Fêted in their early days by fellow fan of the DIY confessional Kate Nash, it’s taken London-based trio Peggy Sue five years to find their true voice. Or more accurately, their voices; principle songwriters and guitarists Rosa Slade and Katy Young’s sweet, seemingly effortless harmonies are the beating heart of the band’s gospel-edged folk-pop sound. On their third proper album, Choir of Echoes, they leave behind the lo-fi sea shanties and interpretive traditionals that characterized their early days, ditching the banjo, accordion and ukulele in favor of more pop-attuned, stripped-back and rhythmically driven songs. The results are equally suited to open-topped drives down desert roads and solitary, late-night listening. For anyone who might have filed Peggy Sue under “whimsical indie folk” after their 2007 debut, a radical rethink is needed.
Sharon O’Connell spoke with Slade about the evolution of Peggy Sue, dodging pigeonholes and what singing means to her.
The title of your new record suggests that it’s all about the voice. Is that true?
Thematically, a lot of it is about me and Katy and the power of the voice and how much you can do with it. I think with our previous album, [2011's Acrobats] we forgot how powerful our voices can be and how much we can achieve with them. With this record, we re-discovered that power and so there are quite a few songs about finding your place, about picking out the one voice among many that is specific to you. The title relates to the story of Echo, who in Greek mythology was cursed by Hera so that she could only ever repeat what was said back to her. Her voice was taken away from her so that she could no longer charm Zeus.
How did you and Katy first pick each other’s voices out from “the many”?
When we first started singing together [the pair met on a bus when they were 17 — Ed.], there wasn’t the specific intention of forming a band. Neither of us was really comfortable singing in public; we were just playing guitar and writing songs together because we loved doing it. And it just kind of clicked. Initially, for each of us, singing together gave us the confidence to perform. And I’m sure each of us has adapted massively to the other’s voice; we can write harmonies together so easily now, it’s ridiculous.
What kind of experiences, emotional or otherwise, informed Choir of Echoes?
I think around the time of Acrobats, both Katy and I were in quite a bad space. We weren’t at our happiest. I love the rawness of Acrobats and we’ll always sing about our emotions because Katy and I tend to write quite cathartically, but this time we decided to step back from the music and not be quite so drawn along by it. We were more able to say, “This is what we want to do. This is the sound we want to make.” So for certain songs, we borrowed voices or characters from novels or poems and put another face in front of our own. We’ve also done less-constant travelling and, this might sound cheesy, but for me, being in a relationship as opposed to not being in a relationship is a difference.
The new sound is both dreamier and leaner and more rhythmically driven. How did it evolve?
Because we hadn’t been touring together for a while, Katy and I went quite separate ways in terms of our songwriting. We both made departures from the original Peggy Sue sound. Katy went down the Acrobats path in terms of bluesy rock and I took the route of delay and loops. So, when we first came together for this record, there was quite an interesting discussion about how we were going to accommodate both of our tastes. Katy was like, “Reduce, reduce!” and I was like, “No — extra, extra!” But it worked out really well. Olly [Joyce, drums] had to accommodate both of us, too. Previously, he’s played these very percussive parts, but on this album, he’s playing a more driving, steadier beat.
You’ve banished the banjo. Was that because of its associations with the “Mumfordization” of contemporary folk-pop?
I love a banjo and have no issues with it — we actually have a strummed banjo played by Olly on one of our songs and it doesn’t sound anything like a banjo — but it definitely became a signifier of a certain movement that we were fond of, but not eager to be compared with. Also, we’ve always picked up new instruments — whether it’s a glockenspiel or a ukulele or an accordion — as a method of helping us write new songs, because that naivety of approach can be really productive. On this album, it was more important for me that I really honed my skills, which is why I’ve stuck to the guitar. Essentially, we wanted to strip back the additives.
What does it mean to you, to sing?
It’s really freeing; it’s something I’ve always done and always loved. I once went through a period of about six months when I really wasn’t enjoying performing and I think that happens when you’re trying to say something and you’re not sure if you’re conveying it in the way you want. That can be really difficult in front of an audience, if you have a strong lyrical intent. And it can be exposing. But I love singing to people; I love the emotional response you can create. On the whole, it’s incredible — absolutely amazing.