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Anna Kashfi - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 21 / 10 / 2005

Anna Kashfi - Interview


Drawing comparisions with the Velvet Underground, Mazzy Star, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, Anna Kashfi have just released their long-awaited debut album 'Palisade'. John Clarkson talks to singer Sian Webley and multi-instrumentalist James Youngjohns.

Anna Kashfi are little known outside their native Manchester. They, however, have a small, but intensely fervent following in their home city, and, from those music writers and journalists who have been lucky enough to hear them, have attracted ungelded ecstatic praise and reviews. The group, which is named after the publicly humiliated and much maligned first wife of Marlon Brando, was formed in the late 1990’s initially as a duo by vocalist Sian Webley and multi-instrumentalist James Youngjohns. Webley and Youngjohns self-released two CD singles ‘Three Wise Men’ (2000) and ‘About a Boy’ (2001) on their own Magic Jukebox imprint, before signing to a local Mancurian label Emma House Recordings, who released a six song mini album, ‘Philokalia’, first of all on 10” vinyl at the end of 2001 and then again on CD the following year. Progress since then has been slow. Webley and Youngjohns both are perfectionists, increasingly focusing on precision with each new recording. Webley spent a year living in London in 2002, and Anna Kashfi expanded into a four piece with the induction in 2003 of violinist Sarah Kemp and bassist and electric guitarist Peter Martin into the line-up. Youngjohns and Kemp also play in another Manchester-based band, cinematic orchestral art rockers Last Harbour, and have appeared on both that band’s two albums ‘The Host of Wild Creatures’ (Alice in Wonder, 2003) and ‘Hold Fast Pioneer’ (Tonguemaster, 2005). This all compounded in delays. Other than a brief appearance on a compilation ‘Sunset False’(Slow Noir, 2003) with a cover of a Matt Hill song ‘Ash Ballad’, it was not until mid 2004, and two and a half years after ‘Philokalia’ initially came out, that there was another Anna Kashfi release, a 7” single ‘Lakeside Call’. Anna Kashfi finally released their debut full-length album, ‘Palisade’,on CD in late September. Emma’s House closed in late 2002 shortly after the release of the ‘Philokaia’ CD album, and ‘Palisade’, like ‘Lakeside Call’ which appears on the album, has come out on Stolenwine Records, another local Manchester label. Anna Kashfi have drawn comparisons in the past with Mazzy Star, Sparklehorse and the melodic Jesus and Mary Chain, all acts whom Webley and Youngjohns have said that they admire. ‘Palisade’ has elements of all those groups, and also of the Velvet Underground, whose self-titled third album it also closely resembles, with its delicate, evocative instrumentation and dreamy late night soundscapes. Youngjohns, who produced and mixed the album in his own home studio, plays no less than fifteen instruments across its ten tracks, including the acoustic, electric, pedal steel and Spanish guitar, piano, banjo, mandolin and viola, and shows himself to be an exceptionally gifted instrumentalist, switching from instrument to instrument seemingly effortlessly. He is ably backed by Kemp and Martin. Webley meanwhile is a striking, forceful presence, her airy, acrobatic vocals telling of dead lovers and chaotic, often disastrous romances and sexual liaisons. While much of ‘Palisade’ is melancholic and sad, it is also sometimes darkly very funny, especially ‘Loss Leader’ which finds a fiery Webley trading insults with her useless lover, played by guest Canadian singer and ex-Guthries front man Gabe Minnikin. In the time between the recording of ‘Palisade’ and its release, Anna Kashfi have been joined by a fifth member, organist and harmonium player Jo Foot. Pennyblackmusic, back for a second interview with Anna Kashfi whom we have long championed, spoke to Sian Webley and James Youngjohns about its entangled history and‘Palisade’. PB : You played together in another group before Anna Kashfi. How long have you known each other and how did you first meet ? SW : I answered an ad in ‘Melody Maker’. James’ band at that time wanted a singer, so I went along to the audition and there were lots of other women and girls waiting to be auditioned, and so we all did our thing, one by one, and I was the one that got it. That is how it started. That was years and years ago. JY : We have known each other for about a decade. I was the guitarist in our previous group, Winterose It was a much more mainstream guitar band, something like Radiohead or Suede. We had been together about three or four years and then Sian became involved as well. We wrote four or five songs with her and then decided the band wasn’t working. Sian and I went on and started writing songs together after the group split up and gradually started writing music in a different style. It took us five years after we first met in ’95 before we put out ‘Three Wise Men’, our first record. PB : You tend to write the music and lyrics separately from each other, and then to bring them to one another. You have said in another interview that Sian tends to write the lyrics as poems. The music and lyrics gel together very well. Why do you think that happens ? Is it just because there is a natural symmetry and rhythm between you ? JY : There is a syntax to what we do and it just fits together naturally. A lot of people say if you write the lyrics and the melody, then the chords form round the melody, and that is what we tend to do. SW : James writes with my writing in mind and I write with James’ music in mind. There’s not too much to marry. We join together fairly conveniently. PB : Sian, your lyrics are very persona-based. You seem to adopt different guises depending on what you are singing about, yet, like most good songwriters, you keep things just open enough for listeners to put their own interpretation on things. How many of your songs are based on events that have happened to you and how many of them come from the imagination ? SW : Certainly a lot of the things I write about, whether people pick up on them or not, are very, very personal to me. I think there are all these little, strange clues and hints in the lyrics about what the songs are really about. I don’t particularly want or need people to crack the code to find out. I like the fact that they for that me. I am happy that they are written in a way that people can misinterpret them and not take them in the way that I meant them to be taken. If that suits them then that is fine. If the lyrics mean something to them in a totally different way then that’s great. JY I think a lot of Sian’s lyrics come from the first person. She doesn’t come to rehearsal and tell us what they are about. She tends to keep it to herself, but I can see elements of her in them. We use each other as a shoulder to cry on, and I would say that most of her lyrics have some base in personal experience. She did tell me that ‘Dirty Dishes’, the last track on ‘Palisade’, was about Paula Yates, but I can see a lot of Sian in ‘Dirty Dishes’ too. I think Sian is quite a chameleonic person. Very strong elements of her personality are brought out by different scenarios, and I can see that she uses that in her song writing also. PB : Anna Kashfi expanded in 2003 with the addition into the line-up of Sarah Kemp and Peter Martin. Jo Foot joined Anna Kashfi earlier this year. How did they become involved with the band? JY I have known Peter since I was about 16. We have played together a lot over the years. He’s a great guitarist. He played on the ‘Philokalia’ mini album and contributed to a few of the songs on that. I first met Sarah because I did some session work for the first Last Harbour album, ‘The Host of Wild Creatures’, and then I toured with Last Harbour and Sarah as well. I got Sarah to become involved with Anna Kashfi at that stage. She’s got a wonderful technique and is a real pleasure to play with. As a violin player as well, she’s very impetuous, so we are able to follow each other and to play off each other. Jo is a classically trained organist. I have a day job in a music shop and she used to work with me there. Jo played the harmonium as a guest on one of the tracks on the album ‘Train of Thought’. We liked working with her, so we invited her to join the band. PB : Some of the songs that appear on the album-‘About a a Boy’, ‘ I Won’t Go’, ‘Ash Ballad’-are old songs. They have been part of the band’s live set since as far back as 2001 and have appeared as either singles or compilations. What do you feel ‘Palisade’ offers to older fans and to people who have been with you right from the beginning ? JY : The songs which have been released before are, except for ‘Ash Ballad’ which is the same version, new versions. The early stuff was recorded when we were still a duo and before the other members joined. We were still learning how to use the studio and they are not as well recorded. The early version of ‘I Won’t Go’ it is terribly over blown. It has got pedal steels and big pianos, but that is not how it sounds now. ‘About a Boy’ had a really out-of-tune viola piece, whereas now it has got lovely arrangements. Without wanting to resort to the worst cliché in the book we wanted to make the best record we potentially could. We are really happy with everything after ‘Philokalia’. Everything before then we don’t see as being properly conceived and properly put together, while everything since then is definitely an improvement. SW : I think the way they have been arranged is beautiful. We do have people whom come to our gigs who shout out requests which is wonderful as it means that they have been there at our previous gigs and they have got particular favourite songs. If you have been coming along to our gigs and you like certain songs, then this album will have those songs on, but with beautifully orchestrated musical arrangements that will enhance any performances that you have seen us do of them live. PB : Did a lot of thought go then into the running order and the construction of that album and which track was going to go where ? SW : Yeah, James is quite particular about things like that. I am glad he is. That is one of the reasons I like him. He is particular about the ways songs are arranged and how he wants them to sound exactly. We both are really. PB : You’re a band who seem to attract ecstatic reviews, yet you’re still not widely known. Is it more important to you to be well received and to know that you have done something which is really very good, rather than playing music which fills out halls ? SW : I really think that what we do is genuinely lovely. I am always surprised if people say that they don’t like it. Obviously people are entitled to their opinions. What you do is not necessarily going to be somebody else’s bag, and that’s fine, but I am genuinely amazed when somebody cuts it to ribbons. You just think well “Why ? Where are you getting that from ?” I certainly wouldn’t turn it down if the chance came along to do something bigger. If somebody came along, and said here’s the opportunity for you to take your music to a wider audience, I’d obviously absolutely jump at it. I think our music is worthy of a wider audience, but essentially I want to be valued and what we have to be validated as a genuine artist’s attempt at being remembered. JY : I hope like the rest of the band that we will go much further than we already have. Our agenda though has never been to achieve a certain pace in a certain time. We have the band just because we enjoy making and playing music. I certainly don’t expect it to go any faster and I don’t really want it to, and I don’t really think that Sian does either. To say that in six months time we will have achieved this and in twelve months that just doesn’t seem sensible to us. Some people prefer to go down that course, but we’ve never been like that. When we released ‘Philokalia’, we thought “We’ll go straight into the next record.” In the event, however, Peter started playing regularly with us and we met Sarah and we moved from being a duo to a four piece. I had started out doing occasional session work with Last Harbour and then they asked me if I wanted to get a bit more serious and to rehearse with them. ‘Palisade’, as a result, took a lot longer to record than we had originally planned. When Anna Kashfi does have plans, they never work out (Laughs). PB : ‘Perfection” is a word that is used a lot when Anna Kashfi are described. The album was recorded in James’ own Moorfield Studios. Do you feel that having your own home studio, as well giving you more time to get it right, may have slowed you down a bit as well ? SW It has given us the luxury of being able to fit what we can in when we can and to be a bit more flexible with the band. People’s lives can obviously get in the way of doing the music and mine does quite often (Laughs). If we had been paying someone for twelve hours of studio time, however, we would have probably got on with it a lot, lot quicker. Whether the results would have been satisfactory is though another thing. PB : You have said , Sian, in a previous interview that you wanted your songs to act as a “sonic life jacket to someone somewhere.” Is that something you still hope for ? SW : Yeah, definitely. That’s what music has done for me as well. Music is a life saver. I would be delighted if there were people out there who because they had listened to Anna Kashfi’s music were maybe feeling better about the situation they were in. PB : James, you're now an official member of Last Harbour. Sarah also plays with them. Is it difficult sometimes for both to run both bands in conjunction with each other ? JY : It is difficult for Sarah because she moved from Manchester down to Birmingham a few months ago. It is a lot to ask her to be in two bands. That’s one of the reasons why we brought Jo in. We wanted another musician to fill out the sound if we were put in a position of having to play a gig without Sarah, but who would not compromise Sarah's role if she is available. I don’t really find it very testing. It doesn’t really take that much more time because Anna Kashfi doesn’t actually do a lot of rehearsal. Last Harbour is another whole new creative outlet for me. SW : We’re not the archetypal tight knit bunch of mates who have grown up together and have driven around the country in a van every night and have become a really tight knit unit. We’ve never been like that. James tends to think of us as more a recording project that gets together occasionally to reproduce the sounds we try to make in the studio. We don’t rehearse as much as other bands and, as a result, we don’t gig as much as other bands, so it always a bit more terrifying for us, a bit more nerve-wracking when we do play shows. PB : James, you help out on the song writing with Last Harbour. Do the song writing methods differ for Last Harbour than they do with Anna Kashfi ? JY : Yeah, they do. Last Harbour has more of a collective influence. A typical format is David (Armes, Last Harbour’s guitarist-Ed)will come up with a fragment of guitar or piano music Kev (Craig, LH vocalist) will then add to it, and then the rest of us will add our parts as well. We then eventually end up with some sort of structure. With Anna Kashfi I write most of the instrumentation. It’s all totally structured before I even bring it into the rehearsal room for the rest of the band to hear. PB : When you are song writing do you find yourself writing specifically for each of the two different bands ? Do you think this might be a Last Harbour song, while this one is for Anna Kashfi ? JY : There is an element of that. It tends to be more if I have been tinkering on the piano and I have got a Last Harbour rehearsal to go to I will think “That is nice, but I don’t know what to do with it.” It can sometimes be good to be able to display it to them and to say “Do you think you can do anything with this ?” and they might say “No” in which case I’ll go and play around with it or see if I want to give it to Anna Kashfi. Then at other times I’ll have a chord progression and definitely see where Sian’s phrasing will fit into it and I’ll think then “Right ! That has got to go to Anna Kashfi.”, Anna Kashfi, however, doesn’t get any less material because I am also giving ideas to Last Harbour. That just wouldn’t be right. With Anna Kashfi we write maybe three or four good songs a year. We’re very slow, but I may have as many ideas for it as I do for Last Harbour. PB : The band are often described as melancholic and there are certainly songs there are which are very sad, yet some of ‘Palisade’ and especially ‘Loss Leader’, seems to be quite humorous. Would you agree ? SW I don’t see myself as a melancholic person. I suppose I would be surprised if someone said to me that that was what they saw in me primarily. I think we all have moments when we feel melancholic or sad, but I think most people when they meet me think that I am quite a sunny character, Like anybody I like having fun. I like having a good time. I like to have a laugh and I would hope that maybe for the first time a little chunk of that might have come through on this album, as perhaps I haven’t put enough humour in my lyrics in the past. I think it is possible to be a perfectly happy character in your working day life and then to perhaps work things through in the form of lyrics of things that you don’t want to particularly lay all over your friends and your parents and your loved ones. That’s why a lot of my lyrics are the way they are. JY : We’re not one of those bands who just want to be perceived as a straight down-the-line serious band without any room for manoeuvres. I am quite a big Nick Cave fan and, although he is portrayed as the Prince of Darkness, a lot of his music is really funny, so for us it seems perfectly natural to have something like ‘Loss Leader’ on this record. It’s not intended to be a serious piece. I do think, however, that it is still a really strong piece of music. PB : That track features the Guthries’ Gabe Minnikin, who also shares a co-writing song credit on it. How did that song come about and how did you become involved with him ? JY : Gabe just recruits people. He is like the Pied Piper. He walks around and people follow him. He moved to Manchester for a year. My first meeting with Gabe was at an Eileen Rose gig where he sidled up to me saying "so, you play viola huh?" and the following week I was up on stage playing a gig with him. We recorded 'Loss Leader' last year. We suggested that he wrote something for his part of the song. He came in without lyrics, sat down, scribbled down a few lines and recorded the whole thing within an hour. It was a really great experience. PB : ‘Palisade' is the first CD release of Stolenwine Records which has also released four singles including ‘Lakeside Call’. Who are they ? SW : Stolenwine Records are a little label from Manchester. It’s run by these two lads, Jon and Rob. We chose to work with them because we thought that Stolenwine was a great name, but they’re also really enthusiastic about the music that they love. They’re not rip off merchants and they’re not just in it for the money. They are in it because they genuinely love the music that they hear. They have been absolutely for us since the beginning. PB : ‘Palisade’ is now out. What do you hope Anna Kashfi will do next ? Where do you go from here ? SW : What we are going to do is have a big gig on January 20th at Night and Day which is a venue in Manchester. We’re going to try and get a lot of people together who won’t have heard the album . It has been a pretty low key release. It’s been one of those things which seeps out into the public consciousness, but which very few people will have picked up on. That is what happened last time with ‘Philokalia’. Very few people picked up on it, but those who did said wonderful things about it. This time we’re going to try and get a load of people in one room and we’re going to go try to perform the album to the best of our abilities, and then leave it with them and to see what happens. That is like the next main prong of attack. James is always writing and I have got lots and lots of lyrics. There are certain things which I will never write about, but there are lots of things which have happened to me which have given me lots of material to write about. I am brimming over with lots of new ideas. JY : We’ve already begun work on the second Anna Kashfi album.We're also working on a new Last Harbour album, which will hopefully come out next year. We've been discussing the future with Stolenwine and we're in agreement that there should be something happening next year to try to keep Anna Kashfi's profile up, although we don't really know what, and whether it will be an album or a single. God knows really what might happen next year. As long as we have fun doing it though... PB : Thank you for your time.

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Anna Kashfi - Interview

Anna Kashfi - Interview

Anna Kashfi - Interview

Anna Kashfi - Interview

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