Deep down, we all have an absolute need to relate. To connect, and feel understood. It's a basic need to even the most vapid. Not that Anna Vincent of London based indie rockers Heavy Heart is vapid, she's quite the opposite. An astute people watcher, and profoundly intelligent when it comes to the motivations that fuel us all. She has a masterful gift for capturing powerful themes without overwriting, and without being overly sympathetic, with lyrics that glide along with ease. Beautiful, unexpected, and sometimes harrowing, yet wrapped up in an easily digestible, highly relatable sing-along slice of shining indie rock.
I met up with Anna and Heavy Heart guitarist/producer Patrick on my last day in London earlier this year for an afternoon of drinks and conversation at a quirky converted parking garage. They'd just spent the night in the studio and were quite knackered, but were entirely charming. We spoke of the London music scene, gigs, Led Zeppelin, and all the Laura R's out that day in Peckham. And so much more, not to mention the supremely dodgy loo's at the carpark. Just recently, I spoke with Anna about how the band started, her approach to songwriting, criticism, her bandmates, art, and the band's ambitious Song of the Month project. Find our conversation below.
(Aimless Skylarking) Who is Heavy Heart?
(Anna) Heavy Heart started out as just me with a bunch of songs I wrote during the late summer of 2013 in the low period which came at the end of my previous band. That band had been together about five years, and we had more or less lived in each others' pockets - touring, writing, recording. There wasn't really any cataclysmic event which ended things; I guess after an intense creative period of your life like that, things either catch fire or they burn out. So I found myself alone and adrift with just an acoustic guitar, a vague sense of failure and a heavy heart. Those are the circumstances under which this band was born.
(Aimless Skylarking) So how did the band come together?
(Anna) I've always played music with my brother James (guitar), and we'd started to talk about what we might do together next, so I showed him these new songs. We didn't really think about them again until the start of 2014 when we got booked to play a show. We'd met Patrick (guitarist and also our producer) when he joined us for the final tour we did with the old band, and he was living near us in New Cross studying music at Goldsmiths. So the first live incarnation of Heavy Heart was a three-piece - acoustic guitars, vocals and electronics. The idea was to take a shoegaze approach to acoustic music, to surround these delicate ideas with texture and ambience. When we got booked to play at Truck Festival in the UK later that summer, we realised we needed a full band, so Craig (drums) and Adam (bass) - who had been in bands with Patrick previously - joined us, and suddenly we were able to write songs with more dynamics and energy.
(Aimless Skylarking) What did you learn from the past projects to define Heavy Heart?
(Anna) I've been in a few bands before this, and I'm proud of them all, but Heavy Heart feels truest to what I knew I wanted to do when I first picked up a guitar aged 14. There are threads you can still hear from those old bands, and themes and sounds I'm not yet done exploring, but I feel more awake now, and closer to the music. From those projects, I think I've learned that you can't put all your ideas into one song, or even into one band. Maybe the downfall of things I've done before has been trying to make them reflect every musical idea or influence I've ever had, but like most people, I like quite a wide range of stuff, from industrial metal to free jazz to chart pop to noisy indie rock. I'm not saying it can't be done, but trying to incorporate all those things into one band is hard (I mean, in the right hands it could be incredible, but maybe not in mine). Heavy Heart was me wanting to feel those butterflies again, to make music like the music I first ever loved, with guitars and drums and not too much else.
I've also learned that you have to know where to spend your energy (and your money), and how to recognise a false opportunity. My bands have always been more or less self-managed, produced, promoted and released, and it can be hard work, especially juggling that with a day job (which we do) and funding it all yourself. I've spent several small fortunes and a nuclear power plant's worth of energy on trying to get my music out to the world, and then sometimes the best opportunities and exposure come naturally, effortlessly, out of the blue (like getting to know Aimless Skylarking!). It's not to say you shouldn't make any effort, but often things which seem too good to be true really are. Much more worth your time is building up personal connections with people who really understand and like your music.
(Aimless Skylarking) In hindsight, This Season EP feels like the band testing the waters, trying out a new sound, maybe still indebted or even holding on to past projects, letting go, but not entirely letting go. But the latest round of offerings (Song a Month), the band has found its sound. The band is clicking, the sound is right, and the themes align.
(Anna) This Season was definitely the sound of us testing the waters as a band, although we weren't even really a band at that point, in the way we are now. The recordings we made for that EP started out as demos, and we considered keeping them as such, but we liked how they sounded and wanted to put out some music to reflect what we were doing at that moment. Those songs were written acoustically and alone, so they took on a texture and mood to match, whereas now there's a bigger palette to play with sonically. There has definitely been a thematic progression too. Melancholy and heartache still underpin a lot of what I write, but those themes have bled out to encompass not just my own personal, private feelings, but how I feel about the world and where I find myself in it, about invisible walls and ceilings, expectations and disappointment. I'm the eternal uncool kid, staying in my bedroom on a sunny day, but I've got a band now, a gang, so it's five against the world instead of just one.
(Aimless Skylarking) Criticism and art often involves thick skin or a blind eye. How is that different when your brother is in the band?
(Anna) I have a very thin skin and a horribly self-critical eye, so I'm lucky that James is an understanding collaborator, not to mention a brilliant musician. Working with my brother is second nature; we're best friends and we've been in bands together since we were kids, so we can pretty much communicate non-verbally now when it comes to music. We have a proper fight about once a year during which we clear the air, and then everything is fresh and green again like after a thunderstorm.
(Aimless Skylarking) Is there unbridled honesty?
(Anna) It's hard to take criticism when you're writing from the heart, but sometimes you have to burn away the layers to get to what you really mean. The best music comes from turmoil, chaos, rage, pain, sadness and insecurity - you just have to be able to harness those feelings.
(Aimless Skylarking) With that, what kind of music comes from happiness?
(Anna) That's an interesting question - I'm certain there is great music which comes from happiness, although I can't think of any off the top of my head! Even love songs - or at least the good ones - usually have a note of melancholy, or sadness, or longing or doubt in them. It's like putting a tiny bit of salt into a sweet desert - it makes it so much more complex and delicious and addictive. I suppose there's music which comes from euphoria or ecstasy of some kind (chemically enhanced or otherwise) but again, I don't know if that's really about pure happiness. I think that happiness is more of a passing state - one you don't recognise until you're out of it. So any song which reflects on that feeling is usually doing so from the other side.
(Aimless Skylarking) What about the rest of the band? How do they contribute in the studio?
(Anna) Patrick produces our music as well as co-writes, and he is about the most patient and pragmatic person I know, as well as a complete musical genius with perfect pitch and the ability to play any instrument (he is, I'm afraid, wildly under-used in this band!). He's direct and honest and pushes me to improve; he doesn't let me get away with the easy or obvious option. In turn I lie on the floor and cry and smash things and tear up my lyrics... and then I write something a thousand times better and have to accept he was right.
Adam (bass) and Craig (drums) are both absolute powerhouse musicians - equally creative and receptive to ideas. You can throw the weirdest, most complex and confusing part their way and they'll nonchalantly nail it with added flair, but they also have an innate instinct and respect for when things need to be kept simple to make the songs work. Studio times tend to run late into the night, and involve a high level of endurance but they always rise to the challenge. Plus as the rhythm section, it's kind of their job to bring the party...and they do.
(Aimless Skylarking) How disciplined of a writer are you?
(Anna) I am not very disciplined, I have to admit, although this song-a-month project has definitely forced me to face that and become more prolific.
(Aimless Skylarking) Do you take time to write every day? Or do you wait for the muse to visit?
(Anna) I was talking about this very thing with a friend who is also a songwriter, and we both agreed that in a perfect world, you'd just write when inspiration hits you. But that might mean months, even years, between songs. So it's almost a technique of being able to switch yourself into that magic trance state at will. The more you can practice that and get used to it - writing on command - the better you become. I find writing melodies pretty easy, and I normally start with a basic guitar idea and a melody with no words. Lyrics come a lot harder to me, or at least I agonise over them a lot more - I want to communicate my idea or feeling without it being obvious or trite. Often the first thing that comes to me from my unconscious can be the best, but it's always just a fragment, and building words around it which come from the conscious side is hard - they can become contrived and overthought.
(Aimless Skylarking) And what kind of activities do you do when you get writer's block?
(Anna) When I get writer's block, I smash things up, or lie on my bed in a state of despair, or rant about why it's impossible, and then at the moment where I'm at the end of my tether, the idea normally comes. You can try to come at it from different angles, to lie in wait for an idea, but the only real cure for writer's block is to take the task head-on, to really think about what you want to say, even make notes about what you actually mean, and keep working til you bleed!
(Aimless Skylarking) Is there a certain environment or setting you need to write?
(Anna) Not really, but lying on my bed is my preferred place, and I like to be alone. Sometimes I like to go out to the park to write lyrics, and get some new thoughts in my head. But for the music side of things, I'm a true bedroom songwriter!
(Aimless Skylarking) While in London, I observed all sorts of commuting activities on the Tube. Zoned out passengers eating, working on their laptop, reading, applying makeup, and so on. Can you write in such an environment?
(Anna) I can, and I always have a pen and notebook with me when I go out, but I hate it when someone starts to look over your shoulder as you write. They're probably just intrigued to see someone not on their iPhone but it makes me self-conscious. I use these old-style exercise books like we had at school for lyrics at the moment - I like that it puts me back into the mind of that kid who was just starting out writing songs, and I like to have space to draw and meander in the margins.
(Aimless Skylarking) I once read of an artist tweaking the lyrics for the sake of the melody, even changing the meaning to make the melody work. Another artist approached it from a different rhythmic perspective to save lyrical meaning. How would the band work through such a situation?
(Anna) There's always a conflict between these things, and it's the one I struggle with the most. I tend to write tunes first, so I guess they take precedence and the lyrics have to fit in with the rhythm and melody, but if you're not careful, you can end up with very blocky and repetitive music, so I do try to stretch and squeeze the melody as much as possible, and make lyrics scan in an interesting way. I hate it when someone sings the start of the line and you know exactly how it's going to end, so I try to mix it up if it starts to get too predictable and too overtly rhyming. I've only written two songs where the lyrics came first, and there is a different feeling with that approach - you are much freer to say things in a natural way, and to elaborate on ideas in a way which can be more difficult when the lyrics have to be tight (Morrissey is a good example of someone who has very free flowing lyrics, almost prose at times). I'm trying to bring more of this into my writing, but old habits die hard...
(Aimless Skylarking) What other forms of art influence your writing and music?
(Anna) My uncle is a painter and my mum and dad are writers, so I've been lucky to grow up surrounded and influenced by lots of different art forms. I love film and cult, weird TV like The X-Files and Twin Peaks (and Stranger Things right now), I guess some of that slightly dark humour and supernatural stuff sits well with me and filters into my song ideas. I'm a big fan of that kind of thing in literature too - Thomas Pynchon, Philip K Dick, Douglas Adams, Haruki Murakami - I like stuff about strange near futures, or acid-tinged trips of the past, where the magic is just bleeding in at the edges of an otherwise normal day.
(Aimless Skylarking) How did the one song a month idea get started?
(Anna) We had the first three songs for this project already recorded at the end of 2015, and we had originally planned to release them as a follow up to our first EP This Season. We produce and release everything ourselves, and I think it dawned on us that we'd probably get as much attention for a single song as we would for an entire collection, so it seemed to make sense to spread out the releases. People have since told us about other bands who have done this, but we just came up with it as a way of keeping the musical ball rolling. I think it suits the way people listen to music now, and the way blogs cover that music - if you release something and then disappear back into the studio for 6 months, people kind of forget about you when you come back and you have to start again from square one.
(Aimless Skylarking) What did the rest of the band think of the idea?
(Anna) Everyone was excited about the challenge it presented I think, and it was something new and different for all of us. We might have underestimated quite how much of a challenge it would be, but we're over half way through and we haven't broken anyone yet (although I've smashed up a few inanimate objects)!
(Aimless Skylarking) Were there worries about feeling rushed? Perhaps compromising quality?
(Anna) Yes, these have been probably the main things on my mind all this year, and there's always the lingering worry that we might not be able to come up with anything new, or anything good. But I think so far we've managed to stick to our schedule (it's self-imposed, after all) and keep the quality up to what we want. It also teaches you that you have to know when to leave something; to say, "it's done" and move on. I like there to be a few rough edges anyway, so you know it's real. It's easy to be lazy as a musician; to write a bunch of songs and then think you've done it and can just sit back and relax, but this project has shown me how important it is to keep writing, keep improving and keep learning.
(Aimless Skylarking) Have there been any side benefits of recording once a month?
(Anna) It's like exercising regularly or practicing a language or something - you don't realise it, but you get a little bit better each time, it comes a little easier and you push ahead a bit further. Since March, we have been pretty much writing and recording the next song in the three or four weeks leading up to the release, so it means that we're always putting out brand new songs which we love and are excited about, instead of music we've had for months and are bored with. For anyone who might be following what we're doing, the music is almost as new to us as it is to you. I guess a traditional album or EP schedule wouldn't allow for that. I don't know if we'll do this song-a-month thing again in 2017, so we're just enjoying it as much as we can now.
(Aimless Skylarking) What's next for Heavy Heart?
(Anna) We're still aiming to release all the 2016 songs as a collection - either a set of three EPs, or a full-length "album" (but not quite an album album). We're also planning to do this on vinyl - that's kind of a dream which we couldn't afford to do before, but we're saving up at the moment and hoping we'll have these available by the end of 2016. We just played Greenstone Festival here in the UK and we're now gearing up for a really special show with HAWK at Servant Jazz Quarters in London on 15th September. We were over at CMJ in New York last October, and we're hoping to get out to the US again in the next 6 months. We sometimes go a bit of a roundabout way to things, but we usually get there in the end.
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