With a highly rated debut album ‘The Discredited Language of Angels; released and tours with Edwyn Collins and The Libertines under her belt, things were looking good for Gabi Garbutt and the Illuminations before lockdown. We caught up with Gabi midway through making her follow up album in London. PB: I'll start with an obvious question. How has life been for you under lockdown and has it disrupted your plans? GABI GARBUTT: Life under lockdown has been up and down, which I think is the case for many people. I work part time for a charity working with people living with dementia and wasn’t furloughed so stayed pretty busy. Because all the usual music events, rehearsals and the rest of it weren’t happening, there was still this sense of having more time at home to work on songs. But as the months wore on it became more difficult to keep spirits up, thinking of all our plans that had been disrupted. In 2020, we had been scheduled to join the Boomtown Rats on their eleven date tour, we had a showcase at The Groucho Club, we were to join the Libertines at Rochester Castle, and play a festival in Germany, so when all this was put on hold there was a real sense of anxiety that it’s not going to come back. It’s a tough one though. So many people have been going through so much more in this dreadful year, so I try not to dwell on my very individualistic tale of woe! When rehearsal rooms opened in July 2020, we started working on our second album, which we’re currently recording. I’ve also been writing a novel and was longlisted for the Penguin Books Write Now 2020 programme, and one of my poems was commended in ‘Sentinel Literary Quarterly’s January 2021 competition, so there have been some real positives in terms of creativity in general. PB: I know you've been working on a second album. Can you tell us a little of what we can expect and when we might expect it? GG: There’s a healthy dose of the euphoric brass of the first album, but I feel sonically this record is more varied, as we’ve got strings and piano led tracks, electronic stompers (I’ve fallen in love with the MicroKORG), all sorts going on. I’m really excited by the places this record goes, it feels freer some how, perhaps slightly more unhinged, or perhaps more in control than ever… The BPM (beats per minute) on this record ranges from 69 to 165, so there are a real variety of vibes and speeds. The record is set for release in the Autumn of this year. PB: You are known for the interesting poetic quality of your lyrics. Have you found that the content or timbre of your songs has changed this last year or so, or were they evolving anyway? GG: I’d like to think they were evolving anyway. It would be a real shame if they weren’t! I feel perhaps I’m being more playful and ambitious with my lyrics, but at the same time more precise too, in my use of imagery. In terms of timbre, mirroring the shifting musical landscape of the record, the lyrics explore more desperately sorrowful states aside from the usual celebration of life. There are songs about falling apart and being put back together, songs about animals and birds trying to make a life for themselves in the city, songs about Van Gogh and Jean Genet, all sorts. PB: Can you tell us a bit about your influences? You've been quoted as having been influenced by poets as well as songwriters? GG: The poet Federico Garcia Lorca is a big influence. The way he uses the abstract freedom of his language strikes at the core of what it means to be exist. I find his approach to writing hugely inspirational, his idea about the ‘poetic fact,’ that the world of a poem can have its own internal logic and doesn’t have to be analogous to reality, the importance ambiguity and mystery in poetry. His poetic essays on ‘Deep Song’ and ‘Theory and Play of the Duende’ have influenced my writing and my approach to life. They are highly recommended reading and are easy to find online, but it’s basically around the fact that greatest creations arise from the struggle with the duende, rather than the flight of the muse. William Blake is also a great hero of mine. I find his poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’ holds a lot of what I love about him and his work. His lines ‘To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,/And Eternity in an hour” have influenced my writing and approach to life, the connection to something transcendent and eternal that is found within ourselves and nature. The way he uses poetry to convey his political and social awareness, his solidarity with all life on this planet, his spirit of dissent and freedom. In terms of musicians and songwriters, since first discovering her at sixteen, Patti Smith has been my biggest influence. She’s influenced me in countless ways, her lyrics, her spirit, the way she performs, her books and essays, the poets I’ve discovered through her, like Rimbaud and Jean Genet. Nina Simone is another big influence, her mix of musical mastery and deep emotion, her fearlessness and unfaltering conviction. I’ve had Nina’ Simone’s ‘Fodder on My Wings’ record on repeat since it was re-released on vinyl last year. Apparently it was her favourite record that she made, and she wrote and arranged all songs on that herself. It’s so joyous and free, deeply personal and a real exploration of emotional states. I also love Leonard Cohen, Ezra Furman and Bob Dylan, and a lot of soul and Motown artists influence our sound too. Some of my favourites are Gladys Knight & The Pips ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’, The Supremes ‘Stoned Love’ and Denise LaSalle’s ‘Trapped by a Thing Called Love’. PB: I've noticed that birds often appear in your lyrics, What do they symbolise to you? GG: That’s a great question. I’m sure it’s something to do with their’s being the oldest song. I think birds are great symbols. they’re very potent in terms of conveying at atmosphere or image that is universally felt and understood. They illuminate ideas and scenes. They’re a link to something eternal, some deeper meaning, vibrating all around us. PB: Before lockdown, you'd been touring Britain with Edwyn Collins and Europe with the Libertines, playing larger venues like Shepherd’s Bush Empire and following in the footsteps of Brel, Piaf and the Stones at the legendary L'Olympia in Paris. How did you find it stepping up onto the bigger stage and seeing your name up in neon lights outside? GG: I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be, but that’s the adrenaline I suppose, running around on stage, howling into the mic, propelled by the Illuminations’ sonic force and the great crowds! They’ve been amazing experiences, some of the best of my life. I remember the Paris date with The Libertines well - it was separate from the rest of the tour, on a Sunday night and we set off early Sunday morning and drove to Paris. I remember pulling up in front of the venue and my jaw dropping when I saw my name up in lights on the front of this legendary building. We played our show and watched the Libertines show, then, as a few of us had places to be on Monday morning, we had to head back to London through the night in the freezing van with no heating, and we missed our crossing which meant an extra three hours shivering in the parked van, but we were all buzzing from the show! We then joined The Libertines for a run of dates in Germany and got to really savour the whole touring experience. PB: The Libertines, let’s say, have a certain exciting, louche, rock 'n' roll reputation. What was it like touring with them. Dd you hang out together? GG: It was great fun touring with them, and their shows were incredible, totally wild, a real exciting urgency. It was such a treat watching them from the side of the stage. We hung out with them backstage. After the Munich show I gave The Libertines a lyric book each. I was really chuffed that the next day when I saw Pete Doherty before the Berlin show, he told me he had been reading my lyrics all day and loved them, and he recited his favourite lines back to me from memory. He’s always been an inspiration, so this was really wonderful. We’ll be doing a collaboration at some point. After the Berlin show me and a couple of the other guys from the band hung out with Pete in his van, he read Antonin Artaud to us in the original French while his dogs ran around, knocking things over. John Hassall is a good friend. He lives in Denmark so I rarely see him, so it was great to hang out with him. PB: You've lived in London, a city of many layers, for much of your life. Does it bring anything to your writing? Do you have any favourite, secret or lesser known places you like in particular? GG: It definitely does. The river, the canal, the nights spent in bars, playing music, strolling or cycling through the city (a lot of my songs seem to take place at night), the poets and musicians, the people I meet in the community at work, all find their way into my songs. There are so many places I love in this city. I live in a housing coop and up until very recently lived at the top of Portobello Road. I absolutely love the area, and it’s been brilliant fun living right at the centre of carnival for four years. I’m partial to a cocktail and have enjoyed many a cocktail at Portobello House, with its art-deco bar and flamboyant foliage, and they’ve usually got a great soul playlist on the go. The Saison Poetry Library on the top floor of the Southbank Centre is one of my favourite spots, it has a copy of every book of poetry that has ever been published in the UK and looks over the Thames. I’m a big fan of the canal, cycling along, watching the birds, and I used to work on the canal boats that run from Camden Town to Little Venice. I love visiting The Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. The statue has some significance for me somehow, a precious innocence, it’s surrounded by birds and the Serpentine gently meanders by. Just beautiful. I wrote a song about it. I’m also fond of a back street in Chinatown called Dansey Place. A few years ago a couple of friends and I spent an afternoon sitting on crates, drinking wine and writing a song called ‘The Children of Dansey Place’, and it’s had a place in my heart since. There are some great music and poetry spots tucked away. I used to perform regularly at Y Tuesday poetry club above the Three Kings in Clerkenwell, and more recently I’d regularly play at The Lantern Society above The Betsy Trotwood, also in Clerkenwell. PB: Cast your mind back to when you first started playing at open mic nights? Are things shaping up in the way you hoped they would? GG: I think things have been building nicely. Everything seemed to be coming together in 2019 with the release of our first album, the tours, the radio play, and we started 2020 with a live session on Cerys Matthews BBC6 Music show, which was a huge highlight as she’s a real hero of mine, so it was pretty gutting when everything was put on hold in Lockdown. The momentum’s picking back up though, and I’m excited for our new album and upcoming shows, so I think we weathered that one. PB: ‘The Discredited Language of Angels’ had a mix of musicians of various styles and experience, from Dexy's to Dexters if you like, Are you sticking with this line-up of Illuminations, and do you want to tell us a little about them and what they bring to the songs? GG: There have been a couple of changes of line up. We still have excellent producer and multi-instrumentalist Sean Read, who has worked with the likes of Dexy’s and Chrissie Hynde, and produced and played on our last record. We collaborate well on arrangements as he gets where I’m coming from musically, the sounds I’m trying to make and why I’m trying to make them that way. He’s full of brilliant ideas, and it’s really impressive the mastery he has over every aspect of the recording process. We’ve still got Jimi Scandal on guitar, who used to play in Dexters. Jimi’s an entirely unique, exceptional guitar player and inspired arranger, a true sonic adventurer. In terms of changes to line up since the last record, we have Ollie Jones of Hackles on drums. He’s a fantastic drummer, tight and concise, and full of flair. He’s very thoughtful too, always has great ideas. And we have Dan Fatel of Real(s) on bass. He adds a great punk rock energy as well as a brilliantly melodic sensibility. He’s a very dynamic player, him and Ollie make a really exciting rhythm section. PB: I don't often see interviews that mention instruments. Have you and the boys got anything new and exciting to play? GG: You’d have to ask Jimi Scandal about his guitars and pedals, but whatever he’s doing is explosive and delicately tasteful all at once. Sean Read is playing a wonderful array of brass - trumpet, saxophone, trombone and French horn. I think the brass is so crucial to the spirit of the music, that soaring guttural wail. A new addition for this record is the Microkorg keyboard. You can make such an incredible array of sounds on that little beast. I love Julian Casablancas’ band the Voidz, and I’ve been using the Microkorg to explore how I can work something of their sonic landscape into my songs. PB: What do you and the band have, Covid permitting, planned by way of live or on-line performances? GG: We’re playing live on Tuesday 22nd June at The Amersham Arms in New Cross, London. Also playing are Jeremy Tuplin and his band - a good friend who is also a regular at music and poetry night the Lantern Society. I'll be putting up a pre-recorded online solo session in the lead up to the album release filmed by cinematographer Loernzo Levrini with sound by Leo Garbutt. On the 14th October we’ll be playing The Palladium with The Boomtown Rats, which is hugely exciting. Watch this space, more dates will be added throughout the UK around the time of the release of our album. PB: Thank you.
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London-based singer-songwriter Gabi Garbutt talks to Steev Burgess about her forthcoming second album, the influence of poetry on her songwriting and touring with the Libertines.
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