Blood Red Shoes on reuniting for new album Get Tragic
We speak to Steven Ansell and Laura-Mary Carter of Blood Red Shoes about friendship, confidence and reconciliation ahead of the release of their fifth studio album, Get Tragic
While rehearsing for Swing Time alongside Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers saw her white dancing shoes turn red with blood due to the strain of repeated takes. The behind-the-scenes story was an inspiration for Blood Red Shoes; Steven Ansell (drums/vocals) and Laura-Mary Carter (guitar/vocals) naming themselves after this painful dedication to entertaining others.
After a decade together, the Brighton duo experienced an altogether different consequence of pushing themselves too hard, with their friendship suffering the harsh reality of relentless touring. As they tell The Skinny, Get Tragic – their forthcoming fifth album – documents the fallout since fans last saw them and the subsequent comedy of errors post-reconciliation.
Blood Red Shoes formed in 2004 after the previous bands of Ansell (Cat on Form) and Carter (Lady Muck) split. With a punk mindset, they released a series of 7" singles on small labels and organised many of their own shows. Their debut album, Box of Secrets – which channelled bands such as Fugazi – was released in 2008. By this time, the fresh-faced duo found themselves gracing the pages of NME alongside the likes of Vampire Weekend and supporting high calibre acts including Rage Against the Machine. It was a good time to be in an indie band.
Beneath the surface of their equally effortless cool image in photoshoots, Blood Red Shoes are polar opposites, with Ansell naturally sitting in the driving seat during shows and interviews. "I am a complete extrovert," he admits, matter-of-factly. "I do everything at a million miles an hour. Laura is a very sensitive and reflective person. She's much more introverted." But despite their differences, they remained close-knit, balancing one another out as their success continued. They built upon their international fan base with their sophomore album, Fire Like This (2010), which was followed by In Time to Voices (2012).
As they travelled the globe, heavily touring each record, they earned many passport stamps but little rest. Was this demanding schedule self-inflicted? "I think it came down to what we started as, doing everything ourselves," considers Carter. "We used to make shows happen, so it did seem like the norm. We had management at the time that was very hot on us not being just a UK-centric band and I am really grateful for that – because we do have an audience all around the world now – but there was a point where I just got very exhausted."
Ansell concurs: "There was a demand. It was great – we had the time of our lives and I wouldn't change any of that. We just said 'Yes' to everything, but what no one did, at any point, was say to us, 'You want to be careful doing too much'. No one fucking told us that."
The inevitable breaking point came after they’d finished touring their 2014 self-titled album. A gruelling itinerary over many years had left Blood Red Shoes with no life or identity outside of the band. Their white shoes had become stained red and arguments ensued. "We just hit a point where we no longer knew if we were friends or wanted to make the music we were making," says Ansell. "I call it a midlife crisis. We suddenly questioned everything – our entire foundation. We talked about breaking up and fired almost everyone around us. We got ourselves in a real spin."
Consequently, Blood Red Shoes walked away from one another. Carter escaped to Los Angeles to work on songwriting for other artists, allowing her some much-needed rumination. "I didn’t feel like we’d ever properly break up, but our friendship definitely suffered," she reflects. "I just wanted to get my confidence back and be myself again. I wanted to be an individual and not just 'Laura in Blood Red Shoes'. I had to get away, have some time to think and try some new things out."
She adds that her voice is now stronger in every sense. "It wasn't Ste’s fault, but I felt like everyone only wanted to listen to what he had to say. I didn’t really know my own voice, even down to my singing voice because I’d sung with him for so long. I got used to just fitting my voice in to complement the song, whereas now I realise that I can actually sing in a different way." These feelings appear to be broadcast on last year’s single, Mexican Dress, which is typical of the album’s transparent lyrics: 'Yeah, you’re taking all the space / Can’t you leave a little for myself or someone else here'.
Meanwhile, Ansell opted to stay at home in Brighton, dealing with the forced hiatus badly. "It was really weird," he opens up. "I found it really hard, so I did what somebody would do in a romantic breakup. There were a good six months where I didn't know what I was doing – I was just jumping around in clubs, out of it. I felt like I’d blown things with my best friend and that my band – that I’d put my heart and soul into – was collapsing."
Fortunately, time proved to be a great healer. The duo began to slowly rekindle their friendship before recording Get Tragic, but suffered further setbacks during the initial album sessions. Firstly, they travelled to a supposedly former community centre in rural Wales but only lasted one night. "We were woken up in the morning by literally the whole town," laughs Carter. "There was a woman outside, banging on the door. They were saying, 'You're making the Devil's music!' The centre had been sold over the summer, but no one had told the community. Amazing timing!"
For their second attempt, they visited Leeds, borrowing the studio of former tourmates Pulled Apart by Horses. Before they had even begun, Carter broke her arm during a motorcycle crash, causing her to shift gears sonically while it healed. She favoured keyboard over guitar and added more vocals to the mix. Ansell experimented too, mixing drum machines with his traditional kit. The sessions inadvertently set the tone for entering the studio with producer Nick Launay (Arcade Fire, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) in Los Angeles for what proved to be third time lucky.
Get Tragic is an honest, therapeutic account of the duo’s individual thoughts and feelings on past events. Moreover, it is a tongue-in-cheek acceptance of their personal drama between albums, set to a suitably mature sound. "I looked at our behaviour and we’d turned into a total joke," explains Ansell. "It was this absolutely fucking clichéd tragedy thing to do when you have a meltdown and we started thinking it was funny. We needed to make this record. It was the only way to move forward – to accept ourselves and kind of laugh at it."
The album release will be marked by a tour of intimate venues across Europe and the UK (including a show at Glasgow's Stereo). Whilst it appears to hark back to their early days, it will actually be a significant fresh start for Blood Red Shoes. "It's not really meant to be a retrospective thing," says Carter. "We still feel like we are becoming a new band. We don’t really look back. It's for our fans – I feel that they’ll really appreciate it." Ansell adds: "We wanted to start where we began, growing naturally into something that people noticed. I think it's instinctively the right fit because we feel like we’ve restarted a bit."
Fifteen years since their formation, Blood Red Shoes have emerged from recent difficulties stronger. For now, the future of the band remains very much intact. "Things have been hard – and they still are – but we’re just at the point where you’ve just got to laugh and keep powering through," says Carter, who now mostly resides Stateside. "I think we’re definitely pretty unbreakable though. It’s not always worked out well for us, but we're probably both a force to be reckoned with now."
Ansell, who remains in Brighton, considers the reasons for their resilience. "Our whole adult life has been the band," he says. "It is part of our identity and I don’t think that – even if we tried to give up – we could at this point. As much as we were kicking against each other, you've got to accept that part of the creative process is that you fight a bit because sometimes something good comes out of that."
Get Tragic is released on 25 Jan via Jazz Life
Blood Red Shoes play Stereo, Glasgow, 31 Jan