"...it felt like the lyrical content needed to come out in a very violent, raw way. It was a savage purging of everything that was inside me at the time."
In Conversation With... Carol Hodge
Carol Hodge has toured the world with her vocals and skills on the keys. From playing with Crass founder Steve Ignorant in Slice of Life, and Steve Ignorant’s Last Supper, to Ryan Hamilton and the Harlequin Ghosts. Carol Hodge is also an extraordinary songwriter, ready to release her second solo album. Carol recently spoke to us about her musical upbringing, working with several bands, as well as her sophomore album, Savage Purge…
You have been compared to everyone; Carole King, Kate Bush, Weezer, Elton John… Who would you compare yourself to and why?
Well a lot of those are me comparing myself! Tough question. Who would I compare myself to? Probably all of the above… I quite like the Carole King comparison because I kind of feel I am primarily a songwriter and I think that is how she viewed herself as well. If you listen to Tapestry, it’s just like a ‘Greatest Hits’ album with really, really well written songs. I think I prefer that one the most, not even because we have the same name – best name in the world! I think of myself first and foremost as a songwriter rather than Hey, I think I’m a great singer, and performer, and pianist! I play piano to accompany my singing, and my singing is a vehicle for the songs that I write. That’s the hierarchy of how I perceive myself.
Growing up, what music did you find yourself listening to?
When I was very young, I used to peel through my dad’s record collection, and he had an eclectic taste. I grew up on The Beatles, The Kinks, a Motown Chart Busters record I used to play quite a lot. Then I moved on to Queen, The Beach Boys, and then when I was a teenager it became all about pop-punk, then ska-punk. Green Day were my favourite band from Dookie-era onwards. I was really into that. That definitely influenced my song writing sensibility. No Doubt where a big influence in the late 90s. I was always interested in writing something catchy and poppy, but also with teenage angst and slightly political. I’ve always had that political – big or a small p – flavour to my lyrics, I think.
You’re a fantastic pianist, is this something you learnt growing up, or something you picked up in later years?
I started learning keyboard initially from the age of nine. It is quite a weird one as I had to beg my parents to get me lessons, whereas the stereotype is your prodded with a stick and forced to go to an old lady to play piano when you were six years old. You don’t wanna go, you want to play out with your friends, but you gotta sit there and play. I was the other way around, I really wanted to learn and got the lessons. I started them when I was about nine, and then I had about a decade off from it. I didn’t really play piano for a long time. I got back into playing and writing in my late 20s. The more you play the better you get. I could still remember all my scales and chords; I could look at a piece of music and know how to play it.
Many people will know you from performing the music of Crass with Steve Ignorant. How did you become involved with Steve?
I got involved with Steve as a friend of mine was a big Crass fan, and said Ah! Steve is looking for a female singer for a world tour. I wasn’t gonna do anything about it, then I thought I’d have a look, and it turned out the auditions were the next day in London. So, I sent my stuff off and I got a phone call from their manager, she said Can you learn these three songs and come down to London to audition tomorrow? I said …yeah! I didn’t even know the songs before I heard them. It was quite an intense evening. I managed to get the day off work and I went down. I got the gig with him, and that was the start of 2011, and we became mates, and I’ve remained involved with pretty much everything he has done since. The song I had to learn was Bata Motel, and the thing with Crass songs is that they’re not punk in the respect it is three chords in a simple structure. They’re so convoluted, you find yourself going That bit…, rather than chorus, verse, or bridge, because you do not know what part of the song it is, as it isn’t self-evident. The bit that goes like this…
In this year, you were set to revisit the Crass material for a tour. After nearly a decade since the world tour in 2011, what made you return to the material?
I’ve been playing in Slice of Life with Steve since The Last Supper project in 2011. Steve wanted to reestablish himself as this being a new project; it’s not just Crass, it is new songs and new people I am working with. So, he was keen to not play Crass songs with Slice of Life for a long time. Then one went in, then a couple were thrown in, and every time we did, everyone sings along and really enjoys it, and unfortunately, it has become more and more apparent that the lyrics of those songs are still incredibly pertinent, with the destructive forces of the Tory government. It just seemed like a good idea. Steve has a lot of affection for those songs and something he will always be associated with, and it just got to the point where if people want it, let’s just do it. It felt needed, that enough people wanted to hear it, and that we all felt the music was still very relevant and would actually mean something beyond a nostalgia trip. It’s important that the lyrics still mean something now.
You also provide keys for Ryan Hamilton and the Harlequin Ghosts. With Ryan living and working in the US, what is the recording dynamic like?
Ryan tends to record when he comes over. He will visit Dave Draper’s studio. If he has the tour in the UK, he will come a few days earlier and spend some time in the studio, or the end of the tour. That’s how things have happened for the last album. I did keys on one of the songs, and I just got sent the track from Dave, asking if I could just record the keys. I have a set up at home where I can record, and I can get a decent quality recording. If you have someone like Dave on-board, who obviously knows what he is doing in terms of mixing and mastering and production, then it is great because I can just do a dry recording, and he will work his magic with it.
In terms of audiences, from Slice of Life, ...Harlequin Ghosts, and your own, do you see a great change in crowd behaviour and atmospheres?
I certaintly see more people at Steve’s and Ryan’s gigs! That’s to be expected, as I have not been doing my solo work for as long as Ryan or Steve, and committing to it and touring a lot. I would say a Slice of Life crowd is, generally speaking, a little bit older, old punk, people who grew up with Crass. I always think What would I do if Green Day had split up in the mid 90s and then Billie Joe Armstrong started playing pubs with a small band? He was my punk-rock idol when I was teenager, and I see that affinity with a lot of Steve’s crowds, which is really nice. With Ryan, it’s more of a rock crowd, but there is a lot of cross-over between the punk and rock scenes. A very similar vibe, just maybe a slightly younger demographic for Ryan’s gigs. A big mixture at both. Then my own are a lot of people from both camps, as they know who I am from seeing either Ryan or Steve, or they know me from doing gigs with Ginger Wildheart. There’s the whole crossover from how people know I am, and that’s how they find my solo gigs.
You are also not far-off releasing your second album. Just before we talk about that, when writing Hold On To That Flame, what made you divert away from the sound of Crass to something more traditional; just you and a piano?
Well I have always written songs in that way; me and a piano. Partly, it was utility; This is what I’ve got. For a long time, I was very fixated on the idea that I needed to be able to play live how it is on the album, but I have kinda let go of that concept now. I view the album as its own entity, and the live performance as a different entity. It partly was just I have a piano and a voice, and I have written these songs, so let’s just do that. Then I went into the studio with Dave, and he would say Let’s flesh some of these out, and would try some different instruments on them. Yeah, it was down to that; convenience. It wasn’t a particular stylistic choice.
Hold on to that Flame is a beautiful album. When thinking of writing another album, what were your initial thoughts and worries?
The difficult second album syndrome! Hold On To That Flame, some of those songs were five years old. It was kind of a 'Greatest Hits' of everything I had written over the past five years, which wasn’t that much. It was hardly prolific for five years, by any stretch of the imagination. So, with Savage Purge, I knew I wanted to release another album within the next eighteen months, and I needed to start writing. Rather than sitting around twiddling my thumbs and watching Netflix, hoping inspiration would strike, maybe I should go and sit in front of my piano more regularly and work at it. It was the shift in work ethic, and realization of going and writing something more regularly. It doesn’t matter if it does not turn into a full song, or doesn’t reach an album, it could be a starting point for something really good. Basically, Keep fucking working, Hodge! Savage Purge was a 'Best Of' one year’s worth of writing, opposed to five years. You think Will this work?, Is it good?, or…, but when you get in the studio, a big part of it is having someone else to bounce ideas off, and be like, Here is the song, but what about a guitar solo here, or these drums there, and then the song comes to life, and you realise, Oh, it is pretty good, actually! It is no longer me and a piano, it’s become this big beast of a thing. It’s exciting.
Seeing the clips you share from behind the scenes on Facebook, could you tell me a little bit more about your creative process; from writing to recording.
It’s important as an artist to always be ready for things to happen. I find that walking and driving are the key activities in which I get ideas for songs. I think it’s the combination of doing something mindlessly physical, that then allows your brain to go into a certain state of consciousness where you get these little ideas. So, it is a combination of always ready to record ideas or even write things down, and having a routine, where I went and worked. Taking those little ideas and putting chords around them. Then I’d think If that’s the chorus, what’s the verse gonna be? With Savage Purge, I was a lot more disciplined, that even though it was just a chord for a demo, I will do it properly and to a click, which made life a lot easier. Some of the keys that are on Savage Purge are just the original demo keys as I had taken the time to record them properly. It makes song writing so much easier if you can just copy and paste your verse chords. Then you have structure there, which makes finding structure more of a nuts and bolts process, rather than a wishy-washy idea. Get your basic stuff in place, then change it, and I think that is what thwarted me in the past with song writing. I am brilliant at thinking of a verse, a pre-verse, and a chorus, but then I get stuck on my verse two lyrics. I just leave it. I have to get the whole structure there as it is easier to drop in a few lyrics, rather than think I only have this first little bit. I definitely gained more discipline, rather than seeing it as an ethereal magical process in which I channel the muses. Obviously, an element of that, but once the muses have shut up, it is over to me to sort of work hard and craft it into something someone might actually want to listen to...
Your first album saw tracks inspired from something a friend said about filling a car, to the passing of Thatcher. Are there any tracks on Savage Purge that have been inspired by an article, a friend, or the pure random?
The first track, Stop Worrying Baby, which I have just done a video for with Dominic Brunt (who plays Paddy in Emmerdale), I actually filmed the video on the road where I wrote the song. I had just moved to Huddersfield but I was doing quite a lot of work at BIMM in Manchester. I was driving over the A62 on a regular basis, and so wrote the song whilst doing that drive. Then Semi Colon came from the cipher of the semi colon being shorthand for someone who has had a brush with suicidal ideation.
I found that Savage Purge seemed to have a band sound, rather than just you. Was that something you were intentionally aiming for with this album?
It was something I was definitely more open to this time around. Like I say, I have let go of the idea that I need to be able to recreate it live. I thought, Let’s just go for it, and ironically, after the album was finished and I started sending it out to people I knew, I’ve actually formed a band! People have heard it and asked Can be in your band? I just went Alright, yeah. I like that it has happened that way as I did think about getting a band together but I can’t be bothered with the hassle. I’ve been in so many bands over the years where I have been the band leader, but it is so tiresome; I’m too old for that shit. People asked and went off and learnt the songs. We then had two rehearsals prior to the lockdown and it sounded brilliant. It was amazing and I did not expect it to happen this way. I thought it would be me putting in a lot of effort, chasing people, and just being hassle. Instead, it has been the complete opposite and just brilliant.
Do you prefer working as a solo artist, or rather a band?
It’s nice to do both. When you are on your own, it’s a different kind of challenge and reward. You are very open to self-doubt, especially if I go on tour on my own. Rocking up to a place can be quite challenging, especially if you are prone to anxiety, which I am. Sometimes I love it and have a great time, other times I am anxious and don’t want to be there, and questioning why I am even there, and who I think I am for thinking I can do it alone. However, the rewards can be a little richer, but it is more intense and personal. It's a very different feeling to standing on stage with a band as you’re spreading the focus and other people have your back, and isn’t quite as intense. That intensity is a double-edged sword. It can be a good thing and a bad thing.
Savage Purge deals with a lot of subjects, from domestic abuse to mental health, to self-love. Do you find it difficult to open yourself up to create this beautifully raw material?
I read something once that was about song writing, and it said If you’re finding you’re not writing enough or the inspiration is not coming, it may be because you are not writing what wants to come out. That stuck with me. Even if I write twenty songs that are really miserable, at least that is what wanted to come out, and there may be some of them in their that may be worth keeping. I never set out thinking I will write a song about domestic abuse, it is whatever is in my consciousness at the time, and I let that spill out. Then it is the job to whip it into shape, trim it, and finding a poetic way of saying a sentiment. Everything I write is honest and comes from a place of authenticity. I am very big on making things ambiguous, as if you are too on the nose all the time, it can exclude people from associating their own experiences with what you have written.
What was the hardest song to write?
Probably In Case Of Emergency, which is about abuse. I wanted it to capture the ambiguity of abuse and it isn’t a cut and dried; Somebody hit me! A lot of people think of that, but they don’t associate abuse with the spectrum of what does form abuse. For the person experiencing it, they can often feel a lot of guilt and confusion; a lack of clarity about what is going on, if they are imagining things, or they feel it is their fault. What is happening isn’t actually cut and dried, the abuser makes it feel like that. That is a common narrative with any type of abuse, that uncertainty and self-doubt, and confusion as to what is happening. I really wanted to capture that. In order to do that, I could not be ultra-specific. I talk about the first time ‘It’ landed, not the first time you hit me, or abuse in another way. It is a very nebulous thing, but hopefully people will get it.
It may seem a little obvious to ask why the album is called Savage Purge, so rather than that, I want to know what the title Savage Purge means to you.
It came from a combination of things. There is a Crass song called Shaved Women, which is one of the ones I sang and it meant a lot to me at the time. The lyrics in that are referring to the end of World War II. In France, there was the épuration sauvage, which roughly translates to savage purge, and that was where a lot of women were accused of collaborating with Nazis and were executed or beaten up, or their head shaved as a mark of shame, so everyone knew they were supposedly traitors. That was, for me, a very interesting subject as the more you read into it, there was so much misogyny involved in that process, and there was so much unfairness as these women were presented with having their kid killed, or they had to do what they say. I think most human beings would consider doing what they were told. For me, it really related to the idea that, even now, women are punished a lot for things that aren’t their fault, for issues that are complex and difficult. On the flip-side as well, it felt like the lyrical content needed to come out in a very violent, raw way. It was a savage purging of everything that was inside me at the time.
However, there is a lot of hope and love that can be found throughout this album. It is like a Greek tragedy. What would you like for listeners to take away from this album?
I like the idea of a Greek tragedy! I want it to be a process and a journey, and catharsis is a big part of why I write, and why I love music. You can find catharsis in listening to someone else’s music. I was very conscious with this album to balance the darkness with the light. I wanted it to be a true reflection of me and my personality. I have experienced many difficult situations, but at the same time I’m quite unnervingly sarcastic and dark-humoured. I wanted some of that in there. Yes, it is awfully, but this is what is funny about it. In the arrangement as well, rather than all piano and vocals; confessional and intimate, I wanted some rock-bangers in there. That helps balance things out. It’s lightness in the lyricism and tone of the song, but the production I wanted people to be thrown up and down in terms of energy levels. I don’t want people to go to bed and feel they never want to get out again!
Do you have a favourite song from this album?
It’s like having kids and having to choose between them. I think at the moment it is I Still Love Me, and Stop Worrying Baby. They are the two that just fell out, plopping out like a whole-being already. Those two I didn’t have to stitch together or work on, they just fell out as song babies. I Still Love Me strikes the sardonic tone that is a big part of me as a person, but is also deep, whilst tongue-in-cheek. If you can’t laugh at yourself, what else can you laugh at?
I was going to ask you when will we get the chance to see you perform live, but in light of recent circumstances, how are you coping as a musician during this time; are you writing?
I have been spending a lot of my time teaching, as I took on a load of new students. Since a lot of people are furloughed, they have been learning how to sing, or how to play piano. I have actually been working a lot more, spending another day teaching. I have just booked a week off, though, as it is tiresome teaching. So, this is my week to perhaps write a song or, you know, promote my album…
You have performed on streams before; will this be something you see doing for the foreseeable future?
I’ve done gigs that people have asked me to do. I did the We Shall Overcome gig, that raised £27,000 for charity, which is brilliant. Also Toxic Wotsit, which is a punk promoter down in Hastings. There was also Punk for the Homeless, a fundraiser, and also a birthday gig. There are so many people doing it, with so much out there, that I don’t think people need it. In saying that, and this is me generalising massively, there’s a lot of men with guitars out there, and maybe not so much women with pianos, so, maybe it is a little bit of a novelty. I can’t see myself performing this year, to be honest. At the very end of the year we may be able to do very small gigs, but I think it will be 2021 until things begin to pick back up. There’s also the element of will people want to go to gigs; trusting people are not ill. There will be all sorts of reoccurrences, so it will be a long game…
Although the album has been pushed back until the end of June, you can stream Carol Hodge’s beautiful debut album, Hold On To That Flame on Spotify, and pre-order her second album via her website. To keep up to date with all of Carol’s projects, you can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram! You can also listen to other projects, such as Slice of Life, and Ryan Hamilton and the Harlequin Ghosts…