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Anna Kashfi - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 24 / 11 / 2008

Anna Kashfi - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to Sian Webley and James Youngjohns from Manchester alt.country group, who have returbed for a third interview with us, about their second gull length album, 'Procurement'

PHILOKALIA “Love of the beautiful ; a collection of texts by masters of the Eastern Orthodox, hesychast tradition, writing from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries on the disciplines of Christian prayer and a life dedicated to God.” PALISADE “A fence of pales or stakes set firmly in the ground, as for enclosure or defense.” PROCUREMENT “To attain possession of something, usually after exerting a substantial effort to do so.” Over the course of a mini album, ‘Philokalia’ (2001), and two full-length records, ‘Palisade’ (2005) and ‘Procurement’(2008), Anna Kashfi , the Mancurian alt. country group centred around vocalist Sian Webley and multi-instrumentalist James Youngjohns, have demonstrated a love for both the unorthodox and the arcane. While they have drawn comparisons with other similarly dreamy and melancholic-sounding acts such as Mazzy Star, Sparklehorse and Will Oldham, Anna Kashfi , whose music is a hybrid of folk, country, blues and punk, are complete one offs. They tour and play shows only rarely. Records are few and far between, and, several years apart, are painstakingly produced. As result, they are little known outside Manchester. Webley, however, is an extraordinary presence, her character-driven, lyrics flitting through a long series of guises, while the multi-talented Youngjohns seems literally able to turn his hand to any instrument. On ‘Procurement’ he plays thirteen of them including the guitar, piano, organ and pedal steel, and less conventionally the terz guitar, accordion, viola d’amore, harmonium and mellotron. The new album includes a cover of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘The Mercy Seat’. On other tracks Webley shifts from the role of confused lover on opening track ‘Falling’ to guilty, failed adulteress on ‘See the Good in Me’, and world-weary humorist on ‘Things Get Said’ to angry ex-girlfriend on ‘Wasting’. Anna Kashfi first formed in 1998, but by the time of ‘Palisade’ had expanded to also include Sarah Kemp (violin, viola), Michael Doward (upward bass, electric bass) and Peter Martin (guitars). ‘Procurement’ is Anna Kashfi’s first release on the Manchester-based label, the Little Red Rabbit Collective, upon which Last Harbour, whose members include Youngjohns, Kemp and Doward, also appear. Pennyblackmusic, back for a third interview with Anna Kashfi, spoke to Sian Webley and James Youngjohns about ‘Procurement’. PB : You always come up with fantastic, unusual titles for your records. They are of a type in which you often need a good dictionary to find out exactly what they mean. First of all there was ‘Philokalia’ and then ‘Palisade’, and now there is ‘Procurement’. Why did you choose this as the title for your latest album ? What was the appeal to you of that name ? SW : Well, if it makes you reach for a dictionary, then that must be a good thing. I think the titles tend to reflect the nature of the songs on the album. So, 'Philokalia' was I think referring to prayer, to JD Salinger and so on. 'Palisade' had a more defensive air to it and 'Procurement', well, need I go on... ? PB : Your music has a real timeless quality to it. As your press release says, you tend to “shun modern instrumentation in favour of an array of the antique, unusual and just plain bizarre.” What is the appeal to you of using older and often eccentric instrumentation ? Is it that it just sounds better to you both, or is it as well that you don’t want your music to be dated by time and era ? JY : I prefer to think of us as contemporary rather than timeless. To me a lot of the music that influences me is contemporary; so we couldn't make these records the way they are any other time. I think the beauty of a lot of the bands associated with our style of music, acts such as Giant Sand, Sparklehorse, Elliot Smith, and the Willard Grant Conspiracy, is that it may be oriented towards folk or traditional music but it's viewed through the eyes of people who've grown up through punk, grunge, 80's and 90's indie and the result is a uniquely modern hybrid. I love folk, blues and ethnic music and it's great to be making records that play a part in continuing that tradition, but the bands I grew up with were Spiritualized, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Suede, Sparklehorse, the Dirty 3 and so on, and those are the bands that most strongly shaped the music I make today. With regards the instrument thing, I guess in the past it's been a good way of finding new ways to approach the material. I was very conscious early on in the band of wanting our records not to sound too derirative of the bands I was listening to at the time, and looking for different ways to embellish the songs that would give us our own identity. I like the organic nature of older acoustic instruments, and that's an important part of what we do. SW : Also, I like to think that it's part of our rebellious streak that we won't be rushed. There are plenty of bands out there who crack along at a fair old pace and I always find myself wondering if some of them are scared to slow down - maybe they fear their songs wouldn't stand up to scrutiny, whereas I think ours do. Do you remember a song we wrote called 'Sunburn' ? Someone described it as a funeric dirge which just made me want to perform it even slower. PB : Several members of your sister band Last Harbour appear on the record. Last Harbour’s music has become increasingly more epic and orchestral. ‘Procurement’ shows the whole polar range of Anna Kashfi’s sound. There are two songs which stretch back to the very early days of the band and feature just the two of you, and others which are more layered and involve seven or eight musicians. How much of an influence do you think that involvement with Last Harbour has had on the recording and the lavish sound of several of these songs ? JY : I don't think any really. Both bands gather confidence with each record and you can hear that in the music. I treat the two very differently. PB : This album seems to have a stronger religious element to it than your previous two records, and spiritual and personal redemption seems to be a major theme. Would that be a fair assessment ? SW : Do you think so ? I thought I'd revealed too much about my personal life on this one. But I'm glad spirituality and redemption are there also. PB : One of the central tracks on the album, and the only cover, is a reworking of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘The Mercy Seat’. Why did you decide to cover that ? JY : From a musical point of view it's an interesting song in that it's remarkably open to reinterpretation. You can approach arranging it pretty much however you like, from classical orchestration to metal guitars and it sounds credible. I've seen Nick Cave play it numerous times and it's never the same twice. Lyrically I think it's a similar thing - the original narrator is coming from a position of defiance, where as the narrator in the Johnny Cash version appears to be an older character relecting on past life. Sian's is much more oblique - there's a little of both in there, the character changing as the song builds around her. SW : From my perspective, it seemed to be about a tortured soul, seeing visions and seeking peace. Not unlike someone suffering from bipolar disorder. That's how I sing it anyway - as if I were the character Nick Cave created in the song. PB : Jo Foot joined in 2005 on organ, yet scarcely appears on this album. Is she a still a member of the band ? Who are the core members of Anna Kashfi these days ? JY : At the moment we have the original four of us - Me, Sian, Sarah Kemp and Peter Martin plus Mike Doward from Last Harbour and Vanessa Lewis from Silent Quarter. We're making eyes at Sam Lench and Anna Zweck from Samson and Delilah at the moment. We'll see how that goes... as long as Sian and I are writing together the live show can contain any or all of the above. Jo's now a proud mum, and sadly putting the rock and roll lifestyle behind her. PB : The album features guest appearances from the American singer-songwriter Eileen Rose and the former Guthries front man Gabe Minnikin. How did they become involved ? Gabe Minnikin, while from Nova Scotia originally, was based in Manchester for a while and was, therefore, able to appear on the last album as well. Is he still there ? JY : I was a fan of Eileen's early records. Then we got to know her and I played viola for her for a few shows. I'm made up to have her on the album, and she did a great job of singing on 'Fall'. We did it all remotely through the wonders of modern technology - it was just like Bowie and Jagger at Live Aid. Gabe lives in Manchester now so is an easier proposition to work with. PB : You have mentioned Vanessa Lewis who both works in Silent Quarter and also as a solo artist. She features on several of the tracks of 'Procurement'. James, as well as Last Harbour you have also been involved in working on an album with her ? When is that liable to come out ? JY : We play together a couple of times a week and we've been messing about together in the studio. We have no plans to release anything at the moment though. PB : Sian, are you doing anything else musically besides Anna Kashfi ? SW : When we get the chance, Gary Tomkinson and I write songs together under the name The Turner. The album 'Hope Dies Last' is available, though the beautiful artwork on the album misnames us the Turners, which I quite like - bit like the Carter Family or the Carpenters. PB : The artwork on the sleeve is stunning. It was done by Jodie Silverman, who also put on an exhibition of her work at your launch gig. Who is she and how did you come across her ? JY : I've known Jodie for ten years and I only saw her paintings last year. They're phenomenal, and I'm really proud to have them on our record cover. SW : Yes, they're beautiful. PB : Your previous label Stolenwine Records, with whom you released a single and ‘Palisade’, gave up in 2006. When they announced they were stopping, they described themselves with “John Peel sadly gone, the NME reinvented and the days of strong, independent distributors a thing of the past” in part because of their emphasis on vinyl as being “out of step and out of time.” You’re now part of the Little Red Rabbit Collective, with the likes of Last Harbour and Crazy Man Michael. In this age of download culture, how easy has it been for a band like Anna Kashfi, who similarly put a lot of emphasis on detail and high quality product, to keep going ? How are things working out for Anna Kashfi under the Little Red Rabbit umbrella ? Are you enjoying being your own bosses ? JY : The industry side of music is not something I'm hugely keen, nor enthusiastic to be a part of. We're fortunate with Anna Kashfi in that our overheads are very low: we own our studio and equipment, so as long as we want to keep making records we can do. As far as the releases go, Little Red Rabbit work the same way as our previous labels, so we don't have to be too involved in the mechanics of putting out the record. We have a good distributor as well which has been a big help getting the record into shops, particularly in Europe where we'd never previously released anything. PB : The ‘Philokalia’ mini album was originally released in a very limited edition of 200 copies on the now defunct Emma’s House label. There have been plans for a while to re-release it, and maybe of doing something to coincide with the release of ‘Procurement’. For a while the Little Red Rabbit label was going to reissue it. Is that re-release still going ahead and will Little Red Rabbit be doing it ? JY : Mmm. Not sure, no idea. We'll see. In the meantime we've uploaded it to Last FM, so it's available for free if anyone wants to hear it. PB : The launch gig for ‘Procurement’ took place at the Salford Sacred Trinity Church. Did playing a gig in a church work well for the group? Was the launch party a success ? Could you see yourself doing other gigs in similar venues ? SW : The venue was stunning. I loved it. PB : Anna Kashfi gigs have been few and far between in recent years and largely confined to the Manchester region. Much of a 2006 tour was cancelled. Are you hoping to tour to promote this album ? JY : We do our best but playing live was never what we set out to do: if we could get away with just making records I'd be quite happy. We will do some shows next year, but for various reasons it's difficult for us to make too many commitments. SW : As for playing live, I understand and appreciate it's the best way to hear what a band really sounds like. So many times I've been seduced by the record only to be disappointed by the live act. PB : What other plans do you have for the future ? Will there be eventually a third album ? JY : The third album is about two thirds done. 'Procurement' was a frustrating slow record to make, and because of business reasons took a long time to come out. Since then we've been messing about with new things, trying to forget about what other people think and expect of us and making a record that best reflects what we want to be doing. PB : Thank you.

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Anna Kashfi - Interview

Anna Kashfi - Interview

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Interview (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.
Interview (2004)


A Lonely Place (2010)
Poetically evocative and dreamy new single from Manchester-based Americana act, Anna Kashfi,
Survival (2010)
Procurement (2008)
Lakeside Call (2004)
Philokalia (2002)

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