Interview with Annabel Allum
Annabel Allum does what few artists are prepared to do - she eludes categorization. She meshes together divergent traditions, from reggae to psychedelic rock and everything in between. Her sound is constantly changing, evolving, ebbing and flowing between genres and completely defying all preconceptions.
As well as her eclectic style, Allum’s lyrics are resoundingly bold. Whether unleashing electric tirades against the ills of society, oozing with wit and sarcasm in true punk-fashion or revealing a starkly intimate, vulnerable pathos through her hazy, cathartic vocals, Allum is constantly challenging what it means to be an artist in 21st century England.
Whilst comparisons are often reductive, it is hard to ignore the striking similarity in artistic outlook between Allum and PJ Harvey, who she cites as a significant influence.
Both women are unapologetically unorthodox and ultimately unafraid to untether themselves from the restrictions of convention; like Harvey, Allum’s philosophy resists any form of stasis. Instead, she learns from each deviation; her sonic experiments speak volumes, and her raw, undeniable talent isn't going unnoticed.
She has gone from strength to strength, with ‘Rich Backgrounds’ catapulting her to critical acclaim and an appearance at SXSW to boot. With an upcoming EP and performances scheduled at Reading and Boardmasters, it promises to be a sensational 2018 for Allum.
PHASER had the pleasure to chat with Annabel about her music, philosophy and how life is too short not to live in the moment.
How would you describe your sound?
Well… I play with a band and I play solo. When I’m on my own it’s kind of like spoken and intimate, but when I play with the band it’s more grunge.
Tell me about your influences?
When I write it’s just guitar and my voice, that’s how the songs originally come out, then when I get the band involved the sound develops, and it becomes fuller. Influence-wise, I listen to everything, from reggae to rock ’n’ roll to 80s psychedelic stuff. I listen to everything. I’m not one of those people who say ‘oh I want to make this kind of music so that’s all I’m going to listen to’. But in terms of influences, obviously an artist like PJ Harvey.
By not trying to box yourself in with genre, do you have more freedom in the songwriting process?
Sometimes it makes it more free, but sometimes it gives you too many options. When I’m in the studio I think this song is going to be a certain kind of track, but because I’m not defining myself by genre it could come out completely different to what I thought it was going to be. So it has its pros and cons, but that’s what it’s about.
Have there been any pivotal experiences that have helped to shape your career?
I don't think there’s been a specific point, it’s been a journey, it’s just every time I write I try and do something different. So I don't think there’s been a pivotal point where I felt I’d found my sound.
With every release I like to try something different, and really the only thing that glues my releases together is the fact that it’s my voice, but the music and instrumentation changes. I want that to continue, I want to continue to develop and be experimental with the stuff I write.
Can you tell me a bit about your life before you started making music?
I struggled at school. I didn't feel like I fitted in, so my release was that I’d go home and listen to all these emo bands and I would get Kerrang! magazine every Wednesday. Going to school where everything was so regimented - I naturally rebelled against that, and I think I started writing my own songs as a release.
Surrey is very money orientated and everyone has their opinions and their beliefs - which is fine, everyone’s entitled to them. But yeah I could have gone two ways, I could have joined it or I could’ve done what I’m doing now, which is using it to fuel my fire, taking negative experiences and making them into something creative.
I think that people who are more inclined to be creative get forced down this route of being a certain way and fitting in, then you grow up you realize ‘actually I don’t need to be like that’…. Yeah, it’s an interesting way of growing up.
If you could travel back in time and give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
I think you’ve just gotta do it! The only thing that’s going to stop you doing what you want is you, and that’s a big thing I learnt. There’s always going to be people who don’t like what you’re doing or have something to say, but at the end of the day, if you’re doing what makes you happy and what makes you feel fulfilled then you’re going to live a life of luxury. Whether that’s money or not, you know what I mean, you’re doing what you want. I just think life’s too short, you’ve got to get on with it, if you never try, you never know
When did you figure out that that’s the way you do it?
Err…I can’t think exactly when that mindset came. But I dropped out of college, that was it, ‘I don't know what I’m going to do, I can’t stand A-levels, I can't do this, all I want to do is music’. I remember just having a conversation with myself, thinking ‘if I’m going to do music, it’s all or nothing, I can’t do this half-heartedly or I’ll never get there. If I’m going to take this leap, I need to give it everything’.
So if you’re prepared to graft, will the success come?
Yeah, I’m a strong believer in the concept that what you put in is what you get out. Of course there’s some bands that have a bunch of money and can pay for expensive PR and pay their way, but they're always the bands that have one album and then they vanish. Something I really want is longevity in my career and I build strong relationships with my team and the people I work with, we hang out, it’s not just work, we make time to go for a pint. What you give is what you get, and be grateful and be humble, enjoy what you do.
Let’s talk music. What were the feelings behind ‘Rascal’?
It was one of those songs that just kind of fell out, I think I wrote it in one day and didn't really go back to it. The chord progressions are all quite consistent. So it’s very simple, basically because the lyrics and the message are the most important things going on. There’s a lot of different themes, but mainly it’s about trying to please everyone and not feeling like you can. It’s learning to be ok with that. And that’s one of the biggest things I struggle with on a personal level. I try to please everyone, I’m always worried about other people’s feelings, rather than thinking ‘I have this much energy and I can’t necessarily put it all into the world, I have to save some of it for myself as well’. I guess it’s about that.
“There’s always going to be people who don’t like what you’re doing or have something to say, but at the end of the day, if you’re doing what makes you happy and what makes you feel fulfilled then you’re going to live a life of luxury.”
Ok, so 'Rascal' was written pretty spontaneously then, is that how you normally write songs?
It differs, because normally something is brewing and I’ll just have a noodle on my guitar until something happens. That’s normally the raw element of the writing. But recently I’ve been doing more on the computer and using things like Logic and Garage Band. Starting from the bottom, laying down drums, then bass, layering and layering. And then the final thing has been the lyrics. I don't like to stick to one style of writing, I like to keep challenging myself. I wouldn't say there’s one particular way of writing.
Are there times when you hit a brick wall with your writing? How do you overcome it?
If I am feeling a block, I get involved with my friends and just jam. Just try and be creative somehow, it doesn't necessarily have to be writing a song. I might just go and paint or do some drawing or go for a walk, do some reading. It’s important to not become anal about writing songs. You’ve got to keep it free, otherwise you’ll just write songs about going to parties.
Moving onto your song ‘Rich Backgrounds’, what was the story behind it, and what does it mean to you now?
When I wrote it, I was living in a house with my friends, we were all musicians and struggling to pay bills, trying to get by. But we were adamant about what we were doing: making music. We knew a lot of musicians and bands, more just because they had money or their parents had money, and that was irritating to watch. Bands that hadn't been playing for a long time and they'd just pop out nowhere whilst we felt we’d been working for years and not getting anywhere. The song came out when I was quite pissed and was more of a joke. It came out and people liked it.
But now I don't play it live as much - I think it offends people. Which is fine, I’m ok offending people. But I think people get the wrong idea, that I genuinely hate rich people. Obviously I don’t, many of my friends are well off.
Ok, it’s more about the attitude of entitlement that often comes with wealth?
It’s frustrating. The difficult thing is that these people don't realise how lucky they are, and they may think that they do, but they will never understand how hard it is to hustle, and not having people behind you saying ‘go on do it and here’s x amount to do it’. I know money isn't the be all and end all, but my god, it is a bizarre concept.
One thing that really seems to be unique to you is that you’re branching out into other creative fields- tell me about how you’ve ended up designing your own clothing.
All I want to do with life is be creative, and if that’s in one medium or another that’s a privilege. I will never stop writing music obviously, but it’s fun to design my own t-shirts and challenge myself to learn new skills, like photoshop and drawing. A lot of it is that I can't afford to pay someone to do it, so naturally I’ve taught myself to do these things. So I do my own graphics, I’ve built my own website, because I don't see the point paying someone when I can do it myself. It’s nicer for the people buying them to know that, it's more personal than just sending off an idea to some graphic designer in an office. I guess it makes me feel better about taking people’s money.
You’ve got a really exciting summer lined up, with Boardmasters and Reading. What does the future hold for you?
It’s a big summer, there’s a lot of festivals coming up. The main thing is to keep the ball rolling really. I’ve got another EP coming out at the end of May, and I’m writing songs at the moment, I’m looking to get back into the studio… keep releasing, keep playing shows, that’s the plan.
And finally, if you could change just one thing about the world, what would it be?
Probably just get rid of money to be honest!
Cheers for talking to me, and all the best for the future!
Annabel Allum’s EP is set to be released later this month.