Music interview: Kathryn Joseph on her new album, From When I Wake The Want Is

Kathryn Joseph
Kathryn Joseph
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Moving to live next door to her drummer was the catalyst Kathryn Joseph needed to make her second album, discovers Fiona Shepherd

If you have ever seen Kathryn Joseph play live, you will be aware that it’s a pretty hypnotic encounter, a sort of unearthly exorcism conducted in a characterful quavering soprano over undulating piano as the sonic priestess keeps her gaze trained firmly on the audience.

“It started out as a weird way to get people to not talk in open mic nights,” says Joseph. “I knew I made people uncomfortable but it felt like you could control the room better. People have met me before a gig and then they’ve seen me play and they honestly think I’m schizophrenic. It’s even more sinister the other way round…”

It’s true that the warm, friendly, upbeat and enthusiastic individual who bounds into the bar at Glasgow’s Citizen M hotel is not quite the person you might expect from her exposed, cathartic music. But it’s all part of the charm – or, given Joseph’s tendency to describe herself as a “ridiculous crazy witch”, maybe it would be more appropriate to say it’s the spell cast by her debut album Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled which arrived fully formed at the start of 2015 and went on to scoop the Scottish Album of the Year Award, leading to acclaim and collaborations galore.

It’s not a bad way to introduce yourself a mere 20 years after writing your first songs. Joseph’s long and fitful path to overnight success began with a Highland upbringing, piano lessons at primary school (ditched because she didn’t get on with her teacher) and the joy of seeing Runrig and Capercaillie play live.

Joseph resumed playing for herself while at university in Stirling, but dropped out and took up waitressing. She settled in Aberdeen, playing her first gig at the Lemon Tree, but turned down a record deal – offered on the strength of an effusive letter a friend sent to a bunch of labels – because she wasn’t ready for all the PR obligations which accompany releasing music into the world. Even now, Joseph is somewhat distrustful of the attention and interest her music has generated.

“It’s not exactly a life skill, is it? Playing music to people,” she says with typical self-effacement. “I know how lucky I am but I still struggle with imposter syndrome. I do feel that these people have been doing it for years and years and I’ve just arrived going, ‘Hiya’. I wish I could just be in it and enjoy it because the undeserving part of it is really boring.

“But then when I’m playing, I’m fine. In all of my life that’s the only time I’m not thinking about what I look like or what people think of me, I’m just in something that makes all of the things that make me uncomfortable go away – especially when I’m playing with Marcus.”

Marcus Mackay is Joseph’s drummer, engineer, producer – and neighbour. Moving to Glasgow and, in particular, next door to Mackay and his wife, Claire, was to be the catalyst for Joseph finally recording her music in their garden studio and releasing it on their reactivated record label Hits the Fan Records.

“As soon as I moved here I felt better, I didn’t feel as paranoid as I did,” says Joseph. “And I got pregnant the same year we moved down, so Glasgow is very fertile.”

Her daughter Eva was born two days after she finished recording Bones You Have Thrown Me. “I was really sweating on the last day of recording; now I know that was the early stages of labour, so I was nearly having my baby in the studio. After she was born, any time I would play the songs she would start to cry and take my hands away from the piano. I thought, ‘You’ve heard this so often that you hate it, don’t you?’”

Thankfully the reception was more positive elsewhere. Joseph was invited to add her singular vocals to a number of high-profile tribute nights, collaborated with Twilight Sad frontman James Graham on their Out Lines project and, through Graham, signed to Mogwai’s Rock Action label. Having almost literally taken a lifetime to write her debut album, she found a fortuitous solution to her slow creative pace when it came to penning her follow-up, From When I Wake The Want Is.

“For this new record, it was one of those strange, handy times in my life when I’d just had my heart broken again,” she says breezily. “Definitely I write less if I’m happy. How I make myself happy is by writing about it. I’ve never had songs come out so fast.”

Just as crucially for the actual recording of the album, Joseph eventually reunited with her partner. “I’m very glad there’s a happy ending or I probably wouldn’t have been making the record at all, I’d still be sitting in my pyjamas, eating biscuits and crying.”

Bones You Have Thrown Me was also a deeply personal record about loss, a response in part to the death of her infant son Joseph (whose name she subsequently adopted as her stage moniker). From When I Wake The Want Is casts the net outwards to family and friends who Joseph describes as “beautiful survivors”, including her niece who came through illness and operations at a young age and friends who have dealt with abusive relationships.

“I’m obsessed with the circle of things where if this wasn’t horrible then this beautiful thing wouldn’t exist; these people who don’t put the horrible things that have happened to them on to someone else, they stop that weird circle of hurt and are amazing people.”

Joseph is also set to explore the album themes this autumn in a touring “visualised concert” collaboration with Theatre Cryptic, directed by Josh Armstrong with “body architecture” created by Marketa Kratochvilova.

“I know there’s mirrors involved, perhaps some animal skulls,” cackles Joseph in “crazy witch” mode. Whatever the show involves, she’ll put a spell on you. “Eva keeps telling her friends that I’m a musician, but her friend thought she had said ‘magician’ so she was a bit disappointed – and so was I!” ■