Just before the fall, the autumn, Such Small Hands, aka Melanie Howard, released her debut LP, Carousel, one of the more compelling albums of 2020. Much of the collection had been put together under pandemic strictures. Carousel, a mix of acoustic guitars and electronica and Melanie's real-world emotive voice, is a beautiful, involving, enervating and at times an emotionally exposed collection of songs. In many ways miles away from Melanie’s day job as bass player in the great and enduring Wedding Present. An essential part of the Carousel project, alongside her music is Melanie’s own artwork, which easily stands alone. But for Carousel, Melanie created a new piece to accompany each song. Each piece weaves the story of a specific episode into its surface with every brush stroke. They are gloriously valorous pieces of art that I am still absorbing and couldn’t easily look away and nor should you.
Anyway. Melanie chatted to Outsideleft, guard down, generous, gregarious, thoughtful and funny!
OUTSIDELEFT: Carousel, your collection of songs, is quiet on the whole. Revolutionarily quiet. It's audacious to dare to make a quiet, contemplative record. It's a giant record all the same. Huge. Is it a product of…?
SUCH SMALL HANDS: Thank you… I didn't purposely intend for it to be so quiet, I think it just came around naturally when it came to producing the songs and capturing the right moods during the recording process with the engineer.
OUTSIDELEFT: Lyrically though, the aching... it's so intensely personal, but so universal too, sometimes, do you feel emotionally over exposed by exposing so much... It can be exhausting...
SUCH SMALL HANDS: Yes, I had been nervous about sharing the material due to how personal a lot of it is. I often look back at some of my lyrics and feel that they are too literal or a bit junior actually, and I feel like my writing has developed since then and I'm hoping I can release something in the future that isn't so uncomfortable. The songs on the album were written across a very long period of time, and my writing of course has changed and developed throughout that.
OUTSIDELEFT: You've spoken about being unknown to the people who should know you so very very well. And that creeping realisation...
SUCH SMALL HANDS: Yeah… I didn't think this was something that would be commonly felt or was very relatable actually...those references do relate to some very specific instances in my life. But when I write, I am not writing with a purpose of necessarily appeasing a listener - I write to understand my experiences, and to heal.
I often find there is an assumption in music - pop music, singer-songwriter music - particularly when you're a woman...that a listener will often assume that relationships in lyrics are romantic ones, or that if it's sad, it's about love - unrequited or whatever. Some of my album of course, is, and I'm sure those moments are obvious - but my life has not been solely built around my intimate relationships with men. There are a lot of other things being unpacked in my lyrics...I think some of that content is quite cryptic for a listener though, so I'd forgive any assumptions - if they can still relate to it in a context that helps them, then of course it has even more purpose.
OUTSIDELEFT: Your name, Such Small Hands, I've had to talk to people about that, let alone your music and art. Such Small Hands... Here's what speculation gets me, is it from the novel by Andres Batba? Or is it inspired by the line from the ee cummings poem... Somewhere I have Never Traveled, if it even has a title, "not even the rain has such small hands..." I was horrified once by a feature I read about the singer Macy Gray, who I have a fondness for and the writer mentioned that she had such big hands... That's BS right? Did people say Gordon Banks had small hands for a goalkeeper, or maybe it was the old fashioned gloves... Either way, it's said too that men prefer women with small hands... So... Such Small Hands - you have to help?
SUCH SMALL HANDS: Yes the name came from the E.E. Cummings poem, it's called 'Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, Gladly Beyond...' - it's pretty emo isn't it. At the time it was also a little bit of a joke between some friends of mine and it kind of just stuck - I have some petite features and have always been at the end of a 'small person' joke with them. But I was actually introduced to that particular poem by a great friend of mine, who played some bass for me when I was first starting out and we were working more collaboratively. He since has took his own life, so whenever I talk about that poem I'm reminded of the conversation we had where he told me about it and we read it together. I don't think I'll ever change the name.
OUTSIDELEFT: Your approach to your music, your writing and your painting... How does it work? Can you do all in one day or do you go through periods where all you want to do is paint, say?
SUCH SMALL HANDS: I don't really consider myself a 'painter'. I just happen to do it, and enjoy it. I'm not trained or anything. I've always been creative by any means available so it's just another avenue I dabble in when I have the inspiration. The paintings for Carousel actually really helped me conceptualise the whole album and bring all the material together, so in that sense they did go hand in hand. But the paintings came after the material was written. During this lockdown I've spent more time painting because I've felt quite stifled musically, so this has been my outlet.
OUTSIDELEFT: I have to say, I love your songs, but your painting, I can't quite tell, online, there are no website gallery or anything, and that wouldn't help much, I've spent a long time looking at the Carousel artwork on Bandcamp. If I looked across the original, would I see a build up of paint, in relief, the brushstrokes, I am fascinated... It excites me, like seeing Frank Stella in real life. I thought I was born!
I have a friend, the amazing writer, Kirk Lake and one time his agent wasn't wholly embracing of a new piece of work from him, saying it was like black paint on a black canvas, only the brush strokes provided any relief. It was a dark piece I guess... Sorry, so yes, Carousel, the painting...
SUCH SMALL HANDS: At the risk of sounding pretentious, the Carousel paintings are just visualised feelings. when I was putting together the album artwork, I actually purposely scanned in the cover art painting while it was still wet, I wanted it to look as textured and 'real' as possible, including the accidental fibres left from the brushes and dust specks landing on it from the air. I am not trying to present a perfect aesthetic or create paintings for pleasure of others. They are just passing expressions..visual reminders.. and very very imperfect. I'm not pretending they are anything else than that.
OUTSIDELEFT: Are you the Ronnie Wood of indie rock? Probably not, but I wanted to ask!
SUCH SMALL HANDS: Ha! Uh...well, let's just say I come from a very interdisciplinary background. Before I put all my focus on music I was a contemporary dancer, and I studied and trained in that, along with theatre (as well as music of course) at university. I never intended on necessarily being a solo artist. I've always had dreams of making really integrated, conceptual work that combines the art forms and becomes more of an immersive experience - rather than just a freestanding album or painting, or a dance piece - and I'm still hoping to do that.
OUTSIDELEFT: Did arts and music play a major part in your life when you were growing up
SUCH SMALL HANDS: I suppose they did, I wasn't particularly surrounded by arts as a child but I know that I was mad for singing and dancing and putting on 'shows' for my family. I don't think my family expected me to choose a creative career though. I did very well in other things at school as well...I remember choosing my A Levels and having to have an interview with the head who was trying to persuade me to choose some more 'academic' subjects, and I didn't really understand why that was necessary. I think not many people have faith in the arts, or at least not then...
OUTSIDELEFT: (I think I might have read somewhere...) That at times the pandemic lockdown has been tough for you personally, or maybe not even just the locking down, maybe the dread... I often don't ask about it because I want these things to not be of this moment so much, but... then this moment is dragging on forever. You've made it through so far, but people have to be resilient to make it, that's a therapist word for you! When you look ahead what do you see
SUCH SMALL HANDS: I'm sure it's been hard for everyone in their own ways....for me, pre-2020 felt like I was only just getting on my feet after struggling with a lot of things for a long time, and now I feel like I'm back at square one - feeling lost and stuck without any plans, or knowing where to begin. So when I look ahead I just see uncertainty and worry at the moment. I don't know what else I can say on that.
OUTSIDELEFT: Alright, after all of that, how I got into you and found out the little bit I know about you is... I saw you playing your bass guitar in a video and despite your undoubted greatness in all the things you do... It began here, the choice of guitar - I have a friend, Warren, he finds old wooden boxes and paints the inside... Anyway to be honest (maybe sadly) he and I could spend fair amount of time talking about your choice of guitar, I think Fender Mustang bass, a shortscale bass guitar is no accident, it's a considered and somewhat unconventional choice and that switch there... do you ever accidentally bump it and what does it do, does it do much? Let's talk guitars...
SUCH SMALL HANDS: I absolutely love my little Mustang, it's served me well and it's comfortable, and practical for my 'small hands'. When I first started playing bass more intensely, it wasn't my main instrument and I'd only ever really dabbled around with it sparingly beforehand - guitar and keys had been more of my focus...so the mustang has been on quite a journey with me. Of course it was no accident, when you go into a music shop looking for an instrument you have to try them all out and see how they feel and how they play...but if you're going to be using it on a professional level, or any level long term really, then you shouldn't overlook practicality and it being comfortable. If playing a short scale is controversial I don't really understand why. I'm not trying to prove anything by playing a massive heavy bass that hurts my back or strains my hands. I'll play what works for me.