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Luce Mawdsley

Luce Mawdsley


Our guest today is Luce Mawdsley (Mésange, Cavalier Song), a composer and guitarist based in Liverpool. Mawdsley’s practice is rooted in progressive experimentation and draws from an appreciation of all things Americana. In March 2024, Luce released Northwest & Nebulous, an album inspired by the northern English landscape of their youth and draws from Mawdsley’s personal experiences as a neurodivergent non-binary composer. Photo by Rosie Terry Toogood.

PodcastInterviewNorthwest & NebulousPure O RecordsAmericanaAlternativeCountryFolkCinematicInstrumentalLiverpool


Hello. You’re listening to the Audio.com podcast where we interview musicians and artists about their work with sound. I’m Ilia Rogatchevski. My guest today is Luce Mawdsley, a composer and guitarist based in Liverpool. In the past, Luce has collaborated with the violinist Agathe Max in their solemn art rock duo Mésange and performed with the post punk project Cavalier Song. In more recent years, Luce has released a couple of solo cassette albums that looked inward and examined the artist’s relationship to the body, voice, transgression and pleasure through spoken word pieces mediated by introverted synths and Morriconian guitars. Mawdsley’s practice is rooted in progressive experimentation and draws from an appreciation of all things Americana. In March 2024, Luce released Northwest & Nebulous on their own Pure O Records label. Inspired by the northern English landscape of their youth, the album’s instrumental compositions also evoke Spaghetti Western soundtracks and crosses several genre boundaries. Allusions to water flow throughout the record and Mawdsley draws their inspiration from personal experiences as a neurodivergent non-binary composer, exploring themes of gender, sexuality, place and identity formation. I saw Luce perform this material at the Scala in London earlier this year and was won over by the quiet majesty of their compositions. In what is now a rare display of respect for the music, nobody in the audience talked through their set and seldom was a phone screen seen. All eyes and ears were fixed on the stage. Since then, Northwest & Nebulous has been on heavy rotation for me at home and I recommend you give it a spin as well. It’s probably one of my records of the year. I spoke to Luce Mawdsley remotely in April 2024 to discuss their new album and approach to composition. You will hear a few pieces from Northwest & Nebulous weaving in and out of our conversation. – So the way I normally start these interviews is by asking what your earliest sonic memory is, and it could be a song, or it could be an abstract sound, the sound of birdsong, whatever it might be. Do you have something specific that you keep coming back to? I guess a strange amalgamation of things. It's mostly lying in bed at night, and I live quite near the coast, well, living on the coast, and there's an army base on the coast there, so I have this strange thing of hearing trains going by, and gunfire, and Nassajack toads mating calls all at once. That's an incredible array of sounds there. Yeah, strange, but maybe that says something. Was this in Formby? Yes, indeed. Yes, we have the red squirrels, which are very beautiful, although less these days, which is rather sad. Not many red squirrels left on the mainland in the UK, is there? No, no. I think there's some in Scotland, but yeah, we've got a red squirrel reserve there, and the past few times I've been there visiting my parents, I've not seen any, which is very, very sad. What got you into playing guitar? I was first really a drummer, and this probably says quite a lot about me, but I think at some point I just wanted more harmonic control over the music I was making with people. I don't think there was like hearing, it was just a matter of like, I wanted to make music, and so pursuing all of the instruments that would enable me to create the sound that I wanted to create, I suppose. Yeah. So I think you're based in Liverpool. When did you move to the city, and were you always sort of living up north? Were you down in London at any point? No, I've always lived up here. I guess that form is not very far away, it's like half an hour drive or so. Liverpool has a great musical heritage, and it's great access to all sorts of national parks and things, and I live betwixt two very beautiful parks in Liverpool, and it's reasonably quiet. Yeah, I love it here. Because your new album, Northwestern Nebulas, it's inspired in part by the rural landscape. And I feel like it certainly evokes these sort of rural themes and a certain kind of mood of landscape. Is this something that was intentional? Yes, I think going through like a period of change where I was feeling for the first time kind of the possibility that I could feel happiness, I was finding that whilst reconnecting myself to my passion and romanticism around being outdoors, and movement, moving through outdoor spaces. The compositions on the album, I feel like they have fluid and unfixed quality. And it's very different from your other work as a solo artist, and your work with groups like Missange. So sort of, I feel like a more positive and lighter. Oh, yeah, it's definitely it's about hope and possibility, that euphoria of the possibility of what anybody can be and the interactions that they can have with not just people, but, you know, non-human people and places. And yeah, not really having to define it. I wanted to make something that had more holes in it, that was kind of had different points of accessibility, so that people could insert their own narrative. You know, like, I could talk about what was going on for me, or, you know, what influenced my thinking about doing that. But I was like, I was keen to have lots of space. And I think that was in part why there's there are instrumentals as well, you know, because your previous works have poetry on there. And I think, I think it's your first album. It's called Vulgar Displays of Affection. Yes. And the voice is even sort of buried in the mix. It's treated with effects. So it's not even necessarily obvious that it's a human speaking. And then Luke two has that stripped away and the poetry is much more at the forefront. And then it feels like you're stripping the voice even further back to basically, as you said, kind of allowing somebody else to add their own narrative there. Yeah, yeah, I guess it's been an evolution in some way to a hopeful space to create and wanting to work with other people. And I don't know, I think creating a space where I could write poetry and try to spend time to some extent embracing like some of the kind of OCD symptoms that I experienced was, it was helpful in some ways, but it also kind of trapped me a little bit and kind of reaffirmed negative things that I thought about myself or negative experiences I was having. And I kind of wanted to break out of that, have a more kind of like porous, perforated compositions, I suppose. Yeah. And in terms of your playing style, do you think sort of what steered you towards a more pastoral playing style? Your earlier recordings, your work with Nassange, it's a lot grittier and noisier, there's effects and kind of more experimental in a way. Yeah, I guess I managed to fall in love with playing the guitar again. You know, you spoke about kind of like the evolution with using the voice and having the kind of a synthesized voice and then peeling that back. I think that was kind of part of that as well. I was thinking about kind of the landscapes of my childhood as well and where I was brought up and I think reconnecting with initial groundings in life. I think that was very much part of that change, I think. In the press release for the record, there are references to like queer cowboys and romantic energy, as well as what we were talking about earlier, like this fluidity in water. I think there's even a field recording on the track Sojourn of water running. Oh, that's great that you say that. That's a whole bunch of rainsticks. I went mad with the rainsticks. If you don't want to talk about this, it's absolutely fine. But my question is, how does this record kind of reflect your changing identity as a non-binary neurodivergent composer? I guess there's a number of parts to this. I think, you know, as I said before, I was opening myself up to possibility of what I could be and what I could experience in my body. And that's also like you mentioned, Miss Orange, that linked a lot to kind of the sense of my body when I'm performing and what that meant about gender. And that kind of like opened up a whole world of things that I'd never thought about before. I think also kind of like, you know, I was talking about the childhood elements, but the idea of approaching a landscape like you're a child in the sense of like, when you're a child, you can talk to inanimate objects. And that's completely an acceptable thing to do. And that everything from there is like a transition to something that subscribes to a binary construct. And I think just having that eureka moment, I let myself explore and change my mind about things. My daughter is five years old, and she is going through a phase of, you know, basically that, as you're saying, you know, talking to her dolls and just creating these new worlds for herself. And it's almost sometimes an effort to try and get back to that level to see everything from her perspective, because we're just so fixed in this rational way of seeing the world. And maybe that's where a lot of our problems lie. I think so, definitely. And yeah, I think in the music, I didn't want to just present something directly from from my experience. That's why I wanted to make something that felt accessible so that people could build their own worlds within that sonic context. You know, we've got to work our way out of the current state we're in. And I think that art in that manner is really important. I definitely would agree with that. And maybe picking up on that. I guess the diversity within the sound. I heard lots of different things. And I don't want to put you on the spot and kind of ask you about influences. But I'll just kind of rattle through the things that made me think of, you know, scores for Westerns, Americana as well. It also reminded me of the Dirty Three. And when I saw you live in London, it was this kind of heaviness that reminded me of when Dylan Carlson's Earth went a bit country. Okay, yeah. Yeah. When you were talking about the body, like the way that you perform is very physical as well, sort of kicking out your legs and bending over backwards and things like that. And that reminded me of like, really sort of over the top 1970s Stadium Rock. So all these things that are combined together. I guess in a postmodern world, it makes perfect sense. But was it like a conscious decision to just throw whatever felt right in there? How did the composition process work for you within the context of this album? Well, I guess I mean, you mentioned like the Americana and kind of the Western influence. And that's always been a big thing for me. And I think that does run through everything that I've done in some way, even if it's only really me that notices it. You asked before about my earliest like sound memories and stuff. And one of my earliest memories musically was I was really into the song Rawhide. Like a family friend made me a tape of it with some other like cowboy songs and things like that. And that was kind of like the first music that I got really attached to. And I would like, listen to that tape and dress as a cowboy and whip a chair while listening to it. I think I'm still sort of just doing that. Yeah, I think for the most part compositionally, I suppose it's maybe like when somebody like sculpts things like they perhaps see something in like a tree trunk or a slab of marble. They don't necessarily see the whole finished thing, but they see there is some potential in a slab or something. And that slab for me is usually chord structures that move me. I'm always trying to convince myself with chord structures, really. I think for this process, like I was very keen to play with people. I mean, this is kind of coming out of Covid and making records just in my room on my own. And, you know, I think like my friends became like very precious to me and I wanted to write for people that I loved and care about and wanted to share these experiences with. But I didn't I don't read music or anything. So I would record demos and things onto the computer and then just kind of like wheeled without really knowing what I'm doing to write for clarinets and viola. That was very exploratory. And it was there was a lot of teasing moments, translating things to the musicians, you know, working with like professionals, jazz and classical musicians who great sight readers and everything and me not really being able to read what I was giving them. But I kind of had it in my head. It was difficult and it's definitely something I kind of want to work on next, I think. Yeah. So we rehearsed for a while, maybe six months or so, and we recorded most of the tracks in the Nordic Church in Liverpool, this brilliant community centre. It's a really beautiful place. They put shows on and stuff as well. We did kind of like a weekend there that I engineered. We did kind of like a basic chamber trio of guitar, viola and clarinets. And that's kind of like how it started, how we got the ground going. The other players on the album are Nicholas Branton on bass clarinet and clarinet, Rachel Nicholas on viola and John Davies on piano. But when I saw you play live, you just had Nicholas on clarinets and then Lula Nova on drums. So I'm interested to find out how the dynamic has changed since the recordings. I'm always thinking about just how I can make things dramatic and convey something of the essence of the piece, even if it isn't precisely how it is on the record. I think it's just it's got to be exciting and it's got to be engaging. And so it's about thinking not just about like the timbres of the instruments, but like more of the spaces that they occupy and working with the instruments that you have to occupy those spaces in an interesting way. And it was really, really great to work with Lucy on the drums as well. I mean, Nick performed the songs loads of times with Rachel, but it was really great to have a drummer. And I'm kind of like I'm thinking a lot about percussion at the moment. I'm playing the drums every day myself. I think that's definitely going to influence what I do next as well, just trying to have agency and also being able to communicate with other musicians, you know, talking about how it was difficult to translate things in this process. I'm also doing that with trying to get back into playing the violin as well. Another instrument I played when I was a kid, but struggled with because I never was able to learn to read music. Also, when I went to high school, it didn't seem very cool to play the violin anymore. So I just wanted to rock out on the drums, you know, just like everybody. Yeah, same thing happened to me. I was learning flamenco guitar and it just kind of coincided with me discovering Nirvana and things like that. It's just no longer cool. But speaking of amps, actually, when I saw you live, what I really found interesting is how you use the various effects on your guitar to sort of mimic the instruments that are absent. So there were moments where you're almost kind of sounding like a viola and you're harmonizing with the bass clarinet. And I thought that was a very clever way of getting around that problem of not having all the musicians who are present on the recording present in the live setting. Yeah, I've been really enjoying that, that kind of deconstruction of what's important and how I can get around those problems. And I mean, I play a lot of like the, you know, the Bill Frizzell kind of swelling guitar kind of thing. I'm, you know, I'm very, I'm very into and I think that was kind of an influence for that kind of clarinet guitar kind of harmony thing. Are there any sort of influences that you can speak about? It doesn't have to be music, could be movies, because it's a very cinematic record. So I feel like it almost could be a score to a film or perhaps inspired by scores you've heard. Is this a fair assessment? Is there anything that comes to mind? I guess, you know, there's the clear amalgamation of the Western aesthetic, but I think it was mainly really kind of like experiences in nature. I mean, very influenced by people like Susan Alcorn, the pedal steel player, Marissa Anderson, Mary Havilson, people like that. I, you know, strongly drawn to string players. I think like, you know, with guitar being my primary instrument of composition. But then, you know, a lot of like 70s folk rock fusion-y type stuff, Sandy Denny and people like that, you know, I was listening to heavily whilst writing this music. My favourite track off the album is probably Latex Feather, which is what the record opens up with. And I like not just the composition itself, but I also like the title. So to me, it suggests this kind of incongruous fetishistic object. And that kind of contrasts with the way that the instruments interact with each other, which is kind of playful and flirtatious. Maybe that's kind of an overwrought interpretation, but would you agree with that? I think that's a very fair interpretation. I think I was more thinking about kind of the construct of nature and synthesis within that context, rather than like the fetishistic kind of pathway. Yeah, I think I was thinking more about the line between the anthropocentric world and nature with a capital N. Are there any kind of stories behind any of the other track titles or kind of the themes behind the compositions? I think for Sean is a vivid memory of Lake Windermere, kind of dusk, and a lot of them are about like bodies of water in the north. But I tried to kind of keep things quite open with the titles. Again, for the reasons that I've discussed about wanting people to insert their own worlds into things. Where do you think you're going to go next as an artist? I'm quite torn at the moment, because I've got the realisation that I really like playing this music live, but it's also really difficult to be able to afford to have other professional musicians do it with me. So I definitely want to, you know, I'm thinking a lot about how I can do things sometimes with other people and also on my own. And I think that process is definitely going to influence whatever I do next. I have, you know, 10 or 12 pieces that I've started already, but I'm not really sure where they're going to end up. And I just feel like I need to go with the process. I really want to play some shows and things. So yeah, I think following that river and seeing how I handle that is definitely going to be part of the next imprint. you

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