Owl & Mouse Interview – “Synth Pop Smash Hits”

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Hannah - Owl & Mouse

Music can be a fickle thing. If someone had described what Owl & Mouse sounded like to me before I’d heard them I’d probably have sneered and said not my cup of tea. I’m not a tea drinker anyway so when I came across them at the 2013 Indietracks Festival I was immediately smitten. Two years on from that day and they’re releasing their debut album Departures.  It’s a delightful record, gentle indie pop that flows into your ears, melts through your senses and makes all the stress and strain of the everyday drift away. We’re a curious lot at Overblown and wanted to know more about the band, the record and just about everything else there is to know about Owl & Mouse so we asked Hannah Botting, chief songwriter and owner of that beautiful voice to tell us everything she could think of and a little more. Here’s what she had to say.

Overblown: Let’s have a quick introduction to Owl & Mouse for readers that are new to the band. How did you get from there to here?
Hannah Botting: I sing, play the ukulele and do most of the song writing. Also in the band we have my sister Jen on backing vocals, Tom Wade on bass guitar and vocals, Emma Winston on keys and vocals, and Dan Mayfield on violin and vocals. We make songs that are sometimes slow, sometimes synthy (more so these days!), quite vocal harmony heavy and we’re usually told are somewhere between folk and indie pop. We think it’s a bit closer to the latter! Is that enough to start off with?!

O: How did the relationship with Fika Recordings come about?
Hannah: It started so long ago I’m not exactly sure where it began… I was a fan of the label before I met Tom (Ashton, who manages Fika Recordings), he’d released some great records which always looked beautiful and very distinctive. I think I ended up meeting Tom at some gigs, and eventually exchanging some emails about the prospect of releasing an Owl & Mouse record. It took us a while to get something out (mostly because we in the band were struggling to find the time and money to record) but finally last year we put out our first EP as a band, Somewhere to Go (listen below). Tom was brilliant, none of us really knew anything about putting out a record and he was very patient and helpful and we were really pleased with the finished product and excited when he asked us to follow up with an album.

O: Owl & Mouse have developed from ukelele and vocals to a full band. Was this always the intention when you started out?
Hannah: For me it was always what I had hoped would happen, but I had no real idea how to make it work, so I was excited when things seemed to fall into place. In the early days it was just Jen and I and it was always fun and simple – then I met Tom at a gig and got talking to him and completely by chance found a great friend and the first person I could easily write songs with. Until then I’d been quite shy and embarrassed because I couldn’t really play any instruments very well and I had no idea how to write parts for other instruments. Emma joined next and it’s been brilliant having her – her style has changed so much and I now find myself writing songs with her in mind, rather than just hoping she’ll be able to whack some keys on them to mask my feeble playing. Dan was the most recent addition, but now I can’t really imagine our songs without him. He only officially joined the band about a year ago but it felt like he was part of the gang for a long time.

O: Your debut album Departures is about to be released but it’s taken you quite a while to get to this stage. Did now just feel like the right time for it or is it more just down to opportunity?
Hannah: It was a combination of things – we are a slow working bunch, and there has been a lot of life stuff going on in the last few years that made recording and touring a little more difficult. I think the most important thing for me though was really enjoying the songs that ended up on the record – some of them are old and some are brand new but of the dozens that we’ve written over the years those were our favourites and the ones we thought worked best together.

O: The albums opening track, ‘Keep Your Eyes Open Wide’, is a keyboard based song and not entirely typical of the bands sound. What was the thinking behind opening with that song?
Hannah: This was one of the newest songs on the album and one of my favourites – I think it went at the start because it just didn’t fit anywhere else. I also liked the idea of the first song being a little surprise.

Owl & Mouse

O: Tell us a little about the album artwork. It looks great.
Hannah: The artwork was done by Tom Humberstone who is incredible – and his art actually had a huge impact on the album. Because of time constraints, he basically had to do the artwork before the album was finished. We had a long discussion about themes and ideas. He asked if the album was about anything in particular, and I said that a lot of the songs were about leaving things behind or travelling or feeling homesick or being unsure of where your home is. After I said this, within about 24 hours he came up with about 5 different concepts which were all amazing. Hidden in one of them was a picture of a departures board and that immediately grabbed me as an album name (and the song departures came about after seeing that too). The concept that we went with was one that we all loved immediately, which was a view of a city from a plane at night. In my head it’s a kind of imaginary city, it reminds me of London but also a little bit of my home town. I was just so happy when I saw it, it captured exactly the kind of nervous excitement that I hoped was in the songs, too.

As well as doing wonderful artwork for things like this, Tom Humberstone did a brilliant comic for the New Statesman called In The Frame, and has loads of other excellent projects which I love. I was so pleased he could do this for us.

O: Further to the previous question, Fika Recordings are great at producing beautiful products when they release records. Is this aesthetic side of things important to you?
Hannah: Definitely! Obviously technologically most people have moved past records, but they’re still wonderful, beautiful things to have. Fika put so much thought and care into every release and we wanted our album to sit nicely alongside everything else they’ve done – and we wanted to have something beautiful for ourselves as well, to look back on when we’re older.

O: I’m aware that at least a couple of album tracks (Canvas Bags & Louie) have been around for quite a while. Is it made up from a lot of songs from over the years or was most of it written specifically for the album?
Hannah: There’s quite a mix of stuff on there. As you say a few have been around for a while and we’ve played them at shows a fair bit, some others like ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Sinking Song’ were partially written but never played live and so we re-worked them for the album. Then a few (which are actually my favourites, probably because I haven’t had time to get bored of them yet – ‘Keep Your Eyes Open Wide’, ‘Departures’ and ‘Worst Kiss’) were written a few days before we went into the studio – so we went in not really knowing how they would end up. There were quite a few extra songs that we thought about having on there, and we were a little nervous of putting songs on that we’d never played live before but in the end we just chose the ones we liked the most and think worked together best. Re-recording ‘Canvas Bags’ was a fairly last minute decision, but we felt like it sat really nicely with the other songs and we wanted it there.

O: You’ve been playing shows with Smittens and Tigercats and you’re off back to Norway to play an indiepop festival. How are the live shows going and do you have plans to tour the album further?
Hannah: The live shows have been amazing. We went to quite a few places we’ve never played before and had a brilliant time, and we were so lucky to get to tour with The Smittens. Not just because they’re so much fun to hang out with, but because we got to see a band we love play every night for a couple of weeks. And we never got tired of their songs. Our London show with them and Tigercats was probably one of my favourites we’ve ever played. Paul from Tigercats joined us and the crowd was so brilliant. Our final show of the tour might have beat it though – it was at the Norwegian festival and absolutely everything went wrong. My microphone kept cutting out, the violin was practically inaudible for most of the set, the lights cut out at one point… but the crowd were so brilliant and The Smittens came and joined us for the last song and it was just so much fun.

We’re all suffering pretty badly from post tour blues so we’re trying to plan in the next tour. Fingers crossed we’ll have some news soon!

O: Owl & Mouse lyrics are often very personal. They often sound full of self-doubt and regret. Do you write words from personal experience or are you often trying to capture a certain mood or theme for a song?
Hannah: I would say that they’re mostly from personal experience, if only partially. When I started writing songs with Tom he started giving me instructions on things to write about – or he would write the ending of something and I would fill in the blanks. There are a couple of songs that were inspired by TV shows – ‘Louie’ is about an episode of the TV show with the same name, and a confession of unrequited love. But it was something I was feeling at the time as well, so there’s always little bits of personal experience in there. You can’t really get away from it, I think.

O: If the lyrics are entirely personal do you ever feel scared of putting all your thoughts and feelings out there for public consumption? Or perhaps there’s an element of ‘it’s good to talk’ about it?
Hannah: I never used to feel scared of it. I think it can be quite… (I don’t want to use the word empowering because it sounds so naff, but I can’t think of a better one, so) empowering to sing about things or people that have hurt you or things that are personal. It feels good to get things out in a way that’s honest and clear – and there definitely can be a feeling of ‘it’s good to talk about it’, because songs that used to be hard to sing aren’t so difficult any more. I did have one experience recently though that made me think twice – where some people reviewed us on a podcast and spent a long time talking about one song in particular, which is very obviously personal. The people doing the podcast basically took it as an open invitation to just chat about my sex life for 20 minutes. So that was pretty weird and definitely made me think twice about writing songs like that, but thankfully that kind of response has been rare.

O: I’d describe your music as very sombre, melancholic and bittersweet. However, from a personal point of view I find them very comforting and relaxing, they’ve helped me through tough times when struggling with anxiety. What effect does writing and performing these songs have on you?
Hannah: Thank you! It’s really nice to hear that they’ve helped you. Writing and performing, when it’s going well, is my favourite, favourite thing. It’s very therapeutic I think. When I first started recording at home I would spend hours on one song, recording harmonies and backing vocals and synth line after synth line and trying (and failing, really badly) to add percussion. The end result was always a mess but it was so much fun. Playing a great show is the best thing ever. You can play a million horrible shows and one brilliant one will make it all worth it. Even if the next fifty shows we play really suck, the one we just played in London will make up for it.

O: What music do Owl & Mouse fight over in the tour van? Who wins?
Hannah: Poor Tom does alllllllllllll the driving and I sit in the front seat and try to pick music that he likes. We listen to the Bugsy Malone soundtrack a lot. I try and choose stuff that we can all sing along to but we have very disparate musical tastes so it can be hard. I try and sneak in some Miley Cyrus but it usually gets vetoed pretty quickly. We listened to a lot of Courtney Barnett this tour as well. We just toured with the Smittens and would watch them play every night and then listen to their album Love Record Breaker on the way home.

O: If you could headline and curate your own mini-festival which five bands would you have on the bill?
Hannah: This was surprisingly easy!
1. Talking Heads – because I could watch David Byrne all day every day forever
2. The Smittens – because seeing them 10 nights in a row wasn’t quite enough
3. Custard – Because you have to have a band from your home town
4. Radiohead – because my 15 year old self would never forgive me if I didn’t include them
5. Esiotrot – this is a band that was formed of members of Tigercats and Fever Dream (and maybe some others!), whose music I love so much but never got to see live. They’d probably have to headline.

O: I’m assuming the Owl & Mouse is not raking in £millions and they you all have day jobs and real life stuff going on. How difficult is it to manage the balance between band stuff and real life?
Hannah: We do indeed all have day jobs. Most of the time it’s pretty manageable! Jen has recently had a baby (wow! Congrats from Overblown Jen! – ed) so that’s made evening shows less doable for her, but luckily we’ve been able to keep going without her for the time being – and she and her little girl both came to the recording studio and made it onto the record, which was lovely. Planning a tour around our day jobs was slightly complicated, but it all worked out in the end and my boss was very patient with me saying things like ‘I may be stuck in Nottingham on Tuesday night and late to work on Wednesday – is that ok?!’ The more difficult thing for me is the writing side – I have to make myself do it or it just gets forgotten. I have a wonderful job but it takes up a lot of the space in my head, so I have to be strict if I want to get new songs done. My phone is full of half-baked ideas. The album was good for that because we had a deadline – I found out I do better under pressure.

O: What are your hopes and dreams for the future of the band?
Hannah: Considering I never really thought we’d go as far as going to a recording studio, I feel like we’ve done so much awesome stuff already. I have a few goals that I would love to do – I’d like to play some shows in America – touring America would be the ultimate for me really. I’d really love to play a show with the full band in my home town, too. And I’d love to release a follow up album full of synth pop smash hits. We’ll see how that pans out.

The debut album Departures by Owl & Mouse is released through Fika Recordings on 24th July 2015. Make your life that bit better by buying it on LP / CD / DL right here

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