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Abigail Hopkins - Interview

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 19 / 4 / 2009

Abigail Hopkins - Interview


An actress and a theatre director as well as a musician, Abigail Hopkins' third album, 'The Memoirs of An Outlaw', originally came out last year. She speaks to Malcolm Carter about why she has decided to re-release it on her own label

One of the most beautiful yet disturbing albums released last year was the third album by singer-songwriter Abigail Hopkins, ‘The Memoirs Of An Outlaw’. From the very first song on the album, ‘Used Car Salesman’ it was obvious that here was an artist who was attempting to push boundaries with the music she was making. The voice was almost a whisper, but it was compelling; there were elements of many female singers in there, from Kate Bush through to Björk, but it really was a unique sound that came out when Abigail Hopkins sang. The talented actor, theatre director and songwriter had really found a sound that was all her own. Coming from a theatrical family (both Abigail’s parents and maternal grandparents were actors, and her father is Oscar-winning actor Sir Anthony) coupled with her own film and theatre performances probably accounts for why Abigail’s music is so affecting and why, when it comes to writing lyrics, she can convey so many different emotions throughout the 12 songs that comprise ‘The Memoirs Of An Outlaw’. Abigail has that rare ability to pull you into her songs; to transport you to another time and place even though it’s not somewhere you’d particularly want to go to. Listening to her draws you there anyway. Those vocals are sufficient enough to make you want to take that journey. When Abigail’s voice is wrapped in music (co-composed by Abigail and John Winfield who plays a major role in the sound of ‘The Memoirs Of An Outlaw’) that, however, is every bit as fascinating and gripping as her vocals it just proves that here is a singer-songwriter who is really breaking new ground. With her background and career in theatre and films it seemed quite amazing that Abigail had the time not just to pursue yet another career in music but to obviously spend so much time and energy creating such emotive sounds. Actors and music don’t usually mix so well. For some reason we all seem to think that if an actor tries their hand at music or if a musician turns to acting then it will be a success but it very seldom is. Abigail Hopkins is the exception to that. Apart from her theatre appearances she has appeared in films such as ‘Shadowlands’, 'The Remains Of The Day’ and more. But such was Abigail’s need to express herself further in music so she set up her own record label Possessed Records. Abigail released her debut album, ‘Smile Road’, in 2002 and followed that up with ‘Blue Satin Alley’ in 2005. Both albums were well received by the music press and almost every genre was used in trying to describe the sound that Abigail produces. Now with last year's ‘The Memoirs Of An Outlaw’ being re-released we had the opportunity to break into Abigail’s busy schedule and ask a number of questions about her music and background. PB : Your latest album, ‘The Memoirs Of An Outlaw’, first came our way last year. It’s being re-launched we hear. The album gained good reviews at the time of its original release. Is there any special reason why you have chosen now to re-launch it? AH : It wasn’t really working out with the record company the album was licensed to as they had plans which didn’t tally with mine. I decided it was best for the album to be reassigned back to my own label and we parted on amicable terms, and because I want to give it the best chance, I felt it would be for the best to re launch it with a brand new start and fresh approach in June this year. PB : ‘The Memoirs Of An Outlaw’ is being re-issued on your own label Possessed Records. You also put out your previous two albums on Possessed. It’s still quite unusual for an artist to actually own their own record label. What made you start your own label ? AH : I think it's becoming more and more common for artists to go the independent route and sometimes to set up their own labels. I’ve always been a very independent minded person, and set up my label after a stint of living in America. On my return to England, I really wanted to start something, where I would have full creative control and guarantee my music could be released and not get held back by outside record label politics. Making an album was following a dream I’d had since my twenties. I’ve always forged my own creative path, so haven’t really received offers from major labels. I was inspired by Ani DiFranco initially, a very strong woman who blazed a trail by setting up her own label and becoming extremely successfulwith it. She has allowed other female musicians to follow in her wake. I’ve always stuck to the grass roots approach, probably because I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to getting things done and out there! PB : There has been more or less a two year gap between your album releases which, considering your other projects and the time it takes for most artists to make albums these days, means you are releasing your music at fairly regular intervals. Do you write specifically for each album as the time approaches or is writing songs something you do continuously? AH : My philosophy on life is, that it is short and I just want to do as much as I can with it. I am involved with other creative projects – I’ve been teaching acting for several years. I guess I’ve been lucky being able to fund albums myself so far. I also work with my producer John Winfield very quickly and I suppose the songs for new albums just get written fairly organically, whenever I’m inspired. I kind of know a year before though, the sort of vibe I want my next album to have. Sometimes I have fallow periods where I’m not writing much at all. I find listening to other song-writers really helps me to become inspired. There tends to be two year gaps, as there’s so much work involved after the album has been recorded on a promotional level, etc. PB : Apart from your music career you act and work as a theatre director and acting coach. Do you get more satisfaction from any single one of those projects ? Which one is the one you just couldn’t give up? AH : Teaching is my staple income, and I’ve been doing it for 12 years now. Theatre directing is something that sporadically comes up.I guess if I absolutely had to give one up it would be directing. Teaching I could not give up as that’s my “day” job really – although of course I absolutely love it, and it’s a joy to watch other people grow and get inspired by acting. I think acting really allows people to express themselves creatively and so, therefore, I feel it’s healing to help people in that process. I’ve never really had the concept that one should give up on anything. I’m very into living in the moment and going with the flow and it’s exciting, and, yes. scary to be surprised by what life brings along. PB : Although your music has been compared to that of PJ Harvey and Björk we found when we reviewed ‘The Memoirs Of An Outlaw’ that you really are setting a style of your own. I can understand people finding small traces of the above artists sound in your music but musically you are taking a whole new direction. So who are you influenced by ? AH : My influences get added to frequently. I’ve found some great artists on Myspace. I'm listening at the moment to PJ Harvey (I love her new album with John Parrish). Cat Power is another of my favourite artists at the moment,as are Ane Brun, Bat for Lashes, Neko Case. I spend a lot of time watching music videos on You Tube, and spend quite a lot of money on iTunes. I love discovering new artists and listening to their stuff which inspires my music and my theatre work. PB : You wrote all the lyrics to your latest album and also shared composing the music with John Winfield who also plays the majority of the instruments and co-produced the album with you. Was the sound you two produced a 50 / 50 contribution or were there times when one of you had a completely different vision about a certain song than the other ? AH : I had the framework of all the songs already in place. Some songs were structured by me and ready to go by the time I was in the studio. Others needed shaping and tightening a bit more. John’s great to work with, as he just has this genius for understanding how I want a song to sound. He’s also really honest if he thinks my songs are too long – sometimes I have a tendency to waffle lyric wise, and he will just be clear about getting to the point and being concise. We work very spontaneously and organically together. Sometimes we disagree, like I was a bit prejudiced about having electric bass on the album initially, but I’m slowly warming to it as an instrument. Our day is, however, always very structured, which I need, as I can sometimes be a bit chaotic. We do share song rights equally. PB : You are playing a few gigs in England to promote the album. Do you have plans to tour other countries ? AH : I would like to do some shows in Los Angeles. France would be good. It is just a matter of me organising my time. Because of the jazz / blues feel to a lot of your songs it sounds like a very American album. I’ve read differing reports as to which country you live in, America or the U.K. Where do you see as home ? AH : I live mainly in England. I’ve been going to America now for 20 years. I lived in New York while I was studying acting and LA briefly. I do visit LA at least once a year and have been doing this since 2004. Sometimes I’ve stayed there for two months. For now England is where I spend most of the year. Spiritually I feel connected with America – I think it's something to do with the vast landscape. I do , however, like to come back to England with its eccentricity, as I feel it brings me a good balance. London’s a pretty crazy place to live at times, and going to America, gives me a fresh perspective and I have friends there I’ve known for years and years and years. PB : There is a lot of imagery in your lyrics. I’m probably not the first to say that I feel that you are one of those artists who doesn’t write songs but sets little stories to music. Do you feel that having a background in acting and theatre helps give you an insight into the lives of people and situations you haven’t actually experienced yourself ? AH : I suppose coming from a family of actors I started from a young age to observe people. My mum got me reading early too, so I was always surrounded by literature. For my own acting, and for building characters, it's natural for me to observe people and the way society forces us to operate – my songs are, therefore, sometimes overtly political or sometimes more subtle with their message. For example, the used car salesman in “Used Car Salesman” was based on a couple of salesmen I’d bought two very dodgy cars from. However objectionable as he is, he’s someone who is completely at the mercy of the capitalist system in his own way. I tend to be drawn to renegades, rebels and outsiders, because I’ve always felt like an outsider myself in some respects, and am a bit of a maverick really. I tend to write about the underdog because the underdog gets overlooked most of the time in society. PB : When you have time off from your various projects what music do you listen to for pleasure ? AH : On my iPod at the moment I’m listening to Cat Power, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, Ane Brun, Katie Jane Garside, Smog, Bonnie Prince Billy and Emily Haines among others. I never ever listen to my own music once I’ve made an album as it makes me feel self conscious! I love chanting to spiritual Indian chants like Krishna Das and dancing around to them. PB : You play both acoustic and electric guitars on the album. I think I am right in saying that you take all the guitar parts apart from bass. When did you start playing the instrument and are you self-taught ? AH : I started playing classical guitar when I was seven. Originally I wrote songs on the piano, but I’m a terrible piano player. Playing acoustic guitar is totally different from classical guitar, so in that respect I’m self taught. A few years ago I discovered the 12 string guitar – and this is the main guitar I use and it’s a joy to play and I can find nuances with the double strings which you don’t get so much from a 6 string guitar. PB : There is always something new to be found in the songs on ‘The Memoirs Of An Outlaw’ and my favourite song on the album changes almost weekly according to my mood. Is there any one song there which means more to you than the others ? Or any song that was more difficult for you to record to your satisfaction ? AH : My favourite songs are 'When Skylarks Fall', 'The Last Train' and Magdalene. We were up against deadlines, so I had to write these three songs really fast. The first version of 'The Last Train' was the one recording on the album which didn’t work at all – it just sounded too twee. So I went home and dropped the 6th string to D and it then worked much better and is now one of my favourite songs. 'Blood and Bones' is also another favourite – it was very easy to record and play at the time, but I now find it quite hard to play and haven’t yet played this song live. PB : Thank you.

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Abigail Hopkins - Interview

Abigail Hopkins - Interview

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The Memoirs of an Outlaw (2008)
Unsettling, but fascinating third album from British singer-songwriter and actress Abigail Hopkins, which despite having elements of blues, weird-folk and jazz, is in a totally unique class of its own

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