Photograph by Alec Bowman_Clarke (@MrAlecBowman on twitter).
“Searching for a tune / That I haven’t sung before / One that’s lesser used and lesser sad / But somehow maybe more,” award-winning singer-songwriter Josienne Clarke sings on ‘Super Recogniser’, the opening track of her new album, A Small Unknowable Thing. For the first time since her early beginnings, Clarke is flying solo. No label, no musical partner, no producer. Clarke is in complete control of her songwriting, arranging, producing, release schedule and musical direction. It’s not only enabled her to find a tune she’s never sung before, but it’s also lesser sad and more – because for the first time, Clarke isn’t being told what to do.
It’s not something Clarke’s male counterparts in the industry may have had before, but it’s an experience the vast majority of women making music today can identify with. “When young women go into the music industry, they face a lot of negatives, every single day,” Clarke says. “You’ll be told you need help with things, that you won’t possibly know how to work this pedal or produce that track. You very quickly end up losing control and you start to doubt the idea that you are able to do those things yourself – or at all.”
Clarke faced such sexism for years. Despite her songwriting being acclaimed variously as “extraordinary” by Mojo, “gently exquisite” by The Observer and “full of depth” by The Telegraph and her voice being described by BBC6 Music DJ Cerys Matthews as one that can “trickle back over centuries”, Clarke felt daily self-doubt as a result of an industry that variously gas-lit, put-down, questioned and othered. A Small Unknowable Thing is, at least in part, about recognising there are still existing structures to keep women in their place – but it’s also about having the courage to break those structures down too.
“I realised that I had to be so explicit in explaining how much I’d done in order to get credit for it,” Clarke explains. “I started saying ‘No, actually, I did all of this, can we put my name on this thing?’ It’s really resisted – it’s as if I’m being an arrogant megalomaniac for wanting the credit for stuff that I did. Now, I just do it all by myself. If there isn’t another name on it, then there can’t be a misappropriation.”
Having control has been a frightening but ultimately freeing experience, Clarke says. Now, she has the space to write and record as and where she chooses – she’s not bound by rigid touring schedules nor is she dictated to by the musical direction of others. “After a decade of releasing records, it’s kind of mad that I wouldn’t think that I could do it myself, but this is the first time that I will have put just my name on it. You have to kind of say it quite definitely otherwise people will assume that there was a male involved.”
Clarke continues: “There was a point at which I thought ‘What the fuck have I done?’ I’ve made all this big noise about how I’m going to do it myself, but I’m not going to be able to explain what I want as a producer because I don’t have the vocabulary to talk about music, because I’m not good enough at it and all of that.” The self-doubt came, she says, from both the implicit and explicit misogyny in the industry. Clarke recalls an anecdote to illustrate her point. “I was with my husband buying guitar pedals. These shops can be like a big, wanky boys club! They always ask him what he was looking for, not me.”
Likewise, a decade-long career of producing still resulted in having to fight to be recognised as a producer in her own right because, as Clarke says, “women still aren’t seen as producers in this industry.” Despite studying for a classical music degree and having a wealth of production experience, the industry still made her feel less than. Clarke explains: “I feel like as women, we have to be experts in something before we’ll push ourselves forward. I feel like men are socialised to believe in themselves and push themselves forward and suggest that they can do something, even if they can’t quite do it. I feel like I need to know that I definitely can do something before I would put my name to it.”
After leaving her label, musical partnership and home (Clarke moved to a small village on the outskirts of Glasgow with her husband), she started afresh. Gradually, as she slowly began to write and record once more, the album’s narrative arc emerged and Clarke found herself again, after years of uncertainty and repression. “It’s an empowered narrative, not a weak and vulnerable one,” Clarke says of the album. “It was a conscious decision to walk away from my career as it was and there’s a positive message on this record: there’s a lot of reclaiming the narrative. I do know how to produce my own album, I do know how to play a guitar, I do know what I’m doing, I do know who I am and I’m not interested in listening to what anyone else thinks they know about it. No one knows better than you what you think and feel. That’s the theme that runs all the way through this.”
Like Clarke’s other albums, A Small Unknowable Thing also travels from despair to hope. While the themes might feel familiar to her many fans, the musical journey will not, with Clarke taking in a wide range of new and diverse influences across the album’s 14 tracks – from Adrianne Lenker’s ‘Hours Were The Birds’, IDLES’ ‘Colossus’, Radiohead’s ‘Airbag’ to Phoebe Bridgers ‘Garden Song’, The Beastie Boys’ ‘Remote Control’ and Sandy Denny’s ‘Listen, Listen’ and more, the album’s touchstones span a vast musical collage of anger and hope.
Clarke’s stunning, Joni Mitchell-like voice is allowed to soar on the gorgeous ‘Super Recogniser’ and ‘Chains’ with sparse, minimalistic guitar allowing for renewed focus on Clarke’s poetic lyricism and storytelling. Elsewhere, songs like ‘Unbound’ and ‘Deep Cut’ see Clarke mixing elements of acoustic music and shoegaze as tales soar into gentle synth-driven dreamscapes. At times, songs on A Small Unknowable Thing take you out of harsh realities and into hopeful daydreams, finding positives from the negatives via synth-folk and surprising, unexpected sonic experimentation which pushes the boundary of indie-folk to daring new areas.
Take ‘The Collector’, a song inspired by writer John Fowles. “You’re the collector / You’ll keep me forever / A small unknowable thing / With you as preceptor,” Clarke sings on the track, which eventually led to the album’s title. “Having read [Fowles’] book again, I just identified with some of the themes of it. How she’s so precious and perfect. [The protagonist] doesn’t see her as a human being. She has all this power and then none at all, because her’s was a power she’s unable to use for anything; the man’s was always greater. It’s a power that makes you really very vulnerable.” Clarke experimented with unusual sounds on the track, marrying earthy folk with cutting industrial noise. Recording the sound of her phone interface via her Cornell amp, Clarke processed it using some Logic pre-sets to make a sound that eventually resembled an angle-grinder. It’s heavy noise grates and cuts, reflecting the horror of the woman’s treatment.
Clarke went on to layer up sounds on the track, with effects pedals helping the song build to a quiet rage – mirroring a rage many women in the industry feel daily. “It starts with a big wall of guitars,” Clarke says, which she created with a Sunn O))) Life Pedal. “There’s something quite heavy and huge about their sound, but not in a metal-kind of way. They still have a great calmness about them. They’re like a big wall of reverb noise and that’s where the heavier elements of this song, like the industrial, angle-grinder sample came from.” The result on this, as with many songs on the album, is a more synth-driven direction, where it becomes impossible to distinguish between guitar and synthesiser as boundaries are pushed and blurred. “I don’t play lead guitar and I have all kinds of horrible associations with guitarists and rock music,” Clarke says, of the male-dominated genre.
At the album’s lowest thematic points, Clarke says “it’s a realisation that you’re not going to get a sorry from some people, you’re not going to get them to change, that you just have to toss it out, let it go and do it yourself and be okay with that.” At its most euphoric, like on opener ‘Super Recogniser’ and closing track ‘Unbound’, catharsis comes from reclaiming narratives. “Time is a great healer / And I’d wager space can do that too / As I look out at all the water / I feel the damage beginning to undo,” she sings on the latter of these tracks, with a feeling that resembles something like peace and contentment after the comparative rage on album standout ‘Deep Cut’.
“There are songs on here like ‘Deep Cut’ which is basically a huge ‘Fuck off!’ shout of a song,” Clarke laughs. “But I feel like it’s a powerful message. It’s like there are some things that need to be told to fuck off and keep fucking off until they can’t fuck off anymore. I sort of hope people will send ‘Deep Cut’ to their horrible exes,” Clarke laughs, “or people who have made them feel less than.” A momentary step out of her folk-roots and into a raging storm of synths suits Clarke well: the liberation in both her voice – which the Financial Times said sounds like “a haunted angel” – and her poetic, emotive lyrics on the gut-wrenching ‘Tiny Bit Of Life’“(I’ll carry it forever long / This tear upon our hearts / If we stitch our scars together, love / So we never come apart”), Clarke shows that peace can be found no matter what adversity life throws your way.
“I guess in some ways, my album journeys are all the same,” Clarke says. “I take you to the depths of despair and then I give you a reason why it’s all going to be okay in the end. The way that we get there is hopefully different every time. What I’ve been doing throughout my career is pushing the boundaries of the production aesthetic with each project. You might pick up one album and then you hear something really kind of folky and acoustic and then you listen to this one and almost every single guitar in it has some slight level of distortion on it. I didn’t want this one to be soft, acoustic, folky and gentle. I didn’t feel gentle, I didn’t feel soft: there is a lot of anger in there. That’s why a lot of the guitars are a little bit angular; they have a bit of an edge to them.”
Letting rip about her treatment – and that of other women – in the industry clearly comes from a place of pain, but her decision to believe in her abilities, to walk away from the path others wanted her to follow, to demand equality is one that has paid dividends. Clarke sounds the most content she’s ever been in her career.
“It sort of enabled me to throw the entire rulebook out,” Clarke says, reflecting on the last year. “I was sort of starting again, but not from nothing. I had all that experience to draw on. I’ve freed myself from all the structures that made it difficult. I was trying to work out what the thing was that was making this so difficult for me. I was miserable. I was encouraged by the structure around me to carry on because it was in everyone’s interest for me to be uncomfortable. I’m not sure that people really care about young women in the music industry that much, all the while you can keep making music, then good. That must mean you’re okay, nobody has to look at whether you need something. There isn’t an HR department, nobody’s regulating the industry.”
But the space away allowed her to reflect on her achievements – whether it be writing a plethora of critically acclaimed songs, winning a BBC Folk Award, opening for Robert Plant on his European tour, playing prominent slots on some of the UK’s biggest festivals or even taking a leading role in The National Theatre’s revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (after being personally chosen by Cerys Matthews no less), it brought back her confidence. “It fuelled that creative fire certainly,” Clarke says. “It made me feel like I had a legitimacy on my own that was good. My songwriting and my singing was good enough. I existed as a singular person. It all contributed to my continuing exodus from what went before.”
Clarke recalls a quote from a review which read: “Underestimate Josienne Clarke at your peril.” The quote bothered Clarke at first, it feeling as though it had connotations of anger and demand – terms which so many women in the industry receive when they simply try to express their artistic vision. Now, Clarke uses this quote as her email signature, reclaiming another troubling narrative. “I don’t mind if people think that I’m unreasonable or think that I’m difficult for describing what I want. There are male words for all of those things which are very positive like ‘assertive’ and ‘confident.’ It’s very much time the industry stopped underestimating us.”
Walking away from those underestimations ultimately brought Clarke to an altogether more powerful place. As she sings at the end of ‘Out Loud’, “And I can do it / I can do it now.”
Written by Elizabeth Aubrey