> Interview: Dot Allison – Heart-shaped Scars - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview: Dot Allison – Heart-shaped Scars

If you’re talking about a leading Scottish vocalist who has wowed audiences across the decades, and in many different genres, Dot Allison has to feature high on your list. From One Dove to collaborations with Scott Walker, Arab Strap, and Death in Vegas, from electro to folk and all points in between, music lovers have been cast under the spell of her enchanting vocals.

SNACK caught up with Dot to talk about new album Heart-shaped Scars, where she’s been and where she’s at.

A version of this interview first appeared in the July 2021 issue of SNACK. You can order a physical copy of the magazine here.

It’s been over a decade since your last record. Was there a catalyst to you returning to music and making the new album?

I think it was just the fact my kids were more grown up and I had more energy to spare! You never stop coming up with ideas, and the way you think about music doesn’t change, even if you’re not making anything tangible with it.

Once I had that energy, I directed it back towards music.

Heart-Shaped Scars
is an emotional and evocative title; how did it come about?

I was doing some song writing about five years ago, and I had a list of possible song titles. That was one of them. I just never ended up in a session where I wanted to hand the title over to a song. I thought, ‘I like that title’.

I think I’ve written two or three songs that were going to be called ‘Heart-Shaped Scars’, and then I finally had one, and then, even that one hasn’t made it onto the album! The album title track is a demo somewhere, but I kept the title for the album.

Are you the sort of artist who has notepads and work-in-progress files?

Yeah, I do. Mostly I have stuff on my phone, with the voice recorder. That’s great for voice-noting little sketches on guitar, or with the uke or piano. Also, for this album, I bought myself a plain sketchpad, and during sessions, I would doodle stuff in the book. That was more of a document for myself.

I was listening to some physics webinars during lockdown, from the Institute of Noetic Sciences. I had my album work at the front and then from the back page, I was writing notes on physics, and the book will meet in the middle. I even had little drawings, the book itself is like a wee world that goes with that era of making music. It’s more for me to have as a keepsake, in a way.

But yeah, most of my functional notes happen on my phone. It used to be a million notepads, but it’s all on my phone now.

I end up with more things I need to consolidate. I’ve got a paper diary, and I think I could put that on my phone, because half the time I can’t find it. I was saying to someone, I need a dashcam on my shoulder, otherwise, I don’t know what’s going on; there’s too much to think about sometimes.

I make lists quite a lot, I need it in my phone, or it will be gone! Modern life is quite overwhelming. One WhatsApp group for one kid’s party could have 35 messages on it.

Photo credit: Essy Syed

You said you want the album to feel like a return to nature, and it features birds, rivers and the local sounds of the Hebrides. Did you go out and capture these sounds yourself?

I did, on the island. We’ve got a cottage up there and I went up on my own for a weekend. It was quite windy, and I went out for a walk with a field recorder one morning. I recorded a river, near the sea, creaking gates. Also, when I was in Edinburgh, on a quiet evening, there was like a symphony of different birds, so I got loads of lovely bird songs as well.

For the Edinburgh field recordings, I went out with Homay (Schmitz), whom I wrote ‘Love Died In Our Arms’ and a couple of other songs with. That was lovely, it was exploratory; I didn’t know what I was going to find. I let the elements dictate what was going to get recorded.

Then I went to Castlesound Studios in Edinburgh, and dumped everything on to the system. Some of it was too windy or whatever, but we found snippets; we turned them into loops and affected them. It was a lovely thing to do.

There’s no rule book saying why a creaking gate can’t be a drum, I quite like the idea of using anything and everything that might become part of the palette or story.

I watched The Bee Gees Documentary recently and Barry Gibb spoke of how the sound of crossing a bridge every day on the way to the studio inspired the rhythm of ‘Jive Talkin’’.

Musicians have always done that, haven’t they? I was thinking about Scott Walker hammering a pig’s carcass on ‘The Drift’, and Brian Wilson was very experimental in creating palettes of sound, wasn’t he? Why wouldn’t you? It’s like mixing colours, you wouldn’t cut out part of the rainbow.

There’s a lot of tremendous Scottish women on the record. Are you hopeful that more artists are getting the breaks their talent deserves these days?

I hope so. There’s a way to go and we’re heading towards a more egalitarian landscape, but it’s not there yet. It’s not exclusively women, but it’s nice. It’s not something I thought too much about, but it would never come up if it was an album made with guys.

It’s my quiet way of saying, ‘that also can be normal’. It is a bit noteworthy, but that just shows you that we’ve still got a way to go. The women involved with the record are utterly gifted, and I felt privileged to work with all of them. I’m really pleased.

When I was with Zoe (Bestel) and Hannah (Peel) when we were about to record, it wasn’t a question of whether Scottish players would be as good as their London counterparts. At the session, they were like oh my God, these players are amongst the best you can get anywhere. It’s nice that nobody assumed otherwise. We had people up from London and Hannah arranged for a lot of other British players, and they were noting how brilliant the players are up here.

Photo credit: Essy Syed

It was all very natural, bringing in people through a friend of a friend. It was a team of friends as much as musicians, we were all going to meet anyway! The fact that we had that, while having the calibre of player is why I feel so privileged to have them.

Also, they’re all so busy, so it wasn’t a given that they would be available; but they were, and it was really good. There’s a wealth of talent in Scotland, and I know I’m biased, but I do believe that.

We might be biased, but there’s enough evidence to back it up.

That’s true!

One of the ways you eased yourself into the album was through writing on the ukulele. How was that process?

I was given the ukulele as a gift by my husband. During the lockdown, I saw it sitting gathering dust, and I thought, I better try and play it. I’ve worked with ukulele players before, but it was never me on the uke. I didn’t know the first thing about the chords, but it worked out well. I played by ear and that helped compose more evocative melody and harmony than I might have achieved if I knew the chords.

Without thinking I might have gone to the chords I know, but as I didn’t know anything, I was having to [Dot sounds out playing notes on a ukulele], and then finding a cluster that goes with that! It felt like I was blindfolded and playing by ear. It’s something I’d like to do again, find something new or even restring an instrument. 

I’ve restrung my guitar and wrote a song in a different tuning, well, I’m not sure if it is a tuning, but it’s turned out lovely. It’s part of the exploratory thing where you think, ‘I’ve not tried that before, but I’ll do it again’; and I think I’ll be like that now with my writing.

Is it possible to play the ukulele for any period of time without referencing George Formby? 

Yeah, if you play it the way I play it! I just pluck it, the minute you strum it, you are in that territory. As I was doing broken chords and little funny picking patterns, it’s more folky. It’s the lack of strum that separates it.

You’ve been working with Anton Newcombe recently; how has that been?

Absolutely brilliant. It’s been a restorative thing for me – he is so supportive and complimentary of my writing, it’s been a nourishing thing. My experience with Anton is that he really gives you your place; he’s generous-spirited.

I’ve worked with people before who would cherry pick and you wouldn’t get honoured in the way you should. I’m really enjoying working with him, it’s ongoing, and he’s just brilliant. We’re doing it remotely and were working on a TV score together but the first songs we wrote together were song writing, not scoring.

I would send over something and he would send it back and say, send another. I said to him, ‘it’s like a little Christmas’ when you get something back. We’ve managed to work out how to work remotely in a way that complements what we both bring.

I’m really enjoying working with him, it’s ongoing, and he’s just brilliant. He’s a good soul. He’s someone who, in my humble opinion, takes an interest in life and culture.

You’ve worked with so many great artists. Is collaborating important to you?

I wonder if being female makes it more noticeable, I’m not sure? However, I am a twin, so I happily collaborate, and there is a bit of me that slightly likes hiding. I’m inherently quite shy, and it’s something I deal with, so there’s a part of me that likes sharing the light.

Even in sessions like if I’m meant to be leading it, and you have people looking at you, I find that quite excruciating.

I like collaborating for those reasons, but what is quite nice about this album is it’s much less collaborative. It is collaborative in that there are lot of musicians and I’m co-producing it, but from a vision and songwriting point of view, it’s my least collaborative album.

I love mixing and cross-pollinating ideas though, I like the greater than the sum of its parts thing – I love getting other brains on things. You go round creative corners you might not have come across if it was just you, or just them.

Some people hate co-writing, and I don’t mind it, but you’ve got to be in the room with the right person. I’ve done a lot of writing, and if you’re in a room with someone who has no empathy, that’s no fun.

If you’re presenting some of the best ideas, you don’t need someone trudging over you. If you’re in a room with the wrong person, good ideas can be destroyed quickly. If you’re in a room with sensitive people that you trust, it can be really enjoyable and fruitful.

Also, just before the pandemic kicked in, we lost Andrew Weatherall, and I think many of us still miss his presence. How would you like him to be remembered?

My experience of him, he was the real deal, someone who was genuinely passionate about art and music. He was very generous with it. From the minute I knew Andrew, he made up compilation cassettes. I was always asking him what he was playing in his DJ sets, and he would make up mixes for me.

He was very generous about sharing and spreading the good word. I thanked him before for that generosity and curation, but he wouldn’t ask for anything back.

That’s a big thing. He did so much legwork in listening to music, as he was happy to curate and share with people. That’s a nice thing I remember him for, and I’m grateful I got to see him the year before he died, with Denise Johnston. They were together when I saw them. It’s insane they’ve gone.

I was speaking to her, a week before she passed away, and again, it’s like a cognitive dissonance. They were in Edinburgh, and it was lovely to see them both – Denise and I had separate poems published in a book, put together by a poet called Stephen Watt.

It doesn’t seem real; I can’t quite get my head around it. It’s hard to accept, I suppose it’s denial, but it’s hard to fully accept; they were so young. Really sad.

This album will be your first since social media became such a massive part of life. How has the initial feedback of the new songs been for you?

It’s been really nice, it’s nice when the feedback is nice, but I feel as though I’ve been quite spoiled with lovely feedback, pretty much across the board. There’s not been anything horrible said to me. It’s lovely, and while you can’t please everyone all the time, there’s a lot of love out there.

There’s been some great quotes and posts, and from people I respect, so that’s been really good.

You’re doing a Twitter Listening Party once the album is out – they’ve been great haven’t they? Are you looking forward to that?

They are, I’m really looking forward to that, I’ll need to do my homework.

While you’ve sang new material at a concert in the Hebrides, you admit you’re hesitant about a full return to the live scene. Do you think the acceptance of streamed shows will be of benefit to acts like yourself who would prefer to avoid touring?

Definitely. I should be able to do some sort of stream. It won’t replace live gigs, but it’s another way, and it’s good, it’s another avenue to connect with people. It opens another nice creative angle.

You said on Twitter that you already have three songs in place for the next album. Are you working towards that now?

The next project, yes. I’ve been working away on that; I like to stay ahead of myself. Also, alongside the album, there should be a little seven inch coming out, a double A-side, but I don’t think we’ve got a date for that yet.

And to finish things off, how are you feeling about returning to the world of music?

I feel it’s nice to be making things again. It’s rewarding to create something out of nothing. I’m a little bit tentative as it’s been a while and I’m naturally a shy person. I’m going into it quite gently, incrementally going back into it, and I’m getting used to it all again. It’s been a while, but I am enjoying it.

Heart-Shaped Scars is released on 30th July on SA Recordings

All photo credits: Essy Syed

A version of this interview first appeared in the July 2021 issue of SNACK. You can order a physical copy of the magazine here.

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