INTERVIEW: Alison Cotton | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image by William Lacalmontie

Over the last few years, Alison Cotton has released a series of albums and EPs that have used strings and voices to conjure landscapes and moods, music grounded in everything from folk to deep listening that is genuinely transporting despite its apparent simplicity. But for latest project, Engelchen (‘little angels’), she’s immersed herself in the lives of two remarkable sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who used their dedication to opera as a cover for assisting in the liberation of dozens of Jews from Germany and Austria.

Although the Cooks are little known even in their hometown of Sunderland (a blue plaque in their memory appeared in 2017, which raised their profile slightly), their story is a remarkable one and Cotton used it as the inspiration for a project that saw her work in a new way.

Usually, I wouldn’t really have an idea before I actually sit down and play music and compose, it comes to me as I play, through improvisation… And most of my music up until now has been about landscape, but as I’m from Sunderland and the place means a lot to me, I thought it would be really good to do something about a person from there. I didn’t know a lot of detail about them, but when I started looking into it I was just like, ‘this is just absolutely incredible’ and I just wanted their story to be more widely known.”

The project also saw Cotton reconnect with her hometown. “I actually still feel homesick – for the whole of the North East, to be honest – and it definitely brought me closer because I met people through doing it and I was travelling up a lot more.” Through Northeast Rise, a refugee support organisation, she also worked with some inspiring individuals who played their own part in the project, with their words incorporated into the closing track Engelchen Now, bringing the project full circle.

Cotton has created an album of profound, haunting melancholy

Using resources like Ida Cook’s remarkable memoir (most recently published as The Bravest Voices), Cotton has created an album of profound, haunting melancholy, with the opening track We Were Smuggling People’s Lives bringing to life the perilous journeys the sisters took as part of their endeavours, with Foley work (seascapes, trains) and some martial drums adding to the unsettling atmosphere. A key line in the book which acted as a guiding light to Cotton as she recorded the album was ‘you never know what you can do until you refuse to take no for an answer’, which not only summed up the enormity of what the Cooks did but also said something about the lives of the refugees Cotton worked with. “Through the project I was using that line because there were times there were quite a few obstacles in my way and it just really helped me. It’s nothing in comparison to what they did but I’m never going to forget those words…”

The album also featured a rare cover version, Crepuscule by Jules Massenet, a song beloved by the sisters through a version by Amelita Galli-Curci. “There was just something really haunting and otherworldly about it and I just thought I’d really like to try and do this.”

The expanded sonic palette of Engelchen means that Cotton will be working with acclaimed and prolific underground musician Chlöe Herington for her forthcoming tour, playing drums, harmonium and samples (and more). The tour comes to The Lubber Fiend on Friday 29th March and is bound to be a deeply moving and ultimately uplifting experience.

Alison Cotton plays The Lubber Fiend, Newcastle on Friday 29th March, supported by Richard Scott. Engelchen is out now via Rocket Recordings.


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