interview by evan balikos
C Duncan is a talented Scottish multi-instrumentalist making music that is poppy, vibrant, and varied in its structure. His first album, Architect, was the culmination of his time spent studying music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and his growing interest in combining his classical training with pop melodies. It proved to be a worthwhile debut when it captivated critics with its lush and folksy offerings, earning him a Mercury Prize nomination. His follow-up, The Midnight Sun, raised the bar by combining synth-laden production with his captivating vocal harmonies, allowing for a denser and dreamier sound. His highly anticipated third album, Health, dropped Friday, March 29th. It is his most ambitious project yet, including tracks that incorporate everything from art-pop to disco music. After listening, I was eager to learn about his process and the inspiration behind certain tracks.
EB: Your debut album and your sophomore are very different from Health. I wanted to know which elements from past albums did you want to retain, and which ones did you want to throw away when you were making this new album.
CD: So, with the previous albums, the things I wanted to keep from those were the layers. Y’know, sort of lots of layers of things going on and those really dense harmonies. I just love harmony. What I wanted to throw away particularly was this sort of mushy sound. That was one of the biggest things I wanted to change. I wanted to try and get some clarity in my records because in the past, doing them by myself, there was only so much I could do. There was only so much equipment that I had to make things sound nice and clear. So, with this record, I wanted to retain all those harmonies and vocal layers and instrumental layers, but I wanted people to be able to pinpoint where each one was, as opposed to just this sort of wall of vocal harmonies that were in the first two records.
EB: Do you feel like these albums were very reliant on vocal harmonies and they didn’t really allow the arrangements to breathe as much?
CD: Definitely, yeah. And I’m very constant with layering vocals. It is something I did a lot of so everything else would be in the background of that. Whereas, with this record, there’s a lot of live instruments. [laughing] I spent all this time writing them and playing them. I wanted people to actually hear them.
EB: And I think the coolest part about your music is that you have classical training. Those kind of instruments where you want a more sophisticated sound, such as a string quartet or something, you usually have to produce them through the use of MIDI instrumentation. The fact that you’re actually playing is very, very cool. How different was it working with Craig Potter from elbow as your producer, rather than working in your bedroom? I know that you stated you were a little apprehensive at first, but once you realized the control he offered you, you were more open to his ideas and you bounced ideas off of each other.
CD: It was pretty daunting at first. Whenever I went into the studio, I already knew the producer, Craig. We had done a couple tours together. But it was a whole process because I’m so used to working at my own pace and at my own—I don’t know, doing it when I want. I knew I had to give that up in order to make an album that sounded much bigger and much brighter, but as soon as I got there Craig was so—he works in a similar way to me; we worked late into the night. There weren’t the kind of time constraints that I thought there would be. But also, yeah, about the bouncing ideas off each other, that was just amazing to have because it was something I wasn’t used to at all. Sort of my whole musical career I trained as a composer, which pretty much means I was stuck in a room by myself.
EB: You become comfortable with that control. You say, “Ok, no one else is touching this but me. This is my idea.”
CD: Yeah, you just quickly learn to rely on yourself. So, having other people around to bounce ideas off of is just—the album wouldn’t sound half as good as it does now if I didn’t have these people to bounce things off of. And that’s for instrumentation also. Craig would come in one day and say, “let’s get rid of that guitar line and replace it with a mellotron.” With some different sounds going, I would need to hear a certain kind of character. He’s got very strong ideas of sound and where things should go. That’s just such a huge learning curve for me.
EB: What inspired the name of the album? Did the title track come first or did you see a pattern in themes of healing?
CD: So, the title track came first. In fact, that was the first song I wrote for the album. After, I guess I found that so therapeutic, writing that song after a breakup, I ended up thinking I was using the album as a way to get a lot of stuff off my chest. It became a really cathartic process, so I decided to call it Health, but then I also quite liked the idea that the album imagery is quite healthy looking. It’s almost got that sort of L.A. superfood, kind of [laughing] soothing look to it. And I quite like that juxtaposition, where it looks really healthy but actually it’s not.
EB: It’s like eye-candy. Once you eat it and your body absorbs it, you realize “Ok, this is actually not good for me. I should change this up.” I know you do paintings as well as music. Is all the artwork for your albums your paintings?
CD: They are, yes.
EB: Wow, that’s awesome. See, that’s another layer of control you have in your art.
CD: [laughing] Yeah, I’m really a bit of control freak.
EB: [laughing] That’s not a bad thing for a musician. So, was this always going to be a pop album?
CD: So, there are some pretty poppy songs on there. I’ve always wanted to write disco music. I’ve always been a big fan of ABBA and, y’know, all these really cheesy bands from the 70s, 80s’s and Donna Summer—I just wanted to have a go at it myself. I wanted to really do it my own way and kind of shamelessly [laughing] make it really poppy.
EB: But we’re seeing a rise in artists who take music from their parents’s time and make it really dancey and cheesy in a way, but it works because they explore it. There’s that Mitksi song that was very popular, it was very disco: “Nobody.” Have you heard that one?
CD: Yeah, I have.
EB: Yeah, and she’s definitely really great at playing with those kind of antiquated genres, but making it feel kind of new. Did the producer help a lot? Did you feel like your ideas to play with disco or play with funk or art pop weren’t as strong until Craig came into the mix?
CD: No, it was pretty strong already. So, I went into the studio with the demos almost completely done, and if the whole studio thing feel through then I could still release the album. What the producer did was kind of enhance those things, again by—it was his suggestion to have mellotron to begin with. Then, you got handclaps and also the fact that we had a real drummer for this record. You got a real live sound.
EB: You can tell, yeah. It doesn’t sound too glossy. I wanted to talk about the title for track two: “The Wrong Side of the Door.” I was curious as to if you were referring to a physical door or something a little more abstract? It’s almost like saying you’re closing yourself off to people. Is it like that?
CD: Yeah, it was. Basically, it came around after two break-ups: one from a long-term relationship and [laughing] basically a rebound, which then we kind of split off. So, yeah, it’s more of an abstract kind of “leave them on the other side of the door” thing.
EB: So, that was probably like a big self-analysis when you realized that that was the kind of lyrical content you wanted to display.
CD: Well, yeah. It’s something I had not explored before. With my previous albums, I tried to cloud everything in a lot of reverb so you can’t really hear what I’m singing about, or I tried to go as abstract as possible to shy away from people knowing what I’m actually singing about. But there’s quite a lot of lyrical content on this record, which is very to the point.
EB: Let’s talk about “He Came from the Sun.” It’s such a killer song. I felt like it was this huge unfolding narrative with great strings and vocal harmonies. It’s just so huge. I wanted to know if it was always meant to be this huge, robust arrangement, or did you want something simpler? I read it was about your coming out experience but also that you were thinking about anti-gay persecution occurring in Chechnya.
CD: No, it was always supposed to be as epic as that. Whenever I first started writing it, I just—I had never written a song with such a narrative before. It’s something I’ve always shied away from because I never know where the narrative is going to go.
EB: This is your first narrative-heavy song? That’s impressive. Have you taken any “dips” into it before? Maybe with characters or ideas even that had a bit of a pace to them?
CD: A little bit, but again, because it’s taken so long for me to be confident in letting people know what I’m singing about, I would always try to make it as small as possible. And that’s that. [laughing] But with this one, whenever I started it, I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a big-sounding song.
EB: When you say, “He came from the sun”, are you talking about yourself? Or are you kind of envisioning yourself as something universal that reflects gay men who have recently come out or men trapped in a sort of witch hunt like in Chechnya?
CD: Well, yeah, the song is not really about me. It’s mostly about this sort of idea of gay or minority martyrs in places like Chechnya, where you basically have to be a martyr. And it’s still the same, it’s not quite brutal at the moment, but you have to be a very strong person. It’s the idea of someone coming from this other place—it’s kind of hard to describe. It has such a martyr thing going on.
EB: It’s amazing. There’s such a great balance of genre on this album. We hear elements of lounge pop, disco, synth-pop ballads, and more. What was your favorite genre to play with? Which one allowed you the most freedom?
CD: The biggest thing I was listening to and was most influenced by was Japanese city pop.
EB: Oh wow, I just recently started listening to that genre.
CD: It is a brilliant genre. I just love it, and again, I guess that’s where this sort of unashamedly upbeat—tracks like “Holiday Home” and “Impossible” and the first track, “Talk Talk Talk” kind of came out of this idea of just, y’know, making fun music.
EB: There’s a real kind of movement to it and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to stop until the track is actually over. Speaking about “Talk Talk Talk.” I love the bridge for this song. It feels like a rollercoaster, especially that section where you sing so intensely [singing].
CD: [laughing] Enter: ABBA.
EB: Yes! Absolutely ABBA! Was that kind of decision for that bridge more your classical mind thinking, or did you want to emphasize the emotion? Or both?
CD: That was more of a musical thing, because throughout the whole track it’s got the [sings main melody]. Yeah, I just wanted to flip it around and have something slightly harmonically different but that keeps it interesting. It kind of comes in in that point of the song where if I were to just to repeat it then it wouldn’t do much. Yeah, so that came around and I actually had loads of fun with it. It’s such a—it just becomes so big at that point.
EB: There’s an aura of dreaminess and romanticism over a lot of these songs. Was this decision to display that dreaminess in your music intentional, given that a lot of the tracks are about relationships and love?
CD: So, yeah, one of the things I wanted to retain from the last album was the dreaminess. Musically, I think it sounds quite dreamy, but it’s not as dreamy as, say, Architect. I guess I’m a romantic at heart, and the music I listen to, it’s all pretty—one of my all-time favorite songs is Glen Campbell’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. It’s that sort of romanticism that I like in music, and I guess I wanted to include that in my own music.
EB: I like that your personality as a romantic affects your music, that feels very natural to me. Referring to one track in general, I really like the percussive arrangement for “Pulses & Rain.” It felt very dancey, kind of like house music or EDM. Did you listen to a certain kind of dance-pop and decide that you wanted to do something like that?
CD: That was a funny one. It took quite a while for that one to find its standing. Weirdly, that track, I had a version of it that was recorded maybe three years ago which is totally different. When we were in the studio, I was listening to a bit of Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Animal Collective record.
EB: Love that album. One of my favorites.
CD: It’s amazing. These slightly sporadic percussion parts that come in, sometimes on the off-beat and sometimes they miss out on bars, and I really liked the beats constantly changing throughout it. But with our album particularly, there’s this quite ethereal stuff going on over the top, and big melodies with all this really intricate percussion stuff. I really wanted to try to get some of that into that track.
EB: Speaking about the last track, “Care”, I think it’s great but also kind of morose. Especially the last line: “I’m falling down, and I don’t seem to care.” [exhales] That hit me too close to home. But there’s this lasting impression of you still not being completely healed. What are the “stairs”? Are you still climbing them?
CD: Not anymore. I was aware that this was going to be a very, very sad track to end on. I feel that writing that track helped me a lot. Um… it may not help the listener [laughing].
CD: You have to end with something people will remember.
EB: I love HEALTH. I think it’s a great album. I’m definitely going to be streaming it and telling everyone I can about it. I think it essentially displays all your past skills and techniques. Where will you go from here? Do you already have ideas cooking?
CD: Not yet, really. I have started writing more songs, but I don’t know where they’re going to go. They’re pretty varied in style, I’ll find something though. I’ll keep writing until I work out what the next album is going to be about.
EB: Please do. I was also thinking that your music is very layered and very driven by emotion. You can hear it in the background, but you would never forget about it. Have you considered scoring for movies?
CD: I have, it’s something I would like to do more of. I have done a couple of things for documentaries. I’d like to explore more of that hopefully in the next year or so.
EB: What was the name of the documentary you scored?
CD: So, the last one was called Glasgow, Love and Apartheid. It’s a beautiful documentary about Glasgow’s affinity with South Africa.
EB: I definitely hope to see you experiment more. I think you have a lot to offer. One last question: What is your favorite song from the album and why?
CD: Probably “He Came from the Sun.” It’s the most personal song I’ve ever written, and I think it’s good to add to the canon of gay songs out there for people to listen to.
EB: Thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate your music and your words that you have given me to document and also show the world how interesting and unique your work is. You’ve gained a fan and will gain more, I promise.
CD: Thank you so much. Cheers.