INTERVIEW

Scout Niblett discusses how to survive in the music business by moving to America.

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We first met three years ago, sheltering from the rain after a show, her tired eyes barely registering mine. Scout Niblett had just played a blistering set at the Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, and was in no mood for talking. Like many others, I’d discovered her when song ‘Kidnapped By Neptune’ featured on a Stella McCartney perfume ad in 2005, the offbeat drumming and angry howls rattling round my head on countless long journeys.

Three years later, the Scout that greets me is childlike, but with an intensity that can easily catch you off guard, a sudden flash of fire appearing behind her dark brown eyes. There’s a huge plaster on her leg and a rip in her tights from where she fell over drunk last night that makes her look adorably clumsy.

Quickly banishing her band from the room she begins softy. “When I was 9, I started playing piano and I started making up my own songs right away. When I was little I would just record them on a tape recorder”

Moving to America 12 years ago, Emma Louise “Scout” Niblett now bases herself in Portland, Oregon, taking her stage name from Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a character in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, a tomboy, with whom she shares the same shy tenacity. She shrugs forwards, scrunched up into her chair. “The underground music culture in America is big enough so that you can make a living from it without being super famous. The mainstream culture of music here is so different, because it’s all based on selling things. That sounds silly… [She gestures with her hands as if grasping for the right words]… it’s based on making it big, right? In America you don’t have to enter into that, you can still survive. You don’t have to be in the industry there and you do here, so I had to leave”.

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Scout released her debut album ‘Sweet Heart Fever’ in 2001, latest album, ‘It’s Up to Emma’ is her sixth, and this time she got stuck into the production, “making every decision on how it was going to sound.” Partnered up with legendary producer Steve Albini, they met in 2003 while working with Jason Molina’s Songs: Ohia project and have worked together ever since. She smiles. “The main thing I like is that Steve tries to do everything as live as possible, it keeps that energy of spirit. I think that’s something I really value about how he works, having a limit of ‘we’re going to do this is in three takes or we’re not doing it’.”

After six albums I’m curious what keeps her coming back for more, and suddenly her eyes harden and her soft voice becomes forceful. “Because I don’t want to do anything else. It’s not really a choice, this is what I’m supposed to do and that’s it.” The shutters fall and not for the first time it seems the conversation might come an abrupt end.

Aside from keeping interviewers on edge, Scout never shies from baring her soul on record. ‘It’s Up to Emma’, deals with a recent break-up in gut wrenching detail, charting its course from the blood spattered rage of ‘Gun’ to the hollow sadness of ‘What Can I do’, where she howls over driving strings until her voice cracks. Scout has a unique way of processing her feelings, turning to Astrology and the alignment of the Planets to explain their meaning. Suddenly becoming more animated, she explains, “My dad bought me a book about Astrology when I was about seven and I literally haven’t stopped studying it since. The reason that album was called ‘Kidnapped by Neptune’ was because Neptune was what they call ‘transiting my ascendant’ at the time and it literally did feel like I didn’t know who I was. The energies of Neptune are dissolving your ego and it really kind of shakes you up. Right now Pluto, but also Uranus are equally battling, challenging my Sun”.

Scout laughs, clearly used to people looking slightly bewildered. “That’s all to do with transformation, radical transformation in my sense of self, especially in terms of partnerships and it’s teaching me to be self reliant and not depend on anyone.”

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Self-reliance is important to Scout, who still gets annoyed when reviews focus on female artists’ looks rather than their music. She scowls and then sighs, “I find it very narrow.”

Despite her intensity she still likes to play around, covering TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ on her recent album and dressing up as Snow White to go to a fair downtown in the video for ‘Gun’. She sings songs about cheerleaders and dinosaur eggs and putting on costumes to drive out to the desert. She’s not afraid to rock out, to growl, to cry. She is in short, kind of fearless, a person who can walk around the streets of Paris, guitar in hand, singing at the top of her lungs (in a 2008 video for La Blogothèque). Yet on this new record, Scout had flickerings of doubt. “I think with this one there was a point where I was a little bit self conscious about it,” she says. “This is way more direct than before, but I really like that about other peoples’ music and I realised it just had to be what it was. I’m singing it for myself, always,” she laughs gently, “but it’s obviously about one person. It’s my version of what happened, it’s therapy for me.”

Scout is headed out for an extensive tour of Europe and America that leads right through until winter, and there’s nowhere else she’d rather be. She says: “When I’m out there I feel like this is really my job.” It’s on stage where Scout Niblett lights up, trading jibes with the audience while stamping a path around the stage. There’s still sadness beneath the determined scowl, but she seems to be finally ridding herself of her long burden, whispering softly, “I’ve fooled myself for too long.”

We gravitate back to Astrology and her obsession with gems, decked out in an array of multi-coloured crystals. Scout smiles, looking every inch the Earth Mother. “It’s funny because to me it’s all the same thing,” she says. “It’s all about vibrations. Astrology is about vibration of the planets affecting us here and the stones are vibrating, affecting us. It’s all about the same thing – energy moving.” Finally, maybe, this angry girl can move on too.

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