The Anchoress: ‘It wouldn’t have been too much of a challenge, given the state of mind that I was in, to have written a very downbeat record’

“I baulk at the idea of thinking of songwriting as therapy, but I definitely found a therapeutic element to the processing that happened when I was writing,” says Catherine Anne Davies of The Art of Losing, her second album under the guise of The Anchoress.

Catherine Anne Davies, aka The Anchoress. Picture: Isabella Charlesworth

“But more so when I was writing, when I was making the record, when I was recording it and editing and producing and arranging, if you are repeating the content all the time there’s something about that immersion in the subject, and you’re forced to confront in all its minutiae when you’re putting it together, you’re not just going in and singing it once then never listening to it again until it’s out. I think there probably was an analogous experience to what I have been through in trauma therapy. You’re revisiting an event but with a certain distancing to it in order to understand it and lessen the pain of it.”

The trauma that Davies was confronting was complex and deep, and concerned not only the loss of her father but also three miscarriages and treatment for cervical cancer. However, she had little interest in creating ‘unfiltered’ art, she says.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“It wouldn’t have been too much of a challenge, given the state of mind that I was in at the time, to have written a very sombre, downbeat, emotional record, something perhaps like Nick Cave’s Ghosteen, which is a really beautiful record and a really beautiful immersion in grief.

“I think I always have to remember when I’m making music that I’m trying to challenge myself as a writer, as a musician and as a producer, but I’m also equally interested in connecting with people, and I found it more challenging to think ‘how can I introduce these subjects that are painful and people are uncomfortable with in a vehicle that makes it feel more appealing, and more nuanced, than just saying here’s 14 dreadfully downbeat songs?’ And that was where the music that I was immersed in at the time came in – you only had to look at Depeche Mode to see how you can package some quite dark material in a perfectly happy pop theme and it becomes something so much more powerful and transformed.

“It was my dearest hope that I got even close to achieving something like that with this record. It was a bit of a case of where form doesn’t always match subject. That was much more interesting to me than just a pure expression of my emotions.”

On this occasion, Davies, who has also been a touring member of Simple Minds, feels the persona she had created of The Anchoress could only distance her so much from the very personal subject matter. However, she says: “It does give you that little bit of protection when it come to being out in the public eye, I guess. There’s a little bit of cushioning when it’s not your name on the record. It’s a construct, a part version of yourself; it’s pieces of me, it’s not all of me.”

A fan turned close associate of the Manic Street Preachers, Davies drew inspiration from the way the band dealt with difficult subject matter in songs. “I’ve said to a few people The Art of Losing is my Holy Bible,” she says, referring to final album the Manics made with lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards. “It’s dark subject matter but treated in the way I’m unravelling the ideas behind these subjects in the way that The Holy Bible was able to talk about the Holocaust and the death penalty and many other difficult things, but it’s about interrogating difficult ideas and getting the listener to think about it. ‘What do you feel about this?’ I set myself a similar challenge unconsciously, but you can’t help but escape your influences and the Manics are so deeply embedded in my DNA. I’m certain we’re related, we both come from mining towns, so we’ve got to be, surely.”

Manics frontman James Dean Bradfield sings and plays guitar on two songs on the album, yet despite their friendship, Davies says she was nervous of asking him to contribute. “Even though I’ve worked with them loads and I sang a duet on their album you never want to assume that someone is going to say ‘yes’. He wanted to hear the songs and the rest of the record before he got involved in it,” she says. “I wouldn’t say terrifying working with them, but I have such a huge amount of respect and admiration for them still, and it’s nice to feel like you want to impress people still. James is such a talent and he does so many things so very well, you’d have to be pretty superhuman to not be intimidated by his presence and also want to make sure what you’re doing matches up to his talent as well.”

Alongside the album, Davies has also created a podcast of the same name, in which she talks to other creative people about their experiences of loss and trauma – among them songwriter Sophie Daniels, journalist Kat Lister and poet Patrick Jones, brother of Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire. Davies says she learnt “so much from people that were much further down the road” in the grieving process. “The wisdom that they had, the different perspective that time had given them, I learnt so much about not trying to conquer loss and grief, not trying to win the battle,” she says. “But also, I think the bigger lesson was realising that it wasn’t only me. I know that sounds an egotistical thing to say, but every person that experiences traumatic loss it can also feel really unfair and you can feel very isolated, and that was hugely comforting for me to feel part of a club, which is an awful thing because it’s not a club anyone wants to be a member of, but I drew comfort from meeting people and beginning friendships with pretty much all of the people interviewed on the podcast.

“We’ve all linked up and keep tabs on each other and that’s the only positive thing, I would say, that’s come out of all of this. Doing the podcast was in a way so much more therapeutic than making the record, but I wanted to go deeper than what you can do in songwriting form. You can’t have a 90-minute discussion about baby loss in a song. So it’s a bit of a companion to the album, if people want to delve deeper, in the way that I always wanted to delve deeper into the Manics’ back catalogue and read their interviews, I guess the podcast is another medium that we’ve got now when you’re an artist, writer or musician, to have your manifesto deepened.”

Davies has admitted a sense of relief at not being able to tour the new album so close to its completion. She feels she needs a greater sense of distance from the experiences that fuelled the songs. “I was trepidatious about the idea of touring so soon while I’m still in the process of putting myself back together,” she explains. “I was very aware of what happened to Bjork when she was touring the Vulnicura record which was similarly upsetting and difficult material for her, and having to stop the tour because she felt on balance it wasn’t very good for her mental or physical health. So I had my mind primed to be thinking about that, which is why there has already been a bit of a delay with the album coming out, but I’m sure by the time we get back to live shows, which I think is likely to be spring 2022, that I will be more than able to do it...It’s that tie-break between serving the audience and wanting to give an honest and emotional performance and not sacrificing your own mental health for that.”

The Art of Losing arrives just six months after another album, In Memory of My Feelings, which Davies made with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler. That album, which came out in October on Pete Paphides’ label Needle Mythology, was “a long time in the waiting for it to come out” as the pair searched for five years for a record company to release it. “It’s a really odd psychological space to be in when it’s not released,” Davies says. “I think both of us thought it’s not going to come out and we’d both just put it to bed, really. We would occasionally text each other and say, ‘I’ve just listened to it – it’s good, isn’t it? It’s a shame no one else thinks so’. It was not as if people hadn’t had the opportunity to listen and potentially release it before, and then the gods sent us Pete Paphides who is amazing and it was such a joy to put that record out.

“It was so lovely, the reaction to that record has been phenomenal and it was really nice to be able to draw a line under it too because we’d sat on it for so long and you also start to doubt your own judgment. I don’t love everything I do, it doesn’t work like that, but we both loved it and thought, ‘Have we gone mad? Is it a bit rubbish? Why does no one want to put it out?’ You do start to get a bit downhearted, so it’s been lovely to put it out there.”

The Art of Losing is out on Friday March 12.