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John Grant and Elizabeth Fraser In Conversation at The Royal Albert Hall

Billy_Campbell by Billy Campbell August 10th, 2017

With a rare public appearance of the elusive, ethereal singer of the Cocteau Twins,
Elizabeth Fraser, interviewed by the artful singer-songwriter John Grant, this
event brings together two very distinguished artists to discuss the seminal album
Fraser and her band released in 1988 - Blue Bell Knoll. Grant set the tone of the
evening before the event had even begun with his statement in anticipation of the
night: Blue Bell Knoll is one of the best albums of the eighties and of all
time. I get to talk to Liz Fraser about the creation of this masterpiece and you
don't, so there! A certain degree of fawning was always to be expected considering
the godlike status of Fraser in much of the music industry, which Grant maintains
throughout, and Fraser is similarly complimentary of him, particularly of his zen
interview style. Along with the adoring audience, this ensures the night is full of
tenderness, flattery. and collective good will that could be construed as sweet and
cheering or a little icky and overblown depending on your point of view. Either
way, the night jaunts along with a fairly free conversation that remains rooted
principally in the music itself more than anything else, which is ironically not
always the case with interviews with singers in this age of glitzy gossip and pop
stars with their own paparazzi. The midpoint of the night even features Blue Bell
Knoll played on vinyl for its full 35-minute duration, whilst everyone simply sits
and listens. If the rest of the industry had a similar brazen veneration for music
itself, you cant help but feel that wed be living in a better world.

Heres 5 things we learned from that conversation.

---

1. Frasers vocals were influenced by Bulgarian a cappella folk singers from the
compilation album Le Mystre des Voix Bulgares

Once described as the voice of God, Frasers singing has an otherworldly quality
that betrays convention and ensures that no comparison with her to other singers
ever feels satisfactory. Coaxed out by Grant, she reveals that her vocal style was
greatly influenced by the a cappella recordings of Bulgarian folk singers. After
coming across the cassette of Le Mystre des Voix Bulgares, Fraser decided that she
would learn it by heart and that it would be her teacher and her home. These
Bulgarian women sing melodies that sound like they come from an era long gone, full
of spiritual power that pang with religious authority, akin to the Muslim call to
prayer or hymns sung by choirs in medieval cathedrals. After a single listen, the
lineage between their songs and Frasers celestial, intricate harmonies becomes
abundantly clear. They could explain her willingness to sing sounds of her own
creation rather than words, as she sought to give her own vocals a similar aura of
divinity. Listen to Le Mystre des Voix Bulgares here.

2. Both artists have sincere gripes with technology

In this age of glaring, seductive screens that we feed off as if its some kind of
lifeblood for every 21st century, first world civilian, criticisms of technology
are becoming as widespread as the plastic and silicon that invites our ire. Grant
and Fraser clearly have no desire to buck this trend. At the beginning of the event
it was announced that no recording of the evening would be tolerated, nor would the
visible presence of any mobile phones, sending us music writers hurling back into
the 20th century and reaching for our trusty but rather inefficient pen and paper.
Fraser is dismissive of anything electrical throughout, stating that part of the
beauty of the aforementioned Bulgarian folk singers is that its not microphone
music, and is rather music that could be sung outside. Grant is in accordance,
bemoaning how technology is fucking us, and how the internet is making music
homogenised and lacking in originality. As depressing as it may be, its hard to
disagree.

3. Cocteau Twins song titles sound like items on a Chinese restaurant menu
As Grant is quizzing Fraser on Blue Bell Knolls song titles, he confesses that a
friend of his writes a blog entitled Chinese restaurant menu items that sound like
titles of Cocteau Twins songs. He states that his favourite of these is Bitter
Gourd Grasping, which certainly wouldnt look out of place on the back of the
album, alongside actual titles such as Spooning Good Singing Gum and Athol-
brose. Despite admitting that most of them were written at the 11th hour, she
admits that 'A Kissed Out Red Floatboat' is the title with the most emotional
resonance to her, which refers to the intense romantic love and openness she was
feeling at the time of writing. As well as evoking the blissful, dreamy emotions of
newfound love, you could also imagine this title on a Chinese dessert menu.

4. The songwriting process remains mysterious and elusive even to these gifted
artists

Keith Richards describes it as catching stars that fall out of the sky; Noel
Gallagher says its like fishing at a lake; Neil Young claims its like approaching
a wild animal that you should be careful not to scare away. Whilst the scope of
human understanding pushes into the far reaches of space and unravels black holes,
the craft of songwriting remains a fairly mysterious process. When Grant questions
Fraser on how she writes those intricate melodies, she similarly cant give a
specific, matter of fact answer. Instead, she emphasises the importance of getting
into the right flow, which involves battling against being too clever, focusing on
doing it rather than talking or thinking too much and repelling insecurities that
could unhinge ones free creativity. The analogy she chooses is climbing a ladder,
with the bottom and the top being melodic sounds, and climbing the rungs being the
songwriting process. Grant concurs, stating that songs just come out of you. He
even suggests that Frasers lack of music theory knowledge and her inability to
read music could be why her songs sound so free and natural.

5. A collaboration could be on the cards one day, but dont hold your breath

The last question of the night was fired by one audacious audience member who asked
if they would ever duet, even asking for a few notes right there on stage, which
Grant instantly laughed off. Given the evident mutual admiration that flowed
between them on stage, and how they seem to be drawn to similar words and sounds,
its perhaps surprising that these artists have never been in the studio together.
However, whilst they may be the right pairing for a collaboration, the timings of
their respective careers have perhaps been against them. Fraser has not released
any new music since 2009, even claiming that shes been in a spiritual crisis in
regards to her music career since Blue Bell Knoll, whilst Grant did not gain
prominence as a solo artist until 2010. Understandably, Grant remained coy and
cautious, considering Fraser is one of his heroes, and emphasised that he would
only be open to it if they had a good idea to explore that felt natural. Although
she remained similarly guarded, Fraser responded by claiming He doesnt need to
convince me! Grant closed the evening fittingly, stating that Stranger things
have happened, right?

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