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

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Last month I was lucky enough to go to Bradford Threadfest, a fantastic three-day festival of arts and music in West Yorkshire (think Tusk on a tighter budget). In a weekend stuffed with new and exciting discoveries, Sophie Cooper’s performance stood out – a starkly beautiful combination of simple guitar and vocals augmented by carefully deployed loops and drones. Sophie told me she was heading to the north east next week to play with Woven Skull at the Gateshead Old Police House on Monday 8th June, so I contacted her for a chat.

I kicked off by asking for some background – I already knew she’d lived all over the country and been involved in a lot of DIY projects – and how her style had developed. “I’ve been playing music since I was a kid but in terms of being part of the ‘experimental scene,’ I was about 18 when I got involved in underground gigs in Stoke. This is where I met Kelly Jayne Jones [of Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides] who encouraged me to drink wine and play guitar with her, which resulted in our free folk band Cooper-Jones. We both moved to Manchester and in 2002 I organised a Ladyfest there, after which I realised I’d caught the bug for DIY event organising.

“For my solo music I started out by recording songs onto a 4-track tape recorder and mostly playing just guitar, vocals and keyboards but no effects, because I didn’t have them. Despite it being a frustrating bit of kit, the 4-track opened up ideas around reversing sounds, layering and echoes that sounded great. Due to not having a loop pedal, I went through a tape loop phase so a lot of my early solo music has these vile sounds of sellotape being forced to play through tape heads and static. Effects pedals have been acquired since, mainly for translating ideas live.

“I’ve always been interested in making music with equipment that’s easily available (or ideally just there) rather than pining after something I don’t have because I find that it’s an unsatisfying road to go down and just unproductive. Good to get creative with a limited palette.”

As well as looping her voice and guitar, the Threadfest performance saw Sophie use a squeezebox and hand drum to create intricate loops and I wondered how that worked, especially since it seemed a lot to manage “on the fly.”

“The hand drums are from Indonesia inasmuch as my sister gave them to me in Jakarta, so they could have been manufactured anywhere, but they just sound good and that’s the important thing. I actually saw Jooklo Duo rocking one the next day at the fest so perhaps it’s a trend! The shruti box is from India via Ebay and it’s just such a handy little drone box to cart about for gigs. The loops are just made on my trusty Boss RC2 pedal but that had to be repaired halfway through the gig! What a pro. I try to be in control of everything that’s going on and, believe me, this area has been improved a lot. One of the first solo shows I played in Bristol involved my drum machine actually sparking on stage, so traumatic! I think the difference between my shows then and now that if something does slip out of control at any point it doesn’t bother me and I know how to style it out.”

sophie cooper

“I try to be in control of everything that’s going on and, believe me, this area has been improved a lot”

One immediate reference that hit me when watching her play was Twin Peaks; that opiated, hazy Julee Cruise/Angelo Badalamenti sound. And, of course, one of the first things I spotted on Sophie’s website was a quote from local folk hero Steven “The Horse Loom” Malley saying the exact same thing. I wondered how conscious an influence it was.

“I am definitely influenced by music that I deem to have a romantic quality. I don’t necessarily mean songs about love and loss but more in the sense of Romanticism, moulding an emotion into art, and I think that the Twin Peaks soundtrack is a good example of this. I remember hearing Julee Cruise singing Falling for the first time, how that song filled me with bittersweet feeling and that it made me want to be a better singer.”

The tour that brings Sophie to Gateshead is with Irish artists Woven Skull and I asked about the connections between them. “I met Natalia and Willie at Colour out of Space Festival and we instantly got on, largely because we share a similar sense of humour, and we just stayed in touch after then. I saw United Bible Studies play the following year and felt an urge to visit Ireland so got in touch with Woven Skull and they were generous enough to set up a few shows and drive me around to them. I couldn’t believe how kind they were, so when they said they were coming to the UK I helped set up a couple of shows and this led to them asking me to do the tour. I’ve never actually seen them play live but love their records and I can’t wait!”

As well as her own music, Sophie is passionate about, and deeply involved in, various aspects of the underground and DIY scene in West Yorkshire, particularly in her adopted home of Todmorden, a surprisingly vibrant and creative town nestling in the beautiful Calder Valley. She runs Tor Bookings with her partner, musician and artist Jake Blanchard, who performs in Local Improvisers and whose art has appeared on the covers of albums by artists such as Pelt, Moon Unit and Black Twig Pickers.

“I find that people on this scene are constantly doing something and that’s thoroughly inspiring. The community I’m involved feels more like a lifestyle choice than a hobby. Todmorden is a brilliant place and it seems to have been easy to move here and put shows on including our festival Tor ist Das! [in collaboration with Ned Netherwood’s Wast Ist Das!] that’s coming up in August. There are lots of venues here that support artists by offering up spaces for free and that’s a huge help. I’m a firm believer that, no matter where you live, the opportunity to put on shows, or any event that brings people together, can happen and that anyone can do it. Folks just need a bit of confidence and to put the effort in.”

One of the venues that Sophie and co use is the stunning Todmorden Unitarian Church and I was curious about her involvement. “It’s an amazing Grade One listed building that I’m lucky to have the keys to. I’m there tonight to open up for a ghost-hunting group, so all sorts goes on there. Recently, I applied for the licence to make it legal for same-sex religious marriages to take place and I think it’s the only church in the North West you can do that in, which I’m proud of.”

Our Aquarius (Wild Science Music)

Our Aquarius (Wild Silence Music)

“I’m a firm believer that, no matter where you live, the opportunity to put on shows, or any event that brings people together, can happen and that anyone can do it”

And what else is coming up? “I’m currently working on a new album but don’t have any plans for how it will be released yet. I’ve got pages of lyrics written all over the house and have a fair idea about how each song is going to feel. I’ve just got to get on and do it. I’ve also got half an idea to make an album for children, because one of my day jobs is a music teacher for little kids and I think I could come up with some tunes which the children will like and their parents won’t have to endure. Performance-wise, I’m playing a lot in June including a show at Leigh Folk Festival which should be fun.”

Sophie Cooper supports Woven Skull at the Old Police House, Gateshead on Monday 8th June.

Find out more about Sophie’s music on her official website, Bandcamp page or on Wild Silence’s Bandcamp page.

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