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The Anchoress talks us through her new album The Art of Losing

The Anchoress
(Image credit: Isabella Charlesworth)

Released last week, The Anchoress' second album, The Art Of Losing, has received high praise across the board as the reviews have rolled in. An intensely personal record, it pulls no punches as it explores themes of loss, abuse, illness and pain. Given the news headlines that have appeared after this weekend, some of those are more prevalent than ever. Here Catherine Anne Davies talks us through every track in the new record...

Prog

1. MOON RISE (PRELUDE)
The two instrumental piano and string pieces that bookend the The Art of Losing were always a part of the grand scheme for how the album would be structured around the cycle of the moon. I was listening to a lot of Max Richter at the time and just exploring the potential of composing without using my voice. I grew up playing in orchestras so it wasn’t entirely unnatural to return to the idea of conjuring emotion without any lyrical content. You’ll hear the first of many instances of the Leslie cabinet (a rotating speaker) on the album used to re-amp the piano in the opening section here. It gives it an underwater, other-worldy feeling: we are descending here into Hades, the underworld. The whole string section was rather unusually composed in ProTools, as I chopped up, layered, and looped sections  of cello that cellist Tim Bowen played in the single day session we had to record strings. 

2. LET IT HURT
This was one of those rare songs that came to me almost fully-formed. I wrote it on the upright Challen piano in my hallway (similar to that famously used by the Beatles at Abbey Road). I was on the way out to catch a train to London. Needless to say, I missed that train and caught this song instead. It addresses the central themes of the album; about allowing yourself to fully feel the experience of loss and grief. Too often we distract ourselves with work or defer the pain through other means. “Stop arguing with yourself” is me telling myself to stop, and feel the pain. The choruses are a homage to my ongoing obsession with shoehorning polysyllables into ballads. I’m quite proud of myself for managing to rhyme “monopoly” with “existential melancholy” and “misogyny”. And then I ended up adding the drums after the entire song had been recorded, which is not only an unusual order to do things when you’re making a record but also the absolute worst idea when you subsequently decide you want to speed the song up slightly... But when I’m producing an album, I don’t like obeying the rules.

3. THE EXCHANGE (feat. James Dean Bradfield)
I was so lucky that James Dean Bradfield from the Manic Street Preachers agreed to lend his vocal to this track. It was written as a duet that explores the toxic dynamic created by those that see people as puppets rather than as human beings. When I first pulled James’ vocal into the finished track I had one of those goosebump moments where you pinch yourself that one of your childhood idols is on your record. The power and emotion in his voice is what makes him one of my all-time favourite singers.  He’s a very inquisitive and intelligent musician. The legend that is Sterling Campell (who played drums for David Bowie for decades) also very kindly agreed to guest on the song. He’s a dream to work with and he nailed it first time from his studio in New York. We first met while I was touring in Australia and Sterling was playing with the mighty B-52s. We struck up a friendship through Mario McNulty (who also mixed on the album) and the rest is musical history...

4. SHOW YOUR FACE
After we’d duetted on The Exchange, I  was fortunate enough to also have James agree to add his signature angular guitar to Show Your Face while I was in the middle of Italy somewhere on a very long Simple Minds tour. I wrote the song in a mad last-minute flurry before the final drum sessions (along with the album’s title track). Both started as demos on the Oberheim OB6 synthesizer when I was listening to a lot of Depeche Mode and, unusually, I kept the original demo keyboards in the final track (mostly because the synth had swung dangerously out of tune and I couldn’t replicate the pitching). The title came from the idea of wanting someone to show their true character to the world. The news was full of Weinstein and Trump at the time and I was thinking a lot about toxic masculinity and how hard it is for women to call-out men in power. In terms of the album’s themes, it’s about the loss of friendship, the loss of faith in humanity. There is a real loss there - your memories of someone are now tainted. The phrase “you’ve got a nerve” just kept cycling around my head and I wrote a lot of it angrily marching to and from the supermarket, humming into my iPhone probably looking a little bit like a lunatic talking to myself... The title is an allusion to Psalm 102 - the prayer of the afflicted - a text that is deeply woven throughout the album’s lyrical themes.

5. THE ART OF LOSING
This song is the centre of the album thematically speaking. Every idea about interrogating loss and what we learn or gain from it is funnelled through this track. At times it felt like it might collapse under the weight of it all. In a way it’s a reworking of the Nietzschean themes I explored on my debut - “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” - but here, I guess, I’m arriving at a refutation of that myth, which I think is pretty destructive when you’re trying to rationalise grief and death. At this stage of making the album it just felt like an endless onslaught of loss that I couldn't try and neatly fit into a philosophical package anymore. I recorded lots of the vocal in a hotel room in Italy using a pair of tights as an improvised pop-shield. So much of the album was edited and reworked on planes and trains travelling across Europe with Simple Minds in the late summer of 2018. It was just an abysmal time for me personally and the only way I could keep going was to keep on working in stolen hours and in transit on the mini recording rig I'd brought with me. This certainly wasn’t an “enjoyable” album to make but it’s absolutely the record of how to just keep putting one foot in front of the other in the face of unimaginable pain. The track was mixed by Mario McNulty in New York. We’d been talking about working together ever since we struck up a friendship online after Confessions... came out. I was a fan of his work with David Bowie and he loved the first album..

6. ALL FAREWELLS SHOULD BE SUDDEN
This song considers the various religious narratives about what happens after we die. I felt surrounded by death at the time of writing - I was mourning my Dad and had found out my baby had no heartbeat at the 12 week scan, hence the closing refrain -  “I am death”. I felt like I was literally carrying death around with me. The overlaying of the funeral bells and wedding bells at the end of the track seemed like an apt but morbid sonic signature for where my own life had ended up at the time of writing. The line “will we fold and do it all again” came out of me obsessively watching the Villeneuve film Arrival around this time where the lead character chooses the path of pain even though she knows that her daughter will die. She still chooses the time they will have together - something I think we would all do. Sonically speaking, it’s the missing link between the first album and the second: I purposefully re-used a lot of the instruments and palettes from that time. The sound is the same but yet everything has changed. 

7. ALL SHALL BE WELL
I was so lucky that Father Simon Cutmore agreed to lend his voice to this segue. We both share a love for the original Anchoress - Julian of Norwich - and I knew that she had to be a part of the album’s story. Father Simon humoured me by recording himself in rooms and church halls of varying sizes until I was happy with the acoustics and natural reverb. At this point of making the album I had given up on all commercial considerations and just wanted to fully realise this huge conceptual framework across which the songs would hang. There’s prodigious use of the Watkins Copicat in this track which featured heavily, (alongside the Leslie Cabinet) in my box of sonic tricks for the album - no relying on digital plugins for effects - all done the old-fashioned way. 

8. UNRAVEL
This song considers the age-old loss of love and how you reconfigure yourself after the end of a relationship. I’d demoed an earlier incarnation of it many years ago but knew as soon as the album theme made itself known that it had to be resurrected and set about completely re-recording it using the Oberheim OB6 and a programmed kit. The original middle eight became the new chorus and I locked myself in a cupboard to record the vocal to capture that sense of claustrophobia when you feel as if you don’t know where to turn. The line “I thought I’d die, I thought I’d died” - conjures that feeling of imminent collapse when you’re in the midst of experiencing something you don’t think you can cope with and also the utter numbness of grief as the body protects itself. Sonically speaking, I had great fun playing lots of guitar through old chorus pedals (in homage to The Cure) that had been gathering dust. I also spent a whole day reversing each note on the piano to try and find the perfect bookends to the opening and closing of the song. 

9. PARIS
The segues were always an integral part of how I had the album planned out. I can’t help but think of narratives in novelistic terms and these instrumental sections (although many later had added “voices”) provide the additional plot points that pull the individual threads of the songs together across the album. The “voices” are part-dreamscape, part-commentary and were also the opportunity to ask some of my friends to appear on the album. There’s quite a few scattered references here to Psalm 102 - the prayer of the afflicted (which is a thread that runs through all the segue sections) -  as well as a few sly references back to the first album. There’s another reading list for those that want it...

10. 5AM
This song looks at a triptych of abusive and traumatic situations that seems sadly all too universal to the experience of women: domestic abuse, sexual assault and the loss of a child.  I wanted it to be unassuming and quiet in its treatment of something which is typically seen as so dramatic and awful. The refrain of “red red blood is dripping on the carpet” ties together the physical horror of all three experiences. It’s this horror that is revisited in each verse and can’t be spoken of, manifesting itself in insomnia: “and I can’t sleep/and I can’t speak”. I honestly wasn’t sure if anyone would ever hear this song but in the final few weeks of mixing it suddenly just made itself known very loudly to me and it felt like it needed to be on there. We recorded a version in Studio 2 at Abbey Road with two very dear friends of mine and we all had to stop after the first verse and start again because it’s such a difficult song to perform. 

11. THE HEART IS A LONESOME HUNTER
This was the very first song I recorded for the album sessions and I played the bulk of it on a vintage Epiphone Casino and 1962 Telecaster guitar. As with most of the songs on the record, I play everything on the track apart from the military percussion (which was overdubbed at a later date).The title is taken from the beautiful southern gothic Carson McCullers novel (but I changed “lonely” to “lonesome” as it scanned better when I sang it) but there’s also a reference to the D.H. Lawrence novella in there too - The Virgin And The Gypsy. The line “But the Lord has to take him from me for a song” is about the sacrifices that we make for art and how those griefs can turn themselves into songs - an unhelpful construct that I’d completely abandoned by the time the album had wrapped. I would have happily traded in the album to not have gone through the subsequent 18 months.

12. MY CONFESSOR
I  was in the middle of laying down the guitar on this track when my Mum called me to tell me that my Dad had died. Associating it so strongly with such a traumatic day in my life,  I never really wanted to finish it after that. It was just too difficult for a long time to revisit it. But as with all things difficult in my life so far, I ultimately saw it as a challenge that I had to take on and win. The middle eight is my best Jeff Buckley impression. Unusually, the vocal is just two takes - I felt I captured the emotion of the song better that way than my usual painstaking editing approach. 

13. WITH THE BOYS
This is a much older song that I revisited for the album because it seemed like it had been written especially for this project. This happens sometimes that a song calls you back asking to be retrieved. The themes of control and expression seemed to resonate so strongly with what the album was turning out to be that I couldn’t ignore it and rescued it from the “pile”.  In terms of recording, I tackled it very simply - a single live take on the (borrowed) wurlitzer in the control room in the studio, singing along live to get the “feel” just right and then re-recording the vocal back at my studio at home to capture the intimacy it needed. It’s a song about the perils of operating in a world dominated by men and the cost and price of doing business in that world “gotta know what bruises are for”. I’m struck by how clearly I grasped that at the age of 19 when I had yet to encounter the truly darker side of the industry - it’s all laid out there in the song. No lyrical changes were made. 

14. MOON (AN END)
This is the final instrumental bookend to the album - a deliberate echo of the opening “prelude” but this time with the dreamscape voices of the other instrumental segues reappearing to finish the story and pull together the threads of the album in a meditation of grief and what it means to move through it. Psalm 201 returns in its shattered pieces for its final reprise here alongside a collage of my best friend in Canada reading from Joan Didion, mixer Mario McNulty generously making his recording performance debut, and a host of the fragmented voices from throughout the album pondering the options of  “just death and more death”. As in life, I don’t think the making of the album turned up any new solutions but I came to rest upon the sure certainty of moving forwards through it all. The album ends with me telling myself: “for once in your life: just let it go”