From When I Wake: The Transfiguration Of Kathryn Joseph

Heartbreak, inspiration, and survival with the Scottish songwriter...

Grief is a transfiguring process, some say.

Once you have felt loss gut your life, carried the broken pieces of yourself through chaos and lived to tell the tale, you become another thing entirely. Every love has a value, and grief is what it costs us. Losing a love can feel like a death. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Kathryn Joseph understands that. And that’s the place that ‘from when I wake the want is’ came from. As her relationship with her partner faltered and illness haunted her family, she let her sorrow out and made it sing. An epiphany at A Mote of Dust gig, where she felt “like my brain had been broken open and all the truth of everything had come out”, cracked the carapace of coping.

The only solution was to write her way out of it. Stitching together sung poems from raw fragments of life, she worked with frequent collaborator Marcus McKay to piece it all together – weaving electronic touches and private recordings into an album pitched somewhere between a howl and a hymn. And as she wrote, her heart became unbroken, and life led her back to her love again.

From her happy ending, she meets to talk turmoil, touring and how sometimes, creation is our only means of survival.

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The album deals with heartbreak. Could you tell us a little more about what was going on?

I’d split up with my partner and it felt like grief. Most of the songs were written around that time. I blame A Mote of Dust. You know them? I was at a gig of theirs at that time, and you know the way that music can do things? I felt like my brain had been broken open and all the truth of everything I was feeling had come out. I was bawling my eyes out. It was such a beautiful gig, but it made me admit some of the things that I was feeling. And through that, some of these songs came out.

But there are older tracks on there too, aren’t there?

The older ones were songs that maybe hadn’t made sense before, but now some of it started to fit together.’Safe’ is old. I wrote that when I was in my 20s, when I nearly got signed by Sanctuary Records. ‘Mountain’ was written just after my baby was born, and ‘1111’ was actually two pieces of music that I’d written with Brian Docherty. And that would’ve been 20s as well. Same kind of time.

These were things that were hanging round, that I hadn’t really thought of for a long time. But then suddenly, they just started making sense to me. Marcus helped too. I’d give him songs and they’d come back not sounding at all like anything like how they’d sounded in my head for a long time. But when I heard them, I thought ‘that’s better’. That’s how they’re supposed to be. That’s why they waited.

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I felt like my brain had been broken open and all the truth of everything I was feeling had come out.

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How did it feel to write those songs as you moved through such a painful time? Was it a coping mechanism?

Absolutely. I remember my friend saying – do that. Turn all of this into songs. When it feels like you’re unable to do anything, do that. It’s an odd circle to be in. Even though I’m not feeling sad now, I find it quite weird to be in the ‘middle’ of a song. I can feel quite sick, sometimes, because it’s going round and round in my head all the time.

It was a really strange mix of ‘this will make me better, although it’s making me feel worse right now’. But I love that about it. I love that there’s a way to turn things that aren’t nice into something you can fall in love with. You’ve created something from the pain. That’s why I think it’s so important for kids to have access to instruments in their house. That’s the one thing that’s going to make you feel better. Using it to make something else.

Did you ever worry about sharing such raw content with the world?

I don’t even really think I thought about it. When I started writing it, I wasn’t planning on a record at that point. Now, I realise how odd it is to not think about it. My poor boyfriend! I feel like I’m everything and the opposite of it, all at once. I’m really paranoid, but equally, tell the whole world how I feel about everything, all the time. An odd mixture of both extremes, at all times. I’m really obsessed with wanting the record to be true, but also fitting together in a way that makes sense. I like that about it.

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It’s already completely addictive, getting to play along with what you make.

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How was it to collaborate with Marcus again?

Really, it’s exactly the same as it’s been, always. The first time around, I knew what I didn’t want. This time’s the same. I knew that I wanted it to sound stronger, and harder, and to have more noise on it. And we didn’t even need to discuss it, he just understood. I know how lucky I am.

The first time I heard them back, my hands were sweating. But I thought, ‘yep, I love this’. And that’s such an amazing thing. With the shows we’re doing now, we’ve only played it in full around three times. But it’s already completely addictive, getting to play along with what you make.

Now you’ve started to play them out, are the songs taking on a life of their own?

Marcus has stayed really faithful to how the record sounds, in terms of the live thing. I don’t feel we’ve had enough time to feel that yet. But it’s great to play them. It’s like we’ve been waiting for ages to stop playing the old ones. We did both the other night. And it was like, look at these wee old ones. They’re all wrinkly! Bless them.

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Could you tell us more about the tour you’re doing with Cryptic, the theatre company?

It’s just me on my own, with some really beautiful staging and set design. We had the rehearsals a couple of weeks ago. I’m doing some rhythm with my feet and using bits of paper to make the pianos sound weird. It’s nice to be able to play songs in a different way, and to feel like they’re still making some sort of sense. We have some pre-recorded atmosphere, designed by Marcus, so he’s still part of it. And I have an amazing costume designed by Marketa, a Prague fashion designer. It’s a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s all amazing.

What’s it like?

Pink! It’s an amazing trouser suit, with a sort of skirt/belt round it. And a yellow rope cage that goes on top of me. It’s almost like armour. I’m looking at myself going: all of my paranoia should be kicking in here…but I LOVE THIS. It would be strange if Marcus was there, but doing it all on my own, looking like a crazy witch, I feel like I can get away with it.

The first record was hugely loved, and won the SAY Award in 2015. Did you feel under pressure to follow it up?

I’m quite odd in that I didn’t feel worried about it. I mean, the first time around, I wasn’t aware, there was no expectation, there was no-one around. Then all of a sudden, everything went lovely. For me, that was more about how amazing Clare from Hits the Fan was. She did all of that promotion herself, sending it to everyone. But it made me so proud that she’d done it all herself.

Now that I’m part of a bigger label, I see how much work there is to get it heard, and how many people are involved in getting folk to listen to it. Because I love it, I don’t have the paranoia about it. If people don’t like it, I know that I love it.

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There was no expectation, there was no-one around. Then all of a sudden, everything went lovely.

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Does this album feel honest to you as a document of what you felt at that time?

Yeah. I have the same amount of ‘this is the truth here’ for both albums. Although, weirdly, with the first one, one of the songs was about my baby that we lost. I felt like a lot of people thought the whole record was about that. It was a strange association. Even things like ‘The Why, What, Baby?, that was written years before my little baby even existed. It’s weird that some things almost ‘came true’ from it. With this one, there’s not anything that I think has a future. It’s all past.

You mentioned you felt the story had come full-circle, as you’re with your partner again. Is it slightly surreal to look back, now you’re out of the storm?

At the beginning of rehearsing it, I was quite emotional. Not so much because of what the songs are about, but the feeling of them is quite overwhelming. And the memory of it is really vivid. That whole year of my life is really vivid. It was just after I’d won the SAY Award, and I’d had to move back to Glasgow and I thought: You can’t have everything at the same time.

I’d suddenly got this amazing job, but it meant that I couldn’t be with my partner. I’m singing about things that are sad, maybe, but what I’m really feeling at the time is everyone in the room, and the warmth of that. I’ve been crying more with this one. I didn’t ever cry with the other one, live.

With these ones, I hadn’t played them in front of people, and suddenly I’m playing them in front of quite a lot of people. The one about my niece gets me. If I start thinking about her…then I find myself crying in front of the record store. I feel like it’s an odd thing to choose to do, to write songs about things that make you uncomfortable or sad, but that’s the only thing I seem able to do. I’m almost fascinated by it too. Thinking, do I? How do I feel when I’m playing a gig?

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I feel like it’s an odd thing to choose to do, to write songs about things that make you uncomfortable or sad…

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You’ve featured your partner and your daughter too. Why did you want to include them?

I just think they’re beautiful. Kenny (Oram, her partner) doesn’t think of himself as someone who plays music. But he does. And when he was playing, he didn’t know that I’d recorded him. I knew I wanted them to be part of it. Those have become my favourite bits. In my head, it would have Kenny’s piano and Eve’s voice. And it would just be on the last song. But then I found another bit that I loved, and we realised it’d make sense with that first track.

My spoken word bit, I’d imagined as a trailer. But I only recorded it through once. The whole time we were recording, I was going, do I sound like a dick? Do I sound like a dick?

One thing I wanted for it, was for all of the titles to read as one thing. I wanted it to make sense, all together. People were really kind to me about the words on the first record, but I don’t think of myself that way at all. My grammar is all fucked up on purpose, it’s really odd. This total self-satisfiedness, a weird language that doesn’t make sense to anyone else.

Unfortunately, my daughter is absolutely mortified that she’s on it. I’ve had to pretend she’s not. She’s seven years old, but she was four when she recorded it. One night in her bed, she just started up this weird monologue. Only once, out loud. And I just happened to be recording, we’d been recording the Gruffalo before.

It’s the only thing I’ve got of her. She’s usually like, don’t take my photo. Don’t put me on the internet. She absolutely hates it. I’m broken-hearted, because I think it’s lovely and I love her beautiful wee voice. But that’s the thing that I like about it. It starts and ends with them.

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Kathryn Joseph's new album 'From When I Wake The Want Is' is out now.

Words: Marianne Gallagher

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