Perhaps better known as the iconic singer in The Long Blondes up to their split in 2008. Kate Jackson has spent the interim period dividing her time between making music and painting. Having moved to Rome in 2010, she returned to her hometown of Bury St Edmunds two years ago. Having hooked up with Bernard Butler prior to that, the initial blueprint for her solo debut British Road Movies was already in the offing. Now, having completed the mixing and mastering process, Jackson's long awaited first album is set for release on Friday 20th May.
In her first interview since returning to the UK, DiS sat down with the affable Jackson in a quiet pub in Peterborough where all things from the new record and The Long Blondes to sexism in the music industry and her affinity with Bury are discussed. Words here.
DiS: Was it your initial intention to carry on making music after The Long Blondes split?
Kate Jackson: When The Long Blondes broke up - it was under horrible circumstances so it took a little while to get my head around that - the first thing I did was go and see Geoff (Travis) and the team at Rough Trade. And they wanted me to carry on making music because they really liked what I was doing. So I thought about making a solo record but even then, it was all very uncertain as I'd never written on my own before. Dorian (Cox) was the main songwriter in The Long Blondes so it was completely new territory for me. So Geoff asked me who I'd like to write with and suggested this long list of people. There were some great names on it but the one which really stood out was Bernard Butler. He was also managed by Rough Trade at the time so they got in touch with him, and I got an email later on that day from Bernard saying he would like to work with me. That was the beginning.
DiS: How long ago was this?
Kate Jackson: This was a long time ago. As far back as 2008. Everything always takes much, much longer than you think to sort out. Nothing really happened for about fifteen months. I just started writing on my own which I hadn't done before. I'm not a musician, I'm a lyricist. I write top line melody but I don't play guitar or piano particularly well. So it was a bit daunting having to sit down and come up with something that I could present to Bernard Butler. He's somebody I've admired that much for so long. So I spent a few months just working stuff out on my own. I built a little home studio and wrote 'Lie To Me', which is actually on the album. So that was the very first song I wrote. We recorded it in Edwyn Collins' studio in London. It was just an acoustic song then when I played it. It didn't sound as it sounds now. But Bernard thought it was a good little pop song and advised me to make a couple of changes which I did. He's very encouraging. He added drums and synth strings to begin with then all sorts of other things to make it sound like a pop song.
DiS: Do many of the songs on British Road Movies go back several years? For example, 'Wonder Feeling' which is also on the album came out as a single in 2011.
Kate Jackson: Yeah, that goes back to around the same time. Those were the first two, 'Lie To Me' and 'Wonder Feeling'. 'Wonder Feeling' was written around the time I started writing, although it was Bernard who came up with the original idea for that one, which again was a new thing for me. I went into the studio without even a lyrical idea that day. I was just going to see what happens and try and write from scratch. It felt a little bit like being at stage school! Or how I'd imagine stage school to be like. Bernard was sat playing the piano coming up with chord sequences and I was just sat on a stool next to him. I'd come up with a melody as he was doing that. I'd never done anything like that before and it worked really well. I think sometimes being thrown in at the deep end can bring the very best out of you. It's like playing tennis with someone who's better than you. You tend to improve. I felt like that about writing with Bernard. He made me feel like an equal anyway. He was just brilliant and so easy to work with.
DiS: Was Bernard's influence key in developing the songs from acoustic melodies to how they ended up sounding on the album?
Kate Jackson: No, it was all done together. We'd start off just talking about music. About what we'd been listening to that morning. And that eased us into the actual writing process because it can be something that's a little bit stunted and awkward if you're not relaxed. So he'd start by playing something on the piano and within minutes he'd come up with a verse and chorus. Then he'd say, "What do you think of this?" before I even realised we were actually writing! So we'd record different parts and I'd listen to them through the headphones. Add some more lyrics as everything was written in the studio. It was different to how we used to write with The Long Blondes. Me and Dorian would just write in a practice space but this wasn't like that at all. It was very structured. So that's how the songs came together.
DiS: Does Bernard play on every song on British Road Movies?
Kate Jackson: He does. He plays guitar, piano and synths on every song on the album. The only thing he can't play is the drums. So we had to get someone in to do that.
DiS: How did your band The Wrong Moves come together?
Kate Jackson: They're all my friends but they're also a brilliant bunch of musicians. They're all people I've watched in bands for years. Shannon Hope plays drums. She's also in a band called Horse Party. Seymour Quigley's also in Horse Party. He plays guitar. These are people I've known more than ten years and always admired as musicians. If I was ever going to put another band together these are the people I'd want to be in my band. Reuben Kemp played guitar in the first incarnation of the band but he now plays bass. And that was partly because he'd never played the bass before and wanted to experiment a bit himself. He's an incredibly good guitarist. He makes guitars for a living so it was a bit of a step out of his comfort zone playing bass, but he's enjoying it. They're all just incredibly lovely and I'm really lucky to have them in the band.
DiS: Was British Road Movies written as a concept album? There does seem to be a recurring theme running throughout the record.
Kate Jackson: It didn't start off being that. Because I'd written a lot of the demos a few years back but didn't get chance to finish them off until 2014, it was like listening to the songs through fresh ears again. And that's where writing patterns, themes and ideas started to emerge. They started to come through when I listened to the songs again. Lyrically especially. Which I hadn't noticed first time around. They were all written fairly quickly. So I noticed they all had this theme of home and belonging, searching for something where the road as an image kind of crops up over again in every single song. It felt like a journey where I was driving, searching for something. Trying to escape from somewhere to go somewhere else. There's a narrative that takes place within the transition period, so I thought that could be a theme for the whole album. I was trying to think of a title for it. When I was at University I did my dissertation on Wim Wenders and the Americanisation of Germany and how he wanted to make road movies there. Because he was obsessed with the American road movies genre. And I just thought British Road Movies. There aren't that many because of the very nature and geography of the British Isles. We don't have these huge expanses of space that you have in America. We have to make them comedic if we're going to make a road movie. TV programmes like The Antiques Roadshow. We love those kind of things. Lots of quirky stops along the way down various A roads and B roads. So I thought that's an interesting idea for the album. Because a lot of the songs contain narratives that are set in the British landscape, on the motorway, or homeward bound driving through Suffolk.
DiS: Two of my favourite songs on the album are 'Homeward Bound' and 'Metropolis'. What inspired those?
Kate Jackson: 'Homeward Bound' is my favourite too. It came about more because of the music. Bernard started playing this guitar riff and it just sounded like the kind of song you'd want to put on in the car and drive for miles while listening to it. It brought those images to mind. Driving to St Edmunds from Sheffield every year for as far back as I can remember. Driving round Suffolk and passing the sand dunes and the lighthouses. It just made me think of that Suffolk landscape so much. It's an ode to that rather than being a narrative. It's about longing for home.
DiS: Musically it has a style and sound that can be traced back to the early 1990s. Quintessentially English bands like Pulp or Denim.
Kate Jackson: They're two of my favourite bands. I think 'Homeward Bound' is a very English sounding song. That's probably because of what inspired it. But I think most of our favourite bands are British bands.
DiS: And 'Metropolis'. What's the story behind that one?
Kate Jackson: That one is more of a narrative about London. I was reading a lot of Ian Sinclair and a lot of his writing centres atound looking for an urban landscape. And I'd just moved to London from Sheffield and it was very different to what I'd been used to. London can swallow people up very quickly. So the song came about from being in a place where you have no memory, and I was trying to impose that on London. I wanted to make my own memories and leave my own traces. So when you're walking the streets of London you're leaving your own traces behind rather than following someone else's. So that's pretty much what 'Metropolis' is about.
DiS: There are ten songs on the album. Were there any other songs written and recorded around that time which didn't make it onto the record?
Kate Jackson: There were a few.
DiS: Will they be revisited in the future?
Kate Jackson: Who knows? We wrote in the region of about 16 songs and then I wrote a few others afterwards. One of those songs ('Future City') is still in the live set so we'll be playing it at the Great Escape and on tour in June. There's another song called 'Weightless' which we might also play live and one called 'The Westerlies' which came out of a publishing session. That's another song I really want to record. Hopefully, I'll record some of the songs that didn't make it onto the album with the band and they'll hopefully form the basis of the next EP. But then I want to start writing for the next album.
DiS: The album seems to change moods halfway through from upbeat at the start to quite reflective by the finish. Was that a conscious decision when finalising the tracklisting and running order?
Kate Jackson: Not so much a conscious decision but I do have a thing about tracklistings and running orders. I like that a record can take you on a journey and it does. Musically anyway if not lyrically. It ends in quite a personal place.
DiS: What is the final song on the album ('Velvet Sofa From No. 26') about?
Kate Jackson: My mum and dad broke up when I was one. I don't know my father, so it's about that. It's kind of a letter to him.
DiS: You're putting out the album yourself on Hoo Ha Records via PIAS. Do you think it's important to have a record deal these days?
Kate Jackson: It's not the be all and end all, no. PIAS are great in terms of the distribution aspect but as far as making a record or putting music out it's not that important. What does matter is assembling the right team around you. If you're going to do it there has to be a plan. So we have a press person doing online and print and PIAS doing the distribution side. Communication is also a major part of it so everybody knows what they're meant to be doing. The more people you have in the circle the more difficult it becomes to sort everybody out. I'm learning a lot as I go along.
DiS: You moved away from Sheffield - your home of ten years - after The Long Blondes split. Are there any references to the city on the album?
Kate Jackson: 'The End Of Reason' references a lot of things in Sheffield. Subconsciously, the landscape in Sheffield has influenced me so much more than I realised at the time. It's so different to Bury St Edmunds, which is a very pretty market town. Whereas Sheffield is just lots of concrete structures. When I moved there in 1999 The Moor was just completely boarded up. It's changed now but then it was just this derelict building. Castle Market was still there then but that's being demolished now. A lot of the city is being gentrified which is a real shame. I remember first coming to the city and being overwhelmed by all these tower blocks, all this concrete. You used to walk out of the train station and the first thing you'd see was this multi-storey car park. Now it's been pulled down and replaced with this multi-coloured paved area. Again, that whole area has been regenerated and while it does look beautiful it kind of loses some of its identity in the process. When I first came to Sheffield it was exactly how I'd imagined it to be from listening to Pulp records in my bedroom in Bury St Edmunds. Living there for ten years and watching the city change so drastically has influenced me quite a lot. 'The End Of Reason' was formed by the idea of this society that had too much to lose. Too much reality TV, too much social media. Have you been to Valley Centertainment in Sheffield?
DiS: No I haven't.
Kate Jackson: It's on the tram route from the city centre to Meadowhall. Basically it's an entertainment village. There's no houses or anything. You get off the tram and walk straight into a cinema. There's a bowling alley, restaurants, car parks everywhere. It's massive. There's parking spaces there for literally tens of thousands of people. Me and my boyfriend at the time when I was at University would go there regularly and just have a Mexican cocktail, followed by a bag of popcorn, then a French pastry somewhere else. It's one of those false realities and I think 'The End Of Reason' is about that as well. Being in a false reality.
DiS: Do you see yourself ever returning to Sheffield as a place to settle down in the future?
Kate Jackson: Possibly. I love Sheffield. I still miss Sheffield. If the right circumstances arose I'd definitely consider it. Sheffield is still really cheap to live whereas London is ridiculously expensive. I can't afford London. I don't ever see myself moving there. And to be honest I've never really wanted to. It doesn't inspire me creatively as much as somewhere like Sheffield or Norwich or Berlin.
DiS: Going back to The Long Blondes, do you still keep in touch with the others?
Kate Jackson: All five of us met up last May for the first time in eight years. It was quite nice actually. I thought we'd all be so old having not seen each other for so long but we were all just exactly the same!
DiS: Do you ever see yourselves working together again?
Kate Jackson: We did think about it because this October marks the tenth anniversary of Someone To Drive You Home. Dorian instigated the idea about us doing some shows but in the end it was just too difficult to sort out. We all live at opposite ends of the country and Emma (Chaplin) is training to be a GP and she has hospital placements for six days a week so there's no way she could find the time to travel from Newcastle to Sheffield once a week to practice. It would have just been too much. We always said that we'd only do Long Blondes shows or a reunion tour if it was the five of us. Potentially we could have done that without Emma but it wouldn't have seemed right. It wouldn't be The Long Blondes without her.
DiS: I think Someone To Drive You Home has retained a timeless quality about it that many records released during the same period haven't.
Kate Jackson: I think because The Long Blondes broke up such a long time ago and now people see I've got something coming out of the woodwork there's a few of them going, "I liked The Long Blondes!" I think people had forgotten about us for a while but they're starting to revisit those records now because my name's out there again. It's nice that we're getting some recognition once more, especially the second album Couples which I think was quite underrated at the time.
DiS: I remember it getting several lukewarm reviews at the time.
Kate Jackson: A lot of those reviews seemed to focus on the way we looked rather than our music. They seemed to think we were nothing more than style over substance and all about getting dressed up. Anyway who cares, it doesn't matter now does it!
DiS: What would you say was your proudest achievement with The Long Blondes?
Kate Jackson: There's loads. All the touring was brilliant. Playing on the same stage as Patti Smith at Primavera Sound was really special. There's just so many. All of the radio sessions we did. Getting to tour the States three times. Then just getting to do all the things you dream of doing when you're in a band. We ticked a lot of those off. Not all of them but definitely most.
DiS: You're playing The Great Escape then going on a short tour that finishes at Sheffield's Picturehouse Social on 5th June. Will there be any more festivals or shows later on in the year?
Kate Jackson: I hope so. It's quite difficult because not being signed to a record label we don't have a huge pot of money to go touring. Also, the band members all have proper day jobs so I let them dictate that because it has to fit in around when they can all get time off. Whereas I'm doing this full time so I don't have to think about it quite so much. Also with this record, it's my project. It's not something that was written for a band. So I feel I'm asking quite a lot of the band to support it all of the time. Hopefully we'll end up being in a situation where we write a record together.
DiS: Will you be playing the entire album in your live set?
Kate Jackson: Most of it, yeah. And a couple of other ones which we talked about earlier that we're hoping to go in the studio and record soon.
DiS: You moved to Rome for four years to become a full time artist and painter. Was there ever a point where you considered turning your back on music for good?
Kate Jackson: Yes. Several times. But I always kept coming back to it because it's difficult not to when you've got a laptop full of songs you've written with Bernard Butler waiting to be finished.
DiS: Is the music more of a side project to your work as a painter?
Kate Jackson: No I wouldn't say that. Ideally I'd like to be able to do both in tandem. I think that would give me my dream job. My whole life is just about making my dream jobs happen!
DiS: What made you move back from Rome?
Kate Jackson: I was really homesick. I was craving grey skies and grey concrete. Italy is beautiful but the colours are very different. I like rain and I like cloud. I was probably spending at least six months of the year indoors as it was too hot for me to go outside. You can't really sunbathe in Rome. It's just unbearable. I like wearing polo necks and cords and tights!
DiS: Do you think the same constraints and restrictions still exist for female artists as they did when you first started out with The Long Blondes?
Kate Jackson: It doesn't really change. There's a lot of really brilliant female artists out there but I still don't see many at the top level. I think it needs more female artists that are confrontational rather than the ones who just stand there and look pretty. Questioning why they can't get their music played on the radio in general or represented at festivals. Look at festival line ups. They're all very male dominated. It's really bad. There's plenty of bands out there. Not necessarily female fronted bands but plenty of female musicians in bands.
DiS: Why do you think that is? For example, many booking agents are females so I would have thought that would count for something?
Kate Jackson: I'm not sure if it's down to the booking agents or the promoters? Maybe the promoters should think about the male to female ratios a bit more when booking their line ups. I still think we're at a stage where record labels think having one girl band on the roster is enough so they don't need to sign another one. They've got a female solo artist so they don't really need to market another one. It really is like that. There is no such genre as female. It's not a choice! Why do I as a female have less of a right to make a record than a male does? I don't. There shouldn't be any barriers. But it's that perception at the business level. I certainly didn't go into it thinking that when we started The Long Blondes. It was only when we started getting a little bit of attention that I realised we were being treated differently. We weren't signed for years even though we'd been having lots of good press. Not only were we a female fronted band, we also had two other females playing instruments. One of whom it's fair to say wasn't classically trained and we got absolutely slated for that. I just don't ever see it changing unless something drastic happens.
DiS: You currently host a regular night at Oakes Barn in Bury St Edmunds called The Hoo Ha Record Club. How did that come about?
Kate Jackson: We started it about a year ago in memory of our friend John Holmes, who passed away the year before. He was a massive record collector and he ended up having to sell off all his collection as he was as in a lot of debt. So me, Ken Last and Andy Fawcett came up with the idea of The Hoo Ha Record Club. "Hoo Ha" was John's catchphrase. It comes from the Al Pacino film 'Scent Of A Woman'. John would be sat there with a drink going "Hoo Ha!". So we thought what can we call this DJ night in memory of him? Just call it The Hoo Ha Record Club! We didn't want it to be a normal DJ night because that wouldn't really work in Bury St Edmunds. We've tried to do DJ nights before where you've had an indie night and it's never really taken off. We wanted to do something a bit more inclusive than that, so we set up a Facebook group. Then we set up a theme for each Hoo Ha Club night that could be anything from art and pop to cover versions. The next one is soundtracks and we're also planning to have an EU themed event which will be a kind of anti-Eurovision. It's going to be called 'Making Your Mind Up'. It actually falls around the same time as the European Referendum so the DJs can have politically themed songs or Eurovision themed songs or anti-Eurovision songs that are geographical. So it gets everybody thinking. And then we have 12 DJs over four hours so each DJ gets 20 minutes. No one knows what time they're going to be playing until the night itself. There's no headliners or hierarchy. So let's say if Erol Alkan played The Hoo Ha - which I hope he does one day - he could draw a lot for the seven o'clock slot and that would be it. Once the lots have drawn that's your slot. It doesn't matter what songs you play. That's it! We started off in this tiny upstairs room above a pub. The capacity was just 35. By the second or third Hoo Ha we had 80 people in there! The floor was bouncing up and down. So the landlord said to us there's three regulars sat in the pub downstairs and everybody else is upstairs so maybe you should move it downstairs for the next one? Which we did for Health and Safety reasons. But now it's probably even too big for the downstairs room too.
DiS: Would you ever consider moving it to a different venue?
Kate Jackson: I don't want to move it. Oakes Barn is such a lovely place. We'll just keep on trying to cram as many people in as we can.
DiS: Is there much of a music scene in Bury St Edmunds?
Kate Jackson: Yeah, there's The Hunter Club which is a really great live music venue. Seymour (Quigley) who plays guitar in my band, he runs the Washing Machine nights there. Every other week they have live bands and that's become a really good thing for Bury. There's a really good scene that's emerged from that over the past three years. Bury has a few good bands there now.
DiS: Are there any you'd recommend Drowned In Sound readers should check out?
Kate Jackson: Yeah definitely. There's a band called Gaffa Tape Sandy who are really good. They're in their infancy at the moment. They play this quite punky style of garage rock and have a female bassist who's amazing. There's another band who aren't from Bury but have played there a lot called Superglue. Again they have a great female bass player. There was this incredible bill a few weeks ago where Horse Party headlined and there was a female member in each band. None of the females I know that are in bands look at it as being "women in bands". They're in a band because they want to make music with their mates. That's how they look at it. Why should they have that stigma imposed upon them? As long as they're enjoying themselves and having a good time with their mates why should it matter what gender they are? It doesn't affect the demographic of the audience because there's female members in those bands. Who cares?!?
DiS: What advice would you give to new bands that are just starting out?
Kate Jackson: Try and do as much as you can yourself. Don't rely on a manager too soon because you don't really need one. DIY is still an art form. You really don't need a manager unless it becomes too busy for you to do everything yourself. I don't have a manager at this point in time. It's difficult to retain control if someone else is making decisions and spending money on your behalf. Also, there's not enough thought goes into the process of how bands present themselves. When we started The Long Blondes, Dorian had this vision of how he wanted the band to be and stuck to that. Every single element of the process from the videos to the songs. He didn't put anything online until it was absolutely ready. You can spoil it by giving away too much too soon. Also, when you're at that embryonic stage it's unlikely you'll have many followers. So it's more important to play live and build up your fanbase. It's a tricky thing to manage.
DiS: Getting good shows outside of your hometown is the most difficult part.
Kate Jackson: It's one of the hardest things about being in a new band. I'm very lucky to still have the same agent as we had with The Long Blondes. Otherwise I wouldn't be in a great position to scout out promoters and venues for shows.
DiS: If you had the benefit of hindsight is there anything you'd change about the last thirteen years from being in The Long Blondes to the present day?
Kate Jackson: Everything!
For more information on Kate Jackson including forthcoming releases and live dates visit her official website.