> Dot Allison – Consciousology (interview) – Lee Scratch Perry, turning plant energy into sound, and stepping back to reflect and heal the planet - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Dot Allison – Consciousology (interview) – Lee Scratch Perry, turning plant energy into sound, and stepping back to reflect and heal the planet

Dot Allisons’ return in 2021 was warmly received, with music lovers glad to see the songwriter return. Since then, Dot has remained highly active with collaborations, remixes and recording the follow-up record, Consciousology. SNACK caught up with Dot for a hugely entertaining and educational chat about recording plants, empathy, why we don’t need to move to the moon and of course, her new album.

2021’s Heart-Shaped Scars was your first album in close to a decade. Now the dust is settled, how do you feel now compared to the release of that album?

I feel a lot less shy about coming back. I’m quite a shy person and when I was putting that out, it felt like I was exposing the soft underbelly but now I feel much more comfortable, grateful and inspired by the response it got. I feel I’ve hit my stride in understanding what I need to do to get the best out of myself as a songwriter.

It’s a privilege to be able to keep going, you learn on the hop and then I look back at earlier albums, from a songwriting process, and you realise how much more you can go into the process as you go along, finding what’s best for you. 

Do you take time to analyse what you have done or do you learn as you go, growing into it?

I think I grow into it, that’s a nice way to put it. It’s the same with everything in life, you subconsciously take things in. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel; you start with everything you’ve internalised along the way. You take the lessons and carry it forward with you.

Basically, this album started ages ago, I wrote ‘Double Rainbow’ on this album, at the time of Heart-Shaped Scars, I had that on my phone, just me and the ukulele with the shape of the song, as we were recording. I played that on my phone to Fiona (Cruikshank, co-producer) and said this could be for a future album together, so she’ll confirm it was knocking about then, it just didn’t fit on that.

Dot Allison – Photo credit: Robbie Crawford

Also, last year you released a remix of ‘Love Died in Our Arms’, as part of the Entangled Remix EP, and that was the last project of Lee Scratch Perry’s career – that’s quite the thing to get your head around?

Oh God, I know! I had been emailing him before he passed away, and it was quiet because he was busy and then he emailed me to say it was going great. I was coming out of the cinema with my kids, and Anton Newcombe (Brian Jonestown Massacre) texted me to say ‘Lee’s gone’. 

I didn’t think he had finished the mix, and I’d never say to his wife, so I thought, I’ll give it space and then pass on my sympathies and leave it at that. Before I got the chance, Lee’s wife emailed me saying, ‘I just want you to know your song is the last thing Lee worked on in his life.’ I was like, oh my God, it was profoundly moving, I wrote back to thank her for letting me know and pass on my sympathy and next thing you know, a mix arrives. I had no idea he had finished it!

I listened to it in floods of tears, it was so weird having something I loved so much and I couldn’t thank him. I was thanking the air for this beautiful mix. I felt sad about the whole thing, so I got back to Lee’s wife asking what to do, because I didn’t want to complicate their grief. She wrote back saying ‘Lee would want you to put it out, and it’s for his fans’. Of course, she was saying yes, so it came out, it was crazy!

Dot Allison – Photo credit: Robbie Crawford

I think anyone who enjoyed Heart-Shaped Scars will find a lot to love here, but it’s also a big step on sonically. Was there a point you realised there was this switch or was it deliberate from the start? 

I like to provide a contrast between albums. I wanted a fuller sound, and that was as far as I thought at first, and even for my next project, I think how will it contrast with the next one? I haven’t started that yet, well, maybe I have a wee bit, but I think that’s my thing, to evolve, that was the plan.

It is a bigger record, it’s got more bandwidth in the terms of frequencies and people playing, there are more elements to each song.

You’ve mentioned ‘Double Rainbow’ dates back to the time of writing the previous album. I’m fascinated with the method of recording the electrical activity in a plant you undertook for this song. Can you explain that a bit more?

For me, the thinking behind the album is we’re in a conscious universe. It’s not all for our point of view, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest things are interconnected and living, it’s well known with books like The Secret Lives of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, The Hidden Lives of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and things like that, there’s a real synergy we that we don’t see we’re connected in, because we have elevated ourselves above as a species. The things we do interrupt these other quantum systems that are interconnected, and we don’t understand, in my humble opinion, what we interrupt all the time.

I was interested in having an excuse to talk about that with the record.

There’s a thing called a plant wave where you put an electrode onto leaves, it reads the electricity of the plant, turning it into signals you can record. I did that with a Brachyglottis Sunshine, I found a leaf that worked well with the electrode, I put the plant leaf on a few different plants, and they were all different. 

They’ve all got accents and voices, it’s so interesting. I recorded that partly because of the concept but also because it adds another voice on the record other than me and Amy Bowman, she came in and I asked her to sing a greenish black, and a few other colours. 

Dot Allison – Photo credit: Robbie Crawford

Andy Bell features on two tracks. How did that come about, and what was it like working with Andy?

Andy contacted me about working on something together, which we are doing, and we decided to do a swap, so I asked would you like to play on something. It just so happens that the timelines have changed and mine’s out first! Without giving too much away, that’s how that came out.

I met Andy when I used to DJ at Bangers and Mash, in Stockholm, his club. It turns out he loved Heart-Shaped Scars, he was hand on heart, saying ‘I really love that album’. 

With ‘Unchanged’ it was ambient to start with, just me on the harmonium, playing the chords but I then felt, this is solid. The pre-chorus bit used to be the outro to ‘Double Rainbow’, and then I felt, that’s something in itself, that’s a solid section of something. 

Once I added the chords for the chorus, I felt this is life-affirming and I’m happy with this, you do get a feeling when there’s something in it. I lived with it for a bit without drums and then thought, it needs something. Rather than being played to click, we clicked what I had played, you can write a metronome to what is already there, so we did that and got Lauren Macdonald, a brilliant drummer in my opinion, to play from that point of the song.

You’ve worked with Hannah Peel again on this album, how important was Hannah’s presence on the record?

Very, she’s got such a voice in terms of arrangements, her arrangements are so characterful, they have personality, her musicality is brilliant and I was thrilled she’s involved in it. On ‘220Hz’, the strings on that are bonkers, and they were orchestrated from my programming. It was quite abstract.

Dot Allison – Photo credit: Robbie Crawford

The strings on ‘Bleached By The Sun’ really add something, and fits with the themes of nature, love and loss. Do you have an idea or outline or do you put that fully in the hands of others?

That is something I noticed from the first moment Hannah and I talked about arrangements for songs on Heart-Shaped Scars. She really thought about the songs, emphasised with it and she asked me to sing some notes, to hear the register where I was, so I sent some la-la-las in a voice note to her. 

She emphasises with the song, she’s able to have an economy with it, it needs to be just what is right for the song. I think she felt she went more classical on ‘Bleached By The Sun’ but it works, it’s all good. As my mum is a musician, the records and songbooks we have in the house were Bach and Chopin, so that’s in my world, that’s what I grew up trying to play.

Lyrically, it’s a strong album and we could spend hours discussing that, but focusing on ‘Moon Flowers’, which seems particularly strong. Can you talk about that song in more detail?

That lyric, from those verses, is an old poem I wrote in the Noughties. I just happened to have ‘All hail, you influence the hail‘ and it’s been knocking about somewhere and it never left me, I like the play on words. ‘You reign, you influence the reign’ and its R.E.I.G.N. 

The moon flowers concept, whether it’s Elon Musk sending things into space talking about inhabiting other planets, there’s part of me thinks, ‘we’re on someone else’s moon and we’ve trashed it, can we should stay here and heal?’ There are two options we’re given, which is extinction or escape, and no one apart from Vandana Sinha talks about staying and healing the planet, to review and change course from what we’re doing, but I don’t see that happening.

So, the ‘Moon Flowers’ thing is ‘we’ll plant flowers on the moon’ but at the end of the song, it runs ‘in the mirror, we would see that moon flowers are already here.’ Obtusely, it can be a love song, even though it seems like a barren land, we can make something of it, but literally, if we look after our moon, we don’t need to go elsewhere. It’s all in there really.

Also, it talks about sovereignty of the seed and river. If it’s a living universe, the seeds have sovereignty, if you cut down a forest, you change the course of a river, and these are things people don’t talk about.

You’ve said ‘I wanted to make some albums that felt like a set’, does Consciousology complete this set, or do you think there is more to go?

I think there’s more to go, I wanted to do a trilogy at one point. When I was making Heart-Shaped Scars, I felt it would be nice if there were three albums that run together, that was my thinking then. I’ve got some ideas for the next one, it could feel like it’s part of a set, a third one coming, maybe?

While I appreciate there are many challenges to arranging live shows or tours, and there’s no pressure to give any answer, do you envisage playing these songs live at any point?

It would be nice. To put it mildly, I’m a shy performer, but I was speaking with my label today and if I do something, I’ll start with mini acoustic shows and build up from there. If there was a requirement and if the album needs to be heard live, then I would try and make it happen. I’m a bit nervous about performing, I don’t really enjoy it to be honest, but I have done it, and could do it again, I’m sure. I’m not against the idea.

Consciousology is released 28th July via Sonic Cathedral

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