April, the month of ‘openings’ according to the Romans – sandwiched in between the God of War and the Goddess of Growth. And apparently it snows, sometimes.
April 2016 saw the release of She Makes War’s third album, Direction of Travel – a glorious 12 track battle cry to love, family, resilience, and the threat of an angry girlfriend (or case of herpes) coming to settle the score.
Self-produced, She Makes War’s third album is a step up from its predecessors – built on rich bedrock of melody, mischievous lyrics and unflinching self-analysis. It sounds great too; recorded in part at Laura Kidd’s home (she who is She Makes War) and in part at J&J’s Recording Studio in Bristol.
In our interview with Laura Kidd she professed wanting to make the album ‘of a high quality but I didn’t want it to be about perfection – I wanted it to feel like something happened’. And that it does; Direction of Travel wears its heart on its sleeve in a fun, challenging and ultimately endearing way.
Plus the opening track is a ball grabbing corker – ‘Drown Me Out’ is a driven rock thumper, a melancholic call to arms wrapped around a simply addictive chorus. And you know one of the lines already, so sing along.
‘Cold Shoulder’ is the first playful dig at crap lovers, something She Makes War might become synonymous with if a few more February 14ths go sour. But if you’re going to do it then you do it like this; punky, unabashed, by the time the second line has been spat out you know right where you are. Plus the line I referenced earlier (beginning of the second verse) still makes me laugh and I’ve been playing it near on repeat.
A further high point comes from the subtle acoustic soul search of ‘Paper Thin’, which not only puts this trite metaphor to fresh use (not easy) but also has Tanya Donelly on backing vocals. Result. ‘Stargazing’ tells a soft lament of lost love with a beautiful string section adornment – Laura Kidd again composing beyond her own head.
‘Time to Change’ is a cracking, jangly jaunt on ukulele, and whilst the additional vocals from Mark Chadwick don’t work for me I’m sure the distinctive The Levellers front man will be a draw for some. Darker moments come in the Lynch-esque walk through psychosis and dependency in ‘Turning to You’, the brooding intent of ‘In Cold Blood’, and the inherently personal tale of family fears in ‘Please Don’t’ – a track written when Laura Kidd’s father was seriously ill.
Then there’s the final track on Direction to Travel, ‘The Best’. Listen to it after listening to the entire album and make you own minds up. But, to me, the uplifting lullaby exit on Direction of Travel is a simple stroke of brilliance, right down to the stripped back final fifteen seconds.
As a rule I look for counterpoints but it’s genuinely hard to do here. And whilst I’d cite ‘Alone’ and ‘5000 Miles’ as the weaker moments on the album – less fully filled out songs, but ideas that became more than a motif – this is in the face of stiff competition. The first half of Direction to Travel is noticeably stronger so maybe track listing could be another negative. There’s a couple of cloying lyrics in there too, but I’m reaching here. Maybe my heart just isn’t good enough to do amazing things.
If you’re a fan of She Makes War you’re going to, quite rightly, love this album – Kidd’s first two LPs feel now like they were always alluding to this release. If you’ve never heard of this Bristol based polymath, then this is pretty much the most perfect introduction.
And if you get the ‘rare chance’ to see She Makes War perform this with a full band… one of the best encores I’ve seen in years. I hugged the guitarist.
It’s not often you see the word ‘polymath’. It’s even less often you see it in an artist’s biography, but I guess when you sing, write, produce, promote and play the ukulele, autoharp, melodica, piano, violin, saxophone and recorder… plus it’s a nice change from ‘multi instrumentalist’. Or even ‘doyenne of gloom pop’, if anyone from the Spotify marketing department is reading.
She Makes War, aka Laura Kidd, is currently based in Bristol (and not born there, as my research – or possibly assumptions – led me to believe). No stranger to travel, Kidd was raised “all over the place, and then London” before settling in the South West four years for “a boy, then not a boy, and now a boy.”
Despite adding playwright and video editor to her list of portable virtuosities (as well as slamming exes at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) it’s music that now drives Laura Kidd round the country. And there’s a fair amount to play with. “I started with the recorder,” tells Kidd, “then the violin – but terribly, I don’t play that anymore but I used to. Then I just start picking up stuff.” To a man who’s been pretending to play the piano for years, this sounds impressive. And time consuming. Is it daunting to keep such an arsenal in check?
“Once you’re not afraid of instruments you can play anything in a rudimentary fashion. I play the tiniest amount of piano; I can write on piano but I would get someone else to play the nice parts. I can play the drums a little bit; I can play the autoharp, the omnichord… a thing I like to call the ‘blow piano’.”Kidd takes a sneaky look at the list of instruments I’m checking off from my research. “…I can’t play the Harp. If that’s on Wikipedia that’s because there’s harp in my music and someone wrote a thing up saying my music’s characterized by blah, blah, blah.” That’s two for two; I begin to question my monthly donation.
“I’m not saying I’m amazing at any of those instruments,” continues Kidd, “it’s just I’m not afraid. When I start writing songs I hear the arrangements in my brain. So I just know how I want things to go and I can write them out or I can demo them myself on keyboards or whatever it is, then get brilliant violinists or cellists in to play the parts. It’s not about me doing all of it, it’s just I can hear the parts and I know how the songs go. I can hear it in arrangements.”
So you’re composing, even beyond your own immediate talents? “Yeah, and I never want to be restricted by the fact mostly I would perform solo. I wouldn’t not put a string section in a song because I can’t bring them on tour. That’s insane.” My mind jumps back to the word polymath.
“Most people who hear my music will never see me play live because they live in other countries,” continues Kidd – who does have an impressively expansive fan base, “or they can’t come out or whatever. So I want my music to be able to go beyond what I can replicate on stage. Then when I do gigs, I think it’s more interesting to perform the songs in a different way to how they are on the record. You can listen to a record anytime you like. You can listen to that version of it, or you can listen to someone perform it to you in a room… and there’s something so moving about live music. People who are really into live music get that.”
It’s a valid point, and probably keeps the She Makes War diehards comfortably on their toes (many of whom I will see later – suitably t-shirt clad, lip syncing and close to the stage). But people are also sticklers for what they know; even Bob Dylan has been booed out the fire exit. Have the solo shows ever been… underappreciated?
“In over seven years performing as She Makes War, maybe three or four people have said ‘oh, I’d love to see that with the band’,” tells Kidd, “and they only meant it nicely, they weren’t saying ‘that was shit, where’s your band?’ They were just saying I’d like to see it with a band. Which is like, ‘cool, but that’s expensive and may never happen.’ When I do rare band shows like this I do try and make sure everybody knows about them because they don’t happen very often.”
I hope Birmingham is as polite; not to worry though, we’re getting both the solo show and the full band tonight. Plus support from Luckless, a solo artist from New Zealand (now Berlin) who could give PJ Harvey a run for her money. Not that we’re complaining but why such a full show?
“Because when you hire a van, you can fit loads of extra stuff in it,” laughs Kidd, “so that’s what I’ve done. I mostly play solo and I play lots of different instruments, so tonight I’m indulging that a bit more than usual. It’s a way to celebrate a really exciting year of gigging, festivals and putting a new album out. So these are the party gigs at the end really.”
It is a bit of a coup for Birmingham too. I’d have expected to see ‘Evening with She Makes War’ in London or Bristol, where the subsequent shows will be held, but for The Sunflower Lounge to snag the only other date generates a certain sense of civic pride. Plus in the last twelve months Ms War has played an ‘intimate show’ at Ort Café and supported Carina Round at the Hare & Hounds; not a bad litany of yam venues there bab. What keeps bringing Laura Kidd back to our city?
“I freakin’ love Birmingham,” declares Kidd. “I have played here numerous times with other bands; I supported The Levellers here at the O2 Academy a few years ago,” Mark Chadwick appears on She Makes War’s latest LP, “and I played in Erica Nockalls’ band, as her bassist and backing vocalist. We played in the Hare & Hounds’ main room with Miles Hunt, and then they let me play a set of my own stuff at the end. They were very generous to give me that platform and since then people in Birmingham have come to my shows.” You can’t get much more of a Midlands endorsement than Miles Hunt. How’s the wider tour been going?
“It’s great, but it’s confusing,” explains Kidd, “because (the tour) is not in a block of dates. I did six gigs supporting The Wave Pictures. I did two tiny, tiny gigs in a cinema screening room in Bristol – unplugged gigs – then these three with band and solo as well. It’s all been leading up to these shows. But the previous tour also went great. It just feels like a really long time ago.” So far my research has confidently failed me; when was your last tour..? “That was last week. My mind moves really quite quickly.”
I can forget what day of the week it is when I’m working from home, and put me in a moving vehicle for more than 24 hours… But it’s clear there’s a lot to do when She Makes War hits the road, with Laura Kidd clasping most (if not all) of the reins – on stage and off. How is life as a peripatetic polymath, any highs, lows or fisticuffs on the road so far? “I drive myself around, so when I do my solo shows I’m all alone in the car – there can’t be any shenanigans of the alcoholic variety,” explains Kidd. “I just think it’s a bit too clichéd anyway really, I did all that stuff when I was playing I other people’s bands – now that I actually care about the music I’m playing I’m not really bothered about ruining it with a hangover.”
I think about the backlog of writing I have at home and the half drunk Guinness I have on the table, the latter getting noticed too. “But I want everyone else to have a good time,” smiles Kidd. “I have a good time in different ways, i.e. playing, talking to people, enjoying performing… I love to share my music with people and I don’t need to be drunk for any of that stuff.” …I’d like to thank the Greeks, the feudal system, the good people at Diageo and Pernod Ricard…
But Laura Kidd is carrying more precious cargo; her third studio album, Direction of Travel, came out in April this year and it’s a serious step up. A solid handful of corkers crumbled over a supremely proficient album. And I’m a cynic.
“It’s the first one that I’ve recorded in Bristol,” tells Kidd, “I worked with an engineer called TJ Allen whose works on some really great and amazing things, in a really cool studio called J & J which is owned by Jim Barr from Portishead. Who kept popping in for cups of tea. But this is the first album I’ve produced on my own, so the engineer was incredibly important and he (TJ Allen) did a beautiful job.” The album does feel richer, more rounded. Was it difficult with so much creative control/culpability?
“I’m very proud that it’s the first one I did on my own,” continues Kidd, “in terms of the overview and all the creative choices. All of it. I feel the third one (album – Direction of Travel) does all the things I wanted the first two albums to do. It’s very satisfying to get that feeling… of a job well done, you know?” A personal and professional victory then?
“I recorded a lot of it at home; the ukulele, the keyboards and all the weird little instruments were recorded in my house. Which makes it really meaningful. Everything’s of a high quality but I didn’t want it to be about perfection – I wanted it to feel like something happened. So the fact that I recorded a lot of it in my house means something, to me. So when I listen to it I think of it fondly. The songs are super personal so it made sense to record them at home.” Direction of Travel does feel like a deeply personal endevour, from the caustic chants of ‘Cold Shoulder’ to the dark motivation of ‘Turning to You’. And if we were breaking up I’d probably wait until you finished writing an album. Is there anything on there that’s especially poignant?
“’Please Don’t’ is a song that’s going to make me cry a lot one day, because it’s about my dad,” admits Kidd. “He was quite ill and I was terrified about that. He’s better now. But it’s one of those things – I’ve written a song that’s going to devastate me one day. When the inevitable happens that will be off the set list. But that’s something that other people find meaningful so I like that we can share that feeling.”
“‘Paper Thin’ as well because if I’m feeling blue, and I do feel blue quite a lot, then that does help me to perk myself up a bit.” A beautiful acoustic track in the centre of the album, with guest vocals from Tanya Donelly. “It’s a song about drawing a line under a very bad time and just moving on. Getting personal strength together; saying I can do this, I can get up in the morning, do some exercise, drink some water, have a shower, feel good, feel happy. Eventually. That’s a song that I think resonates with people too. There was a woman who came to one of my tiny cinema shows at the weekend and just burst into tears at the end of that song.”
And how did Tanya Donelly get involved, always good to see her name on an album sleeve? “…Especially mine,” laughs Kidd. “That was very exciting, is very exciting. I heard about Tanya’s Swan Song Series online and began gushing about it on Twitter. Then she replied and followed me, and listened to my stuff. Then she came over to Bristol and invited me to sing backing vocals on two of her songs, which was terrifying and exciting and I practiced for a week. Every day. Then I just emailed her asking if she’d be interested in singing on my next record, and she said yes.”
The powers that sound check are circling and we’re being given the subtle nod; there’s a lot to get ready. Someone comes in and asks Laura Kidd the promoter if she’s got a float. Time for us to leave the building bustle of The Sunflower Lounge’s live room – where She Makes War will soon be stamping hands before opening for her own support act, then joining her full band for the headline set.
Plus she’s working on the merchandise stall. Polymath indeed.
‘Paper Thin’ – She Makes War with Tanya Donelly
Direction to Travel by She Makes War is out now, released though The state 51 Conspiracy. For more on She Makes War, including online purchase points for Direction of Travel and Laura Kidd’s wider back catalogue, visit www.shemakeswar.com