With adventures a-plenty, including a spot of writer’s block, a roller coaster ride with a blockbusting podcast and a brush with Tony Visconti, Mary Epworth serves up an electronic doozie of album that no one saw coming
“You know sometimes you have this thing where you have a good bad review and a bad good review?” says Mary Epworth, Cheshire Cat sized grin across her face. “So someone can love your record, but not get it… and you can have a bad review with an amazing quote in it?”
I nod, wondering which of these options she is getting so animated about.
“So there’s this German review that’s a proper slagging,” she chuckles warmly. “But it’s absolutely brilliant because they say something like, ‘It sounds like a robot’s orgasm’. You say that like it’s a bad thing! I’m literally going to put that on everything now, you basically said I’m a sexy robot dominatrix! Brilliant!”
Mary Epworth is positively glowing. Her new album ‘Elytral’ has been out for a day, and she’s beaming about it across the table. Wrapped in an impossibly shiny patent leather jacket, with pastel-pink hair effortlessly coiffed and tumbling down her back, she’s very jolly despite it being the morning after what sounds like a spontaneous post-gig after-party. She’s got a pint of something fizzy and clear in her hand, and every now and then she inquisitively pops her head over the balcony at Norwich Arts Centre, to see what’s going on in the bar below as people hustle and bustle, readying things ahead of her headline gig here tonight.
It’s hard to find a mention of Mary in any publication without immediate reference to her brother (Google is your friend here, let’s not partake in the bun fight). Two musical talents from one family conjures up wholesome images of tiny prodigies, perched around a family piano, penning early works and flipping through a vast parental library of LPs for inspiration.
“I don’t really remember music or sound being a particularly massive part of my life when I was younger,” says Epworth. Music didn’t figure until she was a teenager, she explains, when she invited herself to join a band, aged 14, and started gigging. An obsession with Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album around the same time ignited a passion that burns to this day.
In her early 20s, she learned to play the guitar and although she saw just a writing tool, it also freed her from the default role of backing vocalist, which she seemed to find herself in all too often. Add a four-track cassette recorder, and she soon began writing her own stuff.
“People thought what I was doing was very weird, and not in a good way,” she smiles. “I was knocking around with a bit of an alternative country scene, and everybody I showed these songs to were like, ‘Well, these ones are good because they’re country, and these ones are WEIRD, you should stop doing these weird ones’.”
One person who clicked with Epworth in the early days was Will Twynham. They set up the Hand Of Glory record label together, he produced her first album, plays guitar in her band… and is her beau. That first album, ‘Dream Life’ was a strong debut back in 2012. It went down well with the press and earned her a loyal fan base including several DJs at BBC Radio 1 and 6 Music. Listening back now, it’s a bit of a pop voyage. Her vocals are narrative heavy and strikingly perfect in performance. The tempo is an easy sway and while she mentions more than once during the interview that she dislikes the reference, there are undeniably some folky undertones buried within.
But it’s the contrast between this debut, and her new album, that’s very interesting. ‘Elytral’ is a world away. An underworld away, if you will. Epworth sounds like she’s been unshackled and let loose to truly capture what’s popping around in her brain. It’s an album packed with ideas, all distorted, contorted, heavy and industrial, where string arrangements are swapped for piercing synths and walls of noise. What’s even more curious is the five-year gap between the releases. You can’t help but wonder what the hell happened in that time to provoke such a change.
“For quite a long time I wasn’t doing anything,” she explains. “I’m the sort of person who occasionally gets writer’s block and I don’t like to admit it, or think about it, or talk about it. I’m lazy and arrogant in that I want a song to arrive from the heavens like a lightning bolt, and they usually do, so I hate trying to force that”.
There were a couple of lightning bolts in the interim. Two singles, 2013’s ‘September’ and 2014’s ‘Snow Queen’, but the real catalyst for change it would seem was a new toy.
“I got an iPad with GarageBand on it and I started messing around with silly ideas,” she says.
“I just ended up writing so much I thought, ‘So this is what’s happening now!’.”
With the hike in productivity being attributed to the magic of the iPad, I poke a little harder about the change in style and sound.
“I was already listening to quite a lot of electronic stuff,” she offers. “It’s more like I’d decided to give myself permission to stop worrying about genre and to follow this other path and not worry that I was changing or upsetting listeners.”
With the tablet full of ideas and the demos under arm, Epworth headed across the Atlantic to spend two weeks with her pal and producer Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Beachwood Sparks) at his Golden Void studio in Los Angeles.
“I thought we’d just start from scratch,” she says, “but when I got there he explained that we can actually just load my GarageBand files into Logic and build on them. So a really big chunk of what ended up being on the album has sounds like my shirt brushing up against the internal mic of the iPad.”
She’s visibly enlightened by this experience, especially as she explains ‘Dream Life’ took a few years to put together.
“For ‘Elytral’ we basically built on the tracks, spat the MIDI out through nicer drum machines, and just kind of dressed everything with better sounds,” she says. “We did it really quickly, two songs a day for two weeks. A lot of my favourite records have got that feeling of spontaneity and freshness and mistakes that make them sound a bit unfinished and weird, I think that’s the stuff you end up loving about a record.”
A rare common thread between the two albums are Epworth’s nature references. The word ‘Elytral’ itself refers to the hardened smooth shell of a beetle.
“I think I’m being a cool, industrial person, and then I realise, ‘Oh, I’m writing about nature again’,” she says. “That’s just the central metaphor of my life, not just lyrically, but if anyone looks at my Instagram it’s full of pictures of clouds.”
It’s true. Six out of her last nine photos at the time of writing contain some kind of cloud formation. If you trawl back a bit, you’re looking at seas, rivers, trees, bugs, flowers, tadpoles, and tree stumps. As well as maintaining her nature-heavy Instagram page, Twitter has been a surprisingly prominent force for good in her career too.
One such fortuitous opportunity came when she followed an account she thought was funny and a little odd, and started interacting with them. Her new Twitter pals had a podcast called ‘Welcome To Night Vale’.
Created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the podcast was a radio show for the fictional town of Night Vale, reporting on the strange goings-on there. They responded to her tweets by asking to use one of her tracks. As luck would have it, the podcast became a huge success, downloaded well over 100 million times to date. They invited Epworth to tour with them in Europe, and then America. Visiting 36 cities and covering over 10,000 miles by road, it was an epic adventure for someone who readily admits they don’t even listen to podcasts. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Cranor was busy penning a spin-off series with Janina Matthewson called ‘Within The Wires’. They liked Epworth’s work so much they asked her to score the first two seasons, the second of which has recently premiered.
“The first season was a dystopian sci-fi tale told via late 70s early 80s self-help cassettes,” explains Epworth. “I had a bit of a New Age childhood, so I really know what these tapes sound like! Season two is a mystery told through museum tour guides.”
It’s the first time she’s produced herself. With such a quick turn around on each piece, it was impossible to organise working with a producer or getting someone else to mix. “It’s a completely different process for me and that’s been really life changing actually,” she admits. Her unplanned expedition into the world of podcasts might well have been a driving force in how her sound changed so dramatically between albums one and two and it certainly seems to have influenced where she might take things from here.
“I’ve been writing and developing some of the podcast work,” she teases, conscious of not giving too much away. After a five-year wait for her sophomore release, she hints at having already formed plans for albums three, four and five.
“Album three is basically demoed,” she says, nonchalantly, “and we’ve already done two tracks with Tony Visconti, amazingly, at the Visconti studio! Again, that came about via Twitter.”
A tweet to studio manager Leah Kardos about David Bowie drum production was followed by an email back asking if she wanted to be produced by Visconti. Like you do. Having been to the studio, she’s back in the position of sending him demos again.
“The idea is that we’ll work together again and do some more, but only if he likes them. I want the demos I’ve written so far to be on the album, so if he doesn’t want to do them I still want to do them. I just have to figure out how that works.”
Mary Epworth is on a roll, clearly. She’s unshackled from expectation, reinvigorated and truly excited to be doing what she wants, how she wants. Which is how it should be.
‘Elytral’ is out on Sunday Best