From Fuerteventura to the Kent coast, from having a baby to her new album ‘In This Moment’, Polly Scattergood hasn’t exactly been sitting on her hands in the seven years since her last solo release
“It’s a small volcanic island, but it’s got these huge expanses of space. It’s quite barren and there’s not much rain. The beauty of that is you get these massive landscapes. It’s so cinematic. There’s one road that goes off into the distance as far as the eye can see. There are volcanoes and cactus plants, and the colours are all gold and the sky is blue, and it’s hot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the stars shine like they do there. They are so bright and beautiful. It’s a place where you can really appreciate nature and the world that we live in.”
If Polly Scattergood ever decides on a career change, she would make a fantastic travel agent. Listening to her describe the scenery of Fuerteventura, in a voice full of wistfulness and wonder, she builds a strong case for the Spanish island in the Atlantic Ocean, where she lived for almost a year with her husband and musical collaborator Glenn Kerrigan.
Polly Scattergood has certainly been on a journey, both literally and metaphorically. Her third album, ‘In This Moment’, is a chronicle of a significant chain of events, focusing in on themes of life, love and loss in the deeply personal way that is characteristic of her songwriting.
Following the release of Scattergood’s last long-player, her 2016 collaboration with James Chapman as onDeadWaves, she and Kerrigan decided it was time for a change. They upped sticks and left London, which had been their home for more than a decade. It was to be the first in a series of life-changing episodes that culminated in a move back to the UK and the birth of their baby daughter.
“We decided it was time to go somewhere else,” says Scattergood of the decision to swap the hustle and bustle of the UK capital for the calm plains of Fuerteventura. “London life had become sort of all-consuming and we needed to get out, to try something different. We both love travelling and we both love the sea. Glenn is very into his water sports. He loves windsurfing. We’d been to Fuerteventura a few times and we had some friends out there, so we thought, ‘You know what, this is the place for us’. It’s always felt like our spiritual home.”
The couple rented a small apartment by the beach that looked inward, over the desert.
“We used to compare it to our flat back in London, which overlooked the Holloway Road,” laughs Scattergood. “In Fuerteventura, you could open the window and gaze out over a vast area. There was nothing for miles and miles. You could see the goats walking past in the morning with their bells on. It was like being on the Moon – not that I’ve ever actually been to the Moon! I think it’s the type of place where people either get it, and fall deeply in love with it, or they don’t.
“There are some very touristy parts of the island, but where we were was pretty remote and just gorgeous. We had to bike for five kilometres to get to the local coffee shop. It was a totally different way of life. It was much slower. It gave us a chance to reassess what was important and be creative.”
The small artistic community of Fuerteventura provided Scattergood with an environment of kindred spirits. She describes the time, sitting in a cafe, she met a man who was a glassblower and also made musical instruments out of his glass.
“He said, ‘You have to come into the volcano one night and we’ll play these instruments’! You know, it’s amazing the magic that people can generate when given the space and time. The routine on the island was extremely laid-back. I spent a lot of time writing and I read a lot – poetry books, a lot of Leonard Cohen and Charles Bukowski. I tended to get through books very quickly.
“What pulled me into music from the beginning was the lyrics. Being away from everything I knew and having room to delve into what I love, gave me time to work on the art of songwriting and composition. It was pretty cool to be able to do that without having the pressure of London life and working to live. We were able to really enjoy living.”
Though the island setting provided the bedrock for what would become ‘In This Moment’, Scattergood explains that she didn’t explicitly set out to write the album during her time there. In terms of musical equipment, she and Kerrigan took only a guitar, a couple of keyboards, and their laptops.
“We didn’t have a load of stuff with us because, to be honest, when we first went out there our intention wasn’t to sit and make music. We only brought the bare essentials so we could do it if we felt like we wanted to. I was writing for myself out there. As a songwriter, you just keep writing. It’s what you do, like breathing. I did a small amount while we were there, but I made the decision to complete it when we got back to the UK.”
This minimal approach seems to have filtered down into ‘In This Moment’. Many of the songs are delicate and centred around simple arrangements, like the sombre, piano-driven ‘Anchor’, or the whispered, folksy ‘Bloom’, which rises and falls like a fragile breath.
“That was the sound I felt drawn to,” agrees Scattergood. “I realised this was the kind of record I wanted to make. My last solo album, ‘Arrows’, was more pop-driven. With this new work, I wanted it to have, like you said, some air around it. And I wanted it to feel very honest. It’s not like we were going to go into a big studio to record it. It was a product of my imagination and I wanted it to be completely real.”
The profound sense of space across the record gives Scattergood’s floaty vocals an ethereal quality and renders her stirring lyrics in an even more visceral light. It’s difficult to listen to ‘After You’, with its heart-wrenching line, “Tell me why do you insist on dying every time I close my eyes”, without being moved to tears. Likewise, the beautiful, moody ‘Silk Roses’ could have been plucked from the Leonard Cohen songbook.
“Oh wow, that’s a huge compliment!” she exclaims when I make the comparison. “That one was very much inspired by the Fuerte landscape and the lack of flowers out there. There are very few colourful flowers because it’s all cacti. I’m a big fan of Leonard Cohen, actually. I love the nuances, I love it when things go wrong, when you can hear the slight imperfections, like when your voice cracks. So I didn’t want to hide away and polish this too much.”
‘In This Moment’ really began to take shape when Scattergood and Kerrigan returned to the UK and settled on the Kentish coast.
“I fell pregnant with Sienna and we ended up moving back here, but closer to the beach this time,” she says. “When we came home, I realised I had quite a collection of new material. I was about eight months pregnant at that time and got into the mindset of making an album around the time that Sienna was born. It was all a bit of a whirlwind!”
Scattergood penned the songs on ‘Arrows’ in the attic of her flat, at a point when she says she had no money and only a simple keyboard set-up. There’s a sweet synchronicity this time round with ‘In This Moment’, which she explains was recorded in a small back bedroom at her home in Kent.
“We did pretty much the whole thing in that one room,” she says. “I’m sitting in it right now and it’s not big! If I had been going into a studio like I did with ‘Arrows’, I don’t think it would have ever been recorded. We’d literally just had Sienna. For the majority of the tracks, I would put her down to sleep and take the baby monitor into the studio. If she cried when I had my headphones on, the monitor would light up. It was a juggling act.
“We’re so lucky that we don’t have to go into huge studios to record now. I wouldn’t have gone into a big studio when Sienna was so young, obviously, but it was possible for me to do this because I was able to do it when she was asleep. I like fiddling around with things and the production takes a long time. It takes a long time to sculpt the sound that I want.
“There are a few arpeggiated parts on there, but most of it was played live. All of the percussion we used was more orchestral sounding, to give it that real feel. I craved that kind of sound for this one. I think if I’d been going to a studio outside of the house, it would definitely not be finished yet.”
As if recording an album soon after becoming a mother for the first time was not enough to contend with, Scattergood also made the decision that ‘In This Moment’ would mark the debut release under her own label, Future Paradise. She had previously been signed to Mute since 2007.
“We decided to build our own ship around this record. I’ve got an incredible team who are helping me to release it.”
She says that she still has “a very good relationship with Mute”, pointing to her recent collaboration with techno exponent and Mute labelmate Chris Liebing on the track ‘And All Went Dark’. The stark, brooding piece was a welcome opportunity to work on something totally different to her usual productions.
“Daniel Miller set up the initial idea,” she explains. “As soon as I started speaking to Chris, he sent these amazing emails about where the track was coming from. We had these long philosophical conversations, sometimes not at all to do with the music, and we talked about the feeling that we wanted to create. His whole album is so interesting, it’s like food for your ears. Putting a vocal like mine on a track like this was sort of weird, but in a really cool, wonderful way. It was totally new territory for me and I loved it. I hope that we can do more. We got on very well working together.”
Perhaps the next Polly Scattergood offering will be a surprise left-field techno odyssey, but for now she remains focused on ‘In This Moment’.
“I was searching this morning for little surprise gifts to include with my vinyl releases,” she says. “If lockdown wasn’t happening, I’m not sure I would have had time to do that. It’s always a bit of a strange time, just before you send an album out into the world.”
One of the early tracks, ‘Clouds’, has a particular resonance. Composed with Jim Sclavunos from Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, it was conceived at Scattergood and Kerrigan’s windowless studio in Camden, but completed in Fuerteventura a few months later, when Scattergood describes herself as “feeling much more at peace”. She says it came along at a crossroads in her life.
“When I started writing this record, Jim said, ‘Don’t spend too much time thinking about what it’s going to be, just write in the moment’. I very much took that on board and went with that.”
‘In This Moment’ is on Future Paradise