Oor nr.6, 8 April 1995

Source: Oor nr.6, 8 April 1995
By: Erik van den Berg

'There's not only emotion in the way you sing but also in what you sing'

A 23-year old hiphop- and dusty soundtrack addicted soundfreak, a somewhat older singer who's been singing in British pubs for 10 years and an even older jazz and R&B guitarist. Put them together and there you have Portishead. Add the musical magic word 'Bristol' and you've got a winner. A talk with Portishead's face: Beth Gibbons.

Let's get one thing straight: there's no such thing as the Bristol sound. That the three acts associated with this fresh new 'trend' - Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky - produce a similar sound has to do with a few musical noses pointing in the same direction and the cooperation established at a certain moment because of this. No, there's no romantic Seattle or Manchester-like offensive of musical solidarity feeling in Bristol but just a few dead-boring tracable facts: Portishead-brain Geoff Barrow was the poor guy who made the tea and sandwiches and was allowed to press a few unimportant buttons in the studio while Massive Attack were making their debut Blue Lines in 1990. Rapper Tricky belonged to Massive Attack's permanent entourage and is also heard on their new album Protection. And the knowledge that acts like The Blue Aeroplanes (intellectual guitarpop), Mark Stewart & The Muffin (industrial funk) and the Beatnik Filmstars (surly noise) are also from Bristol doesn't contribute at all to a good definition of a 'Bristol-sound'.

Of course it could have been great: an enthusiastic argument about that beautiful former trade centre in the county of Gloucester with its nice buildings, its university with observatory, its port, its shipbuilding- machine and glass industry and for a short time its very own recognizable sound; sinister,coloured, slow on languid hiphop-beats, leaning suspense jazz, full of movie soundtracks, haunted samples, distorted raps and half-frozen voice parts. But alas the truth is getting in the way again.

Right Portishead. A nice example of a succesful apparenty incompatible coincidence : the only thing young wizzkid Geoff Barrow and experienced Blue Note-scene musician playing jazz and R&B guitarist Adrian Utley had in common was their love for one particular CD: Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest. And of course their fascination for sounds: they could spend hours discussing how soundtrack-legend John Barry managed to get the sound of a coffee grinder completely in tune with the music. But when Geoff ran into the fragile Beth Gibbons in 1991 ( at an Enterprise Training Scheme, a kind of course for starting enterprisers) they hardly got along. "We listened to each others home-made tapes and immediatly come to the conclusion that it wouldn't work" , says Beth. "I wanted to do live things, needed an audience. Geoff was more of a studio-guy. A real programmer. So pretty soon it was: nice to meet you, bye."

When Beth's singing -career got on a wrong track soon after this, she thought of Geoff again. And especially the speed and efficiency he works with and his boundless inventiveness when it comes to making backing tracks for other artists. She decided to ask him to do 'something' with her song "It Could Be Sweet". He did that. The outcome was pretty good and from that moment on the cooperation was a fact. After persuading Utley, drummer Clive Deamer and technician Dave McDonald Portishead was born.

Portishead's mastermind may be called Geoff Barrow, but the voice and face still belong to Beth Gibbons, a small, slight and pale little bird who, contrary to the introverted and worrying characters she presents on the Portishead debut Dummy, appears to be very cheerful. And that's probably not caused by the many interviews, previous British messages said Beth categor refuses to speak to reporters, simply because she's to shy, thinks her lyrics are too personal and can't say anything about Portishead's musical concept. "You still have to talk to Geoff about that last one but all of those stories about my interview-fear date from the beginning of the band. At the time of our first interviews everything was new and unclear, so I usually was staring at a reporter with this big question mark above my head. I just didn't know it then. It was too new and I was nervous and paranoid. And I still don't like doing interviews. I hardly do any, only if Geoff's too busy. I hope this will be the last one for a long while."

Why do you still find it difficult to talk about your lyrics? Well, in the beginning it went alright: I had just written them and they felt really personal then. Meanwhile most of the lyrics are over a year old and it doesn't feel like it's about me. Time created a distance. People don't change that much in a year, do they?
No but...I was busy with other things, my perceptions were different. A song like Pedestal for instance, something like that could only be created in that time. It's about death; I was much more into that than now. I thought I had a clear picture of death but now I know it's a mystery and it will always be a mystery, although it is something we all have in common: everybody knows that life ends with death. So then I try to imagine how we would live if we didn't know we were going to die. Would we live our lives differently? Less careful maybe? Less scared? These are beautiful things to think about and build a song around. But I think that after a year of Portishead I've become a little more sober.

When you write your lyrics, are you guided by Geoff's music? Or is it the other way around?
The music comes first. When Geoff has made something the inspiration comes automatically. His music is very expressive. But still is is a very difficult process: I have to add something to his music, not push it away. It has to be equal and I find that very difficult. It is almost like mathematics: you feel the music needs something but you don't know what. So you start searching, fitting, measuring, trying. Everytime you try another angle. And sometimes that's frustrating, especially if you don't come up with something for three days.

And then suddenly:Gotcha. Then you return it to Geoff...
....who then says very cool: could you do this and that part again because it was a bit false, when I've just put my heart and soul in a song and need at least a week to recover. That's the difference between Geoff and me: I am a very sensitive person, very impulsive and emotional. He's objective, pragmatic and more aloof. He absolutely has got no idea what I'm singing about. He's not interested and he admits that. He's more concerned with the general impression: the lyrics and the music, it has to fit together. And he is right in that.'

You and Geoff have totally different musical backgrounds. The secret of Portishead?
I think so. Geoff listens to rap and old soundtracks. Adrian comes from the jazz-scene and I mostly listen to Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Janis Ian, Jimmy Cliff. Although lately I often listen to The Joshua Tree by U2. I love Bono's voice. It's very inspiring.

Bono? With his stylish voice? Whereas your voice is very...
Cold? Monotonous? Restrained? Yes but my voice adapts itself to the music. I can do a lot more than you hear in Portishead. Or rather: more than Portishead needs. Bono has a big voice, yes, but let him sing over a Portishead-track and there's nothing left of it. With Geoff's music you have to restrain yourself otherwise you'll ruin everything.

But where does that leave the emotion you just talked about? You obviously can't totally use that in Portishead.
Of course I can. There's not only emotion in the way you sing but also in what you sing. That way I can compensate it. When I was twenty I did that in a very extreme way: I was a big fan of the Cocteau Twins and especially of singer Liz Fraser who used non-existing words in her lyrics. Just like Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance still does. I thought that was fantastic: searching for the ultimate emotion, not bothered by something as limiting as vocabulary! So I've had a wordless phase and that's still not entirely over: what I sing is not always literally meant that way and you can hear that in the way it is sung.

And meanwhile nobody knows what you're singing about.
No (smiling). But that's alright. Right now we're thinking about printing the lyrics with the next record so that people can find their own meaning in them. But then they would start having a life of their own and I think the Portishead-music should stay a whole in which the lyrics come second actually. We're not

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