Like many artists, Natalie McCool’s year has taken a detour with a run of live shows in support of her new singles cancelled or pushed back. With more time to consider her artistic process from home, the pop singer-songwriter is far from looking for closure on 2020.
It’s day 54 of lockdown. If this were a normal day, which feels like a life time ago, I would be sitting down in a coffee shop on Bold Street or in the corner of a quiet bar on Slater Street to talk all things music and upcoming shows with NATALIE MCCOOL. Instead, we’re logging onto a Zoom chat. We’re still talking about all things music, except that now the upcoming gigs are live streams and the cosy coffee shop is the confines of our prospective homes. How the world has changed. Right now, it’s just exciting to see another person’s face; exciting to speak to someone about something other than what is going on in the world for 45 minutes. It’s an added pleasure that it’s Natalie McCool, one of Liverpool’s finest pop singer-songwriters.
Today will be the third time McCool has spoken to Bido Lito! about what is going on in her world. Like each chat to date, conversation has centred on her latest album release, with this conversation no different. A new full length release is already in the pipelines for the pop songstress.
Since the release of her self-titled debut album in 2013 a lot has changed for McCool, stylistically and career wise. Her first offering was beautifully dark and haunting in places, with the likes of Nightcall/Real Hero and Size Zero as shining examples of her songcraft. In contrast, grungy and melodic tones, not too distant from Radiohead, run through the first track, America – which Sir Paul McCartney himself gave his expert advice on – and edgy Fleetwood Mac-esque vocals and signature chiming guitars power through Thin Air.
Jumping to 2016 for her sophomore album, The Great Unknown, the shift in style highlights McCool’s growth as a musician and as a person. This album has a lighter edge to it. Poppy synths and dancey basslines run throughout, and while the content of the lyrics might still be deeply personal, it has much more of a sunny disposition to it. Tracks like Cardiac Arrest and Fortress give off strong Haim vibes (which is always a good thing) and the incredibly bassy Magnet has guitar tones St Vincent would be proud of.
But what can we expect from the third album? It’s been four years since we’ve heard a long player from McCool. Judging by the two new singles, Someone Nue and Closure, released in the last few months, we can expect another change in her musical style. Both singles have continued with the poppy characteristics from the last album, but Closure takes it up a notch. “This song is about getting rid of someone for good from your thoughts. It’s hard doing that,” McCool muses. “I realised the two songs I’ve released from the album already have been about breakups, but they are the only two songs on the album about love.”
“Essentially, Closure is just a big ‘fuck off’ to someone,” she tells me as we start to chat. “It also has a bit of self-doubt in it. Even though you really want to forget about someone, you just know you’re going to keep on remembering until you’re rid of them for good.”
While the track sounds like one you would sing at the top of your lungs dancing round your bedroom (not just me that does that?), it has a deeper and more personal meaning to it – a theme that runs throughout all of McCool’s music.
Underneath the bouncy drums and vibrant synths, the lyrics home in on this massive “fuck off” McCool speaks of, the feeling towards someone you want to forget. Take the line “I put flowers on your grave/ I wear a rainbow every day/ all that I want is closure”: speaking to McCool about these visual metaphors, she describes the rainbow as an analogy of the stages of grief. “The idea of the rainbow came from how you wear black at a funeral and you want to bury this person you want to forget about. You’re going to bury them but you’re going to be fucking happy about it,” she laughs. “We took the rainbow image and thought about it in the sense that [all of the colours] is like the range of feelings you go through.”
Having only just been released, Closure has been getting a significant amount of radio air play, crossing over to both BBC 6 Music and BBC Radio One. “The response has been amazing,” she beams. “I’ve been away for a while, so it was nice to come back to these two singles with both of them getting played on Radio One. Closure has done really well, it was the one we weren’t sure about as well because it’s not a serious song for me but people have responded to it.”
McCool’s new album is scheduled for release early next year. The tracks released so far sketch out a loose musical direction for what’s to come, but the forthcoming effort will display a new approach in musicianship, as McCool tells me. “I’ve put more thought into putting [this album] together, more so than the previous two,” McCool explains. “For the second album, I just wrote a load of songs and wacked them on an album. I didn’t necessarily think about the thread running through it. Whereas with this one, I’ve thought more about the track listing and how it sounds.”
Describing her musical style over the years as “alternative pop”, she comments on how a lot of the tracks on the new album have a sense of nostalgia with a nod to the sounds of the 70s and 80s. “For this album I would say the songs are about memories, childhood, growing up and being an adult. It’s a mixture of responsibility and childhood memories,” she explains. “I’d say it probably all comes from my age and where I am now in life. Thinking about being an adult, all these childhood memories hit you when you’re feeling that way.
“I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older, I don’t know if this is the same for anyone else,” she continues, “ that I’ve gotten less confident in some ways. Less confident and with more self-doubt. That’s a big part of the album as well. A lot of the songs are about feeling lonely, feeling like you don’t belong and feeling like you can’t communicate that properly with people.”
The themes offer a stark juxtaposition for someone who comes across as so bubbly and charismatic, not just in the sonic palette of their music. Themes that a lot of people will be able to relate with, especially at the moment while introspection and anxiety has increased throughout the lockdown. It’s brave songwriting, honest and truthful. A difficult skill to learn for a singer-songwriter, but one that reaps the most rewards in cathartic release and connection to the listener.
The honesty in McCool’s song writing draws from the self-reflection she mentions, but also links it to the large amount of collaboration undertaken for the new album. McCool notes about how Closure was co-written in Paris with her producer, and that she also worked with Dan Haggis from The Wombats on a handful of tracks. “This album is a bit more collaborative,” she explains. “It’s still very much me, because I don’t think I could write anything that isn’t me, but I’ve collaborated more than the other two albums.” It’s certainly a process that’s differed, commenting how collaboration isn’t always a perfect match. “I did my first co-writing session years ago and I’ve done it ever since, but the first one I hated,” she tells me. “I think you’ve got to get used to the environment of sharing your deepest darkest thoughts with somebody else. That’s the hardest thing. When you’re starting out, you’re really polite and tentative with your own ideas, trying not to share too much of yourself. But now, I just talk about loads of shit and there’s no filter, that’s the best bit about it.”
“Whatever you’re feeling is valid, she asserts. “Sometimes you don’t even do that with yourself. With someone else you just have pure honesty.”
2019 was a transitionary year for McCool. She made the decision to leave her former label and go it alone. This can be challenging for a lot of artists, but it’s a challenge McCool embraces, and one that’s not unpopular across the music industry with a wealth of artists self-releasing. “I love releasing stuff on my own. My last album I released off my own back,” McCool begins. “It was great having Modern Sky on board for those singles early on, because you have budget for visuals and videos and it was really nice having someone to help with that. But there is something about doing it by yourself, it feels more natural for me for what I want.”
As our conversation continues, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that we are in lockdown, a change that has affected us all in many ways. It’s a situation that has hit many musicians hard, affecting them financially with live gigs being completely wiped from the calendar for the foreseeable. For McCool, it’s not all lost time. “I’ve been doing loads of writing which has been nice” she muses. “It’s not too different to my normal life really. Just being at home writing stuff. The difference is I can’t go to a studio which I would normally do to record and collaborate with writers, but Zoom has been really good. I’m finishing my album at the moment and I’ve just had one of the last tracks back for it which I did just before lockdown, which is lucky.”
She continues: “It has been productive but there’s also been a real lack of stimulus. Because you’re stuck in all the time there’s nothing going in which makes it hard to pull stuff out. Some days have been super productive and others you wake up really tired, I’m sure everyone is experiencing that. When you have to self-motivate it’s really hard.”
Adding the final touches to her album isn’t the only thing McCool has been getting up to creatively at home. Having been set to play Kazimier Stockroom in March to launch the single Closure (now postponed to later in the year), McCool has been treating her fans to some live stream gigs. “I held off for a while. I noticed everyone was getting on it and I thought I’d hold off for a bit to see how it goes,” she explains. “I did a living room tour last year so I thought I’d do an extension of that and do it from my living room as a follow on.”
While online gigs and digital festivals don’t quite match up the all-round experience of real life live shows, McCool feels as though the lockdown will leave digital fingerprints on the music industry and how we consume live music. “Moving forward, I think live streams will be more prominent. I think they really work. Especially for people who live in a different country or can’t get to gigs,” she adds. “That’s been the best thing. People who haven’t seen me live or have followed me since the first album are like, ‘Oh My God this is amazing!’. That was really nice to see and reading the comments people are saying is great. I wasn’t expecting to feel that great about it because it’s quite stressful and nerve-wracking, but it’s really nice.”
While the current climate is blurry for everyone in terms of gigs and events returning, McCool is still thinking positively about the future. “We had plans for this year but they are not happening now. I was going to showcase at SXSW, but that didn’t happen. Hopefully they’ll book the same people for next year though. Either way, I’ve got to see it as a silver lining because by then the next single will be out and the album early next year. Hopefully that’s the plan.”
Wrapping up our conversation, instead of finishing off the last of a coffee and packing the notebook away, we’re saying our goodbyes with a wave before signing off Zoom. This is life for the time being. However, tangible limitations aren’t going to be the defining factor of McCool’s year . With a new podcast, further collaborations, live streamed shows and a new album on the horizon, there’s certainly no signs of closure on 2020 just yet for Natalie McCool.
Closure and Something Nue are available now.