Cranes - An Interview with Alison Shaw
by Alexander Laurence

Cranes are a band from Portsmouth, England. They started over ten years ago when they released Wings of Joy in 1991. The main members Alison Shaw and Jim Shaw created music that was distinct and original. They were noticed by Robert Smith of The Cure who asked them to open for The Cure on a few mammoth tours. They released a several more albums Forever (1993), Loved (1994), Population Four (1997) before taking a long break. Touring and numerous side projects has created a fan base that is quite international.

Now, with the 2001 release of Future Songs the excitement is back. Alison Shaw's vocals sound as fresh as ever, full of smart optimism and internal struggle alike. The new material updates the band's sound with dub beats , and Alison Shaw's mantra-like singing.

The live show mixed new material with older favorites. Cranes seem at the top of their game. They are a band pleased with their past but ready to launch into a new era. The five members create an atmosphere that is precious and evocative. I was able to talk to Alison Shaw when they were in San Francisco recently during a month long tour of the USA. They have just released a remix album Submarine that is available from Instinct Records. Alison was very talkative and open to discussing her music and her life on the road. We had a cup of tea talked about the return of Cranes.


AL: There has been about a five year period where Cranes were silent. Now you have a new album, Future Songs. Where have you been?

Alison: We had about a year where we didn't do any Cranes stuff. We felt like we needed a break. I moved to London. I did a drama course for two years. Since Jim and I are brother and sister we could never quite break up altogether. After a while we started writing songs again. We have five people in the band now. It's quite new. Paul Smith played with us since 1955 but in those days he used to play on a few songs. When Mark, our original guitarist, left, Paul took over since then. John Callender joined us recently on drums and Ben Baxter just joined as the bass player.

AL: Future Songs seems less about song structure and seems more experimental?

Alison: Yes. It is less guitar oriented this album. It is more atmosphere based. It was five years since the previous album. So naturally it was going to be different. We try to have each album have its own identity. After the last album we wanted to draw a line. Future Songs is the beginning of a separate phase I think.

AL: It sounds more like a movie soundtrack. How did you write these songs?

Alison: Yeah. I write all the lyrics. Some songs are written on an acoustic guitar. Jim usually works with guitar or drums or samples. You create one particular sound then you build around it. There's something interesting about that sound. We usually work with layers of sounds, one on top of another. Then all four of us play together.

AL: Is there a palette of sounds that you draw from?

Alison: Not really. We just used whatever came up during the period that we were doing that particular song. We did record some outside noises. We put a microphone in the back garden and we just left it up overnight. We got some street sounds and a bird flapping its wings. We recorded the album in a home studio. The rest of band lives in Portsmouth, so I go back there when we are rehearsing.

AL: What is Portsmouth like and how does that influence the music?

Alison: It's on the south coast. It's by the sea. I don't think that it affects our sound that much. I think that maybe when we started the band it affected us because we were quite isolated. We weren't really part of any of the scenes in London, or Manchester, or Scotland. We were doing our own thing that wasn't connected to anything else going on at the time. These days I don't think that the city has any affect on what we sound like.

AL: Did you grow up there listening to music?

Alison: I used to listen to Nick Cave when I was growing up. I used to like New Order I supposed. I think that I had one Einsturzende Neubauten and one Gun Club record. I never really caught on to Cocteau Twins till much later on. I really like their album "Heaven or Las Vegas." For some reason I didn't listen to them early on. I was probably afraid of comparisons to them early on, or I didn't want to be influenced by her, because she was such a strong sound. I didn't listen to them to later.

AL: Are your lyrics more personal or do you use words as sounds?

Alison: I used to be really shy about being clear with what I was saying. In a couple of songs the sound of the tune is more important than what I am saying. More recently I think the songs are a lot more formed. The songs are usually about something even if it's only a simple concept. It's usually connected to something personal. I think the singing is quite clear on this album. I used to think that in the past as well. When I listen to our earlier albums I think "God, why didn't I sing that more clearly."

AL: Your voice is quite distinct and you know it's Cranes almost right away. I think that your voice sounds more like American Country singers than anything in pop music.

Alison: Right. Some of our songs aren't quite story-based. For instance, the song "Sunrise" on the new album, although I sing in the first person, it's not really me. It's a character. And like "Lilies" which is an older song is another example of a song sung in character. Some people expect us to be more somber than we are. Even though some songs we do are down tempo we try to give things an uplift to it. We hate things that are just gloom and doom. Our natural instinct is to try to see things positive.

AL: Some of your song's structure break down and set us free.

Alison: Yeah, that would be good.

AL: How has the tour going so far?

Alison: I am doing fine. We had a day off yesterday. We did an instore performance at Amoeba. We have done a few. We played at a record store in Portland. There's a bunch of people whom we've met before or who have seen us before. It's nice when someone who has seen us before brings a friend that has never seen us before. Then you get a good combination. It's like a whole new crowd sounding up and liking what you are doing who wouldn't normally show up. A few Goth people show up but not everyone is like that.

AL: Many people here associate you and Cranes with The Cure because some of them saw you as an opening act for them. Have The Cure retired? Do you still keep in contact with Robert Smith and The Cure?

Alison: We hadn't heard from them for a long time, probably five years. A few weeks ago, their manager called and asked us to play a show with them in Hyde Park in the summer. I think it is July 27th. So we are actually going to play a gig with them. They are doing festivals this summer in Europe. I thought that they had split up. Because Robert is always saying "I am not doing any more tours." But it seems that they are. I thought that Robert was going to do a solo project.

AL: When you play these festivals I guess that you run into many other bands that you would not meet otherwise. Does any of these bands come up to you and say I have been a secret Cranes fan all these years?

Alison: That does happen sometimes. We played Belgium last summer. Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy turned out to have a couple of our albums. He said that he had come to see us play a few times.

AL: You were on the BMG label before. What is like having your own label, Dadaphonic?

Alison: It's quite cool to do it ourselves. When we wrote these songs we definitely didn't want to go around to record companies and say "Will you please release our record?" We thought that the most natural thing we could do was to find a distributor, a manufacturer, and do it ourselves. We didn't think about beyond the UK initially. We didn't know that anyone else would be interested. But then we started to get approached from label from other countries. They said that they wanted to put out the record after they heard it. We managed to get it released in Belgium, France, Holland, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Italy.... And that led to Instinct Records. Actually we were going to play CMJ last September but that was canceled. We stayed in touch and we just released it a few months later.

AL: Since you have this Remix CD do you ever follow any of the DJ culture and the clubs?

Alison: Yeah. I did have a drum and bass phase. I went out with a DJ five years ago who played jungle and drum and bass. So I was exposed to this whole other culture that I did enjoy. I did go to clubs and I did enjoy that. I probably listen to more electronica based stuff these days that are more laid back. I like more experimental stuff than guitar based stuff. I do like nice guitar songs like the new Neil Halstead album. I really like that one.

AL: Do you think that people listen to your music as come down music or stoner music?

Alison: Yeah. I reckon.

AL: I just saw "Spiderman" a few hours ago. Are there any films that you like?

Alison: Yeah. A friend just bought me a present. It was a DVD of "Amelie." Did you see that? It's a French film and it's really nice. But we haven't had any time on this tour to see any films. We are either driving or just arriving at the venue in time to play the show. We are in two vans. One is for the equipment and one is for us. So there are no videos. We just sleep or read a book or write in our diaries.

AL: Are there any writers that you like?

Alison: When I was at college, like recently, it was quite good, because I had stopped reading for a few years, but for the course work there was a lot of reading to do. I read almost every classic play that you could imagine. So we started with the Greeks: Sophocles and Euripides. I read "Medea."

AL: You did a spoken word album about Orestes and Electra. You like the grand stories?

Alison: It was quite weird during this drama course that I did when we came across the same story that we did on that CD project. I already knew what was going which was quite funny. I also like American writers like Tennessee Williams. I have read a lot of Shakespeare.

AL: Were you going to be an actor?

Alison: It came to a point where we weren't doing Cranes anymore. I didn't know what I was doing. My best friend, Tania, is a director. I was talking to her one day. I asked her what should I do with myself. She said why don't you try a voice class because I have never had any formal training as a singer. I never did any classes at all. So I started with just voice class. I really got along with the teacher. I recognized some of the things that she was teaching as stuff I had already come across just from being a singer in a band. Just some things that you do to get a song across. I realized that there was a method to it. The teacher suggested that I should audition for a course that was coming up. I hadn't really planned it. Also we have been in contact with a few directors because we have had our songs used in films. It was a hobby. I didn't imagine that I was suddenly going to become an actor. I wouldn't want to do that. I enjoyed what I learned and I enjoyed meeting people again. I had become a bit too insular. Because it was always "Cranes, Cranes, Cranes..." I needed to break out of it and have a different life for a while.

AL: Did you grow up in a musical family?

Alison: Not really. My Dad plays trumpet. We had him play on one of our records.

AL: Do you have any other hobbies like yoga or sewing?

Alison: You must have read a previous interview? Because that is a few things that I do: I do yoga and I do sewing. I like cooking and cycling. My sister is quite into hiking and cycling. She drags me out into the country.

AL: What do you love about music?

Alison: It's finding a sound that represents how you feel. It's a way of expressing something. When the piano makes a sound or a note that might resonate with you or trip off an idea. That might tip off an emotion and give you a picture in your mind of a particular place or a person or a smell. I like the unexpectedness of music. When you can come across a sound that will trigger off something. I like that you can lose yourself in music. I like when you listen to other people's music you find yourself in their world for a while. I like that it's a simple process as well. A person and a guitar can create a whole world. They can conjure up something that didn't exist before. Even if it is a simple song, it can be quite meaningful. People can see it separately and differently.

AL: Do you like any new records?

Alison: I like For Stars. They are playing now upstairs. We have been playing with them and touring for ten shows. Their album is really nice. Personally I like Boards of Canada. There's a German group called Funkster that I really like. I like Zero 7.