Rhonda Lee Reali was enraptured recently by Alluvium, the latest album by Scottish musician Christopher ‘C’ Duncan – enough so to fancy a chat with him about it (and a few other matters besides). Here, then, are the results of that chat!
Christopher Duncan, known professionally as C Duncan, is a composer who uses electronic instrumentation but whose outlook and training is also rooted in the past. Both his parents are classical musicians – contributing the string sections on The Wedding Song, from his fourth and newest album Alluvium. His music is a lush mix of dreampop, electro, classical and a bit of rock and even disco, filled with gorgeous harmonies and melodies.
In our conversation, Duncan cited diverse influences including French, late Romantic and 20th century composers (Satie, Olivier Messiaen, Michel Legrand), Burt Bacharach, The Carpenters, Bjork and Radiohead. He’s also a painter – whose artwork can be seen on his records and in his videos – an architecture aficionado and Charles Rennie Mackintosh devotee.
Your third album Health had echoes of jazz and disco. Alluvium harkens back to your first, 2015’s Architect. Well, I think it’s a combination of all three. Please tell me a little about the title and themes.
C Duncan: I think you’re right. It’s not a look back at all, but I’ve realised what I enjoy doing when making music, so that’s probably why it’s turned into a slight combination of the first three albums. Thematically, it’s very much based around change and the acceptance of change. I wasn’t influenced by COVID at the time, but looking back on it, I can see why. Yeah, it seems like a slightly more relevant theme to have made an album about. I guess when I started it, it was a lot to do with things in my life, what’s changed.
C Duncan: One of the things – moving out of the city to the water and the things you leave behind in the city in order to have a new, different existence – although it’s not massively different, your day-to-day life does definitely change. All sorts of things in my life were changing, mostly for the better. Thematically, that’s the biggest thing, which again is why it’s called Alluvium. This idea of taking mass and moving it elsewhere and it becoming fertile land, essentially. You know, when rivers do that, they take mud and dirt away from one side of the river and move it elsewhere, and it becomes fertile and new things can grow. So, yes, I guess that’s how the title ties in as well.
You play a harpsichord on the title song.
C Duncan: It’s a synthesised harpsichord. I managed to fool everyone. No, when I record it, I record it with other instruments, with twangy guitars, to try to give it that real sound. I love the sound of the harpsichord. It’s so immediate.
It’s so striking. I think it’s great that you can mimic like strings and horns, but because I’m not a musician, I can’t tell whether those are the actual instruments or whether it’s a synthesiser.
C Duncan: That’s good. Yeah, I’m pleased that it’s difficult to tell that it’s not real. That technique worked. It meant that I didn’t have to buy a harpsichord!
On Alluvium the song, you sing: “It’s all around you. A weight I cannot feel. I cannot move. And it slows under the floor like alluvium. That’s out for someone, something new.” Can you explain these words a bit more?
C Duncan: Looking back on these lyrics, it’s actually a lot more personal than I had originally thought. It’s about the weight of expectation, and mostly expectations one puts upon themselves. Isn’t that a strange thing? That we haven’t evolved out of self-doubt. Or is it something we have evolved into? The original press release for this says it’s about change and rebirth, which it also is, but it’s a lot more intimate than that.
Regarding Air – the first song written and recorded for the album – in its press release you say: “I liked the idea of the first lyrics for the album being, ‘We’re at the end,’ thus surrendering to the world and moving forward from that point.” What do you mean by We’re at the end, thus surrendering to the world?
C Duncan: I guess by that I mean that we/I have reached the end of a chapter in life. I have closed the door on certainty and am ready to embrace a world that is an ever-changing place. There’s nothing apocalyptic about it – rather, it’s about rebirth.
Bell Toll’s lyrics include the phrase “safe and serpentine” – in what context do you use serpentine? It doesn’t fit any definition that I know. Animal, mineral…
C Duncan: I suppose it’s similar to the opening line, “safe uncertainty”. I associate serpents with chaos and untrustworthiness – biblical, I guess – but also the word ‘serpentine’ conjures images of winding. I like the contrast between the words ‘safe’ and ‘serpentine’.
“And who are those who could ask for oblivion / Who could take it all away and begin again / How do you know what side you’re on / When your eyes won’t open? / And how do you know what side you want / When there’s nothing nowhere,” is an excerpt from Sad Dreams. Can you elaborate on these lyrics?
C Duncan: Ha ha, it’s quite strange seeing just parts of lyrics written down like this. It seems rather dramatic! This song is a lament for all sorts of nature and human aspects of life that have either disappeared or have been irreparably changed. It’s very difficult to know sometimes what has changed when you are blinded by so many other things in life: technology, media, business, politics etc.
I suppose the two lines that come before these – “There came a day when the wild and the wilderness / Were a half-forgotten dream, out of service” – sum this up, almost like the world has broken and needs fixing. Like when your computer stops working properly because it needs “vital updates”. And it is very sad to see this in its entirety happen.
You replied that some songs such as You Don’t Come Around and I Tried aren’t necessarily about the ending of relationships. What are they about?
C Duncan: I had always wanted to write an old-fashioned down-on-your-luck love song. You Don’t Come Around isn’t necessarily about me, but it has that old-fashioned kind of country and western sentiment to it. I suppose it was a bit of a turning point for my writing – not everything has to be super personal all the time, but in my case, as long as it’s relatable to listeners.
I Tried, like Heaven, is about the break away from my previous record label: lots of giving, very little receiving. Heaven is about taking yourself away from poisonous situations. I had just signed to Bella Union, then I wrote this, so there’s a real sense of optimism.
A couple of songs were breakup or goodbye songs and then you have a new beginning.
C Duncan: Yes, they are goodbye songs. Not partners or anything like that. Mostly to situations – I won’t go into it too much – but with my last label, things weren’t great by the end. It wasn’t brilliant. Only because one of the main guys who ran it left the label, so I was left a bit in the lurch. So, one of the songs is about that. One is about my grandmother.
We Have A Lifetime?
C Duncan: Yes. She passed away about a year and a half ago, and it’s sort of saying goodbye to her. She gave me a lot of advice throughout my life.
Is there anything you’d like to say about your coming out as a gay man in reference to your music?
C Duncan: This album contains the first-ever love song written for my partner: Upon The Table. In the past, I would always shy away from bringing my sexuality into my music. Why? I have no idea. I guess it must have been a confidence thing. I think it’s a very important thing to normalise in music.
I thought you had gotten married on Wedding Song. Now I understand it was written in lieu of a best man speech for your brother’s wedding. I was in tears. It’s so beautiful.
Alluvium is out now via Bella Union. Info: C Duncan on Facebook
words RHONDA LEE REALI
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