Abuse can tear out your tongue – its swallowed screams and unspoken rages, the tangled truths that keep complicated stories untold. Silence does not mean compliance, and is often a choice made for safety. Real horror burrows deep in the bones, beyond the reach of slogans and likes. Trauma is carved on the body.
On her third record, one of Scotland’s most inimitable voices, Kathryn Joseph, sings for those deprived of their own. ‘for you who are the wronged’, is dedicated to the ones who continue to survive.
Written deep in the guts of lockdown, songwriting was the place she poured her pain – shaping a testament to wrongs witnessed in the lives of her beloved. Searing and ferocious, yet delicate and spare, it burns at its edges with love: casting light on patterns we fall prey to, opening dialogue on how we heal or harm.
But working with pain that is not yours alone bears the weight of responsibility. With her first co-production credit (working with producer Lomond Campbell), Joseph’s crafted a raw, brave collection of “weird stories” that look beyond the public mask and dissect the hurting heart. Here, she opens up about it.
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Has talking about the record helped you process what you’ve made?
Totally. It’s been a year now of not doing anything. I was right back in that place, that thin line between feeling self-obsessed and making myself feel better by making things, hoping other people like them. It’s definitely making more sense to me now. But I’ve got to crawl back into the part where you think about why you did something the way you did. At school, in art, I hated that part where you have to give your workings. I’d just think – this is what I’ve done, I don’t know why. This is what I’ve made.
You recorded at The Lengths studio with Lomond Campbell, in a week-long retreat. What did that self-contained experience give you?
I wanted to go away, get out of Glasgow. It was one of the perfect weeks of my life. My boyfriend came up and found an antler. He said he would, because it was the end of the season. And we thought “Good luck!” …and he came home with two! I was thinking “everything’s going to be ok! Kenny found an antler!” It felt like a film. The dog came and sat her wee head on my knee as we recorded. I was staring at the water while I was playing.
It was all really easy, really natural. There was the weirdness of the songs being so sad, and full of anger at the unfairness of what it was about. But the recording was the funniest, loveliest week of my life.
You co-produced too, for the first time. How did that feel?
It’s interesting. This is the first time I’ve said out loud that I co-produce, but on the others I was very involved in what I wanted them to sound like. I’ve always been very sure of what should come off, you know? It’s funny to think of yourself doing it,though. I always think I haven’t really done anything. It turns out I have!
I’m always going to feel paranoid, that’s my default. But I’m getting better at being like, “Oh, I made this” or “I did this and this is my idea.’ I’m in a stronger place for admitting that.
With this, the songs weren’t so personal. They’re about other people. That made it important to get it right, talk about it in the right way, or make sure that the songs make sense. It’s made it easier to be less self-conscious of. It matters more to me because they’re about other people.
Given the intimacy of the material, was it important for you to feel you had an element of production control over it, to protect others?
Not in a conscious way. The way Lomond works is so easy. With Marcus [McKay] ,it was a different type of thing. Both could’ve easily filled up the spaces of what I’ve done with noise, but neither did or were told by me not to. I feel really lucky that they’re the types of humans that – even though there is a Girl Voice, and Girl Music – they didn’t fill it all. That’s what I loved about working with them: this beautiful space to it.
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You’ve said you’ve brought new elements of your voice to this album. Can you explain?
It’s happened on other records. My voice has changed on each one. It’s like the song decides what it wants to sound like or there’s a way it wants to be sung. I don’t really have much of a say in it. With these new songs, some are genuinely still really hard to sing because they’re all much quieter and closer. It’s not like you can just belt it out and hit a note.
I don’t really know why I’m writing songs I can’t really sing, but there’s something that makes sense about it, too. It isn’t really anything to do with me. It’s just my job: they exist, and I’m what stands in-between.
Like you’re a sort of conduit?
I don’t understand songwriting. I don’t do it a lot, there’s only certain periods of my life when they come. I have no explanation, and it still creeps me out. With this record, these are songs I would genuinely like if I heard them and it wasn’t me. I feel like I’m almost removed from it all, looking down on it.
And even though you’re mystified by it, you feel safe?
Definitely. It makes me feel sick – it’s an odd feeling. It’s really good to get to the end of a song. It’s the thing you’re most excited to be in the middle of, but uncomfortable at the same time.
It doesn’t feel enjoyable, but it’s the only thing that feels like that. I know what comes out will make sense, and it’s really satisfying. There’s a weird addiction. The music industry exists by feeding upon it. Sometimes, it feels like life would be quite nice if you didn’t do it anymore, but it’s the one time everything makes sense.
Playing gigs feeds into that too. I really like wine, but I’ve never taken drugs. Well – once, because my boyfriend got paid in quail’s eggs and grass for a tree surgeon job, and I thought it was so ridiculous that I had to. But I felt nothing, probably because I’d never even smoked a fag, so didn’t even do it properly!
I have a very addictive personality, but writing is the closest I’ll get to that.
Lockdown was a creatively stagnant time for many people. What kept you going? When did you access what helped write these songs?
When lockdown happened, my first horror thought was for people in abusive situations. I couldn’t get my head around it – what the fuck do they do now? None of my close ones were in that type of situation, but it really freaked me out. It was also the first time I’d been able to spend so long at my partner’s house. His piano is there, and I suddenly had loads of time to do stuff.
Songs used to come when I was about to do something else. But then, I had this time. Time to think about the wrongs being done to people around me. It was a very immediate rage: here I am feeling very upset, and writing a song about what’s happening now. The other record was a feeling of grief and having my heart broken. It wasn’t rage.
The situations people I love are in have been going on for years. But when I try to talk about them with others, it’s uncomfortable. People don’t want you to talk about it, or hear it about someone else. They think if you’ve talked about it once before, why talk about it again? Nothing’s ever going to change. Whereas, I’m someone who needs things to be spoken out loud to make things better.
When something’s gone on for so long, it can feel like there’s no point. The ones who’re in those situations get it, and are able to hear it. People don’t want others to be upset, so it’s much easier to say, “Oh, well,” instead of “That’s so shit, I’m so sorry that’s happening to the person you love.”
It’s an angry record. It’s about speaking the unspoken, and not turning your head from things.
I want it to be that. I was listening to a podcast recently, talking about ‘what is keeping you alive’. They kept repeating the title, with the accent on each word slightly differently, and got into a massive discussion about what it meant, was it political, and could food banks be an analogy?
People in personally abusive situations – I totally link it to overall injustice. If you’re in a position of power, and you lie – it’s very difficult to prove that you’re lying. When you’re on the wrong end of it, it’s so difficult to get out of the cycle.
It feels similar: how lockdown was handled or politicians are caught out lying, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone carries on, no-one stops doing their job. I recognised that: it’s all in these smaller, human moments of abuse. Same language, same tactics. Human beings fascinate me because they recover from everything, no matter what. But we’re also very susceptible to being controlled. I’ve seen these situations happen, yet been on the edge of being in them myself. When that’s happening to you, you can’t see it. Everyone will know someone who’s been there, even if it hasn’t happened to them.
I’ll never name the people involved, and doubt they’ll even recognise themselves. A lot of it I’m not allowed to say out loud, because it causes more damage and hurt to the innocents in the situation – this feels like the only thing I can do. Keep some strange record. It might never be used as that, but for the people who’ve been treated badly – it’s a record of the truth of this situation. This person. Not what others have been told.
We’re told to believe there’s another side of the story, always. Sometimes there isn’t. It’s just someone being horrific, damaging even the ones they claim to love. I’ve lived most of my life thinking people like that never existed. Then you come across them.
In the last few years, we’ve been given the words to work out how we or those we love have been made to feel. But abusers are just so good at it. It’s an artform. Frightening to watch happen, and not be able to do anything about.
Maybe, if anything – it’s people that I don’t know who will recognise themselves. I don’t know if the people who it’s about ever will.
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There’s often a huge amount of bystander syndrome and looking away in these situations. In writing this, you’ve held up a mirror. Do you feel that way?
I don’t think so. It’s so difficult to stop any of it happening, and nothing really in place to help anyone intervene. Before, I’ve been the one to say something, but that can mean you’re removed to the edges.
I struggle watching someone being damaged for possibly the rest of their lives, seeing the person with power isn’t good, and doesn’t see what they’re doing as wrong.
When it’s women that I love, I am the one going: Please get the fuck away from this guy. But that’s how abusers work. They remove people from the rest of their lives. They isolate.
How is it to work with the pain of others? How do you honour it, whilst protecting it too?
It’s very important to me. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I think that I’ve written weird stories, almost. Someone described them as maternal nursery rhymes recently, which was really nice. “Only the sound of the sea” is the one I feel most like that about. Here is a story, a sad, broken story that sounds like it might just be a wee fairytale. That’s what I wanted them to be.
You can choose to not understand it, and some people that they’re about won’t but might when they’re much older. There’s nothing that’s not true in them. All of it is.
In the age of the call-out, do you think enough compassion is extended to survivors who cannot or do not speak out?
That’s the part that disturbs me most. I’ve been in all of the situations: accused of being an abuser, watching someone being abused and almost abused myself. The man who called me an abuser definitely is one, and has been to others.I know how impossible it is. As soon as a person who isn’t good says out loud their lies, you’re fucked. I’m aware of how easy it is to get away with it. And if you’re a victim, how difficult it is to get out. Why would anyone put themselves in that position? It’s so easy to blame.
After the war in Ukraine, I put up a Facebook thing asking “why would we ever hurt another?” and someone wrote “because they were hurt first”. I know that’s the excuse, or reason, why lots of this is happening. But there are so many people who don’t, and stop it. They’re the ones I’m fascinated by.
I sent ‘the burning of us all’ to one of my best friends, who had a baby when she was 17. Her relationship with her mum was my introduction to seeing someone I loved being treated horrifically.
Her dad had died, she had no adult in her life to borrow a tenner from, and a baby at 17. She’d no-one to teach her to be a mother, and spent most of her life feeling scared and angry. Yet, all she’s done is be the best, most loving mother herself. That’s what I’m trying to celebrate.
When I sent the song, I said: “I need you to know: this is you and your daughter.” And she said, “Without you even saying that to me, I’m in my teenage bedroom, with my mum trying to throw me out of the house.”
To know she feels that, without me saying…that’s all I have as a thing to make them know.
That it’s amazing that they survived it.
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Kathryn Joseph’s new album ‘for you who are the wronged’ is out now.
Words: Marianne Gallagher
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Link to the source article – https://www.clashmusic.com/features/im-almost-removed-from-it-all-kathryn-joseph-interviewed