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My Record Collection: Alice Lowe

The actress/comedian reveals her love of folk rock, Kate Bush and playing Tubular Bells at dinner parties! First published in Prog issue 22

“I think with my music taste these days I’m revisiting the stuff from my youth. I’m sick of iPhones, laptops and too much choice and it’s about returning to innocence in my mind. I’m thinking ‘I just wanna go and sit in a meadow’!

I grew up in Kenilworth, which has got a castle, and that’s about it. It ought to be like a really beautiful little village but it got bombed in the war and they replaced the town centre with quite a lot of concrete, and charity shops. 

As a kid I used to go to the charity shops, buy some weird clothes, wear them and get shouted at in the street [laughs] I was listening to Jethro Tull on my mum and dad’s record player and sort of prancing round the room and having lots of Pre-Raphaelite postcards on my wall. I didn’t feel there were many people like me in my hometown at all. 

We had lots of folk music in the house like Steeleye Span and Cat Stevens. My folks weren’t massively musical, they were teachers, but they wanted me and my sister to be, and they encouraged us to have piano lessons – it eventually rubbed off as my sister is now in a little folk band, and I’m in the comedy/folk duo Hot Brew, based a bit on Pentangle, with Antony Elvin who’s a former member of Circulus. I know we’re treading a fine line – Antony is a brilliant musician, and it’s actually good music, too. I love our characters because they’re an aspect of myself. 

If I’d stayed in Kenilworth, I’d have opened a New Age or crystal shop or something. I studied Classics at Cambridge. My favourite thing was art but my parents persuaded me it wouldn’t get me a job. so I went for the next most prog rock thing, and I did meet Paul King [The Mighty Boosh director] there. It was the 90s, and not a very creative time. I may have turned up with a bindi with some folk albums under my arm, but I soon became embarrassed of liking things like Tull. 

I now think of it as a horrific era where I got into cyberpunk – that stupid thing that you do as a teen when you’re looking for an identity. But I did get into Björk, Chemical Brothers and lots of electronica. But my biggest influence was always Kate Bush. Never For Ever and The Kick Inside are my favourites because I like the naivety of them, their tinkliness. But I also really like Aerial and The Dreaming, that’s got some really exciting, interesting stuff on it. 

My introduction to Kate was through my older sister and her cassette collection that we’d get out on holiday when our family would drive round Europe. We had Kate Bush, Clannad – Legend, featuring Robin (The Hooded Man), brilliant – and Fleetwood Mac. 

With women in prog rock, they feel like the handmaidens, people on the peripheries, not quite allowed in. I don’t think Stevie Nicks is related to prog particularly, but I just think she had a creative authorship long before Björk and Lady Gaga, she was one of the few people creating a visual identity in pop. Joni Mitchell would pretty much sit there with a guitar, but Nicks was creating a whole world. That footage of her doing Rhiannon, have you ever seen that? The moon’s in the background with silhouettes of trees, and she’s sort of dressed like a witch, doing all these dramatic hand movements. She builds a world. That’s what I’m interested in doing. Stevie Nicks is saying it’s okay to be mystical, it’s okay to focus on emotions, and magic, and feminine creativity. 

Toyah also explored that. I was too young to hear her music at the time, but I knew her from impressions in the playground. I got into her when I was developing a TV project, playing a different singer every week and doing a mockumentary. I started looking at all the imagery that Toyah used, which was really brilliant. What she was doing was an echo of what the more left-field people were doing around her, in a poppy way. On her track Ieya she was talking about being influenced by Crowley and The Necronomicon, and the effect it had on the audience, they were all bewitched. The fact that she was mixing it with acting as well, and I don’t think that there has been a female performer that’s managed to span acting and music, as successfully. I think you’d be hard pushed to find an equivalent. 

I’m really interested in late 70s and early 80s music because it was when people were going ‘What’s the new thing?’, and they didn’t really know. People like Kate appeared with Wuthering Heights. It was a chink for literally anything to come through, and then the door shut again pretty quickly, and turned to sugary pop. 

Finding these artists influenced a prog rock opera I did in Edinburgh one year called MoonJourney. It was sci-fi with a bit of Kate Bush, Toyah, and Hazel O’Connor, with other characters travelling to another planet to save the world. It was very elaborate – at the beginning we came out of a giant tambourine that was made of Lycra, sort of birthed out of the middle, we had a giant Russian doll costume for a faux Babooshka bit, lights, props…[laughs] I lost loads of money on this show! I’m always looking for musical inspiration. 

After watching a BBC4 documentary I totally went for Caravan, Camel, and Arthur Brown. I also discover a lot of music through Spotify, and I use YouTube a lot too. Tubular Bells has been something that I’ve got into recently. To me Mike Oldfield was Moonlight Shadow, but my boyfriend will have Tubular Bells on all day and I do like it now. He says it does something to his brain patterns and puts him in the right creative space for writing. But then he’ll listen to Goblin all day, too. 

I’ll never forget our first dinner party together – I went into the kitchen saying, ‘Pop some music on to set the mood’. When I came out with the starter the soundtrack was screaming and dischord. I didn’t mean that kind of mood! 

The music that inspires me inspires my work. I love it when people are inspired by things that are aspirational beyond just the modern world. I remember I’d have ideas of what I wanted to do on stage, and people would sort of whisper ‘You can’t do that, that’s a rubbish idea’, just because it’s new. There’s this brilliant thing that Brian Eno said, that the newest things are often the clumsiest, and if you think of something that’s genuinely original, it’s not gonna be perfect. You shouldn’t be afraid of that, you’ve got to embrace it and go, ‘Yeah, but just let me try it!’.”

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