“I’m just loving this tour” reflects Emily Scott of Modern Studies, “playing in amazing venues every night, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. We’ll have to get used to the hard grind again after this, but it’s been so special already.”
When I meet up with Modern Studies in Birmingham midway through their tour, the overriding sense I get is that they’ve been quietly surprised by the success of their debut album ‘Swell to Great’. When Emily decided that she no longer had room at home for her rickety old ship’s harmonium and offered it to friend Pete Harvey for his studio, as a way of saying goodbye she wrote a set of songs centred around the instrument. With the help of Pete and friends Rob St. John and Joe Smillie, those initial songs became the foundation for ‘Swell to Great’, a swirling and experimental soundscape of an album underpinning some wonderful songwriting.
“It was like a really organic group of friends who’d all worked together before and who all seemed to have interesting stuff” Emily explains. “The whole thing was based around the harmonium, but it developed a life of its own. Even while we were doing it, we didn’t have a vision of what the product would be, but each of us would add things to it and amazingly everyone enjoyed what everyone else put on it. It just worked so beautifully and easily; there was no tension, no arguments…it was just easy. You don’t find that very often.”
The product turned out to be something quite remarkable. Named the 19th best LP of 2016 by MOJO magazine, the album resulted in Modern Studies being featured in The List Magazine’s ‘Hot 100’ of Scottish Cultural figures for 2016. It’s a remarkable development from Emily’s initial ideas:
“They weren’t even whole songs” she laughs. “Most of the songs started as little bits of stuff that I’d written on the harmonium on manuscript paper, just small little snippets. I’d cut them out; then I’d stick them onto another piece of paper, then I’d write lyrics, then do more cutting and sticking!” The band later showed me the harmonium that the band tour with; it has bricolage pieces of the manuscript still pasted to it.
The band point to Pumpkinfield, Pete’s recording studio in rural Perthshire as having been a key enabler in the development of the record;
“It’s attached to his house” Rob explains, “it was built to a custom spec a couple of years ago. You go from the entrance to the studio into a little porch and his family kitchen…and then from the back door, you’re out into fields, rivers and hills. It’s a great place to work, not only because Pete is part of the band and totally attuned to the same ‘classicism and experimentalism with a pop song in the middle’ thing that we’re all working on, but he’s also a very talented recording engineer with a tonne of great kit. Working in his studio, there’s no stress. You can pop out and have a mid-morning mug of wine, or a midnight coffee; potter around in the fields, come back and make some more noise.”
“We’ve all made records with other bands before” he continues. “So, to work in a creative and experimental studio without many time pressures, we’re fortunate. I think the expansiveness of the record comes from that. There are some songs on Swell to Great that sound quite minimal but might have twenty or thirty tracks with very subtle little ideas on them. In a different environment, they might not have come out. We’d have a track that was working, and we’d say ‘right, shall we try a prepared guitar on that bit…we’ll open-tune it, wedge some drumsticks and then whack it!’
Emily agrees; “Some of the takes on that album, I remember the time that the person did them…sort of noodling around for a bit and then two people in the control room are like ‘Yeah, yeah…that!’. I so admire bands that say right; we’re going to cut a record in a week and then practice, practice and ‘bam’. That’s an impressive way to work. We live quite far apart, so that’s not really possible. We do need a lot of that creative time…it seems self-indulgent, but we want to try stuff out, experiment, have the others hear it and respond. That’s really valuable.”
Another key ingredient of Modern Studies’ debut album success was the relationship between the people who made it. “This is a very communal and democratic band, in a lot of ways” Rob reflects. “There’s something quite interesting and special about how four of us share the load. Emily did the bulk of songwriting for this record but the aesthetics, what we are as a band, and how we operate…there’s a lot of chat and learning: sharing in the way we each play. It comes back to having the time and inclination to work that stuff out.”
Joe agrees; “We’ll send each other ideas, then someone will pop else something on top of it and send it back. Everyone’s really open, everyone accepts what you’ve done and is happy to work on top of that.”
The success of the album has led to Moden Studies’ first tour. It’s an experience that Modern Studies are clearly enjoying, despite the early challenges of figuring out how they were going to replicate the sound of the album in a live context;
“We found it quite hard to do at the beginning” Emily explains, “because we never planned it to be a live project. So we had a few teething problems trying to work out how we were going to translate it and who was going to play what because several of us can play several different things. It was working out what everyone’s role was and how many limbs people had! But I feel like now we’ve got something that really works. Everyone’s quite comfy now doing what they’re doing. It’s been a nice process getting that together.”
“There’s a lot of different textures and types of instruments” Rob continues. “There’s a full drum kit alongside an old ship’s harmonium, electric guitars…at the other end of the stage, there’s chime bars, cellos and analogue synths through tape echoes. None of that’s particularly radical, maybe, but what it means when you’re playing a live show and incorporating all that stuff, moving between instruments during songs needs quite a lot of thought in terms of how it will work… particularly in trying to avoid tripping over the tangles of wires everywhere!”
“The way you play a set over a tour” he continues, “it shifts and changes. It gets better, tighter in some ways, and looser and more expansive in others. That thing of playing songs night after night with the same setup, it gives you quite a lot of space to try out new ideas. You spend time in the tour van sharing ideas and influences – Basil Kirchin, Philip Glass, Matthew E White and Kosmiche compilations have been on heavy rotation – so in the middle of a tour when everything’s like clockwork, new little ideas starts to emerge through the songs.”
The space created by familiarity with the material has led to some initial ideas for the next album:
“It’s a bit darker, a bit heavier,” Rob describes, “a bit of a groove at times. There are some songs that you might even be able to slowly dance to… and there’s an old drum machine making its debut for us. But we’re at the stage where the songs are still being arranged, expanded and experimented with. That’s going to happen probably until the end of the summer until we have this record finished. We’d like to have it out by the end of the year ideally.”
“It follows on from the last album” Emily continues. “Before it comes out we’ve got a few little singles coming out; we’ve got a MOJO cover-mount coming out this week which is a cover of a Kinks song…that was fun…and then we’ve got a Bert Jansch cover, and another track in the spirit of Bert Jansch, coming out this year. I think they’re all going in the way that we’re going. Pete and I have been playing quite a lot of strings together, cello and bass, and I haven’t played bass live for this record at all at gigs, so it’ll change our live setup again; we’ll have to reconfigure who’s playing what and why!”
Modern Studies are clearly keen and excited about maintaining the momentum created by ‘Swell to Great’;
“It’s been great how positively the project’s been received” Rob reflects, “you never know how people are going to respond and it’s been a really nice process over the last few six months or so, just seeing people ‘get it’ in all different ways…When a record seems to find its own legs, and wander off into the world under its own steam.
“It’s the personal things that really impact you” Emily says, “you’ll get a text from somebody you went to school with saying they heard on you the radio or somebody sends you a message saying ‘this is the perfect soundtrack for my really shitty weekend and it’s just made my day’. I love that…the feeling that you’ve touched somebody.”
The difference of being in a band compared to being a solo artist is also something that’s clearly had a positive impact for Emily;
“I’ve learned that I don’t have to just struggle along on my own, doing everything myself. Sharing in the creative process is a sharing of absolutely every part of it. It’s just that feeling that four people are working on this, that’s totally blown my mind. I never got that before, and I don’t know why, I just felt like I had to do everything myself. It’s recognising that other people have better skills than me in certain areas and just embracing that. You should try being in a band; it’s really good!”
As the band prepare to go and sound-check for this evening’s performance, Emily’s pride in Modern Studies is evident:
“I’m so enjoying playing for people” she smiles, “if we could continue doing that it would be brilliant. We just want to do more of the same, to more people.”
Modern Studies play the BBC Quay Sessions in Glasgow on 23rd March, 9-11pm, broadcast live on BBC 6 Music and BBC Radio Scotland.