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Ciara Clifford Unfolded: Early Mornings, Chamomile Tea & GPS Musical Cults

Ciara Clifford

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Ciara Clifford Unfolded: Early Mornings, Chamomile Tea & GPS Musical Cults

There’s quite a bit to thank the universe for when, after asking how the weather is, Hurricane Ophelia (fitting name) decides to turn the sky into a bizarre, red-tinted post-apocalyptic wasteland. A great backing for the release of Ciara Clifford’s Fold, really.

It’s likely I’ve put too much thought into it, but that’s me every day and that, in particular, was a very strange day and the opening bars of the song feel a lot like a swelling storm. Fold is a song from Ciara’s yet-to-be-released, self-funded, self-titled album and its video was written, directed, and edited by Clara Aparicio Yoldi.

If that ain’t rad enough, on November 6, Ciara Clifford took the stage in the basement of The Betsey Trotwood. Mally Harpaz’s Blind Dog Studio presented the best kind of threeway a crowd of people can have without anyone feeling left out. Or with keeping their clothes on, but it’s November in London, so that’s fine.

Her music is an inspired mix of rock, folk, and the rip-roaring alternative kind of sound most of our generation was born to love. After fantastic performances from Mally and Colonial Sun, Ciara and her Les Paul closed the show.

With so many emerging artists out there, it’s difficult to stay ahead of the curve. Even in the curve. It’s hard to keep on top of things the way you do when you’re 20, so when there’s music you’re introduced to that you really dig, in the age of Spotify discoveries, it feels really fucking good.

I shot some questions over to Ciara in the run-up to The Betsey Trotwood show and she was kind enough to give me some answers. Find out her guilty pleasures, her processes, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, and why having a routine is as necessary a part of being creative as breaking your own rules.

How long have you been playing music for? How did you get into it?

I’ve been playing and writing music, on and off, for 25 years.

I guess the love for it, started with my family. My parents didn’t play instruments or study music but they were always really enthusiastic about it. I loved how excited Mum got when she heard her favourite tunes and often heard Dad singing, only on his own, when he thought no one could hear him.

I had free treble recorder and violin lessons in Primary School and did a few talent shows, nothing that I want to comment on musically mind you, let’s just say that having watched The Cher Extravaganza, Live at the Mirage a million times, I was in an Experimental Phase.

When I was 10, I saw an acoustic guitar and had a Wayne’s World ‘It will be mine’ moment. Mum & Dad said if I saved my pocket money enough to pay for half, they would put the rest to it, so we did and the guitar was mine, and they gave me back my pocket money.

Cash, guitar, and morals in check, I started writing my own songs.

 

“What you see and hear as a child can really shape the person you become.”

 

What other artists did you listen to when you were younger? Is there one or two that you still hold close to your heart now?

When I was younger I listened to Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morrissette, and Tracy Chapman a lot.

There was some Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Linkin Park (Hybrid Theory), Counting Crows, Jethro Tull (Thick as a Brick, Aqualung), Rodriguez, Ani DiFranco, Primus (The Brown Album), The Cranberries, System of a Down (Toxicity), Crosby Stills & Nash and lots more that I can’t think of right now.

Guilty pleasures then and now; Destiny’s Child, Cher, Melissa Etheridge, Tina Turner.

I read about the three-string guitar you had around the house when you were little and completely identify, can you tell us about that and how it became the root of your wanting to play guitar/music?

I guess what you see and hear and have access to as a child can really shape the person you become.

We had that guitar lying around with just the 3 low-end strings on it and both my older brothers played bass and sung a little here and there. I like the meditative vibe you can get when practicing an instrument. I tried keys when I was younger too but always came back to guitar.

I’m always drawn to music with a prominent bassline, even if there’s no actual bass being played in the band or at a particular point in the song — Sleater-Kinney did this amazingly and I always loved it — which your Fold totally has. How does that call back to your roots on the three-stringer, do you think, if it does?

Yeah, I love bass. I hadn’t really thought about it but maybe that comes from the bass-heavy atmosphere when I was younger. The house guitar did originally have 6 strings, it’s just that when the 3 got so old and fell off, no one bothered to replace them…

With Fold, yes, the guitar is playing a bassy plucking line for the first half of the track, and there’s bass-bass on there too, playing stabs. Before recording, I spent a lot of time listening and compiling playlists for each instrument, so I had a list of tracks with my favourite bass sounds of all time.

The sound was really important to me and even though the album was self-funded, I didn’t compromise where sound quality was concerned. I tried wherever possible to find ‘emerging talent’ (for want of a better term), to try and catch engineers etc before they became more expensive.

 

“I like things to marinate. Even if I write a song quickly, I won’t share it till it’s had time to stir.”

 

Were there any artists your parents or brother introduced you to that maybe your peers hadn’t heard, that you just plain loved?

My parents and siblings introduced me to lots of music but the only one that I can think of now that I still like are Pearl Jam. Just the Ten album, outside of that I know nothing about them.

My eldest brother listened to Jimi Hendrix and The Doors and some really cool Indian music. He took me to the Royal Festival Hall once, to see Abida Parveen. I started crying the minute she opened her mouth, what an impressive sound. Many years later I traded a guitar lesson for a sitar lesson with a friend. Sadly we both spent more time chatting than playing, so that didn’t really take off.

I’m happy bringing all influence back into the 6-stringed guitar though, its boundaries force me to change my style of playing and if I want a fresh canvas I change the tuning. I’m as comfortable now twiddling in open D as I am in standard and I feel I’ve got lots more to write in these 2 tunings still.

What kind of music do you listen to now? What bands and artists do you really dig?

TuneYards, The Dresden Dolls, Anna Calvi, St Vincent, Christine and the Queens, The Dead Weather, Courtney Barnett, Chvrches, The Kills, Wolf Alice, Kate Tempest, Joni Mitchell.

When did you start to write the material for the album? What inspired you to start writing/recording it?

This album has been a long time coming. Some of the tracks are over 10 years old. Not because it takes me ages to write a song but because I didn’t want to do the DIY thing. Recording it myself. I had grand visions of working with David Kershenbaum (Producer and co-producer on 3 of Tracy Chapman’s albums). Needless to say, I didn’t manage to get myself in a position to meet David, so I got a credit card, called on some friends and other professionals and away we went.

It got to the stage where there was such a pile-up of new songs and life was moving on so much from that period, that I needed to get them down before I ended up playing them differently. I didn’t want the new techniques or ideas to slip in. I do like things to marinate, though, and even if I write a song quickly, I won’t share it till it’s had time to stir.

The upside of waiting so long is that all of the tracks on the album are from my favourites.

 

“Find your routine, and stick to it. Habit will get you through when you lose your bearings. Break rules and routines if for creative reasons, not born of fear or procrastination.”

 

You’ve been playing a slew of gigs around London town with power percussionist Mally Harpaz this year, and it’s just the beginning of what else there is to come. How did you guys meet and then come to play together?

We met at a jam night about 14 years ago. Then again when an old school friend invited me to a gig and it turned out that Mally was in the band. She was playing drums and I just remember loving the energy and vibe. At some point we got to chatting and a group of us headed back to hers for some more drinks and music. We were on the bus and I was like, oh, this is the way I go home, getting off the bus . . . .this is also the way I go home . . . wtf? . . .. . have I been lured into a musical cult that GPS tags people at jam nights? . . . . . one street parallel to where I live, she opens the door and we crowd in.

When did we start playing together? I can’t remember the first incarnation but we tried a few things over the years. I played with a few other people here and there but when it came to recording the album I wanted someone I could trust musically. I know and love how Mally vibes (on any instrument) and I’ve always wanted to see her back on what was her first instrument, drums. So that’s what we did.

What’s your general songwriting process like? Do you have a routine? Does it come easy? If a girl has ideas for some songs, where would you start on those ideas if you were her?

I love early mornings so I’m up at 6am every day. I write a few words, whatever springs to mind and if nothing springs to mind, I write anyway. I carry a writing book with me everywhere I go and I love to look back over old books, telling stories with a new perspective or digging out something that was overlooked. I don’t like to waste anything. Even if they just end up in a pile of songs that I think are ok but that I wouldn’t perform myself. I play guitar every day and try to learn something new, however small or however little time I have. When writing, all theory, scales, modes etc are put to one side and I’m just playing what I feel. If it sounds good, it makes me want to sing, so I start taking whatever comes to mind from the writing or elsewhere, not thinking too hard about it.

If a girl or guy has ideas for a song, I would say, find your process, what’s the best time of day for you to write or play or sing. Find your routine, and stick to it. Habit will get you through when you lose your bearings. Break rules and routines if for creative reasons, not born of fear or procrastination.

When it comes to demos, do you have fully fleshed out ideas of what you want all of the instruments/parts to do?

When I play a song to anyone, it’s 99% the way that I want the lyrics and structure to be. Every musician will interpret it differently after that point and I like to hear how they hear it.

I usually only go with the input of people that I trust or respect musically.

What kind of hardware and/or software do you use to record?

For the debut album, we recorded with Shuta Shinoda at Hackney Road Studios. We did the drums in the SSL room. Guitars, Vocals and Bass in the Neve studio. We used an RCA mic for vocals. The guitar set up was a Gibson Les Paul Studio, Strymon Blue Sky reverb, El Capistan Delay, Digitech Whammy, the POG 2 may have been edging its way in. The acoustic guitar was a Vintage VGA900N. The keys and a whole host of other sounds were recorded at Blind Dog Studios with Jessica Lauren and Mally Harpaz.

 

“We’ll know times have changed when no one talks about it anymore and for that there needs to be lots more women playing guitar. When you get kids in school arguing over who’s a better guitarist Anna Calvi or Jimi Hendrix, we’ll be well on our way.”

 

What piece of equipment can you not live without?

Just the guitar; electric or acoustic. Anything with 6 strings and my voice.

What’s your favourite guitar to play? Why?

Gibson Les Paul Studio. Simply because it’s my guitar and it’s been with me for over 10 years. It’s way too heavy though so I need to slowly transition to something lighter.

What’s the story of how you got it?

I got that guitar from a shop near Tottenham Court Road in a closing down sale a few months after starting at The Guitar Institute. All I knew was that I wanted something black, not too big, not too heavy, and something where I could palm mute without the volume and tone controls getting in the way like they do on Strat type guitars.

My dream guitar would be something like my Gibson but a lot lighter, with the back shaved at an angle like on a Strat so it’s closer to your body. My Whammy and guitar amp need to be repaired, it would be dreamlike if I had those up and running again. I’d love a Mesa Express 5.25 again.

Linked into the guitar thing as well, I’m planning to work on something revolving around girls who play instruments and any sexism they’ve faced off the back of that. Kinda turning that on its head so it’s funny. Have you had any moments like that? Like, where a dude has said something to you that he wouldn’t a “male guitarist”?

I’ve always felt comfortable around men. I can’t think of anything that was said to me that wouldn’t have been said to a guy. At the Guitar Institute, there were 3 other women on the degree course out of say 60 students, so they put one of us in each group. It was a bit of a shame having to say see you after class all the time. We’ll know times have changed when no one talks about it anymore and for that, there needs to be a lot more women playing guitar. When you get kids in school arguing over who’s a better guitarist, Anna Calvi or Jimi Hendrix, we’ll be well on our way.

Give me your Desert Island Discs: three albums you couldn’t live without if you were stranded on an island with a volleyball with a face on it and an infinite supply of your chosen beverage

  1. Joni Mitchell, Blue – because that’s where it all began
  2. Tracy Chapman – A mix of the first 2 albums, give or take a few tracks (if I can’t have both)
  3. Linkin Park, Hybrid Theory because it reminds me of a particular time and I still like some of the tracks. It also reminds me of my younger sister, when we were on holiday in the countryside and were like, wow, there’s no neighbours, and we screamed the entire album start to finish.

FIND CIARA CLIFFORD ONLINE

WEBSITE | SPOTIFY | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | SOUNDCLOUD | YOUTUBE | CDBABY

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Em is a queer, freelance music writer based in the North of England. The things that matter to her (other than David Bowie & her Telecaster) are either money, success, fame, glamour or freedom, beauty, truth and love, depending on the day and whether or not she's bought any incense. When she's not dancing around with a guitar, she can be found dancing around in glitter. Her motto: Don't be a drag, just be a queen.

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