Tuesday 12 December 2017

King Creosote

Success: King Creosote and his Diamond
Mine collaborator Jon Hopkins
Success: King Creosote and his Diamond Mine collaborator Jon Hopkins
Ed Power

Ed Power

Kenny Anderson is a tiny, bearded man -- you could call him 'gnomelike' if you wanted to be cheap about it -- who wears tea-cosy hats, likes his beer warm and writes the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful songs you've ever heard.

He is, in other words, a churning milk-barrel of contradictions, which probably explains why, until last year, the Scottish singer was so anonymous not even his neighbours had any idea what he did for a living.

That all changed when, collaborating with London electronica composer Jon Hopkins, he released a sublime folk album called Diamond Mine and was nominated for the Mercury prize.

He almost won, too, if the backstage chatter's to be believed.

"I got a text the very next day from someone at my old record label, saying 'you guys were pretty close," remembers Anderson slightly wide-eyed, as if recalling a dream in which he travelled to the moon.

"I think he must have known one of the judges.

"I'm not saying we came second. I'm pretty certain we were there in the final shake-up.

"I remember on the day of the ceremony, there was a flurry of late betting in Scotland and our odds shortened considerably.

"Then a Guardian poll said we should be the winner. You start thinking, 'hang on... is something about to happen here?'"

In his position most musicians would have been gutted to lose to PJ Harvey, an artist already with a Mercury on her mantelpiece and not exactly starved of publicity.

A born underdog, Anderson's take is completely different.

"The week after the awards, we were playing a show in Scotland and someone at the back shouted 'you were robbed!'," he says.

"But it felt great to still be the small guy.

"I know my place in life. I've never felt comfortable as a winner. My entire career is about consistently trying to be better than average, about occasionally sticking your head above the parapet.

"If we'd won, that would have changed. And I'd have all of these PJ Harvey fans coming down hard on me."

You wonder about that.

Diamond Mine is a lovely album and surely not even the most besotted Peej devotee could have begrudged Creosote a Mercury.

Unusually for a successful record it's also nakedly experimental, with lots of ambient weirdness and some pretty soppy tracks penned by Anderson about his daughter.

As it happens, neither he nor Hopkins had much faith in the project's commercial appeal at the start of the process.

In fact, they suspected that their record label, Rough Trade, might tell them to go back and re-record it.

"We wanted to make an album for ourselves and when you go down that self indulgent route it is usually career suicide," he says.

"We didn't expect [Rough Trade] to take it. You think ... well, we love it but our taste is never right.

"We actually had a plan to put it out ourselves in the event it was rejected."

Not exactly dripping self-belief, are you Kenny?

"Well, our previous albums were all tweaked in some way by the label.

"Obviously they know what they are doing to a point. When they tell you that, in order to get on radio, a track has to be three minutes 13 seconds, that the chorus has to come in before a minute ... you fall into the trap of thinking you should play by the rules.

"Then you make an album that ignores all the rules and, lo and behold, it's the one that breaks though. I don't know what to think of that."

Diamond Mine features 'found sounds' from Fife, captured on tape by Hopkins on one of his sojourns up from London.

He amassed reels of material, then delved into Anderson's catalogue of unrecorded songs, selecting excerpts he felt fitted the mood of the recordings.

He has always had a definite ear for the songs of mine he likes," says King Creosote.

"He has no qualms going into my trove of stuff and saying 'I want this or that one'.

"A lot of the songs he picked were about my life in Fife. I think he has quite a romantic idea of what it's like to live here.

"He's mostly here during the summer. He definitely only sees one side of it."

Anderson's a chipper sort, flinty and self-deprecating.

You sense that, before Diamond Mine, life was a bit of a struggle.

He has, it is true, always had a fan-base, pulling a decent crowd whenever he played small venues such as the now-defunct Crawdaddy in Dublin.

He's also curator of a respected underground record label and songwriting circle, the Fence Collective, which had nurtured talents such as KT Tunstall and Irish troubadour Adrian Crowley.

For all that, the picture he presents of life pre-Mercury is grim: endless toilet-circuit tours, records that came and went, remembered by nobody but Anderson (he's put out the best part of 30 long-players in under a decade).

"There was one point where I was bemoaning my lot," he says.

"I was on the road a great deal and not really breaking even, travelling far and wide and getting sick of being away from home.

"Of course, then I'd come home and feel the need to be away once more. Everything was in flux."

At his lowest ebb, he had an epiphany.

Looking out of his living room window one morning, he saw a man sitting on a settee in the middle of the street, wreathed in smoke.

"I went out and asked who he was and he said his name was John Taylor and that he was a long-shore fisherman.

"I'd been having quite romantic notions about fishing and the sea at that point.

"I asked him what his job entailed and he set me straight pretty quickly.

"These guys work two weeks on, two weeks off and when they're home all they do is get pissed and dread going back to the sea.

"This guy... he'd gotten pissed and burned his house down and was sitting outside waiting for the fire brigade.

"There were certain parallels with my job -- the being away from home and all that.

"The difference is that, for him work meant being tossed around in waves off the coast of Iceland. For me it meant going out and singing some songs.

"It was a real slap in the face. A reminder how lucky I was."

Kenny is older brother of Gordon Anderson, a somewhat infamous figure in Scottish music.

Founder of the Beta Band, Anderson began suffering hallucinations early in that group's history and came to believe he was possessed.

He ended up in a psychiatric institution receiving electro-shock treatment (he was diagnosed as schizophrenic but, in a 2007 interview, insisted he was actually a victim of demonic possession).

King Creosote has collaborated with his brother and is clearly fond of him. Still, you get the impression he is rather confounded by his troubled sibling.

"My brother is very difficult to frighten.

"All his life he has basically gotten into scrapes ... He's a cheeky little git. He relies heavily in his natural talent.

"He'll never go near any work that is any way painful. He doesn't knuckle down.

"Which, at some point, is what you have to do in music. You have to just go and do these laborious things like touring.

"He's never going to do that. It's his downfall. But he has these weird flashes of genius that the rest of us almost never get."

King Creosote and Jon Hopkins play Vicar Street Dublin tonight

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