Love — and its bleaker flipside — are the staples of pop music. Think of Ariana Grande’s recent single “thank u, next.” But great breakup albums are few and far between. The standard bearers are Joni Mitchell’s classic Blue, a song cycle of love and loss; Fleetwood Mac’s epic, multi-couple document of dysfunction, Rumours; and Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, a dialogue between the two artists in the midst of an ugly divorce. These were released in 1971, 1977, and 1982, respectively.
C Duncan, the openly gay Scottish indie pop musician, adds another spectacular breakup record to this illustrious canon with his third release, Health. It touches on more than just the end of a struggling relationship, but its exquisite structure is buoyed by the aches and pains of l’amour fou as much as it is by the infectious pop hooks and choral singing that have fast become the trademark of this rising, iconoclastic artist.
The lushness of the songs are belied by the darkness that weaves and challenges their pristine surfaces. From the up-tempo opener “Talk Talk Talk” and its deconstruction of the usefulness of communication, to the stately Pet Shop Boys groove of “Impossible,” to the heartbreaking yet hopeful “He Came from the Sun,” inspired by the purging of gay men in Chechnya yet lighter and more empowering than you can imagine, C Duncan channels his formidable compositional talents into a music he gladly acknowledges as “baroque choral indie pop.”
C Duncan arrived on the music scene fully-formed in 2015 with his Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Architect, followed in 2016 by the sci-fi influenced The Midnight Sun. Hornet got him on the phone prior to the release of Health.
Here is our chat with C Duncan ahead of his third album, Health:
HORNET: I hear that you’re on vacation and you’re waiting to drink your Prosecco until we finish this interview.
C DUNCAN: I am, but I’ve actually had a glass, so yeah.
Oh, please, have some more. Are you in Scotland or are you somewhere else?
No, I’m in Scotland. My partner and I decided just before the album came out that we’d have two days away about two hours away from home, so we’re just going to relax, use the pool, drink Prosecco and that’s pretty much it.
You grew up in Scotland, and your parents were classical musicians?
Yes, they were. They both still are. My mother is a viola player, and my dad’s a violinist.
They were in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra?
They were and then they ended up teaching after they had my brother and me. Then last year they both retired, but they’re still playing in string quartets and doing concerts here and there.
So it was sort of predetermined for you to move into music on one level or another?
Yeah, it was. It’s funny, when I was growing up I always tried to fight it, because you always want to do something totally different to what your parents are doing, but as I got towards the end of school I realized that, yeah, I’m kind of destined to be a musician as well.
You went to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland?
Yep. When I got to the conservatoire I had already been writing and recording pop songs for years from the age of 13 or whatever. I did write a lot of classical music, but it’s a very open place. So they appreciate pop music as much as they appreciate classical music. And it kind of got me thinking, or gave me the confidence to think, “Well, I don’t just have to do classical,” you know? ‘Pop music,’ in inverted commas, is very respected as well, and that gave me the confidence boost to continue working on pop stuff and try and develop that as well as my classical music.
Then, on a whim, you sent your demos to FatCat?
One night I’d finished studying, and I was working in a post office at the time, and I thought, “I actually really, really want to do this for a living, be a musician.” So I reached out to all the record labels that I liked, and there were two in particular — FatCat, because in the past they had Animal Collective and Sigur Rós, and loads of bands that I listened to, and the other one was One Little Indian that Björk’s on — and so I only sent the demos off to those two, and FatCat immediately got back to me.
How long did it take between when you sent that demo to the release of your debut, Architect?
About two years. It was a long process then of writing the songs, and FatCat just basically left me to spend as much time as I wanted making the record.
I’m a huge fan of Architect and The Midnight Sun, which you did on your own, but Health was produced by Craig Potter of Elbow. How did he get involved?
Before we came to the States, me and my band actually did a tour with Elbow around the UK, so we’d already started to get to know them quite a bit, and then when we were in the States, I was hanging out with them all the time. We got to know Craig really well, and it just seemed like a natural progression for me and my music.
What did he provide to you for Health that you didn’t necessarily know you needed?
Mostly creating space in my music, because the way I record, I tend to layer things like crazy. I’ve got hundreds of vocals and loads of different parts going on, which is great fun to do, but it becomes quite sort of mushy-sounding, whereas what Craig’s amazing at is keeping all those parts in, but creating the space so you can hear what’s going on, you can hear every individual part.
The phrase “baroque indie pop” is bandied about quite a bit to describe your music. How do you feel about that?
I think that’s quite cool! I don’t really know how to describe my music because I guess it’s hard for anyone who makes music to describe themselves, but certainly that seems fairly correct. Maybe “baroque choral indie pop.”
For The Midnight Sun, the jumping-off point for you for that was The Twilight Zone, and then some musical influences — Cocteau Twins, Broadcast, Stereolab and Air. What was the initial inspiration for Health, and what are the touchstones here?
When people are asking about this record, I don’t actually really know … I can’t pinpoint anything in particular that inspired it. With The Midnight Sun there was one sound for the whole record, which was intentional, but that was drawing inspiration from all sorts of electronic music. You can hear what I was trying to do, I guess, and what my inspirations were. But with this record, there have been loads of things — like, yacht rock has been something I’ve been listening to quite a bit, and Japanese city pop, kind of ’80s, very clean-sounding pop music. But I guess there is also quite a lot of classical imprinted in the new record. Quite a lot of Romantic composers and slight Impressionist things in there.
You described The Midnight Sun as “icy melancholia.” Health is a breakup album, but it’s so lush and warm, like looking into a new lover’s inviting eyes. And then to find out that it’s actually about the end of something, that juxtaposition is extraordinary. What would you call the sound of this album?
I find it quite hard to answer that, because I don’t really know how I would call it. It essentially nurtured me back to health. It was just very cathartic to write songs and delve into songs. I would use this album as a form of, I guess, therapy, in a weird sort of way.
Lyrically, it’s very measured. It’s sad, but it’s also very optimistic and romantic beyond belief.
I spent so much time with the lyrics and with the songs. You spend so much time thinking about something, because you’re also writing a song about it; it turns over in your head a lot, and it kind of takes you from irrational back to rational. Because you’re then forcing yourself to think about it.
Is that how you came to “He Came From the Sun”?
Yeah, that was one of the tracks. And that was a breakup song, with other things in it, that came out of a lot of time thinking about it.
The original inspiration came from the anti-gay purge that was happening in Chechnya, yet there’s something extraordinarily inspirational about how the song gets to that swelling chorale of multi-tracked C Duncans defiantly proclaiming the power to show the world “who I really am.” This song is defining. Do you have other songs on the record that are especially redolent emotionally for you?
Yeah, certainly that one. The other one’s probably “Reverie.” Those are the two that whenever I hear them or I hear other people listen to them, I feel something, which after all the time having listened to the songs, you tend to become a bit numb to them.
When I was growing up, openly gay musicians were rare. In the last 10 years it’s been amazing to watch this change that’s occurred across the board from straight-on indie pop, like Years and Years, Troye Sivan and artists of that ilk to Grizzly Bear and Jónsi from Sigur Rós. What do you feel about this strain in pop music?
I’m very excited, particularly that the indie pop world is becoming more and more — I wouldn’t say accepting, but a lot more people are more interested in talking about things like sexuality, because when I was growing up … I’m trying to think … it’s been hard. Apart from Jónsi from Sigur Rós, that’s the only one I was listening to at the time that I knew was openly gay, and it didn’t really ever creep into the music or was really spoken about, so it was a funny one. So I think it’s great now that you have a lot of people like John Grant and Douglas Dare, who are making music out of the intent of having lyrics that gay people can relate to.
Where do you feel that you’ll fit in on this continuum?
I would like to think that I’d fit in just as another artist in a growing collection of queer people making alternative music. Someone who maybe hasn’t come out of the closet, they can listen to songs and relate, and the more songs like that there are, the better it is. The more people there are being who we are, the less alone you feel, and that’s just where I want to fit in, as someone else who’s been through it, and if people listen to my music it can hopefully help in some way.