Everything All At Once: Bess Atwell Interviewed

The remarkable 'Light Sleeper' LP documents a transitional time in her life...

Bess Atwell’s third album, ‘Light Sleeper’, has ushered in a new era of openness for the singer-songwriter. The record finds her sharing her struggles and triumphs more honestly than ever before. But, far from being an ending, a new record usually means the start of a new cycle of hard work for a musician. 

CLASH caught up with Bess at home after a day in the rehearsal studio, and asked her to share some thoughts on life, music and everything in between. The conversation inevitably began with a discussion of what life means for those who find themselves firmly embedded in the music industry.

How are you finding it at the moment, making a living from music?

It’s tough, but it’s worth it. It’s one of those things that’s all or nothing: you’re either sitting around doing a jigsaw puzzle, or you’re doing everything all at once.

So which phase are you in?

Definitely “everything all at once”! I just got off an in-store tour, and we’ve gone into full pre-production rehearsals, three days, with the band for some headline shows and some shows in Europe with The National. It’s a lot of work and I’m responsible for a lot of the pre-production and MDing. There’s a lot to do after each rehearsal: what works and what doesn’t, and what needs to change. But hopefully it will be worth it.

Do you mean worth it for yourself or for the audience?

I guess both… If the show goes well, that’s for both of us I suppose. I want to put on a good show, and I want to feel I’ve put on a good show – and enjoy the show!

Your tour later in the year is coming off the back of your new album, ‘Light Sleeper’, which was released after a bit of a hiatus. How did you spend that period of time?

It was a very, very restful period for me, with really not a lot going on, but in a way I think I needed. There was a lot of self-realisation happening I guess. Honestly, it’s hard for me to remember because so little happened! I got my cats … I think it was just a transitional time in my life, and also I was just resting – allowing myself to rest after feeling for so long like I wasn’t allowed to do that. I wasn’t allowing myself because I think I had this idea that it was lazy if I wasn’t doing stuff all the time, or at least making music and being really productive.

It was a time of acknowledging to myself that things had been quite difficult, and allowing myself to take that time. I think that’s healthy to an extent, but I pushed it past that into a place where I couldn’t imagine doing anything again. You have to be careful with those things.

How did you get past that inertia and reach the point of producing ‘Light Sleeper’?

I think I was waiting to write something I thought was good enough. I tend to write in waves where I’m not a songwriter for 10 months of the year but then the other two, I am. A lot of this downtime was me waiting for that “rich vein” to strike. And it didn’t for a long time.

Then I wrote a track called ‘Spinning Sun’, which is the seventh track on the record. That was the first song in a long time which was clear to me was an album song, and that was creating for me a clear path to what an album might be about. I was just waiting to write that song that opened the floodgates.

When you’re in that quiet period are you doing things to nudge yourself towards writing, or waiting for inspiration to strike?

It’s mostly waiting. I’ll pick up the guitar in those periods and try to write something, but if it doesn’t feel right, it’s not going to work. It’s very clear to me within the first five minutes if it’s going to be any good really.

Some people recommend “write something every day – just do it” and that is just absolutely not the way for me. I just end up getting frustrated. I think I learnt this very early on. It’s like being hungry – you either are or aren’t. I either need to write a good song or I don’t. 

You’ve spoken before about finding it hard to be taught to play instruments and needed to learn yourself. Do you think that connects into your songwriting, which feels very natural and instinctive?

100%, I think I’m that type of person. It’s not a trait I’m particularly proud of but I’m just someone that goes with feeling and ease in terms of I don’t like to fight against something. To be honest with you, I don’t like to work really hard at something. It sounds awful but there is a method to the madness! For me, if something’s hard work, creatively speaking, it doesn’t often result in something very good.

So after it began to happen with the first song, how did you then make, or find, the time and space to let that creativity come out?

It just so happens that that time was a very empty, peaceful time for me, so I didn’t really have to make the space. But having said that, I find that even when I’m busy, if I’m in that “rich vein”, if I’ve got just five minutes then something good will come out. It’s in me and it’s ready to go if I sit down and do it. I want to strike while the iron’s hot – I don’t think it will be there forever – but generally it doesn’t hugely matter if I have loads of time or not, it’s going to come out as long as I’m within the gates of the rich vein.

There’s this theme on the album about opening up, discovering yourself, being able to fully feel … Why did you feel you needed to go there?

It was definitely an unconscious or intended theme while I was writing, but it became very obvious for me in the process of understanding the story of the record. I’d been very afraid to feel having been on antidepressants my whole adult life; I’d always felt very strongly, and been very overwhelmed by my own emotions. In that downtime, that time of being kind to myself and giving myself space for the first time ever, I got a diagnosis of ASD. I’d discovered something about myself that made sense as to why I’d found it so challenging to deal with my emotions. It became clear to me that I’d been very afraid to feel. 

I often think about people that their worst quality is also their best … the thing that makes you drawn to someone is what will end up pissing you off about them. The phrase ‘Light Sleeper’ kind of encompassed my sensitivity; and it was used as a negative descriptor for me when I was a kid. So it was reclaiming that and reclaiming my sensitivity as a part of me that I shouldn’t push away. 

These are very personal themes and stories that you’re putting out into the world, and now you’re playing those songs live. How does it feel to be performing those songs in a much more real way?

I always find playing live daunting, but not because I’m baring my soul in my songs. Playing on stage is daunting and intimidating, but it comes very natural to me to share like that … I haven’t had much of a gauge for what you’re meant to share, and what you’re not, and to who. Sharing like that just feels very natural to me … they’re already out there so it’s not too daunting. It’s also the whole point; I want to connect to people and I want to be vulnerable. 

You’ve played some intimate in-store shows, you’ve got your support slots for The National in July, and you have headline shows coming up in the autumn, too. What’s the difference for you in terms of how you approach the gigs and what you get out of them?

They do feel very different for me. The in-store run I decided to do solo, because I like to terrify myself! I haven’t played solo for five years … And that’s a very vulnerable whole thing: you’re playing solo, you’re singing very personal songs and then you’re meeting people and hearing how they’ve impacted them. I was much more nervous to do that than any of the upcoming stuff. 

The headline shows I get very nervous for, because everyone’s there to see you … people are there expecting an evening of entertainment from you … It’s really scary, and I think I get a lot of impostor syndrome: I can’t believe people are here to see me. 

Then I actually secretly love support slots the most! It’s more fun because there’s less pressure. You’re not going to alienate people, you’re just going to gain fans. It’s different playing to someone else’s crowd – for me at least, there’s a lot less pressure. I think some people feel the opposite, they feel comforted by their own crowds, whereas I feel this expectation…

‘Light Sleeper’ is out now.

Words: Phil Taylor
Photo Credit: David Pentecost

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