Sometimes music can be straight-talking, it can lay out the complexities of the world in beautiful simplicity, at other times it requires a little more digging. On their debut album, Human’s Worst Habits, Leeds’ Crake manage to offer both. Vocalist Rowan Sandle’s lyrics are initially like some ancient puzzle, a flurry of references to places, people and nature that blur and baffle, then suddenly the whole thing springs open and reveals a moment of stunning tenderness. So yes she might make references to the weird and wonderful lives of brittle starfish or single-celled slime mould, she might tell the story of the underappreciated wife of a relatively obscure nature writer, yet within that are moments of perfect simplicity, “it all dies, that ain’t nothing new”.
Human’s Worst Habits, while a debut, doesn’t necessarily feel like one, it’s more like a welcome return to an old friend, a band who through EPs and singles have already made so much impact, just picking up where they left off, with the next logical chapter in a book you’ll never want to put down. The record opens with Amy & Ty, Rowan’s unmistakable vocal tones adorned with the steady propulsion of the acoustic guitar and tumble of electric-guitar riffs before the crisp mournfulness of the descending keyboard line moves it into subtly intriguing new territory. The two title characters seem to be caught in a learning moment, torn between a desire to rush forward and the importance of taking your time, “let that be a lesson Ty, there’s no need to rush, sometimes a bird in the hand isn’t worth even one in the bush”.
Throughout the record, there are a series of threads to follow, as if inviting you to take a different route through the album on each repeat visit. Rowan has spoken openly of the influence of grief on the record, particularly surrounding the death of her friend Anna, hit by a Turkish air strike in Syria. This grief isn’t openly discussed as such, except briefly on Jesus, when Rowan, with a pained yet beautiful melody, sings, “should have been with you all dancing, on the night Anna died”. For most of the record though, loss weaves its way into the very fabric of her being, seeping forth as she tried to work out what we can learn from such significant loss. It’s so subtly done, that you could easily miss its presence entirely yet death does lurk in the background, a mouse in Lamb’s Tail who came off worse in a scrape with a cat, or the plants in Rabbit left out in the blazing sun, “I stayed inside, hoped that they would die I guess it’s me taking the easy way out”.
In the same way grief winds throughout, so too does the complexity of humanity, our relationship with nature, with each other, and with the systems that people have created. For while it might be an album of Human’s Worst Habits, it’s also one that knows we as people are fallible, prone to the base instincts of any creature, and capable of cruelty and love in equal measure. Take the brilliant Winter’s Song, to a soundtrack of wiry guitars and steady drums, it touches on ideas of the coldness we hold within, and the importance of not losing that even as we try and learn to love and grow, “keep a little coldness in you, just wear it soft and gentle, that’s when the dark no longer bites”. The title track also touches on this same theme, exploring the multi-faceted nature of humanity atop a backing of burbling synths and barely-there lo-fi guitars as the lyrics seem to explore how we treat people at their lowest moments, “I leaned in to hear the sound of voice, you said, how we feel isn’t always a choice”.
A remarkable record, Human’s Worst Habits is the sound of a band who don’t sound quite like anyone else, an album both brittle and bold, beautiful and yes, deeply human. Give Crake just a little of your time and they’ll give you so much in return. Just before Human’s Worst Habits was released, Rowan took some time out to answer my questions, discussing the inspiration of nature, the folk tradition and why she’s happy not being a full-time musician.
FTR: For those who don’t know, who are Crake?
Crake started many years ago as unactualised lyrics lost in notebooks. At the dawn of 2015 I found courage and asked some friends to help give them life. Never playing music before, I needed my hand held and Sarah was the first one there to hold it. We have had a few line up changes, but currently Crake is myself, Sarah, my partner Rob and Russell who likes to think of himself as a ghost but he’s as Crake as they come.
FTR: You’re about to release your debut album, what can you tell me about recording Human’s Worst Habits?
The album was recorded and produced by Rob at his studio in Leeds called Greenmount, our second home. It was a really special snowy two weeks in January when we recorded it and everything was touched with a calm coldness. I think it comes through on the album. Rob is a very talented producer, and beyond this he has always held the narrative of the songs firmly in the centre of it all, building a world around them that seems organic.
FTR: You’ve been around for a few years, so what made this the right time to release your debut album? Did it change how you approached writing the tracks?
After the Big Thief tour we felt more together as a band and that’s when album writing began. In fact the lyrics to Humans’ Worst Habits (the individual track) were written on tour. It’s taken three years from that moment for the album to materialise. Some of this is due to the rhythm to which I write. Some of this has been due to delays out of our control. The time between writing and releasing can feel quite frustrating, like the emotional momentum is bottle necked. That’s why we self released “Four Tracks” – four songs by each band member recorded at home on four track recorders, to see how it would feel to pass music on pretty much as soon as it was written.
Having a whole album has changed how I’ve written. There are some more muted and weirder tracks that i don’t think would have found a home on a shorter EP. The album allows more space and for a kinder pacing.
FTR: The album’s coming out on Fika Recordings, how did that collaboration come about? Are record labels still important to you?
I had never entertained the idea of being on a label until we toured with Big Thief and we got contacted by some pretty big names. If I can be candid, as someone who still feels like an outsider to the industry I was left feeling quite deflated by fair weathered nature of the attention you receive. However, we persevered and found Tom at Fika and he’s been an absolute rock through the album process. It’s good to know there’s someone holding the centre and ready to fight your corner.
FTR: There are a lot of references to the natural world in your songwriting, where does your interest in the natural world come from? Do you think we can learn a lot from other species?
This is a lovely question. I surprised myself by how much nature features in my writing and I always feel like Crake was the beginning of a serious commitment to learning about nature and our place within it as humans. I work in mental health and lecture in Psychology and I’ve come across some really important writers, such as Karen Barad and Donna Hathaway who look to other species to deconstruct the forced homogeneity of our own capitalist shaped behaviour. Often their writing is quite academic and technical, but there’s an overall feeling that really moves me when someone is suggesting that a blob of plasmodial slime can give comfort to those working through their own queerness.
FTR: There’s an element of folklore and storytelling to your songwriting, do you consider your music to be folk music? Are you interested in the folk tradition?
When I try to describe Crake, or any music, picking a genre is so hard. I say we are like if goth had adopted orange as its colour of choice instead of black. But also indie-folk works well.
I think there is a lot to learn from folk traditions, helping understand how humans lived before capitalism really sunk its teeth in. Its maybe over romanticised but a lot of folk tradition gives agency to the natural world and makes us rethink our part within it. I like that.
FTR: It’s been much discussed but you got to play some huge dates with Big Thief. How did that come about? Was it strange to suddenly find yourself playing in such large venues?
Oh it was unreal. Honestly a dream come true. We supported Buck (Big Thief’s guitarist) at the Brudenell and he was so lovely. We were all massive fans so this in itself was a big deal. We swapped numbers in case he came back through Leeds. Then he just text us asking us to be Big Theif’s main support and we were all in shock. But also we all just got on with it. It just worked. The strangeness came when I got home and I had to go back to work. I actually got the closest to depressed I have been having to reacclimatise.
FTR: You’ve got some live dates coming up, what can people expect from the Crake live show?
It’s been such a strange two and more years for live music. I hope people feel a connection with the songs and a calmness about being there with them.
FTR: Why do you make music? Do you also dabble in other art forms?
I mainly just wanted to write and music seemed like a good vessel. I have always been surrounded by friends in bands and they made it look so fun. I would like to learn to paint properly I do most of our artwork but I don’t really know how painting works in any detail and would like to know technique.
FTR: What are your aspirations for Human’s Worst Habits? Do you see music as a viable career?
Honestly no. Not for me. For Russell, Sarah and Rob that’s different – they are already a part of the music world outside of Crake. I still feel like an outsider here but that’s also okay. It’s a part of my life and it’s also shaped by the varied other experiences I have. And I’m all about breaking down those expected roles. I’m not a musician, I’m a mental health worker who writes music. I’m happy with that.
FTR: What’s next for Crake?
More magic and strangeness I hope.