Sisters are doing it for themselves

The DIY ethos of punk is back, says Nick Hasted, in the form of singer-songwriters such as Thea Gilmore, Katy Carr and Charlotte Greig, who shun the major labels to make music on their own terms
Click to follow

As the new year begins, the music industry is more nervous than it has been for decades. No one seems to know what lies around the corner, and the looming prospect of just a couple of mammoth corporations controlling mainstream music only adds to the feeling that pop is becoming unwieldy, unresponsive, even irrelevant.

But a growing number of British musicians couldn't care less. They are ignoring the industry, to record, release, look and sound exactly as they wish. They've reached listeners in the most archaic of ways: playing around the country, building their audiences in person until they can't be ignored. All these independent voices are women, all could loosely be termed singer-songwriters, and all have at least some roots in that despised genre, folk.

But diversity and fierce individuality is what really marks them out. If this is a movement, it has as many directions as members, from the Costelloesque, socially barbed Thea Gilmore to the mutant folk starkness of Charlotte Greig and the dark sexual lyrics and musical lushness of Katy Carr. Add the acerbic whimsy of Paul and the relationship puzzles of Virginia McNaughton, and you have a force as alien to the current corporate climate as punk was to prog-rock, because it's made up of uncompromised, unpredictable loners.

There is a history to this. The American singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco's decision in 1990 to self-finance her first album and sell it herself on tour, then reject all major-label offers when sales soared over 100,000, was one inspiration. "When business people came calling, after I had done it on my own, it was easy to say no," DiFranco said. Her own Righteous Babe Records continues to put out her self-written, published, produced and designed releases at a prolific rate no major would sanction. Her failure to push all the way to the commercial top without their aid has been greeted by sighs of relief. But then, she wasn't trying to. Her impact has been less visible, but more vital than that.

"Ani DiFranco pioneered all this," says Katy Carr. "I didn't quite know how to be a singer-songwriter. When I saw Ani DiFranco play, it made it feel like it was possible. I needed that example." Thea Gilmore agrees. Both also point to Kathryn Williams, the Newcastle folk singer whose self-released LP was nominated for the 2000 Mercury Music Prize, who now licenses her albums through WEA, with a contract retaining all her control. Charlotte Greig, meanwhile, was influenced by self-releasing, strong-selling folk artists like Lal Waterson and Kate Rusby. "They're mavericks; they don't fit in," she explains.

Gilmore, 21, may be the best known, and most accomplished, of the current wave. Recently Radio 2-playlisted and seen on Jools Holland's Later..., and with a hardcore audience of 20,000, she was born in Oxfordshire to hippie-ish parents, whose music she devoured. She started to write obsessively at 14, in the traumatic wake of several family deaths and her parents' divorce, and has lived an independent, nomadic life since. Her songs, strongly influenced by Costello and Dylan, cast a cynical, outsider's eye at the media voyeurism and social cruelty she sees her generation mired in. Her breakthrough album, Rules for Jokers, is her third, all of them on her own Shameless label.

"From the start, I didn't want anybody else involved," she says. "There were lots of people standing on the sidelines saying to me, 'You should sound like this, you should look like that.' To me, that's not the way good music gets made. It gets made if you believe in what you're doing, it comes from somewhere inside you that not many other people can reach. Nobody can tell me how to get there. I have to do it on my own.

"A particular favourite phrase when the majors speak to me is, 'We'll plug her into the machine.' Clearly these people haven't done their research, because those are words to make me run from them. I think they see me as a bit of cred because, ironically, I've succeeded on my own. They have no empathy with what I'm trying to do, which is to get personal music out to 10,000 or 20,000 people. What matters to them is getting any music out to half a million."

Charlotte Greig, 38, was raised, like Gilmore, in isolation from prevailing trends. She was frequently uprooted by her Navy father, and much of her childhood was spent with her grandparents in Somerset, where traditional folk still had a hold. Teenage years in London schooled her in more regular pop. But when she came to record by herself, she embraced the valuable oddness of her early listening. "Being brought up around folk music, I naturally absorbed something that is now gone for most people," she says. "So I offer a strange world. The constant displacement as a child made me more individual, too. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, who lived an incredibly old-fashioned rural life, brutal and disciplined. Also, if you move a lot as a child, you retreat into your own dreamy world, because it's a constant. As a teenager I abandoned all that. I tried really hard in the Eighties and Nineties to fit in, without success. Then I made my first record, Night Visiting Songs [1998] myself, on four-track cassette. I had to trust my ears to work out how to produce it. It sounded so weird I had to release it myself, no one could see a market. I think that uniqueness is why it succeeded."

Katy Carr, 24, is similarly bloody-minded. Her debut album, Screwing Lies, is self-produced, -promoted and -released. Her influences range from the Raincoats to Diamanda Galas, but her oblique, sexual lyrics and almost classical sound recall Kate Bush. Raised in Nottinghamshire, a ruptured childhood shaped her too. "When I was a teenager I had to move to London," she recalls, "and it threw me. I became a disruptive individual. I didn't want to be part of anything. I didn't want to join in. I've always wanted to have my own space. I've had to go through my whole life with people calling me mad, a weirdo and a freak. Now it doesn't matter what people say to me. All I ended up caring about was my strong desire to be a musician."

Carr never considered approaching a major. "I think it's important to develop at your own speed. And by releasing a record on my own, I'm learning how to do business. It's unnatural to me, and it does my head in. But if I do deal with a major later, I'll know too much for them to rip me off."

All the artists I talked to were wary of the most obvious connection between them – that they're women. Carr thinks this is a distraction. "It doesn't matter if you're a woman or not. I've not been dissuaded from the music industry by men, I've been helped enormously. I've never felt out of place." Gilmore starts to agree, then backtracks. "After Alanis Morissette in 1995, labels were very unwilling to take on women," she recalls, "because we were classed as a genre – 'You're a female singer-songwriter. We've got one of those.' I think women do get forced out."

The long-term importance of these musicians, though, isn't their gender, but their ability to survive by themselves – their suggestion that personal, rule-breaking work may have more of a future than the bland industry they've ignored.

"Labels are much less important than they used to be, because CDs are now so cheap to make," Greig explains. "The punk do-it-yourself dream is finally coming true." Gilmore adds: "I think they're scared of me 'making it', in their words, and disproving the theory that they're needed. But a lot of people have done that now. The majors have offered me money, and I've been tempted. But if they ever got control of my artistic side, I'd have failed. I can't stand up there and sing what I sing, and be beholden to someone who sits in a glass tower in London and decides what I'll wear the next day. The part of me that matters isn't for them."

Katy Carr's 'Screwing Lies' (De Luce), Charlotte Greig's 'At Llangennith' (Harmonium) and Thea Gilmore's 'Rules for Jokers' (Shameless) are out now. Gilmore's new single, 'Fever Beat', is out next month. Her tour starts on 18 Feb