INTERVIEW: Alison Cotton on “The Portrait You Painted Of Me” – Raw Power Festival, and More

As part of our preview of the upcoming Raw Power Festival, Ghost Cult is hosting a series of interviews with artists on the bill, bringing a spotlight to some very deserving underground voices in music you ought to know about. Enjoy this Q & A with artist Alison Cotton, who recently released her new album The Portrait You Painted Of Me.

In a way, the title of “The Portrait You Painted Of Me” sounds like a dedication. To a person. To a situation. What was in your mind when you were writing this record ?

In a way, the title of “The Portrait You Painted Of Me” sounds like a dedication. To a person. To a situation. What was in your mind when you were writing this record ?


It’s actually the last line of the final verse to the song on my album, Violet May – “And there, in a gold frame, so dusty and grey, Was the portrait you painted of me”. I’d been trying to think of an album title for quite a while and then, when we were doing some final mixes, that line just stood out to me, that was it. It had been there all along! It sounded like the kind of album title I’d be interested in if I saw the album in a record shop or whatever, and that’s usually how I make my final decision on album titles. But, you’re right in that you say it sounds like a dedication to a situation as I also liked the fact that this title could also be associated with how we can judge people before we get to know them, or even, say, make assumptions about an artist’s music before really listening…….it could be associated with so many different situations like this.


Since the beginning of your career, you’ve been attracted by textural elements that, combined with melody, create a shape of your music with the beautiful droning or dissonance parts on the background. Do you personally oversee these elements as indivisible parts of your work or something that comes after ?


That really varies. There’s never any plan before I record. I always start by playing a drone when recording and, as I’m playing, the next part I want to record will just come to me. Sometimes, that will be a melody but often it’s another textural sound. The melody, or motif can sometimes be one of the last things I’ll add, it just depends on at what part of the recording process I hear it. The danger is always to add too many textural elements though but I have a rule that “less is more” and Mark, who produces my music is always very good at reminding me of this when we record.


In the description to “Violet May” it is said that you took the approach of British folk-monumentalists of the 60’s. Could you speak about this a little bit ?

When I sing a song like this, I really try to take on the character of the person I’m singing about, I get to know them when I write about them and I really care about that person and want their story to be told (even though in this case it’s a fictional character!). I guess there’s a similarity there with folk singers, although, with traditional songs, they’re usually singing about real life people and stories or events. I think the most important thing for me is for my story to be heard, so I’m thinking more about singing clearly, getting the story across as opposed to how I sound which is, again, a method adopted by most folk singers.


I also think that perhaps, as it’s a story I wrote, that could be seen as being similar to folk song and, I sing it a-cappella, which is in keeping with a lot of songs of the folk tradition. So, yes, I suppose the approach is similar in many ways. But, the only real inspiration for this song was a visit to Sissinghurst Castle. I made up this story and melody in my head the day of that visit.

When an artist tries something new, there is also a factor of discomfort. In a sense that some artists consciously tend to put themselves in the position when they’re less comfortable. In order to accumulate some of the elements of their work. Did you feel something like this working on “Violet May” ?


Ah no, I didn’t feel like this because really, composing and playing instrumental music, which is the majority of the album, actually still feels quite new, fresh and exciting to me in comparison to writing and singing songs, which I’ve been doing for some time now. When I started making solo music, I wanted it to be completely different to my band, The Left Outsides, otherwise, well, I don’t know what the reason would have been to play solo music really, the whole thing would have felt completely pointless to me and probably to my audience. So, I thought, I can still add the occasional song here and there, which is what I do. And I think that works! I enjoy the contrast and hope that the listener does too. Although I wrote this song in exactly the same way as I would write a song for my band, it’s just me, no guitar or other accompaniment, it’s slower with no timing and it’s sung a cappella so it does sound completely different i think.



Starting with the opening “Mumurations Over the Moor” and finishing with “17th November 1962” you pass through a transformation. Within the way you approach your singing, the melody works, texture and so on. Can it be compared with the transformation protagonist passes through changing his or her personality ?


Yes, perhaps it is a similar kind of transformation, musically . However, there was no plan of what order the tracks would be while I was recording, that was done in the later stages of putting the album together.



What helped you to find the balance ? Because, obviously every song on the record has a different approach. Even though, the crucial elements are the same – atmosphere and textures.

Yes, I do always want each of my compositions to have a different approach. It would make me really unhappy creatively if I was reproducing something similar each time. I’ve mainly been using the same small group of instruments on all 3 of my albums and I do really enjoy this challenge every time I record, to create something different to the last. I don’t think anything really helped me to find a balance in my playing though, but Mark’s production would be the main thing that provides a balance sonically, I’d say.


There are different stories behind the tracks and completely different moods to the subject matters but I think the balance in this sense just came together organically. Much of this record was recorded in Christmas 2020. Like many people in the UK, I was going to be visiting my family – in my case, my hometown of Sunderland, as I have done every year for over 20 years of my life and then, at the last minute, another lockdown was called, preventing anyone in the country to travel anywhere. So, Mark & I decided to record. But, every time I tried to play, I could only think of Sunderland and the north east and all I could see was that place in another time. So, I was seeing the industrial past, and the coastal history of the area. This became the subject of 3 pieces on the record. There is a huge contrast in that the other 3 tracks are pastoral, although pretty dark subjects and I suppose that darkness is where the balance lies.


Within a month, you’d perform on Raw Power festival, alongside with dozens of incredible artists all over the world. What are you expecting from it ?


I’m so excited to play at Raw Power Festival. Anthony (Baba Yaga’s Hut) has been really supportive of my music and he’s a fantastic promoter. It’s a brilliant line up for this festival with some great bands and musicians playing a broad range of styles, and some lovely people playing too. All of this is exactly what I want from a festival so I know it’s going to be great, with a good atmosphere.


Listening to your music, I feel the strong sense of intimacy. Between you, storyteller, lyrical characters and myself, the listener. How different or difficult it is for you, to reach that trance state, when you’re performing for a larger audience ?


I’m really pleased that you hear that in my music as this is something I really do try to achieve and is important to me as a solo artist. When I play instrumental, and sing wordless vocals, I usually am in that trance state, as I would be when recording, pretty quickly, regardless of how many people are in the audience. I don’t really know how that happens but, if the sound is good, I’m comfortable and I try to take myself back to the place where that piece of music was set. I talked earlier about how I enjoy taking on the character of a person when I sing a song and, although fictional, I want their story to be heard and understood by the audience. I want the audience to feel some affinity with the characters. It doesn’t make any difference to me how many people are in the room in order to achieve this but, I do tend to close my eyes at times to try and concentrate on becoming part of that story. But, however many people are in the audience, I just want my music to have some impact on them and to hopefully move them in some way.

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