This article originally appeared in NARC. Magazine
Robert Plant was once quoted as saying that “it’s a two-dimensional gig being a singer, and you can get lost in your own tedium and repetition.” While talking to Glaswegian singer-songwriter Christopher Duncan, the subject of repetition and pattern continually rears its head. Unlike Plant, Duncan loves the concept of repetition. It’s deeply embedded into both his music and his geometric paintings, though it soon becomes clear that his drive to subvert the nature of repetition probably helps him to circumnavigate the tedium that Plant was talking about.
“I think my music does have a lot of looping, a lot of repetition; in the idea of repeating something, you can change things,” he says. “You’ve already heard a melody once but you can change it up and kind of let the song develop.” It’s this ability to transform the familiar that makes his debut Mercury Prize-nominated album Architect such a fascinating and compelling listen. On the surface it’s a light, breezy alt. pop album filled with tightly constructed, looping melodies and vocal harmonies. The breathiness of Say and the jaunty, Sufjan Stevens-esque ditty of He Believes In Miracles are accompanied later in the album by the claustrophobic reverb of New Water and the emotionally charged closing one-two of As Sleeping Stones and I’ll Be Gone By Winter. Listen to the songs hard enough though, and you’ll notice intricacies, little shifts in tones and melodic patterns, which keep the songs fresh and exciting with each repeated spin.
Duncan’s fascination with duplication and seemingly miniscule alterations to the musical patterns he makes partially stems from his interest in architecture and art, particularly the clean and seemingly simple works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whom he calls “a massive influence.” “I used the Mackintosh font and I called the thing Architect,” he says. “I’m really fascinated by graphical architecture in particular because there’s such a varied bunch of stuff that we have up here. Mackintosh for me is one of the absolute best.” This has even fed into the artwork that accompanies the album; Duncan created a unique image for every song on Architect, which is projected during his live sets. “I really like clean lines in painting and a lot of my favourite artists use a lot of clean lines. But I really like repetition and it’s a lot more coherent, I guess, if you have lots of straight lines, it’s a lot easier to see where the repetition is.” His education at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland also contributed to this deep-rooted interest. “A lot of the classical music I listen to has a lot of repetition. I’m very into the minimalist movement and it’s just the idea of starting with something and gradually changing it throughout a song. For me that’s a really good way to structure a song.”
It’s not just its composition that makes Architect remarkable, though. Listen intently enough and you might notice that Duncan isn’t really singing in English. It’s another facet that he noticed during his time studying. “When I studied classical music I listened to a lot of French music and German and the words never meant anything to me until I went away and found out what they meant. It was the melody that attracted me.” Duncan’s real interest in singing in ‘gibberish’ came from his love of the Cocteau Twins and their ability to use the voice as a melodic element rather than a tool for conveying words. “I was reading something about them, kind of about how she puts together her melodies and why they don’t have real words. That’s where the listener can make up their own words, if they want. At that point the melody kind of becomes more important, but you can still kind of hear words that sound like things. So it’s almost English but not quite and I like that blurriness of it.”
These slightly unorthodox methods of constructing songs did make it extremely difficult for Duncan to put together his live act. “There’s been a lot of trial and error,” he says. “When I started out I was doing it by myself and it sounded a bit like karaoke, you know, singing and playing to a backing track.” Now with a band of friends, they’ve managed to create an interpretation of Architect that’s true to the spirit of the album. “We’ve got lots of different synth sounds and things so we’ve managed, not to recreate the record really, it’s something slightly different but still sounds like it.” Having to use synths live has even fed into some of Duncan’s more recent works, which should appear on a new record later in the year: “I kind of had in the back of my mind that if I used certain synths and certain instrumentation then it’s going to be much easier to translate that to the live environment.” But fans of the Glaswegian’s signature, intricate sound shouldn’t be afraid that he’s taking a dramatic change in direction. “It’s more electronic but it’s not all dancey,” he says. “It’s still got the vocal harmonies.”