By John Curley
The work of the Scottish singer-songwriter Penny Black first became known to me in 2009, and I was quickly drawn in by the beauty of her wonderfully introspective songs. Black, a Glasgow native who recently relocated to Stockholm, has just released a terrific five-song EP titled Me and the Beast. The EP, which features only vocals and piano, is both stark and stunning. (“The Beast” is what Black calls her piano.) Black recently did an e-mail Q&A with Goldmine to discuss her new EP, her songwriting, her thoughts on the music business, and other topics.
Goldmine: I found the spare style of the EP—just vocals and piano—to be very powerful. Why did you go that route instead of recording with a full band?
Penny Black: I didn’t intentionally set out to make a record with just piano and vocals—it kind of happened by accident! A friend of mine who runs a studio found out that I was moving abroad and asked me to come in and record with him before leaving. We had wanted to work together for a long time. I was actually really stressed and in the middle of packing, but thought, what the hell, I should do this! So a week before I left, I popped in for a day and we just recorded everything in a couple of takes. I had no plans to release it as a standalone record, but it sounded so interesting! We knew straight away that it was kinda special.
GM: Could you walk us through your songwriting process? What comes first—the music or the lyrics? Or does it depend upon the song?
PB: I always get asked this! I actually write songs in lots of different ways: sometimes I sit at the piano and mess around, and sometimes a tune will come into my head, and I then go to the piano and work it out. To be honest, they are usually the best ones! The ones that enter your head, fully formed. I think “High Mountain” was like that—I thought of the words of the chorus and then the tune just came to me.
GM: You recently relocated to Stockholm after living in Glasgow for many years. Did your new home have an influence in the songwriting on this EP?
PB: No, I wrote these songs before I moved to Stockholm, but I have been writing like a mad woman ever since I got here! It's a very inspirational place.
GM: What are the differences in the music scenes of Glasgow and Stockholm?
PB: They are very different, musically, at least that's what I've noticed so far, although it’s only been three months! But what I have observed is an appreciation for all types of music here—nothing is uncool, or too cheesy for Scandinavians; they embrace anything and give all types of music their attention. Here, you will find bars with old rockers playing a set of hair metal and there’ll be young people in there, loving it! I don’t think that would happen at home. The UK has much more of a “scene” and I think age is also a factor there. The Swedes have a national obsession with equality, and I think that extends to their music industry. Don’t get me wrong, Glasgow is an amazing place for music and I would encourage anyone to go there, but it was time to try somewhere new; to try and win over some new audiences.
GM: Which music artists inspire you? And what does their music mean to you on both a personal and artistic level?
PB: God, where do I start?! Well, I don’t think it would surprise anyone to read that Tori Amos is my biggest influence. I first heard her Under The Pink album when I was about ten and it blew my mind. Up until then I had been writing songs on pieces of paper and composing little classical pieces on the piano—hearing her made me realize for the first time that I could actually use the piano to write songs! I get compared to her quite a lot (which is a massive compliment), although I don’t actually think we are very alike in our songwriting process: her lyrics are far more mysterious than mine; I think I wear my heart on my sleeve and want to be understood in a way that she doesn’t. All the chicks inspire me, to be honest: Bjork, Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, Sarah McLaughlin. I’m also a massive rock fan: I love everything from Zeppelin to Incubus, and I’m definitely inspired by that genre more than people realize. If I’m at home or listing to my iPod, it’s usually something heavy.
GM: Was there one artist whose work made you want to pursue music as a performer?
PB: Nah, not one artist, although I remember going to see Eddie Reader when I was a teenager and thinking—I want that! I want to stand up there and have the audience in the palm of my hand like that.
GM: Many of your songs are quite introspective. When you write, are you doing so with a character in mind? Or are you writing from a first-person perspective?
PB: I almost always write from my perspective. All my songs are just opinions or rants of mine, put to music!
GM: How did you first become interested in songwriting?
PB: I don’t remember becoming interested in songwriting, I have just always done it. Me and my best friend Laura Healy used to write songs together in the school yard when we were four years old. We always did it, and probably thought that everyone else did it too until we were a little older and other kids started saying “Wow, did you make that up?” It’s just something I have always done.
GM: Will you be touring in support of the EP? If so, where will you be performing?
PB: I haven’t organized a tour as yet. At the moment I’m busy trying to put a band together, which is no mean feat in a strange city when you are starting all over again! But thankfully, I have found some incredible musicians and have started rehearsing. I have been asked to play at a few fantastic events, which I will announce soon.
GM: The music business has obviously been through a massive change in regard to its business model over the last decade or so. As an independent artist, what do you see the future being like? Do you think crowd-funding sites can replace the record companies and lead to success for more artists? Or do you see it being the same as it is now, with success for the lucky few and a struggle for the other artists?
PB: I honestly have no idea what the industry will be like in the future. I really hope that things change and that better deals can be struck for independent musicians, like with Spotify et al., who fail spectacularly when it comes to delivering proportional payment to artists. Crowd-funding sites are a great idea, but then you are always back to the same problem—exposure costs money. I’m sure there are plenty of people in the world who would fund my records, but they have never heard of me! Artists like myself still need financial backing, whether it’s from a label or some rich person somewhere!
GM: What do you think of the music-based talent shows that are on TV, such as The X-Factor and The Voice? Do you believe that they make it more difficult for independent artists to get their music heard?
PB: I think The X-Factor and shows like that are just unintelligent drivel for the masses. Sure they are entertaining in the same way as a travelling side-show, and occasionally someone with true talent shines through, but to me that’s no replacement for grassroots funding and investment from labels. They are all about good TV and nothing to do with good music, so I’d rather watch paint dry. I also hate the obsession with vocals! If there was a show that was focused on songwriting, I would be much more interested in that! But the industry is all about who gets the money, and letting contestants write their own material means losing control.
GM: Could you discuss your use of social media to get the word out about your music?
PB: Well, I have a music Facebook page which I maintain and other people help me, but it is very difficult to promote effectively without a massive budget. It is invaluable, though—a great tool and way of reaching people. I have made hundreds of new fans using Facebook and, of course, YouTube. I always forget to use Twitter—must try harder! I am on there as #pennyblacktwitt.
GM: One of the standout tracks on the EP is “Klara Polzl.” What was the inspiration for that song?
PB: Thank you! Yeah, people seem to really like that one. Well, Klara Polzl was Hitler's mother. I wrote the song after reading about her—I kept thinking about what it would be like to have a child like that, or maybe about the influence she had in making him like that. Who knows? I know it’s a weird thing to write a song about. "Gudrid" was kinda the same—I read about her and just had to get my feelings out and into a song!
GM: The EP is available in downloadable form on iTunes and Amazon. Are there any plans for a physical release?
PB: There is no physical release as yet, but I have ordered some so they will be available soon, on request and at gigs.
GM: What is 2014 looking like for you musicwise? Will you be releasing any new music?
PB: Well, I am going to start playing all over Sweden, and I will go back to the UK if the right gig comes up. I am also going to record a full album and I’m nearly finished the songwriting process for that. I’m hoping it will be available by next Spring/Summer and then, hopefully, I’ll peddle it around Europe for a while!
Penny Black’s Me and the Beast EP is available on ITunes as well as in Amazon’s MP3 Music section.