In 2014, Liverpool band Bird came to an abrupt end, due to legal reasons arising from their name. Two members left shortly afterwards, but for singer Adéle Emmas and Christian Sandford on guitar and synths, there was “no question” of not continuing in music together. Bird had released an album, My Fear And Me, had toured Europe, played Liverpool Music Week, Festival No. 6 and the BBC 6Music Festival, and received critical acclaim from all quarters, in addition to airplay on BBC Radio 1 and 2. Emmas and Sandford had a track record and proven success and, fuelled by a belief that if it ain’t broke there isn’t anything to fix, the pair dusted themselves off and cracked on, under the name Feral Love. Yet, because the band was so suddenly and dramatically ‘halved’ and reduced to a duo, they were prevented from exploring further along the dark and atmospheric post-punk alleyways that Bird were known for, by the introduction of a drum machine and samples which, in Adéle’s words, “forced” them to follow a different creative path.
“The way we were writing, a lot of the instrumentation we were using didn’t feel natural to how we play music,” explains Christian. “And the name.”
“We had to change our name by a certain date so we picked the name Feral Love. We had a couple of ideas, but that one seemed to stick. We did a few gigs and brought out a single [Like The Wind on Edge Hill University’s The Label Recordings]. We went to Canada last year and played POP Montreal festival under the Feral Love name. But it never felt right,” Adéle adds. “The wildness I quite liked! But people from cat sanctuaries kept commenting on our Facebook, which was hilarious. There was one woman in particular from a sanctuary called For Cat’s Sake, or something. I think we messaged once explaining it was a music page, not cats, but she carried on. ‘I love cats! Do you love cats?’”
The hunt for a new moniker was on. Adéle went away on holiday over Christmas 2016, taking with her a copy of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Jude The Obscure. First published in serial form in 1894, the book explores Victorian conventions around marriage and religion, and how the rules of social class restrict freedoms. The hero dies – well, it is Thomas Hardy, after all – and, though it may not strike you as being typical festive reading material, Adéle was struck by the romance of the book’s title, combining it with a saintly reference to come up with their new name: ST. JUDE THE OBSCURE.
“He’s [Jude] quite a downtrodden person, isn’t he?” chimes in Christian. “I think that fits well with us. Not that we’re downtrodden people, but we do sometimes enjoy the more miserable side of music… miserable-sounding music. It’s reflective, isn’t it? Even though our songs can be positive and uplifting, they have undertones [of sadness].”
SJTO’s songs are things of melancholic beauty, and it is from literature that lyricist Adéle finds most of her inspiration. She cites Sylvia Plath as a touchstone, and Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes’ famous collection of poetry written in response to Plath’s suicide and their explosive marriage, plus the work of Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. Of Kerouac, “Reading the Beat Generation writers has come quite late to me,” she confesses. “I’m reading The Dharma Bums and that makes me want to go off on my travels, and write and live that kind of life. I love reading and I love poetry, and lyrics are a massive thing for me… but words have always been important. I got lost for a little while and forgot how important words were to me, but I feel I’m back there now. We try and write every day, and not just music – I’m finding that inspirational. I’d like to do something with the poetry I write at some point too. The words feed their way into the music.”
“I’m big into lyrics even though I’ve never been a lyric writer,” adds Christian. “I like the pictures that get painted, and the romanticism.”
With three tracks to show for their new efforts as St. Jude The Obscure so far – Wonders Of Youth, Wreckage and Ruins – the continuation from Feral Love is obvious, exemplified by the use of electronic instrumentation, samples and a definite pop sensibility, all of which are especially evident in Wreckage. But Adéle insists we shouldn’t expect the band to stay preserved in aspic; there are subtle changes afoot. “I think we’ve done a bit of a turnaround because we were halved [as a band] and forced to use samples and things, but now we’re reining it in to a more organic sound in the stuff coming out in the next six months to a year.”
“Working electronically was good and we’ve learnt a lot doing that and we’re still keeping that with the St. Jude stuff,” says Christian, picking up the thread. “[But] the new project’s a lot more organic, we use a lot fewer samples. We use real drums on things, fewer vocal layers and it’s more about the main vocal melody.”
As for the newer material currently being worked on, Adéle reveals that they’ve found a place which is a lot more sparse. “We’ve had a realisation: with past stuff, we’ve thrown too much stuff at it, whereas you can strip a song down and be on to something good. Having the bare bones of the song and letting the lyrics and the vocals shine through. That’s not in every case but I feel it’s where we’re at, at the moment. Asking things like, ‘Do we really need that part? Is it really necessary?’”
St. Jude The Obscure released more material in July, a 30-minute “mini-mix tape EP type of thing,” as Christian describes it. Singles And Obscurities carries the first three St. Jude singles, plus demos and covers, and is released on cassette tape only. Cassettes are coming out of the shadows once again, the format once on one hand derided for lack of listener quality and on the other cherished for that DIY aesthetic. Why the decision to release only on cassette?
“There are loads of reasons behind it,” Christian asserts. “People want something physical, and I read an article saying that people are buying vinyl at the minute but a high percentage don’t have record players. So, it’s an acknowledgement of that, that no one has cassette players!”
There’s that, Adéle concedes, but also: “It was a way of being creative with the songs we’ve put out so far. Because we use Christian’s tape player to record little demos and things, it was to mould it all together and be creative. We’ve worked together for such a long time now, we know each other really well. We both bring a certain something to the table.”
This twosome’s long association as musical partners has helped to refine their songwriting process, but Christian admits that he still likes the variety. “Sometimes Adéle will just write a song completely on her own at home on a piano; then other times we can be playing together and ideas start forming that then turn into songs – there’s so many ways to do it. How many ways are there to skin a chicken?”
Adéle starts. “Skin a chicken? We can’t say that, two vegetarians! Can’t we say… skin an aubergine, or something?”
It’s only on the way home from our meeting that I realise, it’s ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’ that Christian meant. It might not make their cat fanatic friends on their Facebook page happy, but St. Jude The Obscure understand the restorative qualities of reinvention. The third chapter of their particular story is only just beginning, and it’s got us gripped already.
St. Jude The Obscure also play the Bido Lito! Social at 81 Renshaw on 17th August. The event is free for Bido Lito! Members.