Peter Brewis and Sarah Hayes on You Tell Me

We speak to Field Music's Peter Brewis and Admiral Fallow's Sarah Hayes – collectively known as You Tell Me – about meeting at a Kate Bush celebration, tour plans and recording their self-titled debut album

Feature by Fraser MacIntyre | 07 Jan 2019

"I was in the house band. Peter was a visiting artiste." 

Sarah Hayes, known to most as a founding member of Glasgow’s Admiral Fallow, is describing (with relish) her first encounter with Field Music’s Peter Brewis at an Emma Pollock-curated gig in September 2016. The two musicians – strangers then, collaborators and easy companions now – both performed as part of Running Up That Hill: A Celebration of Kate Bush in Aberdeenalongside Kathryn Joseph, Kathryn Williams and other esteemed contemporaries (some of whom were not named Kathryn).

Brewis – a Sunderland A.F.C. scarf wrapped tightly around his neck throughout our conversation – chuckles, not particularly comfortable being referred to with such gravitas, and takes up the story: "We kept in touch a little after the gig, but I didn’t see Sarah for another four months." After re-connecting during Celtic Connections at the beginning of 2017, Hayes sent Brewis rough demos of a few songs that had begun to take shape while she attempted (and succeeded, with tender and articulate observations and confessions like 'I replied a beat too late' deployed frequently throughout You Tell Me’s self-titled record) to write lyrics for the first time.

Brewis, "in awe" of what Hayes had sent over – "I’m still not sure I believe those were first attempts" – invited her to Field Music’s former studio in Sunderland, which they shared at the time with long-time friends The Futureheads, to discuss recording the songs while she was passing through the north of England. "The original idea was for them to be released under Sarah’s name, and I would produce," Brewis recalls, "but after a few hours of working and talking, it became apparent that we’d started a band instead."

Their debut album, out on 11 January via Memphis Industries, was recorded very quickly – surprising, considering how dynamic and fleshed out the arrangements are. "We only had a limited amount of time in the studio," Brewis nods, "and tried to let things go after one or two takes… very different to when I work with my brother."

The two Brewis’ – Peter and David – have a formidable discography and a Mercury Prize nomination (for 2012's Plumb) behind them, while Hayes herself was in the running for Composer of the Year at the 2015 Scots Trad Music Awards. The presence of the two members’ other projects (and the influence of several artists both admire: Randy Newman, Fleetwood Mac and Sufjan Stevens all feature in the duo’s recent Spotify playlist, What We Like) can be felt on You Tell Me, but only subtly. A thoughtful Brewis describes how his writing process changed for these songs: "The lyrics are more open. I was quite intimated by what Sarah had written."

Foreign Parts and Clarion Call showcase the theatrical grandeur the duo can joyously conjure up with ease; Hayes' stirring vocals are beautifully accompanied on Kabuki and Jouska by strings as comforting as a generous stretch of time spent in a cat (or dog) cafe.

Made obvious from the beginning of our conversation is how respectful the creative dynamic between the two is: both formidable multi-instrumentalists are happy to elaborate on what the other has brought to the table. While the recording process was "a little difficult" for Hayes at times – "the songs are quite personal" – the two crack jokes and smile warmly as they recount how relaxed their collaboration has been, even in the studio, where Brewis admitted to being a little less fearful than usual of "throwing in the wrong kind of percussion." As a result, You Tell Me is refreshingly bold and bright. Reverb is, to an extent, a notable and welcome absence. Though Brewis states that this is partially due to the fact that he’s "never got the hang of using it", hearing everything so crisply and clearly only adds to the charming and captivating openness of the record.

After initially testing the waters with a couple of stripped-back duo performances, Brewis explains that You Tell Me now perform as a "four-piece rock band. The strings and the brass are gone." Hayes laughs, and mentions that a second record is very much on the cards after the UK tour they have scheduled for March is finished. Before that, the two will spend a-week-and-a-half in January singing and signing in record stores across the UK as a duo.

Hayes and Brewis, working together, have a real gift for balancing darkness and light. A You Tell Me song is never simply 'happy' or 'sad', it alternates, and thus arguably paints a sincerer picture. 'Heard you were in the hospital and might not be the same', Hayes sings on Springburn's devastating opening line. The unfolding instrumental is appropriately coloured by sorrow, but also playfulness, a little joy and a sense of yearning. Sometimes simultaneously, sometimes all in quick succession. Beautiful, intelligent songwriting? You tell me.

You Tell Me is released on 11 Jan via Memphis Industries
You Tell Me play Monorail, Glasgow, 18 Jan; Assai Records, Edinburgh & Dundee, 19 Jan