Interview: Emma Pollock

Emma Pollock, photographed by Jenny Lewis, 2007

They say ‘You should never meet your idols.’ What if they don’t live up to your expectations? What if someone you have admired for donkey’s years turns out not to be so admirable? What if you’ve put your trust in, erm, false idols?

Well, 17 seconds got to meet the high priestess of the Scottish indie scene, Emma Pollock. And it turns out that she’s utterly down to earth, prepared to meet for not one but two chats with this humble Scottish blog to chat about her solo debut, Watch The Fireworks, the break-up of the Delgados, and much more besides…

We first meet in Edinburgh one hot late afternoon, where she’s driven (herself) over to appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She picks me up from my flat and we head to a café with her young son in tow (sensibly named).

Once coffee has been ordered, I begin by asking her about the Ballads Of the Book album, the collaboration of Scottish acts who have set music to new poems by Scottish writers, curated by Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble. It’s not the first time that she has collaborated with Poets, last year she toured as part of an English Arts Council group called Phrased and Confused. ‘That was a very interesting thing to do. I’m not sure how well it worked,’ she says, a little uncertainly, ‘but one of the things that came out of it for me was the song ‘A Glorious Day.’ ‘ This song, bizarrely relegated to the b-side of her first debut single ‘Adrenaline’ had been one of the highlights of her solo show at Edinburgh’s Cabaret Voltaire a few days previously. ‘ When you’ve got the lyrics already there…you’ve got the parameters already fixed. The melody can come across a lot more conversationally if there’s a lot of words to try and get in. Whereas normally I would try and write the music first.’

This leads me onto what is already apparent from the few tracks that have been heard before the album comes out: the tracks are a lot more piano driven than the work she did with The Delgados. Was this a conscious decision? Amazingly, it seems she barely played the piano before this album.
‘If you don’t know how to play an instrument, you end up playing chords that you don’t know what they’re called, and you tend to keep them.’ There’s now a different approach generally as a solo artist. ‘With The Delgados, there were songs I tended to take a back seat on, and songs that I didn’t.’ Now although she’s assembled a live band, there’s a definite feeling that she’s a solo artist, which she says she finds both terrifying and liberating.

The Delgados started up their own label, Chemikal Underground, in 1994, to release their debut single ’Monica Webster.’ The roster over the years has included some of the best music from Scotland, but most definitely further afield as well, from then on. She’s still continues to run the label but admits that she hasn’t been into the office for a while. Yet as a solo artist, she’s signed to the legendary indie 4AD. ’ She’d been a big fan of the label since her school days. ‘I was a really big fan of The Breeders and The Pixies. They were hugely influential of my decision to start playing. I was also really influenced by Pavement, the American scene. Ironically, although 4AD is a label which originated in Britain, it soon became synonymous with the American scene.’ Though doubly ironically, many of the acts, most notably The Pixies, made a bigger impact more quickly in the UK than their homeland.

I ask her if she’s prepared to discuss The Delgados, mindful of the fact that songs like ‘Acid Test’ and ‘Fortune’ deal with her frustration and unsettlement after the split of the band. She’s quite comfortable to talk about this. I ask her if there’s likely to be a farewell tour, as she has said that she doesn’t think they really said goodbye. ‘No,’ she‘s quietly. ‘It took me a long time to get over the idea that so much of life is chance. You can work hard and get a reward, and then realise it’s all gone. I do believe there’s a fair element of chance involved as well as the necessity to work hard.’

Her solo debut, when I hear it, is a stunning piece of work that deserves to be up there with the likes of Malcolm Middleton and Penny Century. It’s sufficiently still a showcase for her work that should keep Delgados fans happy and also win her fans in her own right. There’s sufficiently enough of both quiet and load moments, as with her old band. ‘For all our loud moments, we [The Delgados] certainly knew when to keep quiet.’

Having chatted for twenty minutes, we have to break off, as she has to appear at the Book Festival to promote Ballads Of The Book and then head off to appear at both legs of the V festival in Staffordshire. Over the next two weeks, we try to arrange a time to catch up. To her eternal credit, it is she who rings me to try and confirm times, rescheduling once when she is offered a last minute slot at Connect. When I’d told her that I hadn’t been sent a promo copy of the album, she’d actually taken my address and got her PR company to send it out to me.

We catch up again at the beginning of September in Glasgow, near to where she and her family live on the south side of the city. By this time I’ve heard the album, and been enjoying digesting it.

‘[Connect] was very last minute.’ She was actually the first act on, on the second stage. It’s the first year that Connect has run, and she says she found it a lovely site. It sounds like the set went down well. ‘There was a crowd for the soundtrack, which was funny. Then I played to people, it went down well, it was good fun.’ Much better than V07, which she found a very mainstream festival. Appearing on a small stage, she only got a small crowd. ‘You get generous audiences earlier on, but it kind of thins out towards the evening. Amy MacDonald] apparently had a small audience -and you can buy her CD in the supermarket!’ she says, amused at the thought. At least it wasn’t violent like The Delgados’ experience of the first T in the Park, when it was held in Strathclyde Park. ‘That’s a park you don’t want to be in after dark.’ It transpires that her bandmate Alun Woodward got punched after providing the wrong answer to someone who asked him which football team he supported. ‘How do you answer that on the west coast of Scotland?’ she asks, incredulous at the narrow mindedness and ugliness that can spoil life in Scotland.

Although she was born in Perth, she was raised in Castle Douglas, before coming to study at University in Glasgow. Chemikal Underground was run from her and Paul Savage’s kitchen table, including when Bis famously got on Top of the Pops with ‘Kandy pop.’ They’ve subsequently relocated, and she’s proud that they’ve been there the longest of any company in the block they are now based in. They’ve certainly had a major impact on the landscape of the independent scene, being responsible for signing Mogwai and Arab Strap, amongst many others. She agrees that there is perhaps a perception of them as being a Scottish label – but is quick to point out that bands like Magoo and the Radar Brothers weren’t Scottish. The Delgados reached the hallowed portals of the number one spot in John Peel’s Festive Fifty in 1998, with ‘Pull The Wires From The Wall.’ The memory of this is still special to her, if a little bizarre: she was in the supermarket when she got the call.
I ask her about what the rest of the year involves, and it sounds pretty busy. She’s going to be supporting King Creosote in the UK and then the New Pornographers in the US, and ‘Paper and Glue’ will likely be the third single off the album.

We head off from the café together, and she’s good enough to accompany me back to me car to sign my copy of The Great Eastern, the album for which The Delgados were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2000. Ultimately they were beaten to it by Badly Drawn Boy’s debut The Hour Of Bewilderbeast. For the last thirteen years, this friendly and important singer and musician has made staggeringly great music. It would be nice to think that the commercial recognition will follow with this album.

Emma Pollock’s official website is here and her MySpace is here

Emma Pollock -‘Adrenaline.’ mp3

Emma Pollock -‘Limbs.’ mp3

Watch The Fireworks will be released by 4AD on September 17.

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