Good Health: C Duncan on his collaborative third LP
After two meticulous, enigmatic solo works made his name, C Duncan is letting loose with a candid, confident and collaborative third LP
"I realised there was a whole world outside of my bedroom."
For the entirety of his musical career to date, Chris Duncan's whole world had actually been inside his bedroom. That was where, in his mid-20s, he arrived after a remarkable musical journey that had spanned his entire life. Raised by parents who were both classical musicians, he became well-versed in piano and viola as a child, while learning the technical side of the discipline, too. That would later lead to a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – in his native Glasgow. Before that, though, he developed a penchant for rock and pop in his teens, finding time to play in a slew of bands in the process, as so many (admittedly, less technically proficient) kids do at that age.
With all of that already on his CV, he still found that, at the end of it all, there was nowhere he was happier than making music by himself at home, with today’s recording technology allowing him to make dense and complex songs that reflected his diverse musical upbringing without the need to involve anybody else. "I guess, to some degree, it was always a control thing," he explains on an early morning call from Glasgow.
"Recording yourself, you can go as slowly as you want, and put in as much work as you want, without any kind of time constraints. You’re not waiting on studio time to get something done, or hanging around for other musicians to become available. You write something, and the finished product is already just around the corner. Studying to be a classical composer was similar; you spend a lot of time alone, locked in a room. It’s only at the end of it, when people play those pieces, that the music makes it outside of those walls."
The same could be said of Architect, his debut LP under his C Duncan moniker. It wasn’t until he sent some demos, cold, to FatCat Records that the songs, already elaborate construction projects even in that form, were exposed to fresh ears. They signed him quickly, and by the end of 2015 he had a Mercury Prize-nominated debut album to his name. In typically ambitious style, he followed it quickly and fearlessly, releasing The Midnight Sun – a highly conceptual exercise in ambient dream-pop – a little over a year later. The real leap of faith, though, was one that Duncan was yet to make; one that involved venturing outside of the self-styled sanctuary of his Glasgow flat and into the alien environment of the studio, where he’d inevitably end up finding out whether or not he played well with others.
"It was a pretty intimidating prospect," he recalls. "I just didn’t know what was going to be expected of me, even though I already had all of the demos for this new album. Would I need to record much more when I got there? How are these sketches going to change? How much time am I going to have? It wasn’t until we actually got to work that I realised, 'Oh, this is actually really laid-back'. I ended up really getting into that studio process. I loved it."
The result is this month’s third LP, Health, which feels like precisely the kind of wholesale reinvention that you’d expect such a seismic shift of approach to bring about. Duncan has never sounded as confident as this; where he sought to bury his vocals deep in the mix on his last two albums – "I just treated them like any other musical instrument" – he brings them to the fore on Health, and not without reason. After two albums spent being deliberately oblique in lyrical terms, he now wants to tell his own stories more openly. Accordingly, Health’s subject matter runs the gamut from mental health struggles to relationship troubles to the nature of Duncan’s sexuality – he is openly gay.
"Looking back to Architect and The Midnight Sun, I realise how much Cocteau Twins I was listening to," he laughs. "And, you know, it suited me to follow their lead and imitate that thing they do where you can't tell what they’re singing about, but it doesn’t actually matter. It was never the point before to be expressive with my lyrics, but I wanted to do that this time around. I wanted to be direct. I didn’t have the confidence in the past. It’s nerve-wracking enough to play your music for other people, but then for them to be hearing your lyrics along with it, it's doubly embarrassing. So I’d always be drowning them in reverb in the beginning."
Now, with Health, Duncan is offering listeners some insight into his private life, in a manner that he hopes will prove mutually cathartic. He casts his net wide in thematic terms – He Came from the Sun has him reflecting on his own experience of coming out, spurred on to do so by news of anti-gay purges in Chechnya. Opener Talk Talk Talk muses on the collapse of a relationship being precipitated by communication problems. Reverie is a rumination on depression, while beautifully bleak closer Care chronicles heartbreak.
"Making music has gotten me through some tough times in the past," Duncan says, "but it was always just the process of actually piecing it together that helped. I did wonder whether putting some of these things into the lyrics would be a good idea, because it might have made things worse for me – to be turning all of it over in my head again. The opposite is true, though; it feels good not to be bottling things up. It’s all out there in song form, and now I’ll be going out and performing them. It was cathartic not to be clouding over anything any more, and hopefully people can listen to this record and relate to it in some way."
Offsetting the often turbulent topical territory that Duncan explores on Health is the sound of the record, which is consistently bright and shiny. It’s his poppiest album to date, and calls to mind the kind of step into out-and-out melodic vibrancy that How to Dress Well took a couple of years ago on Care. It’s the result, he explains, of teaming up with Craig Potter of Elbow, who handled production duties, with Duncan cutting the record in Salford at his former tourmates' base of operations, Blueprint Studios.
"I drew up a list of people I might want to work with and Craig was basically at the top of it. I’d been on the road with Elbow twice – once in the UK and once in the States – so I’d gotten to know them all really well, Craig in particular. We have very similar tastes and we approach music from a similar angle. Working with him opened me up to bringing in more collaborators; my drummer in my band chipped in with live drums for the first time, and the string parts were actually played by my parents. It was really nice to be writing music for other people to play again."
Health will take on another life all of its own when Duncan takes it on tour, beginning in April, with the same four-piece live set-up as last time around. For the man himself, though, that’s just another facet of what is essentially a multi-disciplinary creative project. As with Architect and The Midnight Sun, Duncan kept a visual track of Health’s progression in the form of paintings, one of which again serves as the album art – and, in the process, demonstrates how far he’s come. "The first two records had a very architectural aesthetic to them, and that suited them, in terms of where they were recorded and how I approached them," he says. "All of the artwork I was doing this time, though, were paintings of made-up places, and of nature. They’re brighter and more striking than just another picture of my flat, and I like to think that’s true of the album, too."
Health is released on 29 Mar via FatCat Records
C Duncan plays Paisley Arts Centre, Paisley, 15 Mar; The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 19 Apr; Summerhall, Edinburgh, 10 May; Maryhill Community Centre, Glasgow, 11 May