Her fifth solo album, Heart-Shaped Scars, comes 12 years after its predecessor, Room 7 1/2 – a period, she explains, that was mostly devoted to raising a family. “I wanted to be home with my kids for the duration of the first period of their lives, that why there’s such an inordinately large gap,” she smiles.
From writing to mixing Heart-Shaped Scars took between 18 months and two years, “but that’s with Covid in the middle”, she says. “It would’ve taken maybe a year, but actually I think it’s benefited from the gap, because then I picked up the ukulele and wrote different songs and ended up sending those to Hannah Peel to get string arrangements. It kind of transformed the album, really.”
Allison, who began her musical career in the late 90s in the indie-dance outfit One Dove, says playing the ukulele was a bit of a Eureka moment creatively. “I felt like, ‘Oh my God, this feels much more musical compositionally for some of the songs’,” she says. “But it was just a journey of exploration, you learn about what you need to do as you do it. It’s not like you arrive making music knowing how best to write your songs. It’s a process of mining and discovery and observing the limitations of some of your ideas. I think if I was to reflect back and see my first album, for example, I can see how I much more could have developed any of it. It’s like, this is what I do now whereas that hadn’t occurred to me then.”
Nature is an important theme in the 11 songs on the album. Allison says the Hebrides, where she has a cottage, seeped into her writing along with her scientific background, studying biochemistry at university. “I’ve always been into natural foods and natural therapies,” she says. “I really believe that the less we do in laboratories in terms of what we consume and maybe apply to our bodies the better, although I’m also interested in scientific research, it’s a funny one.
“There’s an intelligence to nature that we will never fully understand. I think that’s what I refer to one the album: we’re just bugs on the planet and we think we know what we’re doing but actually we don’t. The more I learn about quantum physics or the science of consciousness, stuff that’s cutting-edge fields of research, I think our understanding of reality appears to be woefully deficient. But it means there’s somewhere to go, it’s quite exciting at the same time.”
Poetry was also a key inspiration. Allison reels off a list of writers that includes John Burnside, Esther Morgan, Rebecca Perry and Tishani Doshi. “I got given anonymously this Pablo Neruda book of love poems in my 20s when I was a biochemistry student,” she says. “I actually got over the fact that was quite creepy and then actually loved Pablo Neruda’s poems. My English teacher at secondary school was Christopher Rush who went on to be a published author and he did instil in us an interest in language, personification and the use of metaphors, we’d read poets and take them apart. I think that has given me a nice foundation to feel confident enough to read poetry. If I’d never had someone who was so passionate about it and got us into that world then I think I might have felt like I was excluded from it.
“Then when I worked with Pete [Doherty], he encouraged me to write poetry. He saw I’d written a poem called My Widow, which was about addiction, storytelling but quite bleak. He read this poem and said, ‘I love that’, he posted it on the Libertines’ closed forum, then he gave me a log-in for this poetry lounge and I ended up posting poems in there. One of them got an unsolicited review, the feedback was ‘you’ve got quite an interesting use of language, you should be doing this’. Because of that encouragement I wrote far more poems than I would’ve done had I not been given this log-in to this forum. That all helped as well, and it’s not done my lyricism any harm.
“It’s given me a process that I maybe wouldn’t otherwise have had, I was finding ways to sculpt these bodies of words, revisiting them and honing them down into something. Then if I look through the folders on my computer I’ll come across these ancient poems and find something and think, ‘actually that idea was formed very early on’, it had been in my subconscious and eventually it’s come out as this, but if I hadn’t written all of that, that wouldn’t have happened. It’s all part of coalescing, it’s weird what happens between your subconscious and your conscious.”
Allison has also mentioned the late DJ and producer Andrew Weatherall in connection with this record. The pair worked together many times over the years, from One Dove onwards, and Weatherall’s knowledge and enthusiasm rubbed off the singer. “He made me a bunch of cassettes in the 90s when we were all hanging out together and he was A&R-ing and producing, he also championed us at the label,” she recalls. “I’d say ‘I loved your set at the club, is there any way I could get a cassette?’ and then I’d get this cassette with Emmylou Harris, Mazzy Star, the Beach Boys, Alice Cooper, Psychedelic Furs, Little Annie and Kris Kristofferson, just completely not what I was asking for. Then I listened to them and thought, ‘Oh my God, who’s that, who’s that, who’s that? I think he introduced me to Pet Sounds by putting God Only Knows on those cassettes, and then he introduced me to Mazzy Star, even though I liked Opal I hadn’t heard that band because it was quite early on, around the time they put out She Hangs Brightly.
“Then I look back and there’s Gene Clark’s solo stuff, Why Not Your Baby was on there, and Dark End of the Street. Just stuff that I wouldn’t have come across. He must’ve made about six cassettes. Then when I look back on my work I see all of those influences have definitely gone into the DNA a bit.
“I actually ran into him in 2019 at the Neu! Reekie! concert. I met him and Denise Johnson that night and actually Andrew said to me, ‘are you making any music?’ and I said ‘Funnily enough I am, actually, but I’ve only just started writing, there are some on my phone but they’re unplayable, they’re not quite ready’. He made a joke and said ‘Well, you mean they’re unlistenable?’ He was quite cheeky but we were laughing. It was funny because he was actually asking me about this album then and I was thinking I’ll have to send it to him and then months later he was gone. And Denise as well. It was really devastating, so that’s why I put a thank you to him on the album. I dedicated it to his memory because I just feel indebted to him in many ways.”
Heart-Shaped Scars is out on Friday July 30. dotallison.com