Levity and gravity- An interview with Elle Osborne

by Alex Gallacher | Folk Music UK

In June this year, Elle Osborne released ‘If You See a Rook on Its Own, It’s a Crow’. The album was reviewed by David Morrison who declared it a “bona fide masterpiece”. In his introduction he referenced words used by David Tibet when talking about the music of Shirley Collins, it’s these words which sum up Morrison’s feelings towards this Elle’s album…“so intimate, and true, and beautiful, because it’s realwhen people feel something that is so true…and so innocent…their hearts open, their hearts respond.” I couldn’t agree more.

This interview was planned for earlier in the year following the album release but for reasons which Elle talks about below, it required a more considered response to some of the questions I asked. I’m immensely grateful for her honesty and the time she has taken with her answers, it couldn’t have been easy but as Elle says, these personal experiences also “raise issues about universal experiences, which aren’t necessarily being talked about much.” I hope this maybe starts a dialogue that needs to be taking place.

Watch her new video for The Offing, on which she talks more on below.

While many know Elle best for her album releases, she also composes for dance, and makes sound installations. These have included LongLines for the National Fishing Heritage Museum, Brigg Fair, Dark Nights celebrating 800 years of the Lincolnshire Gypsy horse fair, and Stand Apart at Fabrica gallery, Brighton.

FRUKContrasting album creation v sound installation – you’ve created a number of installations, presumably, the core idea of such a piece is led by a brief or you are responding to an idea? With that in mind, do you find that sort of project easier than say an album where you are in total control of concept and ideas?

Elle: It’s a kind of open relationship I have with creativity – polyamorous, you could say. The different projects or pieces aren’t necessarily easier or harder than each other – just different. The sound installations have come together in pretty much the same way I make an album, in that I make some recordings and piece them together, one way or another. Perhaps the main difference I’ve found, is that the composing of sound installations has felt more abstract than making an album – telling stories with sound; whereas with songs, the primary focus is on words.

With ‘If You See a Rook on Its Own, It’s a Crow’, did you start with an idea and build upon that or is this an album that has grown over a longer period of time?

I think all the albums I’ve made have grown, rather than come from a specific idea. So, going back to your previous question, the sound projects have been more of a specific idea, whereas the albums grow from a collection of songs (which I may then find have a common thread going through them, afterwards)

Your biography says you were raised on the North Sea coast of Lincolnshire among folk singers, can you tell us a more about that?

My parents and grandparents were real enthusiasts of folk music, like many people of that time, in the 1960s and 70s – they started the Grimsby folk club and the Cleethorpes folk festival with a group of their friends; my Dad and Grandad danced Morris; our family holidays were only ever camping at folk festivals! – so there was alot of music, alot of late-night singing, and alot of musicians coming through the house, since before I was born. My Dad is a lovely singer – he’s never happier than singing with friends. And there are some really good singers locally, still: the great ballad singer Arthur Knevett, John Conolly (who wrote Fiddler’s Green); and my favourites of all, the Watersons, were just across the Humber in Hull.

And Gypsy horses on the beach?

There was a stable yard run by a Gypsy family, who gave rides on the local beach – long gallops on wide stretches of windswept sand for miles, where the estuary tide goes out really far. I loved horses since I was tiny – something profound, indefinable – but I couldn’t afford lessons, so I started helping out at the stables when I was still at primary school, just to be around horses. And part of that involved riding these big cobs from the field and back, several miles down the beach, each day in the summer holidays – bareback, so we didn’t have to carry saddles after we’d finished – so you’d either learn to stay on, or you’d get the piss taken (by the horses or the other riders, alike).

Horses and music, that’s been my life.

While you are clearly influenced by folk song, can you tell us more about some of your strongest influences as well as your other ‘varied musical interests’ and how they might have influenced this album?

I’ve never really thought in terms of influences; it’s more things that inspire me – not always solely in music – things that I might like the feel of, the effect, the expression. So some of the old European theatre and street theatre – where there was music and mayhem and story-telling – that was a big inspiration for me, when I was growing up and starting to get into performance. I got into that through traditions like the mumming, etc, and then some of the outdoor theatre, that you see at festivals.

In terms of music, usually, the musicians who I enjoy most have this quality of simultaneous levity and gravity – people like Spiritualized, Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson are pretty consistent favourites. Elvis Costello was the first song-writer who made me aware of the power of lyrics – he’s still a favourite now. A song starts with good lyrics for me.

What was the drive behind getting Joe Watson of Stereolab involved in this album and how did that help shape the final album?

Joe mixed the album and I produced it. That is, I had a clear idea of how I wanted it to sound, and Joe translated my descriptions through the mixing desk, because his studio skills are way advanced than mine. And he did so with great patience and humour, I should add – I don’t always describe things in musical terms, but he knew what I meant, when I’d say things like “Can this track have a bit more sugar in it…?”. In the studio, these ways of communicating about sounds and textures make sense – it’s how I think musically – but it doesn’t make sense to everyone, admittedly…

I met Joe at Sussex Uni when I was doing a music MA a couple of years ago (passed with distinction, thanks for asking 🙂 ). I liked how he worked – his attention to details, and  easy to share ideas with – and I liked that we have very different musical histories. I wanted this album to have an electric quality, without sounding folk rock (really don’t like folk rock!), and so I asked Joe. Then half-way through mixing the album, Stereolab came out of hibernation with a re-release of their back catalogue and a subsequent world tour, so some of the final album tweaks Joe did on the tourbus crossing America, emailing me updated drafts between gigs.

Alasdair Roberts and Alex Neilson featured on the last album as well as this one, they have such a distinctive sound, it’s like you were meant to be. 

Thanks for saying such a lovely thing about playing with Ali and Alex. They’ve played on three of my four albums now – it always comes very naturally playing with them – they are kindred.

There are also some new players (Stephen Hiscock, Eddie Myer and Alice Emerson) on this release, how did you go about selecting them, did you have a clear idea of the sound you were after?

Alice, Eddie, and Stephen are all musicians with Brighton connections – where I’ve lived on-and-off for alot of my adult life – and although none of them knew each other before this album, they have a similar quality in their approach and sound which I like. I was clear in my head of the sound I was after, yes – I’m often told that I know what I want! (is that a euphemism for ‘control freak’ when people say that?!). So it was a spacious, sometimes weighty, sound I was after – levity and gravity again. Although I have a clear sound of what I want, I’m always open to what the other musicians bring too – that’s where the magic is. I realised many of the musicians I’ve worked with aren’t necessarily from the folk world – Alice is a singer-songwriter in her own right, and is really good at interpreting my synaesthetic descriptions of the guitar sounds that I’m after; Eddie’s a jazz bassist and also plays in Turin Brakes; and Stephen’s a classically-trained percussionist and also plays with Mark Eitzel. It’s the texture and colour of their sounds that I like, which always draws me to a musician.

In his review of your album, David Morrison highlighted two songs as ‘knocking him over’ – The Selkie and especially The Offing

The Selkie, appears to be an ode for a departed loved one.  Besides her also mournfully ululating back in the mix, it contains this crushing verse:

And wherever you are now, I know they’ll love you / And wherever you are now, I hope you’re free / And wherever you are now, I hope they’ve got good whisky / And wherever you are now, I hope you rest in peace.

The Offing is the other intensely moving song, one that alludes to either whomever is relating the lyric, or indeed possibly Osborne herself, addressing having to live with a serious health condition:

I am honeycombed monochrome bones / Written in my chromosomes.

It appears that the narrator has taken stock at a crucial juncture in life – facing up to mortality, both advising on and vowing how to altruistically conduct oneself with grace for however long remains.  One of my favourite proverbial phrases, attributed to Plato and a dictum that I strive (and often fail) to observe is, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’  Osborne’s adaptation of this philosophy, one that mercifully appears to be emerging in these unprecedented times, ends The Offing thus:

Know that everyone you meet, everyone you meet / Has a life as complex of your own / Be as kind as you can / Kinder than you can / Kinder, kinder than you can

This question is the reason it’s taken me so long to reply – it’s been hard to know what to say and try to say it well. With this album, I’ve been pulled away from my usual sense of privacy, to being more public about certain experiences, because they raise issues about universal experiences, which aren’t necessarily being talked about much.

The Selkie is about the suicide of my ex-partner several years ago, who would never have suffered, had there been adequate mental health services, as standard, within the NHS. The signs were there, but the professional support wasn’t – and still isn’t for many – even though suicide is the biggest killer of young men. The song came out of a poetic moment amidst the tragedy, where a seal was heard calling across the sea, just as his ashes were cast from the boat at his send-off.

Of The Offing, David Morrison is right in his album review, about a certain mortality that I’m facing up to in this song – and in life. These songs were written in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis – a pernicious little blood anomaly – which I’ve had for a couple of years, but have been private about til now. Although it’s serious – treatable but incurable – it’s slowburn and currently under control. So (until the covid cancellations) I’ve managed to play gigs and go about my life with just some adaption. But professionally, I was concerned that if I spoke about it, it could be interpreted as me being not well enough to work anymore, or that it could be seen as a liability – there’s alot of room for misunderstanding when it comes to health and disabilities. Speaking with other musicians with an invisible disability (as that’s what this is now), I’ve discovered there are a good few of us keeping quiet about it for fear of losing work. Ultimately though, that’s not helping anyone, long term. I’ve had interesting conversations with campaigners about how ableist the music world is, and the arts in general – why we rarely see disabled performers – and that invisibility means many venues and festivals aren’t addressing accessibility properly, for audiences and performers alike – who, meanwhile, are having to grit their teeth and get by.

But it’d take alot to stop me wanting to play live – it’s probably my favourite thing about being a musician – it inspires me.

Have you found a common thread among responses to the album and songs and do you have a personal favourite?

I haven’t noticed a common thread as such, but I haven’t been paying a lot of attention! I rarely use social media, especially recently – a friend kindly handles my pages for me. But the general response has been very positive. There was a couple of references to Lou Reed, which I was puzzled by at first, then realised they were maybe referring to the guitar sound on some of the tracks. I love how Lou Reed could be simultaneously heavy, spacious, and melodic with his guitar tones – I was aiming for that sort of feel.

I’m just glad that this is my first album of recent years which hasn’t drawn Incredible String Band comparisons from reviewers! I’ve only heard one or two of their songs, and I know they’re really respected, but they sounded mostly like posh kids singing about pixies – definitely no influence on my music from ISB! Lou Reed, however – I’ve enjoyed him alot. Saw him playing in Adelaide once, when I had a night off on tour in Australia one year.

My favourite song at the moment from “…Crow” is probably Birds of the British Isles, for somewhat sad reasons. The first line refers to my mare Molly, who I walked all over the Sussex Downs with before I became unwell, and she died a few weeks ago. We went everywhere together – I rarely rode her – she much preferred me walking by her side, where we could see each other’s eyes. She’s also in No Hoof, No Horse on the album, but it’s in Birds of the British Isles I remember her most at the moment. That’s her in the video for the song – a rare moment of me riding her a couple of years ago.

Also, my Dad told me the bird lore line, “If you see a rook on its own, it’s a crow”, and I’ve learnt alot from him about nature and wildlife, as well as some really good old traditional songs. He’s very unwell at the minute, so I’ve been spending alot of time with him.

The current situation has made it difficult for all artists to get out and gig, are you working on anything at the moment?

I’d’ve been three months into a PhD in sound studies by now, had I not been in the highest covid-risk group, due to my misbehaving blood. So that’s been deferred til next year now, all being well.

So I’ve been with my parents alot, spending time with my Dad, and haven’t been working on music directly for a little while, apart from online teaching – fiddle, song-writing. I’m always playing, improvising, writing, but live-stream performances haven’t appealed to me, like alot of musicians have been doing – not very contemporary of me, I know – same with social media for me – but that’s how it is, at the mo.

Playing and sparking off other musicians and the stage / audience interaction are what inspire me – I’m looking forward to the time when it’s safe to do that again.

Source: Folk Music UK

Bandcamp: https://elleosborne.bandcamp.com/album/if-you-see-a-rook-on-its-own-its-a-crow

Photo Credit: Eliza Eagle

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