Nine Songs: Kathryn Joseph

From dancing her troubles away to Radiohead, Talk Talk’s experiments in sound evoking the feeling of falling in love and Sigur Rós summarising a time in her life in a completely different language, the choices behind Joseph’s pivotal songs mirrors those that draw listeners to her own music. The idea of music as a form of catharsis, where songs can make a physical impact and leave you feeling changed, even if only in the slightest of ways.

2018 saw the release of Joseph’s exquisite second album, From When I Wake The Want Is, the follow up to bones you have thrown me and blood i’ve spilled, her 2015 Scottish Album of the Year Award winning debut. 2019 finds her setting out on tour and the final stop is Aberdeen’s The Lemon Tree, her former place of work, where she’s supported by her sister Amy Sawers.

Joseph’s heritage is a keystone in her work, and seconds into our conversation she picks up on my accent. Originating from Aberdeen herself, it turns out we grew up just miles apart and her former school, Alford Academy, provides the setting for some of the stories here.

Many of Joseph’s choices are indebted to how she discovered and consumed them. She wistfully ruminates on the vitality of mixtapes and the rush of finding hidden gems, free from the constraints of critical tastes and trends. She explains that “things that are really obscure are going to take a while to get through, because there’s so much else that’s easy to listen to and find.”

Joseph admits that “trying to find your own noise in amongst things you love is hard.” However, she has an unabashed admiration of lyrics in the songs that she loves, which in turn sowed seeds for the experimental streak that runs through her own work, as well as a shared bravery developed with those who have inspired and moved her.

These songs have often saved, but not defined Joseph, acting as a crutch to lean on when the reassurance is needed that things are going to be OK – you’ll get through this.

“Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins

“This is the song I first remember being affected by in the way that it made me want to write songs, it was the understanding of how words and music can affect you. I remember I was lying in my bedroom under a window listening to it and it was just really the piano part, the beautiful way the keyboard bit comes in at the beginning and thinking the words were perfect.

“I didn’t even know ‘Both Sides Now’ was a Joni Mitchell song at that point. If I’d known what was cool at the time I probably wouldn’t have been listening to Judy Collins, but I listened to that record recently and it still really affects me. The time and place of it is so strong. It’s one of those really weird things, it’s a song that makes everything make sense for me.”

“A Certain Someone” by The Sundays

“The story around The Sundays dates back to when I was at Alford Academy. I checked them out by chance from the library – it was tapes at that point – not knowing what it was. That whole record Reading, Writing and Arithmetic is perfect. It’s probably the only time I can remember thinking “I want to do music.”

“It made me want to stand in front of the mirror pretending to be a lead singer. Harriet Wheeler’s voice is amazing and their songs were so unlike anything I had heard at that point in my life. It’s just so cool.

“It’s a completely different world now for discovering music. For my generation it was a case of going through your auntie’s record collection and things like that. You were actually hearing music without any concept of what anyone looked like or who they were. I feel quite sad almost that our kids won’t get that in the same way. Everything is so easy to hear now, and there’s so much of it.”

“Little Star” by Stina Nordenstam

“This was a moment when I actually had to stop my car, because ‘Little Star’ came on the radio and it was just so beautiful. And She Closed Her Eyes, the record that this is from, is a perfect album. Her voice is so beautiful and again so different to anything I had heard up to that point.

“I was probably about 18 when I heard it and it’s weird, as since then I’ve had people compare me to her and now I say “I’ll take that, I wish I sounded as beautiful as she does.”

“It’s funny though, as I went through a long stage of my life where I didn’t want to listen to music in case I would copy things. A guy who worked at a record company once told me that I sounded like Stina Nordenstam and at that point to him it was like; “Well there’s no point in signing you”, but now it’s come full circle and I take all of it as a massive compliment. It’s always going to be a compliment to be compared to people who you love.”

“All Is Full Of Love” (Plaid remix) by Björk

“I was completely in love with Björk as well. I already knew “All Is Full Of Love” and I was already in love with it. I mean, the song is amazing in the first place, the words are perfect and then to have the beautiful way in which Plaid has heard it and turned it into this perfect, perfect noise!

“This remix was sent to me by a friend and I think it’s probably my most on repeat song that I’ve listened to. It’s a perfect piece of music for me. My most favourite thing about it is that it’s rare to improve upon an original like that, for me anyway. To have someone make it make more sense is a truly special thing.

“When I play this song for other people it’s a total present for other folk. It’s so nice to have this beautiful, secret thing to share, it’s lovely.”

“New Grass” by Talk Talk

“A friend of mine sent me ‘New Grass’ and it made my face warm just listening to it. It’s probably the song that has physically affected me the most. I love the drum rhythm in it and it’s just a perfect, beautiful thing that affects me physically, I love it so much.

“I’d heard the Mark Hollis solo record before I got into Talk Talk, which is a weird way around to do it. I think his solo record is my most favourite record ever, I can’t even handle how perfect it is. All of the first Talk Talk records are amazing and I went from not knowing they existed to being obsessed with them.

“Climbing into bed after listening to this song felt like I was falling in love, it was weird. I was almost ill with how beautiful it was. That’s how strong ‘New Grass’ was.”

“Two-Step” by Low

“A friend of mine gave me a mixtape with Low on one side and Smog on the other. I hadn’t heard of either band and it was ‘Oh my God…’ ‘Two-Step’ was on it and again it’s like the perfect song. Her voice is my most favourite female voice; it doesn’t sound human, it sounds like an instrument. It makes me cry, it’s a beautiful, perfect song.

“The mixtape was amazing. It was a first date, so I was like “Oh, this is good”, but I basically took the music and ran! And that’s the thing, do people even exchange mixtapes anymore? I’ve been really lucky in finding music that way, with folk giving me mixes, it’s a really beautiful thing. I’m so lazy and I don’t do it for anyone else, but I’ve found loads of amazing, lovely things.

“I remember a friend giving me a mixtape with ‘To Build a Home’ by The Cinematic Orchestra on it and having never heard that before and just being like “Holy fuck, that’s amazing.” It was really weird, because we got to support them two years ago, It was so mental, it was like “This is so strange getting to support someone I was obsessed with.”

“Reckoner” by Radiohead

“I feel like I was already awake to Radiohead, but I fell in love with them when they became strange and electronic. Although my sister was obsessed with them before that, I wasn’t so much into it when they were just a guitar band.

In Rainbows accompanied a time when I was in a strange relationship that was difficult and breaking my heart a lot, and I felt that listening to Radiohead cured me. I would get into my car, put it on, play it all the way home and by the time I got home then I was OK again.

“I used to dance to this song a lot on my own as well. Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Thom Yorke were the three I would dance along with to stop caring about having my feelings hurt and make everything feel OK. So yeah, Thom Yorke cures everything.”

“Góðan Daginn” by Sigur Rós

“I lost a baby in 2015. It was the time of crazy, crazy snow in November. I’d gone up North and was walking by the sea every single day in really deep snow, trying to make myself feel better and listening to music all the time. This song was probably the one that I had on repeat the most and it made me feel that everything was going to be OK.

“It was weird, because years later – and I don’t know why I didn’t think about it at the time – I read the English translation of the words and it was all about your heart being broken and snow, ice and the sun making it better. It was almost exactly how I would have described it looking down on myself at that point. It’s strange that even when you don’t know what the actual words mean they’re still affecting you and you’re still finding comfort in them. That’s really fascinating to me.

“I put this on a playlist with Nick Cave’s ‘O Children’ and I hadn’t realised that these two songs – which I thought both felt hopeful – had similar rhythms and an overall feeling, that everything is going to be OK.

“Sigur Rós have always been very special. When I worked at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen I saw them supporting Godspeed You! Black Emperor and it was just mental. Now, looking back on it you can’t believe you got to see those bands at that point, when no one really knew how massive and amazing they were going to be. They’ve been a constant of making me cry and making me feel better.”

“Cracks in the Mirror” by A Mote of Dust

“This song is the one that I cry the most to. I love Craig B, he was the first person from Glasgow that when I supported him said he could get me gigs and that what I did was good. It was so weird to meet up with him years and years later and feel like friends with him now, he’s always been so kind to me.

“This record came at a time when I was writing my new record. I’d gone to see him live in Glasgow and I basically felt as if my brain had been broken open; all of the truth of everything I felt and hadn’t admitted that I’d felt came out of me. I’ve never cried so much at a gig, it was mental. It was all so beautiful, he was freaked out about how quiet everyone was – apart from me sobbing into my T-shirt – but it was really affecting. This record is really comforting and strong and beautiful and Craig B is why I think my last record got written. So yeah, I blame him and also my boyfriend who broke my heart and then got back with me.

“His band Aereogramme didn’t get what they deserved and Craig B’s songwriting is absolutely perfect. I was speaking to him recently and he’s stopping, and although I was totally broken-hearted, I understand. Doing this as a job is such a strange thing, there’s the need to do it and then this weird feeling of “At what point does it matter? How many people do you need to care about it? How many records do you need to sell to feel like there’s any point?” And it’s really hard, you can’t put all that in to get nothing back from it.

“There’s so many things that are absolutely beautiful about it, but because people aren’t getting enough exposure they’re not going to be able to make it, there’s not enough support. It’s so hard and I feel so lucky to have come into it at a place where it’s just enough to feel like it’s worth it, after thinking for years no one would be into it, without having to do anything you don’t want to do. It’s a really funny job to be in.”

From When I Wake the Want Is is out now via Rock Action. Kathryn Joseph plays London’s Union Chapel on 19 February 2019 as part of her headline UK tour.



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