Meursault's Neil Pennycook on Crow Hill
At the helm of a project in three parts, Meursault’s Neil Pennycook meets with us to chat about his new record Crow Hill, and the tales of fiction that bleed through it
Following the redundancy of their five-year break, and recent shift in record label after 2017’s engrossingly insidious I Will Kill Again, there is a burning need to question what is next for Neil Pennycook's Meursault. Though perhaps with the meticulous thought that lays the foundations of upcoming release Crow Hill, and the project itself sitting as a multifaceted being, we should really be asking, what has changed?
Crow Hill in its entirety is conceptual, although Pennycook is ambivalent at the thought of it being considered a 'concept album'. The record itself, being only a third of the project, finds itself accompanied by both a comic book and stage adaptation to come, the pull to such an abhorred term compels.
"Basically," Pennycook laments, eagerly avoiding this topic of concept, "with this record I’m taking a piece of fiction, without it getting caught up too much in metaphor or symbolism. I just wanted to give a fictional account of this town, Crow Hill. In terms of telling it as directly as I could, the way the songs came about I knew they would act as dialogue, the lyrics telling the story.
"But the way I was divvying that up in my mind," he continues, "that just tells a third of the story. The next part is told when we perform it live, where we can give visual representation to the words you’re hearing on the album. It comes down to three compartments."
Fiction being at the heart of the record, Pennycook is assertive in the fact that he's telling "entirely, completely fictional" stories. “What I don’t see an awful lot of in contemporary music is people casting reality through the lens of fiction. There’s a really good quote along the lines of 'don’t write about yourself, you always write about yourself.' It doesn’t matter what you are writing, you are always writing about yourself: your opinions and thought processes will always be on display.
"What I’m interested in is approaching the world through the lens of fiction and narrating this story almost as straightforwardly as I can, without hiding behind this veil of metaphor and overly poetical statement." With this defence of the inevitability of introspection within any work of fiction, Pennycook resolves that "whatever comes out from the narrative, whatever people take from it, that’s up to them. I’m telling a very linear fictional story as if I was telling a series of short stories, or screenplay for a film, and trying to apply that to the album format."
With his lens of fiction in tow, Pennycook has in turn crafted a much darker soundscape for Meursault. As he melds with all that is available to him, he creates a narrative voice beyond the literal. Crow Hill embodies a ubiquitous narrator, dancing through both lyricism and soundscape, finding itself at the backbone of the record: tracklisting.
"The progression of the story, I’m not sure how important it is for the listener, but for me I had to have certain rules," Pennycook explains. "One of the rules was that the story – because these are all vignettes, connected but in disparate ways – is going to take place over the course of a day; morning to night. The tracklisting followed suit. It’s important for me to get structure and figure out how this sort of collection of songs or arrangements actually work with each other. It felt different from sequencing any other record I’ve done." For Pennycook, moving away from the more conventional sequencing of tracks "was quite liberating, but also challenging", as the tracklisting was relational to the time of day or the setting he wanted the songs to take place at, rather than to pitch or tempo.
A habitually Scottish affair, the record too draws its name from Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. "It’s kind of accidental," explains Pennycook. "I was working with Mario Cruzado [an Edinburgh-based filmmaker and musician] at the time. We were sitting at my old flat, bare bones of the project, and I was explaining what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have a name for the town. In my old office there was an old topography map of Edinburgh, and right beside me was 'Crow Hill' written on it." Remaining as humble as he's been throughout our entire conversation, Pennycook casts a sense of self-effacing glim on the intricacies of his project. "It’s possibly not the coolest explanation," he continues, "like drawing the name from a childhood anecdote. But it just became so obvious to me that that had to be the name for it."
Bridged by a gap of gushing over the artistry of the likes of Nina Simone and Cate Le Bon that Pennycook finds himself infatuated with, our conversation shifts to the more theoretical elements that embellish Crow Hill as a whole.
A press release for the project finds itself concluding with 'our monsters are as real as our better angels' – following a short pause for contemplation, Pennycook elaborates: "I guess if there’s a theme for the stories it’s that no one has the option to disguise the uglier parts of their past, or their community's past, or their ancestral ugliness," he begins. "A lot of the stories are about monsters or creatures that, in any other setting, would be mythological. What I’m trying to present is stories of these mythological creatures or figures that have effectively been forgotten.
"It’s about the idea that bad parts of us, the terrible stories of our history, are there and they need to be addressed. These bad things tell us as much about ourselves as our good deeds and kinder actions. There is a lot to be gleaned from that acceptance that we are all capable of dreadful, dreadful things; but there’s no point in glossing over or not analysing the bad stuff, because a lot of the time that’s where the answers are.
"The first couple of Meursault records were very personal. I was outpouring how I was feeling and reacting to the circumstances that I was in. The fourth record [I Will Kill Again] was a more extreme version of this. I started this process of writing from a more detached point of view, I used myself as a cartoon version of myself. I felt that by writing as that character, I could do terrible things to that character. I could create fictional circumstances for that character and see how they would react to things that weren’t really happening to me.
"That ties into addressing that sort of ugliness – it can be impossible for a single writer to address that head on, but doing it through a fictional means can give you a lot more insight and flexibility to explore those darker areas."
Building from this topic of change for Meursault, following the demise of longtime label Song, by Toad, Pennycook is set to release Crow Hill via the recently launched Common Grounds Records. "My relationship with my previous label was a really happy one," he affirms, unsurprisingly given all the band have achieved over the past decade. "It’s a small community that we work in – music in Scotland – and I feel Meursault had this big personality, but now it’s time for people to view Meursault through a different lens."
Crow Hill is released on 21 Jun via Common Grounds Records
Meursault plays Southern Exposure, Summerhall, Edinburgh, 22 Jun