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Scout Niblett Interview
In May 2005, I sat down with Scout before her gig at the London Scala and we talked about her definition of a pop tune, working with Steve Albini, and screaming her head off in public.
(2005.07.27, 20:19)

Everybody needs someone to spell out their name
(Scout Niblett, "PomPoms")

Say my name, say my name
If no one is around you, say "Baby I love you"
If you ain't runnin' game
Say my name, say my name
You actin' kinda shady
Ain't callin me baby
Why the sudden change?
Say my name, say my name
If no one is around you, say "Baby I love you"
If you ain't runnin' game
Say my name, say my name
You actin' kinda shady
Ain't callin me baby
Better say my name
(Destiny's Child, "Say My Name")

When I first listened to your new album, I expected it to sound even more reduced than the last one. Then I realised you were heading in the other direction - it has a fuller sound with more instruments, there is even a piano.

It wasn’t really a conscious decision. It’s funny because for me it doesn’t really feel different. There are still songs when it’s just me and the guitar or where it’s just me and drums. So for me I’ve not really changed direction at all. But what I think is deceiving is that on the last album there was also another drummer and another guitarist, so it was the same dynamics, but I think on the last album the guitar sounds weren’t as full. This one seems to have more going on but I think it is just the way the sounds are. But it doesn’t really mean it’s not simple.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it follows up very well.

If you listen to both albums this one sounds like there is more going on, definitely. There really isn’t. [Laughs]

I think it sounds very grungy.

My biggest influences in music were of that period - Nirvana, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, or so I think. And the last couple of years I was listening to a lot of older, heavier stuff that I used to listen to when I was a kid.

When you were a kid?

Oh, yeah, when I was 17. I am 31 now so that seems a long time ago. I’ve been going back and listening to a lot of heavier stuff so that is definitely coming out in the music.

Does your living in the US now affect your music?

I think so, I think everything affects music, but I have been living there for three years and I was living there when I made some of the songs for the last album.

Do you have a green card?

I have a working visa. I just do touring and recording.

This album was again recorded with Steve Albini. How did you two hook up?

It was fairly easy, I was really surprised. I got my label [Secretely Canadian] to send him a tape the first time. I went into the studio with him when I sang on the Magnolia Electric album, that was the first time.

How come you put the piano on your album?

It was the first instrument I ever played. I nearly didn’t put that song on it, because nobody plays piano anymore. That song I wrote ages ago, so it was weird that I recorded it. It was kind of an experiment between me and Jason to see what would happen if I played piano and he played drums and it kind of worked, so…

Did you make up little tunes when you were playing the piano as a kid?

Yeah, I always made up tunes.

I find it very fascinating that you seem to shun conventional melodies. Your songs are not easy going, and they are probably not accessible to many people. Is that something you think about?

Not at all. It’s really funny, because I have to keep remembering that apparently it is not accessible. Because to me it is completely pop music, this for me is what I think is my normal melody. It is not contrived, it is just what comes out of me. I find the melodies really catchy. I’ve been told that it is not accessible which to me is just weird.

Your music is very complex and never sounds like other, more common stuff. But once you get into it it sticks in your brain…You use your voice unlike anybody else, stretching it to the limit - would you agree with that?

Not really. The voice is always what sets the song. For me it is always the main part of the song, even if I’ve been playing a guitar riff for two years and I don’t have vocals on it. The minute I get vocals on it it feels complete… That’s not always the case but for me singing is the most cathartic part, the most important part. I love singing. I think I probably do work on it a lot. I sing a lot at home.

Your voice often sounds very tortured, aggressive, but then it can also seem extremely fragile. Is this real at that very moment or is it some other persona you slip into?

It is definitely something I feel.

In a lot of your songs, your voice is fragile at first and then it becomes very aggressive - what happens in these moments?

It is just a reflection of who I am as a person. I feel really vulnerable but I feel also quite intensely about things. So the intensity comes out probably as aggression [laughs] but the vulnerability comes out as the fragileness.

Are you compared to Cat Power a lot?


But she lacks the aggressive parts.

I understand that our voices when I am not shouting my head off sound kind of similar but I still think that her voice is completely distinctive as her own voice and so is mine. That comparison is kind of ridiculous. I played with her a couple of times, we played two shows in London together.

When you go on stage, do you have to push yourself to perform there, do you have to open yourself up a lot? Is this hard for you?

Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s the best thing. I feel kind of lucky that I can scream my head off in public and get away with it. You can’t do that in everyday life, screaming in the street. The fact that I get to do it and that it is something that is accepted rather than something crazy really is an amazing opportunity. A lot of times I kind of love to get on stage. Sometimes I do feel intimidated because it is such an emotional thing, it is not a consistent - I am not like a machine, sometimes I get frightened.

What about your wig and your stage clothes?

It is not really a stage thing but I have been wearing my orange safety stuff, but that is my everyday clothes. The wig thing I used to wear all the time but recently I play without the wig sometimes.

Does the way you dress on stage have something to do with your background in performance arts?

Yeah, that’s when I started wearing the wig. I used to do live art where I’d do performances in front of an audience where I used to go into different characters. Yes, sometimes it was with music, sometimes it was me with a video camera, sometimes it was just me talking, doing monologues, but there was always music in it as well.

When you write songs, where do you get the inspiration for your lyrics, does it come out of the moment?

Yeah, I don’t understand how that works, it just comes out, it is not something I really control at all.

That’s probably why your lyrics are so interesting, there seems to be a lot of your subconscious in there.


What about the song "Valvoline" - I love how you scream "I am the driver!"

I think I was having a bad time with a guy [laughs] and I was thinking, wait a minute, because driving for me works on different levels: driving as in driving a car, because at that point I had driven 20 hours to get to a show, and then it was also almost like taking control of myself…

And the situation?


What is your song "Wolfie" about?

It is about a boy that I think looks like a wolf, so I used to call him Wolfie.

Do you think that every human looks like an animal?


What about you, which animal are you?

I don’t know! I have no idea. Someone once told me I look like a seal. I think it was because my hair was shiny and pulled back.

In "PomPoms", you sing "Everybody needs someone to spell out their name".

Obviously it is a reference, because also on the last album I spelled out different words about magicians, musicians, lovers, truckers. It is just about needing to feel someone is on your side and that you are not here alone and that there are people who believe in you.

Do you know the Destiny’s child song "Say My Name"?

Yeah, that’s good! I didn’t think about the similarity, but that’s good, huh?

Is Daniel Johnston an inspiration for you?

Yeah, I can’t wait to see the movie "The Devil and Daniel Johnston".

Do you have a similar way of composing songs?

I have no idea how he does what he does. I think he is a genius and I think he is really prolific. I think he probably writes every day. I am not like that at all, I can’t write every day. It’s kind of random how I work.

When did you decide to pick up the guitar?

I was 21, I had just gone to college to do music and performance and art. Someone gave me a guitar and I was like: I wanna know how to do this [laughs].

But then, many people don’t stick with it.

I wasn’t technically good or anything but I think I stuck to it because I was so obsessed with music from when I was a kid - when I learned the piano and I learned violin as well. Music saved my life so many times. I am in love with music. Even if it was a new instrument at 21 I didn’t care…

What kind of music did you listen to as a kid?

My uncle was really into blues, his collection is nothing but delta blues. My auntie used to listen to a lot of soul music. My mom and dad had a weird eclectic taste. My mom used to listen to Abba, Blondie, Rod Stewart, but also Elvis, Everly Brothers. I listened to the pop music on the radio and stuff from times before that.

Did you always want to be in a band?

My first role model was my piano teacher. I just wanted to be her. I remember writing this piece when I was 10 who we were going to be when we were 30. Mine was all about being a composer. At the bottom, there was this little picture of me playing the piano with all these musical notes on the piano. Apparently I was also married to a composer living in a huge house. It was obvious in my head. I kind of got distracted from it when I was a teenager. I did more visual art then. I still do, but it is not something I would still say I do. I have to concentrate on one thing.

The booklet to your CD is magnificent since it is so very reduced. But isn’t it sometimes tempting to do more rather than less?

I don’t know. I just do what I think sounds good to me. Maybe my ear is used to hearing not that much. The sounds I like to hear in other music are always like that, always very simple, so I understood that I didn’t need to make a lot of things to make the things I like.

I find reduction harder to do than redundancy. Are there other artists you like who fit in the same category?

That’s hard for me, I am completely subjective. I can’t place what I do in a category. I like some bands like Shellac where you have three instruments going on, but the way they are put together is so simple. A lot of the beauty is that they build stuff up and take things away and let each instrument have its sounds. Todd Trainer’s drums can play on their own for three minutes before Steve even starts with the guitar. And the Breeders do that really well too, they know how to let the instruments show what they can do on their own and not clutter their sounds. They give each thing breathing space.

Your music seems very pure, raw, naked.

When I am writing something I write what sounds good to me, what I want to hear. And I obviously enjoy that sparse, vulnerable, raw sound. I just like hearing it so I play it like that [laughs].

Does the title of your album have anything to do with astrology?

Yes, I’m an astrologer. I’ve been doing that for about ten years. I have done it for friends, too. I am a libra. Neptune is this planet that everyone has in their chart. But for me, where Neptune is right now and has been for the past two years has been affecting my chart in a huge way. Neptune is kind of the musicians’ planet, it rules music. A lot of it is about not having any boundaries, so you can feel quite lost. He is also ruler of the sea, so it is linked to the subconscious, not knowing who you are by these fixed boundaries but being lost, at sea almost. So I think it kind of references this feeling I’ve had for a few years, quite disorientated. I don’t really know who I am as much as I used to know.

Does this have to do with travelling a lot?

Maybe, but it would have happened anywhere because Neptune would have been doing that to me anyway.

Do you feel the need to move a lot?

I feel at home in Oakland now. I tend to move places due to relationships that I get into. When I get together with someone I usually go and live with them. I don’t think I should do that anymore, I kind of want to stay in one place for now. Every time I move somewhere I don’t know anyone, and that’s really really hard. I have been living in Oakland since January and I don’t know anyone, but I am determined to stay there! I’ve got to stay somewhere.

Do you see yourself as a spokesperson for other women, as a role model?

I am always fascinated when people say that because when I make music I don’t make music as a woman, I make music as a human being. I don’t think what I do is a woman’s thing. I know I am a woman, but most of the time I am singing about pain and life and death which I think is a human thing, not necessarily a sexual orientation.

But there are still many more guys making music. Don’t you think it is a good thing for girls to see other women up on stage?

Oh, that’s definitely good! If what I do does inspires other girls then I love that more than anything. It really frustrates me that there are not more women doing music. It’s kind of ridiculous. But I love it if I just inspire anyone. I can remember that feeling when I was younger having a lot of male friends in bands and I wasn’t in one and I remember realising that I could just join in and do it. If someone can do that from seeing another woman do it that’s just great.

I think it is a powerful image to see you screaming on stage, so very un-ladylike…

The climate of society encourages that in men whereas in women I think being attractive is encouraged more. Not necessarily physically, but to be sweet nice girls. If she makes sweet nice noise, that must be good, but if your are screaming and making uncomfortable sounds, it is not necessarily in the way of what we are told is attractive.