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Dot Allison Balances Art, Business And Science

The second album for Glasgow-based electro/folk/pop chanteuse Dot Allison is called We Are Science (Beggars Banquet), which has some nice symmetry to it. In 1989, Allison, a native of Edinburgh, went to college in Glasgow to study applied biochemistry — studies that were aborted when Allison got caught up in the city's buzzing club scene, and music came calling.

"I was always pretty good at science in school. I seemed to have quite a logical brain," Allison said, over the phone, on line to talk about her latest disc. "I quite enjoyed chemistry, biology, maths, and physics. I find it really, really interesting — the science of life — and I think it's a field that you can still be creative in. It's not that far from art in that you can push boundaries, and experiment, and express something creatively."

What this means to her record, she admits, is kind of hazy. Despite the fact that it's called We Are Science, commences with a song called "We're Only Science," and hangs together, despite any stylistic changes, with a constant emotion, it wasn't, she says, a concentrated effort to make an album about something. It's just the way things happen with her.

"A song doesn't come for me without some meaning behind it. Particularly, lyrically, I think it'd be a collage of nonsense if you didn't think of the content of a song lyrically both before and while you write it," Allison said.

"When you're making an album, as soon as you write or record one piece of music, there's an anchor there that everything else is grounded by, and it means that everything sort of comes together with a certain similarity, both musically and lyrically. And I don't think it's an accident," she said. "For me, it feels like there's a jelling, that everything has to fit together, that it's like a jigsaw puzzle, and each piece has to have a greater meaning."

The greater meaning to be deciphered, perhaps, is not that she had interest in science at an early age, and now music is her chosen alchemy. Rather, Allison feels that her early endeavors in that field of knowledge, coupled with her innate logical thinking, means that she sees science in everything. So, to her, letting science into the equation with her album isn't heavily symbolic or thematically weighty.

"I quite like it being ambiguous, never defining exactly what it means," Allison said. "But the idea it mainly relates is the human element in technological music. Electronic machines are still created by humans and operated by humans, and I want to show that, to get away from the emotionless, cold, robotic stereotypes of electronic music. In this arena of music, these machines can sound very warm and real, like they're programmed by hand.

"Also, We Are Science can relate to us as humans, and it can be about our bodies, or love, or falling in love, or mortality, which are things that are all chemical on some level," she continued. "To me, I find that a warm idea, and quite a beautiful idea — that all our bodies are complex chemical structures that work on electrical impulses. Just like a drum-machine."

On this album, Allison seeks to explore the similarities and differences between acoustic and electronic instruments, using her presence — as songwriter, vocalist, instrumentalist, and co-producer — to bring together an uneasy, eclectic set that ranges from retro-electro dancefloor thunk to melancholy electrics to frail balladry to Stone Roses drone.

Her first album, 1999's Afterglow, was another stylistic mixed bag, moving from Saint Etienne-like soft-pop through big-band numbers, sappy love songs, and more stoned-out Eastern-instrument-draped watered-down-psychedelia. On that album, Allison tried to relate her love of old-fashioned pop radio with the dance scene that nurtured her, and with the influence of her peers, Primal Scream and Death in Vegas.

Allison started making music when she was 11, independently trying to work out on the family piano things she'd heard on television. She immediately found it an expressive outlet, and spent her teenage years formally learning the piano. "I think that's why you play music, because you want to express something," Allison offered. "Even if you're playing from sheet music, playing something someone else has written, it's still your interpretation, your feel, and through that you're expressing something."

In college, she found herself gravitating more towards the constituents of the music department than science. Meeting Ian Carmichael and Jim McKinven, future members of One Dove, Allison added her vocals to early white-label records of the pair, going into music "as a sort of hobby."

It wasn't until she met Andy Weatherall, the Sabres of Paradise hand who'd just produced Primal Scream's Screamadelica, that music looked like it'd become a full-time concern. With Weatherall producing their debut single "Fallen" in 1991, One Dove's dub-dabbling post-acid-house found a sizeable audience among those still living in a strung-out summer of love; their only album, 1993's Morning Dove White, is still fondly remembered by in-the-know oldtimers.

After One Dove broke up in 1996, Allison set out to go solo. Signing with the Heavenly label, she began the long process of making Afterglow, a grand record co-produced/co-written by Magnus Fiennes, the cinematic composer who, despite working with All Saints, is best known as brother to director Martha Fiennes and actor Ralph Fiennes, and featuring orchestrations by London Session Orchestra conductor Brian Gascoigne. Not only that, the record featured a song, "Did I Imagine You?," that was co-written with legendary pop songsmith Hal David; another, "I Wanna Feel The Chill," sampled Tim Buckley, and found contributions from Death in Vegas dudes Tim Holmes and Richard Fearless and Primal Scream hangers-on Kevin Shields, Mani, Jim Hunt and Duncan McKay.

Needless to say, the album sounded like a lot of bucks were spent on it. Given that she parted ways with Heavenly soon after, it's fairly safe to assume that the resulting sales from the album were not all the label hoped, but Allison is fairly philosophical about how the music business works, inferring that the label weren't keen to spend money on promoting the record after spending so much making it. Heavenly themselves, at the end of a deal with BMG's Deconstruction label, offered "a minimal push" that meant the record "fizzled out" in the UK.

"Basically, the way record companies work is that there's a certain amount of money allocated for a certain period; it's that clinical," she explained. "So, if you spend all that money making the record, then there's not going to be any money for marketing, but if you spend less making the record, then there's a lot for marketing. Which makes sense, but seems strange. If you spend lots of money making an album, wouldn't you want to let people know about it?

"You shouldn't have to think like this as an artist, but the onus kind of falls on you to learn how to get the balance right," she said. "This is what I learnt. I learned a whole lot about the business side of things.

"Artists often spend lots of money going into commercial studios recording, where they could invest that money in their own equipment, then be secure that if the record label isn't as interested, they don't have to go and then find someone else to finance them to make another record. I think that's what I tried to do with my recording budget for this record: spend some of it, invest some of it, then leave some of it for after the record.

"It's a learning curve that everyone goes through," she said. "It's just good business to try and get that balance right. It's interesting, and challenging. It's about taking responsibility. I don't want to go through my life having people take responsibility for me, so I want to learn this. You ask any musician, and they're aware that there's a financial side to things, and if you want to be in control of your music you learn those things. It's not that scary, and it's not that hard. It's just part of your job." — Anthony Carew [Tuesday, Oct. 1 , 2002]


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