It’s a hot, humid, bad-tempered Friday afternoon, and I’m drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, hopelessly lost in Leeds city centre. Quarry House car park is hemmed in by roadworks, there are queues of rush-hour traffic backed up on every sliproad, and a rumbling undercurrent of hay fever has turned my eyes into quagmires.
Thankfully, an oasis of calm is nearby. The Colours May Vary bookshop and event space is hosting an exhibition of artwork by Frances Castle, all created for releases on her beautiful, bespoke record label, Clay Pipe Music. For the last few years, Clay Pipe’s releases have frequently provided me with a respite from the hurly-burly of frenetic, 21st century life; a beautifully coherent body of work with its roots in a very firm sense of place, offering musical evocations of both gentle pastoralism and urban stillness alike. I discovered the label via Jon Brooks’ 2012 album Shapwick, a haunting musical account of an unexpected, nocturnal car journey through the Somerset countryside, and have been transfixed by Clay Pipe’s releases ever since: from Sharron Kraus’ Friends and Enemies, Lovers and Strangers – a folk interpretion of the Mabinogion myth cycle – to Gilroy Mere’s The Green Line, an ambient requiem for the bus services that once linked central London to the distant countryside; from the anonymous Tyneham House album, a wistful paen to the MOD-requisitioned Dorset village, frozen in time since 1943, to Retep Folo’s Galactic Sounds, a Farfisa-drenched evocation of its composer Peter Olof Fransson’s childhood, spent gazing longingly into the Swedish night skies and detuning his AM radio in the hope of receiving alien transmissions.
Every release arrives immaculately packaged in Frances’ own distinctive artwork, and it’s a genuinely touching sight to see them arranged together in this tasteful, white-walled exhibition space. As I arrive, Frances and her partner John are chatting genially with shop-owners Andy and Becky, dishing out chilled beers to allcomers, and faithful shop dog Stevie is wandering excitedly from visitor to visitor. It’s an idyllic scene, and Frances and I retire to a quiet corner for a chat about Clay Pipe’s history and ethos…
Bob: This is a lovely exhibition! How did the whole thing come about?
Frances: It came about because Andy, who runs the shop, was basically buying Clay Pipe records, and he asked me if I wanted to do it… they have quite a lot of exhibitions here. This was probably about a year ago, so we’ve planned ahead a bit.
Is it nice to see so much of your artwork in one place? It gives a lovely overview of the whole feel of the label, and the body of music you’ve released.
It is actually, because usually it’s all spread around… in drawers, and all the records are in boxes, and the prints are all in portfolios. And it’s such a really nice room, with tasteful furniture and white walls… it’s really good.
Can I ask a little about your background? Your grandfather Frank Sherwin was quite a renowned artist, wasn’t he?
Yeah… I wasn’t aware of it as a child, and I don’t think he was renowned then. But because he did a lot of work on railway posters, and because I think they’ve become more popular now than when he was alive, I’ve recently been trying to promote his work. I’ve set up an Instagram account. A lot of the stuff that he did for the railways is owned by the Railway Museum, and gets used on books and all types of things, but he never gets credited.
Was he alive when you were a kid?
Yeah, he died when I was a teenager. He did a lot of watercolours then, he was a very good watercolour artist, but I didn’t know anything about his commercial work. He was selling watercolours to printmakers, and they were selling them as prints, but by that time I think he’d semi-retired, really. I didn’t really know about his more commercial stuff, and his posters, until later on.
Has his style been an influence on you? I can certainly see a lineage…
When I look at my work, I can see his hand in it… which is really strange, and I don’t know whether it’s just because I grew up with him, looking at his work, or whether it’s some sort of genetic thing about the way we draw. I don’t know! But definitely… there is something.
So as a kid, did becoming an artist always feel like a calling for you?
I was encouraged, because of my grandfather. And apparently I was quite good at drawing when I was a kid. And I was absolutely useless at anything else… I couldn’t spell, I couldn’t do maths… I was useless at school, so I was pushed in that direction, yeah.
Are your parents arty at all?
My Mum is a good painter, yeah. But she’s never pursued it as a career.
So it was very much the art that came before the music?
Pretty much actually, yeah. I always loved music, even when I was quite a small child, and I did have clarinet lessons… but I wasn’t very good! Although I could play the recorder quite well as a kid. But as soon as I found I could make music on a computer in the late 1990s, it was like… this is brilliant, I can sample and loop stuff. And that’s when I started making music myself. As a child I actually had two tape recorders, and I recorded my recorder, playing along with myself… I multi-tracked! I wish I still had that. So that interest was always there, but I don’t think the technology was.
You were telling me earlier, to my surprise, that you actually worked on graphics for computer games for a while…
Yeah, I’d started doing illustration, but it didn’t really work out. So I went back to college and studied computer graphics, 3D graphics. This would be the late 1990s. And I ended up getting a job doing 3D graphics for computer games… I worked for a company called Probe, in Edgware. I worked on the Die Hard game!
Did you make a computerised Bruce Willis?
I didn’t, actually… I was doing a bit of animation for the beginning of the game, a few fancy bits. I can’t remember what I did, actually! And then I got made redundant from that job, and worked for another company called Argonaut. And I worked on the first Harry Potter game for the Playstation!
Did you make a computerised Daniel Radcliffe?
I drew all the faces for the children! So if you zoom right into that game, those are my faces.
Did you have any interest in computer gaming yourself?
Not really. I didn’t really grow up playing them…
So how did that lead back into the kind of illustration work that you do now?
Well, I got made redundant again. The industry had completely changed from when I started out, and by this stage the Playstation 3 was coming out. And artists were just doing tiny bits. When we worked on Harry Potter, not only did we work on the characters, but each artist was given a level to do. So you had quite a lot of input. But as the games become more complex, you ended up doing the smaller bits, so you’d just do props, or bombs, or guns.
And as you say, did I love games? No, I didn’t really love games. And the amount of hours you were asked to work was crazy. So I thought… I’m not doing this any more. The company went under, and I had to think about what I wanted to do, and that’s when I went back to illustration.
Clay Pipe’s music seems to have a very distinct aesthetic… can you put it into words?
(Laughs) I always kind of wing it, I think… it’s just instinctively choosing the right music. And I don’t want it to be stagnant and keep doing the same things. But I guess… I love folk music, and I love electronic music, and Clay Pipe straddles those things, I think.
Do you try to give the artwork a consistent feel at all?
Actually… I try hard not to, because I don’t want to repeat myself, I want to keep pushing a bit. So I’ve done more abstract stuff recently… I want to try new things.
One that that always intrigues me… as far as I know, you’ve always lived in London, and have a completely urban background. And yet your pastoral artwork, the scenes depicting the English countryside, or just so evocative. Are you a country person at heart?
Well, my Mum and Dad live in the country now, they’ve retired. And I always visited my grandparents, who lived in the country when I was a kid. So it wasn’t like I didn’t ever go… but I love London, I just love it, and I’d find it very hard to leave, if I’m honest.
Is there a particular piece of Clay Pipe artwork that you’re especially proud of, or that you think complements the music especially well?
There are bits that I don’t like…
Oh, which ones?
(Laughs) I’m not telling you! There are ones that I’m not so happy with, but I’m not so sure about the ones that I am really happy with, Put it that way. It’s really hard.
Come on, which album sleeves have you got on your wall at home?
(At this point, Frances looks over to her partner John for suggestions) Have we got any at home? I don’t think we have, have we? I’ve got a poster I did for a Sharron Kraus gig… that’s about it, isn’t it? (John points out a framed print of artwork from The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath, an album by Frances’s musical alter-ego, The Hardy Tree) Oh, we have got that one! Yes, The Hardy Tree… I forgot about that.
Is the creation of the album artwork a collaborative process with the musicians themselves?
It really depends on the artist. The stuff that I’ve done with Jon Brooks, he’s been… not saying what he wants as such, but he’s had ideas. He’s even done a mood board for me, stuff like that. For Autres Directions, he gave me photographs that he’d taken on holiday in France, and there were a lot of road signs, and telephone signs… so that telephone (Frances points out an abstract telephone design on a nearby copy of the album) came from that. That was really helpful.
But a lot of the time… with David Rothon, he was very keen that the artwork for Nightscapes should be night-time, but it shouldn’t be spooky. And the first one that I did came out too spooky! And, actually… the finished cover works much better.
When I was a teenager, I used to get a feeling of odd reassurance, walking home through a dark, deserted town after a night out, and seeing the occasional bedroom light still on… it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only person still awake. The artwork for Nightscapes always reminds me of that feeling, it’s lovely.
I remember Jim Jupp from Ghost Box once telling me that – in a nice way – they rely on the artists they work with on to surrender a little to the Ghost Box ethos, and let Jim and Julian House be part of the creative process, too. I guess the same applies with Clay Pipe as well?
Yeah, I think so. You kind of have to become a part of my brand a little bit! And so far, everyone’s been fine about it.
We spoke a little while ago about your debut graphic novel Stagdale, which seems to have been a success for you…
It has… and I’ve got to do some more now! The second book is something I have to get my head around for the next few months, really. That’s actually all going to be set in Nazi Germany, so it’s going to be completely different to the first book.
Do you have the whole story mapped out?
Yes, it’s just doing it! And because it’s set in Nazi Germany, I need to do quite a lot of research, so that’s going to be time consuming as well. I have to get everything right.
Is the village of Stagdale based on anywhere in particular, or does it exist completely in your head?
It’s not based on anywhere in particular really, but it has bits of certain places! It’s a mish-mash of different places.
And what have you got lined up for future musical releases?
The next record well be… well, it’s a toss-up between Alison Cotton’s record, which is hopefully coming out for Halloween. Alison is in the band The Left Outsides, and she plays viola. She’s had a couple of solo records out recently, but this is something she did for Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music last Christmas… they got an actress to read a ghost story by Muriel Spark, and Alison did the soundtrack to it. So we’ve taken the soundtrack, and put it on 10″ vinyl, and she’s done another track for the other side… another Muriel Spark ghost story. So we’re hoping to bring that out for Halloween.
And then Vic Mars has just done his second record for Clay Pipe, which we’re hoping to put out before Halloween, but we’ll just have to see how it goes with pressing times. The artwork for both of them is nearly finished… but not quite!
Is there a theme to Vic’s album?
The theme is kind of… where the country meets the town. Or the town meets the country!
Oooh, the Edgelands!
The Edgelands, yeah!
That’s not the album title that I’ve stumbled upon, is it?
No, he’s told me that he’ll have a title for me when I get back! So that’s another problem, we don’t have a title yet. But I’ll tell him Edgelands is a possibility!
The Art of Clay Pipe Music exhibition runs at the Colours May Vary shop in Leeds until 1st August, and a selection of otherwise unavailable Clay Pipe rarities are for sale through the shop’s website. Thanks to Frances, John, Andy, Becky and Stevie for their time and hospitality.