The Cranes: An Interview With Ali Shaw

By Kirk Nesset

Chain Border

The CranesThe Beachland Ballroom is a 150-capacity club in east Cleveland, an actual ballroom with a stage designed for a swing band and a 40s-era lobby and lots of vintage art on the walls. I met the Cranes there on May 1, 2002, some five or six shows into their tour. They'd had problems with visas at the Canadian border, were turned back just before dawn, backpedaled, then crossed over finally. They'd slept little and today were still stealing winks wherever they could to rest up. Alison Shaw, singer and front woman, crawled out of the van shortly after I arrived (her manager woke her up for the interview). She struggled in blinky-eyed and joined me in the empty bar adjoining the dance space.

And immediately I experienced a strange and wonderful surprise. I'd always supposed that the seven-year-old girl's voice of Ali Shaw on the albums was a dramatic persona, an act, an exquisite gimmick. But no -- she was the voice, she is the little girl I'd heard. The persona wasn't put on. Which isn't to say that she's infantile, or retrogressively stuck in some way; as our conversation attests, she's a mature, engaged, intelligent woman. But the child-in-the-adult informs and accents everything that she does. Her youthful vulnerability is a kind of strength in itself, as is her sensitivity and spontaneous mirth. Her unwavering openness to wonder and awe is in large part, I think, what makes the Cranes what they are.

Q: Which was your favorite show so far this tour?

AS: We really enjoyed the Philadelphia show. It was a small club, but it had a really good vibe, really good atmosphere and the sound was good in this little room.

Q: Which place was this?

The CranesAS: It was called the North Star Bar. It was cool. We liked that one. And the New York shows were good as well. Actually, all the gigs have been fun. It's just that every room is different, so as a group you're affected by how things sound on stage and how you're feeling that day and stuff. But I mean in terms of the audiences, all the shows have been good, really fun.

Q: I heard you had a big draw in Toronto.

AS: Yeah, we did. Yeah. Toronto was fun last night.

Q: Are Canadian audiences different than American?

AS: Not really, no. I don't think there's a big difference. Well, it might be that the Americans are a little bit more . . . open with their emotions. [Laughs]

Q: I understand.

AS: Would you reckon? [Laughing]

Q: Canadians seem more British, don't they?

AS: That's true, actually. Now that you mention it.

Q: How about America and Canada compared to, say, Europe?

AS: Well, I would say that west coast American audiences are kind of similar to southern European audiences, in that -- well, it's really difficult to generalize. But I think people in hot countries tend to be even more kind of emotional and like, out with their emotions, than people in cold climates-but this is just my own theory. Like the Brits in miserable gray cloudy England are quite reserved, but Californians and Mexicans and Italians are kind of, you know . . .

The CranesQ: Steamy?

AS: Exactly. [Laughs]

Q: How would you describe the evolution of your sound? Am I right in thinking you began pensive and dreamy, grew progressively dance-y and are returning, with a kind of new expansion in Future Songs, to a place not unlike the place you began?

AS: I agree. I think we recorded [Future Songs] in a way that we recorded our earlier recordings. It's kind of a return. The atmosphere was a similar atmosphere to when we first started to record. We recorded this album at home on our home equipment over quite a long period of time. We built these songs up in layers. There's less guitar and even some of this sort of mid-nineties synthesized . . .

Q: I noticed it's just you and Jim listed on the new album's credits. You two play everything. Is this a hired band you're touring with?

AS: Not at all. No. Even on Self Non Self, Wings of Joy and most of Forever, Jim and I recorded all of the music. So it's been kind of like that for a long time. Although on the Population Four album -- that was an experiment -- we did record as a four or five piece band. So yeah, Jim and I just worked in the studio on [Future Songs], but we wouldn't really exist as Cranes at this point if Jon [Callender] our new drummer hadn't come along. And also Paul [Smith] and Ben [Baxter] have been so supportive. Just the personalities and the support and the way they play live. Because the live part of Cranes has always been really important to us. I don't think we would have survived, again, if weren't into touring and enjoying touring. So we feel we've got a really good group of people at the moment. We had like two or three years when we weren't really working as Cranes, but since 1999-2000 we've had these guys with us.

Q: There was that hiatus-1997 to 2001, I believe. There were murmurs about legal troubles. Was it solely legal? A fallow period? Or a little of each?

The CranesAS: It was a kind of a mixture. We really needed a break. We needed a change. We wanted to do different things with our lives and we've had a few other problems as well, but I don't want to go into that. We got to the point where we felt we had some new songs that we wanted to write and record. And then Jon joined, an encouraging influence, and so we started to go for it and make a new album.

Q: Will you be playing guitar and bass tonight?

AS: Yeah, just a little. But now we have Ben in the group. I play a lot less bass. I never really enjoyed playing bass, anyway. I just did it because I had to. So it's cool that Ben's taken over on a lot of my bass parts. I just-I play guitar on a couple of songs.

Q: And otherwise just focus on vocals.

AS: Yeah. Yeah. [Laughs]

Q: Do you and Jim still live around Portsmouth?

AS: I don't. I live in London now. But Jim and John, Paul and Ben, all live in Portsmouth.

Q: Have you got daytime jobs? Or are you and Jim supporting yourself entirely as Cranes?

AS: We've supported ourselves through music since 1990. It's been difficult. There have been times when we barely supported ourselves, and you know. But we've managed to survive it.

Q: When you did work, what did you do?

AS: Well, in fact since college I've always done Cranes. Like it's been my whole life, pretty much. I mean, I worked in a bar and a clothes store and stuff, but I've always done Cranes first. About thirteen, fourteen years. It's pretty much been my whole adult life.

Q: What did you study abroad, back in college?

AS: I studied languages. French, Spanish and German.

Q: Are you fluent in any of those?

AS: Well, I used to be quite fluent in French and Spanish, but I'm a little rusty now. Yeah, I can speak French and Spanish. I've forgotten all the German I ever learned. [Laughs]

Q: We get the lyrics in the new album, I notice. Before we were mystified. Is this a trend toward demystification?

The CranesAS: Throughout the whole period people have either enjoyed the fact that you can't hear what's going on, or else they've been frustrated by that and wanted to know what the lyrics were. And so there was a lot of pressure to produce lyrics. So we actually did a lyric book in 1998. I went back and I went through each album and figured out what it was I was saying, because I'd forgotten in some cases. [Laughs] So that was really weird. I literally listened to our stuff right from the very beginning and wrote all the words out, typed them out. Put them into a format. And we designed a little book -- it's a little handmade book.

And ever since then I've thought that was quite therapeutic for me, because I realized I had actually written some songs. We'd never set the lyrics out before. I never really felt that I'd written any songs, somehow. [Giggles] And then suddenly we had forty or fifty, or whatever they were. And so since then I think I've been cured of my fear of printing the lyrics. [Laughs]

Q: The book's still available?

AS: Yeah, you can get it from our website.

Q: You said something once about how hard it is for lyrics to survive on their own on the page, sans band.

AS: I think in certain instances I don't particularly like to separate the lyrics from the song, because the words are often written in direct response to the music. So without the music it doesn't necessarily give you the whole picture. On the other hand, I think -- you know, even if there's only one line in a song that you lock onto, when you read it -- I think that can be the value in just writing the lines down. Sometimes if I'm reading someone else's lyrics, sometimes it's just one line, and that captures my imagination and suddenly I get an idea of where they're coming from.

Q: My favorite lyric of yours is, "Where am I?"

AS: [Laughter] That one's quite fun to play as well. I play guitar on that one. The noisy bit at the end. [Giggles]

Q: Is it on the bill for tonight?

AS: Probably, yeah.

The CranesQ: Has there been a song this tour you've really looked forward to singing?

AS: Well -- a lot of the songs on the new album are really good to sing, actually. Sunrise and Future Song and Fragile are all nice live songs. They all work quite well live, actually. And of the old songs, probably Lilies is the favorite old song to play -- just because it's fun.

Q: Sunrise is a gorgeous piece.

AS: Thank you.

Q: What's that effect we hear on it? Synthesized guitar?

AS: I'm not sure. There's a few different sounds. There's some samples on that song that are sort of like [wheezes], sort of warbly sounds. And Jim plays guitar on the chorus, a kind of a tremolo guitar, but underneath that there is also a keyboardy sound, which is --

Q: Like an autoharp, almost.

AS: Yeah. It's that kind of sound. It's a sample.

Q: Are you a dog person or a cat person?

AS: I'm probably a dog person. I love dogs. I don't have my own dog, but my best friends do and I love visiting theirs. Cats are nice, too. I like cats, actually. But dogs are really great.

Kirk Nesset is Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Allegheny College. He's a DJ at WARC FM and a longtime champion of small labels and bands. He reviews music regularly for The Sentimentalist, a journal of gothic music and culture.

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