Charlotte Church has been one of the biggest names in UK music since being discovered, aged just eleven, on breakfast television in 1997. Her debut album Voice Of An Angel, went double platinum in both the UK and United States upon release the following year. Since then she's released five more albums and four EPs, each time reinventing herself musically along the way. Anyone fortunate enough to have witnessed her current live set at the Stewart Lee curated ATP in March, Glastonbury in June or last weekend's Green Man festivals will concur when we say Charlotte Church's Late Night Pop Dungeon is one of the most exciting live shows around at this moment in time. Church is also a strongly opinionated role model in an industry that still houses gender divisions while also understandably harbouring reservations about certain aspects of the media.
In a rare interview, DiS caught up with the Cardiff-born singer/songwriter and found her only to willing to discuss the origins of her Pop Dungeon, future recording plans, the current political landscape and misogyny that's still prevalent in society.
DiS: Did you enjoy playing Green Man last weekend?
Charlotte Church: I absolutely loved it. It's my total favourite. I've been to so many festivals this year and Green Man felt weird this year, like going back to my old primary school! You feel huge and everything around you feels really small and you can't actually remember it being so small. So on Thursday I thought this is really small but by the end it absolutely smacked all the other festivals.
Who were your highlights?
Do you know what, I didn't get to see that many people. On Saturday I had the kids with me then on Sunday I had to clear off for a bit as my dad wasn't very well but I saw Meilyr Jones' set in the Walled Garden which was amazing. And Kiran Leonard before him who was phenomenal. So those two were great. We watched a little bit of Kamasi Washington on Friday which was phenomenal and I've got The Epic on vinyl which is a big hit in our house anyway. I missed Unknown Mortal Orchestra which I was gutted about. I absolutely love them. I've seen them a couple of times and my friend saw them and said they were the best thing he saw. I just had such a ball at Green Man in terms of everything else this year.
It is one of those festivals where you can watch very few bands and still have a great time
Totally. I didn't think there was much that could tap last year's line-up. It was insane! I got to see St Vincent on the Sunday night which was literally religious, but I really enjoyed it this year. To perform there this year as well was absolutely tremendous.
The responses to your Late Night Pop Dungeon sets at ATP, Glastonbury and Green Man have been phenomenal. Are you surprised how much people seem to enjoy it and ultimately keep coming back for more?
Not really. Green Man was only the third time we've done it, ATP being the first. Basically I did a weird comedy thing a couple of years ago. I got hold of Stewart Lee's management's email and sent them this weird comedy pilot I'd just done. I asked if Stewart could watch it and give me some pointers, told them he was absolutely amazing and said I wanted to be his friend. So he wrote me an amazing email back just being really supportive. He gave me a few pointers and made me aware of the politics involved between different TV channels. Then when he got asked to curate ATP he contacted me about doing something. And I was like, ATP! Wow, that's pretty cool! I didn't know what to do for ATP and then we came up with this idea for Pop Dungeon. There was a lot of free jazz and post punk that Stewart curated so I think we were such a light relief that people went nuts for it. The same thing happened at Glastonbury and this weekend at Green Man. At first I thought, Oh God, have I pushed it too far this time and it was amazing! It's been an amazing thing and I think maybe in the complex, slightly diabolical, political times that we're living in post-Brexit world... I think people need to feel the joy and feel the love. Have everything really simple and joyful again in terms of music and a kicking band. Loads of backing singers and just tunes that remind you of different periods of your life. We're really careful about the setlist. We try and adapt it for each gig. I try and make it so we're not like a wedding function band. That's the last thing I'd want us to sound like, no offence to wedding function bands. They're awesome and they serve their purpose beautifully but we're trying to do something a little bit different that's more dungeonesque I suppose.
How many songs do you have in your repertoire?
After this weekend's gig we probably have an extra ten songs. We'll keep experimenting for each gig with different tunes. Everybody gets a say in what they think we should have a go at at the next rehearsal. Some of them immediately work and some of them you think will really work don't. It's great when we all get together. We just have an absolute ball so it's joyful all the way round.
How did the band come together?
Basically, Robbie who plays keys, Dave who plays drums and Johnny on guitar have been with me since I started doing the EPs. Dave and Johnny have been there all the way through and Robbie joined on EP3. So we've been working together for a good few years now. Then our bassist couldn't do one of the gigs and we've known Gaz for years so he stepped in. He's a great bass player and a brilliant person. He plays in this amazing psych rock band called Asteroid Deluxe. All of the backing singers are people I know from in and around Cardiff. We did a production called 'The Last Mermaid' with some of them so I guess it is all a bit higgledy-piggledy but then that's the whole point!
Will you be touring the Pop Dungeon show at any point?
We've got a couple more shows lined up this year so maybe there'll be a tour at some point? I'm booking everything myself now so it would be a lot of hard work to organise a tour. We're playing a show at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on 23rd September as part of the Celts Exhibition. Neu Reekie are putting that on. Then we're supporting Ezra Furman on Halloween at the Roundhouse in London. We're also doing a Rabbit Hole gig at the Roundhouse on 10th September. That's it for now. I'm a little bit reticent. It's so much fun and going really well, but at the same it's not what I want to do. Other people have shoehorned me into a certain thing or boxed me into corners so I'm quite aware of not doing that again. But it is a phenomenal amount of fun so I think we'll do it for a little bit, but I don't want to flog it til it's dead.
Having been at Focus Wales earlier this summer as well as Green Man I was gobsmacked at just how many great Welsh bands there are at the minute. It seems to be a real hotbed for new talent
There's a lot of good stuff coming out of Wales. Again, Meilyr Jones really is a special talent. No disrespect to anybody else but everything about him from his lyrics to the live performance are so beautiful. I haven't seen as many new artists recently as I'd have liked to. Basically, doing 'The Last Mermaid' for the Festival Of Voice in Cardiff broke my back. It was proper amazing, real immersive theatre. Which is exciting but also a lot of hard work. Between that I've tried to strike a balance between being a mum and an artist. My kids are home schooled as well so it's a lot to juggle but I'm getting there.
In terms of your own material, you've not released any new music since the FOUR EP two years ago. Are there any plans to put out a follow-up?
Yeah. I did a series of four EPs which was actually meant to be five EPs. My main collaborator is my partner Jonathan Powell. He's guitarist in the band as well. Basically I was self-releasing everything. I turned my garage into a studio so was doing everything from there. And it just got a bit much really. We ended up trying to kill each other, so we decided it was probably best to have a break for a little bit. My next batch of recordings will hopefully be a proper album, but that could take a while because I want to make it like the most collaborative thing ever.
What influenced the songs on your EPs? For example, 'I Can Dream' from the third EP reminded me of the Cocteau Twins.
Yeah yeah yeah! There's a lot of different influences, which was part of what I loved about making those EPs but also might have been a problem in terms of cohesion. I thought the sound was unique but parts of it did lack cohesion. So I think I need to be a bit more decisive in the future about what I want to do. I suppose being classically trained when I was younger means I can get my voice to sing in a lot of different ways. But then there comes a time when you've got to make a decision about what you want to be. How you want things to sound. For example, I absolutely love Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens and Bjork. And they've all created music that sounds completely different to anything else which is something I'd like to do too.
You've literally sold millions of records since starting out in the late nineties and changed musical styles several times in the process. Do you think many of the fans that bought Voice Of An Angel will get what you're doing now?
I dunno. I did do a couple of UK tours around the toilet circuit when the band first got together. When we started playing them we'd get all sorts of people turn up. There'd be people who bought Voice Of An Angel, then people that were into the pop stuff like 'Crazy Chick' and obviously nothing like either of those two records would be in the set! So people were shocked. We had a couple that walked out and also people who were quite elderly that were bringing in their oxygen. Which was wonderful. It was really heartening that we had the opportunity to expose to something completely different from what they expected. So we did have a lot of people get on board too. There's loads of different things I want to do and luckily for me, some of those seem to be coming to fruition. I've spent most of my life as a recording artist having to answer to major record labels so it's nice to be doing things on my own terms now. Basically, I haven't got a manager or a PR. I do it all myself. So when I want to work with somebody I go on the internet, search for their contact details and send them an email. It can be time consuming and maybe slightly controlling to a point but I'm really enjoying it. I have no one trying to telling me who I should be, what I should be or whether it's commercially viable or whatever. I've been in that world and it's complete bullshit and I have no interest in doing that any more. But then it's also thanks to my "previous life" musically that I got to be in that position. I can't hate on it to much because it gave me the opportunity to be who I am now.
You've been in the music industry for nearly 20 years now. Have you seen any improvements in the way female artists are treated over that time?
I think there are so many issues around what it is being a woman in the world today. Whether it's in the music industry, any of the creative arts or just life in general. We saw it earlier today with the woman in the burkini in France. It's shocking that this underlying gender divide hasn't changed. I think things are getting better but there are so many underlying issues of misogyny. It's a different sort of oppression. Things are definitely getting better. I mean, if you look at the statistics over the past few years women are reigning supreme in the music industry. It's just different now because we have the internet, so you can pick up on every little thing. Which is a good thing in some ways but also means there's too much information, and it's not possible to take it all in as a human being then digest and understand it. Get a clear view of the world. I suppose everybody has their own area of expertise so I guess they should really focus on that.
One of the good things about the internet - and you've alluded to this already - is that it's helped break down barriers between the artist and the consumer.
Absolutely, and I think that can only be a good thing. We've just got to figure out how we use that. I only really started using the internet four years ago. I did have a Twitter account but it wasn't me that ran it. So I'm quite a new user of the internet in general. Even with emails I was a real latecomer. So it's been a joy seeing how you can connect with so many different people. You can connect with your fans, find out how long they've been with you for. Just get in touch with so many people. It was a godsend when we were doing 'The Last Mermaid' project. Just finding artists to work with like Matt Miller who did the illustrations for 'The Last Mermaid'. Little things like that. It's just learning how to obtain this information then use it to your advantage that's the hard part. And then in the meantime bring down these horrible corporations that do nothing for our system other than make us suffer to the man.
With so many artists taking a similar route to you in terms of taking a DIY rather than corporate stance, do you see any parallels with the present day and the punk rock era of the late 1970s? Especially with the political climate being so similar too.
I suppose so. I wasn't born then so can only look back through the annals of history and try to imagine what it was like. I don't know how much control artists had back then in terms of self-releasing and stuff. I still think the major record companies reigned supreme. You might have had people making their own art but it was still sold by large corporations. The best analysis of the social or political climate of any era can be determined by the lyrical content of the day, which is wonderful. I've been getting into that for quite some time now. Stockpiled loads of love songs and gone down the other route instead. I think it's fair to say that humanity has got a lot of the love songs covered! Maybe it's time to move on and talk about what it is to be human? I'm hoping that when I do an album my idea is it will be called V...
Sticking two fingers up to the man?
Sticking two fingers up to the man but also because it will be called FIVE after the four EPs. Essentially it will be my fifth record with the band and be about all things woman. And that doesn't necessarily mean it will be a feminist statement. It will just be all things woman. However that comes out. But I haven't even started making it yet.
As a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn during last year's Labour Party leadership campaign, will you be backing him this time around? What do you make of the Labour Party PLP seemingly changing the rules of democracy to suit themselves?
Do you know what, my head is a shed with it to be honest, and after Brexit I've been so politically disenfranchised and I've yet to get my mojo back to be honest. There's so much misinformation flying about I don't know what to think. It's like the whole train seat thing. That just looks like a set up to me. Or at least that's what I thought when I first saw it but then I thought oh well, what does it matter anyway? He's the leader of the opposition making a point about fucking trains. I've been on trains many times where there's been no seats on a Friday night when I've come back from London so he's making a point. What does it matter? So for that to be a top news story is shocking. But then I don't really know what to think at the moment. There are so many different stories flying around about John McDonnell being a bully and Jeremy Corbyn not backing his MPs and I don't believe any of that. It's mostly bullshit and Jeremy Corbyn is the person whose ideals I mostly agree with out of all the politicians that I've ever known. There's so much propaganda I'm reserving judgment. I've never been a member of any party but would vote for Labour at the next general election if Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Although I'm not sure I could say the same if Owen Smith gets elected. He's fucking useless. A complete tool.
I think the biggest worry is Labour believes it can only become electable by becoming a less aggressive version of the Conservative Party and were Smith to be elected that would almost certainly happen.
Exactly. I think that too, and maybe when things die down a bit I'll get more involved but at the moment it's such a shower of shit I don't want to be anywhere near it. That might sound quite selfish but when you do get involved people get really heavy because it's politics and people care. So if I'm going to get involved I need to be sure, and at the moment I'm just not. Political reality is becoming obscured for me and I can't find a way through it. There's so much misinformation. So many friends that I've known for years who were on Jeremy Corbyn's side but are now actively against him and I think they should step back a bit. You don't know what's going on here.
You are one of the few artists and musicians in the present day that does have opinions and rarely sits on the fence. Why do you think there is so much apathy among your peers?
I'm sure they do have opinions. When I was on a major label and part of the machine I was always told don't talk about politics, don't talk about religion as there are people buying your records of varying political and varying religious beliefs. Do yourself a favour and don't open your mouth about that stuff. I think that still goes off and people in the music industry are scared to talk about things they believe in because there is so much vitriol out there. For me it's just water off a duck's back! I don't really care about name calling. Twitter can't hurt me as much as the News Of The World did back in the day.
After having that happened with your phone being hacked and the Leveson Inquiry do you still trust the media?
Do I trust the media? I trust people. And the media's made up of people. It's just about each individual really. The media as a whole? No not necessarily. When I want to know what's happening in the world I might go to varying different sources. I totally trust individuals who seem alright on face value. I wouldn't trust anybody who works for News International or the Mail or the Express. But I'm not distrustful of anyone that works in the media because that would be very unreasonable.
What advice would you give to a new band or artist that's just starting out?
Unfortunately nowadays you can't put all of your eggs in one basket, so it might be best to have something else going on as well so you can live. If you want to live the penniless artist lifestyle for a couple of years, be bohemian as fuck for a couple of years then do it if you wish. But times are much harder now than they were back in the day. Then, if you were a brilliant songwriter or performer and all of the magic just happened that would get you through. Nowadays it doesn't. Robbie our keys player has a band called Delta Autumn. They're based in Birmingham and play this awesome future jazz yet he spends most of his time sending off reams and reams of emails asking for shows or just trying to get people to listen to their music. So you've got to be prepared. You've got to have some initiative. Figure out how the press works, figure out how radio pluggers work, figure out how the marketing side works, find a gimmick. Do your Gypsy Rose Lee, you've got to have a gimmick! And figure out your own aesthetic. Something that's immediately identifiable as being you. I guess what I'm saying is you need to do as much as you can for yourself really and try to make it work because the market is saturated at the moment. There's so much incredible music out there at the moment that very few people have heard. Some amazing music going on. I heard this amazing track on soundcloud the other day by an artist called serpentwithfeet. In fact, he's just released another single today and he's amazing!
For more information on Charlotte Church visit her official website.