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An interview with Catherine Feeny

Matt Bramford chats to Catherine Feeny about her new album People in the Hole, when she's coming to see us in the UK, and childhood dreams of George Michael…

Written by Matt Bramford

Catherine Feeny, view order illustrated by Emma Block

Catherine Feeny is a rather wonderful folky songstress based in Portland, information pills click Oregon. Her third album, remedy People in the Hole, is out now. I really like Catherine’s music – it’s simple, beautiful, unassuming and charming to listen to. I had the chance to have a chat with Catherine about what’s been happening recently and what the new album holds for us, whilst having a bit of a delve into what Catherine gets up to when she’s not clutching her guitar…

Welcome back! What’s new since Hurricane Glass?
Hey Matt, thanks! A lot’s changed… I am back in the US now – based in Portland, Oregon, which I am really enjoying. Also, career-wise I am rolling independent style now – again – which has its awesome sides and its challenges.  And I am married!

Illustration by Jenny Costello

Congratulations! So, How did People in the Hole come together?
It’s a twisted tale! After Hurricane Glass came out independently in the UK, I started recording a new album. Hurricane Glass got picked up by EMI so the new one was put on hold. There was this gap in which my idea of what I wanted to do shifted a bit. It had started out as more of a country-rock record. Then we decided to strap one of the centerpieces of that feel, The Shape You’re In, onto the EMI release of Hurricane Glass.
Coming back to the material months later, some of the other tracks felt like they had lost their urgency for me. And the record got softer, sweeter…. more ethereal and experimental.

Photograph by Devaki Knowles

How would you describe People in the Hole in three words?
Romantic. Ethereal. Vibey. I feel like those words suck. I don’t know.

What’s your favourite song on there?
Wah wah wah. That’s hard! Bleeder is up there. I wrote the lyrics to that one and gave them to Tony Gethin, a ridiculously talented writer and musician I was playing with in England. He came up with the music, and I think it’s such a beautiful marriage. He also came up with the bass line which is just genius to me. Plus, the recording – it’s a live take of me playing with the band and it’s so mellow and groovy. Tricks – the drummer – nailed it. Then on top of that vibe is this gorgeous Russian sounding cello line, played by Ian Burdge so precisely, but with such drama and emotion – he doesn’t waste a note in the instrumental.  

One of my faves is Last Night I Awoke in the Midst of a Dream. It’s beautiful. What’s the weirdest dream you’ve ever had?
Hmm. When I was a kid I had a dream I was friends with George Michael and he was wearing that white suit from the Make it Big era… I was so bummed when I woke up and we weren’t friends anymore.

Illustration by Aniela Murphy

You duet with Brian Wright on this album. How did that come about, and how was it?
Brian is an old friend and one of my favorite songwriters. I covered his song Radar on Hurricane Glass. But the Jonny and June duet on this tune was Sebastian’s (the producer and my husband) idea. Being from the US where people don’t have much of a sense of humour about drugs, I was a little nervous about it. But we went for it and I’m glad we did. It’s so wicked and true. We recorded Brian and me together in the dressing room after a show he was playing in London. It was a blast.

I LOVE the illustrations for the new album. Who did those? Why the move from photographs?
The cover painting is by Anna Fidler. She is a brilliant artist I met one evening in Portland when we were forced to share a table in a crowded bar. We got to chatting and exchanged info. I looked at her web site a few weeks later and fell head over heels for that painting, Love and Wisdom. The inside drawing is by a guy named Dennis Stan who showed me his drawings when we did a house show together. I was bored with photos and these things fell into my lap.  

Which artists or bands influence (or have influenced) your music?
Oh, so many! Too many ever to name. But I’ll try. My parents records were Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens – they were an influence. When I was a kid I loved all that melancholy stuff from England: The Cure, The Smiths. Also pop on the radio – George Michael, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston. In my twenties I got into Alt Country – Lucinda Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, Waylon Jennings. Always loved Patsy Cline!
There is such a discernible style of songwriting that is popular right now, in the indie-songwriter world – I think of it as wayfarer music. Jolie Holland was the first modern artist that I heard doing it. I like it and it seeps in, but I also find it annoying that it seems like suddenly everyone sounds like that. Before long it will be out of fashion again. Oh! Sinead O’Connor and The Indigo Girls were both huge influences, too.

Do you prefer recording or performing live?
They are so different. I love them both, like two children who are opposite and each beautiful in their own right. Performing is more of a challenge – there are more levels to it. You have the relationship with yourself and the song, and then you have the audience to relate to as well. But they are both about the moment, I guess. Really, everything in life is about the moment, isn’t it?

Photograph by Robbie LeBlanc

What kind of crowd do you get at your gigs?
I feel like I get quite a mix. There are the middle aged folks who like intelligent acoustic music. There are the young girls who relate to the emotional content. I have a really strong relationship with my dad, so I feel like I have a pretty good balance between masculine and feminine, and that is reflected in my audience as well – dudes seem to really identify with my lyrics as well as ladies. Though strictly speaking calling my music “folk” may be a misnomer, I think it has a straight-from-the-heartness that manages to cross some social boundaries. We’ve played to audiences in small towns in Idaho where the median age was 60, and they were some of the most connective audiences we’ve played for.

What’s the best gig you’ve ever seen?
I recently saw Anais Mitchell who pretty much blew my mind. Before that, I would’ve said a Neil Young and Soundgarden double-bill that I saw in college – the excitement factor was ridiculous.

Career highlight so far?
Singing Muhlenberg County with John Prine. Supporting Wilco in London. Playing Glastonbury. These are ones I would stick on a résumé. But sometimes it is harder to enjoy the moments that are supposed to be the big ones. There have been some glorious meals prepared by cultural centres I played at in Belgium that felt like career highlights.

What do you do when you’re not singing, writing or recording?
I love cooking and gardening. I do not love e-mailing, but I do a crapload of it. Being an artist these days there is so much to do that is not strictly about the art. Nobody can afford to hire press people and radio people anymore, and the avenues for promotion seem to be ever-expanding. There is a lot of opportunity, but it is a challenge finding the time to take advantage of it.

Catherine gardening, illustrated by Emma Block

What is important to you, in life?
Love. Family. Friends. Living in the moment. Music. Books. Food! Travel.

Who would you most like to perform/record with?
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Hands down.

What’s up next? Are you going to come and see us in the UK?
I am touring the Southeast US in August and I’ll be in England at the end of October – I’m really looking forward to it. I will have my band with me, Come Gather Round Us. We are finishing up a new record that sounds phenomenal, if I may say so myself…

As a little treat, you can have a listen to title track from People in the Hole, exclusive to you exceptionally lucky readers of Amelia’s Magazine.

Have a listen here.

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