things, splintered memories, buried treasure and faded childhoods, where the future lies amid distant constellations but Wednesdays remain reassuringly green.
‘The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath’ and ‘Thalassing’ are out now on Clay Pipe Music