Kathryn Joseph on for you who are the wronged
Ahead of her appearance at The Great Eastern festival, we speak to Kathryn Joseph about her beautiful and pain-filled third album for you who are the wronged
'Let me drown / Let me go / Go where you don't know', the songwriter Bonnie Prince Billy sings in the closing lines of his 2003 Master and Everyone LP. A few whispered words at the end of a whispery half-hour of music, one so still you can barely move while listening. It’s this record that Kathryn Joseph cites as inspiration for her third album, the potent and powerful for you who are the wronged. A collection of 11 songs that sit like heavy silhouettes in a thick cloak of fog, it’s her first album in four years and for all of the pained weight at its core, it’s one that feels both bold and brave, resolute in its approach and unafraid to reach any further than it means to.
Just as we sit down to talk about her new album, a flurry of late-March snow briefly falls from bright blue skies; a flashing reminder that life’s rules are never as static as we so often ascribe. Such fragmented conventions ripple across Joseph's new album, a collective document of the varying forms of abuse she has witnessed and heard about among her friends and peers over the years. Led by her parched voice, as dry as a winter’s bone, the album sings of broken love in so many forms; partner to partner, mother to daughter, and more.
Initially, Joseph hadn’t set out to cover such an overarching subject. She’d written one song before 2020’s lockdown set in, but that sudden containment left her wondering just what it meant to those who already found themselves in dangerous situations. “My most immediate feeling to being told we weren’t allowed to go outside was of people in abusive situations,” she says. “It made me think more about the people in my own life who have been in horrific situations or, worse, hadn’t got out of them at that point. And that soon became what all the songs were written about.”
With that seed of an idea and an endless stretch of time ahead of her, Joseph wrote more freely and quickly than ever before. She’d soon compiled a batch of songs that spoke to the abuse she’d experienced while also being careful not to directly namecheck people and situations, both as a means of protection for those involved and also to make the songs somewhat more universal. “There are definitely specific people and relationships in there but also some of the songs are based on how easy it is to end up in that situation, even when you've seen it happening to other people,” she adds.
For the first time, Joseph left her own space to record the album, travelling north to the West Highlands to the studio of musician and producer Lomond Campbell. Built as a Primary School in the 60s, Campbell and his partner renovated the modernist building into a stunning work of art that now acts as both home and working studio for the pair. It wasn’t just the beautiful space that took Joseph there, she’d also arranged for Campbell to work on the album, the pair co-producing the finished work together. “It was one of those perfect weeks where you live in a minimalist school house that looks like you’re in Norway,” Joseph says, “and there are 40 herons nesting in the trees behind you, and a dog puts her head on your knee in the middle of recording.”
Joseph had admired Campbell’s own work for a long time, the pair crossing paths in Aberdeen before Joseph moved away, and then intermittently over the years. Initially, Joseph had envisaged travelling even further to make the album but when the chance came to work with him she jumped at it. She’d been following their renovation online and it made immediate sense to her to record the album there. “You can definitely hear the room in the songs,” Joseph states. “I was staring at the water as I played. You can hear me snuffling with joy when the dog is near me.”
Conjuring its own unique world from its shimmery beginnings to the breathless end, for you who are the wronged sounds remarkable, like hearing a siren call almost lost in the underwater. 'the burning of us all' creeps through five minutes of ghostly instrumentation and a cracked whispering vocal that you can’t take your eyes away from, while closing track 'long gone' shifts into a slightly different shape, the crackling percussive undercurrent always threatening to break loose but never doing so, like watching a storm brood miles away on the horizon.
for you who are the wronged is, as always, framed by the keys that sit beneath Joseph’s voice and fingers, but here they are gently different like the sound has been smudged by rain, an unplanned characteristic that reshaped the whole record. “There’s a really beautiful piano in the studio and I thought that’s what we’d record everything on,” Joseph explains. “But I’d written one demo on a really weird electric piano and the sound just didn’t transfer, I couldn’t make it work. The next day I tried again but using a Rhodes sound on a keyboard – and I immediately loved it.”
This mood was compounded by Lomond Campbell, whose own music drifts between minimal electronica and more conventional singer-songwriter work. Joseph initially envisaged all of those elements making their way into the record, but his direct imprint was much less imposing than that – the songs are only ever tenderly embellished, just enough to lay an eerie cloak over the whole piece. Joseph cites 'the burning of us all' as a keen example of this input. “I think I always imagined it with a drum beat,” she explains, “but he just put this modular synthesiser sound on it and I don’t even really understand those noises but they’re so beautiful. They make my face feel warm when I listen.”
Joseph is conscious of the juxtaposition between the enjoyment she found in making this record and the stories that are central to it. Though she admits it’s the first of her own albums she’s been able to enjoy – “I think even if this wasn't me I might like it” – she’s aware that it wouldn’t exist as it does, without the pain of others. This balancing act is not a new thing for Joseph. Those who have seen her perform live will know that she fills the spaces between her delicate, often painful songs with searing self-deprecation that can confound newcomers. “I remember when I saw RM Hubbert for the first time that he was so funny in between songs and then he would make everyone cry, and I remember thinking that was such an odd but special thing,” Joseph says. “It’s just me on stage, so it’d be really weird if I just stared into space. Unfortunately, the truth of me is to say ridiculously humiliating things. But that's why I love writing songs,” she continues. “That's the only time that I can rein myself in and say exactly what I want. I don’t have to explain myself.”
Even knowing the context surrounding them, the songs she’s made here feel both cryptic and ghostly. As always, we don’t get to hang on every word but we grasp on to the occasional lines that suddenly form outside of the fog: the repeated refrain of lead single 'what is keeping you alive makes me want to kill them for' a perfect example of this. “With this record, I definitely questioned if it’s just too much of the same feeling, the same sadness all the way through it. But that was on purpose. I don't want to have it change. The repetition is supposed to be comforting, and I hope it is. The whole point of this record is to tell the people I love how amazing they are – for surviving, for coping, for escaping.”
For an artist so used to being candid, Joseph is fully aware that her songs alone can’t solve the problems that lie at their roots. But she wrote them anyway; for those who have survived, just as much as for those still suffering. “It’s for all of them,” she says plainly. “I’m really aware of the ego in that, but it’s for all of them. I know what it means to be under the spell of someone, and how anything might break that cycle. I know you think nothing else is going to make sense but there is always a better option, and there is hope, and no one should be staying in situations that hurt them. It’d be amazing if [the songs] did help someone but I also want them to be a comfort to people who have gotten out. For me, it’s a celebration of that.”
for you who are the wronged is out now via Rock Action
Kathryn Joseph plays The Great Eastern, Edinburgh, 21 May