Alison Goldfrapp is exhausted. It’s the end of a non-stop week of press around Europe, that could justify diva antics, but instead she’s pleasant and just a smidge grumpy, but then she and Will Gregory have waited for an hour for State after a delayed flight. Thankfully Seventh Tree, their fourth album, makes for good airport hell music.
Languid and folksy, it’s a very distant relative of Black Cherry, sharing more common ground with the airy soundtrack quality of debut, Felt Mountain. It’s an album they took their time with, according to Will. ‘All albums take about a year but this one took longer because we took time to experiment,’ he notes. ‘We allowed ourselves to go up blind alleys and take amazing detours that just weren’t relevant for the record. We wanted it to be different, so we knew we needed some space to explore our ideas. Once we got going in the right direction, it was just full steam ahead.’
Full steam ahead indeed, but if that’s suggestive of pace, the resulting 10 tracks couldn’t be further from that. Seventh Tree is a languorous, lazy record, one that slowly unfurls and reveals something new on each listen. Before making it, they were both very clear that they wanted to take a different musical arc. ‘Going off in a new direction was very important’, says Will, ‘and we wanted to try and make an album where no tracks would sound tired very quickly. We didn’t want any fast-forward, filler tracks. So we spent a lot of time going down different pathways, and we actually threw a lot of stuff away. We opted for a minimal approach and used the demon we wanted to exorcise – the guitar. It’s good to keep yourself invigorated by challenging yourself to try new things.’
Anyone expecting them to continue along the disco stomp trajectory of Supernature will be surprised, but not disappointed. If its predecessor absorbed elements of the 1970s, it was Marc Bolan’s glam rock. Seventh Tree is still rooted in that decade, but strays towards softer, more psychedelic influences. Much has also been made of its -Englishness’, mainly because of its -English Heritage’ feel: all forests, pastoral moods and – given the video for -A&E’ – a hint of The Wicker Man.
‘We’ve recorded all our records in the country,’ says Alison, ‘all apart from Black Cherry. I think it’s important to feel comfortable in your environment, but I don’t think place necessarily informs what you do musically. Where you go in your head is where the music happens. We just happened to choose Somerset because Will lives there and there’s something really nice about being in a different environment to a professional studio. They’re just not nice places. They don’t suit us because of the way we work. We tend to write and record everything simultaneously so it’s not practical to record in a studio.’ And you’re on the clock…. ‘Yes, you’re on the clock… and there are no windows,’ she adds.
If Supernature was about sexuality, Seventh Tree is all sensuality, rippling with themes of nature and fertility. State points out that the album really reminds us of Minnie Ripperton. ‘Yeah, she’s someone we’re very fond of…’ Alison trawls off. ‘We’ve always liked simplicity’, Will offers, ‘but sometimes we’ve used sounds to support the songs, and we felt it would be great to just focus on the song itself – the chords, the melody. -A&E’ is a bit like that… it exists independently of its backing. It would be nice to think that you could do it a few different ways and it would still be the same song. So quite often, it was about not trying to do too much, not making a musical statement but doing enough to let the melody do all the work. And there’s an atmosphere that Alison brings to the vocals that stands out on this album even more than the other records.’
No matter what genre or tempo Goldfrapp tackle, it always comes back to Alison’s voice. She has an unbelievable range, just as at ease with siren-like soprano as breathy baritone, and has unsurprisingly drawn comparisons to Kate Bush. Always diverse in pitch, her vocals are growing old very gracefully and allowing for more experimentation. ‘It’s always fun to play around with my voice, it’s an instrument after all,’ she confesses. ‘I tried to see what different tones or textures I could get with it, or how I could bend a word. This album is all about the high notes – I tried to sing as high as I could go without exploding; to try and get an optimistic and slightly wistful sound that blended with the guitar. You think your voice will get deeper with age, but mine is going the other way around.’
‘It is getting deeper!’ Will interrupts. Alison laughs. ‘Well, I’ve always been very lucky in that I have quite a diverse range. On the first album, it’s quite deep in places.’ The band might bear Alison’s surname, but watching them interact as we chat and listening to Will do a lot of the talking, there is a respectful equality, something that extends to their music. ‘It’s pretty much a democracy: it’s hard for it not to be with two people’, says Will.
Alison expands on how they work together: ‘To establish a track, the two of us have to be in the same room together, knuckling down to it, but once things have been established, I might go off and do some vocals at home. There’s no formula to how we begin something. Quite often we’ll just start by working around a melody and go from there, or else we’ll jam around a lyrical idea, but it’s always as a unit.’
This puts the kibosh on one of the biggest stereotypes about the band, that Alison is the pretty face, while Will makes all the music. One foreign journalist once told them that they were like the Pet Shop Boys – not just because of their synth love – and quoted the song ‘I’ve got the brains/You’ve got the looks/Let’s make lots of money’ to them. Alison, was understandably horrified. ‘In the past, there has been this misconception that Will is this anonymous guy behind the desk and I’m the frontwoman, which has pissed me off,’ Alison frowns.
‘That’s not the start of it, though’ says Will. ‘At the beginning, we were both doing everything, doing what the other person does, swapping roles…’ Alison continues, ‘It pisses me off because it’s a gender stereotype. It’s ignorant when people assume that there are these traditional roles of who does what in a band, but Goldfrapp is very much about contributions from both of us.’
A huge focus of attention has inevitably fallen on Alison, partly due to the visual element of their live shows and cover art. From peacock feathers to horse tail hot pants, Alison approaches Goldfrapp the band as performance. An art school graduate, one end-of-year piece involved her milking a cow while yodelling. She likes to blend the burlesque with the surreal, but confesses that the theatricality has trained a huge spotlight on her that’s hard to get away from off-stage. A track on Seventh Tree called -Some People’, talks about people who ‘ask my age’ and despite the husky delivery, it’s a barbed line. Women in music have always been judged in a way that men never have to deal with, and it’s something Alison feels strongly about.
‘It’s not just women in music, it’s women in general,’ she argues. ‘Over the last three years, I’ve become very aware of, and more uncomfortable, with it. The line in the song came about after I went to a party and a guy, who was being quite flirty with me, asked me my age. I couldn’t figure out if he wanted to know if I was too old to ask back to his hotel, or if I was too old to be doing what I’m doing musically. And I thought -Why is he fucking asking me how old I am?’ I was incredibly aware of my image – I’d just finished a tour which was a constant round of dressing-up and performing – in a way that started to piss me off.’
But is it liberating to be able to go on stage and play those parts? ‘Yes, but I had invented this image for myself but then didn’t like the expectation that came with it,’ she admits. ‘I felt I had to look a certain way all the time, and when I didn’t, I felt like a huge disappointment. People would look at me in horror when they saw I was only 5-foot-2 and wasn’t walking around with a whip in my hand. There’s a huge obsession now with age and having to look a certain way or that you should be doing certain things because of your age. It’s all very boring.’
Listening to the album, the huge range of old synths still lingers, from Mellotrons to Moogs, which gives it a woozy warmth, but what stands out the most is something that’s been fairly absent from previous work: guitars. ‘One of the things we hadn’t used before was guitars, and not as much as we have on this album, so it’s a bit of a watershed’, explains Will. ‘It’s just one instrument but it provides so many things… momentum, harmony, versatility and it’s very minimal too. But you have to be careful that it doesn’t stray too far into blues or campfire or Rickie Lee Jones territory. We wanted to use guitar because we like a lot of things it can do, but didn’t want it to sound pretty, tinkly or cliched. So we invited nine guitarists to contribute and it really worked out, especially as neither of us play guitar.’
Before parting ways, State asks them about another album track -Cologne Cerrone Houdini’. All John Barry strings and huge orchestration, it wouldn’t be out of place on a Bond film soundtrack. Previously, they contributed to Pawel Pawlikowski’s film, My Summer of Love.
‘God, it’s hard enough making an album!’, laughs Will, ‘but we have talked about doing other projects.’ Alison confesses that they’d love to write an opera or some sort of stage production. ‘I’d love to do something with a choir, actually. Something choral.’ Given Goldfrapp’s chameleon qualities, we wouldn’t put it past them.