After a long and accurate work on it, last year Kristin McClement released her debut album “The Wild Grips“. The album impressed for its natural immediacy, revealing McClement’s strong and somehow unconventional personality in folk music. Here’s Kristin talking about the album, her new projects and her passionate way of living music.
When did you started playing music? Have you got any musical education?
One of my earliest musical memories is of me singing to myself when I was a small child. We had a vegetable patch next to our garden and I would walk along the narrow pathways making up songs about the wildlife around me. I started having piano lessons when I was about ten years old and I remember naturally wanting to make up my own songs. They were mostly instrumental at that stage. After I moved to England, when I was still at school, I began learning classical guitar. I had a wonderful teacher who encouraged me to write my own music, alongside learning the technical aspects of playing the guitar. This is when I began to think about lyrics, and how to use my voice, and started becoming a “singer/songwriter”.
Is there any artist you consider important in your musical training or at least someone you feel close to your sensibility?
Leonard Cohen is definitely one of the pillars in my house of music! Particularly his early work – ”Songs of Leonard Cohen” and “Songs of Love and Hate”. There are so many moments of pure genius songwriting in these records. His words seem to cut to the very bone of human experience. And the sound of his fingerpicked nylon guitar is the perfect accompaniment. I have also been inspired by the work of classical guitarists and composers. One (famous) song “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” by Francisco Tárrega in particular made me want to be a better guitarist. The version played by John Williams is my favourite. It is a perfect piece of music.
Can you describe your writing process? How important are in it your personal feelings and experience?
Every song I write comes from a personal experience, or from a personal reaction to the experience of others. The process remains quite mysterious to me. I soak up emotions, thoughts, stories from the world around me all the time. I always have a notebook handy to jot down a phrase or a verse that comes into my head. And then somehow, when I sit down with my guitar, I stumble on a chord sequence, or a picking pattern, and then a melody comes and then the words fall into place. I don’t like to question the process too much, I think it is a kind of magic.
Your first full length, “The Wild Grips”, took some years to be released: is it because you were carefully looking for a certain sound for your songs? Do you think you’ll always need long time for working on a record or things might get easier in the future?
I take my time to finish things, that’s for sure! I’m definitely a perfectionist. A third of the songs on the album were first released on a home recorded EP in 2009. These songs morphed into new arrangements when I started playing them live with my bandmates at the time – cellist Becca Mears and drummer Tom Heather. About a year later I met Christian Hardy (The Leisure Society) who offered to produce the album, and so it made sense to re-record these songs along with newer songs. I think the recording process was quite slow because we were discovering our sound as we went along – there was quite a bit of ‘trial and error’. I think I have a better understanding of who I am as a musician now and have a much clearer vision for my next album, so hopefully it won’t take as long!
You’re part of the Willkommen collective and artists like Christian Hardy and Daniel Green had a part on your record: how did you first get in touch with the collective? And what do you think of the whole experience of creating and playing music with a large number of artists that share a somehow common sensibility?
After university, and after spending some time travelling abroad, I returned to Brighton and moved into a house share with Tom Cowan and Jacob Richardson from the band Sons Of Noel and Adrian. Tom Cowan became one of the founders of the Willkommen Collective, along with Marcus Hamblett. It was a happy accident that we ended up being housemates, as I didn’t know them before. I am very grateful to be part of a community of musicians who continue to inspire and support each other. It means the world to me. People like Tom, Jacob, Marcus, Danny Green, Emma Gatrill, Bea Sanjust (and more!) are a big part of my development as a musician. I recorded a cover of “A Fighting Chance” by The Leisure Society for a compilation “Willkommen Covers The Sleeper”. Myself, Tom and Becca met Christian in person soon after and I think we all felt that we wanted to work with each other. And I’m very glad that we did! All the time and effort that Christian gave to recording my debut album is a great gift.
Your lyrics sound deeply felt and personal, yet they are often metaphoric and related to the natural world. Is this a poetic way to express your feelings or to hide yourself a bit behind the words?
I think growing up in South Africa gave me a heightened appreciation for the natural world. We travelled a lot through the country so I experienced many different landscapes and wildlife. I remember the majestic Drakensberg (the Dragon Mountains) where we used to go camping and hiking. And the barren, semi-desert Karoo which has the most amazing display of flowers in spring. I became drawn to poets who, like me, saw themselves within a vast shapeshifting landscape, and wanted to explore our relationship with nature – writers like Ted Hughes, T.S Elliot and Pablo Neruda. This approach has influenced my lyrics. I think there are times, just like when I’m reading a poem, that I don’t completely understand what the words mean, but they feel right. I think the mystery keeps you coming back. Moving forward, with newer songs, I find that I’m being a bit more direct, there are more obvious story lines appearing, it’s happening naturally.
How important are the places where you play and record your music?
Very important! My music relies on a still, focused environment and a quiet audience, to be able to blossom. All the subtleties are lost if there is background noise. This is why churches are my favourite places to play. I think people find it easier to be still in such buildings, as they are associated with peacefulness and prayer. I don’t usually go to church but I do enjoy performing in that type of space. It is interesting to borrow a space that was created for a different purpose than my own. We recorded most of the album in quiet, countryside cottages around England. The homeliness, and comfort of the spaces helped us all to relax and to enjoy the process without the pressure of the clock ticking in the studio.
Your songs are mostly quite long, rich of details and instruments and often end up in a different way than they started: does this complexity reflect the one of the message you mean to express with your songs? And, generally speaking, is something you tried to reach in a conscious way?
I enjoy instrumental music just as much as I enjoy music with lyrics. When I’m writing I can often hear melodies that I think would better suit an instrument as opposed to being sung; it’s what happens naturally when I compose. I don’t think it is a conscious stylistic choice, but I think my background in classical guitar has influenced the way I write. I also spent many years playing in a band with a wonderful cellist, Becca Mears. Becca wrote many beautiful cello parts for the songs on The Wild Grips. Along with Tom and Christian, we were all interested in the songs taking a less traditional path, moving away from verse / chorus / verse etc. I see many of the songs on the album as journeys, and so they instinctively end up in a different place to where they started. And the storytelling is shared between my voice and lyrics and the instrumental passages.
After many detailed songs and arrangements, the final track of the album is a short instrumental one: why did you choose a so understated closing track?
The closing track is a section of a longer song which hasn’t been released and I haven’t played it live for a long time. I chose it mainly because it has sentimental value to me. It is a song about the memories of the dry, dusty landscape of the Karoo of my home country and the displacement I felt for a long time after moving to England. It’s just a closing note, a nod to my past, a simple goodbye (for now).
It seems that folk music is growing and spreading widely among independent artists in recent years: what do you think about this return to simplicity and to (generally speaking) folk language?
I think a lot of people see the 60s and 70s as the golden age of singer/songwriters. It was an important time for modern folk music. From the 80s onwards there has been a lot of experimentation with the development of synthetic sounds and as a result music has become very diverse sonically. I believe time moves in cycles, so I think people are returning to a way of writing and recording that is simpler. People are searching for a sound with soul, with truth and honesty and folk music is often a vessel for such things. Perhaps it is a reaction to how digitalised our world has become. Some people just want to hear songs played from the heart on an acoustic instrument!
How do you feel playing your music live? Do you like better to play it alone or with a band?
I prefer to play live with at least one other person. Such a big part of playing music for me is connecting and harmonising with someone else during the process. It has to be the right person of course! You travel together, and your energy combines to create something more unique then when it is a solo artist on stage. Due to distance and time I’m no longer able to play live with Becca and Tom who I wrote The Wild Grips with. But luckily I’ve met an incredible drummer and multi-instrumentalist, Jools Owen, who has helped me to shape a new sound. Our setup is nylon and electric guitar, drums, trumpet, harmonium and Jools also sings harmonies with me.
As a listener, what kind of music did you use to like best over the years? And nowadays?
As a teenager I was drawn to the melancholy I found in music. For example, ‘The Bends’ by Radiohead or PJ Harvey’s ‘Is This Desire’. You could say I was fairly typical I suppose but I also looked for poetry in the words. To this day I prefer words with some weight behind them. I’m interested in the depth of expression, how expression can be conveyed and the methods in which songwriters use to convey feelings and emotion.
I fostered a great love for Leonard Cohen and started listening to various classical guitarists which really inspired my playing. Some of my other favourite albums were of course the spellbinding “Grace” by Jeff Buckley, “Under The Pink” by Tori Amos and “August And Everything After” by Counting Crows.
At present you could say my taste in music is very much based on my early exposure to what I’ve listed above except slightly broader. I really like the Blues. Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Robert Johnson. I don’t know where to start (or end). I like what the music industry calls ‘world music’ (isn’t all music world music?) such as Tinariwen or Rokia Thraore.
As a lyricist, Bob Dylan is an obvious favourite alongside Neil Young and Nick Drake. I’m very fond of Nina Nastasia, Anais Mitchell, Benjamin Clementine (who I supported at the beautiful Theatre Royal in Brighton), Nina Simone, Joanna Newsom (I think her new record “Divers” is exceptional), A Winged Victory for the Sullen (“Atomos” is a really atmospheric and elegant record). There is actually too much to mention!
What do you think about the way music spreads nowadays through the web? Do you think it is helpful for an independent artist like you?
Today it is easier than ever before for artists to share and sell their work online without the support of a label. That said, it is harder to be noticed within an ever increasing ocean of other voices.
There are more people recording music now than any other time in history. Back when tape was king, studio time was usually paid for by the label. The money was taken from the band’s advance and had to be recouped in the end (usually from record sales) but that was the way it worked. Most bands could not afford the studio time required to record an album. Modern technology has enabled any songwriter with a spare £50 to get their hands on recording equipment. There are many arguments for and against this current state of affairs but ultimately, I think it is a good thing. All songs deserve to be heard. Even not very good ones!
Independent music blogs (such as yourselves) can really help artists in my position gain exposure. I would rather spread the word slowly and build an audience that connects with my music than win a television talent contest and sell millions of records overnight.
With the advent of streaming services, I think audiences are, unfortunately, becoming used to free music. Free music is great for consumers but causes real problems for the artist. “Everything is free now, that’s what they say, everything I ever done, gotta give it away”, sings Gillian Welch. It’s hard to make money when the thing you worked hard on is given away for free. Artists in my position rely on direct sales or performance fees to fund ourselves. It’s just as well I’m not in it for the money!
With so many music floating around every moment, what do you think creating music and writing songs is still worth for?
Writing and performing music is a big part of who I am. I create firstly for myself and therefore the process will always be worthwhile for me. I find it very therapeutic. I think I would go crazy if I didn’t have the ability to express my experiences and emotions through songs. I also think that every generation needs its own voice. That’s why people keep creating – we are all responding to a world which is changing every day, every hour, every second.
And, finally, what else can we expect from you in the near future, and what do you expect from music?
For sometime now my live set has included new songs written since the release of The Wild Grips. We have been etching away, discovering the puzzle piece by piece. After a few recording experiments, we have now started to record the second album. I’m looking forward to finishing it and sharing it. It’s the next chapter. And then I would like to keep playing live, keep writing, keep meeting new people, keep sharing experiences, keep growing. For me, making music is a way of life, and so it is just a case of continuing the journey. Don’t they say, “The journey is the destination”.