Interview: C Duncan, reluctant pop star

C Duncan by the door of his Glasgow flat, which features on the cover of his new album, The Midnight Sun PIC: John Devlin
C Duncan by the door of his Glasgow flat, which features on the cover of his new album, The Midnight Sun PIC: John Devlin
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When it is first suggested that I meet C Duncan in the Glasgow flat where he recorded his stunning 2015 debut album, Architect, for a recession-busting £50, I have romantic visions of an Aladdin’s cave of old recording equipment piled high around his bedroom. So it is somewhat anti-climactic to discover that his magical mystery set-up amounts to a laptop and a couple of compact monitor speakers sitting on a small desk.

Rather than expand the bedroom “studio” for album number two, Duncan has streamlined his home recording set-up even further – and consequently saved even more money on the follow-up, The Midnight Sun. Glimpsing the modest environment in which he creates his pocket chamber pop symphonies only makes his artistic achievements more impressive.

Except for when he plays live – more on that later – Chris Duncan is an audacious one-man band, a classically trained composer who writes, plays, sings and records everything himself, along with painting his own artwork. The sleeve of Architect featured aerial views of Glasgow locations with a personal significance. The cover star of The Midnight Sun is the stairwell outside his flat – Duncan’s go-to place for a ruminative cigarette and glass of wine when he needs a break from intensive recording. “I wanted to depict something as personal but zoom in just as I did with the music, and do it in a very clean way that makes the stairwell look a bit tidier than it actually is,” he says.

Duncan admits that he prefers to work in hermetic isolation, so the spooky still of night time is ideal. In fact, The Midnight Sun is titled after one of his favourite episodes of The Twilight Zone (“it’s very brooding but very beautifully done. Rod Serling is an absolute genius as far as I’m concerned,” he says) and also inspired by the restlessness he feels during the light nights of the summer.

“This summer thing – it really messes up my work schedule,” he says. “People are out and about and there’s so much fun stuff going on outside that you want to take part in and you end up with only three or four hours of actual darkness.”

Nevertheless, The Midnight Sun is utter bliss. Duncan has swapped the acoustic instrumentation of Architect for electronic this time round, but the finished article is every bit as natural, characterised by his trademark rapturous harmonies, layered up to create an immersive choir of Christophers.

Duncan has sung in choirs all his life, and following his musician parents and composer grandfather into the family trade was a natural step rather than something he was pushed to do. His first foray into making his own music was as a member of a school heavy metal band. “I was really into Scandinavian doom metal which is really slow and very heavy. We were slightly less heavy than that because we were all kids so we couldn’t shout that loud. And we were rubbish.”

However, that teenage love of extreme music eventually bled into an interest in contemporary classical composers such as Stravinsky, Messiaen and Poulenc, and Duncan began to hone his composing chops, first on scholarship to Glenalmond College in Perthshire and then at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It was while waiting for his college compositions to be scheduled for performance that he began exploring the more instantly gratifying world of producing pop music.

“I think that’s why I like painting as well – you do stuff and then it’s there,” he says. “People talk about the pop music industry being so hard to get into but actually it’s much harder for classical composers because there’s a much smaller market for it, particularly the contemporary stuff. I’ve only got a couple of friends who are actually doing that without having to do too much else to make a living.”

In contrast, Duncan got a speedy response when he sent his home demos to the Brighton-based Fat Cat Records, which is or has been home to fellow Scots indie outfits Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks, PAWS and Honeyblood.

Duncan reckons he would still be making his bewitching music regardless of response but, as it turned out, the idiosyncracy of Architect was quickly recognised with nominations for both the Mercury Prize and the Scottish Album of the Year Award. And with the acclaim came the demand to play live and the tricky task of working out how to present a sophisticated solo recording in a concert setting.

“To begin with it was really difficult,” says Duncan. “I love writing music but I also like to be in the background. I like to be the guy sitting at the very back of the audience, so I really had to push myself to get out playing gigs. I did a couple of shows with just me out in Drymen Village Hall just to trial stuff and it wasn’t working, it was just karaoke.”

Perversely, the breakthrough came when Duncan began to recruit musician friends who were every bit as terrified of live performance as he was: “we were this trio of nervous wrecks onstage but it was good because it meant we wanted to do as good a job as possible. And then I had a turning point about six months ago when I started enjoying it and thriving on it.”

However, Duncan is still at his most contented when creating on his own. The Midnight Sun has not even been released yet and he has already started work on a third album, possibly to involve a string quartet and a studio which doesn’t double as his bedroom.

“I can’t stop writing, it’s very much tunnel vision,” he says. “When I first found out that I was nominated for the Mercury I did think ‘crap, I have to come up with a good second album’ and then I thought about it for about five minutes and realised I just want to write music that I enjoy. So I just go for my gut instinct and see how it turns out.” n

The Midnight Sun is released by Fat Cat on 7 October. C Duncan plays Stereo, Glasgow on 8 October