If it weren’t for his genuine modesty and polite, Glaswegian charm, C Duncan would be one of those irritating people whose talent seems to leave its mark on everything it touches. We gave the effortlessly friendly young artist a call to see where he’s at since the release of his second full-length The Midnight Sun.
When he answers, he’s about to head out to see a friend’s classical music concert. It’s a realm in which he got his groundings as a musician, as a son of concert musicians and a student of composition at university and, though the term ‘classical’ may be too broad a term, there are undeniably sounds, textures and aesthetics from the genre that have found their way in to the artist’s unique brand of dreamy, ornate, baroque pop. His understanding of a song’s lifespan – when it should soar and when it should fall – gives his songwriting a powerful and timeless edge, and so it’s of little surprise that both the debut record Architect and last October’s The Midnight Sun were met with much acclaim.
Did he feel pressure at all when writing his second full-length, given that his debut was nominated for the 2015 Mercury Prize? He doesn’t sound too fazed: “I did for about five minutes, and then I said to myself ‘I’m not gonna let this creep into my music at all.’ By the time I started the second album I had other ideas in my head that I wanted to get out in musical form.”
Indeed, if anything, the success of his first offering seemed to push C Duncan to improve. “In Architect I was still learning how to produce properly and I was trying so many things, so it’s full of tiny wee things here and there, which was a lot of fun to do, but for the second album I wanted it to sound like an album as opposed to a collection of songs. So that was my parameter, to make an album that sits as it is. I knew quite early on what I wanted the overall sound to be.”
Whilst there has always been a breezy, dream-like quality to C Duncan’s production, in The Midnight Sun, it felt like this comforting sound turned a little colder, and at times even eerie. Its title is borrowed from an episode of The Twilight Zone, which is indicative of this ominous turn. “It maintains all the vocal harmonies and dreaminess of Architect, but I wanted it to be a much icier album. The ominous sound came through the subject matters in the songs. A lot of it’s to do with break up of a tricky relationship I was in, which certainly added to the ominous sound of it.” When asked specifically what he was trying to capture with the next single from the album, ‘Like You Do’, he hedges a little at first, before replying: “That’s actually one of its saddest songs. There were a lot of problems in my relationship at the time, depression problems and various things. I guess it was cathartic to write it down in song form, and the moral of the story is that things are OK in the end. It does seem like a funny choice for a single considering what it’s about.’” Far from it, as the record’s most soaring and goosebumps-inducing number, it makes perfect sense for a single.
The conversation takes a turn for the nerdy as we begin discussing the musical allusions peppered throughout the record. ‘The Last To Leave’ loosely follows the melodic path of ‘Edelweiss’ from The Sound of Music, he tells me, whereas ‘Who Lost’ and ‘Jupiter’ nod to William Walton’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, “a choral orchestral piece which has some pretty amazing melodies in it. It’s always fun for us music geeks, tying in old music to whatever you’re doing.”
But allusions to orchestral pieces aren’t the only other forms of art that Chris ties in with his music; he is an avid painter too and does his own artwork for each release. “I used to paint just to paint, but as music seems to haven taken over my life, it seems to serve a purpose now. The artwork for The Midnight Sun was basically a progression from the first record, which was an overhead view of Glasgow. I painted places in the city that meant a lot to me as I was writing the album, as I’ve lived in Glasgow my whole life. On the second record I wanted to zoom in on that, and it was all about what interested me whilst making and recording music myself and I wanted the art to reflect that. So I wanted to zoom into one of the buildings, which was my flat, and do the interior of my stairwell, which is where I still spend a lot of time to smoke. I’d spend fifteen times a day out there looking at my stairwell, and it was always in-between writing songs, so it’s very much part of my writing process.”
Though his solitary style of writing and recording is important to him, it’s his family he turns to when he inevitably feels stir-crazy. “They will always say ‘Oh, that’s great Chris, doesn’t our son make lovely music?’ But also their ears are fine-tuned to music so they always come up with very constructive criticism.” His writing and recording process is currently confined to his Glasgow flat, something he’s clearly content with for the moment. “As soon as the second album was released I said the next album would be recorded in a studio of some sort, but I said that about that the second album and that never happened, and I’ve already started the third and I’m doing that from home. For the moment anyway.”
Chris now has a five-piece band made up of old friends to perform live with, and since the release in October has toured extensively around Europe. “I always love playing the Netherlands; we’ve got a bit of a fanbase there and there’s something about Dutch people, they’re just the friendliest and most appreciative people. And Belgium too; I can really see myself living somewhere like Ghent; I’m a big fan of Belgian beer. And its architecture, of course.”
The band are currently on their UK tour supporting Elbow, playing to crowds in the thousands, but it wasn’t too long ago C Duncan was playing to a room of about thirty people at the likes of Rough Trade. Has he found the transition to much larger shows in a relatively short amount of time intimidating? “It’s a little bit daunting because we’re used to playing shows of a couple hundred people. But we have done bigger shows, like when we supported Belle & Sebastian and some of the bigger European festivals, so we know what it’s like. We’ve spent a bit of time with Guy Harvey already as well, and he’s about the most reassuring, friendliest and warmest guy. I think very quickly the nerves will turn to having a lot of fun.”
“We’re going to play all of our bangers,” he says, laughing, “though I’m not sure what you’d call a C Duncan banger.”