Interview with Amy Duncan

Amy Duncan’s vocals are stunningly graceful and wide-ranging, rising to airy, hopeful highs and suddenly sinking to solemn, heart-stopping lows. Amy uses her voice as an instrument, anchored by a serene, yet resonant tone that flows like mercury as she boldly bends, holds, and elongates notes, sounding like the wind blowing over the hollow of a glass bottle in the lower register and suspending upper-range notes mid-air like a high-wire artist. Her modulated and soulful vocal phrasing is striking and lends comparison to the smooth placidity of Meriel Barham of the Pale Saints, the yearning reaches of Sarah McLachlan, the pure lightness of Enya, and the deep tones and conviction of early-day Sinead O’Connor. Pilgrimage, her debut album, is nothing short of a vocal, and lyrics-based (lyrics are clear, spare, and contemplative), masterpiece, supported by soothing, unobtrusive instrumentation.

Delusions Of Adequacy: I recently bought your debut album Pilgrimage, which was released in November 2006, in a record store and I was immediately moved by your captivating voice (so graceful and wide-ranging, from airy highs to sweeping lows) and searching and wise lyrics set against the calm tone of the instruments. What spurred you to create Pilgrimage? What were you involved in before this album? Were you always in the music field?

Amy Duncan: I wasn’t sure that the recordings I’d made myself would be good enough to release. I imagined that if any record company showed interest that the next step would be to go in to a studio with a producer – so when Filippo from Plain Recordings asked if I would make a record for them I was surprised when he wanted the songs I’d produced myself, but felt really happy to be accepted as I am.

Before Pilgrimage, I recorded an album called Wake with producer Mark Freegard. This was a collaboration between myself and a friend David Paton who wrote all the lyrics. It’s not been released yet, but we think it will emerge at the right time!

Up until this point I was mainly a double bass player – I studied classical double bass at music college, before going on to play in the brilliant band Swelling Meg, then with other songwriters, until I made the decision to focus all my energy on my own music.

DOA: From what I’ve read at your official MySpace profile at: http://www.myspace.com/amyduncan, Pilgrimage is totally self-produced – you sing, play all of the instruments, and wrote all of the lyrics. What was this endeavor like? Was it arduous or effortless for you, or maybe a mix of both?

Amy: I absolutely love the process of recording, playing and producing it all myself, because I can hear exactly how it should sound, and it’s lovely to have the freedom to muck about and try things out, in a way I might not do if there was someone else there! So I find it comes really naturally, although there were a few tricky technical moments that were very frustrating, but a great feeling to get through to the other side.

DOA: For those who are reading this and haven’t heard your songs, could you describe your sound and/or style of singing?

Amy: I find this question difficult… My songs are a bit like therapy. They’ve always been a way for me to make sense of, or contain difficult emotions or situations, so that I can observe and learn from a distance. When I hear my recordings, it gives me a feeling of reality, and in that moment the world just is, without needing to fix anything. So in that way, I might describe my songs as meditations from the heart.

DOA: Pilgrimage has very personal, but universal lyrics – about love and belonging, loss and perseverance, the essence of being alive, and many more things. Your album is very “deep”, lyrics-wise; not in an intricate, detailed way, but in a more simplistic, spare way, of bringing emotions and ideas to the surface that listeners can mull over and feel. Have you been writing poetry or lyrics all your life, or was this a new process for you?

Amy: I’ve always loved writing. I used to love writing short stories at school, and when me and my sister were small we sat at the piano and wrote songs about cats and dogs and stuff.

DOA: What has the response been like to your album? Is it like you dreamed it would be or have unexpected surprises popped up along the way?

Amy: I’m really pleased with the response to Pilgrimage. I’ve read some lovely reviews, and haven’t had to deal with a bad one yet! I suppose it’s been a bit difficult as it has been released in the US, and being so far away in the UK, I have no idea really how it has been received. I’m hoping with my next album to get some interest closer to home, as well as further afield.

I started writing my own songs when I was 16. I’d dropped out of the music college in Manchester and returned to a small village in Scotland. (I later finished my degree in Glasgow!) My double bass was still in Manchester, and needing a creative outlet, I started to play a guitar that was lying about, and began writing songs then.

DOA: I find it shocking that you don’t have a record deal to distribute your debut album in the U.K.! Your album deserves to be released in all countries and not just the U.S. Will you be looking into finding an outlet in the U.K. for Pilgrimage?

Amy: I would love Pilgrimage to be released in the UK too! I’m doing my best to put myself out there, with no other help at the moment (I’m hoping that will change soon!). My intention is to find a wider audience, worldwide would be brilliant! So with that clarity, I believe that it will happen, or not, at the right time.

DOA You’re based in Scotland and have played various gigs. What are your shows like? Do you like performing in a live setting, or do you prefer recording in the studio? Have you traveled to other countries to perform?

Amy: I play mainly in small acoustic venues, and enjoy playing live, when there’s a good sound person! I’ve got a dream to recreate my recordings in a live setting with other musicians playing the parts I’ve written. I’m hoping that will happen one day.

DOA: You are currently working on your second album titled Story Of A Girl. How is that coming along? Will it be in the same style of your first album or will you be incorporating different influences? Are you being a workaholic and doing everything yourself again?

Amy: Story of A Girl is now being mastered! The album tells the story of this ‘Girl’ character, who is an aspect of myself. She is a result of certain events from her childhood that she is unable to move on from, and so repeats cycles continuously with no way of being free. The realisation of this character is the beginning of a gentle letting go of her prominence in my being. Finding freedom from the past in order to be free in the present.

Musically its different from Pilgrimage – there is some interesting percussion, it’s slightly more up tempo, and the arrangements are fuller. I’ve created string parts using layered bowed bass, and yes! I’ve done everything myself except for most of the percussion, tablas, and other drum parts which are played by Guy Nicolson.

DOA: Your first album came out late last year and you are already almost finished with your second album – Is there a reason behind your rapid output? Some singers and bands take ages to put out their next record, and sometimes never do!

Amy: I think when my music was suddenly available to potentially a lot of people, with Pilgrimage being released, I was anxious for people to be aware of what more I could do, in terms of production, arrangements, and performance. Also because I write a lot, and I always have new songs and ideas emerging, it feels important to me to record them. I already have some strong ideas for my 3rd album!

DOA: Who have (or what has) inspired you in defining your sound and shaping your albums? Who do you admire in the music field?

Amy: I’m inspired mostly by life and emotions and the need to make sense of things. The sounds that come out feel like a natural occurrence, so I haven’t contrived a particular style. Its changing all the time too, so I don’t feel I need to keep writing in the same style, rather I’m open to anything really.

Artists I admire are Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, Robert Smith, Joni Mitchell, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Joan Armatrading, Dan Arborise, Holly Thomas, Joan as Police Woman, PJ Harvey, Karine Polwart, Tom Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, Juana Molina, (early) Sinaed O’ Connor, Bjork, David Sylvian and Emily Scott! To name but a few…

DOA: What do you do when you’re not creating music?

Amy: When not creating music, and when I’m not with my partner and son, I sometimes paint, just odd images that come into my head in an abstract way – I’m not very skilled! I also make odd pieces of jewellery from things I find on the beach.I like to meditate and do yoga, when I don’t manage to talk myself out of it…also I love cycling.

DOA: Where can listeners order your album from?

Amy: Pilgrimage is available to buy in record stores throughout the US, or online direct from www.myspace.com/amyduncan and amazon, and lots of other places! Also many sites for downloads, including www.tunetribe.com and www.wovenwheatwhispers.co.uk