7 Questions For Siobhan Wilson

Siobhan Wilson is a Scottish singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, film and TV composer. A trained cellist from St Mary’s Music School, pianist, guitarist, and composer – she has 10 years of live touring and studio production and after a 5 year stay in Paris, France, has returned to the UK where she has become one of Scotland’s most exciting artists, where she is completing a masters in composition at Edinburgh University and open study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.


Her 2017 album ‘There Are No Saints’ was shortlisted for the Scottish Album of the Year and drew attention from the likes of Rolling Stone and BBC6 Radio Lauren Laverne who listed it as her ‘album of the day. Wilson is a regular live performer at BBC Scotland and BBC6 radio stations and was also shortlisted for “Best Musician” in The Sunday Herald Culture Awards in the same year. She has toured the UK, USA and Canada supporting the likes of Suzanne Vega and The Proclaimers and as well as her own sold out headline tour.


Siobhan kindly spoke to us here at the Positive Songs Project about some of her songwriting processes and her latest release ‘Plastic Grave’ 


1. What’s the first piece of music or song you remember hearing?

Our house inherited an old upright piano when I was 7 and I was instantly attached to it. The piano seemed really gigantic and sitting there right in front of it and being a small person was like sitting in front of a whole wall disappearing into a world of sound. Upright pianos are cool like a piece of furniture you can go and sit on to relax. I mostly remember how it felt. I loved touching the wood of the piano and the ivory keys and I remember looking at all the different parts of it and thinking how can something this large and weird looking be the music and the singer. When I was little I was always personifying instruments like this.


2. Can we talk a bit about the latest mini-album/giant EP you released, ‘Plastic Grave’… Was there a specific intention when you sat down to write it?
The song ‘Plastic Grave’ on my latest mini-album/giant EP was written with the intention of being timeless. I wrote the song ‘Plastic Grave’ in a couple hours with Luciano Rossi, who is a composer/engineer/writer/performer, and we recorded it there on the spot and it was done. My favourite songs are the ones that are so instinctive and the inspiration and creativity zone is really flowing and you instinctively make the song like, the longer I make music for the more and more I really value that process.


3. As a follow up, is that your usual process and if not how does it differ?
I have a whole load of different processes. I throw a lot out. I really make loads and loads of demos. It takes guts to go into a studio and be like whatever happens happens. That’s why I recorded most of my new album with Steve Albini. He is famous for having guts and going with what’s going. People who obsessively try and package and change everything are conforming to a commercial presentation of a product, but Steve is just recording what’s happening and it’s his attitude that makes the experience valuable. ‘Your Moon Has Come’ is on my giant EP and it was recorded in Steve Albini’s studio. It’s my hope that you hear that song and it sounds like a live performance. I like to record in one take or two (where I can – it’s not always possible).


4. Is there a specific experience that you can bring to mind that has encouraged you to write music you wouldn’t have written otherwise?
Yes all the time. Every song is totally unique and relevant to the very specific context of your life in that moment. Everything impacts it from what you’ve eaten for breakfast that morning to who has died that year (they did not die as a result of being eaten for breakfast haha I realise that I am typing this too fast). I’m recently obsessed with silence. I’ve introduced a lot of sound to my ears over the years and they need to get a rest. I love the sound of the ocean and all the different white noises that a tide makes on a beach, especially a cold and rainy beach with Scottish weather. That kind of experience of listening to the sea recently made me go home and play with white noises and filters and listen to ocean sounds. I’m kind of glad that nobody will ever actually hear those kinds of things I do for fun because they sound terrible.


5. You co-wrote the wonderful song, It Must Have Been The Moon with Stuart Nisbet. We heartily encourage co-writing as part of this project but as we all write in different ways it can be an interesting challenge to figure out how that will work. Can you talk to us a bit about the process you engaged in with this song? For example, did you work face to face? Did one of you have the initial idea to build upon?
Stuart Nisbet is an excellent guitarist and songwriter who I know in Scotland. For this song He sent me the words and I set them to verses and music. I sent him the demo to make sure he liked it and he did so, that was it! The powers of the internet.


As a solo artist I like to invite other people into my process cause it gets boring being alone. If you’re in a band you’ve always got that combination of minds . I like collaboration but I’m a solo artist so that’s always been a bit of a contradiction in the fundamental mechanism of my whole career that I simultaneously enjoy and struggle with.


I work really fast and that scares a lot of people. When I have a lot of blind faith and trust in a concept I just really go for it so I’ve learned over the years it’s more chilled and comfortable to collaborate with some musicians by email and then there are only a couple who are on the same wavelength to do so in person. I’ve never been a particularly jealous person in the sense that when somebody possesses a skill I don’t have, I want to collaborate and learn about it and mix it with me and see what happens. I never look at artists and think “I wish I could do that” I’ve always regarded my favourite musicians with absolute admiration and respect for their craft. I realise my own limitations and there are many, and I’m attracted to working with people who can do things that I can not.
In this sense, I’ve never been jealous and intimidated and I have always hated “scenes” with rules and hierarchies driven by commercial success as opposed to content and musical approach. I exist in loads of different genres for that reason because I’ve never been confined to existing within a scene and a genre that I want to belong to, I’m more interested in learning about things I don’t know about yet. 


6. Give us a Siobhan Wilson Oblique Strategy… Are there any special techniques you employ to get a new song started?
Songwriting is a kind of meditative extreme concentration and it’s hard to think of it as a design with a purpose, for me. So I mostly never force myself to write, I only write when I “need” to which is probably when the creative muscles of my brain need exercise, or already in good flow, or when an emotional event has happened in my life which I need to process and vocalise somehow.
I used to write in a shower room at high school cause it had a lovely natural reverb. I think the biggest question you ask yourself is “why” before how. If you know why you’re writing a song, then the process should be led by instinct. It’s a kind of problem solving of emotional reflection. I have no idea really why I talk about it and do podcasts regularly about it on my fanspace 


 where I ask other musicians about it like Rachel Seramnni and Karine Polwart cause I still don’t know. 


7. Take us through your gear list. When you demo new songs or ideas, what is your home recording setup for writing? For example, your favoured instrument? Any favoured FX pedals or plug ins? Which DAW(s) do you use? Which interface?
So I recently changed this up a lot. I don’t like recording but I benefit greatly from being able to record from home in what is the live music apocalypse. I record and produce music but also a monthly podcast. I live stream with OBS which is a nightmare, but seems to get the best sound. This year I use little Genelec speakers for hi sounds and MAudios for low and some Sennheiser baby headphones. I put my guitar amp in between them up high so that everything is coming out from in front of me as much as possible. I have a starter baby soundcard, and a focusrite with 2 inputs. I put my vocal through a NT1 – which I am happy with but very frustratingly limited by but I will invest in more microphones when I can one day afford it – through a valve pre-amp that I use to monitor input levels in what I’ve convinced myself adds to the “warmth” of the sound. I use Logic cause it came free with my computer and I play cello and piano and guitar.
I like some of the sounds on my Nord, and I use Spitfire BBC free orchestra rarely however I prefer real sounds to samples. I like the plug-in Culture Vulture although I don’t own it right now and am saving up to buy it. I have an addiction to adding a Valhalla reverb to every single track on every single demo which I’m actively trying to get rid of and is an old habit I’ve always had. I don’t necessarily think liking a plug-in results in a good sound or is synonymous with the plug in being good for the musical product. I certainly am intrigued by homing into specific aesthetics which create my musical identity and palette however I’m rarely inspired by a plug-in when writing.
My collaborator Lucci Rossi is however very well versed in this world, and when I collaborate with him I believe it’s something he is inspired by in a very “musical” and “human” way, so that produces some really interesting sounds when we combine our influences together such as on the song ‘Plastic Grave’ or ‘Echo Location’. He’d be a great person to ask about plug-ins. 
What I find interesting is talking about production, because everybody interprets the word differently. I work best with people who collaborate without ego and with an interest in creating original music. It’s really a very happy consequence of the song’s existence if it can be accepted commercially. Even though I have a really strong tight-knit fanbase who I know personally and communicate with very often, even more so now in 2020, and I also check that they like the music and want to know what their thoughts are on not just my music but music that’s happening that they’re excited by, I’m forever surprised that anybody wants to actually buy my music, not because I think it’s terrible, just because I have no idea how to predict what anybody wants, and I never will. Even though I know my listeners more every year it never gets clearer how to write music “for” a group of people, and every album is a tsunami of anxiety of blindly and bravely presenting new work in the hope that it will be well received.


Follow Siobhan Wilson’s music at Patreon:


Check out her next live stream on 11th October.


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