There may not be many pedal steel guitarists working within the field of improvised and underground music.
But Heather Leigh, whose new album I Abused Animal is a devastating entrail-sprawl of awe-inducing proportions, is very much at the top of the instrument’s game, both in terms of stretching its playerly parameters and expanding its free-flying capacities, leaving a virtual scorched earth in her wake.
I Abused Animal, released in November on Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O)))’s Ideologic Organ imprint, is all the more potent for being Leigh’s first album of readily identifiable, yet fractally expanded songs, or song forms. Using the extended song as a template for working-through, the album’s embrace of the complexity of worldly life, plumbing the depths of the id and sourcing elemental power from the unconscious, has it besting the year’s other, more polite song albums. Next to I Abused Animal, most of 2015’s music felt like mere practice runs for the real thing.
Leigh is a central figure in the international underground thanks to her constant dedication to her music, from her early days in Texas playing with Shawn McMillen in Ash Castles From The Ghost Coast, to her time with Tom and Christina Carter in Charalambides, with Christina in Scorces, and with Christina, Chris Corsano and Paul Flaherty in Babes On The Loose.
After relocating to Glasgow last decade, Leigh found herself co-running the Volcanic Tongue mail order and shop while making music with David Keenan and Alex Neilson in Taurpis Tula, with Keenan and Sterling Smith in Jandek, and spending time in duos with Corsano (as Jailbreak), Stefan Jaworzyn (as Annihilating Light), Lynda (as Termas), and Peter Brötzmann.
“It’s what you bring to it, and how you can infuse anything in your life with a magic”
How did I Abused Animal come about?
I really wanted to get those songs down, and I really wanted to get an album out of that material for years, but it wasn’t working and I was starting to get frustrated. I thought, am I gonna get this stuff down? And then, I was playing with Stefan [Jaworzyn] in London, and Dean [Roberts] came to the show, and he said, “I’ve been staying with this guy, he has a studio in the middle of the country, you should come out, it’s an amazing place.” At that point, I had only met Dean one time. But we became fast friends and he became absolutely crucial to that record getting made.
I’m interested to know what you thought Dean brought to the record. Obviously he created the space that allowed you to make the record, and I love that on the record sleeve he’s credited as the spiritual advisor.
Yeah, and he was, and he is! [Laughs] It was a really intense time all round. In the week [before recording], I went down to Bournemouth and did the final performance with Lynda of Termas, Moaning On Lynda. That area of the country has such a strange, magical history. At the same time Frieze was happening in London, and Kim Gordon was doing a performance as part of Frieze, and I went to that, to see her. Kim’s always been really supportive of my solo work. Also, Borbetomagus were in town, playing shows at Cafe Oto, and again, they have always been really supportive.
The reason I mention all that is because that week all of these people I had known or had been involved with or had been supportive [were there]. It was frenetic, the energy was high, and then I had to go out into the country with Dean and get this record done. I was swimming with all this activity and I needed to just quiet down, and just go and get the work done. I was nervous about that too, because it was my first studio situation. And Dean did everything to make it the most comfortable and magical experience possible. He made food using ingredients from the garden, he was constantly making tea. As I was recording I would ask what Dean what he thought, ask for his feedback.
Even things like, for instance, the title track, ‘I Abused Animal’, that was actually the only track on the record that was completely improvised. It’s interesting how it characterised and became the title of the record. And because it was my first studio experience, I came in with all these big ideas, I had all these overdubs in mind, and it became very apparent during the recording that it was best to keep it stripped back, as I had been doing the songs live. It didn’t need all this extra stuff added to it, it needed to be what it was. And Dean was really crucial in me coming to that conclusion, bouncing those ideas back and forth with him, and he urged me to keep ‘I Abused Animal’ a capella, and to open the album with it.
Dean and I didn’t know each other but we became such fast friends, and he provided a spiritual advisement at a most crucial moment for me. During the recording process we were staying up all night as well, talking about our lives, revealing things to each other. It was a very close, intimate friendship that developed in a few days’ time. He really provided a comfort, and also a push. I couldn’t have done it without him, there’s no doubt about that. I could not have done it without him.
You’ve mentioned before that you’ve sat with these songs for a while, and that you have a strong personal connection with them.
I talked about doing those songs for years, and they started out so skeletal, not even with lyrics, just melodies and playing. It took me a while to teach myself how to write songs. I had to completely change my process of working. I’ve always been a night owl, and I switched things up, especially because so many of the songs are dealing with dream states and levels of consciousness that are not waking consciousness. To get up and start working first thing in the morning became a really important part of that process, because it’s just after I’ve woken from dreams, [so I can] immediately start the work, unfiltered, where I don’t have the baggage of the day.
The lyrics really came from that place, and I really pored over them in that way, which of course, did feel almost opposite to the way I’ve worked before.
Listening to the record, there really is that sense of working through a set of themes, or historical moments, or personal moments…
All of those things, yeah.
And I don’t think it’s ever so glib as to reach a resolution.
Oh totally, there’s never resolution in anything! [Laughs]
What I like about it is that it doesn’t purport to know.
No, definitely not. I don’t know anything! And I’m happy in knowing nothing. You have this place in adolescence, and I think we all have it to lesser or greater degrees, when you think you know it all, man, you’ve got it all figured out, you know what’s good, you know what’s bad, so quick to judge, that’s for me, that’s not for me. And as I grow older I become more and more open, and more comfortable in the fact that I don’t know anything.
I definitely think that with the songs, and with the themes that I’m exploring, they have an extreme personal resonance but also I would like to think that they go beyond my person, too. There are certain things in the songs that are definitely part of my own life, and part of my own story, and I think that I’m obligated to somehow articulate my story, even if only for myself, but I would hope that it goes beyond that into more of an archetypal realm as well, where it’s not just about me. Because even in the title, and the themes of abuse – okay, I had a traumatic past and I was abused. That’s not a particularly unique story for human beings. For most people, everyone’s life story, they have to deal with their own particular traumas – with death, with illness, with abuse, with suffering – and they find their own way to work through that, to live with it, to keep moving and not just collapse from the weight of being alive and not just giving up, saying, fuck this!
But it’s important for me for it not to come across as this ‘poor me’ kind of idea, because I don’t feel that way. I am aware of the things that I’ve had to deal with, but in no way do I let them dictate the rest of my life. I accept the things that have happened to me in every step of my journey and maybe coming from a place of abuse and seeing it happen to other people, I would never want it to be something that I fall back on and say, “Well, but, this happened to me, so this,” you know? Causal relationships in general I find problematic, because we live in an age where everyone’s a victim, and everyone’s offended.
So in doing these songs and these themes, I had to go to the darkest depths even of my own fears and traumas and things that I find disturbing, and try to embrace them completely. And even things like ‘Quicksand’, that song – my horrific stepfather, he drowned, that’s how he died, but I have always had this thing where I find the idea of dying in quicksand such a romantic notion, I find it fascinating. I even remember, David [Keenan] and I took a trip to Portmeirion, where they filmed The Prisoner. It’s on an estuary, and there are signs up everywhere with little images of sinking people, all these warning signs – don’t go out after this time, the tide comes in at this time. And I remember being there, and it’s almost as if David had to physically hold me back. Not that I was gonna go out there and commit suicide, but it was almost like I wanted to dip a foot in, to see what would happen, to see how far I would sink, and then get out. I actually have to be a little careful around estuaries and quicksand, because that pull is so strong to want to walk out, that I have to hold myself back big time.
Part of the reason I’m asking you to draw the themes out yourself is that I’m still figuring them out. I’m still in the process of listening and experiencing the record. To me it speaks to how powerful a record it is.
It’s totally the same for me, too. I mean, take a track like ‘Fairfield Fantasy’. I was born in West Virginia and I grew up in Texas. I spent a lot of my childhood going back [to West Virginia], because I’d stay there in the summer. My mother had me very young, she had me when she was 16, and it’s really quite something that she got out of Welch. I was born in Bluefield, but the place she lived in was this place called Welch, which is a coal mining town in an area called McDowell County, which was one of the top coal producing counties in the States, and it was largely settled by Scots. It’s a really strong working-class mining community.
When she was growing up there it was still quite bustling because there was coal money. She still says it was total nowheresville, and as soon as she could, she got the hell out. West Virginia is still the state in the US that always comes up one of the worst for healthcare, for education, for poverty, everything across the board – it’s the worst. But for me, going there during the summers, it couldn’t have been a more magical place, in the way that it is for children.
It doesn’t really matter if objectively you could look at it and say, “This is one of the worst places on earth.” To me it was one of the most magical places on earth. I was the only child at that point – my mother has two siblings and they didn’t have children, so I was the only granddaughter. So I would go up and stay, and the princess had arrived in town, I got anything I wanted, and I was able to be myself.
There was a place there called Murphy’s, it’s kind of similar to Woolworths. It was a big department store but they had an incredible music section – records, cassettes, the whole deal – and that was always the first spot that I would hit when I would arrive in Welch. And there were carnivals there as well. I would go to these carnivals growing up, and they were the classic carnivals that had the freak shows and stuff, and I was really attracted to that. I was just attracted to the freakish atmosphere of the place.
So with the ‘Fairfield Fantasy’ thing, at these carnivals there are these candies and chocolates and throwaway stuffed animals, just cheap shit really, but it’s what you bring to it, and how you can infuse anything in your life with a magic. There’s a melancholy recognition at the same time, that nothing is inherent, or possesses anything in and of itself. It’s really what you bring to it.
I’d come back from West Virginia and I’d just be elated and saying to my mom, oh, I did this, that and the other, and she’d say, “That sounds terrible, I’m so glad I left that shithole.” And to me, I didn’t see it that way. There was something half-sad about that, looking back on it, and half-joyous too, about how I could create this whole special place there that most people, if they looked at it from the outside, would say it’s just nowheresville, there’s nothing going on, and there’s no magic in it whatsoever. But to me, there was.
“Not only are you walking into a group of really close friends, you’re a woman, and you’re a woman that’s packing a pedal steel guitar”
You recently played in Poland at the X Krakow Autumn Jazz Festival, organised by Peter Brötzmann. You’d played with Brötzmann before, at the Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. How did that come about?
Ilan [Volkov] and Alasdair [Campbell], who do Tectonics, got in touch and they said, “We want you to play, and we want you to play in a duo with someone that you’ve either never played with before, or someone you haven’t played with in a long time.” I’ve wanted to play with Peter for a long time, but I knew it was one of those situations where I couldn’t just say, “Hey, come play a pub in the UK with me.” So I emailed Peter, and it was half confidence, half a bit cheeky as well, but I was like, “Peter, let’s do this. It’ll fucking rule.” I almost didn’t give him a choice. I prepared myself that he would say no, because he doesn’t just collaborate with anyone. He’s a tough cookie. But he was super-enthusiastic about it, right away.
When we had our soundcheck – this is not usually my style, but I got a bit nervous, and I was kind of tentative. I thought, oh shit, this is really happening! There was maybe part of me that didn’t want to show all my cards, or totally play out before the concert, but I was quite nervous. So in between the soundcheck and the actual performance, I didn’t really have that much to drink or anything, I had a whiskey. I remember, as I was walking out of the bar, I was with David and a friend, and as I was walking away the friend called down the street, “Don’t let him intimidate you!” [Laughs]
The duo was really strong when we played Tectonics. Peter’s such an open person, and I think going into that we thought, we’ll try this, and if it doesn’t work that’s okay. I was pretty confident that it would work very well, and that Tectonics show, it was really full blast intensity. It was dynamic, there were moments where we almost went into ballads together, but my playing especially was very full-on, fuzz, electric, tactile playing. I didn’t even stop for that performance. Brötzmann didn’t even get a solo [laughs]. After we played, I thought, oh, wasn’t that cheeky. But that’s the way it was. So I knew right away with that concert that it would be the first of many.
So how was the music in Poland?
The first night, it was funny, we had our soundcheck – a trio of me, Brötzmann and Uuskyla kicked off the festival – and I thought it was sounding good, and Peter said, “I think that when it comes to the showtime, there needs to be openness – we shouldn’t all play the all time, it doesn’t need to be full-on the whole time.” I thought, oh shit, did he not like that soundcheck? When it came showtime for the first night, I definitely was not tentative, but there was an awareness in my playing that felt a little bit uncomfortable. Whenever I play I like it to not be conscious, but of course there is a consciousness there, it’s not like I’m just blindly doing something. It’s a special type of consciousness. I didn’t quite feel nervous, [but] there was just something about it, I wasn’t completely happy with my playing. But as proof that one can never know or be objective, I recently watched YouTube footage of that set and I think it was one of the best of the weekend.
After that first night, I thought, maybe I need to step up the confidence a little bit. So the next day, I went to the Tadeusz Kantor Museum, and especially after that I felt emboldened. I said to myself, alright, I’m ready for the second night. And the second night was fuckin’ hot shit. It was so good. It started with Peter and I doing a duo. In Poland our duo moved into an entirely different realm with a lot of subtlety, there was quite a bit of quiet playing.
I also felt very comfortable with the guys, on a personal level. I was aware that, you know, I’m going into this whole other world that I’m not really part of. I wouldn’t say these guys are just doing free jazz, but there’s a real tradition, there’s a history, and there are relationships that have been established there with these guys for decades. It’s like walking into a group of really close friends. And not only are you walking into a group of really close friends, you’re a woman, and you’re a woman that’s packing a pedal steel guitar. I’m the person there that is amplified. And it’s a totally different instrument than you would find in that context. So for all I knew, I was gonna walk in and I maybe wouldn’t get along with some of the guys, or they maybe wouldn’t appreciate that I was there, or they wouldn’t like my playing – there were so many unknowns. But I immediately felt respect from everyone. It was very easygoing.