Bill Cummings 06/05/2008
'The mood I'm in when I want to write is when I feel quite spooked by something; I've let myself say what I couldn't say if I was having a conversation with somebody. That's good coz hopefully you get millions of people listening to them rather than just one person.' Madam (aka Sukie Smith) on the inspiration behind the songs that make up her debut album “In Case of Emergency” out now on Reveal records.
The songs reflect this personal expression - it's an album of starkly confessional candlelit moments, alluring kiss offs at dusk and sinister dreams that haunt your waking thoughts. At times her heart stopping vocals throb with the seductive otherness of Alison Goldfrapp, the emotional folksy power of Kristen Hersh or the melodrama of early PJ Harvey. Quite apart from the natural rawness of musical styles taken on here, from alt country to alt classical, most of all there's an unspoken sub-conscious ethereality at work here, a space between the words and rhythm where the emotion exists. Recently she released the single 'Calling For Love' with its strut of cowboys and red booted lovers, drunken trysts half remembered in the outback, and clawing fury. 'Fall On Your Knees' meanwhile is a haunting, aching piece of music where spooky soundscapes float like smoke clouds above sighing sensual vocals bristling into falsetto into the half light, caressing your skin.
But who is Madam? How did she reach this point? How did she get picked up by Reveal records and gain praise from everyone, including the man behind David Lynch's film soundtracks Angelo Badalamenti?
Sukie Smith is originally from Essex, but has undefined welsh ancestry; she cites influences as varied as Kate Bush, The Velvet Underground, The Breeders and various jazz from her youth. It's only been working in London that has gained her music works real notoriety, playing venues across the capital. But where does the name Madam come from? 'I decided not to be just my name coz it isn't just a singer songwriter thing, it's much more (even thought it's definitely my project and I write everything). I liked the fact that it's female, even though everyone asks me “IS IT AN ALL GIRL BAND” and I'm like “NO IT FUCKING ISN'T!” (giggles)' Quite apart from it being a moniker that Sukie is able to play with, it also as a name has other more obvious connotations… 'I quite like the idea that its sleazy, I like the fact that its written one way and can be read back the other way...'
It was an appearance on indie label of the year Stolen recordings that truly brought her work to the wider music world: 'Call America was around for a while' admits Sukie 'it appeared on the first Stolen compilation. There was a feature about Stolen artists in Dazed & Confused and Koichi from Screaming Tea Party was asked 'what's your favourite track ever released on Stolen?” And he said 'Call America by Madam!' I really like that label, Let's Wrestle used to come down and watch me. We were going to do something but it didn't happen. They work so hard - it's just the three of them and they're in charge of everything...'
It wasn't her first piece of musical work though; a few years ago she created a soundtrack for the film "Hush Your Mouth" (doing the rounds of international festivals at the moment). It was ninety minutes worth of music but it doesn't exist in a tangible form, its all connected to the film. “There are four tracks on my album from the soundtrack (Strange Love and Calling for Love, Fall On Our Knees and Superfast Highway).” notes Sukie, “the film soundtrack was more writing from the perspective of what the film was asking you to do which was really interesting, but I didn't know whether I'd be able to do it...The sounds change with the dialogue, the dialogue gives your songs a different kind of significance, there's a part in this film where they used the whole of Falling For Love.”
Producing a soundtrack led her to strange places, and to the ears of Reveal (also home to Joan As Police Woman and Poppy And The Jezebels). She recalls one 'unglamorous' situation in LA in one of her first t'internet conversations with the Derby based label... 'when I sent them CDs from the soundtrack and some demos, I actually sent them some blank CDs, Tom Rose thought I was being a twatty clever arse' Sukie roars with laughter 'he thought some how that I was trying to trick him or something ...'it's like nothing maaaann'. But he eventually listened to some stuff. There was an American screening of the film and I was emailing Tom from this fabulous hotel and I was like “…blah blah… P Diddy's just walked past.” Reveal is based in Derby, He had a record shop called Reveal Records, after a while he put out Joan As Police Woman and that went really well. Then he signed John Redfurn, Kris Drever, ME!, Poppy And The Jezebels...”
Although Madam isn't just another solo project, Sukie had a very clear vision for her debut album 'In Case of Emergency' and despite talk of name producers she always wanted control of the levers first time round. It seems to have paid off with good sales for her debut long player 'The label were talking to other people about producing it, I was just saying 'hmm that sounds interesting' never in my mind wanting anyone else to produce it, but me.' she says mischievously 'When I've read people talking about their recording process and they say they've tried different ways, it wasn't that way for me. There was definitely a right answer. I don't know whether I've made the right decisions or not, but to satisfy myself definitely. You want it to sound the way you hear it in your head, some of the melodies are quite sweet but also sinister and menacing....”
There's a duality at work within Madam's music, a melodic power that is caressed by a dark underbelly, a sweetness that is offset by bitterness and melancholia, a sense that something isn't quite right, some people have compared Madam's music to a David Lynch soundtrack, a fact that has even sparked the attention of his famous film composer: “When my last single came out we played the Betsey Trotwood and it was really dark and dungeony, it was like “ah I'm in a David Lynch movie!”she chuckles “spooky like that."
Although the songs were written by Sukie and her acoustic guitar, live, Madam is very much a group effort. “The band is brand new, I've been playing with the guitarist for about a year now. We did a little stripped back tour at the beginning of last year... Now I've got a cello player which is nice - we did the Shush festival at the Luminarie.”
Despite the success of her album, and positive feedback for live shows, surprisingly Sukie still feels slightly insecure alone on stage, 'sometimes I think people would get bored if it was just me... all the time I had other songs or feelings that I wanted to be expressed one way or another. There's an element of the songs that's quite sweet but I wanted an element of chaos, FURY or MISERY in them, it needs another instrument being in them making these sounds.'
Some people are nerveless stage performers, but they're clearly weird. Most of us human beings experience nerves going on stage for the first time: 'Last year I was horrified about playing live,' admits Sukie, 'Before you go on stage you're like 'WHY AM I DOING THIS!' but it's ok once you get into it. We played a gig at the Macbeth and the guitars were cutting out, but we had such lovely feedback it's hard to tell sometimes. It's about the sound and whether you're connecting with the audience. I also like that shambolic/chaotic thing on stage, I like seeing a band that are like a gang on stage looking for support from each other.'
As for the follow up to her recent single 'Calling For Love' Sukie gives GIITTV zine an exclusive: 'We're making a decision on the next single at the moment but (and here's an exclusive for you here) its probably going to be a remixed version of 'Fall On Your Knees' so there will be the album version and a slightly different single version.'
MADAM goes on tour around the UK later this month; here is the full list of dates:
Sat 17 May - Brighton Komedia Theatre (The Great Escape Festival)
Wed 21 May - York The Basement Bar w. / Silje Nes
Thu 22 May - Birmingham The Glee Club w. / Silje Nes
Fri 23 May - Dublin Upstairs at Whelans w. / Silje Nes
Sun 25 May - South Manchester Withington Fuel
madam - calling for love promo