30 seconds with... Catherine AD

In this latest instalment of the 30 Seconds with... series we hear from Catherine AD, a self-taught pianist, guitarist, and flautist. She’s supported the likes of Martha Wainwright, David Gilmour, and Anna Calvi.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 7 Dec 2011
  • min read

In this latest instalment of the 30 Seconds with... series we hear from Catherine AD, a self-taught pianist, guitarist, and flautist. She taught herself to record her own material after being awarded a scholarship to continue studying for a PhD, meanwhile holding down a job playing piano at the Hilton (after they agreed she could sing her own material).

After three DIY EPs which she’s been drip-dropping into the world whilst finishing university, her creative force has already found favour at The Sunday Times and with Lauren Laverne, Rob Da Bank and Steve Lamacq, as well as some of America’s most influential bloggers.

She’s been an artist in residence at the Southbank Centre,  collaborated with Nitin Sawhney & Riz MC, recorded with Bernard Butler, Paul Draper (Mansun) and Jon Kelly (Kate Bush), and supported the likes of Martha Wainwright, David Gilmour, and Anna Calvi.

Got Spotify? Catherine has put together a special playlist of her favourite songwriters:

Songwriters that make the world go round

as well as answering our questions, below.

How long have you been making music?

I started playing the flute when I was 7 and it graduated from there after I stole my sister's acoustic guitar when I became (simultaneously) obsessed with both Hole and The Carpenters. I bought myself a really cheap keyboard when I moved to London for university and started teaching myself to play the piano after hearing Rufus Wainwright for the first time. This is when I started to take my songwriting a bit more seriously. You have to be pretty focused when you are surrounded by people with grade 8 piano and you can barely find a chord! I recorded a bunch of demos on a multi-track (bought with my student loan) and began to make the first flower-paper and ribbon-wrapped EPs (which I sold through Rough Trade) which started to get a few people’s attention.

What inspired your latest single/EP/album?

The central idea behind the mini album, Communion (released on 17 October via Outsiderhood) was to record everything live as an ensemble. Liam Howe, who produced the record, had come along to a show that we played at the Union Chapel with the mini string section. He suggested the idea of trying to capture what we'd been touring around church venues and we ended up recording it all in one single marathon day with him at Church Studios in London. The entirety of Communion is arranged for piano and strings, which is quite a restrictive palette of sounds for me but it was a really interesting challenge in terms of framing a group of songs as a recital and stripping the songs back to their core to let them breathe. I wanted to look back to a different era of songwriting and recording.

What process do you go through to create your music?

I'm writing all the time, even when I'm on the tube or walking around I always have little ideas running around my head. My Blackberry is filled with lots of half-typed notes and thoughts... It helps that for most of the time I’ve been writing songs I’ve also been studying literature, as you’re constantly being exposed to incredible writing. I’m like a magpie, mining what I read for song gold... Sometimes the songs come out almost fully formed, especially if I'm riding on a particular emotion. For instance, I wrote Waiting to Breathe almost straight out in one feverish evening at the piano. I'm also pretty obsessed with listening to old songs like Wichita Lineman and Laura Nyro’s early songs, trying to figure out the magic formula behind them. I think songwriting is half alchemy, half craft. You have to study the masters. Although I mostly write along, I’ve written with other people on a few different projects. It’s such a different process as it tends to be condensed work and focused on a deadline or a short time frame. Most recently I’ve done a couple of tracks for Paul Statham’s Dark Flowers project including a duet with Jim Kerr (which has a great Paris, Texs dark country vibe). I’ve also written some straight-up pop with Liam Howe and I collaborated with Bernard Butler on about 5 songs that I’ve yet to find a home for.

How would you describe your sound?

Like most musicians, I'm terrible at describing the music myself...I think Huw Stephens described my music as “goth-spell” (gospel with a dark undertone) and Courtney Love said I had a "gorgeous sick beautiful voice".  On second thoughts, I hope that doesn't mean she thinks my voice makes people want to throw up...! Because I jump around from instrument to instrument the ‘sound’ of the music can vary quite a lot depending upon what I’m working on but I guess the lyrical content remains central to whatever I’m building. There’s lots of guitars on the album that I’m recording at the moment with Paul Draper; I really felt I needed to break out the electric guitars again after so many churches!

What would your dream collaboration be?

I'd love to work with Van Dyke Parks. I think his string arrangements are magical. If Nick Cave wants to come join on backing vocals/maracas/anything - that would be ok by me too.

Where can we catch you performing next?

I'm playing at the National Portrait Gallery in London on 20 January. I love playing in rooms that have a kind of drama to them. We don't play very often so it's nice to be able to make an occasion of it.

Catherine AD's album Communion is out now,  and precedes a full length album, to be released in 2012. A limited number of special editions of the mini album will come with their own mechanical music box, each containing a unique excerpt of music from the album.