Theatre interview: Cora Bissett tells her classic indie-rock story

Cora Bissett shares the rise and fall of her indie rock band with Fiona Shepherd

Band seeks singer. Band places advert in local paper. Charismatic 17-year-old school leaver answers ad. Band records demo, signs five-album deal with major record label and tours with Blur and Radiohead (“a bit whiny, I don’t think they’re going anywhere”). Band doesn’t sell as many records as label would like. Band dropped by label. Band splits up, incurring massive debt.

In the words of Cora Bissett, it’s a “classic indie rock oblivion story”. It’s also her story, Radiohead predictions and all. Having established herself as an acclaimed director of biographical plays and musicals, from Glasgow Girls to last year’s Fringe hit Adam, Bissett has obeyed the dictum to write what you know for her first play, What Girls Are Made Of, spurred by the death of her father, the birth of her daughter and the rediscovery of her teenage diaries which document in forensic detail the rise and fall of her first band, Kirkcaldy quartet Darlingheart.

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Cora Bissett in her first play What Girls Are Made Of, which features a full live band on stage. Picture: Sid ScottCora Bissett in her first play What Girls Are Made Of, which features a full live band on stage. Picture: Sid Scott
Cora Bissett in her first play What Girls Are Made Of, which features a full live band on stage. Picture: Sid Scott

“It was just this onslaught, from week to week we were on another tour, recording the album, getting it out there and then the inevitable crash,” she says. “I think even then I knew it was all going too fast and I almost couldn’t experience it. Although I remember a lot of it, it was the detail of listening to my 17-year-old self, growing up between the pages from schoolgirl to a young woman. I hadn’t even worked out who I was or what I wanted to say. Looking back on some of the lyrics, I get an all over body cringe, but you’re just giving it your best shot.”

What Girls Are Made Of dramatises some of those diary entries, from silly on-the-road antics to a slightly unsettling photo shoot, so it was important for Bissett to get the blessing of her former bandmates – Cathryn Stirling, Clark Thomson and Cameron Campbell.

“I didn’t realise that one of the band members had for a long time felt very embittered until very recently and we spoke a lot about that and all the misunderstandings that happen at the break-up of a band,” says Bissett. “It was brutal – you are scooped up and sent out on these tours with huge marketing campaigns behind you and then it all goes horribly quiet and deathly still and a lot of debt is involved and you can’t believe you are stuck in the middle of this cliché – shit, we are that story, how the hell did that happen? But at this stage in life there’s no anger or bitterness in me at all. Even though it ended a bit disastrously I think it gave me such a steep learning curve that it’s probably informed everything I’ve done since.”

Post-Darlingheart, Bissett formed the more esoteric outfit Swelling Meg which, in turn, took her in a more theatrical direction and ultimately to drama school. Since then, she has turned heads with lead roles in Sunset Song and Midsummer, joined the Rab C Nesbitt ensemble and moved into theatre direction, scooping multiple awards with debut production Roadkill and scoring hits with Glasgow Girls and Janis Joplin Full Tilt, which embarks on its own comeback tour this Fringe.

Like Full Tilt, What Girls Are Made Of features a full live band on stage playing songs by Bissett’s contemporaries on the early 1990s touring circuit, from Radiohead to Nirvana, along with one Darlingheart track, their debut non-hit Smarthead. Guitarist Simon Donaldson, bassist Grant O’Rourke and drummer Suse Bear multi-task as band and family members, dodgy managers and Damon Albarn.

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With outgoing Traverse artistic director Orla O’Loughlin taking care of directing duties, Bissett is free to revel in getting the (stage) band back together. She says being an indie rock frontwoman once again is “really weird, but good fun. I hope I don’t look just like somebody’s maw on stage”.

These days, Bissett is somebody’s maw and two-year-old Naia has already taken to singing songs.

“She seems to quite like the performance – whether that will mean anything, I don’t know,” says Bissett.

“I’d have to let her find her way. I don’t know how qualified I am to really speak for young women in bands right now but I guess what I’ve got is knowledge of this world that I’m still living in and that’s what I can pass on to equip her if she did want to go into that.”

• What Girls Are Made Of, Traverse, until 26 August