The Scottish singer channels Gene Clark on her first album in nearly 15 years
Dot Allison is the musical equivalent of a magician’s box with a false bottom.
What’s visible to the naked eye is her wonderful voice, which lends itself handily to collaborations with a cross-section of artists from Paul Weller and Pete Doherty to Massive Attack and Death in Vegas. It also works well in film scores, and led her early ‘90s prototype rave comedown group One Dove. And her voice is the centerpiece of her five solo albums, the most recent of which is this year’s Heart-Shaped Scars.
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A peek into the false bottom of her magician’s box reveals Allison has a myriad of musical skills. She is a multilayered lyricist, an inventive songwriter utilizing a variety of instruments. She is comfortable with programming and an experienced producer and arranger. When her skills are counted off to her, Allison’s response is an acknowledging smirk that carries across from her home in her native Edinburgh, Scotland. She’s used to people not knowing about her behind-the-scenes talents.
Since 2012, Allison’s output had dwindled to almost nothing while she raised her two children with the prolific, award-winning composer Christian Henson. Says Allison in her soft-breeze-through-wind-chimes-on-a-summer-evening voice, “I did a bit of writing when my daughter turned three and I was literally crying in the car saying, ‘I don’t want to be doing this.’ I didn’t have a grand plan of taking a decade off or anything. I just ended up doing it. I wasn’t cut out for going back to work yet, so it was fine.’”
Between afternoon naps and late nights, school runs and home schooling, songs kept materializing for Allison.
“Your brain’s always active, imagining stuff,” she says. “If I’m driving or listening to music, even a play on words in a conversation, the ideas will always come. I’ll think, ‘That’s a really nice title. I’ll just write that down.’ Once your brain is plugged into thinking like that, it’s always going to be like that.”
As her children grew older and more self-sufficient, Allison found herself writing more often. During lockdown, she picked up a ukulele she had been gifted and never got around to playing. It’s from the ukulele that much of Heart-Shaped Scars gets its personality. It was when Allison co-wrote “The Haunted” with Amy Bowman, who also plays the ukulele, that the album started formalizing with a defined sound.
Heart-Shaped Scars is rooted in acoustic instrumentation and organic sounds more than any of Allison’s previous albums. Its Celtic-tinged songs draw from the music of the Scottish countryside, the Wickerman soundtrack and from a cross-section of folk-based artists, whose influences are threaded through the album.
“There’s an indie side of me that is my dance side,” says Allison. “But there’s also the side of me that is able to plug into my own folk. I’ve been influenced by observing artists like Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn who have the sound they’ve done with the Byrds, but then they have their raw picking of guitar or ukulele. That naked sound of your folk, your people, that shouldn’t be out of bounds to connect to, and to make a record that’s more from your own heritage. There’s something quite nice about musicians or artists doing their sound but then you can also do something that’s a bit stripped back. That gave me license in my head to do make these songs that are raw and natural sounding.”
VIDEO: Dot Allison “One Love”
Allison has her music industry relationships with recognizable “cool” names she can call on, but when Heart-Shaped Scars called for a fuller sound, she tapped into her extended friend network. This has resulted in the album being made almost entirely by women, including Sarah Campbell, Hannah Peel and the album’s co-producer, Fiona Cruickshank.
“I like the old school idea of production being containing the whole concept of the project in your head,” says Allison who has co-produced all of her solo albums. “It’s been so lovely to work with [Cruikshank] and brainstorm on sculpting this sonic landscape of instruments and objects that are, or aren’t, being played the way they should be played. She’s such a brilliant engineer and mixer as well. I told her, ‘I want to be able to look into the sonic image of the song, and skim a stone into it. I want it to be deep and 3D.’ It was lovely to have someone to talk to about the sound and depth of feel.”
Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe tapped into Allison’s instinct for, and understanding of music on a collaborative project with the two of them. This expanded into Newcombe and Allison scoring the six-part television series, Annika.
“[Newcombe] is so supportive,” she says. “I have had other experiences where I feel like the value I’m bringing to a project is being diminished. It’s not like that with him. He’s the opposite of shoving me out of the way. He’s emancipated enough to not feel threatened and give the other person their place. He’s cool like that and it’s really refreshing.”
Whether or not Allison receives her just dues from everyone she works with, there is an enduring fanbase and general good will toward her from not just her longtime fans but also critics and other artists. This has carried on for the better part of 30 years, through Allison’s gradual shifts in sound from album to album.
“It’s partly me enjoying exploring different areas, and partly having quite eclectic tastes in music,” she says of her overall body of work to date. “I find it enjoyable to make most of the music for myself, and to keep myself challenged. When this album started coming together, I didn’t have any expectations for it. It’s been quite nicely received so I’m grateful really.”