Interview: Gabrielle Aplin talks Light Up The Dark and "old guitars with stories"
If you’ve switched on your radio lately, you’ve heard Gabrielle Aplin. The English singer-songwriter with the world at her feet tells all about her collaborative new album and the “old guitars with stories” that she used to record it…
“I’ve been doing lots of sleeping today,” admits Gabrielle Aplin at the outset of our conversation. Yet though it’s been more than two years since her debut album, English Rain, went straight in at number two in the UK album chart, the 22-year-old certainly hasn’t spent the intervening months resting on her laurels. 18th September saw Aplin release her second studio long-player Light Up The Dark, a confident follow-up that looks set to make the Wiltshire native, who has already amassed 1.5 million singles sales and tens of millions of Spotify and YouTube plays, an even bigger star.
Though Aplin’s wonderful vocals remain front and centre, Light Up The Dark feels more ambitious and experimental than English Rain, with a more fully-realised sound than a typical solo singer-songwriter record. We discover that collaboration was key, with guitarist Luke Potashnick of The Temperance Movement providing a space for the album to take shape.
“I started writing it in January last year; we ended up writing and recording the whole album in his house,” Aplin explains. “It just really naturally fell out… it was weird. I think I’m at my most comfortable writing on my own, but what was great about writing with Luke was that it was very relaxed, it was a place where you could go and experiment.”
“It was really cool to just have one collaborator throughout the whole process. And it was cool to be able to record in a home studio and not have the pressure of a big, fancy London studio. It just felt really free.”
“Mostly it would either be me bringing in an unfinished song, either getting him to kind of chime in at the end and help produce it or help with the sounds, or it was the other way around and Luke would come in with a guitar part or riff and we would collaborate that way. It was really nice to be able to do that.”
Though she’s also a skilled pianist, Aplin tends to write mainly on the guitar, and working with Potashnick over the last two years or so has inspired her to experiment more with electric instruments: “I felt like I was stuck writing with my acoustic guitar a little bit,” she recalls. “I never really got into electric guitars until about two and a half years ago. I went to LA, there’s an amazing shop called Norman’s Rare Guitars – he has loads of vintage guitars and stuff. I just went in and saw this amazing Gretsch, and I was like, ‘Alright, I’m done!’.
“I’m really into old guitars with stories; on my album, Luke had this amazing black and white 60s Silvertone, and it’s really a rickety old, kind of shit guitar! But it sounds amazing. It’s so crunchy, it’s amazing. And he sold it to me after we’d finished recording with it, so that’s really cool. Some of them can be really bad, but that one just happens to be incredible. It’s really chunky, but I’ve been using it in place of an acoustic guitar on some of my songs when I play live as well. It sounds amazing through an amp, or just kind of straight through with no pedals on. It’s one of those guitars you don’t kind of need to use pedals with.”
“I’ve got a Tele as well and I find that needs some sort of crunchy pedal on it to make it less twangy. The Silvertone is so crunchy, I love it, it kind of sounds horrible but in a good way! They are definitely coming back into fashion.”
“In a small charity shop, I found like a tiny little Casio Tone Bank keyboard from the nineties, it just has two octaves, with drum loops on it. We ended up recording lots of that as well and writing with those loops; I just love finding old, bad instruments!”
“We wonder if writing with loops contributed to the more band-like feel of many of the songs on the album, providing rhythmic inspiration that one might not get when writing solo with an acoustic guitar.”
“If I was to sit down with a guitar, without anything… I don’t know where I’m going to start, it could go anywhere,” Aplin acknowledges. “But as soon as you put some sort of loop on, I have an idea straight away of what kind of feel I want. Whether it’s a rhythm for a riff, or a chord-y thing, or some kind of weird part with a loop pedal or a delay pedal… I’ll have that vibe and that feeling when I have a loop, definitely.”
“But the kind of band aspect [to the sound of the album] comes from Luke bringing in the rest of The Temperance Movement, who all recorded in different rooms of the house. I didn’t want it to be the sort of classic singer-songwriter album, I wanted it to have something about it. Rather than just go with the classic drum set-up in the corner of the room, I really wanted to do some weird percussive things, too; we definitely experimented. We never set up the drums in a normal way!”
Under the influence
When it came to experimentation, Aplin’s influences were varied: “We were listening to lots of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros for percussion and sounds and quirkiness. And things that Chilly Gonzales has produced, he’s amazing; he did The Reminder by Feist, and we definitely listened to his guitar sounds and his vocal sounds. He recorded Feist’s vocal through an amp and mic’d it up and put distortion on it, things like that. So we definitely experimented there.
“I was really loving Beck’s Morning Phase album when I was making this album, mostly for the strings and the arrangements. The strings are incredible because they’re not too flouncy and too orchestral, they are really creepy and kind of Nick Cave-esque. We were definitely inspired by that. Also, Arcade Fire’s anthemic kind of sounds.
“I wasn’t afraid to experiment with synths, either. I went into a big studio for a day and got to play on loads of vintage synths. It was really fun to do that and not be scared, and just experiment really freely. There were about 100 synths in there and a couple of mics. It was mental.”
In search of imperfection
Out of the synth room and back in guitar land, it’s clear that Aplin finds inspiration in the allure of musicians who have their own voice on the instrument, rather than those with flawless technique: “I really like seeing an artist who clearly hasn’t been taught to play the guitar, playing the guitar. Or someone who has their own way.