“The World Just Stopped” Keeley Forsyth Interviewed

Actress and songwriter on her bold new album 'Limbs'...

The path between the acting world and the music realm is endlessly well-worn. For every success – the Bowies, the Monaes of this landscape – there are, however, a multitude of failures, a string of projects that never quite connect with either pole. Fastidious in her creativity, emotionally ruthless in her execution, 2020 full length ‘Debris’ saw Keeley Forsyth step out from behind the camera. A hugely respected British actress, her music debut was a spectacular artistic success – a biting, immersive, stark offering, both personal and touching on the universal.

New album ‘Limbs’ proves that it’s not fluke. Clash catches Keeley just before its release, with the actress sitting down to a Zoom call during that period of eerie calm when the work is done, and a musician is simply waiting for someone at Spotify to hit the button and share the results with the world. “I feel like I can just breathe a little bit!” she laughs when we kick off.

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Released as the first lockdown spread across the UK, Keeley’s 2020 debut was rewarded by incredible reviews, songwriting that pierced the hardest of veils, producing an intimate connection with its audience. Though nothing if not deserved, the success came as a surprise to its author. “I really wanted to call the record ‘Nothing By Nobody’. I mean, that’s kind of where I was at!” she says.

“I always kind of feel like my mantra of work is in the ‘doing’. It’s just all trying to be present in the living,” Keeley continues. “You don’t feel that you NEED to get confidence from external acceptances; it’s odd, but I think that it came at a good time for me. I was kind of ready to gracefully accept the appreciation, but on a very balanced level. Yeah, it was nice — but it’s constantly a surprise.”  

It's tempting to view ‘Debris’ and ‘Limbs’ as sibling records. Both use spartan aesthetic palettes, but utilize the harmonium at their core. Both pair Keeley with Matthew Bourne – he produces her debut, and returns as a collaborator on the Ross Downes-produced follow up. Yet ‘Limbs’ reaches out into its own world, dominated by poetry hewn from her own experiences.

“I do want to try and push myself and try things that I wouldn’t naturally,” she asserts. “Working with more people and working in different ways. I feel very secure in what I’m doing, so I feel like I can still trust my instincts. And I only say that from a place of contrast because I haven’t felt like that for many years. It just helps so I’m able to be flexible with any process, I think.”

‘Limbs’ is – quite literally – the sound of an artist gaining confidence, filling her lungs with air. She is, as Keeley puts it, walking on her own two feet, something reinforced by the riveting sense of connection present in her live shows. “I mean, it’s definitely two different acts of the same thing. That’s how I kind of feel — making ‘Debris’ and then the performances were quite an important experience for me. I kind of feel that’s when she really came into her own, the singer that’s on ‘Debris’. And the performance, the physical side of things, really made sense to me.”

“That’s why it seemed to make sense to call it ‘Limbs’, because it started to know its own form; it started to almost stand up a little bit. Hence why I wanted different sounds on this album. It’s sharper really, more in focus, I suppose.”

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Keeley’s use of melody seems to cut straight through to the soul – untrained, at times almost naïve, there’s a darkness there which serves to let the light glow a little stronger. “I don’t have any kind of skill in playing the harmonium,” she says. ”So in a way I have to use it in an almost very primal, animal way. I just have to use my weight and try and play it only in a way that is very basic.”

The arrangements surrounding the instrument rarely stray from the minimalist. Producer Ross Downes’ role is more to frame and enhance her instincts, with Keeley Forsyth citing Samuel Beckett and Pina Bausch as key influences in her aesthetic viewpoints. “By the end of his career Beckett was getting rid of words. His last play was just four figures walking in a pattern. That kind of work always reminds me that the interest is in the centre point, rather than all the other stuff. And I don’t really have much time these days, so I have to just hurry up and get it done.”

Indeed, Keeley citing two pivotal figures from the world of theatrical performance isn’t lost on her – there’s a narrative thrust to her work, a singular sense of drama, which echoes her own acting experiences. “It happened organically, but there’s certainly a beginning and end to things,” she observes. “Even with the gigs that I’m rehearsing at the moment, there’s a theatrical sense to it. I’m not very good at just kind of showing or presenting entertainment; I like to do things because they make ME feel something. I became an actor to try and… because I was interested in using the emotions that I had already. It was a kind of self-development, self-discovery, and it’s the same kind of thing with the music.”

If Keeley felt that her initial sessions had a haphazard quality, then she has by now found her feet in the move profound manner. ‘Limbs’ is a fantastic experience, building on the emotional thrust of her debut by taking its maker into remarkable new realms. “I’ve reached a point where, again, I feel very secure in what it is that I’m making. So, if someone says it doesn’t sound right — which always happens — I really don’t care. But I mean it in a very generous way, not in an arrogant way at all.”

“Me and Matthew Bourne have quite a close working relationship. It matters to me that someone understands the tics and mannerisms that I have, y’know — I don’t like to rehearse a lot, I don’t like to over—talk things, I like to just work. I like improvising.”

This first-thought, best-though approach is evident on songs such as ‘Bring Me Water’, in which the arrangement hangs by a thread in a daring display of continual control, something that pushes her far out beyond her boundaries. “I’m always interested in trying to reach something that, in my conscious state, I couldn’t,” she notes.

Lockdown brought space to further analysis her techniques, as well as advancing her process. For Keeley, the work simply never stops. “I was having a conversation with a friend, and they said: if you didn’t do it in lockdown… maybe you’re not meant to do it!” she laughs. “I was just making music, being active in that constantly. Moreso, it was a really creative time for me. And I don’t know why — I think probably just because of the time. ‘Debris’ had just come out, I was performing and then stopped… so I really felt like I had to carry on, because I’d just discovered something for myself; I felt like I had become of use to myself. So, I was just doing it for me. Y’know, the third record is finished. It’s constant, but then it has to be.”

Hang on, a third record?

“It’s different from ‘Limbs’, but it’s the same person, the same voice. I mean, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say…. weirdly there’s a kind of product that needs to be sold, not that I care about that! But the third record is my absolute favourite. It is the best work that I’ve done. And I’m looking forward to sharing it.”

Perpetually seeking out new realms, Keeley Forsyth places herself on the fringes, out on the edge – chasing her down is an exhilarating experience.

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'Limbs' is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Sophie Stafford

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