Spring 1995, Permission Magazine #6
While on a quick media tour though the States in October 1994, Cranes breezed through Chicago, where we caught them. Brother and sister James and Alison Shaw were quite composed, if not timid, as the afternoon passed. Chatting with one and then the other, the conversation went like this:
What do you usually write about?
Alison: They're mostly personal stories. Fragments of things that happen. Sometimes you'll connect a certain melody to the way you felt when such and such happened - and the two things will just collide and give you a certain feeling. But usually I think some start from just a couple of words or one line of something that fits a cetain part of the music, and then you sort of build it around that. Often, I write them after I've heard the music. Jim writes quite a lot of things at one time, and just records things all the time. Sometimes it's not until I hear what he's written that I'll get an idea. Sometimes I've written something and we'll do it the other way around.
Do you have any literary influences to writing?
Alison: It doesn't usually go into the ordinary Cranes songs. We did a couple of other things; we started recording for the album in January of last year - we were just in the studio and trying to get a feel, and the recording started to split off in two directions. On one side we were doing the music for the album, and then Jim was also writing some other music which was much more orchestral sounding. Whereas I think the stuff for the album we were trying to make it quite bright and colorful and sort of an up feeling, and this other music was not quite the opposite, but just different altogether. It just reminded me of a play I read when I was learning French. Just a couple of lines from the play stuck in my mind and I just spoke them over this music, and it seemed to fit. It's a play by Jean Paul Sartre called The Flies. We ended up doing eight pieces of music that represented the play. That's something we've done that's got a literary connection we're not sure when that'll come out. We did the music for a film this year as well, which is an English adaptation of a Tennessee Williams story. My friend, who was studying to be a film director, asked us to do the music, so that's something else we did. It's going to be on TV next year. And it may be in the Chicago Film Festival next year. It's in a few festivals around the place, but the only American one is going to be the Chicago one. It nearly got in this year, but the times were wrong - apparently your festival is in November, and it was submitted just too late.
What people seem to went to know most is whet the lyrics are, because it's very herd to distinguish them often. Do you think you'd ever publish your lyrics?
Alison: I've thought about it, but I don't know. Especially cuz a lot of them are written as a result of the music instead of the other way around. If you take them out of that context it doesn't have the same meaning. It's very much that tone of words or whether its a particular point at which you say some thing or the way you say it, and the contrast.
Sometimes you can say something slightly dark, but if its in context of a sort of weird whatever, its got a different meaning. But if you just write it on paper, you don't get it.
What made you decide to print the lyrics to "Lilies" on your most recent album, Loved?
Alison: Well, it was probably pressure to write something down, because people are always asking. We nearly did print all of the lyrics this time, but in the end I just thought we'd just print one. I suppose it's because "Lilies," of all I the songs, it's the one that's less closely woven into the music. It's kind of spoken, it was easier to separate it.
You have a lot of material that you've released. I know that you had an EP out before your first album, and you have a lot of extra material that you put out it through UK 12"s - your B-sides. Do you have any plans for releasing those on any other format?
Alison: I guess. You know the Wings of Joy album, before that in the UK, we did four EP's - there's quite a lot of the B-sides on those. I guess one day we could put those all together and some extra tracks.
Who decides on the album covers?
Allison: All of our early sleeves were done by a fnend of ours called Robert Coleman, he's actually a lecturer. We really like his work. Sometimes you got your own similar sort of wavelength with somebody even though they're doing work individually and we're working musically. We can pretty much trust him to come up with things that we'll like, and if occasionally there was something that we didn't like, he would say, "Ok, we'll just substitute something else. He did the Jewel Ep, the box set thing, but he hasn't done the last two albums. So its been a bit difficult for us to try and find something that was in the same kind of way, but without him being there to do l it for us. So we were really angry. I sort of miss him, so I think he's probably gonna do the next thing for us. He's a bit of an artist and he'll only do it if he's got six months to think about it. He won't just throw things together.
Why did you choose Degas for the cover of Loved?
Alison: I was trying to explain to somebody what we wanted, and I couldn't describe it, because l didn't really know what I wanted myself, I think. I wanted it to be really vibrant, for the colors to sort of hit you without being harsh. I just found the picture one day and thought if we could use this, that would be it. Then the people who were doing the graphics for the sleeve said they could check it out and we might be able to use it, and we found out that we could use it and so we did.
Where do you see your music going?
Alison: It was interesting to work on that film that I was telling you about. We had to be more disciplined to do that because it wasn't just our own thoughts going into it. We had to imagine what the characters would listen to if they were in a bar. What happened was that the director, who knows our music pretty well, she chose songs from the album that she wanted to use. Then Jim re-wrote one of them, and then he wrote some of the music to equal these various parts. If we were to do another film, that would be good.
Have you shot any videos for Loved?
Alison: We've done one for "Shining Road." It was really good fun. "Shining Road" has a Spanish guitar in it, so we wanted it to have a warm, bright feeling.
It seems like this album is a lot warmer and brighter then the other two. Was that a conscious effort or did that just evolve because the music came that way?
Alison: I think it evolved, but I think we partly guided it in that way. Always when you're recording, you'll get a couple of songs and you'll think we've done this before, and we tend to dump it. But we didn't have a conscious plan for the album to be a particular way.
What else would you like to do with your music?
Alison: I don't know, I think there's always something new you can do, just combinations of different musical instruments can create something that's new. That would go in phases, like sometimes we'd get really into something and sometimes it would go the other way, like find real instruments. I really love the way a cello sounds, and real violin. It's sort of difficult to say what we'll be doing next, because we never know until we start writing again, really.
How do you feel about working with your brother?
Alison: A lot of the time we forget we are brother and sister, but sometimess people get a big shock when we argue it doesn't seem like a big deal to us to shout at each other for a couple of minutes then it is gone. If you get a bit tired or there's a lot happening and things to be decided then we sometimes argue but usually it's alright.
Do you have any other brothers or sisters?
Alison: Yes, we have got an older brother and an older sister, but they do grown-up proper jobs and things.
Do you like what you do? Do you not consider this a grown-up proper job?
Alison: Not really no, it's like we constantly have to be aware of how lucky we are, really. But this time around it's weird, we're just doing a press tour we're not doing any gigs but it has been a really fun tour here in America. We are quite aware that good thing are coming to us and they might not always be that way. We try to appreciate it, we try to capture some of it and remember it all and that's how it ends up being in some of the songs - that's why some of the songs are more optimistic. But it's kind of reflective - we're not secure. We don't exactly fit in easily [musically], we probably have a limited span so that's why we don't feel secure.
Is there a story behind the song "Lillies"?
Alison: "Lillies"? Well the words started from, um... you know how the music is kind of... the guitars and the drums and everything are quite noisey. It gets up to a point and then cuts down and then there's this pause. When I listened to the music I thought there was a certan chaos or confusion, so that made me think of "Where am I"? That was the first line and then it made me think about disorientation. .
Does it tie in at all with the song "Rainbow"?
Alison: Yes. It's really a childish bit of imagery; I always associate rainbows with happiness and when they're gone they're gone. We do get reoccuring themes there's always something you missed or something in the future. I think you can get a sense of open-mindedness.
Why did you do the three seven inch singes for Jewel?
Alison: In England, when you release a single you release a seven inch, a twelve inch, cassette, and CD, but then if you do that, there are people who collect all four formats. That gets really expensive to buy all of them. If you make a seven inch, that's only one pound to buy so you can get three seven inches and get all the music and all the remixes and have it look nice.
[Exit Alison, enter Jim]
Jim: So now we get to check if my answers coincide with Ali's.
What is the album about?
Jim: I guess it's not really about anything necessarily. Lyrically it's changed from the previous albums, a little. I think they're more in the third person almost. It's more of a narrative. Usually what the songs are about musically, let's say, I'll write a song and then Ali will sing on it. The best ones are the ones where Ali sings about a thought and they're the same - when they all coincide. It's really rare. I might do a song that might be "down" or "underbeat", and Ali will totally contrast it by doing some thing totally different over that part.
Since most of the lyrics are written after you write the songs, what inspires you to write the music?
Jim: Um... the lyrics from the previous album. It's a lot of everyday things. It's not like writing a letter or something. I think music goes hand in hand with visual or emotional things. It's kinda like it's not written to someone, or for someone, but in a sense... it really is written for someone - not literally. But it is written for one person, without that person really exisfing - for me anyway. It's the everyday mood swings, etc.
Would you consider your music abstract?
Jim: You mean abstract in relation to the lyrics - no, not really I think sometimes it's contrasting. A lot of the time, I'll write the music and then Ali will have an idea, and then she'll record a bit of the idea over the track. Then I have to change the track and fit it in with her idea; it's easier for the music to change than for the lyrical idea to change. So I don't think the music is abstract in that way. I don't think the music would necessarily stand up on its own without the lyrics, and the same would go for an album of just singing. I think they're both in the same context with each other.
You have two songs on the "Shining Roads" singles that are just musical, without any lyrics. Why did you decide to put those on there? Were they from the film?
Jim: Well, I wrote about 75 pieces of music. Some of them were songs, some of them were only one minute segments. Most of it didn't get used at all. These ones weren't necessarily songs and not necessarily bits that Ali would sing on. I really don't know why we chose to put those two instrumentals on there -- just laziness on Ali's part. Probably we were pushed for time. Ali is the one who wanted instrumentals on there.
Do you think you'll put instrumentals on any future Cranes albums?
Jim: If there were, I think it would be like the album would be one song longer. I don't think you could ever say no, categorically; if something is written and fitted in, then I think there could be. I don't know if Ali talked about this Jean Paul Sartre stuff, but there's actual an instrumental on that, and then there's a vocal bit that Ali sings without music. So it's kind of if it fits, then we'll do it.
You mention that this album almost tells a story. Do you try to put your songs together to project a story?
Jim: I don't think we actually write "concept" albums. The songs do have to fit together, and maybe not tell a story. But they have to fit together. There might be right songs and then there might be B-sides, or they might be used another time. The ordering of the album, the running order is really really important. It's really diffficult deciding a running order. With this album, we recorded five or six songs and sent out various tapes to the record company and people who obviously had to hear it. Under the order that we recorded it almost, was this order, and that's probably quite significant. Literally, between sides one and two - I think sides one and two are different in mood - in this nitch, because we diverted into this Jean Paul Sartre stuff inbetween. So the running order naturally felt right.
What made you decide to put the remixes at the end of this album?
Jim: Ali actually told me. I didn't know they were going on this album. So I couldn't say what made us do it. Having said that, I think it's a good thing that they're on there. The singles, it's difficult to get a hold of them. A lot of people never get to hear them, therefore it is a really good thing. And we like them.
How and when do you decide on the title of your albums?
Jim: Well, just before it comes out. It's really difficult -- it's like choosing the name of your band. It's really important. To my mind, even though it's usually Ali who comes up with it I guess because she's got more of an idea of what sort of title would sound good. Loved -- I like the irony of that. Or the potential irony of it.
Is there a story behind the name of the band?
Jim: Not really. We took the name Cranes basically because there used to be a lot of cranes in Portsmouth. The word "crane" really did fit the bird and the machines, and it made me like the word. And we kinda took the name just the way the cranes looked stood like a flock of birds. I like words that mean two things - or three or four things.
Do you decide on the song titles?
Jim: Ali does. Usually the instrumentals as well.
It seems to me that this album is warmer and almost sexier than other albums...
Jim: Sexier?!? I wouldn't say sexy. I'm sure I'd rather you would have said sensual. Anything that's in there, we can roughly sort of aim the way the song is going. We can a little bit, we find it difficult to try to make a song particularly like -- unless it's something we thought of. We couldn't feel comfortable writing a song that's obviously totally not us. In that film we did, one scene is set in a gay disco -- we had to do gay disco music in the background. We couldn't do it - we would never ever do that as a band. We're not sexy at all.
How did you like working on soundtrack to a movie?
Jim: It was a real learning experience. I'm not that sure if I'm happy with the outcome. Like I said, I wrote an awful lot of music for it. Obviously there's absolutely no control -- the director chooses what not to use. I wouldn't say that the music on that album is representative of what we do in any way. I've always thought that some writing is not solely what you think of, it's what you choose to use. With certain guitar bits, you choose which one you'll use, and that is actually songwriting. And in that sense, we didn't get to choose to do the various bits. Then there's certain technical things that I really should've recorded in a proper studio. But then again, we didn't have any budget for that. We weren't paid for doing it. Also, one particular part, which is a bit taken from "Paris & Rome," and I rerecorded it to fit over the thing. I demo-ed it first and played it for the director, to see if she thought that it would fit. She said yeah, and I rerecorded it and did it properly, and somehow the actual demo version ended up on the film. Things like that can happen, which aren't anybody's fault - but it's an absolute learning process. The film is naturally good. But just for me, musically, it was quite challenging writing segments of music where you're back to the third person - trying to put yourself into the context of somebody else's images. It was a really good thing to do -- something I learned a lot by doing.
Do you write all the music on the albums?
How do the other members of the Cranes work? Do they just play your music?
Jim: When it comes to playing live, especially more Mark than Matt -- Matt when he joined the band had only seen a guitar seven months before. That was fine, because it was an attitude thing with Matt, which is far more important than if you get someone who can play brilliantly, but doesn't fit in - that's not going to work out. In a guitar sense, I guess Mark is a better because he's been playing a lot longer than Matt. When it comes to playing live, there'll be bits where Mark will play what he wants. We really are a band, in that I write the music and Ali writes the lyrics, and Mark directed our first five videos, and he used to do a lot of film stuff -- projecting live, with slides and things like that. And Matt is totally and completely organized, so he writes all the newsletters and fan stuff and all the merchandising. It's nice that it worked out and it's comfortable.
Reviewed by Christian Conrad
© Permission Magazine 1995