C Duncan interview "I'm obsessed with writing music"
Henry Lewis spoke to the Glaswegian singer-songwriter about the pressures of a Mercury Prize nomination, his increasing live presence and a support slot with Elbow.
Date published: 3rd Jan 2017
A graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, C Duncan's musical education began much earlier as the son of two classical musicians. Initially the viola and piano were Duncan's instruments of choice, before a teenage love affair with metal and grunge helped to place the guitar at the forefront of the budding musician's affections.
By combining his classical education with a dab handed approach to numerous instruments, Duncan's debut album, Architect, was filled with contemporary dream pop sounds and complex choral melodies. This dovetailed with an astute immediacy and shimmering psychedelics to create a debut attempt that was worthy of a Mercury Prize nomination in 2015.
Just over 12 months later and the Glaswegian was back with another new album, The Midnight Sun, which explored more immersive territory and displayed the rich composition skills he possesses, to great effect. As he racks up the albums, Duncan is also adding to his travelling band, whose increase in size has made for an impressive live ambiance. An Independent Venue Week show at Liverpool's O2 Academy on Saturday 28th January comes amidst a wider UK tour, before Duncan and his band support Elbow at some of UK's best known arenas.
We caught up with Christopher as he leaps into 2017 headfirst, with a string of headline shows to look forward to.
Hi Chris, how's it going? Are you looking forward to kicking off your year with a tour?
Yeah, very much so. Particularly because I've not been on tour for about a year now. It's great because we get to explore the country again and see places like say Manchester or, well, all sorts of places. It's a really exciting feeling.
'Other Side' on the new record delves into the idea of escapism, so it would seem that touring really suits you?
Yes, being on the road is a really weird one but it's great because you get to leave your whole life behind and just go away for a month at a time, just going to all these different places. We tend to remember every place but the overall feeling is just freedom in a way. It's hard to adjust to and from that, and being around the same things every day because you get used to seeing so many things when you're touring. So yeah, there is a real kind of escapism on tour.
The new album is great, what has the reaction been like from your point of view?
It's been good, it's generally had good reviews. It's been different from the first record, obviously because the first record was a debut record and people hadn't heard of me before so there was a bit more "ooh let's check this guy out because he's new". With this one it seems like it's going to grow on people. I've read a lot of reviews saying 'sit with it for a few days and listen to it a bit and it'll start to grow on you'. I take that as a compliment and I like that. The first record was a lot more easy going than this record, but I tend to listen to music that you have to sit with for a while before you finally get into it. I guess it's quite different in that respect in terms of reaction.
There's just over a year between your first and second album, is it hardwired into you to be creating music as often as possible?
Yeah that's kind of all I want to do all the time [laughs] so I guess I must be in the right profession. As soon as we get back from touring I'm straight back inside the studio because I'm always recording ideas - I'm obsessed with writing music.
Some have said the new album is more experimental and expansive, was this purposeful in any way?
It wasn't something I thought about when I first started recording it, but as I finished it I thought "ok this is going in a different direction completely" so I started playing around with different things just to see what I could do. That's when I started to push myself to do something quite different from the first record. I was quite keen to have a more acoustic first album, whilst the second is obviously more electronic and much more icy. Ultimately it was a conscious decision to be a bit more experimental and expansive.
Having been Mercury nominated for your debut album, did that give you a confidence to think that people already like what you do, and your work is obviously received well critically?
Totally. It kind of verified what I was doing or validated it if you will. It made me think "this is good, people are enjoying it" and that gives me a reason to carry on. I'd carry on making music anyway but that really gave me a push. Although when I first started the second album I was like "ok the first one was Mercury nominated so I'd best try and make another one that people like" but I got a bit further into recording and thought "well I won't stick to that and let it drag me down, I'll kind of do what I want"
Your parents are classical musicians, was there a lot of different music playing in your house growing up?
A little bit. Obviously there was a lot of classical music playing because they used to play a lot in the house, so there'd always be musicians around and so I just got to listen to so much classical music and often live as well. There'd also be stuff like the Carpenters, ABBA, Simon and Garfunkel, they used to play a lot of that. That's where my love of Burt Bacharach came from - because my parents love anything to do with that sort of very easy going, adult contemporary style of songwriting.
I then started to listen to my own styles of music when I was growing up, so death metal turned into grunge and so on. My parents never tried to steer me back to classical because I'd just listen to what I wanted to anyway. I did then revert back to classical. I got very used to writing classical compositions and that definitely filtered through in my music.
Your band has grown and grown over the last couple of years, do you feel like you have more power on stage now?
When we were first starting off it was just me and we were adding one person at a time. We were really restricted by what you could do on stage because you'd have to leave out some of the other parts. I now have five things that I don't have to worry about. I'm not constantly playing and singing, I'm still singing quite a lot but the parts themselves I can just settle into a bit more now. I don't have to play all the other parts which is very nice and also it's the same for everyone in the band. There's not less to do but you can focus more on the important parts.
Do you feel you can project the sound a lot more to your audience now?
Yeah definitely. We have two synth players on stage now and having that extra instrument just really opens the whole thing up. There's so much more going on, there's so many more songs and because all the people who are in the band are such competent players they really go for it and it's sounding bigger and bigger, which is a lot fun.
Looking further into 2017, you're supporting Elbow on tour in the spring, how did that end up happening?
In the summer we did some Forestry Commission gigs in Sherwood Forest and Dalby Forest with Guy Garvey and he asked us if we would support him when he was touring with Elbow again. From there we've just sort of become pals and he was saying at the time that Elbow were a big fan of my music and the band, and I was like "that's really lovely thank you". Then about two months ago I got an email from his booking agent saying "by the way Elbow are on tour again would you like to come?" and then Guy phoned me about five minutes later to say "can you come on tour with us please?" and we said yeah absolutely, obviously [laughs].
It must be such an exciting feeling knowing you can bring your sound to bigger arenas?
It's going to be great fun. The list of places that we're playing is fantastic so it'll be really fun for us doing a lot shows in bigger places. It's really good for us as a band to get used to that kind of thing but if nothing else it'll be a really fun experience.
And before all that there's the small matter of your own headline tour, is there anything different this time around as you hit the road?
Obviously since expanding the band we tend to play most of the new record now, but also bring back some old tracks. Because we have a fifth member these songs are beginning to sound more like they should on the record. Also, on these upcoming headline tours we're going to lots of places we haven't been before. We've got a few dates in Ireland which is great because we have only ever done Dublin and so there's a few new places which is great.