Interview: C Duncan (Part 1)

By on Monday, 6th November 2017 at 11:00 am
 

On paper, C Duncan – Christopher Duncan on his birth certificate – sounds like someone who might be pretty buttoned up and stoic about music. Born to classical musician parents, having been raised around classical music and having played classical piano since the tender age of 5, I prepared myself to interview someone who was as obsessive about Chopin’s adagios as my own father. “They had quartets, and they would come over to the house. When I was very young, my mum ran a music store from one of our backrooms, for sheet music. So loads of musicians were coming and going [from the house].” But he relates this story as a welcome memory of his childhood, possibly an early measure of comfort he would later have around the musically inclined.

Saturday night, he was in Washington, DC, for a support slot with Elbow at the legendary 9:30 Club. (The review of the show will post today at 2 PM BST.) I happily found out, stealing him away for a lovely chat before the show, that his journey from childhood to the musician he is today was never forcefully directed one way or another. His delight in making the music that appeals to his own interests and makes sense in his mind is obvious and infectious. The open-mindedness of his parents and even his teachers during his formative years helps to further explain how his creativity blossomed into developing something much his very own. He has honed what has now become his recognisable blend of startling beautiful composition and harmonising vocals with plenty of toe-tapping pop sensibility, such a beguiling blend that both music lovers and the critics have taken notice of.

Pop was something he’d embraced early on. “I did the typical kid thing and listened to pop music. I kind of had that rebellious thing against classical music, which was good, because it meant I could expand my interests. As I got older, I started realising that my parents were right, that classical music is good as well!” He also credits his professors at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), where he graduated with a degree in Composition, for not keeping the focus of his studies squarely on classical music, which he disclosed is an all too common occurrence at other music schools in the UK. “I was always encouraged to listen to pop music. All the composing teachers were interested in what was happening in pop music, and they were very influenced by it as well…they basically said [to us], ‘obviously, this is a contemporary classical course you’re taking. But listen to everything, get inspired by everything, do anything you want. It’s valid as music’… There wasn’t anything stuffy about it.” For more on his schooling at the Conservatoire, I dug up this interview he did with them earlier this year.

The Scottish city that Chris calls home also looms large in the C Duncan story, and in a similarly accepting way, feeling like a warm, welcoming tartan blanket that’s there to make everything okay. “Glasgow is a very open place for genre crossing. Everyone is interested in everything…In Glasgow, everyone knows a musician, or someone who’s in a band, or all your friends are in bands. And everyone talks about music and listens to each other’s music a lot. No-one is in competition with each other, for anything, which means it opens the door for people to try all sorts of different things.

“Glasgow is quite far away from the rest of the UK, we’re very far from London. I think as a result, we don’t really have anything to live up to. Glasgow can do its own thing entirely, which is really cool, and the sense of community [there] is really important. That’s how you meet [other] musicians, I would never start a band and get session musicians in from the get-go. Maybe later on when you needed more people. I like to have friends surrounding me.

“In Glasgow, you get to know so many musicians, and you become friends first. That’s really important. I like that in Glasgow, you’re in it together, you’re not by yourself, you’re in it to make music with other friends…it’s a very natural thing in Glasgow… So many people collaborate in Glasgow, I did a thing with a woman named Kathryn Joseph, you should definitely check her out.” If Joseph’s name sounds familiar: she won the Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award in 2015 for ‘Bones You Have Thrown Me, And Blood I’ve Spilled’, the same award Duncan was nominated for the following year for his FatCat Records debut and Mercury Prize-nominated ‘Architect’. She and Duncan have also been tourmates, continuing the theme that Glasgow nurtures such relationships. Duncan also clues me on a close friend from back home having recently joined Franz Ferdinand, Julian Corrie, who also releases electronic music as producer Miaoux Miaoux. Glasgow is certainly proving to be a small world.

C Duncan circa 2014, photo taken by Warrick Beyers
Photo of C Duncan by Warrick Beyers, circa 2014,
before the release of ‘Architect’, from the artist’s Facebook

Naturally, the conversation turns to the Mercury nomination for ‘Architect’ 2 years ago. “It was very strange”, Chris says with a knowing smile. “Up to that point, we’d done lots of gigs, very small, just establishing ourselves. We had a lot of help from the BBC radio stations. That was great. But it takes a lot more than that to push things forward a lot. After that [the nomination] happened, it was just phone call after phone call, interview after interview. I was self-managed at the time, so I was trying to make do with all of that. It was great fun, but it was hectic!”

The nod turned out to be a fantasy come true for him: “I’ve always thought very highly of it. It’s becoming slightly less diverse at the moment, but I think they’re trying to branch out [in the genres]. I was always really interested in it as a kid. It [being nominated] was very surreal and really exciting… It’s been interesting, the shows we did around that time and after, the Mercury came up quite a lot. It’s real music lovers who really hone into the Mercury [shortlist]. It’s really nice, it’s any musician’s dream to appeal to true music lovers, as opposed to people who shove it on in the background. It just shows how highly people in Britain still think of music, it doesn’t matter how shit the charts are, there’s a big population really interested in music, people who are interested in that other side of music.”

It’s exactly these kind of music fans that Duncan thinks are making his support appearances with Elbow, especially here in North America, super successful. “Playing to their crowds, it’s been really fun. As the support act, generally, the pressure’s off you… Sometimes I’m very nervous, but the majority of the time, I’m just having fun, trying to give people a fun show, and something representative of my music. I know it’s not exactly the same as Elbow’s, but it’s gentle enough, and their music is gentle enough to sit well together at a gig. Some people might think, ‘ooh, that first guy was a bit weird, I’m here for Elbow, this is going to be great’, whereas some people, it’s ‘oh, actually, that’s really cool’. I think there is some crossover, and it’s been a great way to pick up fans… Elbow fans, they generally are really into music. They are music lovers, they’re not background music people, which means they want to see the whole show. That’s what I do. If I see one of my favourite bands are playing, I always go in the beginning to see who’s supporting.” A good reminder to all.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview with C Duncan, posting at the same time tomorrow. He performs tonight alongside Elbow on their North American tour at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall. Much more on C Duncan here on TGTF is through here.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

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TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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