The Quiet, Raging Magic of Kathryn Joseph’s for you who are the wronged
We spoke to the artist behind one of Paste's favorite albums of AprilPhoto courtesy of the artist Music Features Kathryn Joseph
For Scottish singer/songwriter Kathryn Joseph, the act of making music is weird. “Weird” might be the word that comes up the most in our conversation about the process of creating her bewitching new album, for you who are the wronged, a musically intimate, painfully empathetic love letter to victims of abuse. It occurred to Joseph in the early days of the pandemic, as we all sat inside to confront our innermost thoughts and feel loved ones breathing down our necks, that those stuck in dangerous domestic situations were more trapped than any of us; inside remains just as dangerous as outside, and there are atrocities committed behind closed doors that no one else will see or hear. Despite Joseph not having written a song in three years when inspiration struck, she set out to build a monument of resilience for people in harm’s way, using only the sound of her warbling, emotive voice and her keyboard as tools. Though she aimed for the material that would eventually become her third record to provide a sense of comfort, there’s a layer of simmering rage beneath it all, something Joseph claimed to have not picked up on until friends and fans alike told her they heard it. Again, weird.
One of the things Joseph finds the weirdest at the moment is that people like the album at all. About two weeks out from for you who are the wronged’s April release, she sits on our Zoom call delighted, if slightly confused, by the overwhelmingly positive response. “I was like, ‘This might be something everyone hates,’” she says. “I was ready for that, but I haven’t had anyone be horrible.” A pause. “Yeah, that’s weird, isn’t it?” But doesn’t she think the subject matter, usually spoken about in hushed tones, if at all, probably resonated deeply with her audience? She laughs, only half-believing: “I hope so, but it’s like they’re too frightened to be mean! It’s like, it’s all so horrible, that you can’t be even more horrible!”
Another strange thing about Kathryn Joseph, both the artist and the person, is how those two titles stand in stark opposition in terms of her personality. All the albums she’s made deal in darkness; her 2015 debut Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled (awarded Scottish Album of the Year) and 2019’s from when i wake the want is both contain spare, emotionally potent songs centered around piano. By purging the mess left behind by tragedy, these albums revel in sinister sounds, demanding what they’re owed with no grand musical flourishes to hide behind. For someone who writes such intense, unforgiving tales of suffering, Joseph is a walking contradiction in the way she carries herself. She’s one of those people whom anyone can be comfortable talking to from the word go, friendly and effortlessly funny from the second we’re introduced with an ocean separating us. She’s seemingly open to talk (and laugh plenty) about whatever I throw her, asking almost as many questions about me as I do of her, and causing us to veer off on long tangents about everything from astrology and managing busy schedules to Sufjan Stevens’ live version of “Hotline Bling.” After living with her devastating discography for weeks ahead of our meeting, it’s initially unsettling and ultimately a joy to get to know her.
Asked if the atmosphere was tense or difficult during the recording sessions with co-producer Lomond Campbell, she counters it was the opposite: “That’s what’s so strange about it. We were mostly crying with laughter. He is very, very funny, and I was obviously trying to be funnier than him. It was just one of those total, absolutely beautiful, perfect weeks of my life.” It’s comparable to how people who work on film sets say that working on horror movies is often the most enjoyable experience they’ve had on a set, because they make sure their downtime is filled with humor in order to stay sane while creating such dark material. “I feel like that kind of schizophrenic anyway in life,” she says, smiling. “I think when people meet me before they see me play, to then watch me play feels really weird, and then the other way around. I’ve had people say that it was actually really frightening. Then they think I’m faking it, because they’re like, ‘That’s not what you are.’ My schizophrenic nature comes in very handy for having a lovely life, but playing quite weird gigs.” Maybe all of her darkness comes out in her work, so she can be a normal, functioning person outside of that. “That’s exactly how I explain it. All of that is used up there,” she affirms, gesturing towards a fictional stage, “all of my darkness, and then it means I can be nice to everyone I know.” Another smile. “Hopefully.”
This intrinsic need to revel in darkness and make art out of what it leaves behind found its way out of Joseph once again during the pandemic, when she began writing songs after that long creative dry spell. As far as the urge to create music with no warning goes, she claims she has “no control over it” at all. “Usually, it’s when I’m supposed to be doing something else that it will start happening. This was the first time when I felt immediately emotionally attached to something, where even just writing [each song] was making me cry.”
Writing on keyboard for the first time, she began to build chord sequences that suited her equally spare, poetic lyrics, some of which are literally written out in block paragraph form for the physical album notes. They’re words that work in abstractions, forgoing the hyper-specific to contain all of the rage and complexity of each abusive situation. A multitude of meanings can be packed into each word or phrase, extending the same promise of safety and empathy regardless of the face one’s attacker wears. “The way they gaslit, swallowed it whole / The way they smashed their faces into walls,” goes the first line of “the burning of us all,” the first song to tumble out of Joseph with no warning. “There is no one coming, every wolf cry call / Is the sound of burning, the burning of us all.”
For all of the interpretations the writing could contain, Joseph wasn’t focused on what any of it really meant, or how other people would perceive it. She was more focused on getting it down, letting it awkwardly edge itself into her consciousness until it clicked. “It’s really strange. I don’t understand how to write songs,” she emphasizes. “It’s given to me in pieces. It’s like, ‘You’re gonna have to sweat and cry a wee bit until it gets to a point where it makes sense.’ It definitely is weird that there could be years of nothing, and then suddenly something comes in and it all makes sense together.” For something that arrived unannounced, when there was no knowing whether there’d even be another Kathryn Joseph song, she still thinks that “the burning of us all” is her favorite song on the record. “It’s the one that makes me feel that maybe even if I hadn’t written it, I might still like it,” she confirms with finality.
When it came time to record the new material, Joseph (who lives between Glasgow and Aberdeen in Scotland) traveled to The Lengths Studio in Fort William to piece everything together, setting out to produce for the first time in collaboration with Campbell. “I don’t have a massive plan for how I want things to sound,” she says, “but with Lomond, it was very much like I was handing it over. I was very excited and fascinated to see what he would do, but I think even from the demo stage, he was like, ‘Well, why would you do anything else but this?’” Though “minimal” is the word that comes up often when describing Joseph’s music, it almost feels reductive when you consider how space is a vital part of what she does. It’s as if she leaves moments empty in order to house the horror of the subject matter, taking up so much of the oxygen in the mix that you can hear benches creaking or tiny synth pin pricks over empty air, drawing focus back to the fury in the words. Joseph invites happy accidents or background noises that serve the song’s content, filling the space in a way that makes sense: “I really am loving that you can hear, like, the shit keys on the keyboard, almost making some kind of percussion noise. So [Lomond and I] were very similar in that way and what we liked about it, and how we wanted to keep it really close and simple.”
“It was very, very easy, and just that beautiful feeling of, ‘Yes, I had no idea that’s what I wanted it to sound like,’” she says. “On ‘the burning of us all,’ there’s that sound that he’s making in the background. Every time that I listen to it, I’m just like, ‘Ah!’ That would never be something that could have come from me!” The sound in question is a distant clanging buried so far back in the mix that you might mistake it for street noise outside of the room you’re listening in, like it exists somewhere beyond your headphones, or maybe even in your head. “I think I imagined it to have an actual beat on it,” she recalls, grinning. “And it doesn’t. And I love it even more.”
Where the music stays muted, the vocals and lyrics carry the hope that someday, there will be noise; things may be quiet now, or someone’s cry for help is contained in a space they can’t escape, but at least they can hold onto the faint noise these songs make. “You can’t keep silent / A mouth like yours,” Joseph sings on “the harmed,” promising there will be time to speak in the future. Immediately after raising her voice to a shaky crescendo on the chorus of “of all the broken,” she nearly whispers, “Skin thick / Blood lies / Up to where the water rises / Covers all the wrong you’ve done / You should be drowned in,” creating the quietest and most damning moment on the album. “I want it to be like, ‘Look what they’re surviving right now,’” she says, “and it probably won’t change. You know, there’s so many situations where they can’t say any of it out loud, because it just makes it worse. It’s about getting through it. It’s that they can’t speak for themselves. I wanted to have this document of how proud I am of them for coping.”
She admits there’s a desire to express that which “applies to us all as humans, everything that everyone’s going through” in her work, dedicated to those close to her, as well as those she doesn’t know and never will. That reach for total empathy is at the forefront of my mind during our conversation, as we speak the morning after the tentative U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning the uncertain future of Roe v. Wade and abortion rights is leaked. I listen to the album once that night, feeling the pressure amidst the Twitter panic on my phone and the rising anxiety in my chest, and once in the morning before we speak. Both listen-throughs are nearly unbearable for me as I mull over the prior 24 hours and wallow in despair for people I feel I’ll never be able to help. “I think you can apply it to both: Watching someone being treated badly in a personal way is the same as watching a whole group of people being treated badly,” Joseph says, nodding sympathetically when I mention the shadow hanging over my most recent sit-downs with the record. “Someone is lying and getting away with it. That’s happening all around us all the time, and then they do it again … whether it’s a government, or someone who is a charming, attractive human being. It’s so frightening, how it’s just so rare that they’re stalked or called out. That’s what’s so upsetting about it. It’s definitely that it’s much easier to feel for other people.”
When it comes to feeling for and communicating with other people, Joseph has been trying to figure out how the songs work in a live context. Though more recently, she’s been on tour in Ireland and the U.K., we speak after only the first few of her shows playing the new material. “I definitely feel like it’s catching up to me, even just playing live,” she says. “I’ve done four gigs since it came out, and three of them I was crying during … I think with my other records, because they’re about me, it’s much easier to not feel it. It’s my life and it’s all done, and my life is different now. But now that it’s about other people, and people that I still love and still am hurt for … ” She pauses. “Two of [the shows] were in broad daylight on Record Store Day and I could see people getting upset. And I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ I ended up crying, too, and it’s like, ‘This does not bode well! How am I going to get a grip?’” she laughs. “I’m only going to find out what this is by doing it and seeing how it affects others and how it affects me.”
Of course, being out of practice due to the pandemic hasn’t helped the transition back into performing. “I just feel right back at the beginning of it all,” she says. “It all feels really quite [like], ‘Oh, why am I even doing this to myself,’ because it took me so long to get to a point of, ‘Okay, this is what I do, and people like it.’ I just think two years of not doing anything has put me right back to the beginning of, ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’ and the dread of everything is bad again … but then it’s also I’m totally addicted to doing it, too. And it’s like, I love it. When I’m doing it, I love it.” She’s found that playing fresh material to rabid audiences who are just thrilled they get to be outside has helped ease her into it, noting that the reaction so far “has just been so beautiful and warm. It’s really nice to play them, really nice to play new songs, so that part of it just feels lovely.”
The applause of a crowd feels like a perfect antidote to that type of silence or learned calm necessary for survival expressed in Joseph’s songs. Though for you who are the wronged is never outwardly aggressive, it serves as a place for safekeeping, storing these ugly emotions like hard-won trophies and honoring victims’ personhood rather than pitying them. There is rage hidden in almost every breath front to back, taking as many moments to monstrously tower over an abuser as it does to cower in fear; “I am eagle, I am crow / I am wind and I am snow,” Joseph insists on closer “long gone,” embracing all-consuming oneness with the world, and rejecting any notion of weakness or passivity in the face of the enemy. “I was anger, I was blood / I was hurt and I was loved.”
Joseph says conveying rage wasn’t on her mind during the writing or recording process, first thinking of the record as “this small little comforting, quiet thing, just because I’m not thinking about how it comes across, or how the words work.” Still, she’s since embraced that seething undercurrent, even posting what she’s come to think of as a “hindsight” thesis for the album, a Maya Angelou quote that a friend showed her, to social media: “You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.” Though she wasn’t aware of the quote while making the record, it eerily suits her mission to absorb the pain of others and channel it into something impactful, radiating outward in a visceral beam of hope. She shares that as she’s been thinking about what other songs to play on tour, she’s realized she’s “been raging on all the records occasionally,” making the emotion a crucial part of her work.
“It’s [about] that feeling of my anger being a problem,” she says as our conversation comes to a close, “and a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want me to be ranting about things that upset me. But that’s basically what I’m doing … using negative emotions and turning them into something else. That’s the point of all of it for me: to make myself feel better and hope for other people to feel better through it, too.”
It recalls a line from “how well you are,” a promise that the fire consuming those in danger’s lives will eventually be put out: “And all the water you have swallowed down / And all the ways you thought that you would drown / And now you know that they can not take anymore / And all you’ve given back is good.” It’s the ache of intense empathy funneled into the hope that we will rise from the ashes in the end—that what we get back will be good, as well. Of all the unusual things about the way those wishes came out of Kathryn Joseph and made it onto her record, that part isn’t so weird. It’s more like something to keep us afloat, to bind us to each other. Not weird at all.
for you who are the wronged is out now on Rock Action.
Elise Soutar is a writer, musician, friend of witches, wannabe punk and annoying New Yorker. You can watch her share the same pictures of David Bowie over and over again on Twitter @moonagedemon.