“I wanted to make something that was repulsive and primal.”
If Keeley Forsyth’s face seems weirdly familiar, don’t worry, you’re not hallucinating. The Oldham-born actor has been on and off our screens for a quarter of a century now, playing characters as disparate as a heroin-addicted single mum in The Casual Vacancy, a sex worker in Happy Valley, and the “Mottled Prisoner” in Guardians of the Galaxy. Four decades in, she’s starting over, taking on a brand new role as a musician. It may well prove to be her most rewarding venture yet.
Released in January, her debut album, Debris, was written in collaboration with British jazz musician Matthew Bourne, and largely recorded at her home in Harrogate (where she lives alone with her two daughters) aside from some select sessions with producer Sam Hobbs. Throughout the 8-track collection, arrangements are kept sparse, centred largely around piano, guitar, or harmonium, and often silhouetted by the inky drone of synths or strings. This haunting minimalism proves the perfect foil for Forsyth’s rich, characterful vibrato, which is akin to some wonderfully otherworldly cross-hybrid of Billie Holiday and Scott Walker.
Not everyone’s a fan, of course. Sipping green tea in a King’s Cross cafe today, Forsyth laughs recounting her daughters’ appraisals of her music – “When we’re singing The Greatest Showman in the car, my kids are always like, ‘See! Why can’t you sing like that on your record?’” But then Debris definitely isn’t aimed at the under 10s. “It’s deliberately unlistenable at times,” she smiles. “I wanted to make something that was repulsive and primal.”
It is a bleakly beautiful record, with Bourne’s desolate arrangements accentuated by Forsyth’s abstract lyrics. Largely rooted in the natural world, they’re underscored by an almost oppressive sense of dread that reflects the troubling events in her personal life that preceded the record’s creation. Today, the 40-year-old singer is deliberately evasive about the specifics of the period, and throughout our conversation her tone remains carefully optimistic, almost masking the quiet sadness that lurks behind her warm demeanour. “Maybe I will be happy after all,” she smiles at the end of our hour together. It’s difficult to tell to what extent she’s joking.