- 13 Aug 21
A deep dive with the cult singer covering her first album in 12 years, the haunting folk collection Heart-Shaped Scars, plus her collaborations with Scott Walker, Massive Attack and the late Andrew Weatherall.
As a long-time fan of Dot Allison, occasionally I’d listen to her records in recent years and wonder whatever happened to the Scottish singer. It was a wonderful surprise this summer, then, to see that she had released her first album in 12 years, Heart-Shaped Scars, a sublime effort that at times brings to mind the haunting folk of the Wicker Man soundtrack.
Allison commenced her brilliant and fascinating career in the early ’90s with electronic group One Dove. Notably, their sole album, Morning Dove White, was co-produced by the late Andrew Weatherall, the dance-punk maestro celebrated for his contribution to Primal Scream’s iconic Screamadelica. For my part, I first became a fan of Allison’s courtesy of her memorable vocal contribution to Death In Vegas’s dark dance classic ‘Dirge’, the signature tune from their 1999 underground hit The Contino Sessions.
In the time since, her eclectic output has charted a path between thumping electro and quiet acoustica, with detours into numerous points in between. Along the way, Allison has also worked with an impressive array of collaborators, ranging from Scott Walker to Massive Attack.
All of this and more were on the agenda when Hot Press recently caught up with the softly spoken singer at her Edinburgh home.
Heart-Shaped Scars is your first LP in 12 years – was there any particular reason you chose to do the album now?
Basically, I took some time out to be a mam, and I didn’t know that I would make another album. But I just ended up making music and thinking, ‘Oh, I think I’m making another record!’ I suppose you become a bit of a lifer – you make things and it becomes an inclination, a calling, or whatever you want to call it. So I realised I was making an album and thought, ‘Right, I’m actually going to deliberately finish it, properly’ (laughs).
Was it done during lockdown?
Well, some of it was done during lockdown, and the rest of it was made up of ideas that never left me over a number of years. ‘The Church Of Snow’, for example, was a poem I wrote in about 2004. I always kept lists of titles and ideas, and I think the more you write, the easier it is to write. If you take a break from it, it gets harder in my opinion. There were a few ideas that never really left me, and some of them have made it onto this album.
It was only really recorded pre-lockdown, and we did more as things started to open up in a controlled way. Pre-lockdown, my co-producer Fiona Cruickshank and I put down a few tracks with the core band members. Then suddenly, everything went on hold, at which point I wrote the four ukulele tracks that I did with Hannah Peel. After I’d written those, I was like, ‘Oh, those have elbowed off a few songs.’ So in a weird way, the lockdown both hindered and benefited the album.
It’s interesting you say you felt you might not make another album – was there a certain point you felt you were done with music in that respect?
Yeah, I think I naturally perhaps – and not even consciously – needed some head space for a minute. At that point, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I’m desperate to make another album’ or anything. I had other priorities, and then as a little space cleared in my life, with my kid becoming more independent and stuff, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, what was that I do again?!’ (laughs). I don’t think I would have gone for some big career change or something like that, so it made sense. But it wasn’t a given I was going to do it, if you know what I mean.
The accompanying notes to the album mention the Wicker Man feel to some of the material. Has that soundtrack been an influence over the years?
I think so. Around 2000, I definitely had the soundtrack on CD. ‘The Willow Song’ was always a big favourite of mine – I bet that song has had many musical children. People kind of go, ‘Oh, I wish I could write one of them.’ There’s certain songs where I think, ‘I wonder if that’s a musical child of ‘The Willow Song’?’ It was probably mainly that song that made me want to own the soundtrack, but then, I just love the whole thing. It’s so quirky and free, with really beautiful songs.
Like, ‘Gently Johnny’ is such a wonderful song as well, with this sparse, live feeling. It’s almost like you could be sitting in the pub when they’re having a little shindig. It was really in the DNA of where my head was at when I was thinking, ‘I’d quite like to do something a bit different.’ On this album, I wrote with Amy Bowman, through a pal kind of thing. Once we’d done ‘The Haunted’, it was like, ‘Oh god, that really is the vibe I’m thinking. I’ll do another one.’
Isn’t The Wicker Man actually set in Scotland?
It’s Summerisle, I think. And also, that’s where we went for our holidays – not there specifically, but Skye, Gairloch, Gruinard, Ullapool, Lismore… all the little islands round about Scotland. Yesterday, we went for a walk and by the time we’d got back, I literally looked like someone had tipped a bucket of water over me. But I was saying to my brother in law, ‘This actually feels like slightly comforting for me, because it reminds me of my summer holidays as a child.’ He lives in Spain and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not sure I’m really getting that!’ (laughs). But it is in my history, yes.
There’s a notable strain of melancholy on the album, which is a recurring theme in your music.
Oh god, yeah. There’s a sort of ambient heartbreak in everything. I wonder whether it’s just a sense of longing that on some level goes with being human. In Buddhist meditation they say, ‘If you can live without attachment, you can be at peace.’ Obviously, everything is about our attachment to the world around ourselves, and I suppose I seem to draw from that slight longing.
It’s just rich to pull from in terms of, when I’m sitting strumming – and trying to raise myself into what I’m doing and recording it – I’m sure it goes to some place of longing. It sounds kind of heartbreak-y. But those are the kind of songs I like actually, the ones that that pull on your heart strings, so it’s a pace thing as well.
You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve played the Death In Vegas song ‘Dirge’ – it’s kind of a perfect song.
That’s great, it was nice to be asked to come in and write on it. It was good – I’m proud of that as part of my canon.
Have you considered revisiting dance music at all in recent years?
It’s funny, cos I still enjoy electronic music, I love it. Recently I was thinking it was somewhere I would like to revisit, it’s just a question of whether it would be one of my albums or not. Already, with the songs that I’m writing, they have those threads. There’s a certain lawlessness and freedom to songwriting in dance music, where it seems to break a lot of song structure rules.
With the songwriting on this record, I think I’ve brought that – I don’t know if rebellious is the right word – but that experimental approach of, ‘What are the rules? Who wrote them anyway?’ Even the uke tracks are informed by it a little bit. I still use synths and stuff, and I did a track the other day that was slightly electronic. So no, I’ve definitely not abandoned that part of what I do.
You had a notable association with Scott Walker, appearing in the 30th Century Man documentary, performing in the Drifting & Tilting live shows at the Barbican, and singing on his collaborative album with Sunn O))). Was it a surprise to hear from him in the first instance?
I definitely never expected to record with Scott, but I had sang with him at the Barbican, so I’d worked with him before. We also had the same management, which is how our paths ended up crossing. I actually met my managers through the documentary, because I’d got Scott’s arranger, Brian Gascoigne, to do some of the strings on Afterglow – I asked Brian to do it because of his work on Scott’s album Tilt.
I think the director, Stephen Kijak, was struggling to find women who’d been tangibly influenced by Scott. In the end, I was in it, and I think Goldfrapp. It was probably because of the Brian Gascoigne connection, and I must have mentioned Tilt in an interview somewhere. Anyway, I met his managers Cathy and Charles through the film, and they ended up managing me. That’s how I was probably more on Scott’s radar.
If I made an album, I know Cathy and Charles would never ask him to do anything, but they would make sure he had a copy of it – we were stablemates.
Tilt is actually my favourite album of his – is it yours as well?
Some of his later albums, like The Drift, are like an experience. But to my ears, it’s so sort of atonal, it’s like modern art. Whereas Tilt still has that harmony in it. Does that make sense?
Definitely, my favourite track on it is ‘Face On Breast’, which could almost be a Radiohead song – it’s experimental but still has a recognisable structure. Lyrically, it’s such an enigmatic song, you’d love to ask him what he had in mind. Did you ever talk to him about stuff like that?
No, because I only met him briefly a couple of times, and I’m not like an aficionado. I really loved ‘Farmer In The City’. But Charles and Cathy took me to a ballet he composed once in the Southbank, and I noticed someone was trying to talk to him who was in our company, and he really did just retreat. And I thought, ‘Oh god, he really doesn’t want to talk to anyone.’ Actually, after the Barbican shows, he came up and gave me a hug cos he was happy with it. He did say something really lovely about my voice to Charles and Cathy, which they passed on to me. He said, ‘Great pipes.’ So I was like, ‘Right, I’m having that!’
What a compliment!
Oh totally. I don’t think I’d heard someone’s voice being called pipes before, but I suppose they are! When I went into record with him, after I sang the little bit that they looped, he said, ‘See – I told you we didn’t need an opera singer!’ (laughs). But yeah, I wouldn’t have said, ‘So Scott, tell me X, Y and Z.’
I was in London when those Barbican shows were happening, but had to review Leonard Cohen! Unfortunately, they’ve never been released and there’s no footage from them. How did the production turn out?
It was stage designed by Scott, and some of it was quite minimal. For mine, I sang under a tree made of coat hangers, and I was singing to a 20-piece orchestra, with a tuning fork in a bucket of water – that was what I had to tune to. It was quite stressful, but I got through it.
Looking at some of the stills, it could have been designed by Damien Hirst – again, it really has that modern art feel.
Brutalist in a way. I suppose, I don’t know… Damon Albarn did ‘Farmer In The City’ and he was just at a lectern on the stage. It was really minimal; there were different approaches. I didn’t get the full effect out front obviously, cos I was backstage. It was such an honour to be asked, but at the same time, utterly petrifying. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I really don’t want to let him down.’ But anyway, he was really happy with it, thank the lord!
You’ve also recorded and played live with Massive Attack.
It was brilliant, I did two world tours with them. Honestly, it was like laughter therapy – I just feel like I laughed for about nine months. They’re pretty chilled to work with, which was nice because it’s kind of daunting. I feel I wasn’t quite ready as a writer in a way, but I was at that stage of my journey – I think I’ve progressed a bit since then.
Still, it was a really amazing experience. I supported them with an acoustic set, so that was lovely. It was a lot to take on, but again, I just got through it. I also sang Liz Fraser’s songs for them, because she couldn’t. As I say, many laughs were had, because you go on tour and by the end, you’re like a big family.
Sonically, their albums are very unique.
Yeah, I think it’s a bandwidth they fill that’s pretty impressive. There’s a pristine aspect to the sound, yet it’s still spectral. You can tell they’ve been well sculpted and thought about. Even the more delicate songs are still large, it seems to me – they’re impactful. I do think it’s to do with that sonic image; the bandwidth they get with the mixes. I remember hearing it in the studio and going, ‘Ooh, there’s part of the spectrum there that you don’t always hear.’
Was it difficult to sing the Liz Fraser stuff?
It was, because her voice is so mercurial. I’m quite a shy performer really. 3D said, ‘You’re voice is like honey’ when he first heard it. He was very happy. But it’s funny, if I felt slightly nervous at a certain gig or whatever, it was hard to keep that mercurial quality. Her melodies are quite fluid. So I guess you just do it your way as best as you can, and make it true to the melody.
Obviously she’s unique, and everyone’s got their own individual fingerprint and all that. But not the easiest songs to sing I would say, no. It took quite a bit of practice, and I don’t know if she would ever particularly enjoy hearing someone else sing them. I’m not sure, but I can imagine she’d be just like, ‘Nah’ (laughs). It’s such a unique voice she’s got, isn’t it?
On a sadder note, you also worked with Andrew Weatherall, who unfortunately passed away last year. He was a bit of a visionary – I interviewed Lorde recently and even her new single has a ‘Loaded’ influence.
Yeah, he was a real original and a real artist, and in it for all the right reasons. And a very generous spirit, because he certainly made me a lot of compilation tapes, and introduced me to lots of lovely music I probably wouldn’t have come across. Then I realised he actually did that for loads of people; he obviously got a lot of joy out of sharing. He was DJing, producing and making his own music, but even the act of curating, compiling and gifting – he seemed to do that for a lot of people. It was so shocking to hear about his passing, and I was devastated.
His breadth of musical knowledge was unbelievable – he put out the Masterpiece mix in 2012 and it was my favourite album of that year.
Obviously I did the One Dove album with him, but in the evenings I went down to his studio, the Rotters Golf Club, where I did We Are Science with Keith Tenniswood. Andy was in and out, and doing his own thing in another room, but he had a massive library of records, where he’d go in and look around and plan his DJ sets. It was was lovely to spend time in the communal area in the evenings, having a chat and a giggle. He made up some compilations then as well; as I say, he was really generous in that way.
Finally, I hope we won’t have to wait 12 years for your next album.
No, I’m pretty sure you won’t!
Heart-Shaped Scars is out now on SA Recordings.