Unashamedly pop for pop’s sake, ‘Flock’ is the album that songwriter, composer and “sound carrier” Jane Weaver has always wanted to make

Well, this is refreshing. Let’s be clear, while no offence is intended to anyone who has recently based their latest album around transmissions from outer space, ecological disaster or the life cycle of the gnat, it’s a rather nice change to discover that Jane Weaver’s new release, ‘Flock’, is a wholly concept-free affair.

“This is definitely different,” she tells us from her studio in Stockport, near Manchester. “I wanted not to have a concept, not to have a theme or talk about somebody else. It’s me, but it’s a bit of a dolly mixture of songs.”

That’s a modest analogy. ‘Flock’ is esoteric pop gold, oozing with luxurious, exotic sounds but relaxed about its undoubted immediacy. While there’s a clear link to Weaver’s previous work, typically informed by the twin gods of electronics and space rock, this time around those obsessions are coupled with a particular love of the pop song and its undeniable power.

After more theme-specific projects such as 2017’s ‘Modern Kosmology’, which revolved around spirituality, and 2019’s reimagined soundtrack to the film ‘Fehérlófia’ (made under the name Fenella, with long-time bandmates Peter Philipson and Raz Ullah), the tracks on ‘Flock’ are more like mini epics, existing very much in their own right.

Songs such as ‘Modern Reputation’, with its shiny take on krautrock and squelchy synths, or the lush and swaying ‘Heartlow’ create their own worlds, each with self-contained and highly individual atmospheres.

“I’m still associated with space rock, progressive and electronic music, but I love pop,” says Weaver. “There were quite a few songs I’d done along the way which didn’t fit into my previous work. So I wanted to make an album of different types of pop music, not necessarily in one style.”

We’re speaking during lockdown, and with her whole family at home it’s too hectic there to concentrate on an interview, so Weaver is talking to us from her studio, which has been left empty for the duration. If the pink bobble hat and parka jacket she’s wearing are anything to go by – not to mention the look on her face – it’s a space in need of heating.

“It’s absolutely freezing,” she agrees. “It’s a huge room with a high ceiling in an old mill, so it doesn’t get warm. It’s actually colder in here than it is outside.”

In normal times (if anyone can remember them), this is where Weaver’s creative process begins. Not for her the traditional piano or guitar so beloved of the typical songwriter. She’s got an array of synths and keyboards – a Korg Poly-Ensemble, a Roland string synth, a Farfisa Bravo and a Novation Bass Station – or, as she puts it, “Just enough equipment to help me write”. The songs tend to start on her Juno-6.

“It’s probably the best thing for doing stuff on because you can play chords and it’s easy to arpeggiate on it,” she explains.

Once the skeletal demos are created, perhaps with a few band members joining in for a run-through later on, it’s then off to “the proper studio” to lay down the final results.

That is what Weaver had been intending to do in March of last year, with two thirds of the ‘Flock’ tracks recorded and only the vocals and mixing left to do. She and her live band were also in full flow.

“Our last gig was in Belfast… it must have been January or February 2020, so it’s a year ago now. It was a good one to go out on because it’s always a great crowd. Everyone there will come up to you and say, ‘Oh, I bought you a drink’, and after the gig you’ll go off somewhere and have a big party. I love playing there – I couldn’t have wished for a better last night.”

When restrictions eased over the summer months, Weaver was finally able to complete the album.

“I never dreamed I’d be releasing a record in lockdown,” she laughs, having set March 2021 as a super-safe, bound-to-be-over date for its release. (Since we spoke, the government has announced its roadmap out of restrictions, starting on March 8, so she wasn’t far out.)

In the meantime, there have been “a lot of nice walks” and a fair bit of home working. Given that Weaver’s husband, Andy Votel, is a DJ, producer and co-founder of the Twisted Nerve label, I wonder how they manage it. Is there a queue for the studio first thing in the morning?

“When you’re both trying to work creatively from home at the same time, it’s not ideal,” she acknowledges. “But I guess we’re all in extreme circumstances at the moment, so you have to forget that. And the way Andy works is completely different from me. It’s mainly ‘in the box’, on his laptop, so he can be confined to one room, whereas I need a certain process with a band before I can think about going into the ‘proper’ studio.”

Having a record collector for a partner has had a subtle effect on ‘Flock’. The press release mentions a spectrum of influences – Lebanese pop, Russian aerobics soundtracks and Australian punk, although these are clearly a few choice nuggets plucked from a far longer list.

“The Lebanese music is something I’ve been introduced to by my husband,” says Weaver. “Within his collection he’s also got Turkish music and Arabic female vocal-led stuff, and there’s so much that I’ve discovered I love from the 1960s and 70s. I don’t understand a lot of it. It’s big orchestra stuff, lots of live recordings, and some of it’s sort of like opera. But it’s something different to listen to.”

She acknowledges, though, that the way she operates as an artist is quite distinct from Andy’s approach.

“I’m on the outside looking in,” she says. “I’m not ashamed about the fact I’ll listen to something electronic and weird, followed by Girls Aloud. Which is fine – it’s pop. I’m not snooty about what I listen to. I think it’s because I live with a collector who is… not snooty, but certainly protective about what he likes and about being genre-specific.”

This is an attitude that has come to her gradually. Times have changed radically since the tribal divisions of 1980s and 90s fandom. Weaver recalls a somewhat disparate landscape when she cut her musical teeth in the 90s with Kill Laura, the band she formed while still in sixth form. They went on to sign to Polydor and then to Rob’s Records – the label set up by New Order manager Rob Gretton after the demise of Factory Records.

“When I first went to America in 1994, people would say, ‘Oh you guys really sound like The Cranberries’, and we’d be horrified. But in America, alternative music is more encompassing and open-minded. They’d be listening to The Cranberries and also to something a lot cooler at the same time. We were very much like, ‘If you’re into this, you can’t listen to that’, but as you get older your boundaries change. It’s not as if I’m losing my edge, though – I still enjoy a lot of contemporary stuff.”

Weaver’s slight obsession with 80s Russian electronic tracks designed for aerobic classes came from a YouTube wormhole, while the input of the Australian punk scene stems from a book by the photographer and social documenter Rennie Ellis about his country’s youth subcultures during the 70s. It’s an eclectic vision for sure, one favouring the outsider’s view and not doing things by the rule book.

But didn’t the Manchester scene, with Factory and The Haçienda, always seem to have an all-encompassing catholic taste – the first to mash up punk with nightclub culture? Weaver isn’t convinced by this argument. She admits to groaning when “the usual suspects” are wheeled out to talk about it.

“Manchester is a victim of its own success,” she asserts. “It still lives off its past history. I was there, I was signed to Rob Gretton’s label just before The Haçienda shut down. I saw all that. There’s loads of great new music, new promoters and good stuff going on there. So yes, it was great, but can we move on now, please!”

So after a brief chat about Manchester’s hottest new dance venue, The White Hotel, we do indeed move on, switching topic to the lyrical content of ‘Flock’, which tackles a mixture of social and personal concerns and issues.

The lyrics were ultimately constructed from scraps of ideas left on Post-it Notes and mobile phone recordings – Weaver is the kind of person who has to suddenly disappear into the loo on a train to sing something into her phone.

But there is also a clear link between the reflective and melancholy mood of her lyrics and the circumstances in which they were finished, in Brittany, north-west France. Depending on your point of view, Weaver picked the best or the worst time to visit.

“What I normally do is go off on my own for a few days to get all my lyrics together,” she explains. “Because I’ve got a family, I just have to get away from everyone and sit in a hotel room to do it. So for ‘Flock’ I went to a place in Brittany I visit each summer. I’ve been going over there since I was a teenager. But this time round it was out of season and completely dead. I was walking through the streets and there were no church bells, no people, nothing. It was weird, like being in a zombie town.

“I think I was writing my way out of all that. I wanted to make the album a bit more honest and talk about the feelings and things I was affected by – things I was down about disguised as metaphor, things happening socially and politically, the unfairness of things that were going around.”

Looking back, the rather-less-than-splendid isolation of Brittany was a taste of what was to follow in lockdown over the coming months. At least the album’s introspective vision is very much in tune with the times. Not that Weaver is revelling in it. She’s more than eager to get out on the road again, even though the whole business of “getting up at 5am to drive 10 hours to somewhere else is hard work”.

That said, recording is where her heart is and, as you might imagine of such a consistently prolific artist, she has plenty in the pipeline. There’ll be another Fenella long-player with Peter Philipson and Raz Ullah – its foundations have already been laid, on a heavenly day trip to Matlock in Derbyshire to vintage synth merchants Soundgas, who’ve recently extended their showroom to include a studio. There’s also a seven-track EP planned to follow ‘Flock’, featuring the pieces that didn’t fit the frame of the main album.

As Jane Weaver puts it with typical down-to-earth simplicity, it’s a case of “keeping busy” in these exceedingly strange times.

“Lots of people are quite prolific. Lots of stuff is going on. But at the same time, nothing is going on.”

‘Flock’ is out on Fire

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