Mercury-nominated C Duncan, who recorded his debut album in his bedroom in Glasgow, is now taking his unique sound on tour, writes Andrew Eaton-Lewis
If all is going according to plan, Christopher Duncan is currently living in a converted horse box. “On the last tour we went around in a transit van,” the Glasgow musician explains, sitting in the living room of his small West End flat. “This time we’re not staying in any hotels so we’re going to be living there for five weeks. It’s got five beds, a stove and a shower.”
I stopped making heavy music and started listening to the CarpentersC Duncan
Five weeks could be a conservative estimate, given how in demand C Duncan – to give him his professional name – suddenly is, following last month’s Mercury Prize nomination. The news prompted a surge of interest in a 26-year-old musician who was, until recently, was best known for writing music for the TV series Waterloo Road.
“It just came as such a surprise,” says Duncan. “I knew the album had been entered because the label said, but FatCat had never had any artists nominated so they weren’t expecting much. So it came completely out of the blue.”
He is making the most of it; tour and festival dates are currently being lined up throughout next year, and he has already half-finished his second album, having started work on it the day after Architect was released. It will come out at some point in 2016.
Duncan has turned out to be a smart investment for FatCat, home to the Twilight Sad and Vashti Bunyan, who signed him three years ago more or less on a hunch.
“They took a real chance,” he recalls. “I’d never done any live shows and I had about three songs. I sent one, they liked it and put it up on their demo page, they asked for another one, and luckily I had two more ready. They’d never had anyone like me before and I’d never been signed to a label so there wasn’t any expectation and we just took it step by step.
“They were very open to whatever I wanted to make.”
Out of that process emerged one of this year’s most distinctive and beguiling albums. The phrase “bedroom musician” is a cliché, but in Duncan’s case it’s completely accurate – he spent a year painstakingly arranging Architect’s complex melodies, backing tracks and vocal harmonies entirely on his own, in his bedroom, often spending whole days in his dressing gown. “It was perfect for me because I like to have complete control over everything,” he says. “I can just stay up in the middle of the night making noises.”
When I visit, the bedroom in question has been freshly painted and tidied up, partly for the benefit of various TV crews who now want to film there; the BBC left half an hour before my arrival. In what may be a canny piece of product placement, Duncan’s accomplished paintings – which also feature in his single and album artwork – line the walls. On the bed we find Duncan’s partner and bandmate Finn McCardel, answering e-mails on his behalf (Duncan has no manager, he explains; nobody offers anymore because everyone assumes he has one already). At the foot of the bed is a piano but, conspicuously, no cables; it turns out that these days Duncan actually records in a tiny second bedroom, cluttered with laundry and boxes of merchandise. Did he let the BBC in there? “I didn’t even tell them about it,” he laughs.
Once Duncan had finished Architect, the next challenge was to perform it on stage. This posed quite a challenge, given that one of its most striking features is the way he creates an entire choir from his own voice throughout – a feat impossible to reproduce live without cloning himself. Also, Duncan had no experience of playing live, other than in a heavy metal band at high school.
“I was really into death and doom metal when I was 12 – Slayer and Emperor. It’s funny to think about it now. Did I look the part? No. I tried but I wasn’t very good at it. Then I stopped making heavy music and started listening to the Carpenters. A very strange change.”
Later he turned to classical music – both of his parents are classical musicians – and studied composition at what was then the RSAMD, taking him further away from performing live himself. “Coming from a classical background you write music for someone else to play and then you sit at the back of the audience with your head down. I wrote one 20-minute piece for string quartet and percussion with me singing, but other than that I had no exposure to singing on stage so I’d forgotten how terrifying it is.”
The first ever C Duncan live show was in the unlikely setting of a Burns night in Drymen where his parents live. “I knew at some point I’d have to do a live show,” he recalls, “so I trialled some stuff by myself with a guitar and a backing track, but it felt like karaoke.”
Soon Duncan recruited Lluis Solervicens, a friend who worked in a café, but it was the addition of McCardel – and the possibility of three-part live vocal harmonies – that seems to have been the turning point. He has since got over his nervousness too.
“The first ten shows I almost couldn’t go on stage,” he confesses, “but it’s great fun now.”
Duncan makes an endearingly unshowy frontman, with his neat short hair, chunky black glasses and penchant for tanktops. He gravitated towards pop music, he says, because “I found it more satisfying writing a pop song and then being able to listen to it than writing a piece of classical music and hoping that someone somewhere will play it.” He lists Bjork, Cocteau Twins and Radiohead among his formative influences, but sounds – to these ears at least – more animated when enthusing about Heiner Goebbels (“his music’s so intricate and unusual”) and John Adams (“that perfect minimalist, romantic mix”). I can’t help wondering how long his musical ambitions will be satisfied by three-minute songs.
In the meantime, album number two “still sounds like me, it’s still got lots of vocal harmonies but it’s dreamier, not just production-wise but a bit… crunchier.” And, as of now, eagerly anticipated.
C Duncan plays the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 3 December; the Pleasance, Edinburgh, 4 December and the Art School, Glasgow, 5 December, www.c.duncan.co.uk. He also performs in Scot:Lands on 1 January, part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme, www.edinburghshogmanay.com. The winner of the 2015 Mercury Prize willbe announced on 20 November on both BBC Four and BBC Radio 6 Music, www.mercuryprize.com