Interview: Emma Pollock

Singer on her new album and whether The Delgados will reform

As a founding member of The Delgados and The Burns Unit (which also featured King Creosote), as well as co-founder of influential indie label Chemikal Underground, Emma Pollock has been at the epicentre of Scotland's vibrant indie-folk scene for over two decades.

The Delgados - whose work went largely under-appreciated during their time together - split in 2004, but Pollock has since released two solo albums that sit comfortably beside the music of her previous band while also helping carve out her own sound.

As she prepares to release her third solo record, Pollock this month embarks upon a tour of China by train that will take her to Shanghai, Beijing, Xian and Wuhan among other cities. Ahead of her visit, she talks to Time Out about her solo work, playing with a band she's never met before and the possibility of a Delgados reunion tour.

How did your tour of China come about initially?
I was really surprised to be asked over, but absolutely delighted. I haven’t put an album out in five years, so was (and still am) curious about who in China might know enough, or be curious enough about what I do to come along. I’ve been chatting to Michael Herd, who is a Scottish maths teacher based in Shanghai [and in local bands XXYY and Girls Like Mystery], for the last two years about the idea of me and possibly other Chemikal Underground artists coming over from Scotland and after a while we firmed up on the final dates last November. Michael has put together a band together to back me when I’m over there. It’s a great idea as I couldn’t have afforded to bring over a whole band to play. Tours like this have been done before, with Paul Collins of The Beat, who is based in California.

What are your expectations for visiting the country?
Well I’ve never been before – my visits to Asia have so far comprised of Singapore & Malaysia (honeymoon so no gigs) and Japan, where I played two gigs with The Delgados; they were some of the last shows we played in fact. I think China will be totally unique though and so I really don’t know what to expect. The population of the cities will be quite overwhelming for me though – Scotland has a population of just over 5 million and Shanghai of 24 million so that puts ‘busy’ into a brand new light.

Have you spoken to Kenny Anderson (King Creosote) or any of the Fence collective about their tour to China a few years ago?
I haven’t had a chance yet but we know Kenny well as he uses our studio a lot and I was in The Burns Unit with him for a couple of years. I have heard a tiny bit about their trip and saw a few photos of the gig but that was about it. It was all smiles so I can only assume the gig was a success.

You’re going to be making your way around the country by train. Are you excited or daunted by that prospect?
Very very excited – I’ve been reading about the trains already. The first train I’ll take from the airport into Shanghai when I land is the Maglev I think. The fastest train in the world apparently? That’s amazing. I was on the high-speed trains in Japan but ruined it for myself by drinking too much sake the night before. I will be much better behaved in China so I can concentrate on the trains… Well the first few anyway. Seriously though – I love transport; cars, planes, trains – the lot. Anything that makes you mobile just holds a fascination for me. The design element of all of these modes of transport has changed so much over the years. It’s a really tangible way to track the progress of the decades of the 20th century. Now I’ve gone too far... Sorry.

Is touring something you enjoy?

I do enjoy it yes but there always comes a point when I really miss family, Glasgow etc. and hanker for getting back home. But a good two weeks or so in China will be huge fun and a fantastic opportunity for me to play in front of a brand new audience who I assume will know next to nothing about me. That’s always an exciting thing to do – I just hope they enjoy what they hear.

You’re playing with locally-based musicians when you come here. How much preparation have you been able to do in advance of actually landing in China?

Well today has been good. We’ve been swapping audio recordings of songs that we’re each rehearsing in separate places. Technology is making things like this much easier now. Any smartphone can record a rehearsal with great clarity now – then you can email the next minute and suddenly it’s as if I’m in the rehearsal room too. It’s been challenging but I think we’re getting there and we’ll have a good few days to rehearse before we tour which will help us all tighten up even more. It’ll be great for us all to spend time with each other at last in preparation for the tour itself.

Do you have any trepidation over working with people you’ve not played with before?
Well I guess there is always a risk with things like this, but then my songs aren’t too complex and a few weeks is all it takes for an experienced player to get to know a song usually. Since The Delgados split up back in 2004, I’ve been playing with lots of different people and I’m far more relaxed in that environment than I ever was before. If the songs sound a bit different to how my band plays them over here then that’s fine – every band has its own character and the fact that the songs are new to them will probably bring a freshness to the sound which will make it very exciting.

Given the broad instrumentation involved in a lot of your songs, is it challenging reproducing some of your music live?
It’s true that lots of different instruments have been used on my records – and on the new one too – but the main rhythm and melodies can usually be represented by a four or five piece band really effectively as long as the main lead lines are in there somewhere. I’m also a fan of sometimes stripping things back for live performances too as it can be nice to play a different live version – as long as the integrity of the song is preserved then you can bring a lot of freedom into how you play the song in various live settings.

You mentioned last year that you were in the midst of recording a new album. How soon can we expect a release?
That’s pretty much done now which I’m really pleased about. It’s taken a few years to complete the record actually. I was really busy over the period with various different projects, our studio and record label etc. but it’s always been something I felt I needed to get right and so didn’t want to rush. This will be the tenth album I’ve worked on so I needed it to sound fresh and surprising. I think we’ve managed to do that but we’ll see. It should come out after the summer but I’m not quite sure about a China release just yet!

What can we expect from the new material?
It’s probably very much a ‘studio’ album in that a lot of the songs weren’t quite finished when I took them in. Paul Savage, former Delgados drummer, producer (and my husband!) has been great in helping me shape a lot of the ideas into solid songs and we’ve used a lot of textures and sounds on the record that I haven’t used so much before. There’s also a return to using a fair bit of strings too so it has quite an expansive feel. It’s less a traditional band album but I’ll worry about playing it live later on. Saying that though I do plan to play two of the new tracks with the Shanghai band – they will be the first band to play them with me so I’m very excited about that.

There seems to be an endless string of '90s bands reforming lately. Do you think a Delgados reunion is likely any time soon?
I don’t think so – not just now anyway. We’re all so busy with our own projects but we do still all work together in various guises – particularly with our label Chemikal Underground – so sometimes it does come up in conversation. The circumstances would have to be right and I don’t think we feel the need to revisit that period of our lives just yet. I’m enjoying being a solo artist for the time being too but sometimes I miss being part of a permanent band.

Do you still play songs from that time in your solo shows?

No I don’t. I haven’t played or sung a Delgados song live since we split in 2005. It’s a strange thing to say and to realise, but it’s simply because I wanted to look to the future and create a new catalogue of material. If I were to pull out old Delgados songs I think I’d feel like I was cheating a little – even the songs that I wrote don’t feel entirely mine – they were shaped by the whole band and I want to preserve them in that time.

Emma Pollock plays Yuyintang on Friday 27 March. See full details.