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Interview: Lotte Mullan singer-songwriter

01 August 2014

'I'm inspired by the human condition, ups and downs and in-betweens'

I don't really think of myself as a singer. I know that sounds silly, because I am. For me, what's important is the song, and the message you're trying to send through that. The voice is just a vehicle for me.

I try not to over-think it. Having said that, I have trained in some breath control and warm-ups and so on, so as to not lose my voice. I also spent a lot of time copying other singers, before I realised it's best just to sing in your own natural voice, which is an extension of your speaking voice.

I play guitar, mostly. I started out on piano, but there weren't many pianos in the bars I wanted to play in, or the camper van I lived in for a year in New Zealand. I taught myself on an acoustic guitar from a charity shop, and at first it hurt my hands, but it gets easier.

I wanted to go and explore another country, and be outside. It was more of a romantic notion, doing fruit-picking and bar work, working for a month and travelling for a month, observing people. I honed my writing, alone with the acoustic guitar and notepad.

I write my own songs. I would say I'm largely inspired by the human condition, ups and downs and in-betweens. I've tried to emulate everyone from Tom Waits to Dolly Parton, and it's never worked.

My "Anglicana" style is a fusion of English folk and Nashville. It wasn't so much an intention, but I've always been drawn to roots music. I love English folk, but I also love blues and country, which has more bending of the notes and a very soulful approach. I like things that are a bit approximate, but from the heart.

Music is self-expression for me, and a way of articulating things I probably wouldn't say in life or feel out loud. I was quite a rebel without a cause, quite hyperactive, when I was young, and I just remember my mum asking me: "What do you really love doing, Lotte?" "Reading, writing, and horse." "I'll buy you a notepad and you can write things down."

I filled it up, and she bought me another one. It became a passion, and helped me in lots of ways. Music, writing, and nature.

I've had phenomenal success in a very short time, and it's been very pressured, but exciting. The main pressure has always been the one I put on myself. I also get excited by stuff quite easily; so I can be exhausting company for myself.

I try to stay focused on the music, and getting that right and playing with people whom I love.

I started gigging when I was 16, and signed my publishing deal when I was 21. I'm now 29 - I'm terrible at maths - but it's been a good few years. Plain Jane, my first album, was reviewed in The Guardian, and the music press paid attention. I then signed a book-and-film deal with Elton John's company, Rocket Pictures, two years ago; so it doesn't seem like an overnight thing to me.

I haven't played at Greenbelt before, but I'm looking forward to it. I hear the grounds are beautiful. Some fans came to a gig at Birmingham Glee Club, and suggested I came, and it looked lovely, and a few of my friends are playing, too.

I didn't know it was a Christian festival then. But getting involved with discussion about young people forging a path in the creative industry, and women - it's all very appealing. Nothing's just about music is it?

I like reading, watching films, walking, and spending time with loved ones. I live very near the Regent's Canal in London, where I can walk. I'll read anything by Margaret Atwood. I think she is the most subtle genius and studier of the human condition.

I grew up on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. It was a very rural up-bringing, with lots of space and time for thinking. Norwich was half an hour away. My family was my mum and older brother, and an Irish terrier called Tess.

My mum is probably the biggest influence in my life, followed a close second by Dolly Parton. Now I'm living fairly centrally in London: it's been a big change, but I've got used to it now.

A wood pigeon's cooing reminds me of home.

I love the Greek islands. Being surrounded by the sea and surrendering to the weather is one of my favourite things. I also love the British countryside: I think I could spend a lifetime exploring it.

I'd like to write more - songs, and a novel. There's one in the pipeline. When I signed the deal with Rocket Pictures, they wanted to make a journal I'd been keeping into a film, and a literary agent asked me if there was any more. They didn't want to bring that out till the film.

I've always written poetry and short stories, and thought I had the beginnings of a novel; so I've been working on it. I've no idea when it will be out, but I like to do other things besides music. I like to do some things purely for pleasure, with no expectations.

I'd also like to spend more time doing very little. . . It's an art I am slowly learning.

Family is big for me; so more of that would be wonderful. I realised I had spent a lot of time pursuing ambition, and wanted to ease back on things. Constantly pursuing goals wasn't benefiting myself and those close to me: two younger half-sisters whom I didn't grow up with, but I think they need me; and I wasn't phoning home enough. Rushing around isn't all that beneficial, anyway. If you slow down a bit, everything gets a bit better.

I found myself feeling quite unhappy: you've achieved this, and done this, and I didn't feel excited at all. So I realised that there was something wrong.

A nurse on a cancer ward in Australia wrote an article which went viral: the five regrets of the dying. The biggest one was: "I wish I'd spent more time with my friends and family." Many, mainly men, said: "I wish I hadn't worked so hard, and had spent more time with people." I could see myself head-ing that way if I didn't stop for abit.

I think I'd have a fair few questions for Johnny Cash, if I could be locked in a church with him. Can Tom Waits be there, too?

Lotte Mullan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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