Frances Castle, Clay Pipe Music, The Hardy Tree and Thalassing

(Originally published in Issue 74 of Electronic Sound magazine, February 2021)

CONCRETE AND CLAY

Since 2010, the Clay Pipe label has specialised in music with a distinct connection to place, exploring the forgotten landscapes of abandoned wartime villages, decommissioned bus routes and mystical Somerset hamlets. On its tenth anniversary, founder Frances Castle takes a wistful ramble through the winding country lanes of a label with a beguilingly gentle aesthetic…

Words: Bob Fischer

“The days of the week have separate colours for me,” says Frances Castle, thoughtfully. “Monday is yellow, Tuesday is turquoise, Wednesday is green, Thursday is orange and Friday is a kind of burnt ochre. A dark yellow. Weird, isn’t it?”

What about the weekend?

“Dark blue, perhaps. Or maybe Saturday is red? Weekends are harder, because it all comes from being at school. We used to go swimming on a Tuesday, and turquoise is very much a swimming pool colour. Then we did sport on a Wednesday, so green was obviously the grass on the field…”

The enduring synaesthesia of Frances’ childhood has arguably set the template for the ethos of Clay Pipe, the label she founded in 2010. For the last decade, she has thrived on exploring the lesser-trodden connections between deceptively disparate elements. There’s the hinterland between traditional folk and electronica for a start, a balance found with unerring precision by a roster of sympathetic artists. The label blurs the lines between the nostalgic and the contemporary, too: the anonymous Tyneham House is a flute-drenched meander around the remains of an abandoned wartime village, and Jon Brooks’ Shapwick a radiophonic journey through a crepuscular Somerset hamlet that seems to fizzle backwards and forwards in time.

But, perhaps most affectingly, Clay Pipe effortlessly bridges the gap between the urban and the rural. Quite literally in the case of Gilroy Mere’s 2017 album The Green Line, an affecting homage to the mid-20th century bus service linking central London with the alluringly rustic charms of Sussex and Kent. This latter dichotomy in particular seems to have its roots in Frances’ own formative days, and a metropolitan upbringing punctuated by regular forays to the surrounding countryside.

“I had a happy childhood,” she recalls, “But I didn’t do very well at school. I was good at art, but pretty bad at maths and really bad at spelling. And I took some music lessons – I played the recorder and the clarinet. But I wasn’t particularly good at those, either…”

“This was in suburban West London, in Kew. But my grandparents on my dad’s side lived in the Sussex countryside, and my other grandparents lived in Cookham, in Berkshire. It’s where Stanley Spencer lived, and he painted lots of pictures of the village. They knew him, actually. If you read about Stanley Spencer, he had a wife and a lover, and these were all people that my grandparents used to discuss. They’d still talk about ‘Stanley this, and Stanley that…’”

While Spencer was vividly transplanting Biblical scenes into the Berkshire countryside, Frances’ grandfather Frank Sherwin was following a gentler artistic muse. His post-war railway posters have become iconic symbols of 1950s Britain, depicting a pastoral utopia of steam trains rumbling through sleepy, seaside hamlets. They are remarkably redolent of Frances’ own distinctive illustrations, particularly the evocative sleeve art that has become an integral part of the Clay Pipe aesthetic.

“I wasn’t really aware of his railway prints as a kid,” she says. “Basically, he was a watercolour artist, and he used to sell his work to card manufacturers… but it’s the railway posters that he’s become remembered for. And Granny painted as well. They were both very creative, and of course they encouraged me. I was very lucky in that respect.”

“And it’s funny, the comparisons are something I’ve only really noticed in the last ten years. But I look at the lines and shapes in my stuff, and I can see it. It’s weird.”

It sounds like an idyllic childhood.

“Yeah,” she nods. “There was a place called Odney, and I loved going there. I had an obsession with fishing when I was about 12. I made a rod out of a bamboo pole and a bit of wire, and then saved up for a proper one from Woolworths. Skateboarding as well –  I was quite the tomboy. But then puberty hit and suddenly I was more interested in Jackie magazine.”

She laughs.

“And I got into indie music when I was in my teens. The first gig I ever went to was The Monochrome Set at Kingston Polytechnic, when I was about fifteen. Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn played, too. It was around the time that Pillows and Prayers came out…”

This eclectic 1982 Cherry Red compilation remains one of the most enduring artifacts of the post-punk indie scene, placing the bedsit jazz of Everything But The Girl alongside spikier offerings by Felt and The Nightingales. And its DIY aesthetic seemed to inspire a new direction for the teenage Frances. In the late 1980s, after eschewing A-Levels for a sixth form foundation course, she left London for the modest delights of Lincoln, enrolling at the city’s College of Art.

“I did an HND in illustration and graphics,” she chuckles. “And I played in an indie band while I was there. We had three rehearsals, and a gig booked, but never got good enough to play it. We were called Maxim Gorky’s Memoirs! The guitarist had left, so I was brought in, but I was pretty useless. I didn’t even have my own guitar, I had to borrow one. And it wasn’t twee indie, it was more punky. I remember there was a song about Agent Orange…”

“And later, when I moved back to London, I loved fanzines. I used to write short stories, then photocopy them and put them into little booklets. They were all about slightly strange young people. Characters I related to, really! A lot of bedsitland stuff. One was about a strange boarding house during a very hot summer. The wallpaper started melting and the glue brought on weird hallucinations…

“I was really influenced by Ian McEwan. I’d just read The Cement Garden and that was a big influence. That sense of creeping strangeness.”

Frustrated with the lack of employment opportunities for a shy, 21-year-old illustrator (“I was really not very mature,” she sighs), she embarked on a career path that seems inexplicably incongruous to those of us who revel in the calm, often pre-technological stillness of Clay Pipe’s releases. Players of Die Hard Trilogy, the 1996 Playstation take on Bruce Willis’ exhausting cinema blockbusters, will have inadvertently encountered the earliest examples of Frances’ commercial artwork. She worked on the animated introduction, as well as – staggeringly – designing the children’s faces for the multi-million selling Harry Potter Playstation games.   

“You had something like 64 x 64 pixels to get the likenesses right!” she laughs, despairingly. “I worked in computer games for ten years. And it was then that I started to realise I could use computers to make music, too. I had a piece of software called Making Waves, and that’s how I got into electronic music – using samples, recording to a four-track, and mixing in an old Korg Delta synthesiser.”

“I recorded as Transistor Six in the late 1990s. But I didn’t really know what I was doing. I used to sample weird Hawaiian music and sing over it.”

Debut album Green Vegetable Monster, complete with photocopied cassette inlay, was released in 1997. Two years later, her Post Office Tower EP exhibited many of the elements that have come to define the Clay Pipe ethos. Over Joe Meek-style electronica, she sings wistfully of this iconic London landmark and its endearingly analogue technology. “In the restaurant we’ll eat, while London gently spins and turns / Beneath the glass we’ll watch messages / Sent from satellites that never, never, never, never stop…”

In conversation, Frances is quietly eccentric, and her modesty conceals a life of fascinatingly disparate adventures. We’ve spoken many times previously, but never before has she mentioned her crucial involvement with the founding of a now-internationally renowned artistic movement. Not once. Helmed by a provocative tag team of Billy Childish and Charles Thomson, this coalition of artists railed against the ubiquity of conceptual art, and sought to restore the reputation of traditional, figurative painting.

“I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, have I?” she beams. “Yes, I was a Stuckist. I was friends with Sexton Ming – him and his wife lived round the corner. And I was doing paintings of monsters! Very different to what I do now. So we were a group of people that got together, and we held an exhibition in London. But I got fed up with it. I don’t want to bitch about it, but it was an ‘anti’ movement… and I’m not really ‘anti’ anything. I just like painting.”

“Strangely though, one of my paintings sold to a wealthy woman who lived in Highgate. And last year, I got a phone call from Dalston Police Station saying they’d found it abandoned on the road! It was really strange – a monster, with all kinds of contraptions attached to it. Basically, a monster being milked!” She chuckles. “They saw my name on the back, googled me, and were laughing because they thought the painting was so funny.”

In 2010, after almost a decade away from releasing music (“I was making stuff, but not really finishing it,” she shrugs) Clay Pipe was founded, initially as a home for her own resurgent musical ambitions. A burgeoning interest in the layers of history barely concealed beneath London’s urban landscape was a driving factor behind the label’s inception.

“For a few years before the label started, my partner John and I used to go mudlarking on the Thames,” she recalls. “We’d just walk along and pick things up, and we’d find a lot of clay pipes. So when I was trying to find a name for the label, it seemed perfect.”

“It’s a personal artifact. You pick one up, and the last person to have held it could have lived 200 years ago – a dockworker, a sailor, or just someone walking along the riverbank. The oldest pipes are really small, because tobacco was much harder to get in the 1600s. But Victorian clay pipes are larger. It’s fascinating. We picked up absolutely loads of them, and I was going to include them with my releases. Everybody gets a free clay pipe! I had a plastic bag full of them, it’s somewhere in a cupboard.”

Debut release The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath saw Frances recording under a new pseudonym, The Hardy Tree. A name with origins also buried deep in the murky strata of London’s social history. 

“The Hardy Tree is in the grounds of St Pancras Old Church,” she explains. “When the railway was being built in the 1860s, Thomas Hardy was working for the architect. The gravestones had to be moved to accommodate the railway line, and he’s said to have suggested stacking them around the tree. And over the years the roots have grown through them…”

The album is being reissued on vinyl to mark Clay Pipe’s anniversary, and – a decade on – it remains a charming collection of offbeat chamber pop and wistful, fractured instrumentals. There’s also a debut vinyl pressing for the label’s second release, the folkier Thalassing Michael Tanner and Kerrie Robinson’s beautiful improvised tribute to the melancholy of the Irish coastline. In transgressing its origins amid the DIY world of handmade CD-Rs, the label – I suggest – has forged its own sense of place, a landscape of reflective stillness now so complex and layered that its own roots and historical strata are worthy of gentle investigation.

“It’s definitely about place,” she nods. “But it doesn’t have to be any particular place. I don’t want to repeat myself, and I’m always keeping an eye open for new artists. You don’t want to sit still and bring out the same record over and over again.”

“So the next record after the reissues is a new album by D. Rothon. It’s not an obvious Clay Pipe record, as it’s not actually about a place… it’s about his memories of space and the cosmos when he was growing up. But I think it’s beautiful.”

Connections, it seems, continue to be forged. And Clay Pipe has become a refuge, a perfectly-formed haven of exquisite quietude. A home for lost things, fractured memories, buried treasure and faded childhoods, where the future lies amid distant constellations but Wednesdays remain reassuringly green.

The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath and Thalassing vinyl reissues are available here:

http://www.claypipemusic.co.uk/2021/01/clay-pipe-music-ten-year-anniversary.html

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