January 1995, Magnet
There are a million and one "how the band got together" stories floating around the music world, some standard, some silly, some boring, some unusual. And some very accidental.
Portsmouth, England's Cranes fall into the latter category. The Cranes' unusual, ethereal sound - which reaches a new maturity on the band's current album, Loved - comes mostly from the minds of brother and sister team of Jim and Alison Shaw. But if you'd asked them as children - or even teenagers - if they thought they'd ever be making music for living, they probably would have laughed.
"We got together as an accident", vocalist Alison says. "I used to sing when I was little, choir in primary school, and just singing along to pop records. But I hadn't really thought about doing it seriously, didn't go to any band auditions or anything."
She hadn't really thought of it at all until she dropped out of university and went back to Portsmouth. When she got home, she discovered that her brother had gotten a guitar and a drum kit, and had been teaching himself how to play. Lacking anything better to do, she picked up a bass, they got "tape recorders of all descriptions" and started writing songs. She laughs, "We got really hooked on record recording and effects".
And Cranes were born. Then came a series of what she calls "turning points," the first of which occurred immediately after the first independent EP, Self Non Self, was released. "We were asked to do a Peel Session", she says, still marveling at the memory. "That was in 1989, it was six songs on vinyl, and the weekend it came out John Peel played it four times in a row, and then he phoned us at the end of the week and said come do a session."
Of course, they said yes, to that and to a second one, as well. The second came to the attention of British indie Dedicated, which signed on the dotted line. "We did four EPs for them first, because there is this in England where you have to do a lot of EPs before you do a record." She pauses, and laughs. "I don't know why."
The first Cranes album, Wings of Joy, came out in 1991, and then the second turning point happened. "The album had been out for a couple of months, and we were doing club tours, then we came to America to do a few dates on the East Coast with Belly," she says. "While we were there, we heard that the Cure had asked for information about us." Three weeks later, they were the opening band on the Cure's North American tour. From clubs to stadiums in one easy step.
Alison and Jim both have vivid memories of the first of those dates. "It was in Pittsburgh," she says. They parked their van amidst all the semis and buses, and made their way to soundcheck, only to notice that Cure members Robert Smith and Simon Gallup were standing by the soundboard. "That was the more nerve-wracking thing," she says, laughing. "We could barely function. But afterward, they came by and said hi, and after that it was fine, because we realized they were human beings, and we didn't have to be nervous all the time.
"The fact that they chased us down to go on the tour themselves gave us this feeling of hopefulness," she adds. "I just remember being totally happy every day. Then they asked us to do Europe as well, so that was a double present."
Her brother has a slightly different take on the memory: "The first stadium was like... I don't know if intimidating is the right word, but it was just so completely different from any other gig. I'm kind of proud that we got our heads around that difference. I promise you'll never hear me blowing our trumpet, but I'm proud of us, that we kind of coped with it."
Coping with it in the sense of not thinking "we have arrived."
He makes a sound somewhere between amusement and disgust. "The connotations of doing 'music' as a 'career', I cannot equate the two. It's like something in your head, something that you would just naturally do, because you have to."
This is exactly the way they appraoch the process of making music, as well. "The music comes first," Alison explains. "Jim will start something and play it to me, and I sometimes get an idea straight away. You'll get a thought, and it might seem a bit nonsensical, but you use it as a starting point, work around it."
Her lyrics are often quite personal, coming from things she's experienced or seen. "I keep diary sporadically, just jot things down that mean something to me. On tour, I really try to keep a diary, because its a precious time, really. And I'm really aware that when you're happy, things rush by so quickly that it's gone almost before you can take it all in. And I think that's what we try to do musically, to try to capture an impression of a time or a relationship or a feeling that you had."
That said, she says she did try to write lyrics from someone else's perspective on Loved, something she hadn't attempted on Wings of Joy, or the band's second album, Forever. Jim pick up the thread: "The way we approached this album was different from our other albums in that aspect," he says. "There are two things we hold to in our band. There's an influence thing, where we're trying not to be really obvious about them. We're trying not to repeat what other people have done, or secondly, what we have done ourselves. All of our albums have come from our perspective, but I think this album is slightly, sort of adventurously, going to the third person."
Reviewed by Karen Woods
© Magnet 1995