Taking the Wheel: Stina Tweeddale on Honeyblood's new album
Losing another drummer might have spelled disaster for Honeyblood. Instead, Stina Tweeddale has stormed ahead solo with a ferociously ambitious third record
"I’m really, really scared, but it’ll be an adventure, right?"
Seven years since she started out, Stina Tweeddale is finally on her own. Until now, Honeyblood had always ostensibly been a two-piece, but there was always the sense that the band was really Tweeddale’s baby – she wrote the songs, fronted the group, and seemed very much as if she was solely in control of the creative direction. As she gears up to release her third album, that’s now entirely the case. "It’s a solo project now, officially," she confirms. "When I started Honeyblood, I always wanted it to be a full band – it was just that it worked as a duo. I was looking for that feeling of community that comes with being in a group. I think I finally came to the realisation that it’s always evolving, and that this seems to be the next logical step. I’ve always had a really strong vision of what I wanted to do and achieve, and I needed to be true to that. I’m a bit of a control freak."
The transition has resulted, for the first time, in a Honeyblood album that is completely in Tweeddale’s image; after the departure of drummer Cat Myers, who joined Mogwai as a touring replacement for Martin Bulloch during his illness, Tweeddale no longer had a sounding board during her writing sessions, instead conducting them in solitude. "I became a bit of a hermit," she explains. "I moved to the outskirts of Glasgow, bought a piano and locked myself away in my studio. It was a very lonely existence for about six months; it was a learning process, figuring out how to write for myself rather than a two-piece. I had cabin fever by the end of it, but I came out with maybe 30 potential songs."
Eleven of them comprise In Plain Sight, and all of them indicate a marked change in direction. Honeyblood’s self-titled debut struck a peculiar, pointed balance between jangle and grunge and then ran with it; its 2016 follow-up, Babes Never Die, subtly skewed that formula, with a darkening of the tone and a measured broadening of the sonic palette. Both sound a little bit one-note by way of comparison to In Plain Sight, which hums with ambition throughout a noisy tour of Tweeddale’s wider influences. The bratty stomp of lead single The Third Degree borders on glam-pop, as does the defiant strut of Tarantella; elsewhere, Touch and You’re a Trick are confrontational electro jams, and Harmless is a disarming voice-and-piano diversion.
The blistering pop-rock of old has been polished and preserved, too, albeit with new flourishes; Gibberish is scored through with clever distortion, while both the title and the musical essence of A Kiss from the Devil bring Queens of the Stone Age to mind. "It was a little bit intense to be left to my own devices," Tweeddale admits. "I was writing the last record with Cat in mind, particularly in terms of how it was going to work live. It took a while to get out of that mindset; it wasn’t until about halfway through the writing for this record that I thought, 'screw this, I shouldn’t have any constraints now' – I added a lot more synth and keys, which I didn’t have the flexibility to do before. There was nothing I held back on too much, because I wasn’t shooting ideas down thinking, 'how are we going to play that on tour?' It was nice to have that freedom."
The one base that Tweeddale didn’t cover herself was the production. The dream pick for that role was John Congleton, whose CV in recent years reads like a who’s who of indie-rock powerhouses, although it was specifically the way in which the in-demand Texan has managed to coax entirely new levels out of female artists like St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen that enticed Tweeddale. She reached out, and he – perhaps improbably – said yes. "I feel exceptionally lucky that every idea I had for this record came off, and working with John was one of them," she explains. "It seemed like a pipe dream, but I also really felt he’d be a natural fit for me. I didn’t want to go with a traditional guitar-rock sound again. After Babes Never Die, I wanted to change it up a bit."
Congleton’s view of the guitar as an infinitely malleable tool was key to that; he helped Tweeddale extract a kind of fuzzy electronic growl from her instrument, in evidence throughout In Plain Sight. "I love that he can make guitars sound nothing like guitars, and I love that he works so quickly. We did the whole thing in nine days, and every time I’d call him to say, 'maybe I’ll redo this bit,' he wasn't going to let me. I threw myself in at the deep end going out to Los Angeles to work with him; it felt like the first big move I’d made since Cat left, and I spent my first few days out there kind of shitting myself in the build-up to recording. We gelled really well, though; I think some people maybe thought these songs were a bit too ambitious. John didn’t. He really got it."
There are aspects of the record that Tweeddale won’t be drawn on; there's clearly an acrimonious break-up hanging heavy over it, but she’d rather leave any explanation at "a lot of change happening in my personal life over the last year," with listeners instead encouraged to make their own minds up. She’s reticent, too, about what kind of shape the new live iteration is going to take, although the plan is to take an expanded all-girl band on the road that "will be interesting for people – it’s not going to please everybody, but it’s a change for me too. I don’t want to stagnate – I want to move forward."
On the basis of In Plain Sight, you feel as if maybe that progression was overdue; this, her most daring and forward-thinking album, is as comfortable as Tweeddale has ever sounded in her own skin. "I spent so much of the making of this album wondering how I was going to navigate all of these massive changes, and it was only once I’d recorded it and had a bit of distance that I realised that the answers were there in my writing all along – which is where the title came from. I’m glad things worked out the way they did, now. What’s the point of doing something if it doesn’t scare you?"
In Plain Sight is released on 24 May via Marathon Artists
Honeyblood plays The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 31 May; The Beat Generator Live!, Dundee, 1 Jun; Summerhall, Edinburgh, 3 Jun