Siobhan Wilson on new album There Are No Saints

Elgin-born songwriter Siobhan Wilson talks to The Skinny about Paris, writing about mental health and coming full circle as an artist

Feature by Jonathan Rimmer | 10 Jul 2017

At first glance, Siobhan Wilson is just one of many Scottish singer-songwriters to make good use of minimalist production. Kathryn Joseph, Rachel Sermanni and many more have shown there’s a growing hunger for music that’s more stripped back and vulnerable. Of course, it also helps that Wilson has a phenomenal voice and a startling ability to write lyrics that are both delicate and hugely affecting.

But what helps her stand out is her adaptability. A talented cellist, she’s also played in jazz bands, featured on a synth-pop record and is a firm fixture at annual Glasgow folk festival Celtic Connections. So while her new album There Are No Saints is best described as an atmospheric, intimate affair, don’t be surprised if there are a few surprises along the way.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily all down to versatility,” says Wilson. “I get bored really easily. I find genre fascinating – it’s so interesting the way we describe things and associate art with location and how it provides a space to explore. I think it reflects my personality – I want to know everyone and do everything and never be stuck on one thing.”

Wilson’s musical journey is far from typical. Born in Highland town Elgin, she studied music as a teenager in Edinburgh before moving to Paris. Within months she was fluent in French, signed to a label and living with a fellow singer-songwriter. This whirlwind sequence of events undeniably shaped Wilson as a person, but it also moulded her craft. Two of the songs on the album are sung in French, a tribute to the culture she embraced.

She says: “I don’t know if this is my perception, but I always notice in France that vocals are way up front in the mix of a track. The voice is always at the forefront and swimming in reverb – the French absolutely love it. It’s a sound I’ve always enjoyed and it’s meant I’ve found it quite difficult to do stuff that’s more dry and band-esque if that makes sense. 

“For me, I find the actual song is quite often the vocal. It’s not an egotistical thing of being the loudest. In fact, the Elgin side of me doesn’t ever want anything too polished. Where I’m from there’s this mentality where music is quite lo-fi and punky and rebellious. But I definitely can’t hear ‘Scottishness’ in my own music though people point it out. It’s like when you look in the mirror and can’t see the resemblance between you and your parents.”

Despite her French connection, There Are No Saints easily has the most Scottish input of any of her records. Now living in Glasgow, Wilson procured the talented Chris McCrory (Catholic Action and Casual Sex) to engineer and produce the album. Although punk rocker McCrory might seem an unlikely collaborator for classically trained Wilson, they bonded over the desire to make an album that was raw and live sounding.

Wilson says: “Classical and punk music have that in common – the live thing. We had this super DIY bedroom set up in his parents' house, with a big mattress and sheets and fairy lights. It was very homely and efficient and everything was rehearsed so quickly and organically.

“I like some of the new stuff you hear on the radio, but I just want to hear something that sounds like it was made in the room. It moves me far more. Chris was on the same page – he agreed to keep things sparse and it worked. I feel like it’s the first time I’ve been brave enough to truly be myself.”

Wilson’s unrefined approach meant some of the more emotional moments from the recording process were captured on tape. The majority of tracks were one take only, meaning moments like Wilson coming close to tears on Disaster and Grace were left in. Baring your soul can seem forced or clichéd when broached awkwardly, but the themes Wilson explores are genuinely moving. 

“As shown by the title, the album really seeks to question faith and spirituality," she tells us. "Tracks like Dark Matter and Dear God are quite existential and tackle depression and things, which I’ve never felt brave enough to tackle before. I’ve not tried playing the full album yet, but the ones I’ve sung have sent shivers down my spine and I’ve had to stop myself from crying.

“It sounds masochistic, but I really feel like if I can move myself then I can move other people. I actually think for a little while I lost the excitement for live performances and wasn’t enjoying it. I had to move myself again because it’s the only way I can authentically reach out to others. That’s not to look for sympathy – people go through the same kind of stuff and I happen to find it’s way easier to sing about.”

Her honesty has obviously paid dividends. Matthew Young of Song, by Toad Records says on the official Bandcamp page: "Generally I make sure to listen to things through several times and properly think things over before offering to release a record, but on this one I was about halfway through the first song and I knew we’d want to put it out." 

Having released music by Meursault, Adam Stafford and Sparrow and the Workshop, the Edinburgh-based label is the perfect place for naturally talented independent artists to hone their craft. However, Wilson also specifically identifies Young as a valuable contributor to the overall process. “I first bumped into him at a gig in Summerhall after I’d done the first day of demos with Chris," she explains. "I thought maybe I could ask for some advice – I never know if it’s good until someone I respect says it’s good. I showed him it and he liked it and it was so easy. It wasn’t a business thing; it was a feeling thing.

“As soon as Matthew heard the demos, he had a vision for the tracklisting – which helps because I’m rubbish at that bit. It provided a lot of structure to the creative process, which is what you want. You want someone that’s grounded. He also designed the cover, which I was really happy with because it’s abstract and I look a bit like an alien.”

While "alien" isn’t the first word that comes to mind when describing Siobhan Wilson, she’s clearly cut from a different cloth to many of her peers. Though affable and unpretentious, she adds a touch of class to every song she writes. Now based in Glasgow, she tells The Skinny she’s ready to take to the road and perform her most personal pieces yet, with upcoming dates planned in Manchester and London. “After that I’m planning a full UK tour in September, which I’m looking forward to. I’m also definitely playing here in Glasgow.

“I do really love playing here because it’s home. Some festivals tend to give me that Sunday morning ‘hangover slot’, but things like Celtic Connections have been amazing. With Glasgow, it’s the people that draw me back. Even if I’ve been writing sad songs all day, I can go out and have a laugh and a pint. I used to live in Paris, which was this really moody and romantic place. Now I’m making moody and romantic music in a city that’s more down to earth – and I love it.”

There Are No Saints is released on 14 Jul via Song, by Toad