When Christopher Duncan issued his debut album, Architect, to near-unanimous critical praise in July 2015, it was clear that we’d hit on a rare talent. The skilled Glaswegian multi-instrumentalist delivered a work combining beguiling dream pop with the expansiveness of classical music, which flared-up images of Cocteau Twins, Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens, and marked C DUNCAN as an artist carving a distinctive musical identity for himself.
A graduate of music composition from Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire, Duncan wrote and recorded Architect alone in his Glasgow flat on a bedroom studio set-up, gradually adding each layer and each instrument one at a time, building up the breadth of the pieces. The LP, which won him a Mercury Prize nomination, evidences Duncan’s considerable abilities not only as a pop songwriter, but also as a gifted academic musician. The moods shift effortlessly from winsome shanties to irresistible collages of Beach Boys expanse, and it’s lovingly assembled intricacies and subtleties make for a wholesome collection of reverential indie music. Almost predictably, dates supporting Belle And Sebastian duly followed.
With a headline date in Liverpool on the horizon, we asked our February 2016 cover artist – and C Duncan’s current touring partner – Tom Low to interview The Grand Architect, tasking him to find out a bit more about his mysterious talents.
Tom Low: When did you first start writing music, and what influenced you to do so?
C Duncan: I started writing music when I was about seven. The first thing I wrote was a little piano piece, which was terrible, but I enjoyed writing it. I was brought up on a lot of classical as both my parents are violinists, particularly Baroque and Romantic music. We also listened to a lot of The Carpenters when I was growing up. Having musical parents, and studying music, I have been surrounded by so many different genres of music, a lot of which has influenced me, particularly impressionist music and alternative artists like Dirty Projectors, Björk and Thundercat. Music and art are always what inspire me most, although when starting new songs I usually have a place or landscape in mind which shapes the mood of the song.
TL: What is your preferred method of working?
CD: I love recording alone. I like to be in charge of everything, so I usually need to work alone. I usually start with the melody and fit the chords and harmonies around it, and then I usually write the lyrics once I have an idea of what the song will sound like. I don’t know if that’s a backwards way of doing it, but it’s very music driven. The words tend to fit around the vibe of the music.
TL: What is the favourite piece of music you’ve ever written?
CD: There are a couple of songs from my new album which will be released later in the year that I’m particularly fond of, as I feel I am beginning to hone a sound that I have been striving to achieve for a while. My favourite track from Architect is As Sleeping Stones. It’s pretty dreamy…
TL: How has your knowledge of classical composition informed writing the more pop-based songs that make up Architect? Does it also impact your approach to painting?
CD: Mostly in the way I structure my songs and layer the vocals. I usually listen to classical music when I’m painting, a lot of impressionist music and contemporary classical. The sense of repetition in a lot of contemporary music works its way into my paintings. But, both my music and paintings are quite intricate: I guess I like to write songs about the places I am painting, so it all sort of mixes together. It’s a very different enjoyment when I’m making music, it’s very intense and head down. I have to use my brain quite a lot [laughs]! With painting, I find it very relaxing, and I can spend hours listening to music.
TL: What experiences or techniques were you exposed to when you studied at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire that you don’t think you’d have come across otherwise?
CD: I was introduced to A LOT of new music and encouraged to listen to as much as possible. I was also taught to analyse music in a way that has helped me when writing my own music, and I’m now fascinated by the way in which melodies intertwine and change as harmonies develop.
TL: When did you start writing the songs that became Architect?
CD: I wasn’t sure if I was going to make an album at first. I had a bit of time when I was writing lots of songs and started playing around with new equipment that I had bought to record with. I was kind of writing song-by-song, thinking, “This is a lot of fun”, but they were varied styles, so I never saw them as an album until I sent some stuff down to FatCat Records and a few months later they asked me to write an album. It wasn’t until then I thought I could put this into an album and write lots more tracks and tie it all together, but I never intended to do it like that to begin with.
TL: Would you say that there’s an overall theme that knits Architect together?
CD: Architect is primarily a collection of songs in a few different styles. I had never intended it to knit together. However, my use of vocals and lyrical themes ties the album together. I guess it’s quite dreamy. It’s like folk music – dreamy folk music, with lots and lots of choral elements added on.
TL: I read that you made Architect on your own in your bedroom. Are you going to use the same solitary process to make the next album, or are you ready to branch out a bit?
CD: I have already recorded the next album, which I again did in my bedroom –although I have upgraded my equipment so the new album is a lot cleaner in sound, but essentially it’s the same process.
TL: Do you prefer gigging or composing/recording?
CD: My favourite part is the writing and recording: always has been and always will be. I enjoy being a recluse and working away late into the night in my studio. However, I am getting really into gigging. It’s a lot of fun travelling around – especially with my band, who are all really good friends. It’s like being on a paid holiday! I have more time to focus on being a better writer [than becoming a better player], but they are both important to me.
C Duncan plays Leaf on 3rd March supported by Tom. His album Architect and latest release EP are both out now on FatCat Records.