17-year-old alt. pop chanteuse Georgia Fearn has been racking up rave reviews for her self-penned debut album Perfect on Paper, a distinctive collection of horror-themed songs that may, despite competition from the likes of Gwenno, Gruf Rhys and the Manics, earn the unsigned singer/songwriter from Carmarthen a shot at this year’s Welsh Music Prize. Kevin McGrath conducts the cross-examination.
Did you aspire to be a musician from an early age?
I’ve always adored music but never dreamed that I’d have been able to properly release anything of my own. When I was about eight or nine I began writing, and gradually I began to find the sound that I wanted to create and the ideas I wanted to incorporate into the music. For a long time, I worried about sticking to genre definitions and my themes being too controversial for commercial release, but as I grew older I knew what I wanted to do and I knew there would always be people who would dislike it no matter what. So, in a way, I definitely knew I wanted to be involved in the music industry in some way, but I never knew that I could actually release my own stuff and people would appreciate it.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can we detect the influence of your parents’ record collection on your music?
My mum is actually a huge EDM lover, so not much influence there! But my dad’s record collection has definitely had an impact on my writing. Through my album, I love to tell a different story in each track, and Billy Joel has helped me learn the art of narrative through music. Listening to his stuff when I was younger made me interested in intertwining literature and music, and I think it was Scenes From An Italian Restaurant that made me realise it was okay to tell someone’s story in a not-so-conventional musical way and made me comfortable playing with genres. Along with Billy Joel would be artists like Fleetwood Mac and ABBA, but there’s also a whole lot of modern influences to my music too. The dark pop queens have really had an impact on me, especially Marina and the Diamonds and Melanie Martinez. To see strong women in modern-day taking on character identities in pop music was amazing for me, and showed me that the weird and wonderful wasn’t ostracized in modern music.
Most reviews of your debut album Perfect on Paper focus on your age (17) and the black-hearted subject matter of your songs (betrayal, jealousy, insanity and murder) in which you seem to revel. Does that enthrallment with good and evil date back to a childhood love of fairy tales and ghost stories?
I am a huge reader and absolutely adore my literature, so scary stories have definitely had an impact on me. Fairy tales have been a big part of my life growing up, but more so finding the original versions going into my early teens. I remember reading the original version of Sleeping Beauty for the first time and becoming really interested in the darker side of fairy tales and what they choose to omit. That’s a constant undercurrent throughout my album: the rosy exterior with something darker lurking underneath. I’d say the author who has had the most impact on my life and my music is Gillian Flynn. Her novel ‘Sharp Objects’ is my favourite book, so much that I wrote my track ‘Sharp Objects’ about it. The story follows a self-harm addicted reporter who returns to her home to investigate the murders of two little girls. The novel is amazing, and HBO has actually adapted it into a series that I’m dying to watch.
Perfect on Paper has more than its fair share of creepy protagonists. There is the murderess of the title track, the Jack the Ripper figure of “Catch Me If You Can” who rejoices in taunting his pursuers, while, on “Be Careful What You Wish For”, you sing, rather scornfully, that ‘thoughts aren’t against the law. Is it simply more fun to write about characters with a fully developed dark side?
It’s definitely more fun! It’s always super interesting to be going through a songwriting process and having to put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re writing about, so for the protagonist to be someone that has a darker and more sinister side it’s really compelling to write their song. In the title track, I wrote about a woman that has murdered her husband in cold blood. But the extremely fun part was doing this through her inner thoughts and finding out why she’d committed the crime. Female villains have been a huge interest for me my whole life, and through the line ‘It is never the pretty woman’s fault’ I really hoped to highlight the fact that women aren’t fragile and innocent as society perceives them to be, but can be equally disturbed and perhaps even more cunning than men. As for ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’, this was a really thought-provoking song to write as a husband who wishes his wife would die discovers his wishes have come true. It’s a compelling dynamic and the question posed throughout the song is whether he is guilty of murder, as he finds out that he possesses this power and continues to use it. All of my characters know what they’re doing and they know that it’s wrong, yet they continue to disregard their morals and I think that this is when humanity becomes more intriguing.
Continuing with the theme of horror in your album Perfect On Paper, I believe that there is an astonishing true story behind your song “Master of Jazz”?
It is true! It is very subtle, but I actually got the inspiration for this track from the true story of the Axeman of New Orleans. This was a serial killer that was never identified but taunted the police (much like in my song ‘Catch Me When You Can’) with letters. He proclaimed himself as a Jazz fanatic, and said that anyone not playing jazz in their houses would ‘get the axe’. I definitely have a morbid interest in murderers, and I found this one so compelling I had to write about it.
Even the more traditional break-up songs on Perfect On Paper spiral into a sinister denouement. On “No Need to Hide”, for example, the spurned lover taunts her ex – ‘I was breathing heavily down the phone / Hide under the sheets you can’t escape me’. This all seems a long way from Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s theory of’ ‘conscious uncoupling’.
I think once a relationship ends there will always be one member of the couple that didn’t really want it to happen. Once you’ve shared a part of your life with someone it’s hard to restrain and stay friends. In ‘No Need To Hide’ I took this to the extreme and told the story of the typical ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’, writing how she stalks the man who broke up with her and harasses his new relationship. In her mind, the man is still in love with her and she disregards his comments about her insanity.
You remarked in a recent podcast interview that ‘None of my songs is about me’, which is an unusual admission for a singer/songwriter. If you’re not mining your own relationships and life experiences for source material for your songs, then where does the grist for the mill come from?
Basically, all of my material comes from things that I’ve read or seen. My song ‘Misty Mae’ was inspired by a character from American Horror Story that made me really fascinated by witchcraft and made me want to explore witch-hunts in the 1600s. Even just the news can spark an idea; the title track was inspired by a real-life court case I saw on the news about a woman who had killed her husband due to his abusive nature.
What gives you the most joy, composing, recording or performing?
This is a really tough question. I get so much happiness out of all three. Composing is such a personal thing to me, and sometimes it’s not at all enjoyable when you’re sitting there and hating everything you come up with. Sometimes it’s only after I’ve finished writing that I’ll feel happy with what I’ve created, and sometimes I still won’t like it all. Lots of songs get dismissed and left on the shelf. The recording is always great and it’s super fun to mess about in a studio with backing vocals and making everything comes together. I think it’s got to be the production that comes at the top for me. Hearing something that I’ve created slowly becoming real, and the instrumentation giving the song exactly what is needed is an amazing feeling.
How does the songwriting process work for you? Do you have a routine of locking yourself away in a room for a set number of hours a day, or is there a more organic, less disciplined method at play where you wake up in the middle of the night with a strange new melody running through your head?
It always comes organically. I think that if it comes to the point where I have to force myself to write a song then there’s no point in doing it anymore. Sure, sometimes I have insane writer’s block and it drives me crazy, but I never make myself write a song when there’s no idea. It takes the fun out of it, and if I don’t enjoy writing it then people won’t enjoy listening to it. I often wake up at strange times in the morning with some idea of Jacobean Satanic puppets that will never be used for the sake of my listeners, but often a melody will pop into my head randomly and I’ll scribble it down and form it into a full song.
On “Emptiness” you sing ‘The only way to stay okay is writing a song’. Is there a subconscious truth here? Is music a form of therapy for you?
Songwriting definitely is therapeutic for me. This may actually be one of the sole lines in ‘Perfect On Paper’ that is about me. No matter what emotion I’m feeling the only sure way to make me feel okay again is to pick up my guitar and start writing something. I think the idea that I’m creating something that’s very personal to me and if I don’t want anyone to hear it they don’t have to, but it’s there is very important to me. I’ve got a few songs that I think are too personal that I chose not to record; they weren’t the kind of songs that fit my image, and I’d rather keep myself detached altogether from my personas on my album, but they’ve certainly helped me through some tough times.
You’re on record as saying that television and cinema are hugely important factors in your songwriting. Which box sets are you hooked on right now?
Everything! Sometimes I can be so unproductive and literally sit on the couch for hours binge-watching Netflix, it’s embarrassing. Orange Is The New Black is one of my all-time favourite box sets, and I’ve just finished watching The Sinner and loved that too! Black Mirror is obviously amazing, and I’ve recently watched ‘The End Of The F***ing World’ and highly recommend that too.
I’ve spent some time lately pondering the crucial decision of where on earth to file Perfect on Paper in my record collection. I decided, ultimately, to squeeze you in between two somewhat eclectic, eccentric albums – Agnes Bernell’s Father’s Lying Dead on the Ironing Board and Victoria Williams’ debut Happy Come Home. The record has variously been described as gipsy-folk, folk-rock and alt-pop, how would you categorise your debut?
I’d say the thing that defines it most is Dark Alt. Pop. It definitely genre-jumps, but I think that’s okay because the style of the song matches the narrator, eg. Misty Mae is gipsy-folk because she’s a forest fairy, Master Of Jazz is jazz style because it’s about a jazz artist. One thing that ties all of the songs together is the dark nature and themes throughout and I think that’s the most important thing about this album and what I wanted to release.
The legendary Nina Simone, who was, of course, prominent in the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s, claimed that it was ‘an artist’s duty to report the news’. Is that a view of the role of an artist in a society that you have any sympathy for, a role that might be attractive to you in the future?
I think that artists who do this are extremely important as they use their talent as a platform to speak out. It’s truly inspiring and as someone who is really into politics, I can certainly see why artists choose this platform to do it on. I’d say I’ve very minutely touched upon this in ‘Perfect On Paper’, making a social comment in ‘it is never the pretty woman’s fault’, but I’d definitely be interested in making more of a statement in newer tracks.
There are a whole host of upcoming singer/songwriters in Wales at present, including Nia Wyn, Bryony Sier, Murphy and Danielle Lewis. Do you feel connected to them on any level? Is there an identifiable singer/songwriter scene in Wales?
I feel that I’m connected with any artist in Wales as I feel it’s very hard to break through as a Welsh artist outside of Wales. Cardiff is amazing for live music and even better for encouraging women to get more involved in the music industry, but my home town Carmarthen also has an identifiable singer-songwriter scene. It’s home to myself as well as The Tates and Adwaith, and the local venue ‘The Parrot’ is hugely helpful in terms of giving artists a stage to perform original music.
Are there any plans to tour the record in 2018/19?
I would absolutely love to tour this album but funding is the only thing stopping me. I’m obviously still a student and don’t have a manager or label at the moment so it’s hard to organise these things myself but I’d love to do something like this in the future.
Do you envisage a time when you might set music aside and write screenplays or short stories?
Funnily enough, I actually do write short stories and have a collection. They centre around the same kind of themes as my album and can definitely be classed as thrillers/horrors. I hope that once I reach a certain following I can do a giveaway of my stories alongside some of my artwork from my album! There’s definitely more to come!
Kevin McGrath is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.
Georgia Fearn‘s Perfect On Paper is available now.