It’s almost two years on from Waterford, and today the two fourths of Protection Spells are sat in a pub in Leyton, east London on a Tuesday afternoon, a short walk from where they now rent a room. Parts of their journey may have sounded grim, but much of it has been a deliberate move. As Russell explains: “we have an affection for shitty stuff.” That doesn’t just cover why he likes the “shitty” sound of The Velvet Underground but extends to most things. It’s a resourceful attitude; one that asks why spend money unnecessarily when something else, more economic and totally satisfactory, will do? That’s why we’re sat in a bar at a table where one of the seats has fallen through, surrounded by nightshifters and gamblers, drinking a round that comes in under a tenner and the band’s clothes are all from a charity shop £1 sale (for the record, these surroundings and their attire are perfectly nice). When they play live, Gwen performs with a guitar from the ’70s, which someone had chucked away. Russell repaired it. Though it only functions when a euro coin is wedged into the neck, it sounds great.
“Our motto for living is basically to work as little as possible by spending almost nothing all of the time,” outlines Gwen. “Everything we have is just garbage – we’re total slackers. Everything is just to feed the music,” she adds.
The two of them moved to London in January 2016. They quickly realised the £1000 they had saved got them absolutely nothing in a city so expensive.
Gwen laughs: “Starting out, we were like, ‘aw, that’ll be fine’. A month later we were like, ‘I think we’re going to die!’ It was Victorian – we had hollow cheeks, living in an attic with mice.”
These days, they’ve found a bit more balance, covering rent money by working 20 hours a week, Gwen in Whole Foods and Russell at a rehearsal studio. Mat has replaced Russell on drums, and Jessie travels down from Oxford for rehearsals and shows. They’re managing themselves and booking their own shows, including recent support slots with Carla dal Forno and Jane Weaver. “They make very feminine spooky music, and so do we,” reasons Gwen, who explains that their interest in eerie folklore extends into the band’s aesthetic – their logo, for example, is a medieval looking drawing of a battle axe and a broom.
So far, there’s only a handful of tracks from Protection Spells online. There’s the noirish ‘Sister Harpy’ and ‘Daughter of Gold’, the witchy title track from an EP released last year, a lo-fi shadowy murder-ballad that could be ‘House of the Rising Sun’ were it recorded by Warpaint. But that’s barely the beginning of it. As they say, there’s three albums of material stacked up, and their “weird trajectory” is all mapped out. The first is a collection of songs that embody the Protection Spells sound – an introduction. “Pure Protection Spells,” Gwen states, “what we sound like at the moment.” Number two is a concept record. A feminist folk opera based on the nativity story. It’s the embodiment of the 25-year-old’s interest in theology, mythology and particularly the recurring depictions of women throughout religious history – it focuses primarily on Joseph, Mary’s mother Anne and Mary herself. “It doesn’t rewrite it in terms of what happened it just asks what did she [Mary] actually think about it? It looks at these women who were kind of the catalyst of history but also outside of history.”
Album three is about something much more recent and personal – the death of Gwen’s brother a couple of years ago. “I think of it as a celebration of his life,” she says. “It’s not a secret. I like to talk about him.
“Basically, I had been in England and came back home to discover that that he had died the week previous. I didn’t know. No-one told me. They knew I was coming back.”
“He took his own life,” she continues. “That’s what happened. He was lovely. He was a cool dude. He was very supportive and we really got on. That was a shock but I accept it. I was pretty immediate in accepting that that’s what he wanted to do and that’s what he needed to do. It sounds very dark – like ohh melancholy – but [the album] it’s really not about that, it’s more about like… I accept what you wanted to do, and yeah, it’s good. It’s good stuff. He wanted to be a musician so badly and he wasn’t, he was an artist, and he was so smart, and he really wanted these sort of things, so in a weird way it’ll be me giving him the sort of artistic position that he wanted.”
A couple of months ago, Protection Spells sat down to try and write the band’s biography. Shortly after, Gwen Tweeted about it saying it had been “the most emotionally draining experience of my life.” It’s no surprise, together they’ve been through a lot. Now, they just need a chance to execute their ambitions. “I’ve got big plans for it, but I can’t afford it. I don’t just want to knock it out at home and put it up,” nods Russell. “We could record all of them tomorrow. We’re ready.”