Saint Joan are a Nottingham-based five piece who combine their front woman, English graduate Ellen McGee's stream-of consciousness lyrics with a brooding, dark post-rock sound.

Ellen writes her songs as simple folk songs on an acoustic guitar before bringing them to the rest of the band to augment and to expand. The group, which has drawn comparisions with the likes of the House Painters, Tindersticks and Mazzy Star, has been through various permutations since first forming in 1999, but in recent times has also consisted of French-born Christophe Dejous (bass) ; Hungarian Krisztina Hidesi (violin) and Ellen's fellow Midlanders, Matt Harris (drums, percussion) and Matt Williams (Electric guitar)

The band have self-released on their own Dakota Records two singles, 'The Ice House' (2001) and 'December' (2002), which met with glowing reviews in magazines such as Careless Talk Cost Lives and City Lights. They are now hard at work on a five track mini-album, which they plan to release later this year.

Pennyblackmusic caught up with Saint Joan, and spoke to all five members of the band, who were back for a second interview with us, about the new album, andthe changes and developments in the group in the 15 months since we last talked to them.

PB : Nottingham has produced a long line of working class "kitchen sink realistic" writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe. Ellen, your songwriting is particulary literate. Do you see yourself in some ways following that tradition ?

EM :I'm not particularly influenced by D.H. Lawrence or Alan Sillitoe although I do really like Alan Sillitoe's 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' and 'The Ragman's Daughter' and do associate with that kitchen sink realism. I'm a fan of poets writing in this genre too such as Betjeman and Larkin. I suppose I'm into a lot of American fiction, such as those novels within the Southern Gothic tradition- I have recently been reading Flannery O'Connor's 'Wise Blood'. I also really like Denis Johnson who is best known for 'Already Dead' but also writes poetry. I have a poem of his called 'Our Sadness' which has a line about 'the music of wet streets' which is a beautiful image.

I wouldn't say though I am particularly influenced by any tradition. I just like articulate perceptions of the human experience,transient lives, lives as a collection of small incidents, I suppose in the manner of Joyce or Sartre.Or even more recent post-modern writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Don Delillo and Bobbie Ann Mason who harness the confusion of contemporary society and a sense of something having been lost.

PB : Your main literary influences, however. are poets such as Philip Larkin and stream-of-consciousness writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Where did this inspiration originally come from ?

EM : I have always loved Philip Larkin. I got a book of his poetry from a charity shop for about 10p when I was 16 or so and really fell in love with this poem called 'Night Music'. His writing is very visual.

I don't think it is too contentious to concede that James Joyce's
'Ulysses'is a great book. The action takes place in a single day and the imagery is sublime. It has a kind of energy, which probably has something to do with the fact that single sentences run over several pages. That's one of the things I like about it. There is little time to reflect while reading the book and although it may be difficult, it helps to read it in a single sitting (perhaps when slightly drunk, as I was!)

We are contributing a song to a compilation based on Joyce's 'Chamber Music'. It's a 36 verse poem and 36 bands and acts including Bardo Pond, Mercury Rev, Jessica Bailiff and Jim O' Rourke will be doing a verse each. It's out on Fire Records in May, I think.

PB : One of the things about stream-of-consciousness writing is that its audience has to work hard to get the most of it. Do you want in Saint Joan to make your audience use its intelligence, and to similarly challenge and to stretch them ?

MW : We have an audience ?

EM : Yeah, well people should always be challenged. There is a lot of complacency in the world. I suppose society has seen a dumbing down and sometimes people need to be told what to like and how to behave, and struggle to formulate an opinion.

I don't think our music is that challenging at all. I think we write proper 'songs' as it were. We improvise during the rehearsal process but then condense our improvisations down. We don't write with verse/ chorus/ verse structures in mind and some of our songs can be long, but that's just how they work out. I suppose that is quite a modernist tendency, but you need to let things run their course. If we are challenging it's probably because we can be quite sparse and quiet.

PB : Chris, you're from France originally and, Krisztina, you're from Hungary but have also lived in France. How did you both end up in Nottingham ?

CD : In 1998 I was living in Strasbourg. I had just just finished my studies, and was already in a band for 4 years but fancied leaving everything to go abroad and experience something new, so approximately a year later I crossed the channel, and arrived in Loughborough (University town, 15 miles West of Nottingam-Ed) to start a 3 month training. A few weeks later I met Krisztina who did exactly the same training a year before me. The day before I was supposed to go back to France I got offered a job so I threw away my return ticket, left Loughborough for Nottingham which is a far more exciting place to live really, and once nicely settled down there I started to look around for a band I could join.

One lucky day in September 1999 I stepped in a local music store, came across an advert 'bassist needed' pinned on the wall quoting Pavement, PJ Harvey, Velvet Underground etc.I dialed the number and Ellen was on the other end of the phone. A few days later we met in town and she took me to an open mic at a pub on Mansfield Rd where she was supposed to play that night. She went on stage with her acoustic guitar, played a couple of her own songs and I was completely blown away. The same week I joined a band practice and she and the rest of the band agreed to take me onboard. That's how things started for me.

KH : I was planning on going to New Zealand whilst still in Sweden working as a teaching assistant, and to pursue a career in teaching. However, I ended up missing the deadline for applications. Having always been into travel and languages, I couldn't face the idea of a dull 9-5 in France at 23 (or 24) so I signed up for a European programme providing work experience for young graduates. I ended up living in Loughborough and working in Nottingham for a year and then decided to move to the 'city'. Such was my love for Nottingham!

PB : Matt Harms, you're one of the longest-serving members of the band. How do you see the band as having developed and evolved during the last couple of years ?

MH : Well when I joined the band it was actually called Solar Plexus and then we found out that there was a band signed to EMI in Sweden which had exactly the same name so obviously they got there first and we had to think a new one. Ellen came up with Saint Joan after seeing the George Bernard Shaw novel on her desk and it stuck.

If I think back to the band then and the band now it is so different, not least because we have two new members. Back then there were the four of us me, Ellen, Chris and another Matt, Matt Harrison who played flute. The flute was certainly a major part of the Saint Joan sound and when Matt left to join another band it did hit us hard initially but it didn't bother us for too long and I think the band has become stronger as a result. Krisztina had recently become a full time member. We had yet another Matt, Matt Williams playing guitar and we were now practicing three times a week not one. Practicing on a more regular basis really gave us the time we needed to develop as a band and write more songs than ever, as well as being able to play them much more fluently. At the moment I'm really happy with the new songs we are writing and feel they are some of the best we've written so far.

PB : Matt Williams, you're the band's most recent recruit and in fact played your first Saint Joan gig at the first Pennyblackmusic night in January of last year ? What changes have you seen in the group in the last twelve months ?

MW : I saw Saint Joan quite a few times before I joined them and I had mixed feelings. Ellen has a beautiful voice and has written some great songs but the vocals and melodies were often lost when they performed. When I heard they were looking I jumped at the chance to join as my gut feeling was that with added definition and dynamics the band could provide the right platform for Ellen to shine.

We're essentially her backing band trying to create the right setting for her voice and lyrics- we should really be called Ellen McGee and the Saint Joan players or something. I'm proud of how far we have come in the last 12 months and I think the album we're making is a good reflection of this progress.

PB : Krisztina, as one of the new members of the band, what changes have you seen in the time since you joined ?

KH : Both the previous Matt and the new Matt are very good musicians both technically and creatively, albeit having different musical influences and styles. If we have lost something with Matt 1's departure, we have largely gained other things with Matt 2.

PB : The group runs across quite a broad age spectrum. The youngest members of the band are in their early to mid 20's, while the oldest members are in their 30's. How does this affect band dynamics. Do you bring different influences to the group ?

EM : Well, I'm the youngest having just turned 24, Matt and Matt are 24 and Krisz and Chris have just turned 30 so I don't think that's such a broad age spectrum. I think the influences we bring to the band have little to do with age and are probably simply reflections on the different kinds of lives we have had.

MW :Age isn't an issue but we do all bring different qualities to the band.

PB : Saint Joan has been described as being both "understated and melodramatic". Would you agree with that interpretation ?

MW : I think that this is a fine line that Saint Joan treads. We try to be understated but not inconsequential and for our music to have tension without being over the top. This fine line leads to some clashes at times but as long as we like the results, it's worth it

Ellen : I suppose we are understated in that we adhere to the 'less is more school of thought. Unless something adds to a song, there is little point in it being there. Not sure about melodramatic. If that means heightened emotion then I suppose that is the case for a lot of music and art in general. It is an expression of something that cannot necessarily be contained.

PB : Both Saint Joan singles, 'The Ice House' and 'December', were released on your own label, Dakota. Will the album be coming out on Dakota, or will you be releasing it elsewhere ?

EM : Yeah, we are putting the album out ourselves on our own label. It's just easier that way at the moment as we have to work around dayjobs. My job is not really a 9-5, as I am a mental health support worker so I work awkward hours. Matt W is not really doing a 9-5 either, plus we are all either in other bands or music ensembles. Matt and Matt play in another as yet un-named band and I play the drums in a band called the Nordic Mile so we would struggle to work to an externally imposed schedule at the moment.

We would like to put our next album out on another label though and will probably look into this at some point.

Our album is being produced and engineered by some friends of ours, Neil and James who are both also in bands. Neil is in a band called the Escapologists and also puts out electronic laptop music. James' band Seachange have just been signed to Matador so is also quite busy. That's really why it's taking a while to do our album. We just have to work around the lives of everyone involved. We're getting there though! It hasn't got a name yet, although Matthew Williams suggested Saint Joan's Ambience, the wag!

PB : One of the selling points of Saint Joan's song releases to date is that they have been epic in nature. There's been nothing which has clocked in much under seven or eight minutes. Are the tracks on the mini-album going to be similarly long, or are there going to be some shorter tunes too ?

EM : Most of the songs on the album are about 5 or so minutes long. We sometimes have to discipline ourselves not to let the songs run away with themselves although it's no problem if they do. We have chosen some of our shorter songs for the album, but I suppose they are still quite long.

MW : For my part I've got a short attention span so for my benefit the songs on the album are mostly under 5 minutes

PB : Saint Joan's going to be playing the Pennyblackmusic night in February.What can we expect from you then ?

MW : A 25 minute jazz odyssey !

EM : Well, hopefully there has been no significant drop in quality from the last Pennyblackmusic night we played last year. Then again, I shouldn't think there will be any major surprises, although I play electric guitar nowadays and occasional tambourine. I don't know if the world's ready for that but we'll see.

PB : Will you be touring to promote the album ? What else can we expect from you in the near future ?

EM : We are playing six dates on the East coast of America in late April and early May with Black Forest/ Black Sea and Tiger Saw who are from Rhode Island and Boston respectively. As for this country, we will probably play a few shows in order to shift an album or two but will arrange them closer to the time. We have a gig in Nottingham with Savoy Grand and Azure Ray in February, but we have to concentrate on finishing the album at the moment.

MW : We want to play as many gigs as possible in 2004 as we have some songs coming through that we are very excited about and we need to get them into shape.

PB : Thank you all of you

The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Gary Ewing. Saint Joan will appear at the 4th Penny Black Music Night along with Vic Godard and the Subway Sect, Venus Ray, the Sunshine Valley Dance Band and Moly at the Spitz on the 7th February.

Related Links:

Commenting On: Interview - Saint Joan

ie London, England

tick box before submitting comment

First Previous Next Last