Analogue Music | C Duncan

C Duncan

By Matt Conner

It was time for Christopher Duncan to leave the bedroom behind.

Duncan's two previous releases, including the Mercury Music Prize nominated Architect, brought him critical acclaim for his intimate, immersive indie pop. A third such recording would have been understandable, but Duncan's musical interests had taken a turn.

While touring in support of his second record The Midnight Sun, Duncan garnered a spot supporting Elbow both at home in the U.K. as well as the U.S. A burgeoning friendship with Elbow keyboardist/producer Craig Potter gave way to a working relationship, resulting in Duncan's third release, Health.

For longtime fans, the results will be surprising (and stunning). Health expands and contracts, soars and settles. It's an organic move that makes sense yet it also shifts Duncan's musical career in significant ways.

The last time we spoke, you were mid-stride on a tour with Elbow and coming off of two bedroom recordings. Now I'm getting the first takes from Health and it's such a sonic leap forward. What's the impetus for the change?

The reason I decided to go into the studio was because of Elbow. We'd toured around the U.K. and the States and got to know them really well. I'd listened to their music a lot, and their music is just so clean and so big. They're really well-produced records. I thought, 'I want a bit of that.' [Laughs] It turns out their keyboard player, Craig, is also their producer.

We were very friendly on tour and we started speaking about the possibility of working together on the record. He was excited by the idea, so it seemed like a natural progression having worked with them. Had it been with anyone else, another producer, I would have spent a lot longer thinking about whether to do it or not, but because I knew Craig or got to know him, it was the natural thing to do.

Health album cover
Health album cover

I also wanted to get out of the way of doing everything myself. As much as I enjoy writing and recording alone, it was time for me to open up the process. I wrote all the songs myself. I demoed the songs. But it dawned on me that there's a lot of production and mixing that I don't know anything about. Why not just get people who know what they're doing to help? That was really the starting point, and the result is better than anything I could have made myself.

Was that a part of the initial conversation with Craig, that you could have a more expansive sound? Just curious when you make that decision to go so much bigger?

I'd already demoed the songs and I'd done them to the same standard that, in the past, would have gone on a record. I have what is essentially the third bedroom record, so I sat with those songs for quite some time. Letting go of them and having that conversation of how we'd do parts... I didn't think I was pushing control to Craig because I feel like I'd already done my part. When we started talking, I could already start to send him material to get his head around it, He could come out with suggestions for strings or a choir and all sorts of things. Again, he didn't come in and say, "We need to change things up." Instead, we sat with the songs for a while and fired ideas off at each other.

How big is the difference between the demos that you had and the final product?

Musically they aren't different at all. We didn't change too much of the actual music itself. It's just the sound of the thing. There's space in the version we did in the studio. The ones I do, I tend to layer and layer vocals utnil you have these very reverb drenched, dreamy things which are very unclear. That was fine for the first couple albums. I think the biggest difference is that clarity. Craig knows how to create space within the recording no matter how much is going on. You can still pinpoint every single little thing which is something I don't know how to do. It takes real skill to be able to do that.

You're describing some restraint in there. Was it hard for you to give that away and have them pull back?

No it wasn't actually. That's one of the reasons I wanted to work with Craig as well was because I knew that's what he did really well. We did add stuff as well, but particularly when it came to my layered vocals of which there used to be 40 tracks per song... [Laughs] So I was already used to the idea that Craig would clean things up a bit.

C Duncan

Knowing what you wanted from Craig ahead of time versus how things came out—were those things congruent? Were those images close?

The album turned out much better than I ever thought it would but that's mostly because I'd never done this. I'd never recorded piano before. I play piano, but until very recently, I didn't have a piano to record with. I always thought using synth or plug-ins would always be a much cleaner sound, but if you're working with someone like Craig in Elbow's studio, they've got pretty good equipment.

Overall, I think the thing I was quite surprised at and happy about was the album has quite a live feel to it, which I've never been able to get myself, because there wasn't a lot of live stuff going on. I think that was the most exciting thing for me when we finished and listened back. These were real people playing real instruments all together. [Laughs] It was a very exciting thing.

That has to help on the road then, right?

Yeah, it already has. We did a gig on Friday and I played five of the new songs. Those sounded the best live, because they're supposed to be played like that as opposed to the last record. We spent months and months trying to rearrange the songs so that we could play some parts on synths. Then I had to write lines for guitars that aren't there on the record. Whereas with this one, I literally just sent the band the stems for each of their parts, which was very natural to play. It's great fun because you can actually recreate what's on the record without too many backing tracks or what have you. It's got a much more natural feel to it.

Everything I read about the making of the album is about some darker circumstances surrounding it but the record doesn't sound like it. Was that purposeful to create moments of levity that sort of betray the lyrics?

I didn't want to over-romanticize the troubled artist thing.

It was. With this record, I wanted there to be much more ups and downs throughout the record. For the last album in particular, The Midnight Sun, it's very much one tone. That's what I wanted, but it's all semi-icy. Whereas with this one, there's a lot of somber lyrical content, I guess, but I wanted to play around with the music so it wasn't all weighed down. You get more of a journey when you listen to it.

What was happening around the record at the time that made it onto the album?

A lot of it was about breakups and intense relationships. There are things about mental health. Happier things are there, too, because I met my partner. But a lot of it is about relationships and what happens when things don't go as planned and how that affects your state of mind, your confidence. It's got all of that in it.

Even when we are going through difficult times in our own lives, it's true that not every single day is downcast. There are bright moments when things feel temporarily better. Was the goal here to provide a more realistic reflection in that way?

Yeah, I didn't want to over-romanticize the troubled artist thing. You're right. At the end of the day, everything in life is up and down and music can be, too. I just didn't want one tone going on throughout the record.

When you're listening back to the finished mix, was there one thing you were most excited about?

There are a couple such moments. One of them is the title track, "Health," because it ends up sounding so big with the extra percussion. We actually ended up getting Guy Garvey to do the backing vocals for that. Just having different vocals mixing with mine was just great. We spent a lot of time on it, so we geeked out over it since it sounded so huge.

The other one for me is "Reverie." I rearranged that quite a bit as we were going. Even on the day we had string players there, I was still rewriting parts and changing things as we went. Fortunately the string players were my parents so they were flexible. [Laughs]