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A typically self-deprecating humorous line from Madam’s Sukie Smith sets the tone for an entertaining, insightful and informative chat. Madam’s second album “Gone Before Morning” has been reviewed favourably in more places than you could shake the proverbial stick at – one of those places being Mudkiss Fanzine of course.

LEE: How long did “Gone Before Morning” take to get together and what was the process around it?

SUKIE: The process was quite protracted. We were approached by Peter Gabriel’s studio – he was curating this thing for Bowers and Wilkins (prominent loudspeaker company). They wanted to find twelve artists to offer them a free album to their music club “Society Of Sound”. They wanted to find artists who were unclassifiable, genre less, or genre-busting or whatever that word is. We were approached to be one of the twelve artists. Bowers and Wilkins paid for a week at Peter Gabriel’s studio. You have to give them an original album for a certain amount of time so they can give it to their club – what they were championing were lossless downloads. People with these lovely big speakers were getting really upset with the whole download crunching of MP3’s, so they decided they would go for lossless files. The album was very popular, it was quite flattering.

After this I got the files back from the project, raised quite a bit of money from Pledge Music  - got back into a London studio and remixed a couple of tracks, added backing vocals, keyboards, other stuff. Recorded a track that we hadn’t had time to do at Real World, and then put it together to make an album that I released on my own label – because Reveal Records (the label who released Madam’s debut album “In Case Of Emergency”) had folded by then, which was traumatic! I put Shilling Boy Records together and released it, put a team together around that album and had to do the best I could that way. It was a long process to get it out into the world.

LEE: “Someone In Love “and “Cover The Ground” were recorded with a different line-up to the rest of the album. Was this a conscious effort to change the style within the album?

SUKIE: No. That was because oddly – even though we recorded “Someone In Love” at Real World Studios, I’d recorded it a long time before – no one knows this, this is an exclusive (laughs). Dave Morgan and Chris Clarke from The Rockingbirds were on that track. It was recorded by Brian O’Shaughnessy who has a studio up in Walthamstow – he’s recorded “Screamadelica” and lots of Creation stuff. “Cover The Ground” was recorded with the people I was remixing stuff with – Chris Clarke and Robin Baynton – the engineer who worked with us at Real World – he came in and worked with Chris to sort out the files, but we got him to play harmonium on the track because he wanted to be involved in the recording in some way. It wasn’t a conscious effort to make it a different recording but it wasn’t something I was frightened of. I thought they would probably all sit together as well as they do. Does that sound really arrogant? “I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE FINE!” (laughs).

LEE: Did you have the arrangements in your head before you visited the studio, or was it a cumulative effort – or were the songs written in the studio?

SUKIE: I’ve never done that, and I look forward to doing that, but everything was rehearsed really tightly. We did arrange stuff in rehearsal – because I knew it was going to be a week long process to record and mix everything. We’re a six piece band – five when we worked down there – it was going to be a military precision deal with a lot of organisation. We rehearsed massively before we got down there and recorded it like a session, and lots of it was taken live. So this album is much more representative of what we sound like live – “In Case Of Emergency” was much more a studio kind of project.

LEE: During the rehearsals, did you bring the arrangements to the band?

SUKIE: What I do is cherry-pick what they offer me, but what I start off doing is to try to create a proper big atmosphere that they can work to. I’m glad that they can bear it because you can sound like such a twat talking about the atmosphere you might want to create! Or you start to talk about – not necessarily what the song is about but you start giving them the imagery of the song and you hope that they have the creativity in them – which they do – that takes this into something musical. From that I’ll be saying “That’s amazing, can I have more of that, bring that in.....” I’ll go back to the chord stuff in rehearsals and work out what goes with what, what shouldn’t be the arrangements are finalised in my head, but sometimes, especially this album, they have been brought to life by rehearsing the band.

LEE: The creation of the atmosphere – is this where your acting background comes in – is this the step where acting and music merge?

SUKIE: Maybe – also the idea of thinking visually about a song as well. I’ve read a lot of interviews with people who talk about that who probably haven’t got a similar background to me. I definitely think of songs visually. I think of them as little stories or films, and if something isn’t working in a song I’ll try to inhabit it in my mind as a picture and work out what it is that isn’t being said in the music that needs to come out of the song, so that it is translatable by somebody listening to it. I don’t know if it is because I have another discipline, but I’m not frightened of thinking about it like that. I used to be really scared of the whole connection of acting and music because I thought one way or another that acting took away from the sincerity of the musical ambition, but I’m getting over that now because everybody else is – it’s kind of less “illegal”. Does that make sense?

LEE: Do you feel that when you’re working with actors and musicians there is a different mindset and approach between the two?

SUKIE: It depends what you’re doing. I’ve done projects that are to do with me being an actor which are collaborative and maybe improvisational – much more creative – like working with Mike Leigh (in “Topsy Turvy”) or working on “Lawless Heart” (2002 – directed by Tom Hunsinger & Neil Hunter) which was completely improvised. That has a lot to do with the same bit of brain that you use when you are putting together a song or trying to create with musicians. Especially as I’m not particularly technical with music – you can sit in some bands and they start “jamming” – whatever that fucking means (laughs). “It’s ‘E’ man!”. I don’t know any of that. I can do things by ear but I haven’t got an intellect for music I don’t think. Sometimes as an actor I’m just serving somebody else’s vision, and I really appreciate it if somebody’s doing that for me in my band if that’s what I need them to do. If someone has got a true vision and I have to serve that, I will – but if it’s more collaborative I think it’s more like our band is evolving – led by me but becoming more fluid. More collaborative, but with a very strong vision from me.

LEE: Have you ever brought an atmosphere to the band and then they have taken the song in a completely different direction, to the point where their version was an improvement on what you originally intended?

SUKIE: Not yet – maybe that will happen, but not yet. I don’t know if that is because I haven’t allowed it, but there’s a reason this band is called Madam! (Laughs).

LEE: “The Snake” – your interpretation of Al Wilson’s original. Was it your idea to change the arrangement in that way – and what made you take it from it’s Northern Soul base to something quite sinister?

SUKIE: I think it’s sinister – that’s a really good word for it. It’s a song that I really, really love. There are about ten songs in the world that make me respond in a kind of hysterical joyous way, I guess. I was talking to someone the other day and saying that “White Rabbit”  by Jefferson Airplane was one that made me go “Wahey! What’s That? Play It Again!” – and his version of “The Snake” always made me do that. Thinking about what a song it was – maybe the writer didn’t mean it to be like that and I wondered what it would be like. That is more what I think my background as an actor means – that I might have approached the lyric as a kind of poem that wasn’t served in the right way. Musically the original is fucking faultless – it’s just brilliant.

LEE: Don’t mean to sound gushy but I prefer your version.

SUKIE: That’s ridiculous! But they sound like two different songs now. I wish the writers would have heard our song (composer Oscar Brown Junior died in 2005, Al Wilson in 2008) – I don’t know whether it would have pleased them. But thank you that’s a lovely thing to say!

LEE: The other song I thought was extremely sinister was “Cover The Ground” – but then I wondered if it was a metaphor for baring your soul through your art.

SUKIE: Thank you for that, but I think it’s just as brutal as you think it is! Somebody was saying the other day they wanted to do a really nice promo for it in this Victorian lecture theatre for surgeries – near Southwark there’s this preserved amphitheatre – and they said – “It’s about someone bearing their guts” – and I replied “No – it’s about someone having their guts spilt!” I’ve been listening to a lot of CocoRosie and I was trying to write something before my bass player was coming round to rehearse. I was playing this song, trying to make it sound cute - and I said “I think I’ve got this” and I played “Cover The Ground” to him. It wouldn’t have lasted if it wasn’t for him saying “It’s horrible! It’s brilliant!” No, it isn’t a metaphor.

LEE: What did you bring to the table as per any music you may have been listening to prior to the album? Any particular styles, singers that may have come into your head when you were thinking of the arrangements? 

SUKIE: No, and I’ve realised that’s what I don’t do what a lot of other people do – they bring to their musicians as a shortcut – “it should sound like this band” – I don’t.  I’ve got a right answer in my head – is that true? Was I listening to anything specific? I don’t think I was. I’ve got things I listen to and what I think are magical and things that make me feel brave enough to do what I want to do. Like a Phil Spector song where there’s an extraordinarily stupid sound of seagulls or something.  That actually sounds pretty amazing- but I haven’t got music that I reference while I’m ready.

LEE: A lot of musicians – the music they record doesn’t necessarily tally with the music they listen to day to day.

SUKIE: No that’s true. I don’t particularly listen to anything that sounds like us. I listen to a lot of the Pixies over and over again because I think they’re outstandingly inspiring. I listen to Fever Ray – I think she’s brilliant, that girl from The Knife. You hear in her all these things you’re not meant to like – like “Addicted To Love” (Robert Palmer) – you can hear she’s totally nicked rhythm tracks – and Kanye West. I read an interview where she said she liked all these people and I heard it in her music – aha! It’s her little secret. I was listening to Serafina Steer who writes music on a harp. I’ve been trying to educate myself into more sleazy sound because I do want that for my band – but I’m stymied a bit because I play a nylon string guitar. Not stymied, but I sometimes want a guitar chord change or something a bit more dirty or riffy and I don’t play it like that. So I’ve been trying to write on the bass now because it’s easier for me to recreate – I’ve been trying to learn some of the bass lines from The Gun Club – I thought they were geniuses.

I listen to a lot of David Bowie and I listen to a lot of folk singers – like Joan Armatrading and people like that – but I was trying to get more of an understanding of something musically recognisable as dirty, so I’ve been trying to teach myself that. I don’t know what you asked me now – I’ve gone off completely!

LEE: Are you in the process of writing the next album – will we hear the songs live before you go into the studio?

SUKIE: That’s starting now. We played quite recently – we played five new songs that’ll be on the new album – however that gets done. At the moment I can’t work out how to do it – but yes, definitely live – that’s where it’s going to change. The third album – assuming there is one – will be a combination of the tightness of this band – hopefully that we all stay together – but with all the stuff on “In Case Of Emergency” I ended up making in the studio. I hope the third album is a really good combination of both of those.

LEE: Stylistically are you following on from “Gone Before Morning” or are you taking a completely different route?

SUKIE: I don’t know – not on purpose. I’ll wait and see what people think when it’s all ready. At the same time of course you move on. I can’t write about the same things. I’m writing – a little more storytelling as opposed to always being in first person writing the songs.

LEE: Was the first person always necessarily you?

Yes, it was always me in every single song.

LEE: There seem to be quite a few references to water in “Gone Before Morning”.

SUKIE: Yes I know! I didn’t do that on purpose! By the end of the third album they will be coming out the middle of that mud (laughs) . I grew up next to the sea – the Thames Estuary – so it’s not surprising that it’s in my head. “Marine Boy” was about the reservoir that’s up in Walthamstow. It’s irresistible isn’t it? Sea and water and being by a river – it’s completely transforming immediately when you stand by it. When you analyse “In Case Of Emergency” it seems to be a lot about transport in a sort of dreamscape – and “Gone Before Morning” seems to be more about the earth, or at least the sea anyway. Don’t know where this third one’s gonna go – lots of ghost stuff, spirits – don’t know yet.

LEE: Do you consider yourself psychic?

SUKIE: Don’t know. Might do. I might have seen a ghost dog. I once spoke to this woman about her two dogs running down the drive after my car – she said one of them died the other day – so there should have been one – but I definitely saw two.

LEE: Has anyone you know ever recognised themselves in your songs?

SUKIE: They’re really personal aren’t they! I think I leave it a long time before I write about anybody. Either we don’t speak and I can write whatever I want, or there’s that fudging thing where I say – “No that’s not specific – it could be about lots of different people” – ha ha! No, I don’t think many people know it’s them. Anyway if the songs are around for a little while you can’t keep that person in your mind. You may not care about them anymore or they’ve changed. I guess they become a generic person after a while. 

Lee McFadden 1/11/11