On October 2nd, Adrian Crowley re-released A Northern Country on Bandcamp. A Northern Country was his third album, following on from When You Are Here You Are Family, which Adrian re-released on Bandcamp last month. I read Adrian say last month something to the effect of how strange it was to listen back to his old records, how young his voice sounded and suchlike. I felt the same reading back over this interview. It’s odd to see how I wrote then. Rambunctious? Foetus? Sorry? The extraneous “crawled from the south” came from an REM biog that I must have recently read, and I’d been to Valletta a few months before. But I liked the interview because I liked Adrian, and loved his work, and he shared generously about his colourful life.
A Northern Country is the name of his album but if the truth be known, Adrian Crowley crawled from the south. He was born in Sliema, a northwestern seaside suburb of Valletta, at the tail end of the ’60s, weeks after his eight-months pregnant mother splashed into the Maltese Mediterranean and hauled out a drowning swimmer.
I like to theorise that it was this rambunctious early life event— it’s the last thing a foetus expects, so close to the finishing line— that imprinted on Crowley the enduring fascination with water which found expression in 2001’s When You Are Here You Are Family. Steve Albini produced, and songs such as ‘Over The Waterway’, ‘Tall Ships’ and ‘Solitary Diving’ had not just the vivid aquatic imagery but also all the grace, innate rhythm and effortless authority of the Palace Brothers’ ‘Ohio River Boat Song’.
Crowley had an eclectic upbringing. “My parents met in Southern Africa,” he says. “The reason I was born in Malta was they had been living in Sierra Leone and there was an uprising there and everyone had to leave. They ran to my grandmother’s house. Then after I was born, we moved back to Cameroon for a few years.”
Up until school age, to be exact.
“So I was too young when I left to have any visual memories— but I’ve discovered that I do have memories, from my sense of smell. It’s really weird. It’s like that theory, is it Marcel Proust? Remembrance of Things Past. He said that he discovered a flow of memories from tasting a little cake he’d last tasted as a kid.”
Subsequently the family settled in Galway and relative normality ensued. Adrian even took up a profession, architecture, for a time but five years ago came the first of his three albums and a move to full-time songwriting, with unexpected perceptual benefits.
“I hear music!” he exclaims. “Since I started doing music full time, I actually hear it in my sleep and sometimes wake up and wonder who left the stereo on—and it’s really in my head. It’s unbelievable. I think it’s a kind of natural aural hallucination. I’ll hear it as I’m waking — it might wake me. I’ll be dreaming music but then it might take me out of my dream. Once I’m wide awake it’s gone.”
Cool: hypnopompic hallucinations. The Aphex Twin uses them as raw material. He should keep a dream book by the bed.
“I often do! But I wouldn’t transcribe them or anything. I’d keep it for ideas, for words that might jump out. Certainly during the last album, it happened to me once or twice, and that expanse of sound that I would have heard while asleep would have been really similar in atmosphere to the first song on the record.”
And, this has happened only since he went full time.
“I think so — I don’t remember it happening to me before. I think it may come from not taking a break, you know? Going straight to sleep and then it continues in your head. It’s quite amazing, whatever happens. It’s really unbelievable! It’s Phil Spector stuff!”
The irony being that with its elegant, elemental, sparingly arranged songs like ‘Morning Frost’, ‘A Hundred Words for Snow’ and ‘Cassiopeia’, A Northern Country recalls Sigur Ros, The Sweet Hereafter or a chamber music Mogwai, anyone but Phil Spector— bar, possibly, A Christmas Gift For You.
“I never really wanted to drown out the bareness of the song,” asserts Crowley. “I never really wanted to cover that. I mean, I love arrangements. I would hate just to say there’s no use for, like, horn sections. Of course I like some records that are like that but I’ve no urge to make one myself. I suppose the way I like to arrange recordings is to use a lot of space, loads of air; give the song oxygen, you know, to breathe.
“Still I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’ll do a concept album about winter’,” he smiles, “but I found all of a sudden that I couldn’t get away from it. Using that imagery seemed the most natural thing to do. I wasn’t consciously doing it, but it was there, not just in the titles of the songs or the words but in the texture of the music. The previous album, I was partly shocked when I discovered that there were loads of water themes. This time, a similar thing happened with frozen imagery.”
So the imagery became a way of acknowledging and immortalising pristine moments.
“I was writing away and there were a lot of fictitious places that I was working on, and it was always set in tundra, or something up north.
“And I think in one sense, my affinity with those kinds of places and images is to do with stretching time, a bit. You know? The great moment that you’re living right now is just stretched a bit more, and it’s becoming widescreen. They’re places where things don’t change. They stay the way they are. Because they’re great.”