Society of Sound: The Anchoress

The Anchoress is singer, songwriter, producer and storyteller Catherine Anne Davies. Born in Wales, her parents took her to live in Australia at the tender age of 10 weeks old - the very moment she was old enough to fly.

By the age of four she was back in Buckinghamshire, in a house that rang to the sounds of The Carpenters, The Beatles and Nilsson. She learned the language of songcraft along with speech. She became obsessed with classical ballet, and spent her teenage years en pointe “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.”

Fortunately, she was already being pulled towards a new obsession. “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 By the age of 12 her parents’ easy-listening had been replaced by the likes of Prince, Björk and Kate Bush, then PJ Harvey and Nick Cave.

“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. The Manics changed my whole world.” Catherine Anne Davies

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.”

The Anchoress was a recording studio of one. Holed up with a guitar, a keyboard, a multi-track recorder and an exhaustive library of 700 records, she began the painstaking process of creating her own artistic persona. Her first self-produced EPs, sent out to Rough Trade shops under the name Catherine AD, painted a portrait of the artist as a young woman.

It was in 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.”

When it came time to record her debut album, The Anchoress went into Hugh Padgham’s studio in Acton along with her co-producer Paul Draper, and expected to finish it in five weekends. That was three-and-a-half 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. I found out subsequently that I’d severed the ligament. 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.”

Catherine Anne Davies, aka The Anchoress by Isabella Charlesworth

Background to Confessions of a Romance Novelist.

Revengepop? The prog Karen Carpenter? Barbra Streisand on acid? Bat For Lashes on a bookbinge? Whatever way you choose to describe ‘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…

Catherine Anne Davies (aka The Anchoress) sums up the album’s overall concept as “deconstructing normative ideas of love and romance”, with each song sung by a different character – “What you might call a musical ghost writing of sorts”. You can hear this distilled in the Prince inspired feminist manifesto ‘One For Sorrow’ that questions the concept of marriage. There’s a different take on obsessional love in the album’s title track, where the album’s narrator ironically references her “bedroom shrine to Margaret Thatcher”. Meanwhile, ‘You And Only You’ an anthemic ode to being better off alone features the distinctive operatic indiewail of Mansun’s Paul Draper, who coproduced the album with Catherine.

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 multitracking up to 25 vocal harmonies on some of the songs. Yet, recording was interrupted by a series of events that threatened to derail the project completely. She says: “This 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.”

The Anchoress Confessions of a Romance Novelist (BW91) released on Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound in December 2015.

By Online Editor

Published on Thu, 17 December 15

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