Kathryn Joseph and James Graham on Out Lines

Kathryn Joseph and James Graham introduce their new community-inspired collaboration, Out Lines

Feature by Harry Harris | 04 Oct 2017

“A few people listened to the record and said, 'it’s quite dark' – well, what the fuck were you expecting?”

It’s fair to say, The Twilight Sad’s James Graham has an idea of the kind of music he makes, and how it’s going to make people feel. The melancholic timbre of his voice, at its lowest drone and fiercest wail, has helped the band gain a near evangelical following. For this new project, Out Lines – a collaboration between himself, 2015 Scottish Album of the Year Award winner Kathryn Joseph, and producer Marcus Mackay, whose credits read like a who’s who of Scottish music – that melancholy remains, but there is light coming through the cracks.

Out Lines was born out of a commission from Alun Woodward, formerly of The Delgados and now music programmer at Glasgow arts-hub and community centre Platform, as part of Outskirts Festival and the Easterhouse Conversations Project. He approached Graham to ask if he wanted to write music based on conversations with members of the Easterhouse community, and those who use Platform in their day-to-day lives. Being a fan of Joseph’s Bones You Have Thrown Me, and Blood I Have Spilled record, Graham approached her to collaborate, despite the two never having met before.

“When Alun suggested the project I said I’d like to work with Kathryn. Usually I’d go for the safety blanket of knowing someone in the first place – which would be less daunting – but for some reason on that day I thought I’d reach out to somebody who I’d not met before, which was pretty out of character.”

Joseph shared these initial reservations – her only previous collaborative work having been with RM Hubbert – only coming round to the project when she found out The Twilight Sad frontman had specifically asked to work with her: “Up until then the thought of writing with someone else was a nightmare for me,” she tells us. On the first day they met, they were thrown straight into the deep end, conducting interviews with people from the community.

“You have a responsibility to their stories,” Joseph says, “the things you don’t want to expose about them. The way we write isn’t obvious, so you’re able to write about these people without it being literal.” True enough, there is an obliqueness to the record, which is not to say that it’s inaccessible. The stories in the songs don’t play out in an A to B fashion, instead it’s more textural, darker, with individual lyrics and elements of spoken word jumping out at you, like windows into conversations.

And, yes, the stories they were told were, at times, brutal. People who’ve dealt with substance abuse, incarceration, grief, displacement. People from vulnerable backgrounds, in vulnerable positions now. During the interview process, both Graham and Joseph were really affected by not only the content of what they were being told, but the manner in which it was coming to them – the matter-of-factness, or stoicism, that these people had. “There was no woe-is-me, everyone was so positive," Graham tells us, "people that maybe haven’t had privileged backgrounds, who have such an amazing outlook on life. That was a real therapeutic thing for me too in a way.”

There was a sense that for those being interviewed, the conversations were reward enough. “It wasn’t like they’d come to the gig," says Joseph. "These were people who were happy to be involved but didn’t care what the outcome was.” Graham adds, “I quite like that. We came in, we had that moment with each other, we made the record, maybe they don’t need to see the other side of it?”

There’s a shared DNA too with some other Scottish records and projects of the past few years, that take this storytelling tradition that feels so rooted in folk music, and push it into new, utilising different sounds – things like Karine Polwart’s Wind Resistance, or Martin Green’s Flit, which also featured Aidan Moffat and Adam Holmes. In Graham's words, “It’s all of the good elements of folk, with none of the shite bits. Just the songwriting and storytelling element and none of the twee shite.” Kathryn adds, “I hear it as much harsher than [what] I think of as folk music. I worry about whether it’s too nice, when I’m writing, and James is very good at taking that and not making it twee. He made my songs so much stronger.”

“I just think 'should I be making this nice, or am I just miserable as fuck?'” Graham chimes in, met with a swift “Thank God you’re miserable as fuck!” from Joseph.

For two people who admittedly were hesitant about stepping into a collaborative project, the quality of the work is a testament not only to the talents of those involved, but also the instant chemistry the two had, and how organically they were able to weave their own influences together. Much of that credit must go to producer Mackay, whom Joseph worked with previously on her SAY-winning album.

“Going from the interviews, which were great, but intense, and exhausting, just being told so much about people’s lives, I was feeling a bit like 'how do we do this?'" explains Joseph, "but Marcus started writing on the harmonium, then James immediately wrote a whole song, which made me want to go and write something.” Our Beloved Dead, the first track to emerge from this writing process, has a real drive to it – the heavy rasp of Graham's vocal sitting in a tense accord with Joseph’s reedy, perfectly pitched harmony. It’s hard to anticipate how their voices would work together, but somehow they bring out the best in each other.

The Lines part of their collective name comes from the term Desire Lines, the name given to walkways caused by human erosion – dirt roads in the middle of green fields, direct routes from one place to another. Platform is built upon the old desire lines of Easterhouse, first known as Conflats (Out Lines' album namesake), a name derived from the flat farmland where corn and wheat were grown – roads people would walk to schools, to the shops, incorporated directly into the architecture. The history of the location, directly imprinted into the earth, not hidden away, but embellished, highlighted, framed. This is what Graham, Joseph and Mackay have done with this collection of songs. They’ve looked at the roads we all take, maybe without even noticing we’re on them, and built around them.

For Graham, the experience of working so closely with Platform was eye-opening. At a time when the arts are struggling for funding across the country, to see somewhere work so tirelessly, and so successfully, at using the arts to engage and support an entire community, of all ages, is both heartening and frustrating. 

The Out part of the band’s name is a reference to the Outskirts festival that started them off, an annual celebration of art, collaboration, experimentation, and community that underscores Platform’s importance. “I hadn’t thought about it until going and doing this, but actually seeing and hearing people tell you exactly that, saying the place has helped turn their life around, shows you how important it is. If there’s a theme to the record, it’s that there’s always someone out there to talk to or listen to, no matter how bad it gets, and that’s what Platform is.”

Conflats is released on 27 Oct via Rock Action
Out Lines play Òran Mór, Glasgow, 5 Nov