Despite 22 year old Zoe Graham playing gigs from the tender age of fifteen, music was never an ultimate career goal. And yet, the Glaswegian’s intended, sensible plan to go to art college went awry when she opted for a two year songwriting course instead. Once there, she wrote one song per week ‘to work that muscle’ as she puts it.
Zoe went on to release acoustic EP Hacket & Knackered in 2018, scooping Best Acoustic Act at Scottish Alternative Music Awards. Singles Gradual Move mixed by Grammy-award winning Eduardo De La Paz (Arcade Fire, Frightened Rabbit, Rae Morris) released late last year and Sleep Talking in January, saw Zoe still in reflective mood but with a more sophisticated synth and pop finish Angel Olsen and Purity Ring would be proud of.
She took time out to chat about her story so far.
It’s interesting that acoustic guitar is seen as an intimate thing, notions of stripped back performances. But in some ways the very setup creates a barrier, performed sitting down, and acoustics are big boxy affairs. Your new recordings however, have left all that behind.
‘Moving to electric was still something to hide behind! But with the new stuff there are a couple of songs where I’m coming away from the guitar, I might be holding the mic and singing! Moving to electric was more of a stylistic thing both aesthetically and sound wise. The music I was getting more into was Christine and the Queens. Aurora, St. Vincent, more synth-based alternative pop with hints of guitar. So now I play a lot more lead guitar and lead line instead of strumming. Electric is where I’m more comfortable now. It’s what feels right on me. It’s a different vibe completely.’
It feels more natural?
‘I’ve got tiny little hands so having less to wrap your hand around is much more comfortable for me! I played a live session a couple of days ago with my acoustic and it was really uncomfortable. But I feel more people have seen me with an electric now.’
You won the Best Acoustic Act at the SAMAs, but you don’t play in that genre anymore. That must feel weird.
‘It was weird ‘cause I really wasn’t expecting to win it, because I was up against some stiff competition! But it was nice to be recognized for the hard work I’ve put in over the years which in the grand scheme of things (laughs) isn’t that many, but it’s 6 or 7 years now. I’m a hard worker so it’s nice to get recognized for that and the times I’ve been asked to do things for free or out of my own pocket…all those things a musician has to go through, it was nice to get a break, get recognised.’
Gradual Move is inspired by a period of your life when everything in your world was in transition. You left home, a relationship ended and your dog died. Has anyone pointed out that is in fact plot of a country song?
‘No one’s made that observation before, that’s brilliant! (laughs) Actually I started off listening to country music, blues music (when) I first started using the acoustic, so I am a big fan. I suppose in a way this new stuff, although it’s synth-pop electro guitar-based pop music, a lot of the roots still lie in folk music. Something like Gradual Move tells more of a story, which is a classic country and folk genre thing so yeah I would say I still am totally influenced by folk music just not in a direct sense.’
In Sleep Talking you sing of falling out of love and fearing you might reveal your true feelings. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever heard anyone say in their sleep?
‘Usually I’m the one that’s doing it! That’s the problem, I’m the sleep talker. But my brother’s pretty bad, he’s more a sleep laugher. Always cracking up over something. If I’m sleeping next to my partner they’ll have a story about me waking up at night thinking there’s something in the room. I get a recurring dream, or a recurring moment, where I wake up at night and I can see spiders in my room. I can touch them. It’s never scary, I’m more intrigued about why they’re there. I wake up the other person and say “did you see this?” There was a snake in my bed a couple of nights ago, and I was trying to catch it. So there’s all sorts of mad stuff that seems to happen at night. It’s a bit bizarre.’
I always think it’s a pretty vulnerable thing for any songwriter to do, share something that’s happened to them and people they care about.
‘If I could make stuff up, then I would! (laughs) Because in some respects it’s the easy way….but…personally for my music, the honesty is what makes it a lot of the time. And you can hear in my lyrics it’s not come from a place of fairytale, it’s definitely something that’s happened to me. So it’s always an awkward experience but as long as whoever I’m writing about is ok with it then so far that’s been alright. They’re happy for me to share things! I mean, it’s never totally personal.
But when I first started writing songs before Hacket & Knackered I had another EP that we do not speak of. I was 15, 16, it was good for my age but I hadn’t lived, and it was all made up stories, songs of made up scenarios. And I found that within a very short space of time I no longer identified with these songs and I didn’t find much enjoyment in playing them because it meant nothing to me. That’s why playing something from Hacket & Knackered even though I’ve been playing them for 2 or 3 years, they are still fun, fresh to play. I remember when I wrote them, I remember why I wrote them. Being honest helps with longevity!’
Zoe hosts free-to-enter Zoe Graham Bingo on Saturday 11th April at 7pm on her Instagram page. She plays Liverpool Sound City in October.
Interview: Cath Holland
Photo credit: Julian Bailey