|I’ll be your Mireille|
Mireille Mathlener launches second album ‘Borrowed Land’ this month. Julian Owen goes Dutch.
It was in 2006, 10 years after arriving in the UK from her native Netherlands, that Mireille Mathlener took her courage in her hands. After a musical apprenticeship spent bending to the whim of others, it was time for “not having to rely on anybody else, not worry about having other people’s approval”.
You’ll understand why. Too shy to perform live, she’d recorded demos with her partner at the time, co-owner of a studio, but “it never really ended up sounding how we wanted, so it kind of fell apart.” The death of her ex’s business associate didn’t help. Ambition undimmed, she carried on recording, and contributed backing vocals to “a band called Fabulator that did songs for the free CDs that come with the Daily Star”. Until, that is, the band’s mainstay died.
Thus, with death striking her musical house like a black-hooded metronome, the decision to get a place of her own in the form of a solo career. The first album was a simple affair, songs about relationships largely rendered in a manner familiar to attendees at the live shows that see Mireille on guitar with 12-string backing from husband Richard Craine. The second, ‘Borrowed Land’, is altogether a leap forward, a full band sound captured with customarily sharp detail by the denizens of Toybox Studios. “I can’t read music, so had to explain in words or feelings what I wanted, and Ali [Chant] has really helped me produce what I’d imagined it would sound like.”
In places heavy like Led Zep (specifically, ‘Misty Mountain Hop’), elsewhere employing spacey Morricone twang ’n’ roll (see album highlight, ‘Philomena O’Grady’), the predominant sound sources influence from the same place as her vowel-weighted phrasing: early years PJ Harvey (with a healthy side order of lip-curled poppery a la Chrissie Hynde).
The songs have evolved too, less about self, more about walking in other people’s shoes. “It’s challenging, but fun – you go to sides of your personality that you wouldn’t necessarily be in normal life. Mireille isn’t a jilted voyeur looking through the window at another woman, or a bit puritan and mourning the loss of a friend. You go to the darker side of yourself.” Consequently, the words and music prove the very antithesis of mellow drama, bold and big chorusing, protagonists “running as a child” or “watching from the shadows” or enquiring “Oh Anna, did you feel the pain when the sun came through your window?” Songs, in short, that demand to be sung while hitching up skirts to run in crazed romantic fervour and abandon across wild moors. Or possibly closer to home: Mark Simmonds splendidly in-keeping cover pic, straight from the Anton Corbijn school of black and white moodsome windsweepery, was shot on Troopers Hill.
It’s a rocking step closer to the Stones, Pretty Things, Kinks, the English acts that meant Mireille “dreamt of staying here when I was a teenager”. Studying at Bath Spa uni afforded her the opportunity to begin a decade living in the city. Five years ago she moved to Bristol, home to the venue – the Chelsea in Easton – where she met Richard. He was running an open mic night, a venture the pair jointly took first to the Robin Hood on St Michael’s Hill and, currently, the Somerville in Bishopston. “You meet a lot of people, learn about yourself having to accommodate lots of different... [she pauses lengthily, the better to locate a diplomatic mot juste]... characters.”
Handy for a role-playing songwriter, then. Venue wonders whether her outsider status also helps, or whether – after 15 years – that perspective has begun to fade. Quite the opposite. “I’m Dutch, that’s what I am, and I realise that more the older I get. When I moved here I wanted to get away from the place where I grew up and having people looking over your shoulder. It was a release. Now I miss certain food, ice skating on the lake, or seasonal things like [winter holiday] Sinterklaas at the end of November. I also miss sitting in a square eating and drinking without drunk and disorderly behaviour. I think the Netherlands is a bit more understated – if you go shopping here, everything has got bells on, ‘I’ve got to have a bigger sign than my neighbour’.”
And on the positive side of the ledger? “Self-reliance, being able to survive even if things are getting a bit sh*t. Also, Britain’s very diverse. There’s more eccentricity here, and you can see that in the people. The gap between rich and poor is wider – a disadvantage to society, but interesting to see how people survive at different levels.”
To a degree, travel is in the blood. Hence the album title. “My ancestors come from western Austria, Mathlener literally translates as ‘Those of the borrowed land’.” For the foreseeable, though, she’s happy to restrict herself to journeys of the mind, destination: a place apparently reached by later-coming musical loves Neil Young and Aimee Mann. “They seem to do what they want to do, are true to themselves. It’s something to aspire to.”
MIREILLE MATHLENER LAUNCHED ‘BORROWED LAND’ AT THE FOLK HOUSE, BRISTOL ON FRI 4 NOV. FFI: WWW.MYSPACE.COM/MIREILLEMATHLENER
Copyright Julian Owen 2011