Classical composition and contemporary musical reference points collide in the work of C Duncan. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with the composer/performer ahead of his Cyprus Avenue show next week.
Independent music is full of stories of self-made musicians pursuing their muses in their own time and space, but very few of these trajectories wind up bisecting the worlds of classical and contemporary composition in the way that Glaswegian musician/composer C Duncan has. Debut album ‘Architect’ showcased Duncan’s way with compositional strokes and earned the songwriter a prestigious Mercury Prize nomination, no mean feat for someone so young at a time when the award’s role in star creation is up for debate. And it all stems from childhood fascination, though having a pair of classical musicians for parents certainly helped. “I have been interested in music since I was very young. At age six, I decided that I wanted to play the piano so my parents got me lessons. Shortly after that I wanted to sing so I wanted to sing so they got me lessons. Shortly after that I wanted to play the viola so my mum taught me… they were very accommodating! It was always me who wanted to learn music and they were never pushy at all, but would help out along the way. I was around classical music a lot as a child but my parents also listened to pop music, so from a young age I was very into both.”
What was the adjustment like from piano/viola to settling into the routine of playing with bands and their regular instrumentation, then? “Having only really performed alone, to myself, it was a fun experience to share it with others. I joined my first band when I was about thirteen as the guitarist and I have loved it since.”
Sophomore long-player ‘The Midnight Sun’ released in October of last year, bringing Duncan copious critical acclaim. Heading back out on the road for another leg of touring has prompted him to evaluate his relationship with his now-finished synth opera. “It’s a strange one. I was so wrapped up in it when I was recording it that I kind of lost touch with what it was about, especially when editing it, having listened to each track about a hundred times. I can honestly say now that I’m happy with it. It is a step up from my debut, and it works better as a whole, as well as being a much more personal album. With every song I write I keep (hopefully) progressing artistically, but ‘The Midnight Sun’ really sums up a time in my life.”
With artistic progress has come progress with the process of creation, and ‘The Midnight Sun’ was written with this experience freshly minted after his debut record. “I wrote a lot of the melodies and lyrics in the back of a van whilst touring the first album. I wanted to release it around a year after my debut so there were some time constraints, but this really focused me. After returning from tour I locked myself away in my studio for about 3 months to record it. I wanted this album to have a more distinct and overall sound than the first so I also limited myself to what instruments I would use, already knowing that I wanted to make a more electronic album. Having spent a year learning and recording the first record, I was a little more clued up this time around when it came to producing and mixing which really sped up the process.”
FatCat in Brighton have been releasing Duncan’s work, a vitally important label for independent music in the UK. Duncan has been on the roster for a few years, and is effusive about their work for him and his output. “They have been really wonderful. I have formed a real friendship with the owner and have been encouraged every step of the way to make the music that I want to make. As such an eclectic label there are very little boundaries as to what I can do musically which is really exciting for me as an artist. I’m sure they’d hate me for saying this but what makes them so cool is is that they are so uncool – they are excited about music that is interesting and genuine, not music that’s going to make them big bucks or one hit wonders.”
Duncan is playing Cork and Dublin next week, at Cyprus Avenue and Whelan’s respectively. The dates open his new UK tour, a thought which Duncan relishes at the outset. “I have only ever been to Dublin in Ireland, which I love, so I’m very excited to see more of the country, given that it’s so close to Scotland. It’s always exciting starting a new tour, and what a great place to begin! We are playing some songs from the new record which we haven’t performed to an audience yet so that’s also rather exciting.”
After the next few weeks, the vista is quite clear – the festival grind, and back to the studio to continue building momentum. “We are playing at a few festivals in Europe over summer. And I have started recording the third album so I’ll be spending the next few months locked away in my studio again! I’m also keen to get into screen printing this year, not that that has any relevance.”
As a parting shot, your writer can’t stifle his inherent, pop-conditioned curiosity regards the world of classical music and the conservatory education, and the question emerges: what’s it like to hear your work performed by a ensemble for the first time? “Absolutely amazing!! My first work that was properly performed was in my first year studying composition at conservatiore. Having spent months writing the notes and putting my all into it, it was exhilarating hearing it come to life. A feeling I’ll never forget.”
C Duncan plays Cyprus Avenue next Thursday at 8pm. Tickets from cyprusavenue.ie and the Old Oak.