Interview: The Left Outsides

“The story for that song became a woman revisiting her youth, entering the ballroom in later life and thinking about how it was the centre of her social life before the war & lamenting over the soldiers she’d once danced with. Its all about lovely memories.”

There are few things in life so evocative as a British history enshrouded in folk, art and horror. It’s a strange combination which has seeped into some of the more remarkable moments of popular cultural history, from the wispy sounds of Nick Drake, through the electrified presence of Sandy Denny, and haunting figure who precedes the exhilarating folk horror of The Wickerman, itself feeding into the crimson frenzy of Hammer Horror. It’s become a quintessentially British thing, which continues to unravel into the “modern age” where the internet allows that detachment to become fed into our fears. History, art and literature become a series of stories, ripe for plucking and divining into new songs, brought to life and instilled into our deepest fears once again.

Alison Cotton, one half of acid folk duo The Left Outsides, is one such diviner, often to be spotted hanging around old, crumbling buildings. A waif against the sands of time, acting as a conduit for the ghosts of a time long gone. Alongside husband Mark Nicholas, who provides the sometimes traumatic, always beautiful music to the accompaniment of Alison’s viola, they share vocals and lyrics on a tapestry of songs which culminated in this years fantastic All That Remains album.

Although I’ve lived in cities or towns all of my life, I’ve gained most of my inspiration for song-writing from time spent in the countryside”, Alison is discussing the inspirations behind the music she has created, “On visits, I dream up stories and that place becomes the song’s location. Lyrically, I’m also inspired by old historic houses, theatres, ballrooms, churches, graveyards, pubs – just places I enjoy visiting which make me feel something and have some history, where I can create a story and try to write the song through the eye of the character I’ve created”. It’s an approach borne out of the old folk troubadours, and disseminated like seeds throughout the music of The Left Outsides. London may be their home, yet their spirits belong elsewhere. It doesn’t end there though, “As well as finding inspiration in seeing live music, which is a huge part of my life, I also love the theatre and try to go to see as many plays as I can get to. I find the drama of the whole experience of being there, particularly in a small theatre, watching a good play and witnessing really powerful acting close up very affecting and inspiring and often a very emotional happening.”

Formed in 2004, Alison and Mark started off writing songs then recording to an 8 track at home. Two years later they released their debut EP Leaving The Frozen Butterflies Behind, then soon after first album And Colours In Between. Initially a run of 200 copies on hand stamped CDR’s, it was soon picked up by Transistor Records. It was the start of a journey which would culminate five albums later with All That Remains. That would only be half of the story though, and in this year alone Alison has gone one to record a further solo album, All Is Quiet At The Ancient Theatre, and also perform as part of the Trimdon Garage Explosion collective. These offshoots are only the blossoming of the dark interior that is The Left Outsides though.

It’s not just the folkloric tradition, or the ancient crumbling buildings which has spurred them on though, as Mark elaborates on the more fundamental aspects of music. “I’m inspired by the challenge of writing songs. I find the whole process fascinating. I think once the excitement goes from that process, it’ll be time to hang up my boots. But it seems that there is always something new to explore, something new to try. The possibilities are endless”. But there is something more that feeds into that process, “Secondly, I’m inspired by the reaction we get from our audience, the people who buy our records, the people who release our records. We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to what we are doing, and that really spurs me on to keep on going”

It’s an audience which is as disparate as the music that the band create, with a song based approach often veering into soundtrack work. A recent support slot with Robyn Hitchcock highlights the more  cultish aspects of the bands support, and as with the difficulty in pigeon-holing Hitchcock, The Left Outsides too, remain their own singular organism. “Yes, It is difficult to say and it’s not something I’ve ever considered! I don’t think we are one particular genre, in fact I’m not even sure what genre we actually do fit into. It’s often been said that there’s an ancient sound to my viola playing so, I guess you could start as far back as that!”, Alison considers the question on how the band see themselves fitting into the tapestry of modern music. Mark is more direct with his answer, “I’m not sure we’re qualified to say. We’re so caught up in the process that it’s hard for me to take a step back and think about the answers to questions like that. It’s not something we consciously think about when we write or record. We don’t say ‘let’s make this one sound like x band’. We don’t see ourselves as being part of any contemporary ‘scene’. We just trust our instincts, be ourselves, and let the instruments guide us”, although taking the new album into consideration, Alison explains “In terms of our new album, the song, ‘The Ballad Of Elm Tree Hill’ was intended to be in the same vein as an old folk song, with classical, pastoral interludes. What I wanted to achieve from ‘All Those I Danced With Are Gone’ was the feel and sound of a dramatic, old 1920s cabaret style song. With ‘Clothed In Ivy, Obscured By Dust’, I guess it’s a bit of a 60s garage style song, musically. So, there’s quite a wide span of eras there, for a start!”

And what of these new songs? All That Remains is an ambiguous album, whose songs invite you in, but then trip you up. Anyone who has ever read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper may recognise the protagonist within its erstwhile song, but there are further diversions which dig into that rich (and here’s that word again) tapestry of not bands or music this time, but the historic and folkloric contexts discussed earlier. In order to find out more about these songs, we need to delve into the stories behind them.

I’d say all of my songs have been based on some kind of story. I usually know pretty much what the story is going to be about when I’m writing the music and some lines, often hook lines and choruses are formed at that stage, through the sound of the lyrics. I don’t think I make things very easy for myself trying to fit often long stories I have in my head into a song of only 3-5 minutes!”, Alison is ruminated, “Often the stories are based on my own experiences but, in my head, the scenes I’m writing about are usually set in another time. I usually try to take on a character and I try to sing from that character’s point of view but I fit in a few personal feelings in most songs too”.

Those “other times” are drawn from little mysteries and stories, “From the current album, All Those I Danced With Are Gone is set in the Clarchens Balhaus in Mitte. I’ll never forget our subdued silence as we entered the upstairs ballroom when we visited that place once. It was, without any doubt, the most stunning example of decayed grandeur I had ever encountered and that moment will always stay with me. The story for that song became a woman revisiting her youth, entering the ballroom in later life and thinking about how it was the centre of her social life before the war & lamenting over the soldiers she’d once danced with. Its all about lovely memories. There’s a scene in the song where she dances alone, remembering how it was back then, in her youth, an orchestra playing in her head as she glides across the dance floor”. It is this kind of detached loneliness, filled with the ghosts of the past which pervades every aspect of The Left Outsides.

There are other stories too, “The Ballad Of Elm Tree Hill is partly my tribute to the Omega Workshops & the house Charleston in East Sussex where those Bloomsbury Group artists lived. I’ve had a huge love for the art of that group since I was very young and at university I wrote my dissertation on the Omega Workshops. This meant regular visits to Charleston for research & I still try to visit as often as I can, finding more colour & beauty on each visit. One of my favourite places – an incredible house”, and cementing her roots in a modernist writing tradition, albeit one embellished with the ways of the past, “Virginia Woolf was the sister of Vanessa Bell who lived in the house & she’d walk from her home, Monks House, across the Downs to Charleston every day. I tried to trace this daily journey in my lyrics, from my memories of the area, ending in her suicide in the final verse”.

The songs can be morbid, with Alison’s viola playing a huge part in the waves of mournful emotion. There is still room for humour though, albeit on slightly gallows terms, as Alison recollects her stay in Anglesey, North Wales. “The story of Clothed In Ivy, Obscured By Dust was born out of a visit to the prehistoric site of Bryn Celli Ddu on the island of Anglesey. The story is meant to be a bit Pied Piper-esque but also became a bit folk horror meets say, Nuts In May or something, I guess! As we were approaching the site, I spotted a very old deserted , dusty tourist coach parked down a lane, it was probably from the 1970s. So, I conjured up a story of (in brief) a driver leading a coach party to the stones. The driver disappears, and mysterious, unexplained happenings occur and the whole coach party are never to be seen again. I wasn’t sure how this was going to come across in song, in 3 minutes or whatever, it was surprising finding myself writing a song about a coach, but haha, I think it worked pretty well in the end!”

It’s not just Alison who provides the drama though, and it would take a fool not to recognise the contribution that Mark makes to the band. If he’s not stirring up a storm through the musical accompaniment to Alison’s stories, he also delivers his own barbed verses. Opening song ‘The Unbroken Circle’ is a moment of exhilarating freedom, with its rustic swing feeding into a psychedelic Wickerman moment. There remains room for improvement and development though as Mark openly explains, “We wanted to improve on our previous song based album ‘The Shape of Things To Come’ so that mindset kept us both driven whilst we were making ‘all that remains’. We had a few songs written and recorded which we didn’t think fitted so well in the album, which we might re-record for the next one. Normally, whoever sings the song has written it, but we want to mix that up in the future and see what happens if we write songs for each other to sing”. Alison clarifies with her take on it, “The songs that I write, I sing and vice versa. That’s always been how we work. I think the only exception on this album is the title track, All That Remains which we wrote together, apart from the lyrics”.

With this bond pushing the music into ever evolving strands, that closeness can only fed into the music. With that comes a more personal feeling, and behind the stories and music, the driving force behind The Left Outsides music is an emotion which can only be described as primal. With that comes an almost inevitable symbiotic reaction. “I think, as probably with any art, if you are the person creating it, it’s very difficult to not put some of yourself into it. I know that I wouldn’t be keen on that art if this was not the case. With stories in literature for example, although the writer is portraying characters, i love where we see glimmers of the writer’s own personal thoughts and experiences and that can often be the most moving part of a story for me”, Alison considers the very nature of how she creates, “That’s often my approach with lyrics. I may usually be taking on a character but in every song there will be some personal thought and feelings in there too. For instance, “Please let the wind whistle loud, to hide my fears” in The Ballad Of Elm Tree Hill fitted with the lyrics, and the story in mind, but it was also a personal reflection on me as a very shy child, hiding behind people, doing anything so as not to be noticed and hoping that any noise would drown out my voice when I spoke as I was so scared to speak in a big group of people”. Within this fear is an escape though, and for Alison it is through the her instrument, “As the viola has been part of my life since the age of about 8, I do feel it’s some kind of extension of my personality, because it’s always been with me. The same instrument for most of those years, too which I treasure.,Whenever I play the viola it feels very personal. I know instantly when something won’t work for me, (and that never happens with The Left Outsides’ music) Its a very instinctive thing when I play. It’s always felt like another voice to me, an extension of my own voice and, when I sing, I’m often mimicking what I’d play on the viola. So, yes, there’s a huge element of myself in our music.”

As a listener, you get this sense of something powerful and primal behind the music, and it’s something that sets The Left Outsides apart from the rest of the crowd. In a relatively short space of time they have amassed a body of work which is extraordinary, haunting, and beautifully rendered. They are a band to savour and appreciate, and once you have paid your sliver to the boatman, they will take you across the turgid waters to a more fulfilling place. All that remains is to say that they are something of a hidden treasure. 

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