Nick Lewis 22/12/2009
As part of a series of interviews and features with artists and the people behind the Tartaruga indie label. GIITTV's Nick Lewis caught up with multi instrumentalist and singer Quinta who released one of his albums of the year 'My Sister, Boudicca' earlier in 2009.
What's your background as a musician? Are you classically trained?
I always feel I have one foot on the inside and one on the outside as far as my musical background is concerned. I am classically trained on the violin and piano and went to music school throughout my childhood, but didn't go on to music college like many of my musical contemporaries. Music was something I'd always done alongside other things. It didn't feel particularly like something I needed to choose to do or opt for formally, as I was always just doing it- writing, playing, listening. In that sense I feel both like a very whole kind of musician and like not a proper musician at all. I was lucky enough that most of my close friends at school were musicians and we took A level music classes together. Free time was always spent on music, stealing moments to improvise badly around jazz riffs we'd learnt, hammering out duets on the school's grand pianos, harmonising and writing music for each other to play. Music became synonymous with playing, with having a laugh with friends. I learnt a great deal through classes and instrumental lessons, it's true, harmony and composition, history, technique and so on, but I think my greatest learning experiences came through playing and listening. Initially I played in orchestras and classical ensembles, then later bands too, where I was able to be more creative. Private time spent listening to records in my bedroom was a massively important time for me as a teenager and helped me, alongside the practical stuff, to develop a sense of who I was culturally and artistically. It was the era, too, of the mix-tape and we exchanged them all the time- as love tokens, statements of identity, doors onto new sounds and worlds. It sounds slight enough now I say it- I was just listening to records- but at the time, those moments felt really important. When they were interrupted, it felt like an invasion and took me, with a bang, out of the world I'd created in my head. There is still an element of that adolescent intensity in my feelings now about music, the sense of possibility, adventure, mischief, escape and otherness I saw in music-making, how much it was an opportunity to steal time away from the mainstream and have a private adventure on my own terms. Making music for me was, and still is, about playing, exploring and subverting- and knowing yourself a bit better in the process. As I've progressed as a musician, I've moved away from classical playing, though I don't doubt that learning in the classical tradition has given me a sense of discipline and technique as a player. I just think some elements of it can risk privileging precision over creativity, particularly as far as performance is concerned, and in that sense it is culturally a bit alien to me.
How did you get involved with Tartaruga? What does the label mean to you?
I can't quite remember how I first got to know about Tartaruga- you might have to ask Max! I think Max was interested in my music and originally approached me about playing a gig. I didn't have a band set up then, but played at Max's fantastic Pins and Needles mini-fest at Café Oto instead with Pthhhh, an experimental performing arts and musical collective recently renamed as Collectress with whom I've been playing for nearly ten years. Max and I kept in touch and soon after he approached me about the possibility of my releasing a solo album with Tartaruga. Having that interest and support has made a massive difference to me. It has really enabled me to focus and consolidate my ideas. I have a lot of respect for Tartaruga's aims, the making of a space for free-thinking, the time Max takes on making a beautiful product, the quality of the hand-made thing, the story of the process, the feet on the ground and the head in the clouds, the origami turtle in the post! It's all great! Max is really enthusiastic about all aspects of the label and puts a lot of time and thought in. The cottage industry aspect of it really inspires me too. I have fond memories of hand-printing hundreds of miniature doilies with leaf and crown designs and spreading them out across the table to dry while Max hand-stitched my album flip book at a borrowed sewing machine. We ate lots of biscuits that day if I remember rightly…
Do you play everything on My Sister, Boudicca yourself?
I do, yes. Mainly, this comes from a need for privacy- that I wanted to experience on my own the journey of making this thing- and that included overcoming the desire to just give up and watch daytime TV as well as experiencing the particular kind of energy that comes from making something alone, just being in your own space, feeling free to take anything to bits, press any button, bang, scrape or sing whatever you want. Part of the playing it all thing also comes from a sense of fear- I was under-confident about sharing ideas with others and being able to articulate them in a way that would bring the shape of thing I was hoping for. And part of it comes from a concern that collaborations should be called just that, and that there is a massive grey area around group contributions to a so-called solo project. When does something stop being the creation of one person and start to become the creation of the group? Band members can often lose out as a result of this dynamic- as a frequent band member on other projects I have experienced this directly- and I think I just wanted to keep things simple. I love playing with other people- it's one of the things that keeps me really alive as a musician- and there can definitely be drawbacks to producing something alone, but on this, I think it just felt right to create and communicate it this way.
Are all the instruments you use real? How much do you use electronics?
Everything that sounds like a real instrument is- and some of the stuff that doesn't sound like a real instrument is too, it's just been put through an effect or sampled in some way. You'll hear various stringed instruments on the album (violin, viola, cello, guitar and harp), some blown things (swanee whistle, clarinet, bamboo flute), some keyboard things (a child-size piano my sister found for me at an antiques shop in Catford, a harmonium, various organs), and lots of other bits and bobs including wine glasses, and a musical saw. I have some very handy little pedals and effects boxes which help me crunch things up a bit too. Sometimes I just sampled things that made a good sound or beat or that added atmosphere. The sliding and foggy electronic sounds in the first section of 'Reading To Me', for example, are saw and tuning-fork-against-tambourine-skin sounds run through effects- I love it when sounds begin to turn into something new, when saw and percussion begin to sound almost like a yearning and distorted voice saying an 's' through a big ball of tracing paper or like buzzing paper over a comb. I love it! I use electronics to find new sounds rather than to add polish, and I don't like it when electronics are used to cover up bad writing or lazy harmony. There are massive possibilities in technology and I'm really energised by that, and at the same time, I try to maintain something acoustic, something human in anything I make. Sometimes very differently generated sounds work together amazingly, as though they're from the same paint box. At other times, I love the difference and the collision, the out-of-placeness of electronics or more modern sounds when they're put with antique, nearly classical or very handmade sounds. I try to compose with a strong sense of harmony, but also with a kind of collage approach, which is almost tactile, the feel of the instruments and sound makers, the textures of the sound. I want the music to feel three-dimensional, like you can walk into it.
Is there an overarching theme that links My Sister, Boudicca together?
The album is named for my sister who played Queen Boudicca in a school play aged 7. She, like all of us in my family, is small and cut a very little figure at that time- and was shy too. The idea that she should have been picked as the formidable Boudicca at that age just feels very evocative, particularly with what I know about my sister as an adult, with all her independence and courage at overcoming difficult things. In the play, my sister had to contradict the narrator who had forgotten to include Boudicca in the line of English queens, to find her biggest booming voice to say 'Don't forget me!'. The album takes a lot of its inspiration from my loved ones and is probably what makes it feel happy-sad and sad-happy. The world of the album is definitely my private, rebellious, sentimental, hidden-away head. To unpick it anymore might break it or undo it for listeners who have imagined their own world in it, so I'll leave it at that.
Tell us about your involvement with Bat For Lashes?
I first met Natasha years ago in Brighton, after a Pthhhh gig she had come to. Pthhhh was made up of string players and a flautist who have had quite close connections with Bat for Lashes- four of its five members (Caroline Weeks, Lizzy Carey, Rebecca Waterworth and I) have played in Natasha's various line-ups over the years. I first played at Bat for Lashes' original Mercury Awards appearance, then at a few of the bigger shows of the first tour, then with the Blue Dreams as part of the Radiohead support tour last year, finally going on to record on Two Suns over the summer. It was all an amazing experience and a massive privilege. On one occasion during the support tour we were playing at an enormous athletics stadium in Milan. I remember running the 100m with Caroline Weeks (who as a school girl was convinced that she could run the 100m faster than Linford Christie) and Alex Thomas during the day before we played in the evening. Radiohead were sound-checking at the time. God knows what they thought of us as they looked down and saw us sprinting red-faced around the orange track below them in our day-wear and normal shoes…But I can't help thinking they were probably smiling, as they were all- band and crew- totally unpretentious, down-to-earth, friendly people and ended up doing their own sports day the next day! I learnt a lot during my time playing with Bat for Lashes and it helped me to visualise both what I wanted and what I didn't want as a musician. It showed me a lot of things about the music industry, about being a backing musician, about playing in front of thousands of people, that were magnetic, exciting, and a massive buzz, but also that were challenging, slippery, and restrictive. Sometimes, the more successful you are in profile terms, the more pressurised you can feel, the more like a product. Knowing who people really are and who to trust, too, can be a bit of a challenge. In some ways, I'm as happy in a front room playing for friends as I am in a massive stadium, and sometimes find more space there to be free and creative. I will always hope to play and enjoy playing with other bands, sometimes at grand venues in front of enormous crowds. But having made My Sister, Boudicca I can find my own space a bit more, make things on my own terms. That's another reason I value Tartaruga as I think they cherish and have confidence in that kind of independent spirit- they value the integrity of the artists they work with and value the richness of experimentation, a meaningful artistic journey, trust amongst music-makers and so on rather than simply financial profit or finding the biggest stage.
When can we expect another album?
I'm not sure- I'm writing stuff all the time, and am not sure which direction it will take me. I'm doing some interesting collaborations and cross-over theatre and film projects at the moment, so it might be that things take a different turn. By this time next year, you'll probably know what I ended up doing next. If it's a new album, I'll send you one…
Look out for a feature on Tartaruga Records shortly, plus interviews with the people behind the label, and more of the acts that release records on this fine indie imprint.