Scout Niblett

Just what is it exactly that makes the music of Scout Niblett stand out from the crowd? She really isn’t your typical musical hero, and she doesn’t fit nicely into the stereotype of empowered female musician. In fact, it’s probably for the best if you can put aside the fact Scout Niblett is a female singer/songwriter because her sex and sexuality are almost completely irrelevant to the music. Singer/songwriter also sounds so generic when used in her context, because she’s definitely not your everyday folk singer sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar.

Since she first began to get known in the music scene during 2000 and 2001, she was frequently called the new PJ Harvey or latest Cat Power. Yes, if you’re eager, you can compile little pieces of evidence, such as vocal intonation, song structure, or simply that she’s a woman (duh), in order to prove it may be true. However, when you look through a wider lens, Scout Niblett is treading a path alone and attempting to create music that many others wouldn’t dare. This is what fuels my fascination with the songs, and I’ve developed a great respect for the musical issues that she challenges, when in fact it would be a lot easier to conform to popular culture and roll out the niceness.

If you aren’t familiar with her music, then you’re probably wondering what the hell I’m talking around. Well, over the past year or so, Scout has dabbled with the re-presentation of her music, and one of the greatest transformations that has occurred is that she went from standard ‘girl with guitar’ song styles to the uneasy roots of ‘girl with drums’. Once again, I do not mean to shirk at her earlier material because Sweet Heart Fever, her debut album, has some wonderful moments. ‘Miss My Lion’ and ‘Dance of Sulphur’ in particular have sharp talons that grapple your skin and refuse to let go. It’s a great album in its own right, but the first time you listen to her latest release I Am, it can’t help but provoke a reaction, which is what frames it as such a glorious piece of art.

Whether that reaction is good or bad tends to depend on the preference of the listener. For me, the moment I pressed play and ‘Miss in Love With Her Own Fate’ started up, I was completely taken aback. It was so sparse, greeting you with that naked drum sound that only Steve Albini can pin down, and playing out a simple rhythm before Scout starts singing over the drums, almost whispering at first. I never even made it to the end of the song because I was so confused. I just had to skip through the rest of the CD and find out if this really was the new Scout Niblett. That was the point I Am went from being just another album to try out, to becoming a listening adventure, and Scout was propelled to being one of my musical icons of 2003.

It wasn’t a basic impulse simply because there was a woman playing drums and singing. There is much more to the story of the album than that, and there is still plenty of guitar in other songs to add extra melody to play with. However, it’s the courage and themes contained inside the final product that are so exciting.

One of the particular joys of listening to Scout Niblett now, is being able to tap into the collision between child-like delirium and an intense, dark vision of the adult world. The former existing because the music sounds like it was created with such a passion and belief that it was not only the right option, but the only path she could follow; as if she strips back her years into childhood in order to shed the preconceptions of the waiting world. It’s bursting with unexpected boldness, and harnesses an innocent, almost naive approach to creating music. If you take a step to the right, you could almost be listening to a nine year old girl battering a xylophone in glee, instead of there being an adult pounding on a drum kit in a recording studio. It’s that perspective that music can be whatever you want it to be and that you can ignore the expectations of the waiting world that is just so special.

Competing against that simplicity is the darkened views of life, love, and death which play out throughout the album. Those in themselves are executed powerfully, yet differently from the average songwriter, and they range from almost primal use of words and expression to, hypnotic stories rolling gently off her tongue.

Once you’ve found the guts to climb over the edge of the cliff, that’s when you’re able to fall in love with the music of Scout Niblett. It burrows tunnels through your mind whilst you nod and sway, tapping along at your own imaginary drums, and wanting to scream along with her occasional bursts of anger/frustration/love. As long as you are able to listen with an open mind, then you become free to go wherever the music takes you and really embrace the challenges offered.

That has been my journey anyway, so it was even more delightful to meet up with Scout Niblett following her tough US tour, and discover just how pleasant and sweet she really is in person. With her soft-spoken northern-English accent and sense of humour, it was hard to believe this was the same woman who hits those drums and screams through my speakers.

How are you finding life back in Europe?

Good, except that I’ve got a cold. I had to cancel the last three dates because I couldn’t sing, but apart from that it’s been really good. Some nice shows.

And you just played at Club Funday in Haarlem the other day…

Yeah, that was great. Herman Düne were playing and I didn’t know that until I got there. They’re my friends, so I got up on stage with them and did some songs. It was brilliant.

How do you manage to cope with the continual touring?

It’s really hard. I think it’s probably why I got sick, as I got really run down. I get really exhausted, and it’s hard to avoid that.

Do you never get to stop and look around?

Well not really. With this tour, it started on September 2, and it keeps going right till Christmas. It was really stupid of me, as it was my decision to run it like that. I could have had a break in between, but I didn’t. I was just in tour mode, and obviously mad.

On this tour, you’re playing completely solo. Is that how you prefer to perform?

I really love playing on my own, but when I saw Herman Düne the other night, I was like, “I wish they were my band.” Sometimes I really think it would be nice to have a band, but I also really love the intensity of playing on my own. I’ve really got to make my mind up.

As you travel from town to town, have you noticed your profile increasing in the media since the release of I Am?

Yeah. I’ve noticed that the press-side, in Europe, especially in England has gone up a notch.

On this side, it feels like a lot has changed for you since you went on the Secretly Canadian tour of Europe with Songs:Ohia and June Panic almost two years ago.

I had just started. The album had come out about three months before that, so no-one really knew me back then. I still feel like no-one knows me now. I never expect anyone to be at the shows and I’m really surprised, when anyone is there. It’s not been a long time, though. Only two years since the first album.

So how did you first get involved with Secretly Canadian?

Well, I gave my demo to Jason of Songs:Ohia about a year before my record came out. The next thing I knew, Secretly Canadian had gotten it off him. He’d given it to them, and they asked me if I wanted to make a record. It was weird. I’d sent my demo out to loads of record labels and no-one responded. I didn’t even think of sending it to them, and they contacted me. It was quite good luck really.

Do you have a similarly good relationship with Too Pure in Europe.

Yeah. I think they’re really good. It’s basically just the one guy who runs it. There are less people there than at Secretly Canadian. It’s actually more hands-on, and more involvement with Too Pure. They don’t really have a lot of bands, whereas Secretly Canadian has loads. It means they have a lot more time available to get involved and sort things out more.

On I Am, you worked with Steve Albini. Is that an experience you would like to repeat?

Yeah, I’d love to do that again. Especially with the drums and vocals songs, it just seemed perfect. Well, with all of it, it worked amazingly. I would actually like to do some recording myself, though, but I just can’t imagine anyone being able to do those drum songs like he does it.

Regarding those songs that were only drumming with vocals, did you worry about how the fans and the label would perceive that?

I really just went on with it. If I was to stop and think, “are people going to get this?” I wouldn’t have done it. If I had been bothered by it, it would have been too difficult. The sound does take a bit of getting used to when people see/hear it for the first time. But really, I was just so excited about doing it. I was like, “all I want to do now is play the drums,” and I still feel like that. It’s become almost a challenge to me, because I want to make drumming and singing be as accessible as me playing guitar and singing. So I’m on a mission now for it to become an accepted option.

‘Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death’ is one of those songs, and it sounds so cheerful yet is quite a sinister song at the same time. It’s been documented that it was written while you were on tour in the US, and driving through a severe storm. I assume you weren’t actually singing, “we’re all gonna die,” in the car after the actual event.

It was true that it happened. As we realized that we were all going to be alright, I kinda started singing it in the car. It was one of those weird things, that we were all thinking it anyway, so it was funny to just go, “yeah, we’re all gonna die. Shit! We’re all gonna die!” It was fitting and funny, but not as nuts as it sounds.

‘Drummer Boy’ was the first single off the album and really hits you hard on the album because of the way it explodes. Was that brutal guitar riff really hiding inside of you?

Yeah, I wrote that riff years ago. It’s one of the songs I’ve been working on for years, which I’ve had to edit. That riff has been in about three different songs, and I finally crystallised it in that arrangement.

How do you approach your songwriting currently? What’s your starting point?

Well, for example, ‘Your Beat…’ was actually written on the guitar and I simply transferred it over to the drums. Usually, what I like to do is work separately. I’ll work lyrically and vocally in one way, recording little melodies with lyrics on their own. Then I’ll work on guitar songs or drumming rhythms, and out of those musical aspects, they become a backdrop to lyrics. Like, I’ll just start singing along to the guitar or the drums, and try to fit the lyrics and melodies to it. So it kind of comes out of the music really. That’s the backdrop of me basically harmonizing with the sounds I’m making on the drums or guitar. It’s fun.

Who were the musicians that originally made you want to play music and write your own songs?

Nirvana first made me want to play guitar. Kurt Cobain I suppose. The whole grunge thing of that time actually…Hole, Mudhoney, and Sonic Youth. And personally, the one I’m most inspired by for songwriting is Daniel Johnston.

I’m curious how the blonde wig became a permanent part of the Scout Niblett character.

I started doing it because I used to do performance art at college, and some of the shows I used to put on were like…even although I was playing my own music, sometimes I would do it using characters, so I’d use wigs or…You know on front of the album, how my face looks weird? It’s actually bread in my mouth. I used to do these sort of shows where I’d put bread in my mouth to make my face look really different and go into a character with that face. So it kinda came out of doing that kind of stuff. It was really fun. Like dressing up really.

So do you have a selection of wigs that you take on tour?

I’ve got two. I actually just bought a new one because the old one is horrible now. I’d been using it for so long. So I have a nice new one that looks shiny, that I bought in Tucson, Arizona. I’m actually really fussy about the wigs, and I had been looking for one for ages. So I visited this world famous wig shop there, and there were signs saying that all of the wigs were made from natural hair. I regard myself as quite a wig connoisseur, and I know that a lot of them weren’t real, but in the end I did manage to find a nice one that I’m happy with.

What happens when you finally do get to stop touring around Christmas?

I’m gonna have a rest for about three months, and then just write. Eventually work out what the next album is gonna be like. I’ve had some ideas, and I’ve got a few songs for it already, but even when I have an idea, right up until the last minute it could go either way. I like to indulge and work out what ways I can go with it.

Are you not tempted to release an album that’s all drums and no guitar?

Yeah, I’m really tempted. That was the biggest temptation of I Am already, but I had so many guitar songs that I couldn’t really let go. That’s the problem actually, when you’re not at home with the drum kit. It’s a lot easier to just pick up a guitar and write. We’ll see. I might just transfer everything I’ve written to the drums and see what that sounds like.

Well people will have an idea what to expect next time…

Yeah…one thing…no, I’m not gonna say. I’ve got to keep things secret until it comes out, but there will be a new instrument that I’ll be using quite heavily on it.

And there you have it. The Scout Niblett adventure may not be for everyone, but if you’ve made it this far, then hopefully it is for you. I can also exclusively reveal that the secret about the next album is that…it’s not going to include any songs based on just bongos and vocals…probably.

Steven McCarron

Photo: Roderick Trestail

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