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‘The multiplicity of life’: How Catherine Anne Davies overcame devastating loss to produce The Art of Losing

On March 12, Catherine Anne Davies releases the second album under her alter ego The Anchoress. Entitled The Art Of Losing, the record was made during a profoundly traumatic period that would shape each and aspect of its writing and production. Here, she tells Audio Media International editor Daniel Gumble about dealing with intense loss, producing alone for the first time and the fight women face in receiving credit for their work in the studio…

In the hands of another artist, The Art Of Losing, the second album from The Anchoress, the alter ego of multi-talented artist, musician and producer Catherine Anne Davies, may well have collapsed under the weight of grief, loss and trauma that is soaked into its every fibre. As a collection of songs free of context, it’s a formidable body of work that fuses disparate elements of rock and pop to wonderfully eclectic effect. But as a record of the devastating circumstances that all too frequently punctuated its creation, it is so much more; a remarkable and courageous example of how a singular artistic vision can produce something utterly unique out of the most desperate of times.

Three years ago, Davies booked a couple of days at London’s KONK Studios for preliminary sessions on the follow up to the The Anchoress’s 2016 debut Confessions Of A Romance Novelist. But before work could begin in earnest, a series of personal tragedies began to unfurl. Throughout that year, Davies lost her father to a rare brain tumour, suffered multiple miscarriages and was diagnosed with the early stages of cervical cancer.

To the backdrop of these life-altering events, she somehow continued writing and recording. Inevitably, her experiences around this time would shape and frame each and every aspect of what would become The Art Of Losing. Less inevitable, perhaps, was the array of colours, tonal shifts and styles that would flow through its 14 tracks. Rather than grounding the record in the kind of sombre, minor key minimalism that one might expect from a record dealing with such harrowing subject matter, Davies navigates the full, kaleidoscopic spectrum of emotional extremes that accompany profound loss. Yes, there are moments of intimate, piano-led introspection, but these are scattered amongst vibrant swathes of synth and guitar-heavy rock and pop in the vein of The Cure and Depeche Mode, both of which Davies cites as sonic influences on the record.

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“I wanted to express the multiplicity of life,” Davies says as we chat to her via Zoom from the home studio in which The Art Of Losing was made, her tone disarmingly thoughtful and relaxed despite the deeply personal nature of much of our conversation. “Grief and loss and death and trauma are not just down tempo, sombre things, they are incredibly chaotic, and when I was going through a lot of that stuff, you’re not in this low, depressed state the whole time.

“Sometimes you are manic and in turmoil, and I wanted to capture that musically; I wanted to capture the sense of claustrophobia you get when sorting through traumas, so maybe that results in a sound that people don’t immediately identify as being about death or sadness. If you’re going to make an album’s worth of songs that explore this idea, if you’re going to truly commit to it, then let’s talk about what it’s actually like to go through this stuff. Because it isn’t just sitting on the edge of the bed, head in your hands feeling glum. It’s so many more different moods and emotions and I hope I captured that in the multiplicity of sounds.”

For the first time in her career, Davies produced the album alone. In the years between The Art Of Losing and Confessions Of A Romance Novelist, she had been co-producing and co-writing with numerous other artists, but felt that the nature of the record necessitated a singular approach.

“Another producer would have diluted the vision,” she states. “It was very much me locked in a room on my own, much like The Anchoress would be. I was really trepidatious about producing on my own. I’d co-produced and had been co-producing other artists and gaining confidence, but it’s a brave thing to do to produce yourself. I always worry about the arrogance behind that. You have no one second guessing or checking your decisions. And I always think that what makes a great artist is someone who is self-critical, always trying to push to make things better. So I didn’t start the project with me producing alone as a big statement of intent, it just happened as a result of circumstance… and then it became part of the intent of the record. I couldn’t have anticipated losing my father and then losing multiple babies. At the beginning of the record, I had no idea what was in store for me, but it turned out to be the right decision. I don’t think I could have sat in a room with somebody else co-producing this incredibly personal stuff.”

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Catherine Anne Davies (photo: Lily Warring Bush)

Following the events that moulded The Art Of Losing, Davies planned to release the record a year after its completion in early March 2020. “I did what I don’t normally do, which is to look after myself first,” she explains. “I wanted to be able talk about these things without crying in the middle of it or just shying away from them.”  However, certain events transpired that once again put paid to the record’s intended releasee date. Unwittingly, its production largely foreshadowed the process virtually all artists and producers would adopt over the ensuing 12 months.

“It was almost like I was anticipating how I’d be working during lockdown,” she laughs. “There were a couple of remote collaborators – Sterling Campbell (David Bowie, Duran Duran) did some drums remotely and James Dean Bradfield contributed guitar and vocals from Cardiff, so it was a very modern production.”

With more than two years distance between the record’s completion and release, was there ever a temptation to go back and smooth out some of its rawest edges, or pare back on any of its most intensely personal elements? It begs the question.

“Surprisingly not,” she says. “I haven’t felt at all tempted to change it. If I were to allow myself the time to second guess it and think about how people might react then I would have made a less courageous record and made less bold choices. It’s literally a record of the time in which it was made, and I don’t want to doctor that. It’s truthful to that moment.”

Key to Davies’s decision to produce The Art Of Losing alone was the range of experiences she has had producing for others. From honing her technical chops, to understanding how best to serve the song, her co-writing and co-production gigs have provided invaluable insights not only into the art of great production, but also how to adapt to different artists and situations.

“My approach changes vastly depending on who I’m working with, she explains. “Your role is partly to take the temperature of the room and the relationship dynamic and mould yourself accordingly. That’s why I think women make such good producers. I think we are culturally more attuned to read the dynamics of relationships. I don’t think that’s a biological thing at all, but it is a cultural thing. It’s something you are brought up to do, to be accommodating of other people’s feelings. It’s interesting that I am approached far more by women making music who have perhaps had less good experiences working with men and maybe haven’t felt heard. Often, I am co-producing with them and I will suggest that they take a co-producer credit because I want them to retain the authorship that I was able to have on my debut. My mission going forward is to enable and embolden the next generation of women to have a safe space they can come to and acquire those skills themselves. I want women going forwards to feel like the studio is a place for them and that they don’t ‘just’ sing or ‘just’ write.”

As we continue discussing the subject of women not always being fully credited for their production and/or engineering work in the studio, Davies recalls conversations she has had with members of the 2% Rising network – a hub for women and gender minority studio professionals – that highlight the cultural obstacles that so disconcertingly often see men who may have worked only partially on a session falsely credited with an entire production.

“I hear so many stories from my friends at 2% Rising where someone will be brought in to mix or master a track and suddenly they’ve been credited as the producer, at least in the way it’s been presented to the outside world,” she elaborates. “It’s happened to me and I’ve heard 20 or more stories in our conversations that are exactly the same.”

Does it surprise her that such stories are still so commonplace?

“It doesn’t really surprise me, I’m more interested in anatomising why it happens and coming up with a strategy to counteract it,” she considers after a pause. “Bjork said something that was really interesting, which was that women often work alone, so when you’re doing 80 per cent of the work it’s not visible to the public; you’re not posting pictures of yourself in the studio working on Ableton. So, women’s work in the studio is often not visible. And when there are visible elements to the process, like adding strings or performing, the emphasis is on her doing something very different. And most people’s interaction with her is at a concert where they see her singing, and therefore that’s what the focus is on.

“It’s a cultural thing; it’s not about someone coming in and actively wanting to take the credit,” she continues. “Some of the men she has worked with have been distraught that they have been credited with producing work that she has produced. It’s really about broader cultural assumptions. How can we, as women who work in the studio and produce and mix, present ourselves in a consistent way that foregrounds the technical side of what we do? We spoke about this in the 2% Rising group, that we need to put to the fore pictures of us on social media in the studio, videos of us working on tracks, talking about techniques.

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Photo: Isabella Charlesworth

“Sadly I think the onus is on us to really dominate the narrative. That’s why the first paragraph of my press release and biography is ‘written and produced by Catherine Anne Davies’. I hate having to do that because it makes me feel like a bit of a dick,” she laughs, “and it makes you feel like you’re being defensive about it. But we all came to the conclusion that that’s the only way we are going to get the cultural shift to happen. We have to keep underlining that we are producers, we are mixers, we are doing this.”

Despite her best efforts – Davies clearly states her role as sole writer and producer of her work front and centre of everything she releases – the message, she says, is still not being heard.

“In the first 10 seconds of my latest video it says ‘written and produced by Catherine Anne Davies’ in massive letters. It also says this in the first paragraph of the press release. Within 24 hours, I was questioned about who co-wrote the song and within the next 24 hours the guy who mixed it was congratulated on the production. The message is still not getting through. It’s what we default to in terms of our cultural assumptions.”

For now, Davies is simply looking forward to releasing The Art Of Losing into the world. Of course, she, nor anyone, could have predicted what that world would look like upon its completion back in 2019. A concert in promotion of the record is currently scheduled to take place later this year, although any significant touring plans are unlikely to get under way until 2022. Still, she remains philosophical about releasing such a long-awaited record during the pandemic. In fact, she ponders as we prepare to part ways, it may well resonate with greater poignancy today than at any other time.

“I think we British often have a stiff upper lip about things like death and loss, but now we’re being forced to confront it every day because of the pandemic and the tragic loss of life we are seeing every day. Hopefully it’ll help people unravel their feelings about that.”

The Art Of Losing is released on March 12.

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