“I really like dark things, like dark stuff,” confesses NATALIE MCCOOL as she battles with MelloMello’s jazz soundtrack and runs me through her lyrical tendencies. She explains the concept behind her song America, and the distinct narrative is both courageous and carefully sensitive:
“My tutor printed out this forum and gave it to me. It’s people talking about bringing back public executions – pay to watch. It was really interesting. America is meant to be such a free place, first world country, really humanitarian, but…” she leans back and grasps the air for the words, “…they have capital punishment. It’s interesting having these two sides. And that’s what the song’s about.”
Natalie McCool seems to be a musician of dichotomies. Her self-titled album (released in April this year) is highly charged and yet coolly relaxed and in person she is upbeat, talking animatedly about the almost palpable melancholia running through her writing, reminiscent of Jeff Buckley or Radiohead. I still can’t help but be surprised when this friendly-faced, vivacious music graduate tears down the world of pop, with the blunt strike of one word – vacuous. “It bugs me about music now – pop music is just completely vacuous.”
But she’s no stranger to controversy, describing herself as “dead political”, and her involvement in a protest against austerity cuts last October certainly did her career no harm – not a lot of 25-year-olds from Widnes can say they’ve played to an audience of 120,000 in Hyde Park. “We came out of the green room to a sea of people and I just looked at my guitarist like, ‘Oh! Holy shit!’ It was boss though, easily the biggest gig we’d done and we got loads of tweets afterwards and videos uploaded to YouTube; everyone was just in the right mood.”
Clearly this was a defining moment, but she pulls off the story with humility; as she does when talking us of each of her short career’s highlights so far:
“Bernard Butler played on Thin Air and I used to listen to Suede when I was nine years old and now he’s on my track and I’m like ‘Yeeeah!’,” she says, emanating the modest joy that her success has brought.
And yet, listening to her Live At Abbey Road EP – streaming exclusively for Bido Lito! now at bidolito.co.uk – it is clear that Natalie has a precise, confident sense of her musical self and aims for her songs to never fall victim to the “rudimentary finger-picking” she criticises.
For an artist who performs live with a full band and aspires to create music that is both “really interesting rhythmically and harmonically: the rhythm of the guitar will inspire the rhythm of the lyrics and the rest of the instruments”, this solo offering provided a different challenge, perfectly demonstrated by the image of a solitary ancient amp sitting in the legendary studio.
Size Zero shines through on the release with its mournful, honest melody – delay giving an almost cinematic, haunting quality that ends with a troubled descent – a subtle reference to the album track. The contrast of this live recording to the heavily produced version on the album demonstrates Natalie’s strength as a solo artist in a self-assured stride. “I would have really liked the band there to flesh it out but actually it was ok without them. I started out as just me and it was kind of nice to go back and be me again.” Each track works well stripped back, and even though they are clearly well refined it somehow feels as though we are being given a glimpse into these early, birth stages of her songwriting.
For someone who claims to have never sung before starting her course at LIPA, where she met her bandmates, Natalie’s voice is strong and distinctive, a powerful force with a folk edge. She resists being classified into a genre, preferring instead to pull apart each facet of her performance and pinning them to different 80s icons – guitar parts akin to the Smiths, vocals in the vein of Kate Bush or Cocteau Twins – although lyrically she draws from those who have cropped up in her own lifetime – PJ Harvey, and more recently Alt-J and Everything Everything.
The process of recording Live At Abbey Road EP has clearly been liberating – in the world of a busy musician, being able to step back and concentrate on a defined goal seems to have brought out the drive in her. She lets me in on her plans for a second tour this year, scheduled for November. Her solo tour in May was her first, and this time her band will join her for ten dates of what she describes as “a lot of fun, actually”, taking herself off around the country, still surprised by the idea people will come to watch.
But, here in Liverpool, Natalie has found a home in the music scene, despite a brief foray to the capital. When asked about her experience here compared to other cities she says in a romantic gesture “Oh, it’s Liverpool”. And now her producer (the iconic Steve Levine) has set himself up in the Baltic Triangle, she is revelling in her re-location. “London is so big, you get swallowed up, and there’re lots of little scenes, but it’s not really substantial. I’m glad I lived there, but I much prefer it here. You know everyone, it’s nice.” And after our hundredth interruption from another acquaintance, she smiles, “I dunno, I think I’m the kind of person that just suits here.”