Kathryn Joseph on From When I Wake the Want Is

As she prepares to release her immense second album, previous Scottish Album of the Year Award-winner Kathryn Joseph talks to The Skinny about love, loss and survival

Feature by Susan Le May | 10 Aug 2018

"This record is about surviving things or how much I love people surviving what they survived. Just the feeling of loving human beings and how sore that can be, but how worth it that is as well."  

In the three years since Kathryn Joseph became a fully fledged full-time musician following a SAY Awards win in 2015 for her debut album bones you have thrown me and blood i’ve spilled, her career has flourished, with collaborations and projects beyond what she could ever have imagined. From her recent signing to Rock Action Records, to working with artists such as RM Hubbert, to writing an album with James Graham of The Twilight Sad on their Out Lines project, the high points have been numerous.

She was chosen by Robert Smith to play his Meltdown Festival supporting Mogwai and at The Cure’s huge Hyde Park gig in London, sang at the incredible Emma Pollock-curated Kate Bush tribute concerts and has written music for the theatre adaptation of Emma Donoghue's novel Room, amongst many other highlights.

We’re chatting over lunch at Stereo in Glasgow. She’s due to support Iron & Wine tonight and she’s not long back from playing Meltdown. In person, Joseph is far removed from the fragility that flows through her music; she’s confident and hilarious with a laugh that buoys your soul. She’s forever complimenting or befriending strangers, or beguiling random babies.

From When I Wake the Want Is was largely written during a very dark period following an intense break-up. The new songs seemed to flow out of her, coming from a place that she couldn’t control. Writing was the only thing that was going to help.

"I was definitely writing like this is the only thing that’s going to make me feel better," she admits. "Knowing that I knew the shape of [some of the songs] when I was walking to the piano, I’ve never had that before. Tell My Lover came in the day we were recording and it came in in bits, and in between takes I was writing it and then by the end of the day it’s finished. I’ve never written anything as fast as that and I love it. It is one of those weird things where you feel like something gives you a song rather than you having anything to do with it.”

The songs evoke a melancholic beauty that’s somewhat more immediate, urgent and structured than their predecessors, largely gauging the bleak heaviness of heartbreak but also speaking of hope and love - of what it’s like to want completely, the uncertainty of the future, of not knowing if you will ever trace the lines of the body of the person you love or be fuelled by their warmth again. It’s the sound of the anxiety that eats you up when you can’t have what you long for, but it’s also a celebration of the human strength of getting through that.

"When I’m playing [the songs] live I’m maybe thinking about how I felt in that time but it doesn’t affect real life," she says. "It’s a reminder of feeling that amount is good for me as well. To remember that this is how much this matters to me and I like that about it.

"This [album] almost makes me feel like I’m underwater when I listen to it," she suggests. "I don’t know if other people will feel the same way about it but I’m like 'oh no this is going to be awful, everyone is going to be feeling sick.' I remember someone describing being at one of my gigs and she had to leave because she felt like she was getting the bends. I’ve never had the bends but that’s what this record is like. The bass on it, I love it so much, but the songs all feel the same feeling of blackness and water."

But she’s also now out the other side, back in the arms of her lover, and while these songs largely document a terrible time, they feel like a release and a reminder of things coming full circle.

"It doesn’t remind me of the hurt of it, it’s more the feeling of how lucky I am. Even going back to the baby that we lost before (Joseph’s son was born prematurely in 2010 and survived just a week, becoming the inspiration for her focusing on music). It doesn’t matter how long you get someone for," she says, "if there’s a feeling of love for that human being it’s totally worth the pain of not having them. But it’s really hard to remember that when you’re actually in it."

The new songs are recognisably hers, but there are fresh nuances and sounds on From When I Wake the Want Is that reach into your chest, pressing down with a mixture of fear and comfort; a feeling somewhat reflective of the schizophrenic dichotomy of Joseph’s ease/unease when it comes to playing live and doing the things that need doing as part of the process of releasing music.

"The only time that I don’t feel wrong is when I’m playing, when I don’t care about what I look like, but everything that gets you to the point of being able to do that is a nightmare for me," she tells us. "It’s a really annoying character trait for someone who wants to do this as a job and it’s doing everyone else’s heads in as well!"

Despite incredible praise and a series of career highs over the past few years, the heavy gremlin of impostor syndrome pervades. But she’s accepting it and learning to better deal with the things that make her uncomfortable.

"What adds to my bullshit impostor syndrome is that I’m aware of how much of it is just luck, it’s like why do I get to do it and not someone else, or why do I get more attention and not someone else," she states. "I know that [there are] people making better work and are more talented and it’s very upsetting that there’s nothing fair about it. It doesn’t matter if you are writing the most beautiful songs in the world, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be heard or loved."

Long-time collaborator and producer Marcus Mackay is as instrumental as ever in elevating Joseph’s work. "What Marcus has done is amazing," she enthuses. "I knew that about the other [record] but I would also spiral out of that, I would go round in circles the whole time thinking I loved it and then thinking it was shit, whereas this one I haven’t been thinking it’s shit. I feel like everyone that I love is involved in it again and that makes me feel much, much better about it. I feel really proud this time in a way that I probably didn’t feel before. I didn’t have any awareness of what it was last time, but this one I feel like I love this record and it feels stronger and more the sound of what we play live is as well."

The new album is released by Mogwai’s Rock Action Records, something that Joseph is still finding hard to believe. "Mogwai are a band that I’ve been obsessed with and listened to over and over again and would never ever have imagined that I would get to even know them let alone be on their label," she says. "It’s so nice to go from Hits the Fan [Records] before and it just being me, Claire (Mackay) and Marcus and how in control of that we were, and to still feel like it’s a label being run by a band, which means that they absolutely know what you need or what makes sense or what is going to be uncomfortable."

Excited to release From When I Wake the Want Is, Joseph isn't stressing: “I’m always going to think no one likes anything I do, no matter how many times people are nice to me, and I feel like I’ve just resigned myself to that and I’m just a dick and I can’t do anything about it," she grins. "I know that Marcus has made it amazing. I feel proud enough of it even if people don’t like it, I don’t care, because I love it."

From When I Wake the Want Is is out now via Rock Action; Kathryn Joseph plays Assai Records, Edinburgh, 11 Aug; The Tunnels, Aberdeen, 17 Aug; Tramway, Glasgow, 13 Sep; Summerhall, Edinburgh, 14 Sep; Tolbooth, Stirling, 15 Sep; Horsecross, Perth, 17 Sep