No route planner would suggest the trip from Elgin to Glasgow required a five-year sojourn in Paris, but that’s the route that Scottish-songwriter Siobhan Wilson took. An obsession with French culture started in Siobhan’s teenage years and culminated in leaving her homeland behind for pastures Gallic. The influence of that Parisian adventure is all over Siobhan’s upcoming album, There Are No Saints, never more obviously, or brilliantly, than on recent single Paris Est Blanche.
Sung entirely in French, Paris Est Blanche is the somewhat intriguing prospect of a song written by Siobhan’s ex-boyfriend. As Siobhan explains, “we met in Paris and lived in a tiny studio flat with a cat. After 5 years together we went our separate ways. I haven’t seen him since. His song on my album is a way of evoking a beautiful memory. It’s a dedication to the feeling of being in love and this particular song represents the time I spent in France.” Set to a steady beat and flourishes of rich piano, Paris Est Blanche manages to sound determined, strong, and liberating even if our limited French leaves us barely understanding a word. It’s a bold choice of single, but one that’s utterly justified by the sheer quality of the vocal performance.
The album Paris Est Blanche is taken from is a mesmerising, versatile and thrilling listen. Showcasing both Siobhan’s passion for alternative music and her classical training, it is never short of brilliantly played. Thematically, the album touches on ideas of heartache, the life of an artist and questioning your own religious faith. Recent single Whatever Helps was a muted ode to the difficult of moving on with your life, Make You Mine is a determined attempt at flirting set to music, while Dear God is an utterly gorgeous sounding discussion on the difficulty of maintaining faith when there’s seemingly no evidence that anyone is looking out for you.
Ahead of that release we sat down with Siobhan to discuss recording There Are No Saints, knowing all the chords and how she came to be, in her own words, “a bit of a hippy who plays music all day and wanders about”.
FTR: For those who don’t know already, who is Siobhan Wilson?
I’m an artist based in Glasgow, born and bred in Morayshire, who spends time traveling about including a 5 year stay in Paris and half a year in London. I am a singer-songwriter but I also compose music and play cello and piano in other people’s bands and sometimes make visual art. I am basically a bit of a hippy who plays music all day and wanders about.
FTR: Your new album, There Are No Saints, is coming out next month, what can you tell us about recording it?
Chris (McRory – producer) was a really inspiring person to work with. I wanted to keep everything extremely sparse and demo-like, it seemed like it was more authentic. We were really on the same page about recording and he was very easy and chilled to work with. He had a little black cat who sat in with me when I recorded some of the vocals. Lots of these songs are one-takes done in Chris’ parents’ house in Bishopton just outside Glasgow.
FTR: The album’s coming out on Song, By Toad, how did you come to work with them?
I Facebooked Matthew (Young – label founder) with 4 or 5 of my new songs just after I’d recorded them at Chris’ in a sort of demo version. I had bumped into Song, By Toad at a gig I was playing at in Edinburgh late last year but I’d already released “Dear God” with Song, By Toad a couple of years ago, so I knew them already. I like all the bands currently on Song, By Toad, and the label always knows who the bands are that I’ve been listening to, which makes talking about music pretty easy.
FTR: Do you think labels are still important for musicians? Did you consider self-releasing?
I self-released my EP “Glorified Demons” that has the song “All Dressed Up” on it. It was hours upon hours of work to do that, but I learned a lot in the process. I did a few years of “D.I.Y” touring during this time. It made me understand how much a label does and what all the different jobs actually mean, which I was a bit oblivious to before: PR, management, promoter, agent, etc etc. Labels are extremely important for musicians because they have this experience that is very specialised and they should take care of things they know about, so you can just write music and do your artist stuff. Every label has its own identity just like a band and they collect artists to make a sound that they like and that’s a unique process that I respect. Saying that, talking about labels being good and bad is like everything in life, you get nice people and mean people everywhere, you get people who work hard and don’t work hard. Sometimes you are just lucky that you find a nice person who works hard and that could be through a self-release, indie label, or major label there are no rules.
FTR: What are your earliest musical memories? Did you grow up in a musical household?
Yes sort of. Mum showed me Joni Mitchell when I was thirteen, that blew my mind. Dad had a guitar and taught me my first few chords. My granny’s cousin taught me piano and theory and some singing when I was wee. She was awesome and a huge inspiration during my childhood. I had this great cello teacher as well and was pretty much obsessed with music from age seven until now.
FTR: How does a songwriter from Elgin end up learning their craft in Paris?
I guess Paris is a really inspiring city full or artists. I learned a lot from my peers. There were a lot of us from different countries who used to do the open mics in the Irish and Scottish bars and jam together by the river Seine until late in the summer. My ex boyfriend who I lived with for a few years was a singer-songwriter too with a home studio so that opened up my eyes to recorded sound I guess. Listening to Gainsbourg, Brel, Tiersen walking about in Paris was pretty epic. I realised this at the time and really enjoyed that part of life there while it lasted.
FTR: What is it about French culture that appeals to you?
In France I noticed that a lot of people care a lot about preserving art. There’s this huge appreciation of sophisticated lyrics and philosophical meaning in songwriting. Maybe you can say that about every language but from my point of view people seemed to talk about it a lot more over there. I like living in Glasgow for different reasons, I like the amount of progressive music and genre fusion that goes on in the live scene.
FTR: You sing in both English and French, do you find them equally easy to write it?
I don’t write lyrics in French, yet, although I speak French fluently and love singing in French.
FTR: What prompted you to come back to Scotland?
Well I moved there when I’d just turned 18 so I’d never been an adult in my own country. I did everything in French for the first time, first CV, first real job, first flat, first long-term relationship, first label, first travel card, the list goes on. It felt extremely weird being in Glasgow for the first year, having to catch up on five years of TV culture I’d missed out on and asking for stuff in the shops as if I was not Scottish. I also kept making “French face” and saying “bahh.. euh… in between every part of a sentence because that’s what you do when you speak French. Example: Subway, Sauchiehall St “Do you want any sauce on your sandwich?”, “Euh… bahh.. a little bit of white sauce please”. (mayonnaise)
FTR: What can you tell us about the album’s title, There Are No Saints? We understand it’s more positive than people might initially think.
It’s that we are all equals and have an equal capacity to be spiritual. I was doing a lot of soul-searching during the writing process of this album and questioning of faith and really humans as well I suppose.
FTR: We understand one of the tracks was written by your ex-boyfriend? What does he make of it? Why did you choose to include it?
Yeah he loved it. I sent it to him on Facebook on a Soundcloud link. The internet is weird and wonderful.
FTR: We really enjoyed the video to Paris Est Blanche, do you enjoy the non-musical aspects of being a musician? Photo shoots, videos, promo that sort of thing?
Thank you. Sort of more now, I never used to. For my whole life I’ve been a confident person trapped inside a shy person’s body…maybe we all are. Like everybody I have this barrier of self-consciousness when trying to choose what something will look like if I wear a particular item of clothing, how much I should or shouldn’t show of my body, if it’s not enough or too much make up, all that stuff. These days I’m a bit more like, “here you go this is what i look like, I’m not going to hide it”. I’m 100% against body shaming. I am a bit of a hippy so I don’t associate nudity with sexual activity and I strongly believe that if you sing about sexuality, talk about it, or dress any way you want then you are not self-objectifying. I think the human body is a beautiful instrument you can make music with and there should be no shame associated with the exposure of skin. There’s pressure everywhere in life for everybody about the way they look. You just have to sometimes go, nah I just look like this and I wear what makes me feel good for whatever personal reason that is, so here I am and deal with it.
FTR: What are your aspirations for this record? Do you consider music a viable career?
Yes, I make an extremely modest career out of music. I do a little bit of teaching one day a week and I also study two days a week. The other four days I write, sing, record, compose, tour, gig. Sure I do take a lot of mornings off to sit and read essays or poetry in cafes that I call work, but my parents probably worry I’ve become vagrant with no prospects of a pension and I do sometimes wear the same jacket for years until it falls to pieces. But I am happy, and pretty much all of my friends are in a similar boat. (I’m joking my mum and dad are very proud of me).
FTR: Who are your major influences? What were you listening to when you wrote the album?
Sharon Van Etten is what I was listening to during the creation of the album
FTR: What about influences outside of music?
I gloss over philosophy and contemporary classical music daily. It’s my way of pushing myself to understand life. I do that now instead of reading the news. I vote but I don’t spend much time on every day things. I am influenced by stories about other people’s ‘real’ lives and seeing live gigs. I saw this live electronic gig in the African Arts Centre that the studio Green Door put on and that blew my mind.
FTR: Do you consider your song-writing to be political? Is it a musician’s place to make a political point?
I think art and politics exist together in society and impossible to separate completely. Anything that creates a “sound” that represents “the time” probably reflects political situations in some way and has its own significance. It depends if you call being a woman and talking about that political or talking about identity as political etc. I am aware of being governed and am always trying to differentiate between choice, and illusion of choice, but my main goal is to express my individuality and creativity. Music has always been a platform for expression for me first and foremost and just trying to “touch” and move others.
FTR: You’re a classically trained musician. Do you think that helps when it comes to writing pop music?
Yes you know all the chords!
FTR: You’re touring pretty extensively, what can people expect from your live show?
Intimate, emotional, sincere, genuine, guitars, passion, a lot of time spent practicing and a lot of care put into the songs and the show.
FTR: What’s next for Siobhan Wilson?
Gah, many things on the go right now. Can’t talk about all of them but what is sure is that I’ll be doing another album and as well as some instrumental music.
There Are No Saints is out July 14th via Song, By Toad. Click HERE for more information on Siobhan Wilson, including tour dates.