Dot Allison Interview

By Alexander Laurence

Dot Allison is a very talented artist and singer, and is one of the first
musicians I did an interview with. I met her in New York at the Gramercy Park
Hotel back in 1999, when her first album was released. She is from
Edinburgh, Scotland, and did an album with One Dove back in 1993. Since then she has
released four solo albums including Afterglow (1999), We Are Science (2002),
Exaltation of Larks (2007), and Room 7 1/2 (2009). She has also
collaborated or has been a member of Massive Attack, Death In Vegas, Slam, Scott
Walker, and Babyshambles. I spoke with her at the beginning of 2010, to talk about
music and celebrate a detailed and influential career in music.

AL: What are you up to today?

Dot: I am just taking a break from songwriting with my friend. She is just
next door. We have been programming all day. We were trying to write this
pop song. So I am taking a break. We have a bunch of songs. I am not sure what
we are going to do with them yet. I am not sure if I am going to sing them.
I might have a few songs on my album, or she’ll might have them on her

AL: When did you start working on Room 7 1/2?

Dot: Actually the album existed in many different forms for a while. I
wrote a few songs years ago. I don’t know if everyone works like this: but I
always have a silly backlog of songs, and some of them should never come out.
Some of them that did like “I Wanna Break Your Heart,” Portrait Of The Sun,”
“Fall To Me” were quite old songs. The rest were written in the past year.
“Love’s Got Me Crazy” happened because Paul Weller called me up and said
he wanted to write a song. He was writing a lot of music at the time. It was
slightly disparate in a way. It wasn’t like I had a concept and then wrote
this album. It was more like a collection of songs that seemed to go well

AL: Your first two albums were very diverse. The song “Wishing Stone”
doesn’t really go along with the rest of the album.

Dot: Yeah. They might be a little too diverse. I always liked albums like
Screamadelica, where “Movin’ On Up” is really different from “Slip Inside
This House.” I like records by Gene Clark where there are a rich tapestry of
sounds and production. I don’t like albums that are linear. I do get
slightly bored of a sound if it’s right across an album. There is nothing wrong
with that, it’s just me. But hopefully I would like to take someone on a

AL: It’s more common that a band writes and works in a specific time, and
those songs which end up on an album are like a diary of a specific time

Dot: I don’t know if that has been true in the past. Maybe there was some
record company wrangles going on and I got behind myself. Some songs that I
wrote were going to be on an album with me and Peter Doherty. We were going
to do an album of duets, and it never happened. Times change. We might still
do it. We decided that we wanted a few of those songs to come out.

AL: The songs “Sheepskin Tearaway” and “I Wanna Break Your Heart” are
probably the best-known songs of that collaboration, because you played them
live a lot. How did you decide what songs are on your album or what goes on

Dot: “Sheepskin Tearaway” was his song and he got me to help him finish
it. He had the idea and then it probably ended up being 50/50. I had the
chords for “Portrait Of The Sun” and we wrote the lyrics together. Maybe we
believed that those were our own songs that we got each other to collaborate on.
“I Wanna Break Your Heart” we started from scratch at my studio one day.
He asked me to play the Rhythm Factory with him one day. We didn’t have any
songs of our own at that stage. We were going to do some covers of “I Wanna
Be Your Dog” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” And then he said “I
Wanna Break Your Heart.” Let’s write a song called “I Wanna Break Your Heart.”
It was a collage of those songs. It was our own dark love song. The song
almost went on the last Babyshambles album. It’s worked out fine. Pete is
happy that it has come out on my album.

AL: When you did your first two records, and the earlier record with One
Dove, was there pressure from the record companies to sound a certain way?

Dot: Yeah. The records that I have tried to make were more like a window
into my world. Luckily, to the best of my ability at the time, I always stood
my ground. Afterglow may be a little too glossy and produced, but usually I
have stuck to that. In the beginning, with One Dove, it was a massive
battle. I was 21 and I was a girl singer. The record label was trying to make me
into a popstar. There was constant drama. They would publish photos in a
magazine that you hadn’t agreed on. There was pressure from labels to be a
certain kind of person. They told us to work with certain producers and certain
video producers. We always rebelled against it. It was probably to our
detriment. We probably pissed off the label because we didn’t go with their plans.
We didn’t want to do anything we weren’t proud of. There is quite a lot of
manipulation if you are in bands. They would only show you a few people who
are video directors. They are trying to control your choices. Labels can’t
stand in the studio and make you create a different record. They can not
promote it. We stuck to our guns, and it caused fights, and budgets were
pulled. It’s classic record label bullshit.

AL: There seems like there was a big hiatus between We Are Science (2002)
and Exhaltation of Larks (2007). What were you doing during that time?

Dot: I was touring with Massive Attack actually for two years. Then I did
quite a lot of touring with Pete. I spent a year hanging out with Pete and
making music overnight and living nocturnally. I was sleeping all day and
writing poetry. There was two years, 2003 and 2004, that was doing two
international tours with Massive Attack. By 2005, two years had passed where I hadn’t
done any of my own music. It was well worth it. I am not sure if it helped
with the momentum. No time is wasted.

AL: Peter Doherty’s guitar playing on “I Wanna Break Your Heart” is a
little rough. There are mistakes and it’s out of tempo. Can you comment on what
was going on there?

Dot: For me that is part of the charm. It’s the opposite of slick. When you
were saying that, I was thinking of Daniel Johnston. It’s not so much about
dexterity, but getting a song across. I think that Pete is a good guitar
player. It’s hard to keep Pete immersed in a recording. I kept the recordings
that I had done in my studio. There’s a loveable chaos about him. Stephen
Street is good at disciplining Pete, and getting him to repetitively record.
The way we record is unlike any other process I am involved in. Capturing us
like that, was being disciplined, and I had to go with it.

AL: How did you get to write a song with Paul Weller? Did you know each

Dot: We weren’t friends, no. I got a text message from Paul Weller. He had
got my number from Bobby Gillespie. They were out together. I got this text
“Do you fancy writing a song?” Can this really be Paul Weller? He sent me a
CD to my flat. He sent me the bones of something. We spoke over the phone
about some lyrical ideas. There were a lot of text messages. We nailed down
the lyrics and fine tuned it in the studio. He changed the last line of the
song. He talked about how the line falls on the melody. I learned a lot. There
was one last session where I redid the last line.

AL: Was that the first song that you used a lot of text messaging?

Dot: I wrote a song with Hal David for Afterglow. We did it by fax. I had
to write some dummy lyrics for him to play off of. We met up in London and
finished it in person.

AL: How did you get involved in the world of Scott Walker, and how did that
lead to you doing a cover song on your new album?

Dot: I was asked to be a talking head in the Scott Walker documentary. I
worked with Brian Gascoigne, his arranger. The director of the film, Stephen
Kijak, found out I had worked with Brian. There were not a lot of females in
the film at that point. He asked me to be in the film. I told him “I don’t
think that I am much of an aficionado.” And he said: “No, you have been
inspired by him. Just talk about it.” So being in that film, I met a lot of
people. I hadn’t met Scott Walker yet, but I met his manager. I needed a
manager at that stage, so now we share management. When Scott came to the shows at
the Barbican, my manager put my album under his nose. They didn’t say
anything. Later he said: “Dot is perfect for this song.” I met him through that
film basically.

AL: You have had the same band for a while?

Dot: Yeah. I have played with Chris Rotter and Wildcat Will for a long
time. Wildcat Will Blanchard has been my drummer for ten years.

AL: Are there any subjects that you have focused on with this new album?

Dot: I always write about love. Human attachment seems to be the most
moving thing to me. As I understand it, the important things are love and
attachment. Whether that is love, lost, brooding, unity, or whatever state. I
always write about that bit. I changed my process a little bit with this album. I
tried to write in a more narrative way. I wanted to stretch myself in a
lyrical way. I hadn’t developed my process. As time goes on, I have changed my
process. I really liked White Chalk. I was really inspired by PJ Harvey and
Nick Cave. What they say between the words is very interesting.

AL: Your song “Johnny Villain” is a new type of song for you. It has a
story and characters. Do you think you will do more of that in the future?

Dot: I was pleased with that. It was a completely different way of writing
for me. I never want to sit still. So maybe it’s me moving out of my comfort
zone. Writing lyrics is a discovery process. You can work on thing for a
long time, and get more details and shape. I spent a few years touring and
living a nocturnal existence. During that time I didn’t write songs, but I
wrote a lot of poetry. I think that I benefited in that time because I studied
the weight of words, and put things away, and came back to them months later.
I became better at looking at lines and changing things.