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Interview: Emma Pollock of The Delgados

Emma Pollock was the frontwoman of The Delgados, a beloved Scottish shoegazing band from the late '90s who were essential to the Glasgow underground rock scene. Pollock launched her solo career after the band's breakup in 2005. She now deals in artful indie pop-rock and is touring China for the first time. 


We caught up with Emma before her China debut this Friday at Yuyintang to chat about the Glasgow underground (which sounds bit like Shanghai) and why singing is a strange thing to do. 



For the uninitiated, how would you describe the music on your solo albums? What is your compositional process like, and what emotions/themes do you find yourself often singing about?


Every time I’m asked this question I’m flummoxed. I probably write alternative pop, but with a nod to a purer sound at times, with simple acoustic accompaniment or a grander strings accompaniment. A lot of the time it’s quite a full on band sound though, which is mostly what people will hear during the tour in China.


I sing and play guitar live, but at home I write on piano too, and in the studio recently whilst recording the new record, I’ve been playing bass, piano and a beautiful orchestral xylophone. (I only wish I hadn’t given up violin at the age of 15.)



I write on guitar and get one kind of song, but if I sit at the piano for a few days I get another kind of song: a little looser, with chords that I don’t know the name of, but that I like the sound of. The piano is great for opening music up; you have all the notes right there in front of you and I find it quite liberating simply because I don’t really know what I’m doing.


I end up singing quite oblique lyrics I think -- I rarely have a clear story to tell -- more of a suggestion of a theme or mood. My family history is quite a bizarre one, so there’s a lot of material in there. I also like writing about less regular things too.  I did physics at university and still really enjoy the technical side of life. One of the songs from my last album, "Hug The Harbour," was about JKF Junior crashing into the sea in his private plane due to lack of experience of night flying. 



Why did you decide to launch your solo career in 2005? 


Well, The Delgados split in early 2005 and I couldn’t imagine a life without making music, so I decided to plan a solo album. [My debut album] Watch The Fireworks came out two years later. It’s tough being a solo artist; you have to bear everything alone, so it’s a lot more intense. I miss the camaraderie of being in a band still, but it’s great when I do get to play with other musicians. For that reason, I’m particularly looking forward to playing in China with my Shanghai band! 




You have such a distinct vocal sound. How did you first get into singing and who were some of your early inspirations?  


I’ve been singing ever since I can remember. I used to tape myself singing in the bathroom when I was very young (better acoustics). I guess singing is a bit of strange thing to do: you don’t really need anyone to teach you as such. You just need to do it and work out that you like doing it.


When I went to university, I left home to go to Glasgow and became absolutely besotted with the music scene there. I went to as many gigs as possible and started to dream of being in a band. 




Describe a memorable gig from your early days in Scotland, when you were first gaining your stride as a musician.  


I have memories of us starting to play our first "headline" gigs in Glasgow, when we felt that we’d gained enough momentum. The early gigs are rolled into one in my memory by now I think, but they were raw, fast and furious and a lot of the songs we couldn’t even begin to play now, they were so complicated. Tiny, packed, hot clubs in Glasgow.


We wrote very disjointed songs in the early days of The Delgados; sometimes Alun and I would write separate songs and then end up welding them together to make a new track. Anything was valid back then as long as it sounded good, and to some extent now the same is true. 



"We wrote very disjointed songs...Alun and I would write separate songs and then end up welding them together to make a new track."




What is the Scottish underground music scene like today? How do you think it's unique from scenes in other areas?  


Glasgow has an extremely rich musical heritage and a great infrastructure for music: record shops (including a fabulous independent store called Monorail which stocks a lot of vinyl), music shops, rehearsal rooms, gigs large and small and a good selection of recording studios and labels.


Pollock with the Delgados


For this reason a person can arrive in the city with no contacts and by the end of a few months, have met other musicians in the local bars, joined a band, started writing and rehearsing songs and be playing in front of an audience, all in the one city. It’s a powerful and seductive city to make music in, as it’s big enough to always be refreshing itself but small enough to get to know the people in the music scene pretty quickly.



On your website, you described your China tour as "probably one of the most exciting prospects for a tour I've ever known." What are you most looking forward to about playing here? 


[China is] a country that holds a lot of intrigue for me as I’ve travelled all over with the band, but only been to Asia on a few occasions and not always with music. I was really surprised when it was suggested that I come over to play, as I know my music isn’t that widely available over there.


I look forward to giving people the opportunity to hear the music though, and with the unique setup of my Shanghai band. Being able to slowly discover the culture of an unfamiliar country over a few weeks and in the company of those that live there is a wonderful opportunity.




What can we expect from your new album, which is slated for release early this year? Will you play any tracks from it at the show?


There is a lot of string accompaniment on this record, so perhaps a nod to the sound of The Delgados at points. There are also a few stripped back tracks which I aways enjoy; one with just strings and vocal which I will be playing with just acoustic guitar whilst in China.


I will be playing one of the new songs from the album for the first time in China, so I am looking forward very much to that. The first time I’ll play it live will be in Shanghai. It’s called "Cannot Keep A Secret" and the first time I hear it live will be at our rehearsals in Shanghai during the few days before the first gig. Should be great fun.




Catch Emma Pollock this Friday at Yuyintang


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