It was some great irony that while U2 and Apple tag-teamed to spam-mail their new record to the world, some 5,000 or so miles away in London, the UK music industry squeezed into a sweaty room to salvage the idea that a cohesive, long-playing record could still exist in the grooves of technological advance. Some critics argued that the album as we know it was a dying form, finally squelched into the ground by Bono’s stacked heels. But the annual Mercury Prize gave an immediate and very British two-fingered salute to that notion, continuing as always to be a huge media spectacle. A showcase for the brave, the new, the abstract and the enduring, a fine excuse for an argument on the state of British music, or maybe just a stinging damnation of your cool-kid quota when you total up just how many acts on the shortlist of 12 you simply don’t recognize.
But then, isn’t that always the point of these things? The judges (a mixture of industry players, journalists and UK DJs) are tasked with picking the a dozen artists they deem the best in UK and Ireland. Then, on Oct. 29 they will whittle down that shortlist to just one winner. Previously it’s championed the likes of The Arctic Monkeys, PJ Harvey (twice), Portishead, Pulp, The XX, and last year’s victor James Blake for his album Overgrown. These UK acts have largely gone on to worldwide acclaim.
Paste caught up with five of this year’s nominees to ask them how they felt about being nominated, and if they thought the concept of the album as an art form is truly alive and kicking.
South Londoner Tahliah Barnett has turned heads with her eclectic electro-Kate Bush-beats on debut LP1. A former backing dancer, she has a compelling self-awareness beyond her 26 years. Recently, she’s become the focus of tabloid attention thanks to her friendship with Twilight star Robert Pattinson.
Paste: So how are you coping with all this newfound attention?
FKA Twigs: I’m enjoying it, thank you.
Paste: The Mercury Prize often divides opinion about UK music—whether it’s too populist, or too knowingly obscure. This year there seems to be a lot of young, fresh artists, but you’re still battling with more popular acts like Blur’s Damon Albarn and Bombay Bicycle Club.
FKA Twigs: I think it feels really exciting. The opportunity of having more people listen to my music and be excited about what I did. I’ve said it before, but I think the Mercury Prize is an award for artists that really care and are involved in so many aspects that they do. To be amongst these people on my debut album, I couldn’t ask for anything more, really.
Paste: Exactly. What impresses me about you is that you is that you’ve arrived in a ready-made package—you are so involved in all aspects of your art—whether it’s this unique sound, or the videos or even your look.
FKA Twigs: 100 percent. When I made the record I wanted to produce the majority of it myself. Every single melody, every lyric. I wanted to be there for every single mix, every single tiny turn-up of the high-hat. My mixing involvement was quite hilarious. I was like “I need the wizard synth to soar across the whole track”….and then poor [mixer] David Wrench would be like “whats the wizard synth?”, and I’d be like “the one that sounds like a magical sword”—that’s just how I am.
Paste: More people are going to be aware of you and your music with this nomination. How weird is it that the tabloids are also taking an interest in other parts of your life?
FKA Twigs: I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a celebrity at all. I’m a music artist and I don’t really read those things. All I want to do is make and create things and be really confident in what I do and do things that no one’s ever done before. I’m like “yeah, I wanna record it here in a cave, or I wanna do it in this person’s bedroom or I wanna shoot this visual in this place in the world.”
Paste: Do you think you can win?
FKA Twigs: Win? I don’t know!
27-year-old Kate Tempest is a true Renaissance Woman of the modern age. Already a winner of several prestigious UK poetry prizes, she’s worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, performed alongside Beck and is the only person on the short list to cite Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Johnny Cash and Eminem among her influences while referencing premiership footballer and Manchester United star Wayne Rooney in her lyrics. Her debut album, Everybody Down, is a collection of clever, homespun socio-political musings on growing up in the city.
Paste: You’ve won many accolades for your poetry and writing, but now your first album has been named one of the 12 best in the whole of the UK over the last 12 months. Does that still sound weird?
Kate Tempest: Yeah, it’s surreal and exciting and exhilarating. Every time an artist at the Mercurys is asked how they feel, they always say the same thing! But it never quite comes close to explaining actually how this is. I’m over the moon, but also a little bit freaked out.
Paste: How proud are you that you’ve translated your poetry so successfully to music? With so many projects, do you have a preferred way of expressing yourself?
Kate Tempest: All the different forms are important to me. Making music was my first love and making this record has been such a kind of release, a kind of an intense process that’s felt much more natural, less cerebral and more guts-driven. This is specifically the dream. And as soon as I turn my attention to something else, that is also the dream. The dreams are holding hands. One is not more important than the other, but this music dream is a particularly deep-rooted one.
Paste: You have such a wide range of reference points and influences. Musically speaking, who are the artists that have inspired your sound?
Kate Tempest: Andre 3000, Mos Def, Biggie Smalls, Wu Tang, Lauryn Hill, Eminem, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone. I like storytelling singers like Johnny Cash. Lyrics are the things for me, so in that sense [fellow Mercury nominee] Young Fathers are incredible, and perfect in their lyrics and their vocals. And [fellow Mercury nominee] Nick Mulvey writes beautiful lyrics.
Paste: I saw you perform last summer at Beck’s Song Reader Live show alongside a stellar cast in London including the man himself. What was it like when you hang backstage and meet people like that? Do you have to take deep breaths?
Kate Tempest: I met some really cool people, but I was just too starstruck to do anything about it. You don’t want to be that person!
23-year-old William Doyle is a young man who shed his former skin as a teenage indie-band member and stepped into much darker terrain in his solo guise of East India Youth. His emotional debut Total Strife Forever is a Berlin Bowie-inspired exercise in DIY electronica. Fittingly, his hero Brian Eno now calls himself a fan.
Paste: Congratulations, William. Here you are on the shortlist with Damon Albarn and Royal Blood. Did you have any idea when you made the record that it would be so well received?
East India Youth: I never saw this album being transported from the situation it was made in onto this bigger stage, so I feel really encouraged by the recognition for it. Ditching being in bands like I’d been through all my teens and realizing that actually I work better by myself in these situations, I’ve kind of got control of everything. I guess I must be a control freak!
Paste: U2 have just decided to give their album away for free, even to people who don’t necessarily want it. Critics have labeled that method of distribution the “death of the album,” but prizes like the Mercury have always been its staunchest advocate.
East India Youth: You can’t homogenize everyone who listens to music. Everyone has their own way of doing it. I listen to albums, and I know most of the people I know also listen to albums. I think it’s ridiculous trying to get a hold on what the trend is. I definitely don’t feel like the album is dead, and I certainly hope not because I try to work really hard to make a whole body of work.
Paste: You’ve spoken of being influenced by the Bowie/Eno trilogy of Low/Heroes/Lodger. Bowie himself was nominated for the Mercury Prize last year for The Next Day. Does it feel weird being up there with your hero?
East India Youth: God yeah! You just never consider yourself part of that world. It’s so outside of the way you perceive your own work to have your thing considered in the same breath. But at the same time it’s like, I must be doing something right I guess.
Paste: But is it going to change you already? How will you cope being elevated to One Direction levels of stardom?!
East India Youth: I actually had an offer for a bodyguard once. Some guy emailed us and was like “do you need one?” and I was like, “well maybe not yet, but we’ll keep you in mind!” Maybe I’ll give him a ring in a minute, actually!
Amongst a swarm of youthful debuts, Bombay Bicycle Club find themselves alongside Damon Albarn as the de facto veterans of this year’s list, having already reached the grand old landmark of album number four with So Long, See You Tomorrow. Already regular Stateside visitors, they’ll be taking their summery sounds and samples back across the Atlantic for another tour this fall.
Paste: Well done, guys. It’s been another fantastic year with a great reaction to this record. Do you have some crazy rock ‘n’ roll plans to celebrate?
Jack Steadman (lead vocals): It feels great. We’re going to celebrate with a nice candlelight dinner! We were just rehearsing for a show and our manager came to surprise us and we thought something awful had happened because he never comes to rehearsals. Jamie jumped up and down a few times.
Paste: Your albums have grown with each release and stylistically have been eclectic. So Long seems to contain even more experimental sounds than the last one.
Jamie MacColl (guitar): This album was a continuation of the last one, kind of exploring how Jack’s interest in electronic music integrated with what the band does as a unit, and finding a way to make the two work.
Paste: I’ve seen you play to some huge festival crowds this summer. You seem to have become one of those bands that makes everyone smile when you play live. This album seems to have slotted quite naturally into the set.
Steadman: Yeah. It’s been great doing the festival season, I feel like we made a very summery record, but we released it in February. So the first time you go out and play in the sunshine, everything kind of clicks.
Paste: Is the album still a valid art form for you as a band? Everyone’s talking about U2 and Apple moving the goalposts.
Steadman: They are, to us at least. We spend almost as much time on the track listing and the flow of the piece of work as a whole as we do on individual singles. Prizes like this just encourage that because this is just strictly album of the year.
MacColl: I think we’ve always been an albums band. We’ve never had a top 40 single, and having a song on the radio has always just been an avenue to discovering the album and what the band do.
Being nominated for a Mercury Prize can be a once-in-a-lifetime feeling. Unless of course you’ve been here before. Anna Calvi’s debut album was nominated in 2011, but lost out to PJ Harvey, an artist she’s often compared to. The 33-year-old’s sophomore release One Breath is more experimental than its predecessor. And as anyone who has experienced Calvi’s widescreen soundscapes live will know, she’s a true axe-goddess (Check out “Love Of My Life” on the new album).
Paste: Congratulations, Anna. When we last spoke at the excellent Green Man Festival in Wales, you spoke about how proud you were of this album. Did you see this nomination coming at all?
Anna Calvi: No, it felt amazing. I was in France and I wasn’t expecting this. When I got the call, I was like “Oh My God!” I love [fellow nominee] Polar Bear’s work, and Bombay Bicycle. And Damon’s record was really good. I think there’s an interesting mix of different music.
Paste: You’ve developed a sizeable fan base of your own, but an award like this opens you up to a much wider public as it’s so heavily publicized here in the UK and abroad.
Anna Calvi: That’s the thing. You have the opportunity of showing your music to more people in a way that you wouldn’t in any other circumstance. It’s not about how many records you sell and how famous you are; it’s about producing good work. So I think it’s so valuable for that reason.
Paste: Have you heard about the new U2 record?
Anna Calvi: U2? It was to do with the iPhone wasn’t it? It’s not my kind of thing, but whatever, fair play.
Paste: Aside from how people feel about their new music, it’s an interesting marketing move that’s left some critics worrying if it’s totally devalued the notion of the album. But then I suppose Prince gave away an album with a newspaper once too. Are albums still important statements to you?
Anna Calvi: I think people are interested in it because an album explains a period in your life as an artist, which you can’t explain in just one song. So I think there’s still room for an album to be exciting and relevant. I think you can have both. I was exploring my music interests, exploring how to use my voice as an instrument and my guitar, and furthering my interest in classical music and film music. I just see it as on onward journey.
Paste: So is it second time lucky? Or does knowing how the Mercury process works kind of make it less scary?
Anna Calvi: Yeah, it makes you less nervous. And you’re so used to losing so it’s fine. I know what it’s like to lose. I can do it again.
Paste: Come on Anna, let’s depart with more positivity.
Anna Calvi: OK, I’M GONNA WIN!
Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
GoGo Penguin – v2.0
Jungle – Jungle
Nick Mulvey – First Mind
Polar Bear – In Each and Every One
Royal Blood – Royal Blood
Young Fathers – Dead
The winner of the The Barclaycard Mercury Prize 2014 will be announced on Oct. 29 in London.