They named themselves after Marlon Brando’s ex-wife and their songs deal with the same sense of sorrow and tragedy that has been bestowed upon Mrs Brando all through her life. Yes, Sian Webley and James Youngjohns could easily be The Handsome Family of the Northwest, but that doesn’t mean they’re “a pair of goths who like country music.” In this interview, we speak to Americana UK’s favourites from Manchester about their truly exceptional new album, Survival, hanging out with that voice from Willard Grant Conspiracy and whether or not “a few hundred people vaguely knowing who we are” can be confused with fame.
Interview by Soren McGuire
I'll start out with the obvious question. The name Anna Kashfi is a tale of great love and even greater tragedy, a constant reminder of how fame and fortune can be so quickly taken away from us and how love, no matter how breathtaking it might be, always comes at a price. It's a side of all the Hollywood glitz that might be considdered entertainment today, but which was rarely published back then. Why were you so inspired by this heartbreaking tale of Anna Kashfi?
Sian: Well, you said it all in your question really. I'll add that I think the actress was a victim of racism, sexism and snobbery - given that she was a mixed-race, working-class girl trying to shape her destiny.
Survival is inspired by the life of Anna Kashfi. How so?
Sian: Anna Kashfi is a beautiful woman (still) who has borne an awful lot of
tragedy in her life. She remains unimpressed by fame and lives a modest
life. We should respect that.
Your music has been described as country noir. I don't think I've ever really heard a definition of that genre that made any particular sense to me, but there's definitely a darkness to your music. Where do you think that comes from? If you walk into a bar full of country artists, the country noir people are usually the happiest bunch in there!
James: I'm always bewildered by the number of genres applied to us. I don't know, does it mean we're a pair of goths who like country music? A lot of intelligent country music has darkness in it, whether it's the Handsome Family or George Jones.
I'm very intrigued by the song, String Loop. Where does an idea for a song like that come from?
James: The loop is made from a mellotron backing track - each key on the keyboard has tapes with different phrases on it and I made the string loop phrase using a random key sequence. Then we just kept shovelling things on to the top of it.
Tell me about working with Willard Grant Conspiracy's Robert Fischer. He's one hell of a singer, isn't he?
James: He certainly is. I play viola for Willard Grant sometimes, and we ended up doing his part in a hotel room in Ireland on the last tour. We knew the song needed a singer with a great deal of gravitas to pull off the song, so we thought Robert was the best choice out there for it.
You've toured and played with a lot of very talented people, like Jesse Sykes, Mark Mulcahy and Laura Veirs just to name a few. They're all people who approach folk music from a different perspective. What have you been able to pick up from these artists over the years?
James: The main thing has simply been support and encouragement. As well as the support slots I've been able to perform with Robert Fisher, Mark Mulcahy and Eileen Rose, which was a huge confidence boost. It's very flattering to be treated as an equal by these people. In a wider sense I've always been most inspired by people who aren't restricted by a given catagory of music. Artists like Giant Sand, Sparklehorse, WGC etc may have a folk or country influence but they are emphatically contemporary acts, with influences that stretch across numerous genres.
Survival has recieved quite a lot of excellent press since it came out in January. Do you think being more famous will in any way change the dynamics of the band?
James: Is this famous in the Celebrity Big Brother sense? I'm not sure that the fact that a few hundred people vaguely knowing who we are is that big an influence in our behaviour. We've had bad press for the first time as well, which is hard to rise above, and a few strange people come out of the woodwork which I'd rather keep my distance from. It's nice to be taken seriously but at the end of the day if we had aspirations beyond making records that we're proud to play to people we'd still have a long way to go.
Sian: It won't change how the band works. We just carry on.
You've also been around for quite a few years now. How has the UK americana and folk scene evolved since you first started out?
James: There's a healthy community of musicians in the Northwest now that feels supportive rather than competitive, a lot of DIY labels and promoters doing good things. It's a nice thing to be a part of.
James, among many other things, you also play in the band Last Harbour. Do you need to set yourself in a certain mood when you're with Sian in Anna Kashfi, and does it differ from when you're doing your other projects?
James: I work a lot on my own in the studio with Anna Kashfi, so it's a very introverted process, where as Last Harbour has a really nice gang mentality that makes it a pleasure to be involved in. As I get older though I'm more
open to doing whatever new project suggests itself anyway, just for the pleasure of playing, and I like the challenge of taking on a new project without any preconceptions of how it's going to work.
Last but not least, here's the Americana UK Celebrity Question. It's from Quiet Loner and here goes: Aside from Anna Kashfi herself who are your top 3 welsh women? Discuss!
Sian: My Mum. Dame Adelina Patti - not strictly Welsh, but lived in Wales and did a lot for King and country. And of course, the lovely Cerys Matthews.
Anna Kashfi’s new album, Survival, is out now on Little Red Rabbit Recordings. For tourdates, go to Myspace.com/annakashfi