Emma Pollock on Record Labels and Solo Careers

Emma Pollock's early career saw her fronting The Delgados and drinking with John Peel in Motherwell pubs. Now, as the record label she co-founded turns 21, she has released her best solo album yet. Just don't ask her to make you a playlist

Feature by Chris McCall | 21 Apr 2016
  • Emma Pollock

The Electric Bar in Motherwell was the unlikely venue for a music summit involving one of the most acclaimed Scottish groups of recent times and a DJ whose influence is still felt more than 10 years after his death. It was in this modest pub in 1999 that The Delgados cemented their friendship with John Peel, a man who had by then done much to bring their music to wider public attention.

Fast forward to 2016 and Emma Pollock, then a Delgado but now an established solo artist, is laughing at the memory. “It was an amazing night. [Delgados bassist] Stewart Henderson worked in the bar at the time and invited Peel and his producers to take part in the weekly quiz night. And he was terrible at it! There was a music intros round and he named the wrong Jimi Hendrix track – despite once having him on his show. I'm delighted he was as prone to faults with music as I am."

The genial presenter was in town to film an episode for a long-forgotten Channel 4 series, Sounds of the Suburbs, in which he toured unlikely musical stomping grounds. Peel had chosen Lanarkshire for one of the instalments thanks to his love of all things Delgado, as well as other local acts like BMX Bandits and the Soup Dragons. It seems scarcely believable now that a terrestrial TV channel would dedicate a UK-wide show to bands unknown even to the majority of Scots.

The Skinny hasn't met Pollock in a Shawlands cafe on a dark March weeknight just to talk about the old days, however. The songwriter has a dyamic and introspective new album out, In Search of Harperfield, which has attracted some of the most glowing reviews of her career. Next month she will embark on her most extensive UK tour in several years. Meanwhile, Chemikal Underground – the record label she co-founded and co-owns with her former bandmates – remains at the forefront of the alternative scene north of the border. But the Peel episode is a useful reminder of how Pollock's time as a band member and then a solo artist straddled two very different eras of pop music.

The success of Chemikal Underground

Like all artists who built their careers on the once familiar business model of record sales and regular touring, the digital revolution was a storm her group didn't see coming. "It's unfortunate: when you look at the span of The Delgados, the peak of record sales was right in the middle," Pollock explains. "Record sales were hit by the internet from around 2000. We saw ours fall for the first time after [Mercury-nominated] The Great Eastern. And some of us mistakenly thought this was because people weren't into us anymore. But in reality it had nothing to do with the band. I don't think we understood the whole industry was closing in on itself."

While The Delgados split in 2005, Chemikal has not only survived but thrived, becoming arguably the best-known of Glasgow's independent labels. The company's own Chem19 studio in Blantyre continues to attract so many bookings that Pollock herself struggles to book there. The irony is further compounded by the fact that the man responsible for running the studio is in-house producer Paul Savage, aka Mr Pollock. "It's been 21 years of Chemikal Underground, and who knows where any of us would be if that record company hadn't started," she admits. "If you make an album over five years, like I did for Harperfield, you don't know if your independent record company will still be there at the end of it. 

"It's a real coming together of parts: me working with my husband – who was the drummer in The Delgados – at the studio we started 17 years ago, and the promotion being done by the former bass player in the same band. Meanwhile, Alun [Woodward, guitarist] is still working in the background on his own stuff. His soundtrack for the Graeme Obree documentary, Battle Mountain, is about to be released and is really worth checking out. Sometimes it feels like we don't see each other for months, but when we do see each other we're still close."

There are varied reasons for why Harperfield took five years to complete. "We didn't shut ourselves in the studio," Pollock stresses.  "I have a son, and Paul – as a producer – doesn't get home until after 9pm on week nights. I can't underestimate how hard it is to be a working mum these days. There's always one partner in a relationship with children who has to mop it all up to let the other partner do a very focused job. For a long time that focused job has been Paul's, and the studio has built up over the past 10 years. He's done a remarkable job. So I was just getting the album done when I could."

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Pollock also had to deal with the death of her mother and grandmother last year, both of whom had been unwell for some time. Understandably, there was a period when music had to take a back seat. "We talk about death all the time, we hear about it in the news, but I didn't understand it until my mum died," she adds. "I couldn't grasp that she was no longer here. It was a very intense period. And in some ways, it focuses a person, you come out the other end of it and realise you have to seize life every day."

The majority of Harperfield was mixed by the end of 2014, but several tracks – including lead single Parks and Recreation – were not completed until spring of the following year. The process, while protracted, delivered results. "I don't regret the length of time the album took. People always say: just make the right album, and not to worry about anything else. The fact is I've been doing this 20 years and people are still willing to listen to me. It's reaffirming to know you can be a bit older in the industry, and a female, and still put a record out and have people want to listen."

The positive reception to the album has left Pollock feeling more secure as a solo artist than ever before. Shortly after The Delgados' end, she signed a deal with indie heavyweights 4AD. The resulting album, 2007's Watch the Fireworks, was a fine starting point for her solo career, but the partnership would ultimately fizzle out. "I think they were expecting too much: I was an indie artist coming from an indie background. You can't reinvent yourself. I didn't think it was that realistic to think of me as the next KT Tunstall at that point. 

"I feel for one of the first times in my solo career I can justify being here," she admits. "With 4AD, I felt I had been offered a platform on the virtue of the fact I had been in The Delgados. Now I feel like I have paid my dues a wee bit again. I hope I've shown there is something after The Delgados that I can offer. That might sound a bit apologetic – I suppose I feel better in myself."

Pollock is filled with renewed enthusiasm for her music. For someone who regularly plays solo shows, she's excited to have assembled a full band for her appearence at Glasgow's Stag and Dagger festival and May tour. She's even embracing, with a certain degree of scepticism, the new promotional duties that have evolved since her last record, The Law of Large Numbers, appeared in 2010. "I was asked to create a Spotify playlist of other people's songs to create interest in me. That's mental," she says. "It seems to be all about being out there, to be seen to be interacting – but who's that really benefiting? Spotify have put me on a few very big playlists, which is great, even if I'm not necessarily going to see any record sales from that. But there's a belief that this is how you achieve something: you get in the back door and no longer brazenly ask someone to buy your album." It's a long way from Sounds of the Suburbs, certainly.

With the success of Harperfield, does this mean we can rule out any Delgados reunion? "We've talked about it very loosely, maybe once or twice," she says, carefully. "It would only happen if we all felt a real need to go back in and make music together again. I don't think we could reform just to play some shows. 

"And would we not look like a bunch of tits if we decided to reform now the obligatory 10 years has passed?"

Five essential Chemikal Underground releases

The Glasgow-based independent label was initially started in 1995 to release the Delgado's first 7" single, Monica Webster, but quickly grew to champion other artists. Here's five of the most essential releases from Chemikal's 21 years in business:

Arab Strap – The First Big Weekend (1997)

One of the most memorable singles of the 90s, The First Big Weekend announced the arrival of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton, two self-confessed miserable bastards from Falkirk who knew how to make a statement. Part spoken word, part acoustic lament, it was a story that many Scots could relate to – until The Arches closed, that is. The duo would release the majority of their records via Chemikal until splitting in 2006.

Mogwai – Young Team (1997)

A landmark album by any standard. Mogwai were barely out of their teens – with the exception of 27-year-old 'relic' Brendan O'Hare – when they signed for Chemikal and set about reinterpreting what a basic guitars, bass and drums set-up could do, at a time when the term 'post-rock' had yet to enter common usage. A late modern classic that helped push Chemikal to another level.

The Delgados – Universal Audio (2004)

The final LP by the label's in-house band is often over-looked in favour of the Mercury-nominated The Great Eastern, but there's much to enjoy here. The trademark orchestration has been stripped back, allowing the strong-as-ever songs more room to breathe. The bittersweet Is This All That I Came For? hints at a band who knew their time may be up.

The Phantom Band – Checkmate Savage (2009)

Folktronica-meets-Krautrock was a template for success that remained untested until this extraordinary debut album came along. The album's title may be a reference to the end of human society due to overpopulation and dwindling natural resources, but it remains an engrossing and upbeat collection six years after its release.

Miaoux Miaoux – Light of the North (2011)

Producer Julian Corrie's hook-filled dance pop arrived fully formed on this debut album that retains the power to delight after repeated listens. His arrangements owe as much to house and electro as they do to traditional pop. Second album School of Velocity, released last year, is every bit as good and suggests a talent who is just reaching his peak.

Emma Pollock plays at Stag and Dagger festival, Glasgow on 1 May; Soup Kitchen, Manchester on 13 May and Arts Club, Liverpool on 19 May.

In Search of Harperfield is out now via Chemikal Underground.