Examining Heart-Shaped Scars – the Dot Allison interview

Long Exposure: Dot Allison is back, 30 years after One Dove fledged, with the LP, Heart-Shaped Scars

‘I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this,’ as the opening line of mesmeric debut One Dove single ‘Fallen’ – first released 30 years ago – had it, but I revisited Morning Dove White before a final read-through of this interview, tripping head-first back into an early ‘90s world, that much-delayed LP out around the time I finally moved my record collection north (involving several trips between Surrey and Lancashire), committing to a new chapter with my better half.

After several punishing years living the life around London and the South-East, catching more than 250 lives shows plus countless club and pub nights out and a few festivals that previous decade while sneaking more and more vinyl back to the family council house, the time came to move on, never truly settled after a year of world travels, most weekends spent away, up and down the home nations and wider Europe.

As Sam Cooke put it 30 years earlier and Otis Redding regularly minded me on my turntable, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. And the same could be said for the scene around then. It’s difficult to get a real grasp on where I was musically now, but the landscape was changing, so many acts I loved attempting ‘of the moment’ remixes, delving into new directions, the house scene opening all that up.

Trippy follow-up ‘Transient Truth’ and the wondrous ‘White Love’ – as if Kate Bush was guesting with Johnny Marr and Barney Sumner’s Electronic – followed, One Dove soon grazing the UK top-30 with ‘Breakdown’, ‘Why Don’t You Take Me’ and their sole LP, Morning Dove White. Things by then had shifted immeasurably, the influence of acid house alumnus DJ/remixer Andrew Weatherall and co. apparent all over. Soon, Bristol acts Massive Attack and Portishead were getting regular spins on my deck, and of the new music around I zig-zagged between guitar bands and more dance-infused elements, Manchester’s scene evolving and adapted, the more experimental Moonshake and John Peel favourites Stereolab on one side, dance scenesters One Dove and St Etienne on the other, all surfing this new wave their own sweet way.

And yet … by the year 2000 I had my own family and had taken my eye off the ball. I had other commitments and missed out on various developments, not least One Dove vocalist Dot Allison’s solo career, the previous year’s Afterglow and much of what followed passing me by until recently. It’s clearly time to catch up now though. Better late than never, eh. And what better way back in than her latest long-playing offering.

Thankfully, others were paying attention. And as it turns out, Dot continues to strive to ‘keep the listener on a journey – and myself too.’ From ethereal house roots to Afterglow’s broad church of trip-hop, Tim Buckley-esque ballads and chilled psychedelia and the electro-inspired synth-pop of We Are Science (2002), then the baroque Exaltation of Larks (2007) and roots drama of Room 7½ (2009), including guest appearances by Pete Doherty and Paul Weller, she’s forever evolved, working with an extraordinary roll-call of talent en route.

But then she took time out to raise a family, until now, returning with arguably her most realised, illuminating and personal album yet, lead single/opening track ‘Long Exposure’ indicative of its fragile beauty. Tender and raw in equal measure, Heart-Shaped Scars is a project she wanted ‘to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat, a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature’.

The club mix days are seemingly behind her, but the same haunting qualities that made us sit up and take notice first time around come through loud and clear. And I can’t help but feel a lineage with the journey of fellow folktronica converts, Goldfrapp.

I won’t go through song by song, but I’ll mention the album’s climax, first examining the journey from ‘White Love’, way back then, to ‘One Love’ on this latest LP, owning all the intoxification of that can’t-believe-it-wasn’t-a-hit classic, supplemented by a steady build and subtle strings, as if ‘Dear Prudence’ had been re-imagined for an intimate folk gathering, its textures layered with heart-felt harmonies.

Perhaps the closest we get to Dot’s past is on penultimate number ‘Love Died in our Arms’. It’s all too easy to use the word haunting when talking about this record, but it is. A James Bond theme that never was, I’d loved to have known what Andrew Weatherall would have done with it, given the chance. Actually, I’d like to think he’d have just raised his hands, saying nothing need be added. And from there, we’re away in the manner in which we arrived, on ‘Goodbye’. The empty space between verse and chorus, if I can call it that, is stunning. And when she comes in with ‘Somewhere in the heart of the day, there’s an answer …’, I’m gone. You feel cleansed by the end. It’s easy to imagine this as a huge number, pumped out in a Whitney does Dolly style. But in Dot’s hands it’s all the more powerful for its understated beauty.

‘Until then, I wish you love; goodbye.’

In short, be prepared to be sent, hooked ever deeper on every spin. I’ve fallen in love with a fair few records in this intoxicating year, and this is among the very best of them. Did this gorgeous set of songs – framed by sparse, intoxicating dream-folk – take long to come together?

“The actual recording and pulling it together probably took about two years, but there are ideas and concepts in there that are quite ancient that never left me or I never found a place to put them.

“‘The Church of Snow’ was a poem I wrote in 2003 which has changed a bit (now the basis of ‘Ghost Orchid’), then ‘Forever’s Not Much Time’, I came up with that title but it didn’t end up on any of my songs, and ‘Heart-Shaped Scars’ was the title of a song about 2015, and it’s actually been a few songs but I never found the right home for that title. And while it’s become the album title, there is a song called that which didn’t make it on to the album!”   

That seems to be something artists often do – coming up with an LP title that later inspires a song of the same name. Although in this case it seems it came before and after.

“Yes, the song title came first, while the ultimate song didn’t even make it on! It’s just a journey of ideas though – you can’t predict where they’re going to end up sometimes.”

Is this your most personal LP to date?

“I think all my albums are as personal as I can make them at the time. It probably is, but only because I’ve written it at this point, if you know what I mean.”

In a nod to her more folky side, a few of the songs were written on ukulele, including ‘Long Exposure’, those tracks composed ‘purely by ear, constructing my own chord clusters’. Was that a lockdown skill for Dot?

“Well, I’ve looked at it before, thinking perhaps I really ought to be playing it. But because I play piano and a bit of guitar, I normally go here first, but I did make a conscious decision to sit down after home-schooling my kids with a cup of tea and play that ukulele!

“It forced a certain type of discipline. I’m quite good at being a bit butterfly-ish – having plans, then they change. So it’s quite nice to have that enforced structure. And those songs were the first I wrote on it, and I thought, Oh, my God, I should have been writing on this ages ago! And these were quite musical compositions – there’s something quite freeing in the melody. Playing something so tiny as well – it becomes more part of you. I’ve a Martin 12-string and it’s like playing … well, a lot of these things are designed for guys. One of those guitars, I can barely get my arm around it. There’s something quite nice about the uke though.”

Has this pandemic-driven last year and a quarter given you a chance to concentrate on writing and recording, or is that something of a luxury with a young family around? Would you have been out on the road, given the opportunity?

“No, I wouldn’t have. I still couldn’t go on tour and leave my kids. I wouldn’t want to. They come first, and I fit my music around being a mum – not the other way around. I’m totally attached to people I love. I don’t go anywhere. That’s it – I’m in! To me, those bonds are the most important things in life.”

Dot, married to film music composer Christian Henson, with children aged nine and 10 and ‘an amazing stepdaughter’, 13, loves her life in her home city of Edinburgh, where the LP was recorded, but gets away when she can to the Hebrides, a love going back to childhood holidays and friendship with folk musician Sarah Campbell – also featured on the new record – and involving occasional house parties and live jams.

“We go up there a few times a year. We’ve some very old friendships and contacts there, and a cottage to escape to from time to time.”

Fiona Cruickshank was important to this record too, co-producing with Dot at Castlesound Studios. Have they known each other a while?

“We’ve known each other a few years. I knew through the grapevine Fi was brilliant at what she does and met her a few times and knew she was lovely as well. Then purely by chance she was working with Paul Weller and recording his strings with Hannah Peel, and I’d written a song with Paul many years ago. He mentioned to me, ‘That’s funny, your name came up,’ which was mad!

“Fiona was just coming through the ranks, and she’s absolutely brilliant. There’s a real elegance and something sort of pristine but not select – she gets that really real sound. I kept banging on about depth of field to her, and she totally got it! I don’t want sausage-meat mix, you know what I mean?’ I really want you to feel like you could skim a stone across, with real depth of field, and sculpting the image of the sound so it’s 3D. You know what I mean?”

I think I do, but more importantly Fiona did. And as you mentioned Hannah Peel – who added string arrangements to four songs, courtesy of a Scottish folk quintet – what with her solo work, soundtrack commissions and duties with Paul Weller, and a similar heavy workload for Orkney singer-songwriter and composer and fellow WriteWyattUK regular Erland Cooper, I’m wondering if we’ll ever hear a third album from their side-project with Simon Tong, The Magnetic North. Their diaries must be pretty rammed at present.

“Yeah, and she’s winning awards with scores. She’s just brilliant, isn’t she. And again, really lovely to work with. I sent her the bare bones of the uke tracks. A few of the songs are quite sparse anyway once they’re finished – quite intimate tracks – but I sent them to her, and she sent a lovely message back about how she liked them.”

There are collaborations too with singer-songwriters Amy Bowman on ‘The Haunted’ and Zoe Bestel on ‘Can You Hear Nature Sing?’. Then there’s the afore-mentioned Sarah Campbell. Is it just coincidence that I’ve mentioned five female talents working with you on this record?

“Well, it is … and it isn’t! I was conscious of the fact that coming out of the ‘90s there just weren’t as many women working in this sphere. And I think it’s so important to have role models as a woman. This is almost an all-lady album, but it’s not, and there’s no political statement about that – it was more about seeing how it would sound like for a change.

“I was wondering if this would even be notable. But it is! How many of those records are all guys, yet no one would ever comment on that? Even so, this has the phenomenal Stuart Hamilton on it. He’s absolutely brilliant. But this was just me wanting to write with friends, and they just happen to be ladies. But it’s quite nice to balance that out a bit, having worked with lots of guys, to get a different vibe to things I’ve done before.”

Field recordings of birdsong, rivers and the ambience of the Hebrides also feature, while friends there share ideas, ‘passing instruments between us all, amongst friends and the island community’. Is that somewhere Dot’s been visiting a long while?

“Yeah, my childhood holidays from a very young age were up on the west coast of Scotland. Our family would go up to Mallaig and up to Ullapool, and Skye, Gairloch, Gruinard Bay and all that. Then, when I was in my teens, my friend Sarah had a cottage up on the island – her family had a cottage on the island where we’ve now got one. From 12 onwards, we’d go there, camping and staying with her, so that island’s part of my history, I suppose.”

It’s also where she first sang ‘Long Exposure’ in public, at a folk house-concert, me asking if the feel of the BBC’s Transatlantic Sessions shows is something of a reality for Dot when she’s there – attending those house parties, informal live jams, and so on.

“It is, I guess, mainly through Sarah – her whole family are very plugged into that scene, with sisters who are professional musicians, and her kids in that scene. And because she’s my childhood friend, I’m in that scene a bit too, part of the network. And what’s lovely about being on the island is the lack of TVs! We don’t have a TV, Sarah doesn’t have a TV, and people get together for music night quite regularly. When we’re up, there’s usually one happening somewhere, maybe on the tip of the island or somewhere. Everyone brings an instrument and it’s so spontaneous and life-affirming! I’ve always got a stupid smile, people connecting through something that’s maybe a wee bit more … internal? There’s something really nice about it.”

I’d not given this much thought before, but your fellow countryman, Mike Scott, also from Edinburgh, found his way back to more traditional folk on a commercal scale with The Waterboys on the west coast of Ireland rather than closer to home.

“Yeah, there’s a wee bit of that in my DNA, yet at the same time I’ve come out of the dance scene and have that sort of eclectic taste. I’m not on the trad scene at all, and I’ve not really got into that more pop side, like The Waterboys or whatever. They’re not in my record collection, but if it’s part of your country’s musical culture, it’s gonna be in there a bit.”

Among the many influences noted – including Karen Dalton, Gene Clark, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Nick Drake, and Brian Wilson – the afore-mentioned Andrew Weatherall, who died last February, proved pivotal, career-wise, producing One Dove from the first single in 1991, the resultant Morning Dove White LP truly launching Dot’s career (the similarly-influential Stephen Hague also involved).

As she put it, Andrew ‘championed, signed and mentored’ her, adding, ‘I hear his influence throughout all of my albums’. As it turned out, another good friend, revered singer Denise Johnson, best known for her work with Primal Scream and several Manchester acts – from A Certain Ratio and The Charlatans to Johnny Marr and New Order – who also worked with the influential remixer and producer, died the same year, both gone far too soon at the age of 56. Did Dot remain in touch over the years?

“To a degree. Everyone moved on with their own lives, but we were friends and colleagues, we did the One Dove album, and I’d see Andrew around, go to his (club) nights in East London, then when I recorded We Are Science, Andrew let me go into the room where he worked, allowed me to work with Keith Tenniswood for a few weeks. I’d see him every day then, which was really nice – in the lounge bit, this hive of activity. We’d have a cup of tea and a giggle while we were having lunch, then I’d be back in with Keith. So I felt like I’d touched base with him again in the ’00s.

“And I thanked him many, many times for the compilations he made me in the ‘90s. He probably gave me five or six cassettes, suggesting, ‘You should listen to this!’. Then in the ‘00s down at the Rotters Golf Club (Studios) he made me some CDs as well, putting songs on he thought I would like, and I’d always tell him I’d really, really appreciated that.

“Then in 2019 he was up in Edinburgh at Neu! Reekie! (a spoken-word, music and experimental film shindig) with Denise, so I met them both that year. I’d had a poem published in a book that Denise had too, and was backstage with Andy, Nina (Walsh) and Denise, with Denise and me chatting about our poems.

“Andrew was asking if I was making music, and I said, ‘Funnily enough, I am! I’ll send you something … and thank you again for those cassettes!’. But within a few months he was gone … and Denise, and I cannot get my head around that. Absolutely shocking, and devastating.”

And because of when it happened, in both cases, we were unable to properly mark those events publicly.   

“That’s right. There was going to be a memorial and that, but obviously that just couldn’t be.”

Talking to Brix Smith recently, there’s another artist who cites Andrew as a major inspiration in what she’s doing.

“Yeah, it was all that scene – she had her shop, Start, just around the corner from Rotters Golf Club, and I think Andrew’s wife worked with Brix.”

Well, Brix felt Andrew was one of the main reasons she had the confidence to get back out there as a musical artist again, through his encouragement and appreciation of her work with The Fall.

“Yes, and I actually saw The Fall in the ’80s, playing the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh in 1988. I went to see Michael Clark when I was 15 at the ballet and went to see him again with The Fall on the I Am Kurious Oranj tour. So yeah, I saw Brix sitting on a burger bun once! Ha! And I’ve a friend who played acid violin for The Fall as well.” 

Expect more on those stories when a Brix-curated appreciation of The Fall lands on bookshop shelves later this year, more about which you can learn via this website. Moving on, though, does Dot remain in touch with Ian Carmichael and Jim McKinven from One Dove?

“No, not really. There was a bit of acrimony. I personally haven’t fallen out with anyone, but I’m just backing away …”

Were you an Altered Images fan before you worked with Jim?

“Yes, I was, although that’s not why we worked together.”

There have been so many ’pinch me’ moments in your career, not least working with Scott Walker, Paul Weller, Kevin Shields, Massive Attack, and so on. Ever find yourself in a position where you’re wondering, ‘I’m living the life here!’?

“Definitely, I’ve always felt very … I guess gratitude. I appreciate the things that have happened. It’s been a privilege. And I wrote two songs with Hal David …”

That was someone else I was set to mention.

“Yeah, when I got that call, I was … ‘what the …!’. So there are those moments. And what’s not known is that Paul Weller asked me to write a song with him. He said, ‘I’m with Bobby Gillespie, he says you’re good, do you fancy writing a song together? He’s given me your number’. I was like, ‘What! Is this a wind-up?’. Then Pete Doherty also asked me to write with him. I did ask to write with Hal David though.”

On Heart-Shaped Scars, Dot talks about ‘love, loss and a universal longing for union that seems to go with the human condition’, telling us, ‘To me, music is a sort of tonic or an antidote to a kind of longing, for a while at least’. Will she try to catch us out with her next record, or does she feel she’s found her true path now?  

“I will remain … what’s the word … it’ll be an evolution again of some description, I reckon. I’ve got plans! Ha!”

To pre-order Dot Allison’s Heart-Shaped Scars, out on July 30th on SA Recordings, head here. And for details of Dot’s work and back-catalogue, check out her website.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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