Alison Moyet interviewed about “Other”

Alison Moyet Other interview
Photo by Steve Gullick

After her time with legendary 80’s synth-pop duo Yazoo (known as Yaz in America), Alison Moyet embarked on a highly acclaimed and varied solo career. She returned to fully embracing electronic music with her 2013 album “The Minutes,” and continues in that direction with her new release, “Other.” For both albums, Moyet collaborated with Guy Sigsworth, who is known for his work with Björk, Goldie, Madonna and many other artists. During a recent visit to New York City, Alison Moyet discussed the collaboration, creation of the new album, returning to Yazoo and more.

This is the second album you’ve worked on with Guy Sigsworth. You’d said that last time around, you felt no pressure because you didn’t have a label lined up and were not dealing with any A&R people. Was it different this time around, as you’d put an album out already and there potentially were expectations?

Alison Moyet:  Not at all. If anything, it felt freer. Cooking Vinyl had real faith in us. It’s the most artistic label that I’ve worked with since the Mute days. They sign acts because they like what the acts do and they don’t interfere. So that was brilliant. Regarding how this album differs: some of it is that my life is quite different. Before, I was living in the same house I’d been living in since Yazoo. I moved and changed my life entirely.

“I moved to a place called Brighton, into a terrace, and became an observer. At the same time, I went to college, so during the day, I’d be studying; during the night, I’d go over to Guy’s studio and record, and on the weekends, I’d be writing. So, it was a really strange experience in the sense that my whole focus wasn’t purely on making a record, but it was purely on being creative, because I was also doing sculpture. One has been informing the other all the way down the line.”

Do you feel that doing sculpture had an effect on your approach to music?

Alison Moyet: “I think it was about isolating it. Because I was moving from one creative activity to the next, it was never a case of creating a product; it was always about following a thought process.”

Working with Guy, what is your creative process like?

Alison Moyet: “The way that Guy and I work together is that he will send me a really basic track. I like to write on my own; I don’t like to be in a room with someone else. He’ll write me a really basic track that I won’t start listening to until I’ve gone in to record. I put it straight into record, and then the minute I start hearing it, I start improvising to the point that I won’t even know what the chord structure is.

“I have no idea what the next chord is coming, which enables you to find a melodic narrative that is not informed by anything but our subconscious. And then I would write the story, the lyrics, the poems. Or in the case of ‘April 10th,’ I’d written a poem and decided not to amputate it into song form, so I’ve left it in the spoken form.”

What was it about “April 10th” that made you want to do it spoken?

Alison Moyet: “Because it was a running stream of consciousness. That was what went through my mind and how my mind flicks from one thought to the next. How one thought becomes the next thought. It literally did start with me walking on the seafront of Brighton exactly as I described, with this fog running, just depicting the scene and thinking about how the day as I saw it could present itself in an entirely different way to another person. How my bright garden is backed by somebody else’s dark wall and vice versa.”

Did Guy then take it and add the music?

Alison Moyet: “It was a backing track that Guy had given me, that I just decided to speak upon. He played me a little bit of it in the studio, and I thought it was the perfect backdrop for me to do it. Once we’d formulated how we were going to place the poem, he did some slight development. It is still very filmic; it’s not filled with massive dynamics because that’s not what it’s about. It’s just a mattress to hold up the narrative.”

Once you take a track and come up with vocals, is there much back and forth as the final song is developed?

Alison Moyet: “It’s just how it goes. We don’t edit each other—we only do in the sense that I tell him what something means to me. I describe to him what my emotion is about the words, and he colors from that perspective. Guy’s brilliant because he has complete trust in me. He doesn’t edit me; he doesn’t tell me what we need or what we want to do. This is brilliant from a producer who’s also produced commercial material. What I love about Guy is that he’s an artist in the true sense: he will do art for art’s sake. He’s not a money head.”

So, you don’t give each other feedback as you work?

Alison Moyet: “No, I don’t even need to give him feedback. It’s like we work as a band; I guess it’s the closest I’ve got to how it was with me and Vince. Even when Vince had written a song, I sang it the way I saw fit. I changed melodies as I saw fit. Other than ‘Winter Kills,’ which was how I’d done it, he arranged tracks as he saw fit.”

Were there any tracks that turned out drastically different than what you imagined?

Alison Moyet: “The only one that changed form quite dramatically was ‘Reassuring Pinches,’ because that was a track that I’d written with the two guys who play in my live electronic band. They’d given me a track, and I’d written a song to it, but it wasn’t the beast that I wanted it to be, which is why it made perfect sense to go to Guy and tell him, ‘This is what we have; you take it and do what you’d normally do.’ So he stripped it down and then rebuilt it again, and it was re-envisioned from a sound perspective. But mostly, we only finish things that we want to finish. Interestingly, on this album, we didn’t discard anything. Every track we wrote together and recorded together is on the album.”

When you started working with Guy, were you planning on doing multiple albums together?

Alison Moyet: “Well, I always assume that every album will be my last. It’s been weird; it’s why I’ve gone back to college to do art. I’d always meant to do it, and I was always kind of waiting for my career to finish. Because my ideas don’t stop coming, it’s been a case of me expecting someone to say, ‘There aren’t enough people who are interested in buying your records to make it feasible for us to release it.’ I knew when I worked with Guy that it was probably my most productive, successful musical partnership, just because we speak the same language. We’re both this strange combination of being awkward and yet supremely self-confident. It’s a bizarre thing. People assume that we are fragile, but there is such a strength in the way we are able to own our disabilities.”

With your Alison Moyet solo material, you’ve worked in many different musical styles. When writing, are you influenced by what instrumentation will be used?

Alison Moyet: “No, not during the writing process. If you look at the Yazoo material, those albums sound very cohesive. If you actually strip them back and take away Vince’s electronics, the song sources are very disparate. You’ll get the pure pop of Vince’s taste; you’ll get the grim of my taste. And there is a lot of difference within that. I think it’s more a case of the lyricism and the melodic information informs the track of where it wants to go. Sound-wise in the new album, perhaps “Happy Giddy” is the most lightweight of bedrocks, and that’s because there’s a light-weightiness to the subject matter. The very fact that it’s talking about the facile superficialness of bright lives lived in social media; it requires a lighter touch.”

How did you come to work with Guy?

Alison Moyet: “I have a real problem meeting people. I often feel socially inept. It was one of those situations where my managers were trying to get me working. I wanted to work, and I knew I couldn’t keep saying no, that I didn’t want to meet somebody. So, someone if the office had suggested Guy as being a good match. I knew nothing about his history. I’m not particularly bothered with what other people do. I don’t say that as an unkindness; I’m just not locked into the industry. When I want to do music, I participate, but I don’t really consume. So I went along to meet Guy, to not be difficult. And as it transpired, the minute I met him, I knew that he was the man for me.

“It was bizarre; the first few weeks we knew each other he never directed any conversation to my face. He would always speak to another part of the room because that’s who Guy is. There’s a great intimacy in writing together, and we’ve found that we have the same language. I understand his nuances, and he understands mine. To work with a man who has that much trust in you as an artist, especially when you’ve been a part of the mainstream, is really significant.

“Often people think they want to re-light my commercial fire, and they think that’s what I’m waiting for, this big mainstream hit. That is of no interest to me. I’d love it if people engaged in this record and bought it, of course I would, but it’s certainly never going to be my motivation. What I love about Guy is that from day one, I could tell he was prepared to do music for music’s sake. If that meant it would fall on its ass, then it would fall on its ass but we’d have made the record we wanted to make.”

You’re touring soon; what type of instrumentation will you be using?

Alison Moyet: “We’re a three piece in all—John Garden and Sean McGhee, the guys who I wrote ‘The Rarest Birds’ and ‘Reassuring Pinches’ with. It’s an electronica set, and what works for me is that it enables me to cover the trajectory of the whole of my career without it sounding like some nasty sort of karaoke or a mish-mash of styles. Electronica has been my bedrock.

“I think that’s because I have such a burr; there’s so much wood to my voice that you put me with organic instruments and I slip between the weave, and you lose a lot of the information. Singing to electronica is often like water on Formica; you can see the shape of my stain, and I like that. So that’s what I’ve brought to the live stage. Everything I do is live. I’m very much in the moment, and there’s a precision within the music that enables those wefts to be audible.”

Will you be doing music from throughout your career?

Alison Moyet: “Yes, and we’ve reinterpreted things. For example, we do ‘Only you’ in a minor key now, which is quite interesting. That came from the fact that we were just jamming backstage and sometimes our jams backstage end up informing the music on stage. The great thing about working with this lineup is that I can indeed play Yaz material without it sounding like I’m doing my own tribute band. The stuff is re-worked, so it’s got an edge. There’s an ability to be both sparse and grimy. We’re really able to cover a lot of the different styles. My career has been so broad regarding musical styles that I’ve taken on, so this allows the whole set to be cohesive.”

When making an album, are you thinking at all about how the music will come across live?

Alison Moyet: “With the last album, ‘The Minutes,’ absolutely. With this album, less so. My husband tells me that I shouldn’t call it this, but I tend to think of it as ‘prog-pop.’ That’s kind of what it means to me. We’ll have to see how that presents itself in a live format. I’ll make it work, but it wasn’t on my mind. The recording process this time has been so strangely fractured. I could be in one headspace and then immediately in another. So I’ve not recorded this really thinking about my career, just about the music being the medium that I’m using in the evening, as opposed to my hands in the daytime.”

What made you pick “Other” as the title track of the album?

Alison Moyet: “‘Other’ is the title track, and as you’re aware, ‘Other’ is the least like the rest of the material at all. Most of the material is programmed, and ‘Other’ is much more about voice and piano. The reason why I chose that as the title track is that ‘Other’ for me is something I related to very much. I’ve always been other, and if you are a youth, you try to escape other, but in my middle age I celebrate it. I’m quite happy not to be like a lot of people I’m confronted with. I feel alright about that. Having that be the lead track and separating it was also a way of not minimizing the track. It’s not tucked in and it’s not thrown away somewhere. It is defiantly present in its rawness.”

Did the Yazoo reunion have an impact on your solo work?

Alison Moyet: “It certainly had an impact on how I wanted to present myself live. I loved that tour; it was so brilliant. And what made it really unusual was the fact the set felt like you were singing a whole set of hit songs. To have the audience know every single word or every single sound you play is amazing. Especially for an act like me, because one of my great challenges is that I have a double-edged kind of audience. I have an audience that understands and follows me and celebrates the twists turns, and another one that is only connected with the hits from the 80s. So they come, and they’re always going to be slightly challenged because whilst those songs are there, there needs to be more thought brought to the table, more willingness to engage in something other than nostalgia.

“With Yazoo, what was really liberating about that was the fact that you didn’t need to tickle anyone’s bellies; you didn’t have to bring anyone along with you. You didn’t have to force anyone into a corner saying, ‘You will try to understand this.’ It was just easy and joyful. And it got to tie a circle that had never been tied. I’d never done that second album live and it was really important to me because live is how I started. Live came first, recording second.”

Many artists I’ve interviewed have spoken about the difficulties in reuniting their bands, from a logistical and financial standpoint. Was is a challenge at all getting the Yazoo reunion off the ground?

Alison Moyet: “Financially, it wasn’t a challenge because it was a band that people were happy to come and see, so in that sense, we knew we’d be able to cover that. Logistically, from my perspective, I’m a cat that walks alone, so I can do what I feel like doing. For Vince obviously, it was a different situation because of his relationship with Andy. It had to be a time where it worked for them as a band when they were ready to breathe apart from one another. I sent Vince a message asking if he fancied it, and I don’t think he felt he could because of Andy.

“I understand that completely; it’s a proper relationship they have and ours wasn’t. But I think he brought it up in conversation with Andy, and Andy was up for it. So he called me up to say he’d changed his mind, and so we thought, ‘Let’s do it.’ So we did it. It was interesting because right up until we started rehearsing, we didn’t even speak to each other. It was done in like two emails. He got the tracks together, we sat in a room, and I sang.”

Your daughter does backup vocals on the album; how did that come about?

Alison Moyet: “She sings, but she doesn’t want to be a singer. She works for Gak, selling musical instruments, drums, and guitars and basses. Caitlin plays bass and she plays drums in punk bands. She’s like me; it was just a case of saying, ‘Do you want to come sing this for me?’ and she answering, ‘Alright.’ I needed a light, angelic voice and I knew Caitlin could do that. She had the voice I wanted, the color for that track, and so I called her in. But she has no ambitions to be a singer.”

So the “Other” album is coming out on cassette?

Alison Moyet: “Yeah! Don’t ask me why. I don’t give a shit about formats, though I was really glad about vinyl. The product it becomes afterward, I don’t relate to it. For me, I don’t really listen to myself after I’ve made a record. I’ll listen to make sure I know it properly for playing live, but I live in the moment. I have to struggle hard to remember things, and I do that because people ask me to remember things, as opposed to it being a natural state for me to be in.”

Do you write music at all when you’re on tour?

Alison Moyet: “I intend to, but I’m too easily distracted. The majority of my life when I toured, I had socialization and going out issues and so I never saw anything of the world or the countries I’ve been to. And now I’m in a much better place, I feel more invisible, and I enjoy observing. So I intend when I’m not working to see, to go to a lot of art galleries, to go out and to see a lot of sculpture. That’s what I want to do.”