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Polly Scattergood

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Polly Scattergood

Polly Scattergood – and what a name that is - is that rare talent, a musician and songwriter who can make the disturbing sound delightful. She might sing on her eagerly anticipated debut album about suicidal tendencies, sadness in the air, spitting on her French knickers and being called a w***e, but she does so in such an idiosyncratically alluring, soft little-girl voice, one of ravaged innocence, and she places her startling images in such pretty pop contexts, that you can’t help being seduced.

But already we’re confining an artist with a phobia of the convenient pigeonhole, of having terms applied to her that limit her scope. “Singer-songwriter”, “pop” – these words and more make the 22-year-old very nervous. 

“I don’t see myself as a singer-songwriter, or even a singer,” she says, far removed from both the navel-gazing brigade suggested by the phrase but also keen to distance herself from the virtuosic show-offs of Saturday night TV talent-show contests. “A singer-songwriter makes me think of someone who can sing properly – I’m not the best singer in the world, and I’m under no illusions that I am. I would describe myself as a songwriter who sings.” She’s not a whiny troubadour, either. There is humour on her album, albeit of the dark variety. “I didn’t want the album to be self-indulgent and horrible; I want people to enjoy it. I’m not a whiny singer-songwriter because I’m not a whiny person, so I didn’t want to come across that way. I wanted my dark sense of humour to come across. I love really dark, horrible things in art or literature, but I also like watching Saturday morning cartoons.”

Polly, a powerfully expressive and individual performer whose music belongs in the mainstream not the margins, says her “fear in life” is to be boxed in. “I would be really gutted if I was put in a box marked ‘experimental pop’ and then maybe one day I decided to write a blues song or an acoustic rock song and I found it difficult because I’d been boxed up as an ‘experimental pop’ thing.” The only box she doesn’t mind being cooped up in, she says, is the “words” box, “because I’ll never write anything that isn’t wordy.”

Those words might be about feeling angry or anguished, they might be about seizing control or even facing death. They are personal to her, which is why she insisted that her voice be so prominent on her recordings, even when surrounded by twinkling pianos, driving guitar riffs, eerie synthscapes, or any of the other bewitching sounds and effects provided by Polly and her producers Simon Fisher Turner and Gareth Jones in a variety of studios around London. “Because the songs are so personal I wanted my voice upfront in the mix because I said all along that the words are the most important thing. I find it frustrating as a listener if you hear a song but can’t hear the words. People who put words low in the mix may not want the words heard.” 

She draws the distinction between the personal and the autobiographical, aware that many will be so taken aback by her first-person snapshots, dramas and narratives – not just I Hate The Way and I Am Strong but also Other Too Endless and Poem Song and all the other tracks on her debut album that seem to reveal so much about the artist – that they will inevitably be forced to join the dots between the girl singing the songs and the person who created them. They sound like confessionals.

“They’re not autobiographical, but they’re all personal,” she says of her lyrics. “You can’t write a song that you can’t feel - I give away quite a lot of myself when I write a song.” Some of them, by contrast, are tongue-in-cheek, like the sassily finger-snapping Please Don’t Touch, on which the protagonist lists all her shortcomings with a perverse sense of pride: “I can’t play pretty tunes... My hair is always messy... I can’t walk in a straight line... I like to play piano but it’s often out of tune...” 

“I don’t take myself too seriously,” says Polly. “It worries me when people do. And it worries me that people might start thinking I am the person who I’m writing about.” They’re characters, when all is said and done, and she leaves them at the door as far as she can. “I do take on elements of my characters but that’s not who I am when I’m in my little house. I wouldn’t say I was troubled or anxious or any of the other things I might appear to be on my album. Besides, everyone is troubled in some way. There isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t have a troubled mind on some level.” She accepts, however, that some of the songs are “uneasy or unsettling”, presumably referring to the creepy images of broken fingers and witches which abound, even on a song like I Am Strong which appears to be a serious excavation of the soul. 

“I like the image of fingers on top of each other in a big pile,” she says. “I like those stories that frightened me as a child like Little Red Riding Hood – I was always scared of the witch - or the Roald Dahl book The Witches. I remember going round to a neighbour’s house when I was six, convinced she was a witch. I pulled her hair because witches don’t have real hair, and made her take her shoes off because I thought witches didn’t have toes.”

Polly is aware that her words and music will be scrutinised. She’s almost prepared for it.  “Some people have taken it upon themselves to analyse the meanings and I find that interesting: what people take from a song. But I sometimes worry that the meaning might get twisted.”

She also worries about intrusions into her personal mental space. I Hate The Way is as bold, forthright and seemingly candid an album opener as you could imagine, and it is sure to be pored over by intrigued listeners. “It’s a very dark, in-the-middle-of-the-night personal song. It’s very close to me.” Then there’s the single, Other Too Endless, which she recalls writing on a Tuesday night. “I can explain that one without being too literal: it’s about the numbness after the fight; that struggle where every part of your body is solid and strong but inside you’re not. It’s not a victim song; it’s meant to be empowering, or at least it is when I play it.”

The first album by Polly Scattergood – and what a name that still is – is bound to invite speculation, not just because of the atmosphere of intimacy and intensity, but because it effortlessly combines raw emotion and daytime radio appeal. 

“I just sing what I write,” she says. “Sometimes I think it would be easier to write for other people, although making the album was a quite fluid and natural process. The songs just popped out of the blue. But some of it is unexplained, even to me.”  
 
 

Polly Scattergood’s debut album is released on 9th March 2009 (Mute)

 



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