An Artist Living in an Edgeland: An Interview With LoneLady
"If you've been shaped by a brutish environment," Manchester artist LoneLady tells PopMatters, "You don't have the luxury of making 'soft' music."
I first heard about LoneLady in 2011, and was immediately deeply intrigued by the sound of her work.
My first exposure to her was an interview in a free music paper. As the journalist probed the influences on her debut, the soon-to-be highly acclaimed Nerve Up, there were none of the allusions to grubby hedonism, Camden-dwelling, and nu-rave I had come to expect in promotional music interviews. There was none of the usual "love me, I’m decadent" stuff, from people secretly surprised their work was being listened to at all. In fact it was impossible to trace any attempt to solicit adoration at all.
LoneLady mastermind Julie Campbell was deeply, unashamedly, in thrall to the work of Factory Records artists. She clearly mined their work, finding within them a whole, untapped index of creative riches and atmospheres. Also lingering around the margins of the interview was the admission that she was haunted by these influences; not just their work, but perhaps even more the cityscapes they emerged from. Public Image Limited, Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle all made music that pulsed, moaned and ached with the tower blocks, ghostly nightclubs. and bleak crescents in which they were doubtless conceived. Campbell did not shy away from acknowledging their ghostly presence in her own life. Anyone who imbibes artistic work so deeply cannot help but intrigue. After all, where else is there to look for answers in the present day?
I was not disappointed by her debut, which says a lot given how much I hoped to gain from it. In a strange twist of fate, her brother was a fellow student on my PhD course. He put us in touch, thinking we’d get on.
This interview is the sum of our discussions, which we conducted as I researched my new novel about post-punk and Manchester, entitled How I Left The National Grid. These discussions ended close to the release of Campbell’s long-awaited second album, Hinterland. Following the singles "Groove It Out" and "Bunkerpop", Groove It Out was released by Warp Records on 23 March 2015.
PopMatters: Around the time of "Nerve Up", comparisons were made between you and Factory Records artists from the '80s, such as Joy Division. In interviews you talked of how, for you, Manchester is haunted by its "musical history" and the "musicians who still remain". What is it about Manchester that evokes this sense of "haunting" for you?
Julie Campbell: In terms of being a fan of Joy Division, for me they have become so intractably part of the fabric of Manchester that -- to borrow from Nick Papadimitrous -- they are the region. I hear them spiraling through empty buildings, along patches of scrubland, over bridges, under the canal. It’s fanciful, but so what?
Though I love Joy Division, they, and Factory, are not the only touchstones for Nerve Up. There's a great legacy, but there are so many other histories, voices, and stories, and I think it’s time to hear about these too.
Regions and histories overlap and get merged in my mind. I read recently "The Ghost is the really permanent citizen of this earth, for mortals, at best, are transients." I get carried away with this... searching for presences, visitations.
Sometimes the haunting is invited, sometimes not; it’s malleable. A haunted space coexists behind the surface. Spatial and temporal boundaries shift. Manchester's post-industrial landscape lends itself very well to a haunting.
All of this is my idea of fun.
I recently watched the interview with you and Paul Morley, who was a huge champion of your work when you first came into the public eye. I know you are a fan of his writing too. What is it about writers and artists from this era that so appeals to you?
I like his declamatory, impressionistic style; it adds dimensions to already thrilling music/geographies/histories. He's passionate about his subjects and not afraid to show that, or risk ridicule.
The "old" lifestyles are atomizing at exponential speed. The unquestioning supplanting of almost every aspect of our lives with the latest technology seems to make us not freer, faster, better but more dependent and vulnerable. Better to be selective.
In the pre-internet era, perhaps, there's a sense of the music being more unfettered, less tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps it’s where technology was up to, the synthesizers and drum machines still tactile, needing human interaction, still liable to wonky idiosyncrasies. Inventiveness borne out of resourcefulness. A DIY aesthetic. More space for the imagination to unfold at its own pace. An urgency and a kind of existentially "awake" quality.
I'm not dogmatic about this era though, nor do I limit myself to it; of course it’s about the individual or group and how she/he/they approach making music, what tools they use. There's no right or wrong. I like to combine the old and new; a Tascam reel-to-reel / ProTools, whatever. One thing for sure is that time spent at my laptop is not as fun, stimulating, and inviting for me in the way an 8-track or drum machine is.
We also talked about the influence of Martin Hannett’s production on Unknown Pleasures, and how he created "incredible atmospheres". I think on Nerve Up you succeeded in also creating a very distinct atmosphere. I wonder, were you aiming to capture the "edgelands" of the city there, or create an "edgeland" of your own, on record?
I wanted it to crackle with energy and clarity, and retain the intimacy of a home-recorded aesthetic. This, in a sense, was the "edgeland". I was trying to achieve. It was just myself and Guy Fixsen recording in a bleak room I'd made out of breezeblocks in the shell of a damp crumbling mill in the truly Satanic area of Miles Platting. I don't necessarily mean this as an insult, I like it there!
Some of those songs first existed as four-track home recordings; I was using minimal means and this informed the aesthetic. It is not, for example an intentionally bass-less record; I just didn't, and don't, think in terms of conservative/traditional arrangements. I started out with a crappy keyboard and a few other bits and pieces (but no bass guitar) and this small armory of tools instilled a love of the economical, the stripped, the stark, the trebly and harsh. The metallic kkkshkc- crack of an electronic snare is one of my favorite sounds and I have to ration my use of it. I've yet to make a truly minimal record; it’s a thrill to try and pare things down. I listened to Nerve Up for the first time in ages recently and liked it a lot; it took me very definitely to a "space" sonically speaking and it was vigorously lively and sharp.
Nerve Up describes, sometimes obliquely, those early tower block years, discovering the simple delights of a Tascam Porta studio, playing my Tele for hours on end along to a drum machine. I also think of Davenport, (near Stockport) where I first used to rehearse in a mill in return for hoovering the carpets and so on. Nerve Up is full of personal narratives. It’s like an unruly kid with dirty knees.
I love the architectural space in Joy Division's music, the dimensionality of it. I like how Hannett denuded the drums of their rock 'n' roll, making them far more compelling, sort of remote and cruel. Part conjury, part-architecture. Seems a good way to approach production.
Being a solo artist has often very closely resembled being a recluse or a hermit, not something I consciously planned. I suppose the name LoneLady (unintentionally) reflects that, and has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So watch out what you name yourself: it has transformative powers. Ruminating, daydreaming and imagining are pretty much my key "skills". Writing songs is a way to invoke worlds, to fabricate other new realities. Being an artist is like living in an edgeland.
With reference to Manchester you’ve talked of how "the memory is full of layers of ghost-like remembrance / imaginings." Do you think people can mentally make an impression on the landscape, which others are able to pick up on? Carl Jung’s theory of collective unconscious might be relevant here. Or is this for you more a private occurrence, between one person and a place?
I'm not fully familiar with Jung's theory. I like the idea that there might be an unseeable force field. I like Marconi's theory that no sound ever dies, but still exists in ghost vibrations, recoverable. EVP, paranormal, telekinesis -- all these things exist on some level.
I always see something newly revealed, erased or changed in some way on a walk/wander. If you're receptive and willing, everything around you becomes animated with a rich inner life, free from fixed meaning. All these processes take place in the imagination so it is necessarily private at first; I use these skills, if that's what they are, as starting points for creative work.
Manchester is obviously not the only English city to have had powerful, commercial narratives placed onto it. During the 2012 Olympics, London was powerfully remolded to fit a new narrative, one which required bulldozing over various sites and marginal areas. I wonder if, in bludgeoning a space into a singular narrative we lose the possibility of reclaiming a site as our own?
Thankfully -- as yet -- you can't cordon off the imagination. City planning ought sometimes to be handed over to the dreamers. Manchester feels so corporate. Its slogan "We Do Things Differently Here" may once have been true, but not now. I continually see great buildings pulled down because they don't serve a useful (i.e. profitable) purpose. Stories and pieces of history demolished forever. They ought to be valued, ought to co-exist alongside the new. Manchester [centre] is a land of cheap student accommodation and luxury apartments.
In some of our past conversations we’ve talked about Manchester in relation to what some call "psycho-geography", and others "deep topography". You mentioned city walks you’d undertaken. As an artist, what have you gained from these explorations?
I didn't know about psycho-geography, or all the movements and practices around it. But when I did find it, I knew this was a way to describe what it was I had been doing all along. I love Iain Sinclair, Laura Oldfield Ford, and so on, but it’s important to not become too suffused with other peoples' dialogues. I want to develop my own language, continue my strange quests and not always explain them.
I think people are intrigued by ruin, whether it’s a castle in a fairytale or a dilapidated mill. They all open up the potential for new narratives; new voices are released. It’s now a playful site of invention.
It’s also about working with what you've got, about being open to the transformative potential of something apparently unremarkable. A patch of scrubland, a cracked forecourt, an overgrown canal path. Walls, concrete. Trying to invest these things with new magic and meaning. As a way to perhaps recover and discover the magic and meaning in my life.
In your essay "Severe Beauty" you talked of "brute territories" as being places you wanted to be. When you described how they are like "vast storehouses awaiting awakening", you recalled for me that quote from Walter Benjamin, where they were called "residues of a dream world". Why do these "brute territories" offer so much you? What do you think we can gain from these latent sites?
Process and emergence; how the functional or incidental gradually transforms and is transformed. Becoming, over time, receptive to previously hidden qualities that you didn't at first notice. Resourcefulness meets willed delusion, perhaps. I didn't consciously seek out brute territories or totems, but that has been my landscape for some years now; its aesthetic is now entirely a part of me. If depression was architectural form, it might perhaps be Brutalism: the intractable seeming severity of it, the blank unyielding statement of it. At the same time, I think concrete monoliths are supremely thrilling, sexy structures.
Photo from LoneLady's official page on Warp Records
You mentioned how you feel "consoled" by such sites, and that they offer "gateways" to you. I was struck by your choice of words. My writing has been heavily influenced by marginal spaces in Manchester too. In my work I explore the fanciful idea that how certain parts of the city are like portals, giving me access to my own personal meaning of the city. What is it, I wonder, that makes us hanker for these gateways and portals? Does this retreat into marginal spaces express a dissatisfaction, or need to escape the contemporary, overriding narratives regarding how we live?
I think it’s something to do I think with a split. Recluse-behaviour. Dereliction, rubble, lost-ness. Anxiety patterns. It’s a retreat into the landscape; I'm not necessarily recommending it. Sometimes these ruinscapes are a reflection of an abject mental state, of depression and anxiety. There can be dangerous gateways, both in music and in the landscape. Walking or psycho-geography is a way to recover, to soothe, to utilize these states. In "The London Perambulator", Nick Papadimitrious referring to his landscape as an "ally" moved me. I totally get that. There's solace in a patch of scrubland or derelict building, because it seems to reflect your mental state and understand. It offers a habitat, a place to belong. There's an oblique but deeply felt connection and communication.
We’ve talked before about how the built environment changes us and our relationships. You said that, having lived in a tower block in Hulme, you’d become "brutalized." I thought this was a very useful description. Writers like JG Ballard obviously explored the effects of the built environment. How do you think these harsh, built environments effect how we behave and relate to one another?
I lived in the Hulme tower block for a short while, but have lived in this tower block next to the Mancunian Way much longer. At this point in my life, I absolutely feel brutalized by my surroundings. Built environments can be invigorating, but if out of balance, it’s like a pressure cooker. Compressed by the hard surfaces. Terrorized by endless noise. Homelessness visibly increasing just outside my window. Aggression -- my own, and that of others -- accumulating with no release valve. Everybody should have access to a bit of green space or water, or a clear wide view, in order to re-connect with the simple elements. When you're cut off from this it can make you ill. It’s not humane to deny people access to these things; I totally relate to the breakdown states Ballard describes.
I recently read "Savage Messiah" by Laura Oldfield Ford, which I think is wonderful. Just when I thought the city had finally worn me down, it reinvigorated my view of it and I felt able to look upon it again as a seething exciting labyrinth. In "Savage Messiah", there's such a sense of freedom and activism, of a vagabond-like roving, reclaiming space, of protest. I like to think these things are achievable once again.
How do you explain the preoccupation that post-punks have for eastern bloc aesthetics?
If you've been shaped by a brutish environment, you don't have the luxury of making "soft" music. I'm simplifying a little here, of course, but there simply isn't the mental quietude in which to make comfortable music. The pressures -- both external and internal -- won't allow it. Compressed and stressed, you're driven restlessly forward, rattling around in a concrete labyrinth with no letup. Post-punk could be said to be the language of that. I recognize the urgency and harsh environment-tones in there. There's a desire to slough off the fat, what's unnecessary; keep only the essential. I think brutalism, eastern bloc aesthetics, and post-punk communicates these things.
I also think the influx of "non" musicians from an art school/working class backgrounds widened the musical landscape and introduced approaches that were not tethered to and no longer deferential to traditional/conservative forms and ideas. My own art school background informs my approach, and I'm grateful for it.
We’ve talked about how production techniques can capture the urban environment. Thinking of the work of Throbbing Gristle, as well as Joy Division, in the post-punk scene there was this music that captured depression, breakdown and anomie. Is the post-punk movement unique in this respect?
I don't think so. I love Waterson-Carthy for example, and those voices have a grit and a sense of place to them that speaks of all these things. Techno, field recordings, contemporary classical, the minimalists, early noise and electronic music -- all these approaches speak to me of the urban environment and suggest ways of exploring it.
You collaborated with Public Image Limited’s Jah Wobble and Keith Levene in 2011 for the record Psychic Life. Was your interest in psycho-geography useful for Hinterland?
It's something John (Jah Wobble) and I have in common. He has many illuminating and entertaining theories around spirituality. We would talk at length about long distance walking, fugue states and so on. I've accumulated a lot of (my own) writing on these subjects and it was quite easy to mine this material for lyrics, and very quickly the lyric/context of the record was found.
What was it like working with these artists? Were you acutely aware of their previous work when you collaborated with them, or was it easy to engage with them afresh?
I'm a huge fan of Metal Box. I worked mainly with John and it was interesting to witness and be part of a different style of working than my own. I only had to come up with vocals/lyrics, and being used to writing everything, this seemed almost too easy! Music just flows out of John; and to see Keith recording his guitar inches from my nose as I sat on a stool in a small studio was special. John showed me various sites "down the Kings Road" where all the Public Image Limited and Sex Pistols crew hung out. It was a resonant moment, but John has such a varied body of work that I didn't feel Metal Box hanging over us.
How have your preoccupations and concerns evolved during the development of Hinterland?
Take the above preoccupations and magnify them by 1000. Deeper into the landscape. Key concerns are still in place, but sonically the new album has evolved, just how will have to wait till the next installment.
Guy Mankowski’s new novel about Manchester, post-punk, and Brutalism is entitled How I Left The National Grid. It’s available at this link.