"It was a painful process and neither of us wanted to make it drag on..." - Eliza Shaddad on working with her husband in lockdown to make new album The Woman You Want
After receiving rave reviews for her debut album, Future, and taking the LP out on the record for a successful tour, Scottish-Sudanese singer-songwriter Eliza Shaddad was all set to crack on with her second record.
She had grand plans to record with her live band and expand the intimate sonics of her earlier work, but then, like so many people's plan, everything was hurled out of the window amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Instead, the singer worked at home in Cornwall, with her husband, Ben Jackson, who is part of electro trio Childcare and indie types To Kill A King.
Together they worked to produce The Woman You Want, a record created in the couple's spare room, but which sounds like it was made somewhere much, much bigger.
We spoke to Shaddad about the process and how she and Jackson navigated the situation...
Had you planned to make a record or did the time given to you by lockdown force your hand?
“I was supposed to finish a UK tour and then start writing. I was to go into a big studio with my whole band and add all the bells and whistles. In the past, it’s just been me, a producer and an engineer and everybody just does what they can. I’d built this incredible band and we’d done so many shows together and I was excited to do the full band things. But with the restrictions at the time, it wasn’t on."
"The record was written quite quickly and as it came together there was no room or possibility of finding a studio, so we made it in the room where I’m speaking to you from. Fortunately, the man I’d very recently married happens to be a wonderful producer and owns quite a lot of gear.”
Did recording in such a small space change the record?
“The songs, especially at the start of writing, were very introspective. I normally play electric guitar, but I’d gone and got this classical guitar from a charity shop and I was enjoying how intimate and warm it made everything feel. I wanted a lo-fi slice of time, a real bedroom record. But, as we started recording, I was adding harmonica and mandolins and working out how to create drums. It grew and grew and I didn’t shy away from making it bigger. I think it doesn’t sound like a bedroom record, I think it sounds like it could have come together in a big studio.”
Having your own studio gives you freedom and no ticking clock, but there’s also the homework conundrum, whereby if you’ve got a month to write an essay, you’ll still do it the night before it’s due in…
“The recording was done in a six-week period and I was pretty strict on how much we had to do. It’s tricky when you’ve got so many blurred lines and we were in a lockdown. There was nothing else to do so we had to put in boundaries. You had to stop and have time off. A lot of the time it was a painful process and neither of us wanted to make it drag on. It’s quite a short album, which is just as well.”
Had you and Ben planned to work together? Or was it just the only thing you could do?
“We’d held off working together for quite a long time. We were quite nervous about the pressures it would add to our relationship. We tried it quite tentatively on a cover version and it was okay. He was always going to be a part of the picture, even if I’d been working with a band as well. When it became clear that anything else was going to be impossible, we settled on it. I thought we had it in us to make it work.”
How did you manage the dynamic? There’s no going home at the end of the day…
“It was tricky. There are some songs on the record about not being very happy and having to record that with your husband was just odd. But you do have a special kind of honesty with that person and you trust them more than anybody. I could say things to him that I’d never say to someone I didn’t know very well and take things that would otherwise make you fly off the handle. We pushed each other hard and it was tricky to have any kind of balance, but we both knew it was a difficult time. We were only freshly married too. That was lucky. We pushed just far enough.”
Do you want to do it again?
“I think it’s quite likely we’ll end up doing it again. We’ve established that it works, to ourselves at least, and there is something really special about being able to sit in the room where this album came into being and know it all happened. It’s a lovely permanent reminder of all the hard work. I’m still fully aware of how traumatic it can be.”
It’s quite a concise record, is that by design or just the songs worked out like that?
“I really like concise records. I’d be really shocked if I ever write a 16-track epic. I like short records. There were songs that didn’t fit the concept and songs that didn’t gel. It felt like it had a real theme running through it and I really wanted to stick to that. It’s a tidy little listen.”
Did you and Ben agree on all the songs you’d take forward?
“I always invite opinion on that, but it’s something that I really listen to my own counsel on. Normally I flesh songs right out, but a few of them Ben called early on that they weren’t going to get there. He knew how to find the songs that were the best representation of me.”
When did you decide that The Woman You Want was the right title for the record?
“That song had that title from the very beginning, but it took me a while to settle on that for the album title. There’s a lot of variation on the album and I don’t think one song sums it up. Lyrically and theatrically it’s a big part of the puzzle and it gives you a real insight. We were all stuck indoors last year and there was nobody to face but yourself. I found that hard, I found it hard having no distractions and I was doing a lot."
"I was working independently, self-recording, self-managing and I felt like I was coming into my stride. I felt empowered, but a fragile human stuck in the same terrible situation as everyone. Add into that you had Black Lives Matter in full force, the year anniversary of the Sudanese revolution, all taking my attention. That made me think, “What kind of woman do I want to be?”. I like how that title leads to that and how it summarises so many different directions all at once.”
In terms of what you’ll do live, how is that looking?
“We’ve got a 12-date tour for November, which is exciting. Unfortunately, like everyone, we’ve had a bunch of festivals cancelled. We’ve done a lot of live streams and I’ve loved doing that. Getting onstage and singing live is the part of this job I love the most. It’s where I feel most at home. There will be plenty more to come. We’re looking to get to Europe and back to the US, I’m hopeful for next year.”
The band you’d built, have you been able to keep it together?
“Session musicians have had such a tricky time, but my band have managed to keep their heads above water and they will be back on tour with me in November.”
And, finally, have you started on what’s next?
“I’ve been working on it. I struggle to write while I’m in a release period. I’ve kept up though and I’m well on the way. Nothing like enough for an album, but a start. I can’t wait to do it. I now know that if I can’t do it in a big studio, I’ve got the option of doing it at home and you can do so much there.”
“I write on tour too. Those tend to be fun songs. The introspection comes at home, when I write on tour things get turned up about 10 levels.”