Unsigned Focus: Kate Daisy Grant
by Guy Sangster Adams
Though she wrote some of the songs as long as seven years ago, the impetus for unsigned singer songwriter Kate Daisy Grant to record her debut album, One Thing You Should Know About Me, came last year through a serendipitous meeting at Maison Bertaux with the songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Ken Rose. Grant was playing the battered, out of tune, upright piano in the tea-shop, which has been a beacon of fabulous cakes and intellectualism in London’s Soho since 1871, whilst Rose, a member of Marianne Faithfull’s band, had just finished playing guitar on Faithfull’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ tour. Discovering that they shared far more than floral names, the meeting generated a symbiosis through, as Grant says, “their perfectly matched mismatchedness”—she describes Rose as an “arch dude of LA horizontal ‘tude” and herself as a “spider-lashed Victorian marionette with slight Tourette’s”—and they decided to make a record.
The resultant album features an highly eclectic array of instruments, both acutely traditional and cutely non-traditional, as piano and autoharp are melded with the contents of a cavernous rainy day play box, containing a scarlet toy piano, toy bells, a bright yellow teapot, drums full of pennies, a double bass playing robot, and a string quartet is set against an orchestra of “cobbled together objects.” Given such a list it is not surprising that Grant says, “when we were recording I’ve never laughed so much, and when we play live and Ken’s playing glockenspiels and dustbin lids, if I catch a glimpse of that I piss myself!”
The presence of glockenspiels on a 2000’s pop album is as refreshingly kooky as the complete absence of glottal stops; in fact Grant’s singing voice is very hard to categorise or to place geographically. Born to a parental mix of Scottish-Dutch-French-English, her speaking voice transfuses Home Counties through West London, but in song, she has a completely seductive perfect counterpoise between breathy fragility and lip biting ardency, vulnerability and supremacy. In her lighter shades she might be Nordic or French with echoes of Ida Marie or Julie Delpy (particularly in the waltz title track, which brings to mind Delpy’s A Waltz for a Night from the soundtrack of Before Sunset), whilst her smokier, darker tones on the tracks Peaches or Truth evoke PJ Harvey or Siouxsie Sioux.
Songs of Innocence and Experience, the title that Faithfull borrowed from poet and painter William Blake’s two contrasting collections of poetry, might also be partly applied as a description of Grant’s album. Blakes’ works juxtapose an exploration of how the naivety of childhood hopes and fears are corrupted and repressed by the harsh realities of adult life. But in the songs on One Thing You Should Know About Me the knowing and the ingénue co-exist in the same moment; the losses of innocence, love, people do not bide their time for adulthood, and becoming an adult does not halt their tide. Grant describes the songs as coming “from the junk shop of my heart” though they are also infused with a magical toyshop as she is also very influenced by the work of the writer, animator and puppeteer Oliver Postgate, who created the children’s television programmes Bagpuss and The Clangers, and Victorian fairy tales like the Brothers Grimm and Henrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter. As Grant explains, “It’s me cherry picking things that were comforting to me when I was growing up—they were my favourite bits of childhood—and the Victorian era, that’s when fairy tales became popular; just to expose your children to the perils of strangers and the dangers of even loving something. That’s what struck me about Bagpuss, you really care about the characters, even if you are being told an incidental story about a little haggis creature or whatever, it’s all to do with them leaving. The Victoriana and the melchancholia spoke to me as a child; I liked sadnesses.”
Grant read a lot of World War I poetry whilst recording the album and this informs the theme of loss, as well as being a specific reference on two tracks. Truth is inspired both by the Wilfrid Owen poem Strange Meeting, “about meeting your doppelganger who you’ve just killed; could be part of yourself you’ve just killed” and Under Storm’s Wing the autobiography of Helen Thomas, wife of the poet Philip Edward Thomas who was killed in action in the Battle of Arras in 1917. Thomas had only turned to writing poetry under the stress of whether or not to enlist – as a married man in his late thirties at the outbreak of the war, he was not required to do so. Grant says, “It was one of the most upsetting books I’ve ever read, Helen Thomas said that the last time he left she knew for a fact that she was never going to see him again and he walked so slowly away from her, and it was snowing, and he just walked into the darkness, and they kept calling out, hello, hello, hello… until they couldn’t hear each other anymore.”
Harmsway, which is also inspired by WWI is a far more upbeat track, “at that point I was reading about the hopefulness of everyone setting off,” says Grant, “and it’s as if it’s their last stop in a town before they hit the battlefield – that one joyful, abandoned moment, where one is still clinging to the innocence of love songs and the innocent sentiments of what you think life means before you’re chucked in the deep end.” The opening bars of Harmsway have an echo of Tom Waits’ Innocent When You Dream, but although Grant cites Tom Waits as a specific inspiration she says that she has never heard the track, which adds an intriguing layer of referential chance.
Grant describes the WWI poetry as “the extremity of experience of facing your worst and then producing the best and most beautiful” which would make an equally apt epigraph for One Thing You Should Know About Me. “It is a cathartic album,” she says, “but it’s cathartic enough that I wouldn’t have to write an album like that again. Definitely the songs that I’m writing now are much lighter.”
One Thing You Should Know About Me seizes the listener from the seemingly carefree waltz of the title track, which is actually a decadent dance along the precipice, on an extraordinarily tempestuous voyage, through extreme pitches and rolls of emotions, and the spectre of an ominous wave that threatens to engulf everything, but leaves one ‘with the wild waves whisht’ in the last track, The Language of Science, which dazzles like the molten gold of low sunlight on wavelets, atremble with the thrills of after-shock, and imbued with the insight and wisdom of a survivor and the strength of resolve and beauty of hope that only the journey of experience can bestow on one.
Watch a filmed interview with Kate Daisy Grant and a performance of her song The Language of Science on the Plectrum Broadcast Player.
Kate Daisy Grant has self-released One Thing You Should Know About Me and it is available as a download from iTunes, Napster, eMusic et al, or on CD at her gigs. She is playing live dates in London throughout April and May, for details click on the link below.
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