This interview originally featured on TYCI.
Few bands have been as important in the shaping of Scotland’s music scene in recent history as The Delgados. As one of the most shimmeringly brilliant but underrated acts of the mid-90s and early 2000s, they were perhaps the most significant recent catalyst in the thrilling and ever-evolving story of Scottish indie pop.
The quartet – Emma Pollock, Paul Savage, Alun Woodward and Stewart Henderson – has collectively and individually moulded the Scottish musical landscape through their highly influential label Chemikal Underground and the bands it has nurtured over the past 21 years, as well as the Chem 19 studios they founded and the multitude of essential albums it has spawned (not forgetting the cultural, community and collaborative projects they’ve all been involved with). Without the four, their label, studios and various other work, the musical palette of the country would be far duller than its current glorious technicolour.
2016 sees the artistic return of Emma Pollock, with the release of her third solo album, In Search Of Harperfield. The record was produced by her husband and former bandmate, the ubiquitous producer/engineer extraordinaire Paul Savage – crafter of countless modern classics, his technical talents also indelible in the nation’s musical lineage. In Search Of Harperfield is the sound of the sadness and inevitability of the passing of time, wrapped beautifully in stories that weave through crystal clear, soaring melodies and pristine poetic couplets. It loosely charts the past half decade, a hectic and tumultuous period for Pollock which culminated in the traumatic passing of her mother.
It’s been over five years since Pollock’s last solo release, something she doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with, and describes herself as being “in limbo” artistically. But in the years following the release of The Law Of Large Numbers in 2010, life became incredibly busy for one of Scottish music’s key figures. In the years between the two records, Pollock became more heavily involved in the running of Chem 19, as well as working at the label – not to mention her roles as mother, wife and latterly, carer to her ailing parents.
“When you’ve been away for as long as I have you end up having to carve out a patch for yourself all over again, which I’m OK with,” she says, despite feeling a little despondent at times that she might have been forgotten about as an artist. “But then I think ‘wow, isn’t it great that I can come back and put a record out again’. You’ve always got to justify people listening to you, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it. There’s a lot of really great music out there so every time you put a record out it’s got to be good, which is partly why it’s taken so long, I just wanted to make sure I felt that way about it.”
Pollock is pleased with the reaction to the record so far, and although she was slightly nervous before its release she’s very proud of her latest work and delighted to be once again wearing her artists’ hat. She admits she’s had a difficult few years, but in a sense personal tragedies have informed her art, and of her many varied roles in life, songwriter and performer are key. Lyrically, In Search Of Harperfield‘s songs are sharper than ever; exquisitely crafted tales of love and life and loss, of making sense of the past, present and future.
Whilst Pollock often uses songs as a form of storytelling, exploring characters and “daydreams”, her work on this record is undoubtedly coloured by personal events. None more glaringly so than in ‘Intermission’ – a menacing, stark waltz of strings and mournful vocals with the cutting lyric: “With quiet upheaval the usual routine is replaced with the noise of a thousand machines/All telling the stories of things that go wrong when we’re pushing the years ’cause we want to hang on.” Written whilst both parents were gravely ill, the song follows the changing dynamics of families with grim honesty and explores the grieving that occurs as death looms: “When did you go trading places, switching roles in little stages/When did you become defector, leaving me the sole protector?”
“You don’t really understand death until a parent dies, or a sibling, or a child,” Pollock admits. “Death didn’t mean the same to me before as it does now because that was my family and that was something that was so close that I knew it intimately. I had seen its beginning, its middle and its finality.” The loss of her mother was deeply affecting, but developing and performing some of the songs from the latest record has proved helpful in working through it. “When I sing I try to retain a memory of her rather than the grief associated with her dying,” she says. “It takes a bit of time but I don’t think you should avoid grieving, it’s very important. For me, perhaps, singing this album, that’s got to be a way of grieving. It’s about putting yourself in that memory and giving [the person] the credit that you still fully engage with who they were, and how much of a valued and utterly loved part of your life that they were, and how do you do that justice now that they’re gone. For me it will be to perform these songs. It’s more a case of it’s a celebration, it’s like a miniature tribute every time. I think I’ll probably learn to enjoy that actually as time goes on.
“Life goes on, and if there is one comfort for every single mortal sin that is committed in the world it’s that life goes on, and then the next day someone’s cracking a joke. There’s always a life somewhere else, there’s always something else. It’s the momentum of life itself which keeps us going and we have to engage with that in the face of death. It’s kind of why we’re here to just keep on rolling even though there are times when you feel that it’s an absolute outrage that everyone else carries on regardless.”
Pollock has emerged with the most successful solo career as an artist of the four Delgados. She has been a critical part of Glasgow’s scene, and the wider Scottish industry, both in a business and artistic sense. She has over the years been instrumental in shaping scenes and encouraging artists, but admits to the difficulties in trying to find time to write and make her own music. But, she says, with some exceptions, most artists are in the same situation, with fewer full time musicians than ever before facing a brand new landscape. “The artists that are coming in now have just accepted it because it’s never been any different that they’ve got to find time for [music] as well as carve a career, because they won’t be able to make music a career, they’ve never known any different.”
In recent years Emma Pollock has toured in China, performed sporadically in an array of places and collaborated a lot, with the likes of the inimitable RM Hubbert (who appears on Pollock’s new release on ‘Monster In The Pack’) and the Cairn String Quartet (with the latest record string-heavy). But Pollock is thrilled to be back as a solo artist first and foremost, performing with full band and special guests for a Celtic Connections show at Oran Mor at the end of January. She’s also planning a tour of record stores and looking ahead to further UK and European-wide shows.
Now firmly content as a solo artist, Pollock still looks back on The Delgados days fondly, recalling the naivety and swagger of youth: “We were full of bravado and ambition and we really didn’t trust the idea of going to London just to get a record deal because we instinctively knew, and we were right, we knew that if we went to chase something that it would just turn round and tell us to be something we weren’t, which is what happened to most of the artists that we knew that ended up getting deals. Their careers were short-lived.
“We distrusted the idea of chasing a major label deal, I think we were inherently suspicious of the industry at that time and anyway it was the age of the independent label. I was excited about Factory Records, because I was a massive fan of New Order. Factory Records for me was one of the reasons that I wanted to start a label and was very excited by the prospect of it.”
Chemikal Underground appears to have flawlessly traversed a changing and challenging industry that has been “devastated by the internet”. The success of Chemikal Underground in the face of the severe shift in music consumption has been, and continues to be, impressive, and largely down to the dedication of those involved. “The changes [to the industry] have been devastating and I think at the moment we’re just thanking our lucky stars that we’re able to look forward six months and say we’ve got a semblance of a plan, but beyond that who knows? There are plenty of artistic industries out there that are going through an absolutely devastating change.”
Despite Glasgow existing in somewhat of its own bubble musically – Pollock describes the city as having the “entire array of the building blocks of a music industry” that have “allowed Glasgow to become self-sustaining, to have its own momentum, to have essentially its own scene” – bands and artists still struggle. Many are self-funded or seeking grants through the likes of Creative Scotland, which has according to Pollock, been hugely influential and enabling in Scotland, helping many artists both new and established. “Scotland and Glasgow in particular has a very active musical community and the great thing about having a heritage is that it encourages the future generations to do whatever it is they choose to do with the same confidence.”
Chemikal has weathered the peaks and troughs in demand for various musical formats, with the unexpected rise in the popularity of vinyl providing a glimmer of light. “No matter what technology offers, the public will always make their own decision, and I’m really heartened by that,” she states. “The problem with streaming is not just the financial side of it, it’s not just the devastating impact it’s had on the industry, it’s also the fact that you do not connect to [the music] in the same way, you cannot call it your own, you do not get the artwork in the same way and it’s not as much of an identity. It’s not the same commitment and for me that’s what music is.”
Emma Pollock started the year playing the Chemikal:Land stage at the Scot:Lands event in Edinburgh on New Year’s Day, surrounded by some of the artists she’s worked with (RM Hubbert, Sound of Yell, Miaoux Miaoux). This rolling collaboration was set amongst pictures of the label’s records. “Stewart [Henderson] put up every single cover of all the albums that we’ve put out,” she begins. “What a feat – the very fact that he did that was fantastic. I didn’t realise until the day we did the show, standing on that stage and looking out and realising. It was one of those moments that crept up on me and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s quite something’. Without much ceremony, suddenly these albums were all there and I thought, ‘Bloody hell!’ I don’t think any of us would have believed that we’d have still been here at all, doing that.”
The scale of the achievement may have come as a surprise, but Chemikal Underground has become synonymous with Scottish music. From Postcard Records to Teenage Fanclub – the initial inspiration for The Delgados – Chemikal is firmly routed in the story of Scots indie. In Search Of Harperfield will cement itself in the timeline of Scottish indie pop, one of the first brilliant releases of 2016, another chapter in Emma Pollock’s own history as well as that of the irrepressible Chemikal Underground.