Emma Pollock: The former Delgado on going solo
The mum, label boss and former indie band member tells Elisa Bray about being in charge
Friday 02 November 2007
Emma Pollock is a mother, a co-founder of the record label Chemikal Underground and is also a solo musician in her own right. It's a lot to have on the go, but "Adrenaline" – one of the songs on her debut solo album Watch The Fireworks – says it all.
Pollock thrives on being busy.
"To not have something to work towards can be a dreadfully depressing thing. I just need that purpose otherwise I begin to go off the rails, which is probably why we started Chemikal Underground and a band all at the same time – which most people would realise is completely insane, but of course we persisted with that state for 10 years, being busier than I ever thought possible."
Back in the mid-Nineties, Pollock was one of the four members of indie band The Delgados who set up Chemikal Underground, and pioneered a new Glasgow scene discovering bands including Mogwai, Arab Strap and even the Brooklyn-based Interpol, whose first EP they released in 2000. While running what became one of the most successful indie labels, The Delgados went on to release five critically acclaimed albums in 10 years, including the Mercury Prize-nominated The Great Eastern. The band were at the peak of their career playing 2,000-capacity venues when they split in 2005. Then, three months later, Pollock had signed to 4AD Records who have the Pixies and Scott Walker on their roster. You might think that with the clout of The Delgados and their dedicated fanbase behind her, she could almost step into where she had left off. But it's not that easy, Pollock explains as we meet the night after she played her album launch at The Social, a tiny London venue of the kind she played with The Delgados at the start of their career.
"I basically had to say to myself I'm going to have to start again. You'd be surprised at how much you still have to re-establish yourself. It's not as if anybody was that familiar with any of the names in the band."
It might also come as a surprise that Pollock chose not to release it on Chemikal Underground, but the decision represented another step towards establishing herself as a solo artist.
"I would have had to ask my friends to put out my record and we would have been having that conversation a month after the split and that was going to be too hard for me and them," she reflects. "I really needed to take a step away from what I had known for over a decade and I needed to have new people involved to make it feel fresh from every perspective."
Signing to 4AD also means that she has been able to retain her involvement in the running of Chemikal Underground. When she is not taking five-year-old Ben to school and when she's not in the studio recording, you are likely to find Emma Pollock working in the Glasgow Chem19 office. It's that "Adrenaline" theme again, but it also shows that after 10 years of being one of two vocalists in a band, perhaps being in the spotlight has a new and uncomfortable intensity.
"The thing is, if this was the only thing I did I think I would find it a little uncomfortable – it's a bit like looking in the mirror all day. It's just too much. With The Delgados it was all about four people, and now it's me personally, so it's difficult to see the wood from the trees.
"It's a different make -up now because it's not a band and I'm not sharing with other people. It's different and I'm adjusting."
It is undoubtedly an exciting time of change and rebirth for Pollock. But it also comes at the end of an era for Chemikal Underground who have made it through their first generation of bands. Since The Delgados split in 2005, last year we saw Arab Strap – one of the label's earliest signings – call it a day, and the label's latest split was Aereogramme this year.
Pollock looks on the label's end of an era with philosophical optimism: "It is really sad, but at the same time sometimes things come to a natural end. I don't think all bands can continue forever. There are bands out there who put out classic albums and it's good they stopped when they did. It's really hard to continue making consistently good records with the same fresh perspective that an artist is capable of when they started their career. It's partly why it's exciting for me to do something like this now because it does create this very fresh way of looking at things."
It is another reason why having the input of Victor van Vugt (Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and Beth Orton) when he produced the album was so positive.
Pollock admits to a tendency for being negative, reflecting on her song "The Optimist" as being a response to the "dark difficult time" when the band were adjusting to splitting up. "You can take a situation and paint it black or you can take a situation and say there has to be something good in this somewhere. I do find it difficult sometimes to see the bright side which is one of my greatest failings", she says. But there is no such negativity in Pollock today. She looks forward, radiating a contagious buzz of excitement about the new work. Pollock is a huge fan of Dusty Springfield and Sixties pop. You can hear her love of the production of the time: strings, elaborate arrangements and the importance of melody all shine in Watch the Fireworks. She oozes enthusiasm for "If Silence Means That Much to You", a tune that encapsulates all that she loves in a song. "It just sounded to me like it could be from a Sixties film soundtrack and the melody just sounded like it could comfortably appear on the Dr Zhivago soundtrack." She talks excitedly about how they dug a Sixties hammer dulcimer out from their cupboards for the chorus.
While the songs retain similarities to The Delgados (their eclecticism and the changing tempos) it is this eccentricity that keeps the music fresh.
"I wanted to make it as eclectic as possible because I knew there was going to be only one vocalist. And that was already ironically a bit of a concern because I thought there's always been Alan and I – there's always been that contrast so I wanted to make sure the record wasn't too samey. And so one of the ways I could combat that was to write lots of different types of song – some with a full band, some stripped down."
Next Pollock will be touring her new album in America, something she's excited about, but she dreads being separated from her son. It was another factor in the decision that her husband, the former Delgados drummer Paul Savage, would leave the new band so the couple's son will have a parent with him.
Having been part of a pioneering music scene in Glasgow, Pollock's focus is now pure song craftsmanship, she says. "I wouldn't pretend I'm breaking any musical boundaries here – but there is still a lot to be said for simply being able to write a great song and that's what I want to be able to do.
"I'd rather write a timeless record than a record which is trying to capture a zeitgeist.
"I'll do it for as long as it and as long as I have the opportunity."
'Watch the Fireworks' is out now on 4AD Records
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