Alison Goldfrapp: Felt Mountain - A Strange & Beautiful Place
Alison Goldfrapp has a spiky reputation that precedes her - a halo of cool knowingness that translated to some rather nervous body language at Goldfrapp's Queen Elizabeth Hall headline show last year. Despite this, she delivered a spirited and compelling performance that made it quite clear this was a band that was just getting the bit between its teeth, promising an exciting future. This may be in part due to the vast ambition shown in their debut album that garnered about as many glowing reviews any group could wish for. Yet on the day of our meeting things aren't going well with my recordable Mini Disc that's just died moments before Ms Goldfrapp's due to make an appearance. However, her record label Mute obviously relishes a challenge and the people there have kindly set up a microphone to a DAT machine in one of their studios. (I have two sound engineers helping me, for god's sake!) They promise me they can burn a copy on to CD afterwards - this being the home of Depeche Mode and Moby, I'm greatly impressed by such amiable generosity. Discovering my new female, sound engineer friend is called Heidi (I kid you not) and here to talk about a fictitious mountain is obviously a good omen. Relieved by this upturn in events, I'm even more relieved to find Alison in a talkative (if slightly combative) mood. However, I make the mistake of complimenting the QEH show which she obviously found stressful - but more on that later.
The brainchild of film and TV composer Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, 'Felt Mountain' is a startling debut laced with sinister plots and dark corners - an LSD-induced 'Alice Through The Looking Glass' with a James Bond soundtrack. Alison Goldfrapp's early art school experience still fuels her imagination and her imagery. The new single 'Human' features a disturbing David Lynchian video with Alison playing a voyeuristic chambermaid peering onto an orgy between the cracks in the wardrobe. The characters in this slightly disturbing drama are businessmen and cheap hookers in a seedy liaison, and she grins at the scene with some cheeky relish. Yet any correlation between this scene and the songs lyrics is purely coincidental, "I think you can be quite literal with videos and they usually end up being pretty boring if you do a direct narrative, or stick to the narrative of the song. I think they don't usually work - I don't think it's necessary." The song's actual meaning turns out to be far darker and more unpleasant than any pseudo film noir sub plot, "I was thinking 'Human' is about an orgiastic idea - whether that's sex or whatever - it's kind of a slightly unpleasant feeling about someone and, because they are so grotesque, as to whether they are actually human or not."
Possibly the darkest track on the album, 'Human' is a mixture of sinister metaphors and a fuzzy Latin groove. Percussion heavy and set in a minor key, Alison's Edith Piaf-inspired tones are menacing to say the least, lowering the dynamics to a whisper on the verse, her words ask uncomfortable questions in an almost seductive tone. "You know you can read what you want into it, basically. The thing about the songs is that there are lots of ideas that run simultaneously and no song is ever just about one thing. If it's a love song, it's probably about something else as well - do you know what I mean? There are lots of different themes in there and there are also things that are very personal. I think when you're writing and you're making music you're trying to create a different reality. You're kind of playing with ideas and maybe personal things as well things that are just purely fantasy or whatever."
Alison's word play and associations fly from many frames of reference - both surreal and heart-rendingly sincere in the same breathe - you'd be advised to open your imagination to realm of possibilities. This contradictory logic is best encrypted by the title itself - 'Felt Mountain' - overwhelmingly huge, cold and intimidating, yet made from a substance that is forever associated with pastel-coloured shapes stuck to a green background - yes, Fuzzy Felt. "It was inspired by Fuzzy Felt", confirms Alison with a chuckle, "I'm really in to felt. Felt is a sort of multi-purpose material that's used for children's toys; it's used for insulation and has a children's story, kind of… I don't know loads of stuff, and Joseph Boyce - felt was a big thing in his life, or not - depending on he was telling the truth or not, seems to really know. So it's kind of like a fantasy place that's a mountain made of felt, which is completely stupid. [Smirking] I like the idea of it, anyway."
After years of making music with other people, Goldfrapp and Gregory's new unshackled artistic freedom has inspired a fevered reaction from the public and critics - 'Felt Mountain' made 'Q' magazine's top 50 albums of last year - only three months after its release. Yet this critical accent was both unexpected and not without its moments of nervous apprehension. Alison elaborates on her uncomfortable attitude at the QEH show, "Well, you have to realise that was very early on and the reason why I probably looked a bit tense was 'cos the whole of my fucking family were there! My brother, who I hadn't seen in about 10 years, mother, granny, aunty, er, sisters, siblings, which was just excruciating actually." Far from being falsely modest when it comes to comparisons with (whisper it) Portishead, she looks like she wants to knock my block off at the mention of their name - the thought that Goldfrapp might be even vaguely considered a musical 'phenomenon' makes her laugh out loud. "Well that's the first time I've heard that! [Laughs again] Oh Christ, I don't know, fuck - I don't really read press or the reviews. I did at first because I was quite excited and it was all a bit of a novelty, and you just think 'oh, what did they say?' and then very quickly I thought 'I don't want to know this stuff'. I don't wanna know someone being quite sycophantic and then somebody saying you're a pile of shit - either way it's not healthy [Laughs] and so I try and not get involved in that stuff. We'll probably take as long to write our second album as Portishead did - that's probably about as much as we've got in common I think [Laughs]. 'Cos we're pretty slow! And we like to ponder and stare out of the window, so…" Her piecing green eyes wander to the window in the corner of the studio, probably longing for some space away from this, the least exciting part of the creative process. Yet with an album cover decorated with a snow-covered, fairytale forest and a 'Sound Of Music'-sized mountain, the freedom and peace of the countryside are obviously important to the Goldfrapp recording process, "I mean it's great for working, because I find it really hard working in London. You know, everybody's just doing something, whereas when you're out in the country you can really focus on what you're doing - I mean you have that kind of headspace which I find really difficult to get London, plus I hate studios. It's really nice to look in the local paper and look at houses to rent and go and look at some scummy old bungalow and set up there. That's what's exciting about it, and setting up your own kind of environment, and you haven't got a bloody great clock ticking, telling you that you've got to stop at midnight or weird stuff like that."
Having created a world that's typified by soaring strings, boot stamps, harpsichords and an ethereal theramin voice effect, with Alison's shuddering, sultry vocals that rise to incandescent highs floating above, one would imagine this was a high tech, high concept project. Yet this is an organic project in its infancy - 'Felt Mountain' is just their first sonic sibling and its stark nine-song statement seems to have a natural full stop as the last note fades. Alison concurs, "I think that's how we felt about it. We had actually written some other tunes but decided not to put them on the album just because it felt like a very natural place to stop. In actual fact we were a bit worried about it, thinking oh, shit you know, people don't put 9 songs on their albums anymore, people put 18 on there! You know Black Sabbath did it, and the Stooges did it and various other people, so we were a bit worried about it, but Mute just said don't worry about it. And our friends said don't worry about it - if you feel that's where it ends, that's where it ends. We really did feel like that it had a beginning and a middle and an end and it just felt like a natural little thing, a little thing." With a firm handshake and a steely gaze, Alison Goldfrapp leaves a lasting impression that's as confusing and contradictory as her music, but when the music's this good, who gives a shit? She obviously doesn't.