Natural Phenomenon: C Duncan Interviewed
We catch up with C Duncan to talk about the pressure of perfection and his low-budget ethos
The Skinny meets C Duncan in a Byres Road coffee shop where he once worked; he reflects that the ability to foam milk will always come in handy, but the composer’s had a life-changing eighteen months – or, it looks that way. Our interview takes place just two days before the 2016 Mercury Prize awards, which means it’s roughly one year since the Glasgow-based bedroom-musician had the phrase ‘Mercury Nominated…’ permanently prefixed to his moniker.
The exposure and critical acclaim gained from 2015’s prestigious shortlist saw Duncan perform to sold-out venues, and online streams of his debut album Architect jump a reported 1040%. But as Duncan tells it, his new band name has become totally normalised. “It was really weird at first, really exciting and helpful. Now it’s just there! It kind of validated what I was doing, you know, though? First albums can be a real hit or miss thing.”
The awards buzz extended Architect’s time in the limelight, but Chris Duncan had already moved on to ideas new. He laughs (but he's not joking) when he explains that this second album could have been a Burt Bacharach-style Easy Listening record. If you think his new synths sound orchestral, that's because he once seriously considered the involvement of a string quartet. Despite many temptations – and, we're sure, the lure of a professional studio – Duncan remained firm: The Midnight Sun was recorded in the same bedroom-turned-studio as his debut, for just as little money. The clear difference comes as a result of a seriously steep learning curve.
“Architect just took so long to record,” Duncan exhales. “It took over a year, because I was learning how to produce at the same time. It's fine and dandy writing a song, but trying to record it yourself, do that sort of lo-fi thing…” He pauses.
The Skinny fills in; “Without sounding lo-fi?”
“Exactly. It took a lot of trial and error. I probably recorded about one hundred songs, trying to get it right. But going into the second album, I've put in the ground work. I know what I'm doing. I know how to treat my voice when recording, how to layer things and make it sound polished.”
Luscious, sweeping and cloudily enigmatic – ‘polished’ is a modest adjective for The Midnight Sun. On his second record it sounds as if Duncan’s been backed by some kind of heavenly choir. We asked twice, to make sure, but it is certifiably not the case – he still records solo, and relishes the inherent challenge. “Because of the first album, I got so used to having really limited access to things,” Duncan explains. “So I wanted to do that for the second album, but without it sounding [the same]. I got rid of guitars and made it much more synth based, and it just took on a different sound – cleaner, bigger.” He grins, clearly pleased.
The musician no longer appropriates bedroom furniture as stand-in percussion and has instead embraced the spiralling, complicated potential in electronic equipment – but he remains a true professional when it comes to making a record from very little. In fact, The Skinny heard rumours that the making of The Midnight Sun cost just £70?
“It was probably less than that!” Duncan says. “What did I even buy for it? Wait, I bought some new headphones for about thirty quid.”
Was it mostly a budget for snacks, then? "Yep. Red wine. Cigarettes. But you know, it’s one of those slightly unfair things, when you get to a certain point in your career, that things start to cost less. It’s completely the wrong way around, but it kind of happened: Focusrite got involved, who make really good recording stuff – I did a wee promotional video, and they kitted me out.” The rest of his set-up comes from years spent asking for microphones as birthday presents: “All you really need is a microphone!” he enthuses.
Still, Architect was lauded for its structural, technical perfection – an intimidating word to have looming over any future work, new microphones or not. Did Duncan feel any pressure to try and raise the bar?
“Not really, to be honest!” he admits, with obvious honesty. “I did my degree in composition, so I was trained to make things perfect, to think about every note; there has to be a reason for something to be there, I'd never throw chords in for the sake of it. I really liked that compliment. I just thought, yeah, that's what I'm doing. It's not that I don't like messy music, but for me... I like things to be well planned, thought out.”
As a result of such subtle, theatrical staging The Midnight Sun has more than a touch of the paranormal. Named after Duncan’s favourite episode of cult sci-fi series The Twilight Zone, and in part after the Arctic Circle’s natural phenomenon, the album captures that same sense of eerie, unnerving beauty. Add to that Duncan’s interest in the natural swell of church-based choirs (“natural reverb, I’m into that”) and some personal upheaval (“it’s not a break-up album, but…”), and the result is a frosted, ambiguous record that has a much more cohesive feel than his debut.
“It’s not a mysterious record, but it’s more brooding,” Duncan proposes, tentatively. We remain unconvinced. It does sound pretty mysterious to a listener...
“I mean, good! I was just saying that to be safe, in case you thought it wasn’t…”
But after all that talk of the best-laid plans, when it comes to transforming the record into a live format Duncan’s yet to find a solid strategy. Was it something he considered more so, this time around? “Nope. I mean, with the first album, the idea of playing it live never came into my head. So with this one, I just thought, well – imagine I don’t have a band. We worked out the first one so we can do this one... and it's working, actually!” Clear evidence, if you still needed it, that C Duncan's approach may not have changed, but his confidence clearly has.