She has played synthpop with Saloon and folk rock with The Left Outsides, but Alison Cotton‘s new solo album enters more experimental territory, evoking the beautifully bleak heritage of her native North East

“A distant relative of mine, Helen Hughes, was a world- famous spiritualist,” begins Alison Cotton. “Apparently, when she was a kid in bed, she’d be talking all the time to the ‘other people’ in the room. She was from Seaham in County Durham, and she helped bring about the abolition of the Witchcraft Act in the 1950s.”

As a summation of an artist’s ethos and inspirations, this story is difficult to beat. A sense of supernatural otherness has long since lingered over Cotton’s musical explorations, both in the unearthly acid folk of The Left Outsides, a duo formed with her husband Mark Nicholas, and in a series of increasingly experimental solo albums.

The doughty harbour town of Seaham stands resolute against the wild winds and waves of the North Sea on an exposed stretch of County Durham shoreline. Once a bastion of two traditional local industries – mining and fishing – its tragic history is woven into the haunting drones of Cotton’s new album, ‘The Portrait You Painted Of Me’.

“Almost every year of my life I’ve been back in Sunderland for Christmas,” she tells me, her lilting accent still proudly prominent. “But in December 2020, lockdown was called at the last minute. I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands, so I decided to spend it recording. When I picked up the viola, I immediately started thinking about the North East and I was really homesick.”

It’s over 25 years since Alison Cotton left her native North East, but being unexpectedly separated from the windswept landscapes of Wearside has inspired an exquisitely melancholic album, featuring funereal viola, wordless harmonies and mournful experimentation.

“I was thinking particularly about mining,” she says. “I wanted to create a subterranean sound, to feel like I was going down that tunnel myself. And, as I was playing, I really felt like I was trapped. I had tears streaming down my face.”

The track, ‘That Tunnel Underground Seemed Neverending’, perfectly captures the opaque oppression of the colliery pit.

“On my mam’s side of the family, a lot of the men were miners. None are alive anymore, but when I was growing up they told me stories. My uncle died from emphysema as a result of working down the mines.”

On the other side of the industrial divide, ‘17th November 1962’ references a date ingrained into the maritime folk memory of a generation of Wearsiders. At 4.10pm on that day, the lifeboat George Elmy was launched into a howling gale to aid the crew of a stranded fishing vessel, The Economy. Five fishermen were rescued but, met with 12-foot waves at the entrance to Seaham harbour, the lifeboat capsized. Of the 10 people on board, only 32-year-old Donald Burrell survived. Among the victims was his nine-year-old son, David.

“I always remember being in Seaham when I was a kid, standing one afternoon looking out to sea with my mam,” says Cotton. “And she told me that story. She’s a good storyteller – so descriptive. She was a teenager living in Seaham when it happened, and it affected the whole community. The sea in the North East is so different from the sea in any other part of the country. It’s so rough, so bleak. Very real.”

Like many families in this part of the country, the Cottons sought salvation in the spiritual. ‘The Portrait You Painted Of Me’ has the spacey echo of church cloisters, and on the opening track, ‘Murmurations Over The Moor’, the multitracking of Cotton’s voice adopts distinctly choral qualities.

“I was brought up Church of England,” she says. “But I went to a Catholic School – St Anthony’s in Sunderland – and I’ve always loved church music. I grew up listening to a lot of sacred music composers like Monteverdi, Arvo Pärt, Da Palestrina.

“My dad was a strict Methodist, and my mam is still religious. She took me to St Nicholas church in Sunderland every week, and I’d wear a robe and serve bread and wine to the congregation. But it was time to stop once I started going out on a Saturday night. It didn’t feel right to do it hungover on a Sunday morning.”

Her parents were both English teachers who met as students at Durham University. So was Cotton’s childhood home a repository of classic literature? Were there musty Penguin books on every wall?

“There still are!” she smiles. “I loved the Brontës and Charles Dickens. Reading those books at the age of 14 really influenced the things I see when I’m playing music now. You’re quite impressionable at that age, and full scenes have stayed in my head.”

Her music, I suggest, shares the doomed romantic yearning of 19th century literature. ‘Violet May’, the only traditional lyric on the album, was inspired by a visit to Sissinghurst Castle, once home to Vita Sackville-West.

“There was something about the tower where she wrote,” explains Cotton. “I was really inspired by it. But the song isn’t based on her at all. Violet May is a character I created, a reclusive artist with all her work kept in that tower. It’s a fairy tale. Her best friend is waiting outside, desperately wanting to see her again. She sends her letters, telling her how the garden has become completely overgrown.”

Photo: Al Overdrive

The viola, then? Not an obvious instrument for someone growing up in 1980s Sunderland.

“I was seven and I wanted to play the violin,” she explains. “So we had to queue up outside the school instrument cupboard. I was very shy and always at the back, and by the time I got to the front, there were only violas left. I didn’t even know what they were, but I took one, and I’m so pleased that I did.

“I ended up in the school orchestra, then the local junior orchestra, then the youth orchestra. Sunderland Music Authority were brilliant – we toured France, playing in cathedrals and town halls with champagne receptions! Although I was probably drinking orange juice at the time.”

Then it was back home to the Sunderland Empire for a collaboration that will leave a generation of middle-aged TV geeks consumed with jealousy.

“A performance with Tom Baker!” she laughs. “He was narrating ‘The Snowman’, and we were accompanying him. I remember eating chips by the stage door on a break, when Tom came over and started chatting to me and my friend, wearing his scarf and nicking chips from our bags. He was lovely and had so much time for everyone. This was probably about 1986. I’ve looked online, but I can’t find anything about it.”

Neither can I. And, bloody hell, I know my way around a fair bit of ‘Doctor Who’ minutiae. Can anyone help, please? Meanwhile, as those difficult teenage years progressed, Cotton found her tastes taking a turn towards the distinctly alternative.

“I started going to see bands when I was about 15,” she recalls. “One of my first gigs was the Rollercoaster Tour at Whitley Bay Ice Rink – so I saw The Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. That was a big part of growing up for me. I really looked up to bands, although I always thought I was too shy and lacking in confidence to ever do it myself.”

Nevertheless, in her first weeks at Reading University in 1995, she played a part in the foundation of one of the 21st century’s most durable indie outfits.

“I was playing in the university orchestra,” she explains. “Then I saw an advert on the noticeboard looking for people to help put a band together. I thought, ‘I can’t be in the band, but I’d like to meet this person’, because music was the most important thing in my life, and I still didn’t know anyone who was into the same bands as me. It turned out to be Martin Noble, who lived in my halls, and I ended up going along to rehearsals with my viola.”

Thus were heard the earliest stirrings of British Sea Power.

“We were called British Air Powers at the time,” she continues. “It was just playing for a laugh at first, then Neil and Woody joined, and we entered the Battle Of The Bands at the Student Union. It was really good fun. We started playing in venues like Alleycat in Reading town centre. Then Adam and Mike from Saloon came to one of those gigs.”

I interviewed Adam Cresswell from Saloon for Issue 89, I tell her. Cresswell recalled seeing her in 1997 and headhunting her to join his new band.

“I was so naive,” she sighs. “I didn’t realise that you could be in more than one band at a time. Everything had to so be regimented with me. I obviously don’t regret being in Saloon – it was great. But I could have done both. ”

Seven years making quirky synthpop is an unlikely adjunct to a musical career now infused with both austere folk tradition and sonic experimentation. In Saloon publicity pictures, Cotton looks characteristically bashful – a spectral presence at the back of gritty, monochrome shots. The band themselves perpetually hovered on the brink of commercial success. In 2002, ‘Girls Are The New Boys’ topped John Peel’s annual Festive 50 countdown, albeit amid accusations of vote rigging that Cresswell claims ultimately broke the group’s spirit. With Saloon in disarray, Cotton retreated to home life with her husband Mark, her partner since those first faltering months at Reading.

“It wasn’t fun anymore,” she agrees. “Although I’ve heard more about it since it happened than I did at the time. After Saloon split up, we started writing songs together, but I didn’t think I’d ever be able to sing them live. Then Mark joined a band called The Eighteenth Day Of May, and I went to their first gig at the Freemason’s Hall in London. I was totally blown away. I thought, ‘OK, maybe I could actually join and just not do much!’. I went straight into recording the album, then started playing live with them. We did so much in such a short space of time. We played South By Southwest, and we supported Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Buck.”

The band’s self-titled 2005 album (and, sadly, their only one) is a criminally neglected folk rock classic. Metaphorically speaking, The Eighteenth Day Of May barely limped into June, although four members – including Cotton, Mark, Karl Sabino and trad folk obsessive Ben Phillipson – went on to form Trimdon Grange Explosion, a psych folk band named after a coal mining disaster in February 1882, when 74 men and boys lost their lives in a gas explosion at the Trimdon Grange Colliery. So, another musical project inspired by a Country Durham industrial tragedy? 

“I hadn’t even thought about that!” she exclaims. “We just wanted to carry on playing folk music together, and Ben loved the song ‘The Trimdon Grange Explosion’. It was written just after the disaster by Tommy Armstrong, who was known locally as The Pitman Poet. Ben asked me if I’d like to sing it live, which was something still quite new to me.”

With Trimdon Grange Explosion still a going concern and The Left Outsides preparing to record their seventh album, those confidence issues are now firmly behind her, and Cotton has become a focal point for both bands. But it’s perhaps her solo work that most effectively embodies the dark otherness of her home. Those mournful, manipulated viola recitals reek of the melancholia of the North East – the desolate streets of once-thriving pit villages still struggling to find purpose in a post-coal world.

We’ve gone around the (red-brick, terraced) houses this afternoon and covered some decidedly dark material. Go on, I say – tell me something frothy to finish. Tell me the most un-Alison Cotton Alison Cotton fact imaginable. She smiles mischievously.

“In 2006, I joined British Sea Power again for the John Betjeman Gala at the Prince Of Wales Theatre in London,” she confides. “It was an incredible, star-studded event. I did my make-up with Joanna Lumley. We were just using the mirrors in the toilets and she befriended me! Then everyone had to go on stage at the end to sing together in front of Charles and Camilla.

“There was Hugh Grant, Barry Humphries, Stephen Fry… it was amazing. Joanna was standing with Nick Cave, and I was lurking behind them, not knowing whether to join in or not. All I could see around me were celebrities. Then they turned around and beckoned me over. Joanna said, ‘Come and sing with us!’. So I was in the middle of them, sharing a song sheet.”

And before we say goodbye, I have to ask – is the spiritualism a family trait? Can she see “beyond the veil” as well? She laughs.

“Well, a lot of people say I’m psychic. I’ll be thinking about someone and then they’ll text me. It happens all the time.”

She may not be imbued with the all the mediumship gifts of her illustrious ancestor, but Alison Cotton creates her own distinct brand of strange magic.

‘The Portrait You Painted Of Me’ is out on Rocket Recordings

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