Last summer Scottish singer-songwriter, Astrid Williamson, released her 5th solo album, Pulse. Working with Brian Eno-collaborator, Leo Abrahams, Williamson's experimentation with an eclectic palette of sounds was balanced with rich melodies, beautiful arrangements and her unmistakable voice.
Almost two decades after starting the band Goya Dress, which she subsequently moved on from in 1996 to work on her first solo record, Boy For You, Williamson is about to release a new single, a hypnotic hymn called Dance.
On Wednesday she returns to London for a special show at the Vortex Jazz Club and we caught up with her to find out more about her recent album, the new single and the forthcoming gig.
You started your music career in the early 90s. How do you view the changes to the music industry since that time?
With the internet, I quite like the fact that there is such accessibility. I enjoy the fact that information moves so fast. It's good. Unfortunately, in terms of selling music, it's not been good for the industry. But I suppose the industry just has to evolve. The positive thing about it is that, if you were always going to be making music, you would do it anyway. You would find a way to do it. It cleans out the people who were only going to be doing it to get famous or to make money.
With your current record, "Pulse", you've joined forces with London-based label, One Little Indian.
Yes. In the 90s I was with Nude Records and then when Nude folded I bought my catalogue and set up my own label, Incarnation Records. But I have always been in touch with One Little Indian, even back in my Goya Dress days- I've always been in contact with that label and considered them my friends. They were consistently supportive. I released records on Incarnation but it's actually incredibly lonely doing it myself so I went back to One Little Indian and I've been incredibly lucky - it's really quite hard to find somewhere as a home where you're going to be allowed to be the artist that you want to be. Where there isn't the pressure in terms of sales... I mean, obviously, it would be fantastic to sell millions of records, that would be great but I also feel that it is important not to be under the pressure to do so.
You're a classically-trained pianist. Does the majority of your songwriting start with the piano?
Because I have been playing the piano for such a long time, I think that it has, in a way, become an extension of me. It's like the extra bit at the end of my fingers. But I write on the guitar as well, although I am not very good on the guitar. What tends to happen is that I have an emotional response to something that I am playing or to a lyric and I just follow that. It has to come from a place of emotional truth. With Pulse, I was writing the album as I was making it. Normally, I prepare an album in advance of recording, I'd have a dozen or so songs to play with. But with this record, Leo Abrahams wanted to do it in another way. That meant that I really had to trust that something will come out. It gave me the liberty to be a bit braver, maybe. I think after a few years you start thinking you know how to write songs. But actually I don't think you ever really do. Most songs that you love often come to you fully formed anyway.
Let's talk about the new single, "Dance".
It was the last song that got written on the album. I was at Leo's studio in his house in Bow and I had an idea for the song, I played it to him and he liked it. So he sent me to another part of the house to write the lyrics. And it came out as an expression of trying to communicate with somebody but in a veiled way. I didn't want the songs on the album to be direct. I'm bored of direct statements at the moment. I didn't feel like making things obvious.
Having previously spent quite a long time living in London (before moving to Brighton), how did it compare to your original home in the Shetland Islands?
I think London is just a great city. I love it. For me, it is the most exciting city to be in. It's got a huge history. When you go to London, everything is as it is, it's quite clear. There's no sense of masquerading. It's upfront and in your face and you are allowed to be whatever you want to be. Shetland is very small. And in such a small place you are more likely to be pigeon-holed in terms of people's expectations of you.
When you play live, do you try to recreate the sound of the album you are touring or do you tend to simplify the arrangements?
I try to reflect the sound of the album. Especially in this case because it is so peculiar. The sounds that we used were very specific. I had to sample some of them because they would be difficult to bring out on the road, as it were. Leo used about 10 kinds of guitars and I don't have that. But what I do is try to bring the sound of the album to the show live as much as possible. I am not a big fan of going to shows and having a lot of music coming out that isn't being created on stage live. I'm not a fascist about it [laughs] but I like hearing musicians being inventive in emulating certain sounds rather than just having samples. I do use a few samples but I prefer having a live drummer being creative with percussion instead of sampling things.
With five albums' worth of material under your belt, how do you decide which songs to play at your shows?
I tend to approach it with an attitude of 'the album that's just been made must live'. So I let the new ones have a little fun, first. I do get tired of some songs I've written and that's probably because I've played them too much, you know? And then sometimes if you've created a piece of work and it doesn't do much you start to feel you can't face it. You don't want to play it for a while. And then you take a couple of years and go back to it and realise that you quite like it.
What are you planning for your forthcoming Vortex show?
It's very exciting, actually. Simon Pearson who was in Goya Dress with me has agreed to do this show. We all used to live near the Vortex. Well, Simon still does, he lives in Stoke Newington. So it kind of feels like going home to do a gig, a little bit, playing live in this part of town. We'll be a four-piece. Me, Simon, a bass-player and a guitarist.
Have you started thinking about your next musical project and what you would like to do on it?
I was half-thinking it would be nice to... well, since everybody else is re-forming their old bands, I was thinking... it might be interesting to do one of those shows where you play the album. I'm interested in the idea of writing for this trio of people that I know, I know how they operate. That is kind of exciting. Quite different to being a solo artist. Apart from that, I'd quite like to write a musical.
Oh, really? Are you a fan of the genre?
I am a fan of the great musicals. Like Cabaret and The Sound of Music.
Have you got some ideas for your musical, yet?
Well, if I tell you now someone else might go and do it [laughs]. There's got to be a prison and there's got to be a villain and injustice done good in the end. You know, the usual stuff. No, I'm only kidding. I don't know. I think it would be the opposite of the myopic song-writer looking inside. That's why the idea is appealing to me, up to a point. My music tends to be a bit serious so a musical would force me to write songs that can break away from that. It would be fun to write a happy song.