If Haim were the sibling outfit who dominated 2013, then expect new brother-sister act Southern to have the same effect in 2014. They’ve been described as “the most promising singer/songwriters in Ireland today” and soon their furious mash-up of blues, alternative rock, pop and hip hop will win them even wider acclaim.
Thom and Lucy Southern were born, respectively, in 1991 and 1993, in Manchester. The family moved around a lot, ending up in Belfast when they were six and eight. Lucy describes the family as “arty - on my dad’s side they’re all graphic designers, and my mum’s side are really musical”. The record that made Thom want to play guitar was Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. “Then for three years I wanted to be Angus Young of AC/DC - I even bought a Gibson SG guitar,” he recalls. “After that I was definitely influenced by Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins.”
Lucy was more into classic rock, The Beatles and Neil Young being particular favourites. Both started playing piano before, aged 11, Thom got given an electric guitar. He joined a variety of garage bands in his mid-teens with names like White Noise and Fatal Impact. His vocal hero was Thom Yorke and the first song that he learned to sing was his namesake’s High And Dry - he was amazed when he realised he could replicate those high notes.
He studied at the University of Ulster but there was already “too much happening with my music” so he was forced to leave. He had begun busking around Belfast and Dublin for pocket money at 16. Within a year he had won the Belfast Busker of the Year award, earning him a slot at the Belfast Nashville festival. Following this performance Thom won the Katherine Brick Award for Young Songwriter of the Year.
When Lucy joined Thom on joint busking ventures on the streets of Belfast, they started to notice the “cliquey” nature of their hometown.
“We were always putting on our own gigs, putting posters up ourselves,” explains Lucy. “We never got asked to play with any of the other bands.”
They realised they needed to move beyond the boundaries of Belfast to succeed, and that’s exactly what happened. They were flown to Los Angeles by a Recording Software company to shoot a music video for
their latest microphone. Soon, the pair found themselves in Paris, playing gigs and doing a photo shoot with world-renowned French photographer Phillipe Mazzoni.
Less glamorously but crucially for their future, by 2011 they were living in London, doing bar work and sofa surfing, Lucy having left school after her A Levels. They were poor but they were in the right place, at the right time. Both were working in pubs and dossing in West London, at their low point financially and in terms of lifestyle, when they ironically made their breakthrough.
“We were living on a fiver a week,” remembers Thom. “We could barely afford a jar of Pesto and pasta and a packet of Hob-knobs. At the same time we had so much going on, with all these management offers, and we had to play a show - a Vogue fashion night - sponsored by Burberry, who gave us all this gear to wear. So we were living in squalor, and starving hungry, dressed head to toe in Burberry.”
That hungriness made them better artists, and the release, as a free download, of their captivating debut tune Where The Wild Are (produced by Thom in his bedroom) generated a healthy buzz and the interest of numerous major labels. They even played a sold-out show at Belfast’s Mandela Hall to 900 fans for the launch of the record.
Southern gigged relentlessly, supporting a variety of musicians both veteran (John Oates, Steve Harley, Foy Vance, Nanci Griffith) and young (Jake Bugg, Lucy Rose, Pete Doherty, Nathaniel Rateliff). They also honed their songwriting craft, holing up for six months in a flat in Crystal Palace.
“We had no TV, we couldn't afford money for travel, we were two hours away from our friends,” recalls Lucy. “We were completely isolated. All we could do was write.”
The lyrics comprised a series of, as Thom puts it, “fictional ‘fuck-you’s to people who have given us a hard time”. Elaborates Lucy: “Thom and I write the songs together, and we’ve developed a style of writing together. We fit the words around the melody - they come from the rhythm of the guitar.”
Adds Thom: “The lyrics can be a bit negative. They’re quirky, a bit cheeky and humorous. Like, ‘You’re the splinter in my brain/I’m gonna take you out someday.’ Or, ‘She’s a cool kid, lost and found/ She’s dead when she comes and it’s tying me down.’”
Lucy, who studied English Literature, isn't into “soppy girl shit” and is proud to say “love” only makes a cameo in one Southern song.
Thom admits he writes “the pop stuff” while Lucy provides “the cool stuff”.
“I’m the producer,” he notes, “and Lucy is the poet.”
They both cite as Southern obsessions or leitmotifs “spite, desire and ambition”. Musically, their ambition is to mix up folk, blues, hip hop and alternative pop-rock. They love everyone from Nick Drake and John Martyn to Beck and Danger Mouse; as a result, their music is a blend of finger-picking guitar techniques and hip hop loops and beats.
In 2013, Southern decamped to Liverpool, for reasons both economic (“London is too expensive”) and musical - they wanted to work with “cool northern musicians”. So now they have a band - although technically they’re still a duo - and they’re signed to Marathon, home of excellent up-and-coming artists such as Jagwar Ma, Courtney Barnett, and Childhood. And they’re issuing their debut EP proper. Recorded at Parr Street studios in Liverpool, the self-titled Southern EP features material that represents a fiery departure from their more folky, harmony-based early songs. It’s more Black Keys than Bon Iver. The music is accompanied by self-made videos that are suitably dark and intense.
“I never want it to be twee,” warns Lucy, who co-writes everything with her brother. Tweeness is highly unlikely from Southern at any
time in the future. More likely is music that circumvents the normal and offers a wide range of styles while keeping true to their raw and riveting songwriting approach.
“We want to reinvent ourselves on every album the way Beck and Radiohead do,” decides Thom. “Our next album might be electronic! The goal is to see what happens as we grow, and to be the best we possibly can.”
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