EMMA Pollock is pondering what she has done with her life. Not in some huge, angsty, existential way, more with “where did all the time go?” puzzlement.
“I’ve asked myself in the past, ‘Should I go and become a maths teacher?’” she says. Nice and sensible, using that physics degree. But it was while studying for that degree in the early 1990s that she met her partner, Paul Savage, and joined a band with him. The Delgados made their mark, not just with their sophisticated indie music, but in setting up Chemikal Underground, the respected independent label which released early singles and albums by the likes of Mogwai, Arab Strap and Bis and has long outlasted the band.
And now it’s 20 years later and she has taken over the running of Chem 19, the label’s studio in Blantyre. “I love helping an artist get to where they want to be with their record,” she says.
But it has been five years – no, six, she corrects herself – since she last released a record herself. In Search Of Harperfield is Pollock’s third solo album, and it’s worth the wait. “I’ve been saying ‘it’s coming out in the next year’ for the last three years but I couldn’t get space in my own studio,” she says.
And when she could, she made the most of it. Pollock pays tribute to Savage’s expert production work in helping her change the way she approaches music.
“A lot of the album is about space, sparsity and making an impact without sticking a guitar pedal on it,” she says. “I now play guitar less which is a good thing. The first solo record [2007’s Watch The Fireworks] was almost me struggling with the fact that I no longer had a band. And now this record is me absolutely loving the fact that I don’t have a band. It’s no bad thing it took so long because if it wasn’t for those last couple of years a lot of the songs wouldn’t have appeared. I’m not sure I had much room in my head for a long time.”
As a solo artist, Pollock is wary of personalising too many of her songs or overstating “the family aspect” in her lyrics, but there is no doubt that the illness of both her parents and her mother’s death early last year loom large over this lush, graceful album which is named after her parents’ first marital home. “Quite a lot of the songs are about that whole pivot point where the dependency shifts in a child’s relationship with their parents,” she says. “Our lives become so much more complicated. We are the sandwich generation, the dependency of our children at the same time as our parents, and it all coming to a head roughly when you are 44, which is where I am.
“I sometimes look back to the days when The Delgados were around, particularly before my son Ben was born, and think ‘we only put out five albums? What were we doing?’ And I only had to write half of them!”
Despite her frustrations with her productivity, Pollock has hardly been taking a creative nap. In the past couple of years, she has written and played with the likes of SAY Award-winning guitarist RM Hubbert, the venerable Rab Noakes and prisoners and prison staff around Scotland as part of Vox Liminis’ Distant Voices project. There was even a brief flirtation with being a pop writer for hire, although none of Pollock’s contributions have made it on to the Radio 1 playlist.
“I was given a Britney Spears backing track to write a top line for but it didn’t come to much,” she says. “It was absolutely fascinating because a lot of the backing tracks I was sent were really shit. I keep harking back to David Bowie because he’s such a loss [we are talking the day after his death]. Even before he had opened his mouth, the backing track was already enough. That commitment to hook, that’s what music is about, regardless of whether it is classical or country or pop or jazz – you’ve gotta have something to hang on.”
Pollock can now also count herself part of the small minority of western musicians who have toured in China, thanks to a group of expat fans who organised the trip for her last March, six weeks after the death of her mother.“It was a very hard time, I was walking about Shanghai in tears for a lot of it because I felt so far away from home,” she says. “But I probably benefited from the focus the tour presented. It was an amazing, unforgettable experience but I don’t think it did any good for my career whatsoever. I’m not sure I’m going to be getting a record deal in China anytime soon – they’d have to recognise copyright first.”
Pollock is quick to acknowledge the drastic change in circumstances for musicians and record labels since the advent of downloads and streaming, from times of relative plenty, even for independent bands and labels, to days of widespread penury. “It hasn’t really democratised the industry,” she says. “It just means it’s somewhere else for your record to sit and be ignored, so it’s exactly the same as it being under your bed, it’s no different.”
But despite those thoughts of a career as a maths teacher, Pollock and her compadres at Chemikal Underground are resolved to keep on keeping on.
“The longer it continues the more precious it becomes because it’s harder and harder to do. But you still keep on trying to make it work because there might be something round the corner,” she says. “This is one of the most stressful industries to be in now, but it’s still intoxicating. It’s a hellishly difficult thing to turn your back on even if it means sacrifices being made on a personal level. There are artists downsizing their everyday quality of life in order to create. It’s no longer about making money, it’s just about sustaining an existence to allow the music to be made.
“But vinyl has a future, we know that now. That’s a great example of the will of the people and their relationship to technology can never be predicted. Tomorrow’s World always got it wrong, and it was brilliant for it. People eventually make their own decision and I’m hoping that the music industry is the same, that the darkest hour is before the dawn and the next ten years could see a resurgence in the buying of music, just enough to sustain a form of industry, because without small labels like Chemikal Underground, the records that are more of a risk won’t get made.”
• In Search Of Harperfield is released by Chemikal Underground on Friday and launched with a gig the same day at Oran Mor, Glasgow as part of Celtic Connections. Pollock also plays the Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, on 3 March and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, on 9 March, www.emmapollock.com