Biography by Kevin EG Perry
The Anchoress is singer, songwriter, producer and storyteller Catherine Anne Davies.
Revenge-pop? The prog Karen Carpenter? Barbra Streisand on acid?! However you choose to describe the genre-hopping Confessions of A Romance Novelist, the debut album by The Anchoress, one thing’s for sure: it packs a punch. Did I say “punch”? On tracks like ‘P.S. Fuck You’ it’s more of a kick. In the balls. Of an ex who most definitely sounds like they deserved it…
Partly a concept album narrated by the titular potboiler author, partly a series of imaginary character pieces, and partly a deeply personal outpouring from someone who’s been through a fair amount of personal hell: “The key is in the title track”, Davies says, “where I sing "you don't know me”. I'm constantly throwing out misdirections all the time. I do that in real life as well. It's very rare you can feel comfortable enough with people to feel entirely exposed and intimate with them. Why on earth would I do that on a record?”
Multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, PhD and producer Catherine Anne Davies (aka The Anchoress) sums up the album’s overall concept as "an elaborate parlour game, obscuring my own confessions within the songs. You'll never entirely be able to separate what is fact and what is fiction. I feel comfortable with that, as someone who doesn't like to reveal too much of themselves, it's a way of saying exactly what I want, and you not knowing whether that's about my life or someone else's. I also think we do all have multiplicities of personalities. I feel I can be different people to different times and contexts. Like Whitman said, “I contain multitudes…
Released on January 15th 2016 via independent label Kscope, home to Grammy nominated Steven Wilson and Mercury Prize nominees Sweet Billy Pilgrim, the album was recorded and produced over an eventful three year period by Catherine. She explains “this album has been made on a wing and a prayer, lots of favours, one car crash, one death, one broken hand, and a lot of patience on so many parts. Stir in 3 jobs, 4 studios, 2 arrests, 3 pianos, 40 songs and 1 very patient engineer… and you get some way to understanding what a long road it has been.”
Catherine worked on her album with co-producer Paul Draper (ex-Mansun), and it was then mixed by Cenzo Townshend and Paul “P.Dub” Walton (Bjork, The Cure), and mastered by Jon Astley (Tori Amos, The Who). Draper helped to capture the collection of songs on which Catherine played a variety of instruments, including piano, guitar, flute, omnichord, mellotron, wurlitzer, glockenspiel, and celeste, as well as multi-tracking up to 25 vocal harmonies on some of the songs.
As Catherine told The Line of Best Fit, “I think that the biggest impact working with Paul [Draper] had on the album is the autonomy that he gave me in the whole process. I won’t lie - it hasn’t always been smooth sailing between us but not many young female artists would be given free reign to co-produce their debut album.” Adding, “I first started recording my own music after my parents gave me the choice between driving lessons or a digital multitrack for my 17th birthday. I didn't really know what I was doing - I could play a few instruments and had been writing songs in my bedroom since I was 15 but I knew that I wanted to be able to create something myself from scratch and in its entirety. All of my musical idols – Prince and Kate Bush especially – seemed to share in this kind of authorial autonomy, producing their own records and strictly controlling the vision of their music down to the tiniest detail. And so I set about teaching myself production, reading every manual I could get my hands on. Looking up old Tape Op articles and scouring old Kate Bush interviews to find out just how she’d done it all.”
At the very beginning of her own story, The Anchoress was in motion. Born in Wales, her parents took her to live in Australia the very moment she was old enough to fly. By the age of four she was back in Buckinghamshire. She became obsessed with classical ballet, and spent her teenage years en pointe. Dancing was her life until it wasn’t. She was in motion until she stopped.
“I wanted to be a dancer,” she says. “I wanted to work really hard, and learn a discipline. I spent my childhood fixated on that, and that was going to happen until I fell down 16 concrete stairs. I fractured my sacrum, coccyx and several ribs along the way. That was the end of that. If I’m honest with myself, probably music had already started to become equally as important,” she says. “Maybe there was some wish-fulfilment in that little trip on the stairs…” She was playing in orchestras from the age of 9 and, as a musical autodidact was soon playing piano and guitar, as well as flute. By the age of 12 her parents’ easy-listening had been replaced by the likes of Prince, Björk, David Bowie, and Kate Bush, then PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. One band above all convinced her that it was possible to be fiercely intelligent, glamorously literary and, of course, Welsh: Manic Street Preachers. “Being a precocious, annoying, council estate girl who thought better of herself, I would literally write down every book and author that they had referenced in their old interviews,” she says. “Then I’d go to the library and order Andrea Dworkin’s ‘Mercy’ or Brett Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’. The Manics changed my whole world.”
As quickly as ballet had been ushered out of her life, so music now became the mechanism by which The Anchoress shaped herself in porcelain. “With the Manics, as with ballet, there’s an idea about making yourself,” she says. “’Libraries gave us power’… It’s not like you’re waiting for something to happen to you, you’re making it happen yourself through hard work and immersion in something. That was a technique of living that I could relate to.”
By the time she arrived at university, The Anchoress was a recording studio of one. Holed up with a guitar, a keyboard, a multi-track recorder and an exhaustive library of 300 records, she began the painstaking process of creating her own artistic persona. Once again, she was deep in her obsession and unconcerned if that way madness lies. “I looked to people who immersed themselves in that life, like Brian Wilson,” she says. “Giving yourself over to it completely. I don’t know any other way.”
It was in this obsessive solitude that The Anchoress found her purpose — giving herself that musical moniker to evoke the locked room, with minimal light and even less contact with the outside world. “That fits my personality quite well,” she says. “It’s probably not very healthy as far as anyone else is concerned, but I thrive on it.” The Anchoress found her feet within the high walls of academia. She took an English Literature degree alongside another in Art History, followed by a Masters and a PhD in Queer Poetics. The words of Walt Whitman, John Ashbery and Hart Crane fuelled, and financed, the stories she herself would spin into songs. When it came time to record her debut album, The Anchoress went into Hugh Padgham’s studio in Acton and expected to finish it in five weekends. That was three years ago.
“The record felt like it didn’t want to be finished,” she says. “All these terrible, awful things kept happening. I fucked my hand up really badly. We had been recording for three days in a row, and I’d been playing piano for about eight hours straight. Something went in my hand. Paul, who was engineering, said: ‘Stop moaning, stop whining. You’re being such a drama queen.’ I was necking red wine and painkillers trying to play through it. I found out subsequently that I’d severed the ligament that holds your hand together. I played through that for five hours and ended up in a metal cast for six months. They actually said to me at one point that I might not play piano again.”
Then came more delays — more stories that got in the way… stories of sickness, madness, and of death. “It really did feel like the record did not want to get made. At all,” she says. “My Dad was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour… and then more awful, unspeakable things happened. There were so many times when I was thinking: ‘Just stop trying to do this.’ Maybe it’s not meant to be. It put the album back a lot, but I guess it also gave me breathing space. A lot of people these days don’t get the time to ruminate on their first record.”
‘Confessions Of A Romance Novelist’ is a record that has been deliberated on. It is richer for the time it has taken, and that fact lends weight and meaning to every near-catastrophe that led here. Every trip and fall, even the literal ones, were obstacles for our protagonist to hurdle. Now they’re stories to tell.
“It’s nice to spin these things into a coherent narrative we can believe in,” she says. “I’m good at imposing narratives after the fact. You have to believe it was all for a reason.”
Confessions of a Romance Novelist is out now via Kscope.
Biography by Kevin Perry.