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Lisbee Stainton - The IndieLondon interview

Lisbee Stainton

Interview by Rob Carnevale

CRITICALLY acclaimed folk singer Lisbee Stainton talks exclusively to IndieLondon about her debut album Girl On An Unmade Bed and her year so far (which has seen her tipped as one of the UK’s most exciting and talented new singer songwriters).

She also talks about supporting Joan Armatrading, developing a passion for songwriting from the age of nine, playing the O2 as an unsigned artist and what lies in store for the remainder of the year and into 2011.

Q. Hi Lisbee, this has been an exceptional year for you – do you feel like you’ve had chance to catch breath?
Lisbee Stainton: Hello! It has been an incredible year – I do feel a bit like I’ve barely had a chance to step back and take a look! Can’t complain though because it is, without a doubt, exactly what I want to be doing with my time.

Q. New single Harriet was written about a persistent friend, I gather… what does she think of the record, the fact that it’s now a single – and why did she think she merited a song (and why did you agree)? – Sorry, long multi-part question!
Lisbee Stainton: Persistent: Oh yes, she was definitely that! I lived with Harriet in halls in my first year of Uni at Goldsmiths. Once she’d cottoned on that I was a songwriter she quite literally would not leave me alone and would bound into my room at every opportunity to say things like: “By the way, I’ve thought of another line for the song that you’re going to write about me! How about: ‘Harriet, now we say the word “Chariot”??”

Eventually, I just caved and penned out Harriet in about 10 minutes to shut her up – it never for one moment occurred to me that anyone might actually like the song: I thought my producer was joking when he said that he wanted to work on it and put it in the album!

Harriet herself is over the moon that it’s in there – when she comes to a gig she sings along very, very loudly. Unfortunately, it also means that I’m now constantly hearing variations on the question, ‘so, when are you going to write a song about me? from everyone else I know… Oh dear. What have I started??

Q. You must be delighted with the critical response to your album, Girl On An Unmade Bed – can you talk a little about the themes that inspired the songs?
Lisbee Stainton: I still can’t believe the response Girl On An Unmade Bed has received! The tracks are basically a mix of songs that I’ve written from about the age of 16 onwards. Red, for example, is the oldest: I wrote it when I was 16, whereas the title track, Girl On An Unmade Bed, was written last year. I’ve been writing since I was 9-years-old and have six books crammed with songs of varying degrees of quality, so it took at least a month to go through them all with Rupert Christie, the main producer on the album, and decide which ones to put in! I suppose I see the album as a sort of audio chronicling of my growing up: a narrative of my teenager-dom, if you will!

Q. Red seemed to be the trigger track for you… what inspired that song?
Lisbee Stainton: It’s odd because I often don’t vividly recall the process of writing a song, but with Red I remember it very clearly: I grew up in a little village in Hampshire called Newnham in an old 19th Century cottage on the edge of some woodland. It was very idyllic. I remember coming home from school one day and going to play my guitar in the front room, which is where I used to do a lot of songwriting.

I ended up just staring out the window for quite some time and for some reason finding the view really quite breathtaking, despite the fact that I’d seen it a least a hundred times before! Then Red appeared: I simply started playing and there it was.

Q. And Just Like Me – it’s a personal sounding record…
Lisbee Stainton: That’s interesting that you should say that, because I don’t think I necessarily wrote it with myself in mind, as bizarre as that sounds! I think Just Like Me is mainly about that growing up process that everyone goes through, especially when they become a teenager: up until a certain point you see adults as these kind of wise and experienced beings who are so easy to idolise, but then there comes a point where you realise that you are getting close to becoming an adult yourself and you don’t feel anything like as wise and as experienced as you thought you should!

That’s when you realise that you don’t just suddenly become this ‘super-being’: you simply become more of yourself. But that’s just my interpretation! I like that people can interpret lyrics however they like – it makes the songs more accessible.

Q. What was it like being able to record the album in Abbey Road Studios, with its obvious historical significance?
Lisbee Stainton: Awesome. Just… awesome. I quite literally spent the entire time I was there with my mouth open in awe; I think the staff at Abbey Road may have thought I was just generally a bit gormless. The walls of all the corridors are lined with photographs of all the incredibly successful people who’ve recorded there – I couldn’t stop thinking: “Good grief. Why am I here? I haven’t done anything yet!”

Q. You’ve toured pretty extensively this year already… how was supporting Joan Armatrading and how much do you learn from the experience of being out on the road with someone so established?
Lisbee Stainton: I don’t think I’ve ever learnt so much in such a short period of time! Touring with Joan Armatrading was such a massive learning experience. I learnt so much about performance from her – watching her on stage was incredible: she knows exactly how to gauge her audience and she has them in the palm of her hand from the moment she walks on stage without even saying anything!

When the tour began in March I had no idea what to expect: it was my first ever tour in some of the best venues in the country with a lady who’s about 400 times more experienced than me! To say I wasn’t terrified would be a MASSIVE LIE. I remember the first night in Cologne, Germany: I was told that Joan might not talk to me at first because she’s famously private and rather shy, but she came down to my dressing room before I went on stage to introduce herself and say hello!

I actually think that made me more nervous and I went on stage wondering if I’d just end up wetting myself with fear, or something equally inappropriate, but I got to the mic and said, ‘Hello!’, and the room erupted! I hadn’t even played anything! It carried on like that: the audiences, her band, and the crew… everyone was incredibly welcoming and friendly.

Lisbee Stainton

Q. What was it like playing London’s O2 Arena in front of 30,000 people as an unsigned artist?
Lisbee Stainton: I remember sitting right in the centre of the O2 Arena with just my guitar and thinking to myself: “I really need to fill this space more.” I felt tiny! All around me was just people and faces stretching right back into the darkness so that I couldn’t even tell where the room ended. When I started to play all I could see at the back were some tiny swaying glow-sticks to show that there was in fact people all the way back there, but when I finished, the noise that thousands of people can make is something I will never forget: all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

Q. What can we expect from the forthcoming UK dates?
Lisbee Stainton: I’m really excited to get going on this tour! I’ve got an awesome new band: a drummer and double bassist, so we’re able to make a bit more noise on stage than when it’s just me playing solo. But I didn’t want to lose that folky, acoustic feel as well, so there’s still lots of acousticating from me (…that’s not a word, I know). I’m touring my album, Girl On An Unmade Bed, so it’s pretty much all the songs from that, plus two brand new songs that are going on the next album. I couldn’t resist sticking something new in. You can expect a folkin’ brilliant time. ;)

Q. What do you like about playing live? And which do you prefer – in the studio or out in front of your fans?
Lisbee Stainton: Playing in a studio and playing live is something I approach in two very different ways, but enjoy equally. I’ve been playing live for longer, as studio work didn’t really happen until I did my first album, Firefly. The performing bit is the main reason why I write – playing your music, something you’ve actually made, to an audience and having them enjoy it is an amazing feeling.

Studio is a bit different: it’s more of a creative process and making something from nothing to then hear it in a complete form is wonderful. I always write with an audience in mind, though, trying to imagine the reaction the song will get, so I suppose the two go hand in hand!

Q. What do you think of your nick-name, The English Rose with the 8-String Guitar?
Lisbee Stainton: Bizarrely, this is something that just seemed to appear from nowhere. Being described as ‘English rose’ strikes me as a bit odd because I don’t think anyone else has ever previously compared me to a flower of any type, but I do retain a jolly good English accent when I sing so I suppose I can understand where that might have ‘stemmed’ from…

Q. When did you decide you wanted to become a singer and how easy was that dream to pursue?
Lisbee Stainton: I don’t think I ever actually decided to become a singer. It sounds very clichéd but I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember! My sister and I used to sing in the car constantly and it was more of a competition for whoever could sing the loudest, more than anything else! She was always louder I’m afraid, so I started to make up harmonies to whatever she sang so that we weren’t singing the same thing.

I always wanted to sing and before I played the guitar I used to make up odd little tunes to myself and record it into an Early Learning centre tape player that we had – there’s one of these tunes on the end of my first album, Firefly. It’s called Happy Words and I sang it when I was three-years-old – it’s brilliant how many people have said to me, “what was wrong with your voice that day?” after hearing it.

Q. How important was the Internet in helping to get your music out to your fans?
Lisbee Stainton: The Internet is a great platform for any musician, especially now when the whole industry appears to be evolving through and around the digital world. My MySpace page is where Tom Robinson heard Red and subsequently asked me if he could play it on his BBC introducing show on BBC 6music, so without the Internet (and Tom Robinson) I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now!

Q. What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve been given and the biggest lesson you’ve learned in getting to this point?
Lisbee Stainton: Oh wow. I’m lucky to have had quite a number of amazing teachers and mentors so the advice has been vast and plentiful! It was my guitar teacher, Steve Sammut, who got me my first recording session when I was 13 and a music teacher called Pam Edwards in Sixth form who encouraged me to get out there and find gigs when I was 17.

Then there’s my dad, Clive, without whom I wouldn’t have been able to do anything I’ve done these past few years! It’s these people who really given me the encouragement I needed to get out there and do what I wanted to do. I feel honoured to have so much support around me. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is never to count your chickens before they hatch and to take every opportunity that comes your way!

Disappointment is something you come to expect, but with every door that closes, another opens. Oh dear, that all sounds a bit cheesy, sorry! Joan Armatrading gave me a nice nugget of wisdom, though, after a gig in which there wasn’t much of an audience: she told me to always make sure you enjoy a performance. Whether there’s 5 people or 5,000 people watching you, always enjoy it.

Lisbee Stainton, Girl On An Unmade Bed

Q. Looking towards the end of the year, and your touring schedule, will you be taking a break over Christmas before coming back strong in 2011? You’ve had a pretty punishing schedule, particularly doing it the ‘old school way’.
Lisbee Stainton: The schedule is pretty intense, but I have to admit, I love it that way! It does get pretty tiring so I should imagine that by the time Christmas comes round I’ll be ready to sleep straight through it, but I’m already planning what I want to do with myself next year – I’ve already got started on making my next album so that’s primarily what I’ll be focussing on. Plus, more gigs are in order, I feel!

Q. As a London lass, what do you like about the city? Does it provide an inspiration for your song-writing at times?
Lisbee Stainton: I’ve been living in London for five years now and I love it. I worked as a London walking tour guide for two years, which allowed me learn quite a lot about the city’s history, so much so that anyone who knows me well would probably tell you that I am now a little bit obsessed. I love that there are so many people here (admittedly, I don’t love it so much in rush hour on the Northern line when I end up with my face in someone else’s armpit) and I love the amount of stories that London has to tell.

In fact, Underground from Girl On An Unmade Bed is inspired by the stories of people sheltering in Tube stations during air raids in the Blitz of World War 2. I find it all fascinating.

Q. Which artists inspire you?
Lisbee Stainton: I hugely admire the singer/songwriters of the ’70s: James Tayler, Carole King etc. but my favourite artist, no competition at all, is Joni Mitchell. A music teacher introduced me to her when I was at school and she immediately entranced me. I kind of wish I’d been around in the ’70s because I would have loved to see that whole singer/songwriter revolution thing as it happened! I listen to music constantly and currently I’m completely in love with Bombay Bicycle Club’s new album, Flaws. It’s beautiful.

Q. How did you feel about being asked to contribute to the Latest and Greatest Women of Song compilation album with the likes of Judy Garland and Katie Melua?
Lisbee Stainton: It was really unexpected because I actually didn’t know I was on it until someone showed me the CD! It’s insane – I can’t believe one of my songs has been put on an album alongside the likes of Eddi Reader and Emmy The Great!

Q. Finally, what are the 10 tracks that are never far from your iPod players at the moment?
Lisbee Stainton: In no particular order:
Blue – Joni Mitchell
Joga – Bjork
Tread Water – De la Soul
Black Smoke/Burning House – Dimbleby and Capper
One Day Like This – Elbow
Flaws – Bombay Bicycle Club
Tightrope – Janelle Monae
Moon Shadow – Kate Rusby
Clean White Love – Lisa Mitchell
Samson – Regina Spektor

Lisbee Stainton’s Girl On An Unmade Bed is available now from all good record shops. You can next catch her in London, at the Borderline, on Wednesday, September 22, 2010. For more tour dates, visit her website