The follow-up to 2013’s fêted eponymous debut album, the second LP by alt. pop singer NATALIE MCCOOL, The Great Unknown, will be available by the time this article reaches you.
A 10-track collection of fizzing, electro-supplemented pop rushes, the album is frequently punctuated by impressively caustic wordplay, an indicator of the newly emboldened artist. “I think, with the singer-songwriter genre, you can do whatever you want,” McCool says, staring into her coffee in Leaf as we meet to discuss the LP’s many textures. “Pop music spans so many genres that, if you write strong songs and you cross over to different genres, then probably what you’re doing is pop. If a song comes out that a lot of people like, it just goes into public consciousness and becomes pop even if it’s slightly off-kilter in some way. I think it’s really cool that anything can be pop if it’s strong enough.”
As befits pop music, all of the songs on the LP are uniformly concise, with the majority of the tracks swooping into the chorus less than 60 seconds after they start. “I don’t write sprawling, epic songs, lengthwise. I’m into verse/chorus/verse,” McCool explains. “The chorus is the main thing for me. Maybe on the next record I’ll be a bit more experimental; I don’t know.” Adding grit to the palette has helped the rough-edged guitar sounds – such as the see-saw line that powers album highlight Magnet – dovetail nicely with the surface dazzle of the songs. “The sounds are abrasive but the song is quite warm,” McCool nods to this observation. “That and Cardiac Arrest are the same to me. [Cardiac Arrest] is quite bubbly and bright, whereas Magnet goes one step further and is quite raucous.” The former, the album’s standout track, centres around its chorus lyric. ‘Red carpets/Champagne capillaries’ was inspired by the offbeat concept of “the idea of having a party in someone’s body”.
Helmed by Outfit sticksman/programmer/co-producer Dave Berger, The Great Unknown luxuriates in its sumptuous production. A collaboration that had been on the cards for some time, the pair quickly agreed to work together after the producer saw McCool play live in 2013. “He was doing sound and said, ‘That was really cool, you should come down to the studio,’ and immediately after that we said we should do a few tracks. He was so amazing,” McCool enthuses. “We get on really well, which is why we did the album.”
With a clutch of EPs issued between the two LPs, the singer ponders the importance of the long-playing format in the modern music landscape. “Albums have obviously changed from when they were on vinyl; now it’s all about Spotify, which makes some people sad, but it’s interesting to me the way albums have changed. Now you would put all your singles at the top of an album; on Spotify when you’re looking down the tracklist, people don’t listen down that far. It’s just another way of getting to a new audience; it used to be about people who would take in the whole album as one piece of art. People do still do that, even with Spotify, but a lot of people are casual listeners of music. For them it’s about singles they like and then they might like lots of different artists but only a few bits, whereas some people are really into one.”
Taking its title from a lyric in Oh Danger, The Great Unknown refers to “all of my issues in life!” she laughs. “It’s also about challenging yourself. This record is a lot more raw than the first album. With this [one] there are so many issues that I’ve never written about before [in relation to] myself. And Oh Danger in particular is a really big one [for me] so I thought it was a really great lyric to sum up the album, about going into this unknown that I’ve never addressed before. The lyrics are very personal. I love honest writing, real things that happen to people who write about them. I think most songwriters write about a mixture of real and non-real. Some of the songs on the first album are from other perspectives, but this one is pretty much all about my view.” The spiky Feel Good, which hinges on the refrain: ‘Think of an insect, pinned through on to a frame/Mounted up on a wall for all to see/You are the insect but it’s me who feels the pain/The hollow wreck of this tragedy’, is an excellent showcase of the McCool’s lyrical skill. “That’s quite fierce that one,” she nods, sipping her coffee. “That one and Pins are different sides of the same coin for me. Feel Good is quite abrasive and throwing all your dirty laundry out, which I quite like.”
The biggest production number on the record, the Lorde-aping Fortress, is afforded the full widescreen treatment, playing up to its epic scope with a choir that enters towards the close. “I’d always wanted to do something with a gospel choir,” McCool explains. “I love voices and harmonies, and I just thought Fortress was a really good track to do that with. With the choir on it, it’s really epic sounding.”
With recent sonic inspirations including Nigerian singer Nayo and Swedish pop writer Tove Lo, McCool’s current literary pursuits include Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake series of novels along with US horror doyen Stephen King’s Dark Tower sequence. “I’m in a science fiction phase at the moment,” she confesses. “I can’t think of a songwriter who doesn’t read. I think you have to read to be a songwriter, but because otherwise it’d be shit!”
While all the music on the album was played by McCool and Berger between them, The Great Unknown is brought to life onstage as a three-piece, deftly mixing live and pre-recorded instrumentation. “We’re pretty good with that,” McCool says of ensuring the band are on the same page as the technology. “I think if you’re gonna use backing tracks they need to be fully optimised. We get ours mastered, we even get the click tracks mastered, so it sounds the best it can. Laura [Williams, drums] has just expanded her set-up; now she plays pretty much a hybrid kit with a real kick, snare, hi-hat and cymbals, along with bass and snare triggers as well. She’s a great live drummer, she’s really in her element now. James [Breckon, keyboards] samples stuff and does loads of synth sounds.”
“I like the way it’s gone,” she states when it comes to pondering the increasing focus on live performance over records. “It should be that way – people should go and see live music; I think people now are going out more and going to festivals more. That’s where you buy into a band – when you see them live. There’s so much music online, but live is where it really comes through if you’re any good or not.” With a 15-date UK tour spanning all of September, including a homecoming date in October, plenty more people will surely want to buy in to The Great Unknown’s effervescent charms.
The Great Unknown is out now on Pledge Music.